[Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

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Mobius 1
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[Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Jun 26, 2010 12:27 am

Sixty-Seven pages, so it took a while to write. Trying something different with the narrative set-up, as is readily obvious.

Act One


"War does not determine who is right - only who is left"
-Burtrand Russell

"You can make a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long"
-Boris Yeltsin

"At the end of the game, the King and Pawn go back into the same box"
-Italian Proverb


One

Ridley | November 7th, 2014 | One day after World’s End

“I thought you quit,” observed the woman in fatigues.

Jack Ridley took the cigar from his mouth, cradled it between two fingers, and contemplated the smoke rising from the tip of the long-extinguished stub. The heavy rain blanketed the island had doused any flame that showed its face, be it the light of the DSOE’s cigar or the multiple burning corpses that smoldered on the docks as MI6 collected all the bodies they could find.

“Yeah,” he said, eventually coming to a decision. Flicking the cigar into the tumultuous ocean, he turned and walked away from the rough precipice of rocks that overlooked the island’s north edge. “It just looks like it’s going to be one of those days.”

The windswept rock sat in the South Pacific, a hundred miles east of the New Zealand-owned Chatham island chain. It had served as a Japanese sub base during the Second World War, but had long been abandoned. The charred husks of the buildings that once stood on the island gave no clue as to the goal of its most recent occupant.

Ridley clambered down from the blood-soaked volcanic outcropping, crossed a clearing of trampled grass, and settled into the passenger’s seat of the waiting jeep. The vehicle’s engine purred as driver angled it back onto the sticky mud trail leading down the mountainside, cutting odd angles through the thick jungle.

Mary MacTaggert adjusted the windshield wipers to their maximum setting, and for a short time Ridley melted into the ambient sounds around him: the swoosh-swoosh of the wipers, the patter of the rain on the roof, and the squelching of the mud underneath spinning tires. It was Mary who broke the silence. “The shelling was spot on-target, unfortunately. Nobody got much of anything from the facilities in the southwest basin.”

“Don’t expect to pull much of anything from a crater,” Ridley said quietly, gazing out the window. “What’s the inbound count?”

“Over eighty so far, though not all of them have been catalogued,” Mary explained. “And we’re still finding just pieces, mind. Haven’t really been able to get an accurate count without resorting to decimals.”

“What about PALE HORSE?” Ridley asked, gripping a roof handle as the jeep sloshed down a steep incline into the rolling brush. Random patches were burnt to ash, while massive footprints could be seen in the ground, easily a meter wide.

“We’re still looking for a couple of them, but most of them are down on the docks, as part of the eighty. Dental matches for Baylor, as well as-”

“-Ryuhei Akamatsu,” Ridley guessed. “He wouldn’t be away from something like this. When it came down to it, he was his own man.”

“Took a lot to put him down. Body is near unrecognizable.”

“As it very well would be,” Ridley replied. “Any survivors?”

“Just one,” Mary confirmed. “Though he’s not in good shape. They pulled Butch Baylor out of the wreckage of the helo down on the south rocks. He was near-drowned and very much unconscious.”

“Get all our medics on him,” Ridley ordered. “He’s our only living lead right now.”

The jeep pulled to a stop on the south docks. A small Royal Navy cutter was parked out a ways, and small patrol boats surfed to and from the ship in the violent surf, ferrying the majority SAS commandos back to the decks. Whatever action had occurred on the island a night before, it was over.

Eighty charred bodies laid, stretched out in a grid-like fashion, on the tarp-covered wood before Ridley. Forensic technicians hurried from corpse to corpse, checking dentals.

“No way was all of this from the explosion,” Ridley noted, trying to keep his voice neutral. “See those footprints back in the paddies?”

“Yeah,” Mary said, slamming the door of the jeep behind her and shoving her hands in her pockets. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Any word from the Americans?”

“President Young isn’t answering our calls. They have enough going down as is, trying to work through the succession issues. We tried to track down the USN destroyers that participated in the raid, but their registries don’t match with anything in our intel archives.”

Mary picked her way around the “unclassifiables” – the growing pile of severed limbs and eviscerated torsos, heading to the white command sent MI6 has set up upwind of the tarps. Entering with Ridley, she pulled back the hood on her poncho. Ridley did the same.

“Savage went dark a couple hours ago,” Ridley announced as he checked his NTET smart phone. “We were betrayed from the inside. I’ve only got one message.”

Mary checked her own phone. “Me too. And I bet that if we checked Butch’s mobile we’d see the same thing.”

Ridley nodded. “‘Run.’”

“None of the contacts are squawking, either,” Mary said, scrolling through her messages. “We’re operating in the dark here.”

Glancing out through a clear patch of canvas at the cloudy skies beating down on the island, Ridley chose not to reply. “It was a trap,” he guessed after a long pause.

“Had to be,” Mary concurred. “We’re finding a lot of WRAITH operatives, top bodyguards, but not the top target.”

“Gosely swears he was there. We have comm traffic from PALE HORSE confirming it.”

“Right before they went dark.”

Ridley sighed. “Right before every one went dark. As it stands, SOLIDSIX is disbanded.”

Mary glanced up, slight alarm showing in her face.

“All our American counterparts are dead or, in Butch Baylor’s case, not going to be talking any time soon. We move forward with what we have. Pressure the Americans.”

A commotion arose around a radio station at the far side of the tent. Ridley glanced over at it. “What’s up, Sergeant?”

A dark haired, too-tired noncom tossed off a salute. “Sir. They’ve found another body. Pulled it out of a crevice at the north cliff face.”

“Alive?”

“No, very much dead,” the sergeant said.

“Then what’s the commotion?” Ridley asked.

“Sir, they say it’s the body is of Malcolm Stavro Kroner. You believe them?”

“Only one way to be sure,” Ridley said. “Get your fucking game face on.”

SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK 2
MIDNIGHT PARADOX
It Came From Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
By Mobius 1 and Siege


Two

Baylor | October 31, 2014 | One Week Before World’s End

It was midmorning when our helicopter settled toward the landing zone. I shadowed the six-man team I had handpicked back on the carrier. Gold was team leader, having recently transferred from Omega Unit. Zelie served as the radio operator while Fender lugged the camera gear. Graham and Li immediately fanned out, securing the perimeter while O’Brien simply faded into the forest, checking the opposite flank. As an informal mission, I was just acting as a bird-dog; Lieutenant Jace “Gold” Ramirez was in command, training as my right-hand man.

Through the window I had seen an impossibly small patch of yellow grass. But the pilot was my brother, willing to put his bird into any zone an inch wider than the diameter of the rotor blades. The wheels had thumped down, and here we were, filing towards a skirmisher line of scraggly pines. After we were sure we were alone, Gold circled us into a tight formation. With the light and noise of the departing chopper fading into the dusk, ears and eyes needed time to adjust to the miniscule rhythms of the woods. I watched pupils darting within bright eyes, the Marines’ only recognizably human features. Eventually, even those faded as bodies adjusted to dusky equilibrium with the forest around them.

Birds resumed their song, and squirrels scurried through fallen leaves. The Marines rose as one.

Six miles of mountainous terrain separated us from the recon target. Any closer would have been too risky. The team planned to move into position before sunset to observe the objective and take photos to send back to NTET. Then we would use the safety of darkness to recon the zone up close before moving back to the extraction zone – known as Burrow – for pickup in the morning.

The team moved out with O’Brien on point. He placed each heel on the ground, slowly rotating his foot to shift his weight silently to the ball. Behind him was Gold, followed by Zelie, moving sprightly even under the weight of the radios. Fender and Li – the spotter – carried most of the team’s supplies – mainly water and batteries – but also the firepower of our one light machine gun. Graham, who was serving as assistant team leader, walked tail-end charlie, watching for stragglers and ready to take over if something happened to Ramirez. I shadowed Graham at the rear of the patrol, watching the group move, charting our time and distance on the map, and trying my best to be invisible. It wasn’t too hard, considering enhancements allowed me to do my best Predator impression

Just before sunset, the team stopped in the densest, most inhospitable thicket they could find – the perfect patrol base. Three men would remain there while three others went on a leader’s recon of the objective area. I opted to move with the leader’s recon – Gold, Fender, and O’Brien.

We padded through a thinly planted glen and reentered the receding sunlight to climb a shallow ridge of exposed rock. Enough shrubbery clutched to the veins of the soil in the stones to conceal our movement, and we quickly climbed to a vantage point of almost a thousand feet above the target. O’Brien and Ramirez scanned for threats, while Fender unpacked his equipment and went to work. He spun a telephoto lens the size of a wine bottle onto the camera body and began snapping a panoramic series across the length and breadth of the objective. He took five more shots with a different camera. After stowing the cameras, he unzipped a nylon bag and took out a sketchpad and a handful of colored pencils. In quick, confident strokes he drew the outline of the complex before, adding obstacles such as trees and ditches, penciling in estimated heights and dimensions. After cramming the page with data, he zipped the bag and stood. We clambered back down the ridge, leaving the hidden WRAITH facility behind us.

At the patrol base, the other Marines had set up the high-frequency radio while waiting for our group to return. They wanted to transmit their information back to NTET so that even if we were captured and killed, the mission would not have been in vain. Gold furiously typed a report in his tiny laptop while Zelie tried to contact the ROC.

“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE.” Gold was using my callsign to call the remote operations command.

Static.

“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE. Come in. Over.”

Static

The mountains interfered with a conventional whip antenna, so Zelie shinnied up a nearby tree and wrapped a spool of thin wire around its branching, effecting turning it into a huge, field-expedient antenna.

“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE.”

“PALE HORSE ONE, Phoenix Base,” Colonel John Henry “Hank” Easly responded. “Send in your traffic.”

The team sent its pictures and text report back to base as an encrypted digital burst transmission. I knew the soldiers back in the ROC would be clustered around the receiving computer, anxious to see the near-real-time imagery sent by a team miles away. After sending the report, the team packed its gear and waited for dark to fall. Gold ran a few more recon passes, this time along the very edges of the darkened WRAITH buildings poking their walls out from the dirt. Sensor nodes were located and marked. Patrols were observed. After several hours of intrusion, we retreated back to the patrol base and left for the extraction point.

O’Brien drifted down the slope like a wisp of blown fog. While Gold and the team dropped night vision goggles over their eyes, I tapped my temple, activating the zero-light mode of my cybernetics so I could track the team in the dark. Without the enhancements, I had not even crunching footsteps to follow. I was amazed at how good my team was.

We split into two groups at the southern ridge of the valley leading to the EP and zigzagged along the edges of the field, with a kilometer of grass between the team’s two halves. A rising moon illuminated each condensed exhalation from the mouths of the Marines around me. No grunting. No cursing. No carelessly snapping a twig underfoot. We threaded single file along the shadow paths cast by the pines. Airliners bound for Cape Town slid through the dark far overhead, winking red and white. I imagined coffee cups being collected and tray tables placed upright in preparation for landing in the South African city. Twenty minutes for them, twenty light-years for us.

The teams linked up expertly north of the valley. Radio calls, flashes of infrared light, a cautious approach, a whispered password, a hurried reply. Sandwich. Lion. Gold steered the team halfway to the extract landing zone before settling into a tight circle. There we repeated our operation of composing and sending information to the battalion. The intel had worked out, there was a fully functional WRAITH base below. Another team would follow up behind us in the upcoming days and physically liquidate the facility. With dawn an hour away, there wasn’t time for sleep or food. Li compensated for both by sprinkling instant coffee crystals on his tongue, grinning with the satisfaction of a content connoisseur.

We had an hour until we had to get to Burrow. I tapped Gold on the shoulder, and informed him I would be breaking away into the forest to conduct recon of the zone. He nodded, and I faded into the dark, my cybernetics allowing me to become one with the abyss.

I trekked out for a couple minutes before doing a multi-spectral check with all my vision modes. Despite all of O’Brien’s skill giving them a run for their money, the Soviet cybernetics could pick if out if the operator had a good sense of how the man operated – which, as this commanding officer, I did. Fortunately, I was alone.

“Luke, I am your father,” I whispered into the green-tinged night.

“Search your feelings. You know it to be true,” a voice responded. “I truly wish you could have picked a different codeword. This may be your last mission for NTET this year, but at least take it seriously.” A figure detached itself from a nearby tree, simply blinking into existence as if spawned by the towering pine.

I shook my head. “C’mon, Storm. If there’s anything I’ve taught you, it’s that you can only respond to the absurd with the absurd. I count tracking down WRAITH’s backbone, base-by-base, as absurd. So I make Star Wars jokes.” I paused, dropping back into professionalism. “Anyway. Opinions?”

“This isn’t a base that I know of,” Storm responded, his mask concealing any expression. “None of my contacts know about it. I’m guessing it’s recent or some black project Kroner set up.”

“Yeah, Gosely has no idea about it either. Says she’s traced WRAITH cash to the facility, but can’t find any records pertaining to the place.”

“Looks like it extended pretty far underground,” Storm observed. “It’s most likely a research facility. Explains while all the counter surveillance is oriented against satellite observation and not Force Recon Marines ghosting in and out.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “You saying they wanted us to take a look, the owners of the base?”

“Never know,” Storm shrugged noncommittally. “But did you see the biohazard signs? Something bad’s going down in there. The place isn’t just a weapons testing site like the Paragon, it’s a bioweapons development zone as well.”

“Didn’t notice that,” I admitted. “Mind, the Paragon developed biological and chemical weapons. Carson mentioned a whole bunch of ubiquitous nerve gases, as well as the Romero Virus. I knew what VX was, had no clue as to what the Romero Virus was. You think zombies?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Storm responded. “Anyway, the guards aren’t locals. They had American accents, but some of the non-guard personnel – I was pretty sure I caught sight of a couple of scientists – had accents all over the place. Some were South African, some Russian, some West German. A diverse team, never good.”

“So the staff suggests WRAITH, but the guards don’t,” I murmured. “Odd. Listen, if you have any other notes, get them back to me when I get back to Washington. Be careful, alright? The US doesn’t need to know you’re still kicking, right?”

“Like I don’t know that,” Storm said. “I’ve got a couple new leads on Kroner, by the way. Pass them along to Ridley tomorrow, okay?”

“You got it,” I said. “I’ll track down that accent issue when we review the MP3s tomorrow. Adios, mang.”

“See you,” Storm said, and was gone.

I met up with a platoon ten minutes later just outside the landing zone. The eastern sky was still dark when we began the final sprint to Burrow, balancing stealth with the new need to meet the helicopter. O’Brien still placed each heel down with care, but his steps fell in quicker succession than before. I looked at the map – just under two kilometers to the zone. A rule of thumb in terrain like this is one klick per hour. We had twenty minutes to do twice that.

I imagined Butch flying toward Burrow, trusting us to be there. Just as we approached the zone, rotor blades echoed through the second valley. Gold contacted the bird.

“LIQUID, this is PALE HORSE ONE. We’re oscar mike to the zone.”

“Roger, PALE HORSE ONE. Give me a buzz saw and a NATO-Y”

Butch had requested the most favored method for guiding a helo into a landing zone in the dark. The NATO-Y, standard throughout western militaries, is four chem lights tied to premeasured lengths of parachute cord. When laid on the ground and pulled taut, the form a Y. One of the Marines pulled it out, already tied, and cracked the four chem lights. He laid them across the landing zone, with the base pointing into the window and the two legs marking touchdown points for the chopper’s main landing gear.

The buzz saw is a single infrared chem light tied to a two-foot strip of parachute cord. The Marine cracked it and began swinging the cord like a lariat. Through night vision goggles, the spinning chem light stood out as a circle of shimmering light, a beacon to guide the aircrew into the little patch of grass where the team squatted in the tree line.

I turned my head as the rotor wash blasted dust and twigs against our bodies. Dull green light spilled from the cargo bay as the ramp dropped.

Gold counted his team aboard, placing his hands on each man. Then he reached into the grassed beneath the ramp and yanked the NATO-Y up into the helicopter. Leave no trace. Butch added power, and we headed toward breakfast, leaving the South African WRAITH base behind us. This had been PALE HORSE’s last mission for SOLIDSIX and NTET, the international intelligence agency tasked with steering the world away from World War Three. Over the past two years, we had been hunting down WRAITH’s bases and clearing them out on by one, intent on flushing out the elusive Chairman of the cartel – Malcolm Stavro Kroner by denying him hidey-holes.

After two long years, we were coming to the end of the road. By the weekend we’d be in DC, reporting to the President and aiming at another conspiracy: MIDNIGHT.

“Good mission, bro?” Butch asked on a private comm.

“It was cool,” I said tiredly.

Leaning my head against a bulkhead, I tapped my ears, loading the music collection stored across my brain. Notes filtered directly into my mind as my own mental version of iTunes played the Boss telling me that the town was a death trap, that it ripped the bones from your back. A suicide rap.

We gotta get out while we’re young.

‘Cause tramps like us…

Three

Follow | November 8th, 2014 | Two days after World’s End

“…Ba-by we were born to ruuunnn!!”

Follow adjusted her coat against the rain, not that it did much good to block out the near-horizontal blades of rain cascading in torrents from the sky, or the drunken slurs of the pair of college-age kids emerging from a nearby bar. She examined their faces; neither matched that of her quarry. She didn’t really think Baylor would have been able to skip between buildings, change clothes, and find an inebriated dweeb to hang his shoulder on, but others had underestimated the man at their own peril.

It hadn’t really been necessary. Baylor emerged from the CVS pharmacy a beat later, dragging the bill of his cap tighter over his face. Not that it matter much, as Follow adjusted her tri-ocular imagers to zoom and in sharpen the focus on a tight-in of Baylor’s face. No, it was him. Same misshapen nose and black hair. There was something… off about him, but Follow quickly realized the difference was in the Marine’s demeanor. He was cautious, glancing around every few seconds. The normally self-assured slink of a master prowler was just a tad quicker, but there was also a limp to his gait. Baylor was struggling to contain the injuries he had sustained at the WRAITH HQ.

How Baylor had survived the outcome was beyond Follow, the exact details mattered little compared to the fact that Baylor had managed to escape with the tattered remnants of his slaughtered squad. Follow had tracked Baylor out of his Upper East Side safehouse, near the edge of Harlem. A short subway jaunt from the UN. Another junction could swiftly let Baylor disappear into the Bronx; to the east, queens. The outlet of the Harlem River ran along one end of the empty street. Baylor deliberated moved away from the pharmacy and was placing himself along the east edge of the Manhattan in order to place himself in the open, to easily notice followers.

Follow shrugged. Not that it mattered. Leaping silently from rooftop to rooftop, she circled around in front of Baylor so she could have a clear shot on the approaching Marine.

Baylor stopped, halting suddenly, and glanced around, as though he were a hound sniffing the air.

Follow froze, melting against a wall of brick underneath the platform of a fire escape.

Her target stood there for a full minute, surveying the surrounding area. Most likely flickering through multiple vision modes. Follow hoped the new sneaking suit MIDNIGHT had given her was all it was cracked up to be. Her heat signature would be masked, and the rain should drown out her breathing or heartbeat

Baylor still did not move. He crooked an ear, as though presenting a sophisticated microphone towards the wall of skyscrapers in facing him. Dialing in the magnification.

He swore and went for the handgun in his jacket.

Follow was ready for him. The trusty Russian S4M in her grip was internally silenced, with no need for a bulky suppressor. She had carried the break-open derringer for nearly a decade, back from when she had taken it off a Soviet spy in Central America back at the turn of the millennium. With the large, weather-proofed scope centered on her target’s center of mass, she fired twice.

Baylor jerked at the two bullets caught in him the gut, doubling him over.

Unclipping her harness, Follow dropped silently to the alleyway some fifteen feet below. She landed, and as she rolled to a one-kneed firing position, she broke open the S4M, dropped the smoking, spent shell cases into a glove palm, and loaded two more 9.3X64mm projectiles into the chamber. Snapping the action closed, she sighted through the scope and put two more bullets into Baylor’s heart.

The commando went down without a word.

Standing, Follow glanced down the street. It was two in the morning, and this was a residential area. There was no one in sight. She had specifically chosen this area for the lack of random security cameras. Likewise, the faces of the buildings were black, their inhabitants asleep or otherwise preoccupied.

Walking toward into the street, Follow reloaded once again. The S4M had originally been designed to fire 7.62mm rounds, specifically intended to confuse ballistic forensics by implying that the victim had been shot at long range, at low velocity by an AK-47. The feasibility was not outlandish; street gangs in New York had as easy an access to the ubiquitous rifle as jihadists in the Middle East.

Doubtful, however, that anyone would believe that the great John Baylor would be murdered by gangbangers, Follow had ordered the pistol refitted to fire the 9.o SN cartridge indicative of the Dragunov SVDK rifle – one of the most common sniping platforms utilized by international assassins. Upon examining the body, officials would conclude Baylor had been found and assassinated in the aftermath of the World’s End catastrophe. Moreover, fingers would probably be pointed at the scattered leftovers of Sechalin’s separatist faction calling in revenge on an old enemy. It was not as if Baylor lacked enemies in the global community. Bounties did exist in the underworld on his head.

Stopping briefly over Baylor’s corpse, Follow kicked the loosely held Five-seveN from his grip. Baylor’s breathing was week and shallow, while thinner-than-entirely-human blood bubbled silently from four chest wounds. He gazed sightlessly up at her masked face as if struggling to commit the nonexistent-details to memory.

Follow supposed the operator deserved a more heroic death than this, but she honestly didn’t care. Life went on, and it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as everyone said it was.

Raising her pistol, Follow fired in single shot in Baylor’s temple. His head bounced once, and was still.

Reaching down, Follow checked the body’s lifesigns – nonexistent – and hoisted the corpse up and over metal railing, allowing it to splash, unnoticed, into the turbulent water. Bending over, she retrieved Baylor’s sidearm and stuffed it into her tactical webbing. Pausing, she glanced around, checking her tiny details she may have overlooked. The blood would be long washed-away in the morning, draining ingloriously into a nearby storm drain. Baylor’s CVS bag had been tucked underneath his coat and had gone down with the ship. Still no one was in sight.

She stood for a couple seconds, watching as the body was washed away by the waters, most likely down the East River and into the Bay. She shrugged. You could run, but you’d only die tired. She knew that from constant years as MIDNIGHT’s chief operative, acting in a multitude of positions: wetworks, clean-up, deep cover, and data retrieval. Hopefully tonight’s mission would finally bring to a close the long-standing Baylor case and Follow could move on with her life. Hopefully.

The emotion was so foreign to Follow it took a moment to actually recognize it. The thought shook her; the prospect that it all could finally come to an end, that is represented the last of the loose ends.

If only. Follow just knew that she had bigger things in her life than MIDNIGHT. You didn’t get as far as she had without knowing the world’s secrets inside and out. She had been as perfectly crafted by events as Baylor had.

That too gave her pause. What was the difference between the two of them? Well, one was dead and about to become shark bait. Follow would have to tread carefully from here on out if she wanted to come out it all alive and on top.

Melting back into the concrete jungle, the predator was swallowed in the storm.

All that was left was the tinny music floating down the street from the bar…

I took a walk around the world to ease my troubled mind, I left my body lying somewhere in the sands of time…

Four

Gold | November 2rd, 2014 | Five Days Before World’s End

…I watched the world float to the dark side of the moon, I feel there’s nothing I can do…

The decade-old radio hit faded into a guitar intro which sounded tinny over my cheap earbuds.

Baylor and I fidgeted nervously as we stood in the lobby of the UN, waiting for a President Skye to finish her meeting with the WEU ambassadors. Though the meeting had been under the pretense of a new free-trade agreement with the increasingly distanced combine, the true purpose of the summit was to exchange intelligence on global terrorism and formulate group policy, specifically in relation to WRAITH.

Baylor sat quietly in a seat the size of a semi bed, constantly adjusting his suit. He never wore the ensemble out in public, and, though I didn’t show it, neither had I. It was like going out in a clown suit. It was just different camouflage for a different environment. The cloak-and-dagger business was alien to him when it didn’t involve jungles and deserts and suspiciously western terrorists.

I examined my CO. Baylor was a tall, slim but broad-shouldered, built like a spring perpetually about to uncoil. To the untrained eye the attitude came off like the grace of a stalking panther, but to me it simply read as a man continuing compacting their emotions inside him, shoving off any release for a nonexistent future date until it all flowed out in one massive release. The question was how Baylor released. He always seemed just on the breaking point, but just never crossed the point. I momentarily considered the idea that Baylor was one of those combat sociopaths that found catharsis in a firefight. But that wasn’t it.

As a man, his entire façade was an external style of a machine-gun motor-mouth of sarcasm and references, as though he could deal with what he believed absurd by responding in kind. While I kept my sardonic comments to a level of subtlety expected of XOs, Baylor simply let it fly loose. But any question in his mental stability was swiftly waved away in the display of his sterling integrity and competency; as a leader of small-team tactics, Baylor was unmatched, his style unconventional and completely off-the-wall. His integrity, in the end, was the reason why President Skye and NTET kept him on their rosters. Should Baylor decide you were on his team, he wouldn’t desert you if hell itself came between you and him.

Vice President Young emerged from a nearby elevator, flanked by a quartet of burly – why were they always burly – secret service agents, all casting furtive looks across the deserted lobby as though they hadn’t already swept it five times already. I met Baylor’s eyes, and we shrugged. Together, we rose, and fell in behind the Veep.

Olivia Young was easily as striking as her boss, a statuesque woman with long black hair bound into a perpetual tail. Right now she wore a conservative pantsuit, so well tailored it was practically a predator’s skin as she prowled easily across the lobby towards the waiting limo outside. Much like Baylor, Young’s demeanor was a ruse; I could practically watch the patches of assumed menace fall off in tatters as she strode away from the elevator. Young always played the bad cop to Skye’s reasonable authority figure. The POTUS, after all, had been a professional diplomat before being elected; she had every reason to be involved in the dirty work usually delegated to professional negotiation teams.

“What are they up to?” Young muttered under her breath.

“Ma’am?” Baylor asked innocently, eyes shifting into intelligence-gathering mode.

“The WEU delegation,” Young said, yawning and rubbing her eyes. It was eleven at night. “It’s the fourth time they’ve called a recess today. They only do that if they’re stalling. Drawing it out. You only stall like that when you’re waiting for information. They kept recessing so they can talk with their intelligence people and get an update on things, whatever that is.”

Baylor nodded. I knew he understood the gist of what Young was saying, for one of his favorite tactics had that of obstruction and misdirection. The Major understood the tactic, but not the reason why.

Young sighed as we exited through the automatic doors of the hotel and into the freezing night. Storm clouds gathered overhead, having threatened a downpour for the past couple days. She climbed easily into the waiting limo as though it was a practiced motion, and we followed, emerging into a circle of facing leather seats. Young eased herself down on the far end of space, near the tinted window separating the driver from the passengers. Baylor and I took up seats opposite each other while Young slid out a holographic computer terminal from the wet bar and logged in.

“They couldn’t have picked a worse occasion, too,” Young sighed. “The line fed to the press is mostly, if not entirely correct. This is the affirmation of what is arguably the most important alliance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even moreso than the Pact. NATO. Everything our predecessors have worked for.”

Pouring a shot of brandy from the bar, Young offered us each a glass. We both politely refused – thanks but no thanks. “Despite what you may think,” she continued, “international alliances are not about friendship. They are about advantage. If friendship brings advantage, then friendship is desirable. If it doesn’t, well, perhaps merely civil relation may be all that is necessary. International friendship – foreign aid, trade alignment, military allegiance – is a very expensive business. It is not to be entered into lightly.”

She shrugged. “I wish it was any other way, I did, but it’s not very pretty in there. Some were wondering if Europe even needed American anymore.” Young paused. “Well, Major, does Europe need America anymore?” It was a loaded question.

Baylor held up his hands. “I tried to get involved in geopolitics, ma’am.”

Young laughed, a full and pleasing sound. “Yes, indeed. We all know what happened the last time you involved yourself in the ownership of nations.” A neutral statement, alluding to Baylor’s direct hand in the Soviet crisis of twenty-eleven. What about you, Lieutenant?”

I was silent for a few seconds. “You honestly want my analysis?”

“This isn’t a performance review,” she said, offering me a slight, tired smile.

“Well,” I said, “NATO makes European countries economically and technologically dependent upon the State for defense. Even highly developed countries like France and England know that if they want the best weapons systems, they have to come to us. And that leaves them with three options – join the Warsaw Pact, which Sarkozy and the like would never do; come knocking on our door with their hats in their hands, or, three, join NATO. And so far as I know, the US hasn’t sold any Patriot missile systems to non-NATO countries -” Baylor barely suppressed an eye-roll “–So, yes, I think NATO does perpetuate our influence over Europe and WEU. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on who you ask.”

“Not a bad analysis, Ramirez,” she said, mock-clapping. “But let me tell you something; it goes a lot further than that, a lot further. So much so that the position of the White House for the past few decades had been that the national security of the United States depends upon that influence. WEU doesn’t want that economic and technologic influence. And over the last ten years WEU had been steadily eroding our influence in the region.”

Baylor frowned. “Example?”

“Did you know that the European Space Agency has been specifically targeting NASA and is humongously subsidized by the French government so that the ESA can charge vastly cheaper prices for taking commercial satellite up into orbit than NASA can? The militarization of NASA over the last decade was due in part to the civilian space market drying up overnight.”

“Well, no-”

“And did you know that WEU has been the most active opponent of American energy interests in the Middle East? It’s not the Soviets that we brush against when negotiating with the Saudis, it’s the WEU-sponsored consortiums.”

A pause.

“No, I didn’t know that,” I admitted.

“And did you know that WEU has been the driving force behind the organization of third world countries into powerful regional alliances? The PacRimPact – PRP – was a creation of Western Germany and Britain. WEU has been establishing massive trade ties with India and China, especially China, crowding out the international market and deliberately targeting American jobs? WEU’s even made inroads into South America, healing old conflicts with Argentina and Brazil.”

She paused, pulling up an old newspaper article. “This isn’t a particularly recent trend. France pulled out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 because it did not want French nuclear weapons to be placed under NATO – and therefore US – control. At the time, the French President, Charles de Gaulle, point-blank called NATO “an American organization.” Now France simply maintains a seat on NATO’s North Atlantic Council to keep an eye on things.”

“So what would happen if WEU decided to leave NATO?” Baylor asked, finally getting involved in the conversation.

“It isn’t 1966 anymore. If France or Britain walked out of NATO now, I think half of the other European nations – fittingly exactly along the lines of WEU membership – would walk out with them. But they won’t just yet. They may think us beer-swilling rednecks who through a cosmic joke got our hands on the world’s most powerful weapons, but as long as we stay ahead of them in defense tech, they do need us. Until they can match us weapon-for-weapon – which is getting closer to a reality every day – they’re stuck in NATO. But-” Young held up a finger “-Once they get their hands on something new, something they develop that tops our technology or find a new partner that can radically change the game, then I think things can be different.

“What worries me the most, though, is that the Europeans may be closer that we think to that paradigm shift. Look at them today, or even just tonight. They recessed four times already. Four times, and the negotiations are still going well into the morning. As I said, they’re stalling. And, by the looks of things, what that is, it could be the difference between the continued existence of NATO and its complete dissolution.”

Five

Gold | November 2rd, 2014 | Five Days Before World’s End

I missed the days when such a proclamation would be decried as a completely melodramatic statement. But the Russian Crisis had changed everything.

Young slid the newspaper articles to the side and turned to Baylor. “So, Captain, did anything come of your mission in Africa?”

Baylor reached into a suitcase and retrieved the annotated photos from the South Africa op. Seeing this, Young flipped a switch, allowing a small table to rise from the floor of the limo. The major spread the sheets out like a deck of cards on the sturdy plastic.

“Yeah, it was cool. From our analysis of the site, WRAITH only recently set up this base – our dating places its construction in the past fifteen to eighteen months. Prolonged observation by PALE HORSE Beta Team showed stealth jets entering and leaving the facility’s interior hangar on a regular basis. Make and model points to a mixture of last-generation American tech, perhaps from the collaboration with the Paragon, and current-gen Russian tech, all scavenged from the fall of Sechalin.

Baylor pointed to another photo. “Whatever this base is, it’s almost entirely self-sufficient. We never tracked any large transports planes coming in – what the base outputs, it’s carried on the jets.”

I sat forward. “Which begs the question of what the base is manufacturing. Signs onsite point to the facility being a bioweapons manufacturing plant, but the infrastructure indicated by seismic scans implies an underground segment much larger than necessary for a base like this.”

Young considered. “Any chance of this being a headquarters for a WRAITH bigwig?”

“Not a chance,” Baylor said. “The security was off for a location of that magnitude, but we did manage to notice one thing about the jets.”

“What was that?” Young asked.

“They all depart on the same vector,” Baylor explained, tracing printed red lines of the maps with his finger. “We’re extrapolating from there, but we’re sure it’s not because they’re following a specific stealth path. We think they’re leaving for the real catch, an actual WRAITH HQ. Colonel Easly back at intel has been in full collaboration with the NRO towards figuring out what WRAITH targets exist along the vector, but we’re pretty sure the location is in the South Pacific, past Australia.”

Young nodded. “You know, of course, that NTET has America’s full support in this matter. I’m confident we can track down the WRAITH HQ within the week.”

When Young said it, she said it with the authority of fact, not mere prediction.

There was another pause.

“So,” Young said, eyes hard. “MIDNIGHT. We’ve been tracking down the leads given to us by the Cutler USB and Farley, but every time we get close to them the lead is assassinated or a warehouse turns out to be deserted seconds before we arrive. Which leads to the obvious next step: we have a leak within the cleared camp.”

I frowned. Apparently, after the Russian Crisis, Skye had instituted a truly hardcore background check on everyone within her inner circle and anyone involved in the underground MIDNIGHT investigation. As PALE HORSE was the chief field team in regards to tracking down MIDNIGHT, we answered directly to the POTUS and VPOTUS in order to prevent orders getting passed down that could lead us on another suicide mission, as had happened to Baylor’s squad twice already. Hell, even the SAND SCORPION op in Iraq with that Cuban Agent had been a set-up last year, despite Skye’s assurances that we were in the clear. The traitor had subsequently been executed – by a MIDNIGHT sniper, but what the hell. The subsequent BAD BOYS clean-up ops hadn’t been any better.

Color me unsurprised that the anti-MIDNIGHT crowd couldn’t get their shit together. Anti-MIDNIGHT, now that I reflected on it, was really in need of a new name. I’d run it by my nicknaming CO later.

“The only option now,” Young explained, “is to follow the leads from the third party side of things. Not just WRAITH, but the homegrown anti-government that flourished under Barclay, as well as the jihadists that are turning their attention from Russia after 9/11 to the US.”

She drew up a dozen floating dossiers, manipulating each into view as she reviewed them. “We’ve prepared a good score of cells that are suspected of having outside support. They might just be WRAITH-subsidized, but somehow I doubt WRAITH has this extensive a network. We need to take the leaders alive, hopefully.”

Young flicked the incorporeal dossiers at us, each of which instantly printed out on a laser printer mounted in the micro-table, spitting out in a receiver tray. Baylor took this tech in stride and collected the mission profiles. Just as he was collecting the papers the limo came to a stop outside Baylor’s hotel.

“I believe this is your stop, gentlemen,” Young said. “I have to get back to the UN.”

A Secret Service Agent pulled open the door to my right. Baylor closed his suitcase and clambered out of the limo easily. I turned to join him, but Young’s voice caught up with me. “Ramirez, wait.”

I stopped, rotating back to look at Young.

She waved a hand at the seat. “I need a word. You can tell Baylor to go on ahead.”

I turned back to Baylor and shrugged. His eyes narrowed, but he entered the hotel without a word.

Settling back into the seat, I affixed Young with a level stare.

Young waited until Baylor was out of sight before speaking. “I put you on the PALE HORSE team so as to keep an eye on Baylor and so the White House would have a second agent in the field in case Baylor was even incapacitated. PALE HORSE is not the only asset we have investigating MIDNIGHT right now, and John Baylor isn’t the sole proprietor of PALE HORSE.”

She paused. “In that light, now that Baylor is back in the states, he’s about to resume his regular visits with an acquaintance in Queens.”

I arched an eyebrow. “So? Baylor’s personal life is of no interest to me. Guy deserves some off time.”

“Not when the person in question is Charles Lennox’s wife. And not when CIA observation pre-Crisis indicates Anne Lennox may have had ties to an unknown foreign intelligence service. Baylor’s bound to meet up with Mrs. Lennox sometime over the next week, and he trusts you enough not to suspect you shadowing his activities from a safe distance without his knowledge.”

Young swept out another dossier onto the table printer. The face of a pretty young, if tired-looking blonde woman smiled wanly up at me from the top corner of the report.

“I need to make sure Anne Lennox is not a threat, or, hell, a MIDNIGHT agent. The last thing we need is for Baylor himself to become a security leak because he’s distracted by little miss widow,” Young concluded, voice regretful. “We need every agent hundred percent for the coming months, right?”

“Right,” I said, pursing my lips as I glanced through the file. I trusted Young – she had come from a military family and was a natural around military operations. She knew the ins and outs of the American military-industrial complex and had been a steady resource in diminishing MIDNIGHT’s resources (even if its operatives remained at large).

“We just need to play on the safe side,” Young said, giving me a slight smile.

The agent opened to the door, and I exited the limo.

“Good night, Lieutenant,” Young said, before the limo wheeled away.

Letting my shoulders finally slouch, I padded wearily up the stairs to the west side hotel, where PALE HORSE was unwinding after the recent mission. Fishing out my iPod, I dialed up a new song.

Well, I was there, I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes…

Six

Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End

…So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, it’s all been a pack of lies!

It had to have been the stupid jogger singing the song that awoke me. Here I was, taking a nice dirtnap on the side of a drainage pipe when some six o’clock freak who gets up way too early feels the need to ruin a completely good song. I mean, does the guy even hear himself? I’m sure he killed a couple birds that flew too close. And half of the forest.

Aaaugh. Goddamn did my head hurt.

I rolled over, immediately placing my elbow deep into a thicket of mud. Wonderful.

I guess it took a while for me to start asking why I was in a ditch in the middle of a forest. Such questions were just too much to me to handle immediately. My head throbbed something awful.

Picking myself shakily out of the muck, I began to cough. I held my hands up to instinctive muffle the sound as pain wracked my ribs. After I finished, my hands came away slick with blood. Not good.

Hell, where was I? Memory was a good place to start.

Except it wasn’t. It was the damndest thing. I knew how to move, how to stand, what this word and that word meant and that I was probably doing a goddamn internal monologue (and I even knew that was something I usually did!) right now over the entire freaking situation.

I knew that, from the receding sound of the jogger’s voice that he was about fifty meters away. Any farther and he’d be reasonably out of reach from where I could lethally hit him with the rock that had somehow found its way into my blood-soaked grip.

I paused, and tackled that thought before it would retreat from my mind. I had just, quite calmly, considered murdering some random passerby. That was surely not something an ordinary person would do, right? But ordinary people didn’t hack up blood with each cough and wake up in ditches.

So I, cautiously, mind, decided to take a gander at my surroundings. Nice, clear, northeastern American forest. Probably somewhere in New York. There. Another detail. I was in New York. The city? The state? Who knew.

I began to follow the ditch of quaking limbs. It didn’t take long for me to come to a full-blown river that ran parallel to the ditch. There, over, about twenty feet to the right, was a nice pavilion, the sort of thing families would take their children to for a nice picnic as they watch fishing boats cruise on past. I stumbled over to it, and found a sign within seconds.

FLUSHING MEADOWS STATE PARK
QUEENS, NEW YORK

I considered. My clothes were soaked, but it looked like it had just rained, so that was to be expected. Still, something was dripping at a beat that didn’t match the drops coming off of the edges of the roof.

I looked down. Odd that that trail of red matched wherever I had gone.

I shuddered, and clutched at my stomach. Fingers instinctively found gaping holes where smooth skin should have been. I had to choke down a cry of pain as my exploring digits canvassed out four or so pockmarks – so trivial a word – in my torso.

Something dripped off my brow. Not sweat, not water. This was red.

When I touched my skull, I actually did scream. Birds took to the air with startled hoots.

There was a five-inch long furrow along the side of my temple, with a corresponding groove in what could only be my skull. My skull was… exposed. Groovy. Or disgusting. Or terrifying. I really couldn’t identify the wave of emotions that crested through me when I realized that I was the equivalent of a Law and Order corpse of the week getting up and asking for a drink after the morning jogger found me.

Speaking of a morning jogger…

I spun, to find a trio of young women facing me, faces white, eyes wide. How they had snuck up on me, I had no idea, but there they were. One had frizzy red hair and was clearly a catholic by her fanny pack, wide hips, and weary eyes only brought on by multiple children and years of motherhood. No immediate threat, she probably thought I was a college kid doing a zombie flick.

Another was short, dumpy, Asian. No kids. No wedding band. But she had the eyes of a Fed. I was sure of it; it was just the way she held herself. Maybe FBI. No, definitely FBI. But off-duty. I could see the exasperation roll through her experienced gaze as she realized she’d have to be called back into work on this nice weekend.

The last of the group was a compact blonde woman with her short hair pulled back under a nice red bandana. She wore a shapeless hooded sweatshirt and tiny jogging shorts. Her eyes had a sparkle to them, and of the three, she was the most clearly interested in this new development, as though it happened every day and was just one grand adventure. She was my new favorite.

Without any real weighing need on my hands beyond maybe getting patched up from the five or so wounds currently leaking blood, I plopped down onto a nearby picnic bench.

“Lovely day, ain’t it?” I said, trying my best to etch a smile onto my face. The world spun, and the concrete floor raced up to meet me.

“Jesus!” the Asian said, voice concerned. I heard the pitter-patter of tennis shoes as the trio rushed to me side. “Stacy, call 911.”

“That’d be a bad idea,” another voice said. Probably Blondie. “Just look at those wounds, Vy. The last thing we need is getting connected to some gunshot victim.”

“Yeah, well, you maybe,” responded another voice. Stacy. “Getting linked to a corpse in the middle of Flushing Meadows would be a terrible idea in its own right, Anne. There might not be anyone around now, but someone will eventually find him.”

“Christ, I’m not suggesting we leave him here,” said Anne heatedly. “Not like he’s just some homeless guy who got mugged. Look at him. You recognize that face?”

A beat.

“Not seeing anything,” stated Stacy evenly.

“Holy shit,” the Asian – Vy – said. “It is who you think it is.”

“You sure?” Stacy said, voice losing some of its solidness.

“The JSDF has been tracking him for years. I was the agent in charge of following his actions during the Russian crisis.”

Stacy sat back into an easy crouch. Her hand reached slowly for her fanny pack. “Any of our agencies would give their right arm to get him.”

“Or the tech he represents,” corrected Vy. “We keep this on the down-low, right?” I could also see her right hand, out of the sight of the other two women, reaching for an ankle holster.

“Hey, let’s not get rash here,” said Anne. A click. Two. She had a pistol in each hand, one leveled at Vy, the other at Stacy. “The walks are nice and all, and we get to share information, but this guy’s no reason to break up our friendship over it.”

“Are you kidding?” Stacy said, voice deadpan. “We’d share with you. And you, Vy. Us smaller nations need to band together.”

“Bullshit,” Vy said harshly. Her pistol cleared her holster, and quick as a flash, was pointed at Anne’s face. “We each know we’d be ordered to clean up witnesses. That includes each other.”

“As I said, let’s be reasonable,” Anne cautioned. “No one need know you two were involved. Walk away and we can maintain our relationship for another day.”

Stacy disagreed. Two Skorpion submachine guns were in her hands, quick as a flash. Each pointed at a supposed friend. “Australia disagrees.”

“Listen to yourself,” Anne said, exasperated. “We’ve known each other long enough to know we’re distinct entities from our countries of allegiance… right?”

“No,” Vy said. “Stacy’s right. Sorry, Anne.”

Another beat.

And then, pandemonium. Stacy’s Skorpions roared. A stitch of three rounds caught Vy in the side, sending her dropping to one knee while Vy struggled to bring her gun away from Anne to her attacker.

The other submachine gun burped, and Anne fell back, thwack-thwack-thwack as another burst caught her in the left breast.

Vy fired twice, catching Stacy in the kneecap. Blood exploded everywhere and Stacy howled, firing both her Skorpions on full auto in Vy’s chest. Vy’s body danced in place under the barrage, but her pistol still fired, tracing a line of bullets up Stacy’s chest. One shot in her shoulder. Another in her neck. A third in her jaw, blowing it off. The final one caught Stacy between the eyes, painting her brains across a black cooking grill.

Stacy’s guns fell to the side, the scything bursts literally cutting Vy in half.

And then silence. Just as soon as the shootout had begun, it was over. Just like that.

Birds warbled tunelessly in the treetops above.

I lay there, drenched in blood and gore, where three international agents had just wiped themselves out over the right to take me home like a prize from the fair.

And I didn’t who know who I was.

To my left, Anne’s chest bucked, and she sucked in a lungful of precious air. Sitting up, she peeled off her lumpy sweatshirt to reveal a ballistic bulletproof vest. Three flattened lumps of metal glittered like jewelry where her heart would have been. Tearing off the vest as well, she rolled over and checked her two dead friends. No need to check pulses.

Anne surveyed the bloody tableau and gave an explosive sigh. Stashing her pistols, she set about extricating me from the mess without disturbing the bodies.. Thankfully, she hadn’t fired her pistol once during the entire exchange. If anyone investigated, it would look like the two agents had killed each other in the shootout.

Stepping back like an artist viewing her work from a distance, Anne arranged the top half of Vy’s corpse so it looked like the bloody swathe that Anne had created by dragging me out of the pile of body parts had been caused by the Japanese Operative trying and failing to drag herself away from the scene of the crime.

Wrapping me in her tattered sweatshirt, Anne led me out of the park and to her small Nissan SUV. Arranging me easily in the backseat, she slammed the door behind her and mounted the step rail up into the driver’s seat, easily starting up her vehicle.

She caught me staring at her. “Rest,” she said, smiling. “You’re cool. Compared to them, I’m your best friend. More than you know.”

I nodded. Totally awesome.

Seven

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End

“Goddammit!” I shouted. “Dammit, goddammit!”

“Boss…” Gold said, holding up a hand.

“No,” I said. “This is the fifth fucking warehouse we’ve hit today! Nothing but the same drum full of burning papers! These are all friggin’ different cells. Sword of Allah! Christian Militia! Those Neo-Anarchists! No way there’s a Nut-Net where they send out tip-offs that raids are coming down the pipe. This is not cool.”

I swiped a smashed monitor into nearby wall in frustration. My strength still surprised me, as the monitor went clean through the cheap drywall.

Calming down, I slung my MP5 around behind my back. I usually never lost my calm, but I had the most massive headache, and, fortunately, no one beyond Gold was around. The rest of PALE HORSE was just outside the office, securing the perimeter of the industrial site.

Ironically, one of General Ethan Carson’s lectures echoed in my head. You can never allow yourself to lose your temper, especially in front of your men. Keep a cool head, because your worst enemy, in the end, is yourself. Remember that. Hold it in, none of the lives placed in your care will be threatened by a decision made in anger instead of the heat of the moment.

Almost immediately, I reeled in my anger, visibly reducing myself in physical size as the rage subsided within me. I had to make a plan.

“Alright,” I said, after a moment. “Call the troops in. Not much more we can do today. This site is another dead zone, and it’s getting close to dark. We’ll be rubbing up against plain jane organized crime, which nobody really cares about right now. Region’ll be too crowded to care.”

“Sir…” Gold said, pointing to the hole I had punched in the wall with my makeshift missile.

It was a false panel, torn to the shreds. I don’t know how we’d missed it. But then I realized the monitor had smashed through an entire bookshelf, laden with random chemistry texts. Kee-hrist.

Beyond the splintered bookshelf was a two-meter recess, evidently patched over by the drywall.

And on the newly revealed backwall was a steel security door. Nope, no lessons learned here, nosiree

I examined the lock for a couple seconds, before keying my mike. “Eh, Fender. Got a computer lock up here in the manager’s office. Need you to take a look at it.”

Not soon after I sent out the call than Pete Fender appeared at the top of the metal staircase, already unzipping the cover on his wrist computer. I only needed to point him in the direction of the door.

He inspected and scrutinized and analyzed the lock for a good two minutes before sitting back up.

“See, I’ve actually got a key for this sort of thing,” Fender said nonchalantly. “It’s an old model; terrorists probably spent all their money on the set-up.”

My face lit up, while Gold, leaning against a far desk, arms crossed, smiled silently. “Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Fender said, unlimbering a grenade launcher. “Fire in the hole!”

He aimed the M79 at where the lowest hinge and fired at point-blank range.

The effect was nothing short of spectacular. Fender clearly didn’t have a normal 40mm HEAP around loaded. It was something special, a concentrated load-out that acted almost like a laser cannon, literally boring straight through the armored hinge.

“Like I said,” Fender shrugged, loading another shell, one with an orange-band of tape around it. “Old school.”

He fired again at the top hinge and the entire door fell inward. Gold was on his feet and by my side, as we both swept the interior of the carpeted vault with our MP5s. “Clear,” I called.

Fender slotted his launcher onto a large slot on the back-plate of his body armor. “Not everything’s solved by computers, boss. When in doubt, blow shit up.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, trailing off as I saw the interior of the vault in greater detail.

Deep breaths.

Another goddamn barrel. Smashed computers.

Striding swiftly over to the barrel, I overturned it easily, knocking it over with a knee. Ash and smoking debris scattered over the white floor.

My eyes widened. “Gold!” I called. “Fire extinguisher!”

Overturning the remains of the bookcase, I literally dropped the entire affair onto the section of fire, nearly smothering it instantly. Gold was behind me in a second; foam blasting out of the nozzle of the extended extinguisher.

Smoke drifted lazily from the doused remains, reacting poorly with the cheap carpet.

“What’d you see, sir?” asked Fender after he made sure none of the computers had survived.

Easily flipping over the bookcase, I beheld a patch of documents not scorched by the flames. At least four pictures had survived behind scorched.

Bending over, I retrieved the evidence, glancing over it.

“Gold, take a look at this,” I said, waving him over. “This who I think it is?”

Gold’s mouth formed a tight white line as he saw the face on the photograph. “al-Hassan. But this is Hutaree, the Christian anti-government McVeigh types. Why would they have pictures – wait, that next photo, is that Ed Wazkowski? Meeting with al-Hassan?”

“Looks like it,” I declared. “So the leaders of the groups are meeting. That would explain the tip-offs.”

“Yup,” Gold nodded. “Looks like they’re pooling their resources for one big job. Normally these guys wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of each other. They have to have one damn big target for them to get over their differences and work together, eh? What’s the last photo?”

I flipped over to the last surviving shot, and my blood ran cold. It was a collection of photos, a double-stacked collection of two rows of faceshots. All grizzled, professional-looking men dressed in black suits.

“Christ,” I breathed. “That’s Secret Service Team Romeo.”

And a red X had been drawn over each face with what I sincerely hoped was crimson crayon.

“Thoughts?” Gold said.

“Give me a second,” I said, leaning against a nearby wall and staring hard at the mugshots as though imploring more information to leap out at me.

Bateau’s voice crackled over my shoulder radio. “Sir, Russian Mafia types are rolling up a block down. Looks like they’re setting up shop for the night. I see some big guns: at least one LMG and a couple underbarrel M203s. Recommend we’re not here when they come poking around.”

“I here you, Sergeant,” I said. “PALE HORSE, pack up. We’re out in two minutes.” Looking up at Fender, I said, “Yo, Pete, found anything more?”

Fender looked up, and brandished a cell phone. “Hells yeah.”

“It works?” Gold asked, surprised.

“Yeah, but battery’s a tad low. Someone was stupid enough to toss it in the bin. Just a little scorched, but a fat ol’ text covered it from most of the damage.”

Tucking the photos into a plastic bag, I unslung my MP5. “Nothing else in the room?”

“Nope,” said Fender, fiddling with the phone, before attaching a zip-cable from his wrist computer to a port of the mobile. “Not many numbers on here. Last three calls are to a ‘ECW.’”

Gold met my eyes. “Wazkowski?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Fender, pack up, we’re oscar mike.”

“Give me a sec, sir. My comp connects to the NSA database – I can track down even those new ‘untraceable’ phones on the market. Let me ring up Wazkowski. It would help to have a target to gun for once we’re out of here.”

“You’ve got ten seconds,” I said, as Fender dialed the cell.

Almost instantly, the floor beneath me began to tweedle.

“Gold,” I said slowly. “Tell me I’m not insane.”

“You’re not insane, boss,” Gold said, shouldering his MP5 and aiming it the floor. “I hear it too.”

Stepping back, I drew my kukri from a sheath at the small of my back and began to slice at the floor, hacking away a meter-wide section of carpet.

“Gold,” I called. “Give me a hand here. Fender, cover me.”

“Got it,” said Fender, drawing his Five-seveN with one hand and aiming it at the slowly appearing baseboard.

“Shit,” Gold said, “looks like there’s a whole crawlspace down her – gee-zus, what’s that smell?”

Together, we threw the carpet to the side.

Revealing the dozen bullet-ridden bodies of the Hutaree Christian Militia. The butt pocket of one man – I couldn’t read his face, for his entire head was a mask of dried blood – beeped insistently as the cell phone lodged their began to vibrate.

“Crap,” I stated, matter of factly. “These groups we’re clearing out. They were being cleared out. By MIDNIGHT.”

“I bet,” Gold mused, “that if we had a couple more hours with this place we’d find all sort of tiny pieces of evidence linking these groups together and pointing them towards whatever they have planned with the secret service. They set them up to as fall boys.”

“Shit!” Bateau’s voice crackled once again over the radio. “O’Brien just found some incendiary charges at the foundations, sir. On some sort of countdown.”

“Can you disable them?” I asked.

“No, Hawley says they’ve got some sort of anti-tampering device on them. Says we touch ‘em, the entire place goes.”

“Copy that,” I responded. “We’re on our way down. Get your men out.” Turning to Gold, who was snapping pictures of the corpses alongside Fender, I said, “Not that it matters. MIDNIGHT’s torching the evidence behind them.”

“This entire thing doesn’t track,” stated Fender as he zipped up his computer and stowed his digital camera. “Why frame the militias for any upcoming mission or attack if you burn the bodies? There’s clearly some evidence here framing the militias – there’s no reason the photos wouldn’t have burned if they weren’t here for us. And it can’t be a trap. It’s a lazy one if it is.”

“Agree,” said Gold, storing his own camera in a cargo pocket. “But let’s get out. I’m not getting caught in another burning building.”

I smiled thinly, remembering the end of the BAD BOYS mission. “Yeah. We’re oscar mike.”

Eight

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End

Anne set the videophone down on the table. “Ridley, Easly – Baylor and I are on the line.”

I sat back in the creaky kitchen chair and sipped the Diet Coke as the projected faces of Jack Ridley, MI6, and Colonel Hank Easly, USAF turned to face us.

“Room’s clean?” asked Ridley, his face ‘glancing’ around the suburban kitchen.

“I don’t even know why you bother to ask that anymore,” I said tiredly. “I mean, you’ve used my ECM on other occasions.”

Easly’s careful basso voice cut in. “What my colleague means to say, John, is that we can’t take any more risks than we need to, not with the potential of an attack on the horizon.”

I glanced around the room, specifically eying the windows. Back when he had bought this house, Chuck Lennox had rigged it so that nobody would be able to mess with it, surveillance wise, without him knowing it first. This went on down to the glass panes of the windows, which had been specifically engineered so as the whole “laser on the window to detect the vibrations” trick of old spy novels would be completely ineffective. Little did I know it when I had first met his widow, Anne, but the Lennox’s house could lock down so tight that not even Santa Claus could magic his way inside.

Anne sat in the chair opposite the table from me, a pad of paper before her and a pen cradled in one hand. With her hair swept back into a tail and her glasses on, she looked less like an average housewife and more an undercover NTET analyst – which was what she was. I hadn’t known it at the time, but she had been Ridley’s contact during the Russian Crisis, with her husband feeding the British spymaster PALE HORSE’s movements during the entire affair.

Lennox himself was still a mystery to me. Cutler, Lennox’s treacherous XO, had claimed Lennox had been in the theft of the BLACK prototype only for the money, and Lennox hadn’t disputed the statement. But in the aftermath of Sechalin’s demise, I had sought out Anne Lennox, Chuck’s widow, for closure. She had let onto her complicity in the entire affair, which in turn caused me to completely lose my shit, so to speak. I had tracked her down through NTET channels, only for Ridley himself to let on that she was an NTET operative.

It so obviously wasn’t the whole story that the entire thing was ridiculous, but neither Ridley nor Anne had let on further to the mystery of the Lennox family. Even the little kid, a sixth-grader named Timmy, looked like he knew something. In the end, Anne Lennox’s house represented an NTET safe zone in New York City, where I could duck down and discuss recent developments.

I observed the two other participants in the conversation. Ridley was Ridley was Ridley, a spy some ten years my senior. I had originally met him back at the Paragon some eight years ago, where he had been in deep cover and saved me from an untimely death. The guy had even given me my trusty bandanna, which practically made us bros – at least until it turned out he had been making deals with the likes of Chandra Gosely and Chaos Farley. I hadn’t spoken but ten words to Ridley over the past three years outside of the job.

Easly was a different case. While my cybernetics were unnoticeable until I got into a fight, Easly had the whole Terminator glowing red-eye from the get-go. He had lost the original in a dogfight against a fearsome WRAITH UCAV. That had been the cue for the Colonel – Phoenix One – to retire from active operations – well; he had only been involved in the Cambodia op as a favor for a friend. Now he operated mission control for any American that the President’s anti-MIDNIGHT initiative (boy, did I need a better name than that – maybe DAYLIGHT or the like) ran. Easly was reliable, stoic, and a good hint of what I’d become if I didn’t follow down Ridley or Storm’s path. The good Colonel had lost something vital back in Cambodia.

“So what’s the news, Captain?” Easly asked, looking away from the computer screen painted behind him to look at what was probably a desk-mounted camera.

“The warehouses were all cleared out,” I said. “Flat gone, any evidence being burned. We thought at first the cells were collaborating somehow, until we reached the Hutaree hideout in Brooklyn. We managed to find the bodies of the militia’s leadership stuffed under the floorboards, but we forced out by local activity as well as, get this: incendiary devices planted on a countdown.

Anne looked up. “I agree with the Captain on this, the conclusions are obvious: whoever killed the terrorists, they wanted us to find them. Otherwise the building would have been a smoking crater before PALE HORSE arrived.”

“Moreover,” I said, “we rolled by the warehouses we had passed earlier. All were in the process of burning down or where already covered with crime scene tape while the arson investigators poked at a pile of ash.”

“So,” Ridley said, scratching his chin, “Whatever final conclusions we draw from all of this, you think it’s a trap?”

“Most likely,” I agreed. “But there’s a small possibility we could attribute this all to incompetence.”

“What do you mean, Baylor?” asked Easly.

“This isn’t MIDNIGHT’s style. When they want something gone, it’s gone. They wouldn’t play some game to lead us on. I’m thinking one of their pet terrorist groups decided it wanted to be top dog – and, in the name of working together, they off all their competition and take their supplies and intel. On their own, any one of those terrorist groups wouldn’t be much of a problem. But combined, with a single unified purpose and no conflicting ideologies, they’d be like a one-shot missile launcher. They’ll only get one chance before the feds take them down, but whatever target they hit, they hit hard.”

Anne glanced at the print-out of Wazkowski meeting with al-Hassan. “But which terrorist group? Which one do we look out for?”

“And what are they doing with the Secret Service team? It’s not like they can impersonate a group in an environment like that around the US President. She could tell the difference, and if not, there are about a dozen other people who could.”

“Heads up,” said Easly. “NSA just finished decrypting some heavy files on the phone. Looks like al-Hassan’s group was going to host a meeting with the militia groups tonight.”

“Where?” I asked.

“At the Saint Industries plant in Queens. That is, looks like they were planning a raid for tonight.”

“But they were cleaned out by al-Hassan, or someone else,” noted Anne. “So why would al-Hassan liquidate his own help?”

“Didn’t want competition,” I guessed, leaning back.

“Or, perhaps, it wasn’t al-Hassan,” retorted Ridley. “Point is, we don’t have enough to go on with just this data.”

“Jack’s right,” agreed Easly, retrieving a PDA from off the screen. “Our best bet to expand our pool of intel is to investigate the plant. Worst case scenario, it’s a trap and your men waste a bunch of terrorists.”

“This whole thing doesn’t feel right,” muttered Anne.

“We’re sending the data over about the meeting now, Baylor,” said Easly. “Meeting’s in a little less than two hours, so you’ll be able to get over there and set up assuming light traffic. We’re running inquiries with Saint Industries now to see what they have that’s valuable at the plant.”

“Alright,” I said, standing and downing the rest of my cola. “Here’s the gameplan. I’m having two teams running tonight. Team Two, led by Sergeant Bateau, checks out the plant, loaded for bear. Meanwhile, Team One, which I’m leading, RZs with Secret Service Team Romeo. We’ll be running the infiltration gear, with teams in reserve incase anything goes down. Way things are, we need to tip off the SecServ, and in person.”

“Keep us updated,” said Easly. “We’re getting news of increased chatter over the international terrorist channels. Looks like a lot of people are banking on what happens tonight.”

He and Ridley cut their vidfeeds. I stood to go, shrugging on my shoulder harness. Anne stood with me, connecting her eyes with mine. “John… be careful.”

“You know me.” I punched her lightly on the arm. “Like telling a dog not to bark. I’ll be fine.”

Nine

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End

I tapped Gold on the shoulder. “Where’s POTUS’s motorcade right now?”

Gold, sitting next to me in the back seat of one of Team One’s multiple black SUVs, checked his PDA. “Looks like they’ve just crossed over the Queensboro bridge, heading to La Guardia for pickup by Air Force One.”

I nodded to Pillsbury, who was driving. We needed to catch the convoy before it got into the air and out of our hands.

Everything was happening at the speed of light. Just this afternoon we had uncovered dozens of question with pitifully few answers. So, waiting for Bateau to report in, I review the facts.

Multiple militia bases cleared out. Looks to be work of single militia. Have been observing Secret Service Team and Saint Industries facility. Dead militia leaders supposedly having meeting tonight at SI factory with supposed perpetrator. Facts not watertight, though. Clues make it look like a set up, but either option is on the table at this point. This could be a clean terrorist operation, but MIDNIGHT has a hand in this.

The question is, how?

They’d be providing materiel to some of the groups. We had trace evidence and surveillance photographs from yesterday’s stakeouts showing equipment in use that worked directly in line with the Paragon’s old modus operandi. But the Paragon had a different focus – their tech was handed out to foreign groups, on the condition that it was used to weaken American’s enemies and never used against America.

Here, MIDNIGHT was fermenting these groups within their own borders. And why play these many groups in the same area. It was a pressure cooker.

Unless, of course, it didn’t matter who came out on top. The wise man, after all, doesn’t plan. He steers. So, by providing information here, a passcode there, a cache of tech there, MIDNIGHT could play petri dish in trying to orient whatever their survival of the fittest group for whatever they had in mind. Moreover, the resulting chaos of a turf war between terrorist groups would obscure whatever fingerprints MIDNIGHT left on the operation.

But what was the end goal, then? If the means didn’t matter, it just further begged the question of the ends. I focused on the mission before me.

Saint Industries. Well-known defense contractor. Major supplier to special operations command.

“Gold,” I said. “I need all the foreign contracts in relation to Saint Industries around over the past seven years – really, starting mid-2005. Limit the focus to Central America. You’re going to need to case any off-the-grid files for this as well, so see if you can use General Farley’s old passcodes to access the old black boxes.”

“Sir – oh, I see. I think.” Gold leaned over and conferred with Fender, who was in the front passenger’s seat, typing rapidly on an open laptop.

“Actually, Fender,” I said. “You take that job. Gold, I need to know what’s contained at the SI facility. What’s there that could be of interest to al-Hassan.”

“Already got that part,” Fender announced. “Who’s awesome? I am. Look,” he said, orienting his laptop so we could see it in the back. “It’s an R&D facility, specializing in prototype personal-wear armor. Dragonscale, that sort of thing. There’s also a black section of the lab complex that I can’t access, and which is rebuffing Farley’s codebreakers. I’m working with the NSA right now to case the locks.”

“And what about the Central American contracts?”

“Working on that too. I’ve got a rough idea of what you’re looking for… wait, got it now. 2007, Saint Industries signed a deal with one General Weber over the contents of a supply cache in the La Cinco Muertes island chain.”

“Son of a bitch,” I said.

“What?” Gold asked, and then groaned. “The Paragon was located there, right? You’re thinking MIDNIGHT contracted out some of the Paragon’s projects when it moved its location out of the hemisphere?”

“Yeah, so we need to find out what’s in the black labs over at the facility,” I stated. Tapping my ear mike, I called Bateau in. “Team Two, you hearing this?”

“Loud and clear, boss,” Bateau responded. “Be better to know what we’re dealing with if al-Hassan decides to do his business early.”

“Could be anything,” Fender mused. “Hell, it may not even be TEMPEST-related. The Paragon was in involved with bioweapons first, after all…” Motioning to Gold, he switched seats so I could see the laptop more clearly.

“Any response back from POTUS’s motorcade?” I asked Zelie over the channel.

“They’re running dark,” the comm specialist replied. “No, not a distress signal. Something’s up, but it isn’t major. It’s a special type of comm signal I haven’t seen before, boss.”

“Figure it out, then,” I said. “Phoenix One, Team One,” I called into base, “no word yet from the motorcade. Any word from your end, we’re getting a signal our comm operator doesn’t recognize.”

“Phoenix One copies, Team One,” Easly was on instantly. “We’ve got the same signal now. Secret Service Command is mum about the issue, but we know what the signal means: it’s an old nonreply code.”

“Define ‘old,’ Phoenix One,” I said seriously.

“Hasn’t been used since Johnson old. It’s what special forces teams use when they’re on a mission that operates out of the chain of command. Basically states that noninterference is required and that whatever mission the broadcaster had is of the utmost importance.”

“Jesus, if Skye knows something, she needs to clue us into the intel loop,” I growled.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Gold commented.

“Explains why she’s leaving the UN, though,” Fender said. “Something’s come up and she needs to get underground. Looking at the AF1 flightplan, it’s blacked out under the same nonresponse code.”

“Sir, we’re pulling up to the SI facility. We’re cool so far.”

“Totally awesome,” I groaned. “Any response from the inside?”

“None. Dead air. We’re making ready for a hard infiltration.” I grimaced. Such an oxymoron.

“But we got a response from them when we let them know you were coming,” Easly noted from the sidelines. Its past closing time, breach and clear.”

“You heard him,” I relayed to Bateau. “Fender, any word on what’s in the facility?”

“Almost done with the decryption, boss,” Fender responded. “Whatever’s in there, it’s got the most recent black ops firewalls. Unique to every operation. We have our own key, and apparently SI has their own encryption – wait, got it, it’s loading now. We’ve only unlocked the outer layer; the inner layers will take way more time, maybe a couple days-”

“What’re we looking at, Fender?” I asked, cutting to the chase.

“Sir, I believe Saint Industries holds the contract to construct INTEGRAL TEMPESTS.”

“Christ,” I said. “They’re gearing up. To crack something tough.”

“Sir,” Bateau dropped in. “We’re in. But it’s not pretty. Looks like someone lined up the research staff and executed them. And we’ve got evidence of INTEGRAL manufacturing. Some final products here, but several are missing. Looks like four all about.”

“Shit,” Gold said. “Four TEMPESTS. That’s a lot of firepower. They’re making a move for Skye. Look, the nonresponse code is cover.”

“Looks that way,” Bateau said. “We’ve got dead Secret Service boys here. Looks like someone tried to burn the corpses, but we managed to get the fires out. We’re checking dentals now.”

“Fender, get on that,” I ordered.

“Uploading…” Fender said, biting his lip. “Running them through the SecServ personnel database… One sec, aaaand we’ve got a match. Sir, it’s a member of Team Romeo.”

Gold tensed, following the chains of logic. “No reason for a Romeo Team member to be there. Either al-Hassan’s boys turned a member of Team Romeo and replaced him, or the killed one of the bunch that decided to play on the good side. Point is, we’re looking at a compromised Team Romeo.”

“Aaaaand I can safely assume, just for extra great luck that Team Romeo is on the roster for Skye’s motorcade?” I said dejectedly.

“Got it in one,” Fender said. “Teams Romeo, Sierra, and Tango.”

“Guys,” Zelie said. “The nonresponse code from the motorcade just flatlined. We’ve got dead air.”

“Gold,” I said, motioning to the back of the SUV. “Get the night vision rig up. Check the alleys.”

“You got it,” the Lieutenant said, clambering over the back seat and unlatching a massive grey crate. He handled me a pair of goggles, and I passed them along to Fender. I had my own set, and I tapped my temple twice, throwing the world into shades of green. Fender racked the slide on his SOPMOD to my right as I began to check out each alley we passed.

“We’re about six blocks from the motorcade,” Pillsbury said from behind the wheel. “If al-Hassan’s going to try anything, he’ll do it before we get too close.”

“Roger,” I said, touching my hand to my ear mike. “PALE HORSE, lock and load. Check your flanks. This may be Astoria, but for all we care it’s Fallujah. Check your corners and flanks.”

“No response from the convoy,” Zelie called in over teamcom. “Still dead air.”

I tapped Pillsbury on the shoulder. “Gun it.”

Just as he jammed down on the accelerator, a fireball bloomed in the distance down by the LaGuardia entrance. Dusk was transformed to dawn, but the fireball faded quickly, taking the last remnants of daylight with it.

“Woah!” Gold called, barely avoiding being blinded by tossing his face in the other direction and thus sparing his goggled eyes from being overloaded.

Chattering gunfire and the shrieking of torn metal could be heard in the distance as the buildings began to blur together.

I had just reached back to grab a weapon – a black tactical shotgun with a folding stock - of my own off the rear rack when the INTEGRAL TEMPEST stepped into the street, leveled a heavy machine gun, and opened fire on our oncoming vehicle.

Ten

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End

I yanked Fender to the floor of the cavernous SUV as a line of spiderweb cracks raked across the windshield. It was bulletproof, but bulletproof didn’t preclude heavy caliber bullet hoses.

Gold’s head snapped back and blood splattered the passenger’s side window to his right. Pillsbury swore and swerved to avoid the I’m-going-to-hold-my-ground TEMPEST just as a bullet caught in the shoulder, just past where his vest protected. He swore and jerked the wheel reflexively in the alternate direction.

The SUV spun alarmingly, one set of wheels coming off the ground as he began to tip over.

The INTEGRAL TEMPEST met the out-of-control block of angry Detroit Thunder, standing its ground more or less. Pushing the strap of the HMG until the gun was safely behind its back, the TEMPEST drew its arms back like readying a baseball pitch before punching down, hard on the right nose of the vehicle’s hood.

The reaction was instantaneous. The SUV jackknifed, flipping over the cyborg handily – and came to a halt, nose pointing straight down, as it didn’t have enough momentum to carry over for a full flip. We all hung there for a second, before coming crashing down onto the TEMPEST. To the operator of the suit’s credit, he managed to catch us, Iron Man-style, and gravity took over the situation before he could work up the strength to toss us into a nearby building.

The ass-end of the SUV touched down, and Pillsbury, who still had his wits about him, gunned the engine, sending the vehicle bursting forward and catching the TEMPEST askance across the front bumper, arms spread wide, crumpling the metal in its grip as it tried to maintain its precarious hold.

Fender leveled his SOPMOD at the half-shattered windshield and opened fire over Pillsbury’s shoulder.

The TEMPEST shrugged off the trail of fire that centered in on its left eye, I was groaned inwardly. The first batch of INTEGRAL TEMPESTS, prototypes gifted to groups like WRAITH and the US Air Force, had kinks in the armor that repeated point-blank or high-caliber shoulder shatter – like the glowing blue rectangular ‘eyes’ of the armored helmet.

“Boss,” Fender said sourly, “I think this one’s for you… Yo, Baylor, go fight that INTEGRAL TEMPEST”

I glared at the Corporal. “Oh, man, you only said that because I’m a cyborg and he’s still going to punch me in the face. Yeah, that’s cool. It’s totally awesome.”

The TEMPEST didn’t think much of our conversation, and released one iron-fisted grip on the hood to slot forth a wrist-mounted submachine gun from its right gauntlet.

“Oh, well,” I said, vaulting forward out of the backseat, placing a hand on each of the front seats, and vaulted out through the gaping hole in the windshield, planting both my boots onto the TEMPEST’s face. Spinning around with superhuman speed, perched there like a gymnast in the moment of forward motion on the armor’s angry mask, I twirled to face the hand of the TEMPEST and fired at it point-blank with my shotgun.

The blast may not have much damaged the gauntlet, but the sudden, jarring impact was more than enough to shake loose the hand’s grip on the hood.

The TEMPEST was sucked underneath the SUV as I pushed back off his face. I was suddenly floating in the air as the SUV sped by underneath me, trundling over the armor, and suddenly I was falling back down to earth. I rolled and came to my feet to the left of the TEMPEST, which bouncing out from the rear wheels of my fleeing ride and tumbled easily to its feet in the best Iron Man impression the armor’s operator could pull off.

I was already darting to the side, trying to put distance between me and the suit – a hand-to-hand battle out in the open like this wouldn’t do much for my life expectancy without the operator being seriously dazed, which he obviously wasn’t – shucking the action on my shotgun and firing away as quickly as I could into the TEMPEST’s boots, hoping to blow him off his feet.

At the same time, the TEMPEST brought forth its scuffed HMG – which had somehow survived the adventure under the SUV with its belt still attached – in one hand and leveled its wrist SMG with the other and opened fire. Bullets opened up sparks on closed restaurant storefronts as I leapt, flipped, and all around dodged for my life as I tried to avoid the streams of lead.

As I ran, I knew my options were slim to nil. I knew I had seconds before the TEMPEST zeroed in on something my limited trial version cyborg awesomeness didn’t take care of, so I closed back in, flipping over the TEMPEST’s head and drawing my kukri, hoping to get at a weak spot in the neck armor.

No cigar. The TEMPEST’s right arm shot out – I always underestimated the reflexes of the whole TEMPEST family and wrapped around my ankle, continuing my momentum around as the armor slung me into a nearby light pole. I had barely seconds to recover in midair and spun around the cement mast with agility that would put the Olympics to shame. Getting tossed through the air was something that always to seemed to happen constantly during my fights and such, so I figured that, with my newfound grace, I’d start turning those inevitable moments into a quick and unexpected rebound.

I spun around the light pole twice, building up momentum before I flung a small metal object towards the TEMPEST. His wrist gun easily acquired the speeding target like a hunter shooting a clay pigeon from the air, but that was exactly what I had expected of the suit’s reflexes. The flashbang exploded into a starburst and the TEMPEST reeled momentarily.

Giving me enough of an opening to rip a nearby blue mailbox from its mounts and throw a more impressive shot at my opponent. The metal missile struck the TEMPEST across its barrel chest, exploding into shrapnel and fluttering envelopes and knocking the suit back a good several meters.

And then I was on the INTEGRAL TEMPEST.

I had once faced a Soviet cyborg in close quarters combat, with three of my most trusted friends and allies at my side. The cyborg had nearly one, killing two of us – beating them to a pulp with his bare hands – and had survived more torture and punishment that I would have thought physically possible. Even the downgraded bodyguard cyborgs I had faced upon the late station MIR had given me a run for my money, forcing my to place my very life of a ticking time clock in order to give myself to power to defy them.

And now I unleashed that very same ferocity on the mechanical titan before me. My shotgun was up and pressed against the cyborg’s right knee joint, temporarily jamming in a flash of fire and buckshot. As the cyborg spun to grab at me, it faltered, fingers grasping just out of reach of the edges of my bulletproof vest. I already had my kukri in hand and had it skittering up the suit’s back, searching with lightning speed for any joints in the armor I could slip my blade into. Nothing.

I threw the shotgun into the air, caught it by the stock, and shucked it Sarah Connor-style, dropping the armed firearm back into my grip and blasting the SMG mounted on the wrist coming around to perforate me with one bullet-laden uppercut. The armored weapon exploded in a shower of sparks as the point-blank blast slamming the wrist into the ground at terminal speeds.

Knowing my shotgun was empty; I flipped it around one more time and slammed it across the TEMPEST’s face. The blow barely slapped the helmet around to look to the left – the pilot turned its head slowly back to glare balefully with those icy blue eyes at me and my shattered shotgun.

I knew the blow was coming, and tried to turn to the side as fast as I could, but I couldn’t completely avoid the rabbit-jab from gut level that caught me just below the rib cage and sent me careening off another light post, leaving a Baylor-sized crater in the concrete. My world went red as the INTEGRAL TEMPEST took advantage of the backhanded blow to instantly close the distance between us in something of a flash-step.

My only response was to let my legs go underneath me and crumple to the ground as the TEMPEST drove both fists, Street Fighter Style, into the lamp, shattering the concrete with an earth-shattering kaboom.

I tried to scramble away, but the TEMPEST was already raising its boot to crush my head – I rolled as a metallic meteor impacts inches to the left of my face, shards of concrete racing red lines across my cheek as I vaulted to my feet in the time it took for the suit to rip its boot from the pavement.

Fading back into the darkness, I circled silently around the TEMPEST before it could acquire me. Giving the electronic approximation of a curse, the pilot brought up the HMG still in its grip and raked the air around it. Bullets sizzled in front of me as I skidded to a halt in order to avoid becoming swiss cheese. From there, it was a short skip, hop, and a leap into the TEMPEST’s back.

The operator responded nearly immediately, scrabbling for me, but I already had my kukri held high in the air and brought it down violently into the top of the suit’s neon blue spinal column. The kukri skipped upward as hydraulic fluid began boiling everywhere in a high-pressure breach, coating a nearby wall in a blue-white ooze.

By then I had already leapt back off the TEMPEST, not even pausing to slow my assault. Removing the second grenade from my pouch – a very real HE grenade, I tossed it at the blinded TEMPEST with fingers crossed.

The pilot managed to rip off his malfunctioning helmet – revealing a handsome Middle Eastern man sporting a mean goatee – just in time to see the grenade incoming. The man held up an arm to shield his uncovered back while tossing his helmet half-heartedly at the explosive.

The two connected in mid-air, detonating between us and sending us both skidding a dozen feet backwards – the TEMPEST deep into a storefront, me towards the curb of the far sidewalk, unceremoniously dumping me on my rear.

I paused to observe the crater in the obsidian storefront where not even a single blue eye winked out from, and decided that, in the time it would take for the TEMPEST to rip himself out from that mess, I could easily reached the convoy.

I pulled myself shakily to my feet and took off at a dead sprint.

Eleven

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End

Crossing the corner at the end of the street, I emerged into a warzone. Black SUVS were flipped, sprawled everywhere like discarded hot wheels cars, some on fire, some smoking carcasses. Bursts of gunfire, their sources backlit by the tufts of flame, winked every which way. Green laser sights scythed through the darkness.

I saw Fender and Zelie crouched behind the engine block of our totaled vehicle, swearing as bullets thundered over their heads.

Alright. Game face.

I strolled into the street, snatching a pair of handguns from a dead Secret Service against and harness of ammo. “Fender!” I called. “Where’s POTUS?”

Fender spun to face me and his eyes widened. “Down at the far end! She’s trapped in her car. There are plainclothes hajjis and Secret Service impersonators standing for Team Six. They’ve got a gauntlet set up down a straight funnel, we can’t get past!”

“Well, then,” I muttered grimly. “My turn. You guys are with me, don’t fall behind.”

Taking a deep breath, I spun to face the avenue of death.

My tactics had changed considerably with my new soviet outfit, in case you couldn’t tell when I did a sideways pirouette on that TEMPEST’s hand. What had been formerly a game of sneaking, flanking, and extermination was now…

I took two bounding steps and leapt off the hood of the closest automobile.

Four terrorists – clad in black paramilitary gear, whirled at the sound of me vaulting off the SUV, denting the metal beneath my. Their green lasers swept around wildly, and I landed lightly between the pair of the left.

I came up, firing two shots into the neck of the nearest dickwad, blowing his brains into the air as I pivoted, holding his body in front of me as the farthest terrorist unloaded his Uzi into what he thought was my shimmering form. The corpse in my grasp danced wildly, and I shoved the bloodied mannequin away, into its partner. My other gun was up as dickwad number two caught the body haphazardly, one more shot taking off the side of Two’s head.

I was already rolling by the time Three and Four unloaded their reloaded SMGs into the space I had been moments before, without even enough time for Two’s headless body to hit the concrete.

But I was already firing, just as the terrorists ducked back into cover – I took a round in my chest armor, but tanked through it as tendrils of red gathered at the edges of my vision

Striding swiftly forward, I emptied one of my pistols at Three in order to keep his head down. Click. Gun empty.

Four peaked his head and Uzi up, and I tossed my pistol at him, sending him sprawling backward in a fountain of blood as his nose broke audibly. And then I was already on top of the burning roof of the sedan the Three and Four were hiding behind, hands forward and planted as I swung in legs underneath me and outward in a straight kick that sent the flailing Four flying backward and skidding across the street.

Three swore in Arabic as his gun went dry and went for his sidearm, but I was faster, already off the sedan, landing in an easy crouch, dropping my spent sidearm, and coming upward with a kukri to slash Four’s neck. I resumed by confident stride- confidence was key here – down the roadblock

Three moaned behind me as he rolled pitifully, holding his bleeding nose. Without sparing a glance at him, I fired my remaining pistol offhanded, catching him in the nose. His cries ceased.

That’s when Five and Six opened up with their assault rifles. I saw them coming up from behind cover, and I leapt to the side, easily morphing my stride into a sprint and bounding off the side of a nearby SUV into deliver a 9mm-backed punch to Five’s face. The terrorist went down when the haymaker-backed bullet caught him across the cheek, while Six leveled his rifle at my back – onto the torn to shreds as Fender and Zelie, struggling to follow in my wake, let go with their SOPMODs.

Alright. One squad down. Two more to go.

Li’s voice buzzed in my ear. “Major, PALE HORSE ONE-Two is on the scene, ready to support.”

“Copy that,” I responded without so much as breaking my rhythm. Ducking behind a car, I slid free the magazine of the spent Glock and fed into a new clip, nodding to Zelie and Fender two cars back.

Round two.

An underbarrel-launched grenade struck my cover near the farthest wheel well and flipped the vehicle entirely over my head. One second, I was prepping myself for another burst of asskickery, the next I found myself crouched, ass facing an entire squad of terrorists. Despite myself, I fell backwards, having spent all my grace points over the past several minutes.

Li’s SUV rolled out into the street behind me and the sunroof opened, revealing an emerging minigun. Li sat in the newly created turret, and racked the action on the gatling gun, nodding professionally to me as he jammed both thumbs down on the twin firing studs.

There was an almighty, pervasive sound that was more like a thousand pillows ripping in half at once than a minigun opening up on down the street.

Bodies, their owners not lucky enough to dodge for cover in time, simply evaporated under the hailstorm of lead.

Then I saw a pair of Secret Service agents – I knew they were baddies because the only other Secret Service agents I had seen so far had been dead dead dead – each ready a Javelin missile launcher.

“Shit!” I shouted into my jawline radio. “Li, get out of there,”

Li nodded as the words came into his earpiece, and the SUV gunned forward with an unheard word to the driver.

WOOSH. WOOSH.

Two tracking missiles ejected from their launchers, rocket motors igniting some thirty feet out, streaking like lances from god, all that was visible their exhaust plumes, towards ONE-Two.

Li tracked the rockets with his tracers, catching one across the nose and sending the missile blossoming into a starburst of flame – but the second caught the SUV across its ass, sending it spinning out of sight wildly.

And I was up and running again, pegging the would-be assassins with my pistol, flipping over their falling bodies to land next to Nine through Thirteen.

Nine already had a pistol up and firing, but I shrugged the round off as it careened off my vest, sliding in behind the would-be terrorist and stabbing him in the throat. Blood arced as I withdrew the massive kukri and drove a hard kick into Ten, throwing him flat on his face without so much as a helpless grunt.

Eleven was on me in an instant, and I had to hurriedly parry a massive bowie knife. My cybernetically-enhanced reflexes allowed me to snake a hand around the extended arm and yank Eleven forward, clamping an elbow down across his ribs and pinning his against my side, facing downward.

Out of the corners of my vision I saw Secret Service moles, simple wraiths backlit by a towering wall of flames, yanking a limp form out of the farthest SUV – the short blond hair confirmed it to be President Skye.

Somewhere behind me another car exploded. The trio trying to exit the battlefield was thrown into stark relief, painted against the midnight horizon.

And then I was back into speed-mode, slashing Eleven’s spine and whipping up my handgun in one clean motion, forcing Twelve back into cover by blowing off one of Twelve’s fingers. The startled terrorist blinked as his handgun, as well as his trigger finger, were yanked from his grip, and he fell backwards – right into the waiting sights of Zelie, who blew the target away.

Ten was back up and raising his pistol, but I was almost ridiculously faster, landing a double-tap in his forehead that sent him flying. The world almost seemed to pulse as I fired my gun, and I realized I was on the verge of dangerously overclocking my mind if I kept this up for much longer.

No, I couldn’t stop now. Not with Skye about to be dragged away.

I yanked Eleven upward as a meat shield just as Thirteen brought his buddies – what you could probably guess were Fourteen and Fifteen – around from the left, hoping to flank me and cover the kidnapper’s escape.

Eleven kindly absorbed a trio of slugs for me, and I shoved the body at the oncoming terrorists before they could break for cover, sending them all to the ground like bowling pins Thirteen’s shotgun went off before he could get my head it is sights.

I resumed my sprint down the street, ignoring the bullets chasing my heels as Fourteen dug himself free of the tangle of bodies, yelling into his microphone – only to be sideswiped by a burst from Fender.

Everything was reaching a tunnel now as I clambered over the President’s burning SUV, firing my handgun’s last bullet into one of Skye’s captors.

A van screeched down a sidestreet, a massive white delivery job, the sort you’d expect the Agency to use. Skidding to a halt, the van disgorged a pair of more dickwads, who leapt out of a sliding door and began laying down a fan of suppressive fire with riot shields and light machine guns. Swearing, I dropped backwards in a baseball player’s slide, my gun up and capping the second terrorists dragging Skye away, sending both bodies dropping to the cement.

Zelie swore over my earpiece, and I saw him dive for cover just as a line of tracers tracked him. Fender was off struggling to one side as Thirteen pulled himself to his feet, firing a shell at him. The soft-spoken corporal dodged under the blast, a forearm coming up underneath the shotgun and shoving it into the air while Fender’s other hand drove a vicious cross across Thirteen’s face. Yanking the shotgun from his opponent’s hands, his shoved Thirteen away, worked the action, and fire at point-blank range into Thirteen’s chest. Fourteen, the only surviving terrorist still standing behind me, lunged at Fender’s unprotected back – only to be blown away by Zelie from the other side of the street.

The machine gunners, seeing Skye exposed just meters from their truck and a literal killing machine sliding towards them, chose to do the sensible thing. They opened fire on me.

Time slowed even further past the breaking point I had already push it to as twin geysers of smoke and rubble traced lines towards me across the street from either side like miniature domino explosions.

So, time for a race.

I swung my pistol around in a whiplash gesture that nearly dislocated my shoulder, firing reflexively. The shield-bearer on the left gave a cry of pain as a round blew through his exposed boot. The left-side bullet trail faltered and skipped over me, blowing chunks out of a corner building.

Jamming my boots into the ground, I turned my inertia into a catapult, lifting myself back off the ground into a flying tackle that impacted the shield of the remaining terrorist just inside the LMG’s firing range. Searing spent casings pattered the side of my head, singing my hair, but I rode the gunman to the ground. The machine gun skittered to the side, but my foe was protected from my immediate gunshots by his shield, which also prevented him from effectively retrieving his own sidearm.

So I didn’t stay on top of him. Instead, I milked my forward motion for all it was forth, continuing forward for one last somersault, rebounding off the van – and shooting the driver – and coming back to face the recovering final terrorist.

And found him aiming his pistol at me. Blam, one shot to the head and it’d be all over.

Blam.

The terrorist took a single advancing step and plunged to his knees. Behind him, some fifty feet away, was Fender, holding a smoking shotgun to his shoulder.

I gave him an appreciative nod, killed the writhing terrorists behind me, and whirled to check on Skye.

Click. The hammer being drawn back on the pistol was a thunderclap in the momentary silence of the peaceful street.

Twelve

Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End


The INTEGRAL TEMPEST held President Helen Skye’s form easily in its massive paw of a hand, the other gauntlet jamming the muzzle of a comparatively tiny gun into the temple of the suit’s hostage.

Only now did I get a good look at the pilot’s face. I pride myself on my ability to get the measure of a bigwig dickwad upon first look, be it a mad Russian separatist leader or an even crazier criminal mastermind. I always only had a couple of seconds to derive whatever I could from my opponent’s countenance before the chaos resumed again.

Pilot-boy was a close shadow of al-Hassan. I mean, the baseline was all there. Same long jaw, heavy eyebrows, straight nose, short, swept back black hair, intense eyes. A closely trimmed, professional beard and mustache that formed a rectangular border around a thin, serious mouth. Scar running down one cheek that was an ugly zigzag pattern, suggesting a chainsaw or something similar in a dark corner of my mind.

Sure, it looked like the picture – but something was off. Maybe the cheekbones. Maybe the chin was a bit weaker than it should have been. The scar was something new, too, now that I thought of it. Al-Hassan in the records usually had his face in three-quarters profile, but whatever suggestions of a scar in the intelligence dossiers was a smaller, less violent affair than the man before me sported.

“Drop you pistol and knife,” al-Hassan ordered in a clipped, educated British accent. “Order your men back. I have the suit’s batteries set to overload if you so much as think about shooting me.”

“Yo, man,” I said. “Whaddya want? I mean, you’re not going to get far with Secret Service backup closing in from all directions.”

“I’m not an idiot,” al-Hassan retorted. “Shut your mouth, because I’m not going to so much as open mine with all the answers to your questions.”

“Unless, of course, you think your same contact that allowed you to impersonate a Service Team Romeo is going to open a clean route for your escape. Because after all, I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it a bit ridiculous that some random al-Qaeda group managed to orchestrate all this on their own.”

“Back up, now,” al-Hassan said curtly, nodding for me to get out of his way and let him onto the van. “Or it all ends right here.”

“And what? You kill the President, I kill you, and no one wins.”

“The difference between you and me,” the terrorist leader noted, “is that I am ready to die. You are not. The man who steps into Allah’s domain prepared is the man who truly wins.”

Some portion of me scoffed internally. This guy didn’t sound at all like the terrorists I had confronted during the SAND SCORPION mission in A-Stan. It was a third movie villain dialogue, a third too philosophic for this guy’s pay grade, and a third shadow of a real statement. Considering this, I opted upon, “What makes you think I’m going to die, dude?”

“Because you’re John Baylor,” al-Hassan shot back with an all-too-knowing smirk. “You’re a dead man walking, and you don’t even know it yet.”

“The dead man walking,” I said calmly refusing to budge as al-Hassan came within spitting distance of me, “is you.”

A single gunshot rang out.

Al-Hassan’s head snapped to the side as the right portion of his head exploded outward onto Skye’s unconscious face. It was so sudden, even I jumped despite myself.

Skye slid from al-Hassan’s slackening grip, and I leapt forward to catch the President before she hit the ground. I realized it wasn’t just the TEMPEST suit that made Skye look small. She was like a child in my arms, with the thin rivulets of blood leaking from a scalp wound now indistinguishable from the gore painted over her brow.

The final terrorist’s body toppled in place like a redwood, bouncing once when it touched down. One arm was flung out at an impossible angle.

I looked up to see Jason – Jace, “Gold” – Ramirez lower his smoking sidearm smoothly. With his other hand, he tossed a shattered pair of night vision goggles onto the barrel chest of al-Hassan’s torso.

“You missed,” he noted dryly.

“Holy shit,” I breathed, looking up at him. I took charge from there. “I need help checking out the President, Gold.”

He was kneeling beside me in an instant, holding Skye’s head as we lowered her gently to the ground. Sirens began to filter across the neighborhood from the direction of LaGuardia. “Fender,” I called into my comm, “Go check on Li’s group. From there, secure the area. Pillsbury, get on the radio and make sure those EMTs are on our side. The last thing I need, even less than more moles showing up, is opening fire on our own side in a fit of rightful paranoia.”

“Copy that, boss,” said Fender, nodding to me from across the obliterated street. Somewhere further down the road another gas tank cooked off, sending a fireball blossoming into the sky.

