Book: Orion Protected



Orion Protected



J. N. Chaney

Copyrighted Material

Orion Protected and Renegade Star Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications

Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from JN Chaney and Jonathan Yanez.

www.jnchaney.com

www.jonathan-yanez.com

1st Edition


Books in the Renegade Star Universe

Renegade Star Series: 

Renegade Star

Renegade Atlas

Renegade Moon

Renegade Lost

Renegade Fleet

Renegade Earth

Renegade Dawn

Renegade Children

Renegade Union

Renegade Empire (Out Now)

Renegade Descent (June 2019)

Renegade Rising (July 2019)

Renegade Star Prequel Series: 

Nameless

The Constable

The Constable Returns

Warrior Queen (June 2019)

The Last Reaper Series: 

The Last Reaper

Fear the Reaper

Blade of the Reaper (Out now!)

Wings of the Reaper (July 2019)

The Orion Colony Series: 

Orion Colony

Orion Uncharted

Orion Awakened

Orion Protected (June 2019)

The Fifth Column Series: 

The Fifth Column

The Fifth Column: The Solaras Initiative (June 2019)


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Orion Protected

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Orion Protected


Book 4 in the Orion Colony Series


J.N. Chaney Jonathan Yanez



Contents


Orion Important Characters and Terms

Orion Uncharted Map

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

Books in the Renegade Star Universe

Check Out the Renegade Star Series

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About the Authors


Orion Important Characters and Terms


Orion Protected


Humans

Dean Slade : Former gladiator world champion fighting under the name Dean “Steel Hands” Slade, current mechanic on the Orion.

Stacy Wilson : Civil Authority Officer Special Agent. Stacy infiltrated the mechanic ranks on Earth acting as an undercover agent for the Civil Authority. Her mission was to acquire information working in the yards where the seed ships were constructed. After the Orion’s crash she has taken a more active role as a Civil Authority Officer.

Ricky Matthews (Rick) : Dean’s only friend going into the events of Orion Colony. Ricky is a mechanic and has a gambling issue. He also has a crush on Arun Drake one of the Eternals leading the Orion.

Boss Creed : In charge of the mechanics on Earth as well as on the Orion. Boss Creed is a fair but stern foreman.

Dr. Kelly Allbright (The Professor) : Gifted doctor well versed in caring for the injured and sick. Doctor Allbright has cared for Dean a handful of times already despite their short term of affiliation.

Dr. James Wong (Al) : Head of technology on the Orion. Doctor Wong was responsible for creating the technology that allowed Dean and the rest of the team to find the second Disciple on board. His receptionist was in fact the second Disciple discovered on board the Orion and the one that brought the seed ship down.

Maksim Aleksandre Kuznetsov Petrov: Disciple, AKA Jeffrey Hooke, AKA Trevor Bishop, AKA the Assassin. Discovered while trying to sabotage the Orion. Captured and imprisoned in the prisoner cell block aboard the Orion.

Mutt : Genetically engineered to be larger, stronger and faster than normal canines. Mutt met Dean on the Orion when Dean stumbled on Maksim trying to infect the animals with a violent strain of rabies. Mutt found Dean again once the Orion crashed.

Orion Protected

Eternals

Arun Drake : Arun is one half of the sister, brother team leading the Orion. Belonging to a wealthy Eternal family, Arun’s passion is to help those less fortunate than herself. She sees this trip on the Orion her chance to offer aid to Transients she sees as equals. She’s loyal to a fault and ferocious when it comes to protecting others.

Elon Drake : Much like his sister he sees this trip as an opportunity to aid the Transients he sees as his fellow man. Pilot of the Orion, Elon sacrificed his own life to stay aboard the Orion and land the ship. In the process he lost his leg.

Orion Protected

Cognitives

Iris : Cognative in charge of the Orion, Iris is one of the sentient Artificial Intelligences coupled with the twelve seed ships leaving Earth. After the Orion’s crash, Iris has been given limited power. The long range scanners, navigation, and communication sections of her ship are currently down.

Orion Protected

Other Terms

Eternals : Advanced humans who have been genetically modified with advanced healing and extremely long lifespans. After a few centuries, an additional mutation caused the Eternals to develop albino features, giving them a distinct appearance. They are responsible for most of Earth’s advanced technology, including the seed colony ships, such as Orion, as well as Tritium Cores, slipspace drives, and Cognitives.

Transients : Normal humans who do not posses the Eternal gene. After Eternals arose on Earth, Transient humans were delegated to the lower class, unable to accumulate wealth or obtain high-level positions in either business or politics. This stagnation led to a rebellion in which the Transients demanded equal opportunity. To satisfy this need, the Eternals offered them a deal: venture out into the far-flung reaches of the galaxy and colonize distant worlds, taking their lives into their own hands. The Transients agreed, and so began the greatest mass exodus in Earth’s history.

Slipspace : A dimension beneath our own in which faster-than-light travel is possible. While it is not fully understood, many theorize that slipspace tunnels are in a constant state of nuclear fusion and fission, destroying and creating atoms simultaneously at all times. It was believed that slip tunnels were a naturally occurring phenomenon, but this is incorrect. In truth, the slip tunnel network was created by ancient ships from Earth as they expanded across the galaxy. While some tunnels collapsed over time, many remained to this day, providing modern ships with a faster-than-light means of transportation. Since modern ships cannot create their own tunnels, they must continue to rely on the existing network to travel. The Orion is able to create these tunnels.

Kronos Five : The original planet the Orion was headed to before it was sabotaged and taken off course.

The Orion : One of the twelve original seed ships made to take Transients off Earth. It is shaped like a small moon. It is capable of carrying one hundred thousands passengers. With hundreds of levels including storage, housing and recreation the Orion is a small city in itself. When it crashed the Orion was broken in two. The front half of the ship was landed by Elon, the back half broke into multiple sections scattered around the planet.

Civil Authority : The ruling power policing Earth at the time the Orion launched. Stacy Wilson is Civil Authority Officer, she acted as an undercover agent until the Orion crashed. The Orion was accompanied by a strong presence of Civil Authority Officers upon launch. Only a handful of Civil Authority officers survived the Orion crash.

The Disciples : The first and oldest cult to oppose the Eternals. The Disciples believe that any genetic mutation or evolution of the human body is evil. They’re an underground terrorist group responsible for multiple attacks on Eternal businesses and Eternals themselves.


Orion Protected


1


Orion Protected

“It’s been a month since we broke the hold Legion had around the Orion encampment. In that time, we’ve emptied the stockpiles of weapons and supplies from Jezra’s installation,” I complained to Stacy, running a hand through my beard, which, of late, I had noticed was shot through with threads of gray. Probably the stress of this new life I was leading making itself known. “But he’s still out there. I can feel him staring at us. Just within the tree line. He’s there watching, building his ranks and waiting to make his move.”

We stood close to one another. Almost, but not quite touching, though I wanted to. In the month since we’d made the run from Jezra’s Cerberus facility back to the Orion, our relationship had bloomed, and I was pretty sure she felt the same way I did, but it wasn’t there yet.

“Comforting thoughts to tuck you in at night,” Stacy said with a grimace and slight note of anxiousness in her voice. She followed my gaze out over the wall toward the thick trees of the jungle. “What do you think Legion is waiting for?”

I shrugged and let out a heavy exhale. Since I was a gladiator turned mechanic turned Chosen One, not a military strategist, I could only guess, and I wasn’t willing to put my morbid thoughts on Stacy. She had enough to deal with.

The morning mist was beginning to dissipate. The intense heat of the twin suns that rose to give our new home planet warmth burnt the faint tendrils of fog away until none remained.

Our planet, I thought to myself. Our planet. Have I really accepted this is home now? Will we ever make it off this rock?

The hard truth was that once we crash landed, there’d been no time to even try to leave Genesis. Every time we turned around, we found ourselves fighting to survive. From aliens to giant creatures and viruses, they all wanted us dead, each for their own reasons, although it wasn’t always clear what those were.

“We have enough firepower to kill Legion ten times over,” Stacy said, gripping the strap over her shoulder that held her own rifle. “That’s probably why he’s not coming to us.”

“Maybe,” I said with yet another shrug. “But then what happens?”

“What do you mean?” Stacy asked.

“I mean, what happens if he doesn’t come back? What happens if Legion remains content picking off creatures on the planet or the Rung or our own survivors that could still be out there?” I asked. “There have to be more survivors scattered across Genesis. This can’t be all of us. It’s a good-sized planet, and some of the escape pods could have landed on the other side. Legion might move to investigate that possibility.”

“Well, then we go in before that happens,” Stacy said with a grim nod. She reached out tentatively with her right hand and gave my own a squeeze. “Then we’ll figure out a way to go after him.”

Her hand felt cold. At the same time, the contact of her skin on mine brought a swell of hope and comfort.

There wasn’t any title on it yet. I think we both knew it was too fragile and new for that. Still, there was something there that went beyond friendship. It was as though if we mentioned it out loud, this piece of comfort would evaporate around us like the disappearing morning mist.

I felt a strange sense of peace with the relationship. There was no guilt. I knew in my heart of hearts that my wife would have wanted me to be happy. She would have wanted me to move on from her death, probably much sooner than I actually had, and this move felt right. I felt that I had her stamp of approval now and was slowly getting over the feeling of being unfaithful.

These thoughts entered my mind as we stood on the catwalk looking out into the jungle. Then the sound of hurried feet behind us slapping the floor of the steel catwalk with an odd clanging noise made me turn.

Jezra was a member of the Remboshi race. As such, she looked like a large gecko that walked on two lizard-like feet. She wore a tight-fitting synth suit around her slender frame and a long coat.

I was used to seeing the alien creature now. Both Jezra and Tong walked freely within the Orion walls. I wondered if they felt the same near-familiarity and had stopped viewing us as the actual aliens that we were. Having been identified as the Chosen One, although I still was not completely sure what that entailed, probably didn’t hurt their acceptance of us.

Even those that survived the crash and made it to the safety of our walls were getting used to them. There were still plenty of stares, and some were a bit afraid of the odd-looking creatures, but all in all, we coexisted with no major problems. It had helped that the two aliens learned our language and could communicate with everyone.

“Chosen One,” Jezra said urgently, coming to me with a glass data pad in her hand.

“Stop calling me that,” I told her for the hundredth time, slightly annoyed and maybe just a little flattered. “Dean, just Dean.”

“Right, Just Dean.” Jezra’s head bobbed. She looked down at where Stacy and I still held hands, raising her eyebrows, or where eyebrows would be if she had them. She pulled her gaze back to our faces. Her expression held a hint of worry in it, if geckos could worry, and I figured there was some pressing issue that needed our attention.

Stacy and I both released the grip we had on one another at the same time. I did so reluctantly and fleetingly hoped she felt the same. I shook my head a bit to clear it of these thoughts so I could focus on the issue at hand.

“Is there something we can help you with, Jezra?” Stacy asked, clearing her throat.

The alien brought her data pad over to us, turning it around so we could see an image of the mountains to our east.

“Our low-flying satellite has picked up images of a confrontation between Legion and the Rung,” Jezra said, zooming in on the scene so we could see.

I looked more closely. The event seemed to be on the east side of the mountains. The furthest we had ever traveled east was to the foot of these mountains, where we had our first run-in with the Rung. This was an interesting development, especially since I was still speculating that there might be survivors in other areas of Genesis.

The Rung were a violent rival faction of the Remboshi race. Centuries ago, they had broken off from the Remboshi culture, deciding to enhance their bodies with machines and technology.

Our first meeting with the Rung had not gone well. Ricky had been gravely wounded when we were attacked. We almost lost him, but he had since recovered, fortunately.

I remembered all of this as I studied the images in front of us. Bodies littered the mountain slopes. The two sides were easy to pick out. Gecko-like beings with robes and metal adornments fixed to their bodies lay dead. Along with them, a combination of what looked like humans and alien animals all carrying the same black veins and eyes set them apart as infected.

Legion was an insidious virus that spread from host to host. It was a single intelligent symbiotic entity that controlled a host of creatures. Many of the survivors of the Orion had been lost to Legion since we landed. Our priority was to stop this from happening anymore.

Jezra ran through the grisly images of the area. The battle had been massive with many casualties. I guessed there were at least a hundred dead infected with twice that number of Rung.

“That’s horrible,” Stacy said, shaking her head from side to side in a mix of sympathy and horror. “When did this happen?”

“Had to have been last night,” Jezra said. “That would be my guess at least. I have the low-flying satellite maintaining a strict patrol around the Orion. My guess is that Legion is making a move on the Rung. That’s why we haven’t seen him for so long.”

“Good,” I said, feeling no compunction that the hostile alien faction was getting their butts handed to them. “They shot Ricky and killed the exploration group that went that way searching for the section of the Orion that held the communications device. We still don’t even know if we can get it operational again. Doctor Wong’s been working on it ever since we brought it back.”

“So you’re just going to let the Rung and Legion wipe each other out?” Stacy asked, looking at me with a raised eyebrow. “Let the animals kill each other off, huh?”

“God willing,” I said, nodding. Maybe I should have felt a bit of remorse at the death of so many, but the simple fact was, I didn’t. “Hopefully, they’ll all kill each other. Then we can turn all our attention to rescuing any of our own still out there and getting off this planet.”

Stacy looked over to Jezra for support.

Jezra’s large yellow eyes behind her goggles winced as if she were having some kind of head pain.

“You okay?” I asked. “You look like you have a migraine or something.”

“That’s just what my face looks like when I am in intense concentration,” Jezra explained. “I have no love for the Rung. They have been the enemy of my people since I was in the egg. However, they may be able to be reasoned with. Legion exists only to spread and kill. One is bad while the other is pure evil.”

“What?” I asked, taken aback. “You want to side with the Rung now?”

“I didn’t say that,” Jezra denied. She reached a three-fingered green hand to my face and slapped me. At least I thought it was supposed to be a slap. She barely touched me, and her palm made contact with my face like she had never slapped anyone in her life, so I wasn’t sure. “Listen to me. We may be in a situation here where the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”

“Where have the Rung chosen to hide?” Stacy asked, trying not to laugh at the exchange. I rolled my eyes at her and clutched my face in an exaggerated manner when Jezra turned to her, pretending the slap had actually hurt. “Can you get a visual on their base from the satellite?”

“They seem to have gone underground,” Jezra said, taking back the data pad and pressing buttons on the smooth glass surface. “I have not been able to find the exact entrances to their underground bases, but I do believe they have multiple entry points. With the satellite patrolling this section of Genesis, I should pick up their activity and movement in the course of a few days and be able to find their location.”

“You’re not serious about this, are you?” I asked Stacy.

“What? I didn’t even say anything,” she answered defensively.

“You don’t have to,” I accused. “I know that look. You want to team up with the Rung to take out Legion.”

Stacy chewed on her lower lip, deep in thought. I wasn’t angry if that was indeed what she was thinking. Stacy carried a large responsibility as leader of our defenses and what remained of the Civil Authority. I didn’t envy her and I knew the toll it had taken on her, even if she wasn’t showing it like I was, with gray in her hair or wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.

“I’m keeping my options open,” she finally said. “We need to talk to Elon and—we need to talk to Elon about this.”

“Right,” I said, hearing everything Stacy wasn’t saying. Arun, Elon’s older sister, wasn’t herself these days. The Legion virus had infected her during our race to the walls with Jezra and the supplies. Thanks to her Eternal healing powers, the virus hadn’t totally taken over her body. It was like a war raged inside her around the clock. As such, she was always tired, sometimes delirious, calling out odd, random things about the crash of the Orion, Maksim, and others that no one could decipher. Elon was understandably very concerned about Arun, but there was no cure except to maybe let time take its course. The most we could hope for was that her healing powers would win out.

“I’ll call a meeting tonight,” Stacy said, motioning for Jezra to follow. “I’d like to take a closer look at those images you showed us. Maybe we can find out more if we study them further.”

Jezra nodded and moved to go with Stacy.

“Wait. If we take the fight to Legion with the help of the Rung, what happens to that second prophecy that woke you out of your hyper sleep?” I asked Jezra. “You said the Orion would fall.”

Jezra blinked at me a few times with those large reptilian eyes of hers. “And it still may. There are many things to be considered. The sands of time have not given us a free pass as of yet.”

With that less than helpful piece of mumbo jumbo, the pair turned and left.

I shook my head. I was liable to give myself a headache if I tried to figure out Jezra and her prophecies. Too many years awake on her own with no one to communicate with had made her a bit loopy in my opinion.

I turned back to look over the wall. My head buzzed with the thoughts of joining forces with the Rung. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t even have a clue as to how we would accomplish such a thing if it were possible. Would the Rung want to team up with us in the first place? It occurred to me that this must be what Stacy had been thinking and regretted giving her flak about it.

“Help!” a scream rang out somewhere in the center of the compound. “Help! Someone help!”

I turned, looking down into the enclosed area of the Orion. Our wall made a large U shape around the exposed end of the colony seed ship. Inside was a city of tents where most of the colonists had chosen to live instead of trying to stay inside the ship that rested on its side.

“Someone help him!” the voice came again, sounding more frantic. It was a man’s voice, though not one I recognized.

Adrenaline lent aid to my movement and I grabbed the rifle, slinging it over my shoulder as I took off to investigate. My feet pounded down the catwalk and to the black stairs that led to the ground below.

I wove through our tent city rapidly as colonists emerged and looked to me for direction. Others followed the sounds of cries for help.

Rounding a final tent near the south wall, I found a figure hunched over on the ground. Mutt growled down at him.

It wasn’t the figure that was doing the yelling. Instead, one of the Orion survivors was pointing at Mutt apprehensively, yelling for help. He was clearly too frightened himself to try and intervene between the two beings.

Mutt was a genetically engineered canine. As such, he was perfect in every way. Massive in size and powerfully muscled from head to paw, the dog’s head came above my waist when he stood normally, and taller than me if he stood on his hind legs.

I’d only seen him act like this a handful of times before and it was always for good reason. The giant wolf dog’s hackles raised on his back and his ears were flattened against the sides of his head. Mutt would take a bite out of this guy if I didn’t intervene.

“Hey, easy, easy,” I said, grabbing Mutt by the extra skin at the scruff of his neck. “It’s okay, boy. I’m here.”

Mutt tensed under my hold. We were making a scene as more and more survivors from the Orion crash came to see what was causing the disturbance.

I still couldn’t clearly see who Mutt had cornered. Whoever it was wore a deep red coat that was stained from the elements.

“He’s not going to bite you,” I said to the hunched over and presumably terrified figure. “I’ve got a hold of him.”

Alarms went off in my mind when the figure refused to respond or turn to show their face.

I shouldered my weapon and reached out with my free hand to grab a handful of the cloak of the figure in front of me. I pulled hard enough to have their head swing around and instantly recoiled, already going for my weapon again as my hand came back and they stood. It was a Remboshi in front of me. Not one like Tong and Jezra. This one was taller with a cybernetic eye and metal left hand. It wasn’t a Remboshi, but rather a member of the Rung.

His presence in our camp caught me off guard enough that I had missed the weapon in his hands. He lifted an arm and leveled the blaster at my face.




2


Orion Protected

Dozens of questions crashed like waves through my mind. The foremost was, how had he gotten inside our walls undetected? My hand was on my rifle, but I wasn’t able to draw it, at least not before he’d get a shot off.

I could feel a deep rumbling coming from Mutt, vibrating his whole body. His muscles quivered under my hand. I could tell he was prepared to pounce on my go. Relief fluttered through me that the Rung had not shot him, and I wanted to keep it that way. I kept my hand on him, hoping he would stay calm and by my side.

Gasps and screams came from everyone around us as they called for help from the Civil Authority Officers working the wall. Over the last month, Stacy had taken it upon herself to train recruits and arm them with the latest and greatest Remboshi tech from the Cerberus Installation.

The Rung in front of me was skinnier than I was, but that didn’t mean he was any less deadly. His thick tail stuck straight up behind him. It was strong and muscular-looking, as if it could take out someone with a good swipe. He eyed me with his one green eye and his one cybernetic eye that shone red. He moved to look at Mutt, uncertain of his next actions.

My heart was racing a mile a minute. Still, one thing spoke to me above all others. He hadn’t killed me, yet. He had me dead to rights. Still, he had refused to pull the trigger. Something was up.

“Listen,” I started. “I’m not sure if you can understand me, but there’s no way out of here. You shoot me and this dog will tear you apart from limb to cybernetic limb. If he doesn’t kill you, then the Civil Authority Officers who are on their way will.”

As if to emphasize my words, heavy footfalls from a pair of Civil Authority Officers, or suits, as we called them, could be heard rounding the corner. I saw them out of my peripheral vision but didn’t turn to see who the pair were.

The Rung in front of me didn’t look like he knew what I was saying, but he understood the predicament he was in. Instead of lifting his weapon, he lowered it to a holder on his right side.

He lifted both hands slowly into the air, the universal sign for surrender, even here, it seemed, then gave me a toothy smile. Short, stubby teeth poked up out of his top and bottom gums.

What’s he doing? I wondered. He has to have some kind of plan here.

The Rung moved the thumb on his left hand to his middle finger and pressed a button on the black gloves he wore.

Thrusters sounded on the back of his tight-fitting suit. I let go of Mutt, lunging for the Rung as he lifted off the ground a second later.

It seemed both Mutt and I had the same idea. Mutt grabbed onto his left booted foot, crunching down with powerful jaws. I abandoned my rifle, running to him and finding two handholds on the belt the Rung wore around his waist.

Two heartbeats later, we were tearing over the tops of the tents. The Rung was too busy trying to keep airborne to deal with me and Mutt. It was obvious whatever propulsion system was hard-wired into his suit was not designed to carry three bodies as it struggled to gain altitude.

Yelling and shouting from below took a back seat to what I was focusing on now. My hands were full as I tried to climb up the Rung’s body. I needed to take control of the thruster on his back via the control system he used on his hand.

Mutt fell a second later, taking the Rung’s boot with him in his jaws. The dog crashed into a tent not even a foot below us, seemingly all right. Without his extra weight, the thruster propelled us higher into the air and I held on for dear life.

Trying to fend me off and maneuver the thrusters was proving too difficult for my opponent. We careened into tents, the side of the wall, and even slammed into one of the two watchtowers that flanked the main gate before sliding across the catwalk.

If nothing else, I was stubborn. One hand clinging to his belt, I tried to work my way up to his right arm, where he controlled or at least tried to control our trajectory.

The Rung was getting annoyed with my tenacious hold on his person. Thus far, he hadn’t struck out at me, but it seemed he had had enough. It was just my luck that his free hand was made of cold, hard metal.

He hit me, opening a painful cut above my right eye. Warm blood oozed into my vision. When he came at me again with the hammer fist, I changed my grip. Holding on to his belt with my left hand, I caught his fist with my right.

I had no idea where we were, thanks to the swirling topsy-turvy motion of the thrusters. All I knew was that we were still inside the Orion wall, or so I hoped.

I saw him right before he leapt off the catwalk. Boss Creed was either a genius or a mad man, maybe a bit of both. He must have seen us heading toward the wall, gaining altitude faster since Mutt had fallen off.

He timed his jump just right. Boss Creed sailed over the catwalk that circled the inside of the gate like some kind of gymnast, grabbing onto us both.

The other man’s weight proved too much for the power of the thrusters, which were obviously made for one occupant. As one, the three of us fell from the sky, slamming into the hard ground underneath us.

I was the lucky one on the bottom, cushioning the falls of the Rung and Boss Creed, who knocked the wind out of my chest when they both landed on me. While the Rung couldn’t weigh more than a hundred and thirty pounds, Boss Creed most likely was double that and I’d felt a sickening crunch come from my left shoulder when we landed.

Pain shot through my shoulder and down my arm and I had the absurd urge to laugh. It really was no laughing matter and it felt like broken glass had been shoved into my rotator cuff right through to the bone.

Boss Creed and the Rung recovered before I did. They battled on the dirt ground next to me as I tried to focus past the agony and get back to my feet, sucking air in to get through the pain.

This isn’t going to kill you, I coached myself in my head. Back up, get back on your feet.

Too stubborn to do anything else, I regained my footing. I could feel blood flowing freely from the cut above my eye and my left arm was useless from the shoulder down. I had dislocated it once before, years ago in the gladiator pit when I fought Harry “The Hammer” Rycker. The pain was the same sensation all over again, needles and pins, really big ones.

Lucky for me, Boss Creed had the Rung pinned on the ground, his whole body stretched across the much smaller being, his right side concentrated on pinning down that cybernetic hand. Seconds later, Mutt, Stacy, and a group of suits were on the alien as well.

Following them, a horde of worried Orion survivors looked to one another for direction. I felt bad for the mass of onlookers, as most of them had bought into this whole venture to find a new and better life, not constantly go up against the danger the crash had subjected them to.

“Are we being attacked?” I picked up a voice in the crowd.

“Is it the aliens or Legion?” another voice asked.

I ignored them both and looked for something to press my shoulder against. I needed get it back into its socket.

“Hey, you okay?” Ricky’s familiar and welcome voice cut through everything else. “You don’t look so good.”

“Yeah,” I gasped, wincing. “I just need you to pop my shoulder back into place.”

“Your what?” Ricky looked me up and down, uncertainty evident on his face. “Dean, I don’t know if I’m qualified for that. I’ll go get the doc and—”

“Ricky!” I growled. “You can do this, brother. I’ll walk you through it. But it needs to be now.”

“Okay, okay.” Ricky took a tentative step forward. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just hold my arm and pull when I tell you,” I instructed through gritted teeth.

“Okay, yeah, just hold the arm,” Ricky said, walking himself through the action and looking a little green. “I can do that, sure. Just hold the arm.”

He grabbed my forearm, and I braced myself for the pain I was about to feel.

“Pull!” I shouted, jerking my torso back at the same time. A loud pop brought a fresh wave of discomfort and pain, but it only lasted for a second.

Ricky dropped my arm, shaking his head as he did so. “You’re a wild man, Dean. What happened here?”

“Mutt cornered a Rung spy,” I said, rotating my arm and nodding over to where Boss Creed and Stacy still had the Rung pinned down. “At least, that’s what I think he is. I didn’t know how he got over the wall until he took me for a ride. Must have used that jetpack sometime during the night to get over.”

While the suits in the area tried to maintain order by creating a perimeter under Stacy’s direction, both Tong and Jezra appeared. Tong’s eyes were narrowed with suspicion as he eyed the Rung.

Jezra actually looked pleased, which, considering her earlier words, wasn’t exactly surprising.

“We’ve got him cuffed and that jetpack he was wearing removed,” Boss Creed said, looking down at the Rung, who was now in a sitting position, his head pointed down to the ground, much as he was when we found him with Mutt guarding him. “Any idea why he’s here?”

“Any idea anyone could have as to why our guest is here would be nothing more than a guess at this point,” Jezra said, making us all scratch our heads on that one. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the alien was intentionally speaking gibberish or if she was getting her English confused. “Please, we must speak with him.”

“Not here,” Stacy said, rejoining the group. She looked meaningfully at the crowd of Orion colonists gathered to see what was going on. “Somewhere inside the Orion or a tent.”

“Agreed,” Tong said, finally realizing that she didn’t want the colonists to panic.

Stacy and Boss Creed helped the Rung to his feet. They marched him through the camp toward the command tent that had previously been used by Arun.

Elon had taken on the full responsibility of overseeing the Orion colony since Arun had been infected with the Legion virus. Stacy and Boss Creed acted as his right hands. Doctor Allbright and Doctor Wong were also helping to shoulder the burden.

Mutt appeared at my side a moment later. He whined up to me as if to ask if I was okay.

“You did good, buddy,” I assured him, ruffling his soft ears then kneeling to check him over for any injuries from the fall. Thankfully there was no blood on him and he moved fine.

I followed Stacy as we made for that tent now, along with a myriad of colonists who wanted to know what was going on.

“Take him in and start talking to him,” Stacy instructed Boss Creed. “I’ll address the mob before they work themselves into a frenzy.” I couldn’t blame them for wanting to know what was going on. An unknown alien had snuck into camp, pulled a gun, then tried to fly away with me attached. They were bound to have questions.

“Got it,” Boss Creed said.

We entered the large green tent. Not to our surprise, Elon was nowhere to be seen. Since Arun had been infected by the Legion virus, either Ricky or Elon were by her side at all times, ready to assist when she needed them.

Boss Creed shoved the Rung to a chair inside the tent. Arun had kept her headquarters simple with a desk and chair on one end, a bookcase along one side, and a table. There were hard light amplifiers set into the corners of the tent as well to allow Iris, the Orion’s Cognitive, to take form if she so chose.

“Iris, are you there?” I asked the empty air in front of me.

“Always,” Iris said, using the hard light amplifiers in the room to give shape to her body. She looked at me. “Sorry, I know you get scared sometimes when I appear out of thin air. You used to ask for a heads up.”

“I’m good,” I told her with a smile. “Guess I’m getting used to it.”

Although Iris was a Cognitive, she looked like an Eternal, from her white skin to her piercing blue eyes. She wore a tight-fitting grey suit.

“Iris, can you translate for us while Tong and Jezra talk to our new friend?” I asked.

“Of course,” Iris said with a nod of her head.

Boss Creed stood beside the seated Rung in case he tried anything. At the moment, the Rung seemed to be no kind of threat and looked nothing short of defeated. His hands were secured behind his back. He hunched forward, eyes directed toward the ground in front of him.

Tong and Jezra stood in front of the Rung. Ricky and I stood further back near the tent entrance with Iris.

Tong started the conversation, his native dialect sounding like hard clicks of his tongue and long “S’s” strung together to form short sentences and even shorter words.

“Tong is asking him how he got inside the wall and what he wants here,” Iris explained to us.

The Rung finally looked up from his perpetual gaze on the ground in front of him. He said something to Tong that rattled the Remboshi if his wide eyes and furtive motions were any indication. Jezra just smiled and nodded, as if she had expected this answer the entire time.

“He says he’s come to broker an alliance.” Iris looked at me, confused. “He says he knows of a way to end Legion for good.”


3


Orion Protected

“He knows!” Ricky nearly shouted in disbelief. “He knows a way to cure people from the Legion virus?”

“That’s what he said,” Iris confirmed.

I grabbed at Ricky too late. His love for Arun drove him forward. Without thinking, he lunged at the Rung, grabbing his throat and throttling him.

“Tell us,” Ricky said with a fierce look in his eyes that made Tong and Jezra each take a step back. “Tell us what you know. Tell us how to put a stop to Legion.”

The Rung’s eyes bulged out of his sockets.

Boss Creed and I went over and laid firm hands on Ricky. Each of us could have ripped him off, but we didn’t. We understood the rage that lived inside of him, the anger that arose from having to see Arun suffer for the last month, day in and day out.

“Easy,” I told Ricky as I gripped his left shoulder. “He can’t tell us anything if you kill him.”

Ricky’s eyes were red from lack of sleep, veins crisscrossing the sclera. He swallowed hard, finally releasing his hold on the bound Rung’s throat. The alien gasped then coughed, spitting on the floor. He sucked in a lungful of air, the panic in his eyes leaving as they deflated back to their normal size in the sockets.

“He’ll tell us,” Boss Creed said with no doubt in his voice. “I know he’ll tell us everything.”

Ricky nodded and moved out of the way, making room for me to crouch in front of the now terrified alien. I leveled a menacing stare at him making sure that he understood me without words.

“Tong,” I said, not averting my eyes. “Tell him that I don’t appreciate him sneaking into our camp and attacking our people. If he wants to live, he better tell us what we want to know.”

Another series of clicks and “s” sounds followed, with Iris translating.

My show of force must have worked because true to Boss Creed’s prediction, as soon as the Rung regained his breath, the interrogation continued, and he told us everything. How he was sent by his people to gauge our commitment to uniting against Legion. How he used the cover of night with his booster pack to get over our wall. Finally, he told us how to kill Legion.

“He says his name is Sulk,” Iris said, listening to the others chat away. “He’s a specialist, or at least that’s what his people call him. He was chosen to bring us the news due to his ability to negotiate with enemies. They have been fighting Legion for the last month. It seems Legion deems them an easier target at the moment than the Orion. The Rung have suffered serious casualties, depleting their forces at a rapid rate.”

