Book: Shadows of Neverland
Shadows of Neverland
Book Three of the Second Star Series
© Copyright 2017 by Josh Hayes
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for brief quotations in reviews, without written permission from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Editing by Scarlett Algee
For more information on the author visit: http://www.joshhayeswriter.com/
For those fighting their past to save their future.
Also By Josh Hayes
SECOND STAR SERIES
The Forgotten Prince
Shadows of Neverland
The Lost Colony (Explorations: Through the Wormhole)
Harbinger (Explorations: First Contact)
The Path to War (Explorations: War)
The Long Haul (Mostly Murder: Till Death)
Hero Worship (It's A Bird! It's a Plane)
Leverage (For a Few Credits More)
"That's eleven," Bella said, as the Regency patrol passed overhead for the eleventh time since Tom had been taken. Without her watch, she couldn't be sure that her method of tracking time was accurate, but it was the only thing she had, and it was better than nothing. She watched the two assault skiffs arc around and disappear behind the warship's tall bridge section.
They'd kept him longer than usual this time.
Lighting flashed in the clouds around them and Bella shivered as a deep rumbling rolled around them. It had been raining for three days straight, the drenching sheets pounding incessantly on the roof of her cage. The wind wasn't blowing today, and for the time being, at least, the rain wasn't blowing in horizontally at her. They'd taken most of her things when they'd brought her aboard, and during the last three days she'd begun to realize just how much she missed her coat.
Bella rubbed her hands together, blowing on them for the hundredth time. Not that it made any difference. The air up here was always cool, especially with no sun to warm it.
She walked back and forth along the grey metal bars. She'd been sitting for too long today, and her legs were starting to get stiff again.
She'd spent much of the first day testing the bars for weaknesses, but finding none. She'd worked through several hypothetically escape plans with Tom before he'd had enough.
"Look," he'd said. "I think it's great that you're keeping your mind occupied, but there isn't any way off this damn ship, B. And even if there was, where would we go?"
Bella had straightened, surprised by her brother's defeated tone. He wasn't the most endearing person in the best of circumstances, but it hadn't even been a full day and it had seemed like he'd already given up. "So, you're done already? Just like that?"
Tom had rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and leaned back against the bars. He seemed to forget exactly where they were, though, and cracked his head on one. He grimaced, rubbing the back of his skull. "For Graft's sake."
Bella bit her lip, holding back a laugh.
Her brother glared at her. "No, not just like that. But face it, there isn't a whole lot we can do here." He motioned to the bars around them. "In case you haven't noticed, we're kind of in a big inescapable cage."
"Nothing is inescapable."
"No, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to give up. Neither should you. We're going to get out of this, we just have to put our heads together and figure out how."
"Okay, sis, you figure out how and I'll back you up. But until then, my head is killing me, so could you keep it down just a little bi—ow!" He shifted his weight and grabbed his bandaged leg. "Sure am glad they took the time to fix me up before locking us up on death row."
"At least they could fix you up."
Carter hadn't been so lucky, and Bella had to fight back the tears at the thought of her friend lying dead in that damned plaza. If they'd just listened to Wendy in the first place…
No, she couldn't think like that. They had freed some Dusters in that attack, after all, and killed a handful of Regency soldiers. But even when she tallied the score like that, it didn't seem to be worth the loss of her friend. The troops hadn't even bothered to bring his body with them. They just left him lying there. The first thing she was going to do, when they got free of this place, was find Carter and give him a decent burial. Like the one they'd had for Ace.
Lightning flashed again, bringing her back to the bars. What she wouldn't give for her tribarrel right about now. These bars would be nothing but slag, and so would everyone else on board this damn ship. The Revenge, such an apt name, she thought. When she and her brother finally got theirs, then the name would mean something.
She'd only seen the warship a handful of times since it had emerged from the Graft Fortress so long ago. Although now, looking at it, it didn't seem as menacing as it had all those years ago. Maybe that was because from her holding area on the open main deck, she couldn't see the massive twin-barreled cannons positioned around the vessel's hull. The large sun-sails, on either side of the ship, had been retracted due to the storm. The golden steel pillars stuck straight up almost a hundred feet, just aft of her cage.
Of course, the Battle for the Revenge had been a tragedy for both sides, and the Lost Boys, and for the clan that would become the Regency. Bella couldn't help but wonder how the war would have progressed had the warship remained hidden. Not a day passed that she didn't wish they could go back to a time when none of them even had a clue this thing existed.