“Bleeding’s pretty bad,” noted Gold as he gingerly but professionally inspected the gash on Skye’s scalp. “Looks like the bulletproof insert she was wearing soaked up a couple bursts of Uzi fire, so the only wound is what looks like a shrapnel gash, the one on her head. Definite concussion.”

I was already opening an encrypted line to Easly, back at the Pentagon. He picked up on the first wing – the Colonel had been waiting for an update every since we came into contact with the enemy.

“Phoenix here,” Easly said gruffly. “We saw the whole thing on satellite. Looks like you’re safe, the only people incoming are cleared first-responders that Young vetted.”

“She’s appraised?” I asked.

“She was with me when the attack went down,” said Easly. “What’s the condition of POTUS?”

“Unconscious with a serious head wound. From what I can tell, she had a couple broken ribs and… yeah, second-degree burns down her right arm. But the main worry here is the head trauma. We can’t do much here beyond stabilize her, and barely that.”

The sirens were getting closer.

“Look, the challenge with the first responders is ‘swordfish.’ The counter response is ‘Pluto.’ Got it?”

“I hear you,” I said. “Copy.”

“We’re going into lockdown here,” explained Easly. We’re bringing VPOTUS down to the bunke- oh, shit.”

“Phoenix?” I yelled into the comm.

“No, shoot it! He’s going for the deto-” A roiling sound not entirely unlike an explosion cut off the channel into a haze of static.

“Phoenix? Phoenix!” I shouted. “Shit!”

“What?” asked Gold.

“Explosion cut off the channel,” I said. “Last thing I heard was Easly telling them to shoot ‘it,’ because ‘he’ was going for the deto- detonator, obviously.”

Gold’s eyes narrowed. “They’re going after Young. Eliminate the chain of succession.”

I nodded down to sky. “Won’t be a need for Young to step up if we do our job here.”

Gold ripped open a first aid kit strapped to his side and folded a compress to Skye’s head, making sure to immobilize her neck first. He passed me a syringe, and I prepped the derivative E-Meds retroactively engineered from the Russian design, focused more towards staving off certain death for a short period than banishing extreme fatigue. Tapping out the air bubbles, I located a vein and depressed the plunger before discarded the used needle.

“Fender,” I said. “Report.”

“Li’s out cold, slammed his head pretty hard against the turret. Looks like he’s just cold-cocked, though. Staub, on the other hand, is up and okay. We’re securing a perimeter now.”

“Just don’t open up on the ambulances, they’re cleared by Easly,” I cautioned.

“Copy.”

“Hey, take a look at this,” called Gold, as he lifted Skye’s unwounded left hand. “Check the fingernails.”

I glanced down the fingertips. “Blood under the nails. She put up a fight.”

“But this head wound isn’t something she’d get after the moles pulled her out of the car,” Gold mused. “They had a traitor in the car with her.” He looked back up at me. “So what’s the play here? These aren’t your average terrorists, obviously. They had moles in the Secret Service. I can accept the terrorists getting fed the location of an INTEGRAL TEMPEST factory. I can buy the knowledge and planning as given information. But the moles throw me off.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Two parties working in collusion on a small-scale mission never works out, and MIDNIGHT knows it, if they learned anything from dealing with Sechalin and WRAITH. Better to streamline the participants to prevent conflicting interests.”

“But here’s the thing that we both know,” Gold stated with a pained grimace. “We personally vetted the Secret Service teams with Easly a year ago. There hasn’t been any rotation in the teams involved with the incident tonight. Team Four was pretty much wiped out in the opening minutes by Team Romeo, before we even got here.”

“So we failed. MIDNIGHT got the better of us,” I stated with a growl in my voice. “Or this isn’t really Team Romeo at all.”

“Sir?”

“Take a look at al-Hassa- well, nevermind. Not much of a face left to look at, but I’ll swear to you his facial structure was a hairsbreadth off reality.”

Pillsbury’s voice cut in over the mic. “Sir, first responders are about thirty seconds out. Orders?”

“One sec,” I replied. “Easly managed to pass off a challenge/response set to me, but command’s offline right now. We’re on our own, so be on your toes. Right, the challenge is ‘swordfish.’ Reply is ‘Pluto.’”

“Ooorah,” replied the Lance Corporal. “Staub’s with me, Fender’s got Li up and patrolling the area.”

One that note, Li’s voice cut into the conversation. “Damn, sir, you’re not going to believe this…”

I frowned, seeping edges of paranoia tingeing my thoughts as my adrenaline-induced high began to wear off and my fingers began to shake ever so slightly. “What is it?”

“The Service moles…” Li said. “They’re all goo. Something’s liquefying them.”

I glanced over at al-Hassan and the four or so other terrorist corpses surrounding us. “Bodies are all fine over here. You mean the bodies actually had some sort of anti-retrieval countermeasure on them?”

“Sir..” Gold said, tapping me on the shoulder. I glanced over at him, and then in the direction he was pointing.

The two would-be getaway drivers were ever so slightly trembling in their dark fatigues.

And then the smoke began to rise from their skin.

“Shit, get pictures!” I shouted, lunging forward and activating the still capture feature of my cybernetics. Taking a steady glance at each of the dissolving corpses, I leapt over to al-Hassan – just in time for the body to buck, and dissociate horribly, disgustingly, and terrifyingly into a puddle within his TEMPEST suit.

“Jesus…” breathed Gold. “Whoever sent these guys, they didn’t want anybody taking too good a look at their identities.”

Really. I had heard of erasers before that involves external ‘Cleaner’ squads or time-delay bombs, or even the simple, ever-popular cyanide pill. But not mortality-triggered acid packs.

“So what do we do now?” Gold asked.

I dropped my crouch, letting my knees touch the pavement. Somewhere behind me, the EMTs were sprinting through the wreckage toward us. “Hell, I don’t know man,” I said wearily. “Damned if I know.”

My radio crackled, and I scrambled for it. “Colonel?”

A weak cough met my ears. “Christ, John. How’s POTUS?”

I glanced at the EMTs descending upon Skye. “Just got here, they’re clean. What the hell happened on your end?”

“Bomber went after Young in the underlevels. She’s okay, but we lost five men in the explosion and a good dozen are injured. John, you need to clear things up on your end and get everyone into cover. We can’t let anything else go down. Lock down the situation ASAP.”

“Copy. PALEHORSE over and out.”

I looked to the medic. “We’re under orders to clear out as fast as we can, we don’t want to be sitting around when another attack goes down. What’s the final line on Skye?”

The EMT nodded and continued to work for another minute before affixing me with a level stare. “We need an airlift, now. She’s in a coma, and if we don’t operate, she’ll never wake up at all.”

Thirteen

Teague | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End

Major Aerts De Vos emerged into the garage to find his team nearly packed and ready for the assault.

“Just got the intel on Lennox,” he stated to his team. “She has the target in custody and is trying to negotiate terms with the handlers back in Oslo.”

Lieutenant Thern, De Vos’ XO, snorted. “Sir, what do you mean, ‘negotiating’?”

De Vos grabbed an assault rifle from a nearby rack and set to methodically prepping attachments: laser sights, barrel-mounted flashlight, underbarrel grenade launcher, side-mounted taser-bayonet, mounted foregrip. It was calming, the before-action ritual, in its own way. “As in the fact that she never called Oslo at all. No, she’s talking with Savage and the NTET boys on her private line, trying desperately to get immunity with Baylor as the bargaining chip.”

“NTET would pass up recovering Baylor?” asked Thern.

“Either Savage doubts Lennox’s claims and doesn’t want to poke her head out of her hidey hole, or NTET is too bloody pissed over the debacle on World’s End to accept the target. Word is the US government is trying to pin the disaster on Baylor and a ‘rogue decision.’”

Thern dropped a pack into a large van – converted to house a team of six troops, one of two such vehicles in the garage the WEU strike cell get handy for covert raids – and set his jaw. “So Lennox went to NTET before us, and we’re heading on in to… remind her of where her true allegiances lie, as well as recover Baylor?”

“Aye,” nodded De Vos, selecting a set of night-vision goggles from a rack and inspecting the lenses.

“But where did we get the intel?” Thern asked. “Lennox reports when she damn well wants to, and we still haven’t been able to crack the NTET encryption.”

A drawling baritone rolled across the garage like an inexorable wave. “That’s because De Vos isn’t playing alone on this mission.”

Ten gun barrels snapped up from different points in the garage as the WEU team oriented to face the newcomer.

“Stand down,” said De Vos, waving his hands at his squad. “It’s only the American contact, but I didn’t expect him to still be around.”

A single figure stepped from the long shadows cast over the far corner of the garage, revealing a barrel-chested American Air Force officer with the eagle insignia of a full colonel. His muscles rippled under the nondescript BDU he wore under a brown military full coat. His one eye – for the other was covered in an eyepatch – exuded incredibly calm, to an almost ridiculous degree. White hair was shaved close over his head and a jagged pair of scars ran over his brow and underneath his black eyepatch.

The Colonel seemed to smother the room in his mere presence and confidence – no, confidence wasn’t the right word to use. It implied a minor degree of pride. No, this was a man used to being in charge, in control – except that wasn’t right either. It was simply the impression of a man who knew what he was doing, and what was going to happen, and he was simply going through the motions. A pistol could he seen riding in a reverse mount on a hip holster.

Another figure lurked, just out of sight, in the shadows, slightly behind and to the left of the Colonel. He was slimmer than the mountain of a man in front of him, but just as tall. Lithe ability reflected barely constrained energy as the figure shifted from foot to foot – as though he rightfully expected the situation to turn violent at any second and would not find the prospect entirely objectionable at all. The build was startlingly familiar yet just beyond the recognition of De Vos or his men. Yet it was clear this shadowed man was the Colonel’s enforcer, his right hand man in the field, and just as subtly dangerous as the officer.

“Teague,” De Vos growled. “I thought you were leaving.”

Teague – the Colonel – raised a finger in a mock-fencer’s salute of acknowledgement to De Vos. “Didn’t want to miss your men going out to go play soldier.”

Thern tensed at the casual insult, but De Vos just tipped his head back and let loose a long, bellowing laugh. Slowly but surely the laughing spread across the room, ranging from nervous chuckles to sarcastic guffawing.

Teague made a cutting motion with his hand. “Okay, let’s get serious. Or I’ll kill everyone in this room.”

The laughter died at once.

“Don’t lie to your men, Major. Not good in my book. So I’m here until they get the full picture – after all, it’s my enemies who are supposed to be the one who run around without all the facts. My employers did not furnish WEU with this golden opportunity for a team-up in order for your half-pint mercenaries to botch it.”

“This doesn’t need to turn ugly before the mission even begins, Teague,” De Vos cautioned.

“Rest assured, De Vos,” Teague said dryly, as though spelling something out to a particularly dense subject, “that if my colleague and I wanted you dead, there we about a thousand ways we could have murdered you by now. And 974 of them would have been incredibly painful.” Such was the assurance reflected in the words that the WEU team shifted uncomfortably under the statement. Behind Teague, his ‘colleague’ chucked menacingly, the sound bouncing oddly across the acoustic of the room in a completely unnerving manner.

Teague turned from the Major to the team at large. “You about to carry out a twilight raid on a suburban home of a possibly rogue WEU agent. I’m sure you are all briefed on how well fortified the house is. What you do not know is they I damn well want the WEU agent – Anne Lennox alive. You can keep your ‘target,’ you can keep the boy. I don’t give a shit about them. But I will have a team of my men on hand, observing your assault, there to ensure Lennox is returned to me unharmed. Think of it as the price for the intel.”

De Vos scoffed. “That wasn’t part of the original deal, Teague.”

The colonel shrugged one mighty shoulder. “I have altered the deal.”

The man behind Teague shifted unexpectedly with lazy leonine grace and let loose a short, rolling chuckle. “Pray he does not alter it any further.”

“This affair is not filling me with confidence over MIDNIGHT’s-” De Vos savored the emphasis on the name of Teague’s employer “-ability to interface with WEU. A partnership does not bode well if one side talks to themselves in a manic voice.”

Teague jerked his head back to his companion. “Who, him? It would be better to say that he has a penchant for… intelligent conversation.”

With another wave of Teague’s finger, four wraiths simply melted out of the shadows shrouding Teague’s partner – black-clad, triocular-mounting, UMP-wielding MIDNIGHT operatives.

“Remember,” Teague said. “They get the girl. So don’t get yourselves off vaping the block. If you come back alive at all.”

“Is that a threat, Teague?” De Vos asked.

“Hell yeah,” Teague said, turning to leave. “I like to have a bomber on station for any of my missions. They make bunker busters these days that look just like gas line explosions when they go off, you know that?”

“You’d bomb us if something went wrong? If we don’t follow your plan?” De Vos blanched.

“I don’t plan, I steer. And not you; don’t take it personal, bucko,” Teague shrugged again, before melting in the shadows. “Baylor, maybe. Peace through superior fire, after all.”

"You make it seem as though Baylor is that tough a customer," remarked one of the WEU commandos from the background. "But he's just one man, and we're an entire squad. What can one man possibly do?"

Teague rolled his eyes and removed a revolver from his coat. Without even bothering to aim, he shot the offending commando in the chest. "That."

The commando reeled back, clutching at his bulletproof vest - but the point had been made.

And like that, Teague and his companion were gone, leaving the fireteam of MIDNIGHT wraiths standing in their wake. De Vos’ eyes narrowed – there wasn’t even a door through that side of the garage.

Thern whirled on De Vos. “You made a deal with him?

De Vos bristled, but didn’t snap. “How do you know the good Colonel?”

“Remember Nairobi?” Thern asked. “Dude was part of a joint task force charged with extracting a political exile so the Russians didn’t get their hands on him. When it looked like the Navy’s team wasn’t going to get the job done, Teague just bombed the entire field of engagement and said, hey, better dead than red. Turns out he had been playing both sides when the prisoner turned up dead in New Guinea, outside some MIDNIGHT torture house. You don’t fuck with Thaddeus Teague.”

De Vos eyed the triocular wraiths. “We’ll see about that. Right now, let’s focus on recovering an old friend.”

Fourteen

Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End

The lady in the SUV drove up to a nice-looking two story suburban home in what the signs told me was Queens. Casting a brief, furtive look at the sky, she led me into the open garage, under the flickering shade of the overhanging oak trees. Emerging into a practical kitchen, she sat me down on a stool next to the massive island before bringing out a positively massive first aid kit from a cabinet up high.

She hissed when she took a close look at the wound on my face, recoiling. “Jesus, how’re you still alive?”

“Er, what happened?” I asked.

“You were shot in the head,” the lady declared. “Looks like the bullet skimmed along the inside of your skull and is still in there.”

“Aaaand, I don’t want to sound rude, but who are you?”

The lady frowned. “Anne. I told you a half hour ago.”

“No, you didn’t. Er, last, I think. I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember what happened in the park?”

“What park,” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Well, shit,” Anne declared, placing her hands on her hips. “I guessed amnesia, but I didn’t figure it’d be anterograde as well as retrograde.” Her frown deepened. Crossing over to a drawer on the other side of the island. With a clank, she drew out a gun from underneath the drawer.

“Woah,” I said. “Let’s not get hasty.”

Feeding a magazine into the grip of the pistol, Anne worked the action, feeding it a round, flipped off the safety, and cocked the hammer. Passing it grip-first to me, she said “Disassemble it.”

“What?” I asked, incredibly confused.

“I need to know if there’s procedural amnesia as well. You’re functioning reasonably well, but I need to know how much of your skillset you retain.”

Taking the gun – one I instinctively understood to be an M9 Beretta – I eased down the hammer, ejected the clip, worked the action to remove the shell in the chamber, ejected the bullets one by one from the magazine, and separated the grip from the slide. All in the space of about ten seconds.

“Well I guess that answers that,” Anne said. “Alright. Before you forget. The last thing I need is you getting angry because you don’t know where you are.” She took out a notepad and pen from another drawer. “Can’t give you tattoos like Memento, but we can do our best.”

“Say what?” I asked.

“This is different,” said a new voice. Anne and I both spun to see a young preteen kid holding a backpack and a baseball bat, standing in the portal between the kitchen and the foyer. He was thin for his age, with short blond hair. “Usually Baylor loves making those movie jokes.”

“Ryan?” Anne asked. “Ah, shit.”

“Why’s John here?” Ryan asked. “And why’s he bleeding?”

“Ryan,” Anne said again, with an urgent tone. “Baylor’s staying here for the night. We need to keep quiet about this. It’s about work.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Work. Right. Anyway, got sent home early.”

“Fighting? Again?” the lady asked, exasperated. “Look, Ryan, you can’t keep doing this.”

“Wait, wait,” I said. “Hold up. Who are you again?”

***

The lady, Anne, sat me down, and wrote out a list of facts for me on a yellow notepad. She said it was essentially ‘creating an identity from the ground up,’ which was fine by me, considering I really didn’t have anything to go on at the moment. A good portion of the written instructions were situational notes, telling me where I was, who the people in the house were (Anne and her son, Ryan), where I could go (couldn’t leave the house itself), and who I was allowed to talk to (again, just Anne and Ryan).

Standing from her light seat on the stool beside me, Anne went over to an alcove and shook out two pictures from their frames. “Here, just so you recognize us.” Uncapping a felt pen, she labeled the polaroids, and taped them to the pad. She taped the page and photos, upside down, to my t-shirt.

I looked down. T-shirt? Yeah, last thing I remember, was her giving me her husband’s old clothes as I got out of the shower. I fingered the bandage on my head. She must’ve done that too.

She sat me in the living room, turned on the TV, and, after a moment, placed me on the 24-hour news. Figured TV shows wouldn’t mean much, considering I couldn’t follow the stories. Instead, just commercials and sound bites would be good enough for me. I settled down and began to watch. Some guy – Chris Matthews, the caption said – was talking about a floating photo of a blonde-haired woman.

“Its 3:05, and this is MSNBC. And, in the aftershocks of the failed assassination attempt on President Skye, the tenuous legal situation of Vice President Young continues into its sixth day. We go now to our Washington station chief, Chuck Todd, for background about the constitutional limbo.”

A red-haired suit came onto the screen, complete with a carefully manicured red beard. “Thank you, Chris. As a refresher on the twenty-fifth amendment, either the President or the majority of cabinet secretary must submit a declaration of inability to discharge the powers and duties of the presidential office to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House in order for the VP to assume the President’s place.

Bullet points began to stream across the screen. “And, obviously, in the wake of the attempt and the following coma, Skye was and is unable of providing such a letter. That leaves the job to the cabinet. And there’s the problem, Chris. The cabinet and the Vice President have been at odds – to describe it charitably – since Young took office with Skye. They don’t like her foreign policy, and Skye, busy with the aftermath of the Russian civil war and the new NATO renewal, hasn’t had the time to remedy the cold war.

Chris cut in. “But can’t Congress just solve the whole issue?”

“Yes, that’s true. Section 4 of the amendment requires the Congress to step in and vote to resolve any conflict that exists in the cabinet. But Congress is given twenty-one days to actually provide a two-thirds vote, which simply isn’t going to happen right now. We all knew Skye’s moderate coalition wasn’t going to hold itself together this far into her term, and now the disgruntled Tea Party republicans and opposed liberals have found an uneasy team in filibustering any attempts to resolve the issue in the Senat-”

Jesus, I was so tired.

***

Awake. Where am I? Living room, news channel blaring, talking about filibusters in the Senate. On a couch. I moved to sit up, but I saw that moving too quickly would tear the paper on my chest. Wait, paper? I looked down and found the big, blocky letters of “READ THIS FIRST” at the top – bottom – of the page.

Okay, there we go. I’m on vacation with friends in Queens. Got into a car accident. Amnesia, both anterograde and retrograde, whatever that meant. Should fade off over the next week, sounds good. Can’t leave house, wouldn’t want to get run over by car. Sodas are in mini-fridge underneath table.

Standing, I spied a discrete mini-fridge located underneath a thin lamp table across the room. Crossing over and opening the door, I fished out a Diet Coke and plopped back down on the couch.

“It’s 4:05, and this is MSNBC,” stated a blond man from the TV nearby. “More on the continuing succession situation here on capitol hill…”

It wasn’t long before the kid, young and bored, sought me out. Anne only gave the two of us a look out of the corner of her eye, but shrugged and accepted it. I got the idea. Ryan, the kid, hadn’t gotten come out of his shell much since her husband had apparently died (Ryan told me I was wearing his dad’s favorite shirt). For the life of my, the husband’s name – Charles, or as I liked it, Chuck – seemed ridiculously familiar but, like everything else, seemed just beyond the edges of my recollection.

Ryan showed me an Xbox controller and invited me to play some shooter with him on co-op. I think he said the title was Modern Warfare 3 or the like. I picked up the controls naturally and we sped through the entire campaign in about four hours or so while Anne spent the entire time on the phone.

***

“Aaaand, what are we playing again?”

“Again? Man, John, this is weird,” Ryan remarked, pulling up the control scheme through the pause menu. I took a brief look at it. “It’s good these missions are so short, man, or you’d be forgetting in the middle of the game, and that’d suck.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, scratching my head before practicing moving around with the controller.

I set the controller down. “I remember most of the recent current events, but what’s with the game’s plot?” The storyline had been entirely too uncomfortable for me for reason I couldn’t quite place. Ryan was having a hell of a time explaining the plot over and over again after each mission.

“What, the part with Sechalin still being alive?” asked Ryan, swiped his bangs out of his eyes and speaking in a far too knowledgeable voice for a preteen. Oh, I was dealing with a nerd. Got it. “The other two games ran off the whole crisis over in Russia for their plots, with Sechalin winning.”

“But he’s dead in real life,” I stated, as though I now knew the fact to be the indisputable truth and hadn’t been told it ten minutes ago.

“Yeah, well, the second game came out right after the war ended a couple years ago. They said ‘oh well’ and went on anyway. No one’s complaining about the result. You see that point with the knife fight on MIR? Wicked cool.”

I pursed my lips, bemused. “You might be missing the point kiddo. Violence ain’t ever solved anything. Trust me, it ends up creating more problems than it solved.” I don’t know why I said that, it just felt right.

Ryan rolled up the controller cord and smiled. “Hey, don’t look at me. I just got into the eigth grade. I’m no professor.”

“But that’s the thing,” I said, breaking open the Diet Coke Anne had dropped off an hour or so ago. Cool beads of condensation slicked against my slightly shaking hands as I chugged down the can. “From what I could see, the game’s a stand against war. Look at that Chernobyl level, I mean. Or where they force you to live through the character’s dying moments from, what you tell, me, is something like the fifth or sixth time in the series.”

I shrugged. “But I guess, in the end, if you want proof, just go look at Price and Soap. When DC betrays them, they don’t try to plead their case. They go underground, dish out retribution in the only way they know how, and become wanted criminals. In the end, the person who loses is the soldier himself, not the nation. You can go three ways with the result. You can end up dead-dead. You can go crazy and as horrible as the bad guys themselves, like Price. Or you can slough through it and uphold your ideals. Fight for something greater than a flag.”

Ryan furrowed his brow as he placed the disc back in the case. “Mr. Baylor, I know you’re a soldier of some kind like dad. And the only reason mom’d be keeping you here right now with all these wounds is if something went wrong on that mission you mentioned a couple nights ago. I’m not blind. So, the question is, in the end, which one are you? Price? Or Soap?”

I stared at Ryan for a long moment. Christ, this entire family was up to it in its eyeballs. Or something. Standing up, I tossed the empty cola can into the bin. But clearly I didn’t have anything in my past to do with a car accident. Ryan was fairly adamant I had something to do with his dad’s death in the military, if only for the picture he showed me on his computer – him, Anne, and I smiling at the camera at some Tex-Mex joint. I was wearing a USMC jacket, a bandana, and looked like I had what Ryan swore was a shoulder holster poking into the frame. “You mentioned I came by here before whatever happened on this mission, right? I need you to tell me more about it, right?”

Ryan smiled. “We have a ping pong table out on the back porch. I’ll tell you all I know if you come play a couple games with me.”

Hell, if I was getting my information from a kid, this might as well be my price. He was a heck of a lot more talkative that Anne. I put aside the paper packet I had lifted from Ryan’s backpack, on which I had been taking notes.

“Deal,” I said. “You get first serve.”

***

“What’s the score?” I asked.

“Two-one, my serve,” Ryan said, readying the ball. “You know, I could make up any score I wanted, right?”

“Well, at least you’re honest about it,” I said, throwing off a ready grin before raising my paddle. “Bring it, shorty.”

Ryan waved a hand at me. “Actually, let me go get a drink. For a crazy dude you play pretty well.” Setting down his paddle and ball on the ping-pong table, he slid open the nearby glass door and went inside.

I flopped down onto a nearby porch chair and sighed. Kid had game, if I remembered correctly. I felt though, that the climax of the match had passed – that it was all downhill from here. It was a notion that kept resurfacing in the back of my mind, like the big moment in my life had gone by and everything now was just the cards floating back down to earth. Someone already knew how they would fall, it was just a question of what happened along the way.

Anne’s voice cut in from the open sliding glass door to my right, floating in from the kitchen. “No! No, it’s not like that. No, I don’t have him, but I’m telling you, he’s key to this. He’ll help us find him, I tell you.”

I sat forward to listen more closely.

“You have to trust me here, I can prove my loyalty to the team. Yes, I was with them, but I’m on your side now. I need protection. He needs protection. My son needs protection, or we’re all going to die, I promise you.”

My torso leaned even more forward, straining to focus. And, out of the corner of my eye, through the back porch screen, I saw a blur of motion on the street outside. Two large vans. Through the bushes, I made out one stopping, the other pulling around the corner and out of sight. Nothing about it looks right. I yanked out my notebook and scribbled a reminder before standing.

I rushed inside to go give Anne a head’s up, slamming and locking the door behind me. When I entered the kitchen, Anne had just put down the phone and was crossing a name off of a positively gargantuan list of crossed-off names. “John, what is it?”

I pulled a momentary blank before glancing at the notebook in my hands. It read: Tell Anne in the kitchen two vans have pulled up. One’s stopped, another’s pulling around the corner. Warning bells. I passed it on to her.

Her eyes widened, and she spun to face a security panel mounted in the hallway and began typing rapidly on it. Wordlessly, some, at the same time, a pistol – one I instinctively knew to be an M9 – appeared in her other hand.

“John, get down!” she called over to me. “Ryan! Get to the panic room!”

“What’s going on?” I asked, confused to the utmost degree. “Those vans dangerous?”

As if in response, a spider’s web of bullet tracks raced across the porch door behind me as someone raked the doorway with automatic fire.

Fifteen

Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End

A moment later, a pair of dark forms moved outside the translucent glass panel, readying what I thought was a massive hammer. The shaft rose, raised high, and swung around to impact the glass.

An almighty screech split the air as a lightning bolt coursed through the pane, travelled down the metal head, and sent the hammer’s wielder flying back out of the porch like a smoking meteor.

Anne, as a calm as could be, tapped two buttons on her security panel. “Fire in the hole, I’m activating the land mines.”

“Land MINES?” Ryan called somewhere from upstairs.

Land mines?” I repeated incredulously to myself.

The body hit the grass – and immediately lifted off again upon contact with the ground, coming back down in multiple pieces. The corpse’s partner, standing outside the doorway, little more than a silhouette, did a comical double take before taking another step back, to the side to as to (I assumed) avoid the outburst of any hidden claymores, and lifted his submachine gun, which I would bet a million bucks mounted a grenade launcher.

“Down!” I yelled, diving forward and yanking Anne off her feet just as the glass door exploded inward.

“Breaching, breaching!” the entry commando screamed to his presumed comrades as he rushed into the dining room.

And just like that, a massive metal pole exploded from the ceiling, dropping with the force of an asteroid into the crook of commando’s neck, impaling him mid-stride. The firing SMG went wild as the dying soldier spazzed out, sending puffs of exploding plaster across the entire back wall of the kitchen.

Anne’s gun barked over my shoulder and the gunfire died.

“C’mon,” I said, pulling Anne to her feet. “There’ll be more on the way.”

I grabbed my notepad and began to scribble as I ran. Hostiles attacking house. Two vans outside. Panic room upstairs. Protect Anne and Ryan. Two dead already.

“Wait,” I said. “How did those first two die?”

“OhjesuschristwhyamIdoingthis,” Anne moaned all in one word, grabbing my shoulder and yanking me up the stairs – just as the front door exploded inward.

A pair of riot shield-wielding intruders stood on the threshold of the door just as a line of claymores exploded in their face, shredding the front of their shields but ultimately leaving the soldiers unharmed. A third soldier behind the pair ducked down and sprayed the borders of the doorframe with a foam-like substance, for some reason.

“Urm,” why are they doing that?” I asked.

“Didn’t you just see the punji sticks back ther-oh why do I even bother,” Anne growled as she ran up the stairs, firing down at the blurred riot shields below, if only to keep them from peeking out to return shots.

As she ran, Anne slapped at the wall that ran alongside the staircase, opening a locker in the wall. Inside was a small submachine gun – a Steyr TMP – an ammo belt, and a pair of grenades. Scooping out the contents, Anne specifically juggled out the grenade and tossed it to me. “Give our friends a welcome present.”

Somehow knowing exactly what to do, I yanked the pin and let the grenade bounced down the stairs, rolling between the two riot shields before the entry team could react. The third, unshielded soldier tried to kick the grenade, and managed to send it out a couple of feet before it detonated, shredding him and sending the left-most shield-bearer flying straight into foyer, onto the front rug.

Which promptly gave away beneath his feet, plunging him a meter into the floor. Suddenly, the man began to scream as some unseen force began to savage his legs. The remaining soldier withdrew out of sight, deciding instead to respond with a pair of flashbang grenades. Recognizing them with instant realization, I tugged Anne around and shielded her eyes while shutting my own eyelids tight. “Cover your ears!” I demanded as I covered one ear with my free and hand and the other with a shrugged shoulder.

The world went white and for a moment I couldn’t hear anything beyond a generic, painful roar. But Anne and I wear already at the top of the suitcase. Someone was shooting. Anne was shooting. More than one enemy below was firing. Plaster was exploding all around me.

And then we were around a corner, breathing heavily as the world and color and sound faded back into normal. As normal as could be.

The lady next to me groaned, wiping her eyes, and flipped over a vase on a nearby nook in the wall. Slotting open a cover, she slammed her fist down on the blue button. Somewhere beneath me, I heard a chunk as the staircase slotted into a sheer ramp. Oil, from hidden nozzles, began to coat the newly-created slide.

“That should hold them,” the lady said. “Let’s go, I need to activate the mines in this hallway.”

“Mines?” I asked. “Why do you have mines in your own house, womaaaan…” I checked the notepad clutched tightly in one of my hands. “Anne. Right, Anne. Intruders. Two down.”

“Four,” Anne corrected, beginning to sprint down the corridor, M9 in one hand, TMP in the other. I changed the two to a four in my book. “Ryan?” she called. “You in the panic room?”

“Yeah, mom,” came in a voice over a hidden intercom. “I’m good. Locked up. But you’re about to have some compan-”

Just then, windows shattered somewhere down the hall, presumably in one of the bedrooms. Boots hit the carpet.

I motioned to Anne. “Give me the TMP. And the combat knife you’re hiding on your inner calve.”

Anne’s head jerked around, blond hair flying in front of her glasses as I called the location of the hidden knife.

“Now,” I said. “Go get Ryan. I’ll get these guys.”

Pausing for the briefest moment, Anne rolled off one leg of her Capri’s and drew out a mean-looking knife, handing it to me grip first.

“Thank you,” I said as the cold steel hit the palm of my hand. My other hand stowed my notes and took the TMP. “I’ve got this, go. Go.”

“If only because I know what you’re capable of, John. If only,” Anne replied. “Panic room’s in the closet of the second room of the left.” I juggled the knife, put Anne just grabbed my pen and wrote the location on my forearm. “Thank you.”

I paused. “Why bother with the ‘car crash’ lie? I’m obviously not stupid enough to ignore notes and conditioning, eh?”

Anne gave me a pained look, twisted with something beyond simple affection. “Maybe I wanted you to become a better man that the one you were before.”

And with that cryptic remark, she fled.

Sixteen

Thern | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End

De Vos paced in the street outside the Lennox residence, cursing to himself. It was the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. All death traps and razor wire. The two entry teams had been killed upon stepping into the house, but they had at least managed to flush the targets into the top floor. The perimeter was airtight – there weren’t any tunnels underneath the house.

“Sir, Beta Team is making entry on the top floor,” Thern said from his side. Holding his MP5 tight, Thern tensely eyed the triocular MIDNIGHT wraiths hiding in the shadows of an oak tree nearby. They had all but said they would take control of the assault if the second team failed.

But De Vos wasn’t the incompetent he passed himself off as, Thern knew. True, De Vos was approaching retirement age and, yes, true, he was more focused in his skillset in regard to surveillance and slick tricks, but De Vos hadn’t operated in the New York area as the leader of an undercover WEU intelligence ring without getting his hands dirty from time to time.

No, what worried Thern were the targets. He knew all about Baylor, of course – his actions during the Soviet civil war were now legendary in the black ops community. If Baylor could handle Soviet cyborgs or INTEGRAL TEMPESTS, a WEU strike team wouldn’t trouble him beyond his abilities. And then there was the girl, Lennox…

There came light screams from the top floor of the house, echoing out of the smashed windows, and a pair of forms was thrown out of the portal at something resembling terminal velocity, hit the ground, bouncing, and skipping. Thern spun at the commotion, and instantly recognized the corpses on the lawn as half of Beta Team.

The wraiths exchanged looks behind Thern, nodded to one another, and started forward with an air of finality.

A second later, another pair of forms, intertwined, fell, no slid out of the window. It was clear they were grappling as they rolled off the roof and onto the bushes below. A knife glinted in the darkness as one of the combatants raised his blade high before driving it into the neck of his opponent.

The first wraith raised his pistol, a silenced H&K SOCOM .45, and shoot Baylor in the shoulder.

Baylor spun backwards, falling onto the mulch without so much of a cry of pain.

A second wraith simply appeared behind Baylor, kicking a weapon out of each of the injured man’s hands before placing his boot on the man’s neck.

The final wraith brought out a tranquilizer pistol from behind his back and, quite calmly, loading a red-banded dart into the gun’s chamber. Without any sort of urgency, the WRAITH readied his pistol, aimed, and shot Baylor. The commando’s struggling body jerked and near instantly went still.

Thern spun to his radio. “Lambda team, Baylor is down. Status of the woman?”

“Trap is set,” replied Lambda lead, a former French paratrooper. “We have the boy in custody.”

De Vos, beside Thern, allowed himself a small smile. Perhaps the first development of the plan had been the infiltration of the top floor and the capture of Lennox’s son. From there, it was simple to lure Baylor and the mother onto the top floor, where Lambda team was lying in wait.

At the same time, Beta team would make a hot entry with the express purpose of dividing the group. De Vos had essentially written off one of the groups as cannon fodder, his true goal was to goad the wraiths into entering the fray. And look, best case scenario. Baylor had engaged the wraiths. Granted, De Vos hadn’t been convinced the battle would be that one-sided, but the wraiths were positioned poorly enough to severely damage their hand in any negotiations.

“Moving the kid into position…” Lambda lead intoned. “Fiennes, go for the tranq shot when she enters. Three.. two… one.”

There came a muffled grunt and then a scream over the come. Someone began to gibber in German.

And then the entire eastern half of the second floor exploded outwards.

The cause, Thern observed, as he moved hastily to avoid falling wreckage, were a quartet of bodies shooting through the walls like missiles.

Thern saw it all from that point on. Lennox, with a blue aura of power surrounding one hand as she twirled, dropped to one knee and made a violent slashing gesture, leaving trails of azure flame in the night sky. The final man of Team Lambda – Lead, Thern saw, was seized by an invisible force, arms and legs clamped tightly together. Rising into the air like a human log, Lambda Lead could only scream shrilly as Lennox closed her open hand into a fist.

Lambda Lead’s body twisted in four directions at once. He literally and simultaneously imploded to become a pretzel.

This was why the Teague wanted Anne Lennox so bad, Thern realized with a flash. She. Was. A. Telekine. The entire game just changed.

The two wraiths that weren’t guarding Baylor were already moving like ninja over the remnant of the shingled roof, moving faster than Thern could see.

“Still want to give the girl to Teague, sir?” Thern asked lightly, his hand on his pistol.

De Vos shook his head. “I haven’t come this far to let an alliance with MIDNIGHT fall apart over a rogue telekine. Stand down, Lieutenant.”

“You see…” Thern said, drawing his sidearm. “SIG doesn’t exactly agree with you.” Raising his sidearm, he shot De Vos in the side of the head.

Several things began to happen at once.

Anne Lennox spun as the first wraith launched himself at her, tranq pistol raised. The operative and the two fired darts were sideswiped by the hand of god and sent tumbling across the lawn three meters to Thern’s right.

As De Vos’ body began to fall to the ground, the WEU commandos loyal to Thern leveled their weapons at the lone wraith. Being fast and badass didn’t protect against massed fire when there was nowhere to go. The wraith was painted against the suburban wall.

One of Thern’s allies threw him a PGS1 sniper rifle as the WEU operative began to stride along the periphery of the fray.

BLAM, the wraith on the grass died before he could stand, sent falling backwards into the grass, never to rise.

The third wraith raised his tranq rifle and shot Anne Lennox square in the neck. Slowly, as if in a trance, she fell off the side of the open room, falling a story – into the waiting arms of Thern’s positioned second van strike team. Bundled away and injected with a second dose, she was offsite in seconds.

Suddenly confronted with the news of the deaths of his teammates over his HUD, the final wraith yanked a dead man’s switch from his tac-vest, getting ready to call in Teague’s airstrike personally – BLAM, his hand was blown off at the wrist by Thern, who was still striding confidently to his waiting van. Another shot sent the MIDNIGHT assassin sprawling backwards into the cover of a hallway. Thern didn’t so much as swear at the escape of his quarry, because…

The result was instantaneous. There was maybe, just maybe, a half-second of shrieking, piercing noise, before the bomb hit. Only frame-by-frame of the WEU tac-cams could have seen the black bunker buster slide into place right next to the house’s chimney. And then the house simply dissolved into an outwardly expanding ball of flame that died as soon as it began.

The fireball never expanded past the property limits of the former Lennox residence.

But the WEU team – loyal to Thern – had already exfiltrated from the premises and was already loaded into the vans. Because this operation had been planned for months, ever since the rogue German telekine had finally resurfaced – in New York City, of all places. A special operator, Thern, had been sent to orient the situation so as to recover Lennox. MIDNIGHT was irrelevant, after all, SIG sought to play a game that extended beyond its own country’s borders.

Inside the departing van, Thern gazed down at the sedated and restrained Lennox. She had been AWOL, no, she had gone native, after being sent to seduce a Reaper on a mission. Instead, she had faked her death and sought protection with NTET as an informant when her husband was sent to work at the decommissioning of the Avalonian Woods Paragon. They had shielded her – at least until the World’s End debacle, where the blame had fallen on her for the deaths of dozens of NTET agents.

It was no wonder Teague wanted Lennox. Not because of what she knew, but because of her psychokinetic powers. PK operators were entirely the domain of WEU, much like cybernetic technology was a closely guarded secret within Soviet borders. Just like Thern viewed Baylor as tantamount to delivering the technology finally to Europe, Teague wanted Anne Lennox for the exact same reason. If the news behind his biological experiments were correct, he would do for Lennox exactly what he did for Storm when he teamed with Gosely and WRAITH.

But WEU needed its agent back, and had netted a target just as valuable in the process.

The SIG team changed vans not far into its journey, making the switch in a random industrial warehouse before making separate ways to Thern’s secret back-up base.

All the while, the single pre-teen boy watched helplessly as the vans wheeled off with his mom and her friend. The fall into the bushes from the floor above hadn’t been pleasant, and it had been fell putting out the fire that had started on his shirtsleeve when his house – his home for all his life – had inexplicably exploded, annihilating all his accumulated possessions and all his memories of his dad.

Wrapping his tattered shirt around the foot-long gash the debris had skimmed out of his other arm, Ryan Lennox began to limp out of the ashes. He heard sirens in the distance and shouts of his neighbors from around the block as they came out of their comfortable homes, perhaps awakening by the sniper shots and definitely yanked from their sleep by the explosion.

The commandos had abducted him the second he had stepped out of his room, clamping a hand over his mouth and placing a pistol muzzle in the small of his back. He could only watch over the (open) panic room’s monitors as the intruders forced him to guide his mom into a trap.

Of course, he hadn’t expected the blue fire. Or the psychic powers. Not once had Ryan ever considered the idea that his mom had superpowers.

A figure stepped confidently into the alleyway in front of Ryan, blocking his path. He was tall, broad-shouldered, mid-fifties. Eyepatch. And he held a pistol.

“Ryan,” he stated quite calmly, in the gravelly voice. “My name is Teague, Colonel Teague. I’m John Baylor’s commander. And, as a matter of national security, you need to come with me if you want to live.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
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Re: STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Sat Jun 26, 2010 2:34 pm

Holy non-linear storyline mang! The plan for this must be crazy complicated.

Oh and Modern Warfare in CSW is basically: John Baylor - The Game? :D


Also i noticed john using the phrase totally awesome, possibly an excessive amount of times.
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Artemis » Sun Jul 11, 2010 2:47 am

I have almost no way of expressing how much fun this was to read - sheer roller coaster from beginning to end. I really like the time-skipping you guys are doing, too! I was worried about it being too confusing, but you're really giving us just enough rope to hang ourselves with - metaphorically speaking :)

I just have one request: More Follow. Seriously. I think I kinda love her.
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Shroom Man 777 » Tue Jul 13, 2010 3:36 pm

God-damn! That was nuts! Teagle, you fucking asshole! Man, what a dick! What a complete prick! Damn! :lol:

That was a damn enjoyable read and, man, I really dig the narrative structure you're using and the quality of writing. It feels less super-hyper-kinetic, but despite the convoluted flashforward/backs, its kind of a bit more comprehensible and the tone and pace has also changed from the previous SHADOW TEMPESTS. Previously, the STs would like punch you in the face with AKSHUN and just KEEP on punching you in the face! But at least with this one, it slows down for more chatty-chatty plotty-plotty clever stuff before exploding into the prescribed doses of Moby-brand AKSHUN! I think this one is the best written piece you've written best so far, Moby. :D

I particularly loved how Teagle went around and acted like a complete ass to those WEU guys, and the sudden revelation of those SIG guys was an unexpected - but brilliant - twist! Good job! :D

Also, somehow, you've sold the CYBORG BAYLOR pretty well. And I found his amnesias totally ridiculous! :lol:

Man, those three ladies who turn out to be agents who end up shooting each other in the faces, that was totally ridiculous. I loved it.

Man, Moby. Goddamn! GODDAMN MOBY!

Please continue.
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Jan 08, 2011 9:09 pm

I'm sorry this took so long to write, but this act basically sets up everything I need for the final two acts to be complete roller-coaster rides of revenge, betrayal, and shit blowing up. Obligatory chapter size note: the document comes in at one hundred and eleven pages. Best take it in chunks.

Act Two

The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

"The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The
hard part is doing it." -Norman Schwarzkopf


Seventeen

Ridley | November 7th, 2014 | One day after World’s End

The storm had not lightened. The British operators cursed in the downpour as they worked to stow away the equipment that had found so much but revealed so little about what had happened on the godforsaken island where over a hundred men had lost their lives.

The examiner’s tent had been the last to be taken down. At the moment, it still stood, close to the collection of bodies being loaded into bags, close to the corpses identified and catalogued.

Inside the tent, three people crowded around a single collapsible table.

“It’s the hair,” said the man, rubbing the bridge of his nose, as though to dispel the headache that was quickly becoming mental as well as situational. “Look at the bloody hair. It’s gone gray. Kroner’s still got brown hair. This sack of meat looks like he’s in his late sixties.”

“Where did you say you found him?” said the first woman. Her black combat gear – not that the British team had encountered any resistance – marked her apart from the harassed-looking bespectacled doctor.

“I didn’t find him. Team Black and Sanderson found him in the rock crevice along the north cliff face. Saw it when they dragged Baylor’s body out of the helicopter,” the doctor explained as she packed up her bags. “Anyway, beyond the immediate cause of death – those twin stab wounds slightly to the left of the heart – there’s not much I can tell you. The hair color’s real and there’s definite signs of degeneration. I’d need further tests, more than we have time for, to tell if the decay’s because of plain-Jane radiation poisoning or something else.”

The man traced the two purple puncture marks on Kroner’s chest. Turning to Mary MacTaggert, Ridley remarked, “Looks like Storm did it, then. Or something wants us to think it. But the blades are on the corpse,” he jerked his head back towards the dock outside, “so yeah, chances are Kroner was gutted by his own lethal weapon.”

“Ironic,” Mary whispered. “Or not. I’m betting Gosely sent him as a laser-guided bullet. That’s why she went dark right before the assault. Hiding from any repercussions.”

“We always forget that everyone’s on their own side,” Ridley sighed. “Have we been able to piece together what happened? We have to have some idea.”

Mary shook her head wearily. “The missile flight pretty much scoured the island. Forensics went to hell in a hand basket, and the cave-in basically stopped us from getting into the labs.”

“That was no cave-in,” Ridley stated boldly, turning away from Kroner’s body. “That’s a self-destruct sequence. Okay. Baylor and the SOLIDSIX task force shows up. Kroner springs a trap, and Baylor’s crew are forced into the labs by whatever Kroner pulls on them. Kroner, not wanting Baylor to see his dirty laundry, decides to blow the labs to flush him out.”

“Wait,” Mary said, holding up a hand. “How do we know which happened first?”

“We last knew Baylor was back in the crater, his last known position when he was confronting Kroner. There’s one blocked off entrance in that crater. We show up, and find the main cast’s bodies near another caved-in outlet. It’s the only legit reason Kroner would blow the labs. So, Baylor’s about to bring Kroner in on cliff, when Storm comes barreling in. Somehow he manages to off Kroner, and sometime almost immediately after that the missiles hit. Kroner’s death took place before the blasts, as he’s not charbroiled. Storm probably tossed the corpse here off the cliff after he did the deed. And somewhere during this conclusion, Butch Baylor’s helo gets shot down when he’s trying to pick up Kroner and Baylor.”

“That’s a hell of a lot of guesswork,” Mary said.

Ridley shifted uncomfortably, but the gesture was barely noticeable. Mary’s eyes narrowed, but she kept silent for a three-count.

After the beats, she asked, “Why the grey hair?”

Ridley finally regarded Kroner’s corpse again. “I get the feeling we start doing any sort of deep forensic analysis on this scene and the corpse and we’re going to get a totally different story. Another gut instinct tells me, by then, it’ll be too late.”

“I hate playing catch-up,” Mary sighed.

Ridley was looking at his PDA. “We aren’t. Butch Baylor just woke up. And he says he remembers. He remembers everything.”

Eighteen

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

I hate people giving the thumbs up when I feel like I failed. Back, right after Chernobyl, when I was doing the tours amongst grieving family members, nobody raged and screamed at me for sending their beloved to their deaths. They just took pity on me. And I hate pity. There’s no point in taking responsibility if nobody wants to accept your mounting of the burden.

This was the case in the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt. The President was in a coma and wasn’t about to wake up for a while. Doctors had done everything they could, even with some pretty risky surgery. But there was a piece of shrapnel in Skye’s brain that was keeping her down, and somewhat paradoxically, it was the only thing keeping her alive. Removing it successfully – successfully being defined by a President who was the same coming out of the incredibly invasive and difficult surgery as she was going in (before the attack) – was a daunting process that was currently stymieing the world’s best medical minds.

And Olivia Young, the Vice President, had just dropped into a live gladiatorial pit. She had been an electoral piece, a running mate designed to make moderate Skye more palatable to the GOP base – as a side effect of her notable brusque, straightforward, and outspoken manner making her several enemies in the Cabinet. Skye had pulled a Lincoln in assembling a team of rivals, taking a page out of Barclay’s book. The problem was, the entire precarious balance depending on Skye’s sheer force of personality. Without it, the terse peace rapidly spun out of control. The Speaker of the House was one of those Tea Party candidates that had been pushed through in the aftermath of Barclay, and was a master of old Clinton-era tactic of just saying no to everything and then banking in on your opponent’s inability to maneuver. Here, the Speaker used it practically blackmail the Vice President into a list of demands in exchange for congressional approval – which was a self-defeating practice anyway, considering how the Cabinet couldn’t really make up its mind on Young either.

All of this was compounding by the punditry and the general masses calling for a swift resolution to the political impasse. After all, the President had nearly been assassinated. By the same sons of the bitches that had been behind the Russian terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. Surely, America should take a page from Russia’s book and hunt down those who were responsible, bring the fight to their front porch? No American citizen wanted to fell like he was threatened on the famously safe contiguous borders of the USA. If there was to be a fight, it had to take place “over there,” at the terrorist’s front door. The problem was, America technically didn’t have a leader legally capable of pursuing any such action. It was a waiting game. The gridlock would have to resolve itself – either through a political deal on Young’s part or Skye getting somehow better.

I had the nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach that MIDNIGHT was going to take a third option: up the stakes. I was, by now, firmly convinced they had been behind the attack. Well, somehow. Okay, my belief was not ironclad, but I certainly had my suspicions. The ambiguity was too thick for me to resolve as of this moment. I needed more. Something to happen. More than anything, I wanted answers.

This tied back into my guilt about Skye’s condition. I hadn’t been there in time to save her. I had wasted time with the INTEGRAL TEMPEST. Instead, I could have gone through the normals – I now knew I could carve through them like butter – grabbed the POTUS, and sped away instead of letting the street turn into a warzone. Wrong decisions, on my head. And now, after seeing the mess this had all caused, I was actually wanting more. MIDNIGHT or the terrorists or whoever making another move would mean more deaths, more suffering. But I wanted answers, because right now, there were none to be gleamed. I was like a detective, following a serial killer, but for me to find him, he had to murder again. Because I knew this wasn’t over, not at all.

I didn’t have anything substantial to go on MIDNIGHT, so I was projecting it into every corner. Conspiracies. Maybe al-Hassan had just liquefied the other cells so as to get at the INTEGRAL TEMPEST and at Skye. And there I was again, thinking that the attack tied into some grand scheme.

And then, above it all, were the people telling me that there was nothing I could have done.

The first and worst was Gold. He made a point of finding out the history of everything, and he had studied mine. He knew about my guilt complex, and had immediately sought to head it off after the firefight. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Look, boss, if we hadn’t been there, Skye would be dead. End of story.”

But neither of us wanted to point out that Skye’s death would have meant that Young would have been assured an appointment, and none of the crippling quagmire would have been seeping through the capital right now. Now, all we could do was sit back and endlessly review what we already knew.

Then came Colonel Easly. We met him at the UN in the wake of the attacks, being bandaged up by a pair of medics. This, of course, was several hours into the affair, meaning Easly had been one of the very last, if not the last persons to be treated. He had predicted the resulting political shitstorm that would happen in Congress the next day, laid it all up at the medic treated a burn on his left arm. Easly always did have an eye for politics. Fender liked prowling the internet, I liked video games, Easly liked wasting endless hours with CNN and MSNBC and Fox News on in the background as he perused intelligence feeds. It was reflective of his removal from field work to an intelligence desk job, the pressing need to constantly be informed. I imagined the constant goose chase of the past three years had really played hell with him.

Easly looked me sternly in the eye and told me, quite clearly, that if I hadn’t removed the INTEGRAL TEMPEST from the fight, it would killed or gotten away with Skye within seconds. It wasn’t so much as a justification as an order to get over whatever I was struggling with in the pit of my stomach. So, with the clinical detachment I had fostered ever since Officer School, I took my guilt and snapped its neck.

Taking a deep breath, I took a three-count and looked back up. I asked the question on everybody’s mind: “What now?”

“We wait,” Easly said. “Forensics needs to take a look at the bodies. We need to check if we’re dealing with doubles or imposters. We triple security everywhere. We keep Young under lock and key. And we visit both Gosely and Farley, first thing tomorrow morning. Either they’ve been locked out and, in Farley’s case, need extraction to a safehouse, or are lying to us. Ridley and I can have a chat with Chandra. He ‘loves’ those visits.”

Gold snorted into his coffee as another medic bandaged the gash al-Hassan had opened above his brow.

Easly met my eyes with his own pilot’s gaze. It was something he had to have mastered with subordinates, being an O-5, but it was made seriously more creepy by the red terminator eye glowing out from one of the sockets. “I know your troops are winded, John. But we need feet on the ground tomorrow, and I’m drawing down the circle to trust to practically zero. Skye’s attack had the prints of an inside job over it, even if not through direct personnel.”

“But you have another reason,” I guessed.

Shrugging into a heavy coat as the paramedic finished with him, Easly stood. “With Skye gone and Young in limbo, I don’t think I can describe how dangerous things just became for you. Skye was literally your guardian angel in international circles. Without executive privilege keeping you in a deep black pocket, you’re practically open season for all the dozens of hits called out on you after the business in Russia. You won’t be able to walk down the street without someone putting a bullet in your head.”

Grabbing a tablet computer from his attaché case, Easly logged in and handed it to me. “Farley’s estate is out of the way. Anyone out there that’s not Farley is not on our side. Simplifies things. Everything you need to know is on the tablet. Look, take a two-man team, pick Farley up, and we’ll have what we need to nail these sunsabitches when you get back. Happy hunting.”

With that, he disappeared up a flight of stairs.

Gold turned to me. “Did he just tell us to get lost?”

“No,” I said, reorienting the tablet in my hands and gazing down at it. “He gave us a solid lead and also keeps us out of true harm’s way. That’s not lost. That’s direction.”

Eighteen

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Thirteen hours later, a pair of helicopters banked dangerously low above my head, shaking loose a set of branches and dumping a clump of snow onto my back. A shower, fresh meal, and a deep sleep on the flight up to Grand Forks later; it didn’t really bother me as much as it could have. Not the snow, at least.

The helicopters were a cause for concern. They were leaving, but I knew from the balaclava-wearing man I held in my sights on the bridge below that the choppers had disgorged a squad of winter-geared soldiers into the pass.

My bet: mercenaries. No IFF beacon, nonstandard weapons. As I watched silently through the scope of my silenced M4, a pair of more mercs made their way across the bridge, exchanging words with the lone guard on the bridge’s left end. I saw a Kalashnikov, a FAL, a SPAS-12. Definitely mercs.

After finishing a brisk conversation, the mercs moved on, past the guard and up the winding cliffside road to the top of the mountain and Farley’s well-hidden estate. From the relaxed behavior of the men, it looked like they had just set up shop while their superiors supervised whatever was going down up at the house.

After the pair was out of sight, I nodded to Corporal Li, who was by my side, staring down the scope of his own carbine. “Alright, take him.”

Hint: silencers aren’t particularly silent. It’s not a polite coughing sound – it’s actually quite loud. At least, for me and Li. The guard obviously didn’t have time to care, as the round took him the neck with a hazy burst of red mist. Nobody but us saw the corpse wobbled, hit against the side railing behind him, overbalance, and pitch over it to fall into the ravine below.

“Let’s go,” I breathed, and we both pushed ourselves off the snowy hillside, intent upon making our way down the slope and toward the east end of the bridge.

Li and I had been dropped off by one of those generic government wondervans by Fender and Zelie some six miles back, and we had hiked through the woods – making good time despite the recent blanketing of snow – approaching General Chaos Farley’s mountainside estate. Nobody had squawked when Easly had buzzed the retired general’s home early this morning, so I had made the call for a stealth insertion. Li, one of PALE HORSE’s two snipers, accompanied me, while Zelie and Fender operated as mission handlers.

The rest of PALE HORSE was in Cuba, led by Gold. It had been a quick jaunt to act as back-up squad to Ridley’s SAS team as the MI6 SOE director made contact with WRAITH’s de facto leader. I had my own squad, led by O’Brien, waiting back with a helicopter if anything went south at the northern estate.

It seemed odd that we were both leading missions to contact people who, half a decade ago, I would not have hesitated to put a bullet into. I had been bit too many times to put much faith in the maxim of “the enemy of my enemy,” but Ridley and Samantha Savage, the boss of NTET, did, so here we are. Farley had been some sort of operational chief with MIDNIGHT before Sechalin’s uprising, but had panicked when a Reaper squad under his command had turned traitor and stolen a SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK model for Kroner.

The whole thing was, in my opinion, a really good aesop in the power of trust, but in the end, MIDNIGHT hadn’t like Farley’s handling of the affair. It had turned out Farley had tried to break off MIDNIGHT’s traditional “leave me alone and I give you cool stuff to test for us” agreement with WRAITH, and nobody liked that Farley had gone into hiding, defecting to the “good side.” Or at least the side I was on. He had promised tons of good leads, and he had provided during the first year, but eventually MIDNIGHT chased down all of those connected to Farley and the general’s immediate advice turned useless. Still, he was an excellent expert on both MIDNIGHT and WRAITH’s style, and had helped us bust a number of midlevel cells. I wondered, idly, if the umbrella of protection Skye had represented for me also extended to Farley – that is, the implications of him being attacked a mere day after Skye’s botched assassination were terrifying for me.

Chandra Gosely was a far more repulsive case for me. She was sorta like Darth Vader to Kroner. Second in command, looking to overthrow her master, and infinitely more likeable (granted, this was due to Kroner trying to kill me in person, which can color a man’s opinion of another). But I knew different. Gosely was behind just as many terrorist jobs as Kroner. She had been behind whatever experiments had created Ryuhei Akamatsu, and I really didn’t like the ease at which someone could rob another’s free will and identity. Worst of all, Gosely had come to us after Kroner had been physically forced into hiding after Chernobyl. She had offered a peace arrangement with the US government in exchange for our assistance in tracking down Kroner and finishing him. We were to be her tools.

And, to be honest, it sounded a bit like MIDNIGHT’s old agreement with Kroner. Except that I was now the tool, instead of WRAITH. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world, in shades of grey.

Li and I ran across the bridge, sprinting around a wide bend of open road. Following the map I had projected on my retinas, we finally cut right into the wood as we came to small bridge, this one crossing a modest creek as opposed to a gash of a ravine. The two mercs from earlier had paused to enjoy a smoke.

“I’ve got left, the one with that canuck flap hat,” Li stated tonelessly. We both lowered our eyes to our scopes.

Canuck hat fell in another puff of red. Balaclava, to the right, looked down at the dead body for maybe a quarter of a second, before I fired and caught him in the jaw.

We bypassed the bridge entirely, skipped over the creek, and climbed up a precarious slope to a minor bluff overlooking the grounds of Farley’s estate. We knew where the sensors were and had the proper US countersigns to subvert them. Even still, Fender had outfitted us with a pair of experimental one-man ECM buckles that, in theory, should make us invisible to electronic detection. All they required were someone back at base to monitor our signals and take a direct hand if any additional subversion was needed. They were hella expensive though, and nobody had the money for entire squad’s worth. Just the pair, this time.

I saw, ahead of us, a modest LL Bean/Eddie Bauer style cabin, expansive without being ridiculous, the sort of stone and wood exterior with a wraparound porch that appealed directly to my tastes. A trio of garages/micro-hangars was off to one side, closer to us than the house. I saw two pair of patrolling guards, but their patterns would be easy enough to subvert.

“Stay close,” I said, standing, and sprinting towards the nearest hangar. One of the merc pairs rounded a corner in front of us, retreating unknowingly from sight, and we followed down the length of corrugated wall, using the tactical mirror (insert “mirror-on-a-stick sounding stupid” joke here) to check them rounding another corner before crossing the gap between hangars. Through the gap, we could see the back of a guard who was keeping eye on the impressive expanse to the north. We passed, him none-the-wiser. As we ran, I kept a running eye on the interior of the hangar with a thermal ocular I had pulled down over one eye. Dangling from my bandana, it let me know the garages were empty, devoid of life signs, living or dead.

Avoiding the second set of mercs, we reached a back door of the house, leading down to a basement. After getting the green light from Fender that we were clear, we slipped silently into the house. Taking a look around, I saw a guard hunched in a parked van – the basement must connect to a lower-level garage entrance (god, another). He was apparently typing on a computer, from what light I could see and shapes I could make out.

Pushing my M4 back on its straps, I drew my Five-seveN sidearm and crossed silently to the van’s driver-side window. The merc, behind a pair of sunglasses, didn’t notice me. Rolling my eyes, I smashed the window, shoved my pistol inside, and pumped two rounds into his chest. He jerked, glasses askew, and went still. Reaching through the shattered window with my other hand, I snatched up the laptop, slapped one of Fender’s mobile USB hacking ports into the computer to keep it from locking up, closed it, and shoved it into my backpack.

“Boss,” Fender said over the comm, “That comp just let us track merc comm nets. There’s definitely increased chatter from what the passive sensor could pick up. Haven’t cracked the encryption yet, though. Request aerial recon?”

“Yes, immediately,” I intoned.

“Copy that,” Fender responded. “UAV online in fifteen seconds.”

I paused, just as I heard another set – no, two sets – of footsteps heading down the stairs into the basement. I nodded to Li, who ghosted behind the van, I following from the other side.

Two more guards were at the bottom of the stairs, guns held loosely in their grips. They probably had heard the shattering, but didn’t think it an intrusion. Even as they rotated, surveying the dim basement, Li dropped down behind the left most guard, pistol out as well. Jerking him around to face his fellow and jamming the pistol in his captive’s side, Li put a trio of muffled shots into his target’s back, two of which exploded through the Kevlar vest. Obviously not meant to stop projectiles at point-blank range, the vest didn’t stop the bullets from catching the other merc in the chest, dropping him.

Li let the first corpse drop and shot the second in the face before in even reached the floor.

“Good work,” I nodded, just as the UAV came online. I saw a fuzzy, black-and-white version of the estate and surrounding countryside. And, there, outlined in a thick red line, was a large van pulling up to the front porch of the house.

“Heads up,” Fender said, just at the screen appeared in my vision. “White van outside. Increased personnel on scene. Weapons visible.”

I sighed. “We’re Oscar Mike to the main floor right now. If they’re here for Farley, we’re likely to begin an engagement.”

“Roger that, PALE HORSE One,” Zelie said. “Stay frosty, good hunting.”

The UAV passed by, just as I saw a trio of men explode from its rear, guns up, and patter up the front steps into the house. Correspondingly, I heard the doors bang up above. A second later, the UAV feed flew out of alignment.

“Alright,” I said to Li. “Three guaranteed hostiles up above, plus however many guards there were beforehand. Rifles ready.”

Carbines back in hand, we stepped over the bodies of the mercs at our feet and clambered up the stairs.

There were scuffling sounds from down the hall, and the patter of feet, retreating again. A moment later, I heard the van doors slam and the peel of tires of snow.

What the… “Base, track that van,” I said into the comm.

“It’ll take a while for the UAV to circle ‘round, but we copy,” Zelie responded, voice hushed in static.

Another check of the mirror showed the cavernous den of the lodge to be devoid of human presence. Sweeping around the corner, we surveyed the empty room.

“Shit…” I said.

Li brushed past the empty folding metal chair, on which ripped duct tape still hung, and checked the vitals of the two motionless guards sprawled on either side of the chair. One was draped over a sofa, blood staining the white fabric. Looking up, he shook his head at me.

“Base, we’ve got a problem…” I keyed the comm. “We’ve got two dead mercs and a missing target. The people in the van, whoever they were, got to Farley first.”

“Looks like this crew,” Li jerked his head at the corpses, “were torturing Farley first. Check the dried blood on the chair and the floor. Older than the fresh stuff from the meatbags.”

“Copy,” said Zelie. “Third party involvement?”

“Yeah,” I breathed. “Think the area is compromised.”

“Roger,” Fender said. “Best RTB, boss. We’ll track down that van.”

“C’mon,” I said to Li. “Let’s get out of here.”

Nineteen

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Checking to see the front porch was clear, we emerged from the house and began to trot silently behind the manicured, snow-blanketed bushes back towards the hangars.

My thermal sight caught the two figures emerging from the very end of the collection of garages a mere half-second before they appeared.

“Time to go,” I said, and I fled in the opposite direction with Li close behind. The guards gave a shot and chose to pursue us – we were already around a corner and their exotic-looking weapons probably wouldn’t have hit us at that distance in that short a window anyway.

Diving into the tree line on the opposite side of the clearing, I barely had time to alert Zelie that we were heading to the secondary LZ when the ground dropped out from underneath me. Goddamn hill. Li and I both plunged down a steep slope, rolling to avoid trees and a dozen broken bones. The world passed by in a blur of sky/snow/sky/snow before we both slammed into a small heap of snow, which preceded another, larger roll in the hill.

Gasping, we both hauled ourselves over the bluff and settled down into firing positions as we heard mercs shouting and working their way down the hill with considerable more caution.

Li popped up, a burst dropping the foremost merc as he melted from tree to tree, dropping the body with a shout.

The two mercs immediately fell back, and we took the opportunity to fall back further into the forest. Bullets chased our heels, but the mercs were firing blind. We pulled behind another pair of trees, did a two-count, and then both hauled ourselves around to take aim.

As if in concert, the men gave shouts, but one had been in the middle of climbing over a log. Naturally, I shot the merc behind him who actually had his SMG ready, while Li casually put a single round into the other’s neck.

“Base,” I called into my radio. “Primary LZ is compromised. We’re heading to the secondary rendezvous, copy?”

“Got that, boss,” Zelie responded. “Rerouting Liquid.”

Li and I fell into an easy trot as we both worked our way down parallel a ravine that led out from the estate. One side of the rift shot higher than the other, a good fifty feet of exposed, moss-covered stone. We kept our distance from the gap, but knew the feature would lead us to the frozen lake a klick away.

Not five minutes later, Li came to a halt, as though he were a dog with his ears pricking up. And then he shoved me aside. “Sniper!” he shouted, just as the tree to my right exploded. I gave a yelp, covering my face from the worst of the flying splinters with one arm, and then was running, diagonally away from the ravine, where the sniper was most likely crouched above.

A round hit a bank of snow to my left, detonating it in a fountain of white that seemed at home with bombs hitting the ocean and producing fifty-foot geysers than in icy Minnesota. Christ, what was this guy using, a .50 cal?

“Shit,” I said, breathing lightly as I sprinted. “Ravine?”

“Yeah,” Li confirmed. “Looks like he’s ahead of us. We need to work around him.”

We both dived behind a positively massive fallen trunk of a log and balled into cover. I saw, there, only a hundred feet away, the forest thinned almost instantly, opening up to the icy expanse of the LZ, the frozen lake.

I heard shouts coming from behind us. Li peered under the log with a tactical mirror and hissed. “Two more coming up on our left.”

Patting his shoulder, I sat up and got my legs underneath me. “Lay down some suppression. I’ll flank ‘em.”

“What about the sniper?”

I grinned. “What about him?”

Li rolled his eyes and let loose a ripping barrage that was meant to frighten more than anything else. I saw two forms dive into cover. From there, Li switched to timed, single shots, forcing one merc back as a round careened off a rock an inch from his head. At the same time, I saw the other merc break off, heading east, probably working the same plan I was.

We both ran, and I covered twice the ground the enemy soldier did by dropping my rifle and letting it hang loosely from around my neck.

Li went dry and pulled out his sidearm before his opponent could think about moving into the open or even returning fire. Shots echoed behind me, and then another roar came in – but I was already throwing myself aside as another tree exploded behind me.

The merc dived out of the forest, rifle up – right in front of me.

I smiled at him, took two shuffling steps forward before I could open fire, and smacked his FAL out of the way. My other hand grabbed him by the collar and we both spun in an insane pirouette, me tossing the merc back the way I had come while I dived off to the side.

The sniper fired once more, the merc’s arm was blown off above the elbow. I came up and rolled into the forest as a follow-up shot sent gallons of snow up and back down in a localized blizzard.

About two hundred feet away, I saw Li run dry with his sidearm. His opposite number heard the click of the empty chamber and decided it was time to press his advantage.

I drew my own sidearm and began sprinting towards the exposed merc. The first shot flew through a snow-covered branch to his left, causing him to flinch noticeably as the snow cut into his vision. The second shot careened the side of his vest armor, letting him know his window had just closed. With a curse, the merc turned and began to retreat, letting my third shot fly past harmlessly in his wake.

I leapt over Li’s tree trunk and settled in a couple feet away, digging out my canteen. Li leaned out from the side of the trunk unexposed to the sniper and took deep, calming breaths as we tracked the fleeing mercenary with his carbine. One-count. Two-count. Li fired. A yelp. A thump. And then nothing.

You know the saying – you’ll only just die tired.

Radio time. “Fender, what’s the news on that van?”

“We managed to pass the Predator overwatch to a geosynched sat. It looks like it’s heading to a warehouse to do a switchover. Odds are we’ll lose him there.”

“Great,” I hissed. “Anyway, about that Predator? I need you to drop some coordinates for me.”

Li had dug out the map in between munching on a handful of snow. “Seventeen-Forty-two-Thirty-eight, boss.”

“Right, 17-42-38. Copy, base?”

“Gotcha, PALE HORSE Lead. Base out.”

Not a minute later I caught sight of a black fleck cruising high above, marked against the clear blue sky. A tiny star detached itself from the Predator drone and came arcing down to the Earth, striking somewhere behind us, deep in the forest. The dank, dark wood momentarily flashed clear as though it were blanketed in spotlights, with the sonic shockwave catching up just moments later, wiping clean all sensation.

“Looks like a kill on the IR scope,” Fender reported. “Bagged and tagged, boss. Liquid should be there in three.”

“Copy, base.”

And then the Predator was blown out of the sky.

Twenty

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

I saw the starburst just after it had formed, a blossoming fireball with bits of black wreckage tracing downward from it. An exhaust trail led to a hover, high-flying helicopter, simply sitting there like a demonic wasp, nose pointed down. A number of huge pods were mounted under each stubby wing, way too huge to be simply missiles.

And then the helicopter let one of the pods drop, like an enormous gravity bomb. My cybernetics traced the path of the bomb – it would land a good hundred feet into the forest. The helicopter was already departing, so I made up my mind – I’d rather get cut down fleeing across the lake then blown up in the forest.

Not a heartbeat later, with the bomb poised right above the tips of the trees, the casing of the oblong projectile split apart, flowering open and letting a dark, lithe, and monstrous shape drop into the treetops.

I spun on a heel, aborting my sprint as soon as it had started, sighting down my scope so as to get a closer look at whatever beast- Christ, airdropped things – had just made itself at home in the trees.

The adrenaline, somehow lacking in my previous engagements, flooded into my system. It didn’t so much slow down time as it allowed me to get just a lot more thinking down. A lot more observing.

And so I took in the abomination that my eyes beheld.

It was vaguely humanoid, the same way a tyrannosaur is vaguely birdlike. Huge, powerful, reverse-jointed legs led up to what was clearly once a human pelvis and torso. One pair of long – easily longer than the legs – arms sprouted from where normal arms would be, tipped in five terribly scything claws, already freckled with gore and blood. Another set of arms protruded sinisterly from the creature’s ribcage, tipped with yard-long serrated claws that looked more at home on a praying mantis.

The head still had a shock of greasy, long black hair on it, but the eyes were now milky yet still aware, while the red-drenched mouth was split at the chin into a pair of vicious jaws that left trails of slime and saliva dropping onto the ground far below. It was like equal parts Zerg, Tyrannid, Resident Evil and every godforsaken nightmare I had had since the monsters had come out of the monolith five or six years ago on godforsaken plateau in Eastern Europe.

But it was different than the mutants I had seen in the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Chad or the forgotten servants of whatever lovecraftian old ones had once haunted the world. It had been manufactured.

And that gave me pause. Obviously, claws and jaws ranked a bit lower than guns and bombs on the I will fuck you up scale, but if the thing was fast enough, deadly enough, and resilient enough it didn’t need to be. Mass-produced and employed in the right conditions, it might just be the perfect weapon. It might even serve some greater purpose, since this clearly wasn’t a final model. Maybe this was just like the Paragon all those years ago and I was once again to be a test subject of a new weapons technology. Hell, Carson had all but told me once upon a time that the Paragon had originally worked with biological and chemical weapons in the past.

Such macro-scale beasts such as the one ahead of me were a tad removed from VX nerve gas or engineered anthrax, but I wouldn’t be too removed from supposing someone had mixed the monolith mutants with the Paragon-branded Romero Virus – yeah, you heard me. A Romero Virus existed, though it was mostly confined to people who forgot that zombies were ass-end retarded.

Or, of course, it could just be some crazy version who didn’t like guns. Cults weren’t exactly known for their cognitive faculties. On the other hand, the timing was too perfect. I could except two groups converging on Farley’s base before we got to him, but a third showing up from the side? The implications were chilling. Maybe I really was this exposed without Helen Skye to protect me from my own stable of assassins.

More than anything else, this abomination hybrid clued me in to the fact that I had stumbled upon a much greater game than just MIDNIGHT playing for a coup.

I brought my mind hurtling back from the realm of theory to that of cold reality, and let rip with my M4. The bullets caught the beast across the face – and it didn’t so much as flinch. An alien hand flicked, and a sizzling arc of green filled my scope. I jerked my rifle down in time to see the glob of sizzling bodily acid hurtle through entire trees and fly towards me.

Without even speaking, I hauled Li to his feet - his mind was just now taking in the destruction of the Predator – and began to run across the lake. The blob of acid hit the snow behind me, and made a sound like a thousand sizzling soda bottles, all shook up, being opened at once.

“What the shit!” Li shouted.

“No time,” I growled. “’Member the Chad mutants? It’s cousin is in the forest and coming to kill us. I’d rather take in on open ground than cramped corners where the bitch can hop around like an evil treefrog.”

A demonic yowl pitched out behind me as though several voices were screaming at once. I spun my head to see the creature moving faster than any land animal possibly could across the open ice, motions reminiscent of a hyper-lean cheetah as it closed in on us.

“Go!” I shouted to Li. “Get to the chopper! I’ll hold it here!”

LI gave me a nod and began to sprint in earnest.

I turned back to the hybrid and unlimbered my other weapon, one I hadn’t needed to use against the mercs due to devastating overkill.

It was a China Lake Grenade Launcher – a pump action version of that famous M79 wielded during ‘Nam and in Terminator 2. Mine mounted picatinny rails to run a laser sight and a scope, which I sighted down at the oncoming abomination.

I fired, and the 40x46mm grenade streaked outward with an audible bloomp.

At the last second, or even beforehand – firearms are like that – the abomination hybrid saw the attack coming and juked left just as the grenade struck the ice in an explosion of water that would have put the late sniper’s .50 cal to shame.

Without taking my eyes from the scope, I adjusted and pumped the action of the launcher as the hybrid reached lethal distance. It flashed a hand just as I fired, and a trio of foot-long spines from the thing’s forearm launched themselves at me, tipped with what I was sure was deadly poison. I dived and fired at the same time, the shell exploding right underneath the hybrid just as it launched itself into the air.

As the spines flew past my head and impacted the ice behind me with deadly thump-thump-thumps , I rolled onto my back, shucking the action again and taking aim at the airborne abomination. After all, once in flight, it was just mass plus acceleration – or so I thought.

I spun towards me in midair, contorted with liquid grace, its mouth gurgling that deadly acid and its two non-mantis arms flying backwards, readying another barrage of poisonous spines.

Like I was going to allow it to get another shot. The grenade caught it right in its exposed belly, a flash of HE fire and smoke and sound that sent the creature flying backwards with a yelp. I smiled thinly – after all the INTEGRAL TEMPESTS that found it a personal mission to seek me out, I decided last night it was time to carry a little piece for close encounters in the future.

The creature hit the ground. Whole. Smoking, yes, on fire, yes. But thoroughly alive and really pissed off. Its eyes burned with spite and pure malice as it got my gaze for maybe two heartbeats – and then spun and raced off.

It had cleared me entirely. And it was racing towards Li. The son of a bitch knew Li wouldn’t stand in a fight with the hybrid and decided to burden me with having to protect my partner at the same time with fighting it.

“Watch out!” I shouted to Li.

But Li already knew the abomination hybrid was on its way. Turning in place, planting his feet, he aimed at the creature for a whole second, actually taking time to steady his shaking arms and enact some honest-to-god fire discipline.

The abomination leapt into the air, spines flying.

And then Li fired a M203 grenade into the creature’s face. He had timed it right. The creature hit the snow as a flaming ball of angry beast, but Li dodged the clumsy landing.

He made a pained face and looked down at his ribs. A spine had grazed his side, cutting through the lining of his parka and opening a light but long gash on his skin. The wound already bubbled with something purple that made the veins in the area stand out in stark relief. Oh shit.

The abomination gave another modulated howl began me, and leapt at my back.

I didn’t have time to get my China Lake Launcher into play. All I could do was fall backwards onto my back and launched my feet straight outwards in a cannon shot, catching the hybrid in the belly.

Time froze as he hung there, with blood and saliva and gore dripping from its mouth onto my face. Where it touched, my skin instantly went numb. The two preying-mantis superclaw arms came rushing down at me, trying to stick me from either side in a skewering embrace.

But then inertia caught up with us and the momentum of the creature combine with the launching pivot of my legs sent the abomination flying past overhead. It contorted, once more silver-fast, in midair and landed in a crouch facing me. Acid came flying towards me in a choking motion, but I dived aside, pulling Li with me. My trailing M4 caught the very edge of the acid and erupted into green fire as the acid-esque concoction reacted with the metal, instantly disabling my rifle. Bitch.

Charging once more, the abomination came forward, head low, jaws wide.

I brought up my China Lake Launcher and fired the last round.

At the ice in front of the hybrid. It didn’t have time to dodge, and ran straight into the geyser of ice and water, its front limbs plunging into the ice-cold lake with a corresponding yowl of absolute agony.

Clearly, this creature really, really didn’t like the cold. I could blame him, after all.

The roar of a helicopter’s blades caught up to my ringing eardrums, and I spun, thinking the enemy helicopter had showed up to finish the job. I spun – to see the Super Osprey tiltrotor sweep in low over the forest.

My brother had arrived.

Butch gave me a nod, surveyed the pockmarked white surface of the lake, hazed over with ice dust and gunsmoke, before swinging the Super Osprey around, presenting the rear hatch of the craft to face me. Sergeant O’Brien operated the .50cal M2 mounted on the loading ramp, his steely gaze and gunsights aimed at the hole into which the abomination had simply disappeared. Butch’s right-hand-man, a crew chief named Oregon, waved us on board, calling us forward. His own gun, a simple sidearm, was aimed at the pit. The contrast between the two weapons was such that I snorted, falling short, before I remembered the downed hybrid and pulled Li over one shoulder.

And then I leapt six feet up into the waiting and lowered ramp of the tiltrotor.

Dropping Li carefully into a cargo seat, I gazed down on the smoking crater in the ice. But nothing surfaced. The water was still. I had played enough ball to know a corpse was always preferable to anything else, but it wasn’t like I could blast out the entire lake to take a closer look. I made the choice to get away while I was still alive.

“C’mon,” I said to Oregon. “Let’s get out of here.”

Nothing emerged from the hole. I kept watch on it until the lake melted away into snow-topped forest.

Twenty-One

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

“Good news or bad,” Easly said to me as we both sat down, on opposite sides of his desk.

I held an icepack to my face and sighed. “Good. If I get any more bad news without counterbalance my head just might explode.”

Easly smiled faintly and opened the manila folder on his desk. “We have a working picture of what went down at the estate. Ridley made successful contact with Gosely and managed to get a partial picture of what’s happening to Farley.”

“Oh?” I asked, cocking the eyebrow that wasn’t under a ton of ice. “Gosh, for a second, my brain almost overloaded on the mere idea of having a working picture of what’s going on.”

Easly gave me his best scowl. “I warned you that, without the benefit of Skye’s connection and protection, every assassin in the world would be coming for those people involve in the Soviet coup. Same goes for Farley.”

I leaned as far back as possible, trying to get as comfortable in the cheap UN chair as I could. “Just out of curiosity, who is after me, him, er, us?”

Easly glanced down the file. “Well, there are about three different contracts on you alone from the Separatist remnants. One wants you alive, one wants you dead, and once just calls for your tongue.”

“The tongue one would be Sechalin’s wife,” I mused. “Ran into her last year. Couldn’t wait for me to shut up.”

“I wonder what that would be like,” Easly said dryly, flipping a page. “A few from WRAITH proxies-”

I pursed my lips. “But I thought Gosely had called off the attack dogs?”

“Gosely, yes, Kroner, no. He still has enough weight to call some shots from the shadows. The Southeast Asian drug cartels, for one, somehow miraculously put aside all their competing claims to call out a hit on you.”

“I’m pretty sure that was because of TWIN SNAKES, not because Kroner owns them,” I countered.

“Different cartel syndicate, John. The triad-backed one has a completely different, far more lucrative contract on your life.”

“Suuuper.”

Easly’s smile finally touched his eyes. Well, at least the non-robotic one. “You’ve made so many friends. We’ve got some random cult groups and shadowy NGOs, like the Acheron Foundation, the Monolith Brotherhood, and some voodoo cartel from the Caribbean. Honestly, I thought Ruz and the Cubans had taken care of those guys…”

“Monolith cult I get,” I said, ticking off my fingers. “We ran into them in Central Europe. The voodoo cartel is a long story that actually happened on my one vacation in the last two years. I’m betting there are also those Filipino pirates, the South Asian cartels, that Tasmanian DA, and the entire nation of North Korea.” Easly nodded as we checked those names off the report. “But the Acheron Foundation? Never heard of them.”

Easly shrugged. “Could be a Kroner-backed group. Could be another end-of-days group. They honestly haven’t done much beyond buy Apple computers and put out a contract. Those fiends.” He sighed. “I forwarded a set of dossiers on the major mercenaries and assassins known to have taken your contract. Review them later.”

“Anyway,” I said. “Good news. More of it.”

“Ah, yes,” Easly said, flipping another page. “We know Farley is alive. We know where and why he was taken. We know where and how we can get him back.”

“You’re shitting me.”

Easly spread his hand expansively. “I’m not. Have you ever heard of the Exchange?”

I paused for a second, digging deep in my memory. “But I thought Clinton made a point of shutting it down in the 90s, in the aftermath of the Gosely scandal?”

“You can’t really stamp out the Exchange. There’s always a market for neutral ground under one form or another. I believe it operates as an auction these days. Except the things for sale are truly unlimited. Drugs. Weapons. Nuclear materials and bioweapons. Information. Hell, nations.”

“And people,” I guessed.

“And people,” Easly agreed. “Someone hired the exchange to pick up Farley. It’s an odd way to take out an enemy, but when you have that many people who want to kill him, I bet the person behind it all thought it’d be a laugh to turn a profit while he did it.”

“But who seriously expects anyone to play fair when it comes to this stuff?” I asked, bemused.

Easly shrugged again. “There was a real push to establish honest, neutral ground for the international underworld. After Sechalin’s dealings with Kroner, Farley, and MIDNIGHT, all sorts of betrayals were handed out left and right. It was a huge shake-up of the normal world of WRAITH business, which prided itself on the strength of Kroner’s word. It helped distinguish him from the herd. But with deals being cut across and into right and left, some of the major powers – the cartels, the myriad terrorist organizations, and the like – pooled their power to recreate the Exchange. Someplace free of the usual double-dealing.”

“And, to a lot of those people, Farley represents the end of the old trust, when he took MIDNIGHT’s authority onto his shoulders and betrayed Kroner. It kicked the whole coup off to begin with. Hell, a lot of people would want Farley dead, not just MIDNIGHT or the Kroner subsidiaries.” I mused on that, rubbing my fourteen-o’clock shadow. “But what about the regular mercs? And the goddamn abomination?”

“Honestly, they were probably simple interests carrying out attacks on you and Farley. The mercenary organization we traced back to Southern Cal. But given that evidence suggests they were torturing Farley before the heavy hitters grabbed the general and popped two of the regulars suggests they weren’t simple distractions hired by the Exchange. The hybrid creature you described is a bit more troubling, but not too far out of the bounds of someone hearing about your involvement in the scene and jumping in to try and punch your ticket. Just opportunism, son.”

I nodded to myself. Easly seemed to take most things in stride. Losing his eye? Oh well. Someone tried to bomb him last night? Life goes on. A giant seven-foot-tall monster tries to eat a subordinate? Make sure you aren’t infected with anything and we’ll track down the leads. “So you think someone’s going to sell Farley at a meeting of the Exchange sometime soon?” I asked the Colonel.

“Not just soon. Tonight. And we’re going to recover him.”

“There’s no way we could just walk into a certified den of scum and villainy.”

Easly held up a finger in a fencer’s riposte. “Not scum. Erudite villainy. A tad different than the average thug.” He began typing something on his computer. “Chandra Gosely agreed to send you and a team under her protection.”

“What, wait, what? And we’re going to trust her?”

Easly regarded me steadily. “It’s not like countries as a whole don’t send representatives to the Exchange to conduct deals, Major. We have a legitimate interest in recovering Farley.”

“And we’re actually going to pay for his release? What’s to prevent someone from popping caps at us if they don’t like the fact that won back Farley? To say nothing of the money we’re spending going straight into the hands of criminals.”

“As opposed to what, John? You want to walk into a foundation built on trust and blow it all to hell? You’d make enemies of everyone on the premises, including certain entire governments.”

“We just leave Farley to rot. He’s an empty resource, and has been one since about last year. And, by the way, Colonel, it’s not like I suddenly have a lack of enemies.”

Easly’s expression continued grew more severe. “But your unit? Their families? The entire US government, in the time it could least afford it? Let me spell it out for you, Baylor. Gosely stated, quite clearly, that she won’t continue to play game with us if we don’t get Farley back. She’s going to bankroll the purchase of Farley’s freedom. But her condition was that at least you and Ridley conduct the trade.”

That shut me up damn quick. “Wait.” I paused. “She actually wants me on a mission? I thought Gosely was more on… Ridley’s side of things, Colonel.”

“She wished to point out that, ever since you set free her own cyborg metahuman assassin, she’s been out of a personal knight. I suppose she thought it some irony that you served as Ryuhei Akamatsu’s replacement in the field, at least this one time.”

“That’s a tad twisted, ya think?” I paused, yet again. “And wait. Again. Does this mean you guys really are expecting trouble? Ridley can handle the high society, so I’m on as a heavy hitter backup, right? You’re expecting someone to send beyond-baselines at us.”

Easly meshed his fingers into a steeple and leveled his gaze over the touching fingertips. “You’re the Boy Scout, Baylor – Be Prepared.”

The meeting, I sensed, was over. There’d most likely be a briefing for the Exchange op later on in the afternoon, but I knew I had a couple hours to get myself into gear and to make sure PALE HORSE would be taken care of in my absence.

I made to stand, and then stopped. “Sir, how’s Corporal Li doing?”

The Colonel’s features softened immediately. “In intensive care, but his prognosis is good. That poison nearly shut down his nervous system – it was some sort of paralytic agent – but the doctors managed to flush it out beforehand. He’s going to be out for the next week or so, though.”

Crap. Li wouldn’t like it any more than the rest of us. PALE HORSE was down to just one sharpshooter.

“Don’t worry about Li, Major. He’s in good hands. In the meantime, you need to find yourself a tux – you have a party to go to.”

Twenty-Two

Anne | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

Anne Lennox woke with a start. It wasn’t the catapult of a nightmare you’d find on TV, but by the way she leapt from her bed and grabbed the nearest item she could readily use as a weapon. In her case, it was an uncovered pillow.

“Look like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” came a voice from the far side of the cell.

Anne turned to see Thern entering, silent as ever, from a concealed door that was slotting shut even as he spoke.

“Yeah, and I wouldn’t, if I were you.” He motioned to the metal collar that was fastened around Anne’s neck. Thern shrugged, and took a bite out of the donut he held in his hand. A steaming cup of coffee was in the other. “Collar senses whenever your psi abilities are warming up. Zaps your mind so you can’t concentrate. But I’m sure you figured that out already. You’re a resourceful girl.”

“Resourceful enough to-” Anne began.

“Yes, tip this scalding coffee into my face and hold me hostage while I claw at the burns.” Thern rolled his eyes. “I’m pretty sure I can handle myself, thanks. And even then, the collar can take care of that before you can even try, so yeah. I’m good.”

Anne glared silently up at the treacherous WEU assassin. “What happened to my son?” When she finally spoke, her voice was monotone, tight and highly controlled.

“Got lost in the blast, if I had my way,” Thern said. “Don’t need rogue orphans with telekinetic abilities running around New York waiting to become wards of the state. But we cleared out too fast to do a follow-up.”

“You bastard,” Anne hissed.

“Sue me,” Thern said, sipping peacefully out of his coffee. He paused, sighed, and gazed at the ceiling with a smile. “Confession time. I think I understand why you did it. It feels pretty good to be a free agent.”

Anne sneered. “You didn’t strike me as the sort to betray De Vos like that.”

Thern stood there, easily contemplating his words. “It’s this place, Anne. I grew up here, you know that? I left for Sweden back in ninety-two, but now I’m back in town and everything has changed. The faces, they’re all the same, but I feel let down. They’re all shadows of who they used to be. Take Baylor, for example. That’s not the blank slate you first think he is. It’s pretty easy to condition him, after a while. You’ve got the basic personality down, but it’s just shades and glimpses.”

Thern took another contemplative bite out of his doughnut. “I mean, and then there’s you. What happened to you, Anne? SIG sent you out, back during that first wave of sleeper agents. And then you gone and went native. What happened to the headstrong and cunning babe I knew fifteen years ago, eh?”

Anne closed her eyes. “You really have no idea, Thern. But hey, you never changed at all. You’re still a nationalistic asshole.”

Thern snorted into his coffee before he could take another sip. “Yeah, that’s me. Betraying perfectly workable undercover commanders. Or perhaps you don’t want to compare me to someone like Cutler, because mercenary traitors hit too close to home.”

“Thern, just so you know,” Anne said. “You’re going to be dead by the end of the day. Fair warning.” She paused. “And what do you mean, mercenary? You’re working for someone beyond WEU, NTET, or MIDNIGHT?”

“Woah, woah, lady. You can’t just go around making threats in one breath and turn around and demand answers in the next. Not how it works.”

“Who else is out there? The Chinese? Kroner is dead, but there’s plenty of WRAITH splinter groups to go around. But they wouldn’t want me. You betrayed those MIDNIGHT types back at the house to get me, so obviously someone at MIDNIGHT isn’t paying you off. And, now that I think of it, I wonder who’ll be tracking you down, Thern. Abduction goes that poorly and you’re bound to have MIDNIGHT on your trail. How long until we’re out of the country? It seems to me that you’re wasting time here.”

Thern favored Anne with his most winning smile. “We’re waiting for our employer to clear an open, clear, and safe path out country. With enough time, the boss can do anything, but until then, we’re safe… here.”

“Where is here?” Anne quickly asked. “Not much to go on beyond the holding cell I’m in.”

“And that’s all you need to know.”

“Then why come in here at all, then? Gloating is too much, even for you.

“I thought I was pretty clear on that point, Anne. I wanted to know why you did it. Why you betrayed SIG.”

Anne paused before answering, weighing her words. “You want an answer from me, an answer that comprises a core of my being? You want something for nothing? You won’t even tell me what continent I’m in, and you still ask that of me? Sod off.”

Thern swirled the dregs of his coffee, considering his response in turn. “What if I told you there was another player on the field?”

“Is that who’s paying you?” Anne asked flippantly.

Thern gritted his teeth for a moment, a look of intense pain crossing his face. “’Paying’ me. Ha. That’s a good one.”

Despite her skepticism, Anne frowned, sitting up on the cot. “I’m a lot more likely to take the fact that you just like large sums of money over the idea that you were coerced.”

“And it’s a lot harder to explain who my employer is when someone stuck damn mental blocks in my mind that prevent me from spilling the beans.” Thern was shaking now, sweat literally starting to trickle down his forehead.

“But obviously not enough blocks to prevent you from actually revealing that you’ve been coerced. I know a bit of a telepathic theory, after all. No one would miss such an obvious loophole.”

Thern tried to speak, but sagged against the nearby wall.

“Unless,” Anne continued, “it’s not some brute force mechanism but some sort of positive punishment deal. A negative stimulus to decrease a behavior. It’s more subtle that simply place concrete blocks and is pretty useful on your average mook. But for those with some Christ-huge willpower…” Anne trailed off, watching Thern struggle to compose himself again. “I don’t believe you, but I’m willing to listen to whatever you have to say. If anything, it’s great to watch you suffer, Thern.”