“Good,” Boss Creed said quietly. “I haven’t forgotten what you said they did to our expeditionary crew that went out in search of the communication section of the Orion.”

I nodded in agreement. Boss Creed was right. The Rung had slaughtered an entire team that had just gone out to try and recover our communication devices without asking any questions. They also had shot Ricky and nearly cost him his life. I closed my eyes, remembering when my friend’s survival was touch and go. Although the experience made me more appreciative of Ricky, who could be annoying at times, it was something I didn’t want to go through again.

The conversation went on, with Jezra taking the lead.

Iris suddenly perked up. Her bright blue eyes, which were nearly luminescent, were now wide with wonder.

I waited, barely holding in the tension of the moment. Although I didn’t know what they were saying until Iris translated for me, it was clear something of great importance was taking place.

Jezra spoke quickly, leaning in to Sulk as if she didn’t want to miss a word.

For his part, Sulk spoke slowly and intentionally in monotone, as if he were reciting facts he had read from a reference book, though that was hard to ascertain as he wasn’t speaking a language I knew.

“Iris?” Ricky asked, unable to bottle his need for answers. “Iris, what are they saying now?”

“Legion managed to get into their main underground bunker. He killed or turned more than half their number,” Iris said in a low whisper so as to not miss the conversation still taking place between Jezra and Sulk. “Sulk said the Rung survivors have a plan to kill the heart of Legion in the jungle to the North. They have the plan, but they need the manpower.”

So, there it is, I thought to myself. There’s the kicker. They have the plan but need our help to carry out the mission. Which means they want us to share in the dying.

“Are they kidding? The Rung want us to help them clean up their mess,” Boss Creed said, shaking his head in disbelief. He laughed, a short bark with no actual joy in the sound. “Am I the only one that remembers the Rung were the ones that created Legion in the first place? Now their Frankenstein monster has spun out of control and they want us to help them?”

The tent grew silent, with everyone lost in his or her own thoughts.

More than anything, I wanted to throw the Rung out over the wall and be done with it, but we had to be smart about this. This could be the one and only olive branch extended before Legion wiped out the Rung. After the symbiot killed the Rung, it was obvious where he was going to go to “recruit.” Legion would fixate on the Orion next.

“Does he have a cure to heal those already infected?” Ricky said, swallowing hard, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.

Tong asked Sulk the question.

The Rung answered back in a series of sharp T’s and S’s.

“He said once Legion’s core is destroyed, then those with the virus will be released from his hold,” Iris explained. “Kill Legion, cure those he infected.”

Stunned silence descended on the tent as that news set in.

“Then that’s what we will do, for Arun and everyone that’s infected,” Ricky said abruptly, looking around the tent for support. His gaze fell upon me. “We have to try. We have to do something, figure out a way to kill Legion.”

“We will,” I promised. “We’re going to help Arun, Ricky. We just have to go about this the right way. You know there are a lot of people who aren’t infected, and we have to think about them first.”

The spark in my friend’s eyes dimmed for a moment. As passionate as he was about finding a cure for the woman he loved, he understood what it meant for the rest of the colonists. Not just a fight but a war was at our doorstep. The Orion survivors who had already been through so much hardship were about to be asked to go through even more.

“We need more information and Elon needs to be told about what’s going on as well,” Boss Creed said, looking over to me. “I’ll stay here with Tong and Jezra. You two should go let him know what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll tell Stacy and meet you there,” Ricky said with a quick nod.

I could see the hope in my friend’s eyes again and I sincerely wanted it to be well-founded. Ricky was doing his best to put on a strong front for Arun, but I knew how much my friend was hurting inside. The Eternal had come to mean a lot to him, just as Stacy had to me.

Outside the tent Stacy was finishing up speaking to the gathered group of survivors. She had a contingent of Civil Authority Officers with her and I felt a moment’s pride at the view.

“And that’s all we know at the moment,” Stacy was saying. “I understand that we’ve had to hold information back in the past for the betterment of our people, but not anymore. As soon as we find out more, we’ll address you again and update you with what’s going on. We’re in this together. We’ll all survive together.”

The crowd seemed oddly satisfied with Stacy’s blunt truth. There hadn’t been a lot of honest communication between those leading the expedition and the colonists until now. They had been kept in the dark about the reason for the crash and even our alien friends until recently. That really wasn’t fair, or, as had been found out, effective as a safety measure. In the attacks that occurred, the colonists were blindsided and unable to properly defend themselves. They needed to be prepared in all instances, which they couldn’t be if we spoon fed them bits of information.

Stacy ran the show differently now. She tackled the hard topics head on, and for that, I was grateful. The community had come together and seemed to have more faith in us now.

As soon as she was finished, Stacy opened up the conversation for questions, much like an official press conference. Neither of us had been ready for our current positions, but she’d settled into hers just fine. I was still floundering; at least it felt that way.

“I’ll wait until she’s finished to tell her,” Ricky said, bobbing his head up and down enthusiastically. “You go and tell Elon and Arun. The sooner we get everyone on the same page, the sooner we can gather our forces and link up with the Rung to take out Legion.”

“Rick,” I said, taking in a long breath. The way I said his name made my friend stop in his tracks. He gave me his full attention.

“What’s wrong?” Ricky asked. “Are you hurt or something?”

“No, nothing like that,” I said, clearing my throat. Bringing the words to my mouth was nearly painful. It was harder than taking a blow or lifting a physical weight. “I—you know I’m here for you, right? I mean, if you need to talk about everything going on.”

Ricky gave me a sideways look and nodded. “Dean, are you feeling okay?”

“Yep.” I cleared my throat. “I just know you’ve been through a lot. I’m hoping for the best just like you, but if Arun doesn’t get healed from the virus, I don’t want you... Look, just know I’m here for you buddy.”

Ricky nodded, gratitude causing the corner of his mouth to tug up into a smile. “Thanks, Dean. You’ve always been a good friend.”

We looked at each other for another moment, then it turned awkward.

“So, do we hug now or something?” Ricky joked.

“No, no. I can pass on that,” I laughed, putting my hands up in front of me to stop him, just in case.

“Okay, yeah, yeah, good.” Ricky shrugged unconvincingly. “Sure, I didn’t want a hug anyway.”

We both grinned at each other before I left to go find Elon and Arun. For a long time, Ricky had been my only friend. I knew I’d do anything I could to cure Arun, not only for her sake but for his too.

Thoughts about what an open war with Legion would mean raced through my mind. I headed for Arun’s tent, pressed up against the giant half of the Orion.

The seed ship was cracked in half like an egg. On top of that, it had landed on its side when it crashed onto Genesis. The tent I made my way toward now was more of a lean-to. Elon had repurposed an exposed room on the ground floor to accommodate his sister. The front portion was a tent and the back half of the room led into the Orion itself.

I stopped at the tent entrance, clearing my throat to make myself known.

“Elon, Arun? It’s Dean,” I said. “Can I come in?”

Nothing.

“Hey, I’m coming in. It’s Dean,” I shouted.

Still no response.

A cold prickle raced over my skin, raising goosebumps. I had been to visit Arun as much as I could over the last month. Someone was always there, and someone always answered.

I removed the tent flap and went through the front of the tent portion, where a wash basin and cleaning supplies were held. Another flap led into the portion of the living quarters housed in the Orion itself.

“Arun? Elon?” I asked as I drew back the next tent flap.

Elon’s body slumped in a chair.

Arun stood over him. Her eyes weren’t her own. The bright blue irises I was so used to seeing were gone. The black orbs of Legion had replaced them.


4


Orion Protected

I didn’t have time to call out for help. Arun sprang at me the second she saw me enter. She bullied me backward, clenching her jaw as if she were going to break her own teeth.

Her hands reached for my throat.

“Arun, stop!” I shouted at her, grabbing her wrists tightly in my hands. “This isn’t you! You have to stop!”

She was too far gone at the moment to let any kind of words sink in. The Eternal struggled forward, trying to drive me back the way I came. She opened her mouth now as if she were going to say something. No words came out. She stood with her mouth gaping open, black eyes open wide in surprise.

Elon jumped to his feet and secured an arm around his sister’s neck, trying to pull her off me.

I was shocked and relieved that he was still alive. When I saw Arun standing over him, I’d feared the worst.

“Arun, stop. You need to fight this,” Elon said just below a shout. “Listen to my voice. This isn’t you. Remember who you are.”

The fight went out of Arun a moment later and her arms went limp. She stopped trying to grab at my neck. As if by some kind of magic, the black orbs that had become her eyes transitioned back to bright blue.

Arun fell to her knees.

“Dean, Dean, I’m so sorry.” Arun shook her head as if she were trying to dismiss a bad dream. “I don’t—I can’t…” her voice trailed off. I thought she might be crying, but I couldn’t be sure.

Elon glanced at me apologetically. I took a good look at him, still keeping an eye on Arun, who could possibly regress any second. His eyes were bloodshot with bags hanging under them. His normally tidy hair and clothes were wrinkled and mussed.

He knelt beside his sister, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Elon said. “It’s not you. We know that’s not you.”

I looked on, still recovering from the shock of what had just transpired. I knew Arun was doing badly but not this badly. I had been to visit her a few days before. She had been herself. Certainly weak but nothing had suggested this might happen. Neither Ricky nor Elon had told me about changes like this happening to her, where she completely lost control.

“Come on,” Elon said coaxingly. “Let’s get you back into the bed.”

I moved in to help. Together, we lifted Arun to her feet. She was shaky and seemed drained in contrast to how strong she had been when grabbing my throat. She felt small and fragile in my hands, like I could break her if I wasn’t careful. I could nearly wrap my hand around her upper arm.

“I’m so sorry, Dean,” Arun said again, her eyes finding mine. “I could have hurt you.”

“No offense, Arun,” I said to her, gently laying her down, “but there isn’t an alternate universe that exists where you hurt me in a hand-to-hand fight. Go easy on yourself.”

Her lips twisted up into a ghost of a smile.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry, no one told me. I should have been checking on you every day.”

“It’s not your job to check on me,” Arun said, shaking her head.

“These full transitions just started,” Elon said, rubbing at his tired eyes. “This is only the second time.”

“I should be tied down,” Arun said dully. “The Legion virus is growing in me, getting stronger and stronger every day. I don’t—I don’t know how much longer I can fight it. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to keep it at bay this long. It’s only because of my Eternal DNA that I’ve stood a chance at all.”

“We’re not tying you down,” Elon said firmly. “It was my fault. I fell asleep. If I had been awake to see you change, I could have brought you back like I did just now.”

“We can’t risk it,” Arun said, shaking her head. “I won’t be the cause for Legion taking another life.”

“Listen,” I said, interrupting the brother-sister feud. “You two need to figure that out on your own. I have news.”

I told them everything about the images on Jezra’s data pad, finding the Rung in our walls, the way we captured him, and the white flag he had come to offer. When I was done, Arun and Elon stared at me, digesting the information. Then they looked at each other, almost as though they were silently coming to consensus before speaking.

“The Rung could be lying,” Arun pointed out. “The only real proof we have at all are the images Jezra captured. This could all be an elaborate ruse to get us out of our walls and into the open.”

“I don’t think so,” Elon said, shaking his head in disagreement. “Apart from the images Jezra captured is the fact that this Rung risked his own life to bring us the news. He has to know we wouldn’t have accepted him willingly. He put himself in great danger to come here. At any point, we might have killed him.”

“He could have killed me,” I pointed out. “Almost did when he took off the way he did. The bottom line is that we won’t know for sure unless someone goes with him and reports back.”

Elon and Arun both looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.



“You’ve been through so much already,” Elon said with a grimace. “I can’t ask you to go with him.”

“We’ve all been through a lot,” I said, nodding to Arun. “And you don’t have to ask because I’m volunteering. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Jezra and Lou too much, but I’m starting to believe that maybe I am here for a reason. I have a very unique set of skills that seem to get me through most situations. Let me go with this Rung. If he’s telling the truth, I’ll report back, and we’ll have the way to kill Legion.”

“And if not?” Arun asked. “If he’s lying and this is a trap?”

“Then he gets one of us instead of all of us,” I said, shrugging and spreading my hands palms up in a “whatever” gesture. “We can’t afford not to explore the few options we have at this point.”

Arun gave a long sigh, too tired to argue.

Elon, on the other hand, still had some fire left in him. “You’re not going alone,” he said so definitively that I understood at that moment he would fight me the whole way on this one. “We’ll ask for volunteers from those we know we can trust. A few are better than one. Even if it’s just a handful to cover your back.”

I opened my mouth to argue but didn’t get any words out before Arun interrupted me again. “Save your breath,” she said, exhausted. “You know well enough he’s not going to give in.”

Elon nodded along with his sister as if to punctuate her statement. I looked from sister to brother and back to the sister again, then I raised one side of my mouth in a half-smile.

“Elon, if I could have a moment alone with Dean, while I’m still in my right mind?” Arun asked, looking over to her brother with questioning eyes. “It won’t take more than a few moments.”

Elon looked unsure at first then regarded his sister with a wistful smile. “Okay, I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

“Thank you,” Arun said, smiling weakly but reassuringly at him.

Elon passed me with a tilt of his chin and left the interior of the Orion.

I looked around at the metal walls and ceiling of this section of Arun’s new home. Memories of the magnificent seed ship now brought to ruin poked at my mind. Thinking too hard about this situation we were in and how it occurred could bring on madness akin to Legion’s possession of hapless individuals, so I avoided those too-dark thoughts.

“I need you to do something for me if I don’t make it,” Arun said, pulling me from my thoughts. “Before you go on a rant about how I shouldn’t think like that and be positive, you can save it.”

“I wasn’t going to say that at all,” I said, going over to the side of her bed and giving her a sad smile. “I know you don’t want that.” It was only a partial lie. It was on the tip of my tongue to do as she’d said, but I stopped myself. She didn’t need it.

“Thank you,” Arun said, running her right hand under her sheet. She came back with two folded pieces of paper. “I have a note for my brother and another for Ricky. If I’m not able to fight off the Legend virus, I want you to kill me and give them these notes.”

My stomach clenched in my gut at the same time my mouth went dry. I had done my fair share of killing people infected by the Legion virus, but I hadn’t known any of them. Maybe I was a bad person for thinking that taking someone’s life I did know was worse than a stranger’s, but that was how I felt.

Could you really kill her? I asked myself. Could you really put Arun down for the count if she couldn’t fight the virus’ infection?

“It shouldn’t be Ricky or Elon.” Arun cleared her throat, blinking back tears. “They’re not strong in the same way you are, Dean. I hate to ask anyone for this favor, but you’re one of the few options I have. I’ll ask Stacy if you say no.”

I stood quietly, thinking over her request. Four little words that were anything but simple ran themselves over and over through my mind. Will you kill me? There was a huge amount of trust that went with that request. In a perverse way, it was an honor to be asked.

“I need you to promise me, Dean.” Arun looked at me through pleading eyes. “I need you to swear to me. If I’m gone for good, you have to kill me. I don’t want to live my life as a puppet controlled by Legion. I won’t give him that satisfaction. Please promise me.”

I couldn’t bring myself to voice the words, but I nodded.

“Swear to me.” Arun reached out and grabbed my wrist with more strength than I would have thought she was capable. A brief flash of blackness raced over her eyes and I was afraid she was reverting into madness again. “Swear to me, Dean!”

“If you turn and there is no way to bring you back”—I paused, swallowing hard—“I’ll be the one to end you.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Arun said gratefully, releasing my arm. “I hate to put this burden on you, but you’re different, whether you see that or not.”

I ignored that comment. I had enough to deal with at the moment. I had just agreed to kill one of the few people I considered a friend.

“The letters?” I said instead.

“The one I wrote to Elon gives him my last instructions on how to save the colony,” Arun said, biting her lower lip in concentration. “The one I have for Ricky explains what he’s come to mean to me.”

“Why don’t you just tell him?” I asked. “I mean, you still can now. Why wait to let him read it from a letter?”

“He’s been nothing but wonderful to me since I’ve known him,” Arun said, shaking her head sadly as she stared at the ceiling of the Orion. “He doesn’t deserve to hear how I feel about him now only to lose me if I should die.”

“No way,” I said.

Arun looked over at me, confused. “What?”

“No way,” I repeated myself. “You don’t get off easy. If I’m supposed to kill you, you don’t get to die without having these hard conversations. You tell Ricky what he means to you while you have the time. I wish I would have told my wife what she meant to me more often before she was gone. If you have the chance now, you take it.”

“He’ll be devastated if I don’t make it,” Arun said.

“He’ll be devastated anyway reading it from a note,” I said, tossing the letter with Ricky’s name back to her. “At least this way he gets to hear it from you rather than a piece of paper.”

“Dean—” Arun said, about to try and convince me again.

“Not doing it,” I said. “You tell him. If you care about him, give him that at least.”

We regarded each other a moment longer in the quiet of my words before we were interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Arun!” Ricky dashed through the tent flaps into the room. He looked at me with a happy smile that worried me. “Oh, sorry, I came as fast as I could. Stacy is on board with the plan to help the Rung as long as Elon and Arun are. I mean, did you tell them already?”

“Oh, I told them,” I said, placing a hand on Ricky’s shoulder and giving Arun a meaningful look. I headed out of the tent. “I think Arun has something to say to you.” I left them both staring after me.


5


Orion Protected

I ducked out of the tent a moment later to let Arun and Ricky have their much-needed conversation. Elon stood outside, his arms folded across his chest, his head bent forward in desolation. He had a mountain of problems weighing on his shoulders. I didn’t envy him the slightest.

“Need another drink?” I asked, remembering how I had found him in the downed Orion before as he tried to drink his problems away. “Or maybe you just need to break something?”

“Both,” Elon said with a sigh. “I know I should tie her down, but how do I bring myself to do that? Am I really going to restrain my sister?”

“We have got to believe that the Rung are telling the truth,” I said, trying to navigate the conversation away from his personal problems to the more global ones at hand. I wasn’t really one for making people feel better, preferring to change the subject when things became too emotional. “I’ll head out tonight. If the Rung are telling the truth, we’ll know soon enough.”

“Thank you,” Elon said, fixing me with those bright blue eyes of his. “I mean that, Dean. I don’t know where this colony would be without you.”

“Just doing my part,” I said with an offhand shrug as I headed toward our tent city. “I’ll talk to a few others today to see if I can round up some volunteers to go with me.”

“Maybe I can go with you.” Elon brightened a bit. “If Ricky stays here to watch over Arun and Stacy oversees the—”

He shut up as I turned to give him a hard stare.

We both knew he couldn’t come with me. He had too much of a responsibility to these people.

As if he could read my thoughts, he slowly nodded with a rueful smile. “Be safe.”

I smiled back and turned, making my way through the city of tents, passing people as they washed their clothes, prepared meals, or whatever work they were given to do that day. Everyone, unless they were too sick, too young, or too old, had a job to do to benefit all.

While Elon oversaw the entire colony, Stacy had taken over security, and Boss Creed managed to bring order to the everyday chaos that was our lives. He set up a system dividing people into groups and having each group work on a different project. These projects ranged from cooking, to washing clothes, to scavenging parties going into the Orion, and more.

Boss Creed had a knack for order, and he was a natural born leader. To be honest, I didn’t want to take either him or Stacy with me on the mission to the Rung. If anything did happen to us, they were too important to the colony to be lost.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I rounded a corner leading to the Civil Authority tent. I heard grunts and the familiar sound of fists hitting a punching bag.

That noise made sense to me in a world out of order and I didn’t bother to suppress the grin. I walked to the back of the tent to see John Bower training on a heavy bag he’d fashioned from a thick piece of canvas and sand.

John wasn’t just a suit, he had previously been a gladiator back on Earth. He was a brother and a hard man who knew what it was like to be locked in a ring and only come out when your opponent was unconscious, or you had inflicted so much pain on him that he gave up in defeat.

Next to John, sitting on a bench, was Lou. I was surprised to see the older man lifting weights and doing bicep curls. He looked over at me and smiled as if he had expected me to show up the entire time. Lou was a deeply religious man who often seemed to have a direct pipeline to his supposed man upstairs.

“Dean,” Lou said with a toothy smile. “Come on over. We’re working out. Or at least John is. I’m just pretending.”

John stopped hammering at the bag to give me a measured look and wipe the sweat out of his eyes. “Heard you went a round with a Rung spy today and got that shoulder of yours popped out of socket. Looks like you took a good shot to your eye as well.”

I touched the spot over my eye that had been opened. It had bled fiercely, but head wounds always looked worse than they were. After I wiped the blood away, there was only a small gash to show for the blow I had taken.

“Don’t you worry about me,” I said. “I’ve still got more than enough to put you down in the first round.”

John held my gaze steadily as if he were about to take offense, then he broke into a smile.

“You’re lucky I like you, Steel Hands,” John said, using my gladiator name from back on Earth. “Or I’d challenge you to a friendly fight right now.”

“Might have to put that on hold,” I said. “The Rung have given us an offer to join forces against Legion. They say they know how to kill him. You in?”

“Sign me up,” he said, looking around at the meager weights he had and the improvised bench. “I’m getting kind of bored here anyway. No offense, Lou.”

“None taken,” Lou said, lifting another weight to do a bicep curl. His veins popped out of his neck at the effort despite the weight only being ten pounds. “I just have to finish this set and get a nice pump going, then I’ll grab my things so we can go.”

“We?” I asked.

“Oh, you didn’t think you were going to leave me behind now, did you?” Lou winced in pain as he raised the weight again. He was definitely wearing down, close to ending his “workout.” “You remember how I did against Legion when we went out to the coast? I may not have been a gladiator on Earth, but I’m still spry. I’ll be of use. Besides, I know where Legion’s heart is, remember?”

“The lightning-bolt-shaped rock in the jungle,” I said, recalling when Lou had taken me to the top of the Orion to get a view of the oddly-shaped landmark.

“Anybody else coming?” Lou asked. “I mean, besides Stacy?”

“Why would you think she’s coming?” I asked, stiffening. Had we been so transparent?

“Please, you think that woman is going to stay behind when there are things needing to be done?” Lou looked at me like I was stupid.

“Fair enough,” I said. “We don’t need anyone else outside of us. Tong will be coming along with us to translate, as will, of course, the Rung.”

“One hundred and ninety, one hundred and ninety-one,” Lou said as he counted out his reps. “One hundred and ninety-two…”

John and I exchanged a grin. More like twenty-one, twenty-two…

I looked over at the crudely-fashioned punching bag, missing the feeling of my fists hitting something. Being a gladiator had always been more than just a sport to me or a means to make a living. It was my vocation, a way for me to be the person I knew I was created to be. Everything else fell away when I was fighting or training. The world made sense then, and I missed that.

“You know, I mean, unless you want to fall back on the excuse that your shoulder is still messed up, we can always go a round or two,” John said, catching my gaze and playing on the uncertainty and desire he probably saw. He knew he could tip me over the line I was mentally walking and get me to go a few rounds with him. He knew what being a gladiator had meant to me. “We’ll wear the heavier gloves, so I don’t mess you up too bad.”

There were mountains of reasons why I shouldn’t. We were going to depart that night to meet with the Rung and preparations had to be made. Still, it would only take a few minutes.

You can put him down in a minute or two, I told myself. It might do you some good to limber up before you embark on a mission that could be your last.

“I mean, if you don’t think you’ve still got it, then that’s completely understandable.” John shrugged offhandedly as if he was going to forget the whole thing but still somehow come out the winner. “I get it. I wouldn’t want to fight me either. You had your heyday and you’ve moved on. I—”

“Get me some gloves,” I said suddenly, unshouldering my rifle and taking off my shirt.

John gave me a victorious grin, having goaded me into doing what he wanted. That would be his last victory for now, I thought. I was going to give him something to smile about. He rummaged around an open crate for an extra pair.

“Boys, boys. I mean, is this really the best use of our time before we depart on a mission? If someone gets hurt, I don’t want to have to be the one to explain to Stacy what happened,” Lou said, exasperated. “To be honest, she kind of scares me.”

“It won’t take long,” John assured him, coming back with a pair of black gloves.

“John will be out in two minutes,” I said.

“Well, if I can’t talk you out of it, maybe we have an opportunity here to bring some people enjoyment. That’s been a rare commodity these days,” Lou said, dropping his weight and running off. “Give me a few minutes.”

I looked over to John with a shrug.

“He’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but I like him,” John said as he moved around the workout area. He started making room, positioning the equipment to form a rough circle.

I stepped in, dragging the workout bench to the side so we could have more room to maneuver.

“Full contact?” John asked. “Knockout or submission?”

“As long as you think you can endure that and still be ready to go out tonight,” I said. “I just don’t want you making excuses later that you’re too hurt to go on the mission.”

John stopped, looking down at me with mock condescension. He was a few inches taller and a good thirty pounds heavier than I was. He grinned and shook his head with a laugh. He thought this fight would be a lock on his part.

We were nearly finished setting up our fighting pit when the first onlookers appeared. It was Meenaz and Doctor Allbright, the latter with a look of concern on her face, along with dozens of others.

“You two know what you’re doing?” she asked. “I mean, we have enough issues without you two going at it and someone breaking a bone.”

“It’s all in good fun,” I said, grinning cheekily. “I’m not going to hurt him... too bad.”

“You two be sure that you don’t,” Doctor Allbright said with a scowl. “You think these medical supplies get delivered to us on a daily basis? We have a very limited amount.” While I understood her concern, I still wanted to go ahead with the fight, if only to provide a little entertainment for the colonists who led such austere lives.

More and more people found their way through the tent alleyways to gather around us. Some of the tension about the upcoming mission left me and I felt a familiar thrill work its way through my veins.

“Is Lou doing this?” I asked as people squeezed in, cheering and smiling as they tried to get a view of what was about to happen.

“Oh yeah,” Meenaz said with a smirk. “He’s going tent by tent, telling everyone there’s about to be the fight of the century.”

“He would have made one heck of a promoter on Earth,” John said with a huff. “Could have used him then.” We both chuckled at this assessment of Lou’s promoting abilities.

“What’s going on here?” Stacy’s voice cut through the mob. “Dean, what are you doing?”

Uh-oh. I winced when I heard her voice. Not because she was going to tell us to stop, but because she was probably right about it.

Stacy appeared next to Meenaz and Doctor Allbright a moment later, her right eyebrow raised with a disapproving look.

“Dean, is this what it looks like?” Stacy asked, hands on her hips.

“Well, if it looks like I’m about to put your Civil Authority Officer over there in a world of hurt, then yes,” I said while John snorted with derision at the comment.

More and more people pressed in, excited to see two gladiators go at it, a bit of nostalgia for them. It was the closest thing we had had to entertainment since we crash-landed.

“Dean, I’m going to have to stop this,” Stacy said, shaking her head. “Officer Bowers, stand down. There’s not going to be a fight today.”

At her words, the crowd started booing.

Jezra appeared a moment later. To my surprise, the kooky old bat started a chant. That crazy Remboshi was always surprising me. She lifted a three-fingered fist in the air and led a chant of “Let the humans fight. Let the humans fight.”

The survivors laughed raucously at the chant but soon joined in.

I shrugged, looking over at Stacy questioningly with my eyebrow and the side of my mouth raised.

“The people want what the people want,” I said over the chanting of the crowd. “Come on. One fight. We won’t do any serious damage.”

Stacy rolled her eyes then looked at the eager faces and nodded in assent. “Okay,” she said reluctantly.

A cheer went up from the crowd.

“But,” Stacy said, lifting her hands, “if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.”

Everyone, including me, looked at her in confusion.

“Follow me,” Stacy said. “I have an idea.”


6


Orion Protected

Stacy didn’t just have an idea, she had a vision. The fight was moved over to the courtyard just inside the front gate. Word spread like wildfire until what seemed like every single colonist was gathered around us. From the catwalk on the wall to the ground around a rough pit that had been made for us, people packed in to see the spectacle.

Everyone pitched in, eager to see a fight between two real gladiators. A few even remembered me, not by face but by name. “Steel Hands” had been a catchy title my coach gave to me as we came up in the industry. It was easy to remember and stuck with people.

A pit was set up, lined with rocks as a border. I was provided with not only gloves but shorts to wear, as was John. Everywhere I looked, I saw excited faces filled with anticipation of the bout that was going to occur.

Maybe you should have done this before, I thought to myself. With all that these people have been through, isn’t it worth it to provide a little entertainment? If you can make them forget the dire situation they’re in even for a few minutes, you should. You can give them that if nothing else.

The twin suns still shone overhead. It was hot, but I had been getting used to it, my body acclimating to the heat.

To my surprise, the head of the scientific department aboard the Orion, Doctor Wong, stepped into the ring with a whistle in one hand and a timer in the other.

“Big fan of the fights,” he said, winking at me. “I’ve always wanted to be in the pit.”

Before I could respond to that shocker of a comment, he announced in a loud voice so all could hear,” Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us in this exhibition fight. In the far corner, we have Civil Authority Officer John ‘Bones’ Bowers, protector of walls, defender against the legion, and hero of men!”

The crowd laughed at the introduction and then cheered for John.

“In the close corner,” Doctor Wong continued, “we have Dean ‘Steel Hands’ Slade, gladiator champion, chosen by the Remboshi and keeper of wolves!”

More cheers. I could have sworn even Mutt let out a howl.

“Rounds will go five minutes until we have a winner by knockout or submission,” Doctor Wong said, all business in the middle of the pit. “Gladiators, if you want to touch gloves, do so now and start swinging!”

I looked over at Stacy, who gave me a wink, apparently caught up in the moment along with everyone else. I couldn’t detect any worry or anxiety in her expression and that pleased me. If this fight did that, even just for a little bit, it would be well worth it.

I walked to the center of the pit, offering my gloves forward. John tapped them with his own.

His face was serious and focused. He was determined. There was no doubt in my mind he was taking this fight seriously, as was I. We wanted to provide the best fight possible for the crowd’s sake, but also because we had each been professionals and took pride in our sport.

I stepped back, calming myself. I needed to be focused and ready. This wasn’t any kind of pit I had fought in in a traditional sense, but it still felt like home.

I lifted my gloved hands in front of me as Doctor Wong blew his whistle, signaling us to begin.

I jogged forward lightly on my toes. I moved this way and that, studying my opponent. John was a trained gladiator and larger than I was. This wasn’t going to be easy.

We traded a series of blows, measuring each other’s reach and power. Every time we did, the fans erupted in shouts and cheers. It was so loud Legion had to hear us outside of our walls.

I hoped he could. I hoped he heard every shout of excitement, every laugh and cry of joy. If he thought he had crushed our spirits, this would tell him a different story.

These thoughts were here one second and gone the next as John landed a left to my torso, then kicked out with a shot to the left side of my head.

I moved my hand up in time to block the blow and moved away smoothly. The sport and all my technique came back to me, like an old friend.

We went on like that for a few more exchanges until I felt confident I knew how far he could reach and how I was going to get inside his guard.

Before I could make my assault, John came at me again. He disguised his take down with a series of punches then ultimately wrapped me around the waist and drove me to the ground.

Instead of trying to fight to keep my feet, I let him slam me to the floor, focusing on gaining the position I wanted once we were down. John hammered me into the ground so hard, my teeth rattled.

I secured his right arm with both of my own, twisting my body hard to get my leg across his chest and set up the arm bar.

The colonists cheered seeing me taken to the ground but went wild after I secured John’s arm. There were screams of my name and John’s as they took sides.

The gloves we wore were padded on the knuckles but were left open for our fingers to poke through. John fought like a wild man to get back to his feet while hammering at me with his left fist.

I took a hard blow across my temple and another to my left eye, which started to swell. My cut from earlier that day had broken open as well and a fresh wave of blood fell down my face, hampering my vision further as it fell into my eyes. John could hit me all he wanted, with all he had. I wasn’t going to give up—not easily, not at all.

I could hear Mutt barking loudly and wildly somewhere in the crowd, as if he too was cheering me on.

John staggered to his feet with me still holding onto his right arm. Both of my own arms secured his with my legs across his chest. This way, I could crank back on his arm, forcing him to give in.

My plan was solid, except for the fact that John was stronger than I’d given him credit for. The large gladiator heaved me off the floor, while I was still holding onto his arm, then he slammed me down headfirst into the hard dirt ground.