Well, some had, but Bella didn't think the Redleen counted; even now they were more myth than anything else. And besides, what had they done since? Absolutely nothing. Gone, like Ace and so many others. If she hadn't met them for herself, she wouldn't have believed the stories either.
"If you ever were going to come back, though," Bella said aloud to no one, fingers twisting around the wet bars, "this would be a damn good time."
No one came.
A close on the quarterdeck slammed shut and a crewman bounded down the short set of stairs to the main deck, his black raincoat billowing out behind him.
"Hey!" Bella called out as he jogged past. "Hey, asshole, you got any more of those things lying around? It's the least you could do if you're going to keep us pinned up like this for the duration of this thing."
The crewmen eyed her briefly as he past, but otherwise ignored her, just as they always did. He disappeared through an access hatch just before he reached the elevated bow, and pulled the hatch lid closed behind him.
"You know what, never mind, it's really not that bad out here now that I think about it. Maybe a nice pale and some bacon? No? Hello? I won't be recommending this place to my friends!"
Bella slapped the bars and grunted. "Bastard."
She looked up at the sound of skiff engines flaring. She couldn't see it yet, but she knew it was there. Twelve. Almost twice as long as usual. For the first time since they'd taken him away the first time, she began to truly worry.
Tom had always been the strongest of the three siblings, but not by much, and Bella would never have told him so. He'd returned from his first session slightly bruised, and despite the trickle of blood coming from his right eye and the bandaged leg, he'd looked as defiant as ever. From there on, however, the interrogations had grown increasingly worse.
He never let them take him without a fight, although when they'd taken him this morning, he'd attacked with a mild tongue lashing. His sessions over the last couple of days had begun to take their toll on him.
They hadn't asked him anything during the first few sessions; however, as time passed, they began to ask him questions about the resistance. Questions he'd avoided answering, at least so far. Bella wasn't sure how long he'd be able to hold out.
On the aft bulkhead, just beside the stairway to the mid-deck, another hatch opened and a crewman emerged, giving the rain a frown. He flipped a hood up over his head and pulled his captive out behind him.
"Come on," he said. "Let's try not to get soaked this time."
Bella moved down along the bars, moving closer to the door. She gasped as Tom stumbled out of the hatchway, tripping and almost falling. The lead crewman caught him however, and held him up.
"On your feet, damn it!" the crewman said, jerking Tom along. "Let's go, move it. Get the door, Morris."
A second crewman emerged behind Tom and rushed around the two, flipping through a set of keys, trying to find the correct one. As he neared the cage, he noticed Bella and immediately reached for his gun. "Get back from the bars, you know the rules."
The rules, Bella thought, removing her hand from the wet bars and taking a step back. I'll show you rules.
For a brief instant, she imagined herself darting through the unlocked cage door, snatching the man's pistol and killing them both, before helping Tom and escaping. But the idea faded quickly. Tom was right; even if she made it that far, where else would she be able to go?
The second crewman moved to the door, weary eyes never leaving Bella's. He looked briefly at the lock, finding and inserting the key, then he was back to her as he turned the key. Her body tensed as the he pulled the door open, but she held steady. The first crewman hauled Tom to the threshold, then tossed him inside as the second closed and locked the door again.
"I'm going to kill both of you," Bella told them, fist clenched. "Just so you know."
The second crewman, the one called Morris, laughed and slapped one of the metal bars between them. "You can tell we're extremely worried about that. I hope talking isn't the only thing you can do with those lips, sweetie. 'Cause we're going to have a good time later."
"Come on," the first one said, turning away. "This rain is killing me."
Morris stood, grinning, hair slicked against his head and water streaming down his face. He blew her a kiss and curled his lip, his cold eyes giving Bella an unconscious chill.
Morris gave his companion a look of disgust, then took a step toward the bars and whispered, "You and I are going to get to know each other very soon."
Bella held her ground. "Can't wait."
He gave her a wink, then dashed after the first, disappearing through the hatch before it slammed shut with a resounding clang.
As soon as the hatch was shut, Bella moved to her brother. "Tom," she said, touching him gently. The bandages around his wounded leg were starting to turn red. "Tom, are you okay?"
He coughed, then let out a weak groan.
"Graft-damned bastards got me good this time," Tom grunted. He grimaced, attempting to sit up.
Bella helped him. "Here, I got you. Easy. Oh my God. Tom…"
"I'm sure I feel worse than it looks."
"I doubt that," Bella said, shaking her head.