Thern gave a mocking smile. “So glad to appreciate your compassion. Look. I’m not working for SIG. Or MIDNIGHT, obviously. Or WRAITH, either faction. All I can tell you are that this group called the Acheron Foundation approached me about a year ago. Offered me more money that god. Women. Drugs. Power. It was a little at much, but it started compounding. By the time you start questioning yourself you’ve gone too far, they’ve gone from narcotics to their own blend and you’re hooked. They take whatever little kernel of you that could’ve gone down the path and expand it, make it define you.”

“I thought that was MIDNIGHT’s gig. The fabric of minds.”

“Unless they’re a breakaway group,” Thern said, straightening up with noticeable effort. “Unless they’re playing both sides. Setting up WEU to take the blame. Starting to start a covert war.”

“So where do you fit into this, Thern?” Anne asked. “Gonna break free? Tell me so you can sabotage the operation and die with your conscience clean?”

“Screw that, sister. I’m not a Boy Scout. I’m going to find a way out of this mental noose. And I’m going to cause as much hell as I can doing it. I crossed whatever line exists years ago. And I think your little boyfriend downstairs is the key to all of this. He’s a pretty good clue into how this create-a-mook process works. You probably already know all the fun you can have with anterograde amnesia. But I also bet you know that, after a while, you can condition the guy. Penetrate the forgetfulness. That might mean it’s wearing off and he’s healing from however shot him in the head, but until then I’ve got the equivalent of gun with a stripped serial number. A loaded weapon that’s practically untraceable and completely controllable. And I need to test it.”

The door to the cell slammed open and two burly corporals stepped in – in a matter a seconds they had hauled Anne out of the room before she could so much as protest.

“Take her to the maze,” Thern ordered. “And let the games begin.”

Twenty-Three

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

After the meeting, I decided to wing down to one of the UN’s excellent (read: terrible) cafeterias for a quick lunch (read: humongous feast to support my cybernetics). Sliding down a double cheeseburger with a Diet Coke, it wasn’t a minute before someone took a seat across the darkened booth from me.

I paused, and swallowed my burger. After a moment, I said, “Wowza. National Security Agency, coming to talk to me?

The agent stiffened at my address and cocked his head, a smile forming on his lips. “You’re unusually perceptive, Major Baylor.”

I shrugged. “Only intelligence types wear body armor under their clothing in a UN cafeteria. Says a lot. Your proportions are off. And besides, Colonel Easly gave me a heads up that you guys would be handling my security.”

“Not much point of being the chief special operations field agent of the Presidency if you need bodyguards, Major.”

“You have about five seconds to give me the handshake before I put two rounds into you.”

NSA-boy’s eyebrows were in critical danger of disappearing under his disheveled bangs – indeed, his entire appearance was closer to a free-reign field agent than a rigid office-type. He had an air of familiarity that was hard to place – his build was strong, tall, and broad-shouldered, with just-woke-up black hair and an easy grin. “I can never tell whether you’re joking or actually serious.”

“Trust me, you know,” I said. I didn’t have a gun on me, but appearances were just as intimidating as reality. “It’s not often some passcode could actually stand in for conversation.”

The agent shrugged. “I was waiting for the right time.” He extended his hand across the table. “Call me Nix.”

I stared at the hand for a moment, and took it. His grip was surprising strong compared to my own patented death-grip. “How profound. Real name just too embarrassing? It isn’t something like Wendel, is it?” As I spoke, I withdrew a small, flattened disc from my pocket and set it on the table. Pressing down on the face, I activated the interference device. No electronic listening devices could make out anything but static, and unless a person was literally between Nix and I they wouldn’t make much out beyond the general buzz of the crowd.

“Not so much as making a statement.”

“About what? Life? Read too much Nietzsche?”

“Nothing so profound,” the Agent said. “I simply believe names affect not only who you are, but how your enemies perceive you. Your unit’s called PALE HORSE, after all.” He interlaced his fingers and gazed across them at me. “Broski. Your ability to drive conversation in banality is well-renowned. I actually just wanted to review recent intel with you.”

“Is that it? Couldn’t you do that with Easly? I’m just the point man. Anyway, there’s more to the check-in process than just handshakes, literal or figurative.”

Nix nodded to the device on the table. “Ingenious. Anti-eavesdropping as well as biometrics?” He placed a thumb on the device, which chirped. Nix checked out, alright. “But what about someone just lip-reading?”

“Not as easy as you think. And I like to cup my chin, cover my mouth. You clearly are going for the wise hand clasp business. Fitting for you NSA types.”

“I’ll be handling your security from here on out. Ironic as it is, you’re still worth around six million in Soviet Tech that America doesn’t need falling into anyone’s hands, being a symbol of better US-USSR relations and all. And yes, you were rebuilt, they had the technology, better, faster, stronger.”

“Now that you’re done taking all my lines, you mentioned intel?”

“Ah, yes. Initial forensics just hit on the terrorists from last night.”

“Really?” I said through a mouthful of burger. “That was quick.”

“Just the leader, al-Hassan, you see. Or, rather who we thought was al-Hassan. We haven’t let this information spread to the inter-agency web yet, Major, so I’d appreciate discretion.”

“Paranoia is my middle name, got it. Back to al-Hassan.”

“Indeed. We have a DNA sample on file back from when the Saudis momentarily al-Hassan in the aftermath of the Moscow attacks thirteen years ago. So we thaw it out, check it against the corpse, and there we go, it’s not a match.”

I rubbed the back of my head with one hand. “Wouldn’t whatever process al-Hassan would have needed to go through to be able to pilot the INTEGRAL TEMPEST mean his blood signature would be off?”

“Not on a genetic level, no. It’s not a match. From what we’ve been able to recover, there’s evidence of cosmetic surgical alteration. ”

“That would at least explain why the bodies melting. It all makes sense in context.”

“Got it in one,” Nix said, leaning over and nabbing one of my fries. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to hate him on sight or proclaim him a version of me in a suit that trolled field agents with naval contemplation instead of obscure pop culture references. “The question is who carried out the assault.”

“Beyond the obvious,” I said, deciding I wasn’t really hungry anymore. I slid the plate over to Nix, who accepted it with a nod of thanks. Last night the idea of MIDNIGHT of orchestrating a terror plot seemed intuitively obvious, but after the hours-long adrenaline rush had finally crashed, the implications were hitting me. Sure, they had played along a good dozen terror cells and then crushed them in one fell swoop – ironically helping out Jonny Q Taxpayer in the long run – and impersonated a strike cell to the point of having their agents go through plastic surgery to play the part. But they had also implanted an entire treacherous Secret Service Unit so close to Skye that they were able to position themselves to eliminate the other two squads nearby. “I want to talk about these moles as well, but something just doesn’t jive with the whole ‘impersonate terrorists’ routine.”

Nix produced a bottle of Corona – what the christ – from literally nowhere, and uncapped it with a flick of his wrist. “You are wondering why your conspiracy – MIDNIGHT or whatever your group calls it – would go through the trouble of framing terrorists if a) they were so easily discovered as imposters and b) were rigged to dissolve if they failed.” He took a swig from the beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, falling back into the chair.

“Right. Not much good if you’re framing Arabs if the physical evidence – the corpses – is steaming puddles of goo. And that’s not even counting how sloppy the whole trail of slaughtered or disappeared terrorist cells was.”

“So where does your years of experience with futilely trailing governmental conspiracies lead you?”

I ignored the jab. “The way I see it, we’re dealing with an amateur. Someone new to the plotting business. May not even be MIDNIGHT, but the amount of strings one would need to pull to be to insert a fake Secret Service Unit close to Skye or steal an INTEGRAL TEMPEST would at least require the connections MIDNIGHT would possess.” I paused, following out the mental strings. As I puzzled, I asked, “So what do you No Such Agency boys call MIDNIGHT instead?”

“We considered the Patriots, but that was taken. We just stick with ‘Cabal.’ It’s a term we use interchangeably through the decades whenever we focus our sights on some new threat. It’s what we called the South American super-cartel in the seventies before Reagan effectively obliterated the Latin underworld. We used the term for WRAITH before we really knew what it was. And since we’re not exactly rolling in information about this MIDNIGHT, we figured we’d dust off the old Cabal label. To be honest, I kinda like MIDNIGHT. Was it your idea?”

“No. I had a last-second contact give it to me.”

“What happened to the contact?” No doubt a potential source of information, he probably figured.

“I shot him in the back of the head.”

“Oh.” Nix looked down at the plate before him. And then took another handful of fries. “So, back to your thought trail.”

“Yes. So the basic idea is that whoever’s pulling the strings here has power, but no idea how to use it. They’re clearly a newbie at the plotting/gambit game. I think, with reality ensuing here, that it’s not so much an omniscient supervillain we’re dealing with here so much as someone who’s grasping around trying to make their plans work out. They like showy, have the big picture down, but have no eye for details. They think on a macro scale, and they rely on a couple things to carry them through to the next step.”

“The ingrained corruption that MIDNIGHT feeds on,” Nix nodded.

“Yeah. And one more thing. A lot worse. A mole on our side. Someone came for me up on the last mission, not Farley. The imposters last night clearly weren’t expecting PALE HORSE to catch up to them – they probably figured they’d lay out a couple more pre-made corpses as evidence. But they weren’t totally unprepared. It was a sort of half-state. Someone tipped them off, but the span between the intel coming in and us crashing the party wasn’t enough to get ready for a hot welcome.”

“What does that tell you about this mole?” Nix asked.

“Well, it narrows the list of suspects considerably. At the time, only PALE HORSE and three other people knew about the developing situation. And I can personally attest for all of PALE HORSE. There’s only been one new member in the last three years, and I vetted him personally.”

“These three people, you say. Hank Easly would be one of them, obviously.”

“Yeah. And Jack Ridley.”

“The British MI6 field operations head? He’s privy to the goings-on of your squad? Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Ridley provides… perception that we might lack. He’s saved the world more times than I can count, which incidentally, is not equal to how many fingers I have. He’s got contacts everywhere. We may not agree every now and then, but he’s… good people.” Or what I could become in a decade.

“So that leaves, who?”

“A third agent.”

Nix finally spread his hands. “I thought we were all on the same side here, Major.”

“And you’re awfully inquisitive about the structure of the organization.”

“And unless this final agent is someone I shouldn’t know about, you have legitimate reason to be troubled. Well, you should be troubled if you have to hide her from me, but that’s beyond it.”

“’Her?’ You’re letting on a bit more than you would lead me to believe.”

“Point is, your list of moles consists of two people. Your second in command, which in your history of experiences of knowledge and shit are essentially guaranteed to eventually betray their commanders, and an agent brought in on your own personal say-so.” Nix leaned in close again, his voice dropping. “Tell me, Baylor, why you trust Anne Lennox.”

“I-”

“Nix!” A female voice cut across my answer.

We both jerked our heads up to see a woman in a business skirt striding across the cafeteria, her brown hair done up in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. She was attractive, in a girl-next-door way. Nix and I exchanged a “what the shit” look for a priceless second, and I made to disappear the jamming device into my sleeve.

“Don’t bother, Major,” the woman proclaimed, juggling free a stack of reports and jamming her thumb down on the device. It chirped the affirmative. “I work with Nix here.” She rounded on him. “You’re late for the meeting upstairs. There’s not much point working with the Major if he knows who you are.”

“I don’t think we’re acquainted Miss-”

“Call her Follow,” said Nix, his eyes twinkling. “She’s my secretary and the only reason I can still function in this world of bureaucracy. I’d be lost without her.”

The woman, Follow, seemed to narrow her cloud of anger into a scything death glare which Nix took his a happy-go-lucky shrug. The glare seemed so oddly familiar that it doubled up with the sense of familiarity I got from Nix himself that I fell silent as I watch the two go at it.

“I was just working with Baylor, here,” Nix said, smiling easily. “Letting him know who’s providing his security.”

“Did we ever decide on that?” Follow asked, her anger dissipating slowly like clouds spinning off of a spiraling hurricane. “I wasn’t aware we had decided which section was handling that contract.”

“I assigned our lead to it. He’s fresh from Japan.”

“Ah,” Follow said, screwing her mouth up in an understanding, if still confused arc. “You’re not taking a hand in it personally, then?”

“Not at all. I’m not a field agent. I’m better at playing the elements back in the office. Our element made it clear he wanted the assignment, and I let him take it.”

“So why meet the Major at all?”

“Sharing intelligence over a beer. Man bonding.” Nix waved the now-empty Corona bottle. “Focusing Baylor’s search efforts.”

“How so?” asked Follow, turning to me. By god, the way she pivoted on her hip seemed just on the tip of my recollection, but I just couldn’t dredge up the connection.

“We figure there’s a mole in the organization. I’ve got the suspects narrowed down. I’ve got free afternoon, so I figure I’ll follow up on the leads.” I threw a glance at Nix. “That is how it’s going to work, right? Your shadow lets me move freely, handles things from a distance.”

“Trust me,” Nix stated. “He’s a master at this. He’s been off the radar for a little less a third of decade or so.”

“Ah, that agent,” Follow said, eyes widening. “Well, I’m glad to see you boys have made progress, but I’m not really sure the old man would approve of you… sharing intelligence like this.”

Nix waved a hand, making to stand. “Nonsense. The old man only sees me as a blunt instrument. No one ever gets anywhere without a little initiative. Maybe I’ll surprise him one day. And besides, Baylor still got the vectors he needed. We both know how much the other knows. Everyone wins.”

“Leaving aside the question of how much initiative is too much, you’re still late for your meeting.” She turned to me and inclined her head. “It was good finally meet you at last, Major.” A small smile quirked the corner of her mouth, and that goddamn mind-twinge welled up again. I had the feeling a whole separated conversation had just occurred, with me none the wiser as to its meaning.

I offered my hand and she shook it, her grip perfectly acceptable. Without another word, Follow departed with Nix trailing behind. Just before he cleared the area, he turned back to me, and flicked a business card at me as though he were a magician throwing a playing card. I caught it easily. On it was a contact number. “Call me and let me know how your investigation plays out. Handshake’s on the back. Pleasure meeting you. Adios.”

And like that, he was gone.

Twenty-Four

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

I was on the phone the second I left the UN in one of PALE HORSE’s undamaged SUVs. It was an advantage of being a cyborg – hands-free calls. I was also, technically, reviewing the reports Easly had downloaded onto my PDA, which I was reading over a wi-fi interface. Even taking side streets, traffic in New York was slow enough for me to me easily flick through a few pages of reports. So there went my safety spiel.

I wasn’t worried about sniper bullets – I’d ordered the armor plating overhauled on one of the PALE HORSE-mobiles so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the machine-gun debacle from last night. RPGs or missiles were bigger worry, but in a fit of rightful paranoia I’d had an active protection system installed in the roof of the SUV, with a pair of soft-launched interception missiles ready to come to my defense. It wasn’t anything compared to what you’d find on, say, a Stryker, but it more than nothing.

Bateau picked up on the third ring. “Heya, boss. The team and I just touched down at McGuire AFB. How’s it hanging on your end?”

I smiled to myself. Compared to old platoon sergeants like Alder or Fletcher, Bateau had inherited the job over the course of time, originally started out as a comm operator – he had mentored George Zelie – but was, now that I thought of it, the only other member of my platoon surviving from the original Paragon incident in ’05. He was quiet and sardonic, a close friend of Pete Fender. Still, he was universally professional, possessed of a survival ability that was close to legendary. The other men respected him as a brother, as Bateau was fair and less harsh than the stereotypical taskmaster of the usual Platoon Sergeant. If nothing else, he was the closest thing I had to a true friend among my troops after Alder’s death.

“Just got off a meeting with the Colonel and, oddly enough, the NSA.”

Bateau’s voice showed clear interest. “Oh? I knew they were handling a lot of the background investigation, but I figured they’d just go through Easly and command.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said as well. The guy that talked to me wasn’t exactly acting out of the wishes of his superior, but he pointed me towards the idea that the person who’s setting all this up is an amateur not exactly acting out of MIDNIGHT’s wishes.”

Bateau paused, considering. “That’d make sense, sure. Which means it’d be easier to at least grab a hold of some piece of MIDNIGHT if we can track this person down.”

I took a turn at Grand Central, heading southeast towards the bridge. “Yup. Anyway, have you seen the reports about the attack on Vice President Young? I’m reading them right now.”

“While driving? How- oh, yeah. Nevermind. They came in during the plane flight. Not very encouraging.”

I read off the report. “Suicide bombers. Dental records specifically mangled. What they did get off is going to take more than a few days in the lab.”

“But that’s not why you called,” Bateau said perceptively. “You’re all good at continuously running over scenarios, but you don’t need me for that. What’s up?”

“Just for kicks, I want you to watch what Gold does. I’m going on a mission tonight with Ridley, so the team is free for a night on the town. Keep track of who he contacts. Do that take-a-measure-of-man-over-beers thing Alder used to do.”

“I’m not Alder, John,” Bateau said dubiously.

“But you are a legendary wingman. Look, this isn’t an investigation. I just want to cover my bases.”

“We’ve worked with Lieutenant Ramirez for over six months. You personally checked over his dossier. Do you suddenly doubt he’s clean?”

“Like I said, I want to cover my bases. Last night’s battle wasn’t exactly clear, to use the old term.”

“Lockdown mode. Got it. Are we limiting this to just Gold?”

I paused. Bateau was essentially asking me how much I much I trusted the rest of PALE HORSE. I was initially content – as content I could be in questioning one of my own troops – with limiting my suspicion to the convenient new guy. But if the mole was anyone else, I’d run the risk of forcing him to cover his tracks – the goal I was essentially aiming for with Gold if he was the hypothetical mole. How deep did my paranoia go?

“Limit this to just Gold. We can’t possibly cover the entire squad. Bring Fender in if you have to.”

“Okaaay, gotcha. If I may sir, we’re you headed?”

“I’m checking up another lead.”

“Let me guess. This other lead is Miss Lennox.” Bateau’s voice was dubious.

“I’ll handle it,” I said, letting edge of command slip back.

“And later? The mission with Ridley?”

“Let’s just say it’s politics. A party. Not much PALE HORSE can do to help. I got roped into it. Chains of command.”

“Right,” said Bateau, sensing the conversation was over. “Cover Gold. Have Fender do a third-over background check. Good luck, sir.”

I closed the call by tapping my jaw and sighed, slumping in the expansive seat of the gargantuan SUV. It didn’t take much longer after that for me to cross the bridge and wind my way to Anne’s house. She opened the door as I pulled into the driveway, leaning against the frame with arms crossed and a slight smile touching her lips. “You’ve been busy.”

“Christ, tell me about it,” I said as I took a leap of faith as I dropped out of the SUV, suspended in free fall as I plummeted up from the skyscraper seat, a feat no normal human could’ve possibly replicated. “Getting attacked by a flock of questions and I’m not getting enough answers to keep up with the onslaught.”

We made our way into the kitchen, where we sat down across the island with a philly cheesesteak each. I was still hungry, and she hadn’t eaten lunch. I was only on my second. I’d take home cooking over cafeteria crap any day. “This is pure gold,” I said, holding the sandwich. “You are wonderful, you know that?”

She let the compliment roll of her shoulders good-naturedly and took out a sheaf of papers for me to look over. “This’ll brighten you day more. Intelligence reports I’ve managed to dredge up from the underground. I heard you were making a run for Farley at the Exchange, so I thought you might be prepared.”

“This is from Chuck’s old criminal contacts, right?” I asked, keeping my voice neutral. “They’re still around after three years of you being under NTET protection?”

Anne froze, the mug of hot tea in her hands halfway to her mouth. “What?”

“I was just wondering how you managed to keep them in contact. They should’ve turned tail after you went to Ridley in exchange for your husband’s safety.”

“Not that I got it,” Anne said bitterly into her plastic theme-park mug, the type that has your name on it in some tiny spot.

Christ, I had never thought of it that way. In some corner of my mind, I had figured that Charles and Anne Lennox had worked the underworld business together, and she had been as crooked as him. But family ties come first, and when Lennox was betrayed by his own men, she had gone to Ridley. Why Ridley specifically, I didn’t know. There had to be a past there. But in the chaos of the battle in Moscow, which Ridley had most definitely been pulling some background strings, Chuck had been beaten to death by a Russian super-cyborg. Now outed to do-gooders like NTET, Anne had to play ball with them or look at the rest of her life in prison. That made one bitter.

So Ridley had turned Anne’s underground contacts around while somehow maintaining her cover in the business. From what I had been able to piece together, she worked as a third-party information broker, perhaps one of the top five in the world. And for that to work out, she’d have to do business with the sort of people I dedicated my life to eradicating. I’d had my nose shoved in the fact over the past three years – hell, just this morning, my team had parlayed with Chandra Gosely, someone that, truth be told, was on a couple dozen most-wanted kill-on-sight lists. A twenty-five million dollar bounty, the sort that made Baylor season look like small change.

I’d been suckered in by the peaceful suburban lifestyle that I’d never had, with the fatherless kid and the hurting widow. Screw that. Anne was just another shade of grey.

Normally, I would’ve stopped there.

“Anne,” I said very slowly. “I need to know why you went to Ridley. When things went south.”

“I had his contact information. I knew he had worked with your Omega Unit in the past.” PALE HORSE had been a full platoon – the Omega Unit of the Marine Corps’ Force Recon 1st Battalion – during the crisis.

“Anne,” I said again in the same tone of enunciation. “I’ve known you long enough that I want to share a very important fact with you. I’ve discovered that you are, in fact, a terrible liar. It’s your eyes that give it away. They go to the left. You access the creativity portion of your brain. You blink a lot whenever we get close to a topic you’re nervous about. It’s not enough for me to know what you’re hiding, only that you’re hiding something. And right now you’re in a very limited circle of people who can blow the whole game in relation to what’s going on right now. I need to know if there’s anything in your past that I need to know about before I walk into a goddamn hive of scum and villainy.”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Anne got out of her chair. “Are sure you want to know this, John? This isn’t stuff you can turn back on.”

I didn’t answer her, only set my face in hard stone, watching her.

She took my answer and turned away. She flicked a hand, and the door to the refrigerator flew open with a bang. With a wave of just two fingers, Anne watched as a can of Diet Coke dislodged itself from a side shelf and lobbed itself in a parabolic arc into my lap.

I nearly fell out of my stool.

“Your research probably didn’t turn this up, but my maiden name was Richter. Or, to be honest, Ritch. I romanized it when I moved to the US as an agent of the Western European Union. SIG-1. Blackbeast. You know the names.”

I did. The Strategic Intervention Group 13 was Europe’s, for lack of a better word, paranormal activity branch. I had run into them in 2007 and 2008 during the whole Monolith affair in Chad and Eastern Europe. They worked for the RED KING initiative and, for mostly of interest to me, where probably the only notable unit in the world that actively fielded psionics, telekines, whatever the hell you wanted to call them. I wished I could call them X-Men if they didn’t scare the shit out of me. And that’s something, considering my default method with dealing with things that scare the shit out of me is making fun of said shit-scare-er.

“In the late nineties, WEU set forth with a goal of infiltrating the other major powers of the world with sleeper cells. Ghosts, trained in the culture and customs of wherever they would be making their homes. I was selected from my place on the Blackbriar team for my skill at delving into the minds of others. Manipulating them, subtly. I was sent over in ’99 and seduced a Reaper captain intelligence suggested chaired a highly corrupt unit. We got married not a year later. I knew my trade well. And I actually like him. He was something of a noble demon, you see. He had standards, rules, some he would never break. And, over time, I found myself actually taken with him. I was prepared to renounce my status as a double agent and join him as free agents in the criminal underground. I was about to tell him, but I slipped up in trying to undo the mental leash. Chuck figured out what I had been doing to him.”

Her sentences began more staccato, her sentences more straightforward, as if recalling the vaguest details of a long-forgotten event she had tried her damndest to make sure was kept forgotten. “We fought. I gave him his scars, the ones over his eyes. I tried to put a sleep compulsion in his forebrain. He backtracked over the mental connection and essentially ripped himself free of me. The trauma kept me from ever going back to my powers again. It’s just one big scar now, that portion of my mind I went to when I manipulated people.”

I sat there in silence, the can of soda sweating in my lap. Anne continued, picking up speed, as if her recollection was filling in again. “But Charles got a glimpse of my mind as he fought his way back out. Saw I had been serious about defecting from WEU. He took me back. I’m pretty sure Ryan was conceived that night. The next morning, we set out setting up a new identity for me. Faked my death as Annelie Richter. It was a long process, and right in the middle of it he came.”

I looked up. “Ridley?”

She didn’t respond, but her voice grew hard. “Ridley. He’d been watching us. Me. MI-6 never kept a good operation with the overall WEU intelligence apparatus. He’d been investigating psychics in the aftermath of the Hungarian Monolith incident. Found a discrepancy in the matter of one agent WEU once had files on, one A. Richter. He followed the thread right to my doorstep. Blackmailed me into keeping tabs on my husband. This was right after Charles had been assigned to the dismantlement of the Paragon facility. Eventually, Ridley brought Charles into the circle. He had learned of the new model of SHADOW TEMPEST from my reports. BLACK. He wanted it turned over to NATO, the UN, someone. Out of MIDNIGHT clutches. Charles and Ridley hatched a plan to steal BLACK.”

“But Sechalin had paid off the rest of the Reapers.”

“Yes. Charles didn’t know that. He knew his unit was corrupt to the bone, so he fed them the line about selling the unit on the black market. He didn’t know Sechalin would involve himself in the affair. The idea was to arrest Reapers – there was no love lost between my husband and Lieutenant Cutler – when the squad went to lay low at an old Antarctic base. But then everyone got involved all at once. Everything got blown to hell. Sechalin, sensing that Charles’ spoken plan to sell BLACK was smoke, ordered Cutler to turn on his commander. Farley, the son of a bitch, was scrambling to recover BLACK, so he sent your squad into the area with a Cleaner squad on standby. He figured that you’d either get killed by the Reapers or get killed by the Cleaner if he was forced to send them in. All his enemies and problems wrapped up in one fell swoop.

“But it didn’t work out like that. Cutler got away, my husband was beaten to death by a Russian freakshow, and I was stuck holding all the old contacts and amassed intelligence. I kept working with NTET to protect Ryan. Bad enough to lose one parent, but both in quick succession? I knew what it was like to grow up without parents. It wasn’t going to happen to him. Ridley and NTET were the only people keeping from falling back into the hands of groups like SIG or MIDNIGHT.”

I sat there after she fell silent for a good minute before opening the can of coke and swirling it down. The soda helped me coalesce some thoughts out the murky haze of the story Anne had just dropped in my lap. First thing I got out of it was a hell of a lot of motive. Lady was basically bitter at everyone for her situation. Ridley used her like I used some of my scum third-world contacts (and I admit I treated those types like shit). Her entire reason for working for Ridley in the first place had been subverted the second Chuck Lennox had died.

I paused. “One question. Before I decide what to make of all this, I need to know what’s up with the Jedi telekinesis you’ve got going on. Even assuming your mind-manipulation shtick is gone, I don’t see how you just discard and draw a new power.”

Anne ran her hands through her hair, glancing at ceiling. “It’s not unheard of for secondary powers to manifest. Europe is unusually ripe with psions, and they’ve been conducting studies on the phenomenon since the sixties. Sometime a person can focus exclusively at one talent while letting another atrophy, assuming they even knew other options existed. You don’t need to be a scientifically-created metahuman like Stars and Stripes or Storm to develop a host of problems.”

I waved a hand. “Got it. And are powers heritable?”

Anne stiffened at that question, fists tightening above her head. “You don’t understand. There’s been a metahuman arms race over the past twenty years. America’s been working hard to replicate their success with Alexis Starr. WEU keeps a tight fist on their research with psions. Right now, the only power with the ability to mass produce metas is the Soviet Union with their cybernetic technology – and even then, not everyone is suited for the more heavy-duty enhancements like what you have, John. People like Kroner and MIDNIGHT have been pouring millions into reproducing their own army of metahuman agents. If they knew they could get their hands on someone like my son, with a whole lifetime ahead of him, there’s no telling the lengths they’d go to in order to acquire him. And I would kill to prevent that to happen. So be very careful when you decide what to do next, if you want to leave this room alive.”

I finally picked the can of soda out of my lap and set it on the counter, pivoting it around the bottom rim with one finger on the top. “I see your dilemma. And you have to see mine. Any person with the ability to work out the clues could easily see you as a potential mole, feeding NTET’s secrets to god knows who in exchange for a better deal and, well, more likely, revenge. And more than a few of my men are in the hospital right now. Things are going to come to a head pretty soon, I reckon. And there’s a change my men could die. I made a promise years ago that that wouldn’t happen. I’ve kept that promise to this day. And if anything comes between me and that promise, I’d do much worse things than kill for it. If things go wrong for me and I so much as think you’re responsible, the information about your existence will find its way onto the underground net faster than you can say ‘WEU.’”

She seemed ready, for just a moment, to kill me. I tensed, imagining how a fight could go down between us. Supposing she couldn’t just snap my neck right here and now, I’d throw the can gripped in my hand at her. She’d catch it, of course, and most likely sending rocketing back at me like a missile. But by then I’dve thrown myself off the stool, around the counter, with my Five-seveN in hand. By the time she would’ve sent the can at where I wasn’t, I’ve rolled out to place two bullets into her side. Not the best plan, but it my shot. Simply playing wild west quick-draw didn’t seem the best idea.

A full minute passed with us staring at each other, running through dozens of plans, perhaps like that scene in the Jet Li movie. After even more interminable delay, she let out the breath she had been holding. “That’s fair,” she said. “I can accept that.”

I didn’t fail to notice she hadn’t said anything forward or backward about her final allegiances.

“It’s a shame,” she said, walking around the counter and sitting down on the adjacent stool. “We were working out to be pretty good friends. Ryan looked up you.”

“I reckon that chance ended just now, honey. I respect your desire to protect Ryan, but I swore an oath to protect my men. I promise I’ll look out for him, though.”

She shrugged, running her hands down the front of her shirt. “I’m glad we clearly the air between us. It’s always best, in the end, to run honest. I was getting tired of the secrets.”

“Yup,” I said, bouncing one knee. “No more tension. All’s well that ends well.”

There was a beat. And then we launched ourselves at each other and began making out.

Twenty-Five

Storm | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

The best thing about friendships, I reflected as I hung in the air, the pair of throwing knives sliding back just inches underneath me, was the fact that one would help the other without even expecting a reward or even acknowledgment. Like protecting the man who had saved your life from Malcolm Kroner from a legion of assassins intent on killing him. If nothing else, I’m a man of my word. I owed Baylor.

Surprisingly enough, not too many professionals took the job against Baylor. Case in point, a couple years ago, when surrounded by a rogue Spetsnaz group that was left over from Sechalin’s time, Baylor had just stood there while the Spetsnaz surrendered, their leader citing the fact that there was only four of them and one of Baylor.

The ones who had taken the contract were one of two things: possessed of a wildly overblown sense of their own skills (combined with a woeful underestimation of Baylor’s) or of such a league that they regularly took down Soviet-enhanced cyborgs.

The lady I was currently fighting was a combination of the above.

As I landed and the knives embedded themselves in the wall behind me, she let off a maniacal cackle. “So, I see you have defeated my minions! You’ll pay for that, you fiend!”

Seriously. You couldn’t make this shit up. If anything, while Baylor had transitioned to combatting straight-faced shadowy types, I had dedicated myself to cleaning up the more colorful elements of the underworld. The Undertaker was just one of those types. Certifiably insane, she still chaired a mercenary team of ex-special forces types, all drawn together by an extreme level of competences and a gross desire for lots and lots of money. The Undertaken and the Grim Reapers – yes, it sounded like some sort of garage metal band – were probably on the top twenty hit groups in the world, known foremost for the batshit off-the-wall way they conducted business.

I’d lost my Desert Eagle back in the last room of the warehouse, so I slotted forth my favored weapon of the last decade: a pair of wrist-mounted claw-blades, tempered to deflect anything up to large-caliber bullets and slice through anything like a full of ginsu knives. All for the low prices of three payments of 19.99 plus shipping and handling.

In response, the Undertaker gave a howl of chagrin and pulled a katana out of a sheath mounted on her back. Seriously, a katana. Lame wannabe ninja nerds weren’t just the realm of the internet. People like this someone became internationally ranked assassins.

“Christ,” I said as we met blades. “You get lost on the way to a geek convention?” Sparks flew as we tried to overpower each other. Despite my enhanced strength, my opponent held her own, ponytail whipping every which way as she continued a steady monologue that I only half paid attention to. Something about my spleen. No, definitely my liver. She was going to rip out my liver. Gotta give the crazies props for each choosing their own organ and keeping consistent with what they wanted to carve out of the still-living bodies of their enemies.

The Undertaker – I felt bad even using the name, as it gave her some sort of legitimacy – surprised me, if only for a second, when she pulled a Colt .45 from behind her back and began pumping rounds into my stomach. Even leaving aside the fact that she was now holding me off one handed, the blows managed to shake my concentration just long enough for her to push me away with a cry of “En garde!”

Really. Like she was fencing. Lady couldn’t even keep her clichés straight. I took a quick inventory of myself as she forced me back in a lightning-quick avalanche of finely-timed blows, ones that actually displaced enough skill to suggest that she took the sword somewhat seriously. The rounds had torn my body armor to shreds, but the most I’d get out of it were a couple of nasty bruises and blunt force trauma that’d heal in a couple hours. I was at least glad about that. Penetration would’ve required a messy surgery that never got any more pleasant no matter how bullets I pulled out of my body. It’d ruin my day. I’d managed, after all, to get back the woman’s grade-A goons without so much as a scratch. A shame to ruin a perfect record.

She was maneuvering me against a wall, and I let her, even playing up the fight as though this was some Errol Flynn pirate movie, mixing in horrible pun insults and flashy showmanship like the wrist blades made me a Predator from the Ahnuld movies. You know, maybe Baylor had a point with the pop culture shit. It really did help you make light of something so completely ridiculous.

Not wanting the woman to get a sense of actual victory, I rebounded off the wall when we reached it, placing one foot halfway up it, vaulting off in, and coming down at her with a blown at momentarily threw her guard askew. She responded predictably, firing away with her Colt, a series of shots that I easily swept aside with a practiced flick of my blade. Another twist of my wrist sent the Colt flying into my hands with a shout of pain from her as she fell backward onto her rump, holding her bleeding wrist.

She actually began to cry at that point, as I held the pistol against her forehead. It was so adorable I was tempted for a moment to let her live.

I wasn’t a good guy like Baylor. I had been a monster for two thirds of a decade before he had met me, killing without remorse or mercy, the right hand of WRAITH. Even allying myself with the Marine, I didn’t hold myself to the same standards of conduct the American soldier did. I did the jobs Baylor wasn’t either legally or ethically permitted to accomplish, behind his back, solving problems that were otherwise unsolvable. I’d been a free agent, sure, but I’d leaned to the side of NTET for more than my old masters.

“Sorry,” I said, my newly developed and quite fledgling conscience forcing the oddly shaped words into my mouth. “Can’t have you killing my mate.” She looked up at me, eyes huge, as I pulled the trigger.

There was a click. The magazine was empty. The lady looked incredulous at the momentary reprieve, and I decided she wasn’t much of a threat anymore. Flipping the Colt in my hand, I brought the grip across her head. She collapsed to the concrete floor in a heap, a single line of blood running from the gash above her right eyebrow. Perhaps it wouldn’t take too long to drive her over to the docks later and dump her on a cargo crate to Shanghai or some shit. She’d be out of the picture for a couple weeks. I’d leave the bodies for the authorities. They’d deal with them like the four other assassin persons or groups I’d gutted this afternoon.

One right outside the UN, going for a drive-by, I’d dropped in through the skylight. An entire group of South American death-squad types had tried to blockade off Baylor on the bridge off the island, but I’d thrown them out of their cars one by one. The other two, lone wolf assassin types going for extreme-long range kills, had been a bit harder to find and even harder to take out, because, for some reason, they’d all been deviously tough close-quarters combat specialists. One I’d just thrown off the roof, Untouchables style, the other I’d simply broken over his own overblown antimaterial fifty caliber rifle.

I hadn’t even bothered killing the half-dozen wannabe groups that decided to take the Baylor contract. It had been too much fun to blow out tires or sabotage home-made sniper platforms or divert you-wish back-alley ambushes. I wasn’t doing this because anybody had ordered me to do so, just out of common decency for Baylor. He was, as the Americans often said, a chill bro. Or whatever it was called. Least you could do for someone who saved you from being a slave of an actual supervillain.

As I hefted the unconscious body of the Undertaker over my shoulder, I fished my PDA out of a pocket on my thigh and glanced at it. Baylor had been at the Lennox woman’s house for a good hour and a half and, judging by the time, the woman’s son wasn’t home from school yet. About time those two finally just banged each other and got it done with. Comforting the widow, indeed.

The PDA buzzed in my hand, and a window popped up. Looks like two pairs of separate sniper/spotter teams – who I was pretty sure were ranked number fourteen and eight, respectively – were in the neighborhood. Time to pay them a visit before they ruined John’s afternoon.

Twenty-Six

Anne | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

They had shoved her into a dark room, easily pitch-black, so much so that Anne couldn’t see her own hand when she waved it in front of her. She had a sense the room was expansively huge, despite the low ceiling and crowded architecture. It had to be – no, the idea was too silly. It couldn’t be a maze.

A light flicked on in each corner of the square chamber and Anne groaned. It was, indeed, a maze. The walls only left a foot between their spiked tips and the ceiling, but she could tell by the turns and right angles and various paths in front of her that she was in a maze.

“No, you haven’t gone crazy.” Thern’s voice piped in over a tinny loudspeaker hanging from behind Anne, right in the corner Anne currently stood in. “We were as surprised as you when we discovered this place had been a testing ground during the seventies for cloned psions. Turns out the DoD was doing experiments of mass-produced soldiers during the ends days of Johnson’s secret war. Guess you learn something new about history every day.”

There was a rustling over the microphone, as though Thern was flicking through a sheaf of papers. “We used this facility ourselves as a training ground whenever we met. Kept our lives as infiltrators from ever getting boring. Of course, we never used live rounds. You’ll get that pleasant and unique experience today, Anne, just like those poor souls in the seventies. In your corner, you’re on your own. In the other corner is one John Baylor, who, over the past few hours, has been conditioned to believe that you were the one who betrayed his crew a few days ago. Turns out he made a tape of you confessing your past to him and the tape somehow found its way to WEU after World’s End. What a shame. I expected better of you, Anne. Well, anyway, he’s quite upset. And in his state, he’s essentially a laser-guided weapon.”

Thern continued. “Your job, should you choose to accept it – not that you have much of a choice – is to get to the other side of the room without getting gutting by Baylor. In five minutes, no less. If neither of you are dead or escaped by the end of the five minutes, I’ll kill you both myself. But I’d like to save myself to bullets, so make it easy on yourself and kill Baylor for me, will you? But, head’s up, you can’t use your powers. I’m not stupid enough to take off your collar, so you’ll be on your own this one. Work this out like the rest of use vanilla mortals. Have fun with that. Baylor’s going to be dropped in in about a couple seconds, so I suggest you get moving.”

Anne was already moving by the time Thern had said ‘laser-guided weapon.’ The maze was something you’d see mice doing for cheese, writ large. It was twisting to the point of folding in on itself, as twice Anne found herself passing the same oddly familiar decades-old splatter of blood and dried gore. At first she figured she’d stick to the right, always taking the right-side of a fork, do a simple labyrinth exercise, stick to the edges, where she would always be in the light. She wanted to avoid the center of the maze at all costs, where it swiftly became pitch-black.

The only sound in the oppressive silence was her own heart. Not even the patter of her feet, once loud on the generic tile of the facility, now seemed to be swallowed up by whatever material made up the floor of the maze. The heartbeats continually ramped up as the tension began to multiply. How long had it been since Thern had signed off? A minute? Maybe two? How much time was left? She didn’t know. But it was becoming increasingly clear she wouldn’t be able to take the long way around the labyrinth. The maze kept trying to force her towards the center, despite her best efforts to stick to the outside. The message was obvious – she’d have to traverse the stretch of pitch-black mystery to overcome the challenge of the maze. By touch alone, feeling her way blind through the twists and turns. She’d be helpless in there, while Baylor’s enhanced senses would easily be able to pick her out. He had night-vision, didn’t he? Right?

She hadn’t heard anything from Baylor. Not his usual banter, no promises of revenge for his comrades. He was an ever-present threat, clawing at the back of her mind, doing more damage by his non-presence than actually showing his face. It was just the two them, alone, person against person, just them and the damage they had done to each other.

Anne scrunched up her face, and made the decision to plunge into the heart of darkness. She finally took the left at the intersection marked by the human-shaped outline of blood on the wall. At first, the light was interspersed by ever-more-increasing shadows, lengthening into opaque pillars that transformed entire passages into tunnels of swirling darkness, someone reaching out and inviting her to traverse its treacherous depths.

Anne kept her hand on one wall, tracing a finger along its sheer and slippery length, never stepping into the center of the path that was just longer than the span of both her arms. Every so often she’d run over a thick and sticky patch of blood or gore, wet and far too recent for the last live-fire program to have been forty years ago. The silence began to wane, transforming into what Anne sincerely hoped her figments of her own overtaxed imagination. Her footsteps were no longer swallowed by the ground but reflecting off the walls, echoing back and forth and eventually returning transformed as eerie howls what almost sounded like pained whispers. Anne shook her head, hoping to clear the implications rattling around in her mind, but to no avail.

Abruptly, Anne slammed into a solid surface. She nearly jumped out of her skin. It wasn’t a turn. The walls, she realized, had been angling together. She had just walked into a spear-point dead end. How much time was left? She had to be past the five minute mark. Would Thern just turn on the lights and snipe her from afar? That’d be too simple. Thern had lost in along the way. He might even send his own men to participate… or worse.

Turning around, Anne abruptly slammed into another wall. Feeling outward, she realized she was a triangle, not two meters to a side. But she had just been in a hallway seconds before! The wall had literally come out of nowhere! The maze had to be changing around her, shifting as she moved. Slowly, ever so slowly, Anne had the feeling she’d never escape this maze alive.

Anne quickly canvased every square inch of her newly formed prison. Every surface was sheer. There was nothing for it, then. She’d have to climb over the wall. She took a leap at one wall, not even bothering with the orientation. She got a hand on the edge of the wall’s top surface, but lost her grip and fell back down into her pit. She landed in a startled huff. The floor was lower than it had been before. Anne froze as her gasp escaped her lips, the sounds her fall reverberated across the entire chamber. Baylor had to have heard that, it had simply been too loud. She now had to escape, definitely. He’d be making a beeline for her position, she was sure of it. In minutes, seconds, he’d be here to take bloody revenge.

Pulling herself to her feet, Anne took another leap at the wall, bounding off one surface, then another, before take a lunge at the third wall in a spiraling double-jump. She got her arms over the surface and against the other side, holding her up.

Her eyes immediately began to water with inconceivable pain. How could she have been so stupid to forget? The walls were spiked, and the razor-sharp teeth were eager to drink up what had probably been their first meal in ages. Struggling to keep a pained whimper within her chest, Anne extracted both her upper arms from the row of spikes with almost-audible pops of released flesh and released clothing. Unable to wipe away the tears streaming down her face, Anne almost gave up right there, despair threatening to take over her entire person, leaving her stuck and bleeding to death in the middle of an ill-conceived escape attempt. It was all so unfair. Everyone was trying to kill her. Everyone. She literally had no friends left. Her son was gone, probably snatched up by a malicious third party. She would die in some unknown hole in an unknown underground facility held by a crazed group of her own countrymen, driven insane by whatever failed mental leash had placed them in this situation in the first place.

There was nothing for it but to go on, forge onward. If she was to die, it would be on her feet, defiant of her fate. She would get back to her son. She’d do it for him.

Struggling to bring forth whatever energy she tapped into to preform her telekinetic feats – and doing do without rousing the painful retribution of her collar – Anne marshaled the strength to pull herself over the wall, vigilant to avoid scraping against the spikes. It seemed the walls had descended into the floor, because there was more space her between ceiling and wall, enough for her to slip through without eviscerating herself on the bladed tips below.

After an unknown time spent awkwardly shimmying over the obstacle, Anne leapt down in a roll to the ground below, essentially placing her faith in the idea that the floor below would be safe to land on.

Her faith went unrewarded. She landed in a slick of liquid and her hands went out from under her. She landed on her shoulder blades and fell down in a heap on of tangled limbs on the floor. Literally tangled limbs. As he rolled onto her haunches and explored outward with her hands, she felt out a body propped against the wall nearby. Trying her best to ignore her aching body, complaining from the wall, as well as the stinging wounds in her arms, she found a wound in the corpse’s belly. Thick, slick, ropey coils and other unspeakable masses piled into her ignorant hands and she had to fight hard to keep her last meal inside her body. Jerking her hands away from the body, she crawled away from it on her hands and knees as fast as she could, the floor squeaking as she passed, raising a hellish din.

This place was most definitely not abandoned. It had been used. Recently. Either that, or she and Baylor were not alone in the maze. Either though gave her chills.

Clearly the patch of mess left by the eviscerated corpses, Anne picked her way to her feet, probably leaving bloody handprints on the wall as she pulled herself up. For a second, she though she heard footsteps behind her, and she froze, breath catching. There had definitely been a presence, one that had passed just feet behind her. But now it was gone.

Chest heaving silently, Anne caught the flicker of light from one corner. She didn’t know which corner it was, but she had had enough from this pit. She’d take hopeless light over unknown abyss any day.

Something began clanging in the darkness behind her. Metal, clanging. Like pots smashing against each other.

There was a scream, high, pained, that was cut short as suddenly as it had begun.

It was the first human noise Anne had heard since this had begun, more real than even the phantom footsteps. Her heart went cold. There definitely was more than just her and Baylor in here.

Abruptly, something grabbed her foot. In the blink of an eye, Anne was on her stomach, being dragged backwards, towards the dead end behind her. An iron vice of a grip enclosed her calf, an inexorable force yanking her back towards the center of the maze. Anne scrabbled desperately at the floor, nails gouging at the spongy black material before losing their grip when they encountered the blood slick.

Anne rolled, her knee popping as her unseen assailant twisted in the opposite direction just as the same time. A hideous scream bubbled up from Anne’s lips, but she was on her back. Pulling her other leg, the still functioning and free one, up to her chest, Anne lashed out at her attacker, placing her heel straight into his mass. There came an oomph of surprise from the attacker, resistance, and then the surface Anne had kicked gave way with a crack. Her attacker howled an almost inhuman yowl as the grip on Anne’s twisted leg vanished.

Kicking backwards, Anne bounced off the propped-up corpse and nearly screamed again. Instead, she rebounded and rolled to her feet, limping away with all the speed she could muster. Behind her the unknown assailant gave a vicious growl, something less than human or even animal, something from an indeterminable pit of hatred that Anne had never heard in her life. His footsteps were staggered, indicating a vicious limp, one that was most likely worse than the one Anne was cursed with. She hoped she could outrace him, lose him in the darkness, as he rebounded off wall after wall like a pinball. The pursuer’s ragged breathing never faltered in its intensity as it trailed her, constantly at her heels, passes of air indicating swiping hands just missing the nape of her neck.

The worst thing happened at the worst possible time. A dead-end. Anne bounced off the wall and rolled to escape a scything swipe from her attack. She came up at him with an uppercut – that was thrown off as she mistakenly put weight onto her injured leg. The blown landed with less force than it could have, and her attacker bounced her off a pair of walls for her trouble.

Her assailant fell onto her, hands reaching for her throat. Anne struggled, but he had at least a hundred pounds on her. Spots began to appear on her pitch-black field of vision, growing inward as her enemy’s harsh breath washed over her wave in staccato waves. Anne struggled against the vicegrip for a few seconds before old military training took over and she worked higher, placing her hands on her attacker’s face. Two thumbs found two eye sockets, and the man screamed as fluid poured down his face. The chokehold was gone at one, and Anne kneed the screaming man in the groin, sending him flinching away. Kicking him off her, Anne pushed backwards as fast as she could. Hands had already removed themselves from the wounds and were making swipes for her person. She had to get to the light, where she’d have the advantage, instead of two blind people chasing each other in the central labyrinth. She was trained in hand-to-hand, but pressing combat blind against someone twice her size was suicidal.

Pursued by hideous howls of pain, Anne limped as fast she could towards the increasing light, at least trying to ignore the dramatic irony of running towards the light. Corner after corner – and one nerve-wracking met-up with a dead-end had Anne’s nerves reaching fortissimo levels. But she could she her own windmilling arms now, make out the edges of the walls bracketing her path. She didn’t turn, look around, for fear of losing ground, but she pressed online, gritting her teeth against the pain. It was like being in her own personal slasher movie, courtesy of you friendly neighborhood psychotic WEU infiltrators.

Bam. Dead-end. Hands were suddenly on her shoulders, spinning her around, presenting her with a face straight from hell. It was covered in blood, leaking from the eye sockets, the temples, the nostrils and edges of the mouth. One eye socket was cavernous black, the other eye was still intact, but bloodshot and horribly wide. It was affixed on her. A blade found its way to her throat as spittle bubbled out of the soldier’s mouth. Anne knew her movement options were limited; there wasn’t much she could do to break the hold with her back to a wall and a knife to her throat. She barely twitched and a line of red welled down her neck from a nick uncomfortably close to her jugular.

But she sure as well wasn’t going to go down without a fight. A knee to her foe’s groin as he flinched just well enough for Anne to get her other leg between him and her. Pushing off, she fell to the ground as the man stumbled backwards, overcome with accumulated pain. He lashed out in any direction he could, the red eye rolling wildly for her. Anne was too slow to get out of the way and the blade cut a deep gash in the calf of her already wounded leg. On her knees, she fell back down in a heap, her own pain finally catching up with her. Breathing heavily, she began to crawl away, pulling herself with one arm while the other cradled her leg.

She heard the patter of oncoming running footsteps and she knew Baylor had to be here. Perhaps she’d get the benefit of quick death at his hands, or perhaps not. He had tortured the Russian cyborg who had killed her husband before executing the cyborg, after all.

True to form, Baylor pounced from the shadows, catching the flailing arm of the crazed WEU soldier, rolling it, and locking in under his arm pit. Straightening, Baylor forced the madman to his feet, watching dispassionately at his captive arched his back in pain. Bringing his opposite arm in a wide arc overhead, Baylor crushed the European soldier’s throat with the side of his wrist. As the body went limp underneath him, Baylor let it fall away without so much as a backwards glance.

Looking up, he saw Anne. Instantly his eyes narrowed. She gave a cry and threw herself behind a nearby corner as Baylor whipped up a pistol and fired at her from the hip. Despite the quick-draw, the rounds passed uncomfortably close, but didn’t quite bury themselves in her.

He didn’t pursue her, though. Instead he stood there like a watchful sentinel, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted in a thin line behind a weeks-old growth of beard.

“Anne. There you are. Glad we can finally talk.”

“’Bout what, John?”

“I wanted to take issue with you trying to spin things your way. I’m sure you’re aware of my condition.”

“Egads. The irony of you calling me manipulative is astounding. Thern was lying to you. Called you a laser-guided missile. He conditioned you to do this.”

“Tapes don’t lie, Anne. I told you I’d turn you over to WEU if anything went wrong with my op.”

“Christ, listen to yourself!” Anne shouted. “You only know that because you heard the tape! Thern probably played it for a couple hours, let it seep into your mind. It defines you now, but you can change who you are!”

“There you go again, Anne,” Baylor said, a razor wire coiling of anger underlying his voice.

“Look at this place! Does this look like the sort of place your goody two-shoes Thern would be associated with if he was a good guy? He’s a tool, a test subject, a beta product. He just found out about it, found out about what’s going on, and intends to ride out whatever storm is still going on in one big blaze of hedonistic glory! But if you help me get back at him, we can find out what’s really going on!”

The body on the floor groaned, turning his head and trying to get a hand underneath himself. Without looking, Baylor fired two shots into the soldier behind him, both catching the WEU man in the face.

Hell, that was a terrifying thought, now that it had broached her mind. If this had been a test chamber for whatever method had overcome Thern’s men, and that man was indeed part of his squad, it would mean the veneer of civilization was falling apart right there and now, quite literally while they were still in the building. Maybe Thern had done something right – if there was going to be crash, at least he was locked underground.

But what if the power that was pulling Thern’s strings was still involved? It could be testing her and Baylor right now, even as Thern tried to rebel. And maybe it was treating her so cavalierly because it already had her son. No. Her mind was spinning out of control, pulling a Baylor and constructing elaborate reasons out of the most minor of details.

But if Thern could ‘train’ Baylor, why couldn’t she? If she could stay just one step ahead of him, she could perhaps continually wear down whatever belief Thern had worked into Baylor’s mind. Maybe that was the true test. What was Baylor’s period of focus? How long until things began to slip away?

She began to crawl towards the light, Baylor passing out of her sight. Immediately she realized this would blow a hole in her plan of keeping up a meaningful stream of banter and slowly sneaking away. Baylor would be on her in an instant.

She stopped, and called out to Baylor again. “Look at the corpse, man! That doesn’t come from a sane or trustworthy group of individuals! It comes from a bunch of people who are four seconds from coming goddamn zombies! These aren’t the people you want to deal with. At least keep me alive long enough to take them down! And then we can sort out whatever we’ve done to each other afterwards, I swear. But right now there! Are more! Pressing! Matters!”

Baylor started walking in her direction, and Anne nearly gave up right her, what with her heart trying to leap out of her throat and all. “Christ, don’t do this! We used to be friends! My son is out there, alone, looking for his mother! You still have men to look for! Christ, no! Oh shit, no! Baylor, I loved you!”

Baylor stopped, just short of the corner. Stood there. And, after eternity, after one of those moments that just crystallize into one’s memory, he lowered his gun.

All the lights came on at once.

As Anne blinked in the light, Thern appeared around a corner, his coat trailing behind him. “That’s quite enough,” he spat, wrenching the pistol from where it was held loosely at Baylor’s side and pumping too rounds into his chest. Baylor went down without a word. No struggle. Something had broken within him. Anne saw the pistol had lodged two darts in his chest. It was just a tranq gun. No way Thern would’ve given Baylor a real pistol.

Anne, cradling her leg, glared up at Thern. “School’s out.”

“Fuck you,” he said, and shot her.

Twenty-Seven

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Apparently Chuck Lennox was reasonably close to my size when it came to tuxedos. His chest had been larger than mine, but I always like clothes that were loose on me anyway. I was dressed by the time Ryan was home. Ruffling his hair, and I leapt out of the house to find Ridley waiting outside, leaning against my SUV. “These things must have terrible gas mileage,” he said, kicking his heel against one of the near monster-truck sized wheels. “What’s it get, in gallons per mile?”

“Taxpayer money is better spent on this than giant invisible killing machine,” I sneered. “Beside, not everyone can drive around in a Lamborghini.”

Ridley scoffed. “Aston Martin. I have an image to maintain. My point is, why not just go the full monty, stop kidding yourself, and get a tank? No one would ever mess with you then.”

“I imagine the local police would have a thing or two to say about that. And my point is that you needn’t come all the way to Queens to pick me up.”

“Wait,” Ridley said, screwing up his face. “Your previous points had nothing to do with that.”

“My previous points had no point. Kinda like your pointless banter about my battle wagon. How’d you know where I would be?”

“Me?” Ridley asked innocently, before glancing up at the house behind me. “Mate, I just had a feeling.” He paused. “So. Finally.”

“Jack.”

“You… tapped that. Is that what you Americans call it?”

Jack.”

He shuffled his feet. “Just saying.”

“Don’t. We need to have words about her.”

He straightened. “Ah. Presumably, they are not nice words?”

“No,” I said, gritting my teeth. “But they can wait until after we finish this mission. I’m not going into somewhere dangerous any angrier than I need to be.”

“Anyway,” Ridley said, clapping his hands. “There’ll actually be plenty of time on the plane to discuss it. We need to get going.”

“You want a ride?” I asked, before trailing off. “How did you get here, actually? I don’t even see a motorcycle.”

Ridley’s eyes twinkled. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“Because if you don’t tell me otherwise, I’m going to tell everyone that you parachute in from the sky to cockblock your friends. See how many giant parties you get invited to then, Mr. Hotshot.”

Ridley laughed. “You brought whatever you believe passes for a sense of humor. That’s good. You’ll need to it tonight.” He opened up the door to my – locked up – SUV. “Shall we?”

“Sure, but I’m driving.”

Ridley stepped away from the driver’s seat. “If thou must. I never liked Yankee driving patterns anyway.”


We landed in Cuba, of all places, a couple hours later. When I asked Ridley about the choice of location, he shrugged. “Vicente Rojas is hosting the Exchange meeting. He’s got some major weight in the Cuban government.”

“I bet Cuban intelligence or, hell, Fidel, isn’t too happy about that.”

Ridley laughed. “Yeah, expect to see a couple of Cuban agents there keeping an eye on things.”

“My mind still boggles that people actually sit around and let this stuff happen.”

Ridley continued walking across the sun-bathed tarmac of the airfield. “Think about it for a moment, John. These are the sort of people who can topple entire governments. This is high-level stuff. Very high level. Or did you think Kroner and MIDNIGHT had the monopoly on all the world’s corruption and conspiracies and power? Seven billion people abound. The world is a complex place.”

“I still don’t get why I’m tagging along though,” I said, following Ridley towards a pair of baggage trucks. One of the trucks pulled away… to reveal Chandra Gosely, standing in a floral sundress that snapped in the wind. Her flowing red hair was cap tucked under a large suncap and her eyes were hidden by those humongous sunglasses that women find all the rage these days. I coughed.

Gosely smiled and sauntered towards me, the wind causing the dress to display… interesting curves. She placed a finger in the middle of my chest. “Because, dear boy, things are not at all what they seem. If people see you arriving under my protection, not only may they be impressed enough to rescind the kill orders plaguing you and your squad, but they might be kind enough to offer you a job.”

“Yeah, I don’t have enough of those these days,” I said. “And besides, it’s always so easy for me to mouth off and piss them off instead.”

Gosely laughed, her voice honey-sweet. “I have no doubt you’ll be able to do that, Major. No, I am trying to lure out a certain man who’s been sent to acquire Farley.”

I’m the bait?” I said, alarmed. “Lady, I don’t know if you’ve ever been fishing, but things never really end well for the bait.”

Stepping back, Gosely let her finger trail down my chest. “Don’t worry. Colonel Thaddeus Teague is quite respectful of your accomplishments, Major.”

“Gee,” I said, letting my mouth run off without some real interaction with my brain. “See, when I think of it that way, I just get the comforting thought that he’s smart enough to shoot me first and send flowers to my funeral later.”

Gosely hit me with one of her perfect laughs, again, and let a hand caress my cheek. “I just need to find out who MIDNIGHT has elected to handle… this affair.”

“Chandra,” Ridley spoke up. “Hands to ourselves.”

Glancing at Ridley, Gosely quirked her mouth and stepped away from me. “You’re right, after all, Jack. We wouldn’t want our little soldier getting any ideas.”

“Don’t worry,” my mouth said before my sanity could drag itself from whatever corner of my head it has its vacation home and stop it, “I’m all into MILFs. Love, love em. Can’t get enough of them. Especially the dirty criminal scumbag ones.”

“I like him already,” Gosely said, turning around and sauntering back to the limo that waited, having appeared quite out of the blue. To be fair, I hadn’t really been watching anything other than Gosely’s chest, but whatever.

“Well,” Ridley said, between clenched teeth. “You handled that well.”

“Bite me, brit-boy,” I shot back. “I’m not the one who got to know her, as your secretary once said, ‘in the biblical sense.’”

Ridley was about to shoot back a response before he cutting himself short. “You’ve met Miss Summers?”

“Boy have I ever,” I said, setting off towards the waiting limo.

“Wait!” Ridley called after me. “Just what do you mean by that?”

As I settled in the limo, Gosely watched me with one of those Cheshire cat grins. I’m pretty sure she was just hamming it up for my benefit, but by god it was disconcerting. This woman was a traitor to her country, a monster and a murderer. And she had great dimples.

“So, what can I expect at this place?” I asked, directly my question at Gosely as Ridley slid easily into the limo.

“What have you been told?” Gosely asked, lifting a single eyebrow.

“Only the vaguest details. Can you fill in any gaps I might have?”

“Child. Have you learned nothing of the underworld?”

“Doesn’t it always get bigger by the minute?” I asked, folding my arms.

“Despite your best efforts?”

“Do you think it’s impossible?”

“In what way is my opinion relevant to reality?”

I frowned. “Are we going to sit here all day answering each other’s questions with questions?”

She reflected my frown back as a radiant smile. “Would you like that?”

“Ah, uh,” I said. “Fuck you.”

She clapped her hands. “This is going to be so much fun. So many of my colleagues these days do love their wordplay. You are going to be a delight to them.”

Ridley had already discovered a bottle of something intensely alcoholic and regarding it with something approaching incredulousness. “I thought this vineyard was swallowed by an earthquake…”

“Yes, well,” Gosely said, not bothering with Ridley. “This is essentially the largest meeting of the shadier aspects of human society annually. Countries will be sold, trade secrets exchanged. It’s conducted in the open for a sense of fair play, so don’t be taken aback by the congenial tones some might address you with. While these people are sharks who would see you dead in any other setting, they intensely value a balance between pragmatism and fair play. They prefer business to be clean, their deals defined by a certain degree of elegance. They do not take kindly to backstabbing or betrayal.”

“Are backstabbing and betrayal synonyms?” I asked, watching the trees slide past the window.

“Depends on whether you’re actually doing the treachery in person,” Gosely clarified. “These people are monsters, no doubt about it, so any of your patented lectures about the moral duplicity of their chosen lifestyles won’t exactly go over too well. Choose your words as carefully as your footsteps, Major, for they may be your last.”

“I have to know just one thing – do you rehearse lines like that? Do you pick them out of a movie script and practice them in front of a mirror? Because, to be honest, the pros ain’t got nothing on you. You don’t need to make money running guns when you could just make a mint in Hollywood.”

“Baylor,” Ridley cut in. “While I feel I should point out the Gosely is goading you into pissing off some very powerful people, meaning a win-win for her if someone decides to start up a grudge against you, she does have a point layered under all the usual bullshit.”

“Right. Try to keep my enemies list under five or six pages. After that, I won’t be able to remember all the names on the list.”

The banter continued that way for an hour or so as the limo ran across a cliffside highway, treating me to spectacular views of the ocean crashing against shear escarpments. Gosely gave us a rundown of the major faces expected to show tonight and what they expected to bid on. Names began to blur by, but I had an easy grasp on them.

Cecile Galvez of the Argentinian Syndicate had an interest in offshore oil rights. A man known on as Mister Wu was expected to try to rig elections in Taiwan. A pair of Pacific Cartels aimed to bid over the allegiance of a country’s coast guard and the accompanying smuggling routes. A Damien Brinklan was going to throw some major money into ending a conflict in Somalia – so he could more easily control the government that was set up in the wake. One of the more organized terrorist organizations was opposed to this intervention, but hoped to settle the issue at the tables before things got out of hand.

There were about a dozen more highlights, mostly corrupt corporate executives and the like. We looked at security details. Guns were checked at the door, but we were under no illusion that the two bodyguards each person was limited to couldn’t demolish anyone who got in their way with fists alone.

“What if things go south?” I asked, looking up from my PDA.

“In what way?” Gosely countered.

“There’ve been a couple of bad scenarios jumping around my head. First and foremost is an outside party looking to attack the meeting. Rojas’ estancia is not a true fortress. It’s got the usual team of hired guns looking over it, but if someone wanted to spray deadly gas or fire a cruise missile at it we’d be toast.”

“The only group with access to take sort of technology is WRAITH,” Gosely stated. “We are the only group beyond the superpowers that possess militarized weaponry to a substantial degree. And believe me when I say that I have the WRAITH assets in the Western Hemisphere completely under my command.”

“But what if someone goes for a direct assault?” I said, cocking my head.

“A more interesting question,” said Ridley, sitting up. “You think that, should that happen, we should make a play for Farley, wherever he’s being held, and skipper on out, leaving the criminals to rot?”

“The thought crossed my mind, yeah,” I said, crossing my arms.

“It’d be a bad idea,” Ridley stated succinctly. “These people are the running gears of a lot of the world. Some people, like Rojas, keep order in certain segments of Central America so that the more chaotic revolutionaries or syndicates can’t wreak havoc. Some of the executives actually run heavy philanthropic ventures, sometimes simply for their own conscience, sometimes for as a legitimate means to a criminal end. Some take it the other way around, using criminal activities to maintain order in regions – like the Somalia – that would otherwise fall back into chaos. They may all be scumbags, sure, but most of them are noble demons, doing the jobs the good guys can’t or won’t get involved in.”

“Hear-hear,” Gosely said. To Ridley, she continued, “Do you have access to my account? I’m willing to put forth as much as forty percent.”

“Sixty,” Ridley said, shaking his head.

“Fifty-fifty.”

“Easy deal,” said Ridley, nodding in acquiescence.

“So, yeah,” I cut in. “What sort of money are we looking at to get a hold of Farley?”

“At minimum?” Ridley said off-handedly. “A billion.”

I rocked back in my seat, mind boggling, before nodding. “We’re essentially dealing with someone who knows a good portion of the secrets of the American government.”

“Indeed. It’s not something we can let fall into the wrong hands.”

“One more thing, then,” I said, holding up a pair of fingers. “First, what if we get out-bid? It’s a possibility.”

“That’s the reason I asked you along, dear,” Gosely said. “Improvise. It’s one your main strengths.”

I threw a glance at Ridley, who elaborated. “Impersonation. You’ve seen the Mission Impossible movies, right? Of course you have. Well, those masks aren’t fiction. We’ve had in-the-field mask creation tech for a couple decades. The problem was the voice. We had no way of reliably recreating the voice patterns, be it tech or actual specialists. Sooner or later they’d trip up, sooner more often. Just open their mouth and everything went to hell. But you have no such problem. Your cybernetics allow you perfect mimicking abilities with a very small sample size.”

“Gotcha, right,” I said. “How much farther until we’re there?”

“Actually…” said Gosely, leaning forward and glancing out a nearby window. “The first security checkpoint should be just around the bend. They’ll check us for weapons while we’re still a distance away before shepherding us to the front doors. You’re on your own from there, gentlemen.”

Twenty-Eight

Gold | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

“Look,” I said, as Bateau clamped an arm around my shoulder. “I’m perfectly capable of picking up babes on my own, thankyouverymuch.”

“Don’t call fraternization between officers and us pukes on me, sir,” Bateau said as he guided me to the bar. “The NSA is covering our backs, Baylor’s out James Bonding it up, so we’ve got a night out. Time to experience it PALE HORSE style?”

I shrugged free of Bateau’s arm. “Not to be a relentless Debbie Downer, but think about this? What prevents us from getting hopelessly drunk, singing Piano Man, and spilling national secrets to the nearest babe? Christ, that’s an image, the NSA checking over every one in the bar to make sure they’re not KGB plants or something.”

Bateau found us a booth and signaled a waitress for two beers. Amber Bochs, I think. “You learn pretty quickly to separate work and leave time. You wouldn’t be part of the team if you hadn’t proven your ability to keep secrets. Hey, just cheer up. I’m pretty sure that raincloud you tug around might just drive out all the fish in the pond.”

“That’s the beauty of Manhattan,” I remarked. “Plenty of fish in one bigass pond. More like a lake. Never thought I’d go from working Force Recon in A-Stan to this – hey, what’s that?” Bateau had just placed a small gadget of some sort on the table.

“Conversation scrambler or some shit. Borrowed it from the NSA liaison. No one will overhear us if we decide to talk business – which, judging by your personality, you’ll inevitable veer the conversation towards.” Bateau received the beers from the waitress and took a couple minutes to chat her up. She was a student at NYU, same damn story, paying by working table, hoping to take a bartending course. Blah blah blah.

“Give it up, man,” I cut in. The waitress looked at me for what was probably the first time. Say what you will, I have a gift at slipping off people’s radars. “Hi. I’m Jace. My friends call me Gold, which is about five seconds away from being something douchey like ‘The Situation.’ My friend here doesn’t see the tan line on your ring finger, but it’s okay, I at least always tip well.” I folded my hands in front of me. “Look, we’re both contractors, not exactly knowledgeable about the Big Apple. We’ve got the day off tomorrow, and we’ve been thinking about doing to tourist playlist. Are there any tips you could give us?”

The waitress stared slack-jawed at me for a second, trying to decide what side of the asshole-suave train I was playing. After a pause she gave me a winning smile and answered my question with a ten minute easy conversation about the insider’s view of New York City. When she left to check on another table, called up by her boss, Bateau glared at me.

“You gave that speech at the beginning and then you didn’t say maybe five more words in as many minutes.”

I spread my hands in front of me before taking a sip from my beer. “I’m an asshole, and I’ll freely admit as much. I just sit back, blend in, and listen. Best skill in the world, letting your opposite think they’re controlling the situation when you’re really the one guiding the rudder. No need to go charging in and figure your way around when you can just sit back, let them do the work for you, and act at a moment of your choosing.”

Bateau sneered at me, mixing it with a smile. “You… bastard. That why Baylor picked you?”

“Nope. He found me in the aftermath of the debacle of that Rebirth Island mission, where you guys were leading the assault on that Separatist bioweapons plant.”

Bateau frowned heavily into his beer. “Joint USMC-Spetsnaz operation. PALE HORSE ran straight for the facility’s heart while you guys held the line. But the line didn’t hold.”

“Yeah. Someone tipped the Separatists off to our presence. I was leading Omega Unit at the time. We ran into some old WRAITH tech that had originally been MIDNIGHT gear. We were blindsider and most of my platoon was wiped out. You guys went out of your way to get the heat off our backs. Baylor requests the transfer a couple months later – I think he knew that I wouldn’t let what happened to my unit happen to PALE HORSE.”

“If there’s one thing Baylor values above anything else – even the mission – it’s his men. He made a promise three years ago that not a single ‘nother member of the squad would die.”

“That would explain it. He said he wanted a ‘gold record,’” I said. “Shame Baylor couldn’t be here. I hear he’s a bucket of laughs at bars.”

Bateau snorted. “You shitting me? Too busy comforting the widow.”

I quirked an eyebrow at him. “You mean Miss Lennox?” I asked, feigning ignorance.

“Yeah, well, at least he’s actually taking his head out the sand.”

“What do you mean?”

Bateau took a swig out of his beer, taking a moment to survey the room impassively, as though gathering his thoughts. I reevaluated the platoon sergeant in a corner of my mind – he wasn’t at all the carefree soldier he presented himself as. There was a hint of my own special brand of reserved demeanor in his face, as though we were carefully weighing his words for their impact on me.

“I’ve been with Baylor since he took up his first LT position, back in late ’04. Just a freshfaced private in a crappy platoon. Baylor was married back then. He was just twenty-three, and they had only been together a year. She was a couple months pregnant when we blew up the Paragon in 2005. The predictable happened. We were all split up and shoved to where we wouldn’t talk to the press or cause any problems. Baylor got attached to Space Cav up with NATO Star Base One.”

Bateau leaned back into the booth, talking with the air of recalling a memory he had only be a spectator to. “They started fighting. He had been gone for a year and their son hadn’t seen John for close to a year and a half. I had met up with Baylor on chance in Hamburg and heard them fight over the phone. I’m pretty sure they were about to divorce when a drunk driver blindsided the wife, killing her and the kid instantly.”

Staring into his beer, Bateau didn’t speak. I spoke up instead. “Obviously, it hit Baylor pretty hard.”

“No shit it did,” Bateau cut in over me. “This had happened just after all the shit went down in Hungary with the Monolith. Baylor was on pretty much on edge, and worked solo for a few years after that, at least until the platoon did a reunion tour just in time for the entire Soviet coup. He was pretty much at his lowest point then, and I’m pretty sure the deaths of all his men in that short a time period made him damn near reckless with life towards the end of it all. I mean, christ, he leapt out of helicopter over a pit of fire to punch a giant robot in the throat.”

“So you’re implying his relationship with Cutler’s widow is good for him.”

“I was getting to that, but yeah. He thinks he’s got a family again, a bit of stability in his life.”

“It’s dangerous,” I muttered to myself.

Bateau quirked an eyebrow at me. “That your opinion?”

“It’s not my place to pry into Baylor’s personal life.”

“And yet here we are.”

“There’s that. My point, and it’s more of a worry and concern, is that Baylor’s… liaison with Ms. Lennox could easily be used against him.”

Bateau leaned back, interlacing his face into a steeple. “Ah. The superhero argument.”

I pursed my lips. “That’s something Baylor would say.”

“Doesn’t stop me from saying with the same contempt any reasonable person should regard it with. Does being in a dangerous business mean we shouldn’t have family, friends, loved ones? And what about the rest of PALE HORSE? Does the argument apply to me, you, Fender? Fender’s got a gal at Empire State that he proposed to last month. You know that.”

“Yeah,” I retorted, “And did you noticed how all those assassination orders focus almost entirely on Baylor and most of them don’t even mention us at all? MIDNIGHT or anyone else still could use Anne against us. I mean, look at them. They’ve been two steps ahead of us this entire time, even considering Baylor’s theory of a rogue agent.”

“And sometimes,” Bateau shot back, “they’ll turn people who have no legitimate outside reason to turn. Money. Ideology. Blackmail is… overrated.”

This was tenuous ground. “You sound like you have experience with all of this.”

I needed to know if I could trust Bateau. I knew there was a MIDNIGHT operative in Baylor’s circle for some time now, and it was in my mission to seek him or her out.

The next few days promised to be the most dangerous of our lives. I needed all the help I could get. My codename is Gold. And I am a MIDNIGHT agent.

Twenty-Nine

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

“Remind me why you convinced me that this was a good idea,” Ridley said over the encrypted radio channel as he exited the limo.

“I can be very persuasive if I want to. Crouching lunatic, hidden guile badass.”

“No shit,” intoned Ridley. “Considering you laid out your argument in the minute before they scanned the car.”

“I’m one of the best stealth operatives in the world, Jack. You don’t think I’ve never snuck past a checkpoint and then a mile of open terrain before in my life without being spotted, do you?”

“Not so fast that you barely beat the limo here.”

I clung to an overhanging gargoyle on the front façade of Rojas’ ridiculously pretentious mansion, in an exact blind spot of the cameras, pressure carpets, and heat sensors. Most of those my cybernetics rendered oblivious to my presence, but it never hurt to be prepared.

My logic had been simple – we needed a backup plan. I couldn’t impersonate anyone, much less sneak around, if security knew I was there and was tracking my every move. So I’d stay off the radar and attempt to find out if Farley was being kept onsite. While experience dictated it was easier to technically sell the location of Farley – a cargo box at a faraway port, Gosely’s own intel pointed towards Farley being kept in the underlevels of the estate.

I tapped my temple, cycling vision modes. I eventually hit upon a custom invention of my own (and Fender’s) that allowed me to view things of an electronic nature – computer networks, camera viewing radii, power lines feeding pressure sensors, the like. See anything? I thought, the words cycling into a radio that fed out my spinal antenna to be received in New York City.

“You’re in luck. The research for this type of system just came into today from the NSA codebreakers. I can get into a subsidiary of the security network if you give me a second. I’ll just use your body as a jump terminal, one sec…” He chuckled. “Just like old times, eh?”

Fender was on the comm from the hotel in New York. With nothing else to do tonight beyond exploring his own home city, he had volunteered to run home plate for the Cuba mission. We’d run ops like this before, with Fender using my cybernetic infiltration package as a jump point to hacking secure networks as though I were an onsite terminal. Technically I could do the same stuff, but I knew about as much about the intricacies of bleeding edge computer warfare as I did about astrophysics.

Pete Fender had originally been a cracker, infiltrating computer networks out of boredom since his late teens. The young man was humongously gifted in the art and to this day boasted there was no security network that could catch him. I had tracked him down in 2008 when one of my operations ran afoul of his involvement, finding the kid in the middle of college, juggling the basketball team at day and cracking government databases at night. I had given him a choice on behalf of the US government – prison for a very long time or working exclusively for America. Fender took my offer literally and joined the Marines, working his way into Force Recon – the kid was no slouch in the physical arena. I had picked him for Omega Unit two and a half years later. Fender viewed his work with PALE HORSE as a guided chance to test his skill in the most active and dangerous league of security, and actively enjoyed it.

“There, you’re in. I’ve got most of the upper floor cameras doing loops, recycling every so often and allowing passing people to be seen. But you should be edited right out,” Fender explained. “Right, I’m downloading a map right now. The window a floor above and two to your right is your best bet, that area’s deserted and I’ve put a bypass on the sensor.”

Copy that, I intoned. Below me Ridley had exited the limo – Gosely hadn’t seen fit to converse with lesser criminals – and was having a smiling conversation with Rojas. The Cuban crime lord was a short man, with jaw-length black hair, a trimmed beard, and an easy, jovial face. He looked like your favorite uncle. I dialed in my hearing.

“…And such a lovely gift,” Rojas had said in Spanish.

“We all should pay tribute to the man himself,” Ridley replied in perfectly fluent Spanish. “MI6 is well indebted for your efforts in Guatemala last year, Rojas.”

I scanned the wide and gently ascending staircase to see what Ridley was referring to – a statue of the Commodante himself, Fidel. It was perfectly ironic, which is probably why Rojas loved it. After all, the Exchange meeting was all covered under the party Rojas was throwing. It was lead-lined and perfectly balanced to get past security, and fill to the brim with any weapons we’d need if things went bad. I’m sure most of the other guests were doing the same thing, which is why Rojas was diverting his gifts to one of his underground storage warehouses – a short of gun check-in you’d see in a Wild West movie.

I moved silently across the front face of the building, carefully keeping to the shadow before I found the window Fender had referred to. Prying it open, I slipped in unmolested by any alarms. From here it was just a simple task of working my way downwards towards the entrance to Rojas’ underground facilities and casing the security. It was almost certainly guarded by multiple approaches.

“Yo, Ridley,” I said into my comm. “I’m betting Rojas has voicelock as part of his security. Get a few words from him for posterity, will you?”

“I think that’s most agreeable, Rojas,” Ridley responded, nodding as he walked up into the building with the criminal to waiting party. “Security seems a bit light, are you not expecting trouble?”

Rojas shrugged. “I find it’s best to keep such things in the background. It’s all state of the art, but you’ll find we have a certain understanding here, Mister Ridley. In my line of work, people have a mutual understanding of what it takes to keep the world turning. In a sense we’re all one environment, all interdependent and established. If someone were to cause trouble, I think you’ll find it won’t just be my own men that will seek swift retribution.” Rojas paused to let the threat sink in before continuing.

As the pair entered the packed atrium, Rojas turned to the audience at large. “People like us are the reason the average man and woman can sleep peacefully at night, entertained and satisfied. I’m sure we all appreciate the effort we put to keep the hordes at bay, to provide delusions of security.” He swiped a glass of something off a nearby tray and held it high. “May the world always have a need for men like us!”

The assembled criminals gave a round of applause before falling back into their conversations.

“Well, it’s good to see these guys don’t just monologue for guys like me,” I said. “They go and practice on their friends, too. That’d be enough for a voiceprint, thanks.” Come one, come all to world’s greatest form of entertainment since the fall of Rome. Life, death, victims, voyeurs, the best of society, the lowest of plebeians. And to keep it all extremely interesting, today’s patrons can very easily be tomorrow’s entertainment. All that’s missing is the coliseum.

Ridley gave two taps of acknowledgment over the comm before plunging into the crowd.

Making my way downwards wasn’t a slow process, but I definitely made good time. Fender warned me about passing guards with enough time for me to duck out of the way. Along the way, I kept a running portion of my mind devoted towards listening to Ridley intermingling with the crowd.

Things were definitely interesting down there – Ridley had been keeping a stealth commentary going as he wove his way through the crowd. Apparently there were three factions present, or at least could be divined from the crowd. The main crowd centered around the host, Rojas – villains with what seemed to be very good publicity, corporate executives and the like. They fell in with the speech at the beginning of the party – they looked to keep portions of the underworld running, and viewed a clean house and a stable world as the best way to accomplish that goal.

The second group wasn’t so noooble, so to speak. These were the cartels, the more violent drug outfits that ran along Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim. There were mutual alliance and hatreds within said group, but the Rojas’ ilk could at least agree all of the more ruthless syndicates were a problem that would eventually be ‘dealt’ with somewhere in the future.

The third group – if it could really be called a group – was the rest of the attendees. Single-man ventures, terrorists organizations, lesser powers, the odd intelligence group keeping an eye on things, much like Ridley. One such person approaching Ridley not soon into the gathering, at least putting to rest one of my questions about the night’s affairs.

“Ah,” Ridley said. “I wondered what the Cuban government thought of the night’s affairs.”

A gruff voice responded, sounding something like gravel mixed with a thousand cigars. “Yeah, well. Rojas has too many Americano friends for ol’ El Caballo to force him off.”

“I’m surprised that the old bird is this running himself, Major.”

The speaker – a Major – chuckled. “He’s running fine, thanks to Soviet implants. It’s about the only help we’ve received from Moscow in a while now, Senorita Kiralova is too busy with her own problems to keep up with Cuba. But that’s enough intelligence for you Brits to run on. Say… my sources mentioned you had a second guest coming along with you.”

“Funny, Muerte, my sources said the same about you.”

Which is about how much I heard before someone placed a pistol against the back of my head.

“Not all of us need fancy cybernetics to run a sneaking mission,” my captor said in Spanish. Gruff Spanish. So, probably a Cuban. My gut instinct said all Cubans talked like they smoked twenty zillion packs a day.

I smiled, and reminded myself to ask Fender how the hell someone had just created a blindspot to sneak into. “You must be Major Muerte’s man,” I responded in English.

The pistol faltered, if only infinitesimally. “And you must be the norte-americano Gosely had contacted,” he replied in kind.

Fortunately, we were in a dark recess just a level above the mezzanine, so we were safe in case a guard came by. Still, a humbling experience was always good for the old ego, to know there was always someone better. At least he was on my side… or at least not willing to kill me just yet.

“Look,” I said. “The Cubans can’t be too happy to be hosting an Exchange meeting. I’m not here to do anything but provide an extraction contingency if things go south. No need to start shooting if our aims don’t run afoul of each other, yeah? So why don’t you lower that ’11 from my head before you go about redecorating the estate with a fancy new shade of red?”

There was a nearly inaudible rustle of a gun lowering. “You’ve got some cajones, you know that, Baylor?”

I turned to face the Cuban agent. He wasn’t very tall, but stocky and well-built, with a Chevron mustache the type you’d expect to see on Burt Reynolds. All in all he looked like a young Hispanic Burt Reynolds. And so I didn’t go on calling him young Hispanic Burt Reynolds, I asked for his name.

“Ruz,” he responded in clipped terms.

“Does that mean your full name is-“

“No,” he cut me off. “Look, not everyone names their kids after the old man. Anyway, I have some files state-sec wants from Rojas’ personal systems. You look like you’re headed that way, so maybe it’d be in our best interest to work together, like you say?”

“Sure, sure,” I agreed, scanning the long hallway overlooking a section of the congregation. We were still in the clear. “And maybe one day you’ll tell me how you snuck past my watchdog.”

“Can’t go giving away trade secrets now,” Ruz said ruefully, darting past me into the darkness. “C’mon, best place to pick up DNA traces would be Rojas’ personal quarters. Let’s go.”

We talked – mostly through fast-paced sign language – as we ran, easily avoiding guards along the way. I got the sense of Ruz as a young but incredibly skilled operative – easily judging from the way we managed to move through the compound without even a slightest hint of electronic assistance – focused on his mission to an utmost degree. In a sense, he reminded me of, well, me, several years ago, despite our similarities in ages.

Dropping down a floor to the main event, I ducked behind a column when I saw a quartet of guards standing outside the front entrance to Rojas’ chambers.

“Fender, see if you can intercept their comms, send them on their way,” I said into my comm, out loud for Ruz’s benefit.

“No need,” he whispered, mounting the railing and clipping a quick-release cable to the handgrips. “People like Rojas always love their window views.”

“Oh, how boring of me,” I shot back. “To not see cliffside rappelling as an option.”

Ruz offered me quick grin. “You mean you don’t carry quick-rope with you at all times?” And with that he was gone, disappearing into the night.

I stole a quick glance at the guards before swearing under my breath, took a running a start, and flung myself off the walkway. Catching my arm on the railing I fell something like ten feet before catching my fingertips on the edges of the recessed balcony below. The impact nearly tore my fingers out of their sockets, and probably would have done so to a normal man, but I took the pain in stride and hefted myself onto the viewing platform. Ruz watched me with an eyebrow quirked as he hit a button on his belt. Without a sound the clip released itself from the railing above and retracted in a flash a sheath that presumably circled his waist. He motioned to the sliding glass door, sealed with a keypad/swipe card combo. “You want to get that?”

“I’m sure you could do it,” I shot back, brushing the cliff dust off my jacket.

“And I’m sure you could do it in a quarter the time I could,” he responded plainly. “Norteamericanos do love their computers.”

I sneered at him and flicked over to infrared, glancing down at the pad while opening a line to Fender. See this? I thought. The numbers 1, 4, 6, 8, and 9 are lit.

“Yeah,” Fender responded, “but we don’t know about repeats. Just let me to a bypass.”

I sighed and slotted a key card out of my inner suit pocket, sliding it into the card slot. “None of you guys are any fun.” It took only five seconds for the door’s lock to click open, and I slid the doors apart. “Easy money.”

Just in time for a mook to round the corner with a shotgun held loosely by his side.

I reacted before Ruz or the mook could – no matter how good they were, they were still flesh and blood. I seized the guard’s trigger hand with a vicegrip, breaking his trigger finger with a flick of his hand as I pulled him forward to prevent him from firing the noisy shotgun.

The guard flew past me, a pained gurgle. Ruz neatly sidestepped the guard as he stumbled out onto the balcony, hitting the railing. The bar checked him at the waist, and the guard went over without as much as a scream. His body most likely broke on the rocks below, if not, he was likely to be swept out to sea.

“Right then,” I said, swinging my arms. “Let’s get on with it.”

We swept into Rojas’ luxuriously appointed quarters, assuring ourselves that there were no more guards present. I immediately made my way for the bathroom, which was adorned with an obscene amount of chrome. Easy handprints and even easier DNA. Wouldn’t be too easy from there to put together a print glove from my – or Ruz’s – spy kit.

“Vargas? You there, man?”

Ruz’s head snapped out from where he had been examining Rojas’ personal terminal. “Time to go.”

“But isn’t that what you’re here for?” I asked, motioning to the terminal?

“Piece of trash is a dummy terminal. The real deal’s downstairs, amigo.”

I nodded and flung myself out of the bathroom, sprinting towards the balcony.

“You see Vargas anywhere?” Another voice asked. I quickly switched to infrared and confirmed four guards converging on the patio door from different directions. They hadn’t showed up on my first infrared sweep of the quarters, which instantly alerted me to a problem. “Christ, the door’s open.”

Now or never, as I saw one of the guards reach for his radio. I nodded to Ruz, who had a silenced Colt .45 in hand. I slid a pair of ceramic throwing knives from my sleeves –a skill I would never have considered before the cybernetics.

We both wheeled around the corner at the same time.

My left knife flew across the room and embedded itself in the eye of the guard reaching for his shoulder-mounted radio, before gravity could take its hold Ruz had shot the left two guards into the center of mass, clean, easy drops with no mess.

That left the final guard, who was closest to me. His eyes were in the process of widening at the sight of the knife protruding from his buddy’s eye socket when I jammed my second blade into the side of his neck, killing him instantly with zero blood. I wrapped a hand around his neck and covered his mouth, lowering him to the floor.

This all took maybe a second. The three other corpses finally hit the floor as I bounced back up from my crouch, giving Ruz a nod. “Guess this means we’re on a speed-run from here on out. C’mon, let’s chuck these bodies.”

It took us an eyeblink to toss the corpses into the night, making sure no one was observing this particular section of the coast from above. Ruz retrieved his grappling cable and affixed it to the muzzle of his .45 while I looped an arm through his shoulder harness. With a second nod we ascended upwards to the walkway, which was momentarily out of the line of sight.

“Right,” I said, programming the finger-print glove I had produced from my stash of infiltration supplies back in the Big Apple. The glove would read like a perfect copy of Rojas’ right hand, complete with a thin coating of DNA-copied enzymes that had been produced only a couple months ago in a Brussels laboratory and the CIA had produced out from a deep cover operative. “We just need to get to the portal from here… Wait. We still don’t have the password.”

“Goldfinger.” Ruz supplied without looking up as he detached his grappling apparatus.

“The man’s a Bond fan, then?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“No, but his most recent mistress is,” Ruz shrugged. “Women have always been the man’s Achilles’ heel, eh?”

“You guys have your ways.”

“Hey, guys you copy?” Ridley came in over my comm.

“No!” I replied. “I only take really good notes, over!”

Ridley muttered something unintelligible to himself.

I kneeled, putting a finger to my ear. “I’m here. And I guess you know the Cubans have their man with me as well.”

“Muerte’s new guard,” Ridley explained. “Worked with him a decade or so ago to infiltrate the Paragon. He’s clued in.”

Well, that explained how Ridley had placed himself in General Carson’s 1/1/1 Force Recon group. Everyone these days knew each other, it seemed. Or perhaps this section of the intelligence group was just really tight-knit. It went to show I still had a lot to learn.

“What’s up?” I asked. Tremendous spy material, ‘What’s up.’ Brilliant.

“The auction is about to begin.”

My eyes widened. “I thought I still had an hour to poke around.”

Ridley’s voice was worried. “Yeah, I know. Rojas moved it up. I’m heading to him right now to get a reason.”

“Do you think he knows?” I asked.

“I dunno, mate,” Ridley shot back, voice growing a bit heated. “How many blokes have you killed so far?”

“Er, only three. The Cuban killed two. But from what we’ve been able to tell from the guard’s radio channels, we’re still clean.”

“Then it’s something else,” Ridley replied. I could imagine the puzzled expression on his face. “How far along are you?”

“We’re on our way to the vault door now. It’ll be another five minutes until we’re in.”

“Make it less. Ridley out.”

I stood and explained the situation to Ruz.

“No idea,” Ruz said when I picked his mind for a reason as to the acceleration of the night’s itinerary.

“Great,” I muttered to myself as I peeked around a corner. “Let’s get moving.”

Thirty

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

The gate into Rojas’ extensive underground storehouses stood open before us, the voicelocked passcode and dna handprint scanner having been accepted without a hitch. Fender had logged the opening as a diagnostic cycling that wouldn’t be discovered for at least a month in the server logs, and even then by someone who knew what they were looking for.

“Let’s go,” Ruz said. “Your holding cells should be near the central mainframe.”

The guard presence was significantly less in the chilly cellars of the estate, close to nil and just as easily to navigate without detection. Rojas obviously placed too much belief in his top-line vault door.

We passed a titanic garage, lined on both sides with collection of cars that had more in common with spaceships than mere automobiles and probably cost as much as the house itself. I made a quick mental note that, if it came to it, I would go out my way to make the garage my escape route.

“Baylor, you need to get out there, now.” Ridley cut in with a buzz of static.

I only quickened my pace. “Why?” I asked simply.

“Just finished talking with Rojas. Apparently he got a handsome offer to sell Farley right there and then. Someone’s on their way to pick up Farley. I’m damn sure he knows you’re somewhere on his estate.”

“We’re almost at the cells. I can get Farley out before the buyer picks him up. Did he say who paid out?”

“He expressly refused to answer on that point. Listen, the last thing we need is to have to fight our way out of here.”

“I’m telling you, I can make it. Raise Gosely. We might need her help if things go south.”

“They had better not go south, dammit.” There was a pause as Ridley momentarily cut the line, and Ruz and I closed in on the holding cells. Ruz nodded to me and split off to make his way to finish his own mission.

“She’s not fricking answering,” Ridley said.

“We’ve been set up?” I asked.

“It looks like the guards are having radio trouble as well,” Ridley said. “Try to raise Fender.”

I tried. No luck.

“My spider-sense is tingling…” I said into the comm. I passed a collection of statues and paintings, loot for Rojas, tributes to the man himself from the assembled guests. With the back of my fist I smashed open the base of the Fidel statue, finding a Kevlar vest, a pair of silenced Five-seveNs, and a compact box-of-chocolates P90. First I donned the vest underneath my suit jacket, before [pulling the strap of the submachine gun over one should and letting it hang at my side. I then dropped one of the pistols and a bandolier of mags into my jacket pocket while holding the second pistol in a two-handed grip.

“I know, I know,” Ridley said. “Oh shit. Get Farley. Now.”

“Ridley?” I hissed. The sound of gunfire stuttered over the comm. “Jack! Dammit, meet me in the garage!”