Stars exploded in my head as a wave of dizziness overtook me. I let go not by choice but by pure chance. My hands slipped off him, but not before I heard a pop. John roared in pain.

I knew I had dislocated his elbow, but that didn’t mean the fight was over. I ignored the pain and stars exploding across my vision while gaining my feet once more, wobbling slightly as I stood up.

John’s right harm hung uselessly by his side. He came at me again with his left, connecting with my body so hard the air was ripped from my lungs. I took the pain and laid into him, intent to win.

I didn’t want to permanently injure the guy. I stayed away from his hurt arm and instead overwhelmed him with a flurry of punches to his jaw, temple, and gut.

He was staggering by the time Doctor Wong blew the whistle.

Another cheer went up from the crowd as I backed off. We were both a mess with cuts and bruises, but he had the more serious injuries between the two of us with his elbow out of joint. We both panted as we looked down at his arm.

“Looks like a draw to me,” I gasped, placing my hands over my head in an attempt to put less pressure on my lungs. “If you fight half as hard against Legion, we’re not going to have a problem.”

John looked at me sideways, then spat out a wad of thick blood.

“For those of you who couldn’t hear, Dean has offered a draw to John!” Doctor Wong yelled. “He says they should save the fight for Legion!”

For a such little guy, Doctor Wong had quite the voice when he wanted.

John slowly nodded then grabbed my outstretched hand with his left.

The crowd went bananas as we stood in the middle of the ring and both of us lifted our hands into the air together.

Everyone rushed past the perimeter of our made-up ring, cheering. They understood everything. We could have gone at each other for a few more rounds at least, before someone gave in or was knocked out. Even with his elbow dislocated, John hadn’t been about to give up.

A draw made the most sense all the way around. Besides, we both knew that I’d pulled my punches at the end. That was enough for me.

Amidst the slaps on the back I received, I made my way over to Stacy. She was trying to hide her smile and feign irritation but failing miserably.

I was sweaty from the fight with blood still coming down in a few different places on my face. I went to her with my arms wide.

“No, don’t you dare hug me all sweaty—”

Her words ended in a grimace as I wrapped her in a bear hug, deciding I didn’t care who saw.

“You’re crazy. You know that, right?” Stacy asked, laughing out loud. “There’s something wrong with you.”

“Oh, I know,” I said, releasing her. “I think there’s something wrong with all of us. Who signs up to travel to a different planet to start over?”

Stacy didn’t have an answer, but in that moment, we were interrupted by a scream. Doctor Allbright set John’s elbow back in place as he bellowed to the open alien sky above.

“The things we do to entertain others,” I said, chuckling a little at the expense of my friend and his pain.

“Are you still going to be able to go out tonight?” Stacy asked. “I’ve been briefed on your plan. I’m going with you.”

“I knew you would be,” I said, making my way from the courtyard through our tent city. “I’d like to take John and Lou also, if that’s okay with you.”

“Lou?” Stacy asked as we smiled and waved to the well-wishers who had seen the fight. They waved back excitedly, reminding of the days when fans had acted similarly. “Why Lou?”

“First of all, he was crazy enough to volunteer,” I said. “Also, he’s already proven himself reliable in the field.”

“Okay, we’ll take Lou, John, you and I, Tong, and the Rung,” Stacy said, listing off the members of our group. “I’m going to make sure we’re supplied before we leave. Get yourself cleaned up and meet me by the vehicles.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

A quick shower and a run-through at the cafeteria tent later, I was on my way to meet Stacy and the others. The vehicles we brought back from the Cerberus Installation were located on the right side of our compound and placed under heavy guard.

The ignition mechanisms were created so it would take a handprint to drive the vehicles. Still, Stacy didn’t want to take any chances that they might be stolen. They and the weapons were the best chance we had at defeating Legion. We couldn’t afford to lose a single one of them.

The predators were large-wheeled vehicles with room for a driver and passenger up front. A heavy machine gun sat in the rear, where there was room for another gunner.

If we were all going to fit into these vehicles, we’d have to bring two of them. I caught sight of Stacy gearing up along with Lou. Tong and the bound Sulk stood beside them. Tong had wrapped a cloak on Sulk to disguise him. There was no point in bringing more attention than necessary.

Those inside the wall were in a good mood after the exhibition, but who knew how’d they react if given to access to a member of the race who created the Legion virus in the first place. These weren’t the times to tempt fate.

Stacy and Lou put on the white Remboshi scale armor. Their helmets with the two breathing vents at the bottom clipped onto their belts. Stacy hefted a Judge handgun she placed in a holster at her hip.

Lou stood by the crate of armor, doing his best to look like he knew what he was doing. It was the first time he’d worn the new armor and it looked like he was having some difficulty getting it on.

“Need a hand?” I asked, heading over. Not waiting for him to say yes, I showed him how the vambraces were clipped onto his forearms.

“Thank you,” Lou said, moving in the armor as he tested the weight. “It looks like it should weigh a ton, but I barely feel it.”

“Remboshi technology,” Tong said with a slight smile. “The best there is.”

The Rung spy, Sulk, laughed out loud.

Tong and Sulk went at it in a verbal dispute, talking excitedly, with Tong waving his arms.

I looked over at Stacy as I clipped on my own gear.

“Tong, what’s he saying?” Stacy asked in a concerned tone.

“He says the Rung have far superior weapons now, suits of armor that grant the wearer god-like abilities,” Tong said. “He says they were overrun before they were able to use them. If we can recapture them, Legion won’t stand a chance.”

“Well, let’s get these god-like power suits back and take it to them,” John said, joining the group. “I’m ready for another fight.”


7


Orion Protected

We took two predators, armed to the teeth. In one, John drove with Lou sitting next to him, and Stacy was on the Blood Shot 2000 mounted on the rear of the vehicle.

In the other, I took the wheel with Sulk sitting handcuffed beside me and Tong on the Blood Shot. Mutt had tried to insist on coming, but I’d talked the big guy out of it. Things were stressed at best between us and the Rung. As much as I loved the dog, I realized he’d add another element of hardship to the mission.

He seemed kind of pissed at first, but after a few belly rubs and promises I’d be back soon, he lightened up. The biscuit I saved for him from my midday meal might have helped as well.

I knew Ricky and Boss Creed would look after him while I was gone. Not that Mutt needed much looking after to begin with. He was an extremely intelligent dog with finely honed survival instincts. He often looked after the humans on the planet, as evidenced by his actions upon the appearance of Sulk.

We headed out from the compound as the twin suns disappeared over the horizon. John took the lead in his predator and I followed.

Sulk was secured with a pair of cuffs on his wrists that connected to the dash in front of him. He’d made no protest to being restrained that I was aware of. Maybe he was cooperating because he knew we were there to help. At least I hoped so. I really was in no mood for any unhappy surprises.

My senses were on overdrive. When we rolled out the twin gates of the compound, there wasn’t so much as a call or screech from the jungle to the north. I had no doubt in my mind Legion was watching us. What he was deciding to do with this turn of events was yet to be seen.

We traveled quickly; the predators’ large off-road tires ate up the ground underneath us. Their heavy-duty lights cut through the darkness like a beacon and I swept my gaze from left to right searching for threats.

Sulk said something in his language and Tong responded.

“Hey, in English, so the non-gecko people can understand,” I said.

“Sulk is giving us instructions on where to go,” Tong said with a heavy sigh. “He said there is a narrow canyon that cuts through the mountains to the east. How have we come to this?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. If Tong was concerned, so was I. His opinion had become valuable and I trusted his insights, especially when it came to a member of the Rung.

“Uniting with our enemies that have been our sworn adversaries for centuries?” Tong said. “Trusting them now goes against everything I know.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?” I asked, echoing Jezra’s words and relaxing. But Tong’s mistrust of the Rung was understandable and in line with my thinking.

“Dean, you continue to surprise me,” Tong said. “That saying is very insightful.”

I didn’t tell Tong the saying didn’t belong to me. I was too lost on the course of action we now found ourselves on.

“What’s the plan once we get through the mountains?” I asked.

“Sulk says there is a Rung bunker just past the canyon,” Tong said. “We’ll connect with the force there and make our assault on their main bunker, which has been overrun by Legion. There they have a cache of weapons and upgraded armor that he promises will end Legion.”

“And we can expect heavy resistance starting when?” I asked. “Legion’s not just going to let us walk in there and impose our will. He’s going to be ready. He’ll be expecting us.”

Tong clicked off a series of sounds to Sulk that could have been him asking a question or sharing a complicated recipe for all I knew.

“Sulk says we can expect Legion to strike as soon as we enter the canyon,” Tong explained. “While it is the most direct route, it is not the safest. We will, however, be able to see exactly what we are getting into. Before we left, Jezra gave me access to the satellite.”

“My man,” I said, gathering what Tong was hinting at. “Legion will think he’s getting the drop on us, but we’ll be able to tell exactly where he’s moving.”

“That’s right.” I could practically hear the smile on Tong’s face. “Finally, we’re a step ahead. Once we get into the Rung’s underground bunkers, however, that advantage goes away. Who knows what’s waiting for us there.”

“Nice thoughts to keep us warm at night,” I muttered under my breath.

Sulk clicked something off.

“He wants to know if when the fighting starts, we will give him a chance to prove himself,” Tong translated. “He doesn’t want to go down without a fight. It is a matter of honor.”

I removed my gaze from the predator in front of me for a moment, looking over to Sulk. He stared back intently, his one normal eye searching mine for an answer. The robotic red eye shone with an eerie light.

“What do you think?” I asked Tong, moving my line of sight back to the road in front of me. “Do we trust him enough to let him fight when the dying starts?”

I already had my own opinion on the matter but wanted to hear what Tong though to see if we were in agreement. My mind went back to the point inside our walls when Sulk had me dead to rights. He’d pointed that blaster in my face and could have killed me right there. He didn’t, though.

Even after Mutt and I grabbed him, he’d only tried to get away, not kill us.

“I can’t answer that question without my own bias tainting the outcome,” Tong admitted. “The many years my people have been at war with the Rung have soiled my decision-making ability on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Tell him we’ll consider it.”

Tong seemed to take pleasure in relating the answer to Sulk. The Rung answered back vehemently, and Tong just laughed. I surmised that Sulk was not happy with Tong’s response and that Tong was happy that Sulk was unhappy.

The rest of the night, we traveled with the idea that we would move better under the cover of darkness. As far as any of us knew, Legion didn’t possess a way to see in the dark.

The mountains were only a hard night’s ride in front of us. Going all out in the predators, we’d reach the base of the mountains by daybreak.

“How’re you all doing back there?” Stacy asked through the comm unit in my ear. “See anything?”

“Nothing besides the back of your predator and the stars overhead,” I answered. “I don’t think we’re going to see Legion tonight. If he did watch us as we left the Orion, he knows he can’t catch us in the predators. We’re thinking he’ll set up and ambush further ahead. Sulk says we have to travel through a canyon once we reach the mountain range. He’ll probably hit us there.”

“Agreed,” Stacy said, muffling a yawn. “Keep your eyes open. Let Tong rest and switch off if you start falling asleep.”

“I’m good,” I said. “Should be good at least until dawn.” I really was awake, probably too keyed up to sleep.

We drove through the night over the alien terrain. The looming dark masses in front of us that were the mountain range grew closer every hour. The forest to our right remained still and not so much as a streak of motion or a rogue cry from an animal could be heard.

As the dual suns began to fight back the dark sky, Stacy called a stop. Just as planned, we were at the foot of the mountains. We would rest and regroup here just inside the tree line of the forest before continuing our journey.

We parked the predators under a pair of large trees with neon-like branches and dark brown trunks. Tong took too much pleasure leading Sulk from his spot in the vehicle and securing him to a tree. I wasn’t sure if I should let him continue in this vein with our enemy/hostage/soon-to-possibly-be-ally or say something.

My concern was less for Sulk and more for us. I didn’t want to aggravate him to the point where he and his fellow Rung decided to take revenge on the Remboshi for this treatment. I wondered if they had some sort of prisoner-of-war pact to abide by.

“I’ll take first watch while you get some sleep, then wake Lou, John, Tong, and you in that order,” Stacy instructed. “We should all get a solid eight hours before we hit the canyon, then we’ll travel with the cover of night again. Using Jezra’s satellite, we’ll be able to tell if Legion is waiting to spring a trap on us.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Lou said, handing out our rations, which weren’t anything more than a few pieces of fruit and packed sandwiches. “I could use some rest.”

John massaged his elbow. There was a thoughtful look in his tired eyes as he did so. He looked over at me, raising an eyebrow.

“You good?” I asked, wondering if he was going to start verbally sparring with me about who should have won our match.

“Yeah, I’ll live,” John said with a smirk. “I have to. We need to have a rematch until there’s a clear winner.”

“Careful what you wish for, brother,” I told him, biting into a piece of fruit. “You just might get it.”

The more and more I got to know John, the more I felt comfortable joking with him. I knew now he was one of the good ones. Not just good as in he was on our side, but good as in he could be counted on.

I could see it in his eyes now. The gladiator spirit that drove him forward was the same one that raged inside of me. We were definitely brothers under the skin.

After our meager meal, we chose our sleeping areas and passed out hard. I was under a tree using the branches above me for shade when fatigue finally set in.

It was one of those sleeps that came so quickly, you weren’t sure how long you’d been out at all when you woke up. All I knew was that I was torn from the deep embrace of slumber by a piercing, bone-chilling scream.

I sat bolt upright, trying to figure out far too much at once. I blinked as I reached for my weapon. Others in the camp were also roused awake from the noise.

The suns were still overhead but on their downward descent now. I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep. Six hours, maybe more.

The scream came again. It was a sound I was familiar with. Legion. I had heard the people he infected enough times to recognize the distinct scream of pure mania.

In a moment, everyone was up and shifting from sleep to fighting mode. Weapons were raised as we took up a defense position around the predators.

I took Sulk from the tree he was attached to, back to the passenger side of the predator, and secured him once more.

He groaned as I locked him in place. I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to be tied down while Legion came for us either.

“Lou, Tong, on the Blood Shots,” Stacy instructed. “Dean, don’t let anything happen to our Rung friend.”

We all moved to obey without asking questions, though I balked at calling Sulk a friend.

I donned my helmet, which fit snugly on my head.

More of the screaming came from the woods. We still couldn’t see anything, but it was getting closer.

“Legion saw us leave the Orion and what?” John asked. “It took him this long to find us and gather a force to send here?”

“Tong,” Stacy said without answering John’s question. “Time to fire up access to the satellite Jezra gave you. Tell me what we are dealing with here.”

“Searching now,” Tong said, going for the data pad that hung on a carrier around his shoulder. “I can access the HUD in your helmets and let you see in real time what the satellite is seeing. Jezra has it following our movements.”

A moment later, a small square popped to life in the lower right-hand corner of my visor. It showed an aerial view of our predators. We were tiny dots on the ground. Further into the forest showed not just dozens but hundreds of infected coming our way.

The forest was full of the infected beings rushing our position like a dam that had burst and the ground began rumble with their stampede-like movement.

“Stacy,” I said as calmly as I could.

She knew the same thing I did. As much as we all wanted to stay and tear into Legion, this was not a fight six people could win.

“There—there have to be hundreds of them!” Lou gasped in awe. “How are there so many?”

“Talk later,” John said, already heading quickly for his predator. “We have to move now!”

As if a spell was lifted from us, we all jumped immediately into action. I went for my predator with Tong and Sulk, while Stacy, Lou, and John jumped in their vehicle.

“Here they come!” Stacy shouted.

The sound of her weapon firing lit up the air. The Blood Shot rang out loud and clear as it peppered the first wave of infected humans.

There weren’t only infected humans I found as I got a good look at them. Mechanically enhanced Rung bolstered their numbers as well. In fact, there now seemed to be more Rung than humans, which made sense as we’d been killing off the infected humans and hadn’t really encountered the Rung on this level yet.

I only got a glimpse of them, but from what I could see, they were the stuff of nightmares. Half alien, half mechanically enhanced, and totally consumed with the Legion virus, they swarmed us. Black matter oozed from ebony eyes. The dark liquid came out of the holes in the sides of their heads they called ears.

“Ahhhh!” I heard Tong roar over the sound of his Blood Shot as I urged our predator away from the mob.


8


Orion Protected

Tong’s uncharacteristic roar was one I understood well. It wasn’t one of fear, but a rally cry. He needed to do something to harness his own fleeting courage. It was something common in men and woman preparing for a fight to psych themselves up. The roar was primal, something even animals understood.

Right now, I didn’t blame him. The amount of infected sprinting at us from the forest was an intimidating sight. I had never seen so many in one place.

Legion had been busy this last month, turning hundreds, maybe thousands of the Rung. No wonder Sulk had been sent to us. It was a last-ditch effort on the Rung’s part to avoid being completely wiped out.

Weapons fire from the infected hammered across the predator. I ducked, surprised. Last I checked, infected were hungry, mindless beings controlled by Legion. A few of them carried the occasional blunt object, but none of them had wielded a weapon like a blaster.

“Are they shooting at us!?” Stacy yelled over the sounds of her own Blood Shot ripping across the lines of infected.

Another spattering of rounds hit my predator as I fought to gain control of it, trying to hold the steering wheel steady.

“They’re shooting at us,” I yelled back. “They’re definitely shooting at us!”

“Since when did Legion learn how to fire weapons?” John asked, echoing my previous thoughts.

Driving full out, we were just about leaving the infected behind when I chanced a look in my rear-view mirror. Sure enough, Legion was chasing after us, but without vehicles, the infected had no chance.

“Does our new ally care to weigh in on the fact that Legion can fire weapons now?” I asked Tong while staring daggers at Sulk. He couldn’t tell since I was wearing my helmet, but I think he understood he was in trouble by the sound of my voice.

The echoes of weapons fire died behind us as we sped forward over the dry dirt terrain.

Tong and Stacy eased off their vehicle when the infected were far enough behind us. The former exchanged a quick conversation with Sulk in their native language.

“He says he doesn’t know when Legion became smart enough to have those he controls use weapons,” Tong explained. “A week, maybe two weeks ago, it started.”

“Tell our mechanical friend here that any other information like this would be greatly appreciated,” Stacy said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “What happened to our eye in the sky, Tong?”

“I didn’t think Legion would be able to catch up to us so quickly,” Tong said. “I’m sorry, no excuses. I will monitor the satellite feed more regularly. Before I went down for my sleep, we were clear for miles in every direction.”

“We couldn’t know he had turned so many or that they could move so quickly,” Lou said, trying to calm everyone in the charged moment. “We do now. We won’t make the same mistake.”

“Keep the feed from the satellite live in our helmets,” Stacy instructed, losing the bite in her words without sacrificing their strength. “If Legion gets within ten miles of us, I want to know.”

“I understand fully,” Tong said, contritely. “I’m sorry.”

We moved on in silence for the next hour, following Sulk’s instructions as he led us to the foot of where two of the mountains met. True to his word, there was a small canyon cutting through the mountain range.

Sheer rock walls reached high into the sky on either side of us. The canyon was wide enough that we could move side by side if we chose, but only just barely.

We pulled level with one another, examining the passage. I looked over to John, who was driving the other predator. He glanced at me, shaking his head.

I know, I don’t like it either, I thought to myself. This has ambush written all over it.

The mountain range was all dirt and dark rocks stretching right to left as far as the eye could see. Here and there, small lizard-like animals scurried, trying to find food or shelter—maybe both.

The suns had nearly set behind the mountains. Legion didn’t make mistakes. He had flushed us out for a reason. That much I was sure of.

“We only have two options,” Stacy said, thinking out loud. “We go through or we scout another way around. Looking at the live feed, I don’t think there’s a clear way through like this, for who knows how long. It would take us days to go around.”

“We don’t have days,” Lou said as if he were talking to himself. “The way is narrow and the path is steep.”

“That some kind of ancient proverb or something?” John asked.

“Something like that,” Lou said with a slight smile. “For what it’s worth, I say we go forward. Now that we all have the live feed, any move from Legion and we’ll see him coming miles away. But it’s not my decision and I can respect that.”

I looked over to Stacy, who stood in the back of her predator with the Blood Shot. At the moment, her arms were crossed over her chest as if she were deep in thought.

There was no real choice here. I knew that and so did she. We had to go through, though I respected her for taking the time to consider any and all other options before voicing her thoughts.

“This is the only way,” Stacy finally said. “Eyes open. Legion has something up his sleeve, but the faster we get to the Rung, the faster we end this.”

“Let’s go,” I said, turning my predator forward. We entered the canyon at a crawl that turned into a steady pace a few seconds later. With the light dying overhead, I turned my high beams on. They illuminated the dark, but we still couldn’t make much sense of what was ahead of us.

The predators’ giant wheels slowly crunched over the dry terrain. My head was on a swivel. Everyone was right. There was something going on here we couldn’t see. My sixth sense told me this was all kinds of wrong.

An eerie silence descended on our group like a thick blanket on a hot night. I watched the overhead satellite’s view inside my visor of the satellite expecting to see signs of Legion, but it stayed quiet.

Sulk clicked something hard.

Tong clicked back.

The two exchanged a brief but intense conversation.

“Want to fill me in here?” I asked. “Not all of us speak clicky S language.”

“He sees something,” Tong said, leaning forward from his position as if he were trying to see into the distance. “A man.”

I looked forward again. Thus far, the canyon had been nothing more than a few rocks and boulders I had to navigate over or around. I craned my neck forward, trying to get a glimpse of anything.

There shouldn’t be anyone human around here. If there were, we could be almost certain it was an infected.

“There, on the feed,” Stacy pointed out, tension and anxiety evident in her voice. “It came out of nowhere. It wasn’t there a second ago, I swear.”

I looked down at the small bleep on my feed. While the satellite was zoomed out, the figures appeared as tiny dots. When it was zoomed in, we could make out distinct images of the individuals. Right now, it was zoomed out, showing us as a pair of tiny dots going through the canyon and whatever it was in front of us as a stationary dot.

Stacy was right, it was as if the interloper had appeared out of thin air.

I slowed the predator to a crawl as the headlights pierced the darkness, picking up the figure of a human man as we drew closer. He was tall with grey hair and a grizzled face. Unlike the other infected, he was clean, as if he had just taken a bath and gathered new clothes. The only thing at all that set him apart from a normal man was those black eyes. They were piercing and scary, feral-looking and lacking humanity.

I stopped the predator, allowing John to pull up beside me. Something about the man was off besides the fact that he was immaculately clean and infected by an alien entity. I knew him.

“Captain Harold,” John breathed. “It’s him.”

Realization struck a moment later. Captain Ezra Harold had been sent with a second expeditionary force when I left with mine toward the prison section of the Orion.

We came after his party later. The only sign of them we’d found were dead bodies, courtesy of the Rung. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Legion had snagged one of the survivors as they fled from the Rung.

“I’ve come to talk,” Legion said, speaking through Captain Harold’s body. He turned in a full circle. “You can see I have no weapons. I’m not here to try and kill you.”

“Not this time,” Stacy countered. “What about that little ambush you just tried to catch us with?”

“Well, you can’t fault me for trying,” Legion said with a shrug that was meant to emphasize his capitulation. “I knew you’d be tired after your long drive. Come on. All I want to do is talk, I promise. I’m alone.”

“Do you trust him?” I asked Stacy.

“Not for a second,” Stacy answered immediately. “Dean, with me. Lou, get on the Blood Shot. If anything happens, you and Tong light him up.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Lou said, trading spots with her.

“Careful,” Tong warned us. “He’ll try and get into your head. That’s what he was created to do, spread and infect.”

I exited the vehicle, making sure to unholster my Judge handgun, which sat securely on my hip. Courtesy of Jezra and her Cerberus Installation, the weapon was one I had grown accustomed to and relied on to keep me and my crew safe. I wasn’t the best shot in the world, but it would be hard to miss, as close as we were to Legion.

Stacy and I walked forward side by side. The combined headlights of the vehicles were more than enough to give us a clear view of Captain Harold. Or what used to be Captain Harold.

I’d never liked the man very much, but I respected him. We hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but that didn’t mean that his heart wasn’t in the right place, having the interests of those he protected at the forefront of his mind. We both wanted a home for our people and a safe one at that. We’d just gone about it differently.

“I have all of his memories, you know,” Legion said, tapping the side of his head. “I have all of their memories. Not just that, I’m better at coordinating their movements, both together and individually.”

“We noticed,” Stacy said. “You shot at us, remember?”

“Oh right.” Legion smiled. “Still not very accurate apparently.”

“What do you want?” I asked, suddenly struck by the obvious. “I mean, besides being lonely and wanting to talk. It must get pretty boring only having yourself to hang out with.”

Legion looked at me with a snarl that he quickly controlled and turned into a smile.

“You’re not wrong, Dean ‘Steel Hands’ Slade.” Legion shook his head. “It does get rather lonely turning beings, only for them to become pieces of myself. Perhaps this is why I am here. I’m feeling a bit generous and nostalgic today, so I’m going to give you a way out. I won’t kill you.”

“How benevolent,” Stacy said sarcastically, clenching the grip on her Judge tighter. “What is it that you want besides a friend to talk with?”

“My very purpose, the very reason I was created by the Rung, was to spread myself throughout this world and convert the rest,” Legion said, shaking his head. “I understand it all now, after infecting a dozen or more Rung scientists. I was created to kill the Remboshi. Then I became self-aware and tried to kill both Remboshi and the Rung. This is my history, brought back to me now from eyes that are now my own.”

Legion paused as if he was choosing his next words carefully. “Granted, I do understand the flaw in that logic. If I kill or infect everyone, eventually I will be the only living entity on Genesis, and what kind of existence is that?” Legion thought out loud. “It happened to me once before when the Rung and Remboshi went into hiding. I can only live off animals for so long. I crave intelligent life. You have no idea what it’s like to be alone for so long. The only way I was able to survive at all was to hibernate in the pollen of a very special plant. I—”

“Listen,” I said, interrupting Legion’s speech. “This is all very sad and endearing, but my trigger finger is getting itchy. To tell you the truth, I’m not that great of a shot, but Stacy is. How about you just tell me what you want? Or can we just end you right here and be done with this conversation.”

“Like I said, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.” Legion cleared his throat. “What I’m offering you here is a partnership. I’ll let you and your colonists live, even release those I now possess, including that Eternal of yours who fights me so vehemently.”

“And?” Stacy asked. “There’s always an and when it comes to dealing with someone like you.”

“Perceptive as you are beautiful,” Legion said, licking his lips. “No wonder the body I possess held you in such high regard. And, in return for letting your people go, I will content myself with taking over the Rung and Remboshi. By the time I take possession of all their scientists, I’m sure I can form a cure for this never-ending urge I have to spread and infect.”

“You want us to just look the other way while you infect every living thing on Genesis that isn’t human?” I asked incredulously. “Do you really think we’re that stupid, you virulent narcissist?”

“I think you care about your own people enough, especially that Eternal, to see the logic in my thinking.” Legion shrugged, ignoring my insult, or perhaps enjoying it as flattery. “Sooner or later, I will possess her fully. It would be a shame to order her to take her own life by slitting her throat or walking into the sea.”

“You’re a monster, in every sense of the word,” Stacy said through gritted teeth. “I should shoot you right here.”

“Go ahead. There are so many other bodies for me to control these days. The minds of the living seem never-ending.” Legion smiled. “Oh, but you won’t because you’re holding on to the insane hope that you will be able to defeat me. That you’ll get everyone I infected back and you’ll find a way off this planet. Dreams and wishes, nothing more, I assure you.”

“You know, a sick little part of me almost felt sorry for you when you were talking about how alone you are,” Stacy said, taking a step forward. “You almost had me. Then I remembered what you really are at your core. You’re a selfish virus that only wants to consume others, leeching onto them like an insidious parasite. We’re coming for you now. Your days are numbered.”

I was proud of Stacy for giving it to Legion like she was. Motion in the lower right-hand corner of my HUD caught my eye.

Tong had the satellite set to give us a wide aerial view of the landscape around us. True to his word not to get taken by surprise again, he had the view set out to ten miles in every direction. Tiny dots began to form like some kind of disease on the screen.

The canyon we were in served as the center of the map in a long narrow line. On either side of the canyon, just emerging from the sides of the map, these tiny figures moved at tremendous speed.

“Stacy, Dean, are you seeing this?” Tong asked through our earpieces. “Legion’s running at us. They still have a way to go on foot, but they’ll reach either side of the canyon in an hour, maybe longer.”

“I see it,” Stacy said out loud.

“You see the glory of the power I bring,” Legion said. “There is no hope. The body I possess now, this Captain Ezra Harold, knows a fitting line for what is about to happen. ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here,’ I think is appropriate.”

“We’re done here,” Stacy said, looking over to me with despair evident in her expression. “All this ever was, was a stall for time.”

I took a step forward, removing my helmet so I could look Legion in his dark, feral eyes.

“I’m going to be the one to kill you,” I told him. For as much as he was trying to get into our heads, it was my turn to do the same to him. It was a tactic I’d used in the gladiator circuit. “I’m going to watch you burn.”

Just like that, Legion’s smile vanished. His dark eyes began to ooze with ebony liquid like dark tears. He snarled at me, and spittle flew from his lips.

“Why wait?” he asked with a sneer.

“Dean,” Stacy said to me. She reached out and put a hand on my shoulder—whether to stop me or support, I wasn’t sure.

“Because we know now that we can kill you and free our people from your hold,” I told him. “I’m not going to kill you because that would be killing Ezra Harold.” That realization made me think of the many that we had killed in self-preservation, and I found myself becoming even angrier at this virus, a blight on the planet that needed to be eradicated, the sooner the better.

“We need to go,” Stacy said as she removed her hand from my shoulder. “This is what he wants. He wants to stall us for as long as he can to surround us.”

I walked backward slowly and purposefully, never taking my eyes from Legion.

“I’m going to take everything you care about, everything you love, Dean Slade,” Legion yelled after me. “Your dog, your friends, Stacy.”

I turned and jogged back to the predators with Stacy. Legion’s threats were white noise to me at this point. I knew he was only trying to evoke an emotional reaction from me now and I refused to give him what he wanted.

“So that went well,” John said as Stacy and I got back into our respective predators. “Want me to run him over?”

“It’s still the captain somewhere in there,” Lou reminded John. “If we can kill Legion, we can save him. We can save all of them.”

“They’re gaining on us from the sides of the canyon,” Tong said, looking at his data pad. “If we drive hard, we might be able to make it out of here before they reach the edges, but it’s going to be close. We need to be faster and go now!”

“Let’s go,” Stacy said. “Dean, you take the lead. Drive like hell.”

“On it,” I said, jumping into the predator. The engine was still running. I stomped on the gas and we took off like a shot. John did the same, peeling out and kicking up clouds of dust.

Legion moved to the side, waving goodbye. Usually when someone waved, a friendly smile accompanied the action. This time around, he stared at us with those bleeding black eyes and an evil smile.

I moved my eyes away from the psychopathic virus and studied the road ahead. The canyon didn’t wind very much, but in the darkness it took my full concentration to not only drive fast, but avoid the many rocks and boulders in our path. If I ran over one, it could mean huge damage to the predator, and that wasn’t something we could afford right now.

Sulk said something out loud that Tong translated a moment later.

“He says if we make it through the canyon, his people have an underground installation less than an hour away. We can head there.” Tong paused, exchanging words with Sulk once more. “Last time he was there, Legion had not laid siege to it, but he can’t be sure this time around.”

“We’ll find a way through, even if Legion is trying to block our entry point,” Lou said over the comms. “We haven’t come this far not to make it.”

For the next hour, I drove as quickly as I could without sacrificing our safety. If I missed a boulder or other large obstruction, we were done. Lucky for me, the headlights on the predator cut through the darkness and spread out as if it were bright as day, as long as the field of vision was right in front of the predator.

John kept the other vehicle a safe distance behind me as we continued. No tailgating on this trail. If I had to stop suddenly and he plowed into me, we could potentially be stranded with no working vehicle. Whenever I could, I took a quick look at the satellite feed in the lower right-hand corner of my HUD.

The tiny dots symbolizing infected were growing, like two waves headed toward one another that were about to crash on the canyon between them. Even more concerning, there was no end to the canyon in sight. The infected managed to somehow span the entire area as they raced toward us from both sides.