Both of his eyes were practically swollen shut. What had once been a trickle from his right eye was now bleeding profusely. She reached up and tried to wipe some of the blood away, and noticed more seeping from his ear. His lip was split and after coughing, he spit a glop of blood onto the cage floor.
"Bastards," Bella said. Tears welled as her brother sobbed. She wrapped her arms around him and held tight. "It's going to be okay, Tom. I promise."
He sobbed harder and she felt him pull away. She released him and frowned when she saw his face. He wasn't crying at all. He was laughing.
She stared at him dumbstruck for a moment. "Tom, what?"
His shoulders shook, but he grimaced as his laughter turned into coughing. He sniffed and looked up at her, a grin spread across his battered and bruised face.
"They don't know where Wendy is, and they're pissed about it."
"Okay," Tim said after checking the edges of the patch. "Hold it there."
"Got it," John McNeal said, pushing hard against the steel plate. Sweat stung his eyes, and he wiped them for the hundredth time. He'd spent his entire life flying fighter planes, but had never actually worked on them. He'd been a First Lieutenant in the North American Union—until finding himself in this strange world, that is— and the enlisted maintenance crews of the NAU had been more than capable of accomplishing those tasks. If he ever made it back there, he intended on putting them all in for a raise.
He looked away as Tim brushed his mess of blond hair aside and pulled a pair of blackout goggles down over his eyes. The heat of the torch made John wince as the flame popped to life. He couldn't keep images of charred steak and rotisserie chicken out of his mind.
A shower of sparks pelted his arm as Tim worked the torch around the patch. John was sure that by the end of their repairs he'd be completely hairless. It only took a minute for Tim to complete the weld, then the shorter of the two men stepped back, admiring his work.
"You're good," Tim said. There was another pop as he extinguished the torch.
John pulled his arm back, absently running a hand over the singed hairs. "How many did you say we have left?"
Tim lifted the goggles to his forehead, one eyebrow raised. "Hey, you're the one that got her all shot up, remember? You're lucky I'm not making you patch all those holes yourself."
John covered his heart with both hands, eyes wide. "Me? I'm pretty sure if it hadn't been for me, this baby would've had more than just a few holes. You should be thanking me." He patted the skiff's gunmetal-grey fuselage.
"Thanking you?" Tim motioned to the remaining holes, still waiting to be patched. "We're lucky she didn't fall right out of the sky getting us here."
"Ah." John raised a finger. "But she did get us here."
"Unbelievable," Tim said, shaking his head.
Michael ducked underneath the skiff's tail and came up behind John. "You guys are still patching?"
John turned to Tim, eyebrows raised. "See?"
Tim tossed the torch into the bin at his feet and threw his arms up in surrender. "There's no talking to this guy at all."
Michael grinned. "I say something?"
"Oh, Tim is just a little upset about the condition of his precious aircraft. Which, I might add, I kept from being turned into a pile of slag."
Tim laughed. "Yeah, because this is much better."
"Well, he's got a point, Tim," Michael said. "He did manage to get it here in one piece."
"That is not one piece," Tim said, pointing to a row of holes in the fuselage still waiting to be patched over. He bent down to go through one of the crates just outside the skiff's cabin and began flipping through its contents. Without looking up, he said, "I can tell it's not in one piece, because I specifically remember packing enough repair crates for three skiffs, but we're down to our last box and we're only on the first skiff."
Skiffs Two and Three were parked along the same piece of land separating the lagoon to the west and the open sea to the east, their silhouettes just visible in the orange glow of the setting sun. Both were in better condition than the one they'd spent the better half of the afternoon repairing, and about halfway through John couldn't help but wonder if the repairs might not have been a waste of time. He kept silent, however, knowing it was far better to have Tim finally up and working than the alternative.
Fortunately, finding something for Tim to focus on other than his missing siblings had been the right move. But it had taken John six days to convince Tim that he needed serious help with the repairs and even after that, the pilot had remained silent. Tim had finally started talking two days ago, but his speech had been short and clipped. Over the last several days, however, the work had breathed new life back into the man and he seemed, to John at least, to be slowly returning to his normal self.
Skiff Two had been the last to arrive, bringing the last group of survivors, and with them news of Carter's death. The core group had taken the news hard, but the fact that no one had found any trace of Bella and Tom had given Tim some hope. That meant that they might still be alive, and if they were alive, that meant there was still a chance the Lost Boys could save them.
John looked up at the brilliant orange moon through the wide leaves of the jungle canopy above. The face of Neverland's smaller moon, Picinne, bore no scars or craters like that of the Earth's moon. Its smooth face reflected Nevaris's sunlight like a mirror, almost becoming a smaller, dimmer sun itself. Had circumstances been different, this would have been a beautiful little vacation spot. Of course, the whole "fighting for your life" bit hampered those daydreams.