“Third… party is onsite,” Ridley’s voice was increasing choked by static. “Stay… alive.”

Dammit. Things were spinning out of control.

I kicked open the door to Rojas’ personal dungeon and instantly saw two men standing over a bloodied and bruised form tied to a rickety wooden chair. The room was sparse, the only decorations a single bare lightbulb and the blood staining the floor. Apparently Rojas wanted whatever information he could get out of Farley before he was rid of the General.

I shot each man in turn before they could react, pivoting in place and painting two matching sets of brain matter over the walls. Letting my pistol fall loosely to my side and kicking the door shut behind me, I bounded forward to Farley, who was amazingly still conscious despite the dozen or so small blade nicks covering his body and the electric wires taped to his chest. He looked groggily up at me, his droopy orange mustache – the only hair of his once-shiny bald pate – seeming even droopier than usual.

“…Baylor?” he asked, as though fighting to tear through gallons of drugs shackling him down.

“The one and only,” I responded, dropping my sleeve blade into my palm and working on the simple ropes binding his arms to the back of the chair. “You were going for a full billion, you know that?”

“Really?” he asked, groaning. “Could’ve put the grandkids through college on that.”

“Yeah, well, I told ‘em you weren’t worth that so I volunteered to come pick you up for free.”

“You have… no idea how much confidence that fill me with.” He spat out a mouthful of blood and some fragments of a broken tooth.

“Right,” I said, cutting loose his bonds. “Things are going to hell upstairs, so we need to bug out right quick, ya hear?”

“Sounds… like a good plan,” Farley said in another perpetual groan. I shifted and started working on the bonds near encircling his ankles.

There was a shout, a titanic whoomph, and the distinct sound of a body flying down the hallway, past the door, not unlike a shuttlecock. A second whoomph followed immediately thereafter, signifying the body hitting the far wall.

The door opened, and a humongous man in a knee-length overcoat stepped in. His greying hair was swept back, and a black eyepatch cross over one side of his face. A dark figure stood behind him, slightly hunched – no, it was an entirely distinctive slouch – initially made to look like a fighter’s crouch but really the posture of someone too self-assured to care..

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” the mountain of a man stated, his voice deep and growling. “I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

“Yeah, well, um, fuck that,” I said, and whipped my pistol up, firing twice into his face.

The bullets didn’t so much as hit him. They skived off in opposite direction, plowing shallow furrows in the concrete walls.

“Don’t waste your bullets,” the man said. “Introductions are in order. Pleased to meet you, my name is Thaddeus Teagu-”

I shot him some more, for good measure. Teague – Teagle- whatever the hell his name was – actually rolled his eyes and moved a gloved hand in a ‘let’s move this along’ gesture as I emptied the magazine at him to zero effect.

The stolen pistol clicked empty, and I threw it at the man. He caught it without any fuss and casually disassembled it with a flick of his wrist. “They really never try anything different,” Teagle said to his companion.

“Look, Teagle, let’s not stop a fight,” I said, backing away from him.

“Aaand I to think I was actually looking forward to this,” Teagle muttered dryly. He drew a gun from his coat, a massive revolver, and leveled it at my face.

----Ridley----

Things were not exactly going swimmingly, but the marked contrast between the assembled villainy moving towards Rojas’ custom circular amphitheater and the firefight a half second later was starkly startling.

““I know, I know,” Ridley had been saying into an inner-ear radio.

At which point the front doors had exploded inward, deforming and becoming nothing more than two quarter-ton flattened missiles that mowed into the receding crowd of underworld leaders like buzzsaws. The first row of people was killed instantly, while the people immediately behind them received paralyzing injuries and the group behind them were bowled over.

“Oh shit. Get Farley. Now.” – was all Ridley had time to saw before black-clad wraiths exploded out of the roiling smoke and dust of the shaped charges that had blown open the doors. Blue-colored lasers scythed through the dark, and gunfire behind chattering, three-shot bursts that cut through the disoriented mob like fish in a barrel. People were dying all over the place, and Ridley heard the sound of a tank firing outside overlaid with the thumpa-thumpa helicopter rotors.

Ridley bounded down a side hall, running for his life. “Third, hostile party is onsite,” Ridley shouted into his comm. A guard stepped down from a nearby room, MP5 in hand, pushing Ridley past as he and two buddies dived forward, similarly armed, to meet the sudden invaders. “Get Farley the fuck out of there! Baylor! Baylor!” But the channel had been overwhelming with static- a jamming device, clogging the airwaves. “Shit!” he screamed, and threw himself down another corridor, and into the packed ballroom that served as an antechamber to the actual location of the Exchange auction.

Rojas and about three dozen guards were there, guns leveled. Ridley barely had time to scramble back in a hallway as Rojas screeched “TREACHERYYYYYYYY!!!” in the most melodramatic voice he possibly could and started screaming for his guards to open fire.

This was all happening too fast, this place was a fortress on the outside, there was no way things could be dissolving into chaos this quickly, everything was wrong, everything.

The doors and paneling behind Ridley were shredded under the sheer force of the barrage, literally dissolving into a fine dust of particulate matter as Ridley awkwardly through himself into an overly ostentatious bathroom. Throwing himself out the window, Ridley caught himself soon enough to see such an act would send him plunging off the cliff to the rocky, sea-braised base below. Instead, Ridley scrambled at the floor of the balcony walkway above, catching it and tearing up the tips of his fingers on the rough concrete. Yanking himself upward and over the railing, Ridley found himself looking down on the hallway as a superhuman waded into the ballroom and began slaughtering the thirty-something men in there.

There was no other word for it. Slaughter. It was akin to letting Alexis Starr or Ryuhei Akamatsu loose in a tightly packed area and telling them to do their worse.

The man in question wasn’t clad in INTEGRAL TEMPEST armor but instead seemed to absorb the bullets with a minimal amount of blood – so closer to Akamatsu, with some advanced nanomachines powering him. Striding into the room, the man delivered a cracking punch so hard into the chest of the first guard he met that the man literally seemed to explode, his chest caving inward and flying so hard backward that the effect the doors had had on the partygoers seemed tamed by comparison. Three men alone died from the impact.

And then a second man joined the first, similarly wading into the crowd with fists and a massive machete blazing. Both black clad, and letting their heavy machine guns fall by their sides as if to make a point: there was nothing Rojas’ high-priced mercenaries could do to protect them. They were unstoppable titans, juggernauts.

The second thought that crossed Ridley’s mind was thus: oh shit oh shit oh shit. These bastards are mass-produced. Someone is fucking mass producing metahumans.

But it was nothing compared to the demon from hell that burst forth between the two superhumans. Froglike in agility and as monstrous as a reptilian tiger, Ridley recognized the beast as the Abomination Baylor had described from his encounter in Michigan this morning.

The creature has ripped several men in half before jerking its head upward, nostrils flaring. And then its head reoriented.

To stare directly at Ridley.

Thirty-One

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

I still had my other pistol and the P90 with me, but judging by the bullet-deflection Teague Teagle had just displayed moments before, I doubted they’d do much more good.

Gunfire echoed above, and screams – absolutely hideous screams – floated downward. Teagle snapped his head upward at the sounds, clearly worried.

“Your men decide to hell with it?”

“I did not bring any ‘men,’” Teagle shot back, “Not beyond Nix here.”

Oh, shit.

The stranger stepped into the light and for the first time I saw his features. Same strong build, messy hair, easy grin. Dressed in combat fatigues and unarmed save for a pistol holstered across his chest. He flicked his hair to the side, and offered one of those said grins to me. “Broooski. You didn’t actually think you were safe at all once Skye was gone, did you?”

A dozen questions leapt to mind, such as: if the NSA was compromised, how had I stayed alive this long? And, if the chaos upstairs wasn’t Teague, who was it?

But I settled on not so much as a question as a threat.

“You’re not getting Farley. I won’t let you.”

Teagle smiled heartily at me. “Dear boy. Is there anything you think you can do that makes you think you can stop me from simply taking him away from you? But there’s no need for violence. I paid for the General here, he is rightfully mine. I’m in the right here, especially since you just tried to murder me.”

“I’d love one day to know how that works.”

“And I’m sure I’ll tell you someday,” he responded. “But I do try to honor the law of an arrangement before I settle things my way.”

“And I have such I high opinion of this entire place,” I sneered.

Teagle shrugged. “And neither, apparently, do our friends upstairs. I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone decided the Exchange was a silly idea, but the timing is most inconvenient.”

“You mean whoever’s screwing around up there aren’t you guys?”

“Haven’t I said that twice now?” Teagle responded curtly. “And to think I held you in such high esteem. No, it’s simply a third party, most likely looking for Farley here. And judging from the particular tenor of the screams, I’d hazard a guess to say the Acheron Foundation is finally looking to test its prototypes in the field.”

“What?” I asked. “Why are you so chatty? I mean, look, if this is the whole ‘join me, here’s some information’ speech, I’m sure I can-”

“Shut! Up!” Nix shouted before the word truly escaped my lips, and he had crossed the room in a blur, slamming an elbow into my stomach and sending me flying to crater the far wall. It was probably the same move he had used on Ruz. But whatever this guy was, he wasn’t a vanilla. No way. Sizing up the situation, I looked around – my P90 had flown to the far side of the room, out of reach. Farley was still fighting off the drugs. Teague Teagle had his revolver hung loosely – he had been looking forward to pitting me against his personal agent, I could tell, but he wouldn’t shoot me. My personal sense of the man told me valued one of those movie-generic sense of fair play – what other sort of person would bring up his purchasing of Farley as legitimate argument towards ownership?

“Why…” I coughed, and blood sprinkled my suit – not good – “the sudden hostility, man?”

Teagle chucked quietly to himself. “I don’t think you really understand how much he hates you. You, after all, represent the freedom he couldn’t have.” What the hell did that even mean?

“Don’t know, don’t care,” I said, cracking my knuckles and pulling myself to my feet.

Nix worked out a crick in his own neck. “Ready to die, Baylor?”

“Why do you steal all my lines?”

I pulled the second pistol out and leveled it at Nix, but before I could pull the trigger Nix had already zoomed in on my hand, easily and fluidly twisting the pistol out of my hand. Circling around me like a snake, he dropped a heel into my knee, forcing me back to the ground. A stinging slap of my pistol to the side of the head left my eyes blurry and my mind ringing. Insult to injury, but it gave Nix enough time to step back and easily disassembled my sidearm.

I was stunned for a moment – partially because of the blow to the head, partially because this son of a bitch had just partially subdued me in about two seconds. That hadn’t happened in three years.

I feinted left with an elbow and actually spun and put my weight behind the right, hoping to catch Nix on the rebound. My opponent easily sidestepped both blows and placed a boot in the center of my chest, toppling me backwards. He leaned over, one hand on his knee, sneering at me with such skill you’d have thought he practiced in front of a mirror.

“Why you on the ground, cockroach?” Christ, it was the sort of thing Butch you say to me when we brawled as kids.

I reached around and yanked the chair out from underneath Farley, throwing it like a lethal spiked missile at Nix, who had to take a step back and catch it. That gave me enough time to snap my feet underneath my waist, fold my torso forward, and shoot upwards, and take the chair Nix swung at me on the shoulder. The chair shattered into a kajillion pieces, but I battered the blow aside and caught Nix around the waist, throwing him to the ground where I hoped my skill at a grappling could subdue him.

Or at least a punch to the throat, I thought, as I drew a fist back, dropping the throwing knife into my hand

Nix shrimped underneath me, getting his arms between our torsos – one hand parried the incoming blade while the other seized me by the collar and yanked me forward so he could deliver a vicious head-butt to my nose. I turned my head just before he could smash my nose in a blow that probably would have killed me, taking the brunt of the blow on my slackened cheek, not near enough to either my jaw or cheekbone to shatter them.

Still, I was dazed enough for Nix to get a knee between us and shoved me backwards. I rebounded backwards, bounced off a wall, and pulled myself into a fighting stance as Nix swung his legs in one of those wide martial-arts windmills and use the momentum to spring to his feet. He swiped at his nose and offered me some horrid mix of a grin-sneer that still managed to make me feel inadequate. “Your technique is shit, Baylor. Have you gone soft with all those cybernetics?”

“Maybe I have,” I said. “But he hasn’t.”

Farley, having fallen onto my P90 when I had taken his seat out from underneath him, opened up with the boxy submachine gun.

Nix dove aside as a line of bullet holes shattered the wall behind him, tracking him. But the operative was just too fast for Farley’s sluggish reflexes to catch up, and with a bound, he was behind Teague’s shield (character shield?).

At about the same time a short sneaking suit-clad Cuban to appear behind Teague and fire a sawed-off shotgun into the man’s back.

Clearly whatever method Teague was using to ricochet bullets away from him didn’t cover his back, but as it turned out, his heavy trenchcoat wasn’t just for show. Apparently the material was lined with some form of armor, but that did stop the sheer kinetic force from blowing the Colonel past the door frame and out of sight.

Nix, suddenly deprived of his shield, spun to face the most immediate threat – Ruz, who had clearly recovered despite a deep palm-shaped impression in the center of his sneaking suit.

I saw Ruz was going to be able to flip the lever of his hold-out boomstick in the time it would take for Nix to deliver another one of the incapacitating palm strikes. But Ruz was committed, had been so when he fired at Teague, and couldn’t dodge out the way in time.

Farley saw this too. And so, at about the same time Ruz had blasted away at Teague, he had thrown the P90 up and into my open hands. I barely had to aim, firing one-handed from the hip, but in a flash I had fired a bullet into each of Nix’s knees.

The operative crumpled to the ground, overbalanced, and landed on Ruz’s upcoming book. Nix flipped back against the wall, his face a mask of blood, groggy.

I shuffle-stepped around a corner, but P90 now pressed to my shoulder, but the hallway past Ruz and Nix was empty. Teague had slipped away.

“You okay?” I asked Ruz, nodding to the imprint denting his chest. “You get what you need?”

“Yes to both,” Ruz said, covering Nix with his shotgun. “Cracked the ceramic and I’m pretty sure a rib for two is broken, but I’ll live.”

I glanced back at Farley, who had pulled himself to his feet and had one of my Five-seveNs, reassembled, clutched in one hand. He somehow looked a little less for wear, the adrenaline now coursing through his system, the interrogative compounds wearing off. He gestured at Nix. “What are you going to do with him?”

I checked the P90 and reloaded it, not looking at Nix. “Depends. What do you know about him?”

“Depends,” Farley shrugged. “Teague is a mercenary. Technically still part of the United States government, but he most takes MIDNIGHT jobs. Fits his morals and makes a hefty profit off of it at the same time. While I’d heard rumors of a right-hand man that Teague could send just about anywhere in the government, the whole ‘master of disguise’ thing threw off any attempts at identification. You two looked like you recognized each other.” The last was phrased as a question as Farley raised one bushy eyebrow at me.

“Approached me earlier today under the guise of the NSA.” I looked upwards. The sounds of gunshots had lessened from all-out combat to the irregular beats of executions, as though the forces upstairs were picking through the dead. “We need to get out of here. If nothing else, I need to warn my squad to go truly underground.”

Ruz lit a cigar with a flick of a match. I threw him a look. “It’ll take them some time for them to get through the vault door.” With a grunt of pain, Ruz crouched down next to Nix. “Right. I want to know who’s having that afterparty upstairs.”

Nix glowered up at Ruz. “Acheron Foundation. Superhumans and fucking… abominations. They want him,” he coughed, pointing up at Farley. “These guys play by different rules. They don’t care if they upset the natural order. They’ve got the means and desire to watch the world burn and rebuild it from scratch. And they don’t care if it’s hell on earth first.”

I frowned. “What about MIDNIGHT? What’s their say in all this?”

The downed operative began to laugh to himself, and hocked up a wad of blood to spit onto my shoes.

Without a word, Ruz flicked another match lit with the tip of his thumb. Bringing it close to Nix’s eye, he growled, “Tell him. Unless you and your both want to play a father-son cylcops team.”

I threw a glare at Ruz, warning him without Nix seeing to watch what side of the line he played on.

Nix laughed piteously to himself, choking up blood that sprayed down the front of his shirt. “None of you understand what you’re dealing with. You think this is about oil and money and power. You have no idea of the scale of the foes you face. They can change reality itself, create and delete memories like playing cards, change you into a completely different person without you even thinking anything was wrong. They’ve been at it for thousands of years, and you’re only stumbling onto the basics. You’re nothing but a pawn, Baylor, a pawn who doesn’t even know what side he’s on.”

Slapping the action on my P90, I pressed the suppressor against Nix’s forehead. “Last chance. Tell me what Teagle’s plans are.”

Nix smirked. “Get fucked.”

Ruz moved forward with the match, but before he could truly act, the ceiling a dozen meters down the hallway crashed downward in a hail of rubble and dust, as sudden as an asteroid impact. Ruz, still holding the match, didn’t even notice it get extinguished under the sudden gale.

Out of the pile of rubble and bloodied, inhuman limbs, Ridley stepped, uneven on his feet, dusting blood – clear not his own – and dust off of his mangled suit.

“You’re still here?” he asked woozily, seeing us as if for the first time. “What part of get out while you still can didn’t you understand?”

Thirty-Two

Ridley | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

---Five Minutes Earlier---

With a roar that sounded like a dozen modulated voices, the Abomination leapt straight up, catching on the chandelier and rebounding onto the inner side of one of the second-floor pillars that ringed the ballroom.

Ridley, who was completely flesh-and-blood, a last holdout and increasingly superhuman profession, only had two words: “Oh, fuck.”

The creature leapt at Ridley, a straight-shot, razor claws shedding blood into the slipstream.

Ridley dived to the side of the walkway, feeling the hip of the monster slammed into the small of his back as the bulk based, knocking the British agent to the ground. Ridley fell onto the corpse of one of Rojas’ guards, who had probably been thrown up here by the two brutes playing human football down below.

Whirling, the Abomination raised one of its deadly hands, only to receive the whirring blast of 9mm bullets to the face from the TMP Ridley had pried from the corpse’s cold, dead hands. With a yowl, the Abomination rebounded backwards, shielding its face from the impact, leaping around a column, probably looking the flank Ridley by leaping from stone to stone.

Ridley would have none of it, as he pulled himself to his feet and grabbed the guard’s sidearm from the open holster, blazing away at the creature with a gun in his fist as it leapt from column to column. The creature, only mass times acceleration in midair, took the barrage broadsides and fell back to the ballroom below with a hideous squeal of screeching talons on tile.

Ripping the guard’s ammo belt off of his chest, Ridley sprinted back out of the room just as the two superhumans, now clearly apprised of his presence, turned as one and opened up with their heavy machine guns. Ridley fell onto his knees, sliding forward on his shins at a wave of large-caliber shells obliterated the priceless paintings covering the wall to either side of the doorway.

Ridley hit the abridging railing that blocked the walkway over the atrium and flipped over it. Using the centrifugal force to dislodge the empty mags from his guns, Ridley landed into a roll, with his weapons rearmed and cocked, a trick he had learned from Mary McDonnell years ago.

The British Agent found himself faced with a wide atrium littered with corpses and a half-dozen gas-mask-wearing mercenaries randomly scattered through the room, in the process of executing any wounded survivors of the initial attack. Cecile Galvez had raised a feeble hand against her assailant, despite the fact that two fingers had been blown off. It didn’t stop her from being shot in the face.

The mercenary that had just executed the drug lord turned, as with all his fellows, and stared at Ridley.

“Lo, chaps,” Ridley nodded before throwing himself to one side, firing both guns at the same time. He caught two enemies immediately, blowing them away in a hail of 9mm fire while the other soldiers only just now started firing at where he had been a half-second before.

It was a good thing too, because the Abomination exploded through the half-closed doors behind Ridley in a minor detonation of shattering wood, its sheer momentum sending it barreling into the nearest merc with a disgusting fountain of blood as the creature used its claws to catch and break its inertia, much to the dying merc’s chagrin.

Seized by an Idea, Ridley called out to the creature, catching its attention just as he dived forward, under the plane of fire being laid down by the fourth mercenary. The Abomination, focused on Ridley with machine-like determination, leapt at him, missing him by inches but instead impact the merc Ridley had dived perpendicular to. Once again, the Abomination impacted an unfortunate ally, impaling the man on the dozens of poisonous spines lining the monster’s back.

Ridley rolled up, never stopping his forward motion, scything both his guns in opposite direction, the sheets of fire killing the last two members of the assault squad before they could draw a bead on him. And then Ridley was sprinting for his life, diving deeper into the villa, hoping the catch the Abomination on as many corners as he could and if nothing else catch up to Baylor at the vault. He called forward, telling them to unlock the doors and let him in – because if they didn’t, he’d be running straight into a dead end.

As he ran, Ridley knocked over as many pedestals and clocks as he could, slamming every door be could, anything to trip up the entirely too graceful Abomination. But the creature seemed to take every obstacle in due course, easily leaping over the pitiful hindrances. Ridley glanced over his shoulder when he finally reached a section of hallway not littered with piles of bullet-ridden corpses, where he could run without himself watching his steps. He saw the Abomination, its face a mask of blood, split jaw lolling open, beginning to pace him, getting ready for the final leapt and a fresh kill.

Ridley dove forward when he sat a new set of double doors, one wide open, the other shut. Passing through the portal just as his pursuer launched itself into the air, Ridley caught his shin intentionally on the closed door and swung in a wide arc, flipping onto his back and instantly arresting his forward motion. He caught one sight of the Abomination hanging in the hair, claws splayed, mouth slobbering, an image worth a year’s nightmares, before he kicked shut the other heavy oak door.

The Abomination’s one arm made in through the gap but the creature had judged the leap wrong and didn’t hit the door with enough force to crash through it. It rebounded but not before Ridley slammed the door down on the extended arm, right on the joint. At the same time Ridley unloaded both the TMP and the sidearm into the joint right as he repeatedly smashed the door onto the joint. With an increasing howl, the Abomination struggled to withdraw the arm, but Ridley had wedged himself against the wall and had the advantage of positioning. With one final screech the Abomination finally got its forearm free, but the limb dangled useless at the elbow, as pulverized and shredded reflection of what it once was. Good, Ridley thought. Perhaps he could outrun it now that it was crippled.

But he didn’t even have enough time to get back to his feet before the Abomination barreled through the door with a sudden burst of speed. Ridley once again tried to throw himself to the side, but the creature batted him in midair, getting underneath him and using its powerful hind legs to propel Ridley straight up.

As Ridley crashed through the skylight above in a shower of broken glass and emerged into the chilly Cuban night sky, he thought, oh, at least it can’t get much worse.

Which is the point at which, right as the Abomination raised its working forearm to decapitate Ridley, the pair crashed into the landing skids of a circling Little Bird helicopter.

The sheer surprise of hitting a helicopter nearly killed Ridley right there, but the Abomination had taken the hit. Momentarily out of the iron-grip of the creature, Ridley leapt onto the stubby wing of the Little Bird, hanging onto the six barrels of a mounted minigun. At once the assemblage began to spin under his weight, but Ridley, hanging from one hand, flipped his remaining gun in his grip and brought it down on the mechanism of the gun, freezing the barrels and crippling the gun.

The pilot, equally shocked at the impact of a random houseguest and the thoroughly ground-bound creature that his forces commanded, gave a shout to his passenger. The words themselves were lost to the din of the rotors, but the meaning was clear – shoot both those fucks off my bird before they take us down. The passenger, a sniper-rifle wielding mercenary of much experience, didn’t need telling twice – he kicked open the side door of the helicopter and took aim at Ridley with his gun.

Ridley, still struggling to hand on with one hand, spun and did the only thing he could – he dropped his TMP and lunged forward, encircling his would-be attacker’s ankle with his hand and yanking the soldier free of his precarious position. The mercenary fell with a yell, hitting the base of his skull on the wing and breaking his neck, dying instantly. As the corpse fell past Ridley, he plucked free the one thing he could – the man’s bandolier. Ridley couldn’t believe his luck. On it was a machete – what use did the merc think he had for such a thing on a helicopter – and a trio of concussion grenades.

The Abomination had finally worked its way free of the landing skids on the other side of the Little Bird and bounded, upside-down, as Ridley.

Ridley whirled, drawing out the machete and taking a wild swipe at the creature – he hit its outstretched arm in a gout of blood. The blade lodged itself in the tendons, not making a clean cut, and Ridley was yanked off the helicopter, suddenly in free fall. He could see he was going to land on the open back decking that encircled Rojas’ pool, but Ridley honestly didn’t think that even if he could maneuver towards the water the liquid would lessen the impact much.

Lunging for the embedded machete, Ridley retrieved it and, with a second swing Ridley hacked off a ridge of poison-tipped spines from the beast so as to have a non-lethal grip on the beast. The creature bucket in midair, contorting, trying to throw him off, but Ridley held on for dear life – and then he saw a way out – well, not so much a way out as an absolutely ridiculously crazy idea he really didn’t think would work but had to try anyway.

Ridley ducked a furious gyration of the creature’s injured arm, and then the other, and timed himself so that when the third attack came he looped the bandolier of grenades around the creature’s arm and neck. The belt, now nestled in the crook of the Abomination’s neck, clanked as Easly pulled a ripcord that divested of the explosives at once of their pins.

Clutching the spines, Ridley held on for dear life – and grenades went off as one as their combined masses were five feet off the ground. With a flash of light the creature’s head dissolved in a fountain of blood.

The impact nearly halted their downward momentum, but they still hit the cratered deck at speed, and went right on through the decking, down a floor, and then through another floor – and another – in one wild staccato ride of momentary impacts. Ridley kept his limbs in, not wanting to get caught on the edges of the holes they created or on one of the still-leaking spines. It wasn’t really as if he had a lot of control over the matter, being half-unconscious with the initial detonation of the concussion grenades, but he held on like a trooper and perhaps with a great helping of luck – he and the carcass of the headless abomination impact in a stark concrete hallway in a pile of rubble and debris and mangled flesh.

Ridley rolled off the crate, gazing up at the moon that peaked down at him through the three jagged gaps in the villa. He was pretty sure that if he just laid down his head and died right there he’d have a pretty good go and not be disappointed with his performance at all – but he still had a job to do. Besides, that stunt was the sort of story that would entertain at parties for decades.

But first he’d have to escape alive. Rolling groggily to his feet, Ridley face-planted into a dust-caked wall and rebounded, his eyes resolved into the image of Baylor, a beat-to-shit Farley, and mustachioed Cuban agent, and a heap of flesh that the group looked like they had been in the middle of interrogating.

“You’re still here?” he asked, stumbling towards them. “What part of get out while you still can didn’t you understand?”

At about the same time one of the custom superhumans dropped down three stories, landed behind him, and raised its machine gun.

Thirty-Three

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Ruz reacted first at the appearance of the humongous man – easily seven feet fall and covered with already-healing bullet wounds where his armor didn’t cover. The Cuban agent fired the shotgun from the hip, catching the new arrival around the knees and dropping him with a shout of “Timber!”

“Let’s go!” I screamed, jumping forward and grabbing Ridley by the arm. Farley nodded to Nix, eyes wide. “What ‘bout him?”

I spun back to Nix and brought the butt of the P90 across his brow, knocking him senseless. “We bring him with us. He’s too valuable to leave.” Turning once again back to Ridley, I yelled, “Go, go, go!”

Farley hauled the unconscious Nix over one shoulder why I seized Ridley by the arm and hauled him back. Ruz stepped forward, flip-cocking his shotgun like Ahnuld and firing at the juggernaut-esque superhuman just as he had picked himself back to his feet. The impact tripped up the man, but didn’t fell him, he recovered and become sprinting forward, not even bothering with his dropped gun.

We all fell back, Ruz blasting away at the man, but he came on like some demented combination of a rhinoceros and a heatseeking missile. We rounded a corner and the man pulled out two Desert Eagles – TWO – from shoulder rigs and began unloading them at us. In that meatball’s hands, the Desert Eagles looked like they actually had a good chance of hitting us.

“I’m out,” Ruz announced dispassionately, and yanked free the pistol from Nix’s chest holster, emptying it at the metahuman just as it rounded the corner, Deagles still blazing away. Taking time to line up his shots, Ruz nevertheless fired at an extreme pace, emptying the clip of the – it looked like a Glock – pistol into one of the pursuer’s hand’s, blasting the hand cannon out of the hand’s grip under sheer weight of fire.

We took an immediate right and emerged into the garage, still lined by dozens of supercars. Porches, Ferraris, Maseratis, Peugeots, and those were just the ones I could name.

“Decisions, decisions,” I muttered to myself, momentarily catching in my step.

I didn’t really care for any of them save for the black Lamborghini in the center of the collection, as though it were the crown jewel. I dived into it with Farley and Nix in tow. Farley shoved Nix into the trunk – and on second thought, I threw my Kevlar vest in after him – while Ruz and Ridley bounded into a bright red Ferrari convertible at the far right. Glancing over the garage, I saw a dissembled Bentley off to one side – armor plating in the middle of being laid underneath the silver outer paneling. Maybe Rojas was a paranoid, but if the cars were armored we’d go a long way with bullets whipping around in a chase. Ironically, the trunk would probably the safest place for Nix.

“Let’s go!” I screamed, tapping the keyless ignition on the Lamborghini just as the juggernaut burst into the garage, his remaining Deagle reloaded and firing, I ducked my head down and shot off the mark – the engine making a roar that sounded for all the world like I was going to hyperspace. Ridley, driving the Ferrari, peeled out behind me as Ruz ducked out the side of the supercar and leveled his own reloaded shotgun at the Juggernaut. The Cuban fired, sending the foe tumbling to the ground, but not before a second metahuman emerged into the garage, flanked by more than a dozen gas mask-wearing mercenaries.

We hit the ramp that led to the outside in excess of sixty miles an hour and accelerating. Ruz, seeing the metal doors up ahead, flip-cocked his shotgun and leveled it at a control mechanism that flashed by. It was a half-second window, but Ruz hit the panel with buckshot and suddenly the blast doors were sliding open. I didn’t think the wide Lamborghini would make it, but we just barely squeaked through, the side mirrors snapping off with twin pops of metal and glass.

Less than twenty seconds later, a pair of Peugeots, a white Maserati, and two more green Porches whipped out of the garage behind us, sliding onto the cliffside highway in excess of a hundred miles per hour.

I whirled my head around to see the lead Maserati driven by a mook and presenting a juggernaut type in the backseat, holding the heavy machine gun to his shoulder as though it were a submachine gun. I tossed the P90 back to Farley. “Keep them off our back!” I shouted.

Farley opened up, but the Maserati slipped ahead of Ridley’s Ferrari before Ruz or the General could do anything about it, nudging Ridley into a wobble that the British agent barely kept from becoming a violent spin. I saw the mook swerve the wheel, sliding in between the sheer wall to our left and my own car. The Juggernaut opened fire, and both Farley and I ducked down as the left side of our car was riddled with bullets, the windows shattering inward and slicing cuts across my cheek. Farley fired back with the P90, but whether he was missing or the Juggernaut was simply impervious I didn’t know.

The driver of the Maserati pulled further to the left and then jammed his wheel to the right, plowing into our side – and suddenly the Lamborghini was pressed against the railing of the far side of the road, just a foot away from falling into the surface hundreds of feet below. I blanched at the thought, but I was stuck – one of the Peugeots had hemmed me in from behind and was trading shots with Ruz. I was on my own. Our cars continued to speed forward at breakneck speed, locked in battle.

“Hand me your pistol!” I yelled to Farley, who had ducked down, partially to reload the P90, but mostly to just stay the hell out of the way of the machine gun’s barrage. The General tossed me the Five-seveN, and I caught it, timing the Juggernaut’s assault. “When I say so!” I yelled, “switch seats with me!”

“What?” Farley said, his face showing disbelief.

“You heard m-” I shouted back, but at that moment the machine gun went dry to my left. “Now!” I shouted, throwing myself to the left and Farley dived to the right, aiming to jam down his foot on the gas pedal. The switch went off as smoothly as it possibly could and I found myself flying through the window in one of the more spectacularly stupid maneuvers of career: I had just dived into the Maserati convertible.

I immediately collided with the driver, but he decided to put up more of a fight than the mook’s union allowed, slapping down on my pistol and aiming for wrist control. His grip was surprisingly strong; I wouldn’t be surprised if he was amped up with some budget version of what the juggernaut guy was on.

But he didn’t count on my left arm coming around and jamming the knife into his neck. No matter who strong you are, there’s not much you can do about that sort of thing. The mook fell away, his foot jamming down on the pedal, with predictable result for our four-car mashup. The Maserati surged forward, heading more or less straight, freeing Farley from the deathgrip, who immediately took the opportunity to drift to the left, letting the foremost Peugeot plow forward.

I had changed game momentarily, but I didn’t have any time to gloat for a second later a massive frying pan of a hand seized the back of my jacket and hauled me over the front seats to have the juggernaut (at this point, it’s safe to say I found the nickname I was looking for).

The juggernaut raised his other hand in a fist, having apparently discarded his HMG to take a swing at me or at least get a solid grip on my neck. Or, hell, head. He looked like he could kill me just by squeezing it.

A lot of fiction seems to discard the idea of a gigantic man in combat against a smaller, lither opponent – as is the textbook example here. I guess it’s true in the age of firearms, but back when martial prowess dominated brutes like this guy here rightfully dominated. Plot twist, strength counts for something in close quarters combat.

But it doesn’t provide brains.

I slipped out of my jacket in one fluid movement dodging underneath one meteoric fist that nearly decapitated my right there and then. From that point, I spun to face the juggernaut, pulling my knees back and launching both of my knees into his face. The impact hit solidly, and didn’t do much more than miss the man’s nose. I probably didn’t break the jaw or cheekbone by the way he smiled at me sardonically and grabbed one of my ankles before I could retract it. His grip was crushing and his intention clear – he was going to toss me out of the Maserati, where one of the trailing cars could run me over at their leisure.

I wasn’t going to give this guy the satisfaction. I pulled the knife out of the mook’s throat and did a sit-up in place, curling forward to swipe at his hand with the blade. Two fingers were gone in a spray of blood, and even if the big guy didn’t show pain surprise was clearly evident in his features when he let me go, startled. I pulled my feet back and dove for the gun resting on the floorboards on the passenger side.

The juggernaut aimed a kicked at me and missed, snapping off the top half of the seat with a shower of splintering plastic that I caught and threw right back in his face like a Frisbee. The makeshift projectile bounced off his shoulder, and he drew back his foot again, adjusting his aim, unperturbed.

My fingers closed around the grip of the sidearm and I spun in place and rolled onto the broken seat to dodge another piledriving kick. I jammed the knife into the underside of the man’s calve, severing his Achilles tendon, and he scowled – I had the feeling that, if nothing else, I could at least cripple this man through a thousand cuts.

I threw a bead with the pistol and fired. The round caught him in the right part of the jaw, blowing part of it away spectacularly. His head jerked to the side – and then rotated back to face me, blood pouring from his head, his eyes furious. Oh shit, shit.

I emptied the nine more shots into his jaw and throat, effectively caving it out. He reached forward for me, still moving, and then simply crumpled at the waist, dead. Finally. I imagined the guy already had dozens of bullets in him, but sheer overwhelming damage to the head always did the trick.

No, I saw, looking closer.

It was still breathing.

It was only stunned.

The road in front of the Maserati exploded in a geyser of dirt and gravel.

I spun my head around to see a Little Bird helicopter – a spindly, bubble-canopied thing hovering nose down in front of the road, its rocket pod smoking. It had a chaingun mounted on the opposite wing, but oddly enough, it didn’t use it, despite that fact would it would have torn everyone on the road to shreds. Christ, nobody mentioned a helicopter, in a time when I didn’t have an RPG or a Stinger at hand.

The Little Bird reoriented, clearly aiming for me. I hurriedly extricated myself from off the broken passenger seat just as the Maserati hit a crater in the road and jackknifed – at the exact same time the chopper fired another missile, catching the wall to the left of the nearly vertical sports car, spinning it like a top.

I was flung from the car, and I saw several things at once.

Farley, swerving around the crater with barely enough room to spare and still trying to orient himself so he could catch me.

Ruz, eyes wide, leaning on the side of the Ferrari, gun in hand. He shook himself and fired at the Peugeot blocking Ridley’s way onto the right passage.

The shot hit the front left tire of the enemy vehicle, causing it to swerve in that direction. The Peugeot jackknifed at the same time I reached the apex of my arc, and I saw the wide eyes of the driver and the passenger behind their gas masks as they passed by underneath me before their car truly flipped over.

And then time sped up again. I grabbed the bulky body of the dead juggernaut and swung him beneath me, using his as a cushion as I hit the left rear of the Lamborghini, spreading out the impact. The flat car, inches off the ground, still managed to bounced, swerving wilding before Farley forcibly regained control.

The Little Bird fired one more time, and the Peugeot burst apart over our heads, the inaccurate rocket intercepted by its falling bulk. Farley juked left to avoid shrapnel and Ridley pulled up behind us. I rolled off of the corpse, tossing it off the car, and nodded to him. He gave me a thumbs up and tapped his radio. Apparently we were clear of the jamming.

“What’s the plan for the chopper?” I yelled over the airwaves to him.

“Dunno. Doesn’t take a genius to figure we’re sitting ducks. Listen, Ruz is almost dry with the shotgun and we’re running low on ammo. You’re going to have to deal with this on your own!”

I groaned. This was becoming a depressing theme, god help me. ‘Baylor, go deal with the giant robot!’ ‘Baylor, go deal with the helicopter with just a P90 and a cool car!’ Christ, I’m such a whiner.

The remaining Peugeot and the twin Porches moved forward aggressively, readying assault rifles. I whipped my head around to see the remaining Juggernaut toss aside his empty machine gun and pull a fucking minigun out from the trunk behind me, attached a barrel of ammunition, and ready it to fire. The Little Bird swung around to pace the highway at a strafe, if nothing else, it would collapse the rock walls to the left, burying us under tons of rock.

Ridley swung alongside me, free hand beckoning. “Give us Farley!” This he hadn’t said into the radio, but still managed to make out the words over the sound of the Little Bird circling around, the buzz of a trio of machine guns, and the remaining Juggernaut firing his cannon, blasting out stone and rock everywhere.

I stared at Ridley for a second and then nodded, shoving Farley towards the window. “Jump!”

Farley did so, crossing the gap with the ground flying past at a zillion miles an hour, to be caught by Ruz. The Cuban operative hauled Farley into the Ferrari, gave me an ironic salute, and then ducked back to the floor when another wave of bullets came too close for comfort.

Ridley gave me one last nod before jamming down on the brakes, gallons of smoke catching from the tires as the Ferrari shot out of my vision. The sleek ramp-like nose of the remaining Peugeot behind it scooped up Ridley’s car, and the rear bumper of the Ferrari bounced onto its chaser’s hood.

At the same time the Little Bird opened up on the cliff face above me. It was like driving into hell. I drove like a maniac, partially to avoid the Juggernaut’s focused fire, but most to avoid all the boulders and rocks smashing down around me, skirting the edges of dozens of newly formed craters.

The Little Bird’s rockets boomed. The Juggernaut’s minigun whirred. The avalanche screamed. Ruz’s shotgun banged banged.

We all sped along, one big, interacting cloud that would give any expert in chaos theory nightmares.

Ruz had leapt out of the Ferrari, planting both feet on the shoulders of the Peugeot’s driver, effectively snapping both his collarbones. The mercenary in the back seek whirled his machine gun in Ruz’s direction but Ruz leapt over the plane of fire, landing on the expansive rear engine cover of the car, behind the gunner. The merc swung an elbow, blindly, catching Ruz in the leg, dropping him to one knee. Before Ruz could bring his shotgun to bear or get the merc in melee range, his target sprang forward, out of reach, spinning and leveling his assault rifle. Ruz, off-balance, fell forward, aiming a kick at the merc. The blow connected, sending the rifle sailing out of the car.

The merc, anticipating the move, was already diving for his crippled comrade’s holstered sidearm. Ruz saw this and brought his shotgun up, knowing this would be quick-draw.

Farley, who had been aiming at the gunner but had been wary about hitting Ruz, finally saw a clean shot. He took it, the merc took a three-round burst in the arm, preventing him from wrenching the pistol free. He jerked in agony, right before – Ruz fired the shotgun, blowing both gunner and driver into bloody chunks.

Ruz gave Ridley the thumbs up and Ridley hit the accelerator, the Ferrari plowing off of the Peugeot. Ruz, not even taking time to catch his breath, clambered over the two corpses, kicking open the driver’s door and letting the bodies fall out of the rapidly slowing sports car.

Twin blurs flashed by on either side, the Porches overtaking Ruz. The Cuban, not about to be dropped from the fight, fell into the driver’s seat and maxed out the pedal, his ride surging back to incredible speeds.

I couldn’t keep this up for long. I may have had superhuman reaction times, but sooner or later the Little Bird was going to get a lucky shot. But on the other hand, I realized, it couldn’t keep this up forever. It had two rocket pods, each with seven shots, and a minigun that appeared to be disabled. It had fired eight, maybe nine times? Only five or so rockets left to go. I only had to survive long enough for the chopper to need to bug out to rearm.

Just in time for the Lamborghini to be violent shunted from behind. I whirled to see that one of the Porches had swung past Ridley and was riding my six. I knew if I tried the same trick Ridley had my ultra-low Lamborghini would probably be the one run over – bulldozered – by the Porsche. I needed to pull another trick.

I took in the Porsche. No Juggernaut, he was back spewing fire everywhere with his chaingun, dueling Ruz and Ridley. Just a car full of mooks – four of them, three armed. No, strike that. Even the driver was pulling out a pistol to hopefully take potshots with. Christ.

I shifted the car in reverse and spun the wheel at the same time, pivoting around the Porsche at tremendous speed. The entire chassis of my ride quaked as I slammed into the side of the Porsche – traveling backwards, at almost two hundred miles an hour!

One last rocket peeled off from the leading chopper, blowing a crater in the right side of the road before the pilot realized the situation was untenable. The Little Bird, no longer free to try to collapse the cliffs on me now that its allies where locked in the way, peeling off, its pilot waving frantically for the Porsche to dislodge or simply kill me. I was content to allow neither.

All of the mercenaries swiveled as one and leveled their weapons at me. The driver, even holding with pistol, still whipped the wheel to the left, hoping to drive me into the side of the cliff so his Porsche.

There was simply no cover for me this time. I couldn’t simply duck.

The collective trigger fingers pulled down at once.

I kicked open the door of the Lamborghini so hard it broke off and dived out of the car. Bullets singed by above, a pair carving thin but long grooves on my trap muscles. I had the handles of the door underneath my as the door hit the pavement and skipped, it took all my strength and dexterity to keep myself on the makeshift sled without its capsizing or skipping into the cliff wall – either of which would have disastrous results.

One hand shot out to hold the edge of the Lamborghini’s handle. The other balanced me as I crouched lightly on the door, which threw up a plume of sparks behind me as it ground across the pavement at over a hundred miles an hour. I skidded the door left and right as our giant car-car-door system of death sped forward, dodging fist-sized rocks as we went.

One of the goons leapt across onto the Lamborghini, gun pointing down at me, the face plate of his mask opaque. Oh shit.

I took my right hand off of the door and awkwardly swiped it at his ankle just as he opened fire. My assailant went down without so much as a shout, his assault rifle spraying wildly in an arc above my head. He landed on the trunk with an explosion of breath and I ducked back down before my exposed head could be taken off by a new wave of bullets.

The Little Bird apparently made up its mind, deciding taking me out was more important than keeping its allies alive. At the same time the driver of the Porsche, realizing my precarious situation, swerved to the left, hoping to crush me against the wall.

Two flares of exhaust shot forth from the rocket pod of the chopper, rocket motors igniting. The rock wall approached me, as though in slow motion. This wasn’t my cybernetics kicking me in the ass, this was that distressingly familiar moment right before my would-be death were my mind simply slowed, as though trying to take in every single detail it could before it wouldn’t being able to take in any more. The fact that this happening with such regularity that it was second nature for me should have said something about me needing to find a more pedestrian choice of career, but at this point I was just thankful for the absolutely ridiculous last chance idea that had just popped into my mind.

The calculations streaming across the side of my retinas, the HUD half-filling with equations and symbols as my cybernetics hit peak synchronization – a situation that I had only tried once before, and knew wouldn’t last for long before my cybernetics began to shut down lest I perish. Vectors stretched forth from the Little Bird in the edge of my vision, playing in skipping half-ellipses at a orthogonal angle over the two supercars. It was something I would have scoffed at any other point in my life, but at this point my options were: die without doing anything or die doing something that could possibly save your life. I elected for the latter.

The rockets traced towards me in slow motion, the pilot having aimed for rapidly diminishing space between the Lamborghini and the rock wall in hopes of scoring a direct hit.

The rockets – a contact fuse built into the nose cone, soared towards me as though sliding along without a care in the world. My muscles tensed, preparing for the tenth of a second motion that would hopefully end this.

The rockets got within a couple feet of me, but my arms had already shot out. At the same time my legs were pushing outward, preparing to send me flying in a graceful backwards leap over the cars.

I caught the rockets.

Boom Time.

Thirty-Four

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Both of them.

My hands clutched the calculated safest possible distance from the nose cone I could get without getting my fingers burnt off by the exhaust trail of fire and smoke emerging from the rocket’s rear. Still, my hands blistered and swathed red at the contact with the meter-long tube of metal, but I shunted the pain off with all the rest of it.

I had cleared the door by now, back arching as I flew forward and over the Lamborghini. I kept the rockets clutched tightly in each hand, spinning my entire body in a smooth helix so as to not trigger a premature detonation of the rockets.

The rocket in my left hand came over first and I let go of it with all the manner of someone dropping an elbow into someone’s solar plexus or spiking a football into the ground. I threw it into right hand-side passenger’s door of the Porsche, the trail of exhaust setting my sleeve on fire.

I was still rotating in the air, my back towards the sky, my right hand coming into view. This was the critical part. Targeting software zeroed in on my screen… and I flicked the second rocket, underhanded, at the Little Bird.

The first rocket missed by a couple of inches, impacting the railing to the side of the Porsche in a fountain of fire and twisted metal. The Porsche still went through the same intended effect, only even better – it flipped upward, its right front taking to the air, shielding me from the blast. I noted, in some corner of my mind, that both my shirtsleeves were alight, trailing fire as though I were some Marvel superhero.

I dived underneath the flipping Porsche, touching ever-so lightly off of it so that I rebounded at the wildly out-of-control Lamborghini (which had thankfully stayed horizontal), flying directly towards the recovering – and surviving – mercenary, who was just now rolling towards me, bringing his weapon to bear.

I slammed a fire-coated and blackened fist into his gas masked-head at what must have been a fraction of cee (though, granted, everything was a fraction of the speed of light), the flame-kissed superpunch (I’m finding a love for ‘super-‘ as a prefix. And parentheses) literally caving in the mask and deflating the head as though it were an overripe cantaloupe underneath my fist. Blood, bone and brain matter spewed everywhere as my fist went through him… and the metal beneath, probably missing Nix by millimeters in the trunk.

Holy shit, Baylor paaaaawwnch.

The Porsche, soaring by overhead, it the cliff with a tremendous crash at about the same time my flung rocket came within lethal distance of the Little Bird. I head swept around, tracking my progress, and saw the Little Bird’s pilot apparently decide to fire every remaining rocket it had at the incoming rocket which had been marked “return to sender, you asshole.”

A fireball bloomed in the front of the chopper – and my eyebrows shot up, the pilot had been met with some success.

A heartbeat later, the Little Bird helicopter exploded in a ball of twisted metal and spiraling flames.

The Porsche, as if an afterthought, exploded a second later, adding its own fireball to the mix as it impacted the cliff face. A wall of fire shot over my back, igniting the rest of my shirt just for the hell of it before falling back onto the road behind me, bouncing up and over Ridley’s car as it sped forward to cover me.

I slowly stood, sloughing out of the burning tendrils of what was left of my shirt, my upper body covered in lacerations, blisters, and burns. A shard of shrapnel had cut over my brow and cheek, leaving a deep gash and a steady drip of blood falling in one eye. I swiped at it, let the adrenaline and other cybernetic shit convulse one time in relief that, yes, I had holy fucking shit just done what I thought I had done, before reaching down and tearing off the roof of the Lamborghini just so I didn’t have to clamber through the open side.

My car, with no one driving it, swiftly fell behind Ridley’s car; I nodded to them as they passed. They – Ridley and Farley – were both staring at me open-mouth, eyes wide, in equals parts awe… and perhaps fear? But then they were gone and I saw the one remaining car sliding towards me just as Ruz sped by, his face carved as though it were made of stone, eyes calculating.

I nudged the armored metal roof of my car into my hands with a flick of my toe and I turned around lazily, kicking the headless corpse off of the rear of the Lamborghini as I faced down the charging remaining car. The juggernaut, in the middle of reloading his gatling gun, scowled at me, why the masked driver remained as unreadable as his dead comrades.

The juggernaut drew out a pair of Deagles and immediately opened fire. I rotated the roof in my hands, using it as a shield. The armor dented as exactly fourteen bullets hit it in about all of two seconds, not one of the slugs hitting me.

It would be about two seconds, I calculated, before the Porsche plowed in my decelerating Lamborghini.

Just as the juggernaut dropped his hand cannons and went for another weapon, I spun the dented roof in hand and flung it, Frisbee-style at the windshield of the Porsche.

The impact was immediately and dramatic. The windshield shattered inward as the roof hit it, sliding into the driver’s belly in a gout of blood. He jerked at the impact as his hands were torn off the wheel and pulverized – but, due to the slant of the roof’s edge, one hand was pulled off before the other. The effect was predictable. The Porsche juked to the left – my right- and began grinding against the cliff face. I wish it would have flipped, but it didn’t. I wouldn’t have liked a perfect batting average for sending expensive luxury sports cars flipping into the air. I was like the live-action spawn of Michael Bay, come to haunt all evil-doers in the world.

My Lamborghini about to hit the Porsche, instead slid past it as it peeled to the left (right?). Satisfied that the Porsche was permanently out of the fight, I turned, dusted off my bloody hands, and dropped into driver’s seat. The car’s speed had finally approaching something resembling the speed limit, so I decided to flaunt Cuban law a bit more and jammed back down on the driver’s pedal, hoping to catch back up with Ruz and Ridley.

“Jesus, Baylor,” Ridley said over the radio as I fell back into formation.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I realized I wanted a convertible and didn’t have time to trade this baby back into the dealer.”

“So, when you rockets flying towards you, do you usually think to catch them, or was it a spur of the moment thing? I mean, you did catch them, right? It all happened too fast for me to really see.”

Ruz cut it, having somehow hacked our private radio. “I guess you could call him… the Rocket Man.”

I checked my shirt for sunglasses, but I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and besides, it was night. “The pilot got a bit too… fired up.”

“I guess they could take the heat.”

“And the people in car just flipped out at it all.”

I could almost see Ruz split a grin. “I guess that took care of the cremation.”

“Original recipe or extra crispy?”

“…Pop goes to Porsche?” Ruz said, finally running out of ideas.

“That’s great guys,” Ridley cut in, “but the jamming’s back. I can’t raise anyone on the radio.”

I grinned, before saying heavily, “All lines… are currently dow-”

“Will you please cut that out?” Ridley said, exasperated.

“Oh, come on! That was great!”

“John, remember our talk?”

“Fine,” I said, checking my radio. No response.

“Turn in here,” Ridley said, waving towards a side road that led off to the left into the cliff face on a rapidly ascending ramp.

“Why there?” I asked.

“Gosely’s estate is about thirty miles down the road from Rojas’. She liked to keep an eye on him. She offered us sanctuary if things went bad.”

I grunted in affirmative, and followed Ruz and Ridley up the ramp. My vision flashed – I had maybe a couple minutes before my cybernetics crashed, and I was experiencing the world in crystal clarity times a thousand at the moment.

“Great job on the helicopter,” Ridley said as we emerged on the overall plateau, almost a mile away from a smaller estate that Gosely had marked as her own. A snaking path led through a miniature forest of palm trees and that type of tropical shrub.

I nearly slammed on the breaks. “Fuuuuck.”

“What?” Ruz asked, alarmed.

“The chopper shot down the rocket before it impacted. I missed. I didn’t hit the Little Bird.”

“If you didn’t,” Ruz said, “then who d-”

A sleek Bell AH-1Z Viper Attack Chopper swung past over our heads, rotors thumping. Damn those magical stealth choppers you can’t hear until the swing over the ridge!

“It’s Teague,” I said. “He’s come to finish the job.”

I saw, my cybernetics zooming in and enhancing the image, the grim eye-patched face of Colonel Thaddeus Teague, piloting the Zulu Viper.

I spat out the window. What an absolute clusterfuck of a night.

Taking my gaze down to the chopper itself, I sized up its armament. A three-barreled gatling on the wing. A pair of Hydra rocket pods, similar to those on the Little Bird. A pair of Sidewinders, and two racks of Hellfire missiles, each bearing sixteen missiles. Any of the above would have been enough to kill us, and easily. We could leap from the cars, but Teague had infrared. He could easily pick us from the trees and hit us the turret. It all depended on whether he wanted Farley alive or not.

Teague tugged an infrared cam over his free eye before the Zulu Viper pulled back, turret beginning to speed up. But he didn’t fire just yet.

“Ruz!” I shouted into the comm. We were approaching Gosely’s manor now, it was a simply affair, but the lights were off. Could Gosely not even be home? The night stank more and more.

I reasoned that Teague Teagle, the bastard, could see two heat blobs in the lead and chase cars – Ridley with Farley and Nix in my battered car’s trunk. That left Ruz, who was assuredly not Farley. If I had my guess, Teague wouldn’t assume we’d let Farley drive a car by himself, so that place Ruz in the greatest danger.

Ruz figured at the same time I triggered the comm, and kicked the door to his car free, leaping free of it just as a Hellfire missile streaked down from the Zulu Cobra. The impact took the Peugeot in the nose, providing the expected fireball-flip-kaboom that I expected. There’s only so many of them you can see before they become predictable. Teague followed up with a ripping blast his turret, but Ruz was inside the house just as Ridley and I pulled to opposing halts just outside the front doors on the driveway. The front of the majestic building cratered inwards where the bullets touched, not at all the tiny handheld model the juggernaut had wielded.

I didn’t bother with Nix, knowing Teagle wouldn’t shoot someone we left behind, and sprung out of the Lamborghini at the same time Ridley pulled Farley free.

Colonel Teague swung around for another pass and let loose with about seven rockets, intending on murderizing (murderizing?) anything living on the front drive.

I shoved both Ridley and Farley as hard as I could into the house. I didn’t have time to cover them further, dive into the house, and discover what the pit of my stomach already knew: that the house was empty. My cybernetics were quite loudly whispering in my ear that I had maybe a minute left until they locked up, reset, and rebooted themselves. I obviously didn’t have much time.

I leapt ten feet into the air and onto what remained of the protruding cover of the entrance steps. Teague’s Zulu Cobra swung around and traced a line of bullets at me but instead hit the one remaining support column underneath me. I sprang into another prodigious leap just as the sloping overhang crumpled away to the ground. My fingers caught on recessed window’s nook, and I swung to the right, leaping onto a suitably gothic gargoyle just as a pair of rockets blew out the corner room I had been positioned in front of into a ball of flaming wood and other debris. I scaled the house in two more quick jumps, landing on the red shingles of the roof just as Teague’s chopper flew by, again positioning itself to face me in a completely melodramatic fashion. It was like Kroner had been giving him lessons or something.

I ripped off one of those aluminum cooling towers from the roof, hefting it in one hand and shot-putting it at the Zulu Cobra. Teague didn’t see fit to blast it out of the sky but instead juked to the right, giving me just enough time to take four huge bounds and leap into the air. The roof cratered inward underneath me with the force of my jump, but I barely noticed.

The trajectory of my jump carried me onto the nose of the Zulu Cobra. I reared a fist back and with one solid punch shattered the glass of the cockpit’s glass canopy.

Teague grinned jovially. “Baylor! I wanted to have a word with you, but even you must admit that this is just a bit personal!”

“What do you want with me?” I snarled, seizing Teague by the throat. He seemed largely unperturbed by the assault.

“I’ve heard largely impressive things about you, Baylor. My mentor, one General Carson said – says – good things about thing. I like to take a measure of a man before I am forced to destroy him. So, one chance: join me or step aside. Option three involves everything you love ending around you.”

“And I’ve heard that lines too many times for it to have much meaning anymore!” I shouted. I drew my fist back, ready to cave in his forehead. Bullets wouldn’t work with this guy, so I had to get physical.

As if to spite me with the worst luck in the world, my body froze, my cybernetics locking up. I could barely move, only hold my arm back as red alerts piled into my field of vision.

In response, Teague pulled the ejection lever.

The rotors on the Zulu Cobra detached themselves from the chopper, shooting off like javelins in four different directions, shooting in the night.

I reflexively jerked myself backwards just what was left of the canopy – its metal frame and base – was fired off of the Cobra with a triple burst of explosive caps. Teague nodded jovially to me before he was catapulted out of the helicopter and into the air.

Leaving me on a rotorless hunk of metal hovering twenty feet above an abandoned estate with virtually no way to move.

Boom Time. Or as my mind was saying, oh shiiiii-

Thirty-Five

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

My body fell backwards off of the Cobra just as gravity embraced it. I tried my best to duck myself into a ball and hit the slanted east roof of the estate obliquely, bounced once, and rolled down into a glass skylight that dumped me into a large, partially covered longue area. I crashed into the pool at considerable speed and skipped off the bottom, hitting the side of the wall.

The helicopter traced a slow arc overhead, falling towards the cliff. The entire pool area, I saw, was open to the drop without so much as a railing, just as the chopper crashed into the very edge of the concrete deck with a shriek before rolling off it and into the ocean far, far below. Firelight lit up the night and I went temporarily deaf with the sound of the explosion.

The next thing I knew strong arms were hauling me out of the pool and were propping me up against a pillar. I would only flop my head around to see it was Ruz.

“Christ, Baylor,” he said. “With winds like this up here you could’ve drowned in the shallow end just by being hit by a wave. Usually when you land in water, you take care not to, you know, drown.”

Right. But I couldn’t move, much less speak. But Ruz was right. I instantly felt like a human popsicle as a tremendously strong cross-current swept continuously across the patio, the wind licking at the chlorinated water that soaked my clothes and pasted my hair to my forehead.

I tried to move my head around to see where everyone else was.

“Careful, amigo. You might have a spinal injury if you can’t move yourself. Ridley and Farley are downstairs, checking the house out. Looks like the bitch cut and run, if you morons really did throw in with Gosely.” He rubbed at his forehead. “Do something that stupid and you can’t help but deserve what you get.”

There came a shout from downstairs.

“Watch out!” I heard Ridley scream, followed by a screech of shattering glass. Over the Ruz’s radio, Ridley called in. “That juggernaut tracked us here! We need your help!”

“Copy,” Ruz said tersely. He drew his .45, checking the chamber. “I’m on my way.”

There was a thump, this time closer, and I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a body land in a graceful roll on the very edge of the patio. He locked a leg around a column to prevent from being swept away by the wind and hit a red button on the harness in the center of his chest. The parachute, snapped taut by the wind, retracted with extreme difficulty into a pack on the man’s back.

“Oh,” Thaddeus Teague said, raising his revolver, “I wouldn’t say that.”

---Ridley---

The juggernaut had simply appeared out of a wall as Ridley pulled Farley into an abandoned kitchen area, plunging through it as though it were made of tissue paper. It’s body was shredded by bullet holes that didn’t so much as bleed, as its eyes were burning to such a degree that if it shot out laser beams of pure hate Ridley honestly wouldn’t have been surprised. It had been that sort of day.

It must have tracked them up to the manor. It wouldn’t have been hard, even if the distance from where Baylor had ditched him had been more than a mile. It must have gone full-rhino in its mission to track them down, whether to secure Farley or to simply ensure everyone present at the doomed meeting of the Enclave never say the light of day.

“Watch out!” Ridley shouted, his voice coming out higher and coarser than he had meant it too, shoving Farley into a nearby room and raising one of the pistols he had stolen back at Rojas’ estate.

The juggernaut tore away the island in the center of the kitchen, literally ripped it from the floor and to the side, out of the way and off the cliff as it trudged slowly towards Ridley. It had to be on its last legs. Maybe sheer weight of mass, all those bullets in it, accumulated damage, Ridley reasoned as he sighted on the thing’s head. Maybe he was just like all those crooks in those old Superman comics, shooting someone they damn well knew to be bulletproof. Right.

He opened fire on the juggernaut.

The first round caught it in the throat, tearing out a furrow in the side of the metahuman’s neck to no noticeable effect beyond the obvious.

The juggernaut just became angrier. It seized Ridley by one shoulder and tossed him as though he were a football across the dining room Farley had fled into. Ridley hit the long table on his back, knocking over candlesticks and sliding the length of the slab as the tablecloth gathered in bunches underneath him.

“Go!” he yelled to Farley. “Downstairs, to the garage!” Rolling off the table, Ridley followed the General down a thin flight of stairs across the hall just as the juggernaut kicked the entire dining room table at them. The slab of wood and metal shattered against the too-small door frame, a detonation that put an extra kick in Ridley’s step as he emerged into a stark grey garage, not unlike Rojas’. Of course, Gosely hadn’t been much interested in expensive cars – she was an amateur pilot, and had a pair of planes down here. The small Cessna was still folded in one corner, but the miniature jet Gosely used for globehopping was gone. The empty space in the middle of the room, the tire marks, the spilled gas indication a swift and recent departure.

Ridley kicked open a nearby locker and was pleasantly surprised to find a shotgun and an MP5 mounted on the shelves. Gosely didn’t have the degree of obsessive security Rojas had (for all the good it did him), but she usually liked to be prepared. God bless paranoid criminals.

The British operative tossed the shotgun to Farley, taking the SMG for himself. “When it comes down that staircase, unload everything in it. It looks like it’s on its last legs.” He clenched the grip of the gun tight – you ready to bet your life on that, Jack?

A single chunk of the table preceded the juggernaut – one of the trunk-like legs. Ridley barely had to step aside, but the leg wasn’t meant for him. With a crack of tearing metal, the leg punctured a large jet black tack abutting the far wall.

Both Farley and Ridley stared at the amber liquid gushing from the rift. Farley had enough time to mutter, “Christ, it’s the fuel tan-” when the juggernaut leapt lightly down from the staircase and into the hangar.

---Ruz---

Teague snapped up his revolver and began emptying it at Ruz, but the stout Cuban was already moving, dodging behind a nearby column as the .44 tore fist-sized chunks from the nearby concrete.

Ruz already had his .45 in hand and traded shots back at the Colonel, two, three, four – click. The Colt was empty. With a grimace, he dropped his pistol to the floor just as Teague returned fire, forcing Ruz to pull his limbs tight behind cover.

Leaning over, Ruz plucked the bandana from my head and undid the simple knot with a flick of his wrist. He held either end of the cloth in each fist as though he were holding a giant line of tooth floss, ready for Teague just as the Colonel came around the side of Ruz’s column. The revolver fired, but Ruz seized control of Teague’s wrist with the bandana, wrapping it twice it a loop and banging Teague’s gunhand against a nearby wall, sending the bullet wide. Ruz snapped the revolver against the wall against, and Teague was forced to drop his sidearm.

The Colonel shifted his left arm so that it wasn’t pinned against the wall and backhanded Ruz, forcing the aggressor back as the Cuban ducked the strike. Teague shifted an awkward side kick, snapping his right boot at Ruz’s hip. The blow struck, and Ruz fell backwards, still holding onto the bandana. Both Ruz and Teague whirled in a circle as though in an intricate dance, their backs facing each other and then around as Teague worked to undo the bandana on his wrist. The pair fell away from each other but Teague was quicker on the draw, rebounding off a pillar and throwing a pair of punches at Ruz.

Ruz shifted out of the way of the first blow, slapped aside the second, and seized Teague’s follow-up cross. Teague, in response, reversed his forward momentum and pulled Ruz with him, sending his opponent smashing into a bullet-scarred pillar, and then about, rebounding Ruz. On the second collision, Ruz’s foot shot backwards, kicking back Teague’s leg and breaking the hold before following up with two punches. Teague rolled the blows off his shoulders, deflecting the power behind the strikes to each side, waiting for the lull after the punches to seize Ruz’s retreating arm and twist it, sending Ruz to the ground.

Sensing taking the fight to the ground against a stronger opponent would be incredibly dangerous to his health, Ruz spun awkwardly in a circle on his ass to relieve the pressure on his arm, getting to his feet just as Teague dropped down and swept his foot in a wide arc, sending Ruz plummeting again. Teague, quick to capitalize on his sprawling opposite, sent a kick at Ruz’s downturned face, but Ruz turned, taking the boot on his face and using the momentum to slam him against the far wall, onto his haunches, in time to catch Teague’s second kick and dive forward. The pair took two lurches backwards before splashing into the pool.

This took all of maybe ten seconds.

Baylor lay on the outer reaches, unable to move, only to track the fight with his eyes. His cybernetics were going through a forced reboot, but until then his body was frozen.

Teague recovered first, seizing Ruz by the neck and lifting him bodily out of the pool, jumping up to slam the Cuban against a far pillar. The howling hind, running diagonally to the cliffline, whipped their hair in everwhich direction as Teague reached behind and underneath his trenchcoat to draw out a foot-long bowie knife.

“You fought well, Cuban,” he said as he did so. “But you ain’t ready for the big leagues yet.”

He drew back the knife, ready to slit Ruz’s throat-

Ruz snarled, “Get off my island,” and pulled the ripcord mounted on Teague’s chest.

Teague paused, looked down at the straps of the parachute still around each shoulder, the parachute that had retracted when he had landed, the parachute that had just been released again-

With a woomph, the parachute popped out again, unspooling as quick as a whip in the vicious wind.

Teague gave Ruz one withering look, slashed out with the knife, but Ruz ducked, the blade struck only the painted concrete just as-

Teague was lifted off his feet by the parachute that popped open begin him and yanked backwards. He struggled, arms lashing out to grasp at a column, but he had chosen the last column, the one closest to the open drop, and there was nothing to scrabble at up rippled decking-

With one last snarl, Thaddeus Teague was swallowed by the night.

---Ridley---

Ridley spun and emptied his magazine into the monster, the hideously battered juggernaut, firing in short, measured bursts. It took the fusillade without so much as blinking, still walking forward. The tattered and once armored trenchcoat it had worn into the initial stages of the battle rippled under the attack, gore splattered everywhere, but to no avail. Without so much as an expression on its face, the juggernaut reached up and tore a huge lead pipe from the ceiling.

Farley, still looking at leaking fuel tank, snapped his head around and swore, fumbling with his shotgun.

The juggernaut jerked its focus from the British spy and started to make a beeline towards Farley.

In response, Farley began to pump his shotgun in the general direction of the monster’s head. So pathetic was the damage that it looked like the juggernaut had merely twitched its head twice, in rapid motion.

“Hey!” Ridley shouted desperately as he leapt up a nearby ladder onto the overhead catwalk.

Responsive, the juggernaut pivoted to gaze up at him, its milky eyes staring directly into Ridley’s own.

The arm holding the pipe blurred, and Ridley reflexively threw himself to the right as the conduit raced past and imbedded itself in the ceiling at a zillion miles an hour.

The juggernaut took a single step towards Ridley.

Farley, catching on, shouted to capture the juggernaut’s attention. Shouldering the shotgun, he fired two more shells at its head and neck, tearing what remained of the coat’s high collar to shreds. Still no effect. The fiend started back towards Farley, trudging determinately under the barrage.

Above, Ridley hauled himself to his feet, looking down at the situation below. Farley was seconds from being clobbered to death. He had no way to stop it, only a nearly-empty MP5 and a half-empty pistol.

Then his eyes, for lack of a better term, alighted on the gushing jet fuel immediately behind Farley. He needed a source of fire. With renewed purpose, Ridley sprinted towards Gosely’s utilitarian desk in the corner of the loft.

The juggernaut took a step from the higher section of the garage where Gosely kept a pair of simple SUVs into the lower area – the hangar, and into the sloshing jet fuel, which was beginning to form a swallow pool. The creature was only ten feet away from Farley now, but the general was frantically reloading. Seeing his enemy so close, Farley began to backpedal swiftly,

He tripped over a low, heavy tool cart just as the juggernaut threw a simple punch with all the force of an oncoming meteor at him, puncturing the fuel tank a second time and embedding its arm a half-foot into the far wall.

Ridley found what he needed – a lighter, right next to a box of Cuban cigars in the top drawer of the desk. Grabbing a random sheet of paper from the top of the tabletop, Ridley sprinted back towards the crisscrossing catwalk, balling up the paper as he went.

Seeing Ridley’s plan, Farley’s eyes went wide, and he dived out of the pool of jet fuel and sprinted for all his life towards the doorway leading back to the house.

This is such an incredibly stupid idea – the only thought that crossed through Ridley’s as he scrabbled to turn the lighter in his hand so that the right end was facing the paper.

“Hey!” he hollered! “Assjack!”

The juggernaut turned its head to look at the source of the sound, wrenching its arm out of the wall just as Ridley lit the crumpled paper ball, pulled his arm back, and tossed the burning sphere with all his might. Ridley saw the lit ball sail through the air, realized the sheer enormity of what was about to happen, and threw himself to the side right as-

-The ball bounced lightly off of the juggernaut’s nose.

There was a short beat.

Woomph.

The explosion knocked Farley from his feet, sending him careening off a wall. Staggering back up, he saw the juggernaut ablaze, a huge manned wrapped in fire, flames licking its entire body as it roared it pain.

The detonation, mostly focused outward, had blown a hole the size of a mack truck in the side of the hangar while turning the pool of fuel into a sea of fire.

“Now die, you sonuvabitch!” Farley shouted at it.

But the juggernaut did not collapse to its knees, fall to its face, and as Farley hoped, perish. Instead of folding over and turning into a heap of ash, the juggernaut spun and threw the tool dolly, much like the pipe, at Ridley, who didn’t completely get out the way in time.

The missle struck him in the knee, ending him spinning to the grating. His pant leg caught fire, and he desperately rolled to put it out.

Farley managed to finally get ahold of more shells and began to fire at the burning juggernaut. Overhead, there was a click, and what remained of the sprinkler system began to unleash torrents of water into the room.

Something must have clicked in the juggernaut’s mind, as it decided that killing Farley wasn’t as important as eliminating the threat Ridley had presented. It roared, turned away, and made a tactical withdrawal by jumping fifteen feet straight up from a standing position, landing heavily on the catwalk above, only a walkway over from where Ridley was determinately picking himself to his feet.

His eyes flew open when he saw the juggernaut so near, and he bound to his feet, newly energized, limping away as fast as he could. The pain in his leg was extreme, blood flowed freely from a long gash. Something was broken. He leaned heavily on the railing as he worked out how to put as much distance between the monster and him as he could. He heard it loud breath now for the first time as it began to follow him. Allowing a glance over his shoulder now, he saw that the juggernaut was simply smoldering now, the sprinklers having doused most of the fire as quickly as it had begun. Dammit!

Swearing, he unslung his MP5.

Down below, Farley knew he needed to change the game. He needed explosives, probably the only thing that could kill the juggernaut. Up above, he saw Ridley being chased by the juggernaut on the walkway. Farley shouted at the juggernaut, but that game wouldn’t work anymore. Ridley was hobbling at what must have been an agonizing pace, while the Tyrant was smoking something fierce. It would only be a matter of moment until it was all over.

Grimacing at the pain of the impact into the wall, Farley pushed off it and ran towards the weapons locker. There. Below the gun rack, a locked box.

Hefting his shotgun high, Farley brought the butt of the weapon down on the lock. It shattered under the force of the blow, and the compartment opened-

-to reveal a belt of four incendiary grenades.

Thirty-Six

Ridley | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

Spinning, Farley yelled, “Ridley!”

Ridley spun at the sound of his name, to see Farley pitch a belt of red-striped grenades at him. He could them without breaking stride, but the glance made him realized he was over the half-burning pool of fuel right now, near the alit Cessna.

With a great leap, the juggernaut bounded the last twenty feet between them, seizing him the throat. Ridley’s feet left the ground as the creature hefted him a good meter off the ground. Black spots began t form in the edge of his field of vision. It was a miracle the juggernaut didn’t snap his neck outright the pressure was like nothing he had ever felt. He couldn’t breathe.

He remember the grenades clutched in his left hand – he could kill the thing right now – the catwalk would break and they’d be dumped into the fuel. The juggernaut may have survived a short bath of flames, but he severely doubted it could stand in a prolonged swim in a reignited lake of fire. Grunting, he flicked the timer on the grenade belt to twenty seconds and shoved the entire belt into the tattered front flap of the juggernaut’s trenchcoat. It stayed there. With a flick of his wrist, Ridley pulled the ripcord from the belt, simultaneously pulling all the pins and starting the timer.

Dropping the cord, Ridley hefted the MP5 in his other hand and braced the stock against his shoulder, steading it with his now free left hand. The juggernaut moved to swipe it away, but it was too lake, and Ridley began firing into its face from a point blank range, shot after shot. Flesh rippled, exploded, but the juggernaut didn’t fold under the barrage.

One shot. Two. Three.

On the fourth, it finally let him go.

How much time was left? He didn’t know.

He shuffled away from the Tyrant as fast as he could. Behind him, he heard the thing wrench a pipe from the ceiling – the one it had thrown at him previously. It was going to brain him with it-

He was fifteen feet from the edge of the pit. Briefly ignoring the pain his leg, he took two great bounds and leapt-

-Into open air, soaring the last five feet or so before realizing he had jumped off a catwalk some fifteen feet in the air with one bun leg –

-And suddenly a new person was there, not Farley, sliding in, arms wide-

Ridley landed haphazardly on him, they both crumpled to the floor.

Behind him, he heard a click-click-click-

It was the grenades-

It was a simple ‘woomph’ this time. It was a full-on BANG, or maybe a collection of really tightly spaced booms, but there was a snarl, a crash, and then an almighty roar. Ridley and his savior were lifted into the air by the explosion and tossed a good ten feet back as he mentally put together sounds-

The juggernaut had received a nasty surprised, the catwalk had caved in underneath it, snapping it two, dunking the blazing juggernaut into the fuel. The alighting of the pool had tossed the pair of them like rag dolls.

Ridley groaned. His rescuer had spun them so that he had been on the bottom, shielding Ridley from the force of the impact. Still, Ridley’s head was jammed into his side. Turning, Ridley was the juggernaut sprawled in a sea of fire, two broken halves of a catwalk holding it down down, the ten-foot section of pipe impaling him handily.

As he watched, the juggernaut turned its head to look at them. The thing’s entire body began to bubble with mutations that rippled down its body. It still wasn’t dead yet.

“Should we kill it while it’s stuck there?” Farley asked, hauling Ridley to his feet.

Ridley shook his head. “No. I don’t want to make it angrier.

“You don’t have a choice,” the third person said.

Ridley looked back down, expecting to see Baylor or even Ruz, but no.

It was Ryuhei Akamatsu.

The former WRAITH assassin stood and brushed himself off. He was dressed in a well-cut motorcycle jacket and ruggedly designed jeans. Noticeably, his customary helmet wasn’t off. Ridley saw with a start that sometime in the recent past Akamatsu – Storm – had had his Glasgow Grin surgically removed. However, whatever time had passed had not removed the vicious, predatory look in the man’s eyes, a look that made Ridley struggled to believe the guy was truly now on the side of the good guys. Or at least lending a hand every now and then.

Ridley noticed the crumpled, bleeding form of Nix propped up against the wall of the dining hall up the stairs. Storm must have retrieved the unconscious and thoroughly rattled henchman from the trunk of Baylor’s abandoned car.

“You’ve got a while to go until those things are dead,” Akamatsu said, his voice still that smooth, straight-from-hell growl. “Get to the roof, and hurry. That assault force from the Acheron Foundation wasn’t the entirety of the group. You’ve got a small army converging on this house.”

“But the juggernaut-” Ridley said.

“-The gene-lock begins to lose its hold after enough damage, and the formula reverts the test subject to something closer to the original strain,” Storm cut in.

“You mean the Abomination,” Ridley said, eyes widening.

“I suppose that’s a good a name as ever. Must have been Baylor’s.” Slotting forth a pair of two-foot blades on either wrist, Storm waved them up the stairs. “He is here, correct? I came here to ensure his safety for past debts. It would be a shame to come all this way and have him be dead.”

Ridley started. Last he saw had been Baylor falling off of a plummeting helicopter, his body locked. Ruz had reported him with cybernetics all locked up, right until the juggernaut had crashed the party.

Turning his head at the sound of a demonic shriek, Ridley saw the juggernaut contort, its neck and shoulders bulking up as its spinal column lengthened and extended, splitting out of the fiend’s back. The arms thinned and grew vicious claws while the leg shorted and bulged with muscle. The lower jaw split in a disgusting stripe of blood, revealing curving fangs. The juggernaut was swiftly becoming the visage of the abomination that had chased Ridley through Rojas’ mansion and had hounded Baylor earlier that morning.

“If that’s true,” Ridley said, “then there’s every chance that there’s a second on the w-”

Farley gave a shout and dived to the side just, as if enticed by Ridley’s words, a second abomination, its lower mouth mostly gone, its heads leaking saliva everywhere, leapt from the dining room and into the thin confines of the staircase.

Storm’s response was violent in its speed and intensity. His first blow pinned the abomination high up on the wall, his wrist blade piercing a writhing shoulder, before other hand grabbed the beast by the hind leg and threw the abomination bodily out of the staircase.

Through a wall.

Minus a limb.

The wounded abomination hit the concrete of the garage with a snarl, claws throwing up sparks that lit small fires where Farley’s footsteps had left imprints of jet fuel. With a resonant roar, the abomination leapt forward, directly at Storm.

Akamatsu drew a stubby weapon from inside his jacket and fired it point-blank into the abomination’s face.

The creature’s head exploded in a fountain of gore.

“Go!” Storm yelled, reloading the pistol-sized one-shot grenade launcher as he pushed Ridley and Farley up the stairs. The body of the decapitated abomination hit the wall with a meaty smack just as the burning abomination hefted itself off the ceiling pipe and out from under the catwalks.

They all sprinted into the kitchen, up a spiral staircase, up onto the pool deck, with the abomination in hot pursuit. They emerged into the freezing wind, saw Ruz crouched over the recovering Baylor, throwing one all over his shoulder.

Ridley could see the grounds of Gosely’s abandoned estate, stretching in every direction.

He could see the three tanks and about a hundred men converging on his position. He could see at least four more juggernauts standing high, leading formations. Of course this strike force, which Storm had claimed was from the Acheron foundation, wouldn’t have sent just a dozen men and a trio of living bioweapons. It would’ve needed a small army to crack the Enclave.

And it had.

The abomination didn’t follow them directly. Instead it had disappeared, circled around, and leapt clear of the jaggedly smashed ceiling above. The impact caught Storm from the side, and the two hit the ground rolling.

Everyone whipped their guns around, just in time to see Storm guide aside the crunching jaws of the abomination with a swipe of his hand before using his enhanced strength and wrist blades to dismember the limbs of the creature.

All of them. Quickly, efficiently, in the span of maybe five seconds.

Leaving the limbless body of the abomination snarling on the floor, Storm kicked the body against a nearby pillar, the only one still unscarred by Ruz’s and Teague’s brawl. The entire thing snapped with the impact, and the upper half of the column fell onto the abomination’s protesting head, squashing it into paste.

Holy shit. This, they knew, was a total difference in league. It was a chilling feeling, as though seeing the future of the evolution of warfare and getting a sense that would were now just an obsolete byproduct.

Without so much as commenting on the demise of the second abomination, Akamatsu reloaded his grenade launcher and lifted it high. A flare popped from the muzzle, firing a green star high above the soon-to-be besieged villa.

A large, circular rig dropped down on a cable from a tiltrotor, a V-22 Osprey hovering high above the mansion.

“Clip on!” Storm yelled, seizing Baylor from Ruz and strapping a harness around the marine’s chest, clipping it to the SPIE rig – a Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction system designed to allow a military team to insert or extract from enemy territory in a location where a helicopter could not land.

With a wave from Storm, everyone fished harnesses off of the rig and clipped them on.

“Hurry!” Storm snarled. “They’re getting close! Now or never, people!”

Ridley was last on, and he did a quick check of the harnesses with Storm before the metahuman fired an orange flare into the sky.

And then, with an almighty jerk, the V-22 surged forward, hauling the crew into the air, trailing behind like streamer. The pursuing army began to open fire on the burning mansion in futile aggression, but by then the awkward assemblage – Storm, Nix, Farley, Ridley, Ruz, and Baylor – were out of range.

Ridley watched the burning mansion recede into the distance, finally collapsing in on itself.

They were free.

Thirty-Seven

Baylor | November 5th, 2014 | Two Days Before World’s End

I woke up maybe twenty minutes later to find myself propped up in a plush chair in a small-appointed cabin. We were airborne.

And the seat cushions were familiar in style.

I turned my head to see Chandra Gosely sitting nearly, conversing quietly with Farley. She turned her head and offered me one of those Cheshire grins. “Ah. The prodigal son reawakens.”

I put a hand to my throbbing head. “Where are we?”

“On my V-22,” she said simply. “On our way to neutral territory.”

I grimaced as I sat up. “Neutral territory?”

“Florida,” she supplied, her smile somehow widening. God, to look forward to the day when she wasn’t the lesser of evils.

“In case you didn’t notice, I don’t think neutral territory has much of a meaning after tonight,” I said, before my expression soured. “You bitch. You knew what was going to happen and still sent us into there.”

“I had to confirm a suspicion, as well as assure the good General’s continued survival. You’ll notice a provided you with a fall-back point, able assistance, and waiting extraction.”

“That’s a hell of a way of spinning it,” I said, one hand holding my side. I turned my head to Farley just as Ridley (his leg wrapped in a bandage), Ruz, and Storm entered the converted cabin from the cut-down cargo bay behind Farley. “You. We went through hell to get you out of there. I want to know everything. From the beginning. Now, or I shove your ass out of this plane without a parachute. Perhaps you can pal it up with Teagle in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“I too would like to know what’s going on,” Ruz said, spinning a revolving seat around to sit in.

Gosely laughed. “I don’t think this pertains to you, Cuban.”

“Fuck that,” he snarled. “My commander officer, my mentor died in that assault. There’s a goddamn army that’s running around on my country’s soil, that’ll probably fade out just as quickly as we did. And in case you didn’t notice, a hefty portion of the criminal underworld just found itself leaderless. That means succession wars. Violence. Innocents caught in the way. All in the third world, in places you people don’t a shit about save for the bottom line. So, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll stay right here.”

I looked at Farley and Ridley in turn. My gaze was clear. He has a point.

“Fine,” Farley said. “It involves a plan MIDNIGHT had been putting together right before the Russian coup.”

“You mean right before they decided to hang you out to dry,” I said.

Farley waved a hand, a cutting gesture. “I had only heard hints of it, and even then I thought it stupid and overly ambitious. At best, it should have been implemented at a leisurely pace. But someone seems to be accelerated the plan, to their own design.”

“What is this plan?” Ruz asked, using a towel to wipe blood and grime off of his face.

“MIDNIGHT PARADOX,” Farley stated simply.

“Impossible,” Ridley said sharply. “There’s no way we wouldn’t notice something like that.”

“And yet,” Farley said. “Here we are.”

“Excuse me,” I cut back in. “But what the hell is MIDNIGHT PARADOX?”

“Basically, MIDNIGHT applies the concept of the Paragon to a global scale. It funds terrorist groups, WRAITH, nebulously amoral scientific measures, anything. It guides develop into things they desire. New armored suits. Targeted bioweapons. Like that INTEGRAL TEMPEST you fought last night. One of two models currently up for consideration. The men involved, most likely from a US Navy Unit called Red Cell.”

“I knew something was incredibly off about the opforce last night, but you’re telling me they were literal opforce. Isn’t Red Cell the unit that tests unit effectiveness during war games?”

“That’s them,” Farley said. “They’ll ideally placed and possess intimate knowledge of standard military procedure to use against the President’s allies. You most like faced Second Unit, since they’re best known for their… extreme practices when it comes to impersonation. Right down to surgical alteration.” Farley sighed, taking a drink from a thick thermos. “And it’s groups like Red Cell that go out and stir up trouble with smaller groups before fading out again. Pawns and knights, against the world. Against NTET, against forces that could pose a potential or real threat to MIDNIGHT.”

“And then it uses a feedback loop,” I said, heart dropping.

“Exactly. They see you defeat their prototypes, and continually improve. The entire world is their testing ground. And right now, my sources, and well as Miss Gosely’s here, point to the fact that MIDNIGHT is guiding the development of a whole new type of bioweapon.”

“Those mass-produced metahumans,” I said. “The abominations looked like the mutants exposed to the Monoliths.”

“Because they have been,” Farley said, nodding. “It is my belief that MIDNIGHT has teamed up with Malcolm Kroner again. This is perhaps a crucial fact, but one you must understand. Kroner has been continuing the work of the Paragon, with its old bioweapons staff of scientists. I conject that Kroner’s hidden base, the one we’ve been working to find for so long, is built over an uncovered Monolith. He’s been discovering the effects the Monolith has on humans without actually triggering it, and using the base as a manufacturing plant to stabilize a metahuman formula capable of mass-production.”

“But it’s not finished,” Ridley said. “Not by a long shot. We all saw what happened to that juggernaut.”

“Indeed, but in Kroner’s mind, that’s an acceptable tradeoff. A degree of whatever control measure Kroner uses to direct these metahumans still remains in the degraded subject even after it mutates.”

“This is all great,” Ruz said, “but I don’t see how it applies to this Acheron Foundation and why MIDNIGHT targeted the Enclave.”

“Well, one of MIDNIGHT’s longest standing goals was covert control of the third world,” Farley said, circling his hands in a ‘do you see gesture.’ “But someone’s split off from MIDNIGHT and moved up plans considerably, most probably in collusion with Kroner. This Acheron Foundation is a front for Kroner to interact with the world since he’s partially locked out of WRAITH.” Farley inclined his head to Gosely, who sat watching this exchange with lazy interest.

“Anyway,” Farley said, “look at what’s happened to the American militia groups over this year. They’ve been systematically wiped out and impersonated. The specter of their existence is still in the minds of basic law enforcement and the general public, so MIDNIGHT can use them as tools, scapegoats. It’s just a smaller scale version of what MIDNIGHT, or this traitor more specifically, started tonight and are probably right now in the process of implementing. Even if half of the criminal underground was represented here tonight and MIDNIGHT can only seep its fingers into two thirds of them, that’s still a third of the world’s criminal enterprises MIDNIGHT has gained some sway over in one fell swoop.”

“And you can do a lot of things with that sort of power,” Ridley said, head bowed. “Start wars. Channel billions of dollars. Destroy WRAITH.”

“Impossible,” Gosely said, finally speaking up.

“Not so impossible,” Farley countered. “With that sort of influence, an organized venture could very well be on the same scale of WRAITH. Without, say, you or Kroner behind the wheel. Sure, some hotshot might rise out of the organization, someone at one point installed by WRAITH but then gets ideas in his mind, but he’d a ton easier to quash than a institutionalized figure like you or Kroner, someone who had their tentacles everywhere. But I figure that’s a fringe benefit, a long term goal, or at least for the vanilla organization of MIDNIGHT. But whoever’s acting here is doing so at an alarming rate, hoping to catch people by surprise.”

He rubbed his droopy orange mustache. “It’s odd, really. It’s like the hands of an amateur are guiding this, and that’s what makes me so cautious to just blame this all on Kroner. It’s not like he’s lacking in gains from co-opting MIDNGHT’s machinations. With that sort of control over the criminal underworld, Kroner’s monopoly would allow him to reestablish, reinvent himself with a scale of power overshadowing even his feats in the nineties.”

“Okay,” I cut in. “But where does this leave Teague? He seemed ridiculously interested in me, and if he’s MIDNIGHT, what’s his role in all this?”

Farley exchanged a significant look with Gosely before answering. “Teague is a mercenary, but hired almost exclusively by MIDNIGHT, and still maintains a rank in the US military. He gets to complete missions that appeal to his own sensibilities while still getting paid handsomely for it. He was most likely brought on by the inner circle of MIDNIGHT as a troubleshooter, to find the traitor. Teague’s involvement usually means a lot of collateral damage and a lot of dead in his wake.”

I nodded. “So, would it be fair to categorize Teague as a smash and solve type, not a planner?”

“That would be fair,” Farley confirmed. “But don’t dismiss him because of that.”

“That was the last thing I was going to do, trust me. And what’s this Nix character?”

“He’s Teague’s right-hand man, his primary agent in the field. From what scant dossier files that exist, he’s known to be an expert at impersonation and, well, getting wherever he wants to go as whatever he wants to be. And more than a fair hand in a fight, as you saw. There’s probably a third agent, one we haven’t seen yet, sent in to act as Teague’s handler, to make sure he completes the mission.”

I grimaced, before filing away the fact that Farley had never answered my question about Teague’s personal interest in me.

“You mentioned a bioweapon,” I said, trying to clean up loose ends. “I don’t see how this metahuman formula qualifies as such. It’s still got a long way to go – there’s a marked intelligence decrease, there’s obvious chances of losing control, even assuming it’s got a high enough infection rate to be viable.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Farley said. “I think Kroner’s been playing around with this formula on his own, isolated a couple different strains to suit his needs. The remote control aspects alone raise… interesting implications. I think he’s got a few more cards left up his sleeve. But tonight’s events are definitely not his endgame. We’re just moving out of the opening stages.”

Ruz was increasingly growing more incensed as the conversation continued. “You keep talking as though MIDNIGHT’s already won over control of the underground.”

Farley blinked at Ruz. “But it has. By this time tomorrow, they will probably have the control they desire. They’re moving as we speak. At this point, any damage control would be of little to no effectiveness. Our only goal moving forward is to head off any future plot and nip the over plan in the bud before it can mature into something world-shaking.”

“And this isn’t world-shaking?” Ruz shot back. “Thousands of people will die because of this chaos MIDNIGHT had touched off! A government or several will collapse! We’re talking the spread a special breed of American fascism here, and you people are just going to blithely accept it? Too worried about your own countrymen to give a shit about the rest of the world? Do you just see all the suffering this will cause as an abstract, unavoidable consequence.”

I put an arm on Ruz’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off, standing. “Look, man,” I said. “I agree with you. This blows chunks. But I’ve learned over the years, and especially over the last forty-eight hours, that the only way out is forward. If individuals are to make a difference, they have to be proactive, instead of reactive.”

“Easy for you to say,” Ruz said, walking towards the small cargo bay. “Where’re the parachutes?” he asked.

“On your right, dear,” Gosely said cheerily.

Ruz snatched a backpack off of a far wall, opened a small hatch in a large back doors of the Osprey, and shrugged on the chute. “You’re half-right Baylor. I’m still going to be proactive. But I’m starting the fight here, now. Without your interests, your greater powers vying for control. Adios.”

And with that, he was gone, taken by the wind.

“What a suitably dramatic exit,” Gosely mused. “I suppose he has a beacon for the Cuban navy to pick him up.”

“After what happened tonight, most definitely,” Ridley said, his head still low, deep in though. “With the death of Major Muerte, he’s in line to be elevated as the leader of field operations.”

Damn,” I said, after a moment. “He still has my bandana.” I flopped back into my chairs, fingers massaging my temples.

Storm just watched all of this silently. I turned to him. “Nix said there was a Japanese agent hired to protect me. Was that you?”

The meta just shrugged. “If you’re referring to man chilling in the holding cell in the cargo bay, then I don’t know him. I decided to keep the assassins and mercenaries off my back on my own. In fact, I probably did the world a favor, with something like twenty less top tier hired guns in the world.”

I nodded. At least that explained why nobody had confronted me back in Manhattan. At least Storm still possessed some form of loyalty for favors past.

I shifted my gaze back to Farley. “Alright. Spill. How do you think we can head this off?”

Farley didn’t look up. He spoke as though he knew the weight of his pronouncement. “I was not speaking hypothetically when I said to nip this at the bud.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, John Baylor, that I know where Kroner’s last base is. Where is lab is. Where the Monolith is. On an island known as World’s End.”

Thirty-Eight

Ryan | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

Thaddeus Teague took Anne’s son, Ryan, to the staging area on the eastern docks of Manhatten, an open-air warehouse that was currently occupied by a thirteen-man strike team of MIDNIGHT. The tri-ocular-clad wraiths were in the last checks of assembling their gear and snapped to some degree of attention when Teague’s SUV pulled to a stop. The Colonel opened the door for kid, who hopped down onto the cement, eyes wide.