Legion’s been busy taking out the Rung, I berated myself. Stupid, how stupid were we to sit and wait behind our walls for an entire month, hoping for what? That Legion would one day leave on his own?

For as much as I beat myself up, I knew that we hadn’t just been sitting inside of our walls playing dice. We had emptied the Cerberus Installation of everything we could use, reinforced our walls, and trained a Civil Authority contingent that would be able to give Legion hell when we called on them. Still, it wasn’t enough. I realized that now.

“We’re not going to make it,” Tong said via the comms in our helmets. “We’ll still have two minutes’ worth of driving left when the infected reach the canyon walls. There have to be over a hundred thousand of the infected now, including humans, Rung, and animals.”

“Get ready to clear the walls,” Stacy instructed Tong. “You too, Lou. We can bet they’ll be raining down fire on us, maybe even boulders.”

“Got it,” Lou said with a confidence I didn’t feel.

“Understood,” Tong answered.

My eyes traveled back and forth as I studied the map and the terrain ahead.

“Incoming in under a minute,” Tong said, his voice tense.

“Cover the right side of the canyon,” Stacy told him. “I’ll cover the left. Lou, you go back and forth, lending a hand wherever the infected presence is the heaviest.”

Both Tong and Lou gave an affirmative.

“I know we don’t all believe the same thing here, but do you mind if I say a prayer?” Lou asked. “It’ll only take a moment.”

“I’m not going to say no to any kind of help,” John said.

“We can spare a few seconds until they show up,” Stacy answered. “Make it short. And make it count.”

“We’re here for a reason,” Lou said more as if he were talking to someone than any kind of prayer I had ever heard. “I believe we are here to help the Rung and Remboshi live in peace once more. By defeating Legion together, we’re setting them on a course for their planet to live in harmony again. Give us courage to do the hard things and the wisdom to make the right decisions at the right time.”

That was it.

Then Lou went quiet.

I wasn’t sure if I believed any of this fate or destiny talk, but still, I felt compelled to add my two cents. “Amen.”

That was all the time we were getting. Lou’s prayer did make me feel better for the briefest moment.

Tong beginning his countdown ruined that for me. “Contact in five…” he began.

The dots on our screen were so close to the canyon edge, they looked as though they were falling into it from both sides.

“Four, three…” Tong continued.

I could see where the canyon ended on our map. The darkness didn’t allow me to see it with my eyes ahead of us, but very clearly, the diagram in our HUD told us we were almost there.

“Two… ONE!” Tong screamed the last word.

Stacy and Tong lit up the tops of the canyon cliffs above us, followed with Lou’s own Judge.

I couldn’t look up to see what they were shooting at more than a second or two at a time. To be honest, I couldn’t see much anyway. The lights on our vehicles shone straight ahead. The only light available to us from above was courtesy of the moon and stars.

Dark silhouettes of madness popped over the edges of the canyon. I couldn’t see what they carried, but a maelstrom of hellfire descended on us from above, as well as rocks the size of my head, so I could just imagine what they had available to them.

Rock and debris hit the predators along with the enemy fire as we snaked our way through the canyon.

War was hell, especially as we were outnumbered by the enemy. I had only glimpses of it before, but this was no exception to the rule. The discharge of enemy firepower thundered in the canyon, echoing even as rock and dirt exploded around us. I was grateful for the ear protection of my helmet to dampen the sounds, otherwise I would have trouble hearing for days to come when this was over.

Infected began to fall from the tops of the canyon. Bodies hit the predator with a squishy metallic sound, causing me to jerk the vehicle from side to side. The sickening thuds struck the frame of the vehicle so hard, the predator shuddered under the assault. I was certain John was having the same issues.

More and more bodies fell on us. Along with them came rocks, which I wasn’t sure were thrown intentionally, and sporadic weapon fire from those infected able to use blasters.

“Keep the bodies off the predators!” Stacy screamed as I continued to swerve to avoid them.

“There are too many of them!” Tong yelled back.


9


Orion Protected

The open top of the predator was shaped like a T. As such, rocks bounced off my armor and helmet. I almost felt sorry for Sulk as he hunched over in his seat, trying to protect himself from the onslaught.

“They’re not just falling as we shoot them,” Lou roared. “They’re throwing themselves off the cliff trying to get on top of us!”

The idea was so insanely out of the box, I almost disregarded it. But I knew Legion was crazy and his box, so to speak, did not have a secure lid. With thousands of infected to offer up as sacrifices, it would make sense he would pay the heavy price of loss if it meant us not getting out of the canyon alive.

Something slammed into the T-framed roof above us. I had the chance to take a quick look as an infected Rung—a female, it seemed—with a mechanical brace around her neck snaked a hand toward my head.

She grabbed my helmet in her three-fingered grip, trying to rip my helmet off my head.

My heart pounded in my chest as adrenaline flooded my system and I held onto the steering wheel with my right hand as I tried to fend off the Rung with my left. I jerked my head back and forth to avoid the Rung’s grip while keeping my eyes on the road in front of us, still swerving around to circumvent boulders.

Tong was going to be of little to no use. It wasn’t like he could turn his Blood Shot in my direction and try to fire on the infected Rung, even if he wanted to. He was too busy trying to keep the infected who were still launching themselves at us off our predators. Not to mention the fact that he was bound to hit us if he tried to intervene.

Another smack on the hood of our vehicle and a human infected grabbed on tight. This one was a grown man with the trademark black pools for eyes. A river of ebony liquid sludge came from his mouth and he clung to the vehicle like a parasite.

I continued to fight the infected Rung who was still trying to get a grip my helmet. She twisted this way and that as I attempted to throw her off and it was all I could to keep us from slamming into one of the canyon walls.

A second later, we jerked hard to the right as she finally managed to rip off my helmet. It fell onto the seat next to me. Cold wind blasted me in the face and, although refreshing, was not really what I wanted at this point. The infected grabbed for the steering wheel. For a second, I thought we were goners as she gained a grip on the handle with her right hand.

Before she could swing it one way or the other, Sulk suddenly stirred to action. Moving his body to the side, he struck out with his thick tail, batting her hand away. Another swift strike loosened her hold and sent the alien spinning into the darkness.

The other infected on the hood obscured my view of the canyon road in front of me. He pulled himself up over the windshield, his obsidian eyes fixed on mine. Unlike the infected who had been ripping at my helmet, I had time to deal with this one.

My left hand still on the wheel, I reached for the Judge with my right. I laid into the infected with my weapon, hammering him with three steel rods to the chest, followed by a couple to the head for good measure.

Black blood splattered across the predator and whooshed through the air around us. The infected let go of the windshield, falling to the ground with a satisfying plop. A second later, he was lost behind us in the night.

“We have got to get out of here!” John roared over the comms. “Almost there!”

Then I saw it. Ahead of us, only a few hundred meters off, I could make out the downward sloping ends of the mountain and the end of the canyon.

Legion must have realized we were about to make our escape, so he made a last-ditch effort to disable our team. More rocks slammed down on us. I took a shot to the skull that opened a gash in my head. Pain exploded and blood dripped into my vision, turning it a haze of red. Then another rock hit my left shoulder and it felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my collar bone.

A second later, we were out of the canyon and headed into open terrain. The screams of thousands of angry throats lifted into the air. I looked in my rearview mirror to see John just about to exit the canyon himself. His predator was smoking from the front. Somehow, the hood had been ripped off. Sparks ignited a small fire that soon engulfed the engine.

I watched in horror as the predator buckled and flipped end over end as though it had hit something. I slammed on the brakes of my predator without thinking and yanked us into a hard U-turn straight back to the upended predator.

“Stacy! John! Lou!” I yelled out loud in a panic. Without access to my helmet, I had only my voice to communicate.

Luckily for me, Tong had seen what happened. He was also asking them if they were all right over the comm unit.

“Can you hear us?” Tong shouted. “Please respond.”

Nothing.

I screeched to a stop beside the smoking predator and searched nearby but couldn’t see any bodies, which meant they had either been thrown from the predator or were trapped underneath.

“Tong, keep us covered,” I yelled as I prepared to jump out.

Sulk chattered something awful, yanking at his cuffs and looking at me intently.

I didn’t need Tong to understand Sulk wanted to help. As far as I was concerned, he had already proved his worth by saving me from the infected Rung that had latched onto my helmet. Without a second thought, I released him from his cuffs.

Tong didn’t bother arguing. He was already scanning the area for infected.

My best guess was that we had a few minutes before the infected were able to find a safe way down from the canyon walls and assault our position.

I ran over to the smoking predator, dropping to all fours to get a look underneath the vehicle. John was coughing, trying to crawl out from under it. Lou was upside down, still buckled in his seat. He wasn’t moving. His neck was positioned at an awkward angle. Stacy was nowhere to be seen.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” John coughed, motioning to Lou. “Get him out. Help him.”

Sulk was small enough to crawl through the driver’s side and under the upside-down predator. He unbuckled Lou and grabbed him under the shoulders with care.

I helped as soon as Sulk pulled him far enough out. Together, we dragged Lou out behind John.

As much as I wanted to find Stacy, I knew something was very wrong with Lou. His body was heavy and limp in my hands, not responsive.

We laid him on his back as carefully as we could.

“Lou, Lou, can you hear me?” I asked, gently removing his helmet.

Lou’s face was pale. Blood spurted copiously from his mouth, and he gave off a weak, wet cough.

“You remember who you are,” Lou said so faintly I could barely make out the words.

His head was twisted to the right side of his shoulders in a way I had never seen before. Dark bruising was already starting around his neck and shoulder. I knew deep down things didn’t look good for him.

“Lou, we’ll be okay,” I said, refusing to accept the obvious. “We’re going to get you back. You don’t give up. You hear me? You don’t give up! You’re not allowed to, not after all that fate and destiny stuff you’re always talking about.”

Stacy appeared out of the darkness from wherever she had been thrown in the accident, limping gingerly. Thankfully, it seemed her armor had saved her from the worst of the fall when she was thrown from the predator.

“Lou,” Stacy said, approaching him as quickly as her injured leg would permit. She removed her own helmet and sank to her knees beside him. She grabbed Lou’s hand in her own. She recognized death when she saw it. We had all seen enough of it to know what it looked like. “Lou, we’re here for you. You’re not alone.”

“You…will save them,” Lou said, looking into the night sky above. “You two…will save this planet. We are all here…for a reason.”

The finality in his voice was enough to give my anger pause. My mouth was dry. A lump formed in my throat, rendering me unable to speak. With that, Lou let out a long draw of breath, and he was gone.

We sat there a few seconds in silence with the smoking predator behind us still burning from the hood. Distant screams in the night told us our spare time, time to say goodbye to our friend and examine wounds of the others in the wreck, was up.

“We have to go.” Stacy was the first to speak. “We’ll come back for his body. He’s past Legion being able to infect him now. We’ll give him the burial he deserves later, but right now we have to go or his death will be meaningless.”

I rose to my feet, feeling so much anger burn in my chest I was ready to make a final stand against Legion right there and then. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was angry, grieving, and in pain from this loss.

John pulled off his own helmet. Tears filled his eyes, shimmering like tiny pools in the light of the many stars.

“What do you want from us?!” John shouted at the screaming infected. “You want to take everything? Is that what you want? You want to kill or infect us all and be alone again?”

John pulled the Judge from his hip. He began firing wildly into the night.

“Put your weapon down,” Stacy said firmly and loudly over John’s fire. “All that anger you feel? Bottle it up and get ready to use it the next time we come face to face with Legion. Right now, what you’re doing isn’t helping anyone.”

I had a moment with Lou, maybe the last moment we would ever have together. I looked down at my friend, the man with the faith and beliefs I didn’t quite understand but whom I felt privileged to know. The man I might have never known if we hadn’t crash landed on this god forsaken planet.

“I’m not going to let you down,” I said, closing his unseeing eyes with the tips of my fingers. “I’m going to make this count. I promise you. I’ll make this count.”

“Move!” Stacy shoved John toward the one working predator. “Now, Dean! On your feet!”

“Let’s go,” I said, helping her bully John backward.

It was clear John was still stunned, maybe even concussed from the accident, but I couldn’t tell and there was no time to check him.

The howls of the infected behind us continued to grow in volume. They couldn’t be more than a half kilometer off and were closing in quickly.

Sulk followed us as we all piled into the single working predator. I confirmed what I already knew by the sounds of the screams. They were coming, there were many, and they would be here in minutes.

Stacy slammed herself into the passenger side seat with Sulk in the middle and me in the driver’s seat. John and Tong squeezed into the back with the Blood Shot.

We were off a second later, the wheels spinning to life underneath us.

“Not far now,” Tong said as Sulk clicked something unintelligible. “Safety is close.”

We drove through the night like a heavy burden had been placed on our shoulders. Death was a possibility we all accepted and realized, but to see it so close and alive in the form of this nasty virus that spread to its heart’s content was something different altogether.

As we moved into the darkness, the screams behind us faded. I followed Sulk’s direction to the underground Rung base that we all hoped was still a secret and not under siege by Legion.

Time held no real meaning. For the moment, we were safe. No tiny symbols of infected showed in our HUD. We were left by the living nightmares that followed us, only to be hounded by the cerebral torment of losing our good friend.

Night broke into day as the twin suns rose over the horizon, showing us a sea of sand, a landscape we had yet to see on the planet of Genesis. The sky turned a bright pink and then orange, a beautiful sight on a tragic day. I couldn’t help but wonder what Lou would have thought of it.

More clicking emitted from Sulk.

“We’re here,” Tong said, interpreting for the Rung.

“Here, where?” Stacy asked, looking around at the barren landscape that was mostly sand dunes and the sporadic weed bushes that refused to die.

Sulk hopped out of the predator before I could stop him. He ran in front of us, his tail swaying back and forth, so I eased off the power. We came to a stop as he made for a strangely shaped rock in the desert.

Actually, it was more out of place than strange. The rock looked as if it were shaped in the form of a kind of twisted cylinder.

Sulk knelt beside it and pressed his hands in a specific pattern on the rock. A moment later, the thing beeped.

Sulk motioned for us to follow, clicking away nonstop in his alien dialect. The sandy ground to his right began to part as a hidden entrance was revealed.

“I don’t speak their language, but I think we’re here,” Stacy said.

I had to agree, but where was “here?”


10


Orion Protected

The hidden entrance was one I was sure to never have found, nor did I think I could ever find it again. I could have passed by the rock a dozen times and not given it a second glance.

The ground beside Sulk parted with a slight rumble and a small cloud of dust, clearing the sandy floor as two hidden pieces separated. A step down revealed a metal platform large enough for the predator to sit on.

“He says we must hurry,” Tong said. “It seems Legion has not found this hidden entrance, but if he sees us here, it will be obvious.”

“Let’s go,” I said, easing the predator forward. I moved onto the steel elevator.

Sulk stood on the platform, going to his hands and knees. Once more, he pressed the ground in a specific series of motions.

A second later, the elevator hummed to life and began to lower us underground. The walls on either side of our circular elevator were lined with bright blue lights.

The sky overhead was soon blocked out altogether as the entrance closed silently.

“Well, if this was a trap,” John said from his spot in the rear, “they have really got us now.” It appeared John’s shock was fading from the accident and I was gratified to see that he most likely was not suffering from a brain injury.

“To escape Legion only to be caught with our pants up amongst the Rung.” Tong nodded in agreement. “It would be a sad way to end this story indeed.”

“I think you mean ‘pants down,’” I corrected Tong.

“What?” Tong asked in confusion.

“The saying is ‘caught with your pants down,’ not up,” I said.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Tong shook his head with a raised hairless eyebrow. “Why would my pants be down?”

“Who taught you that anyway?” Stacy asked, her head on a swivel.

“I heard it from a colonist,” Tong said, blinking rapidly. “I shall ask Iris when we get back.”

I let Tong work out his game plan for getting to the bottom of the saying. We had no time for semantics at the moment. The elevator’s smooth motion began to slow and I wondered what was down here. We had to be ten maybe twelve stories underground by now.

The Rung didn’t mess around when it came to building their bunkers. If Legion didn’t know where this place was or how to find the entrance, there would never be a way for him to dig this deep, no matter how many infected with shovels he had.

The platform came to a halt in front of a pair of massive double doors.

Sulk clicked and hissed off another series of sounds that sounded like he was insulting us, if I didn’t know better.

“He will do the talking,” Tong translated. “Do not lift your weapons or show aggression. Let him explain everything to his people. They will welcome us.”

“Weapons down but at the ready,” Stacy ordered.

I took my Judge from its holster. Holding the grip of the weapon, I hid it below the dash. From their vantage point, the Rung would only be able to see me from the chest up and not the weapon I held.

The doors in front of us hissed and slid open from the middle. Bright white light illuminated the chamber, nearly blinding us. A small army of Rung with weapons of their own formed two rows, one kneeling and the other standing right behind them. All of their weapons were trained on us.

I was surprised to see so much coordination amongst their weapons and uniforms. Their rifles were long with a curved piece of steel on the bottom like a half moon bayonet.

Though each of the Rung sported black uniforms with high collars, they varied in appearance. Some had enhanced goggles, which made their eyes appear bulged behind them, or metal hands or feet or both. Others wore metal helmets. I couldn’t tell if they were connected to their head or they wore them on their skull. Even a few metallic tails swung back and forth. I knew from experience that when this extra appendage was used to maximum effect it hurt like hell.

There had to be forty of the Rung, maybe more, that greeted us.

Sulk didn’t waste any time with pleasantries or formal introductions. He threw out his hands, going to work on communicating with his people.

“Tell them to lower their weapons,” John growled. “I didn’t come all this way to see Lou die and have our supposed allies shoot us down.” I seconded that sentiment by nodding along with his words.

“Easy, John,” Stacy warned. “Give him a second.”

Sulk rattled off another sentence to his fellow aliens.

A husky female voice from somewhere in the room answered him then gave what sounded like a command of her own.

Immediately, the Rung pointing their weapons at us lowered their rifles. Those who had been kneeling stood up, and as one parted their ranks to let someone through.

A rather tall Rung walked into view. Long eyelashes and dark purple hair on her head made her easily identifiable as female. I didn’t even know Rung were capable of growing hair until now, upgrades and augmentation to their DNA no doubt.

She studied us up and down before nodding in greeting to Sulk. Around her neck was a thick necklace, and some kind of data chip rested on her sternum. She walked over to me, looking at me sideways.

“Thank you for coming,” she said in hesitant yet very understandable English.

My mouth dropped open before looking to Stacy for confirmation she had heard it too and I wasn’t going crazy.

“How do you speak our language?” Stacy asked, as dumbfounded as I was. “How is that even possible?”

The female Rung tapped the chip on her sternum with a smile, or at least I thought the minute change in her facial expression was a smile.

“When we realized we were going to ally with you,” she began, “we also needed a way to communicate. Our best and brightest have been working on this piece of technology day and night.”

I turned in my seat to look back at an astounded Tong. “How come you guys couldn’t do this?”

Tong gave me a scowl in return.

“My name is Dama,” the female Rung said with a tight head nod. “Thank you for coming. You can holster your weapons. You are our guests and allies.”

“Oh right,” I said, hastily pushing the Judge back into the holster at the side of my hip.

Dama nodded to Stacy and John in turn before heading over to Tong.

The Remboshi still stood at the rear of the predator on the Blood Shot. He looked down at Dama uncertainly.

“Our people have been at war for centuries,” Dama said in a sad tone. “Perhaps, as dark as this time is, this is what needed to happen. It’s time to place our differences aside and put an end to Legion. The ground will soak in his blood from now on. We have spilt enough of our own.”

The blood-soaked ground metaphor is a little dark, but at least she’s on our side, I thought to myself. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Tong jumped off the predator, extending a three-fingered hand.

“If everything you say is as it is, then you shall have allies in the Remboshi,” Tong said, trying to hide a goofy almost bashful smile. “To peace.”

“Peace, and the death of Legion,” Dama said, shaking his hand.

“That’s it?” I asked Stacy out of the side of my mouth. “Tong was full of piss and vinegar when it came to the Rung a few days ago. What changed?”

“I guess a female touch translates into their culture as well,” Stacy said with a confident smile. “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

I looked back at Tong, who was all googly-eyed at Dama as they spoke to one another in their own tongue.

“Son of a biscuit,” John said, joining us. “I guess some things are universal.”

“If you would please follow me,” Dama said in her clipped English. “We have food brought for you, but I fear rest will have to wait. We need to go over the plan to reclaim our armor and weapons before we can go on the offensive.”

I nodded, standing from the predator and stretching. A yawn escaped my lips. All the traveling during the night and sleeping during the day was playing havoc on my sleep schedule. Still, this apparently wasn’t the time to ask for a nap.

I followed Dama from the elevator shaft along with the others. We entered the brightly lit chamber where the other Rung guards stood at attention. They were more organized than I had thought, like a true militia.

Hard eyes returned my stares, as if they were looking for a fight.

Dama led us from the open room to a smaller one off to the right. She pressed her hand to a control panel that opened a door and allowed us inside.

The room was nothing special, small and a bit unevenly shaped. A large screen sat on a wall to the left, and there was a table of food to the right with chairs that were a little too small to be considered normal. They had openings in the back, presumably to allow for occupants that possessed tails.

“Please eat,” Dama said, motioning to the food.

John looked at me for consensus, hesitating but hungry.

“If they were going to poison us, they could have done so by now ten times over,” I said, heading to the table. My stomach reminded me of how long it had been since we had eaten our last meal. “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die full.”

I wasn’t sure what the food was, but it was by far the best thing I had put into my mouth since we’d left Earth. There was bright green stuff that tasted like cheese and enough spicy meat to make my stomach dance with joy.

“Hey, how come you don’t have food like this?” Stacy asked Tong as she smacked her lips with delight. “I mean, so far, the Rung have a legit army, awesome food, and—”

Stacy let the rest of her words trail off as she caught Tong’s deadpan stare.

“I mean your food, okay?” Stacy tried to save face. “You have the Cerberus Installation and all that.”

While we ate, Sulk joined us again. This time, he wore a similar necklace to Dama’s. When he spoke, his words came out in English. His voice was a bit higher pitched than I would have imagined.

“Now that I can communicate in your tongue, it will make things so much easier,” Sulk said, helping himself to a plate of food. “I am sorry for what happened to your friend. He died a glorious death. I can only hope that when it comes my time to drown in my own blood on the battlefield, I will be as brave.”

Stacy was mid-bite as Sulk went on and on about dying in graphic detail. She put her food down, suddenly not hungry at all.

“I had no idea what a warrior race the Rung were,” John said, probably to make conversation as he shoved another handful of food into his mouth and licked his fingers clean. “I mean, I wouldn’t have guessed it.”

“Oh yes,” Sulk said with an emphatic nod. “One of the main reasons the Rung broke off from the Remboshi was our love for weapons and warfare. Most of us have implants enhancing our fighting ability. Dean, I should also apologize to you.”

“Me?” I asked, placing my empty plate on the table. “Why?”

“When we first met, you tried to grab me. I defeated you and injured your shoulder when it was all over,” Sulk said, shaking his head. “I know how fragile your species is. I shouldn’t have been so hard on you.”

I blinked a few times, trying to figure out if this guy was messing with me. I decided to err on the side of caution and figured he was probably dead serious.

“We took you down,” I told him. “No reason to be sorry.”

“Yes, but the way you screamed like an infant when three of you had to restrain me and I crushed your shoulder.” Sulk looked at me with unblinking eyes and a deadpan stare. “That had to be painful.”

“Like an infant?” I asked incredulously. “Listen, gecko, I—”

My next words were cut off as a siren blared through the room, causing me to jump. Shouting from the outer room could be heard.

“They come!” Dama said, running for the door. “We must brace the gate!”


11


Orion Protected

Thoughts of food and verbally sparring with Sulk fled my mind as we hurried after Dama. Along with the alarm blaring overhead and the shouting, a heavy clanging and pounding could be heard, as if someone was taking a battering ram to a steel door.

We crossed the large open room where the standing army held position. On the opposite side, a large hall opened up to a set of steel double doors, which had been barricaded with everything from large containers to weapons wedged with one end on the door and the other in the ground. A dozen Rung were leaning against it, bracing it for impact as something large struck it from the opposite side. They were doing a great job of holding off whatever it was for the moment, but who knew how long they would be able to keep it at bay?

“Legion has overtaken a large part of our underground network,” Dama explained. “He’s been trying to break down these doors for the last few days with no luck. I fear his frustration will lead him to do something rash very soon.”

The booming from the other end of the door sent my sternum quivering in my chest as my heart slammed against it.

“What’s on the other end hitting it so hard?” John asked. “They have a vehicle or something?”

“We’re not sure,” Dama said, shaking her head. “The door has been holding, but how long it will hold is another question. Every few hours, Legion takes a new approach to getting in. He is patient and persistent if nothing else. Sooner or later, he will find a way inside.”

“Then we have to make our move before he does,” I said. “What’s the plan?”

A smile tugged at Dama’s lips. She waved us over back the way we came to the room with the screen and food.

She placed a hand on the screen and an aerial view of a diagram appeared. It showed our chamber, the adjacent larger room, and the hall leading to the closed doors.

“This is where we currently are.” Dama pointed to our section of the underground base. She moved her hand through the closed doors in the hall and down toward another chamber on a different level. “And this is where our power armor is waiting for us.”

I was still trying to get my head wrapped around how large the place was. The underground bunker was massive and that was putting it lightly. Levels upon levels of the place opened into long halls and sprawling passageways. They had to easily house thousands of Rung here, maybe more.

“How many warriors do you still have?” Stacy asked.

“The ones you see in this outer chamber are all we have left,” Dama said, clearing her throat with a sad expression on her face. “Forty combatants and another ten if you include our children who have taken shelter with us here.”

“Children?” I repeated the word as if it were the first time I was hearing it. “You make your children fight?”

“If it is fighting or death, I would see that our children make account of themselves.” Dama answered as if that were the most logical line of reasoning. “I would rather have them die on their feet than cowering in a corner.”

“Forty soldiers, plus us,” Tong mused out loud. “What is this power armor you speak of?”

Dama adjusted the screen in front of us so it moved to show exactly what I imagined. A bulky suit of armor appeared as if it stood eight to ten feet tall. It was armed on the outside, complete with weapons on its forearms and backs.

“You created these weapons to fight us, didn’t you?” Tong asked.

“We did, but history has united us and we have a common enemy now,” Dama said, not missing a beat. “We will pilot them together against Legion and usher in a new era for our people. This is not the time to argue over the past. After we defeat our common enemy, we will engage in peace talks.”

“How far is it from us to the power armor?” I asked. “I’m bad with telling distances on maps.”

“What would be your equivalent to two kilometers if I understand the way you judge distance,” Dama said. “Two kilometers and a level down.”

Two kilometers doesn’t sound like a whole heck of a lot, but when you have infected breathing down your neck, it might as well be a world away, I thought to myself. It’s going to be one heck of a fight.

“How many infected do you think are between us and the power armor?” Tong asked.

“Hundreds, at least,” Sulk said with a wide grin. “It will be a chance at a glorious death.”

We all looked at him sideways. He sure loved the thought of death in battle, and although I wanted him to fulfill his hopes and dreams, I was becoming fond of the little guy, despite his putdown of my “fragile” race, and didn’t want him to leave us yet.

“I think I liked him more when he was all ticks and S’s,” John said, making a valid point.

“Agreed,” I added. “Who would have thought the Rung were so morbid? I thought they were supposed to be smarter than the Remboshi with all their tech.”

“We are,” Dama said.

“No, they’re not,” Tong answered at the same time.

Dama and Tong looked to each other, surprised, then exchanged a smile. Oh boy.

“Well, before this gets awkward and they start flirting again, let’s come up with a plan,” Stacy said. “We know where we need to go. The most direct path is closed, with those double doors Legion is trying to get through. Is there another way around?”

“Yes,” Dama said, either missing her remark about flirting with Tong or choosing to ignore it. “Out the rear of the main chamber is a narrow maintenance hall that would lead you around Legion. That way would be twice as long, however.”

“Well, I vote we take the predator straight up the gut,” John said, crossing his arms in a belligerent stance. “I didn’t come all this way to avoid a fight. I’ve got some aggression built up if you haven’t noticed.”

“Whatever Legion has on the other side of those doors trying to break it down could give even the predator a run for its money,” Stacy thought out loud. “I’m not sure that’s the right move.”

John looked at me.

“Hey, don’t look at me. She’s the boss,” I said, pointing at Stacy. “For what it’s worth, I don’t like the idea of sneaking around either. But if it’s our best shot, we owe it to Lou to do just that. We can’t fail here. Not for him, not for anyone we’ve lost along the way or can save by defeating Legion. We have to succeed. There’s no choice there.”

A moment of quiet fell over the room as human, Remboshi, and Rung all thought about those we would never see again. Worse perhaps, those we would still see, only now infected by the Legion virus.

“And you’re sure these power armor suits will be enough to defeat Legion?” Tong asked, looking to Sulk then Dama. “This is the end for him?”

“Each power armor suit is a tank.” Dama motioned to the image on the armor suit on the screen. “We’ll be able to travel four times as fast at a run. The steel is four inches thick. Flamethrowers and blades on the forearms while dual plasma cannons rest on the shoulders. We have hundreds of the prototypes ready. Legion doesn’t have anything that will be able to stand against us. We just need pilots.”

“We go through the rear shaft and around,” Stacy said, biting her lower lip. “I don’t want children with us.”

Dama opened her mouth to argue.

“I get that it’s your culture,” Stacy cut her off. “I get that, trust me. I’d rather see children fighting than dying, but only if it comes to that with no other choice. What we do right now gives them a chance. You leave half your forces here and we take the other half. Taking all forty warriors will be too many to sneak around quietly anyway. Take your fiercest twenty. If we can’t do it with twenty, we won’t be able to do it with forty.”

Dama held Stacy’s eyes a moment longer as if she were weighing her words in her mind. Eventually, the Rung decided not to argue and accepted Stacy’s demands.

“Sulk, our fiercest twenty,” Dama said with hard, determined eyes. “We leave in eight hours. Enough time for the blood rite and to rest.”

“Immediately,” Sulk said, leaving the room.

“Do we even want to know what the blood rite is?” I asked.

“A sacred tradition passed down from generation to generation,” Dama said. “It’ll put the warriors in the right mind.”

“Your people?” Tong asked. “This is all that remains in only just this installation, correct? This can’t be all the Rung. You have other underground bunkers throughout the wasteland?”

“We do, but we have lost communication with them.” Dama lowered her large yellow eyes to the ground. “I have faith others have survived Legion’s attacks, but we do not know for certain.”

“If they’re out there, we will find them,” Tong assured her, placing a hand on her shoulder. She looked over at him, smiling. He smiled back at her as the two shared a moment.

I raised my eyes to the ceiling and cleared my throat awkwardly to get their attention. “And in the meantime, we have more than enough humans to pilot these suits of power armor,” I answered. “We’ll end Legion once and for all.”

“Dama?” Stacy asked from her position next to the large screen on the wall. She had walked to the screen, going back to the map of the underground bunker. She pointed to a massive room on the opposite side of the bunker. “What’s this room? More importantly, what is this craft?”

Stacy piqued my interest. “Craft?” I asked. “Like a spacecraft?”

John and I joined Stacy at the screen. She wasn’t wrong. What looked like a small four-person spacecraft sat in a hangar.

“It’s untested and only a prototype, but we are hoping that it will evolve into us being able to explore the stars and worlds beyond our own,” Dama said. “We put the Nebula Project on hold to work on the suits of power armor years ago.”

My mind was having a difficult time processing what I saw on the map. Our entire time on Genesis had been filled with trying to survive. In the back of my mind, I always thought we’d be able to eventually begin work on creating a spaceship capable of leaving the planet.

Seeing it here already in front of me was something else entirely. Surely between what the Rung had already done and our own scientists’ knowledge of the stars, we could leave. If the Rung would allow us to use their transport.

“I understand what this might mean to you,” Dama said as the three of us stared at the image without speaking. “A coalition of our people to begin work on an initiative to travel space is a conversation the Rung are willing to have, but only after we defeat Legion.”

“Agreed,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the ship. “We kill Legion first.”