They'd set up camp inside a large cavern, cut out of the rock face on the back side of the lagoon. It wasn't quite large enough to sleep all thirty of the survivors comfortably, but it had kept them all dry during the week of rain that had followed their escape from the city. Actually, the whole experience brought him back to his childhood and camping with his family. His parents had taken him and his sister camping, something the children had been bugging mom and dad all summer about, and the first night there it rained. And if wasn't just a little bit of rain, it was a lot of rain. In fact, that year set a record for rainfall in the county. They'd had to strike their tents and pack their gear in the middle of the night, all while battling torrential rains. John's father's decision to "wait out the storm" in the car, while the rest of the family packed, was still a hot topic to this day.
John pulled his gloves off and ran a hand over his stubbly beard. Up until arriving in Neverland, he'd shaved every day of his adult life, and not feeling a smooth jawline was…different. It wasn't bad, it was just different. That, and he kept waiting for his old flight school instructor to jump out of the bushes somewhere and chew his ass for failing to maintain proper military bearing and discipline.
Tim finished counting and stood, pressing his hands into the small of his back. "We're going to need to find some more patches."
"You know," Michael said, "now that he's started working again, he isn't going to stop."
John tossed his gloves into the skiff's rear cabin and said, "I'm kind of getting that feeling."
"No," Tim said, "I'm done for the night. I'm spent."
"Good, cause I'm done smelling my own hair burning off. What's for dinner tonight?"
Michael grimaced. "Nickels is cooking fish again."
John and Tim shared a groan. The kid truly did try, but he wasn't anywhere near the same league as Tubbs, who'd been the Lost Boys' cook since the group's inception.
Tim pulled off his blackout goggles, tossing them into the skiff's passenger cabin. "I'm not sure you can classify what he does as cooking, exactly."
"Damn, man, easy. He might hear you," Michael said, holding a finger to his lips and checking behind him.
John leaned closer to Michael and said, "He's right, you know."
"I know he's right, but it's better than eating the survival packets we brought. Those are like eating flavored powder."
Dinner hadn't been terrible that night. At least the fish hadn't been charred to the bone. It was still a little too salty for John's taste, but he ate it knowing he probably couldn't have done much better. His specialty in the kitchen was macaroni and cheese, the box kind.
With the rain finally taking a break, several campfires had sprung up around their little getaway, surrounded by the survivors sharing stories and trying to keep the others' spirits alive. Wendy's daily meetings helped a lot, but John knew the longer they stayed dormant here, the less likely any of them would want to get back into the fight, especially after the losses they'd suffered during Hook's surprise attack.
Marb had spent most of his time questioning the survivors, looking for any clue to how the Regency had tracked them down, but so far he'd come up empty. The most likely culprit was a traitor, but none of them wanted to believe that one of their own would betray them. They'd all sacrificed so much for their cause, the thought of someone turning their backs on all of that just didn't seem possible.
Most of what remained of the core leadership all ate around a fire near the lagoon, except for Wendy, who'd excused herself without touching her food and gone off by herself. Seems to be somewhat of a trend lately, John had thought. The doctor had skipped the meal altogether, for the third night in a row, in fact. Michael only took sporadic bites in between cleaning the collection of weapons assembled beside him. John questioned the cleanliness of such a mealtime activity, but kept those thoughts to himself. Everyone was dealing with the isolation in their own way; who was he to tell them any different?
A slight breeze blew in from the sea, rustling the underbrush and trees around them. Water lapped at the rocked behind John, and the crackling fire put him into a daze. He stared up into the night sky, at constellations that he didn't recognize, and started trying to put some of his own together. After ten minutes, all the stars began to blend together, however, and he gave up.
Tim finished his meal, then stepped around the fire and dropped his dish into a small crate Nickels had brought for them.
"Where are you off to in such a rush?" Michael asked him as Tim turned away.
"Oh, just going to check over the patchwork on One. I want to make sure all the welds are holding."
John hurriedly swallowed a piece of wheat bread. "Thought you said you were done for the night?"
"Eh, it's okay. Won't take me long. Besides, it's not like I have anything better to do."
He's just trying to keep his mind off Bella and Tom, John thought. Which, of course, was more productive than the alternative. "All right, man, shout if you need something."
Tim waved and disappeared into the night.
After he moved out of earshot, John looked across the fire at Michael and asked, "You think he's going to be okay?"