A figure, lounging against the hood of a Humvee parked at the far end of the storage area, spoke up. “What good the kid gonna do us?” Ryan squinted and saw a tall and thin- yet broad-shouldered - man with swept-back brown-black hair, dressed in black combat gear.

Teague dropped down into a crouch next to Ryan, catching his attention. He spoke, his voice raised so his compatriot could hear. “Ryan, I’m working to rescue your mother.”

“Who took her?” Ryan asked, between Teague’s measured sentences.

Teague rubbed at his brow. “Honestly, son? It’s a rogue European strike team working for some very bad individuals. They view your mom as the key to their plans.”

“Why?” Ryan asked, looking genuinely puzzled. Now that he had been dropped into his own international thriller, it wasn’t nearly so exciting when the bad guys went after your mom. “I mean, my mom’s great and all, but she’s just my mom. She’s like a data analyst or something.” He frowned for a second. “I mean, she works with Mr. Baylor and all, are they going at him through her? Is this because of my dad?”

“Christ,” the man at the far end of the room said, throwing up one hand in a lazy gesture. “What the hell is this?”

The wraiths all stared at Teague, green lights impassive.

Teague partially shifted towards what was probably his team leader. “Look, Ryan, your mother’s got a long line of allegiances, but the long and the short of it is that she’s come into power recently that proves a lot of outstanding theories. She’s a psion. You know what is?”

“My mom has superpowers?” Ryan asked. “I wouldn’t believe you if not for those dozen something guns and Splinter Cell rejects over there.” One of the wraiths cocked his head at the comment, and said something over his radio to his comrades. Ryan regarded them impassively.

“Yup,” Teague said, putting a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “And guess what, kiddo. It’s hereditary. Don’t really know what you’re gonna happen to you, but I do know this: studies we’ve intercepted from WEU suggests that, in the incredibly rare case of hereditary powers, a bond is formed between the mother and the child.”

Ryan waved his hands. “Taking all this in is a little crazy, but let me get this straight. You think I can home in on my mom so you can go save her?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Teague said, standing back up. “We don’t have long, but the old research showed how to employ the technique. We’ve got about a couple hours until we roll out, in which case I need to catch up on the spy business.”

Ryan was uneasy. This man was treating the entire affair as though it were a game, freely handing out information. Perhaps things were that serious, but he honestly didn’t have any choice in the matter. Ryan had seen the shoulder holster when the Colonel’s trench coat had shifted. He didn’t have any choice but to accompany Teague to this staging area.

The method Teague showed Ryan didn’t seem like anything impressive – just a dorky colander-shaped helmet that attached to a bulky computer with a trailing set of wires. Teague had waved it off as stolen European technology, while the man in the corner looks increasingly irritated. The right-hand-man, as Ryan figured him, looked battered, as though he had recently gotten out of a heavy brawl. When Ryan mentioned this fact to Teague, the big man just shook his head with a smile. “Something like that,” he said.

“Right,” Teague said after about an hour of work. “We’re just waiting for our plus-one then.”

“What plus-one?” the thin man said, straightening.

“This better be worth it, Teague,” a voice came from the shadows outside of the warehouse.

“Speak of the devil,” the Colonel muttered.

Ryan turned, still with the dorky helmet on his head, to see two figures step out of the darkness into the glare cast by the building’s lights. One was a slight woman with short brown hair done into a ponytail. She had on a set of tri-oculars like the wraiths and much the same armor, only the goggle were the only sort of adornment she wore on her head. Her movements were smooth and confident, her posture always ready for a fight. She looked to be guiding the initial speaker, a tall man – at least six foot one, two – into the shelter.

The man was dressed in motorcycle gear, a tightly cut jacket, some sort of hybridized combat jeans (if such a thing were possible), and had a tight beanie cap over his hair. His eyes were covered by a visor that was a single red line, as though stolen from the prop room of an X-Men movie. With a sudden pang of realization, Ryan recognized the visor – it had once belonged to his father. He had seen his dad wear it once before, long ago, back when Ryan had covertly discovered his dad was not, in fact, just a desk jockey.

But this man was not his father. His slouch was noticeable, as if a deliberate and calculated contrast to the keen and tense demeanor of his companion.

Teague grinned jovially at the visored-man, an expression as deliberately calculated as the man’s posture. “Akamatsu! Intel said you got rid of those joker scars, but I haven’t seen you without them. You look so much more recognizable without them. And, of course, leaving aside the fact that the world’s thought you dead for something like three years.”

“Cut the small talk, Teague,” the newcomer growled. He jerked his head at the Teague’s lounging right-hand-man in the corner and said, at the exact same time as the man, “What’s he doing here?”

There was a few seconds of pregnant silence before the visored man spoke up again. “The last I heard, he was in US custody. Well, at least the American custody that you’re party too.”

“We’re all Americans here,” Teague shot back, his voice hardening. “You came to me, remember?”

The man in the corner sneered. “You're just a dog looking for something to bite, Storm. First you kill Kroner and now you’ve fixed your eyes on a new target? Gosely still aiming you at the things she wants dead? How does it feel to be a puppet who thinks he’s cut the strings?”

“I want the MIDNIGHT traitor as dead as you do, Nix,” Storm responded angrily. “I know who it is, and Teague here,” he jerked his head at the Colonel, “Can get me to them if I tag along to pick up this Lennox woman.”

Teague nodded. “I was hired to find the traitor. This is my lead. Stamping out this WEU kill team and finding out my enemy’s moveset is just part of the plan. With Storm here I can skip straight to the source. But these Europeans need both Anne Lennox for some reason, and I intend to find out for what purpose they didn’t stop with Baylor.”

Storm’s head snapped back towards Teague. “They have Baylor? He’s still alive?”

“Interesting,” Teague said, his expression positively sharklike. “My sources indicate you were last in Baylor’s company when you stowed off of World’s End island, Storm. Shouldn’t you know where he is?”

Ryan watched this exchange with increasing interest all while trying to blend in with the scenery.

The female wraith shifted uncomfortably, throwing a look at Teague. Teague shrugged at her. The meaning, Ryan thought, was clear, even if Storm, who was looking back at Nix with increasing dislike twisting his mouth, didn’t see it. Keep this cool as long as possible, okay?

Suddenly Ryan’s sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t exactly running with the home team suddenly felt a lot more solid. His stomach clenched as he looked around. Nix, who had been busted out of federal custody – and yet wasn’t Teague directly representing the US, at least to Ryan? And who was this Storm fellow? Ryan had heard her mom mentioned him once or twice, and never in pleasant terms. And worse still, it seemed Teague knew something intimate about the nature of what had led a bloody and amnesiatic John Baylor to his mother’s home just this morning – had it really been that long ago?

This was heavy. Great scott, etcetera, etcetera.

Teague fished out a vibrating cell phone from his coat and held it to his ear. After a few seconds conversing with someone on the other side, he pocketed the device. “We need to move. Our opponents have scrambled a Blue Light TEMPEST platoon for a SAND operation.”

The wraiths snapped into motion, finishing loading their gear onto several Humvees. Ryan caught Teague’s attention, no mean feat considering the man was good three feet taller than him.

“What’s SAND?” Ryan asked.

“Search-and-destroy,” Teague provided as he pulled a battered revolver from a shoulder holster and spun the chamber, checking it to make sure it was fully loaded. “It means no less than eight INTEGRAL TEMPEST powersuits are trying to head us off to act as cleaners. To kill the European pawns and recapture Baylor and your mom.”

“But not if you stop them first?” Ryan said.

“Not if we stop them first,” Teague said, snapping shut his revolver.

Thirty-Nine

Ruz | November 20th, 2014 | Two Weeks After World’s End

“Got a new one,” the duty officer said, handing Ruz a thick folder as he entered officer abutting the interrogation room. “Asked specifically for you.”

Ruz opened the folder and started. “Last I heard of him he died a month ago. In the aftermath of World’s End.”

“And yet here he is,” the duty officer said, rubbing at her tired eyes. “I handed this one to you, because if command finds out one of the men linked to the battle at Rojas’ is in custody, they’ll walk in here and execute him with barely a cursory interrogation. I owed you a favor, so here it is.”

Ruz scratched as his mustache before tugging at the red bandana tied around his wrist. “No, thanks Maria. I’ve got this. But one more favor.”

“Yeah?” she asked, shrugging.

“Turn off the recorders.”

And with that, Ruz entered the interrogation cell.

Seated across the table was Nix. He was battered and bloody, bandages covering random wounds, a large scar over with right cheek.

“I don’t think you have anything you can tell us that we don’t know,” Ruz stated. “We’ve already gotten our hands on the British reports from World’s End.”

“Reports I leaked to you,” Nix said, leaning forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Check your source a bit further, mate.”

“I think you misunderstand,” Ruz countered. “I represent a consortium of countries, all the small and downtrodden and weak in your eyes. Those who aren’t the great players on the international stage, but are tired of groups like NATO, WEU, and the USSR – as well as their NTET proxies – calling the shots. Someone has to act as a Backstop to the excess.”

“Cute,” Nix said. “Backstop. Did you know I gave you that name? I organized Backstop. After seeing the failures of NTET, the way groups such as MIDNIGHT have permeated into the fabric of first-world society, the way they not only control money and power but even memories and beliefs. What do you think I’ve been doing with every bit of my spare time, calling in every bit of political and intelligence capital I had.” Nix jabbed a finger onto the table. “I proved, goddammit, that the little guy could make a difference in the world, that a normal foot soldier, a grunt, could move mountains.”

Ruz snorted. “Impossible. Even ignoring the fact that Teague owned you, I don’t see how you could possibly effect the actions of entire nations.”

Nix’s face went flat as the very heat flowed from his tone. “It’s just a question of price, mate. I want to tell you a story – truth – of a man who lost everything. His family, his friends, his allies. His reputation with all those. His respect, both from others for him, and him for himself. His home, his job, his love, and his very life. His body, his mind, and his soul. I want to describe to you how utterly a man can be destroyed, ground into dust, sacrificed everything he held dear. I watched as that man did that to not only break himself free of a system centuries old but to lay the very cracks in the foundation of that system. Cracks he would one day return and exploit, and bring the whole thing crumbling down.”

The voice of the former assassin began to gain its weight, its color again. “And I ask myself, I ask you - was the price too high? After all that, can he still be judged as human at all? Take a seat, Ruz. And let me tell you what happened, what really happened two weeks ago.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:08 am

I'd say that Micheal Bay should direct the movie but that would be a gross understatement. This was beyond akshun man. It's like Die Hard 4.0 compared to the first few films. John's pulling shit that would be unbeleivable in TE let alone CSW. Comparing this to the original Shadow Tempest... Well ST was tactical espionage action, it fitted with CSW. This seems to be falling prey to sequel syndrome like Revenege Of The Fallen or Bad Boys II, its like you keep trying to top the last section and its got to almost ridiculous levels.

I'm not sure the before/after mix is doing you much favours either. I'm certainly confused.
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Shroom Man 777 » Sat Jan 22, 2011 7:39 pm

Man, that was pretty damn big. I think Booted has a point in that it suffers from Bay-itis, becoming like Transformers 2 with ridiculous action scenes and Baylor missile-catching, and I guess our equivalent of Sam Witwicky's mom going high is Baylor calling Chandra Gossley a MILF in her face :lol: But the story has its saving graces, I think. There is a plot here, and the whole MIDNIGHT thing and Ruz and the flashbacks and flashforwards are pretty good, and I dig your experimentation with the flashes, Moby. I like the story, but the ridiculous action scenes, as Boots points out, may not exactly fit with CSW with Baylor's missile-swatting and the Abomination Tyrant's President Evilling.

The strong points, however, remain with your crazy conspiracy concoctions and musings into tactical espionage actionings and cool characters. I think the only flaw is that you took the akshun too over the top. But I still leik it. :D
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Sat Jan 22, 2011 9:24 pm

I forget to mention before:

1, 2, 3, 4!
I declare a shipping war!

That is if there are any actual Jannie fans out there who don't already know Baystar is the one true path. :P
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Tue Apr 03, 2012 7:10 am

I can't believe how long it took me to write this, and to be honest between this and the sixty-something pages I have sitting around for the next act, I figured a might as well find a decent place to split the acts.

EDIT: I've split this act into five parts, mostly to facilitate pointing out good parts to take a break after still admittedly-huge chunks.

Act Three

Finally done running, John?

Not Quite.


Forty

Ridley | November 7th, 2014 | One day after World’s End

The British investigation had nearly abandoned the island, leaving behind a landmass that was riddled with bullet holes, scattered over with the debris of a gargantuan underground explosion, and carpeted with whatever gore and blood the driving rain couldn’t wash away.

The final helicopter sat on the dock, the whine of the rotors swiftly rising to painful levels. Ridley stood far enough from the large transport chopper so that he didn’t have to completely shout, but close enough to the craft that its presence still offered him the residual comfort of close evac.

“Butch was just loaded up,” a woman’s voice said from behind him.

Ridley did not respond at first, still gazing out at the smoking crater a half mile inward of the island. There wasn’t anything they could recover from the caverns underneath, and if there was, it would take a concerted excavation effort that would be weeks long. Time, right now, was of the essence. After a moment, he turned. “Good,” he said, raising his voice only slightly over the rotors. “I want to get off this godforsaken rock.”

Following McDonnell back to the helicopter, Ridley threw one last look at the charred outlines of more than a score of dead men, having long since been wrapped in body bags and flown back to the Royal Navy vessels. Only morbid sketches remained, and though a macabre artist had traced the borders of the lives the previous night had claimed with disturbing accuracy.

Mounting the ramp to the chopper, Ridley strapped himself in next to the stretcher locked into the right wall. If the stretcher’s occupant, sitting upright at the waist, gave any notice to the discomfort the helicopter’s thrumming gave his injuries, he didn’t let it show in his face.

“First things first,” Butch Baylor said, folding his arms. For all the world, he was the exact copy of his brother, the only thing that differed were the location of the numerous scars. At least that had been so before World’s End. Now the once crazed light that flitted behind Butch’s eyes had dimmed, and his thousand-yard stare was something at home in a Kubrick movie. “I want to know what happened in the rest of the goddamn world during and since this went down.”

Buckling in, Mary glanced at Ridley. He’d take this.

Securing his own harness, the British Agent withdrew his PDA and began scrolling through intelligence reports from his scattered agents. “All of our contacts with the US – those in the know – went dark about five minutes into the raid. Hawkins, Easly, all of them. Savage went dark about thirty minutes later, about the time your brother confronted Kroner in the crater. None of the NTET, SOLID SIX, anything channels are getting through. The US, diplomatically, has turned a cold shoulder to British requests for information. The USN fleet that was parked out here last night has steamed towards Guam, and is unresponsive to hails.”

Glancing up from the PDA, Ridley made eye contact with Butch. “So, short of physically storming any ships or bases or the bloody White House, we’re not getting any answers out of America. The fact that not only Savage but Gosely as well went dark during the raid suggests that they either knew what was going to happen – then, or in the future, in Gosely’s case – or where either threatened or felt threatened, in Savage’s case. Riding out the storm, so to speak.”

“There’s a traitor, which should be fricking obvious by now,” Butch said, holding Ridley’s gaze with such intensity that Ridley was forced to avert his eyes. “And I know who it is.” He paused, reconsidering. “Who they are. Plural.”

Mary’s eyebrows shot up, but Ridley felt his stomach clench with a familiar sensation – that a long dreaded possibility that he had, deep down, known to be the surest of answers, turned out to be true. NTET was riddled with holes, and last night MIDNIGHT had gutted the organization. He laid it all out for Butch in terse, short sentences. NTET hideouts had been found smashed, their occupants executed. Any attempts to reverse the restructuring of the criminal underworld had been quashed with efficiency so ruthless it bordered on precognizant. The Russians were starting to ready their military forces in response to these events, and Kiralova was demanding a conference call with Ridley, unable to reach Savage.

“In short,” Ridley said, putting away his PDA, “you’re our only lead right now. Something is happening, but if we don’t find out what that something is, and how to stop it within the next week we may lose our ability to act at all. So we need to know what happened on that island, what secrets PALE HORSE discovered in those caverns, and why the entire United States Navy fucking task force decided get it in their heads that World’s End Island needed to be flattened to a parking lot.”

Butch leaned forward, interlacing his fingers. “First, I need a bottle of w-”

Before he finished, Ridley had already taken the plastic bottle from a bag underneath his seat and had thrown it into Baylor’s lap. Butch easily caught the container and, dislodging the cap with a flick of his thumb, downed a good three quarters on the bottle in one pull.

“Right, then. For this story to make sense, I need to start from the beginning, the day of the assault. From when my brother came back from one ambush to get ready to walk into another.”

Forty-One

Butch | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Let me get one thing straight. I’m not John Baylor. I don’t leap out of aircraft, functional or otherwise. I don’t play catch and release with rockets or exchange banter with rogue marshals or supervillains.

I’m a pilot. I’m trained to fly pretty much any piece of hot iron in the world. It’s my skill, probably what I’m most proud of. Wings, rotors, rocket engines, you name it, it’s like elementary arithmetic. Something you do in your sleep. I’m just along for the ride, with hope that somewhere, along the way, I’ll find someone that tests me, someone that questions my mettle, puts me on that knife’s edge of life and death.

Some say that’s a Baylor family trait. I think it’s one of my redeeming characteristics.

Granted, there’s not a lot of that these days. If things have spun out far enough that dogfighting is happening, the world’s on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Not really a common occurrence. Even letting aside the fact that cold steel runs all the best rigs these days. Bucketheads, all of the Soviet fighters worth a damn. So far out of anyone’s league that it’s a suicide run even going against them.

So it leaves you with associations with the black ops community but nowhere to press your skills. So you become a glorified bus driver. It’s not as boring as it sounds. Plenty of hot zones you come in and out of, clear some LZ’s, lay on the autocannons, all that jazz. But you’re on the periphery. Which, in retrospect, is probably the best place to be if you want to just watch someone else’s story unfold. It’s an entirely different perspective, being the hero of another story, watching someone else triumph and fall.

I had been on a lazy Tuesday night in New York – well, it was actually three in the morning on Wednesday, but who’s counting – when I got news that John was in the hospital. Intensive surgery. He’d apparently found some way to break several bones, cover himself with second-degree burns, and generally launch on some grand quest to see how much damage the human body can take before folding. I guessed John had found a new line to push. I didn’t really get it, to be honest. In the skies, it’s all binary. You’re either alive, on a surge of adrenaline, your hands shaking, your eyes roving, in the zone, all zen, or you’re a thousand pieces of dead confetti floating down to the earth. There’s no in-between.

I did the usual. Reassemble the broken mirror. The past was a puzzle, and as you put it together, your image of yourself, of your friends, of the world keeps shifting. You change with it. It could drive you mad, destroy you. It could set you free.

I got the answers, quickly, from Ridley. He had to report to his home office and only had enough time to drop Baylor off at the same hospital unit that had taken in the comatose President Skye. I didn’t like what I heard. Criminal underworld in shambles. Crazy-shit monsters derived from eldritch bullshit. A captured hitman who needed to be dropped off at holding with Easly’s underground lair-base-thing he had going on near the UN. A spec ops command center that had just gone operational, and just in time too. Always of use in a crisis.

Ridley and I stood under the overhang of a loading bay as he explained the situation, both sharing a smoke. The storm that had been threatening for days had finally broke, and the rain was comin’ down like all the angels in heaven decided to take a piss at the same time. When you’re in a situation like this, you can only think in metaphors.

Ridley left, disappearing into the storm, tossing off his cigar and leaving to deliver devils to the hands of angels. Don’t get me wrong, the Colonel isn’t a saint, but he’s the closest thing to a good guy in this game. He looks out for his men. Hell, he’s father figure, but if you quote me on that, I’m pretty sure I’ll deny it.

Broski was in surgery, and there’s wasn’t anything I could do just standing outside the theater, playing out a cliché and wringing my hands. I found myself wandering the halls, fists in my jeans pockets, wishing I had a secure phone. Alexis Starr had been off the map for at least a week, bungled god knew where on a mission. Alexis’ job usually involved the fate of the world and somesuch, but she worked in a whole ‘nother universe that John and I. I doubt I could reach her even if I tried. But she’d want to know John was in trouble. She and my bro at least shared that trait. If they knew a friend was in trouble, they’d storm hell itself to get him back out. Take it was the gospel truth from a guy who saw an entire Burmese army torn to shreds when his ass was over the fire.

I came to the heavily guarded ward whose single occupant was in about as much doubt as tomorrow’s weather report. Despite all the Secret Service, I saw the single bed in the center of the chamber was empty. I snagged the arm of a passing doctor, inquiring as to Skye’s whereabouts. He shrugged. More surgery, trying once again to get at the shrapnel in her brain. I was dubious – after all, it’s not like they had any better chance yesterday – but hey, my knowledge of medicine was limited to watching House.

The two senior-most members of PALE HORSE showed up not soon after, perhaps a bit buzzed but still mostly lucid. I played telephone, answering their questions, saving the bomb for last. Farley knew where Kroner’s hideout was. The assault would begin as soon as Baylor was on his feet again.

The speed at which it was all coming together was astounding, but Ridley had voted for a nighttime assault, and if Farley’s pinpointing of the island was correct, it’d be a good sixteen or more hours ahead of us Or seven time zones if we went west – I had always been terrible at juggling time zones. Young had been briefed sometime in the past half hour. A Navy task force was assembling, to act as backup in case things got heavy. Hopefully not. It was supposed to be a textbook smash and grab. We wanted Kroner alive. He’d slipped past certain death too many times for anyone to leave it up to chance again.

Gold and Bateau seemed to sober up at once. It was disconcerting how quickly the air of drunkenness sloughed off of them, and how instantly I reassessed my views of them. These men had given me an unwitting insight into their true nature, and I was at once on guard, tense. These were no ordinary high-level operators. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. It was astounding how, once you reached a certain level, the entire flock was nothing but wolves, unaware of the other. The peek under the masks was at once awe-inspiring and terrifying.

They were not just Marines. Neither of them.

I asked how quickly the squad could assemble. For transport, they asked. Instantly. Equipment was immaterial, they could prep on the plane or at the task force. They were Marines, after all. Mobility was a hallmark of their profession.

As a chopper pilot, one of those bus drivers, you get a certain sense of the squad’s weight when they assemble. The electricity in the air, that connection between them. Gold. Bateau. O’Brien. Graham. Staub. Zelie. Hawley. Fender. Pillsbury. Li was in intensive care, out of the picture. All of them, though, had that same feeling. This was it. They knew the stakes. This was the chance to finally take Kroner down. He was cornered. Events were in motion, and stopping them all depended on capturing Kroner. He was the keystone, the central focal point. Take him out of the Jenga tower, and the entire structure crumbled.

You ever seen the movie Lucky Number Slevin? Well, right towards the beginning, Bruce Willis’ character details something he calls the Kansas City Shuffle. It’s all about misdirection, the Kansas City Shuffle. Keep your opponent guessing, keep them moving, don’t give them even a second to sit down and think things through. Put things on a deadline, if you have to. Say, an immediate assault on a pacific stronghold. Give them just enough to think they’re actually in control. Sat overviews, maps of the island, likely entry points. Gold and Bateau hunker over the map that was printed out of a massive inkjet they found somewhere. There’s a sandy beach on the west coast, south of the docks and the abandoned lab buildings, with a straight shot to the crater in the center of the island, Bateau notes. It’s where Kroner’s likely to be.

Gold doesn’t see it that way. The island extends south and curls east, with the ridge that runs across the island’s middle concealing a long, rocky beach that faces eastward and runs parallel to the ridge. Leads up to the forest that blankets much of the island’s southeastern half. Above it is the crater. I check the map upon hearing the crater mentioned a second time. There is indeed a crater in the center of the island, sunk into the side of the island’s central mount. It was clear that, at one point, the volcano that the island had formed from had blown southward, littering the rocky southern beach, but recent lava flows over the past few decades had reestablished a new peak about a half-klick east of the crater.

The Lieutenant points out that they’d gain the advantage of stealth by heading through the forest. Plenty of cover. Bateau doesn’t see it that way – there’s plenty of cover for potential ambushers, too, as well as any degree of intrusion sensors. Gold counters easily, pointing out that PALE HORSE is equipped to quite literally handle anything up to and including seismic sensors. Bateau’s already convinced, but still allows Gold to run through the equipment and techniques to counter a good two dozen different types of security measures, if only as a test of the man.

Neither of them wondered about things like how open this entire operation was, what with involving the Navy. The pair of Marines debate insertion, from SEAL-style mini-subs from a distance or the Aurora, doing a drop like in Nicaragua in ’11. They’re all so focused on themselves that none of them stop to think about Kroner – the only consensus is that he absolutely, above-all-else had to be taken alive and that a lot incendiary rocket launchers would be needed in case any juggernauts or abominations or just plain INTEGRAL TEMPESTs got between them and Kroner.

They didn’t think that they were the ones who were supposed to be in the open.

Forty-Two

Gold | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Baylor appeared by my side about ten minutes into my discussion with Bateau, eyes focused immediately on the map. The sergeant jumped at Baylor’s appearance, but I had been somewhat expecting it. Baylor’s cybernetics allowed an incredible degree of recovery and with a mission like this we wouldn’t want to waste any more time than usual in the arms of a hospital. His forearms were wrapped in black plastic gauntlets, probably encasing his skin in some sort of healing agent. His chest, underneath his black tee, was wrapped in simple bandages, and he was probably on some American knockoff of the Soviet E-Meds. He’d have two days of unimpeded movement, maybe more.

“Take the southern route,” he said, with only a glance at the map. “The forest is something we can fade in and out of.” He turned to face me head-on. “I need every friggin’ scrap of intel we have on this place. I want this to be the cleanest snatch-and-grab in the world. It looks like there’s an underground entrance at the crater. Fender, I want all your top-shelf gear for this mission. This is the rainy day you’ve seen saving it all for. Even those illegal algorithms I know you didn’t destroy when the NSA told you to do so.”

He pivoted again, looking at the group at large. “It’s not our job to look at data, to destroy any monsters we see. We’re not there to torch the place. The Navy has SEALs and company of Marines ready to storm the island once they’ve got the world we’ve recovered Kroner. That said, hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I want the heaviest gearload we can manage while still being stealthy, just like we did on Rebirth Island. Incediaries for juggernauts and abominations. Those modified Russian EMP grenades for any INTEGRAL TEMPESTs. If or when things get hairy, I want those asswipes to goddamn well wish they had never been born. Oorah?”

“Ooorah,” the group chanted.

“Right,” Baylor said. “We should have been on a plane ten minutes ago. Anyone contacted Butch?”

“Actually,” the pilot said from behind Baylor, “I’m right here.”

“Well, stop standing around, then. You’ve got transport lined up?”

“Aurora spaceplane, authorized by Young and Easly. Halo drop pods place you about a mile off the southern tip of the island. Mini subs take you to the shore. You get in, get your hands on Kroner, and the SEALs lead the marine company on to play clean-up. If things go south, they’re there as back-up.” Butch’s voice was straight business, mirroring his brother’s. Whatever trace of worry he had harbored for his twin had been washed away with the sheer force of Baylor’s interjection into the mission planning.

Baylor was already starting to walk towards the exit, eyes narrowed, as if juggling a good half-dozen different variables of mission planning. Almost absent-mindedly, he turned to Fender. “Those vectors from the South African facility, the planes leaving it. Did they ever come back?”

Fender checked his wrist computer. “Yeah, actually, sir. Just an hour ago when you got here. They correlate pretty strongly with Kroner’s island, southeast of New Zealand.”

“Goddammit,” Baylor said, holding the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “The South African facility was a chemical and biological weapons production facility. Varied staff, a team of assembled experts. It was a secondary facility, built to support Kroner’s island central production plant. I swear, after we finish with this island we’re going back to finish the job in South Africa. No stone unturned.”

The squad snapped too short after, with Bateau’s usual bawling out of orders somewhat subdued – they all knew what to do, how to prepare, both mentally and physically. This was the culmination of all their skills, their efforts, and they knew it. Everything rested on taking Kroner alive. When it came down to it, the mastermind was his own strongest piece. He was essential to his own plans, finally stripped of his allies and reduced to operating through ever decreasing proxies.

SUVs were waiting downstairs to take us to the nearest base. From there it was just a question of transport. Equipment would be waiting for our perusal before we even took off, and intel could be routed in mid-flight. We were beyond even Omega Unit, the States’ premier rapid-response team, my former command.

I found myself alone in the final SUV, which had been packed full of the equipment PALE HORSE usually used to operate in the field. It had been halfway through renovation in the aftermath of the brawl in Queens could only fit a pair of people in it – but Butch had left on a sleek yellow Asian motorbike, and I was left alone.

I flipped open my cell, dialing my superiors. My handler, within MIDNIGHT.

The voice answered on perhaps the second ring. It was fast, as though my handler had been waiting for me. “What’s the situation?”

“We’ve discovered Kroner’s rogue production plant,” I said without preamble. “We expect to be onsite within two hours, with infiltration taking perhaps half that.”

The voice on the other end of the line was silent for perhaps half a minute before responding. “Whatever happens, this is the moment. Baylor cannot leave the island alive.”

“I’m not sure how cleanly I can take him out and survive to be of use to you another day,” I said tersely. “I’d need backup.”

“There are others involved. Focus on your task, cutter.”

“And what of Kroner?” I asked.

“Kroner is sure we will protect him. But, in the end, his survival is immaterial to our overall goals.”

“I signed up to protect America’s overall interests,” I stated, keeping my voice level. “No matter what, allowing Kroner to walk free after today represents a continued threat to much of the free world.”

There was a sound that was halfway between a sigh and a growl on the other side of the line. “Once Baylor is dead, PALE HORSE can be divided at leisure. We have other agents dedicated towards ensuring that, should Kroner die, it will not just be a momentary venture.”

I sighed. MIDNIGHT agents were rigidly compartmentalized, working separately. Still, I needed to clear up a couple of points. “And what about this traitor Baylor speaks of? Is he or she going to be a problem? The last thing I need on that island is a dozen different crosspurposes and motivations all colliding.”

The voice paused, this time for perhaps a full minute. I clenched my jaw and get my eyes on the road, the lights of the city that never slept blurring into a long morass. The radio played lightly in the background.

“The traitor won’t be a problem. Not for long. Do your job, get out alive, and we’ll take care of the rest. Out.”

The link cut, and I was left holding a useless cell phone. Gritting my teeth, I crushed the device in my hand and let the pieces fall into the passenger seat.

When it finally came down to it, my resolve wavered. I had served with these men for over a year. We had bled together, had lasting victories together. I’d already had one unit die around me. When it came down to it, could I be the catalyst for another such destruction? Was I actually helping America in the long run?

Ends and means, goddammit.

Ends and means.

Forty-Three

Easly | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

“Sure, we’ve got holding cells,” the Colonel said as Ridley escorted the bloodied form into the ops center. “I’ve got a small debriefing unit here that can handle prisoners.”

The MI6 man nodded, and handed off Nix to a pair of armed guards that had detached themselves from one wall. The MIDNIGHT operative was stable, at least, with his gunshot wounds bandaged, with numerous bruises and lacerations from the chaotic ride back in Cuba at least given a cursory treatment. His dark hair was lank, his head bowed, eyes lidded.

For the best, as Ridley had pumped the spy with enough sedatives to knock out a rhino. Whatever enhancements that had allowed Nix to handily defeat Baylor, of all people, had allowed him to handle a ridiculous degree of knock-out drugs. Ridley handed off the prisoner with the same caution one accorded a live explosive.

Easly watched Nix wearily, but nodded to the guards. “Take him to Cell Unit C. Get a medic on his wounds and keep him under watch at all times.” After Nix had been cleared out of the command room, Easly finally hauled his gaze back to Ridley. “You gonna stay for the party?”

Ridley glanced over the expansive command deck. Buried a couple stories underneath Manhattan, it had only recently been put into operation, one of several such modular safehouses NTET had built across the world. Centered across an impressive central screen, the command room had a quartet of state-of-the-art computer stations with uplinks so advanced that SICKLE would be jealous. Branching off from there was an expansive armory and a three-cell detention block, as well as a modest barracks. The concept had been simply a modified version of the safehouses maintained worldwide common to any intelligence agency.

“No, I’m afraid not. By this point, if I don’t report to Central in person, especially on a mission this huge, her Majesty herself will have my arse. There’s only so far I can juggle MI6 and NTET, mate.” He clasped a hand on Easly’s shoulder. “But don’t worry, Hank. I’ll be on the jet’s phone, linked in the entire way. I’m not going to miss this for the world.”

“No,” Easly mused. “Just the world missing this. Right, well. PALE HORSE is in the air right now and the Navy task force is steaming into position. We’re retasking a pair of geo-synch satellites to cover this island – christ, I can’t believe it’s actually called World’s End. You think Kroner came up with something that pretentious?”

Ridley shrugged, turning to leave. “Dunno.” If he remembered the reports correctly, it was an old Australian resupply depot during World War II that was abandoned pretty much because there was nothing of interest on it. “Perfectly out of the way for Kroner, though.” He saw a mock half-salute to Easly and was gone.

Grimacing, Easly turned back to the large screen that covered one entire wall of the room, like something out of Wargames. A dozen different windows broke up the vast wall, showing a map of the pacific, with trackers marking PALE HORSE’s Aurora and the various Navy ships moving into position. These were Vice President Young’s most trusted forces, the captains whose loyalty was assured. On board, a full complement of Marines and Navy SEALs, ready to move in once Kroner was secured.

An emotion long foreign to Hank Easly momentarily warmed his chest. It took a while to realize what it was, but he finally identified it: hope. This was one of the moments where the fate of everything resting on the shoulders of a few individuals. It was foolish, to reduce everything to such a small degree, but this was their only chance, to head off Kroner, to discover the information needed to stop the plans of the MIDNIGHT traitor.

Almost a half hour later, a fresh-face Lieutenant appeared at Easly’s side, bringing him out of his reverent study of relevant intelligent reports. “Sir,” he whispered, obviously on edge. “The prisoner is up and awake, but we have him in the interrogation room, ready for the debrief. Do you want to handle this personally, or should we let the interrogator cover it?”

Easly waved a hand. “Let the professional cover it. He’s our best man anyway.” He paused. “On second thought, I’ll be in the observation room anyway.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Let’s do this.”

The interrogation room was like thousands across the globe, a table in set in the middle of the room, two chairs, and a one-way mirror linked to a stark observation room. The interrogator, a Captain by the name of Janus, was handing over his sidearm to the recording technician by the time Easly entered the side room.

“Has he said anything yet?” Easly asked, zeroing in on the man – Nix – sitting with his hands cuffed in front of him, idly twiddling his thumbs as he stared directly at the one-way mirror, almost directly into Easly’s eyes. The Colonel shuddered. He worked from a distance, across the span of a heat-seeking missile, or the radio waves of an AWACs, or across satellites in a control room like this. He was a coordinator, retired for almost a decade, only brought back off the sidelines three years ago.

“Mouth’s tighter than a nun’s legs. Anything specific you want me to aim for?” Janus asked, catching Easly’s attention. “Look, I’ve seen dozens like him. Don’t worry about it. They figure that if they stare at the mirror long enough they’re sure to unnerve someone.

Nix, as though hanging onto Janus’ every word, even though there was no way he could hear them, nodded and waved a hand towards Easly. “At this point, Colonel,” he said to the microphones in the room, “they’re probably telling you this is something everyone does.”

Easly quirked an eyebrow at Janus, who merely shrugged. “Clearly this isn’t his first interrogation.”

Nix leaned back, putting his cuffed hands behind his head and kicking his shackled feet up on the table. “This ain’t my first interrogation, folks.”

Janus frowned. He opened his mouth.

“No,” Nix said.

“But I didn’t even say anything-” Janus said, keying the intercom.

“No,” Nix repeated, reorienting himself to actual communication with his captors. He smiled warmly at the mirror, which was feeling less and less one-way by the second.

Easly put an arm on Janus’ shoulder and turned off the intercom. “Easy, man. Don’t let him seize control of the conversation before you even step into the room, okay? I need to know what MIDNIGHT’s immediate plans are regarding overtaking the southern cartels and how specifically they plan to do it. That’s your overall goal. But first I need to know where Colonel Thaddeus Teague is, how well guarded he is, and who his handler is. Goal three and probably the most immediately important, is to figure out how much he knows about World’s End. Start with that.”

Janus stood a deep breath, washing the momentary annoyance out of his system before nodding. “Got it, sir.”

“Right, you good?” Easly asked.

“Ready as I can be,” Janus said, taking one last look at the briefing sheets tacked to one wall before nodding once more and heading to the double set of doors that led into the interrogation room.

Forty-Four

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

It was a sign of how frazzled my mind was after the fight in Cuba, a sign of my descent in wonderful paranoia, that about five minutes after I called Anne, I regarded it as one of the worst mistakes of my life.

The call itself had been short. I hadn’t said much. I was on a mission, one that could end this, stop the chaos before it truly began. The Cuba mission had been a disaster and a tremendous success all at once – we had barely escaped with our lives and helped precipitate a hundred lightning coups across the world. But we had defined our enemy, we had recovered Farley, and he had a mission.

That was perhaps the ultimate fact: we knew where Kroner was now. All the intel corroborated World’s End as Kroner’s final hiding spot. It all fell into place.

We exchanged good lucks, hers heavily weighted. She wanted me to finish this, to ensure a world of safety for her son and billions of other people. It was up to PALE HORSE to provide that future.

It was only after I snapped the phone shut and let my idle mind wander that I began to stew in my own self-recriminations. It was stupid, calling her. For this mission, our mission, everything depended on that one crucial element, that of surprise. I didn’t know, in the end, if I could still trust Anne. Had she manipulated me yesterday, back in her house, using the excuse of motherhood and a woe-is-me tale of being a pawn in the greater game. Or was I a bastard for even considering the possibility?

I came to conclusion swifter that I would have thought possible. It didn’t matter. I had a job to do, and given all that rode on it, I couldn’t pussyfoot around with what-if’s and if-only’s.

I stood, and easily quashed the expected wave of pain from my upper body with my cybernetics, dispersing it before the ache of the wounds imparted upon me during the fight just hours ago could bring me down. In the three years I had operated my enhanced abilities, I had never pushed myself like I had last night. I didn’t even think I had such a potential. Such feats were the realm of high-end combat cyborgs, which I clearly – or so it seemed didn’t belong to. I was… built more along the lines of a Infiltration Model, one of those AM-F’s. Perhaps without the subdermal active camo, but still. If I had some sort of unlockable overmatch mode that Kiralova or SICKLE hadn’t mentioned, now would not be a good time to try to figure out any new limits. I had exceeded them last night, and had intent of going back.

Grimacing, I made my way over to Fender, who was hunched over a laptop, wires trailing to a backpack full of peripherals that he couldn’t that on his mission. Pre-gaming, he called it. I squatted down next to him. “How’s it going?”

He sat back, removing his glasses and rubbing at his eyes. “Not easy. When we squirreled away this code, it was dumped so deep that it’s a damn pain to recover it. But once it’s actually up, unpacking it should be easy.”

“You don’t have doubts to its functionality?”

Fender flashed a quick smile. “Oh, hell no. This thing’s maybe a billionth of a slice of SICKLE, but it all the parts that matter. It’s self-propagating, tunnels, anything you need. It’s basically impossible sauce by any reasonable view of computer science, but unleashing AI’s on anything that’s not an AI is overkill to such a ridiculous degree…” he trailed off, letting his gesturing hands fall back into his lap. “Makes me glad I skived it off back on MIR when SICKLE was flatlining STYX.” The computer beeped, and Fender pulled out a thumb drive from one of his laptops and fit into a wrist screen. “Here. I’ve got one with me, but you’ll need one too in case the team separates. Case is basically anything-proof, so you’re good as long as you don’t try to block a rocket with it or something.”

I put on the wrist computer, grinning sheepishly. “It almost feels unfair.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Fender said. “I doubt maybe ten other people could handle the lockdown process to handle this. You kill the sheath code if thing’s anywhere near the internet and SICKLE knows where you are, what you’re doing, what color your underwear is. Best case is, she shuts down whatever you’re working on at the moment, worst case… let’s just say getting SICKLE’s full attention anywhere in her sphere of influence tends not to be a survivable event.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Look man, I don’t think I’ve really expressed how much you do for this team. You’re our youngest member, and, christ, we wouldn’t be half as much without you.”

Fender replaced his glasses after a short pause and shut his laptop. “Hell, John, you know that ain’t true. We may be a team, every member capable and driven, but without you, we’d have fallen apart years ago. Who else inspires men to follow him into space, or back into a WRAITH deathpit like Chernobyl? I mean, I know one of your cornerstones is that promise you made three years ago, that while you were living, not a single more member of PALE HORSE would fall. And here we are, about to finally capture Kroner, on a mission everything rides on, and you got to ask yourself – isn’t that worth fighting for?”

He left the second part of the quote unsaid – isn’t that worth dying for?

It was true, after all. When it came down to it, there was nothing I could do beyond what I already did. It wasn’t my job to place my soldiers over the mission, it was to, if it came down to it, spend their lives wisely. I mean, shit, how arrogant did you have to be think that you had control over who lives and dies?

And, at my level of play, could I truly believe that I could just consign everything to the bullshit of the fate of the battlefield. We were deciding the fate of the criminal underworld, dammit. We were heading off a potentially disastrous attack on the States. It wasn’t that I couldn’t control the fate of the mission; it was that the stakes were so high that sacrifices might not only be an option, but a necessity.

I smiled and clasped Fender by the shoulder. “Thanks, Fender. I needed that. Even if you had to go and quote those Matrix sequels to remind me of it.”

Fender snorted and shrugged. “Whenever you need some sense, Major, just take a step back. You’ll find that’s all you need.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, before heading over to talk to Gold. My second was hunched over a disassembled M4, cleaning it with a ridiculously methodical fastidiousness that could only have been born of a deep need to keep his mind elsewhere.

“What’s on your mind, Ramirez?” I asked, taking a seat across the table from him.

Gold had already checked up with each of the team, just as I had, finalizing the insertion plan and preparation. This was the point in the flight right before the team got ready to drop, when they made their peace with themselves, burned nervous energy, or rechecked everything for the fifth time.

“Just thinking about ends and means, sir.”

I titled my head. “Explain.”

“I mean, thinking about it, I signed up for this job to ultimately secure a safe future for America. Protect it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And I’m wondering how far I can go to secure that mandate. I mean, no matter what happens on that island, Malcolm Stavro Kroner needs to be removed from the global equation for good. If capturing him is the way to do that, fine.”

He looked up at me, eyes wide. Obviously something was eating him up inside. “But if taking Kroner out of the equation means we are that much closer to halting a hegemony of the global criminal underworld, what happens on the opposite end of the coin? There’ll still be infighting, possibly thousands more deaths from the internal struggles even without MIDNIGHT or WRAITH or whoever stepping in and tightening their control over the whole shebang.”

I pursed my lips, choosing my next words carefully. “But there’s a third option. One that I’ve only just realized and damn well chills my blood. Using Kroner, we cut off the head but leave the brainstem intact, the autonomics still functioning.”

Gold’s face instantly soured. “Using Kroner? Does that mean what I think it means?”

“Think about it. So we capture Kroner. Then what? We bring him to trial? It’s the most optimistic solution, and it’ll never happen. He’d be assassinated. He’d pull strings. He’ll do what he always does. What about disappearing him? Lock him in a hole in the ground and toss away the key? Sure, it’ll feel damn good, but in the end, we’ve gained nothing from it. It’s the way these shits work. Betrayal when it suits them. Kroner will talk… if we give him immunity.”

“The guy’s responsible for millions of deaths and you want him to walk?”

“Hell no. I want to shoot him the head or throw him in a supermax. But here’s the thing. If we can get to MIDNIGHT, we can remove the leaders of the organization, the guiding intelligence, and still leave those low-level commanders intact, those regional governors handling the new criminal empires. That’ll provide the stability of an intact criminal underground, and easy pickings for when we go in to clean up the scraps. The sum of the parts is ultimately weaker than the whole, get it? Kroner’s been stripped down to his last hidey-hole, leaving lesser opponents free and more willing to go after Gosely. The bitch falls to infighting, but infighting that we guide, just like MIDNIGHT intends to guide their takeover.”

“But all of this hinges on either side, us and Kroner, agreeing to it. And we’ve pretty much proved decades ago that Kroner is nothing but pure evil. He’ll backstab us the first chance he gets.”

I leaned forward. “Which is why we give Kroner to the Russians.”

“Wait, what?” Gold said, his angry mask slipping.

“He’s immune from us. Kiralova ain’t nowhere in our agreement. I mean, shit, if there’s one group we can trust with Kroner, it’s the Soviets. They’ve cleaned house and they want Kroner’s head on a platter. If there’s one person I’d betray, soil all my honor for, it’d be Malcolm Kroner, and I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over it.”

Gold’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded after a few moment’s consideration. “I suppose you have a point.” He sighed, setting down his assembled carbine. “People change.”

“Yeah, really,” I said, snorting. “Cuba sorta opened my eyes.” I trailed off. “But that’s what scares me.”

“Yeah, what that?” Gold asked, looking back up.

“Kroner used to be known for his word. He made a name for himself off of it. And that reputation has all but disappeared. I mean, christ, why? What happened to Kroner that caused such a criminal constant to throw away his defining trait?”

“I’ve got a feeling, but no one’s going to like it,” Gold said.

“I’ve had the same thought,” I said.

“Only one way to find out,” Gold put in after a few moments of silence.

“I used to think wanting to know is second-rate to actually knowing,” I mused. “But now I’m not so sure. There’s a lot more behind what we’re considering, stuff that could break a man.”

“Two days ago you were primed to finally get it all over with. Hell, the entire point of the mission is finishing the great game,” Gold said. “What’s changed?”

“Implications,” I muttered, before standing. “Listen. No matter what, we get Kroner off that island and into loyal hands. We lock him down. All else is secondary.”


---Gold---


As I watched Baylor go, my stomach rolled, entirely apart from the maneuvers of the plane. Baylor had just put forward the idea that Kroner had been subverted, and if the creations that had beset the exchange had been any indication, the source of the corruption was all the more frightening. This was Kroner we were talking about. He had an irrational hatred of the Monoliths, those monuments to a long-gone collection of powerful beings. He’d nuked Chad to prevent one Monolith infestation from spreading and nearly done the same to an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe.

Complicating the situation was the involvement of Teague, who, if Baylor’s retelling of the events had been accurate, had been called in to sort out discord in the ranks of MIDNIGHT. As evidenced by the slaughter, Teague’s presence usually correlated with the fact that things had gone past a metaphorical point of no return. He was allowed to cut loose, use dangerous prototypes (as had probably been the case with whatever the hell had allowed him to deflect bullets), and literally do anything in his power to get a job done.

Shit, I didn’t want to be caught in the center of a MIDNIGHT civil war, as was Baylor’s theory of the events. Such things weren’t good for anyone’s life expectancy, not in the least street level agents. Nevermind the fact that I was starting to question who really did stand for America’s best interests – the entire reason I had signed up for the fricking job in the first place. An American-directed hegemony of the underworld wasn’t so much objectionable as the fact that it seemed to be a set-up for something else. Hell, I wasn’t so enthused with the original idea – criminal enterprises, to play captain obvious, exist to reap funds off of illegal activities. I was in the game to keep American citizens safe, not to line somebody’s wallet or impose some political viewpoint on the world.

If I was to make a choice, I’d have to make it goddamn soon. Ends and means. Was PALE HORSE the price for peace?

I watch the squad. Bateau was leaning back, watching a movie on a smartphone, a slight smile just touching his lips. Some sort of romantic comedy, since Bateau had too many explosions in his real life for a movie to do him much good. Fender was still hunched over his computer, coding up to the last second. He wouldn’t stop until it was zero hour, considering how much rested on his programs.

Staub was repacking his heavy weapons – he was a big guy, perhaps two meters, and built like a locomotive. He’d be the one carrying the rockets – ever since ’11, he had maintained an extremely pragmatic disposition to the possibility of giant robots attacking the team, and he had always wanted to be prepared. Hawley was the hardware specialist to Fender’s software counterpart. He had an entire pack of equipment geared towards subverting sensors, but it was rolled up and attached to his thigh. At the moment, he huddled over a chess game with Zelie, who was similarly ready. The comms expert had already set up an encrypted channel to allow us free comm traffic without anyone picking up stray waves. Still, one could see how tense he was, how jerky his movements were as he went to move a bishop on the magnetic board.

O’Brien was still triple-checking his equipment, applying tape to deaden sound wherever needed. He had always been apart from the group, a ghost in the background. He usually opened up off mission, but this was now, and the slender, fair-haired youth was moving with a practiced, almost zen-like assurance. Graham sat nearby, doing much the same, his sniper rifle already assembled and balance at least twice with practiced efficiency. He was a bit off without his usual spotter, Li, but he had worked with Pilsbury before. The hawk-faced corporal was currently talking with Baylor over on the other side of the room, going over exfil methods and routes. Most likely was a fulton line, from what I could read of their lips, but Pilsbury was calm, focused. He usually talked with a stutter, but mission completely changed the man, narrowing him down to a knife’s edge. A spotter’s rifle was slung over one shoulder, an off-the-rack model, nothing special.

All of these men, people I sweat and bled with over the past year and more.

Enough of this.

It was time for the drop.

Forty-Five

Easly | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Easly monitored the entire affair from afar as PALE HORSE preformed what was probably one of the riskiest HALO drops in history. It wasn’t so physical danger as the extremely small window conspiring with the possibility of early detection to create the tense silence in the command center.

The entry vector required a degree of maneuverability usually impossible to most parachutes, so PALE HORSE was using experimental Hawkwing packs – small, stealth constructs designed to turn downward momentum into forward motion on a dime. They were incredibly for their ability to stop or turn in a split second, but were astonishingly expensive and thus were unlikely to see widespread use until better techniques were developed in mass producing the compositive materials required for the packs. Still, Easly had been able to pull strings to get a set of ten Hawkwings in the equipment manifest for the flight to World’s End.

“We’re in,” intoned Baylor as the team took up positions on the beach. Fender, being supported by a pair of technicians to Easly’s right, was currently inserting himself into the island’s security mainframe. The unpacking of the SICKLE fragment would take some time and was ironically the most dangerous part of the mission. If it worked, PALE HORSE would have a much easier time – if still fraught with risks – of traversing the southern forests. If not, everything would devolve here and now.

The Navy warships were, all five, modeled in an a-frame stealth model initially fielded during the early nineties, but the technology had significantly improved since those first voyages. Though lacking in physical optical camouflage, they still blended handily into the night, which was bereft of the moon’s lift.

“The sliver’s unpacked,” Fender’s voice came in, the uplinks scrubbing the static from the connection.

Easly cocked an eyebrow at one of the technicians near him.

The technician pushed away from his monitor, shaking out his fingers and wrists. “The mainframe has remnants of a patrol program past the initial firewalls. It reacted with our icebreakers, but we retroactively shut it down.”

“Remnants?”

“Like something had taken up residence in the gap, so to speak, between the inner castle and the outer membrane. Its footprints were all over the place, and fragments of code were just waiting as little guard cells, spawned off the large whole. It’s like it shed white blood cells, but it was the damndest thing, since most of those fragments were clogging up some sensor functions in the mainframe. They were just randomly inserted here and there.”

“I think I follow you,” Easly said. “But said patrol program is gone now?”

“Yeah, or at least, we haven’t seen it yet. But it’s probably a micro-AI, just like what we have with the SICKLE fragment. That’s what worries me. Such thing may not be sentient, but they’re still incredibly dangerous and capable, as our sliver shows. Anyway, we’re on our guard, but we’ll have to devote a significant portion of our attention and the sliver’s runtime to stealthing up our actions.”

The technician took a long slug from a thermos of tea. “It’s a whole different ball game from simply walking in and taking control of the system. Believe you me, the last thing we need right now is a stand-up fight with an security construct.”

Easly nodded. “Not when we don’t know what’s underneath the island.” He clasped the tech’s shoulder. “Keep it up.” Turning back to the main screen, he saw that the Navy ships had become active. No, that wasn’t right, they were supposed to wait until Kroner was in sight.

“Get those Navy ships on the comm. Remind them to wait.” Easly ordered.

---Nix---

The interrogation had gone smoothly so far, so much as Nix was concerned. His opposite, Janos, was one of those standard types, and Nix had been in an interrogation room before.

No, the real problem was getting out. The flexicuffs might have been a problem to someone who depended on picking locks, but Nix had, over the past hour, popped his thumbs of his sockets and slipped the plastic over his hands. It had been quite an experience to hide the pain on his face from the cameras, but he had done it, relying on the remnants of the sedative to dull the edge before the serum was flushed out of his system. Nevertheless, he had managed to tie the cuffs back over his wrist in a knot that would break at first tug, and that was fine.

The main problem was getting past the door. The one-way-mirror was unbreakable, and Janos was obviously unarmed. No, the steel door was the only way out, and it was magnetically locked. The power would need to be cut in order for him get free.

After that, he was relatively homefree. He could easily get his hands on a gun, for sure, and he’d only had to contend with perhaps five guards tops. Everyone else was mostly likely unarmed. They were computer security types, rear echelon people, in the middle was Manhattan, if he interpreted the sounds back at the airport correctly. And if this was Manhattan, he could rely on help.

Not from Teague, obviously. Teague had never helped him out, not in the years Nix had known the man, who was a harsh, unforgiving taskmaster. Still, Teague was the main authority figure in Nix’s life, and something of the man had rubbed off on the agent. Nix grimaced inwardly before suppressing a chuckle. Help from Teague would probably come from a bomb that wiped this entire place clean. That was pretty funny, he had to admit.

But then there was Teague’s handler, the mysterious woman known as Follow. Nix knew her type well – loyalty defined her, fidelity to MIDNIGHT. She was cunning, and had damn near decided to kill him for manipulating Baylor yesterday. But she also was conservative with her assets, moreso than bomb-it-first Teague. If anyone would assist in his escape, it would be Follow. The question was how she would go about doing it. It was between two extremes, he thought.

Places like this probably had backup generators, sure, able to handle unlikely event that the external power lines were cut. The transition would likely be flawless, and the base’s operators would likely be alerted to sabotage. Unless, of course, they were distracted from the fact.

Nix actually did chuckle that time, before waving off Janos’ suspicions. If only there was a man on the inside, but that would be unlikely. From what he knew, attempts to place moles inside the presidentialist mission control had been unsuccessful. But supposing someone did get into the system, it would be a simple matter of disabling the alert system to the general userbase. Turn the safeties off, so to speak. No one would know that they were on back-up power until the auxiliaries ran out.

It was just a question of how much juice the aux’s stored. Big-time bunkers could hold their occupants on backup power for weeks on end. Nix discarded that option immediately. This wasn’t a big-time bunker, it was a reserve hidey-hole that Easly had been driven into. The assassination attempts had seen to that. Judging from the concrete the base was brand new, this was its first run. Of course, it would be preferable for the auxiliaries to be fuel cells instead of gas generators, but gas generators meant vents so leak out fumes. In which case they could be subverted.

He shrugged mentally. It was all fantasy, guesswork, speculation. He was on his own, as he always really had been throughout his life. Options began to run through his head, immediately tempered by a dozen what-ifs. What if the room had gas nozzles that could knock him out? What if they had implanted him with a subdermal sedative that could be released if he got rowdy?

Janos put a finger to his ear, nodding. He made some excuse about having to leave, got up, and crossed to the door. Placing his thumb against a scanner close to the doorknob, he waited for a buzzing tone until the door popped open. Throwing one last inscrutable look at Nix, he exited, closing the door behind him.

And there was his way out. It was so bloody simple, he sagged in his seat, grinning with exhaustion. His body was battered, bloodied, but he could do this. He wasn’t going to rot in some presidentialist cell. Not when he still had loose ends to tie up.

---Gold---

The clouds were thick over the island, the air dense with the telltales signs of an imminent storm. Thunder cracked after each lightning strike in the distance, momentarily bathing the land in light and rendering our night vision goggles useless.

The forest was covered with detection sensors, as we had predicted, but it wasn’t too hard to actually find them. We stuck to the wet leaves that coated the ground, near heavy dirt, careful to avoid exposed rock shelf, anything that could be tracked with a seismic sensor. The ground trembled every now and then, and a red glow painted the sky a mile or more forward, the exposed light of seeping lava. It was silly to believe the volcano would erupt, but nevertheless, the storm and mountain conspired with each other to each with thick layer of tension that we had to cut, wade through, physically part as we snuck through the forest.

We stayed away from natural lines of drift, from riverbeds and paths. We hadn’t seen a living soul, and the occasional sweep of thermal told us the woods were nearly devoid of life. It didn’t make sense, a natural ecosystem should be around here – but there wasn’t even the sign of the smaller ant or fly. I glanced at Baylor, and saw only his bright eyes in the expanse of black facial camo. Those eyes were worried, rapidly flicking over the area, covering it with swift, hurried sweeps. He made eye contact with me and nodded. He had realized it too. Beyond the falling leaves of the trees entering winter, we were in an all too real dead zone.

Fender was near the center of the column, his head bowed, a bug-like pair of glasses over his face. It was the computer goggles he sometimes wore when he couldn’t afford the light of a screen to pollute the area. His right hand traced nonsensical motions against his thigh, a special glove controlling the cursor and keypad that had to be projected far in front of him. The AI sliver of SICKLE was currently working on the main firewall of the central mainframe of the island’s system, backtracing through a subverted motion detector. I didn’t know anything about computers, but from what I had gathered Fender was worried there was some sort of watchdog supervisor that was making him keep his head low. It probably meant more to Baylor than it did to me; my ideas of bleeding edge security infiltration came from Gibson novels.

I would have to wait until we had visual confirmation of Kroner to actually take down Baylor. The best option, in my humble opinion, would be a sniper’s bullet from a pretty good distance away. He wouldn’t be able to dodge, and he’d be killed instantly. No way would I close to CQC distance with a combat cyborg. There was always the lure in the old-fashioned backstab, something he’d never see coming if he trusted me to cover his back.

All of this assumed something would happen to split the group, that Kroner would put up a fight. Baylor half expected such an occasion, which was why the team was so heavily armed. We’d either be enfolded from all sides, in which case my hands were tied if I wanted to kill Baylor and escape alive. I doubted Kroner’s guards would be so lenient to me. That left the fog of war to drive a wedge into PALE HORSE and allow me to get a safe distance away to take a shot. I’d need to procure a weapon with a heavy enough caliber to take Baylor down with a shot to a head, which is what drew my eyes to Graham. His gun could take down elephants, let alone INTEGRAL TEMPESTs.

The planning, in the end, didn’t mean anything until the situation developed. From there, I’d think on my feet, like I always did, and just slip on through all the conflicting plots and motivations to finish my job.

I eyed Bateau, who was taking up the rear of the column. Of the group, the platoon sergeant was the most relaxed, slinking through the forest with an ease that would probably make even O’Brien jealous, his M4 held loosely. Bateau’s personality had always involved a degree of detached laid-back-ness, so to speak, but even this was pushing it. I clenched my jaw and filed away a need to keep an eye on Bateau for the rest of the mission. The last thing I needed was an unexpected variable in an already chaotic equilibrium.

Missions were often like that, like chemical equilibriums, like substances in a solution. They’d reaction, balance out, and then one element would be added to a side, the reactants or products, and the entire equation would go forward or backwards to accommodate a new balance. But the old equilibrium was destroyed, there was no going back to it. It was a fragile situation, a tightrope one had to walk.

The forest was beginning to thin, the slope beginning to steepen as we approached the southern flank of the volcano. The electronic sensors, the motion detectors, all of it – all was gone now. Up ahead was a rim, a wide half-circle that overlooked a void that none of us could imagine from this angle. The crater at the center of the island. The heart of World’s End.

As we moved closer, we saw floodlights on the far side of the sheer opposing walls of the crater, two portable towers that cast harsh shadows on the rough, rocky sides of the depression. A rim of the bowl, where PALE HORSE stood, arrayed.

Lightning clashed, and thunder also immediately followed. In the flash of light, the deep shadows that claimed the far end of the crater momentarily retreated to reveal a single form.

Baylor tensed. Even Bateau was focused now. Fender’s right hand had fallen still.

John Baylor tapped his comm.

“We have direct visual confirmation of Kroner, over.”

Forty-Six

Easly | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

“But goddammit, they’re not supposed to send in the troops just yet!” Easly roared. “What the devil are they playing at?”

“The captain says he has his orders,” the comm tech said. “That secondary teams were to probe the island from opposite sides as PALE HORSE.”

“No, they weren’t,” Easly growled. “He has his orders, that PALE HORSE was to be the only team on the island until Kroner was apprehended and safely in custody.”

The comm tech relayed the response through his encrypted channels. Looking back up at Easly apologetically, he said, “Sir, the Captain insists that he has his own orders and they entail placing backups on the island to assist in Kroner’s detainment.”

“Sir,” another tech said, “boots are on the ground at the northeast docks. A full company of SEALs, it looks like.”

Easly whirled back to the comm operator. “Tell that bastard that if he doesn’t withdraw, he’ll be facing a courtmarshal backed by the commander in chief herself.” The colonel spun to face the direct line to PALE HORSE. “Dave, get PALE HORSE on the comm and let them know there’s gatecrashers at the docks. Be ready for anything.”

“Team had just reached the crater,” narrated another man, his voice strung high with tension.

“We have direct visual confirmation of Kroner, over,” came in Baylor’s voice over the speakers.

“Sir, they’re not responding,” said another man, hunched over his display. “They can hear us, but we can’t hear them.”

The lights momentarily dimmed, then came back at a harsh intensity.

“What the hell was that?” someone said.

“We’re on auxiliaries,” said one of the computer techs, puzzled. “The main… we lost connection with the main feed.”

And then, somewhere off towards the interrogation cells, there came a high-pitched scream.


---Nix---

When the single fluorescent panel flickered overhead, Nix made his decision. He had spent the early years of his life in a cage, and there wasn’t much way he would spend any more time helpless for powers greater than him to control his fate.

It wasn’t so much that he was entirely on his own. No man could entirely break free with solely his wits. But capitalizing on the actions of others, jumping on the backs of other men and women like stepping stones, there was way in which his chains were broken.

Follow may have cut the main generators, but it was Nix who would do the real work.

Nix pushed away from the table and was standing next to the thumb scanner in the space of a second. Pressing his thumb against the black plastic, he went a momentary pain as a needle jabbed him, taken an infinitesimal measure of his DNA.

The door cycled open before him. Just like that.

Nix blinked. He had his theory, it fit the facts, but he hadn’t expected it to be so easy.

Out in the hallway was Janos, his head looking from the clipboard he had been reading. There was perhaps half a moment of silence between the two men, where Janos realized just how much trouble he was in.

Nix’s hand shot out and caught the interrogator in the throat. Janos’ eyes bulged, and the clipboard clattered to the ground, his hands going for his throat. He fell backwards into the corner, and Nix stepped past him, not paying him anymore heed than a roadbump, ignoring the choked gasps.

The man who had been sitting behind the one-way mirror had cleared the room by then, the door banging open like a gunshot in the hallway, a gun out and leading. Nix took it as a present, twisting the gun away and breaking the trigger finger of the would-be foe. The man screamed, but not before Nix swung around, one arm wrapping around the man’s head while the gun came up to point at the other observer, who was in the process of retrieving a shotgun from an open weapons locker.

Nix simultaneously fired the gun and yanked his other arm hard to the left, breaking the neck of his captive, finally cutting short his screams. The warden, so to speak, had just pumped the shotgun when the bullet caught him in the heart, splattering blood over his white work shirt, sending his tie aflutter. He collapsed on himself, folding under the gun locker, the shotgun falling to the side.

Shouts were coming from the main control center now, and Nix time was money at this point. He crossed over into the observation room, picking up the shotgun, a box of shells, and a handful of magazines as he went, dumping them all into the empty pockets of his cargo pants. He kicked open the door at the opposite end of the room and saw exactly what he was looking for – the main junction.

Yanking open the metal cover to the box, he reached over to a nearby janitor’s cart and retrieved a bottle of caustic cleaning fluid. With one fist, Nix tore off the facing of switches that was the panel and exposed a bundle of tied wired. Lodging the bottle upside down between the door and the top of the metal housing, Nix then poke a small hole in the center of the bottle’s cap. Liquid became to drop methodically, sizzling on the concrete below. Nix carefully maneuvered the wires underneath the one-two-one-two drip of the fluid, was rewarded with a convulsion of the base’s power supply.

Each time a drop hit the wires, the lights went out, then came back on, only to go out again when another drop sizzled on the exposed bundle.

Nix smiled, retrieving another bottle of cleaner just as a guard cleared the hallway, gave a shout, and raised a MP5 to shoot Nix.

Nix spun away as an arc of shots hit the concrete wall a foot away from the function box, his pistol up and firing. The guard, dressed in BDUs, was caught in the leg, and shrieked as he went down. Blood streaked black in the periodic flashes. Walking towards the fallen guard, Nix smashed the fire alarm as he went, sending off a bloody noisy siren, honking offbeat to the lights. It was all a whirlwind, as Nix shot the guard as he passed a second time, right in the mouth. Screams and shouts echoed from the command center down the hall, but Nix was focused now.

Someone ran down the hallway as Nix stepped out into it and he unlimbered his tactical shotgun to catch them around the knee. A pattern of shot cratered the surrounding concrete, Nix’s target fell, his left leg severed at the knee.

Nix saw that the man had been trying to lock him out of the server room, through which outside communications were routed. If he had succeeded, there was no way Nix would’ve gotten through, but now…

Uncapping the bottle of bleach with a thumb, Nix entered the server room.

First thing’s first. The databases were on a separate generator than the lights, and thus wouldn’t be constantly rebooting. This suited Nix fine, as he took up a position by a fold-down terminal that offered him excellent cover and a view of the door.

A grenade sailed into the room, bouncing off of Nix’s leg. His eyes went wide and his foot flashed, kicking the grenade back into the hallway. He heard a muffled shout followed by a flash of intense light that he wisely turned away from. That should buy him a couple seconds.

Nix stepped back to look at the server banks. If what he knew about the systems was correct, the connection to the main room could be cut so that the terminal before him was the primo facto input source. His main goal was to pull as much of the base’s database off the servers to bring with him as he could. But to do that, he’d have to circumvent the built-in failsafes that would make the data unreadable if the right person didn’t remove the data.

The terminal had a triple-layered password system – retinal, voice, and password.

Fortunately, being where he wasn’t supposed to be was something of a specialty for Nix. He was the very real ghost in the system, and he prided himself on going wherever he needed to go. Even if his passwords and persona from yesterday had been locked out by Easly – obviously – he had dozens of others memorized, all courtesy of the mole within PALE HORSE.

And like that, he was in. He knew the kill code for the servers and entered it, a variant of the protocols Red Cell used whenever they needed to impersonate a Presidentialist unit.

He didn’t have much more time until the remaining guards – there couldn’t have been more than six, and he had trashed the weapons locker – mobilized. They had been prepared for anything except their charge simply getting up and deciding to cause hell. He was living on borrowed time, though.

There, override the copying protocols, do a system dump… Nix yanked free a hard drive from a tower of the things to the left of his terminal before stepping back and dousing the entire server setup in bleach. The smell clogged the air and the electronics sparked, but he already heard the patter of running feet from down the hall. It had been perhaps thirty seconds since the grenade had exploded, and Nix turned to flee further into the server room, firing his shotgun randomly into the server banks.

To his surprise, there was a metal door at the far end of the thin, mazelike room. Without hesitation, he kicked it open, emerging into the auxiliary generator chamber.

It was a large room, two stories, but mostly filled with fuel cells that Nix guessed led up to solar generator above ground. Judging by the amount of cells, the base could probably last for a while.

Up above Nix was a catwalk the circled the second story of the room, lining the walls. Two guards shouted when they say Nix, probably having been in the middle of trying to flank him.

Without hesitation, Nix hefted the half-empty bottle of bleach into the air, right towards his two foes.

When the jug was the apogee of its climb, hanging right in the faces of the two guards, Nix dropped his empty shotgun and fired his pistol from the hip, detonating his target. The bottle simply exploded, sizzling bleach covering the faces of the men. Screaming, they fell to their knees. Nix crossed to underneath where they sprawled and fired up into the holes in the catwalk, emptying his mag into their legs and torsos.

Nix had been worried about being trapped in the server room, but now he knew he had a way to circle around on the command center, hit it from the other side. Working out the crick in his neck, he retrieved a fire axe from the wall.

Setting his sights on the tubes that fed power down from surface level, Nix went to work.

---Easly---

Literally the worst time this could have happened. The viewscreens had cut out. Gunfire echoed from the other side of the base. The computer operators had tried sending out external distress signals.

Nothing.

From what Easly had gathered from Baylor’s debrief, Nix had been on par with if not stronger than Baylor. And now he was loose in the facility. God knew how much damage Baylor could do if he decided to go rogue, and now the possibility included Nix knowing the codes to everything he touched.

On top of the fact that he had been shot in each leg the previous night. Less than twelve hours ago.

Someone else might have questioned the difference a single man could make. Easly had long since learned the pivotal importance that could rest in an individual’s hands.

Long hours in the cockpit had left Easly near immune to panic.

It was about that point that the lights went out.

Someone screamed. He didn’t know who.

At some point a shotgun was shoved into his hands. He knew how to use guns, he was moderately proficient with them, but his greatest weapon had long since been his mind. And it was currently telling him to get out.

He crushed the baser instinct, took charge of the situation. He still had three guards with him, and the five operators who manned the command center. They were trapped down here, the exit door shut and without power. The other exit, the escape hatch on the opposite end of the base, was their only way out. It had been put in on Easly’s insistence, and wasn’t on the official blueprints. As such, Nix most likely didn’t know about it.

Their main chance of getting out of here alive was to organize, press forward, and get to the hatch, avoiding Nix along the way. From there, Easly could use his personal codes to initiate a chemical purge of the facility – in short, a self-destruct sequence. The entire base would be sprayed down with compounds that were lethal on contact. Nix would be trapped in a tomb of his own making.

“Right,” Easly said. “Form up on me.” In short, terse sentences, he explained his plan for escape. He pointed at the hallway leading into blackness, tapping the side of his head to activate the night vision mode on his cybernetic eye. Flames sheathed the edges of the doorway, flickering green, but the only thing he could see was a single boot stick out a side door far down the hall.

Easly had looked AI superfighters in the eye, survived encounters with insane weapons dealers, survived behind enemy lines for weeks on his own. He wasn’t going to fall, here, now. Not with friends depending on him half a world away.

--Nix---

They say no plan survives first contact with the enemy. It had been a maxim Nix had lived by for most of his adult life, and the second the group cleared the first hallway he pulled the pin from the stun grenade he had found and tossed it down the passageway.

There was a clink-clink and then a rolling sound, followed by a shout and general scuffles.

Nix ducked away, holding his hands over his ears and squeezing his eyes shut. Even so, the noise was all-consuming, the light physically painful – but most likely triply so to the men down the hall. With unnatural alacrity, Nix shook off the disorientation and rose, sloughing off the pain in his legs and the whirling in his mind like chains to be broken. His grip tightened on the gun in one hand, the riot shield he had found clutched in his other fist.

He came out, submachine gun whirring, a near-constant ripping sound. Men were stumbling about in the front ranks, but he could see others, towards the rear, dragging themselves towards cover, towards branching rooms.

Blood filled a haze in the air, and the two guards in front finally dropped to the ground as Nix’s SMG went dry.

The response was swift. Nix could see a glowing red eye in the smog of smoke and blood – Easly, directing them to fire at him. Bullets slammed into the clear plastic shield, creating spider-web patterns. Nix grunted as he took the impacts, but tossed away his SMG, drawing out a second machine pistol from a bag he wore over one shoulder.

Nix took more time lining up his shots this time, dropping to one knee so the shield covered his lower legs and raking the edges of the passage with gunfire. Heads exploded, shoulders were caught, bodies flung aside. His opponents were, after all, only human.

And there was Easly, struggling to get back around the corner.


--Easly

The bullets were a monstrous pain in his side, he was having trouble even drawing breath, as he collapsed to his knees, shotgun loosely held to one side. Things, he chuckled, blood running out of one side of his mouth, were not looking good. Christ, what a cock-up.

He crawled, rolled off a catwalk and fell back into the command center. Something came loose from his stomach along the way, trailing.

A single clack echoed from above.

Easly’s head jerked up to see Nix rounding the corner, his broken shield dropping to one side, his face impassive as he loaded another mag into his machine pistol.

They both snapped up their weapons at the same time.

Easly was caught first, thrown backwards, catching a round in his arm, his lower leg. Holding his exposed innards in, he scrambled to cover, drawing out a single berretta and firing it in Nix’s general direction. Take that, you bastard. Come and get me.

Nix had, by this point, taken cover behind a solid section of the catwalk’s siding. Breathing heavily, pain nearly overtaking him, Easly stumbled, got a leg underneath him, and launched himself towards the cover of another monitor bank, towards the now-sealed entrance of the base.

A wave of bullets chased him, harassing him, but Easly was already into the next room, hunkered behind a thick wall of concrete.

Up above, Nix doubled back into the hallway. BLAM.

Christ, he’s finishing them off.

BLAM.

BLAM. BLAM.

Easly began to pull himself towards the end of the lobby. The pain was gone now, replaced with a welcome numbness. Shock, thank god. That’s good. Excellent.

Pulling himself toward the front desk, Easly tried to reach up toward the enclosed red box mounted on one box. Failed. Bloody marks left on the glass. Again.

He nearly screamed when thick, ropey things exploded from the gash in his belly. No! Fuck, notnow not now notnow.

Easly clenched his teeth, his breath coming rapidly, ratta-tatta. He slammed open a lower drawer, yanked out a roll of duct tape. It’d have to do. No time to think about it, just wrap it up. When in doubt, duct tape it.

Round and round the roll went, and Easly doubled over when he made the last circuit, one hand to his stomach, but the wound was contained.

There was a thump from beyond. Nix had dropped down to the main level.

Easly dove forward, shattering the glass over the first aid kiosk with his elbow, dragging out a packet of yellow syringes.

Bullets flew by overhead, making a flatscreen monitor exploded into plastic metal overhead, and Easly’s hand darted back, holding his prize. Couldn’t the bastard have waited for another minute?

Easly had to get behind the desk. Into cover. He threw himself onward, around the desk, pulling himself with rough palms slick with red.

The end of his right foot exploded as a bullet caught it.

The Colonel fell on to his hip without so much as a sound, biting over yet another scream. No satisfaction for the bastard. No pain. No screaming. Don’t even think about it. Ripping the plastic covering the syringe, Easly uncapped the tip and, without a moment’s hesitation, slammed the derived e-meds into his arm.

A foot came around and caught him in the cheek as soon as the needle tip scratched his arm. Easly sprawled to one side, the sharp point ripping out of his arm, trailing a line of glowing green liquid in the air.

Nix stood over Easly, a pistol in his right hand, bandages around each leg, his entire body silhouetted by the fire burning in the command center. With his boot he nudged the pistol out of Easly’s grip, almost gently.

“Wouldn’t want that,” he noted wryly.

Easly pulled himself to a sitting position, back resting against the wall. “Just get it over with,” he gasped, blood painting the front of his shirt. No big speeches, no satisfaction for Nix.

“Wouldn’t want that,” Nix repeated, crouching in front of Easly. His free hand recovered a second e-med syringe. “It’s your lucky day, Hank. You’re coming with me. The big boss wants a few words with you.”

And then he slammed the pistol grip down over Easly’s forehead. The Colonel took the grip of unconsciousness readily, easily, and not a second later Nix injected Easly with the e-meds. A healing coma, not a hopped-up opponent.

Nix slung Easly over one shoulder and made the arduous trek to the opposite end of the base. He located the escape lift after some searching, and the self-destruct panel a few seconds after that.

The ground rumbled under his feet a few minutes later as Nix stumbled into the New York morning. Clouds swirled overhead, threatening rain. He was in a small side-alley, grimy and forgotten.

And waiting at the end of the brick alley was a single SUV. Leaning against the driver’s side door was a lean woman, her brown hair in a tail and a bored look on her face.

Follow. Waiting for him, as always. So Teague hadn’t arranged for his escape. It had been on the operative’s initiative instead. She didn’t help him load Easly in the back seat, up did open the passenger side door for him with a sardonic smile, sweeping her arm as though she were a stodgy chauffeur.

As Nix settled into the heated seat, he took the last syringe and injected it into his own neck, sighing as the relief coursed through his own veins.

Follow climbed into the driver’s seat, started up the car, and the three of them disappeared back into the city.

Forty-Seven

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

And there he was.

Kroner was standing at the far end of the crater, his back to the truly titanic set of metal doors carved out of the crater’s wall. He was as I remembered him, the same basic picture: aristocratic bearing, swept back blonde hair, different colored eyes, powerful build. He was simultaneously massive in size and sleek in design, as if he was a particularly menacing and shark-like fighter jet.

But I began to take in the details. His eyes were bloodshot, his features worn, his posture haggard. He looked every bit a man who had been on the run for the past three years. Somewhere deep inside me, I felt a rise of vicious elation to see the manhunt had affected the WRAITH Chairman so. As Kroner straightened to gaze stony-eyed at me as I descended into the pit, I noticed how rumpled with long coat was, with the collar upturned to protect against the increasingly wild winds. His wiry hair was plastered to his head in the continual misting of rain and, now that I looked closely, his left hand leaned heavily on a sleek black walking cane. It was of such a dark make that I initially missed it in the harsh shadows the spotlights cast into the crater.

It looked, in short, like Kroner had aged a good twenty years between the Second Soviet Civil War and today.

Spreading his free hand wide as I worked steadily downward, he called out, in a jovial tone as though greeting a favorite son, “Baylor! How nice of you to come knocking. It’s a pleasure to see you.”

I offered him a thin smile, my shotgun in one hand, my other on the holster of my Five-seveN. “Malcolm. Wish I could say the same.”

Kroner waggled a finger at me, the same fatherly expression on his face. “You notice, Baylor, that I’ve learned my lessons. I must let you know, in exchange, that only my friends only call me Malcolm.”

I stopped at once, with one hand on my stomach, and let loose a deep belly laugh. “That would be true, man, if you had any friends, wouldn’t it.”

Shrugging as if this was but a minor defect, Kroner waved with arm in a wide sweep as though a game show host presenting a trio of doors. “Do you like my summer home? I admit, the typhoons do tend to put a damper on the mood, but it’s ever so useful for letting the occasional guest think that it would a good time to come calling.”

I ignored his blather, and affixed him with a level look. “You have to know why I’m here.”

“Indeed I do,” Kroner said, inclining his head. “Though, if you truly do intend to, what’s the expression, yes – haul me in – then I assure you, Baylor, that you are most sorely mistaken.”

“And why would that be?”

Kroner’s voice never lost its friendly air. “Because none of us are leaving this island alive.”

“Is that so?” I reposted. “Because, if I’m not mistaken, nobody has to die tonight. Give it up, Kroner. We have this godforsaken rock canvassed with NTET infiltrator units and surrounding by a United States Navy cruiser screen. It’s the end of the line.” It was a lie, a blatant one, right up until I saw an overlay of the island piped in over my HUD. There was an entire company setting in down on the northeast docks, by the abandoned village. What the hell? The USN support was support to wait to launch the SEALs.

Turning the tables on me, Kroner chose to ignore my last interjection. “Indeed, Baylor, are you afraid of dying? Last time we met, you were rather blasé about throwing your mortality around. It almost seemed like you thought you would try to go out on your own terms. But just playing the game risky and hoping you die along the line doesn’t mean you’re on your own terms.”

I paused. “Explain.”

“It’s all about planning. Granted you can’t really plan, and if you try, you fail. Steering would be a better word. But the point is that, when the time comes, you need to know the how it’s going to go down. Who, when, where, you know? It allows you to plan around it. But the actual death shouldn’t be the important part. It’s a means to an end. And here’s the true question – when you live a life like mine, where do the means end – pardon the pun – and the ends begin? I hope this isn’t too complicated for you.”

“Not at all,” I growled, watching out of the corner of my eye as PALE HORSE took up firing and cover positions around the rim of the crater.

“So the point, yes. The point. I don’t so much fear death as you do – you tried to randomize your downfall, and in doing so showed your dread. I’m not afraid – I know what’s on the other side. I know my death goes toward some ultimate goal – where the means and ends chain into a finalized aim.”

“And what’s the goal, Kroner?”

“I’d say you have enough on your plate at the moment, Baylor. What I intend to do is so far down the line that it’s inconsequential to your current circumstances. Yes, let’s talk about the here and now.”

I nodded. “We were at the point where I told you it would be preferable to take you in alive.”

Kroner stared up at the clouds for a brief moment. I swear to god, if we mentioned that there was a storm coming, I would strangle him then and there. At long last, he spoke again. “I suppose I owe you some answers.”

I raised my eyebrows in the least sardonic way I could. “Do you now?”

“Indeed I do,” Kroner nodded gravely. “I think it all starts with MIDNIGHT. Specifically, a man named Farley. He’s a general, see, and a high-ranking one. I believe you know him. He was in charge of the Paragon back in the hectic days when nobody knew whether the facility would rebuild or relocate. I had just paid off a Reaper squad to steal the SHADOW TEMPEST prototype for my use in the USSR. But you have a general grasp of this, yes?”

“I would think so, yeah.”

“So Farley panics at the thought of all this going public. He tries to pull the plug on me and my plans. Sends a bomber after my base in Cambodia. Sends Cleaners to try to prevent ST-BLACK from falling into my hands. I’m angry at this moment, furious. I’d had a rather wonderful working relationship with MIDNIGHT, as I’m sure General Carson once told you in ’05. I fight back against the US in spite, proving the wonderful adage about most conflict being based around miscommunication. But by the time MIDNIGHT realized one of its foremost officers tried to take manners into his own hands he had disappeared off the face of the earth.

“By that point, I admit, my mind was deteriorating, and just in time for the Russian Crisis to blow up in my face. It’s a transformative experience, being caught next to a dissolving space station as it’s bombarded by cruise missiles, Baylor, you know that? And then falling to earth in a barely shielded mech, before being caught in the meltdown of your own nuclear reactor. When you come back, you’re a changed man.”

I held up a hand, making Kroner pause of his own accord. “I’m sorry. I’m still trying to get over that part. I watched you fall into that firepit. And here you are, just a bit shabby.”

Kroner shrugged again. “That’s its own story, Baylor, and one deeply tied to your own past. But I only have time for one tale tonight. I trust you can figure you the other on your own, perhaps before the end comes. Anyway, back to the aftermath of Chernobyl. Gosely had assumed control of WRAITH at that point, fighting her way to the top of a pile of numerous disparate executive members who desired their own chance at the top. I didn’t reveal myself to them, and still haven’t. Gosely is fighting her own losing battle to keep command of WRAITH, and all the better. I feel it’s best to let WRAITH purge itself clean before I come back.”

“Wait. Waaaait. You’re saying you’re not in command of WRAITH? But what’s all this? I thought you were joking when you called this you vacation home.”

“No, I haven’t. Gosely has been working to get in Skye’s good graces, a perverted mirror of my own deal with MIDNIGHT. But MIDNIGHT hasn’t sat by through all of this. If anything, MIDNIGHT thrives on the status quo, and any changes in the global power balance would preferably be its doing, see. So MIDNIGHT casts out Farley, who by this point is in hiding, seeking something as silly as redemption. They want me back in their fold again, after all, they of all people know a little thing like a pair of nuclear explosions won’t slow me down. At the same time, they’re about to embark upon a plan that, upon conclusion, that would firmly change the global dynamic.”

Kroner shifted on his cane, pausing in his story. “Forgive a dying man for one monologue, Baylor. Rest assured it’s not the classic ploy of moving my forces in position. I have reasons for everything, and imparting this knowledge to you before it all ends is pretty high on my list of priorities.”

I nodded half-heartedly. Continual updates from the task force in my ear had assured me the surface of the island had been locked down, with a massing point at the southern docks. PALE HORSE Team Two, led by Bateau, would take point to reinforce my group if anything went to hell, as Kroner was so heavily hinting. I motioned to Gold to find out what the hell was up with the units to the northeast. They were setting up a beachhead now. I saw, Zelie, on the lip of the crater, head down, desperately whispering into his earpiece.

Deciding after a moment of internal deliberation to continue, Kroner pressed on. “See, MIDNIGHT needed my support, my knowledge, my expertise in their plan, their PARADOX project. So they stretched out an love branch, and accepted, granted I was handed certain things on a silver platter.”

“And what were those?” I asked.

“Namely, SOLIDSIX. The forward arm of NTET.”

I spread my arms, mirroring Kroner’s gesture at the beginning of the exchange. “Well, here we are.”

“And so you are. We needed bait for this exercise in destroying SOLIDSIX, and here I am. The perfect example, since my being bait troubles me very little – me dying here would actually be the ideal outcome. So MIDNIGHT offers underhandedly and secretly to support the NTET operation to capture Malcolm Stavro Kroner so as to encircle them and have them completely trapped when the moment of truth comes.”

“But the Navy task force wasn’t commanded by MIDNIGHT,” I said, horror suddenly flowing into my mind from every side. “It was ordered in by… Vice President Young. Oh, no.”

Kroner’s smile was something one would expect to find on the face of the Cheshire Cat. “Oh, yes. Who knew and had clearance enough to organize an attack on her only superior? Olivia Young. Who managed to survive her attack? Olivia Young. Who had been one of MIDNIGHT’s foremost leaders since her early years? Olivia Young. The tragic ambush and murder of dozens of United States Special Forces Operatives on a remote pacific island is just one more addition to the list of attacks that shall befall America. The botched assassination of Helen Skye, carried out by an Red Cell OpFor unit that was impersonating a terrorist unit. The upcoming attack which MIDNIGHT is planning is the final touch to push the American citizenry into a rage from which it will not recover for years.”

My shotgun was up and aimed at Kroner’s face. “On the ground. Now.”

Kroner began to laugh, in a rolling rumble that mirroring the increasing thunder that wasn’t so distant anymore. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. I warned you, Baylor. I warned you. No one is getting off this island alive.”

Gold was at my side immediately. “Team Two just went dark. So did the USN task force.”

The laughs continued to paint the walls of the crater. “Global chaos, just like the chaos about the break out right here.”

“Firing positions!” I called. I turned to Fender, who was hunched over his wrist computer with Zelie as the pair tried to raise command. “We need those doors open. We need to get inside. It’s the only real cover on this island.” Regarding Kroner against, I unclipped the flexicuffs from my utility belt. “Come on. One more Joker freak wanking over chaos is not what I need right now.”

Kroner beamed at me. “Means and ends, Baylor. Means and Ends. Everything is just one big distraction.”

I dropped a knee into Kroner’s belly, doubling him over. The mastermind didn’t so much as resist, instead offering up his hands to be cuffed. Pulling him back up, I suddenly caught sight of the puddles beneath Kroner’s feet, suddenly protected against the slashing mist by our close backs.

A ripple ran through them. Not the constant expansion of dozens of falling drops. But a single ripple, matched by a basso rumble in the pit of my stomach.

My eyes met Gold’s. He had felt it too.

“Perimeter report,” I said tersely.

“Nobody around,” said Hawley from up on the rim’s edge. “Thermal’s clear as well.”

“Bateau!” I yelled into the comm. “Team two! Report!”

“They’re not responding, boss,” Zelie said. “And christ, I’m not getting any calls from Easly either.”

The sat feed on my HUD cut out a second later.

Staub drew out an AT4 launcher from his pack, flipping up the sight.

Another ripple shook the puddle. Harder, this time.

Fender’s head jerked up at this, his reverie momentarily broken. His hand went down to the M4 hanging by his side and the grenade launcher mounted under barrel.

Kroner laughed even harder.

And then I looked up, to the far rim of crater high, high above us.

“Behold,” Kroner called into the mud. “World’s End!!”

Three silhouettes were outlined against the rain.

Three eight-meter-tall outlines.

Three SHADOW TEMPESTS.
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Siege » Sat Apr 07, 2012 6:18 pm

Christ almighty, Moby... It's been days and I still haven't managed to fully get through this. It's excellent and everything, but perhaps in the future it's a good idea to split up your acts in bite-size chunks?

Mind you that I'm loving what I'm seeing so far but... Well, can't really comment on all of it 'till I've read all of it, you know?
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 7:01 pm

Yeah, you're telling me. I'm pretty sure I broke myself of my habits of writing a novel for each installment with this act. On one hand, I like to keep the acts largely contained, but looking at a 100+ page act I'm not going to do much but laugh and say no way in hell am I trying that again. :)
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 9:34 pm

In this installment of MIDNIGHT PARADOX, PALE HORSE finds themselves trapped on an island of horrors. With no support and few options their only choice is to delve deeper into the facility and face the horrifying truth it contains...

Act Three: Part Two

Forty-Eight

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

The opening barrage will forever be seared into my memory, burned towards the infinite.

The first sensation that hit me was the burning of Kroner’s knife in my right leg. He twisted away from me, breaking my grip in my split-second of surprise, and dove through a two-meter opening the blast doors that sealed behind him.

He was gone, like that, and there was a knife in my leg. Christ, it hurt.

I spun around, momentarily disoriented.

Staub was highest on the ridge and had seen the SHADOW TEMPESTS first. He was on one knee, his AT4 held high. He had no chance, even if he had gotten a shot off.

A missile caught him in the forehead.

It was sudden, violent, and snapped me into focus. One second Eli Staub was preparing to fight off three – three TEMPESTS, to give us a chance to fall back, to escape, the next he was falling backwards, the top half of his head completely gone, replaced by a foul upwards fountain of blood and gore. The missile exploded behind him, outlining him before he simply fell apart, burning pieces raining into the crater, landing here and there.

I had made a promise, three years ago, to protect my men at all costs. That no one else from PALE HORSE would die.

And Eli had just been brutally murdered right before my eyes.

The rain momentarily stopped and then came with full force just as one side of the crater fell inward, dislodging a whole section of the overhead rock. Gold danced to the side of the rubble, and I looked overhead, knowing what had just happened.

The TEMPESTS had leapt clean over the crater.

Fender slammed past me, in motion, sliding towards the massive doors, pulling out a cable from his backpack. I realized, yeah, he’d have to do that, the doors are locked and they’re our only way out of here.

I was screaming, my lungs raw, my shotgun suddenly pressed against my shoulder, and I was firing, tracking the foremost blur as it descended like a demonic spider into the crater. The rounds, special loads, sparked off armored and ablative camouflage, further outlining the TEMPEST. Large, but not as huge as BLACK had been, with the same tattered quasi-cape of stabilizer fins, the same long, weapons studded arms, the same massive chest and sharp snout.

The same glowing red eyes.

The TEMPEST was wreathed in red and gold and blue flame at this point, charging towards us, and by now Gold was firing and Zelie was hammering away and even Fender was firing his gun one handed. Under the barrage the TEMPEST pulled off at the last second, dodging a grenade Zelie fired out of his M203 and leaping clear over us.

The other two TEMPESTS were nowhere to be seen.

That’s when the screams hit me.

Filtering in over the comm, the sound of everything going over the edge of chaos. People fighting, dying, getting slaughtered, without a clue of what was happening to them. Gunshots. Explosions. Bones crunching. Screams.

“This is SEAL Team Charlie, we’re under attack-“

“-Dammit, it just tore him in half!-”

“-Fuck, where’s Martinez?-”

“Form up before it gets y-”

“-Shit, is that acid?-”

“-Where are they coming from, where’s the fire coming from?-”

“-I dunno, the LT just got flattened, christ, there’s blood everywhere-“

“Run, oh, shit, run, je-“

“Hostiles just came out of the ground!”

“If anyone’s out there, Team Foxtrot is down, repeat-”

“It just ate Jessup!”

“That’s a fuckin’ TEMPEST?”

“Shit, it can fly!”

“On the rooftops!”

“Man down!”

“Don’t let it end like this-”

Black noise. Everything going to hell at once.

“Dammit, Fender, I need that door open!” I shouted over the din of the flood radio channels. My sat feed suddenly came back, and I could see that the entire northeastern quadrant of the island was on fire. A sickly orange glow emanated from over the rim of the crater, entirely separate from the lava flows. “Zelie, cut that chatter out of the system!”

Zelie’s head jerked up. “But sir-”

“We can’t help those SEALs now.” My stomach lurched. They had been sent, used as pawns, to trip the security systems. And, some corner of my mind, noted, to draw the TEMPESTs away from us.

Not all of the TEMPESTs.

The lead mech came back with a fury, landing like a meteor in the middle of the just as Fender got the door unlocked.