12


Orion Protected

While the Rung chose their warriors and prepared to perform their blood rite, we were left to rest, thankfully. I slept in the side room with the screen and the food. You’d think with everything going on that I’d have a hard time falling asleep. Not so much, really. As soon as my head hit the rolled-up blanket I used as a pillow, I was out.

As I had instructed him to, Tong woke me a few hours later when the time for our departure neared.

“The blood rite is about to begin,” Tong told me, motioning to the large outer chamber. “Once it is complete, we will be ready to depart.”

“Right, right,” I said, sitting up while rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

John and Stacy were already up and arming themselves. What the Rung lacked in manpower, they more than made up for in a vast assortment of weapons. I was surprised to see two racks of bladed weapons that had been wheeled in while I slept. I went over to inspect them, feeling almost like a kid in a candy shop, having adapted to using weapons in addition to my fighting skills since we left Earth and gaining an interest in the various types and forms.

The racks reminded me of something you’d find in clothing store on Earth. Long blades, axes, and short blades occupied one side, with hand blasters and rifles on the other.

I still had the Judge on my hip, but I couldn’t help but hold one of the Rung axes in my hands. It was slightly small with a bladed axe on one end and a hammer head on the other.

“You fancy the skull splitter?” Sulk asked, joining me. “It is a good and effective weapon. While blasters will eventually run dry, bladed weapons rely on your strength. They’ll keep working for you as long as you don’t give up.”

“You know, I think I liked you more when I couldn’t understand what you were saying,” I told Sulk with a raised eyebrow, kind of messing with him because I did agree with the logic of what he was telling me. “Is everything death with you?”

“We are a warrior tribe.” Sulk shrugged. “Despite our technological advancements, we have realized one thing.”

“And what’s that?” I asked.

“War always remains,” Sulk said as if it were a matter of fact not up for debate. “We can kill each other with sticks and stones, blasters or viruses, but there will always be war in one shape or another. Even now when we go to battle with Legion, we are in for the fight of our lives.”

Again, I couldn’t argue with him. We were about to try and sneak around a contagious virus to gain access to war machines that would hopefully tip the odds of survival in our favor. Then we were going to kill him. I was strangely just fine with all of that. After everything we had to do just to survive on Genesis, having this virus trying to eradicate us, then falsely attempt to befriend us, then try to kill us again was somehow a bit too much. I couldn’t wait for this war to be over.

I slung the skull splitter over my shoulder. Next, I turned to the rack of weapons behind us. A thick blaster with a short barrel and a massive magazine caught my attention.

“Made for clearing a room,” Sulk said, following me as if he were my own personal guide. “The Dragon’s Breath is a weapon made not for accuracy but brutal stopping power. It fires a stream of smaller projectiles in a cone-like shape.”

Furious shouting and something that sounded like the beat of a drum came from the large chamber just outside our own.

“Hurry, the blood rite begins,” Sulk said, scurrying out of the room. “You don’t want to miss this.”

I picked up the Dragon’s Breath and followed him out of the room with the others. John and Stacy looked cautious but interested. Tong actually seemed eager to witness it.

The first thing I noticed when we exited the room were the Rung soldiers had disrobed from the waist up. They stood in a circle. One of them had a large drum he pounded in rhythm.

The outer circle of the soldiers held the children and young of the group. They looked on with wide eyes. Fear lived there, but it was an afterthought to courage. Even the tiniest Rung that couldn’t have come past my knees swayed to the sounds of the beat, looking enthralled and determined.

I took a back seat with the rest of my team as we watched on with bated breath. The process was intriguing to say the least, this technologically advanced race of aliens completing a ritual that was primitive in nature. Dama entered the circle where the warriors stood waiting, all swaying with the sound of the drum.

When Dama lifted her hands into the air, the rhythmic beating came to a halt. All eyes followed her motion as she lifted a dagger from her belt.

“The blood rite is a pact our warriors take in only the most desperate times,” Dama said in a stirring voice. “Let no one be mistaken. This is the most desperate of times we find ourselves in. Our blood will bind this oath. Our fighting spirit will see us through. If we fall, we do so in battle for those who come after.”

“For those who come after!” the twenty shirtless warriors in front of Dama shouted as one. Each of them lifted a blade from their person, slicing a long cut in the palm of their right hands.

They lifted their closed right fists into the air above their heads. They clenched their palms tightly, until a trickle of blood ran down their arms onto their chests.

“Legion is our enemy and one we take responsibility for creating,” Dama shouted. “Today marks the end of his reign once and for all. Together with our new allies, we right the wrong our ancestors created so many years before. Are you with me?”

The room erupted into a roar, all of the warriors buying into her words. Dama really knew how to give a speech. I half wanted to cut my hand open and yell along with them.

As the soldiers who participated in the blood rite began to gear up, I felt a tug on my right hand. I looked down to see a little Rung child.

I knelt down, looking at the kid. Her long eyelashes and the bright pink hair told me she was a girl.

“Are you the Chosen One?” she asked.

I looked around, confused as to how she would even know that term. Stacy and John shrugged. Tong evaded my eye contact. He was definitely the culprit, but why?

“Tong?” I asked.

“They already knew,” Tong said with a shrug. “Sulk heard Jezra talking about it back at our camp. He told Dama, and when she asked me, I had to tell her the truth.”

Great, so I’m the Chosen One for these people now too, I thought to myself. Well, if you’re already the Chosen One, might as well act like it.

“Sure, kid,” I told the small child. “I am the Chosen One.”

“You’re not going to let the Legion virus get us, are you?” she asked with large eyes. “It already got my mom and dad. I don’t want it to get me too.”

Aw, the poor kid. This made me hate the virus even more and gave me more determination to get rid of it once and for all. “It’s not going to get you,” I told her, placing a hand on her small shoulder. “You have my promise. I’m not going to let it.”

Her eyes never left mine. I could tell she wasn’t sure if she could believe me. I thought of Lou, then thought of what he might say to this grieving child.

“A friend of mine believes—believed that everything happens for a reason,” I told her. “I think I’m starting to believe that as well. And if that’s true, then I’m here for a reason. We all are. We’re here to end Legion and bring peace between the Rung and Remboshi. I promise you as long as I’m alive, I won’t give up.”

I wasn’t really sure where all of this reassurance and confidence was coming from. Maybe it was from seeing the blood rite, maybe it was the little girl in front of me who needed to hear these words so desperately, maybe it was Lou and his sacrifice, or a combination of them all.

“The man said you’d come to help us.” The little girl gave me a smile, wiping tears from her eye. “He said you’d come.”

“Dean?” Stacy asked, securing her helmet. “We’re ready.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, standing but looking back down at the girl. “What man?”

“The other man like you.” The girl gave me a look that said I should know what she was talking about. “He said you were brothers.” A chill ran down my spine as I digested that information.

The noise in the room picked up in volume as warriors all around us made last-minute checks.

“What did he look like?” I asked, searching the room around us frantically for any sign of Maksim. “When did he come here?” That was all we needed right now, another being that liked to throw a monkey wrench in the works simply by his presence. Maksim was pretty much the reason we were all here now and was definitely not welcome to join in the festivities.

My eyes roved around the room. It would have been impossible to miss him, right? Dama had not mentioned anyone else and neither had Sulk.

“Where is he?” I asked, turning back to the little girl.

She was gone, lost in a small group of children on the other side of the room.

“Hey, you good to go?” John asked, joining me. “You look like someone just told you they killed your pet butterfly.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said, gripping the Dragon’s Breath tighter in my hands. I made my way over to the rear of the large chamber where a narrow access panel was being removed screw by screw.

Dama stood toward the front, decked out in dull grey armor with a visor that looked more like an ancient knight’s than anything high tech.

“Dama, was there another human that made it into your bunker?” I asked in earnest, although hoping the answer wouldn’t be what I thought it was. “He would have been tall, kind of skinny, possibly wearing a red handkerchief?”

Dama looked over to me. I could barely see her eyes through the narrow slits in her helmet. I wondered where they found this medieval design, how it could look this way centuries and universes apart.

“A human calling himself Brother Maksim came to us before Legion struck.” Dama nodded. “He warned us of the onslaught. He told us to go find you, that you would help us. He also started on the tech that would be able to allow us to speak to one another.”

“What?” Stacy asked in disbelief. “You didn’t think this was important to tell us? You lied to us?”

“I never lied,” Dama said in a calm, cool voice. “Brother Maksim made me promise to keep it a secret unless you were to ask outright. You asked and I did not lie.”

“Okay, but you withheld information from us that is actually very important. Maksim does not always have our best interests at heart. He caused the crash that brought us here,” Stacy told Dama.

“This man is very dangerous,” Tong added in from her right side. “Where is he now?”

“Dead, or at least he should be,” Dama said. “He did not make it to the safety of this chamber. He was lost with the others in the belly of the bunker.”

A cold sweat fell over my body. If Maksim was anything, he was a survivor. Sure, Legion might have gotten down there somewhere, but I wasn’t going to bet on that.

“I’ll believe it when I see a body,” John said, reading my thoughts. We looked at each other in consternation. Somehow I felt that we would be seeing Maksim again, and soon.

“Anything else you’re waiting to tell us unless we ask?” Stacy asked Dama, practically towering over her. “This is life and death now. Any information you have. We need to know now, right now, before we trek through a nightmare maze toward the power armor.”

“There is nothing else,” Dama said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry this has brought you such anger. It was not my intention.”

“We’re in,” Sulk said from the front where he worked. Two other Rung moved a section of the metal grate that led to a narrow hall. “Are we still going?”

I exchanged looks with Stacy.

“Any more lies, or half-truths, or waiting for us to ask the right question, and we’re done here,” Stacy said, jamming the helmet on her head. “If we don’t have trust, we have nothing to talk about and cannot possibly work as a team.”

“Understood,” Dama said, making her way to the front. “I will lead.”

As Dama moved to the front, the tension of the moment dissipated a bit. I hadn’t noticed it until now, but the Rung warriors had surrounded us, ready to make a move if their commander ordered. Now that Dama was making her way to the narrow hall, they fell back and lowered their weapons.

“Let’s get this over with,” I said, joining Dama in front of the line.

“The Rung staying behind with the children will lock the grate behind us,” Dama said. “There’s no going back.” She eyed us to gauge our reactions to this news.

“I don’t have plans for tomorrow,” John said, hefting a heavy Rung blaster to his chest. “Let’s go.”


13


Orion Protected

Dama and I were the first into the narrow hall. There was barely enough room for the two of us to move side by side. Pipes, wires, and vents lined the walls and ceilings of the hall. We had to dodge and duck in order to avoid the obstructions.

An eerie stillness fell over me as I searched the darkness in front of us with the aid of my helmet’s HUD.

The hall in front of us was visible for the next few feet, then all turned black.

“The lights to the rest of the bunker were shut off,” Dama whispered as we moved forward. “Your Dragon’s Breath has a light at the end of the barrel just here.”

I looked down to see where she pointed. She clicked a button, and true to her word, a narrow beam of light shot out to bring much too little light to the hall. It was a little better than nothing in penetrating the inky blackness.

“Lights on,” Sulk said from behind me, where he and Stacy came next.

Rung, humans, and the Remboshi in our party all obeyed. Soon, twenty-six lights shot forward, illuminating the darkness.

We moved forward slowly, quietly. We all understood that if a single infected saw us coming, it was over. The shared consciousness Legion controlled them with would know exactly where we were.

The sounds of the vent being screwed in place behind us made me cringe. It wasn’t loud, but any noise at the moment made me jump. The halls were so narrow, if we were found out now, it would be a massacre. The darkness wouldn’t help matters either, particularly if there was a panic to get away from the infected.

Dama used a screen on the back of her right vambrace to navigate our path. My breath inside my helmet felt hot and too rapid. I told myself it was the anticipation of this ordeal finally being over, not fear, that was making me hyperventilate a little. Okay, maybe a little fear. I needed a pep talk for myself.

Easy, Dean, I told myself. Control your breathing.

To say I was out of my element would be an understatement. On the edge of the universe in a nightmare situation against an intelligent virus, all I could do was put one foot in front of another.

The narrow hall came to a T intersection in front of us.

I glanced down at the map on Dama’s right hand. It showed a hall going to the right, then a larger room to the left.

“Lights,” Dama breathed.

Everyone turned off their lights together. The sudden darkness was overwhelming and didn’t help my anticipation level much.

“Sulk?” Dama asked.

I had to put my back against the wall as Dama did the same on her side to make enough room for Sulk to squeeze through. Three more hardened Rung came behind him. I noticed they sheathed their blasters and drew bladed weapons, ranging from knives to swords.

Sulk took the left, followed by one of the Rung. The other two warriors went right.

We waited in silence and darkness.

I looked over to Stacy. She shook her head, and I knew she hated this as much as I did. It was in neither of our natures to stand by and wait for others to do the work we knew had to be done.

Minutes stretched by endlessly as I felt my body become restless from staying in the same spot for so long.

After what felt like half an hour but in reality couldn’t have been more than five to ten minutes, Sulk popped his helmeted head around the corner, startling me, and I think Dama jumped a hair as well.

“Clear,” he said.

We turned on our lights again. It was only then that I noticed Sulk’s blade dripping with dark blood, which appeared to be consistent with infected black blood.

We moved out of the hall to the room on the right. It was some kind of cafeteria. Sulk and his counterpart had removed a vent, allowing us access.

My light played around the room, picking up a series of four bodies on the ground in pools of their own blood.

“We sliced their throats from behind,” Sulk said. I couldn’t see his face due to his helmet, but I could imagine the grin he wore.

“Won’t Legion know something is wrong, even if he can’t see us?” Stacy asked as the others piled in through the vent shaft behind us. “I mean, he’ll know he’s losing infected and which ones, since he controls all of them, plus they will be dropping in numbers.”

“He might.” Dama nodded in agreement. “We should press on and move quickly.”

“No argument there,” John said, sidling up next to us. “Lead the way.”

Dama did just that, ducking into a much larger hall at a light jog. We had a few kilometers of halls and levels to make our way through. Right now, speed and stealth were keys to our success.

Sulk took point with his three Rung assassins. The rest of us made up the middle of the pack with a pair of larger Rung that guarded our rear.

We ran without lights. At every corner and in every dark hallway, I half expected to see Legion. He was smarter than we gave him credit for. He would understand exactly what we wanted, and as such, he would be waiting for us.

Just over halfway to our target, Sulk and the Rung in the lead came up short. We nearly ran into the back of them as they stopped abruptly around a sharp corner.

“Don’t shoot,” a familiar and unwelcome voice said. “I’m not infected.”

I turned the corner, already knowing who the voice belonged to. Maksim stood there blinking in the bright lights our weapons gave off. His time on Genesis had not been kind to him. The burn on his face was rigid and cracked, with webs of scars stretching across his cheek. He held his right hand to his side, where a tide of blood oozed through his hands.

Despite his injuries, he gave me a bright smile when he saw me. “Brother, you came.”

My weapon was aimed directly at his chest. My trigger finger twitched. It would be so easy to end him now, and at that moment, I really wanted to. He was the man who was responsible at least in part for bringing us crashing down to Genesis, as well as the man who ambushed me and bashed the back of my head with a rock. I wouldn’t be wrong in squeezing the trigger. It would be so simple. One big problem taken care of and a little vengeance in one act.

“Dean,” Stacy warned out of the side of her mouth. “Dean, I want to as much as you do, trust me, but maybe he knows something useful.” And with that, I came back to reality. I knew Stacy was right.

“What are you doing here?” I growled.

“Well, I guess we’re going to skip the pleasantries and get right down to business,” Maksim said with a heavy sigh. He seemed disappointed that I wasn’t greeting him with wide open arms and a smile. What a weirdo.

Behind him was a set of closed double doors. A faint scratching could be heard on the opposite side.

Maksim placed his back to the door then sank down to a seated position. He gestured with a thumb at the closed doors behind him.

“The stairwell to the level below where the power armor is being kept,” he said with a sadistic grin. “Filled with infected. Any of the ways down are. I thought this would be my best bet to try breaking through their lines. I was debating about going when you came. Now we can all go together, like it should be. Like it always should have been. Brother with brother, allies in arms.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, trying but failing to keep the anger out of my voice. I stalked over to Maksim, towering over him in what I hoped was a menacing way. “If you had it your way, we’d all be dead by now. What are you doing here? What kind of game are you playing now?”

“No more games,” Maksim said, shaking his head in vehement denial. “No more agendas or room for hate. This is about survival. This is about justice.”

“Survival?” I asked incredulously. A wave of heat hit my face, which I was sure was turning a fiery shade of red. Anger erupted inside of me and I had to take deep breaths. I pressed my weapon to his forehead. “Justice? You want justice? This is justice. Your brain spattered against the doors behind you is justice.”

“We fought Legion together in the forest and we survived,” Maksim said, looking up at me despite the barrel of my weapon on his forehead. It was as if it wasn’t there or maybe he didn’t believe I would actually kill him. “If we want to live, it’ll take us doing the same one more time.”

“Please remove the barrel of your weapon from his head,” Dama directed me. I felt a nudge on my shoulder as she pointed her own blaster at me.

A second later, weapons were pointed in every direction. John held his rifle pointed at a Rung, who aimed at him right back. Tong had Sulk dead to rights. Stacy held two weapons, one in each hand. One was aimed at Dama and the other at one of Sulk’s assassins. In turn the Rung pointed their weapons at us. If it all wasn’t so potentially deadly, it would have been somewhat comical.

“No one has to die here,” Dama continued. “Whatever hate you hold for this man, it is nothing compared to that which we have for Legion. We need as many infection free fighters as we can get. One more on our side means one less for him. Please lower your weapon.”

“Do it,” Maksim said, closing his eyes. He pressed his head harder into the barrel of the Dragon’s Breath in my hands. Apparently, he didn’t mean for me to remove the weapon as Dama did. “Do it. Free me, brother.”

My hands shook as I weighed what I knew I should do against what I knew Maksim deserved.

“Dean,” Stacy said from behind me. “Maksim will pay, just not right now. We have a mission to finish. It doesn’t mean we have to like it. We just have to do what’s best for everyone right now.”

I swallowed hard, reluctantly lowering the weapon from Maksim’s forehead. Stacy had become my frequent voice of reason, saving me from making bad decisions in the moment.

“We’re not done with this conversation,” I told Maksim. “Not by a long shot.”

“Our time will come in this life or the next,” Maksim said with a heavy sigh as if he were almost disappointed I hadn’t killed him.

Better luck next time, I thought.

“Lower your weapons,” Dama ordered her Rung.

They complied, allowing Stacy, John, and Tong to do the same.

“What’s with the change of heart?” John asked Maksim. “One second you hate us, and now you’re trying to help the Rung?”

“I was forced to trade one abomination for the other,” Maksim said with a noticeable wince of pain as he pressed his bloody hand deeper into his side to stop the bleeding. “I know what Legion wants. Legion is going to consume this planet then head off-world in search of ours. I can’t allow that to happen. If there is even the slightest chance he can find Earth, I have to prevent it.”

“It’s so disturbing to hear you speak like you care about anything besides murdering people,” Stacy said in disgust.

Maksim looked at her, seeming genuinely puzzled by her inflammatory words. “People change,” he started to inform her until Tong interrupted.

“Wait, how do you know Legion wants to head off-world?” Tong asked, worried. “How would you know that?”

“It’s what I would do,” Maksim said. “The way Legion secured the hangar bay is another point of proof. I went down there. He—it is doing system checks and working on ways to improve the design to take it off-world.”

My heart sank in my chest as I was forced to consider that Maksim might be telling the truth. The odds were stacked astronomically high against Legion ever being able to find Earth. Still, what if he were to find another inhabited planet? His reign of terror would continue, spreading from one innocent world to the next. We really had to stop this poisonous leech.

“He’s right about one thing. We can’t let Legion get off-world,” Stacy said to us before directing her next words at Maksim. “Although, granted, it’s a leap of faith that what you’re saying is the truth.”

“I have no reason to lie,” Maksim said, shaking his head in denial. “Not now, not anymore.”

“We’ll get you patched up,” Dama said, nodding to a Rung who came over with some kind of medical pack. “You said you scouted the other ways down to the lower level?”

“That’s right.” Maksim winced as his wound was treated. “Like I said, Legion knows what we want. He’s blocked every way down. The best chance we have is this stairwell. There can’t be more than a dozen infected he has assigned to guard the entry point. As far as he knows, it’s just me down here. Together, we can fight our way through.”

I looked over at Stacy, each of us cocking an eyebrow at the other. We were both thinking the same thing. What were the odds that our maniac friend here was lying out of his freaking teeth? Fifty-fifty at best.

“A dozen? Only a dozen?” Sulk said with a tone of glee in his voice. “Dama, we can take that many without sustaining any casualties. We can.”

Dama stood quiet. Her head moved from the door to her warriors, trying to assess the situation to make the best decision possible without losing her army and her people. She couldn’t afford any more loss.

“He could be lying,” Stacy countered. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Maksim was about to say something but was cut off by a deep inhale of pain as the Rung medic closed his wound.

I had to say I didn’t hate the idea that Maksim was feeling some of the same pain he had caused so many before.

“We will breach the door,” Dama finally decided.

“Great choice,” Maksim said as he struggled to his feet. An angry burn on his right side showed where his wound had been cauterized. “I’ll need a weapon.”

“You will get a blade and you’ll be going through the door first,” Dama advised him.


14


Orion Protected

The sly grin on his face disappeared at once.

“A blade? I’ll need a blaster at the very least. Didn’t you hear me? There are at least a dozen of them on the other side of those doors.” Maksim looked at me like I was going to give him some help. I fought down the smirk that was threatening to bubble up. Now was not the time to be so petty. “At least arm me.”

“You’re more than enough to handle with a blade. I’m not about to give you anything else to use against us,” I told him. “If everything you say is true and you’re on our side in this, then prove it.”

The look Maksim gave me could have melted steel. He opened his right hand and extended it toward Dama, who put a long, thick blade in it.

“I’m on the side of the non-infected,” Maksim said, taking in a large breath. “So be it. I’ll lead the way down to the next level. Stay close. There are only a dozen in the stairwell, but there are more in the lower levels.” He swung the blade a bit to test it out. Satisfied, he was prepared to bring us to our first hurdle in getting past the infected.

Maksim turned back to the closed door jamming his knife in the wedge where the doors came together. He grunted, slowly prying the doors apart.

The sounds of scratching from the other side stopped altogether.

“Firing lines,” Dama told her warriors.

As one, the twenty Rung soldiers formed two lines, one in front of the other. The first line knelt at the ready, aiming their blasters at the door. The second line stood behind the first, also lifting their weapons to fire.

Maksim stood alone, slowly forcing the doors forward. Sweat dampened his brow as his already weakened body tried to force the doors open. He didn’t make much progress.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said, going over to him and placing my finger in the opening space between the door. “I can’t believe I’m helping you.”

“Broth—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. “Brother, two swords facing away from each other and all that. “Come on, let’s get these doors open and get the heck out of the way before we’re turned into Swiss cheese by those Rung blasters.”

Maksim nodded, forcing his fingers into the tiny opening.

“One,” I said, bracing my feet on the ground.

“Two,” Maksim said above the returning sounds of the infected scratching at the opposite sides of the door.

“Three!” I yelled as I threw my weight into the doors.

My muscles burned from my shoulders to my back. The steel doors opened slowly but steadily. Almost instantly, macabre thoughts of clammy infected hands reaching around the door and pulling me inside played through my mind, but I ignored them.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stacy, John, and Tong take up a position to the left of Dama’s firing line. This gave them an angle view into the stairwell so they’d be able to cover me as I retreated. If the infected came at me, they couldn’t see my team, who would then be able to counterattack.

The door finally gave way and swung open with a resounding boom that echoed through the quiet hall. Maksim and I ran back to our lines, expecting a rush of infected. What we got was a dark, ominous room we couldn’t see more than a few feet into.

“Lights,” Dama said, motioning with her own weapon.

Dozens of lights pierced the darkness, and with them came a nightmare, the likes of which I hoped never to encounter again.

There was more than a dozen infected in the stairwell. Ten times more.

They came at us in a sprint, most carrying some kind of blunt or bladed weapon. A few of them even carried blasters. They were all infected Rung, their alien bodies covered with mechanical enhancements, from steel tails to metal hands.

Coupled with their augmentations was the black liquid characteristic of the infected that oozed from their eyes, noses, ears, and mouths. I thought I knew horror, but right now, I was reminded of what a true nightmare Legion really was.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one caught off guard.

Dama hesitated for the slightest second. “Fire!” she finally screamed, recovering from her initial shock.

The wide wall lit up with weapon fire coming from the Rung firing lines. Maksim was on the left with the rest of the group from the Orion colony. I was on the right. As one, we let them have it, full blast, with all we had.

The Dragon’s Breath in my hands went off with heavy thuds that rocked my arms and threatened to force me back every time I pulled the trigger. The weapon was a piece of art. Red fiery blasts of pellets shredded the Rung rushing forward, practically exploding them into bits wherever they were hit.

Those that did get shots off with their blasters were sporadic at best. In true Legion fashion, he’d relied on his numbers instead of tactics. His army was not trained and was very disorganized. The scene was a light show as our blasters cut through the darkness, piling up the Rung dead.

“A dozen, huh!?” I heard John yell at Maksim over the sounds of the fight.

I wanted to say the same thing, but I was too busy with my Dragon’s Breath. The Rung dead piled so high in front of us, those still coming out were having a hard time climbing over them. They would scramble clumsily over their fallen brethren, then attempt to fire on us with limited success.

Part of me felt sorry for them. These Rung were infected and controlled by Legion. If we could kill him, then we could free these creatures from his hold. The only problem was the armor we needed to kill Legion was below and these poor souls stood in our way.

“Cease fire!” Dama yelled to her soldiers.

As one, we let up, taking in heavy breaths. The Dragon’s Breath felt hot in my hands. The barrel of my weapon smoked, sending curling tendrils up to the ceiling.

“Is everyone whole?” Sulk asked, looking around at the Rung soldiers first and then to us.

“We’re good,” I said.

“I think you need to relearn how to count.” Stacy fixed Maksim with a glare. “A dozen, huh? There has to be triple that.”

“They must have called in more. How was I supposed to know that?” Maksim swallowed hard. “I don’t know how he knew.”

“Well, it’s done now, and he knows exactly where we are,” Dama said looking to one of her Rung soldiers. “Let’s hurry up and get down to the lower stairwell and—”

Loud blaster fire cut her off. The Rung that Dama was speaking with took a round to the face. His skull exploded, pieces of brain and bone showering Dama as he was taken off his feet. Dama looked on in shock and horror, but quickly recovered.

A round slammed square into my chest, causing me to lose balance and fall onto my back on the floor. The air was forced out of my lungs with a whoosh. Still, somehow, I managed to inhale and coughed. My head had been slammed against the floor, but thanks to my helmet I avoided any serious head injury, though my ribs felt like I had taken a straight kick to the torso. I lay there as I caught my breath and gained my bearings.

“Dean!” I heard Stacy yell over the new blaster fire that erupted between the two factions. I wanted to yell that I was okay, but I was still somewhat breathless.

“More, deeper into the stairwell!” Sulk roared.

“Let them have it, now!” Dama ordered. The Rung let loose with a volley from their blasters.

“We can’t see them back there!” Tong added, panic rising in his voice.

I heard and processed all of this activity as I struggled up to my hands and knees. Oxygen was finally being allowed back into my lungs, and consequently, my brain. I looked down at the Remboshi armor, saying a silent prayer of thanks, remembering Lou’s simple words as he led us in prayer. The blaster hadn’t penetrated the armor. While the injury definitely sucked, it could have been a lot worse.

“Dean,” Stacy said by my side a minute later. She half dragged half carried me behind the firing line of the Rung warriors. “Dean, are you hurt?”

“Bruised a little, but it didn’t get through the armor,” I wheezed, finding my first long breath. “Ribs ache, but I’ll be fine.”

“We can’t see anything, it’s too dark!” John bellowed. ‘We either have to go in or retreat.”

“Follow me!” Maksim said.

I looked up in time to see the crazy son of a gun rush into the dark room, and I wondered if everyone would listen to him. How he didn’t get hit by either the rounds from the Rung or the infected inside was a true miracle in my eyes. The guy was like a cockroach.

The next second, he was gone, having disappeared into the stairwell. Sounds of fighting could be heard a second later. Everyone that was remaining waited for Dama to give the next directive.

“Cease fire!” Dama ordered. “Blades!”

The Rung warriors obeyed, holstering their weapons. Dama was the first to charge the stairwell, followed by Sulk, who wielded his blade above his head, clicking madly, and his band of assassins. The rest of the Rung warriors came next, right on their heels.

“These Rung are crazy,” John said under his breath as he and Tong jogged over to help me. “Dean, you good?”

“I’ll live,” I said, regaining my feet as they reached down, extended their hands, and hoisted me up as an assist. I went over and picked up my weapon.

“Let’s get in there and help them,” Stacy said, reaching for the Remboshi light blade that was called a ray. “Blades only. We don’t want to hit one of our own.”

I slung the Dragon’s Breath over my shoulder and grabbed the Skull Splitter.

The weight and grip of the weapon felt right in my hands, as if we were meant for each other. Grunts and screams and thuds could be heard from the darkened stairwell.

We rushed in, stepping carefully over the first wave of the dead infected that littered the ground like so many discarded peanut shells.

My heart rate doubled in speed again as we observed the battle taking place in the dark between the Rung and infected. The stairwell was a large room with steps going up on one side and down on the other.

Flashlights were on again as the combatants sought to outmaneuver and disable one another. The beams of light flashed and scattered around on the action, giving the area a surreal appearance as the Rung diced and sliced their way through the infected, felling more than falling themselves.

“Dean, keep on moving down to the next level!” Dama yelled from somewhere near the front of the pack. We were making progress through, and that was reassuring.

“Stay close!” I yelled to Stacy, John, and Tong. “We have to hurry. The longer we take to get to the armor, the more time Legion has to get more infected to our location.”

“Warriors!” Dama said, hearing my warning. “Forward as fast as you can!”

The Rung warriors turned into a meat grinder. Our columns moved forward, continuing to slice their way through the infected horde like a bulldozer pushing through piles of dirt.

I moved to the center of the pack, striking out with my hammer at whatever poor soul was unlucky enough to live past the initial lines of the Rung powerhouse.

I didn’t think about what I was doing. I couldn’t think about it, or even process the sound or sight of what I was seeing and hearing. Slicing through meat and crushing skulls was not something I ever wanted to do again, but if we didn’t make it to that armor, we were all dead. Not just us. If Legion got off planet, how many more innocent beings could be lost?

I took my thoughts out of my actions and simply reacted on instinct, swinging back and forth through the horde with my Skull Splitter, which was certainly living up to its name.

We paid for every step we took. As the Rung in the front lines tired, we relieved them, and they retreated to the back for a few minutes’ respite. At one point, I found myself fighting with Tong on my left and Maksim on the right. There was no time for talking as we pushed forward, hacking, kicking out, and always moving forward.

There wasn’t a single one of us not covered in the black substance that was a part of Legion. We pressed forward to the bottom of the stairwell and to the next level below.

Only then did Legion finally let up.

More than one Rung warrior collapsed from wounds and exhaustion.

“We can’t stop. Not yet,” I said, going over to Tong, who had fallen on his hands and knees.

The Remboshi took off his helmet to throw up on the ground in front of him, his shoulders heaving as he did so.

“We killed—we killed so many of them,” Tong gasped after vomiting again and gasping for breath as he spoke in a weakened voice. “They just kept coming at us like they wanted to die. I killed so many of them.” He was obviously traumatized, but I had to snap him out of it.

“This is what Legion wants,” I said, grabbing Tong by the shoulders and getting him to his feet. “He wants to get into our heads. We have to keep going.”

I looked around at our depleted ranks. At least five Rung warriors were dead. There were twice that many wounded to various degrees. Those still able to be patched up were seen to by the medic, who got them ready to move again.

Stacy helped John with a somewhat serious wound on his shoulder. A blade had found its way between his armor and his chest plate.

“Dean’s right,” Dama said, finding her breath. She had not been seriously injured but was definitely showing signs of exhaustion. “We can’t stop now. We have to move on. We’re almost there now. Sulk!”