Michael took a sip of his drink and nodded. "Yeah, I think so. I don't think they've ever been apart for this long before."
"I can't imagine," John said.
John arched an eyebrow, waiting for Michael to elaborate. When he didn't, John said, "You think they're still alive?"
"It's hard to say. If the Regency really do have them…" He trailed off with a shrug.
"I suppose if they had been caught, we'd be neck-deep in Regency troops by now."
John took the last swig from his water bottle, spun the cap back on, and tossed it into Nickels' bin. "Hard to believe that they don't know about this place anyway. No offense, but it isn't really that remote. You don't think with Pan's resources, they'd have this world mapped out by now?"
"Mapped out, maybe," Michael said, "but knowing places exist and knowing which of those places to search are two completely different things. Barreen is surrounded by lagoons and covers and atolls, it will take him months to search them all."
"And if he pries the information from Tom or Bella?"
Michael inclined his head, silently conceding John's point. "Like you said, they'd be here by now."
"Well, could be worse, I guess," John said, leaning back against the tall tree trunk he'd pushed his crate against.
"Ha," a new, familiar voice said, "not very likely."
Irving Smithe appeared out of the darkness, a pack slung over one shoulder. The orange glow from the fire caused the scars on his face and head to stand out eerily against his pale white skin. The doctor's hair was disheveled, and he bore dark rings under both eyes. The doc had been working almost non-stop since their arrival here, mending wounds and putting people back together. He tossed the pack down next to one of the empty crates surrounding the fire and sat down.
"You look exhausted, Doc," Michael said, pulling the bolt back on one of the rifles, then sending it forward again with a resounding clack.
Irving grunted. "What I wouldn't give for a soft bed. I know the conditions out here aren't ideal for anyone, but couldn't you have at least planned to have some amenities?"
Michael pulled the weapon apart and began setting pieces around him systematically. John watched him work, remembering his small arms classes, and how much he hated the smell of CLP. He could never seem to get the lubricant off his hands, no matter how much he washed them.
John took a drink from his water bottle, chuckling. "You've never had to spend the night on an Army base. Let me tell you, if I'm never subjected to that level of substandard living again, it'll be too soon."
"Hard to believe anything in your world could be more substandard than this." Irving nodded at Michael's extended leg, still bandaged from his injuries several weeks before. "Doing better today, I hope?"
"It flared up a little this afternoon, but other than that it was okay."
Irving grabbed his pack. "I'd better have a look at it."
Michael adjusted himself so the doc could examine the bandages. "What I wouldn't give for a mattress right now—ouch!" He jerked away at Irving's touch.
"Oh, I barely touched you," Irving said, waving a dismissive hand at his patient, then continuing on with his work as if nothing had happened. He pulled a small scanner from his jacket pocket and passed it over the leg. After several passes the device beeped, and Irving studied its readout. "Besides, this is about ready to come off."
John tucked his water bottle back into its place in his own pack next to his seat, and leaned back against the tree behind him. "Took a little longer to heal than you originally thought, eh, Doc?"
"Mmmm," Irving murmured without looking up. "That's because my patient doesn't like following doctor's orders."
"I'm pretty sure getting shot at wasn't included in your discharge instructions, Doc. Besides, since then I stayed off it, just like you told me."
"But you didn't dose the way I wanted you to, did you?"
Michael's face hardened. "I told you, I wasn't going to take that shit."
Irving closed the terminal and slid it back down into his pocket. "I know what you said, and, frankly, I'm damn well impressed you stuck by your guns, even with the extended healing time. If it had been any other person, I think they would have folded under the pressure."
The doctor stood and moved back to his seat. "That being said, there isn't a moment that passes that I don't pray you have a change of heart."
"Yeah, well…" Michael trailed off, not finishing the thought.
A brief silence fell around them. The Doc had a point, after all; John had seen several people come into the camp, many of which were wounded in some form or another, and all but a few of his patients had shown drastic improvement in the days following their treatments. It seemed odd to John that a substance that could promote such healing in a human body could be subverted into what caused an addiction like Wendy's mother's. But then again, the same thing had happened on Earth time and time again, so why would it be so different here? Humanity, it seemed, was nothing if not consistent.
"Need another log on there," Irving said, nodding to the dwindling fire.
Glad for the distraction, John said, "I got it." He rose and moved to the small stack of wood a few feet away. He tossed two small logs onto the bright red embers, sending sparks jumping and twirling into the air.