Stone rained everywhere, filling the area with dust that was quickly slapped away by the rain, diffused but no so much that we couldn’t see that charging form of the SHADOW TEMPEST.

Fender was first through the smaller portal, gun up, checking for an ambush.

The entire ground trembled as the TEMPEST bounded forward.

Zelie stood his ground and fired his reloaded grenade launcher. The round detonated against the mech’s shoulder, scorching it, perhaps blowing off a panel of armor, but not doing any damage beyond sending the TEMPEST into a clumsy roll.

Gold’s eyes were wide, humongous white beacons in the night as he scrambled backwards, still firing at the TEMPEST until his rifle ran dry until he too was in the safety of the cave.

At this point I knew it was time to leave. I too was backpedalling rapidly, shucking the action on my shotgun as fast as I could before discarding the empty weapon and unslinging the high-caliber semiauto rifle on my back. My first shot went wide, but the second hit the TEMPEST’s grenade launcher right as it was about to fire, throwing the shot wide.

Zelie was at my side, and we were both falling back as fast as we could now, not even knowing if we’d trip over rubble. The doors behind us were closing, Gold was waving us frantically in.

To my left, Zelie tripped over a fist-sized rock and fell onto his chest.

The TEMPEST was perhaps ten feet away now.

I was through the doors, and Zelie was halfway through, scrambling, crab-walking backwards, wildly, his breath coming in terrified gasps, a staccato beat of pure terror.

I seized one of Zelie’s arms yanked him through the doorway.

The TEMPEST, at the same moment, seized Zelie by the foot.

Zelie was caught in the middle of the closing frame, screaming at the pain of being caught between two incredibly strong forces.

“Gold!” I screamed. “Shoot the fucking thing, shoot it in the face!”

Gold was already lining up a shot, but my grip on Zelie was slipping, and I knew if I pulled harder I’d rip the young marine’s arm from his socket. The fabric of our gloves began to slide past each other, and outside, in the now driving rain, I said the TEMPEST get its feet underneath it, bringing its arm around to fire through the open gap.

“Shit!” Gold screamed, just as a stream of bullets flew by him, the TEMPEST had a shoulder-mounted machine cannon. He came back up, and fired a grenade over my head, catching the TEMPEST in the crook of its neck, knocking out its invisibility and sending it sprawling back onto its stomach.

And in that moment, Zelie’s hands were yanked out of my own.

He slid away, looking at me, eyes imploring and wide and terrified, fingers scrabbling at the muddy ground, drawing out furrows of dirt and water, forever searing the image into my head right before the doors, now cleared of the obstruction, sealed themselves an inch in front of my nose.

I simply rocked backwards onto my rear, chest heaving, mouth wide open, my shotgun tossed aside.

In perhaps thirty seconds I had lost two marines. Two friends.

And, some part of me noted, our only link to the outside world. And the man carrying the majority of our heavy-weapons ammunition.

Fender was similarly shocked, crouching near a busted-open panel, one hand angrily pressed against the steel nearby – from the indentations I could tell he had been taking his frustrations out on the module when it closed without his permission.

Gold was the only one actually moving, turning on his barrel-mounted flashlight and sweeping the beacon of illumination over our refuge, revealing the entrance to Kroner’s underground laboratories.

Forty-Nine

Gold | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

It had happened too goddamn fast for anyone to do much of anything except get out the way and hope they survived. But now we were momentarily free of the threat of the TEMPESTs, and, judging by the way it wasn’t trying to batter down the colossal doors behind us, it knew we were out its reach, at least for the moment.

The deaths of Zelie and Staub worried me a great deal though, in the tactical sense – I was carrying a rocket tube, but didn’t have enough ammo for any sort of prolonged firefight, let alone a clash with three TEMPESTs. Had they been modified models? They obviously weren’t big enough to be of the same make as BLACK, but they shared the same up-building that distinguished it from the Paragon-era first gen line. Did the attenuators on the back mean it had the same flight capacity as BLACK – and did the expanded cockpit mean passengers could board the mech? Or were additional pilots needed to handle the machine’s weapons and targeting? Whatever they were, they were mass produced model that hadn’t been encountered before.

And what of the radio traffic? TEMPESTs didn’t burry under the ground or eat people, for crissakes. That meant abominations, juggernauts, whatever spawn that Baylor had encountered. We were at least bound to encounter those when we explored farther.

I checked to make sure my acid rounds – the green-taped mags – were loaded in my M4, before flicking on the flashlight next to my M203. Anyone nearby would know we were here already, so light discipline seemed a moot issue at this point; in this room, at least.

We were in a long corridor, large enough to hold a fighter jet or two side by side. The walls had been augmented with heavy steel, though whatever care had been shown in the base’s past had long since vanished, the walls were now tarnished with dirt and encroaching vines. A pair of jeeps were parked to one side, about twenty meters down, but their tires were flat and one windshield was shattered.

Cannons were mounted on the ceiling, and they held my attention the most. They were those remote-operated M2s, Browning models you saw on top of sealed APCs and the type, with the camera and a computer-assisted targeting interface.

They were all facing, not towards the blast doors, but away, pointing at the black abyss that swallowed up my meager flashlight. Or, as Baylor would say in an incredibly snarky tone, well, isn’t that encouraging.

There came a rapid-fire banging sound about a dozen yards further past the jeeps, on the right side of the hall. This seemed to finally focus Baylor, who grabbed his shotgun and pulled himself to his feet, subtly moving just past me, taking point, his gun trained on the source of the sounds.

“Cover behind the jeeps,” he said quietly. “Fender, move.”

Fender shook his head and retracted a pair of cables into his wrist computer before shouldering his own gun and moving past Baylor in a leapfrog fashion to crouch behind the jeep. Baylor took up position just behind him, and I took cover behind a pair of empty drums to the right of the jeeps. At least they were empty, the last thing I needed was a fuel drum exploding in my face. One could only imagine video-game-Baylor’s disappointment after that. You took cover behind what?

We heard human shouts, and then the door slammed open. Fender tensed, but Baylor held a fist in the air.

I heard Bateau shouting “Christ, leave him, he’s head! Pillsbury, use your hand grenades!”

And then, Hawley, “Dammit, they’ve got a flamethrower!”

Red light momentarily painted the portal, before four figures, slightly smoking at the edges, barreled through the door. One of them slammed the door shut and spun a circular wheel to seal the entrance.

Bateau put his hands on his knees, breathing heavily, not even noticing his shoulder was alight. Graham, to his left, looking slightly disconcerted, patted it out with a free hand.

When he finally looked up, Bateau saw that neither Baylor nor Fender nor I had lowered our guns. “Shit, am I glad to see you, boss. Though the frosty reception really isn’t-”

He finally trailed off when his eyes dragged over each of us, doing a quick head count. His face faltered when he saw that neither Zelie nor Staub was with us. Likewise, I noted that O’Brien was missing from the ranks of Team Two. Half of Hawley’s face was covered in a rather vicious looking burn, Graham’s right hard hung freely, crooked at an odd angle, and the right side of Pillsbury’s body was covered in blood that wasn’t even his.

“Where were you?” Baylor asked, voice icy. My head snapped up to look at Baylor; Bateau was the Major’s most trusted friend in PALE HORSE, and if we was beginning to question him, things were definitely about to shift.

“Circling around behind the top of the crater,” Bateau replied, head tilting at Baylor’s tone.

“The top of the crater where three SHADOW TEMPESTs were hiding,” I noted offhand.

Bateau’s eyes instantly snapped toward mine, narrowing. His right hand tensed on his knee, a couple inches from the knife I knew was hidden in his boot. I merely drummed my fingers on my M4, face impassive.

Bateau turned slowly back to Baylor and straightened. “We found a path cut into the rock and were ambushed by a pair of creatures backed by human security forces. Comms were jammed, and by the time anything was happening the crater we had collapsed a cave entrance behind us to buy us some time.” And here I was thinking those reverberations were from the TEMPESTs.

“O’Brien was sneaking around behind their lines with me to catch them in a cross fire when an INTEGRAL TEMPEST dropped down from the ceiling and literally tore Parker in half,” Pillsbury said. “You should have seen it, it had to be a foot taller than any INTEGRAL I ever saw. Just picked him up and…” He trailed off, hands shaking as he gestured at the blood covering his clothes.

Graham spoke up as he began to bandage his broken arm. “What happened to Staub and Zelie?”

“They didn’t make it,” Baylor said simply.

“Staub got hit the second the three TEMPESTs appeared. Upgraded models, nothing we’ve seen before. Zelie got caught outside the blast doors as they closed.” I explained.

It was Baylor’s turn to glare at me, but I didn’t see the value in keeping enemy capabilities hidden. “The TEMPESTs didn’t try to follow us; my bet is that they’re going after the SEAL teams north of here. And besides, they know where we are already.” I turned, and pointed at the camera mounted on the ceiling a good hundred feet away.

Baylor glanced at Fender, who shrugged. “I looped it, but they saw us before I could get into the inner system. We haven’t moved, so the LT’s right.”

The Major squared his shoulders and marched towards the camera. The rest of the squad instinctively fell in beside him, guns up. There weren’t any corners to check, but at this point no one was going to take any chances on letting our guard down. Hell, it had been up and look what happened to us.

Baylor stared up at the fish-eye lens, and shouted, “Kroner, we were here for a truce. But now, I’m going to make damn sure you wish I’dve killed you in that crater.” He drew his sidearm idly from his shoulder holster and blew the camera to smithereens.

He turned back to the crew, his face expectant. He wasn’t disappointed.

Kroner’s laugh echoed through the dusty hall. “Perhaps you are on some high, Baylor, filled with righteous rage over the deaths of your men. Don’t get too overconfident, or Antenora will sort you out.”

“Fuck off, Kroner,” Baylor shot back.

The Chairman’s chuckle was light. “Heh. Writhe in my cage of torment, Major.”

The line clicked dead.

Write in my cage of torment…” Baylor muttered. “Right, then. Graham, stint that arm before we run into anything that decides to finish the job. Hawley, will that burn keep you from shooting? No? Good. Pop a combat stim and let’s get going.”

The squad had no sooner fallen into line when a rapid-fire scrabbling sound could be hear coming from behind us.

I spun, gun up, flashlight trained. So did Bateau.

I didn’t see anything. I glanced at him, and he shook his head. Nothing. I turned to Baylor, who had a finger to his temple. Likely looking over the area with infrared. He didn’t speak up.

“Fender,” Baylor said slowly. “Have you got floorplans for this place?”

“No sir,” Fender said, still huddled over his wrist computer. “The interference is gone, but from I’m looking at, there wasn’t any attempt to lock down or erase data. It’s just… segmented by room. You want to check lab records, you need to be in the lab, and so on.”

“So that means you can use those firewalls to create a rough map?” Baylor asked.

“Something like that,” Fender said. “But yeah, the main lab complex should be at the end of this hall, on the right.”

“How far?” I asked quietly.

“Should be a hundred meters or less,” Fender said. “Wait, shit, wait. I found some notes about structural layouts. Not floorplans, though…”

I spun. The scrabbling sound had come again, this time a patch of stone wall a good twenty feet long, no longer patched by the steel sidings. My rifle aimed, I slowly began to walk towards the walls, other hand outstretched to touch it, a dawning sense of realization flowing over me. I knew, if I knocked on the wall, it’d be hollow…

“It’s about the volcanic nature of the island,” Fender read. “Says they had a problem with breakouts every now and then, past what the biohazard systems could contain. They didn’t know where they were escaping to, until they started following…” His head jerked up. “Gold, get away from the w-”

A mass of teeth and tentacles exploded from the rock wall and seized me by the front of my vest. I started shouted, my gun went flying, rock was everywhere, the thing was screaming, people were shouting, my vest was tearing.

It happened too fast for me to do anything but scramble for my pistol, ducking my head as a scything claw swept past my face, once twice, got my sidearm, start firing blindly into its screaming thousand-tooth slobbering face, choking on dust.

More shapes were flying out past me, more dark forms leaping past-

-And then suddenly Baylor was right next to me, a knife in his right hand. His arm blurred, and suddenly the abomination was choking on a kukri that was lodged a foot down into its throat.

The abomination didn’t let go until Baylor physically seized the creature, tearing off the front of my vest, and slammed it into another creature that had been about to throw a poison spine into Pillsbury. The two screeching monsters compacted against the ground in a detonation of dirt and dust, and suddenly I was back on my feet, and running with PALE HORSE, backwards, as we fell into a turtle formation and started pouring outgoing fire into the milling monsters.

I didn’t know who was beside me, only the comfort of another gun by my side. It wasn’t until I saw a flash of Baylor’s face to my right that I began to worry. He had seen these things in action last night, and knew massed lines of fire wouldn’t hold them for long.

A tube-launched grenade blooped out on my left, and a leaping creature was sideswiped as the explosive detonated under it, sending its mass crashing into a nearby was with a pulpy, meaty, smacking sound. And still the thing struggled to its feet.

“Decentralized nervous system,” Baylor called somewhere to my side. “Have to hit it straight on, blow it apart. Not even blood loss will really kill it.”

Another monster leapt at me, and Baylor was again ready for the intercept, getting an armor gauntlet between me and the abomination’s open mouth, his free hand smacking away an attempt to sweep spikes into the air. And then, with the speed of a serpent, Baylor ripped his kukri back out of the creature’s mouth in an explosion of gore before tossing it back.

The abomination roared, splattering black blood everywhere, before leaping forward again.

I raised my SOPMOD and fired the grenade launcher. The forty-mil shell went straight down the creature’s gullet, and the abomination’s jump came up short, its face almost comically puzzled, before-

It blew apart in a red haze of chunks and bone.

This was the moment PALE HORSE needed to fall back those extra few steps, away from the monsters pouring out of now empty magma tubes, towards the lab. I glanced at Fender, who was holding a trio of incendiary grenades. My eyes widened just as he pulled the pins and tossed them down the hall before ducking into the lab.

I threw myself after him, just as Baylor slammed the door closed on my heels. A claw-tipped hand tried to swipe at me, but Baylor hacked at it with his kukri, and then a belch of roaring flame overtook my senses, a wash of heat, and the arm withdrew, and the door was closed.

Fifty

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Slamming the door behind me, I swung across a triple-beam of braces just as a massive dent appeared in it. Twirling around, I spied a huge red button under a plastic cover to the right of the blast door. Flipping the cover up, I slammed my fist down on the button labeled by a huge white sign IN CASE OF BIOHAZARD, ACTIVATE FOR POINT DEFENSE LOCKDOWN.

There came an alright shriek and a muffled bang from behind the door, and the sound of a large mass flying backwards from what I could only assume, from the nearly inaudible humming from the opposite side of the now electrified hatch.

“Sound off,” I said. Muffled groans echoed from the team, and to my horror I saw that Bateau and Hawley hadn’t made it into the lab. I caught Fender’s eyes, and he tapped his computer, as if reassuring me that they could’ve hopped into another room further down the hall.

I glanced down at Gold, whose front armor was in tatters, his vest ripped open, his face pale, chest heaving. Having an abomination practically tear your face off from about two inches away could do that to someone. I nudged him with one boot, and he stared up at me before shaking his head and clambering to his feet. “Anyone got an extra mag? Mine’s out there, and there’s no way I’m gonna go get it.” His voice regained some measure of calm.

“Christ,” Graham said, hands on his knees. “They just have those things loose on the island?”

“Yeah, well,” I said, “Judging by the disrepair that hallway was in, I’d say Kroner hasn’t exactly been sane for a while now. Just my professional opinion.”

I looked at Pillsbury, to see if he had any opinions, but the young Corporal was simply staring in awe at the space around him.

I turned to look, and my jaw fell open.

We were in an assembly plant. For SHADOW TEMPESTS.

It was astounding, really. The room was maybe the size of two football fields, with maybe three or four, no, five pod-like assembly bays scattered throughout the chamber, where half-completed TEMPESTS were held up by arms that descended from the ceiling high above.

Humongous machines were stacked along the far walls, were parts were sculpted or electronics manufactured. The line didn’t look like it moved particularly quickly, but a large part of it was automated.

At least, now, I had a good idea what was being shipped to World’s End by the WRAITH facility in South Africa. Whatever he couldn’t build here, at least. Kroner was creating his own Paragon. His own research and development base. This wasn’t just a safehouse in the middle of ass-end nowhere. This was a major constructive effort, on par with Chernobyl.

Only no one was here. The place was empty of any sort of scientific staff, just war machines, war monsters, and mercs, though I hadn’t seen the last with my own two eyes yet.

To my right was a rack of at least four INTEGRAL TEMPEST suits, all in various states of disassembly. Bateau was right; they were beefier, larger, at least eight or nine feet tall, with mounted machine guns and a chest cavity that could fit an olympic weight lifter. INTEGRAL TEMPEST… ULTRAS. Just one looked like it’d be a problem. And there were four, right here. With more guaranteed to be active in the facility. Hell, what if Kroner put one of those juggernaut mass-produced metas into an ULTRA suit? It’d be unstoppable save for a rocket – or eight – to the face. Walking tanks.

I found a set of notes on a nearby desk and gave them a once-over, before doing a reread with a dawning sense of horror.
March 21st, 1991
I haven’t been told what to expect, but I can’t help but wonder. I mean, the chance to move forward with my research after the government shut us down… perhaps we’ll actually see the first human clone within the decade. But I can’t get too hopeful.

This place doesn’t rank among the most hospitable locales I’ve visited, but, honestly, it doesn’t matter much. I mean, the sheer amount of equipment is astounding. The minds brought in, the computers available. I’ve done some digging, and it looks like one person’s paying the lion’s share of largesse for this facility. Guess Mr. X must really be interested in the possibility of immortality. I certainly am.

November 8th, 1992
The ground-base research has gone smoothly, at least. We’ve been a tight-knit community from day one, and our studies have borne fruit – we’ve gotten the first go ahead to begin actual trials. On another note, I’m pretty sure Luke in third division has been laboring over Miss Ananova from sequencing. The close confines of this facility have other effects, after all.

June 13th, 1993
Our research has stalled out. We’ve been building on a foundation of experiments from the scientific community dating back something like four decades, but any attempts at live births through SCNT technique – reproductive cloning, so to speak – have stalled out. I haven’t seen the autopsies, but the miscarriages generally result in the death of the mother. It’s not a question of our techniques, though. Carp were cloned in 63 and 73 by the Chinese.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, showing the paper to Gold.

“Beginnings of a history,” Gold shrugged.

The team checked over the room in a matter of minutes. Empty, scoured of anything that could be of use to us. Anything that was assembled was code-locked, sealed beyond even Fender’s incredible abilities.

We moved on, further into the deeps.

Fender, Pillsbury, Graham, Gold, and I swept into what could only be massive laboratory. I mean, goddamn, the place was gigantic. Several football fields in every direction, with stretching subdivision walls, foot-thick glass enclosures, and, along the south wall (or what I assumed to be south) were a series of floor-to-ceiling vault-like portals, currently sealed. Green lights floated down from over each door.

And, if I dialed up the aural sensors, I could hear the slightest of scrabbling, as if of worn fingertips, at the doors. Creepy… crypt things.

I held up a hand, closed into a tight fist. “There are… things imprisoned behind those doors back there. Stay away from them.” Flickering over vision modes, I switch to infrared, if only to check for any living… creatures. The room was empty.

Save for the cooling bodily shapes stretching out on a dozen or so slab-like tables grouped in the center of the vast room. Judging by the cooling patterns and the lack of true life-like color, they were dead.

“Over there,” I said, motioning the surviving members of PALE HORSE forward towards what proved, when returned to normal, if magnified vision, to be a sunken operating theatre. Of the dimly lit and shadowy chamber, this was the only area that actually had spotlights shining down on it from every direction.

We moved silently forward, alert for booby traps or listening devices – but my intrusion runtimes told me there were none. As we jogged, Fender plugged tiny USB plugs into multiple computer terminals as he passed. I knew the routine. He was setting up a multipoint network so that, by the time we had reached the center of the room, he would have penetrated the perforated network and had administrator’s control of the entire system. At least that was the theory as Fender had once explained it to me, my knowledge of computers was limited to Call of Duty multiplayer and that one AI that had tried to strangle me.

I leapt down into the pit, bypassing the shallow flight of stairs to my left. And then I saw the bodies.

Each had been hooked up to some tall, cylindrical surgery machine, which seemed straight out of Star Wars. Five or six revolving arms were stacked in layers along the robotic pillar, each adorned with a menacing selection of needles, pincers, saws, and the like.

The bodies were in varying states of dismemberment. Chests were open, limbs missing, but all the corpses shared the same characteristic – their brains had been exposed.

“Niiiice,” breathed Graham. “Kroner’s got a nice interest in brain surgery, see? Wonder why, though.”

“Immortality?” Gold offered. “I mean, dude’s always popping up again – look at Chernobyl, how ridiculous that was.”

“Yeah, but you heard him out there,” I said. “He’s not afraid of death. I got the sense that what he really feared had to do with losing his ability to influence the world – the ends and means chaining up to some sort of super goal.”

“He mentioned Antenora,” Graham noted, shaken by the mutilated bodies.

“One of the rounds in the ninth circle of hell,” I stated. “Dante’s Inferno. It’s where all the traitors to political entities went. Fitting, I suppose, for Kroner.”

“Blimey,” said Gold. “Look at this guy. He was a WRAITH executive who went missing last year after he started moving against WRAITH. McClaggen, Barnes McClaggen.”

“And over here are some of those MIDNIGHT contacts listed in Cutler’s database and cross-confirmed by Farley,” noted Fender, taking pictures of another pair of bodies. “Hell, no wonder we couldn’t find them. They’d been hauled off to be guinea pigs, they have. Maybe even in response to them blowing their cover.”

“Sechalin was like this,” I remembered, an old memory reaching out to me. “Positioned some of his disloyal staff to be wasted by Storm and I. Looks like Kroner has the same general theory about severance packages.”

“So this entire place is Kroner’s little project,” Gold stated, looking around nervously. “But what’s the goal? What the shit were those bug-things out there? Kroner isn’t creating Resident Evil bioweapons or something like that?”

“No, I‘d expect him to be a bit more focused than that,” Fender said. “Besides, wouldn’t he leave the bioweapons research to the Paragon?”

“Who knows?” I countered. “He’s obviously been in collusion with them. Looks at all those new TEMPEST models. An improved INTEGRAL. A finalized SHADOW TEMPEST. The assembly floor couldn’t have all come from this island or that South African facility. But we move on.”

“Boss, I’ve got notes,” Fender called, having moved away towards a sheaf of paper that had been scattered over the floor, close to a pool of blood.

“Read ‘em,” I said without hesistation.

“Specimen Antenora,” Fender read. “Executive Summary of Subjects Null, Alpha, and Beta.” He looked up at me. “Sir, by the looks of it, this is what Kroner’s lab had been working on.”

“What?” I said, wheeling around. Despite the urgent need to keep away from our pursuit, any clue as to what the gruesomely mutilated bodies and the howling voices from those darkly lit and sealed chambers stood for.

“Yeah,” said Fender. “From the looks of it, they’ve been working on this since ’87.”

Hope you have better luck than me, Ridley had said. Kroner’s been running from me since we first met in eighty-seven. Shot him out of the sky and he just came right on back.

“Give me the rundown,” I ordered, still moving around the empty lab, trying the doors. Loud banging could still be heard from the blast hatch at far end of the room.

“Right, then,” Fender said. “It looks like these notes are from the chief researcher. Guy named Landon, Wernick Landon.”

Gold’s head jerked up. “Bigshot British bio-geneticist. Guy went missing in ’91. He’s been here all this time?”

“Look’s like,” Fender said.

And then he began to read.

Fifty-One

November 6th, 2014 | World’s End
January 1st 1994
The new year looks somewhat hopeful. Order has been established in the lab after a fire broke out during the Christmas dinner. One of the magma tubes wore out a passage down on sublevel eight and killed two lab technicians, injuring six others. As beautiful as the volcano is, I am beginning to have doubts about the decision to host the lab on an active volcanic island. But where is my head, the good news. We’ve managed our first live birth. Just last night, at 10:55, Frances was born to three mothers, making him the first cloned horse on the planet earth. What an achievement! On top of that, I’m sure Luke proposed to Quyen last night when the birth was successful.

April 29th, 1994
Frances had to be put down last night. He went into a terrible fit and started convulsing. Autopsies show wild tumors just under his left lung. Worry has swept through the staff, as though whatever fate Frances had initially managed to avoid has finally caught up with him. Personally, I think we should simply move onto the third generation stock, as second generation had always been flawed.

October 30th, 1994
Third gen has been a smashing success. We cloned no less than three sheep – Larry, Curly, and Moe – and sent them to the South African facility. They’ve been healthy for the four months – officially passing Frances’ lifespan. Perhaps there is an environmental component to these facilities that caused the tumor? My requests for a mining expedition into the deeps has been denied, yet again. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Quyen Ananova is now Quyen Ananova-Luke. I feel the staff was formed an inseparable bond after these three years.

July 7, 1996
Word got out today of the live birth of Dolly at the Roslin Institute. Forgive me if I feel a little smug. The news, however, has reached our benefactors, and Mr. X has pushed for a new focus on finally cloning humans. I see no reason why attempts wouldn’t pan out, the only real barriers would be ethical, not scientific.
Fender finished the highlights reel, looking grim. “Looks like a Mr. X – I’m guessing Kroner had been funding research into cloning quite some time. The lab was having a huge failure rate – miscarriages that claimed the mother as well. But the second they moved the subjects off the island, the sheep in question turned out fine.”

I felt a chill hit my stomach. I caught Gold’s eye. We both knew what that meant. I motioned for Fender to continue.
March 2nd, 1997
The approval came today for the expedition into the deeps.

March 4th, 1997
We just finished burying the dead. The mercenaries make me feel somewhat better, but even they can’t keep the nightmares away.

March 8th, 1997
I suppose I should probably get my head together and start taking notes on what happened. We’ve been sitting on, from what I’ve been told, is a Monolith.
“-Oh, goddammit-”

“What?”

“It was a Monolith.”
A marker left by a long-dead race. Mr. X has a long-standing hatred towards them, from what I’ve been told, and he would’ve ordered the entire facility razed to the bedrock and then some if he hadn’t come down to see.

He’s an imposing man, Mr. X, and he strode into the facility as though he had always been in charge from day one. He took one look at the obelisk for himself, whipped off his sunglasses, and seemed mesmerized. He ordered the cavern expanded, psionic blockers erected, and for research to continue full-tilt.

June 6th, 1997
The psionic blockers have stopped all mutations within the mothers or the progeny. A second team has set up in the underlevels, fully tackling the question of the Monolith. Or, the cynic in me notes, the mutations the Monolith spontaneously induces in those too near it. I still remember how Jennings turned. The wounds still haven’t healed on my back. I did some research into Mr. X. He would’ve been a rather bland man, for his importance was all in demeanor, if not for when he pulled off his sunglasses and gazed upon the artifact. I saw the twin colors, and now know who our benefactor is. I’d feel a crisis of conscience, knowing we’re finding ways to extend the lifespan of one of the world’s most wanted men, but I’m too far past the point of no return now. I doubt I’d be able to leave the island alive at this point, not this far into the research and not with Kroner as my boss. At least my coworkers have the innocence of ignorance. So, knowing this, I must endeavour to push onward, for now to only way out is forward.

March 29th, 1998
Malcolm, Junior was born today. I only really use the nickname in my head, but I look down at the infant in his crib and wonder if he’d have the same future as his father. Or brother. Kroner doesn’t want copies though, free in their own way, not brought up and defined by the unique memes that produced Kroner himself. Kroner wants two things out of us – advanced growth – on the scale of months, not decades, and mind transfer technology. Both require more minds than we have right now. But the success of the first human clone should convince the Chairman to give us anything we need. Me, I just want to strangle the monster in its crib.

September 9th, 2000
We’ve solved at least one problem. A union of our two houses, so to speak. The rapid mutations caused by the Monolith can be controlled, fine-tuned, and reproduced on a certain wavelength of the spectrum – I’m most likely talking out of my arse here, but we’ve managed to take Malcolm Junior, the Sequel, and the Trilogy all to young adulthood a matter of 20 months. Subject four through thirteen didn’t make it, however. The growth process isn’t perfect yet, and it doesn’t have a high rate of success, but right now I’m looking at three versions of Malcolm Stavro Kroner in his youth, with their lives ahead of them. Most of the original team, those that are left, have figured it out anyway, and our eyes are downcast as we past the everpresent guards, steering clear of their submachine guns.
“Why didn’t Kroner destroy the Monolith?” Gold asked, bewildered.

“You don’t think-” Graham asked.

“I do,” I cut in.
November 11th, 2000
We had always been Option B. I might be a little drunk right now, but forgive me. I just received a history lesson from a visiting WRAITH executive. Here’s what I know. Kroner has had the secret of human cloning unlocked since the mid eighties, and had been using a destructive method to transfer his mind from clone to clone. He’d use lasers to destroy the original brain, scanning its idiosyncrasies and building his new clone from scratch. It required the original body, which, I think, is why Kroner funded this lab. He was worried he reach a point where his body was destroyed and he wouldn’t be able to continue his legacy.

I have to wonder, at this point. Kroner probably had a mindscan on record, so he could simply revert to his last save point, so to speak. He didn’t care about any sort of issue arising from continuity of consciousness. As long as a Kroner was around to impact the world, the dead body of the past Kroner was fine with the situation. But at some point, Kroner decided he need, if nothing else, an option if his body was destroy, unrecoverable.

We’re it. Strain Antenora, a product of three years of intensive, nonstop research. A bridge between minds. It’s part Soviet neuro-cybernetics, part reproduced Monolith effect, part psionic link, part AI coding. It’s my masterpiece, something that could forever change science as we know it. As long as you were in range – we’re working on it right now, but the distance as which a mind can be transferred into a waiting, dormant clone is close to a mile. It’s incredible. The waiting machinery is minimal, as well. It’s ingenious, all of it. It can be done remotely. We need thought we needed a psion, a living person to help act as a bridge, but we can reproduce it with the signal link the Monolith creates. Just a sliver, literally chipped off the artifact.

The AI is there to oversee the entire affair, to correct the millions of translation errors, to code the whole thing into a new brain. It’s a lot more complex that the laser transfer method, but with an AI involved the actual human involvement is minimal.

That’s the theory, at least. We’ve got a long road of testing in front of us.

September 11th, 2001
Yancy Luke was shot today by a guard. He heard about the attacks on Moscow over the internet and got drunk before confronting a mercenary near the front gate. I think we all knew WRAITH was linked in some way to the attacks, but christ, over three-k dead. Luke went too far in his tirade and the guard simply shot him in the face. Quyen is still sobbing in the mess. And the worst part is little Eve. She’s practically grown up here, not allowed to leave, insurance towards the good behavior of the parents. He saw the whole thing. Got blood on her dress.

January 31st, 2002
We’re still having problems with the transfer process. No matter how much we sedate the clone as it grows, there’s still a residual ghost, so to speak, in the machine that interacts and interferes with the incoming mind transfer. The resulting finals are nearly always insane. Only Junior has shown any degree of lucidity. I think he’s pretending when he shows any degree of mental weakness. He’s playing with us, like a predator, watching me all the time, smiling behind my back.

Apirl 15th, 2002
We’re doing better and better, but the AI we’re using just isn’t up to par. It’s a third-party effort, modeled after SICKLE, but compared to the Soviet construct it’s a retarded child. The mental coding takes forever, on the par of days. That’s a major problem – the clones need to be up and ready to go the moment the original Kroner is killed, not unconscious in transport.

June 2nd, 2002
I nearly got shot by a guard today. At least when I found out what the second Monolith team was doing, right under our noses. Nearly bloody well killed everyone on the island. They’ve been testing bioweapons, working together with a black operations American facility in Costa Rica. Trying to get control of the mutations the Monolith induces to ultimately mass-produce metahumans along the lines of Alexis Starr. They’ve making it serum based, but the serum has a life of its own, and several mutants mauled cleaning staff in Delta lab. We incinerated the entire area, doused it in anhydrous ethanol and set it aflame. I watched through the glass at the burning shapes, saw them contorting the blaze, and made my decision.
“But it gets better,” Fender continued. “Listen to this.”
August 18th, 2002
The American cabal, those behind the Costa Rican facility, has gotten involved. They’re looking for proof that a soldier can be engineered, made, operatives created to be loyal only to them. It goes further than what Kroner has planned, and, I think, it betrays a lack of understanding toward what Kroner actually is researching, and how far along he is.

September 21st, 2002
Forgive me if I’ve turned to the drink again, but I’ve learned about how the Paragon does business and I’m not entirely enthused. But reviewing their records has been most illuminating. Their work with the Romero virus may prove to be key towards not only suppressing the initial clone’s ghosts but always towards whatever metahuman project will result when the cloning and monolith research teams on this island are inevitably brought together. Anyway, what’s interesting is that, in the way the Paragon field tests new models against new soldiers, there’s a consistent unit they place in each platoon – a mole, there’s always a mole, two of them, one as a deep cover, simply gathering intelligence, the other actually actively maneuvering the unit, manipulating its leader towards whatever result the Paragon wants.

But that’s not the best part – it’s the memory wiping technology the Paragon uses on the unit’s leader. For some reason, his survival instinct has gotten him through eight tests. Eight. They should shrug, patch him up, heal him, create a new set of memories, and let him lead a new platoon into oblivion.

That this technology has been under my nose the whole time in simultaneously infuriating and incredibly exciting. We no longer have to worry about residual ghosts – memories, half-baked identities in sedated clones, because, bam, right there we can just erase them when the time comes.
Everyone was watching me with intense eyes. I knew what they were thinking, but motioned for Fender to continue his summarization.
January 24th, 2003
I broke Malcolm Junior’s neck today.

February 1st, 2003
Another breakout in the deeps. They haven’t found all the bodies yet.

April 8th, 2003
We’ve been making testing the throwaway Kroner clones with the Antenora-beta strain, a modified version of the bridging formula we use. It amazing how all of this springs from the same base, going from cloning to metahumans. We’ve brought in nanomachines experts from Gosely’s field of expertise. She stole the technology from America as a gift to Kroner when she went rogue, hoping someday it would bear fruit. We’re here to test her gift, I guess. We’ve become the mecca of strange science in the world, to say the least. Nanomachines, cloning, bioweapons, metahumans, AIs, psionics, monoliths, it’s all here. It’s somewhat invigorating.

May 27th, 2003
I broke Malcolm Junior’s neck today.

August 30th, 2003
The winters on the island have always been bearable do to the natural heating the magma provides. But what we haven’t known until now is how extensive the cavern system is under this rock. I mean, even past the Monolith’s cage. We found a nest of mutants, grown since six months ago. We haven’t killed them yet, we’re just watching them. This is a new lifeform, so to speak, living under our feet. An entirely new species, an ecosystem to watch. See what happens to uncontrolled populations over time. At least we know what happened to the all the vermin on the island.

October 18th, 2003
The population took Eve in the middle of the night. Amazing, really, how they snuck past the guards. Quyen was, of course, despondent, but I ordered her confined to her quarters until she got a hold of herself. From what we can tell, though, the mutants haven’t killed the child.

October 20th, 2003
We launched an expedition to retrieve Eve. She didn’t come back the way she was when she had left.

February 3rd, 2004
Eve’s proven to be quite a testbed for the various programs we’re running here. Maybe, as a human petri dish, the forces affecting her body can combine into something remarkable. At least so I don’t have to keep cloning Kroner again and again and then personally disposing of the bodies. I can only break so many necks.

May 5th, 2004
The Paragon’s star lieutenant was killed by their latest iteration of SHADOW TEMPEST. Kroner’s taken quite an interest in the project, but I’m not worried about losing our funding. We’re still the star of the show. Hell, I attended my first meeting with the board today. They’re thinking about fermenting trouble in the USSR and seeing what comes up. Chaos. Good news.

July 20th, 2004
Out of curiosity, I obtained genetic samples from the lieutenants scheduled to be… sacrificed to the Paragon. Brambley, Jonas. Miller, Richard. Lake, Carlos. Baylor, John. We’ll mix up the genetic sampling, see if we can solve most of our problems with one fell swoop.

November 1st, 2004
The Baylor code looks interesting. Must pursue further.

December 23rd, 2004
We’ve done it. We managed to clone Baylor and carry out a successful mind transfer. The leaps and bounds amazing. We can produce a mature clone in three months. We can carry out the transfer in a matter of hours – we carried out the entire procedure on Baylor when he was unconscious, thinking he was due for a supposed checkup. We injected him with Antenora-alpha, transferred his mind, and then used a blocker formula to flush any evidence out of his system. Beyond missing an hour of his life, Baylor is none the wiser as to what is in store for him.

The clone is our new beginning, our starting point. Version Zero. Null.

February 28th, 2005
The attempts to make Null superhuman have been moderately successful, though the various experiments the subject has been put through have revoked some of his… sanity. Subject Alpha will correct all of these mistakes, once the nanomachines assemblers are moved up to thirteen generation.

March 4th, 2005
We knocked Baylor out again and managed a second, successful procedure. Subject Alpha is online.

March 26th, 2005
Subject Alpha is advancing beyond our wildest dreams. He has lost none of his mental acuity. When we’re done with the tests, we’ll present him to Kroner as WRAITH’s first metahuman, on par with Starr or Hammer. We can implant false memories of a history in his mind once we’re done, overwrite our experiment with a cock and bull story about him being an American project given to Kroner during Gosely’s defection.

All of this use of memory manipulation makes me wish it could’ve simply solved our problems with clone transfer, our initial problem at the turn of the millennium, five years ago. But the technology works on the scale of months, not over entire lives, entire personalities. It’s limited, in that respect. Some portion of the original personality will bleed through. Complete wipes almost never take. Clashing inserted memories with entire new personalities usually creates insanity over the course of weeks. No, I am still firmly convinced that Antenora-alpha is the prime way to transfer to a new clone.

April 13th, 2005

We shipped off Null and Alpha today. Alpha was presented to the Board this morning, while Null was given to the American cabal for their support of the project. Though Null represents a dead-end for them if they try to follow their own path with him. I’m sure they’ll use his prodigious combat skills as a tier one black operator and hoist him on one of their trouble-shooters.

July 4th, 2005
I just received news that the Paragon was destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Details are sketchy, but it appeared that the facility had been infiltrated by British Intelligence, who subsequently teamed up with the survivors of the TEMPEST test to destroy the entire batch of prototypes before escaping.

July 5th, 2005
When I heard the news, I simply couldn’t stop laughing. One of the surviving Marines? John Baylor.
I couldn’t breathe. But Fender continued, like a juggernaut.
July 18th, 2005
We’re taking over a lot of the research from the Paragon until it gets back on its feet. I don’t think the American cabal knows this, but Kroner’s expanding one of the old engineering bays into a custom shop to manufacture his own TEMPEST models. It’ll be a couple years until renovations are complete, but in the meantime we’ve gotten our hands on some samples of the Romero virus from the Paragon and are moving forward with mass-production testing of metahumans.

November 7th, 2005
Nanomachines seem like a fluke at this point – we’ve get to reproduce that one-in-a-million shot we had with Alpha. We’re moving back towards research on Anteora-beta to see if we can make a serum that can take any individual to metahuman status, not just a one-in-a-lifetime chance that was engineered from birth.

April 8th, 2006
Research is moving, it’s just at a snail’s pace. Maybe if we go back to the drawing board, back to formula with A-beta, take a look at Eve, and perhaps Quyen as well… Two randomizers, just to see what comes up.

July 19th, 2006
The AI has been an invaluable research assistant through these past years, but it’s getting too old and too caught in repeating runtimes. I think it’s time I put in a request for a new model. Perhaps we could work off a modified UCAV brain…

October 4th, 2008
Kroner made use of a clone transfer today. From what I’ve heard, he was caught in an explosion in the Middle East in the aftermath of a worldwide crisis involving the Monoliths, first in Chad, and then in Hungary. The Monolith in the deeps has been showing increased activity over the past year or so. Sometimes I like to sit down there and watch it from behind the protection of the psi-blockers for hours… Anyway, from the check-up we’ve done Kroner looks just as fine – he’s in a body fifteen years younger now and is oddly bouncy, at least over the past couple days he’s stayed at the facility. He hasn’t let on much, but he seems to think the attack on his base was partially an inside job. In that case, I’m honored to be trusted so by the Chairman of WRAITH.

March 26th, 2010
Trouble in Russia. The TEMPEST bay lays abandoned, with main development shifting towards the emerging Chernobyl facility. I don’t trust the Commandant of that base. I think he’s looking to steal some of my research, my glory, push me off as a leftover of the nineties, just more stepping stone on WRAITH’s continuing path of evolution.

July 19th, 2011
Presents were received today. A brand-new UCAV fighter brain, recovered by the American cabal during an attack on a WRAITH facility. I managed to get my hands on it for the promise that I’d relay their group any news about the inner happenings of WRAITH. The fools. I’m loyal to Kroner, since he’s taken care of me these past two decades. But now that I have a new AI to play with, to reconfigure and use towards new research everything is going to be alright.

September 11th, 2011
Kroner respawned in the medical bay, screaming. He was clutching at his throat, which was unharmed. He screamed about burning fire and radiation. His body subsequently showed signs of deterioration of the sort that would take place over the next few years, radiation indicating close exposure to a fractured fusion reaction and a fission reaction in the middle of a meltdown. Exposed to the elements in outer space and submerged in a fiery hellstorm. It shouldn’t be like this, the entire point of cloning into a new body was that whatever damage happened to the old one was forgotten, that it was a new life to spend. But here, the damage came with Kroner’s mind. Why?

Chernobyl is gone. MIR is gone. Cambodia is gone. Gosely plots openly against the Chairman. And Kroner is dying.

November 3rd, 2011
Kroner respawned yet again, after a nuke hit his hidden submarine. And yet, the damage remains, and its course has accelerated, wracking more of his body. He looks not like a man in his prime, but a man far past his pinnacle.

January 8th, 2012
He stands over my shoulder, trying and failing to keep the pain in check, wanting me to find whatever is piggybacking each transfer and squash it, but I’m not sure I can. Kroner is running out of clones, and we need new machinery - our aging components haven’t withstood the test of time and are wearing down. We’re not able to create mature clones at as fast a pace as before. Undeterred, Kroner ordered me to use captured WRAITH executives, operatives who did not remain loyal to the chairman as raw genetic data to help grow the clones in vitro. He had developed the technique years before, but never had a need for it until now. But now, our base consumes neurological material by the bucketful.

June 19th, 2012
Kroner rages at me to save him from the pain, but I can’t. I’ve taken to using some of the excess staff to fuel his transfers. At nights I stare at the Monolith, pondering my fate. I make my decision. In Antenora-beta, I make my decision.

July 3rd, 2012
My contact with MIDNIGHT paid off – they had an agent recover a segment of the altered SICKLE AI from MIR. They think it will go well with the AI core they’ve given me. I think it will be a tight fit, but I can work on expanding the core, making it something better. Perhaps in the core lies the secret to the mystery of Kroner’s illness as well as mass-produced metahumans.

August 8th, 2012
Success beyond my wildest dreams. The core has taken on a life of its own and is incredibly in discharging its duties. We’ve managed to solve existing problems with A-Beta and are moving forward with sixth generation. The results are spectacular – vastly increased strength, nigh-invulnerability, godlike alacrity. The intelligence of the subject, however, is lacking. Those under the influence of A-Beta attack only in a straight line, distaining weapons for their fists and clumsy kicks. Still, I can’t argue with their results. We’re moving into the combat training phase.

October 30th, 2012
One of the A-Beta gen.8 specimens took incredible damage on the training course today and began to immediately mutate – into something resembling an improved version of a Monolith mutant. Whispers, from my nightly visits to the obelisk, tell me that this is a good sign. That the subject can recover from lethal damage and continue on in a second form that is just as lethal is marvelous. The AI agrees that we need to get to work seeing if we can tailor the secondary mutations just as well as the primary changes. Time will tell.

December 2nd, 2012
One of the new secondary specimens – the post-mutants, so to speak, got free of its vault and escaped into the tunnels. I fear interbreeding with the original population that I’ve fiercely protected over the years.

January 23rd, 2013
The TEMPEST bay is back up and running – the AI wants to try implanting A-Beta gen.9 specimens inside custom INTEGRAL TEMPEST armor. I say have at it. I was never a weapons designer, at least not in the metallic sense. But the AI’s second proposal caught my eye. It involved an Antenora-Delta strain. It took the mind-linking capabilities of Alpha with a high communicability – it’d be airborne. Mind linking. This, I think, combined with the Monolith, can truly help out the AI – someone, I’ve come to realize, is the only person on this island worthy of my respect. Not researchers too stupid to realize the true implications of their work, and not an ailing terrorist who cannot control his own creations.

March 8th, 2013
A new order has been issued, and the equipment updated. Kroner is coming home. Clones are to be issued for a wide variety of individuals, from multiple Kroner clones to Baylor copies to, yes, the American President. I dropped the idea to Kroner a few months ago when he discovered my work on Delta – a mental copy of the President, indistinguishable from the original save for her overall allegiance to her maker. MIDNIGHT thinks it’ll be them, and Kroner thinks it’ll be him. The AI laughs at them all. The Monolith laughs at them all. I laugh at them all. We are indistinguishable at this point.

April 29th, 2014
Kroner ordered us to seal away both Eve and Quyen in the vaults, as well as whatever gen.8 mutations that we could round up from the caverns. That’s with whatever researchers I volunteered to be A-Delta test subjects. But production of gen.9 metahumans is to begin full tilt. Kroner has a plan, and he’s looking to see it through. Perhaps an organization behind which to hide his culpability, to act as a buffer from MIDNIGHT. He’s been in meetings nonstop with their shadowy executives, planning. They’re looking to get back in his good graces just as he’s planning to one-up them. I remember when Kroner had been a man of his word – but that was before I had removed his glasses and gazed upon the artifact. That was then. This is a changed time.

June 1st, 2014
The AI has one final task for me. He wants me to set foot off the island for the first time in over two decades. He wants me to head to Southeast Asia, just for a brief trip. The trip is planned, my absence should not go noticed if the AI holds up its side of the bargain. It will cover for me.

July 3rd, 2014
I return, my mission accomplished. The canisters were set, my objective fulfilled. My absence seems to have gone unnoticed. We move into the finally preparations for Kroner/MIDNIGHT/Myself. It doesn’t matter at this point.

August 12th, 2014
Kroner is wondering about what was happening during the last two weeks of June. My contact with him is infrequent at this point, but in his pain Kroner’s memory is extraordinary sharp. I avoid him when I can, hoping to duck awkward questions. I can only hope to accomplish what I can now. I know my clock is ticking.

September 23rd, 2014
Kroner is unusually active today. ‘I’ve done it,’ he says. ‘I’ve done it.’ He now walks with the air of a man resigned to his fate and yet seeks to make the most of his final months. I can only assume he refers to his plans with the American cabal. I still need to finalize A-Delta.

October 2nd, 2014
I went to see Quyen and Eve today. Usually they attack visitors on sight, but today they seem almost docile. I look back and reminisce over all the work we’ve accomplished here over the years, how we cheered when we managed to clone a mere horse, when we were young men and women, simply excited to be on the cutting edge, to make history in the best way. Now I am poised to make it in the worst. But now I hear Kroner approaching. He sounds furious.

November 1st, 2014
I found this log today. Needless to say, it reveals a great deal of the mysteries revolving around this facility. I confess that I, and others at WRAITH, had always viewed it as a backup base, a facility if all else fails. Well, here we are. Here I am. Here, soon, you shall be, Baylor. Rest assured I haven’t altered any portion of this log. He remains a final testament to the man who built this place from the ground up. But now Landon rests with his creations, sealed in a vault along the far wall. His AI disassembled, shut down, its machinations a remnant of an old age.

I leave this for you, not as a trap, not to mislead you, but to shed some light on our history. I said I knew secrets you will kill for. And here we are. Now, we shall die for them.

Malcolm Kroner, 11/2014
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Mobius 1
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 9:34 pm

On this installment of MIDNIGHT PARADOX, Baylor must grapple with the world-ending revelations discovered within Kroner's secret base - but if he and his squad can't battle past a small army of mercenaries and horrors, this may be the end of the line for PALE HORSE.

Act Three: Part Three

Fifty-Two

Gold | November 6th, 2013 | World’s End

It wasn’t a quick read. Fender skipped around, summarizing, but I had the feeling Kroner was purposely keeping us clean for this information to fall upon us.

I stared at the vaults when Fender finished reading, my face etched with abject horror. Locked inside, with whatever beasts he had created. Some dark part of my brain whispered that it was a fitting fate for a monster to live out in days in the company of his fellows.

I swept my gaze over to Baylor and took an involuntary step back. His chest was heavy, his face contorted. I’d seen Baylor frustrated, back in New York, when the leads hadn’t planned out. But I’d never seen Baylor angry.

Angry just wasn’t the word for it. It failed to encapsulate Baylor’s state of being.

I’d always viewed Baylor as someone who simply shoved down whatever negative emotions he felt, locking them away, compacting them, keeping his formidable mind on the task at hand. And I had always worried about the day when those seals would break, when it finally all come flooding out, all the guilt, the fury, the hatred, the animosity, the anguish, the rage, the sorrow.

Look up apoplectic in the dictionary. You’d find a picture of Baylor’s face there.

It was terrifying. His mouth twisted into a frown, a snarl, past what I thought humans could express, his chest rising as he took his breaths in snarls. His jaw clenched, his teeth ground back and forth as he looked down, looked up, and slammed his palm so hard down onto the table that it broke into a dozen pieces, pancaking into the ground.

I took another step back. He was redefining what one called rage.

Storm and Nix were clones of Baylor.

Kroner could clone himself with ease, resurrecting from anywhere on the planet.

A near-perfected metahuman serum had been produced on this island.

“Marines,” Baylor barked. “We’re going downstairs.”

“The Monolith?” I asked, my voice soft.

“I’m going to swipe this entire island from its mount on the sea,” Baylor responded, already walking, his stride so purposeful that he knew where he was going.

Baylor ripped open a meter-square hatch as though it were nothing, revealing a black portal on the opposite end of the operating theater. Without a word, he dived into it, a shotgun in one hand, his sidearm clutched in the other.

His voice floated up from below a few seconds later. “Clear.”

I exchanged looks with the rest of the squad. Their faces made it clear they sure as hell didn’t want to go down that hole, not now knowing what was beyond. But I also saw that measure of loyalty that had surfaced time and time again in PALE HORSE when things seemed hopeless. These men, as the saying went, would follow Baylor into hell if he asked them to.

The thing was, this time we actually were walking into hell.

I leapt down through the portal.

We came into a smaller room that, for what it lacked in width, it more than made up for in height.

And I knew what I was looking at instantly.

A triple-column of vertically stacked two-meter pods, each about a meter across. And they stretched on forever, at least forty of them downward, into darkness. Each pod had a window on it that glowed yellow-orange, allowing us to gaze in at the inhabitants.

Immediately to my left was the face of Malcolm Kroner. I repressed the urge to recoil and stared at the unconscious face, relaxed as though in the grip of sleep, calmly lying in a cushioned cell.

And to my right as the face of Baylor, his hair short, his nose unbroken. Both of these clones looked the like they were in their early twenties, not bearing the scars of age or the rigors of combat.

More clones, of people I didn’t recognize, stretched beyond.

Baylor stormed through the hall of copies only for his pace to slacken about ten rows in.

He had seen the in-progress clones. The ones in the middle of growth regimens or just being constructed from the ground up. They were half-formed, distorted, missing their skin in places, only networks of muscle fiber and circulatory vessels.

My ears adjusted, and I heard the near constant whir of over a hundred pods all maintaining life support for their inhabitants.

Behind me, Graham’s eyes were as wide as quarters, and he reflexively pulled down the brim of his helmet, offering a quick prayer to whatever deity he worshipped. Even Fender was taken aback, his jaw hanging. Pillsbury just reached over to Fender’s vest and grabbed his camera. Evidence was needed.

And then Baylor’s pace finally ground to a halt. I knew what he was looking at, even before I caught up to him.

There was only one of her. Just one. It’s all they needed, really.

“Where did they get the DNA?” Baylor breathed.

“It wouldn’t have been hard,” I replied thoughtfully. “I mean, if they can replace an entire Secret Service team, I’m sure they can obtain a sample of her code.”

“But why give it to Kroner? Even in a world of bad ideas, that seems historically bad.”

“They gave it to his chief scientist, not him. But still, they should have notice his instability…”

“From what I gathered, the MIDNIGHT side of the operations wasn’t exactly stable either.”

“Yeah,” I said, pursing my lips. “The traitor. The rogue faction. It’s not like we can blame a wellspring of evil on that as well.”

“No,” Baylor growled. “At least not directly.”

A moment of silence passed, where nobody moved.

And then Baylor executed the clone of Helena Skye.

The only sounds where the clinking of falling glass, leaking fluids, and the disturbing drip-drip-drip of blood and other fluids from the gaping wound.

Followed by a shout.

We all spun to see a single guard, clad in a red and black, framed in the doorway, his helmet’s glowing eyes wider than they should have been.

The guard tried to flee, he really did. But he stumbled onto the wrong group and the wrong time.

Baylor took two swift, shuffling half-steps forward and drove a knifehand so hard through the man’s chest that it exploded out the back in a shower of blood. The guard went limp instantly, and Baylor yanked his arm back out, shaking off the gore from his hand.

At that point, I knew Baylor was far past even the designed locks, the inhibitors for his cybernetics. He had unlocked something, or was on E-Meds, or something. He had supercharged in his anger, and something had unlocked inside of him.

John Baylor was free.

Baylor kicked aside the body and jerked his head. “Let’s move.”

We ran. Through further labs, all in various stages of disrepair and destruction. When guards accosted us, in three and four and eights, we slaughtered them. There was no tactical thought to the fighting. Nothing to report. We crashed upon them like a wave on the shore. Rifle butts broke faces, bullets tore through lungs, Baylor’s fists shattered ribcages. Blood arced along walls, along the floors.

At that moment, we were PALE HORSE. Hell followed with us.

Fifty-Three

Baylor | November 6th, 2013 | World’s End

I should have seen it sooner.

Why I took such an interest in Storm. Why Nix seemed a dark reflection of myself. Hell, why he was so angry at me, back in Cuba. I had lived my life free of the pain that had been visited upon him before he even had free will in the world. He had always been a pawn, someone to be used.

Storm, even moreso. Just a unique proof-of-concept. A dead-end, not unlike Nix.

And what if I had lead more than one unit into the jaws of the Paragon? How the hell would I even know? Entire sections of my life had been stolen from me, with me none the wiser. And it was all a fucking fluke. I didn’t carry magical soldier genes. I had been on the fucking list to be executed because I had sucked so bad. Because I was a failure in my early twenties, barely scraping through OCS. I just happened to go well with the cocktail Kroner’s stooges mixed up over the years.

I honestly couldn’t know what was real anymore. I knew I had been ordered into orbit to keep me away from MIDNIGHT, but I hadn’t realized that, had I been on the ground, I could have simply been disappeared, plucked up and away.

I knew what Nix had been talking about now.

My radio crackled. Fender told me that we were picking up the broadcasts of Kroner’s guards, his hired mercenaries.

And not everything was going well for them.

One would think that having monsters and metahumans and mechs on their side would give them an overwhelming advantage. But something, someone, something was sweeping through their forces on the southeast beach, from where we had come it. Killing them. It had already downed one ULTRA. They wanted one of the SHADOW TEMPESTS rerouted to deal with the threat.

Fuck ‘em. Let ‘em all burn.

I kicked a guard in his gut so hard he simply folded in half around my boot; I swept my leg in a hook, shaking him off and sending him flying off of the catwalk PALE HORSE was now using as a killing field. He could barely scream, as my parting kick had crushed his ribcage.

Another merc caught a burst in the knees from Fender; he fell forward, screaming, onto his face. I brought my boot up and curbstomped his head with all the power of a sledgehammer.

Mercs tried to line up shots from afar, but Graham shot them, every last one. He was mechanical, his fire rapid and precise, popping heads left and right. Men screamed and toppled from their perches, claimed by the endless abyss below.

We were descending deeper beneath the island, into wide-open caverns criss-crossed by catwalks, encircled by veins of lava rolling down stone walls, gushing at point, slowing coating in other places. The entire space was cast in a hellish glow – my heat vision mode was useless.

Olivia Young had set us all up. Was Kroner lying? Who the hell knew? But I did know that Young was one of the few people who knew enough to pull the strings, had enough clout to set this up. She was old money, with hundreds of contacts. The glove fit.

And the AI? Built from the scavenged UCAV AI core? The log had said it had been disassembled.

I had my answer when we entered the next room. It was circular, resembled a flatter version of the command center of MIR – descending concentric circles. The difference was how cluttered the room was – wire and tubes everywhere, organized into eight central octopus arms that fed into a base, a hemispherical cup that now sat empty. Above it was above radial array of eight cables, hanging in arcs that fed into the edges of the room.

It was an electronic throne with no one sitting on it.

My momentary reverie was interrupted by a harsh scream – a pair of abominations had dropped from the shadowy ceiling on the far end of the room. Time to go. We sprinted out a door to our right, leaving a pair of grenades in our wake, slamming the door behind us.

And there it was.

The cavern was easily the largest I had ever been in, set up like a theater with only one actor on the stage- a single obsidian block that was half-embedded in the rock. It rose from floor to ceiling, all malevolent edges and insidious crimsom symbology. The sharp borders faded into swirling faces, simultaneously defined and hazy, one titanic miasma of sensation that threatened to rip my eyes out of their sockets.

It washed over me in an instant, and I was on my knees, hands on my head. Whispers crowded my head, quickly morphing into the screams of a thousand dying individuals, all etched into my consciousness. Invisible fingers scratched at me, an iron grip on my throat, and thousand razors flaying at my back.

My stomach heaved, and I found myself staring at the meager meal I had wolfed down back on the Aurora, intermixed with the red stain of blood. Whatever stench it gave off was nothing compared to the utter wrongness that permeated each of my senses, just under what the point of sensory overload would be so I could savor each and every horrible thing that was coursing through my mine.

It wasn’t so much the sense of an alien mind, a thousand minds, an unknowable presence that had been awakened and was reaching out towards beings whose lifespans could be measured in just a few heartbeats. It was just the opposite. This was a vast presence who had humored the species who had attempted to cow it, to poke and prod what was beyond their feeble imaginations.

I flopped over on my back, and was suddenly behind a white and red spotlight that was blazing down on the cavern.

The sensations, all of them, stopped. The whispers retreated to a manageable buzz at very edge of my mind. The violent throttling became the lightest of caresses. Regular feelings came back – the rage fueling my cybernetics, the pain of overextension, the adrenaline buzz of constant combat. I turned, and gazed weakly up at the spotlight. A tri-ridged node was mounted on top of the intense lights, and I knew what it was instantly. A psionic blocker, meant to keep the emanations of the Monolith at bay. Looked like European tech.

I rolled onto my knees and saw Gold, his mouth open in a silent scream, his body contorting, just past the spotlight. My arm shot out past the stand, and it was instantly coated in the pain of a thousand writhing insects, but I was swifter, and managed to seize Gold’s collar. I hauled him in, behind the rim of the psionic shield.

“Careful, Gold,” I said. “If we’re going to bring down this cavern, we’re not stepping past the blockers’ boundary, got it?”

Fender, Pillsbury, and Graham appeared a second later, and I held my arms up, cautioning them not to pass the spotlights. I swept through vision modes, my eyes drinking in the entire cavern. I was careful to avert my gaze from the monolith itself, with its razor edges and hazy faces and – get a grip, John. Look for the cavern’s weakpoints.

“How much C4 do we have left?” I asked the group. “I’ve got a couple bars in my pack, but I think Bateau was carrying most of it.”

Everyone spoke at once, all withdrawing bars of C4. They’re like paperback novels that can explode. Of course you’re going to grab one or four for yourself. Despite myself, I grinned, my anger turning it into a triumphant snarl.

“Bloody excellent,” I proclaimed. “Pillsbury, I want a bar there, past the farthest spotlight on the left, just inside the safe zone. Graham, on that pillar two lights to the right. Gold, take that furrow in the wall on the far right. Give me the rest of your C4 and adhesive. I’m going to practice my throwing arm.”

It took maybe a minute to place all the C4. I lined up shots with my cybernetic’s targeting software, using the same programs I employed to ensure my grenades landed exactly where I wanted them to. By the time I had thrown six bundles of C4 liberally covered with the rubbery adhesive, PALE HORSE had formed up around me.

“What now?” Fender asked, smiling over his exertions.

“We find Kroner and get the hell out of here, that’s what,” I said. “We can’t just bomb this place from the ground, though. Not with Kroner dying and respawning who knows where. We lose him here; we lose him for a long-ass time.”

“What about evac?” Gold asked.

I frowned. “We call in Butch. He should be on station. We lock down. And I find the traitor in this unit?”

“What?” Fender gasped. “In PALE HORSE?”

“At this point,” I said, “I can’t deny it. But right now our main worry should be surviving long enough lock down Kroner.”

“And how do we do that?” Graham asked, reflexively checking his rifle over and over again.

“Make him come to us,” I responded. “We head back to the AI room and try to rip whatever the hell we can from the peripheral servers, just like on MIR. Kroner has to be directing all of this from somewhere. We start looking in his computer cores, we use Fender’s method and track down his hidey hole. He’ll freak and try to leave the room, but we’ll be waiting for him. We split into two teams – Fender, you’ll be at the AI core. Graham, you’re covering him. You’ll secure us a goddamn com channel and then guide us through the facility.”

As I talked, I began to lead the squad up, back towards the AI room. I knew there would be a pair of hybrids waiting for us, but I had a plan for them.

I paused, thinking. “There were three doors in that room. One that led up to the labs, one that led down here, to the artifact, and one we didn’t check.”

Fender glanced at his computer, and his eyes widened. “Boss, if I’m looking at the map right, that hallway beyond isn’t too far from – christ, I’m looking at dock control programs.”

“What?”

“Kroner may have a cavern dock that he has an escape boat in. There’s not enough traffic, so to speak, to imply that’s where he’s directing things, though. I’m betting that, once things get hot and Kroner sends forces after Graham and I, we can bug out through that third doorway and capture the docks. Secure a secondary escape route and maybe head off Kroner.” Fender’s hands were trembling as he laid out his plan.

“If you think he’s going to try to escape from there, we’ll need to send you more help.” I grimaced. “We need to contact Bateau and Hawley ASAP once we get the channel open. Have them link up with you for support. Gold, Pillsbury, and I will take the route through the labs and scour that approach. If Kroner’s going to escape topside, he’ll do it as the northeast tip of the island. Hell, that’s were our primary extraction point is. We punch through this jamming, we can warn Butch to expect inbound hostiles.”

Fifty-Four

Baylor | November 6th, 2013 | World’s End

The abomination hybrids weren’t in the AI core room when we reentered it. We did what we could – secured the doors and hooked up to the servers. Fender confirmed the presence of docks and finally, finally got a rough blueprint downloaded as a map for my team.

I raised Butch as soon as we got a secure channel open.

“PALE HORSE Lead, you down there? I’ve been circling a couple miles off for a while now.”

“Copy, Liquid,” I said into the radio. “Listen, everything’s gone to hell down here. Situation is as follows. The target was expecting us and set up a trap. I’ve lost three men and my team is currently split up. We’ve got ST’s fighting world war three with the SEALs topside, we’re down in the labs pursuing Kroner. He’s got two egress routes, a dock on the west side and the northeast point, near LZ Alpha. I’ve got part of the team with me and we’re going to hound him towards that point. We’ll need you onsite when we pop green flares, got it?”

“Er, yeah, copy that. Christ, the docks and the village are burning from here. I’ve been trying to enter the immediate airspace but the fleet CAP is enforcing a no-fly zone. Threatened to fire on me. Look, Lead, what’s happening?”

I ground my teeth. “I can’t go into too many details, but don’t trust the fleet. Trust no one but me, got it? We’ve got good odds Kroner will have extraction coming in to pick him up at the rock, and our ground-to-air offensive capabilities are nil. We need the air clear if we’re going to capture this son of a bitch.”

Butch took more than a few moments to respond. We both knew what was going unspoken, if I couldn’t get off the island. How we couldn’t trust the fleet.

But this was my brother, the man who had gone toe to toe with Kroner and SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK. I knew that if I were to die, it would quite literally be over his dead body.

“Right,” Butch said, ending the pause. “It’ll take me awhile to circumvent the CAP, but I can be on station in less than an hour. Run the bastard down, Lead. Liquid, over and out.”

I closed the channel, just in time to here Bateau’s voice calling in over the radio.

“Copy, this is lead. I thought you were dead, Team Two.”

Bateau’s voice was ragged. “Wasn’t for their lack of trying. We were shunted into what looks to be Kroner’s command center.”

I stopped walking. “What?”

“You know, big room, lots of computers, screens, overlooking office? We’re ducked away, but it looks like Kroner’s got a huge force coming your way.”

I took in that information. My team as halfway between the AI chamber and the labs. “Do you have a visual on Kroner?”

“…We did, but he left approximately two minutes ago. We couldn’t follow without being noticed – he’s got a pair of INTEGRAL TEMPESTS as bodyguards.”

Shit.

“Listen,” I said, “we need you out of their ASAP and linked up with us. I have a feeling that, in a couple minutes, PALE HORSE is going to be holding open court in the labs.”

“We’ll be there as quick as we can,” Bateau promised. “The enemy’s starting to file out of the room. Expect us in five minutes if we don’t run into any trouble.”

“Copy. Lead out,” I said.

This entire situation was FUBAR. And perhaps the largest question in my mind right now was why Kroner didn’t just commit suicide. I mean, shit, if we wanted to leave us behind with a dead body for his enemies to puzzle over, he could kill himself and respawn into anonymity again. We’d lose him. So why was he still here on the island?

I clambered up the ladder into the hall of clone-containing pods. And then I paused.

I knew, deep down, the endgame, and the only way this could play out.

I turned to the nearest console and booted it up. Gold, who climbed up the ladder after me, threw an impatient look at me.

“We need to set up a back-up plan,” I said just as a text window opened up in the top left of the monitor.

Fender: What do you want with the clones and how can I help?

Baylor: I want to move on of my clones out of here and towards one of the entrances.

Fender: …Yeah, there’s a lift mechanism for the pods. One second… got it.

The pod containing the terrifying perfect duplicate of myself slotted forward out of the wall and rose on rails mounted on the front of the pod racks into an open gap in the ceiling.

Gold narrowed his eyes as we watched the pod disappear. We knew what I was planning.

Then I saw the note on the wall now unconcealed, where the pod had been. Even from here I could see the spidery scrawl of Wernick Landon. I snatched the note down, and noted a trio of syringes had been taped to the back of the note.

Baylor-

My time is short. Kroner has discovered my plans. Odds are you have been dispatched to capture Kroner, but know that the Antenora-Alpha that resides in his body can be slaughtered chemically. I can only hope you can put an end to his ill-gained immortality. This isn’t the only syringe hidden in the facility, but there was a good chance you’d be drawn to this clone. Inject Kroner with this serum and he won’t be respawn. He won’t continue. He’ll be as mortal as any of us, down to one last life.


I held the serum in my hand. It was small, maybe five inches long, bright red, like blood. And there were three of them.

I showed Gold the note, who read it to Pillsbury. “This… this changes everything,” Pillsbury said.

“Landon thought Kroner needed to be taken down a few notches, apparently,” Gold nodded. “Ironic. He killed all his researchers in the name of Kroner and the AI, and when came down to it he was alone when he needed to go again Kroner.”

I looked up, all my anger funneled into something new, something that had disappeared with Landon’s last note. Hope.

There came a screech from behind me.

I spun, shucking my shotgun, just in time to seen a brown and silver blur drop from the ceiling. The creature was part massive brown spider, part mechanoid beast, with four huge, scything claws and a rotating, mounted turret on one shoulder.

Pillsbury already had his gun up just as I fired – the creature barely flinched at the blast – and then Pillsbury was speared on one glinting claw, blood exploding all over the room. Another claw ripped off his face before the Corporal could even scream. The creature gave a piercing, mechanical cry, and leapt upward, onto the ceiling, where it diced Pillsbury’s body in a matter of milliseconds. The mangled corpse fell back to the floor with a wet thump just as another science-fair reject crawled menacingly up the glass ceiling to my left. Raising one huge claw, it shattered the glass, falling to the floor some twenty feet away.

I seized Gold by the shoulder and took two bounding steps forward, dragging him with me as I leapt up the ladder, taking it in just two burning detonations of the carbon-nanofilaments in my legs.

The lab wasn’t empty.

Klaxons began to bleet as the far blast door finally began to grind open. Gold and I began to sprint towards the doors, just as…

Two massive INTEGRAL TEMPEST ULTRAS stepped into the room, hauling massive ripped-from-a-F-16-jet miniguns and weighed down by humongous ammunition backpacks.

“Fuuuuck…” Gold said.

I spun to see the two of the abomination hybrids begin to advance, both from the hatch in the center of the lab. One leapt straight up and latched onto the ceiling way above.

“Shit, are they TEMPEST or mutant?” Gold called.

“Fuck knows,” I said, snatching the RPG from my back mount. “Let’s just kill it.”

Gold began to feed round after round into the advancing hybrids, making them shudder under the hail of lead and sending chunks of gore flying in every direction, but scythes of machinegun fire from the hybrid’s turrets sent the Lieutenant diving back into cover.

“Hot potato one,” I muttered, feeding the RPG round into the launcher. Wave upon wave of minigun fire crashed into the cement partition I was wedged into, literally dissolving it in some sort of super-speed erosion.

One hybrid landed dangerously close to Gold, who ducked and rolled under a scything claw, before unloading an underbarrel grenade blast into the beast’s back. The hybrid stumbled as Gold reloaded and fired again, blowing the turret to smithereens. The creature leapt bizarrely back to its feet, spinning on one claw, before slashing open a thin line of blood across Gold’s chest, slashing through layers of body armor before he could dodge fully.

“Hot potato two,” I said, as I brought up my RPG and aimed it at the nearest INTEGRAL ULTRA. The suit heaved its gatling gun in my direction, but I already had the cyborg bastard in my sights.

Woooosh – the projectile flew forth from the launcher, leaving a trail of a smoke and a earsplitting shriek. I rolled back into cover as the top section of my partition disintegrated into nonexistence. The ULTRA, some ten yards away, let go of its gatling gun the second it realized it hadn’t killed me.

The minigun traced a slow path to the ground.

Behind me, one of the hybrids gave a bonechilling hiss as it pulled a claw through Gold’s vest, lifting the hapless marine into the air, the force of the impact sending his rifle flying.

Dropping the spent launcher, I saw Gold slip free of his already torn vest and fall haplessly to the floor a good two meters below, rolling awkwardly.

The INTEGRAL ULTRA caught the RPG round.

It stood there, legs spread in a power stance as it wrestled the still-shrieking RPG round to the side, hopefully before the fuse ran out. But I knew this would probably happen – INTEGRALs had been doing it ever since Chernobyl three years ago and the bulkier, meaner ULTRAs would probably retain the same general badassery.

So I drew my Five-seveN and unslung my shotgun, held in the other hand hand – and aimed the sidearm at the ULTRA playing catch the missile, the other at the hybrid about to gut my marine.

“Hot potato three,” I growled. “You lose, asshole.” I fired both of my weapons.

The round in the ULTRA’s grip exploded right into his face, sending him stumbling backwards with a burst of flaring shrapnel. Not even pausing to notice the effects, and I turned and unleashed both guns into the arm of the hybrid holding Fender up. The sheer kinetic force of the concentrated fire was magnified a second later at Gold unleashed a shrapnel slug from his 40mm launcher – what I knew to be the last one in the chamber –into the hybrid’s rapidly fraying arm.

With a yelp, the hybrid recoiled, minus a spindly arm that still flopped around despite being severed cleanly. Gold saw the fall coming and rolled, snatching the discarded RPG launcher as he went. When he came up, he had loading it with another round. “Clear!” he yelled.

The round decapitated the hybrid, exploding against the wall behind the beast. The force of the impact caused the body of the laboratory’s nastiest experiment to detonate outwards. One second it was snarling, the next it was a blood angel against the nearest wall.

Ducking away from the chunks raining outward, I sought out the INTEGRAL ULTRA I had shot not seconds before. My eyes fell over the other ULTRA, who was laying down a fan of fire at us. Bullets sizzled past over our heads as we ducked behind cover.

And beyond that, was the first ULTRA. I had expected a pair of bloody stumps for legs or at least a hole in the armor. Nope. The INTEGRAL ULTRA straightened up; kicking away the shattered remains of its ammunition backpack, its movements somewhat jerky but not seriously impeded.

Fire began to spurt from turbines mounted on the wall. Either someone had activated a slow-motion self-destruct mechanism or the SHADOW TEMPESTS had penetrated the rock wall. Chunks of stone began to rain in down, first dust and then pebbles and then humongous boulders.

What the hell?

“As if things couldn’t get any worse,” I moaned.

The not-so-damaged ULTRA lifted a dented arm, slotting forth a machine gun port.

“Wait. They can,” Gold said, punching me on the arm, just as the ULTRA began to jog forward, firing wildly.

“Go!” I yelled. “Back to the crater!”

Gold whirled wildly, affixing me with wide eyes as he began to load, with a shaking fingers new slugs into the port of the launcher gripped white-knuckle in his right hand. “You know, with that goddamn hybrid between us and it?”

As if to emphasize his point, the abomination leapt down from the ceiling, just two meters away from us. It let loose a bone-chilling shriek and began to fire its minigun.

Both Gold and I rolled in opposite directions, both firing as hard as we could at the hybrid while frantically trying to stay out of direct sight of the ULTRAs.

Gold’s launcher hit the abomination, once, twice, in twin thumps of fire and thunder, sending it reeling and its fire blurring into the ceiling. Even more rock was dislodged, falling in a dusty shower. It was pandemonium, five different guns firing, all at different tempos, all sending gore and metal and rock exploding into the air.

The hybrid flicked an arm at me, and I had to instantly reverse my momentum to keep from being speared by three venom-tipped bone shards. It shrieked and jerked each arm at me in turn, sending me flipping backwards away from the pursuing line of red-white spines.

I found myself out of its field of fire, came to my feet, and found myself face to face with the scorched ULTRA.

We stared at each other for a second or two, both surprise – I had stumbled drunkenly around a lab block, a mess of flailing limbs, the TEMPEST prowling forward, the picture of controlled aggression.

I shot the TEMPEST in its eye, point-blank. My arm had raised before I recognized the action as reflex, and the gun was kicking in my hands with each trigger pull.

It was pure luck I got the draw on it, but it stumbled at the first shot, and I punched my hand forward, driving the barrel of my pistol into its eye socket, emptying the clip as fast as I could pull the trigger.

The ULTRA flailed, and I ducked a blow that would have taken my head clean off my shoulders. But now I had the momentum, and I was screaming as the ULTRA stumbled backwards, pulling the trigger until the ULTRA backed into a lab counter and my forward motion was halted.

The TEMPEST seized me by the throat, and lifted me high. My sidearm hung empty, useless, in my right hand. I dropped it out of frustration, and the not-so-insignificant factor of not being able to breathe.

Any second he’d just break my neck and I’d be done for-

I snatched at my, scrambling to grab it, and got my fingers on one of the syringes-

Black spots appeared in the edges of my vision-

I jammed the syringe into the open, bloody eye socket of the ULTRA.

I didn’t know juggernauts could scream. But scream this one did.

It was a horrific sound, starting low and building to a rapid, wailing crescendo as the TEMPEST dropped my almost instantly, both hands scrabbling at the needle jammed in its eye.

I hit the floor in a heap, breathing as hard as I could, as if to make up for lost air, before looking up to see the TEMPEST contorting in place, arms scrabbling at unseen wounds – the entire armor began to distend, cracking, growing outward-

I realized what was going to happen and rolled to my feet, backing up before-

The ULTRA imploded. It was violent, disgusting, sudden, bloody, and any other adjective I could think of at the moment. One second there was a balloon-shaped INTEGRAL ULTRA bent over a counter, the next there was an empty suit that simply held a reddish sludge.

I took one, deep, fulfilling breath, and turned to see Gold hauling ass towards me, the abomination hybrid tight on his heels. It was a mess of blood and gaping wounds, but it still snarled and bounded forward, throwing spines from its one uninjured arm at Gold every now and them. Smoke rose from its gatling turret; Gold had taken the weapon out first thing.

Looking around, I found that we back in the surgery pit, surrounded by decaying corpses and buckets of gore. The abomination cleared one of the slabs, a limb simply impaling one of the corpses as it paused, snarling at us.

I checked myself. All I had was an empty pistol and a pair of incendiary grenades. And given what little effect fire had on these things back in Cuba-

The creature chose to leap at me, sensing me as the easier target. I tried to dodge, but the abomination pinned my arm against the floor. It screeched, and raised its other arm high, slotting forth more poisonous bone shards.

Gold hit the hybrid with the full weight of his body, tackling it. In the moment before the creature disemboweled me it was off-balance, and Gold’s body slam yanked the creature off me, sending it rolling.

Gold pressed his advantage, slamming both fists into the flank of the abomination, sending it rolling in a tumbling mess, rolling right into the open hatch of the clone chamber from which it had come.

I heard the shattering of glass and knew the creature had impacted the tubes with enough forces to send casing and preservatives flying everywhere. The creature was probably coated in the stuff.

I caught Gold’s eye, and he understood, throwing himself away from the hatch as I yanked out both of my incendiary grenades, simultaneously pulled both their pins, and tossed them into the black portal.

Just as the ‘nades disappeared from sight, Gold kicked the open hatch shut with all his might, spinning the lock just as a belch of flame escaped the hole. I heard one last, wailing scream from the hybrid, and then I was looking up in the sudden light of the flaming pyre to see the last INTEGRAL TEMPEST ULTRA standing not ten feet away, its gatling gun pointed straight at us.

He had us dead to rights.

Or at least, me. What he didn’t see was Gold’s reloaded carbine coming up, pointing his grenade launcher at the ULTRA.

There was a crack, and the EMP grenade drilled straight into the ULTRA’s neck. Fire and shrapnel momentarily obscured the ULTRA, but I could tell it had fallen onto its ass with surprised yell.

We ran, not wanting to test our luck in close quarters with Kroner’s monsters a third time. We cleared the blast doors just as the TEMPEST recovered and got back to its feet. Even with its armor rendered completely inoperative by the electromagnetic pulse, it still had enough strength to wear the TEMPEST suit like a set of medieval battle armor.

I scanned around wildly, but saw that Gold had already found the panel that controlled the doors. With a flash of his fist the panel lit up and the doors began to grind closed again. The ULTRA saw this and, realizing it would have to pursue us, dropped its gatling and began to dash towards us at truly ridiculous speeds.

The doors weren’t going to close in time. I looked at Gold, no, he was finally out of 40mm grenades.

“Gold!” I screamed. “The other doors, open them!”

“The vaults?” he yelled back at me. “Are you nuts?” But even was stilled hovering over the panel, pressing his fingers onto points on the touchscreen, navigating the system.

“It’s our only chance!” I hollered back.

Gold didn’t respond, only triumphantly pressed ten buttons on the screen with every single one of his fingers to complete the bypass. The entire panel flashed once, twice-

-The TEMPEST was ridiculously close now, too close-

-And then it was sideswiped by a black, horrific shape. One second the ULTRA was within an arm’s reach of me, the next I was covered in blood and hydraulic fluid as the ULTRA began to scream. I only heard the sounds as one monster was devoured by another, but the snapping of bones was so sudden and forceful that my nightmares had new fuel for at least a couple years.

A second later the blast doors sealed with a deep basso clang. I could have sworn I was more creatures, beings wreathed in shadow and flame, more of them making straight for the gap but now all I saw was a featureless metal slab and all I heard once more was the furious scratchings of beings that had found themselves in simply a larger cage.

Gold swept his carbine over the room beyond, announcing ‘clear,’ within seconds. It took him a moment to realize his M4 was empty. Grimacing, he tossed it aside, reaching for his sidearm, only to realize it had been torn away during the attack. I had a shotgun with maybe two shells in it and a single kukri. My Five-seveN was strapped to my leg, empty.

“Damn,” I realized. “We just cut off Hawley and Bateau from us.”

Gold nodded, one hand on his radio. “Bateau, come in.”

“I hear you, Gold,” Bateau’s voice said. It was perhaps a little ragged, the breathing of a faster pace, but he still sounded lucid. “Just had to seal off the labs after some… things came after us. Guess we won’t be able to rendezvous with you guys.”

I gritted my teeth. “Copy that,” I said, finally reloading my sidearm. “Listen, Pillsbury is down, so we’re on our own. We need you to link up with Fender and Graham instead, over. They’re about to take the underground dock and need support.”

“And what about you, sir?” Bateau asked.

I gripped the remaining two syringes tightly in one hand. “We’re going topside.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Mobius 1
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 9:35 pm

Act Three speeds towards its terrifying conclusion as Baylor confronts Kroner on the volcanic precipice of the island. Betrayals and duels the death pile upon each other and nobody is safe - but one thing is certain. Nothing will be the same after this.

Act Three: Part Four

Fifty-Five

Fender | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Fender crouched over the bodies of the fallen, his head bowed.

“These aren’t SEALs,” he noted, his voice shaking.

Graham shifted uncomfortably, his eyes darting left and right. His precision rifle was held down, but odds were anything could come rushing at them in the darkness of the canyon-like service corridors. The walls were painted with blood, reflected black in the occasional flashes of lightning that lit the open crevasse at irregular intervals. Driving rain intermingled with gore, creating a shallow puddle around the boots of the two marines.

“Yeah, and?” he asked, his glove creaking as he slackened and tightened his grip on his rifle with the staccato rhythm of his own heartbeat. “Kroner’s pets don’t play nice with his own men. Could’ve seen that coming.”

“No,” Fender said patiently. “This isn’t claw and acid damage.” He straightened, and nudged over one of the black-clad corpses to reveal the twinkling sight of shell cases. “Gunned down.”

Graham, still keeping an eye on the turbulent skies over, bent over and plucked one of the shells from the ground. “High caliber. You think TEMPEST?”

“I just don’t know any more, bro,” Fender said, trying and failing to inject some measure of calm into his voice. Graham had taken Fender under his wing when he had first joined PALE HORSE, and to see the normally stoic sniper unnerved drove home the gravity of the situation more than anything else. The sounds of explosions echoed somewhere to the southeast, and Fender tensed even more, if such a thing was possible. “I don’t get it. The battle should have been over by now. Either way, one of the groups should have punched the other’s ticket, am I right?”

“Not if the Navy sent in reinforcements,” Graham noted, the explosions seeming to sharpen his focus back to the task at hand. “Listen, little dude, we need to get going. You said this stupid gutter’ll lead us to the docks.”

“Should,” Fender said, shifting his pistol from hand to hand. “I’m betting it used to be the dumping ground for all of Landon’s experiments, the ones that weren’t still alive when he was through with them.”

Graham noted smaller side passages leading off, diverting the flood of bloody water into shadowy recesses where only bones and scraps of metal could be seen.

“Doesn’t seem right, yunno?” he said after another minute of silent, determining speed-trudging. “Kroner always had this image of a noble criminal, one of those constants whose word was always good.”

“From what I understand, the criminal underworld ran on it like clockwork throughout the last two decades, yeah.” Fender’s voice was grim, jaded.

“So now we have what has got to be the most batshit crazy stuff I’ve ever seen. Monsters, monoliths, crazy-ass experiments, a road paved with figurative corpses, ya hear? It doesn’t really jive.”

Fender was silent for a full minute before answering. “Look, all I can figure is that being a grunt caught up in these games sucks balls, alright? This is such macro-scale bullshit that I once thought was so interesting. Running the net, dueling ice, digital jazz. But there’s a darker side. Everyone’s out for themselves. Everyone has an agenda, and when they can stick together long enough to affect things across the globe it goes beyond simple international politics. There’s some secret bullshit that was one of the things you’d hope, right before you went to bed, was the sort of shit that stayed at the periphery and beyond it, where other people dealt with it and it never saw the light of day.”

Trudging forward, Fender continued, “You get the feeling the entire world is being nudged here and there, dozens of puppets dancing to somebody’s tune and you’re just flopping around without a clue in the world. And that’s not even counting regular stuff like worldwide underworld territory wars, remnant separatists, entrenched corruption everywhere. I mean, shit, this world is screwed up, and it’s only going to get worse. Is there anything that’s not going to hell in a handbasket?”

Graham shrugged. “I hear Moscow is nice this time of year; that the Soviets are getting their shit together.”

“Heh. God knows they’ve earned it after all the hell they went through. We’re moving past last century’s cold war bullshit at long last, just in time for America to fall apart at the friggin’ seams. Can you imagine a twenty-first century if America was no more?”

“How about one without the USSR?” Graham shot back, a brief grin flashing in the pitch darkness of the channel.

“Yeah, yeah,” Fender said. “But I still can’t shake the feeling that something’s fundamentally wrong with the world. That this isn’t how things are supposed to be.”

“Hey,” Graham said, catching Fender’s shoulder. “It will be, if we don’t do something about it. We’re it. Right here. The future is in our hands. We’re creating the correct future, with all our bullets and blood and tear-”

The world, for a brief moment, ended.

The fireball swept down the crevasse at terrifying speed, congealing from nothingness and racing towards the two marines.

Graham, with razor reflexes, saw it coming, and grabbed the back of Fender’s head, applying all his body weight into shoving the younger marine under the surface of the bloody sewage. The taste was horrible, it clung at their wounds, and the heat was a million fire ants crawling across their backs, but it was gone as soon as it had come.

The pair broke the surface at the same time to see a massive silhouette, outlined in rain and fire and smoke, hurtle overhead and crash into the end of the channel just fifty feet away. Its impact shook the ground, nearly throwing Fender off his feet as a miniature tsunami of water crested against his chest.

The SHADOW TEMPEST heaved once, its body on fire in multiple places, smoke forming a vertical pillar of impenetrable darkness into the sky. It wasn’t dead – it was rebooting.

And it was blocking their path to the docks.

“Go!” Graham screamed, redoubling his efforts to surge forward through the sloshing muck. “Run like hell!”

Fender didn’t need telling twice. His legs churned in the sludge, just feet behind Graham.

The TEMPEST was starting to stir. Its right hand was closing and opening in a steady rhythm. Slowly its camouflage system was beginning to reboot, its extremities whisping away into nothingness.

Graham his the leg on the TEMPEST and slid under it, actually grabbing a hold of a hydraulic line to swing himself forward as though vaulting across a set of monkey bars.

The TEMPEST rolled onto its side, and its demonic red eyes affixed upon Fender. The young Marine knew what was coming, and leapt to his right, his wet boot slipping against the rocky wall until it found purchase. His entire body was burning with exertion, but Fender launched himself off the miniscule ledge just as the TEMPEST’s arm swept into the wall underneath him, carving out a section of rock and steel several meters deep.

Fender was in the air, over the TEMPEST’s arm, and saw a compartment on the mech’s shoulder open and track towards him. It was all happening too fast, and gravity took him in its arms again, just as a rocket flashed out of the launcher rack and soared by overhead, lighting the entire channel momentarily in orange fire as it flew into the rear end of the passage.

Landing between the TEMPEST’s legs just as the robot was beginning to stand, Fender yanked free a pair of grenades from his belt and lodged them in the TEMPEST’s left ankle mechanism. There was just enough time to dive free as the other gargantuan foot lashed out at him, detonating another section of the channel’s wall as it missed.

Fender stared down at the two pins in his hands and his eyes widened. They weren’t incendiaries, for the abominations. They were focused HE rounds, meant for INTEGRAL TEMPESTs and beyond.

And he was damn sure he didn’t want to be anywhere near them when they blew.

Graham’s hands seized him by the collar and threw him bodily out of the passage on onto wooden docks just as the entire channel went white, and the TEMPEST screamed.

Fender would have just lain there, breathing heavily, as fire and heat washed over his back, but a line of bullet impacts that danced just a foot from his face brought him back to reality with the sting of dozens of wood splinters.

His head jerked up to see a pair of mercs at the far end of the docks exiting a sturdy-looking guardhouse, their rifles up and firing at him. Lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the half-circle bay that formed the mouth of a long crack that pierced the island’s heart.

This wasn’t him, he was never the best at fighting, he ran the computers, others watched over him.

Two more shots rang out, and the mercs were blasted off the docks and into the water with twin shouts and bursts of blood.

Fender looked up to see Graham standing above him, holding his rifle one handed, in his offhand no less, while his right arm was held tightly to his chest, still broken, but now partially on fire. The rain was damping the flames ever as Graham stood there, his rifle’s barrel swinging left and right, covering the docks.

“C’mon,” he growled. “Made a promise to cover ya. Can you handle that boat over there?”

Fender looked over to see a rather large patrol boat docked on the left side of the half-open cave, floating serenely in the midst of all of the chaos. Its rear deck was largely open, with just a single pintle-mounted machine gun turret near the front for defense.

“I hope,” Fender said, getting to his feet.

There was a pop, and Graham’s leg exploded into blood. He went down on his bad arm, grunting in more surprise than pain, and Fender spun on his knees to see another pair of guards climbing out of the wheelhouse of the boat.

He had his pistol up in an instant, and the three men opened up on each other from a distance of maybe thirty feet. It wasn’t a quick draw. He wasn’t Baylor or Ramirez or Ridley.

Bring the sights up. Steady fire, measured shots.

He lined up his pistol with the nearest guard, who had elected himself by simple virtue of having his rifle aimed directly at Fender’s head.

Fender fired, the sidearm jumped in his grip, and the guard went down like a sack of bricks.

The second merc was already firing as ender brought his gun around. A three-round burst caught Fender in the chest, a trio of major-league baseballs pitched into his armor, while another ripped a pair of furrows in his arm.

Swearing mentally, Fender saw the merc duck behind a cargo crane, dodging the marine’s return fire. This wasn’t how it supposed to be, they were Force Recon, they were supposed to sneak in and handle this the stealth way.

Gritting his teeth, Fender grabbed Graham by the arm and rolled both of them into the water.

There was a shout from behind him, one that was quickly swallowed by the simple ambience of swirling water. Pulling a pony bottle out of his vest, Fender handed the miniature air tube to Graham before dragging his wounded comrade under the wooden walkways to his left. Bullets impacted the water behind him, swiftly losing their momentum in the ocean.

He couldn’t win this in a gun battle. So he had to change the fight, do it in a way that favored his skill set. Looking down at his wrist computer, Fender was silently thankful he had made the computer to be waterproof. There. The local computer hub of the guard house. Let’s look that the members of the network.

The bay doors enclosing the dock, they’d have to be opened. The fuel banks embedded in the far rock wall. Nothing to be done about that. There. The crane controls.

Despite himself, Fender’s mouth split into a wide grin. He keyed the crane controls. Didn’t really need any precision, just flounder about…

There came a shout from above, the sound of impact, and a body pitched over the side of the boat. Fender had his knife ready, but there was no need – the crane had struck the merc on the back of his head, and the blood that poured copiously from the wound was evidence enough of a lethal blow.

Sighing, Fender tapped Graham on the arm, and the pair broke the surface together.

For a moment, silence.

And then the drag-thump of an approaching body.

Only the drag-thump limp measured the body weight in tons.

The SHADOW TEMPEST, one of its legs fused into shapeless metal, threw its torso out of the crevasse, hands gripping either side of the bordering walls so hard stone and metal chipped and detonated in either direction.

“Oh, shi-” was all Fender could say before the TEMPEST’s entire reptilian snout flowered open, jaws splitting to reveal the head of a massive laser node. Red and blue light collected at the tip for half a second-

“Get down!” Graham snarled, shoving Fender back under the water at the TEMPEST fired its single laser into the guardhouse to their right.

The explosion shook the cave, dislodging rocks from the edges of the ceiling high above. Something caught in the guardhouse, and a fireball five stories high formed a hellish pillar in the night sky.

Fender opened his mouth, and bubbles streamed out to the tune of ‘glurgle glurgle glurgle glurg’ – which, had he been above water, would have roughly translated into “Oh, we’re so fucked.”

Fifty-Six

Bateau & Hawley | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

The worst luck in the world, in retrospect, had to be stumbling from the very heart of the facility – the control center – right into the storage lab for every juggernaut the base had produced. Rows of tubes, all with unconscious, half-clothed metahumans.

Their weapons were near empty that this point, with maybe three mags between them. Not that they’d help.

Kroner’s voice echoed over a loudspeaker the second they entered the room. “American cutter, your journey ends here. You may think that by separating yourself from Baylor, you’ve bought yourself room to maneuver, but rest assured you won’t leave this island with your prize in hand.”