Sulk limped forward, his tail dragging behind him. A trickle of blood dribbled down his left leg.

“Protect the rear and leave no one behind, but get them moving as fast as you can,” Dama ordered.

“And you?” Sulk asked. I thought he had nerve questioning his commander, but maybe that was common practice for the Rung army.

“I’m taking point,” Dama said, raising a hand when Sulk looked as though he was going to argue. “Hurry. We can’t afford to let Legion regroup. We’re almost there!”


15


Orion Protected

We took off at a steady but careful pace. As much as I would have liked to run the rest of the way, there were just too many of our wounded who couldn’t move quickly. I moved beside John, who I could tell was in more pain than he wanted to admit.

“You going to make it?” I asked. “Because if you’re not, I should get a confession from you right now that you know I’d win in a fight if there was ever a rematch.”

“Even now I could take you,” John grunted. “Don’t make me laugh. That might hurt and pop open my wound.”

“We just have to make it to that power armor,” I reminded him. “We need to get you inside a suit, then it’s clear sailing from there on out.”

“We’re just overlooking the little details, like how we’re all going to learn how to pilot said power suits on the run, that we have to actually get to them first, and hope that Legion isn’t making a move against the Orion as we speak,” John said.

“Details,” I said, shrugging off the weight of worrying about those topics. I especially didn’t want to think about what was going on back at the camp right now. If that virus’s nasty little tendrils could reach out in so many different places at once, we needed to get it at its core to nip it in the bud. “Let’s worry about what we can control, right?”

“Worry about what we can control,” John repeated after me. “You’re smarter than you look, Dean Slade.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” I answered with a small bark of a laugh.

Up ahead, Dama came to a sudden halt. She consulted the map on the back of her right vambrace one more time.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, coming up next to her and following her line of sight. “Legion?”

“When we round this corner, we’ll be in front of the doors to the armory,” Dama said, pointing to her map and indicating an image that was consistent with what she was describing. “We have to anticipate Legion will make one final stand here. I’m worried. There were thousands of Rung taking shelter here that Legion infected. We’ve come across dozens, maybe a hundred at most.”

“So where are the rest?” Stacy asked as she came up and joined the conversation.

“He may have taken some to other Rung bunkers, maybe others toward the Orion, but I fear he also left a fair amount here guarding the doors to the armory,” Dama said. “He couldn’t get in. We managed to change the passcode as we lost control of the bunker, but there’s no doubt he’s there, making sure we don’t get inside either.”

“Any bright ideas?” I asked. “How to get through a few hundred infected with no more than ten, maybe fifteen capable fighters?”

“I think I may have an idea,” Maksim said as he came up to us. “But you’re not going to like it.”

What else was new? He didn’t seem to have too many ideas that I did like. None, actually.

The four of us stood silent for a moment, anticipating what he was going to suggest, curious yet dreading what we would hear.

“Try us,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

“I noticed a few of the Rung have small explosive devices that we haven’t used yet. If we were to use these together, say with a few dozen smaller piece of metal scraps, we could clear a path,” Maksim suggested. “At the very least, it will buy us a few seconds during which Legion will be disoriented and we can get into the hangar where the power armor is kept.”

“You want to make a dirty bomb?” Stacy asked with a sneer. “Adding in scrap pieces of metal to inflict as much damage as possible? How many times did you use that little trick back on Earth on civilians?” I supposed that Stacy was starting to get exhausted and a bit emotional, since I thought this was actually one of the few options we had. I hated the thought of killing so many infected, since we were closer to a potential cure, but if we did nothing at all, no one would be saved.

“We need to think about right now,” Dama said, reining Stacy back in. “Whatever wrongs were committed before will have to wait. We need to focus on a solution and working together today or there may not be a tomorrow.” I was glad Dama had echoed my thoughts and I didn’t need to pull Stacy back to the here and now and the dilemma at hand.

“We’ll scout ahead,” I said, nodding to Stacy. “Maksim can work with you to create the bomb.”

“Agreed,” Dama said. “I don’t know how quiet you have to be. Legion obviously knows we’re down here. He’s just waiting for us now.”

That thought brought a chill to my spine. Dama was right. Legion was waiting for us. He had anticipated our move at the stairwell, leading us to believe he was going to rush in and attack, then hold infected with blasters in the rear to catch us off guard. What did he have planned for us now?

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Stacy asked as we made our way down the corridor. The hall we would have to make a right on was still a good hundred meters or so in front of us if I had read Dama’s map correctly and was judging distance accurately.

“How much I could use a hot meal and a bath right now?” I asked. “Or how that blaster took me in the chest so hard, it made my belly button touch my spine?”

“What?” Stacy almost laughed, surprised by my attempt at humor. “No, not at all.”

“Oh, go ahead, then,” I said, glad I was able to bring her a moment of relief from the seriousness of the situation. “What were you thinking?”

“If this all works and we get into that room, we can’t let Maksim get into a power armored suit,” Stacy said, shaking her head. “It’s too much of a risk. Think of what he’s able to do on his own, then put him behind the wheel of a walking tank? We can’t take that risk.”

“I agree,” I said. “When we get in there, you and I will need to be on top of that situation. Tie him up if he’ll let us, knock him out if he won’t. As much as I hate the guy and don’t trust him either, he did save my life back in the woods and he’s trying to help now. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s the amount of concussions I’ve had or something else, but I don’t know how to feel about him, and whether his intentions are sincere or not.”

“We won’t have to decide,” Stacy said. “If we live through this, we’ll take him back, and he can stand trial in front of his peers.”

I was about to make another comment about this topic, when we arrived at the entrance to the hall. On our right, just a few feet away, another massive corridor opened up, leading to the power armor hangar.

I edged toward the corner, peering around the side.

My helmet had done a good job of keeping odors out, but a rotten stench too strong to ignore hit me now. It smelled like death. That was the only way to describe the horrible stench assailing my nostrils at the moment.

I tried hard to fight back a gag.

Stacy coughed next to me as she too peered around the corner.

Rows of infected stood waiting for us halfway down the aisle. The darkness didn’t give away much, but bright blue emergency lights stationed around the edges of the doors to the power armor hangar lit up enough of the room to see the horror greeting our group. There had to be a thousand or more, all standing so close to one another the air in the area had gone stale.

One of the infected in the front lines took a step forward. It was an elderly Rung female with a deep gash across her left eye.

“You should know that as you waste time here, the Orion falls,” she cackled with glee. “Your stupid knee-jerk race attacks where the bulk of my force isn’t. All those you love and care about are now mine. They are joining my fold as we speak.”

I knew that Legion could be lying to throw us off. Still, a ball of panic formed in the pit of my stomach.

“While we wait here playing these games, your people die.” The Rung shrugged her shoulders. “Even if you succeed in getting your precious power armor, you have gained nothing and instead are losing everything.”

“You’re lying,” Stacy said, leaving the cover of the corner. She walked out into full view of the Legion horde. “You’re stalling for more time.”

“Maybe I am stalling, but that means nothing.” The Rung lifted her head into the air and laughed. “Your fate is set. I actually have you to thank for waking me from my hibernation. When the Orion crashed, you gave me so many hosts to use and spread. You brought all of this about.”

“You were just biding your time until the Rung and Remboshi came out of hiding,” I said, refusing to let Legion put the blame on our shoulders. I wouldn’t let that leech get to me. “You would have consumed them and then used the craft to travel off-world to another and another and another after that.”

“Ahhh,” Legion’s host said, giving me a wide smile. “Dean Slade, you are more perceptive than you seem.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” I asked, looking to Stacy for answers.

She shrugged and held one palm up in an uncommitted gesture. “Maybe you just have one of those faces.” We refocused on the host as Legion spoke through her once again.

“So, you know of my plan to take the Rung craft beyond the stars?” Legion asked with a sigh. “It will take some work. Their craft is not yet capable of such a trip, but in time, I will succeed. Once I infect those Eternals of yours and am able to use the Cognitive you call Iris, I should have more than enough information to then turn my conquest to the galaxy. Amazing what we can do when we all work together.” It was as if, in this parasite’s mind, we and the Rung had engineered everything to benefit Legion. It was truly a parasite, a freeloader, in the ultimate sense of the term.

“It’s not going to happen,” Stacy said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

“It’s too late.” Legion scratched at the underside of its chin. “The fundamental flaw of any species is the inability to work with one another. You, the Rung, and the Remboshi banded together too late. The reason I will succeed is because I am of one mind, of one single need. You couldn’t learn to work with one another, and like I said, now that you have, your window of opportunity has passed.”

Memories of what Jezra said to me of her prophecy, of Lou and his faith, ran through my mind like lightning.

“You’re wrong,” I said, feeling something like anger mixed with conviction rise in my chest. It was time we put this plague in its place. If I could, I was going to give it something to think about. “I’m going to stop you. That’s why I’m here. That’s why all of this had to happen. I’m going to burn you, and my face will be the last thing you see.”

“We will see,” Legion said with a dismissive hand wave to me. “Now go waste your time somewhere else. I need to focus my concentration on bringing down the Orion and infecting everyone in the camp.”

My hands clenched around the Dragon’s Breath I held in my palms as a trickle of nervous, angry sweat ran down my spine, chilling quickly and sending goosebumps to my limbs. More than anything, I wanted to lay into him right there. It would be so easy to squeeze the trigger a half dozen times and turn him into a pile of meat, but that would only kill the one host.

“Soon enough,” Stacy said, placing a hand on my arm. “Soon enough.”

I retreated with Stacy back around the corner and to our forces down the hall.

“Did you mean that back there?” Stacy asked.

“Mean what?” I asked.

“Did you mean that you believe this all happened for a reason?” Stacy asked me with hesitation in her voice. “I thought you didn’t buy into all that mumbo jumbo fate talk.”

I lifted my right hand to the medallion that hung around my neck. I remembered what my dying wife said to me. I remembered the events that took me to this planet and had led to this point. It was hard to explain everything with any degree of rationality. Maybe something else was driving the events that had brought us here.

“I guess I’m starting to,” I answered as honestly as possible. “Maybe Jezra and…and Lou were onto something.” Before I could get into it further, we were interrupted by John.

“Well, the madman’s done it,” John said, coming up to us and throwing a thumb back toward the way he came. “He’s created something, all right.”

I followed John’s line of sight to where the Rung shone their lights down on the ground near where Maksim worked. They had used the inside of a Rung chest plate as a housing for the many smaller bombs the Rung carried. Stuffed into the breast plate were a variety of smaller scrap pieces of metal, knives, screws, and anything else that had been scrounged.

“The smaller explosives will work as a catalyst to ignite one another and send the shrapnel ripping through Legion’s ranks,” Maksim said, looking up from his spot on the floor. “How many of the infected are there?”

“A thousand, maybe more,” I said. “We’ll have to set this thing off and then it’s still going to be a fight to get to the doors.”

“We’ll make it,” Dama said in a hard voice. “We’ll make it, if for no other reason than because we have to.”


16


Orion Protected

“You sure you can hit this?” I asked Sulk as I carried the explosive device to the corner of the hall. “I’m going to heave it as far as I can.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll hit it,” Sulk said with confidence, taking a knee as he positioned his rifle around the corner. “Throw it high.”

The explosive felt heavy in my hands. It had to weigh a good thirty pounds. Between the small explosive devices and the added shrapnel, it wasn’t going to be an easy feat tossing this thing for distance.

John came over to me, motioning for the bomb.

“We’ll throw it further together,” John said, taking one side of the weapon.

Stacy, Dama, Tong, and the remaining Rung that were still able to fight stood, ready to sprint forward. Our plan was simple enough. Throw the bomb. Sulk would shoot it to detonate the charges. We then would run like hell to the armory doors before Legion could recover.

The idea was nothing fancy, but anyone who has ever been in a stressful situation understands things rarely go to plan. There were a number of things that we hadn’t thought of that could go horribly wrong, but like I mentioned before, our options were pretty limited.

“We throw this and we get behind cover,” I told John. “On three.”

We started to swing the bomb between us, counting each swing as we did.

Legion, for his part, remained content to stand there staring at us, like he was almost daring us to try and break through his lines.

“One, two, three!” I yelled in unison with John.

John and I sent the bomb sailing through the air. As soon as we let go, both of us dove for cover back around the corner.

The resounding boom was deafening. True to his word, Sulk had nailed the explosive, setting it off around the corner. I hoped we didn’t lose our hearing from the reverberation. We needed to be able to communicate.

John and I were just getting back to our feet as the others rushed forward. Our window of opportunity was already closing and we couldn’t afford that happening. With each passing second, Legion was getting his troops up and ready for a fight. And after this fight, we still needed to get home and check on the colonists.

I grabbed my Dragon’s Breath and followed at the rear of the line. In front of me, everything was smoky and dark. Once again, I was assaulted with the stench of so many bodies in a single room and now the acrid tang of the smoke. Although my helmet filtered out some, I still could smell it and taste it too.

Dama and Stacy, who were in the lead, were already discharging their weapons on Legion. Our plan was working for the time being. Our throw had been perfect. Sulk hit it right when it was over the center of their numbers.

Bodies were everywhere, some not moving and others trying to get their bearings. We were off like a shot, sprinting through the smoke. We bullied past most of them, firing at those who got too close. A sense of terror gripped at me as I saw the amount of destruction the bomb had caused.

Not only that, we were willingly diving into their ranks, headed for the armory door. If they recovered sooner than we wanted them to, we would be trapped, and then what would we do?

John and I brought up the rear, firing on any of the infected who showed too much awareness. Hands grabbed for me. Those infected who carried weapons leveled blasters or swung their blades. Fortunately, their aim was wild as usual. I supposed that was a challenge for Legion, to fire in many directions accurately. It showed that his control was not absolute or at least coordinated.

“Hey, we’ve got to go now!” I yelled to those in the front.

“Almost there!” Dama yelled back. “The control panel is on the right side of the wall. Hurry!”

“Kill them!” Legion yelled in one voice as all the infected opened their throats. “Kill them all!”

What happened next was something I could only describe as mayhem. Our small group made it to the control panel, but Legion was pissed.

Dama worked frantically, putting in the code to allow us access to the armory hangar. It was a square device about chest high for the Rung. She placed her hand on the pad first then began to punch in a series of numbers.

“Dean!” Tong shouted in a panicked voice.

I looked back in time to see Tong enveloped by a wave of infected that looked like they were trying to tackle him to the ground.

I lashed out with the butt of my weapon, afraid I’d hit the Remboshi if I fired.

Stacy was beside me a moment later as we fought off the infected and lifted Tong to his feet.

“Tha-thanks,” Tong said, clearly shaken and taking in deep breaths.

“Thank me later,” I told him. “Fight now.”

What remained of our number formed a protective half circle around Dama as she worked on the door. While the explosive had worked wonders in clearing a path, there were still hundreds of infected pressing in on us.

I saw a Rung fall to my left with a blade stuck in his head, while another to my right was grabbed by the infected horde and pulled into their smelly ranks. The anguished scream he gave off was something I knew I would never be able to forget.

“Got it!” Dama yelled from our rear. “Don’t let them in the hangar!”

A grating mechanical sound vibrated through the floor under our feet. The massive hangar doors that had to be at least two stories tall began to slide open from the middle. First a slit and then an opening large enough to squeeze through appeared.

“Move to the doors!” Stacy screamed to us.

Legion let off a wail so loud, strident, and long, I winced, wanting to cover my ears. Some in our party scuffled to the door, firing, slashing, and striking out in the process.

Tong was limping from a wound to his leg. Dama’s helmet had been ripped off, and a wound had opened over her right eye, leaking blood down her face.

Maksim was the first to the opening doors. He disappeared inside the large room, much to my dismay. My gut twisted inside my stomach. If he closed the doors on us from the other side, it was all over. We were still keeping the infected at bay as we tried to get inside.

“Hurry, get in!” Stacy called out, seeing the same thing I did. “We have to get to him before he does anything stupid.”

I finally made it to the doors, where those who remained made a valiant last stand to try to keep the infected out.

The massive hangar doors that had been sliding open a second before grinded to a halt then began to turn the opposite way and close again.

Right now, there was an opening in the hangar doors about ten meters across. By the second, that opening was closing. We had to get over there fast.

“Inside, get inside!” Sulk yelled out.

We walked backward, putting ourselves inside the hangar while ensuring the infected stayed out, still slashing out at them with blades and me swinging my Skull Splitter. It was less about Legion using his troops to attack us now and more of a shoving match to keep the infected out of the hangar. It was becoming a bigger challenge each moment that passed.

There were now far too few of us to keep the infected out. Inch by inch, they pushed forward, forcing us to give way. If it weren’t for my armor, my body would have been a canvas of bruises and scrapes as they clawed their way into the hangar bay.

“We can’t hold them!” Sulk cried out, losing some of the confidence he usually exuded and beginning to sound defeated.

And I knew he was right. The doors were closing but much too slow. Eight meters and growing narrower. There wasn’t much we could do to keep them out. Already they had gained the threshold, and in seconds, they would be inside with us, able to either access the power armor or keep us from using it.

“Help me!” Maksim appeared out of the dark hangar room, struggling to carry a long metal sheet.

I had no idea where he’d gotten it from but immediately understood his plan as he maneuvered the barrier between us and the infected.

“Grab the metal sheet!” Stacy roared, also picking up on his plan. Together, the few of us that remained maneuvered the steel barrier between us and those that Legion controlled.

I shoved my shoulder against the metal, sweat pouring into my eyes.

I had a brief moment to look at Maksim, who also fought to keep the barrier in place, his face bloodied and bruised, his hands soaked in blood. He had come into the hangar to try and close the doors behind us. He came back with the metal barrier in an attempt to help. Perhaps he was changing from the subversive assassin he had been to a team player. I felt for the first time that he might actually be on our side.

My feet slid across the hangar bay as I struggled to find a solid hold on the floor beneath us. It was difficult, as the floor was smoothly constructed in a material that was made for vehicles to move on, not for traction for the armored boots I was wearing.

The doors narrowed the entryway into the room to a six-foot gap, then five. It looked like we might actually make it. There were only seven of us left on our side of the hangar, but we were going to do it. Against all odds, we were going to hold them back.

The gap closed to four feet.

“Hold them!” I yelled, trying to encourage the few of us that had survived. My muscles burned from my arms to my back and legs. I could only imagine how the others felt with far more injuries than I had sustained.

John let out a roar, more than likely from the pressure on his shoulder wound. There were grunts up and down our meager line of defenders.

“Almost there!” I yelled again, trying to do my best to spur them on to make their bodies give more than they ever had before.

Tong slipped on the blood-soaked floor and went down hard. He struggled to gain purchase on the ridiculously slippery surface.

“Get up, get back up!” I yelled. The hangar bay doors closed further. There couldn’t be more than a slim two-foot gap in place.

Then the worst sound I’d heard in a long time echoed into the room. The rhythmic clanking the hangar bay doors made when they were closing stopped. The doors shuddered then halted their progress altogether.

There was still a two-foot gap between the hangar bay doors, enough for a body to slide through.

“They’ve jammed the doors somehow!” Dama said over the shrieking of the infected. “Hold them!”

Dama took off at a run toward the side of the door and the control panel.

There were six of us still holding the door: Tong, Sulk, Stacy, John, Maksim, and me. It wasn’t easy, but six people holding a two-foot gap was much more manageable than one that was spread over eight feet.

I pressed my back into the steel plate, my feet anchored into the ground. For the first time, I got a look into the armor room. The same blue lights shone in the walls, giving off an ethereal glow to the place but not much visibility. I couldn’t make out details or see the power armor.

What I could tell was that the room was a massive chamber that went on further into the dark. The ceiling had to reach two maybe even three stories tall.

“You thought I left you,” Maksim said to me on my left.

“I didn’t say that,” I grunted.

“But you thought it,” Maksim continued. “I told you. It’s us against Legion now. I will not let him get off this planet. I am on your side now, my brother.”

I saved my breath for breathing, not sure how to respond to him anyway. Sweat dripped down my face and my helmet was a heated, humid box. Back still pressed against the door, I pulled my helmet off. A cool, refreshing rush of wind greeted me.

“Dama!?” Stacy called out from the other side of the steel barrier where she stood between John and Tong. “What’s the holdup? Why won’t the door close?”

“There’s nothing wrong on this end,” Dama said frantically. “It’s Legion. Most likely, he was able to wedge something between the doors. I don’t know what. Weapons, steel. It doesn’t matter. The doors won’t close.”

I could see the defeat on the faces of those beside me. My mind raced for a plan. We couldn’t remain there, that was for sure. We had to do something and fast. We could hold them off for a few more minutes, but eventually Legion would outlast us and push through. We were so close to the armor, but with this one hurdle in our way, it was almost like we were back to square one.

“The power armor,” Sulk called out. “Dama, we need to get a power armor up and running.”

“Two,” Stacy corrected, looking over at Sulk. “You and Dama already know how they work. We’ll hold the door shut while you get the armor and hurry back.”

Sulk nodded then let go of his spot on the steel barrier. He and Dama disappeared into the darkness of the room a second later.

The five of us still on the steel sheet pressed even harder.

“I still don’t like you,” John said to Maksim, pressing his good shoulder and the side of his head against the steel sheet. “But you did good.”

Maksim blinked at him as if he weren’t sure how to accept the backhanded praise. He nodded once, as if acknowledging John’s comment but storing it away for later.

As if by magic, the shoving on the other side of the metal sheet stopped. One second, we were fighting to keep the steel piece in place, and the next there was complete quiet. There was utter stillness on the opposite side of the barrier.

I looked over at the others, who had taken their helmets off as well. They mirrored my confused expression.

“What is he up t—”

Stacy’s words were cut off as something large hit the opposite side of the metal barrier.

I was flung from the door, backward, and landed with a heavy thud. My helmetless head bounced off the hard floor underneath me and darkness wrapped its inky fingers around my vision as I lost consciousness.


17


Orion Protected

As the light turned back on in my brain, I could hear people shouting. Their voices were far off as if they were yelling at me from across a field or hall. I blinked a few times, trying to remember where I was. When I did finally remember, I muttered a few obscenities, took in some deep breaths, and tried to assess the damage.

I rolled over onto my hands and knees as their voices cut through my head like an axe. Pain erupted throughout my skull as if it were in fact being split in two. I winced, looking up at those yelling. Tong lay on the ground, not moving. A line of blood soaked the ground underneath the back of his head. I hoped he was just unconscious, not dead.

Stacy, Maksim, and John were still on the door, holding up the metal sheet against it. They were yelling at one another, me, and Tong. I didn’t see Dama or Sulk.

I tried to make sense of what had happened.

Get up, Dean, I told myself. Get up. You have more to give. You’re not out of this fight yet.

I rose to my feet, blinking as something wet fell over my face. I wiped a hand across my brow, which came back sticky and red with my own blood.

“Here it comes again!” Maksim yelled. “Hold!”

Something like a battering ram hit the opposite side of the steel plate so violently, it actually put a dent in the metal. The defenders lost their grip on the metal barrier. Stacy was thrown to the floor. She tucked her chin and went down on her side to protect her head.

“Helmets back on!” John boomed, placing his bucket onto his head once more, and holding onto the metal at the same time. That was no small achievement, with his injured shoulder and other impediments.

“What is it?” I asked, reaching down for my own helmet. I ignored the pain in my head and rejoined Maksim and John at the barrier. “What’s doing that?”

“I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter,” Maksim said, gasping as he hung on. “All that matters is that we don’t let them through.”

Stacy got up and went over to check on Tong. “He’s breathing, but I need to stop the bleeding,” she shouted as she knelt over his still form.

“Do it,” John growled. “We’ll hold the barrier.”

Another strike sent us off the steel barrier. The blow was so intense, it sent a tremor through my entire body. Now, as I anticipated the impact, it was easier to keep my feet. I absorbed as much of the blow as possible before letting off the steel sheet.

Another imprint on the steel we were holding showed what looked like a massive hammer head.

Stacy worked diligently, stripping off a piece of Tong’s shirt and wrapping his head with it. The amount of blood the Remboshi lost and was still losing was terrifying. His breath came shallow and labored.

The strikes on the opposite side of the barrier descended again and again. It was as if some ancient god had chosen this piece of steel as his anvil.

Each time the object on the other side struck, my teeth rattled. Pain exploded in my head. I felt like I was going to throw up, raising my suspicions more than ever that I might have a concussion. Another reason to stay awake, I thought as another wave of sickening nausea rolled over me.

Not in your helmet, I told myself. Throw up in your helmet and this day just went from horrible to the worst ever.

This thought raced through my mind right before a strike hit the barrier twice as hard as any of the others. All three of us were flung into the room, landing on our backs. Thanks to my helmet, my head was saved from the blow of the ground.

I looked up from where I was lying to see the sheet metal barrier that had been our last hope flung from the entrance like a piece of trash.

Two infected so large they made John look like a little kid stood there with war hammers in their gigantic hands. Each infected easily cleared six feet, with enough muscles to have been bodybuilders in their previous lives.

Thus far in our altercation with Legion, he had used Rung to battle us in their bunker. He must have called on his larger human troops at some point and it seemed they had arrived just in time—or at the exact wrong time, depending on whose side you were on. For me and my crew, it was obviously the most inopportune time, as Dama and Sulk were still missing, seeming to take forever to get the armor, and the rest of us were taking an unscheduled break courtesy of their hammering talents.

Maksim was first on his feet. He launched at the two colossal infected, burying a dagger he held in his right hand hilt-deep into the throat of one before turning to the other.

I saw the blow coming for him in slow motion. I fought to my feet, but I was too slow. The second infected brought his hammer down on Maksim, pulverizing his left leg.

Maksim cried out in pain. A wave of infected squeezed through the door like water through a burst dam. They fell on the already wounded Maksim, tearing at his eyes and throat.

John, Stacy, and I were rushing into the fight when we felt the floor shake. Mechanical gears whined and bright lights punctured the darkness around us.

“Down!” Dama’s voice sounded like it came through a speaker of some kind. I obeyed, pressing myself to the floor.

The rhythmic beat of heavy weapons lit up the room. Even with my helmet on, the sound was deafening, like being caught in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I looked over to my rear to see two black power armor suits doling out death. Twin cannons with rotating barrels sat on each of the power armor’s shoulders as they cut through the infected at the door.

The infected didn’t have a chance. Rounds punctured them like a knife stabbing paper over and over again. The large infected, still carrying a hammer, took enough rounds to the face and chest to leave nothing of his upper body at all.

Just as suddenly as Dama and Sulk had opened fire, they stopped.

The infected on our side of the hangar doors were either dead or in the process of dying.

“Sulk, watch my back and make sure no more get through,” Dama ordered as they moved toward the door in the power armor suits, then disappeared through the opening.

On the top of each of their power armor’s vambraces, a thick square opening rested. At the same time they clenched their fists, sending a stream of fire through the entryway, cooking any infected that sought to gain entrance to the hangar.

“Maksim?” I said, shoving dead infected from the pile where I saw the assassin go down, fighting down my squeamishness at touching them. “Maksim, can you hear me?”

I still had no love for the man, but something was bonding us now. Fighting alongside another person had a way of doing that. I understood that he had sacrificed himself to buy us those few extra seconds to keep Legion at bay. If not for him, the power armor suit would not have been able to put a cork in the entryway so easily.

They might not have been able to stop them at all if Legion had gotten inside to the scores of power armor suits still empty. The thought of an infected in a power armor suit sent another round of chills down my spine.

“Maksim?” Stacy called out as she and John helped me sift through the bodies. “Maksim, can you hear me?”

“Here,” John called out, rolling over a dead infected from the center of the pile. “He’s here.”

“Oh no,” I said, going over to where Maksim lay.

I was no doctor, but I knew a serious injury when I saw one. His leg was bent at an odd angle behind him, and his throat was slashed and oozing blood. A dozen other cuts lay over his face and torso.

“Brother,” Maksim wheezed as he lay on the ground, staring up to the ceiling, although I doubted he could actually see anything.

“Hold on. Let me get something to stop the bleeding,” Stacy said, looking around frantically.

“My time is done here,” Maksim managed to say weakly just above a whisper. “I need to speak…to my brother.”

I pulled off my helmet, making my way through the piles of bodies, and knelt next to Maksim. A war raged inside of me as to what I felt for the man. Half of me could never forget what he had done to destroy so many lives on the Orion and the dreams of others. The other half saw the more recent image of him jumping to defend the doors and sacrificing his life in the process.

Maksim reached for my hand and gripped it tighter than I thought he’d be able to in his weakened state.

“It’s on you to kill him now.” Maksim moved his eyes from the ceiling to look me full in the face. “Swear to me you will not let him leave this planet.”

“I swear,” I told him, swallowing hard. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“In another life, you would see that we were in fact brothers, cut from the same cloth,” Maksim said, turning his blank-again gaze back to the ceiling. “Kill Legion, brother. Kill him.”

Maksim let out a long, shuddering exhale of breath and lay still.

There on my knees over his dead body with the sounds of the flamethrowers going off behind me, I was left at a loss as to what to feel.

I wasn’t sure how long I knelt there. Seconds, minutes maybe. The sound of steel snapping eventually broke me from my trance-like state.

I looked over to see Sulk tear a piece of steel from between the two hangar bay doors. The doors worked once more and closed a moment later.

Stacy was with Tong as he woke from his unconscious state. I figured he had a nice splitting headache at this point, but at least he was alive. I couldn’t take any more of my friends dying at this point.

John had found his way to the control panel, trying to figure out how to turn on the lights in the hangar bay room.

“I’m not going to even pretend to know what I’m doing here,” John said, looking at the control panel in exasperation. “Why does this section of the bunker have these blue lights and everything else was dark? There has to be power here, but why can’t we turn on all the lights?”

Now that the hangar bay doors were closed, Dama piloted her mechanical armor over to where John stood over the controls. She pressed a button that opened a section of the giant armor’s center chest plate with a hiss.

She jumped down the remaining feet to the ground below and sidled up next to John, pressing keys on the control panel.

“The hangar for the power armor is on a different system than the rest of the bunker. It does, in fact, still have power, but it transferred to conservation mode when the hangar was locked down. I’m resetting the power now,” Dama said, working over the controls.

A second later, brilliant white light lit up the hangar bay. I winced, shielding my eyes as we went from dull blue lights along the floor and ceiling to what seemed brighter than day inside the hangar.

What I saw took my breath away.

The hangar was a giant room deeper than it was wide. Along the far wall stood an army of power armor suits. They were shoulder to shoulder, with their impressive black and grey forms gleaming in the brilliant light. I got my first good look at them. They ranged from eight to ten feet tall, covered in robust metal plating from the helmeted head to reinforced booted feet.

One thing I hadn’t noticed before was they were all equipped with a tail like the Rung and Remboshi as well.

“There’s enough here for our own army,” Tong said, standing with Stacy’s support. “We can do this. We can finally take the fight to Legion.”

“There’s a separate exit above us that we can use to get out,” Dama instructed. “We’ll circle around and free our people. We can then go to other Rung bunkers and free them to help in the fight.”

“We need to get back to the Orion,” I said. “I don’t think Legion was lying when he said it was under attack. We need to go back and help.”

“Of course,” Dama answered. “But you’ll need a crash course on how these are piloted first.”


18


Orion Protected

Dama wasn’t kidding when she said, “crash course.” She taught us the basic movement controls and the weapons systems, and then we were on our own.

The center chest piece of the power armor suit opened like a door, and a short step ladder folded out, allowing access to the inside.

The suit, however, was made for a smaller-than-human-sized Rung pilot, which meant it was tight inside for me. I couldn’t imagine how John felt.

Hold it together, Dean, I told myself. Hold it together. You’re in control; you can get out anytime you want. I never did like the feeling of being closed in.

When the door to the power armor hissed shut behind me, I had a sense of claustrophobia. I stood in a mechanical get-up inside the larger power suit. My feet were placed in stirrups inside the power armor’s legs, and my arms reached into the arms of the unit. My hands grasped a controller on each side.

As soon as the door to the chest piece closed, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the room opened up in front of me. It was like I was the armor instead of just being inside of it.

When I looked down, I could see my feet. When I looked up, I saw the ceiling to the hangar high above.