Just as John was about to return to his seat, a loud crack caused all three men to jump in shock. John's stomach turned over. He was almost positive it was going to come all the way up his throat and out his mouth. He caught movement beside Michael and saw Tim looking up, grinning mischievously.
Michael had raised an arm as if to block some unseen attack, eyes wide in panic. He turned to Tim, his face a mask of exasperation. "Tim, what the shit?"
Irving coughed, shaking off his own shock. "Indeed, man, are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
John shared their indignation, but kept his opinion to himself. His ears pounded and he wasn't entirely sure if he spoke that it wouldn't come out sounding like a frightened child.
Tim stepped around a small sealed box and took a seat on one of the empty crates around their fire. "What? Sorry, didn't mean to scare you guys."
His chuckle as he sat told a different story, however.
"What is that, anyway?" Michael asked, nodding to the box he'd dropped.
Tim jerked a thumb to the box behind him. "Found another box of hull patches. Can you believe someone had put them in with the food crates by mistake? I mean, seriously, how hard is it to read a label? Hard Alloy Patches aren't anything I'd find appetizing even in the worse of circumstances."
John rubbed his nose absently with his index finger. "Great," he said, deadpan.
Michael lifted a long rifle barrel to eyeball the interior, then gave John a sidelong glance. "Good thing."
"Ol' girl will be good as new in no time," Tim said, seemingly oblivious to the men's sarcasm.
Irving chuckled. "All dressed up and nowhere to go."
They all turned to the doctor, and John thought that was probably the most accurate depiction of their current situation anyone could have made, though it made him more than a little uneasy. The one thing no one had spoken about, not even hinted at, was what they were going to do next, as if just staying hidden here in the lagoon was the answer to all their problems. They were all working daily, preparing for the inevitable, but none of them had actually discussed what it was they were preparing for.
The attack on the Lost Boys' Hideout had left them demoralized to say the least. John knew they'd lost several people; however, the actual number of causalities remained unspoken. Wendy or Michael would know; hell, everyone but John probably knew how many they'd lost. The camaraderie of their organization was more than a little surprising. He'd been a part of several units during his military career, and while most all shared a certain level of closeness, none compared to this group.
Which made it all the more concerning that someone had potentially turned on them. As unlikely as traitors were in the North American Union, for whom John had, until recently, flown fighter jets, they seemed even less so here.
Michael had managed to save two of the group's six skiffs during Hook's attack at the Compound. Added to the one John, Wendy, and Tim had arrived in, that gave them three. Three small skiffs against the entirety of Hook's forces. They might as well have none for all the difference it would make, that left John wondering…
"So, what now?" John asked.
Tim poked at the fire with a stick. "What do you mean, 'what now'?"
"You mean, are we going to continue our fight against Hook?" Michael asked.
"That's right," John replied. "I mean, isn't that what all of this is for? You've obviously been stockpiling here for a while, I'm sure this can't be the only stash, right? There's more, right?"
Michael opened his mouth to respond, but a terse woman's voice answered John instead. "More what?"
Wendy appeared from the shadows behind Irving. The twin scars that cut down across her face stood out eerily in the flickering orange glow from the fire. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a ponytail that hung down just past her shoulders. The butt of a pistol poked out from underneath her leather jacket, which hung open. Dark brown cargo pants were tucked into unlaced combat boots. One hand rested on the pistol holstered on her hip.
John hesitated for a moment at her sudden appearance. Wendy's presence had been scarce during the last few days, keeping to herself. Tim and Michael seemed to agree that the reemergence of Pan was affecting her more than she let on. After operating in the shadows for so many years, the return of the Prince of Neverland was more than a little disconcerting to all of them.
"The gear," John said finally. "The weapons and supplies stored in the caves. You plan on continuing the fight?" Wendy and Michael exchanged a knowing look. She turned back to John, saying nothing.
John glanced between them and said, "That is still the plan, right? Bringing down the Regency? What's the point of all this otherwise?"
Wendy sneered. "You think we can bring a worthwhile fight with two and a half functional skiffs and twenty-three people? If you think that, you're not the educated military officer I thought you were. The Regency has hundreds of soldiers, thousands, already in place in the city, not to mention the ones being held in reserve. Ever if we somehow managed to match the firepower of Hook's men, there isn't any way we could stand up to those numbers. It would be nothing but a slaughter."
"You don't believe anyone else made it out? That we're the only survivors? What about other teams, hell, what about the other clans still in the city?"
"If there were more, they'd be here by now."
"They could still be out there," Michael said, setting the gun barrel aside.