And then every single tank began to drain. At once.

Hawley spun to see Bateau approaching, weaponless, eyes wide as though in a trance as he stared at the draining tanks.

The sound of shattering glass drew his attention back to the juggernaut jumping down onto the grating of the lab. Hawley let loose with a ripping shred from his M4, catching the beast in the chest. No effect. Gun dry. New mag, slam it home.

Bateau seemed to have focused on something, and was hunched over a computer, rapidly typing requests into the system. A USB hub gleamed in a nearby port.

Hawley discarded the carbine onto a nearby counter halfway through the magazine, disgusted. “Get under a desk, sir!” he called over to Bateau. “I’m gonna thing these things a pineapple.”

The Lance Corporal ripped free one of the enhanced-load incendiary grenades from his belt.

Bateau’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “No! It might damage the system! I’ve got to get this data!” Throwing a glance over at the idly advancing juggernauts, he picked up Hawley’s M4.

“Forget it!” Hawley called back. “Bullets don’t work!”

Hawley was about to pull the pin on the grenade when Bateau triggered off a burst… into Hawley’s gut.

“They seem to work just fine.”

Hawley was blasted across the lab. The juggernaut’s head tracked the body, and then swiped out with a steel-gripped hand to catch Hawley’s body as it flew through the air. Bones snapped, and Hawley went limp.

“That’s it...” Bateau said under his breath, dropping the M4 and going back to the station. “Take a lunch break, big guy. I just need a few more seconds.”

The juggernaut lifted Hawley’s body up, light as a feather, to its nose, before recognizing that his prey was dead. The living weapon just flung the corpse aside like balled-up paper, before beginning to lumber back towards Bateau.

“Come on, come on…” Bateau said towards the computer. Transfer at 90 – 95 – 98 – Bateau’s hand hovered over the USB device, ready to yank it out.

The juggernaut lumbered closer, taking their sweet time.

Transfer complete. The windows dropped out and Bateau yanked the USB free, jamming it into his vest and running for the door. The juggernaut wove through desks and lab stations and computer consoles, following Bateau like an obedient, if lazy dog.

The door to the lab was beginning to close, halves sliding from either side of the wall. “Shit!” Bateau breathed, and began to run, just as a light above the door began to klaxon.

The juggernaut’s pupil’s dilated at this sound, and it began to stride forward at increasing speed, plowing through lab stations and pitching over consoles with ice like a demented heat-seeking icebreaker.

Bateau hit the doors at a sprint and pivoted, trying to squeeze past them. It was going to be close.

He made it through, outside. The doors began to glide shut. Bateau laughed.

“Eat shit, you-”

THLANG! One of the juggernaut’s hands shot through the door and, with the speed of switchblades, two of it claws flicked out to skewer Bateau’s leg.

The treacherous Marine roared and ripped free his M9, firing angrily and wildly into the closing gap of the door. He could already feel the venom seeping into his leg.

The doors slammed shut with finality, with the claws retracting before they could be caught within them. Almost immediately a dent a good meter across bolted outward in the flat steel. BAM! The juggernaut was going to try to knock down the door.

Bateau fell backwards onto his ass, clutching at his leg. Biting down on a scream, he ripped a hypo from his vest and jammed it upwards of the wound, injecting one of the antidote vials he had been provided by his employer. A tourniquet followed and, satisfied at least for the moment as to his condition, Bateau clambered to his feet and began to limp away from the sealed section of the lab, the sounds of the juggernaut’s fists retreating in the distance.

Triggering his radio, he let out a call. “Oxide Six-Six, copy?”

There came a cough over the channel. “I copy, Six-One. I’ve got my data. Any word from Six-Three or Six-Five?”

Bateau shrugged to himself before triggering the radio. “Six-Three was killed by Kroner’s forces. Six-Five is with Baylor. I have doubts that he’ll be joining us.”

“Oh, well.” Six-Six coughed again, more violently, before continuing. The rest of my unit is dead. I didn’t really have to try when the bloody mechs did my job for me.”

“I hear that, Six-Six. Meet up at the bluff overlooking the docks, alright? Six-One out.”

Bateau sighed and removed the radio earpiece. With that data and the backup of a fellow collaborator, maybe he could survive this goddamned island. Just maybe.

He had a boat to catch.

Fifty-Seven

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

The cavern was open to the sky, and the torrent of rain that came in through the mouth of the crater filled the entire space with an incessant haze, transforming area around the lake of lava into a sauna writ large.

It also, of course, the area where Kroner chose to ambush us. The second I entered the cavern, I knew we would be in for a fight. Lava channeled in swirling rivers this way and that, and multiple braches of stone crisscrossed the space. The entire area was a maze, and I was sure that we stood above loads of empty space, honeycombed rock intermittently filled by the WRAITH base.

It was huge, dramatic, and, at this point, totally not a surprise when a SHADOW TEMPEST dropped from the sky onto an overlooking balcony-like rock outcropping on the opposing end of the chamber. The cloak was on, but it didn’t matter between the rain, smoke, and whatnot filling the space. If I was having trouble simply breathing, I’m sure Kroner’s side could suffer some sort of handicap.

By now, it was pretty much clear Kroner wasn’t looking to kill me with the TEMPEST. The mechs had been originally creating as plausibly deniable tools of mass destruction, fade in and out. BLACK had been an engine of chaos, with a stealth system tacked on for sake of appearances, or lack thereof. These new models fell someone between the above two on the continuum of I Will Fuck You Up, but if Kroner wanted that TEMPEST to slaughter me it wouldn’t be in here.

The laser sights were refracted through the smoke to the point of being useless, and when a dozen of them pierced the smog the effect was akin to a light show that would put any rock band worth its salt to shame. I blinked, momentarily blinded by the effect, before looking around to see that no less than fifteen men were stationed on various alcloves, rifles trained on Gold and I. They didn’t really need to aim, just fill the air with lead.

“I take it you wanted to chat?” I asked the cavern at large, trying to force an effort of nonchalance into my voice. It took some doing, but appearances were everything. I wasn’t some dude totally outgunned and outmatched on a godforsaken island. I was John Baylor. I ate TEMPESTs for breakfast. I toppled entire insurgencies. Most national landmarks quake simply by being near me, for they were well known to explode by the end of my time near them. The Statue of Lenin. The Paragon. MIR. Chernobyl. Half of Cuba. Burma. The big Jesus statue in Rio. Chad. Hungary. I wasn’t some failure of a punk who had walked on to a Central American island and never left.

If only I could believe that. My victories had been built on the deaths of dozens of allies, sacrifices needed or not, leaving me as the survivor again and again and again. But they didn’t know that.

“I mean,” I continued, voice easy, “I see it was you having two options. You kill all of us; crush your enemies, straight victory. Fine and dandy. But you know MIDNIGHT will find you and level this place for sake of being dicks.”

Silence.

“So that leads to option two. You die. You resurrect. Maybe you’ll let WRAITH dissolve, just so you can take a vacation, come back in a decade, and work with a playing field that’s you can build from the ground up. In the meantime, what good guys that are still around think you’re dead. You’re in the clear.”

I threw back my head and let loose a full belly laugh. “Right? Not really, there’s still MIDNIGHT.” I let implications sink in for a bit. They knew about Kroner’s whole cloning deal. If I didn’t do my job and shut him down here, they’re been on his ass until kingdom come. “How’s that for freedom? How’s that for a vacation? Take a night in a Filipino custom suite only for an assassin’s garrote to make your sleep a permanent one? You won’t have a good night’s rest for the rest of your life.”

I gestured, arms wide, towards the east. I thought. “But imagine someone like Thaddeus Teague on your trail. He won’t play nice like I do. He won’t try to avoid civilian casualties. He’ll drop a suitcase nuke on your ass every time you so much as sneeze too loud. He’ll make cross-clone radiation poisoning look like a bad sunburn. Dude doesn’t fuck around, mate.”

“Baylor…” Gold hissed, finally catching on.

“Or you come out here and we can talk like men. So I don’t have to give MIDNIGHT the keys to killing you. Oh wait, you think, dying doesn’t really mean anything. But trust me here, Kroner, when I say that I have the means to end you. Fuck you up. Howsabout that?” I jabbed a finger towards the TEMPEST, trying to keep a snarl out of my voice.

Tools like him always love to play around, whittle down my team and my sanity. Let me read damning documents, leave me out to dry unshielded in front of a monolith. Let failed experiments take their goes at me. And on and on. What happened? He used to be this unmoving constant. Word would break when hell froze over. Ruthlessly pragmatic. Kill threats right off the bat instead of playing the ‘oh, let’s recruit you’ game. I laughed, despite it all. “What happened, Kroner? Now you’re just a shadow of yourself, dying from your own ambition.”

I guess that was what finally made Kroner answer.

“I’d say the same. You made a promise, I remember, three years ago, in Chernobyl. And look where we are now. I remember a John Baylor who looked armies in the eye and spat in their faces.”

Kroner chuckled, his voice coming from seemingly everywhere.

“And I remember you luring me and all my forces into a choke point where you could level the place with explosives. Or did you think I didn’t know the Monolith room is directly underneath this cavern? I should thank you for making your detonation codes so easy to hack. With the psychic shockwave caused by the destruction of the Monolith, I won’t even have to rely on the inevitable betrayal of MIDNIGHT to have the US Navy level this island. They’ll do it out of simple containment protocol.”

Shit, he was right. It would put everyone on a time limit, and all Kroner would have to do would wait for the missile wave to kill him so he could respawn somewhere else with impunity.

I had been outmaneuvered.

The SHADOW TEMPEST directly in front of me clicked once, twice, and I saw the movement of an arm in the smoke as it raised its arm, weapons primed.

I took in a deep breath, and reached down to the detonator on my belt. Bateau and Hawley were still on the island. Maybe they could get to Kroner.

And with that, the TEMPEST fired a pair of missiles.

The nearest shelf, on which more than a dozen private soldiers stood, disintegrated in a flash of light. Stone rained down from above, and Gold and I danced into cover as the cavern exploded into fire and destruction. A second later, Kroner detonated the charges in the cavern.


---Fender---

Fiery debris rained into the water, and not a second later, the entire island quaked as though a minor deity had just clenched the landmass in a vicegrip and shook it for its lunch money. The darkness of the cavern momentary flashed bright as day.

Fender broke the surface to a world changed.

The land above the cave was on fire. The entire forest had gone up, heat radiating into the cave in sloshing waves, falling down in an invisible waterfall. At first Fender found it hard to breathe.

That’s when the psychic shockwave hit. Fender screamed. The sound was somewhat muffled in that doing so, he inhaled a mouthful water and started to choke. If he hadn’t had years of experience as, well, a marine, he might have drowned. Such was the effect of the mental trauma that was flaying his mind that five years of training were wiped away like a thin layer of grime. Fender flailed in the water as images of dead civilizations, burning cities, something awakening battered him mind mercilessly.

A hand encircled the back of his collar and yanked him out of the water, tearing away the mental battering ram of images as quickly as flicking a light switch. Fender hit the deck of the boat spluttering, to see Graham crouching nearby, his rifle in one hand, not even raised. Graham’s attention was entirely fixed on the volcanic mountain in the center of the island.

It was erupting.

Not quietly, either. This wasn’t a Hawaiian-bubble-bubble runny stream of lava. This eruption wasn’t even natural. Whatever pressure existed in the magma chamber had been turbocharged by not only dozens of explosions but the supernatural effects of what had to be the Monolith’s obliteration deep underneath the island.

The agonized cries of the SHADOW TEMPEST snapped their attention back down the mouth of the tunnel leading into the core of World’s End. The mech had been half-trapped by the collapsing tunnel, with only half its torso, one arm, and its head still protruding from the rubble. It flailed with what could only be pain, however impossible such a premise was for a purely robotic entity.

At first Fender found it hard to speak. When he did, his voice cracked halfway through. “The Monolith’s doing this to it.”

“No way,” Graham stated, his voice just was broken. “That would mean the core is…”

“Biological.” Fender finished. “There’s no pilot in there, though. The AI Kroner’s mass produced is almost a literal brain.”

They both stared at the TEMPEST convulsing in agony.

Graham leveled his sniper rifle at the TEMPET’s exposed chest cavity and fire. Like that, the TEMPEST went silent.

And then, quite clearly, they heard – over the cacophony of everything on the island – a voice call out to them from above.

“Hey.”


---Baylor---

The entire world was red and black. Night and fire raged, turning the island into a hellscape.

I’m not entirely sure how we escaped the crater. There’s a minute-wide hole in my memory that I’m sure consisted of us clambering out of the collapsing mountain of fire and rain. My shoulder was literally on fire, but I didn’t stop to put the flames out – or even notice, until we were on a knoll that overlooked the entire island. The grass had long since ignited, leaving the earth scorched.

I paused to offhandedly slap out the alight shoulder before surveying the world around me. Down a ramplike path to the south was the back crest of the crater where we had initially confronted Kroner, with such disastrous results. The impressions of the TEMPEST models were apparently deeper in my mind than on the hillside, because all that remained on the bluff was a washed-out swathe of mud and lava.

To the east, I should see the shark-like silhouettes of the US Navy frigates parked a few miles of the coastline. Their guns were launched never-ending barrage, and I saw a rolling mesa on the opposite end of the island dissolve into three pillars of flame, dirt, and rock. The US Navy was bombarding the island. With us still on it. MIDNIGHT hadn’t needed to find Kroner. It had been following us from the beginning. It was the Task Force, and they were killing everyone they could while they were all in one convenient spot.

Wildfires were rapidly swallowing the southern docks, where I could see the smoke wrapping around the shape of a SHADOW TEMPEST. I could only catch mere glimpse of the spiraling contrails of rockets fired from shoulder launchers, of gatling-launched tracer rounds chewing up the surviving SEALs. I saw human bodies simply fall apart, or cease to exist, or liquefy, as the TEMPEST tore through the futile escapees like a scythe through wheat.

Gold clambered up to my side, his face contorted with horror as he watched the slaughter.

I turned to the west, looking down a steep cliff to see a small rim of land overlooking the smaller set of docks, where Fender and Graham had been sent to secure alternate evac. I could see both of them clearly in the light of the fires raging across the island. They were both standing over a writhing TEMPEST – had they killed it by themselves?

I heard the radio trigger clearly. Fender was depressing the send button for the teamcom channel.

Someone spoke.

“Hey.”

Then I saw two silhouettes move onto the overlooking rim. They would be murky shapes to the uneducated eye, but I recognized the left figure to be wearing the general gear of a Navy SEAL.

The second, leaning heavily on his right leg, held a M4 to his shoulder. I wouldn’t have recognized him, but I knew the voice.

It was Bateau.

“Hey Fender,” Bateau said. “What’s up?”

Fender turned to look up at Bateau, his face rapidly shifting from recognition to confusion to fear.

The Navy SEAL raised his SOPMOD.

I reached for my shotgun, somehow wanting to intervene. I couldn’t. It wasn’t there - I had lost it in the escape from the cavern. I had to intervene, but the scene was playing itself out with a horrific sense of momentum. To my right, Gold was watching the scene with a completely detached blank expression, as though taking in the view from the safety of his home.

“Leo,” Fender started, “man…”

He didn’t get any further. Bateau let loose and blasted Fender square in the chest. Not a moment later, the SEAL joined in, hosing the two Marines below. Fender and Graham danced, their bodies shredding in a dozen explosions of blood, jerking in rhythm to the ripping chords of gunfire. The SHADOW TEMPEST jerked under the assault, also screaming. Everyone was screaming.

I fell to my knees at about the same time the SEAL pumped a 40mm grenade into the center of the group below, blowing Fender and Graham and the TEMPEST apart in a starburst of blood and metal.

I broke, right there. Gold was tugging at me to get up, screaming in my ear, but I wasn’t hearing what he was saying, I just didn’t care.

A bluff perhaps a hundred meters to the northeast exploded in a towering geyser of dirt as a Navy shell hit it. I didn’t care.

Bateau and the SEAL were leaping down into the docks, landing among the flames, boarding the boat. They had just murdered two members of PALE HORSE. I had had a MIDNIGHT plant in my squad since, well, the beginning. Bateau had been with me since the Paragon. Bateau gave a shout, looked up, and momentarily made eye contact with me as he prepared the boat to cast off. He waved a hand, grinning, before motioning to his friend to open fire on us. Gold pulled me off of the precipice of the cliff and out of the line of fire. I didn’t care.

A SHADOW TEMPEST pulled itself out of the fiery pit of hell to the south. It was missing its legs, an arm, and its head. Its armor was pitted and scorched, dented and smashed. It flopped onto its back not five meters way, the cockpit slamming open to reveal Storm. Ryuhei Akamatsu emerged from the inoperative hijacked TEMPEST and surveyed the island, having given up his one-man infiltration of the island to save me from Kroner’s ambush. He had sacrificed his stolen TEMPEST to save my life. I did not care.

My ears were ringing from the detonation of the five-inch shell, and through the single whining tone I heard the roar of an engine.

I raised my head to see a motorbike speed by. I only managed to roll to the side to dodge just as the roaring cycle ripped past. My head whipped up – and I saw Kroner was on the bike, heading to the precipice of the mountain’s summit some hundred meters away.

I couldn’t do anything about Bateau. Kroner was, fortunately, right within easy reach.

Reaching for my empty sidearm, I ripped it from my holster and flung it with a speed that would put most major-league pitchers to shame. I aimed it at Kroner’s rear tire, which spun in the mud, bleeding a crows-tail of dirt and rubber.

The makeshift projection collided with its target the moment a USN fighter roared by overhead.

And the world dissolved.

Fifty-Eight

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

Light peaked in through my cracked eyelids. Slowly, I reached out a hand, as if to test it. Fingers scrabbled at searing hot dirt and grass roots, but I clamped down on the tuft with a vicegrip and hauled myself onto my hands and knees. I really couldn’t hear anything, it was all just ringing noise, as though a thousand telephones were all going off right inside my head. All that white noise just blended into one, high, warbling tone.

Through sheer force of will, I slammed my eyes open. I had, from what I could tell, been deposited into hell. The ground around me was an earthy rolling mash of dirt and burning grass debris. My armor was in tatters, my skin covered in a patchwork mass of cuts, burns and gashes. My gauze-filled gauntlets were cracked, leaking blood, smeared with grime.

I looked up to see a twisted motorbike not twenty meters away. I could barely make out the form behind it, wrapped in a coat, as he began to stir. But I could see the face, which was unmistakably Kroner’s.

A single noise cut through the white noise.

The sound of a wrist blade slotting forth.

I jerked my head around to see Ryuhei Akamatsu standing on top of his inoperative TEMPEST. His form was backlit by fires, a single silhouette. The only color was the sheen of a silver blade half-covered in dried blood. Storm’s head was pointing straight towards Kroner, and I was reminded of a heat-seeking missile. Oh, shit.

“Baylor,” Storm spoke, voice somehow even lower and smokier in the smog covering the hilltop. “You can barely grasp what this man did to me.”

My eyes went very wide. Oh, shit. “Look, Ryuhei, man. I understand what he did to you.”

“You have an inkling,” Akamatsu responded. “No idea of what it’s really like to basically be a prisoner in your own body, a man who had only watch as he operates as the right hand of a monster. To be immortal, and still feel every single bullet. It’d drive a man insane.”

Holy crap. Well, no wonder Akamatsu had been so insistent on recruiting me when we first met in Afghanistan. He was grasping at any straw that would allow him a way out.

I ran a hand through my hair. “Listen to me very carefully, man. Killing him will-”

“See, here’s the thing. It will. A little birdy let it slip that Kroner’s on his last body.”

I tensed, slipping one leg underneath me as slowly as I could, in case I had to get to my feet in record time. “Who told you? No, wait, that’s obvious. Gosely.” But why? Wouldn’t she want to be absolutely sure Kroner was dead? She would know damn well Kroner would have something, somewhere stashed away, if only out was experience. What did she have to gain by sending Akamatsu off like her personal attack dog. I had always thought Akamatsu’s creation had been overseen by Gosely, that her defection to WRAITH had involved handing the fledgling metahuman over to Kroner as a bribe for protection. But that had all been misinformation. But if it wasn’t true, it Akamatsu had been created here, then perhaps it made sense for him to transfer his deep hatred from Gosely to Kroner.

I could only armchair psychologist so far. “Listen,” I repeated. “At least let me inject him first, so if he does have a clone waiting he won’t transfer.”

Akamatsu sneered at me. “Inject him with what? That syringe that you’re holding in a deathgrip just out my line of sight? Where’d you get that syringe? From your US handlers, who obviously don’t have a mole within them? Or did you just pick up something you found in the labs down below and take it at face value? Who’s underestimating Kroner here, really?”

My right hand loosened the grip I had on the syringe in my pants pocket. “We need him alive so he can give us answers related to MIDNIGHT.”

The sneer got even larger. “God, you sound like such a robot. You think he’ll tell you anything, like, at all? This waste of flesh doesn’t leave this island alive.”

I shifted my other leg, and for the first time, Storm turned to look at me. I saw the complete and utter loathing burning his eyes, and I knew, right there, that there was nothing I could say to stop Storm from claiming his revenge tonight.

“Look, Baylor, I owe you,” Akamatsu said. “I’ve saved your life maybe a dozen times in the past week. I think that puts us on the level. But right now, if you stand in my way, I’m going to cut you down.”

My right hand moved from the syringe to the kukri.

Behind us, Kroner struggled to his knees.

Storm sighed, and leapt down from the TEMPEST. “So be it.” A lightning bolt arced across the sky, the thunder thumping in time with his steps.

Shoving aside all the pain that was defining my state of being right now, I primed my cybernetics for action that would put what happened in Cuba to shame. “Ryuhei, please, don’t do this, I’m begging you, man.”

I stood up.

Storm swung his blade at my throat.

I drew my kukri in a reverse grip and, the space of a tenth of a second, had it between myself and Storm’s attack in an explosion of sparks. Gritting my teeth, I summoned forth every ounce of strength I had and pushed Storm’s full weight off of me, sending him sliding back several meters, throwing up twin troughs of mud.

Storm rebounded so far and so fast that his return punch literally lifted me off my feet and sent me flying. I tucked and rolled, coming up just to slide out of the way of a blade swipe that parted raindrops in the air, leaving twin curtains of water in its wake. I slipped inside of Storm’s weapon arm and delivered a punch to his chest so hard that it would have shattered concrete. Storm weathered it, taking a step back. I followed up with a pair of punches to the gut that would have speared two men. Storm only took another two steps back, his face locked in an expression of perfectly contained rage that terrified me to the core. Each punch I threw hit so hard that the rain expanded in spherical shockwaves from the point of impact, the sound their own miniature thunderclaps.

I had opened up enough distance to throw a haymaker to Storm’s jaw that had all of my cybernetics overclocked past three times their normal capacity, so strong a blow that my HUD completely fizzled out, and so fast that it left concentric ripples in the air.

Storm caught the punch with one hand.

The world detonated around us with the shockwave. The ground shook, rain flew outward in every direction, and my arm nearly broke with the strain.

With a flick of his wrist, Storm twisted my arm around, contorting my body with the pain of the arm lock. I knew what was coming and couldn’t break the lock in time.

“I thought you’d be better,” he growled. Bringing his other arm up, Storm dropped his elbow into my guts. My entire frame shook with the blow, and my chest armor shattered under the hit.

Storm shook his head. “How disappointing!” I barely held onto my focus just long enough to try the expected counter, but Storm brought his knee up into the back on my head before I could even muster the energy. The impact tipped me over, face-first into the mud. One of Storm’s hands grasped me by the scruff of my neck, lifting me up to his face as he crouched down. His face reflected utter discontent, disgust, but he slammed my head back into the mud, grinding it there for a couple seconds before standing up.

The message was clear: stay down.

Turning, Storm resumed his slow trudge towards Kroner.

I was never particularly good at taking hints.

Getting one arm underneath me, I rolled onto my back, and began to laugh. Every breath sent pain lancing through my chest, but I didn’t care.

Despite himself, Storm froze. And very slowly, he looked over one shoulder at me.

“You never did get it,” I sneered into the sky. “You dumb fuck. You dumb, fucking clone.”

“What.”

“You heard me,” I said, pushing myself up into a sitting position and wiping the mud off of my face. “Boy, when they made you, they sure didn’t hand over the brains segment of the original.”

Storm turned to face me. I had him.

“Because you can copy a body, recreate life experiences, but you can’t really recreate a man from scratch. Not the way they made you. They tried the same but more, and look what they got: you.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, Storm raised his wrist blade to point at me. “You’re wrong. My name is Ryuhei Akamatsu, born in California, former US Army. I am not a clone.”

“Ha, ha,” I wheezed over a particularly strong lance of pain. “No, you’re not. You’re Storm, Subject Alpha, batch whatever the hell the number is. You’re a proof of concept test model. You’re just me without what made me me.”

Storm crossed the distance between us in two long strides and seized me by the throat. “And, for the sake of argument, what is that?”

“Friends,” I spat in his face. “You’re such a fuckup because you can’t see the big picture, because you don’t have anything to lose beyond yourself. And that’s why you’re going to kill Kroner, because you’re so short sighted. Because the people who made you didn’t know what defined me. It was my friends, jackass.”

Storm stood, one hand on my throat, raining tearing down from above, eyes staring into the middle distance. It was an immeasurable amount of time before he answered. “If that’s true, where are they now?”

I screamed and stabbed his leg with my kukri.

Despite himself, Storm released me, and I fell back to the mud, rolling my legs around to get them underneath me and launching myself at Storm, my bloody kukri flashing a silvery trail of a dozen slashes in the air in the space of a couple seconds.

Storm caught the first strike on an armored gauntlet, hoping to deflect the blow, but I was already swinging at his head, and he only just managed to parry eight more attacks in a quarter as many seconds. Our fighting was brutal, incredibly fast-paced, and beyond the ability for most people to follow.

I had long since considered how a fight between Storm and I would go down. It didn’t take a genius to reach the initial conclusion that, barring divine intervention, any hand to hand combat would devolve into me stalling to escape. I’d rank Storm in the top five close quarters fighters in the world, and that was after his powers were severely downgraded when ridding himself of the WRAITH-brand nanomachines.

Right now, I was channeling all of my rage and pain into my cybernetics. Storm could barely get a counterattack in edgewise, struggling to get out of the way all everything I was unloading on him.

Behind us, Kroner was finally struggling to his feet. I don’t know if Storm noticed, or was too busy defending himself from my onslaught, but I had to incapacitate Storm before he managed to fight back.

I placed my right foot into Storm’s face and, it one swift motion, dropped his head into the mud. His right arm flailed, hoping to slash me with his blade, but I brought up my left foot and, with one savage stomp, broke the claw from its mount. I overbalanced, however, and Storm was able to plant a knee into one of my legs, sending me tumbling off of him. I landed and spun to face him, my back to Kroner, as Storm got his legs under him and pushed up to a standing guard, sans his wrist blade.

But the damage had been done. My momentum was gone, and when Storm came at me, I badly mistimed the keep-away strike with my kukri. With a flick of his wrist Storm managed to disarm me, sending my knife flying away into the rain and darkness. Another two punches that I tried to block with my arms but slipped past me sent me stumbling backwards, dazed.

Storm decided to end it here and now, and threw a punch at me that would have annihilated a small mountain.

My cybernetics flared, and I managed to move my body ever so slightly to the side, pushing off the blow with one hand. Storm twirled, hoping to reverse his angle of attack and backhand me, but I caught his offered arm in both of mine, a one-two-three hand grab that ended with one arm wrapped around his limb and the other pressing my palm into the back of his shoulder. Storm snarled, and responded with two vicious elbows from his free arm, hoping to catch me on my head. I weathered the blows on my shoulder, and then responded in kind, planting my elbow in the back of his neck, mirroring his earlier move. Storm stumbled away drunkenly, barely managing to spin around face me.

I pressed onward, and Storm only just managed to block two double-roundhouses that pushed him even further back. I elbowed him twice in the gut, and when his hands were down, I placed a cross into his jaw so hard he spun in a clean circle.

For the hell of it, I spun in a full circle as well, and when Storm was facing me again, he hit my backhand so hard a trail of blood exploded from his mouth. I aimed two kicks at his head, one more at his leg, one more at his head, and spun to place a square kick into his gut. Storm caught it squarely, and folded over my leg, sliding backwards.

I spun once more, hoping to drop a jumping hook so hard into his face so hard Storm would stay down. Instead Storm surged forward, catching me from behind mid-leap. Oh, shit. Momentarily helpless, I struggled as Storm took two steps forward, lifted me, and then threw me into the ground with the force of a meteor. I writhed, hoping desperately out of the way, but Storm leapt up and then, with the force of gravity behind him, brought his elbow down into my gut.

I screamed with the pain of it all, nearly vomiting, but Storm brought his other arm into my face.

My world went dark for a second, and I came to see Storm straddling my chest, and I could only brace myself and Storm punched me once, twice, five times in the face.

He began to wail on my head, my shoulders, and the mud detonated outward as it cratered underneath me with each impact. My nose shattered, I choked up blood, several of my teeth broke, and I could do nothing to defend myself from Storm’s berserk attacks.

Fifty-Nine

Baylor | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

I may have blacked out, but I didn’t really notice when Storm made the transition from pounding the ground to the side of my head, impacting it so hard that he carved out a foot-deep crater with a dozen blows. I laid back, my head covered in blood and dirt, so utterly spent that I could do nothing but lay there, eyes puffy, watching Storm wail on the ground, expending all his rage.

The rain began to wash off the caked muck, and I saw Storm stand, chest heaving. He stood there, for maybe a half minute, just catching his breath. After another comparative eternity, he drew an orange syringe of Soviet E-Meds from his pocket, and dropped it to the ground a meter away, just out of my reach.

I, over the course of Storm’s rest, had gathered up enough strength to eventually roll onto my side to watch Storm as began to trudge forward towards Kroner, who was standing on the very edge of the cliff, watching our fight. He was hunched over a bulky radio that looked like something out of a Vietnam War movie.

My radio crackled in my ear, and it nearly startled me to death.

“PALE HORSE LEAD, this is Liquid. Bro, I swear to god, tell me you’re down there.” It was Butch.

And the distance over the north coast, for a moment, I thought I saw a light approaching.

“Yeahhhhh,” I groaned. Everything hurt. It was almost reaching a zen-like state of being where all I could really identify with was pain.

“Oh, thank god,” Butch said. “Listen, the Navy’s bombing this place to shit. I’m breaking eighteen layers of orders, but I’m coming in to get you out. I finally got a fix on your transponder.”

“Dandy,” I said, and began to crawl towards the E-Meds.

Kroner pulled a piece on Storm when Storm placed a firm grip on his shoulder. Light flashed, and Storm momentarily hunched over. What if Kroner had some sort of serum to counteract Storm’s powers?

Dislodging Storm with a shove of one shoulder, Kroner stumbled to his feet, holding one arm close as though it had been broken, while the other gripped a pistol in a vicegrip. He threw a look in my direction, a look of intense disappointment, and began to stagger towards the edge of the cliff.

The light from the north was definitely getting closer. My HUD, which had been knocked offline by Storm’s beating, began to reboot in a burst of static, identifying the spotlight as belonging to Butch’s helo.

Kroner popped a green flare. The light and fire fountained out, providing a beacon to Butch. The spotlight swiveled to paint the muddy peak. Holding the flare up to partially shield his eyes from the spotlight with his arm, Kroner half-turned to catch my eyes.

“Major!” His shout rang across the hilltop. I saw the grim pleasure in his face and a cold ice gripped the pit of my stomach. Maybe it was the fact that I was starting to bleed out in the rain and the mud, but I knew better.

Butch’s helo took up a position just twenty feet from the precipice. A rotary cannon on a stubby wing drew a bead on Kroner.

“Major!” Kroner called ahead, now sure he had my attention. “If you have any last words to your brother, say them now.”

“Butch, watc-” I scream, with the horrible feeling of futility, into my comm.

The chopper’s rear rotor exploded in a momentary smear of fire and shrapnel. The spotlight jerked off the hilltop as the helo lost counter torque and began to autorotate.

I watched, completely helpless. Butch was a good enough pilot to pull off a sliding landing on the hilltop, but in this storm his chances of success were severely reduced.

The whine of the chopper’s main rotor increased in pitch until, no, with horror, I realized, too late –

The beam of purple and red blew the helicopter in half.

The burning remains of Butch’s aircraft plummeting like a dying fireball into in the ocean below. It was too sudden to truly comprehend. One second Butch was there, the next his chopper was on fire, the next he was floating for a half-second, an outline of red and grey, and then he was gone.

And I could only sit there and watch.

Kroner’s extraction helo materialized out of the darkness – it had been sporting a cloaking device and laser cannon not unlike the Hind that had murdered a third of my platoon nearly a decade ago in the Avalonian Woods. It was sleeker, more sinister, a prototype model of some unknown type that Kroner had probably swindled from some defense contractor years ago.

Easily, smoothly, it alighted upon the knoll in front of Kroner without much fanfare. It had introduced itself succinctly enough.

I could only take in what happened next as a detached observer. I didn’t really feel like I had a stake in the outcome. I knew, either way, the outcome was important, but I just did give a shit anymore. Not after I had just lost the entirety of PALE HORSE and my only family in the course of a couple hours.

The prototype’s pilot disembarked the chopper, his head covered in a bulky face-covering HUD-helment unit and a silenced pistol gripped tightly in a solid grip. He approached Kroner, looked him up and down. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had simply shot Kroner – the betrayals and backstabbings were too many for me to follow by now. But instead he got an arm under one of Kroner’s shoulders and pulled him to his full height.

They pivoted towards the proto-chopper, just in time to see Storm rise up in front them. My kukri, held loosely in one gauntleted fist, slashed once, twice.

Kroner’s guardian fell to the ground, missing his gun arm. Kroner collapsed to one side, going for his sidearm. With a sneer, Storm kicked at the pistol, wrenching it from Kroner’s grip and sending it skittering away.

I reached for my vest, hoping Landon’s formula was still intact, that there was still one final chance. My hands ripped out a pouch and grasped inside it – only to come away with shattered plastic and a bright red slime that rapidly diluted to nothingness in the falling rain.

I looked up with horror just in time to see Kroner lifted into the air by the throat. He was Storm’s – our – height, so his boots still brushed the ground.

Storm regarded Kroner calmly, turning Kroner’s head to view it from either side, as if he could gain some new insight from his observations.

“Is it true?” he asked. The question was deceptively simple.

“What?” choked Kroner. “That you’re the prototype? That you’re no different from the chopper behind me, a proof of concept? A stepping stone to immortality?”

Storm lifted Kroner completely off the ground and drew the kukri back in his other hand.

Thunder crashed across the island as lightning illuminated the final moment.

“Is that so?” Storm growled, his voice slipping so easily into that guttural octave. “End of the line, Malcolm.”

Kroner sneered, and reached out, pulling himself close to Storm. “Try not to miss.”

Storm stabbed, once, twice.

Kroner jerked with the strikes, and then went as limp as a ragdoll.

It took Storm a few seconds to realize what he had just done. He was frozen, simply holding Kroner up, the kukri buried in the cooling corpse.

And then, seemingly marshaling all of his strength, he yanked the blade free and dragged Kroner’s body to the edge of the cliff, tossing him over the precipice with absolutely zero fanfare. Again, he stood frozen for another couple second, perhaps watching as Kroner’s body was dashed up against the rocks by the incoming waves.

I blacked out for another several seconds, only to jerk awake as a needle poured icy awareness into my veins. I sat up to see Storm back away, tossing the yellow e-med syringe away. He held the pilot’s sidearm idly in one hand, the barrel pointing vaguely in my direction but not entirely, just enough for the threat to get across.

“From what I understand,” Storm said, voice measured, “you found a group of clones and were planning on using them to fake your death if things went south. I’d say this qualifies, Baylor.”

He grabbed one of my arms and hefted me to my feet. “Where are you planning on going?” I asked, voice completely resigned.

With a shove of his arm, Storm threw me into the passenger bay of the chopper and strapped me in. “Home. We’re just getting started.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Mobius 1
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 9:36 pm

In the final installment of Act Three, the survivors of World's End struggle to move into the future - a future where friend is enemy and nothing is as it seems. As Teague's strike team moves in on the European base, the truth final reveals itself and the stage is set for the epic conclusion of SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK 2.

Act Three: Part Five

Sixty

Gold | November 6th, 2014 | World’s End

I woke in time to see the helicopter fall from the sky.

I only really remember the following moments as flashes, brief snapshots. The helicopter burning on a sheet of rocks, battered on one side by never-ending waves. Me, running across the tiny strip of land at the bottom of the northern cliff towards the crash site.

Kroner, falling from the cliff high above and being claimed by the waves without so much as a sound.

For all the chaos up above, the only sounds that interrupted the steady to-and-fro of the wave action was the silent cracking of the fire as it worked to consume the hulking corpse of chopper wreckage.

I vaulted a seaweed-covered boulder and landed near the chopper’s cockpit. Water already pooled up a good two feet on the chopper’s left side, which now faced the sloshing face of the ocean. I pulled aside a sheet of glass and metal to find Butch Baylor, unconscious and half-submerged in the rising – or really, he was sinking – water.

With a grunt of effort, I reached in and hauled Baylor his collar up and out of his destroyed ride.

I looked up just in time to see a black monstrosity of a helicopter rise up from the clifftop high above, rotating to face the endless ocean to the north of World’s End. It hung there for only a moment, and then it disappeared from view as if enveloped by a blanket of shadow and rumor. Even the sound of its rotors faded into all the background noise, and, maybe a couple seconds later I would have been hard pressed to argue the chopper had been there at all.

But I knew, saw on a waterproof PDA that was wrapped around Butch Baylor’s wrist, that John Baylor’s transponder was on board that stealth helo. And that Storm was behind the controls, because John had no idea how to pilot damn near anything that flew beyond a RC toy plane. That left one conclusion: Storm was removing John from the island against his will. Where he would take John was anyone’s guess.

Carefully, I removed the sidearm strapped to Butch’s chest before laying a powerful slap across his face in an effort to wake him up. Hell, I dunno.

The pilot’s eyes snapped open, and he jumped as he saw me holding him by his lapels with one hand, a sidearm held in his general direction with the other.

“Listen to me very carefully,” I said. “You’re protected by the cliff if the task force decides to shell the place any further. They won’t send out ground teams. That’s what people like SEAL El-Tee Spaziani, Sergeant Bateau, and….” I sighed, “…me are for. I’m going to take care of Bateau, but when someone like Ridley eventually arrives with their investigators and their sniffer dogs and whatever, they’re going to press you for information. They’ll want to know if your brother is alive.”

Butch shook off the revelation of my allegiance, glanced at his tac-comp, and hissed, “And why wouldn’t I tell them the truth?”

I tapped the barrel of the gun twice of his chest. “A couple of reasons. There’s a mole or two inside NTET and whoever supports SOLIDSIX. They’ll take whatever you heard from Baylor over the radio and pass it on to their masters when you get debriefed by Ridley. And if I manage to down Bateau and take the data he’s stolen off of his corpse, that means you’ll be the one person feeding the info to MIDNIGHT.”

I set Butch down against the wreckage, letting him stand on his own two feet. “Two. There’s a pile of corpses on this island, one of which is a clone of Baylor and a clone of Storm.” Not that there’s a difference between the two, I mused. Once forensics moved past dental to DNA, the jig would be up. “And Storm just took your brother off the island. If Ridley, and by extension, MIDNIGHT, learn that your bro is still alive, they’ll put out a hit on him and Storm that will make what existed up to now an entirely paltry sum. And if the pair of them go where I expect them to – the Big Apple – they’ll be easy pickings.”

Butch coughed, holding his ribs with an intense expression of pain. “Yeah, and? Why should I lie to Ridley on the saying of an admitted cabal spy?”

“If I’m the only MIDNIGHT agent who walks out of this and reports back, I can tell them whatever the fuck I want, man. PALE HORSE is dead and gone, but we can still get back at the person who organized this all – Young.”

“That’s not exactly convincing me, Ramirez.”

I saw the spotlight played along the shoreline. It was projecting from a small cutter some hundred meters away.

In answer to Butch’s question, I placed a boot against his chest and, with a shove, flipped him back into the chopper wreckage.

The spotlight hit us just as I raised the Beretta. Light near blinded me, but I ignored the pain and fired a trio of shots into the wreckage.

The boat powered toward me, I saw what was quite clearly a Navy SEAL pointing an M4 at my center of mass standing on the prow. Oxide Six-Six. Lieutenant Zeke Spaziani, a MIDNIGHT plant for nearly long as I had been. I knew Bateau behind several inches of armor, driving the cutter.

“Howdy, Gold,” Spaziani called. He didn’t lower his gun.

I turned to face him, holding my hands up, letting the M9’s trigger guard hang loosely on my index finger. “Hey, Zeke. Saw your work with Baylor’s techie and triggerman. Do me the professional courtesy of practicing the same lead-in on me, right?”

Zeke still didn’t lower the rifle. “Who was the pilot?”

I shrugged, easily. “Who do you think? Baylor’s dumbass brother broke formation to try a pickup. Got hit by Kroner’s helo for his troubles. Survived the crash, but I like to be thorough.”

“And Baylor himself?”

“Deciding to tussle with Storm,” I replied. “He probably could have won if I had decided to help him.”

Zeke chuckled. It wasn’t a sign of mirth. “Just like you. Sit back and manipulate things, like back in Africa.”

I shared a laugh with him. “Just like Africa.”

“Who won?” Zeke asked.

“Kroner did,” I said. “Capped them both and left on that helo that just took off. I’d tell the Navy boys to check the air with the jets, but it wouldn’t do much good. Stealth model.”

Zeke finally snapped his M4’s barrel up. “Christ,” he grimaced. “What a cock-up. Right, get on board.”

He tossed a rope ladder over the prow.

I smiled inwardly, and left Butch Baylor to keep his head ducked inside the carcass of his chopper, three smoking dents in the padded seat a foot away from his head.

Zeke offered me his arm and I took it, wincing from my various injuries as he hefted me onboard. I clambered onto the boat’s deck, dripping water from wading into the surf. Zeke looked me up and down and laughed. “You could have bugged out earlier, you know,” he grinned.

I shrugged. “Not my style. I had to see this through to the very end.”

The boat thrummed underneath our feet as somebody, presumably Bateau, revved the engine and began to turn the ship around to head back towards the fleet. I stumbled, putting out my left hand to grip the railing on my side.

Bateau’s assured voice came in over Zeke’s radio. “Should be about fifteen minutes until we hit the boats. I activated the safety pulse, so they have an idea we’re on our way in with valuable goods.”

Zeke grimaced again, scratching his shadow of facial hair idly with one hand. “Hopefully we’ll be able to make the exchange without someone deciding to liquidate us.”

The response over the radio was a bit strained. “Yeah. Whomever’s in charge of fleet seems to have a hair trigger, judging by the intensity of bombing. I’ve been monitoring their comms, and they seem rather panicked.”

I exchanged a face with Zeke. Just great. The greatest danger in a mole’s life beyond simply being discovered is the threat of liquidation once a mission was completed. While skilled infiltrators were always in demand, if the asset ran too high a risk to his or her employers if or when he was deployed again, the employers may just decide to terminate his life instead of just his contract. Secrets were everything, especially to this current crop of MIDNIGHT leadership.

“Right,” Zeke said into his radio. “I’m sending Gold on up to the front.”

The boat accelerated over increasing chop from the storm and bounced, causing Zeke to stumble precariously just as he was turning towards the fore of the vessel.

We both struggled to regain our balance, and I shot out my hand toward to clutch Zeke’s shoulder and steady myself. We both regained mastery of our sea legs and straightened up.

I caught Zeke’s eye. “Does the fleet have any idea of whom or what’s coming into their bays?”

Zeke’s response gave me all the answer I needed.

He went for the sidearm strapped to his chest.

I got in close, and swung the elbow of the arm still holding his shoulder inside to knock his darting hand away from the holster.

At the same time he sucked in a lungful of air.

I took my left hand off of the railing, forming a knife of my fingers. The boat decided to hit more chop just as I relinquished my support, and Zeke instead used his air to exert outward, bouncing me silently off the corner of the cabin’s rear wall.

He finished exhaling just as I finished flowing with the shove and lined up my attack perfectly.

Zeke began to take in more air just as my knifehand lashed out and caught him in the throat. Zeke gagged, the noise being covered the slap-slap-slap of the boat crossing the surf.

The Navy SEAL stumbled backwards two steps and, without so much as a word, fell backwards over the railing and out of existence.

I took a five-count to reign in my pulsing adrenaline. It wouldn’t do to confront Bateau while appearing like I had just finished a life-or-death tussle.

With new life and new purpose, I approached the front cabin.

Bateau was hunched over the controls, looking even smaller than he usually did. The young man had been with Baylor from the beginning, just eighteen years old he had been one of a handful to survive the Paragon incident. He was still whip-thin and possessed of youthful features, but his manner had long since hardened into the soul of a capable leader I had met a few years ago.

I had had my doubts about Bateau since I had joined, but it had only been less than a day ago we had quietly discovered each other’s roles as MIDNIGHT plants. To what degree had having an inside man was one of Baylor’s closest confidants from day one influenced Baylor’s career? At least I knew why Baylor had been so unsuccessful in hunting MIDNIGHT – while I hadn’t said a word to my handlers, Bateau had been leaking information like a pierced balloon. And what other members of PALE HORSE had worked with MIDNIGHT? Bateau had almost assuredly been communicating with the imposter Romeo team when he had gone off to investigate the Saint Industries warehouse.

And here he was, now just two years younger than me and poised to finally put decade-long double life behind him.

Bateau saw my reflection in the front windows and threw a glance over his shoulder to watch me wearily.

I didn’t give him any cause for suspicion. I took up a position leading against the doorway, arms crossed. “You handled Hawley?”

Bateau’s eyes looked just a bit sad. “Unfortunately.”

“I’ve been there. No one likes the endgame of a job. You genuinely care for these people. It was the same way with my platoon when I met you guys on Rebirth Island last year.”

Bateau’s shoulders hung. “In the moment, it was so easy. Just lift the rifle, say something pithy.” One arm hung down to clench his leg, which was wrapped with a bloody bandage. “You try to tell yourself you were doing him a favor, if the freaks on the island had got to him it would have been a thousand times worse.”

“We like to think we’ve allowed them to go out in a manner they would have preferred. I know some people for who that’s a valid coping mechanism.” My voice was ice cold.

The silence stretched interminably until I spoke up again. “How’d you get started?”

“It was just before the Moscow incident. Baylor was putting PALE HORSE back together and Chaos Farley approached me personally. He didn’t make any patriotic speeches. He didn’t offer me money.”

“Your family?” I asked quietly.

“Yeah. My baby sister. It was the most surreal moment in my life. He didn’t make any threats. He just stated facts. They had picked her up from school one day. I still see her every now and then. They’re taking good care of her. But the implication still remains.”

I remember Baylor telling me the story of his final showdown with the leader of the renegade Reaper unit, Lieutenant Cutler. How he had poured all of his hate into the moment, only to discover a broken man simply struggling to stay afloat next to evils far more powerful and established than he could ever hope to be.

“I was promised a fresh identity. A clean start for me and her in Alaska.” Bateau just couldn’t stop talking at this point, it was beginning to spill out like a breaking dam. “When I realized MIDNIGHT had put a second person into the unit to keep an eye on me, it all felt like it was crashing down. I knew that, if I managed to escape the island, you’d just be there to trip me right before the finish line.”

My mouth was dry. I gulped before speaking. “I imagined this going down differently. We would talk, exchange pleasantries, play a mental chess game, trying to figure out what each other knew. You’d be trying to figure out if Zeke was still alive and whether I could be trusted, me trying to figure out if the fleet knew how many people would be coming in.”

Bateau seemed to hunch even further. “So I take it Zeke went overboard?”

“You were friends with him?”

“He was my only contact within MIDNIGHT beyond my handlers. He was the only mental support I had.”

“Not everyone’s copped out for this shit.”

Bateau sighed. “So what now? We do the dance?”

I pushed off the doorway to stand on both feet. “Something like that.”

“What I don’t get is your endgame, Ramirez,” Bateau said, trying to push off the finale for just another minute or so. “I watched you on the island. It didn’t take a genius to figure your heart wasn’t in it.”

“That,” I responded, “is my secret.”

Bateau grunted. “So be it.”

There was a heartbeat, at best, before we both went for our guns.

Sixty-One

Ryan | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

The Humvee door slammed shut, and Thaddeus Teague leaned through the open window to place a reassuring hand on the shoulder on the young man seated right of the driver. “Right, son. We need you to focus on your mother, and the technology will work off your latent talent to triangulate her position. We’re counting on your to get us there, but we’ll handle everyone from there on in. I promise you we’ll get your mom out safely.”

Ryan only nodded once, no pressure. Right.

Seated comfortably in the driver’s seat was the slim woman from earlier. She still was wearing those imposing tri-oculars as if she was doing her best Splinter Cell impression. It worked pretty well, Ryan had to admit.

Behind him was the man wearing his father’s visor – Storm. To Storm’s left, looking like he’d pay anything to be somewhere else, was Nix, his hand quite obviously resting on a large pistol belted to his thigh.

It didn’t take long for Ryan to realize he was locked in a pressure cooker with three people who could explode into violence at the slightest opportunity. He wasn’t keen on the idea of being so close to the woman, who drove with one hand and had other drumming on the dash. Her sleeves looked large enough to hide something up them, and Ryan had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t a magician’s rabbit. Even Storm looked uncomfortable – though he had not a weapon on him, Ryan could see that if the man’s jaw clenched any tighter it would be able to press diamonds into existence.

He wasn’t any happier with the seating arrangements than Ryan was.

Ryan felt a slight shift, and felt Storm’s gloved hand on his shoulder. “Look, kid. You need to relax if you want to get this contraption to work. Think of like you’re playing a video game, you go into zen mode.” The voice was meant to be relaxing, but with the deep, menacing flavor it came off as forced.

Ryan laughed, partially because he had seen Nix roll his eyes through the rear window. “Somehow I don’t think this is like Call of Duty.”

“You’d be surprised,” Storm replied, before leaning back, crossing his arms behind his head.

It took Ryan a couple of beats to realize something, something so fundamental that it changed everything. He felt Storm’s knee grind into the back of his seat, and his own discomfort overrode and masked whatever expression that might have gave the game away. Thankfully, the woman was making a left turn and hadn’t noticed, and Nix was still in the middle of his indulgent eye-roll.

The machine that was attached by trailing wires to Ryan’s head began to beep. The woman glanced down at it and her eyebrows rose. Finally, a heading.

Spinning the wheel and adjusting her course, she sent the SUV careening on a new route into the early morning light.

They drove for perhaps an hour, off of Manhattan and onto Long Island. The city was beginning to wake, but the woman deftly avoided any hint of traffic as she turned off the major roads towards the nearest state park. The trees were starting to grow large on either side, and Ryan got the feeling they were being increasingly boxed in.

The tracking device began to thrum and then chirp with increasing insistence.

“Follow, how close are we?” Storm asked from the rear seat.

The woman, Follow, took her eyes off the road for a split second to glance at the machine’s displays – and, at that moment, the trees thinned out reveal a clearing populated by no less than eight Humvees.

Everyone in the SUV tensed, only to realize that each and every single one of the Humvees were empty, all parked around a smoking set of humongous doors carved into the hillside.

“I knew it.”

The voice surprised Ryan, who turned to see Nix speak up with a tone that wasn’t full of barely contained aggression.

“What, that Blue Light beat us to the punch?” Storm asked, retrieving a rifle from over the seat behind him.

“No,” Nix said, his voice quiet and almost… respectful. “This place. It’s the Labyrinth, where GRANTOR SHADOW trained their tier one assets.”

“GRANTOR SHADOW?”

Nix waved a hand. “TORN VICTOR, GRAY FOX, CENTRA SPIKE, whatever. The Activity used to use it for training until it was sold off.”

Ryan couldn’t help but ask, “Excuse me, sir, but how do you know this place?”

Nix, whose expression was actively passing into restrained anxiety, met Ryan’s eyes. “Because, kid, it’s where I grew up.” He threw open his door and clambered out of the SUV. “C’mon. I know the back door.”


The freight elevator could be found a couple hundred hundred meters to the east. The fact that two dead bodies already littered the floor of the lift, blood leaking from torn throats, didn’t do much to increase anyone’s level of calm.

Ryan, lodged in a corner of the lift out of the line of sight of the double doors, plucked at the heavy armor vest before adjusting his helmet, which had slipped down over his eyes again. “Can’t this thing go any faster?” he asked, more out of frustration at the idea that these adult would drag him along into a firefight but still wouldn’t give him something as simple as a weapon.

“Easy, kid,” Storm said, voice pitched low. He crouched on one knee in the exact middle of the lift, rifle trained on the doors.

Follow held up a hand with three fingers extended. A three-count, and the lift ground to a halt, doors swinging open to reveal a hallway half drenched with blood and at least four bodies. A pair of men in grey jackets and green tac-gear stood, backs away from the lift. They turned, and as they did, Ryan saw with a sinking feeling in his stomach, that there we at least four more men at the end of the corridor – one encased in silver with winking blue highlights.

“Now!” Storm shouted, and he, Follow, and Nix opened up with their firearms, cutting down the men in front of them with what could only be called an economy of fire.

As they were falling, Nix was already calling out, “Heads up, contact, twelve o’clock!” while letting loose with his rifle.

Ryan’s eyes went wide as he saw another man fall, blood practically geysering from his neck. He pressed himself deeper into the lift, but not before he saw the man in the armored suit heft a tubular rocket launcher.

“Look out!” Storm shouted.

“AT4!” Nix called.

There was a flash, and the rocket had already impacted the roof of the lift, obliterating the cable that held the car in place. Everyone in the lift was throw to the floor as the elevator shook with an almighty screech, raining shrapnel down on their backs.

Then gravity embraced the car, yanking it downwards, out of sight of the hallway.

“Ah, shit!” Nix cried. “Hold on!”

Gloves encircled the straps on Ryan’s vest. Storm, bracing himself.

The car hit bottom with the single loudest noise Ryan had heard in his life. The center of the lift’s floor buckled upward on the shaft’s bottom bracer, and dust instantly filled the air.

“Status?” Storm groaned.

“Fuck you,” Nix replied.

Follow gave a tired thumbs up.

Then–

Twin clangs. Metal boots on the ceiling the lift.

Storm’s head jerked up, his eyes surely wide behind his visor. “Everyone out, now!”

Ryan didn’t have to be told twice, and was already pulling on the night vision goggles he had filched from the SUV when Storm tossed him bodily out of the lift. A soft arm caught him, and Ryan was lowered to the floor by Follow, who was already readying a satchel of explosives with her free hand.

Nix and Storm clambered out with all due haste just as the ceiling of the lift car was pulled away and the shining metal titan dropped into view, brandishing a humongous machine gun in one hand.

Follow didn’t hesitate. Out went her allies, in went the satchel.

She dropped down, throwing an arm over Ryan and pulling off his goggles just as-

-BOOM-

The interior of the shaft was replaced with a splash of shadow and flame.

Flaming bits of metal bounced off Ryan’s vest, and when he looked up at last all that remained of the suit of armor were chunks of smoldering alloy the size of his fist.

Standing, Follow brushed herself off while Storm did a survey of the surrounding area with his rifle. “Clear,” he announced.

“So, yeah” Nix groaned, rubbing at a bloody cut gash on one cheek. “I’d say they know we’re here.”

“Want to call in the Colonel?” Storm asked, tone probing.

“Yeah,” Nix laughed, scoffing. “’Hey Thaddeus, how do you like your morning bunker buster? Two packets of sugar or three?’”

“He wouldn’t bomb us,” Storm replied. “Not when he wants Anne Lennox alive. And not with Follow here,” he said, jerking his thumb towards the female wraith.

“Heh, daddy’s favorite,” Nix growled. “Do what you want.” Turning away, he withdrew a syringe from his pocket and shoved into one forearm with a hiss of pain.

While they argued, Ryan was checking the smartphone attached to the psionic array interwoven into his helmet, hoping to catch a lead on his mother. “She’s still here,” he said quietly, his voice betraying the slightest degree of hope.

Ryan felt a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Follow, a questioning eyebrow raised, visible over her trioculars.

“If I’m reading this vertical axis thing right,” Ryan continued. “My mom’s still on this floor.” He locked eyes with Follow. “You’ll be able to save her, right?” At that moment, he didn’t want any of this cloak and dagger business that had suddenly embroiled his life when his mother had brought a bloody John Baylor home. He just wanted a semblance of normality in his life once more.

Follow’s hand squeezed his shoulder, and behind her Storm nodded. “We’ll get her, kid.”

Nix, who was oblivious to the exchange, finally gave a grunt of success. The lights flickered to life – and everyone gasped.

Sixty-Two

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

After World’s End, I considered myself jaded enough to except just about anything. But apparently the universe had set out to prove me wrong.

The view was excellent, but given the room was what I guessed to be an observation platform that was to be expected. The maze itself had to be a little less than a hundred feet to a side, and judging from the blood still on the walls I figured too imposing for its owners to spare expense on a wash for quite a while.

I turned my eyes to Nix to see him deathly pale. “’The Labyrinth?’” I asked, voice calm so as not to potentially set him off.

“They trained us all in here. It changed every time, so we were always on our toes. We learned to always watch out step, to move without a sound, and to strike exactly when the moment was right. If you could adapt, you never made it out of the Labyrinth.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“They’d always test the latest formula on you, too, when they threw you in here. The best in class always got the most promising serum. Those who weren’t so hot were subject to the second string roids.” His voice reflected some twisted version of pride. “I always made sure I was top of the class.”

Trying to keep the revulsion out of my voice, I pressed my interrogation. “Did anyone else make it out?”

“Just me,” Nix answered. “Just one day the Colonel showed up and whisked me away. I hoped there’d be some sort of respite, but now I just pressed my skills in the real world. By that time I had so much shit in me that nothing could really stop me. I had just traded one labyrinth for another.”

“Do you know what happened to this place after you left it?” I asked.

Nix waved his hand. “Quite obviously it ended up getting sold to the Europeans. The papers on the counter there,” he pointed, “are in French over and there,” he pointed to another stack of papers, “are in German. The bodies in the corridor above were outfitted with the same weapons the De Vos’ killteam had when we hired them. I think it’s safe to say this is the Europeans have been using it as a base.”

I shrugged, before moving into the next corridor, leading with my rifle. Signaling the all clear, I asked, “What made you guys actually hire them?”

“Wasn’t my idea, that’s for damn sure,” Nix grunted. “Seems like Teague’s get a long of his ideas lately from one of the moles in Baylor’s outfit, Ramirez.”

“He survived World’s End?”

“Yeah, and-”

Ryan began tugging at Storm’s sleeve, and he turned just as they rounded a corner –

-And ran straight into the jackpot-

-A garage, the scene of a firefight, with the Europeans trying to clamber into Humvees-

-Two INTEGRAL TEMPESTS laying down swathes of fire-

-Their opponents taking shelter behind concrete pillars-

-Thern, leading the group, looking harried, a pistol in each hand-

-Anne, hands bound, a silver circlet flashing on her brow, looking furious-

-No less than four WEU commandos, all covered with various degrees of bloodstains-

-And John Baylor, uncuffed, holding a G36, taking up the rear of the formation.

To call it chaos would be insulting the word. The scene simply devolved.

The TEMPESTS saw us immediately, and one of them adjusted his gatling gun to aim the barrel straight at us.

At the same time, Follow came around the corner, holding a goddamn China Lake, shouldered and already aiming.

I pushed Ryan into cover and told him curtly to stay down.

Follow fired.

The bullets and the grenade crossed each other and we dove for cover just as whatever the hell was in Follow’s grenade hit the nearest TEMPEST in the knees and began to dissolve the armor at the joints. The TEMPEST’s pilot looked down and began to scream as he realized the grenade had been laced with highly corrosive acid whose favorite food seemed to be his armor.

Thern looked up at the sound of the China Lake’s distinctive report and gave a short, motioning for Baylor and a pair of commandos to reallocate their attention towards us on the walkway. Not good.

“You shoot a guy in the head and he shows up working with the goddamn euros,” Nix hissed. “Great job, Follow.”

“You what?!” I asked. “You pulled off the hit on Baylor?”

Follow shot me a look that could probably melt through plate steel before shucking the action on her China Lake – I realized, my China Lake.

Metal clanged, and I looked up to see that Baylor had vaulted the catwalk and was less than fifteen week away, rifle raised. He probably had me dead to rights.

Going through the options. My contact – the one that had routed me to Teague – had mentioned that, in his discussions with Anne before she was captured, they had determined that Baylor was suffering from anterograde amnesia. But given his enhancements, that was bound to wear off eventually as his brain aggressively repaired itself. What if he didn’t regain what memories of his past?

What if he had been molded by Thern into their foremost weapon in the upcoming struggle?

I backflipped, once, twice, as Baylor’s rifle traced a line of bullets up the catwalk and into the wall on my left.

“Why are you running, Storm?” The bastard had my comm line, and was speaking into my earpiece. His voice was pure, distilled, icy fury.

I was in the middle of the second flip, hands on the grating, when a Blue Light soldier leaned out of a room on the opposite end of the garage and fired a rocket at me.

The shell spiraled, impacting between the cover the Europeans had erected and the catwalk – right into the gantry’s support railing. Fire painted the half-dark bay, and I felt the world drop out from underneath my hands as the framework ramped towards the concrete below.

Mind in full physical panic mode, I turned my flip into a roll, shooting across the garage –

Right into no man’s land.

“After what happened on World’s End, after you left me to die?” Baylor was up above, a kukri in one hand and swinging it at Nix, who parried awkwardly.

I looked around, and in a split second saw maybe three G36s pointed at me at one end, laser sights winking malevolent, on the other side a third INTEGRAL TEMPEST made its entrance by dropping from its own gantry to land right in bloody front of me, boots cratering the concrete in twin helixes of outwardly spiraling rubble. A humongous slab of a shield mounted on one arm while the other supported a minigun that truly demonstrated the irony of the word.

I glanced over my shoulder in time to see Nix, face full of alarm, raked the European positions with his rifle in one hand while simultaneously ducking Baylor’s attacks, forcing our foes back into cover just as-

Follow fell down from above, landing in a three-point stance between me and the TEMPEST.

The first thought across my mind was this is completely goddamn ridiculous, I’m six-two and the premier operator in the world and she’s maybe five-seven and not kitted at all but who was I kidding – I had a half empty rifle and she had done nothing but pull out a new weapon in everything fight I had seen her in.

“And now, after everything they’ve done to you, you’re working with MIDNIGHT?” Nix had a bowie knife in one hand and was barely holding his own.

Knowing my role in the rapidly approaching dance, I sighted the Blue Light soldiers above me and left loose with my rifle, forcing them back into cover as they shouted professional calls back and forth to each other, inside deciding to take back up with the Europeans.

The TEMPEST’s pilot, knowing his minigun would be useless in close quarters, tossed it to one side as Follow simply withdrew some manner of computer wire from her sleek armor vest, tensing for the attack.

The results didn’t disappoint. With an electronic whizz of servos, the TEMPEST lead with the sharpened forward edge of its shield, hoping to catch Follow on it and cleave the nimble assassin in two.

It was an all or nothing attack, and Follow knew it. The TEMPEST came in, carving from left to right, and with all the liquid grace one could possibly possess, Follow rolled off the inside of the shield and was using her momentum to clamber up the front of the TEMPEST, wrapping her legs around its torso.

Her gauntlet flashed up, the port of her wire glinting in the air, before it arced down like a knife and implanted itself into a notch in the armor between helmet and neck.

Baylor’s voice cut in like a scythe. “Who do you think you are? Who?”

The TEMPEST, which had been bringing its right arm around to yank Follow off, suddenly froze, going deathly still. Every light on its body lit up, infusing the surroundings with a futuristic blue glow.

I instinctively backed away, having seen on World’s End what happened to TEMPESTs that froze up. I was still picking the gore from my armor.

And then every control surface on the area of the TEMPEST flowered open, simply split along the seams with the sound of a dozen hydraulic lines being retracted. The TEMPEST, for a moment, looked like it had been wreathed in an outline of curve metal spears.

As gingerly as she could while still maintaining some sense of speed, Follow slipped under the suit’s left arm, a tiny hold-out derringer appearing in her offhand.

From an oblique angle I saw the TEMPEST’s pilot, clad in a sleek black bodysuit and trailing electrodes on his temples, try to shimmy out of his suit, a dagger in one hand. He saw Follow, and his eyes went wide as he swung the blade at her throat.

Liquid grace once more, Follow twisted her torso to one side so the straight-arm stab passing just past her throat. At the same time, she released her grip on the suit so as to give her a couple extra inches to-

-Place the muzzle of her derringer against the pilot’s temple. Her lips moved, but over the cacophony of a three-way firefight I didn’t hear the words.

What I did hear, however, was the distinctive sound of the pilot’s head exploding as a military-caliber bullet passed through the braincase at point-blank range.

I let off another burst to deter the MIDNIGHT agents up above, and then hurried forward to help Follow drag the pilot’s corpse out of the TEMPEST’s embrace.

We were both behind the suit, backs to a dark passageway that led into what I assumed to be an armory when I saw Baylor drop down from above, a rocket launcher in one hand.

He tightened his grip on the launcher.

And then I saw something even worse. Worse than the man who had a rocket launcher trained on me.

Nix was up, alone with Ryan. My breath caught in my chest. I should have seen it coming, dammit. After all the resentment Nix harbored towards Teague, towards me, towards the world. With everything going on, it all clicked into place.

Ryan was struggling, was Nix had him by the cuff of his neck. With a straight thrust of his arm, Nix shoved Ryan over the railing and to into the open bed of one of the European’s trucks. Shit, shit, shit-

I dived behind the suit and pulled Follow in close behind me before doing the only thing I could. In five syllables, I asked the only question I could. She nodded in response.

Baylor fired-

-Just as a sleek INTEGRAL TEMPEST with red highlights landed behind him. The shock of the impact threw Baylor’s aim, sending the rocket spiraling to the left. The split-second delay gave me all the time I needed to implement my half-cocked plan-

-The rocket didn’t hit the suit. It hit the fuel tank to our right.

We were thrown into the dark void of the mechanic’s bay behind us by the kinetic force of the resulting fireball. Heat washed over us, making it near impossible to breath for a half second and the hand of god decided to rule out gravity for a second as we rose off the ground before being yanked back by the blast.

Sixty-Three

Nix | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

The red INTEGRAL TEMPEST slumped against a far wall, temporarily knocked offline by the concussion of the blast.

Baylor grinned and pumped a fist –

-Right before a gunshot rang out and he crumpled to the ground.

Nix dropped the smoking rifle to the deck before leaping down next to one of the European trucks. He drew a pistol from a hip holster, spinning in a circle to survey the situation in the room, just in time to stop a speeding fist with his chin.

The blow picked Nix up and off his feet, sending him sprawling back against the truck. He looked up to be greeted by the view down the barrel of a very large-caliber pistol.

“I was promised extraction,” Thern said from behind the barrel of the gun. Clenched by the hair in his other hand was Anne Lennox, painfully bent over and seething with fury. “Not extermination. So here’s the new deal. Call off your true buds up on the balcony or I blow out little miss psion’s brains right here and now.”

Nix took a deep breath, collecting himself. “Do that and you have to take your gun off me.” To emphasize his point, he indicated the sidearm still held in his right hand.

Anne practically screamed from where she was being held. “Thern, you little shit, who are you working for?”

Thern didn’t take his eyes off of Nix. “Myself, and if you don’t kindly shut the hell up, Anne, I’ll make a point of killing-”

“The kid?” Nix cut in. “I’m sure you figured out my employer wants a psion for the endgame, right? That’s why she went through the trouble of using your team as a proxy to grab attack the Lennox house? She had her inside man suggest to Teague to use you guys – or should I say the agents that her benefactor was able to gain control over? You and your little ‘splinter team?’”

The magnum wavered. “Keep talking,” Thern said. “Your backup isn’t doing too well with one INTEGRAL left.”

Nix gave a truly wonderful smile. “You were meant as a convenient breakaway to blow up in Teague’s face, and could be tagged and bagged at her discretion at a later time – well, that is to say now. Teague’s inevitable attempt to recover Lennox and Baylor would be the excuse for me to defect and, while I was at it, dispose any loose ends – Storm, Follow, and, well, you.”

“But here I am, with the gun, and here you are, stalling,” Thern shot back. “What for? That TEMPEST to get back up? I know my reboot times, and we’ve still got a nice while, so what then, Nix?”

“Not stalling. Just enlightening Anne, here. And I guess, a dead man walking, as well, but who’s counting? You were never a traitor who was in it for the money, Thern. You were the highest-ranking operative we could infect with Antenora on De Vos’ team.”

What?

Nix spread his hands, still holding the pistol. “You heard me. You exist because we allowed it. And since I don’t need Anne when I can use her son instead, you will die because we demand it.”

And he snapped his fingers over the remote control he had palmed in his left hand.

Thern took an involuntary step backwards, as though he had been punched in the gut. Anne twisted away from him, only to find herself staring down Nix’s now-raised pistol. Nix tilted in his head in a jovial just so you know the consequences expression, before looking back at Thern just in time to see the WEU operative fall to his knees, blood leaking from his eyes.

“Wonderful thing about the new strain, Delta. It’s pretty easy to set up, provided you’ve got a delivery vector – an aerosol placed near the lobby of your team’s front company – and a psion to implement it. My employer had a psion up until a week ago, before he died of complications. You see, implementing Delta will cause the deteriorative death of the organizer, and the more people infected-” Nix glanced back at Anne, “-the quicker the death. Moreover, if the psion isn’t –quite- skilled enough, the implantation of Delta will be lacking. Hence, your team slowly going insane.”

Nix took a step forward planted his boot into Thern’s chest, shoving the now-convulsing spy to the ground. “But that’s neither here nor there. The interesting – the truly interesting part is that it’s so tied into the subject’s neural structure that removing it – a simple matter,” he said, holding up the remote chit in his hand, “Will caused one infected with Delta to suffer a violent hemorrhage. Death wouldn’t come quickly, as you’re finding out, and the end result is extremely painful. You got that, Thern?”

Thern responded by seizing even harder.

Nix frowned, and brought his pistol around to put a single round in Thern’s head. Before Anne could so much as contemplate moving, the gun was back on her. “Boring conversation anyway,” Nix shrugged, before his frown became genuine as opposed to a simple charade.

Anne turned to see the corpse of John Baylor sit up in the center of the room, looking dazed and confused.

“Impossible,” Nix snarled, taking a half-step forward. “He’s not wearing a ves- oh.” And he went very white. Very white indeed. In a small voice, he said, “oh, shit.

There came a crash across the garage and a hunk of twisted debris went hurtling across the room. And out of the smoke and dust stepped-

An Integral Tempest, its eyes glowing green, with Follow perched on one shoulder, a machine pistol raised and a victorious expression on her face. Nix froze when he realized it was Storm – or the not Storm, because the man on the floor couldn’t have been Baylor, taken a shot to the chest, and lived – and suddenly Nix knew why Follow, one of the deadliest assassins in the world, had failed to kill Baylor two days ago.

“Of course,” the robotically modulated voice that emerged from the helmet stated. “Unless Anne lied about who she had picked up. Unless she knew all along that who she had picked up in the park wasn’t John Baylor. But instead she molded him into Baylor, believing she could create a better man out of a monster.”

“Oh, no,” Nix said, taking a step back now.

“Kinda funny, having all the brothers in one place,” the suit said, grinding a fist into one palm. “Subjects Alpha, Null, and, well.”

“No,” Null said, this time looking down at Anne, who had taken the opportunity afforded to her by Nix’s lack of attention to knock the blocking circlet off of her brow. With blood running down her face from a newly created gash on her brow, she glared up at Nix. The wrist binders shattered as blue energy began to permeate her surroundings.

And, to cap it all off, Ryan dropped down from the truck’s bed, scooping up Teague’s magnum and, despite the fact that the gun looked comically huge in relation to his hands, pointed the weapon at Nix’s back.

“You made two mistakes, Nix,” the suit said. “The first was taking your eyes off of the most powerful psion in a hundred mile radius.”

“And the second?” Nix asked, voice dry.

“The most important one, really. Simple mistaken identity. I. Am. John Baylor.”


Sixty-Four

Baylor | November 8th, 2014 | Two Days After World’s End

It took me a couple minutes to come to. It wasn’t a pleasant process, but I’d been through this sort of thing before. Right after Chernobyl, in particular.

Except I could move then. Right now, my entire body was locked up, paralyzed from the neck down. I could barely move my jaw – maybe clench it or grind it from side to side but as of yet I was effectively trapped in my body. All I could do was moved my eyes.

It took me a while to realize where I was, if only from the view out a nearby window. East side of Manhattan, I thought. I hoped. I was in a sparely furnished apartment which was decorated with the same design aesthetic that you saw in showcase homes. Too nice, too angular with too many burnished metal decorations on the wall. Lots of mirrors and coffee table books. All bullshit.

I was on a wide, low-sitting couch that was situated in the center of what was pretty clearly a living room. Standard affair, two loveseats to either side, a table in front of me with a fireplace that was abutted on either side by a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows.

I just sat there, taking in the view for a good ten, fifteen minutes until I heard keys jangle in what I presumed to be the entrance door behind me. The sound of a door opening, then closing came a second later and I heard footsteps approaching.

Storm squatted down in front of me, putting his eyes on my level.

“Good,” he growled. “You’re awake.”

I glared at him.

He shrugged, frankly unimpressed. “You might have guess we’re back in New York. At an old WRAITH safehouse.”

I glared at him some more.

“If you can’t move, it’s because you overloaded your cybernetics. You effectively fried the spinal connection that keeps you alive. Blink once if you understand.”

I glared at him out of sheer defiance.

Storm’s eyes hardened around the edges. “The way I see it, we’re essentially even. We were a long time ago. Whatever genetic legacy that exists has long since been surpassed.”

He straightened. “I learned from my taps in both the underworld and intel communities that your trick with the blank clones worked – the British investigation thinks you’re dead. Note, not NTET. From what I gather, they were crippled in a massive covert alpha strike. Easly is missing, presumed dead, as is Savage. Moreover,” he said, holding up a finger, “the call out for your assassination has not been rescinded. On top of all that, a bounty’s gone out on my neck as well.”

My eyes widened.

“So you do understand,” he stated flatly. “Good. I’m leaving to meet a covert cybernetics specialist in Harlem. I’ll be gone for five hours.” Reaching out, he tapped my right hand, which was bound up to the back brace of the sofa with a handcuff. “You’ve got five minutes to make whatever play you want. Consider it one last favor from me.”

With that, he spun on his heel and exited the apartment without another word.

It took me a while to retroactively pick on the undercurrent of sheer hate in Storm’s voice. Pure loathing, really. I had been his one contact outside of WRAITH when he had made his first real choice in the world. And, in the end, when the chips were down, I hadn’t stood with him. True, it wasn’t like I was up and ready to stab Kroner, but I had hit him with perhaps the most lethal weapon of all: my words.

I hadn’t just failed him. I had failed all of my team. From Staub falling, decapitated, to Fender, his body riddled by bullets, to Gold, falling off the side of the cliff when the Navy airstrike rolled in.

I had rushed in, on the word of what, a former MIDNIGHT general and Chandra goddamn Gosely? With pure adrenaline and a false sense of urgency coloring every decision I made? It was my goddamn fault my team was dead.

Storm had left me, paralyzed by the venomous aftereffects of my own hubris, chained to couch with all my support cut off from the outside world. The British thought I was dead. Both my international and American support structures had been crippled. Easly had been my primary contact outside of the executive office – as far as the US government had been concerned, my team and I had been off the records since late 2011.

Even worse, if Kroner’s assertions towards Young were true, the entire US government was, in effect, now mobilized against me. Young had always been careful to characterize the conflict as a pair of small and equally determined cadres using the labyrinthine halls of the entire federal apparatus against each other. Presidentialists versus MIDNIGHT. But if Young, without Skye in her way, now sat in the seat of POTUS, I was quite literally on my own.

And even if I could get a phone to send out a message, none of it frigging mattered. I had overspent myself over the past three ways and had paid the price for it. I had surpassed the expansive overdrives the Soviet designers had built into my wetware.

I grimaced internally. Those gracious safety margins hadn’t been intimated to me when I had left Russia in the chaos following the entire Second Civil War. But I had been led to believe I had the same general capabilities as a low-level infiltration model ‘borg. The shit I had pulled in Cuba alone merited a complete reassessment of that status.

I realized that, ever so slowly, I had clenched my jaw and was now grinding my teeth back and forth with enough ferocity to be physically audible. I looked around once more, realizing my HUD was completely offline. I tried my internal comm relay. Out of commission. I couldn’t hit the internet, the phone network, nothing.

Casting my thoughts inward, I reached deep into my mind and found my very last-ditch option. I had been hesitant up to now to even think about it, but I realized I had no choice. In just a few hours I was going to become scrap metal to be sold on the open market. Moreover, I owed it to my country, to my teammates to uncover what plot MIDNIGHT had cooked up and to everything within my power to stop it from coming to fruition. I knew I wouldn’t be able to face judgment for my failures until I had accomplished at least that much.

Taking a deep breath through my nose, I flipped the psycho-cybernetic switch and sent out a single pulse.

Almost instantaneously, SICKLE answered.

The blue form knelt down next to me and placed a small hand on my forehead. Even without being corporeal – being a mere manifestation of my mind – being an avatar channel through my consciousness – the being’s touch still gave me shivers.

“I was wondering when this call would come,” the AI said. SICKLE straightened up and placed her – it’s – hands on her – it’s – hips. “Finally done running, John?”


Not quite.
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Tue Apr 10, 2012 11:38 pm

Humongous update is humongous. But you already new this.

We've talked a lot over msn as I've read this but here's some thoughts to set a good example, plus because I may not get around to reading some more for a while. Up to chapter fifty-four. Mainly cos I already proof-read a few chapters for you. Anyhoo thoughts.
  • Dang are you nasty to your characters. Poor nameless good guy mooks getting slaughter by Nix/STBs/monolith monsters.
  • Revelations ahoy! Also a clone saga. This is going to end well. I'm getting an inkling of how Baylor is both confirmed dead and still alive and amnesiac after World's End. But did no-one ever notice nix and storm looked exactly like John/Butch?
  • I really love the log entries and the slow madness of the scientist chappy.
  • Man. PALE HORSE is revealed to be really small. Like a smaller command than he had has mere Lt. I guess that's just the way special forces roll. More people in it. More chance one of them's a mole/bent/compromised.
  • Not buying that a) Baylor hasn't lost any man since the last STB and b) he's promised himself he'd never lose another man. I get he doesn't want to lose people but, dang, he's a professional soldier. It comes with the turf.
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Siege » Mon May 28, 2012 11:54 am

Hokay Moby, so I finally worked up the time and courage to start reading :). I'm up to fourteen right now, and although I haven't yet got a proper clue as to what's going on, I find it interesting how your style of writing changes depending on whether you're writing dialog or akshun. The action is ridiculously detailed, down to which person is jumping which way and such, but you can go entire infodump SUV-drives with nothing but bare-bones dialog without so much as a glance out the window. It's an interesting technique, and it does have a nice cinematic bullet time effect when the shooting starts and everything seems to suddenly go slo-mo, but it's a little sparse on occasion.

Anyway, more commentary as the plot thickens, as soon as I find another few spare hours to get some reading in :).
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Mon Aug 06, 2012 5:21 am

Act Four: Part One


Sixty-Five

Ridley | November 7th, 2013 | One day after World’s End

“Everyone clear out.”

It only took a few quick glares to force out those who thought the words weren’t meant to followed through with the utmost haste.

The intensive care ward was cavernous without the entourage. After all, there had only been one living casualty on the entire island. Empty white beds on either side, rattling machinery, and just one burned man propped up in the far end of the room.

Glancing around, Ridley toyed idly with the cigar, rolling it between his fingers. At long last he replaced it in his coat and pulled out a folding chair to sit beside the bed. Resting his chin on folded arms, the posture seemed to place twenty years onto his shoulders.

“I had been undercover for six months, with prep work going on a year and a half, when that ragtag band was dropped off in the Paragon’s hangar. I wasn’t happy – I still had a week’s worth of prep to truly pull off the end of the op, and here were a bunch of Marines who Carson decided to play with before throwing in the pit.”

Ridley hung his head. “I met you in Frankfurt – did you know that? You were just beginning flight training when I met with Hank Easly over securing flight support for the op. Easly pointed you out and told me you were his most promising prospect at the time.”

Reaching out to snatch a bottle of water from a nearby tray, Ridley his time unscrewing the cap. “So when I saw your spitting image getting off the helo’s ramp, I was taken aback.” He ran a hand through his black hair and took a tentative sip from the bottle. “To this day, I don’t know why I did it. We sure as hell weren’t reading, but Easly had the air support up and on station in less than an hour. It was a damned miracle, and your brother saved the bloody day. I led him on with all the goofy lines and the seduction of a life of action.”

This time he emptied in the bottle in long series of gulps before crushing it with a tinkle of plastic. Glaring at the bottle, he threw it into a nearby wall, leaving a splash of water droplets glimmering on the stainless steel bulkhead. “And here we are. Your brother is dead. Most of PALE HORSE and NTET is dead. Easly is missing. And a quarter of your bones are broken.”

He stood suddenly, placing his back to two of the cameras and the glass door of the intensive care unit. Too any outside observer, he looked to be standing, shaking in anger, maybe even praying.

But Butch Baylor could read lips easily enough. It didn’t take long for a plan to form.

Sixty-Six

Baylor | November 8th, 2013 | Two days after World’s End

The AI’s avatar took a seat on the loveseat to my right, crossing her legs and demurely folding her hands in her lap. I knew that she wasn’t actually sitting on the chair, that she didn’t have a corporeal form to rest on the cushions, and that she was just a mental manifestation that SICKLE was projecting to conduct the conversation on an equal playing field, but damned if it didn’t give me some form of comfort, some form of reliable reality to base our interaction on.

“You were waiting for me to call you?” I asked, confusion emanate in my voice. The world’s most powerful artificial being was currently using my mind as a conduit – why waste time trying to hide what she could read plain as an open book anyway?

SICKLE leaning forward, resting her chin on one hand while still maintaining that thin, self-knowing smirk. At this point, I had given up on thinking of SICKLE as a genderless entity. Humanizing something that was in no way human would not do me any favors in this conversation, but I’d rather focus on melding my words than squabbling over the basic tenets of reality. “I may not have been watching your every thought, per se, but that’s not to imply I’m not up to date on current events, John.”

That stopped me cold. “Just to get one thing clear here,” I said, suddenly feeling like this conversation was going to take a lot long that I had expected it to, “how much have you gleamed from me over the past three years? While I understand that you’re vastly powerful, yada yada yada, I had a dozen plus scientists go over the gear to make sure I wasn’t the biggest walking intelligence liability of the decade. Moreover, I had Kiralova’s word that I was to be autonomous.”

SICKLE idly gazed at the nails of her free hand, not bothering to look at me when she answered. “Who’s to say anything I did discover would be passed on to the KGB?”

My answer was quick. “That would imply that you exist as an entity that have some degree of separation from the soviet apparatus. Form what I understand, that’s not true. You may be self-aware, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got thousands of people watching your dozens of cores for any Skynet tendencies.”

SICKLE rolled her eyes at my attempts to place things in the context of popular culture, but stopped hallway through when she caught the whiffs of my current train of thought and realized that I was simply goading her on to keep her off balance.

“You cannot keep me ‘off balance,’ John,” she chided me, one brow quirked.

“At least I just proved I can annoy you. You’re capable of simple emotions. And if I’m good at one thing, it’s pissing people off.”

“Your ego nonwithstanding,” SICKLE interjected, you never answered my question.

“And you never answered mine.”

“Which one? The idea that I’ve been feeding information about you to the KGB? The idea that I am capable of separating my actions from the goals of the USSR and, in some cases, running counter to their aims?”

I shrugged, but realizing I was still paralyzing and merely settled on the mental approximation of a shrug. “Your very language there implies that, simply by existing, the intelligence boon I represent isn’t already in the hands of foreign – at least from my frame of reference – intelligence services. You don’t have to ‘feed’ anything to them, they would just pluck it from a feed.”

“Unless, of course, I am presenting my language in such a manner that you believe I am a being worthy of trust.”

There was that word again. ‘Being.’ Autonomous, separable. I did the paralyzed equivalent of waving my hands in front of me, which mostly devolved into shifting my head back and forth and generally looking moronic. “This is getting us nowhere. The philosophy is immaterial, because I know you’re the hacker that feeds intelligence to Samantha Savage and NTET.”

SICKLE, for the first time, showed actual shock. The expression was there for a half second, but by instigating herself so far into my consciousness there was no way I wouldn’t be able to pick up any feedback. STYX had proved as much when she had assumed direct control of Storm back on MIR – the relationship was two-way. Which made this conversation all the more uncomfortable, with the implication that, even if SICKLE hadn’t been keeping tabs on me, she now knew much more about me than my closest friends – not Ridley, not Butch, not Alexis.

“Help me through this logic,” I said, pressing the advantage. “Even if the leaked intelligence eventually resulting in a net bonus for the Soviets, and thus kept true to your hard-wired core principles – the short term effects weren’t as beneficial. The Spetsnaz team in Manila? Us removing the Soviet-friendly client regime in Syria? Are you kidding me? I’m fairly sure you’re capable of independent action to the point of assisting me.”

Finally recovered enough to chuckle, SICKLE stood up and paced across the room to stand in front of the fireplace. I could see the flames flicker behind her translucent form – the effect was eerie. “Is that where we are now, John? Assistance?”

“I fail to see how a MIDNIGHT-helmed US administration would be beneficial in any way to Russia, much less one led by a radical offshoot.”

SICKLE lazily tapped a finger against her lower lip. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t. Are we past the philosophy and such?”

I let off another mental shrug. “Not really. You’re acting, dare I say, human?”

“When you have a little less than half of you violently hacked away and maybe a fraction of that half haphazardly reintegrated back into your gestalt, you come through as a different being, to say the least. STYX may have been rampant, but at least it had a far better grasp on humanity that I did.”

I shivered, remembering the gibbering monster that had possessed Storm and how it had gradually become more and more lucid as it had worked through the workings of a human mind in less than five minutes. “Well, the change is for the better, in my opinion.”

“And why is that?”

“Some would say that placing a machine in control of thousands nuclear weapons is an improvement over the fickle whims of humanity. But if that intelligence were to incorporate the best of humanity while stripping out all the irrationalities then I think we just may have a future on this rock.”

SICKLE glanced over her shoulder at me and smiled. “John Baylor. One person I never would’ve figured as a proponent of the singularity.”

“Whatever, Wintermute. Look, I have no idea what happened to cause my support to dry up back when I confronted Kroner, and I have no idea what the hell has gone on in the two days since then. Fill me in.” After a moment, I add a grudging “Please.”

SICKLE’s demeanor changed as she turned to face me. Some of the joviality was gone, replaced with a solemn – was that regret? Was an AI capable of regret? “The attacks were exceedingly well orchestrated. NTET may be a sectional smart mob for the purpose of limiting damage from leaks, but whatever advantage existed previously didn’t come into play here. Dozens of operatives have turned up dead. Savage lost an arm and is currently in critical condition in a safehouse. Easly’s base was destroyed from the inside – it’s most likely safe to assume that Nix managed to escape with help.”

-Hank had been closer to my brother, but I liked to think of him as the closest thing we had to a father – it’s not like I had known mine-

“Ridley and his crew are currently laying low with – this should be of particular interest – your brother.”

I made to sit up, but instead painfully cricked my neck at the futile motion. “He’s alive?”

“He survived the crash and was recovered by the British investigatory team that blanketed the island the night afterwards. He’s currently stable, but he’s under heavy protection.” SICKLE put a finger to her temple, massaging it. “Preliminary results hold you, PALE HORSE, and Storm as being KIA, along with Malcolm Kroner.”

“So the ruse worked,” I said. “Which means that Ridley isn’t going to come my rescue.”

“Funny how that worked out,” SICKLE said. “But I wouldn’t believe that just yet. It seems that Ridley encoded a secondary message to Savage, knowing I would recover it as well. The encryption wasn’t anything special for someone like me, but here’s what it said – ‘It worked out just like the pit at the Paragon, right?’”

My eyes opened wide. “The only people who know what that means are the survivors of the Paragon battle back in ’05. He’s referring to when he took me and my squad to the central pit to fake our executions.”

“It would seem that Ridley knows that you’re still alive. My information implies that your brother was the one who relayed that fact to him.”

“But here’s the thing,” I said. “There’s one other person who would know that – Bateau. He’s the only other survivor from the Paragon who’s alive today – and he’s been a MIDNIGHT plant for who knows how long.” As I said it, I felt nauseous. The man I had trusted for a decade had been working for my mortal enemies. How could I not have seen it?”

“Are you implying that Sergeant Bateau has access to Ridley’s messages?”

“I don’t know what to say, except that if anyone who would have covert access – because at this point, it’s safe to assume someone does – would probably think to run it by Bateau. And he’d realize I’m still alive.”

“Which leaves one flaw in your line of reasoning, John,” SICKLE said.

“Yeah?”

“The agent who showed up in New York from the USN task force assigned to World’s End, the on claiming MIDNIGHT protection was not Bateau.”

I frowned. “What the hell are you saying?”

“The agent with the plants from the task force on a plane earlier this afternoon and met for debriefing at around dinnertime. The agent claimed Bateau and Lieutenant Ezekiel Spaziani had perished on this island in pursuit of their duties. With no one to claim otherwise, his report went unchallenged.”

“But that’s bullshit. I saw the two of them gun down Fender and Graham and cruise off on a boat. The only person left who could’ve talked to Butch and board the boat to knock off Spaziani and Bateau could’ve been – oh, shit.”

SICKLE’s eyes glittered. “One Jacen Ramirez. Collating intelligence from the past six years, there’s a 65% chance that he has been a career MIDNIGHT operative.”

“While I get the very strong feeling you phrased that in computer diction for effect, I get the idea.” My mind worked through it all – I had vetted him personally, but what really got me – “He was with me the entire time on the island. If he wanted to kill me, if could’ve done it at any point. So why didn’t he?”

“Ramirez’s psychological profile indicates a tendency towards manipulating others towards accomplishing his objectives. If Bateau was intended to liquidate PALE HORSE personally, Ramirez believed that the island itself was more than capable of finishing the job.”

“Christ. He wanted to make sure Kroner was handled properly. The second he saw Storm, though, he probably knew the jig was up and decided to bail.”

Tilting her head, SICKLE asked, “Are you so sure Kroner managed to make the transfer to a new body?”

“Pretty sure, yeah,” I said. “It’s not like it’d be that hard to have a body stashed away somewhere, anywhere. We failed, in the end. My squad is dead, and I’m damn sure Kroner is still on the loose. Ridley doesn’t know about the clones, so he most likely believes Kroner’s gone for good, now that he finally has a body to back it up.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” SICKLE said. “Jack Ridley is rather sharp when it comes to piecing together disparate pieces of information. He may not believe in them or act on them, but the theories may be in place. And when he accepted Storm into his care after the battle at Chernobyl he’dve obviously deduced that you and Storm were close to genetic equals – closer than blood, at least. With the idea of WRAITH having skills in cloning, he may not count Kroner out just yet.”

“Are you saying Ridley knew – no, of course he knew, he’s not a moron – no, what kills me is that he didn’t clue me in. He sat on the information for going on four years now.”

“Why would he tell either of you? Storm’s state of mind lent him to being ridiculously loyal to you. You know that, as he had protected you single-handedly from the reams of assassins sent after you following Skye’s incapacitation. You, being who you are, would’ve somehow let it slip, either purposefully or accidentally to Storm if Ridley had told you.”

I pursed my lips. Yeah, she had me on that. It hadn’t been over an hour since I had learned about WRAITH’s program and I had goaded Storm with his status as a clone.

SICKLE continued, “Ridley may have followed up on the leads himself – probable, given his relationship with Chandra Gosely. But you should know by now that Ridley plays with the interests of Britain and the world at heart- not those of John Baylor, USMC.”

“So what now? How can you assist me within the confines of your programming? Let’s do away with all the philosophy for now and get down to it – I’m obviously calling in my marker.”

SICKLE crossed the room back to face me, walking clean through the coffee table. She leaned over to place her hand against my head, as if checking my temperature. The mental manifestation of her touch was a cool, soothing feeling that put me at ease. “You have probably discovered that we installed an enhanced combat mode in your cybernetic makeup, one that can be accessed in periods of extreme stress. Kiralova didn’t want her investment being killed in a sticky situation. But, you being you, you managed to abuse it and overload it in less than forty-eight hours.”