“This thing is so crazy,” Stacy said over the comm line we shared in the units. “How is this even possible?”

“It will take some time getting used to, but when inside our armor, your movements become the movements of the armor unit,” Dama coached us. “When you move an arm or leg, so does the unit. Go ahead and try it now.”

“This thing tight for anyone else?” John asked as he stumbled forward in his mechanical suit. “I feel like my huevos rancheros are in a vise grip.”

“Huevos rancheros?” Tong asked as he practiced in his suit. “I don’t understand what that is.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a laugh despite the hour. “Let’s just say it’s tight in here.”

“They were designed to hold the largest Rung, but even a large member of our species is only the size of a small human,” Sulk said.

Chatter continued as Stacy and Tong asked questions about the armor’s capabilities. The suits used several types of energy to recharge. If we were outside, we would be using the solar energy of the two suns. While we were inside, that energy was harnessed and channeled into the power armor. It was a technology I was hoping our scientists would explore further once we were back to the Orion.

I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. True to Dama’s words, the suit obeyed without hesitation. When my right knee came up, so did the suit’s. When I changed into a defensive stance and lifted both hands in front of me, the suit obeyed immediately. I practiced a little more and could see it wouldn’t take too long to become proficient at navigating the suit despite the tight fit.

“Imagine going around in these things?” John said, moving to stand in front of me. He weaved back and forth, bouncing on his toes. “Legion has no chance.”

“On the lift,” Dama said, waving us over to a large circular platform. “We have no time to lose. We need to get to Legion and get rid of him before he does any more damage.”

“What about weapons?” I asked as we moved to obey. “We’ll need those sooner rather than later.”

“Flamethrower on the back of your left forearm and blade on the back of your right,” Sulk said as he maneuvered his suit onto the platform. “To activate each one, your fist has to be closed, then press the button beside your thumb.”

“Cannon on your shoulder is activated by shrugging your shoulder inside your suit,” Dama said. “When you shrug, you’ll then have the option to press your shoulder back. Doing this will open fire. A targeting system in your screen will allow you to aim.”

I soaked in all of this information as we gathered on the raised platform. Truth be told, I couldn’t wait to try the weapons out. With them in our arsenal it was hard to imagine a scenario where Legion would be able to stand against us. Finally, for once, we would have the upper hand and we could put an end to this.

The ceiling above us parted in the middle as the circular lift took us to the open air above.

“Wow, watch it,” Tong said as the suit John was in activated the blade in his right arm’s vambrace.

“Sorry, sorry about that,” John said, not sounding sorry at all but rather a little giddy, like a child with a new toy. I hoped we wouldn’t injure each other by accident, but then again, didn’t the armor guard against that problem?

A single steel blade six feet in length sprouted from above John’s closed fist.

“You were going to use these weapons against the Remboshi?” Tong said in a quiet voice. “I mean, after you defeated Legion?”

“We’ve all made mistakes,” Dama said, matching his somber tone. “I’m just glad we fight together now. We will never have to wage war with one another with these machines now.”

I had lost all sense of time underground in the Rung bunker. When we were lifted to the desert landscape overhead, I was surprised to see it was the end of the day. The twin suns were beginning to disappear against the horizon.

“We’ll head for the Orion,” Stacy said, moving off the platform onto the soft sand. “I’m not sure how fast these things can move, but if we travel through the night, we might be able to get there by morning.”

“You will. There’s an autopilot when springing,” Sulk answered. “It’s by your right foot. Once you start running, tap your foot to the left to engage and disengage.”

“We’ll head to free this bunker and then others,” Dama said. “We’ll have enough pilots to arm more power suits but not all of them.”

“Do what you can,” Stacy said. “If we’re able, we’ll bring soldiers back to man the suits you were unable to. Will this channel remain open over the distance we have to travel?”

“It should,” Dama said as we all stood off the lift now. “Go to the Orion. You have my word that once we free the other bunkers and arm ourselves, we will come to your aid as you have come to ours.”

The way Dama said the words, there was no doubt in my mind the Rung would do exactly what they said.

“Thank you,” Stacy said, looking over to Tong, John, and me. “Let’s go. We have to make it back to the Orion as fast as we can.”

That was it. Tong took the lead in his power armor suit as we made the run back to the Orion. I thought it would be tiring at first, but once the autopilot was engaged on the power armor suits, we were as cozy as could be.

Our stations inside the armor didn’t seem to move at all while the armor’s legs sprinted over the desert landscape.

The section of armor my own legs were in separated from the rest of the unit and tapered, while the wider portion of the leg spread outward. This way, the armor’s legs could take massive strides while my own legs sat comfortably inside the inner section.

“Oh dear,” Tong said over the speakers inside our units.

“That sounds ominous,” John said.

“Didn’t think you’d know what that word meant,” I teased the big man. “You know, with all the concussions.”

“Hey, don’t judge a book by its cover,” John said. “I read. I can be smart.”

“Apparently, not smart enough if we all signed up to come on this trip,” I said under my breath. “I guess that goes for me too.”

“No argument there,” John said.

“Tong, what was it that you saw?” Stacy asked, interrupting our banter and reining in the conversation. “Legion?”

“Yes. I’m going to see if I can send you the image I have on the smart pad to the armor unit’s screens. One moment,” Tong said as his line went silent.

“Can we just appreciate what we’re all doing for a moment?” I said, not able to control the level of awe I felt. “We’re sprinting over an alien world in giant mech warriors.”

“Going to war with an intelligent virus,” John added.

“And our allies in this are aliens,” Stacy added. “With tails.”

“Good,” I said. “I just didn’t want the craziness of the moment to be lost on anyone.”

“Oh trust me, this one’s going in the diary,” Stacy said with a half laugh, half sigh. “Amongst a myriad of days to be remembered since our crash, this one’s in the top five.” I was happy to see that her humor was returning and that her stress level was decreasing. She had been pretty tense and emotional for a while, and understandably so.

She was right, in any case. Today would be one for the books.

No matter how it played out.

I settled into the smooth ride of the power armor unit while the auto pilot course kept us straight, running across the desert toward the canyon we had entered to get here in the first place. It had almost lulled me to sleep when Tong’s voice came over the comms.

“Here we go.” he said. “I’m tapped into the feed of our low-flying satellite. “I can only see a certain number of miles ahead of us, but I think it’s pretty obvious what’s happening.”

A small square screen popped to life beside me on the bottom right of our three-hundred-and-sixty-degree viewing screens inside the power armor.

The smaller screen showed an aerial view of the canyon ahead of us. Small dots ran sporadically, away from us and in the direction of the Orion.

“He doesn’t care about getting to us anymore.” Stacy said what we were all thinking. “He only cares about getting to the Orion and taking it out before we get there and then getting off-world.”

“Can’t these things run any faster?” I said, trying to urge my power unit to go faster, even though we were traveling at a dead sprint. “We have to get there faster.”

“This is it,” Tong said. “I do think we are traveling just as fast, perhaps faster than on a predator.”

“I think we’re going faster. It seems like it at least,” Stacy answered. “The canyon is coming up ahead of us. As hard as this may seem, we should try and rest. We’ll have to run through the night and maybe we’ll reach the Orion as the sun rises.”

“I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think sleep is going to come that easily,” John said. “Not with everything going on.”

“Just try,” Stacy said. “We have no idea how long the battle tomorrow will last.”

The comms went silent for a time then as we each got lost in our own thoughts. I knew Stacy was right. I even managed to fall in and out of sleep a few times.

When we were in the canyon, we found out our units had sensors that kept them from slamming into a curve when the canyon wound right or left. We were also able to avoid the boulders and obstructions that the predators had to swerve around. It was jarring at first but having the power armor jump over or skirt around the obstacles without having to prompt it was liberating. One by one, like real life soldiers, we sprinted forward with ease.

As much as I wanted to forget about what had happened in the Rung bunker, I couldn’t. Maksim’s bloody face appeared in front of my eyes every time I closed them.

It had taken a very serious threat for him to realize it was time to stand together. Crashing on the planet hadn’t done that nor did finding out aliens existed. The villainous threat Legion posed of getting off planet was what did it.

What did that say about Legion? What did that say about Maksim?

I didn’t know. These were all questions that had to be saved and answered over the years or maybe never answered at all. Right now, our focus had to be singular. Kill Legion.

After a few hours of off and on sleep, I came to the conclusion I’d rather stay awake than live through another nightmare of a dead Maksim calling me his brother.

I played with the power armor interface, coming to a menu where I was able to communicate privately with the other power armor units via private channels. They were numbered R14, R15, and R16. I couldn’t be sure which one was Stacy, but I figured I had a thirty-three percent chance of getting it right, even if I guessed.

I decided on R15.

“Hey, you there?” I asked, deciding this was the best way to start a conversation if it were John or Tong.

“How’d you know this one was me?” Stacy asked. “I was going to send you a private message but didn’t want to start spilling my guts to John or Rung. Actually, I don’t know which would be worse.”

“Lucky guess,” I said, trying to figure out how to begin the conversation I wanted to have. Not wanted, maybe needed to have. I could face down an opponent that outweighed me by a hundred pounds no problem, wade into a mob of infected (as long as they weren’t oozing that black stuff), or grab a flying alien, but this conversation scared me more than any of that.

“You still there?” Stacy asked.

“Yep,” I said. “I just need you to hear me out.”


19


Orion Protected

“I don’t know what the fallout of all of this is going to be,” I began, already feeling like I was messing up the conversation somehow. “I mean, this is the worst time to bring this up, and I get that, but…well, tomorrow is promised to no one, right?”

I paused, thinking back on the many people we’d lost. Too many to count. The faces of Ira, Maksim, and others floated by. They were all dead now. The last image to come to mind was Lou.

“I don’t even know if I can be good at a relationship again, but I do know that I care about you—my gosh, why is this so hard?” I asked out loud, frustrated at myself.

“You’re doing great,” Stacy said softly. “Keep going.”

“Well, if we live through this, I want you and me to have a future together, to at least explore the possibility,” I said. “And if we don’t, I don’t want to take this to the grave.”

“Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” Stacy asked playfully now. “Because if you are, the answer’s yes. I feel the same way about you, Dean. We both have a lot of red in the ledgers of our past. But I know we can look past that. The past just shapes who we are today. And I think we’re both better for it.”

I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I slumped back onto my harness, and a smile touched my lips that no one could see but me.

“Hey—hey, you guys?” Tong’s voice came through the channel hesitantly. “I didn’t mean to connect to your channel. I was going to say something, but the conversation was so intense, I didn’t want to butt in. I don’t know how I joined the line. I’m trying to figure out how to leave.”

“Me too,” John said, swallowing so hard I could hear it via the comm unit. “I wasn’t going to say anything and just figured out how to get off the line once you two ended it, but since Tong’s being honest, so will I.”

“Lucky for you two, I’m too tired to be embarrassed and too happy to care,” Stacy said with a laugh.

“Yeah,” I added. “I guess it’s not really a secret anymore anyway.”

“You two are wonderful together,” Tong said. “I know everyone will be happy for you.”

“Man, that would have been really awkward if she shot you down,” John said with a whistle. “I mean, I can’t imagine how awkward that could have been.”

“I wouldn’t have said anything if that were the case,” Tong said. “It would have been better for me to just stay quiet and let you stew in your shame as opposed to letting you know I was witness to it.”

“Well, okay, guys,” I said, rolling my eyes. “She didn’t say no, so we don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Still,” John said. “We all dodged a bullet on that one.”

The way John said those words made Stacy laugh, then Tong joined in, and eventually a laugh burst from my lips as well, breaking the tension of the awkward moment. I couldn’t help it. We were all exhausted, and to be honest, laughing didn’t just feel good. It felt great.

We spent the next few hours talking about the dumbest things, like how we missed our favorite places back on Earth. We explained to Tong what bowling was, the rules of pool, and watching our favorite holo films. He thought it was all so confusing and asked us several times what the purpose of these things was. I didn’t think he understood fully even after we explained, and he must have thought Earth was the most bizarre place.

It turned out John was a fan of ancient westerns as well and we went off on a tangent about actors that had existed so long ago.

When the power armor units exited the canyon, the sky was barely turning a shade lighter. Tong didn’t have to give us a warning to look at the small screen in the lower right-hand corner of our power unit screens. We all saw it together.

Tong had moved the low-flying satellite ahead of us to get us a view of the Orion as soon as possible. Thus far, the stragglers Legion had infected were a mix between random humans, Rung, and native alien creatures, all heading to the Orion.

What we saw now gave us all pause. I heard Tong suck in a deep breath.

The satellite showed fires all over the Orion. Sections of the wall looked like they had been bent but not broken.

A horde the likes of which I had never seen crowded the outside of the wall. Humans and Rung had to have numbered in the thousands. The alien creatures that were there counted for at least a quarter of Legion’s power.

“How can there still be so many?” John asked. “How can there still be so many?”

“Can you—me?” Iris’ familiar voice reached our channel. “Can the —me?”

“Iris.” Stacy was the first to speak. “Iris, this is Stacy. I’m with John, Tong, and Dean. We’re coming back from the east in four large power armored suits.”

“Stacy, I’ve been trying to reach,” Iris said. “I’m going to patch you through to Elon right away.”

“Stacy, Dean, is that you?” Elon asked. His voice sounded tired and strained.

“It’s us,” Stacy answered. “We’re coming to you from the east. We’ll swing around the south wall. We’re in powered armor suits. Tell everyone on the wall not to shoot at us.”

“Hold on,” I added. “The cavalry’s arrived.”

“It’s so good to hear your voices,” Elon said with so much emotion, I thought he might be crying. “I’ll let them know. Hurry, the walls are nearly breached.”

Seeing the overhead satellite feed through the screen was one thing but getting a look at it in front of us was another matter entirely. My stomach twisted at the sight. Fires had broken out inside the Orion’s walls. Portions of the walls were battered and scorched. Other sections still burned.

The army of infected that Legion controlled moved away from our approaching power armor suits instead of racing to attack. This was a move that surprised me. It did more to put me on edge than give me a sense of relief.

If Legion was retreating now it was for a reason. We didn’t surprise him or catch him off guard. He knew we were coming.

What are you up to now, Legion? I asked myself. What are you up to now?

“Defend the wall near the front gates and spread out from there,” Stacy advised us. “Be careful. Legion is up to something.”

The tide of infected continued to recede like waves back into the ocean as we approached. There were at least a thousand of the infected. Most were human or Rung that didn’t really pose much of a threat to the power armor suits. A few of them held blasters, but I felt sure enough that none of them would be able to penetrate the armor’s exterior.

The only animals that looked strong enough to take on the armor units were the large alien creatures I had first seen in the jungle. Their hides were black and red. Two hooked horns came together on either side of their mouths while another sprouted from their forehead.

They were thickly built like overgrown rhinoceros. Their horns would come chest level with the powered armor suit. What was worse was that there were a lot of them. Too many for me and the others to take head on. I would want to avoid them at all costs, preferring to go up against the humans and Rung infected. I was unsure if the weapons we had would penetrate those thick hides of theirs.

A cheer from the weary defenders on the wall rose into the air as they welcomed us home. As soon as word spread that the power armor units were on their side, trepidation had turned to joy.

“The front gates can’t take another hit,” Elon said via the shared channel. “Be careful. They have fire projectiles as well. Legion has taught the infected to use larger weapons. If I had to guess, he got them from the Rung they infected.”

“Got it,” Stacy said. “Hang back and give us cover from the wall.”

Movement from the infected ranks halted any other conversation. A familiar form walked forward, holding his hands in the air. A black smile crested his lips. Captain Ezra Harold separated himself from the Legion ranks and approached us.

“Very impressive, very impressive,” Legion said with a smile so genuine, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end and a chill run down my spine. “I didn’t think you’d get out of the bunker alive much less arrive here in time to try and save your friends.”

“We’re going to burn you,” I said. “This all ends today.”

“Maybe, but probably not,” Legion said with a shrug. “I outnumber you ten to one. Even with those fancy Rung suits of yours, you still don’t stand a chance. I have weapons to deal with you, creatures to use against you if the weapons fail. Oh, and I learned a neat little trick I think you might like to see.”

Legion paused here for dramatic effect. When no one answered, he scratched the underside of his jaw.

“Okay, you’re not going to ask, I get that.” Legion almost looked disappointed. “So I’ll tell you. I’m always learning and evolving. One thing I’ve been working on is how to not only spread to the living but the dead. And guess what? After years of trying, I’ve finally managed to do just that.”

“Oh no,” Tong said in our private channel. “He can’t mean what I think he’s saying.”

“What’s he talking about?” John asked. “He’s going to raise the dead, like make zombies?”

A panicked sweat fell over my brow as I realized what the insane virus was about to do. I felt sick and angry at once.

“Elon, make sure Arun is tied down. If she’s in one of her blackout states right now, this could be bad,” I said over our private channel. “Tell Ricky.”

“Why? What’s going on?” Elon asked.

“Just do it,” Stacy said, picking up my meaning. “Don’t let her hurt herself.”

“Legion,” I boomed over the exterior speakers of my suit. “Don’t do this. I don’t know if there is anything good inside of you, but you don’t have to do this.”

“There is nothing inside of me but the need to spread and consume,” Legion said, literally spitting black saliva as he spoke. “The need that others gave to me. Do you think I want this? Do you think I enjoy the itch that I can’t scratch that drives me to spread?”

He shouted like the maniac he was. He shoved his hands into the air, taking in the scene around him.

“I hate this! I hate all of this. I hate what I am. I hate what I was born to be, but to try and change would be an act in futility.” Legion shook his head, lowering his arms. “I am what I am. I can’t change that. I’ve accepted that and have embraced moving forward. But I digress. I was going to show you the next stage in my evolution.”

Legion lifted his right hand and snapped his fingers.

Every single infected in front of us, be it alien, animal, Rung, or human, turned to one another. Those that held blasters pointed them at one another, while those that did not placed their hands on each other’s necks and heads.

The alien creatures maneuvered their jaws around necks while the Rung and humans positioned bladed weapons around their own throats.

“Don’t do this!” Stacy yelled out. There was frustration in her voice, more so than sadness or anger. We all knew we were helpless to do anything but watch.

“I am your god now,” Legion said with a smirk. He lifted a blaster tucked behind the back of his waistband and pointed it over the center of his chest. “I can raise the dead.”

With that, he pulled the trigger.


20


Orion Protected

I lunged forward, not really knowing what I thought I was going to do. Even if I did somehow stop the body of Captain Ezra Harold that Legion controlled, it didn’t mean I could stop any of the thousand others infected behind him.

I just knew I had to do something. My lunge took me halfway to him, but of course it was too late. Captain Harold’s body exploded in front of me, and I swore I witnessed his humanity return behind his eyes, the ebony fading into brown momentarily before his orbs shut.

Not only Legion’s shot, but weapons were fired throughout the crowd of infected, necks were snapped, and jaws were clamped shut. In front of me I watched in horrific awe as they all died at once.

“No!” Tong screamed.

Some people were crying on the wall, others yelled out in rage. I slumped to my knees in the mech suit causing the unit to do the same.

Bodies lay prostrate in front of me like so many fallen leaves during the first sign of autumn. They lay on top of one another since they were in such close proximity, they didn’t even have room to fall. Some collapsed on one another while others lay face down, buried by still more bodies.

“Why, why?” Elon said over the channel.

Rage boiled inside of me. Anger like I had never known before demanded an outlet.

“To the jungle!” I shouted, rising to my feet. “Legion’s core is at the base of the stone that looks like a lightning bolt. Lou knew it before any of us ever did. If we kill the spores there, we kill Legion. That’s where he’s hiding.”

“Dean?” Stacy’s voice broke my rant. “Dean, look.”

Something in her voice halted my own angry thoughts. I looked over to the horde of dead bodies. I thought it was my imagination at first. Slowly, they rose to their feet, almost as though they were being lifted by an invisible force, an army of marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer. Black eyes stared back at me from the army of the dead.

As one, they began to walk backward into the jungle interior just north of our position.

“I told you,” Legion said, still using Ezra’s somewhat destroyed body as his mouthpiece. “I told you, I am a god. I am beyond death. I control the dead.”

My eyes saw it, but I still couldn’t comprehend what was happening in front of me. Every infected that had been killed, be it by a blaster to the chest, having their neck snapped, or another means, was on their feet. Black blood spilled from their wounds.

Some had their head twisted to the side, others gaping wounds in their bodies, but still they walked into the jungle as if nothing was wrong.

“You come for my heart?” Legion asked. “Well, come, then. You think those suits of steel will protect you? I control the dead. Everything that has been dead or will die is mine. Come into the jungle and see how far you get. I will—”

I had had enough of Legion’s talking to last me a lifetime and then some. I clenched my right hand into a fist and pressed the button allowing the five-foot blade to recede from its sheath.

In a single swipe, I took the head of Ezra Harold. There was no point in holding back now. It wasn’t like we could save the dead. Ezra’s head fell from his body in a shower of black liquid. The body stayed upright, bent down, picked up the head, and trotted off into the jungle, still oozing the black substance.

“We kill him now,” Stacy said, stalking forward as she made her way to the jungle.

“I’m with you,” John said, following in his power suit.

“There are too many of them,” Tong said. He sounded sick over the comm. “I want to kill him too, but the jungle is his playing field, and with those numbers, we wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“I’m not going to stand here and let him infect or kill anyone else,” I said, following Stacy. “This comes to an end now.”

Tong followed resignedly as the four of us made our way to the edge of the jungle. Legion wasn’t bothering to hide his plan well. Just inside the dense foliage, I could see him. He stood with thousands of his infected, looking at us with smiles as if he were inviting us in. Even Harold’s head, which Legion still held, had a smile on it.

If this is the way I go, then this is the way I go, I thought to myself. No more running.

“Stay close together and watch out for those larger animals,” Stacy warned. The rotating weapons on her shoulder popped up, ready to be fired. “If one of us goes down, then the other covers for the wounded. Watch each other’s backs.”

“I’m with you,” John said.

“Let’s buy the survivors at the wall as much time as possible to regroup,” Tong added.

“The rock shaped like a lightning bolt,” I reminded them. “The plant where Legion remained for so many years in hiding, the one that holds the oldest spores is there. Burn it.”

“Maneuvering the satellite there now,” Tong said, his voice dying in his throat.

We all saw what he did. An aerial view of the jungle showed us the lightning bolt rock a few kilometers in. That was not what caught our eye. There were so many figures in the jungle between us and the lightning rock, we’d be wading through a sea of infected.

“I’ll take the lead. Follow me,” I said, shrugging my shoulders as I brought my own cannon up. Pressing my shoulder back, I opened fire.

Both hands clenched into fists as my right hand brought my blade and the left bellowed a stream of fire.

Infected of every kind as well as trees and underbrush were cut down as the four of us opened fire on the infected dead. They fell by the dozens. Return fire came from those that held weapons in the form of rockets, heavy blasters, and their own flamethrowers.

The smaller caliber rounds pinged off our armor without causing harm. The larger rockets and grenades were what we had to worry about.

Legion threw his infected at us with total abandon. As we stalked forward, they didn’t wait and rushed us with everything from blades and weapons to their bare hands.

I kept the cannons firing on my shoulders and used the flamethrower on any who cot within its reach. The stench of burning flesh and something else I couldn’t identify permeated the air. I was sure the armor muted the odor somewhat, but enough of it came through. I could just imagine what it smelled like in the actual outdoors.

Incoming rockets and grenades did more damage to the infected horde than to us, but Legion had numbers to spare. He had no worries at all about losing a few lives. Particularly since he could bring them back to life if he chose. What kind of chance did we stand against that?

I took a rocket to the chest and another to my shoulder. The impact spun me around in time to see the power armor unit to my right go down hard.

“Son of a—” John said with a grunt. “Watch out for the heavy artillery. “I have smoke in my suit.”

John’s voice turned to panicked coughs.

I put my back to him, going down on a knee. I focused my fire on any infected going for John.

Stacy and Tong did the same, cutting through wave after wave of infected.

“John, get out of there,” Tong shouted. “We’ll cover you, get out!”

More missiles and grenades peppered our area, creating more smoke, stink, and confusion.

My heart sank. We were barely a dozen meters into the jungle before John’s suit went down. At this rate, we would all be dead and infected in minutes.

The ground shook and an alien bellow reached our ears. To the left, a herd of the infected animals that so closely resembled oversized rhinos charged our position.

“Dean!” Stacy yelled.

“I see them,” I shouted back.

Together, we focused fire on the crazed animals with ebony eyes and dark liquid pouring from their mouths.

One, two, then three of the creatures stumbled and went down. There were still more descending on our location like battering rams.

There are just too many, I thought to myself. The idea of giving up knew better than to ever present itself, but the odds didn’t lie. We were outnumbered by thousands to one.

“John, get out of here!” I yelled as he exited his smoking suit. “Get back!”

John saw what was coming for us a second later and sprinted behind a massive trunk that had been cut down by our rounds.

The creatures slammed into us. I managed to catch one through the skull with my blade as another took me in the torso. I was slammed onto my back. The screen in front of me flickered, threatening to go out.

The alien beast slammed my chest with its hooves. It continued to gore me and rip at the steel plating of my chest with its three horns.

I saw madness in its eyes. Legion was there, and if animals could smirk this one did.

“I can’t get up, I’m down!” Tong shouted.

It was his panicked voice that reminded me of my resolve.

I grabbed onto the beast’s horns, remembering how I had killed the alien beasts before this one. Each time, I had gone for the head.

I wrestled the beast from on top of me, gaining the position over him. My suit sparked and smoked from the inflicted damage. With a closed fist, I summoned the blade in my right vambrace. I drove the sharp blade through the creature’s right eye and deep into its brain, pinning it to the ground.

The creature thrashed a moment more then went still.

I looked up to see Stacy standing over two more dead alien beasts, also apparently having gone for the head. Tong’s unit was missing a left leg. He was sitting slumped dejectedly against a large rock that protruded from the jungle floor.

In minutes, we were reduced to two mobile armor suits. John was also somewhere out in the open. I searched for a solution to our problem in vain as incoming grenades and missiles batted me from side to side.

“I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up,” Stacy shouted over the sounds of her shoulder cannons. “Dean, I—”

A deep rumbling reached our ears. It was the sound of not just one but many vehicles. Legion must have heard it too. All weapon fire ceased. The scene that a moment before had been hell quieted as if everyone were eager to hear someone speak.

“Is that…” I asked.

“Behind us!” Tong yelled from his downed unit in pure relief. “It can’t be.”

I turned, not even knowing what to expect. An armada of predators raced across the fields toward the jungle.

I squinted, trying to see who or what was driving the vehicles. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I caught sight of Remboshi warriors decked out in their white armor and armed to the teeth.

There were dozens of the vehicles, led by one that had a smiling Jezra in the passenger seat.

“How?” I asked, not able to finish my sentence.

“Jezra took off right after you did,” Ricky’s voice sounded over our comms. “She said she had to do something. Took all the predators with her too. She’s woken the Remboshi from their hyper sleep.”

I looked over to the wall to see the Orion gates open. Civil Authority Officers, a loping great dog I recognized as Mutt, and others streamed out of the encampment.

“Hold on,” Elon said. “We’re on our way.”

“I’m establishing a link with Jezra and the rest of my people,” Tong said excitedly. “It has been a long time since the Remboshi have been awakened. Longer still since we have mobilized for war. I—”

“Check out the satellite,” Stacy warned. “We have something big coming in from the east!”

I obeyed, looking down at my screen. She was right. Something large was bearing down on us fast. I moved to defend against this new threat when I realized it wasn’t coming at us from the ground but rather the air.

I looked up, shading my eyes against the bright twin suns. A flying craft I had only seen an outline of before raced through the sky, carrying four power armor units below it on cables.

“The Rung!” Tong shouted. “The Rung have arrived!”


21


Orion Protected

“Sorry we couldn’t bring more help,” Dama’s voice crackled over the channel. “We took back the craft from the rest of the Legion infected in the bunker, but the ship can only carry four suits at a time.”

“They’re with us!” I could hear Tong shouting, not through the comms but out loud through his suit’s exterior speakers. “The Rung fight with us!”

Immediately, I could see the incident Tong was trying to sidestep. The Rung and the Remboshi had a hate-filled past. If the newly awakened Remboshi still harbored the same hate toward the Rung, all could be lost. They had to be headed off before the Remboshi attacked them.

Tong exited his suit, springing over to his people with his arms in the air. The Remboshi in the predators turned their weapons toward the Rung craft.

My heart sank in my chest. Here on the brink of defeat, we were given a glimmer of hope, only to have it ripped from us by infighting on our own side. The past would kill us faster than our present.

“Dean, you have to talk to them,” Stacy said through her channel. “You’re the Chosen One. They’ll listen to you.”

I wanted to argue, but I knew she was right. If anyone had the opportunity to stop the coming fight from our own allies, it was me. I had to step up and use my “chosen” abilities.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“Speak and they will listen,” Jezra’s voice came over the comms. “They know my prophecy. They trusted it enough to sleep for so many years. They will follow you now.”

The Rung ship descended on our right flank, unhooking the thick cables from the four new armor suits so that they landed hard on the ground.

The moment was so tense, you could cut it with a blade. All the weapons the Remboshi had were pointed not at Legion, who had retreated into the jungle’s cover, but at the descended Rung.

“Stop!” I shouted, moving my suit in between the two factions. I opened the hatch to the armor and sprang out onto the scarred ground of the jungle, all the while keeping a wary eye on the infected, who had retreated a few hundred meters into the denser section of the jungle. I could imagine Legion was hoping for the exact opposite outcome that I was. “If you want to live, then you need to stop!”

All eyes were on me. Those of the Remboshi to my left, the Orion colonists around me, and the Rung to my right.

The only reason he wasn’t attacking was that he anticipated the Rung and the Remboshi’s long time hate for one another would play out now. If that was the case, he would wait until one side slaughtered the other then raise the dead soldiers and use them to wipe out the winning side.

I had to act fast. But before I did, I had to believe that I was the Chosen One.

“Whatever differences you have had in the past, whatever sins you’ve committed against one another, none of that matters now,” I yelled. “If you don’t put the past aside and look to the future, there will be no tomorrow for any of us.”

Mutt barked and sprinted to my side as if he were showing support for the cause.

Jezra moved from her spot in the lead predator and stood on the hood of the vehicle. She interpreted for me to the rest of her people only recently woken from their long sleep.

One of the Rung, a scarred figure with narrow eyes and a wrinkled brow, shouted something to me.

Jezra answered in their tongue. All eyes widened and they looked at me with a reverence I wasn’t sure I deserved.

“That is one of our leaders,” Tong interpreted for me. “He asks why they should trust you. Jezra told them you are the Chosen One, a child of the light.”

“I know you have no reason to trust me besides your prophecy,” I said, not sure where I was going but understanding this was the deciding point in my speech. “But your prophecy, the prophecy you have chosen to place your hope in, has proven true up until this point. Don’t stop trusting me now. Put your faith in my direction and I swear to you I will not let your people fall!”

A hushed silence raced over the crowd. I had to stop from smiling for a second. I didn’t know I had it in me, but I didn’t think I’d done half bad. They seemed to have bought it.

The Remboshi spoke amongst themselves for a moment. The same scarred figure who had spoken to Jezra before now exited his predator. He knelt in his white armor and pounded the dirt in front of him, unleashing a string of alien words.

“He says they will not stop hoping in the prophecy now,” Tong translated in a rush of excited words. “They will stand with you and the Rung to defeat Legion.”

I looked over to the Rung. Dama opened the chest piece in her power armor and said first in her own tongue then to me.

“We are with the Remboshi and the Chosen One and his people,” Dama shouted. “Together!”

A cheer went up from all factions: Rung, Remboshi, and human. “As one! As one! As one! As one!” The chant started by Ricky ripped through the humans gathered and was soon picked up by the Rung and the Remboshi alike, once as the meaning had been translated for them.

Goosebumps raced across my skin. Where once four of us stood against an army of infected, now we had our own army. Although still outnumbered, we had the edge in weaponry and technology.

I turned back to look at the infected just inside the jungle. For the first time since I had seen Legion, he looked anything but confident. The infected moved from foot to foot, confused and uncertain.