Wendy shook her head. "By now Hook's got the city locked down tight. If they haven't made it here by now, they're either trapped in the city or dead." Her eyes, wide with the realization of what she'd said, darted to Tim. "I'm sorry, Tim, I didn't mean…"
His gaze wasn't shocked as much as it was resigned. "It's…" He trailed off, staring blankly into the fire.
"Tim…" Wendy stepped toward him, but stopped short as Michael raised a silent hand, shaking his head.
Tim didn't seem to notice. He poked the fire twice, the tossed the stick into the flames. "I just remembered, Skiff Two's exhaust vents need to be realigned, better get on that just in case we need her soon."
He stood, snatched up the box of fuselage patches, and moved away from the fire without another word, disappearing into the surrounding darkness.
"I should go after him," Wendy said.
Michael shook his head. "Let him be."
"I really didn't mean to…"
"He knows," Michael said.
Wendy sat down next to Irving. They sat in silence for a time, the snapping fire seeming to accentuate the awkward silence between them.
Finally, Michael nodded at John and said, "You're right, you know."
John arched an eyebrow at him. "About?"
"Hook finding us out here. It's only a matter of time, especially with his resources."
"You really think they'll track us all the way out here?" Irving asked.
"Yes," Wendy answered.
Irving shifted nervously. "Why not continue on with the original plan, then, and head to the mountains? Wouldn't that be a better option than just staying here? I mean, don't get me wrong, the view is nice here and all, but at least up there we'd have fortified cover and shelter."
"Neither is ideal," Wendy said. "If one location is suspect, the others are as well. The lagoon is remote, and if the Regency does venture out this way, we'll have plenty of advanced notice. The mountains are a little too close to the city for my tastes right now."
"You know," Irving said, "in my experience, Hook's men have always shied away from going beyond the safety of the city. The stories that used to revolve through the ranks could get pretty carried away sometimes."
"Maybe," Wendy said, "but that's not always been the case, and you know it."
Irving gave her a sideways nod. "It's true, not always, but how long has it been? Ten, twenty years?"
"At least," Michael said, picking up two components from the mat at his feet. The two pieces slid together with a click, and he reached down for another.
Wendy nodded agreement.
Irving reached up and touched the side of his face. His eyes never left the fire. His voice was distant and low. "Seems like a lifetime ago," he said, running a finger over the scarred flesh that covered the right side of his face. The doctor rarely spoke about himself, and according to Michael, he had never shared what had caused the dramatic burns that covered his body. The man was older than any of the other Lost Boys' members. His white hair was combed over in an unsuccessful attempt to cover his mangled skin. John, however, had come to the conclusion that Irving styled his hair that way as more of a joke than anything.
Michael grunted. "Several."
"So assuming they are actively searching for us, how long do you think we have?" John asked.
Wendy pursed her lips, staring into the fire. "Without knowing exactly how they learned about the Hideout, it's hard to say. We have no idea how badly our operations were compromised."
Irving choked a laugh. "I'd say quite a bit, considering."
John couldn't disagree with him. He stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed his arms. "So that brings me back to my original question. What do we do now?"
Wendy sighed. It was the first time John had ever seen her look unsure. She was about to answer when another figure appeared out of the night. John suppressed a groan as his blood pressure spiked. Marb.
He stood just at the edge of the light, hands in his pockets, staring directly at John, lip curled in contempt. His shirtsleeves were rolled up past the elbows, like they always were, showing off his overly hairy arms. Brown hair curled up from underneath an old worn-out hat, turned backwards. His thick beard was speckled with gray. He'd shed his customary leather jacket, but like Wendy's, his pants were tucked into dirty black combat books. He no longer wore the oversized pistol on his hip, but John was sure he'd have another equally deadly weapon stashed somewhere on his body.
"Well," Marb said, voice low and gruff as always. "We can't just pack up and go home, that's for sure, thanks to Michael's friend here."
"Quite," Irving said, giving an exaggerated nod, then giving John a distinct look. "Shame on you, sir, for living."
A grin spread across John's face.
"Oh, for shit's sake, Marb," Michael said. "No one wants to hear that shit. And not only that, but in the short time that he's been here, he's proved himself many times over that of some of the people who've been with us since the beginning."
"If you think it's just some sort of honest-to-God coincidence that the Regency decided to attack right after he got here, then you're not only blind but dumb. Wendy, I know you aren't that blind, we never should have let him in."
Michael finished piecing together the lower receiver assembly to the rifle he'd been cleaning, and pointed it at Marb. "You know the Rules, Marb."