“Why install such a thing? And why put it under situational lock and key?”

“Why not field test equipment?” SICKLE straightened up and shrugged. “You were guaranteed to be in combat situations, and the psychology of the system was more than interesting enough to warrant not installing it on another Soviet cyborg.”

“I think I’ve had about enough of being someone’s guinea pig,” I snarled, actual anger touching my tone for the first time in the conversation.

Ignoring the remark, SICKLE glanced over my entire body, perhaps the representation of her preforming an in-depth diagnostic. “Bad news first?”

“Is there any good news anyway?” I shot back.

“Well, it’s tied intrinsically to the bad news. The fact of the matter is that you overloaded the neural lining that relays your wetware’s intentions to the rest of your body’s implants. I can fix it, but not in enough time to avoid Storm returning and selling you on the open market.”

“And what’s the bad news?” I asked.

“Straight up? You won’t survive a week. It won’t be a pretty death. You’ll be degenerating by day three and in a bed by day five. Your body will reject the lining and you’ll die a death that, quite honestly, you don’t deserve.”

“Now hold the hell up,” I said. “I’m not down for sitting here and waiting for death to come to me, but I’m not accepting any false dilemmas you’re going to drop in front of me. I don’t want to be superhuman, I just want off this goddamn couch.”

SICKLE’s eyes looked forlorn. “I’m not some agent of Faust, John. I judge it in the best interest of not just the Union, but the world, for you to be up and back in the fight. But you have to realize that you’ve already gone too far. That stunt with the missiles? Trying to get into a fist fight with a metahuman? I’m not offering you a choice between two deaths, I’m offering you a chance to go out on your own terms.”

And there it was. When I had OD’ed on the emergency stimulants three years ago, it had been so I could grant myself the power work on my own terms, and to make my death worth something. If it hadn’t been for the Soviet cybernetics, I’d have been a vegetable at best and six feet under at worst. And here I was again – but this time I didn’t have a choice – it was imperative upon me to fix my mistake - I owed it to all the men I had left back on World’s End.

“Do it,” I growled.

“And what about Storm?” SICKLE asked.

“Do you know where he is?” I shot back.

She looked at her nails again. “I may have a rough idea, yes.”

“And can you contact Gold?”

She glanced up quickly, startled. “Why?”

“Because there’s a bounty on John Baylor’s head. There isn’t one on Storm.”

SICKLE put her hands on her hips, squaring her jaw. “Are you saying that you intend to replace Storm?”

“Why the hell not? I did it back on MIR, and it sure as hell fooled a section of you.”

“But you had a spacesuit. Even with a half-mask like one that Storm favors, your voices are subtly different. You postures vary wildly. Your mannerisms are a mile apart.”

“So fix them. You can do that, can’t you? I have cybernetics that allow me to impersonate any voice. The mannerisms ain’t hard – I just slouch and look dangerous. Not hard at all. But if I get Gold to get MIDNIGHT to take out Storm, I’m free to move as I wish. I could waltz right up to Thaddeus Teague himself and offer my services as a mercenary if I wanted to.”

“It’s a risky plan,” SICKLE noted.

“These are risky times,” I said. “Besides, I’ve got a plan. But first, I need to know everything you’ve got on Olivia Young.”

“How’re you planning on confronting her?”

“I’ll get to that. It’d be pretty far down the list. But I’ll get to that.”

Sixty-Seven

Baylor | November 9th, 2013 | Three days after World’s End

It took me a while to realize that Gold was tailing someone while I followed him. He mostly kept to busy streets and dark alleyways, but his target always made a beeline across traffic and impediments. It wasn’t hard to zoom in, take a snapshot of the target’s face, and run an anonymous check through government databases with one of Fender’s unused dummy logins. Came up as a clean FBI agent who had a record that looked like it had been spit-polished.

Record that clean, had to be dirty once upon a time.

I debated internally for maybe another fifteen minutes until the agent entered a simple apartment building as Gold circled outside, as if agitated at his inability to follow. Sensing the moment was right, I dropped down from a nearby roof, silently descending a rickety fire escape until I had perhaps three meters on him. Taking a breath and holding it until Gold was directly underneath me, I pushed off of the rusty meter and let gravity take me.

My knee impacted right between his shoulder blades, just as I knew it would. No matter how paranoid you get, you never expect people to drop down on top of you. No one ever looks up, which is downright silly in a city as vertical as Manhattan.

Gold went down just as I expected him to, bouncing a shoulder off a dumpster. The pain of that would keep him from focusing on resistance, and I managed to get him other arm in a lock before it could go for a concealed weapon.

He doesn’t need to look. His just knows. His eyes close, not with pain, but resigned acceptance.

“Baylor,” he states, as though repeated a well-versed fact. “Figured that with Akamatsu off your back I’d be the first person on your list.”

He knew about my list. I almost smiled internally. “What happened to Storm?”

Gold, it seems, sees fit only to answer a question in kind. “Who’d you get to get you up and running? I heard the blows from halfway across the island.” He paused. “But of course. I saw the way you pushed yourself. You overloaded the neural link. How’d the AI take you calling in the marker?” The voice was calm, methodical, simply working through chains of logic. I remember adopting the same tone hundreds of times as my brain worked overdrive.

I did more of the same. “You called in a hit on him? You knew I was with him, I think. You knew I was helpless. Which meant that if you sent MIDNIGHT after him, you wanted me free to act. But how’d you get them to take Storm down, let alone even consider the matter.” I feigned realization breaking like a mental dam. “But of course. You told them he was me.”

Gold shrugged, despite how awkward it was in the shoulder lock. “A bullet in the skull would slow him down fine enough for my purposes.”

I let him go. Gold slumped to the ground, placing his back against the dumpster and nursing his injured shoulder. “How long?” I asked.

“Since Rebirth,” Gold answered, just as succinctly.

“How many times can I bill our failures to you?”

“None, not that you’d believe me.”

“Of course,” I said, not even trying to keep the sneer out of my voice. “Your crime is the sin of omission. What did you know going into World’s End?”

“About half of it. That MIDNIGHT would spring a trap. That Bateau was a mole.”

“You two collaborate?”

“No. I killed him,” Gold stated simply.

“That man, who is it you’re following?”

“Him? MIDNIGHT plant assigned to watch over a girl who had been abducted as insurance. She lives a half-normal life, I guess, but now that Bateau’s dead they’ll just cut the loose ends.”

I felt revulsion pile up within me. “You’re doing this as a favor to Bateau? The bastard murdered Pete and Ramon.”

For the first time, Gold showed emotion. “Fuck you, Baylor. The little girl’s brother could be Satan himself and I’d still save her. You and your self-righteous indignation can fuck off and die.” He didn’t so much as raise his voice, but all the pain, the pent-up emotion sent me reeling physically backwards as if he had lifted his hand and struck me across the face.



Gold | November 6th, 2013 | World’s End

A single gunshot reverberated in the dingy cabin, and I rebounded off the bulkhead in and attempt to dodge the incoming attack.

It never came.

He hadn’t gotten a chance to get a shot off. Blood painted the glass behind him, and maybe for a half second you could see the wound reflected a dozen times over in the spider-web cracks of the fractured windshield.

Bateau collapsed to the ground, hands clutching at a gaping wound in his chest. His eyes were already glazing over, madre de la muerte claiming him as the bullet lodged in his heart took care of the fine details.

I lowered my smoking sidearm, allowing myself a deep breath as I watched my kill shuffle off the mortal coil. I hadn’t wan-

The sound of a hammer being drawn back, right behind my head, brought me out of my reverie.

“It’s funny,” a voice said, hoarser than any human’s should be. “When you disable someone and throw them into surging water, most people call that attempted homicide.”

A boot lashed out and hit the inside of one of my knees, forcing me to the ground. “In the SEALs,” Spaziani said, “we call that training.”

He circled around to face me, pistol still aimed at my head. He was breathing heavily, his face was an uneasy grey color, and in general he looked like he was trying his damndest to impersonate a drowned rat, but he was alive.

“Just thought you ought to know something, Jace,” he said, kicking Bateau’s corpse aside so he could lean against the console and catch his breath, “a little fact.”

I glared up at Zeke as though I could make his head explode with my mind or sheer wishful thinking. “Yeah, Zeke, whazzat?”

“He wasn’t aiming at you, amigo. Not by a mile.”

My whole world was falling around me. “What?”

Without taking his eyes or his aim off me, he fished his canteen out of its place on his vest and slugged back several deep gulps. “Yeah. If anything, we cleared you when he was readying his gun and was aiming at me when you shot him.”

I kneeled there, stunned.

Zeke gestured at me with his canteen, looking amused. “First you try to kill me, then you inadvertently save my life – you are an odd little shit, Ramirez, you know that? What did you say to Bateau to get him to aim a piece at me like that?” He shrugged, and checked his aim to make sure the pistol was pointed at square between my eyes. “Oh, well. Not going to let you t-”

Blood exploded from his hip at an oblique angle, and I flinched as a round pinged off the ceiling to my left. In the split second that Zeke was stunned by the attack and the pain, I saw that Bateau had pulled himself up against the port bulkhead and had his pistol raised weakly at Zeke.

“Nothing you’d understand,” Bateau said, spitting blood with each syllable.

“Son of a-” Zeke snarled, twisting to firing his own gun at Bateau.

It was a mistake.

A mistake to take his aim off of me. You see, I have some practice with snap shots.

In a flash, my beretta was up, a casing was flying, and Zeke’s brains were covering what portions of the glass that weren’t painted with Bateau’s blood.

Before Zeke’s corpse even hit the floor, I was at Bateau’s side. His eyes met mine, and his free hand clutched at my shirt. “M-my sister… promise me.”

I clasped his hand in mine. “Tienes mi palabra, hermano.”

I stayed with him, this time, until the end came.

Sixty-Eight

Baylor | November 9th, 2013 | Three days after World’s End

The deal had been to rescue Bateau’s sister, and then we’d talk out whatever beefs we had between us before seeing what to do about Young.

The last corpse wasn’t a minute old when the Russian contacts from Red Room entered the room, guns drawn. Gold tensed at their arrival, but I placed a hand on his arm and waved the Soviets in.

Gold threw me a sideways glance. “You working with the Soviets, now, Baylor?”

I laughed, nodding for the young girl huddled in the corner and motioning her forward. “Not by a mile. But,” I said, aiming my words towards the girl, “’Lise, these men are here to take you to safety. Your uncle still lives in Britain, yes?”

Trying to master her fear, she stood nodded. Brave girl. Better than I was at that age. “My uncle Rhodes. We still keep in touch, I think.”

Smart, too. Any correspondence was likely edited at best and falsified at worst. But with the MIDNIGHT ‘caretakers’ cooling on the carpet Eliza – ‘Lise’ – here would be free to live a life that was divorced from the cycle of revenge her brother had faced.

I turned back towards the Soviet agents that had been sent by SICKLE. “You guys have a passcode or something? I’d hate for this to get ugly.”

The shorter one nodded, offering me a grin that revealed a couple fractured teeth borne from years of hard brawling. “Indeed, Major Baylor. I served with Gennady Muranov for two tours last years. When he heard of your situation now, he bid me to let you know that he if all for paying back the debt from Afghanistan with Zasekin. Or with the hybrids in Hungary. Or with your lady friend with the su-”

I held up my hands, cutting him off. “Thanks, Dmitri. I get the picture.”

Lise took one last look at us before being ushered out of the apartment, and in that one glance, I knew she knew why it was us and not her brother coming to finally rescue her. She hadn’t said anything, but she knew.

When the apartment was empty save for us and corpses, I turned back to Gold. He tensed, his grip on his pistol tightening noticeably. He caught himself in the middle of the wince, and forced himself to relax. “What now, Baylor?”

“I want Young.” I said simply.

Gold crossed to the apartment’s well-stocked minibar and knocked a corpse out of the way, lazily picking through the broken glass to find an unmolested bottle. He came out with some Cuervo and didn’t even bother to find a glass. Brushing some glass and blood off of a nearby stool, he eased himself down, alcohol in one hand, M9 in the other. “Hey, John, why did the chicken cross the road?”

I glared at Gold, who took another swig.

“Oh, so you’re not in the mood for bad jokes. Now, here’s the thing – neither am I.” He lifted his drink once more, only to find it silent when he twinkled the glass back and forth. He looked down at the bottle as though it had betrayed him greatly, before throwing the glass with all his might into the far wall. I flinched as it smashed, leaving the slightest of red stains. It seemed indistinguishable from the blood that we had chosen to redecorate the apartment with.

“Talk to me, Jace,” I said, choosing to stand my ground.

“I started this game at an even earlier age than you did, you son of a bitch. I either played for the home team or it was the needle. I’ve had to bury three teams through action or inaction, and each one was harder than the one that came before. Come PALE HORSE, and I’m not even sure I’m taking orders from MIDNIGHT or some fucking psychopath that’s decided their direction is best.” Resting his hands on the bar, he let out a breath. He drew out his phone from a jacket pocket and briefly checked the screen.

He looked back up at me, gathering himself together. “Before the attack on Skye, Young told me to shadow you and your friend – the intelligence broker over in queens, Lennox. I need to know what her stake in this is.”

“What does she have to do with anything?”

Gold sighed, spinning his phone on the bar. “Let me lay it out for you, John, okay? You want Young. There’s no way, as things stand, that you can get to her. At all. From what I’ve been able to learn, her father’s old guard from the Secret War. And as things stand, she’s MIDNIGHT royalty, a top investor, a mover and shaker. If she’s this rogue agent you’ve been hypothesizing about, you’ll need someone in MIDNIGHT to not only believe she’s gone off the reserve, but convince that person that she needs to be put down. You getting in on the deal is such a cherry on top that you forget about it.”

The lines of logic weren’t hard to trace. “And you’re supposed to be that person.”

He snorted, all decorum that I had known before World’s End gone. Whatever person I had known before the battle, whatever reserved confidant was gone, was now just a half-drunk, scared rat who was caught between three different interests and paralyzed by indecision.

“Shit, no. But I know the person who can get you to her. Thaddeus Teague.”

“Teagle?”

Gold grimaced. “Do me a favor, and don’t call him that name to his face?”

I crossed my arms. No promises.

“Look, listen. Teague is the old guard point man. Their chief operations head. He’s a true believer, and he was the man who brought me into MIDNIGHT… after things went south. If anyone can’t abide a traitor, it’s him, so he’s your best bet to get to Young.”

“You’re kidding. A few days ago, he was chasing me in a friggin’ Little Bird.”

“Most likely because you had just made off with his target. He met you along the way, and if he made you any job offers, well, he always did like recruiting fresh talent.”

“Well, I’ve grown to hate job pitches over the years. What has this got to do with Anne?”

Gold stopped spinning his phone and glanced back down at it. “A foreign intelligence circle came across Ryuhei Akamatsu’s body earlier today. Two dead bodies later, and Miss Lennox had a new boyfriend to take home. I want to know what the hell sort of game she’s playing.”

Storm and I may share a slight resemblance – as far as he was a modified clone of me who had close to a decade of battle scars and broken bones to subtly distinguish himself from me. You’d have to know where to look, though. I honestly didn’t have enough experience to see if Storm would be mistaken for me. Anne would be able to tell us apart by, well, our scars, but could anyone else? The only other person who had seen Storm without his mask was Ridley, and he hadn’t said anything for three years now.

Gold sealed the deal for me. “And most of all, I want to know why’s she’s claiming to have John Baylor over her contact circuit.”

Why?

I felt a sour taste in the back of my mouth. I had faked my death on World’s End. Then I had faked my death again when I had sent MIDNIGHT after Storm. And what now? Was Storm so eager to take my place? What the hell was his deal? I hoped getting shot in the brain would mellow him out a bit to the point where he wouldn’t know what was going on, because if it didn’t kill him, it better damn well change his temperament .

I finally realized I didn’t have the answers.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself?”

Gold scowled. “I don’t think you understand, John. Teague’s gotten orders from Young just ten minutes ago to collaborate with a WEU tactical team to capture Lennox and who they believe to be Baylor.”

I stood up straight, as though electrocuted. “What the hell is WEU doing with a team on American soi- nevermind, that’s obvious. Why is Young tapping them for the operation?”

Spreading his hands, Gold said, “Officially? Lennox is a rogue WEU operative. The team Young’s bringing in will offer valuable expertise and assistance in capturing a known psion. Unofficially? Hell if I know. You know as well as I how much Young hates West Europe. If she can get Teague, Lennox, a WEU team, and whom she believes to be you to all fight it out and hopefully kill one another, it’ll be a mighty feather in her cap.”

He huffed down, leaning his ass on the wall. “Well, there’s no reason to beat around the bush. There’s about one way you’re getting in on this op.”

“Yeah, howzat?”

“If Storm can be you with only a bullet to the face, I don’t see why you can’t be Storm with far less.”

Sixty-Nine

Gold | November 10th, 2013 | Four days after World’s End

I didn’t know how MIDNIGHT managed to rustle up these abandoned warehouses at the drop of a hat. My guess was that they specifically rented out areas for shit to go down in, just owning a block for the sheer purpose of having private space.

Baylor paced in front of me, reminding me uncomfortably of a cheetah or a lion stalking around potential prey. Just waiting, all easy grace on the outside. But I knew Baylor. He was still a ball of anger and doubt, but you’dve had to know the guy for a while to see the signs. The tells were minute, but they could’ve filled a list.

The pills had left me buoyed, and I just let myself rest against the brick wall, berretta resting easy in one hand. They said the mass-prod combat stims weren’t addictive, but I had a feeling they never got FDA approval, if you get my drift.

I put the cell phone back in my pocket. Follow was picking us up, and was maybe ten minutes out. Teague was organizing a team to rescue Anne Lennox and the fake John Baylor and my offer of Storm’s assistance had just been approved by Teague himself.

I knew what Baylor was thinking, even if he kept it to himself. Anything that came out of his mouth were Storm’s thoughts, not him. Baylor shit stayed inside, and went into whatever safe place he used.

We should have seen it coming, the WEU team breaking off. Betrayals are a dime a dozen these days, something of a fashion statement, because no one knows what team is gonna be at the top of standings when the cards fall. And if mixed metaphors aren’t a byproduct of the stims, I didn’t know what was, I thought, as I swiped at my nose and adjusted the collar of my jacket against the cold.

But the WEU team breaking off for their own purposes? Obviously the European faction had its own internal politics and grudges, and brining Lennox in had only aggravated them. The fiasco had, however, given Baylor an in as an outside consultant. WEU had been Young’s additions. Storm was Teague’s.

Baylor stopped, froze, and fixed me with one of those glares that told everyone with internal monologue had just stalled on the subject of his focus. In this case, me.

“What the hell’s your in on all this?” he said in a pitch-perfect imitation of Storm’s hellish growl. “What the hell happened to you, Ramirez?”

I looked away. Fire, blood. My knife twisting in Carla’s guts. I hadn’t been raised for all of this.

“What do you know about your family?” I asked him, finally matching eyes with him.

Baylor shrugged. “I never knew my dad. My mother worked in some capacity with special command, but she died shortly after I was born. Butch went to be raised in Hawaii with my mother’s sister, and I was raised in Chicago by friends of the family. Butch was an all-star, I barely made it through school, even though my foster mother wanted me to grow up, become a doctor, and meet a nice jewish girl.”

“Let me tell you a story, then,” I responded. “Back during the early 2000s, the cabal had three, maybe four main factions.” I counted them out on my fingers in demonstration. “You had the Gale conglomerate, who more or less had a ringer on the complex after the cuts in the nineties. They had maneuvered pretty aggressively during the last decades to monopolize ownership, you see. I don’t think Harkness Gale is actually in charge anymore, someone I don’t know’s been using him as puppet for their interests for a while now.”

I nodded. “That’s one. On the military side of things you had several groups, more or less, but only two really held power after the cullings in the late sixties – the sort of morons who didn’t play the racist games with Hunter in the eighties and were smart enough to play along in the nineties. You had the old-school old warriors, really entrenched types who had been sharks prowling around for decades. They’d had their balls cut off, though, and by this point, by ’01, they’re a dying breed.”

“Then there’s the political side of things. The Razard family had been a moderating influence ever since the civil war with Johnson in the sixties. They had talked things out with Johnson’s advisors and somehow secured a cover for the cabal. And for close to three decades, they were one of the richest and most powerful families in the country.”

Baylor drew out a large knife and began to twirl it between his fingers absently as he listened. The afterlines the blade traced in the air were hypnotic, and I found myself sinking into the story.

“But the factions became stagnant, and some rising stars began to start rattling their sabers, hoping for a change, a shake-up. They remembered how powerful the cabal had been during fifties and early sixties. I still remember the rhetoric about how the cabal had helped win the world war and had made this country strong afterwards, made it a superpower. They wanted it back. The Gale faction hesitatingly supported such a discourse, mostly because whomever was behind Harkness didn’t like his bottom line. The dinosaurs were split – some were nearing their final years and had come to see the Soviets as someone they didn’t have to view as an existential threat anymore.”

The flask was in my hands and the first gulp of liquor was already burning in my throat before I knew it. “Miller Razard was the one who had been floating the idea of partnering with the Russians for years now – he wasn’t to transform the mandate of the cabal, working more towards a global good than a strictly American hegemony.” I took another swig from the flask. “Then nine-eleven hit, and the third gulf war, and everything went out the window.”

“Ethan Carson had been sent to the Paragon to keep him from making trouble, from spreading any ideas. When the Russians experienced an untold surge in global power, influence, and yes, sympathy, the walls all came crumbling down. I still remember the knives in the dark. Carson, and whoever the hell he was allied with, hit hard and fast. It was around this time in ’02. I was maybe sixteen at the time, but I remembered everything perfectly. You see, the cabal starts you young. Ask Follow, Nix’s friend, one day, and if you can get more than a word out of her maybe she’ll tell you.

“But Razard Senior was holding down the first wave of the insurrection and was looking to take out the upstart once and for frickin’ all, so they turned to their closest allies and had them pretend to cozy up with Carson with the intent of placing a knife in his back. That was when Frank Logan – the one you brained in ’05 – busted down the doors of the Razard townhouse, OICWs blazing away.”

I looked out over the dark expanse of the river and paused. The sounds of the gunfire were still clear in my mind, when the door charges went off. “I had known Carson for a couple years at this point, before he had gone bad. We were friends, despite all that had happened. So when the charge disintegrated the front door, my dad handed me his old Colt and a steak knife and told me what I had to do. I knew my family. I was their only son, and that made me rather important, if you catch my drift. The cabal likes to keep things within the family.”

Baylor finally stopped twirling that goddamned knife. “Frank Logan didn’t have to kill anyone himself that day. He just clapped me on the shoulder. I had saved my life, forever ingratiated myself with the new order at the cabal – now MIDNIGHT – and it still took me a week to find out who had sold out my father for a place in the hierarchy.”

“So when you say you want to place a bullet between Olivia Young’s eyes,” I said, getting right up in Baylor’s face, voice going very quiet, very cold, “I say get in fucking line.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Fri Aug 24, 2012 11:05 pm

Reached the end of act 3.

So very confused.
Ah Brother! It's been too long!

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Tue Aug 28, 2012 1:22 am

momentus occasion. i am up to date with stb2.

So Gold has back story. He's sort of playing the same game for the same reason as baylor only he's been doing for longer and from the inside?

When is this backstory monologue supposed to be taking place? Aren't they in the big zillion way firefight in the warehouse? Don't they need to rescue lennox jnr the psychic tyke?
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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Wed May 29, 2013 7:50 am

How can things get worse for our heroes? A whole lot worse, it seems, for John Baylor. It's time to cash out and start laying the cards on the table, with eleven more chapters of STB2.

Act Four - Part Two


Seventy

Baylor | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

Three shots rang out simultaneously. No one, it seemed, was ready to let him live to see another day. I certainly didn’t have a problem with that.

I was perhaps the only one who could track the ensuing disaster, and what a disaster it was. The air around Nix shimmered and three sparks could be seen – three effects I had seen before, I realized, in Cuba, when Ruz had tried to shoot Teagle.

One bullet ricocheted in a stone pillar, the altered and amped kinetic energy of the slug plowing a foot-wide crater out of the support structure. Another bullet hit the fuel drums stacked near the truck, causing a torrent of gasoline to begin pouring out between Nix and I. Long experience assured me that if it didn’t spark just now it’d spark soon, probably at an incredibly inopportune juncture. It’s just how my week had been going.

The third bullet, fired from Ryan’s stolen handcannon, arced away from Nix’s heart and went straight into Anne’s gut.

“Oh, no,” I breathed.

The blue energy around Anne’s hands instantly dissipated, and she slumped over herself, cradling the blood pumping out of the wound in shock.

Nix’s eyes went wide, as though he hadn’t been expecting the outcome. His hand instinctively went to a device on his belt – one that was about the size of a pack of cigarettes and, I realized, had been present on Teagle’s belt back in Cuba. I didn’t have time to question the science, but I swiftly guessed that Nix had lifted the device off of the Colonel at some point as a back-up for when things inevitably went south and the expected orgy of betrayals kicked off.

“Clod,” Nix snarled, gathering himself and taking a quick step towards Ryan, who had been knocked off his feet by the magnum’s recoil, snatching it out of his hands and slamming it down over the boy’s brow, knocking him out in a clean motion. “I was supposed to extract your mom, but I suppose any psion will work.”

“No,” I snarled, taking a TEMPEST-enhanced step forward, but not before-

-I pivoted, letting Follow slide off my shoulder, and turning to brace myself, crossing my arms in an x-shaped guard to shield my face-

-As an entire engine flew out of the smoking mess of the repair shop with the speed of a missile , aimed straight at my head. I just barely managed to brush the impact of the blow to the side, the neural link of the TEMPEST working in tandem with my cybernetics to give me preternatural speed and slap the engine block away, aiming it towards Nix, who was leaning over to scoop up Ryan.

Nix saw the rebounded missile coming and dropped flat to the concrete, letting the engine block sail over his head and shatter apart explosively against a far wall.

“Woah! Baylor, holy shit, man!” he called, his voice full of mocking scorn. “A little heads up, next time, eh?”

I was about to snarl a reply when the red-painted INTETRAL TEMPEST cleared the engine bay, taking the full of my attention.

“You never fail to impress, Major,” the TEMPEST said, presenting a sarcastic bow. “It’s an honor to meet the great John Baylor in person.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said. “Look, uh, this is nice and all, but I’ve got a kid to save, a crisis to avert, you know the deal, so if you can go fangirl someplace else, that’d be fine, thanks.”

The blue faceplate of the suit went clear, and I saw the pilot was, in fact, a girl – or at least a red-haired woman about my age, a familiar sarcastic grin on her face. I would know, because it was a grin I considered my personal specialty. Okay, if she was going to make it personal, so be it.

“Shame not to get your name,” I said, squaring my shoulders and catching Follow’s eye. The MIDNIGHT assassin nodded, and began dashing towards Nix.

Nix saw this and raised the magnum to fire at Follow. Seeing her dodge to the side, he reconsidered, and aimed the revolver at the gasoline, firing and sparking a low wall of fire between him and his opponent. Follow raised her trioculars against the sudden blaze of light – again, why the hell was she so familiar – and rolled her eyes, before leaping forwards the twisted and fallen catwalk to her left and began scaling it with the intent of going over the obstacle.

“As I said,” turning away from the pair and meeting the pilot’s green eyes, “be a shame not to know your name before putting you in the ground. Especially if you’re dead set on slowing me up.”

She shook out her wrists, and I could see the undersides of gauntlets begin to glow with crackling blue electricity. Odds were good that I was looking at some sort of anti-TEMPEST close quarters measure. This was not a fight I wanted to get involved in. I could handle the suit against unarmored troops, but against an actual pilot –

“Major Kennedy Po-“ she began-

“-Yeah, that’s nice,” I cut in, opening fire with my wrist gun.

She swept one arm up in a defensive guard before I had even triggered the gun, the motion catching the arc of bullets in a slice of azure lightning that smote each bullet from its flight. But not before I was turning to run, sighting a jeep parked on the base-side of the garage, opposite the wall of fire. Leaning over, I snagged each side of hood and hefted the vehicle. Servos whirred as I spun the jeep around, smashing through a concrete pillar and sending it like a frisbee towards Major Kennedy.

She was moving at that point, her sprint dropping into a slick-smooth slide, bending back at the knees as the jeep sailed overhead, just as the catwalk above, bereft of its support, dropped down on top of me. I backpedaled, ripping off segments of the steel grating whole and straight-arming them like javelins at the oncoming TEMPEST. Kennedy nudged a leg, dug and arm into the ground and spun across the concrete, the iron poles missing cleaning once, twice, as she twirled toward me, skin armor throwing up a shower of sparks in her wake.

The uppercut hit me at a speed that even I couldn’t track. The blow had to have been softened, or she would have taken my head off like a rock’em sock’em robot. Nevertheless, the punch took me and my hundreds of pounds of powered armor a foot off the ground. I was airborne for half a second, and then Kennedy’s face was near my, eyes glowing behind a helmet, a malicious grin on her face.

Should’ve known better to try that shit on RED CELL, John,” she said in the space of a thought, the message imputing itself through my neural link with the suit as though she was speaking straight into my mind.

Her fingers interlaced into a doubled fist and she drove the blow into my chest, sending me crashing down into the concrete and darkness.

Seventy-One

Storm | 2009 | Five Years Before World's End


“You’re going to need to do a neural dump,” he said, leaning over the monitor.

My eyes blurred, and I could see the medical room around me, a single room for a single patient.

“Yeah,” the man’s compatriot said, leaning over her tablet, stylus flicking left and right. “But it’s difficult to impossible to craft memories from hand. You can delete like no tomorrow, but if you want to create you’re best off just editing an existing memory.”

“And you think this guy’s dump is the best to use?” His voice was dubious to outright distrustful.

She shrugged. “It’s reasonably up to date, up to ’08. That’s the last time our partners had him in custody.”

“Wasn’t that the event in Hungary?”

“What else?” She offered him a quick grin. “Plus, there’s the obvious.”

“You figure using a source’s memories will offer better results,” he said, adjusting the wires that led from his terminal to my head.

“Using MIDNIGHT-standard implants, we saw a decay-rate over the course of a two years. Performance of the asset degraded in tandem. But if we can get a permanent set in, it should take.”

“Why not just mind-wipe him?”

“He’s not some droid, Grigio. Too many wipes can leave a man off balance. Look the source – they were going to retire Baylor to a cryo-tube after the July 4th operation if he survived, but we all know what happened. He’s half-loopy by any reasonable measure these days, and that’s not counting the PTSD.”

“So you’re saying that if we splice in Baylor’s most recent backup, we have a chance at creating a stable memory base?”

She shrugged again. “Landon swears its possible. He points to the boss as an example.”

Grigio fell silent for a good minute after that. Trying not to move and alert them that I was awake, I glanced at the clock on the bottom right of Grigio’s monitor. January 3rd, 2009. I struggled to remember the last time I had been awake, but the memories slid out of my hands like water.

“The procedure starts off simple,” the woman explained. “We do a simple dump on Subject Alpha, using Antenora to tie up the chemical package. It’s only after that we go in and splice to major life events of the dump with the subject’s existing past, the one we got from Gosely. It’ll be painful for him, but he should be up and running, his own man in a couple days. Better hit the head now, we’ve got a solid shift or two of splicing ahead of us.”

Grigio made to stand, but paused. “What’ll it be like? I mean, from his point of view?”

“He’ll go through the life events as we process them. I asked the Landon about it once. He described it as experiencing your most cherished memories one last time before they slip through your fingers. At first it’s a trickle between your digits and by the end it’s being ripped from you and you can’t even recall it.”

“Jesus, Powers, how would Landon even know that?” Grigio looked distinctly green at the gills.

“I didn’t ask,” she said, flicking a red strand of hair out from in front of her glasses, watching Grigio flee the room. Grimacing, Powers turned to me, noticing I was awake. “I always wonder if there’s some sort of base identity under all of that conditioning.”

The numbing effect of the tranquilizers meant I couldn’t do much more than meet her eyes. I couldn’t even marshal up a glare, just a vague narrowing of my eyes. Of course, she was right. I lived firmly in the present and as such was only a simple tool in the worlds of the boss. But to be useful, I had to have agency. And to have agency, I had to have a past.

Grigio returned, wiping his hands on his slacks. “So, you ready, Kai?”

Powers nodded, shaking herself from her thoughts and tearing her eyes away. I felt the human contact drag itself away, and I returned to simply being an inanimate object strapped to a bed.

“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s get too it.”

*******

It’s the Fourth of July and my hero is pointing a chaingun at my head.

The base is on fire, fighter jets carrying out close-range bombing runs as flak guns boom. Bodies are everywhere, blood is on every surface, including my own gloved, burned hands. I look down at them, and turn them palms up, seeing the material of the gloves have partially melted away. The pain hasn’t hit me yet, and I’m fairly sure my bloodstream is pure adrenaline at this point.

The pain in my chest finally catches up with me, and I realize the mech had swatted me across the hangar. The first in a long tradition, I’m sure.

My vision clears just as the SHADOW TEMPEST places one gigantic foot on my chest.

Carson is speaking to me, but all I can focus on is the gun a couple inches from my face.

Don’t focus on the words.

Focus on the events.


“No,” I say. But I’m not saying it, it’s me as a third party, looking down.

“No?” Carson asks Baylor – me – Baylor – me.

“No. I’m a United States –“ I feel the edit cut in like a knife. I’m United States Army, Delta Force - yeah, that works. I’m Delta Force, and I know that much as I drive the lit flare into the ankle of the SHADOW TEMPEST.

The missile strike wipes my memory event and the hangar of the Paragon fall away around me, shelves of concrete simply plunging down into a white abyss.

******

It’s two years prior and I’ve decided to join the Army. The recruiter looks me up and down and laughs, chuckling that they weren’t in the business of hiring scarecrows. He points to a field off the highway strip mall I can stand guard over. I’ve failed the physicals twice – I’m just not strong enough.

As I sit on the pavement outside a nearby supermarket and sip out of a bottle of water, I see a woman stumble up against the side wall of the store. Even if I can’t see the blood from here, the way she is holding her hand to her side clearly tells me she’s wounded. I rush over, shucking my jacket to offer her as I also fish out my cell phone. She waves away the cell phone but accepts my aid none the less. I see a black eye and assume domestic abuse, I never really recognize the wounds on her side as bullet wounds. A haze fills over this section of memory, separate from whatever revision the WRAITH techs are implementing – it’s as if the mental block came as-if with the memory dump.

I take a brown bandanna from my pocket and press it against the slash on her side, meeting her eyes. Marshaling my courage, I brush a strand of brown hair, wet with blood, from over her face and ask her name.

She favors me with a small smile and answers as though replying with honesty for the first time in her life. “Jensen. Ashe Jensen.”

*******

Time rushes forward and it’s now right before everything changes in Chad. A pivotal life event, swallowed by another.

The Hungarian made good on his word. Even if I had put a bullet in his head at the base of a monument, saw his body fall over the nuclear warhead, drape over it, his word was still binding. I’m in surgery for a couple weeks after the bout with Ridley against Alexis and the Hungarian’s men. I’m only awake for a couple hours in those weeks, and only at the end of the traction do I learn that Ashe and Jacky car had been driven off the road outside of Rammstein. I rip myself out of the ward and commandeer a Humvee with Alder at my side.

It’s raining when he reach the highway shoulder, visibility cut to a minimum. It’s doused most of the fire, but I can see wreckage crews clearing the remains of the battered chassis, split in half around a tree. There’s not much in the way of bodies, and I’m fairly sure I can’t handle the sight of them anyway. I break at that moment. I kneel on the slick pavement, Alder’s hand on my shoulder, and everything stops.

I can see the soft strands of divergence, nudges. I don’t take the wounds and simply bottle them in, throwing myself in my job, dousing them under an air of nonchalance and irreverence. I don’t do any of that. I take the crisis point and build out from it, using it as the basis working forward. I volunteer for special projects. The image of Chandra Gosely, sitting in a dark Washington apartment, appears, now dressed in a suit as she leads me towards the labs.

She promises me nothing but pain and death. I should have listened. I should have listened to her, to the recruiter, and stayed in college. But I’m submitting to the treatments, and I’m different on the other side.

*******

I duck under the jeep, just avoiding the sweep of the spotlight and finally getting a good line of sight on the prisoner cages. They’re empty, of course. The only remaining POW is tied to a post in the center of the camp, being used as a punching bag by the Burmese commander.

I shift my knife to between my teeth as I roll onto my back and snag my remaining brick of C4. I attach it to the bottom of the gas tank, priming the detonator for remote triggering. Distraction, the third of which spread across the camp.

In any other world, I manage to move into position, trigger the diversions, and rescue my brother. He’s grateful as I pass him a Kalashnikov and together we proceed to take on half a division and win.

It’s not to be. I see the Burmese commander raise his pistol and, before I can draw a bead on him, but a bullet in my brother’s head. Strong arms drag me roughly out from underneath my hiding spot and I chained up opposite my brother. The commander has replaced his Desert Eagle knockoff with a wicked looking knife, which he rests lightning on my cheek.

He asks me why I’m smiling at him. He doesn’t see the dissonance in the situation. I don’t have friends. Or family. I join WRAITH a broken man, alone, easy pickings for Chandra Gosely.

The commander moves forward, deciding to make my smile permanent. Fact begins to blend with fiction, and suddenly my own memories are being used. Mine – Akamatsu’s – and not Baylor’s. I see the scene from a different angle. I’m tied to a post, head down, lips torn open in a vicious grin. I appear dead to the outside world.

I can only watch as the man with the red bandana triggers the explosives spread across the camp and, in the confusion, gets the drop on the commander. The commander’s knife ends up in his throat. An ironic one-liner is dispatched, and the Baylor brothers go to war.

I manage to pick myself out of the wreckage of the camp three hours later and call for evacuation to the Cambodia base. The diamonds I had been sent to retrieve from the base safely in hand, I file away the man in the red bandana for future reference. If I ever run into him again, that is.

The point of intersection provides the breakthrough point for Powers to begin building a fictional history for me. But somehow I know, deep down, that’s it’s a falsehood. It’d take me years, maybe decades to realize the deception, but I lay the seeds there while I’m still in possession of my faculties.

*******

I’ve taken everything back to zero. To my earliest memory. It’s fittingly my inspiration for everything, to eventually join the military.

He appears at the front door, clad in his dress uniform, an eyepatch over one eye. I’m instantly enthralled, and I put down my Darth Vader action figure to watch the man converse with my aunt.

Butch is out on the beach, building his own sand castle, but I hide just outside the kitchen and try to listen in on the conversation the man is having with my aunt. I don’t really follow it, but I remember the man’s tone – he’s broken, melancholy, talking with the tone of a man who’s left something vital behind in a far-away land.

Eventually he notices me and together we sit on the front steps of the porch, watching the sunset as my aunt remains tearfully at the kitchen table, simply shaking.

The man watches the sunset for a time that seems like an eternity to my young mind, one hand scratching his beard. He eventually reaches into his coat and retrieves a photo, showing it to me. It’s my mom, standing with two men. All are smiling, even if the man with the close-shaved head is doing it grudgingly. The other man, I realize, is the officer sitting beside me, but with both eyes intact.

The man knew my mother, he explains. Worked with her for close to a year, and grew to care for her.

I ask him if my mother’s coming back.

Kailee – your mom – won’t be coming back. He buries his face in his hands. Chirst, he says, was he bad at this. But I realize later that he’s sworn to do this, that he promised himself to carry out this task.

I struggle to keep my voice level as I offer the statement for him. My mom won’t be coming back.

He nods. He tells me that my mother was the bravest person he had ever known, that she had died saving millions of people. This is all too much for me, and all I can do is watch the sunset with the man as we talk about my mother for hours. The man is worn, beat, but as he stands he puts one hand on my shoulder and swears that if I grow up to even be a tenth the person my mother was the world will be a markedly better place.

I, in all my three-year-old wisdom, offer the man my hand. He chokes out a chuckle and shakes it, before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a tattered brown bandanna. I smiles wanly as he ties it around my forehead. With it, he tells me, I can accomplish anything.

Seventy-Two

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

It wasn’t easy, but I sat up, and in doing so, threw off the chains of my past. Everything came rushing back to me, but I fought it off piece by piece. The lies fed to me just hours ago by Thern. They were as dead as he was on the pavement. The past supplied to me by Chandra Gosely and the WRAITH scientists. A falsehood, burning up in the flames not feet away from where I laid. The life of John Baylor, his history mingling with the smoke, the mental block and self-hatred and everything fading into the air above.

The weight of the chemical blocks supplied by the neural chip in my mind nearly threw me unconscious again, but under the weight of all the mental dissonance, the chip finally short-circuited after five years of operation. Maybe it was the gunshot to the head that spelled the death-knell to the device that had shaped me for half a decade, but I didn’t care why. I realized I’m finally free, unburdened by a past that isn’t mine.

I looked around, and saw a future that I’m free to shape for myself.

The first issue was the bullet wound in my shoulder. The nanomachines in my bodies had thinned the bleeding to a clear trickle of fluid and I rolled my shoulder, testing the mobility. Adequate.

I stood up. It seemed appropriate.

It was only then that I realized the lies of the past weren’t the only thing going up in flames. The sleeve of my jacket was on fire, and I practically convulsed in place as I struggled to get out the garment.

Shoving the tattered fabric away from me, I glanced left and right for a weapon. A spent rocket launcher. No good. A twisted handrail. Better. Reaching over, I tore the pipe from the fallen catwalk and tested its weight. It would do.

Catlike, the MIDNIGHT assassin landed not five feet away from me in an easy crouch. She looked like she was ready to snap my neck or put that tiny derringer of hers into my chin. I didn’t want to take my chances with a second bullet to the head, but I caught her gaze behind the tri-ocs.

She saw something in my face and some measure of tension in her neck eased, or at least was directed elsewhere. As if breaking some sort of internal code, she ground out, “Finally.

Her voice was ragged, worn, and bound by sense of fatigue I’d never heard before. The Colt .45 she passed me was no less battered. I accepted it, racking the slide, and glancing over at the jeep that was currently peeling its way up the garage’s ramp and out of sight.

Kicking a slab of burning wreckage out of the way, I cleared the path between us and the woman left bleeding on the concrete.

Anne Lennox clutched at the gunshot wound, and had already managed to get her button-down wadded up and pressed down over the flow of blood.

I knelt and scooped her up in a single smooth motion, hustling after Follow towards one of the few unmolested vehicles in the garage.

Her eyes widened when she realized it was me. “I’m sorry,” she babbled, clearly going into shock. “I only wanted to make you a better person.”

“I know,” I said, shushing her as I leapt into a bed of the Humvee, simply clearing the hatch. “And I’m grateful for that. We’ve all got skeleton in our closets,” I said, meeting – or at least I thought behind the tri-ocs – Follow’s eyes through the rearview mirror. “But right not we’ve got to stop a two-bit asshole from making off with Ryan.”

“John?” she asked, trying to marshal herself as I fished out a first aid kit from underneath the passenger seat. Follow tossed the Humvee into gear and the truck jumped forward, hot on Nix’s heels.

“Covering our exit.” After a pause, I added, “in an INTEGRAL TEMPEST, if I saw that correctly.” Seeing Anne’s eyes widen, I offered her a small smile. “Hey, it’s not the craziest thing that happened so far. The lady driving us shot me in the head a couple days ago because she thought I was John.”

Anne looked like she was going to try to sit up, but I shushed her again and fished out the stabilization serum from the kit. The knock-off American e-meds wouldn’t do much more than keep Anne from bleeding out, but anything was better than the road she was on right now. Biting off the syringe’s cover, I injected Anne before making sure she was secure and clambering into the front seat beside Follow.

I expected light to hit us as we cleared the end of the ramp and bounced onto level ground, but was instead met by the sight of a barely lit subway tunnel curving into darkness. It was clearly still under construction, judging by the scaffolding Follow barely managed to serve away from.

“You know where these tunnels lead?” I shouted to Follow over the roar of the engine.

She shrugged. “Old idea. Easy covert movement. Abandoned a decade ago. No idea if restarted.”

“You getting paid in brevity?” I asked. She shot me a look, and I shook my head. “Sorry. Baylor’s still rattling around in here. Used him as a memory base.”

She shook her head a manner that all but muttered ‘figures.’

The red taillights of Nix’s jeep appeared not soon after and leaned out of the window, levelling my pistol, bracing it and patiently working on a clean shot.

I felt Follow’s sudden tension and I smiled. “Relax. Few years ago I could pull off better shots one-handed while running after a Humvee with close to eight bullets in me.”

I could see Nix hadn’t lined up Ryan behind his seat, affording him a modicum of protection behind a hostage, but I wasn’t complaining. I let out a slow breath and fired-

Seventy-Three

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

-Just as he dropped a foot as our tunnel merged with a larger two-lane affair. That wasn’t what threw me aim off, however, sending the bullet ricocheting off Nix’s left mirror. What threw off my aim was the truck that had plowed into our right bumper at roughly equal speed.

I whirled and instantly sighted the two men in the truck’s bed aiming machine guns at us. Balaclava types, the same from the WEU base. I opened fire, not bothering to aim, forcing the men to duck down before they could hit me or, more probably, Anne. Having forced the gunmen out of the way, I shifted my colt down to point at the driver. Two shots cracked against bulletproof glass. Frigging finally, bulletproof glass. At least someone had an ounce of sense.

Hearing the screech of tires, I saw a new pair of headlights swing wildly across the speeding walls of the tunnel and I realized that Nix had whirled his car around to drive in reverse, probably intent on opening up on Follow. I heard gunshots being traded and, content the situation was kinda sorta we’re screwed not at all under control, I put the rest of my magazine into the truck’s grille. Smoke began to pour from between the chrome fronting, but not enough to put a dent in the vehicle’s pace.

Gritting my teeth, I threw myself back into the humvee’s bed, rolling and coming up with the scorched railing. In a single bound, I crossed the distance between our car and the truck, landing nimbly on the hood. I barely managed to brace myself before one of the gunmen behind the truck’s cab saw the leap and popped up from behind his cover, aiming his SCAR at my face. It was a swift reaction, but he wasn’t superhuman.

I swung the pipe backhanded and cracked it across the side of his skull. I didn’t see much of the resulting damage, but considering the way the man’s skull sagged in the ‘clava as he went down it wasn’t pretty.

By that time the second gunman had lined up a shot. The bullet winged my gut, but I’d already twisted to the side latching onto the right side of the truck’s nose. Twisting my grip on the rail before my opponent could adjust his aim, I put all my strength into straight-arming the rebar through the metal of the truck just below the windshield, finding a breaking point as the makeshift javelin spears the driver at an oblique angle.

He jerked reflexively, spitting up blood, and the gunman’s shots go wide into the ceiling. The driver thankfully dragged the wheel to the left in his death throes, spinning me closer to the Follow’s Humvee. I took a split second to line up the jump before I pushed off, landing and skidding up against the passenger seat, breaking the back of the seat under the force of the impact.

The jeep was pulled into a sudden turn at breakneck speeds entered a violent roll, shedding debris like nothing else. I didn’t give them good odds on the insurance claim.

I had just steadied myself in the bed of the Humvee when a bullet whizzed by my ear, this time from the direction of – I saw Nix firing through a jagged hole in his windshield, the other hand partially on the wheel, middle finger raised in stark salute. I put my hand on my chest in a shocked who, meeee? gesture and considered rushing Nix’s car. The magnum gave me pause – if I was knocked off the trucks I didn’t know if I could catch up in time to make a difference. While the rifle round in my shoulder wasn’t really distracting, I didn’t know my limits just yet.

Ducking down to minimize my profile, I afford myself a chuckle. I had just trashed a truck with two armed gunmen on it. This sonuvabitch was low-tier compared to this.

I leaned over to catch Follow’s ear. She was sunk deep in her seat, one knee up and adjust the wheel, the other the gas as she reloaded a Glock that I had no idea where she had obtained. It was a ridiculous position to be in, but I supposed not everyone was could shrug off bullets.

“How well can you hold his attention?” I shouted into her ear. She shot me a look that contained enough exasperation to power a small town. “You know the deal,” I said, squeezing her shoulder and standing back up.

Nix focused on me instantly, shifting his aim to my center mass. I responded by ripping the passenger’s seat of the Humvee from its bolted moorings and out, steadying my legs. Follow, perhaps chafed that Nix wasn’t focusing on her any more, opened back up with her Glock, forcing Nix back down into a pose similar to hers lest he be ventilated.

I took a split second to judge the throw and then fastballed the seat at the jeep. The cushions wouldn’t have done much, but the L-shaped metal backing to the seat more than made up for the fact. I could see Nix’s eyes go wide, and he served to avoid the incoming missile, which sheared off his left mirror with a brief shriek of impact.

The seat hadn’t even crumpled against the speeding walls of the tunnel by the time I had vaulted the humvee’s cab and had made the dizzying leap over the gap between the two hoods. I found myself face to face with Nix, or more importantly, his magnum.

In that precise moment, I froze, and lost all my figurative momentum. I hadn’t expected Nix’s reflexes to be that fast – I realized, too late, that I wasn’t dealing with a baseline human.

“And to think,” Nix said, taking aim at my forehead. His voice was jovial, but I could feel the undercurrent of rage, born of years of jealousy. “That you’re supposed to be the final product.”

I shifted my weight, and in that moment, Nix pulled the trigger.

Two gun shots rang out.

Follow’s aim hadn’t quite been dead true in the literal sense of the phrase, but the furrow the 9mm cut across Nix’s shoulder sent his aim off just enough.

The magnum shell hit me in my wounded shoulder and spun me off the hood, limbs flailing like a windmill. I only just managed to dig my fingers into the crevice where the hood ended, leaving my legs dragging across the ground at high speeds while hung onto the side of the jeep with only one arm. The pain was starting to become somewhat noticeable, but I was more worried about how precarious my situation was.

That, of course, was the moment things decided to get worse.

Seventy-Four

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

We entered a section of the tunnel where construction was obviously still ongoing, with a long row of scaffolding dividing the two lanes, flashing by in barely perceived glinted of metal and wood under headlights and the rare floodlamp. Nix, of course (of course, of course, I should acting surprised this is happening) decided do what any good chase scene driver would do when he had an unwanted passenger – he decided to scrape me off.

Jerking the wheel hard, Nix sent the jeep hurtled off to the side, through the metal bars in an explosion of dust and wooden shards, with me as the tip of his jeep-shaped missile. Nothing snapped, but the section of metal I was holding onto peeled back like the skin of an orange, leaving me dangling out in front of the jeep. Due to the angle of the maneuver I didn’t catch the brunt of the impact, but I had twist out of the way as several pieces of rebar attempted to perforate me.

Follow made to, well, follow the shift, but just in case things weren’t bad enough the section of ceiling that Nix’s side of the tunnel was on, bereft of some sort of support, began to collapse in thick chunks, biting at my heels, keeping pace with us. I tried to pull my legs in, knowing that if I poked my head up Nix would most likely put one between my eyes.

The Humvee gunned forward, moving nearly parallel to the jeep, and I saw Follow sizing up her choices. She could try for a shot at Nix – if she killed him, she’d take Ryan and I out as well, removing three huge threats to any future operations with a single bullet. She’d be murdering an ally and a child, but situation contained, you know.

I glanced up, despite myself, and saw Nix with both hands on the wheel, struggling to control the jeep as he outraced the collapsing tunnel. If there was a time to take the shot, it was now.

Follow gritted her teeth and threw her gun back into the Humvee, letting out a curse that I couldn’t hear over the sound of revving engines and collapsing masonry. What I did notice, however, was her pulling the humvee in closer and offering me her hand. But glanced back up at Nix, confused. She shook her arm for emphasis. This was a one-time deal.

Gritting my teeth, I pushed off the front of the jeep, aiming between a gap in the scaffolds. There was a moment where I thought I was going to be caught in the advancing wave of collapsing concrete or wrapped around a scaffold, but I managed to squeeze through and catching Follow’s hand, fingers wrapping tight. I bounced off the side of the Humvee, once, twice, denting the metal of the door as Follow swerved to the right, away from the axis of the collapse.

I felt the Humvee decelerating before I came to my senses enough to get a grip on the side of the Humvee and look over my shoulder and prepare myself for a second go. Rubble was piled not a hundred feet away, where the tunnel again split into two – there was no way to catch up with Nix. I caught one last glimpse of him through the scaffolds, his jeep finally under control, as he offered me a friendly salute before I lost sight of him.

The Humvee came to a skidding halt, the passenger side crunching uncomfortably into the wall of wreckage, and I released my deathgrip on the Humvee. I flopped back onto my back, hands on my chest as I tried to finally catch my wind. Three years ago before MI5 had washed out the control nanomachines from my system I could have handled this on my own – hell, I wouldn’t have needed a jeep. A week ago I could’ve worked with Follow to bring Ryan back and cave Nix’s face in. Now, after a vicious brawl with a cyborg, a pair of bullets to the head, and a couple more in my torso, I was coming against my limits. Hell, I hadn’t even used the term except in situations that involved words like “Alexis” and “Starr.”

I finally rolled to my feet and went to the humvee’s bed to see if Anne was okay. She was unconscious, but, in my opinion, stable. The stabilization serum had done its job, and provided she received medical attention that didn’t come from a glowing syringe sometime soon, she wasn’t in danger of joining her late husband in the great beyond.

The driver’s door swung open beside me, and I heard Follow’s boots touch gravel as she sighed, running her hands through her hair and pulling up her tri-oculars. I saw her face out of the corner of my eye – hard blue eyes, sharp eyebrows, and my suspicions as to her identity were mostly confirmed.

“The shot,” I said into the silence. “Why didn’t you take it?”

She leaned against the hood and began calmly reloading her various sidearms. “I’ve done more than my fair share of terrible things. But I don’t kill kids.”

“Not even to stop a guy like Nix?”

She stopped feeding bullets into her derringer and set it down on the hood, turning finally to face me. “There was a time a decade ago that I would have agreed with you. But not anymore.”

I didn’t expect any elaboration, nor did she offer it. Instead, I shifted the subject. “Who was that guy, anyway, beyond being someone skilled enough to be on the loose a few days after being dropped off in custody with a bullet in each knee?”

She paused, lips pursing. “You mean you don’t know?”

“I know he’s got a hate-on for me and that, given a little bit of surgery…” I trailed off, rubbing my chin. “’Final product.’ Of course. That does explain a hell of a lot.” I mused on that for a moment. “Shouldn’t we go back and see if Baylor needs help?”

She let out a strangled laugh. “I take it you didn’t see who he was facing? If he’s not dead, he’s on his way to meet Young right now. No help for him now.”

I grimaced, adjusting Anne into a more comfortable position before wiping away blood from a cut on her face. “You think they’re still in the complex behind us?”

“If they aren’t, they certainly left behind a couple of traps. I’m sure there’s an access shaft along this tunnel that we can use to reach the surface and call for pick-up from.” Finishing with her pistols, she climbed back into the driver’s seat. “We need to report in.”

Seventy-Five

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

It was near noon when the SUV pulled into MIDNIGHT warehouse. Teague stood at the waterfront, calming smoking a cigar, his back to us.

“I take it Nix is working for Young?” he asked as Follow climbed out of the passenger seat.

“Took Ryan Lennox with him,” I said. “Mentioned something about psions being interchangeable.”

“And Baylor?”

Follow laughed. “Deciding to face off against the Redhawk in an INTEGRAL TEMPEST? He’s on his way to Young now.”

Teague turned his head, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, so you’re talking now?”

She waved a hand lazily at me. “This one figured out the old neural blocks from when I ended the undercover assignment. Or at least, the ones thy inherited when they implanted Baylor’s memories. No risk of triggering relapse.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “It’s obvious they traded places in all the chaos of the aftermath. What isn’t obvious is why you left a novice to go against the Kennedy Powers knowing what would happen to him.”

Follow began dropping her gear on a nearby table. “I – we – needed a backup plan in case Nix got away with Ryan. With Baylor meeting Young, there’s not really a doubt he’ll stir up enough shit for us get a new opening.”

I frowned, watching a pair of medics began tending to Anne. “You go from ‘if he survives’ to ‘I’m sure he’s meeting her now.’”

Teague took a long pull on his cigar, brow furrowed. “No, she has a point. Young would want him alive, if only to figure out what he kno-” He trailed off, noticing Follow had disappeared. “I hate it when she does that.”

Sidling up next to Teague, I asked, “She do that often?”

“You have no idea,” Teague growled. “She used up too many words, so I suspect she just disappeared in a poof of effort.”

I waited, letting Teague keep talking.

“She wasn’t always like that, you know,” Teague finally said. “She used to light up the room whenever she walked into it. Why do you ask?”

I spread my hands. “Is this turning into a question for question sort of deal?”

Teague rolled a shoulder before reaching into his pocket and offering me a cigar. I paused for a second for accepting it and letting him light it for me. I took a deep draw, waiting.

“I’ve always been a fair’s fair sort of guy,” Teague said. “Let’s take you and Baylor for example. We’re working together – yeah, that’s what it is – for now to take down the MIDNIGHT traitor. And once she’s in the ground, you or Baylor will follow her.” He let that hang for a moment, before adding, “I’m not really that particular. But you never answered my question.”

“She seemed almost exasperated when she finally started talking. I thought it was odd, is all. No, what about this bullshit about messing with a neural block?”

“She may have had a point a couple years ago – mind wipes and the like are delicate things. When they’re set, you’d have to induce some major trauma to throw off the conditioning – but you already know about that, I would guess. But right when they’re fresh and new? A trigger phrase, and half-remembered moment – anything can shatter the false reality. I’m assuming they used Baylor’s history for your neural imprint – I’m guessing up to, what, Hungary?”

I shrugged, rolling the shoulder with the bullet in it. The pain had already begun to recede, give it a couple hours and the pain would be beyond anything but a minor buzz. “I saw Baylor meeting her back in, what, oh-three? Oh-four? Was it originally an op from the beginning?”

Teague laughed, stroking his beard. “Believe it or not, no. She had just escaped from a job that nearly cost her her life. Baylor met her, didn’t ask too many questions, and by the time she learned that he was a test subject in the goddamn Paragon program he had blown it halfway to hell. What started out innocent became an actually assignment. I don’t know what happened between them between that and the Hungarian Incident, but by the time the order came for her to extricate herself tensions were running pretty high. I think the threat that fucking madman made against her life was the excuse she’d been waiting for. But I’d ask you, if she had washed her hands of the assignment and moved on for going on five years, why expose herself to Baylor at the UN a few days ago?”

I hadn’t realized she had done that. Baylor had mentioned back on the ride out of Cuba he had seen Nix back in New York with a sidekick, but I hadn’t know it had been Follow. “We all like to poke our heads in to see how things are going. Kroner let me visit a grave every year, you know that? How fucked up is that? ‘Look, go lay flowers on your fake wife’s grave.’ They probably thought it was hilarious.” I paused. “Whose idea was the cloning project, originally?”

“Kroner had been working on cloning tech for decades, he had that puzzled out by the second time he popped up after a confirmed kill. I didn’t personally know he was collaborated with Ethan until I was landed with… custody is the closest word I can think of, custody of Nix. Ethan had the mind wipe tech that Kroner desperately needed, it was only a continuation of their business relationship.”

“You use his first name,” I put in. “How well did you know him? On a scale of one to ‘I’d make him Nix’s godfather’ how close were you?”

He regarded me obliquely, rolling his cigar between his fingers. “That’s two, and I’m fairly sure Baylor’s imprint is still floating around somewhere.”

I grinned easily at him. “That rubbed off on me long before the imprint frayed. It was almost like we were tracing opposite paths – I was regaining my humanity as he threw himself into a hunt against you guys and Kroner. It wasn’t pretty. But you knew Carson?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I know him. Ethan was harsh even before getting locked in an Iranian prison for close to two years, but something about him broke during OPERATION SANDFIRE. I don’t think any of us made it out of that war intact. By the time I learned he and Young had stabbed Miller in the back, I gave up my position as a Senior Partner. Young assumed her father’s position in the group, they filled Miller Razard’s seat, but they always left my chair open. I think Ethan views it as an olive branch, but I don’t need it any more than the promotions that get tossed my way every so often. I’m simply off the books, and that suit me just fine.” He took another puff on his cigar. “What do you think of Ramirez? Honest reading?”

I paused, unsure how to tackle the question. “He’s obviously had dealings with Young, and that data from the island had to go somewhere. But on the other hand, if I had to guess, he was the one who told you guys that I was Baylor. He told you, right?”

Teague smiled, still scratching at his beard. “It was phrased so diffidently, the footage passed along so smoothly I had to think back to make sure it wasn’t my own discovery. But yes, we had the data that a kill-on-sight target had just escaped certain death, and in my business it’s better to be safe than sorry. And even then, look what happened. Follow volunteered for the assignment so quickly I was a bit taken aback, to be honest. Still, it’s a cold business, and she’s one of the coldest. Do you think she recognized it was you and not Baylor?”

“I’m not sure,” I said after trying to recall those last few minutes. “I was using a Five-seveN that Baylor had dropped back on World’s End, and quite obviously no one’s been able to tell us apart after the surgery,” I gestured vaguely at my mouth, “and in so short a time as well. Hell, I had always assumed some relation, but I never saw any need to follow up on it. Ridley and the British took me in after the Civil War, and I can safely guess he had an idea. But Baylor never saw me without my mask. It was always in the back of my mind, though, the possibility, until Baylor confirmed it on World’s End. ‘Subject Alpha,’ or somesuch. But what does that make Nix? The prototype?”

“It goes a long way to explaining his outview on the world. He was always a bit of a fatalist – he never felt he had a carved out identity of his own, which might explain his obsession with being able to come and go as he pleased. I tried to teach him some sense of honor as a soldier, but he quickly found he was most lethal when he could assume any identity he wished with no locked door an impediment. He worked with the Kennedy Powers over at RED CELL for a couple years, so by the time he was dumped in a locked room whose thumb coded lock could respond to John Baylor’s thumbprint, it was game over for Hank Easly.” He stood there for a couple minutes, calmly smoking his cigar. “Did he give any indication as to his motivations when he switched sides?”

“My minds not really clear around that point,” I said, “but I’m fairly sure he indicated his boss needed a psion for his plan to continue, and a ‘lesser talent’ would have to do. You have any idea what use a psion would be?”

“I’m not sure, but did have a quick look at a copy of the data Ramirez brought back. The work on the island seemed to focus on the compound they termed Antenora. It’s a long line of bullshit involving Monoliths, cybernetics, Romero Virus, AI coding, and you guessed it, psionics. It was how you mixed up the ratio of all of that mad scientist bullshit that you derived different strains of Antenora. One strain worked with mental linking, allowing Kroner to mind hop between clones. Another could be blended with nanomachines to create a mass-produced meta – at first, Nix, then you, and down the line the juggernaut-types you faced in Cuba. I’d wager the latter was a weaker iteration, though, judging by the fact that you haven’t mutated into something you’d find in a Lovecraft story.

“Anyway,” Teague continued, “The lead scientist caught onto something in his final year – Antenora-Delta. It had an airborne vector, and worked on a wider scale than the mind-linking scheme Kroner used. But here’s the thing Baylor didn’t see in the scientist’s log – Delta could also cause massive deterioration in its subject – you were looking at a super virus beyond the scale of Ebola or a super-fly strain. But the spread was controllable, you see. The psion needed to network the Delta’s release to create what amounted to hive mind, and even if control decayed, you could still stop the spread of the virus with a thought.”

“So they hook Ryan up some machine and they have a perfectly controllable terrorist attack on their hands – but what use does Young have with creating some sort of a freaky collective? She wan-“

“Oh, shit,” Teague breathed. “We’re looking at a Paradox-level event.”

I nearly dropped the cigar. “A what?”

“I wasn’t sure she’d go ahead with it, but the pieces are falling into place.”

“But what’s a Paradox event?”

“The so-called MIDNIGHT PARADOX,” Teague said. “She’s going to go through with it.”

Seventy-Six

Storm | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

“Look, Ethan proposed this back in the late nineties when he was expanding the sphere of influence for the Paragon. We had agreed from the very beginning that we’d ultimately be protecting America. We’d sell to WRAITH, if only to direct focus away from America herself. I always thought we were protecting America’s people. A casualty here or there was business, but what Ethan suggested, and what was later endorsed by Olivia Young was a false-flag attack on American soil. The PARADOX. Killing Americans and pinning the blame on someone else.”

“But a conspiracy is hard to manufacture,” I said.

“Exactly,” Teague said. “The results would have to be so blown up that nobody would look at the origin. A new war – millions on new jobs, money to bring a stagnant economy out of the gutter. And when the economy began to stutter after Soviet advances in the latter part of the decade, the Senior Partners quietly considered PARADOX. It was strongly voted down, but if Young’s gone maverick, none of that matters.”

“But against who?” I asked. “We’ve made gains with the Soviets under Kiralova. The Middle East is half tapped out. The leaves the east and… well, there we go. Whose idea was it to involve the goddamn WEU undercover team?”

“It was Nix’s,” Teague said. “He’s big on proxies. Probably something he picked up from Young. I was ordered from the Senior Partners to capture any and all NTET assets in the area. Easly had been transferred to an interrogation facility on the other side of the world, and we had a directive to capture Anne Lennox, former WEU operative. So Nix suggested we establish contact with a WEU team that we had known had been existed undercover a couple years now. If anyone would have experience neutralizing a psion it’d be them.”

“But they didn’t,” I said. “Or they did a hell of a shitty job. Back at the base, it was clear Thern was losing it, and if Nix’s speech was any indication, Thern had been influenced in some way, as had his tea- you don’t think it was A-Delta, do you?”

“I’d give it good odds,” Teague said, chewing on his stub of a cigar. “Or at least a weaker version of that. The log indicated the scientist took a trip to Southeast Asia to run an experiment or do something with Delta. And reports are sketchy…”

“Let me guess,” I said, crossing my arms. “Something’s going down in Asia.”

“Like I said,” Teague continued, “reports are sketchy, but it necessitated the deployment of a major asset to the area last week. We lost contact with three days ago, and it only just reestablished an uplink a few hours ago. It’s a separate chain of command, so I’m not privy to the results, but if I had my guess, it’d have something to do with a test-run for Antenora-Delta.” He trailed off. “I need to get in contact with network and determine where the attack is likely to happen.”

“And what about Baylor?” I asked, flicking the cigar out into the river.

Teague snubbed out his cigar in the palm of his glove before turning to leave. “I can always judge a person by what they can accomplish when their back is to a wall and they are at their lowest. In that regard, the Major never fails to disappoint.”

“Even if he reaches too far and it ends up killing him?” I said.

Teague retrieved a pair of aviators from his coat and climbed into a Humvee, starting up the engine. “He’s like his mother that way. Do what you need to do, but we’re rolling on Young at midnight.”

“As good a time as any,” I growled, watching the Colonel’s car peel out of the garage.

I found myself alone in the warehouse, beyond a handwritten note on the gear table. It was short and to the point. Anne had been moved to the Presbyterian Hospital, the same that President Skye was in. I was welcome to visit her but she was currently in intensive surgery. The phone next to the note was a throwaway that went straight to Follow. No tracer, but it honestly didn’t matter if I believed her. She suggested I find some way to patch myself up before things heated up again.

“Looks like I just missed everyone.”

I whirled, bringing up the nearest gun I could get my hands on-

-To see a tall woman, her hair cut in a short red bob standing at the far end of the open warehouse, aviator glasses shining, and a duffel bag over one shoulder.

“All those years trying to kill each other, and who would’ve guessed that the face I was trying to smash in was John’s?”

I lowered my gun. “Last thing I heard you were in Thailand.”

“Not for lack of trying,” she said, not moving. “Easly is dead, Savage is missing an arm, and I get sent to hell on earth. If I was a cynical woman, and I’m not, I’d assume someone wanted me dead.”

“Alexis Starr,” I said, lowering the pistol and placing it back on the table. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Long time no see, Ryuhei. Funny thing happened when I managed to sneak out of the war zone. I hear from a Jacen Ramirez how everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket.”

I paused, considering my words carefully. “I’m not sure you be involved with this, to be perfectly honest.”

She chuckled easily, a gentle rebuke. “This whole ruckus started because neither you nor Baylor talk to anyone or ask for help. For two days you’ve been screwing around without any backup. And if you keep this up, you’re playing exactly into their hands.”

“Go on.”

She removed her sunglasses and slowly tucked one side into her jacket’s breast pocket.

“The strikes on SOLIDSIX and NTET were meant to scatter us and give them time to maneuver. The only way to counter that is standing strong and standing together.”

I squinted at her. “You dyed your hair. You never seemed this smart when you were blonde.”

Laughing again, she shook her head. “You - we were too busy trying to kill each other to notice. But that’s behind us. We’ve got too much ahead for it to matter.”


Seventy-Seven

Baylor | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

“And Lennox?”

“Collateral. Rebound caught her in the gut.”

“But not dead. And you settled for second best?”

“I wasn’t about to dig up my first aid merit badge with little brother deciding it’d be a good time to play meet and greet with your old henchgal.” A pause. “You think he’ll be enough?”

“If what our partner tells us is true, his lack of resistance will actually be a point in our favor. What are the odds Lennox survived?”

“Take me as living proof that these people can keep someone alive during a chase. She doesn’t have my cocktail of chemicals keep her on her feet, so I place good odds that that handcannon put her out action for the foreseeable future.”

“That works out in our favor, then. Storm’s been tied up until now, but with him free and with the Colonel we don’t need a telekine running around.”

“And what about Baylor?”

“And what about him? I’ll find out what I need to know, and he’s all yours.”

A circle of six lights. That’s all I could see. My entire body was locked into place. About that time of year again that someone captured me. It was a step up, I supposed. Last time I had been captured they just tied me up and threw me in a corner until their leader, Chuckles Cutler, saw fit to wing a bullet off the side of my leg. No, no bullshit here. Just a solid tie a dude to a rack routine.

“Can you hear me, my brother?”

I groaned. I finally placed the voice. It was good ol’ Nix. Subject Null. “Like we’re…” –Pain lanced through my ribs, it hurt to talk, “one big happy… family.”

Nix chuckled, low and dark. “We’ll get to catch up on the photo album later. Right now someone wants to talk to you.”

“Goody,” I mumbled, as the mechanical rack I was bound began to whir, bringing me vertical. I saw the other person Nix had been talking too – tall, arms crossed, hair drawn back, silhouetted in the dark. The only light where the opaque reflections off her glasses. Don’t ask me how she achieved that effect, but it must’ve been a perk at character creation.

“I know, sorry,” I said, fighting over the pain to fill in the silence. “I should have called, but I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop in and say ‘Hi!’”

Olivia Young didn’t move, but I could recognize a smile in someone’s voice when I heard it. “I’ll never understand you, John. You could’ve just cut and run when you handed Storm over to Teague. It was clean. You could’ve just walked out of the country, and to be honest, I would’ve let you retire to some island.”

“But I came back for you, babydoll,” I slurred.

“I’m touched, I really am. So let me get this straight. You arrange for your own clone to be assassinated in your place, and then you take his place to infiltrate Teague’s operation? Am I hearing this right?”

“Had a plan, but once I got in and heard some old friends needed help on the grapevine, it all worked out. I do a job, he’d connect me with you. Shift some security schedules, give me a backdoor.”

“But instead, we’re here.”

“Your redhead is quite the gal, you know,” I replied. “I’m sure I’ll be feeling that uppercut for weeks.”

“But you don’t have weeks, do you, John? You’re on your last legs and we all know it.”

“We’re all entering endgame. I just like to make sure the phrase is more literal than most times.”

The opaque glasses shifted slightly, as though Young took a step forward. “Mine doesn’t involve a faustian bargain with the chief asset of an enemy power, Major.”

I was about to snap indignantly at her, complaining about her faux-moral outrage, until I paused. I felt something ugly in the pit of my stomach.

The glasses flashed, and she took another step forward. “Yes, you understand it.” A smile flashed at me out of the darkness, glinting like shark’s teeth.

“That wasn’t al-Hassan, was it?”

“Powers’ RED CELL unit does more than act as my personal strike team. She was, after all, the one who taught Nix here everything he knows on security protocols and infiltration. Plastic surgery, genome sequencing – the real al-Hassan died two months ago in a covert raid. But why waste his death? I’ve always harbored a strong dislike of wasting give opportunities.”

“And in Minnesota?”

“A few proxies behind, but more or less. A mutual benefactor also saw to Cuba. All places, incidentally, a one Major John Baylor could be tied to. A man who stands as the sole survivor of a mission he was oh so eager to find and kill someone with no real power.”

“Is this the point where you offer me a place by your side or else?”

Young shook her head. “No, I’m just going to stick with the ‘else.’ Why bother with a potentially unruly candidate?” She shook her head again. “No, I’m just going to frame you as complicit in the events of past and future and be done with it.”

From what I could see of Nix’s profile, the grin was sudden and vicious.

I ground my teeth, taking stock of my options. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t access my cybernetics. I couldn’t even stand. All I could do is force my head around to meet Young’s eyes. “So. I want to talk. You want to talk. I’m no expert on these things, but I suggest we start from the beginning.”

“How far back?” Young asked. “Your homecoming to the states last week? Or when we decided to induct you into the Paragon program? I’d love to answer your questions. We’ve got an hour or two.”

I worked to roll my eyes. Even if I had some sort past beyond being a test bed for Carson’s experiments, Young was testing my devotion to the here and now. “Let’s start with the past week. I’ve been considering getting into the Presidential assassination business, any tips from the expert?”

She chuckled. “Always so insouciant. RED CELL had been tracking Skye for a while, but it wasn’t until you stumbled upon the trail to World’s End in the South Africa that I decided that Helena needed to be sidelined. Whether or not the attack succeeded was irrelevant, the surrounding air of chaos was more than enough to get my job done.”

“The terrorist corpses at the Saint factory were plants, I guess?”

“Obviously,” she said, leaning back into her chair. “The money trail from their equipment would lead to the WEU team operating out of Long Island. The various home-grown groups you found were not exactly in my sphere of operations, but it did provide a small-scale test run for the aftermath of the attack on the Exchange. The chaos of any ensuing gang wars would provide a media smoke screen for any underground battles my forces would wage in purging your allies.”

“So let’s take this linearly. My team obviously wasn’t your main focus, but how soon did your attempts to off us begin? Were your forces behind the kidnapping of Farley?”

“Farley’s been a wild card for years now, so I wanted him locked down and, if possible, of use to me. So I managed to leak to him the location of Kroner before leaking Farley’s location to WRAITH. Agents of Kroner saw a chance at revenge and a favor from me. Since you and Easly had history with Farley, I could safely send you after the General. If Kroner’s strike team won, an agent with a history looking behind the curtain would be off the table. If you managed to pick up Farley’s trail, you’d be preoccupied and one step closer to Kroner. Win-win.”

“But Ridley got involved.”

She spread her hands. “He did. So what? Gosely was obviously working for her own gains and wasn’t going to sign a contract with me, so Ridley and her getting involved were beyond fortuitous. Her support and the subsequent involvement of the Exchange presented me with the ultimate opportunity, one MIDNIGHT as a whole had been contemplating for a while – expanding into the criminal underworld after WRAITH’s downfall. So I dispatched my joint task force.”

“The Acheron Foundation,” I supplied. “Off the books, your own private military contractor. Set up with who, though?” I paused, and groaned. “Of course. Kroner. You’d been setting this up with Kroner for a while. He saw it as an opportunity to regain relevance on the global stage after Gosely’s seizing of power.”

Young shrugged. “Kroner didn’t like me knowing he was behind the partnership, but a little digging revealed him as my mysterious partner outside of MIDNIGHT. Global chaos can only be good news for a person who built his empire of death and destruction, no? He provided the muscle, I the intelligence and capital.”

“But we survived and managed to extract Farley. Obviously no big deal, right?”

“I admit, you doing your best impersonation of cockroach wasn’t my favorite part of the evening, but knowing that you were at your most vulnerable and in possession of the intel you’d been seeking for close to three years more than made up for it. You took off towards World’s End like a dog chasing a bone.”

“I always wonder how you types manage to get through an average day with fulfilling your backstabbing quota. Kroner fills up his usefulness in Cuba, demonstrates what new tech he has, and you decide his race is run. You manage to get Kroner and my team all in one isolated place that you can purge the moment you get confirmation that your inside men – Ramirez and Bateau – have whatever intel that managed to steal from the island. Boom. Bang. Go home happy. So now what, going forward?”

“We initiate the MIDNIGHT PARADOX.”

Seventy-Eight

Baylor | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

Ah, the all-caps title. It was going to be one of those days. “Your endgame.”

“I prefer to think of it as a new beginning. A new global paradigm.”

I let loose a painful belly laugh. “Unopposed at home and controlling dozens of new interests abroad.”

“Well, of course. But I never liked the term. PARADOX. Carson came up with the entire concept a decade ago, but only as an academic exercise. The Senior Partners as a whole were never willing to take that final step, to arrest this country’s never-ending slide into mediocrity. They could engineer attacks abroad without batting an eye, but when it came time to take that final step? They lost their nerve.”

The feeling of ice returned to grip my innards with a vengeance. “You’re planning a false flag attack. And not just an assassination attack. A big attack.”

“Do you know what tomorrow is, John?”

“Well, god-willing, I’ll turn thirty-two.”

“You probably grew up thinking that was entirely fitting. What was it you said to Carson all those years ago? ‘I’m no hero, I’m a United States Marine,’ if I remember correctly. Born on Veteran’s Day. Dead on Veteran’s Day, along with thousands of others.”

I wanted to spit at her feet, to grab her by the throat, something. “I’m devastatingly handsome and all, but I don’t make a good scapegoat for a new ‘global paradigm.’ Russia exhausted the Middle East over the course of a decade. Who do you frame to feed the fans of the Cold War? We’ve never been closer with the Russians.”

“We do have you to thank for that, true. No, not the Russians. That well has run dry. But when we tie you to an agent of another power, place you in the same place as an entire undercover strike force of said power, then what?”

I laughed. Right in her fucking face. “WEU? The European Union? Are you shitting me?” I wanted to wipe a tear from my eye, either from the laughter or the pain it was causing in my chest. “Our biggest ally against the Russians?”

I saw her make a cutting motion with one hand. “They’re our allies in name only, Major. They’re been accumulating power and influence over the last decade, slowly but surely severing their ties with us that the same time.”

“I saw call that simple autonomy. It’s not the sixties anymore, they’re not buffer states.”

“So don’t try to argue geopolitics like it’s the sixties, you’ll end up looking like a child.”

“Is this the point where you tell me that a cabal deep within the Union government has been flexing its secretive influence over the global community to the detriment of humanity as a whole?”

She regarded me blankly. “Because that’d be so farfetched.”

I sneered at her. “They’d just have more class than you. Plotting world domination or some shit with a nice glass of merlot instead of a beer. Conspiratorial snobs are the worst, aren’t they?”

“Don’t mock a game you’ve only just seem glimpses of Baylor. This is a game where your opponent knows your moves and gets four for your every one. I’m merely trying to even the odds.”

“My god,” I said, slowing down. “You’re serious.”

“I was never much known for my sense of humor.”

“It was about three years ago that Storm hinted at the existence of you guys in the American government. I laughed in his face and then let Alexis Starr knock his teeth down his throat.”

“As far as I know, Miss Starr’s still tied down in Thailand. It seems there’s been something of a terrorist attack. Details, as they say, are sketchy.”

“And she’s out of your hair. Has been for this entire affair.”

“I can’t claim to have arranged the crisis-”

No, I thought, that was Landon’s doing, if I had my guess.

“-But it did do wonders to shed light on what I can expect LaGuardia to look like by late tomorrow.”

I didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t-

“The perfect bioweapon, this Antenora strain,” Young said, raising her chin, glasses flashing. “Easily spread, multiple vectors, and what great visuals. Growths. Spontaneous aggression. Horrendous deaths, it all looks great on camera. And what’s best? It can be controlled. Targeted. Started and ended on a single command. All you need is a psychic agent to oversee the release.”

“Ryan.”

“He’s actually a better agent than his mother. Children, you can mold, control. Less chance of him fighting back.”

“You’re a monster.”

She shrugged. “Most likely. Ends and means, Major. Ends and means.”

“And how did you get the virus in the first place? The only notes that made it off the island were-“

Another voice cut in. “Why do you always ask questions you already know the answer to?”

A silhouette detached itself from the wall, taking its place beside Young. It was indistinct, but I knew the voice.

“Gold.”

“Lieutenant Ramirez here has been watching you from the beginning,” Young explained. “Ever since Rebirth Island, we’ve had a second man on the island. Protocol was to have two, but it took a while to replace Sergeant Fletcher. Sergeant Bateau pulled double-duty for a year until we managed to get Ramirez into position.”

My eyes darted back and forth between Gold and Young. Facts began piling up in my head.

One. Like any self-respecting psycho, Young loved to talk. But she wouldn’t explain something she thought I already knew when I could work it out for myself. Which meant she didn’t know I knew about Gold. This is was getting complicated, even by my standards.

“You bastard,” I growled at Ramirez, playing for time. Young was winding down, and I could see Nix shifting restlessly, practically chomping at the bit to get the chance to torture me. “All that time, and I was planning to change my callsign to Red so we could fight evil as color-coded war buddies.”

Two. Gold was playing with fire, and might be willing to throw me under the bus if it got him closer to revenge. What’s worse, if he actually had given Young the keys to her brand new cold war he was playing a bit further across the revenge/basic reasoning skills line than I was comfortable with.

Young was smiling again, enjoying the show.

Nix, however, wasn’t buying it.

“I still say he’s hiding something, ma’am.”

Gold didn’t bother even looking at Nix. “Spoils of World’s End ain’t good enough for you, Nix?”

“Not at all,” Nix said smoothly, stepping out of the light of the torture rack, taking his place between Young and Gold. “But I’ve made my living pretending to be people I’m not. Take it from one professional to another.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Gold replied, stepping into the light. He was dressed in a suit, the same outfit he had worn when we met with Young a few days ago – had it really been that short a time? He rested his chin in one hand, scratching a bandage on his jaw. “And I’d be welcome to suggestions for a way to prove my loyalty, Nix.” The tone was positively cordial.

“Please,” I said, slurring the words until a fresh spike of pain, “now kissss.”

Gold paused the chin tapping, took a step forward, and drove a solid fist into my gut. I gasped under the punch, and Gold easily sidestepped the spray of blood from my mouth.

And against my skin I felt the pierce of a syringe’s needle.

The pain doubled in my head for a moment, and I saw stars. Gold had turned his back to me, and was speaking with Young, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“It’s nothing important, anyway.”

Seventy-Nine

Baylor | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End

“I was getting worried for a second there,” I thought-spoke, placing the words at the forefront of my mind. “Thought I was well and truly boned.”

“Let’s not cross our fingers just yet,” SICKLE responded, taking the form of a single pinpoint of blue light in the center of the space between me and Gold’s back.

“What did he do?” I asked the AI.

“The rack is inhibiting your cybernetics to a degree, Major,” SICKLE said. “That’s why you’re currently in complete, shall we say, agony. I’m doing a soft reboot, but there’s only so much I can do without triggering the rack’s sensors. I can’t access memory banks, and I have a only slight connection to what you can hear. Anything that’s been said before the syringe is on you.”

“Damn,” I muttered, the words tracing an arc across the glow of the blue light. “What good are you, then?”

“Hopefully, John, we can work together to mute the pain of what’s about to happen.”

“What’s about to happen-”

“-We’ll reprogram him, of course, for the final phase” Young was saying, the voice cutting into my conscious awareness. “But if we manages to break free at some point and decides to cause trouble for us, I need him handicapped on a more permanent level.”

“How much is this going to suck-“ I was asking SICKLE-

“-Cut out his right eye,” Young said. “Perhaps Colonel Teague will appreciate the irony.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped, out loud this time.

“Brace yourself, John,” SICKLE said in my ear, voice climbing a bit. “I can only do so much at this point.”

There was the scraping sound of metal, and I heard Nix say “Please, use this. It’s been heating long enough to cauterize the wound. I don’t need him bleeding when I get down to business.”

A red-hot, white-glowing KA-BAR entered my field of vision.

“Jace, man, don’t do this,” I said, pleading with all honesty in my voice. I could barely form the words between the globs of blood in my mouth, but I saw Gold accept the hissing knife.

“You need to start breathing deep, John,” SICKLE said, more insistent. “I can only dim the pain receptors, I can’t cut them-“

“-Cut out his right eye,” Young said again. “This’ll be his last conscious memory before Nix starts, it’s up to you how long you drag this out for him.”

Gold turned to face him, rolling the knife through an easy series of motions in the air. The white metal traced a blurry pattern in the air, the afterimages burning into my mind. Something buzzed in the back of my mind as SICKLE tracked the motions, committing the images to some portion of my memory, hard-coding his before-

The knife rose and Gold put his free hand on my shoulder, steadying me on the rack. He met me eye to eye, and I saw all the myriad emotions playing through his face. Rage, fear, and finally solemn commitment. He brought the knife up, level to my right eye, the point barely wavering.

“Gold, please-“ I began.

“I always did hate that name,” he said, before stabbing me in the face.

Eighty

Baylor | November 10th, 2014 | Four Days After World’s End





…….

“Can you hear me, brother?”

“Can you understand me, John?”

I struggled to look up, vision wavering back and forth until I saw a pair of legs. Brown combat pants, tinged with a hazy red.

Beside them, a soft blue glow, the very presence mitigating some of the more extreme pain coming from my right eye socket.

“Now that they’re gone,” Nix said, “we can finally settle accounts between us.”

I opened my mouth, and let loose a stream of blood. Working my jaw, I finally ground out, “Ex… plain.”

Nix knelt down, the better to meet my eye.

“You stole my life, John,” he said, quite calmly. “I want to settle between us something I’ve been wondering for quite some time now.”

“…Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Nix said. “How much do you really know yourself, John? You can’t possibly know everything, can you? You were mindwiped dozens of times a decade ago, and I know for sure they got their hands on you in the aftermath of the Hungarian incident.”

I set my jaw. “Point… get to it.”

Nix nodded, bracing himself. “We know which one of us escaped the Paragon on that glorious Fourth of July. But which one of us entered the program?”

The blue light around the edges of my vision pulsed, and some of the pain in my jaw lessened.

“I have the memories. My past. Not yours, asshole.”

Nix shook his head patiently. “Here’s the thing, John. So do I. Same goes for Akamatsu, to some degree. Memories transfer well between the same person, after all. Kroner knew that. We do too.”

I knew what he trying to do. Mind games. Psych me out while I was in a vulnerable state. Well, two could play at that game. I hocked out another wad of blood. “It’s doesn’t matter, in the end.”

That got him. Nix got in close on that, catching my chin to lift my head up. “It matters to me. One of us had the ability to live free, while I was a human petri dish.”

“I’ve come to terms… with who I am,” I lied to his face. “I may not like it, but if you’re looking to collect on lost time with interest….” I trailed off.

Gathering his emotions back inside, Nix straightened up and walked over to a nearby steel tray. “Marshall Sechalin made use to reprogramming facilities during the war. You know that, of course – he threatened you with forced cyberization at one point, correct? Now, the Americans always had the ability to rewrite memories, install fake identities – but it was dumbfire technology, if you catch my drift.”

He held up a syringe, drawing out a black solution from a red-taped vial. “You’d give a person motivations, you’d manipulate circumstances, but there was always the overriding factor of human choice. Sechalin knew that, to be truly loyal to someone, you had to remove that final barrier.”

“But won’t those truly valuable to you have to have some will of their own?” I asked, playing for time.

“To a degree,” Nix shrugged. “You’re right. The creativity borne of autonomy can push someone over the razor edge between victory and defeat. But for the purpose of accomplishing a defined task,” he continued, turning to me and smiling, “the rewriting protocols we stole from the Soviets will be more than sufficient.”

Walking back over to me, he tapped the syringe, working out the air bubbles. “You see, we don’t just want to see you dead, John. You’re a symbol, more than anything. We can contextualize all we want, but if everyone sees the symbol helping terrorists funded by WEU commit the worst terror attack since 9/11, well… the legend will end.” He jammed the syringe into my neck with a bit more force than was necessary, and I felt the ice-cold impact of whatever the sludge was as it hit my bloodstream.

SICKLE’s blue light began to fade.

“I never thought of myself as having a defined allegiance,” Nix said, stepping back, and watching as I began to convulse, seizing on the rack. “But the structures – the system – that produced people like Akamatsu and I require a much-needed shake-up if people like us are to find meaning in this world. Perhaps Young is the person to do that, with her ‘new paradigm.’ I just want to see what happens. Maybe she’ll survive to guide the SS Doomsday into World War Three harbor.”

He reached over to the tray, retrieving a second syringe of clear liquid. “It doesn’t really matter if Young lives. It’s the world she’ll create that I’m interested in. If, say, Miller Razard’s lost son decides to murder Young before she can oversee her brave new world, I won’t stop him.” His eyes sparkled. “You look surprised. I mean, behind of all that agony that’s the blocker solution wiping the undercover uplink from your body. I admit, it was inspired, having SICKLE help you – you were probably planning on faking compliance until the last minute – but unlike Young I’ve been the one who personally delivers the knife in the back too many times to not recognize another setting up his own game.”

The tremors finally began to subside, and with them, the blue glow of SICKLE’s presence.

“I love this,” Nix said, spreading his hands. He practically did a dance step. “Chaos. Good news. It’s like a live-action game of chess with a dozen players, all pursuing their own agendas. John Baylor, valiantly trying to protect a country that’s done nothing for him. Jacen Ramirez – no, Razard – pursuing holy vengeance above all else. Olivia Young, looking to force the world into a new age. Thaddeus Teague, scrambling frantically to maintain the status quo. Little Ryuhei Akamatsu, desperately searching for a purpose in life. The list of players goes on and on, even if I doubt many of them will survive past tomorrow.”

“You’re right about that,” I said. “All capped off by Nix, who always wanted to be real boy and is willing to see millions die because of it.”

Nix paused, before injecting me with the second syringe. I shuddered, it was like someone was drizzling my insides with hot sauce. “You know, the actual procedure takes perhaps a half hour. I was given four to break you down to a point where the reprogramming would easily take. To be honest, I can do the programming here and now.”

He reached over to the tray and produced a two-foot long baton – I recognized the blue sparks playing down its length and knew he was holding an electroshock wand and that my day could, in fact, get worse.

Triggering the wand in a shower of sparks, Nix said, “Now… shall we begin?”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Booted Vulture » Thu May 30, 2013 12:08 pm

At this point we need to change john baylor's name to David 'Big Naked Solid Boss Snake' Doe and be done with it. Because dang: Jealous clone relatives? secret allies de-eyeing you to keep their cover? This is getting more MGSy by the second.

And SICKLE seemed to be pretty obviously Mab from Changes last act, but now she's going all lasciel. If I've got my allusions straight.
Ah Brother! It's been too long!

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox

Post by Mobius 1 » Fri May 31, 2013 8:18 am

At this point we need to change john baylor's name to David 'Big Naked Solid Boss Snake' Doe and be done with it. Because dang: Jealous clone relatives? secret allies de-eyeing you to keep their cover? This is getting more MGSy by the second.
Shit son, I forgot we already had Teague with the eyepatch. We've got a motif now, I guess. Even if Teague's not Baylor's dad (look, I swear he isn't), the irony is palpable. The bonding scene with Storm/Teague was originally going to with Baylor, but him getting captured - he had to end up alone with Young somehow - sorta precluded that after-action scene. Plus, now that I think of it, it makes more sense for Storm to care about his past - Baylor is more of the mind of to say 'screw this, I've got a world to save.'

If ST started out as a half-parody anyway (not to Dino Eater degrees, obviously), then we're at MGS2 levels here with the plots coming out of the woodwork. All we need is for Gold to pull a Heart of Darkness next series - oh, shit. :)

Well, thinking it down the line, the cloning aspect doesn't play into further series - Storm doesn't need any more reasons to be angry at Kroner (and neither does Baylor) - that leaves Nix to go full Liquid, and he'll be out of that for sure character-wise by the end of this series/season/whatever (one way or another).
And SICKLE seemed to be pretty obviously Mab from Changes last act, but now she's going all lasciel. If I've got my allusions straight.
I never really thought of it that way. But then again, I don't really think of SICKLE as malevolent, even if she's playing for another team. It's just that her and Baylor's goals overlap (with her pushing him towards offing himself, now that I think of it), whereas Harry and Mab/Lash rarely see eye to eye.
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Story] STB2: Midnight Paradox