“We push for the lightning stone in the heart of the jungle!” I roared. “Kill them all! Burn every plant with spores that you see along the way!”

Mutt howled.

I don’t know what kind of imposing figure it made me, but I couldn’t help but kneel and give Mutt a good scratching around his face and neck. He’d been with me since the beginning. He never asked why or for anything in return but my friendship. We’d spilt blood together and we were about to do so again.

Thousands of humans, Remboshi, and the Rung present didn’t seem to care that I was on a knee petting a dog. If anything, it made them cheer louder.

When the shouting died, I gave Mutt one final ruffle of his ears and climbed into my suit.

“Seek See Nay!” Jezra shouted.

“Seek See Nay!” the Remboshi army answered.

“Seek See Nay,” Jezra screamed again.

“Seek See Nay!” the Remboshi and Rung returned.

“It means ‘as one,’” Tong interpreted over the comm unit in our suits.

The human survivors from the Orion soon joined in, filling the air with the alien war chant.

I turned my gaze on Legion now, who shifted from one foot to the other. All hope for the Remboshi and Rung to turn on one another was gone. He understood there was only one way this was going to end.

I started a light jog forward with Stacy on my right along with the four new Rung armor units. The craft that had dropped them off was already on its way back to get four more suits. The battle would be over before it could return, but at least the Rung were doing everything they could to help.

To my left, the Remboshi advanced with their convoy of predators, and behind me the survivors of the Orion prepared to do battle once more, hopefully for the last time.

My jog turned into a full sprint as I planned to hit Legion as hard as I could in my armor. I was going to get through to that lightning rock and the main plant that held the spores if it cost me my life. In that moment, I was ready to sacrifice everything. In that moment, I believed I was the Chosen One and that this was why I was here. I was going to fulfill that prophecy. Otherwise, everything that happened up to this point had meant nothing.

Weapons fire ripped forward from Legion. Rockets and grenades streaked through the air at the power armor units while smaller caliber fire was aimed at the Remboshi and humans.

On our side, we let loose with a volley of laser fire so intense, hundreds of infected fell by the second.

I didn’t bother trying to run and shoot the blasters on my shoulders. I was of a single mind. Get to the lightning rock.

A rocket streaked by my head, and a grenade went to my right, causing me to stumble but not fall. Then I was among them. Infected grabbed for me, those with bladed weapons or clubs striking my armor.

I ignored them all, swiping the long blade on my right arm like a scythe through wheat. I made the mental decision to separate what I was actually doing, which was cutting down the bodies, to nothing more than a simple task.

Get to the rock, I told myself. Get to the rock. All you’re doing is getting to the rock.

Warning lights flickered on and off in my armor suit. I wasn’t familiar enough with the tech to tell what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good.

“Dean, watch out!” Stacy screamed through the comm unit.

I was fast enough to see another massive alien beast with the three horns approaching like a laser beam from my right. It trampled other infected as it made a beeline for my location.

Oh, this is going to suck, I thought as I lifted my arms up to defend myself too late.

Right before impact, a Rung piloted suit slammed into the beast, changing its trajectory just enough to send it past me. It reeled into the infected horde, trampling many of them flat.

The suit opened fire on the beast, making mush out of it.

“Thought you could use a hand,” Dama’s voice said through the comms. “Come on. We can’t be far now.”

“Thank you,” I said, letting a long exhale of air escape my lungs. “I owe you one.”

“You owe us a few power armor suits as well.” Dama chuckled. “We can talk about it after we defeat Legion.”

I didn’t argue with her there. For what felt like an eternity, we waded through the mass of infected. Legion threw everything at us, from infected Rung and humans to various animals of the planet Genesis.

The Remboshi on the predators to my left were experts with the vehicles. While half of them maintained a steady line moving forward, the other half commenced destroying the infected, both running over them and cutting them down with the high-powered Blood Shots on the rear of the vehicles.

The way they maneuvered the predators through the lines of infected was amazing. I had no idea a predator could move so quickly. I would have to get a lesson from them after this was over.

Elon led the humans behind us as a sort of a cleanup crew from the wreckage the six power armor suits left in their wake.

Before long, I could see the lightning bolt shaped rock appear above the dense jungle treetops. Legion’s brain was within striking distance now. Only a bit farther.

The distance wasn’t the problem at the moment, but rather the level of damage my power armor suit had taken. Apparently, I was hard on my toys. Half the screen in front of me was blacked out, thanks to some kind of injury sustained to the cameras on the exterior of the suit. My left leg dragged behind me and a shower of sparks cascaded down my vision from where the helmet of the suit sat on top of the chest.

“Keep moving forward!” I yelled as my own suit shut down on me. “He’s desperate now. We’re almost there!”

I opened the hatch on my suit to jump down. Just because I wasn’t piloting a suit anymore didn’t mean I was out of the fight.

Legion must have sensed we were on the verge of overrunning his position because a scream straight out of a nightmare ripped from the collective throats of the infected. With one final push, they came at us in a wave of bodies.


22


Orion Protected

Nightmarish images of the dead missing legs and arms advanced on our position. Early in the fight, the word had been passed down to either attempt headshots or induce so much brain trauma that it was rendered useless.

We didn’t expect to see what Legion did next.

“What’s that?” Elon asked via the earpiece I still wore. “Behind the latest push of infected, others are carrying something black.”

“The spores,” Jezra warned. “They’re the Legion spores. Don’t let them come near you!”

I went down to a knee, grabbing the Judge that rested on my hip. I pulled the trigger in rapid succession, tearing into the newest wave of attackers.

Elon and Jezra were right. In a last-ditch effort to win the battle, Legion was sacrificing the first wave of infected while the second wave ran toward us, carrying armfuls of thick black vegetation that gave off tiny puffs of ebony powder with every step.

I took one infected down with a series of shots to the chest before working my way up to its head. Another I had to spend two missed rounds on before a third found its skull.

“Going to have to work on that aim sooner or later,” Boss Creed said, coming up on my left. He carried a heavy blaster and unloaded on a group of infected sprinting at us with arm loads of the black spores.

“Dean,” Ricky said, joining us. He handed me a canister with a hose on the front. “Take it. You’ll need it to kill Legion.”

I knew what the flamethrower was. I nodded, strapping the canister on my back. The hose itself I slung over my shoulder. I was ready to do some damage.

“We have to make a move now!” Stacy shouted over the comm. “Legion’s raising the dead!”

All around the battlefield, reports started flooding in through the channel. Legion’s tactic wasn’t only to infect the living but to infect our own dead to rise and fight on his side.

Humans and Remboshi were being brought back via the virus to fight for Legion once more.

To my left, a Rung power armor unit went down under a volley of rocket fire. Another stumbled and fell, only to be swarmed by dozens of infected carrying the spores. They shook the plant, trying to get it into the power armor unit’s cracks and crevices and infect the pilot inside.

“No! Sulk!” Dama screamed as the power armored suit went down like a larger insect under a swarm of ants. “Sulk!”

“Keep fighting!” Sulk said as though he was being strangled from inside his suit. “Never give up! Never—”

Sulk’s voice disappeared. It didn’t take a mind reader to figure out what had happened to him.

“We have to do something now.” Jezra’s voice was calm and clear amidst a cacophony of screaming panic. “Dean, it’s time.”

I had no idea what the crazy old bat was talking about. I had given it my best shot and I wasn’t going to give up, but the way she worded it was like I was supposed to know what she meant.

“Yeah, that’s not really helpful right now,” I said. “If you have a plan or something that will get us through Legion and to the brain plant, I’m all ears.”

A predator skidded toward us so fast, Ricky had to jump out of the way or turn into a speed bump.

Jezra was behind the wheel. She popped off her white helmet and gave us a rueful grin. I waited for her words of wisdom, hoping they weren’t couched in mystical terms that held ambiguous meaning. I was really not in the mood for riddles.

“It’s time to make the final assault on Legion,” she said as if she were telling me we should go for a walk or sit and have a nice cup of tea. I couldn’t argue that the words weren’t simple enough, though.

Screams and the sounds of wounded and dying around her didn’t seem to faze her a bit. The smell of charred flesh and the acrid odor of so many weapons discharging didn’t affect her at all. Her face was smooth and serene, and her body poised and relaxed.

Despite the madness in her calm, there was an intensity in her eyes that couldn’t be denied.

“You told me the Orion would fall again,” I said, remembering her prophecy. “Will it?”

“I told you what you needed to know at the time,” Jezra said, patting the seat beside her. “Are you coming or not?”

Boss Creed didn’t hesitate. He jumped on the back of the predator, manning the Blood Shot. Ricky went next, hopping into the passenger side seat and pressing the earpiece in his right ear.

“We’re about to do something crazy here. Anyone still able, cut a path for us to the lightning rock. We’re going to end this,” Ricky shouted.

Ricky scooted over just enough for me to be able to hang off the side of the predator.

Jezra slammed on the gas as Stacy, Elon, Dama, and the others still in the fight coordinated, covering our assault.

The predators still running swept in from the west. There seemed to be far too few of them still in working condition. Smoke fumed from their engines, and a few were even missing tires.

Stacy and Dama, along with the third suit that was still working, sprinted in front of us, creating a funnel in which to follow.

Boss Creed, Ricky, and I fired like wild men at whatever we could hit. In front of us, the jungle began to clear. Trees and bushes that were once vibrant green before now turned ashen and black. Spores permeated the air and appeared on every blade of grass, flower, and tree.

It was only then I realized Ricky and Boss Creed weren’t wearing anything that could filter out the spores.

“Jezra, stop!” I shouted. “Let them out. They aren’t wearing—”

The predator’s left tire blew out in a shower of hard rubber. The vehicle went end over end through the air. I saw ground, sky, and then ground again as I came crashing down.

The wind was forced out of my lungs. Pain exploded in my back and neck. I thought I had broken something, bruised something for sure. My armor kept the worst of the injury at bay, but it still didn’t feel good.

I blinked, trying to focus and understand where I had landed. The predator was on its side, a fire already burning its belly. I couldn’t see Jezra, Ricky, or Boss Creed, but I could see the remaining three suits, including Stacy’s fighting the few infected that had stayed this far back.

Out of nowhere, a spray of weapons fire cut through one of the three remaining power armor units.

“What was tha—” Dama never got a chance to finish her sentence.

A Rung’s unit covered in black spores with its center piece hanging open charged into the battle, slamming into Dama’s power armor unit. With a herculean crash, it sent them both into the jungle floor.

I only got a brief look at the Rung that piloted the unit. I couldn’t make out Sulk’s exact face, but it was clear he was infected.

“Go!” Stacy screamed, looking at me from her war-battered unit. “I’ll help Dama. Go!”

I jumped to my feet, only realizing now where I was. The predator had thrown me to the very base of the lightning rock formation. I stood in a field of the dense foliage covered in black spores. A hill shielded in the stuff rose behind me where the lightning bolt rock formation stood.

I was finally here. I had made it. I reached behind me for the flamethrower strapped to my back, only it wasn’t there anymore.

I looked around, panicked, searching for the weapon I so desperately needed to end Legion’s reign here on Genesis. I fell to my knees, groping through the dense black foliage.

Black spores puffed into the air as if they were reaching for my face. My helmet’s filtration system kept them at bay for the time being. Still, I didn’t want to rely on that longer than I had to. I rose to my feet, putting distance between the spores and my face.

What are you going to do now, Dean? I asked myself. What are you going to do now?

“Looking for this?”

I turned my head to where I heard the familiar voice. Legion, still using Captain Ezra Harold’s body, on which the head was now mysteriously reattached, stood on the peak of the hill right beside the lightning stone.

In his right hand, he held up the flamethrower.

I knew it was a trap. Somewhere in my head, I knew Legion was smarter than to take me on in a one-on-one battle. He knew my capabilities as a fighter. Still, what other option did I have?

I slowly ascended the hill toward Legion. With each step, I kicked up a puff of black spores. It was only as I traveled higher and higher that my vantage point became better and I understood.

I saw exactly how much of the jungle was covered in the blanket of blackness. It made my stomach churn. In all directions from the rock formation, the jungle was ebony for about a kilometer or more.

We now stood at the base of the stone in the blackest part of the jungle.

Legion held a sardonic smile on his lips as I approached. He waved at the ruined foliage with his free hand.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” he asked, taking in the black spores infecting the area around us. “To think it ends here now where I chose to sleep in hibernation so many years before.”

I was close now. No more than a few meters away. I could spring on him, take him out, and regain the flamethrower.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Legion said with a wave of his finger. “I recognize that look. You’re thinking you want to kill this body right now and grab your flamethrower. I would suggest you look behind you and rethink that strategy.”

I exhaled slowly, hating myself for having to do it, but turning nonetheless.

My mouth went dry.

Boss Creed and Ricky stood at the base of the hill knee deep in the tainted foliage of the jungle. Each one of them looked up at me through black eyes. Black liquid oozed out of their mouths, noses, and ears.

As one, they reached for the base of their own skulls, ready to snap them at a moment’s notice.

“No, wait,” I said, lifting a hand. “Just wait, just wait a minute.”

“Is that all you have, Chosen One?” Legion cackled. “‘Just wait’? You’re going to have to do better than that. Frankly, I’m disappointed. You must be disappointed in yourself at this point. I expected so much more.”

“Let them go,” I said, tearing my eyes away from Ricky and Boss Creed. I knew my words were a waste, but I needed time to think. “What do you want? You want to infect me? Is that it? I’ll take off my helmet and you can have me, but please don’t kill them.”

“Interesting offer, but what’s to keep me from killing them once I have you?” Legion cocked his head to the side in thought. “You must see the failed logic in your request. No matter. On your knees, Chosen One.”

I slumped down slowly and resignedly, still trying to buy time to think. Maybe I could grab the flamethrower and take Legion out, but not before he ordered Ricky and Boss Creed to snap their own necks. I couldn’t do that to my friends, especially if there was a way this virus could possibly be reversed.

Think, Dean, think, I thought, unable to come up with a solution. There’s a way out of this. There’s always a way out.

“Now take off your helmet and breathe,” Legion said with a look that said he had already won. “Breathe deeply, Dean. When I have you, you will be my new mouthpiece. You can rest assured that even in your death, you will serve a purpose.”

I lifted my hands to the clamps on the underside of my helmet.


23


Orion Protected

“Just Dean.” Jezra’s voice came through my helmet’s comms so quietly, I almost thought it was my imagination. “Get ready.”

I hesitated.

Legion caught my hesitation and looked around, alarmed.

“Now!” Jezra screamed, this time not through my comms but from somewhere behind me.

I twisted around in time to see her spring from the foliage behind Ricky and Boss Creed. Somehow, she had wormed her way unseen through the thick brush infected by Legion.

She slammed a heavy stick against the side of Boss Creed’s jaw, knocking him out cold, then turned to Ricky to do the same.

As much as I wanted to sit there and see if she succeeded in stopping Ricky, I knew my time was short. Jezra had given me the opportunity I’d needed to get back into the fight and I couldn’t waste it.

I sprang to my feet, launching myself at Legion, who was still trying to get over his shock. I head butted him in the face, grabbing for the flamethrower. We went down together, vying for position on the ground.

Legion released his hold on the flamethrower and went for a knife tucked into his belt. He stabbed upward before I could stop him, sending the blade into the soft spot between my helmet and chest piece.

I should have been dead or at the very least bleeding out. The knife pierced the synth suit I wore under the armor but came to a stop against something hard around my neck.

Legion pressed harder into the medallion on my necklace that I never took off. Not understanding why his attack wasn’t working, frustration took over. Legion screamed in rage. I pointed the flamethrower at his face and point blank pulled the trigger.

Left hand carrying the fuel canister and right hand on the trigger, I moved off him. I burned his body along with the foliage around the base of the lightning stone.

Those infected that still fought our forces screamed in pain. Howls the likes of which I had never heard before rose to the sky above.

I ignored it all. I burned the blackest parts of the tainted shrubbery around me first.

Stacy and Dama, in the last two working suits, joined me a moment later. It seemed they had dispatched the infected power armor suit and were ready to lend a hand with their own flamethrowers.

Together, we burned the virus infected plants at the base of the lightning stone then began to move outward.

There were reports coming in from all over the battlefield that we had won. The infected still fighting slumped to the ground, writhing in pain then falling motionless. The few that had been infected but not killed yet by Legion, like Ricky, Boss Creed, and Arun, were healed, coming back to themselves as the brain of the virus was killed.

More and more of our own entered the spore-filled section of the jungle, lighting it on fire with flamethrowers and incendiary grenades.

Not only cheers rose from the survivors but sobs for those we’d lost. I couldn’t let my mind think about all those who gave their lives for us to have this moment, not yet, not until it was done for good.

We spent the rest of the day going through the jungle, burning anything that remotely resembled a tainted shrub.

Dark smoke touched the sky as large portions of the jungle were lit on fire. Cleanup crews would have to go in tomorrow and the day after and the day after that to make sure Legion was truly gone forever, but what we did that day felt like a start.

“I don’t think the other spores can live without the ones you killed at the base,” Dama said, joining my side as I worked on turning another black bush into ash. “He’s dead. You killed the brain where he first went into hiding. The rest will die on their own.”

“Yeah, well, you never can be too careful, right?” I said, pumping more flames into the brush. It was a liberating and cleansing feeling to burn them. I felt like I could never stop, that we might never be clean from the virus.

“Dean!” It was Ricky, shouting at me as he came to me at a dead run. His lip was split from where Jezra had knocked him out. Despite that, he had the dopiest grin on his face. “Arun, she’s okay. She’s healed.”

I took off my own helmet, letting the bucket rest by my side. Sweat dropped from my face. Although I was beyond tired, I managed a smile.

“I’m happy for you, buddy. You should go see her,” I said. “Go. We can manage here.”

Ricky wrapped me in a hug, trying to hide his tears, but I saw them anyway. He released me without a word and ran off toward the Orion. I hoped he had a future with Arun. It seemed so, but we could talk about it later, or whenever he wanted.

“You’re bleeding on your neck there,” Stacy said, coming toward me in her suit. She opened the center chest door and jumped down. “Are you hurt?”

I reached up to my neck where Legion had tried his last attempt at taking my life. My fingers came back sticky with blood. It was barely a scratch. I reached into the armor over my chest and pulled out the medallion that hung around my neck.

It felt like a lifetime ago that my wife had given the token to me. It had saved my life more than once, I thought. For all of its wear and tear, there was not a mark on it. For one of the few times I could remember, I thought about my wife, my first love, with a smile and a heart not full of anger but gratefulness. Grateful for the time I got to spend with her, the gift she had given me, and the place I was now, which would not have been possible without her brief presence in my life.

“You okay?” Stacy asked, lifting an eyebrow in question. “You sure Legion didn’t hit you in the head or something?”

“I’m fine,” I said, looking around at familiar faces who began to gather. Elon, Tong, John, Boss Creed, Jezra, they were all there. We were all tired and dead on our feet but not broken. We were victorious.

“You did it,” Jezra said. “You fulfilled the prophecy, Chosen One.”

“We did it,” I said, looking between Dama’s power armor suit and Jezra. “And maybe we accomplished more than just killing Legion today.”

“I think so,” Dama said, opening her power unit and stepping to the ground below. She extended a hand to Jezra. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think we can build on what was done here.”

“I agree,” Jezra said, accepting her hand with a smile.

“I think we could all use a break.” Dama released Jezra’s hand and wiped a forearm across her sweaty brow. “My people are on their way, trekking through a mountain pass. Our craft was doing runs there, carrying them the rest of the way back and forth. Since the battle has been won, I told them we needed warriors ready to help rather than more power armor units. They should be here soon.”

“Thank you,” Tong said with large mesmerized eyes. “Thank you for holding true to your word.”

“Of course,” Dama said with a smile. “They will bring supplies and aid with the dead on both sides of the confrontation.”

I hadn’t thought about that. I knew there would be our own dead to bury, but I didn’t think about what it meant to bury those infected by Legion. Since we killed him, those who had been infected and were already dead carried no trace of the sinister virus.

Human, Rung, Remboshi, and alien animals alike were dead. Any sign of the virus had seeped out of their orifices to the jungle floor. Legion was gone, and with him any sign he had existed in his hosts.

As much as I wanted to fall down and sleep for a week, the dead had earned their rest first. We aided the Rung and Remboshi in creating great pyres for them. Burning the dead warriors was a tradition that both races still used in wartime conflicts. We used trees and shrubs in the jungle that had already been cut down with the weapons fire. The charred foliage served to help as well as we created the great square pyres.

True to her word, the Rung had come to our aid and sooner than I expected. Not power armor units but rather twenty Rung were dropped off with a range of supplies from water to food and medical stuffs that were badly needed.

How twenty Rung fit in the ship at all was a mystery. They had to be packed in tighter than a human piloting one of their power units.

We ate in shifts, getting rest where we had to and pressing on doggedly where we could. It was somber work. There was some talking but not much. Most of us were lost to his or her own thoughts as we carried the bodies of our comrades.

True, I hadn’t known most of them, but they still meant something to me. We were warriors on the same side of the final confrontation with Legion and that would always mean something to me.

By the time we were done, the suns had set. The giant moon shone high overhead amongst a myriad of twinkling stars. We were all beyond exhausted. But with the help of the Rung and the craft that dropped off another three runs of warriors to help, we did it.

We stood battle weary and near exhausted in the darkness. Stacy was on my right, along with Elon and Arun, the latter having insisted she was better once the Legion virus left her. She still looked weak, but Ricky stood on her other side, ready to support her if needed.

Dama, Tong, and Jezra were on my left with Boss Creed and John. Mutt came up beside me, nuzzling my hand for his scratches. No matter how tired I was, I could still manage a few pets for him.

The Rung passed out torches, enough to light the many pyres in front of us.

“The events that have taken place on Genesis are ones I wish none of us had to live through,” Jezra said, taking a step forward. “But live through them we have, and I would submit to you that we are better for it. Mistakes have been made in the past, mistakes that we will be doomed to repeat if we do not learn and grow. Grow not only on our own but together, Remboshi, Rung, and human alike. Moving forward, let us show kindness and caring toward all living things, not just those that are most like us, but those who look for acceptance and love. We, the Remboshi, officially greet our new friends, the humans who have landed here on our planet, and our old friends, the Rung, with whom we are now reunited.”

Jezra motioned with an open hand to Dama, who also walked forward with torch in hand.

“Let us always remember this day and those who sacrificed everything so we might have a tomorrow,” Dama said in a loud voice. “Legion is gone, but the shadow he casts will forever be on us unless we stand together. Those who gave their lives today demand that we are better in the future. We owe them that much. From this day on, we honor our dead who have fought so furiously against our common enemy by forming a new alliance with our newfound friends and those with whom we are reconciled.”

Dama and Jezra looked over to me.

I didn’t expect to have to say anything. I was given a torch, but I had imagined it was only to light a pyre, not to speak. I also didn’t think I would be the one to talk for the humans. I thought perhaps Elon would have that job. He was much more eloquent than I was.

Stacy nudged me forward.

I walked to join Dama and Jezra in front of everyone, thinking about what I should say but not feeling I had something worthy enough for the moment.

My hand instinctively went to the medallion on my throat. The same one that had saved my life hours before.

“I don’t know if the perfect words exist for this moment,” I said out loud. My mind ran over the many people we’d lost and Lou once more. “But a friend would say that we are right where we are supposed to be. We can’t change the past, but we can decide the future. Let’s make decisions now that honor the many that fell here today. Let’s also remember those from the planet Earth that we have left behind in our previous lives, both dead and alive, and those fallen friends that did not survive our landing on our new home, Genesis.”

A pause of silence ensued, then all those carrying torches slowly walked over to the pyres and pressed the burning flames into the brush. Crackling flames began to spread, slowly raising smoke to the open sky above. We stepped back in a moment of silence, remembering those who were gone, those we would never see again.

“You okay?” Stacy asked as I took my place beside her. She slipped her hand into my own. It felt comforting and right, and it was something I wanted to keep doing for a long time.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to her while I squeezed her hand. “Yeah I think I am.”

“We’ll be okay,” Stacy said with resolve. “There’s a mountain of work to do in front of us, but we’ll be okay.”


24


Orion Protected

“You look good,” I told Arun the next day. There hadn’t been a lot of time for chit chat after the ceremony. We’d all been dead on our feet. I had enough in me for a quick shower and then I fell into a coma. Now we were gathered in Arun’s tent for a meeting.

Arun smiled up at me, her bright blue eyes back to their normal color. She was a bit thinner and weaker than she had been before the Legion virus entered her body, but that was nothing a few weeks of regular food and rest couldn’t fix. I was so relieved to see her up and around and looking at peace and well-rested.

We stood in the tent with Ricky and Elon as more city leaders, as well as Jezra, Tong, and Dama, entered. We all gazed at each other, smiling for a few moments. There were no words to say right away.

“Thank you,” Arun said with a genuine smile. “Thank you for everything.”

“I don’t know if I had a choice,” I said, pointing to Jezra with a thumb. “She kind of put the title of Chosen One on me without consulting me first.”

“You always had a choice,” Jezra reminded me with a roll of her eyes. “You chose to take a stand. However, I’m very glad that you did.”

“I had a choice in all of this?” I asked incredulously. “It sure didn’t seem that way when you were in the middle of explaining the prophecy. It sounded more like a ‘you broke it and now you’re buying it’ kind of deal.”

“I am unfamiliar with this rule of breaking and buying,” Jezra said, scratching the bottom of her chin. Her eyes twinkled. “But you were the right human for the job, of that I am certain.”

“No denying that,” Ricky said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Legion chose the wrong humans to mess with.”

Nods of agreement were traded around the room before Elon took the reins of the meeting in hand. It was my hope that he was taking over leadership permanently, along with Arun when she was back to one hundred percent, and that my duties as the Chosen One were at an end. I liked staying in the background, coming to the front if it was life and death, but I was definitely not a leader type of guy.

“I’m sure you all have a list of duties you must attend to, so I’ll try and make this meeting as short as possible,” Elon began. “Our wounded should be cared for first and foremost, and a new way of life established for our three communities to coexist. After this is set up, I’d like to form a coalition of our three races. The future is bright if we stand together.”

“Agreed,” Dama said. “My people will offer any aid they can while we move back to the surface.”

“Likewise, I have spoken to our greater counsel and the Remboshi are eager to move toward peace,” Jezra added. “The gestures of the Rung offering aid and relief have been exactly what they needed to bury past hurts and look toward working side by side.”

Smiles and nods were received by all those in the tent as we all reflected on how we’d gotten to this point in time and the work that was still to be done.

“Once this is all done,” I said, clearing my throat. “I mean, once we’re back on our feet, can I request from the Rung that we are able to look at their craft? I believe that with our combined knowledge, we might be able to get that ship flying in space.”

“Eager to leave us so soon?” Tong asked, disappointed.

“Who said anything about leaving you?” I asked him. “Why don’t you come with us?”

Tong’s eyes brightened at the possibility of exploring other worlds, but I thought that some of that was his enjoyment of being with his new friends. I had developed a fondness for him as well.

“Any knowledge we possess is yours,” Dama agreed. “With the three of our combined resources, I do believe this will usher in a new era of science and technology that will bring our planet on the cutting edge.”

The tent erupted in several more, smaller conversations as details were laid out and plans were set in motion. The Rung and Remboshi would both be departing soon to set in place their own communities now that Legion was no more.

I wasn’t needed at the moment, and to be honest, I could use a break. I also had other “business” to attend to. I walked outside the tent, feeling the suns’ warm rays against my face.

“Come on,” Stacy said, taking my hand and pulling me along with her. She led me to the wall and up the steel steps. I didn’t complain. Why would I? Life was starting to come together, to have more meaning than it did when I was the “Chosen One.” Now, my big concern was being the chosen one of the woman next to me, as corny as that might sound.

We moved along the wall to the spot over the front gates, gazing off into the clear blue sky. It was beautiful here in a way I had never appreciated before. The suns were brilliant in the sky, casting shadows in two different directions as one sun was slightly behind the other in rising and setting. There were two shadows of each of us of different sizes, the big ones and the smaller ones clasping hands in the middle.

“You really think we can get off this rock?” Stacy asked now, turning and taking both my hands in hers. “I mean, you think there’s really a chance we can get back to Earth?”

“We won’t know unless we try,” I said, leaning toward her. Stacy was always beautiful, but the way the sunlight caught her hair now practically lit it ablaze with beauty. I pressed my lips against hers and gave myself away to the lightheaded feeling of euphoric joy that I was feeling.

I didn’t want to let her go, but I knew we had time together now—plenty of time to walk in the sun with her, to explore this world and others.

Stacy didn’t move to end the kiss either.

When it did end, I opened my eyes. Stacy’s were just opening, a silly grin on her lips.

“I was wondering if you were going to do that,” Stacy said, biting her lower lip. “I guess the cat’s out of the bag now. We’re officially official.”

“I guess so,” I said with a heavy sigh as I teased her. “I should warn you, I’m not great with people. I’m kind of a hothead, and there was this prophecy about me.”

“Just shut up and kiss me again,” Stacy said with a laugh as she pulled me in close.

For the second time that day, I didn’t pull away.


Epilogue Five Years Later


Orion Protected

Years of dedicated hard work had been put into the launch. After dozens of failures, we had managed to launch unmanned ships into space. Now, for the first time, we had achieved a manned launch. It was both exciting and frightening at the same time.

I stood looking out of the front window of the ship in awe. The stars around Genesis twinkled brightly, reminding me of the view from earth.

I looked back down at the tiny oval-shaped planet. What had been my prison at first now seemed like home. We had made it such through our trials and tribulations, joys and successes. It had been a journey unlike any other that any of us had ever experienced. In the last five years, there had been hardship and not everyone had adapted well to the life as we learned a new way of living. We had lost a few colonists to natural causes and some not, but in true circle of life tradition, we had several new colonists to celebrate, including one born to Stacy and me.

I sat in the captain’s chair in silence with the rest of my crew.

“We did it,” Dama said breathlessly to my left. “Five years in the making, and we did it.”

“I can’t believe we have a way back home,” Elon said to my right. “I mean, we’re still years away from being able to travel in space and we don’t even know where Earth is, but this is a huge first step.”

“Truly remarkable,” Iris chimed in. The Cognitive stood beside me with her hands clasped behind her back.

“How is everything up there?” Stacy’s voice asked over the comm unit. “Laren asked you to take pictures, remember?”

“Oh, I remember,” I said, taking the battered micro camera out of my pocket. It was a miracle the camera had survived the Orion crash and another miracle still my daughter had found it. “You can tell our daughter that Daddy’s taking all the pictures she could ever want.”

“I never dreamed we would achieve this, not when we were warring with our sisters and brothers,” Tong said from his station behind me. “Six more years. I think we can achieve actual travel in space in just six more years.”

The five of us sat quietly on the bridge of the Orion II a moment longer. My brain was working on overdrive. We had done it. Against all odds, we had succeeded. My hand instinctively went to the medallion around my throat.

The Rung and the Remboshi were at peace. Legion seemed like some kind of made-up story you would tell around campfires. My family waited for me back on Genesis and now space travel was within our grasp.

For the first time in a long time, all was well, and I felt at peace.

Orion Protected

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Books in the Renegade Star Universe

Renegade Star Series: 

Renegade Star

Renegade Atlas

Renegade Moon

Renegade Lost

Renegade Fleet

Renegade Earth

Renegade Dawn

Renegade Children

Renegade Union

Renegade Empire (Out Now)

Renegade Descent (June 2019)

Renegade Rising (July 2019)

Renegade Star Prequel Series: 

Nameless

The Constable

The Constable Returns

Warrior Queen (June 2019)

The Last Reaper Series: 

The Last Reaper

Fear the Reaper

Blade of the Reaper (Out now!)

Wings of the Reaper (July 2019)

The Orion Colony Series: 

Orion Colony

Orion Uncharted

Orion Awakened

Orion Protected (June 2019)

The Fifth Column Series: 

The Fifth Column

The Fifth Column: The Solaras Initiative (June 2019)


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J. N. Chaney has a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing and fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.

Orion Protected

Jonathan Yanez is the author of over 30 books. He has worked as a personal trainer, model, and life coach, not to mention a wide array of other professions. When he’s not writing, you can find him online at https://www.jonathan-yanez.com/


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