"Don't give me that—"
Wendy cut him off. "Yes," she said, arm raised, "you know the Rules, and we've been over this time and time again, and we aren't going to sit here and hash out old arguments. If you've got some personal issue you need to work out, then for shit's sake work it out, I'm tired of hearing about it."
"You know you like to quote the Rules to me, Michael, but you conveniently leave one out when it doesn't suit your purposes."
Michael gave him an expectant look.
"Trust no one," Marb said. "You've all seemed to have forgotten that one. Well, I haven't, and for good reason."
"Well, you might want to review them again, then," Michael said. "Because there are a couple more that you should pay more attention to."
Marb waved a hand. "There is only one that applies here. I don't trust him." He nodded at John.
John cocked his head to the side and gave the man a one-sided smile. "Does it hurt to have an original thought? It sure has been a while since you've had a good one. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if you put as much energy into that as you do into blaming me for this mess, you'd already have come up with a solution to this situation. Maybe we'd have this damn war won already."
"Oh, I give equal time to both," Marb told him. "But lately, I've had some extra time devoted solely to you."
Good to know I'm on someone's mind," John said.
"Tell me, what exactly is your plan anyway? Bide your time until Hook makes a mistake or gives up? By the look of things around here, I'd say that isn't very likely."
"If it hadn't been for you, you son of a bitch, we wouldn't be out here in the middle of nowhere hiding our tails between our legs," Marb barked, face contorting in a mask of hatred and rage. "It's your fault our people are dead now, good people, who spent their lives fighting for something you don't have the slightest idea about."
He gave the rest of them a disgusted look. "And you all welcome him in with open arms, and kiss his ass for shit that our people do every day. So what, he can fly a skiff? So can Tim, and I don't see you guys patting him on the back every time he shoots down a Regency bastard. This jerk-off hasn't done anything for us except destroy everything we've built for the last twenty years. Hell, he's probably single-handedly lost the won for us before it even got started."
"Lost the war? Tell me this, you sanctimonious prick, what exactly did you have in place to win this war before I showed up and ruined everything?" John mimed air quotes at the last part. "Even if the Regency hadn't attacked, you didn't have anywhere near the amount of personnel and resources to fight a winning battle against Hook."
Sparks shot up from the fire with a loud crack as one of the logs abruptly shifted position. Tiny glowing embers drifted into the air. The fire flared briefly, but died down as the logs dropped into their new places.
"We weren't planning to win against Hook," Wendy said, without turning from the dwindling flames. Her voice was tense and measured, as if she was consciously trying not to lose control of herself. "We were planning to win against Pan."
John considered her for a moment in the silence, seeing the obvious pain on her face.
A metallic clank reverberated through the silence, and Michael lifted the fully assembled rifle in both arms, looking down the sights. "But is that still the plan? Does the fact that they attacked first change anything?"
"It changes everything," Wendy said. "Without Pan, we don't have a chance in hell of defeating Hook, and without an army, we don't have a chance of defeating Pan." She paused for a moment, breathing slowly through her nose, then said, "Our only chance at winning this war was taking Pan out of the equation, and I just don't see how that's a viable option now."
"We can't just sit here," Michael said.
Marb laughed. "So, what, you just want to go charging in with a few under-strength skiffs and a handful of fighters? By now Pan's got reinforcements already here or on their way, and there's no way of telling how many sympathizers he's been able to raise in Baytown. I bet Smee already has a militia of a few thousand, all of them angry and looking to kick our asses right out of the city."
"You know what, Marb, go fuck yourself," Michael said. "John's right, you haven't done anything but bitch and whine since we got here, and you've done nothing to bolster our position at all. I'm pretty fucking sick of your constant negativity. So how about you just shut the hell up for a while?"
Marb stepped toward Michael. "You're the son of a bitch that brought all this on!"
Michael was on his feet before Marb had finished, tossing the now fully assembled rifle to the ground. "Tell me about it, Marb. Tell me what you've done."
The two men stepped to within inches of each other. John felt the urge to intervene, but decided against it. Better to let this play out.
Marb waved a hand at Wendy. "Well, I don't spend all day licking her boo—"
John barely saw the punch. Michael connected with a crack and the larger man let out a bellowing cry. The force of the blow forced Marb to take a step back, two hands protecting his bleeding nose. He bent over, groaning and cursing, then straightened, eyes ablaze with hatred.
Michael stood ready, but didn't advance further. His stance was relaxed but aware, a stance of someone who'd been trained to fight. He stared down his target, not with hatred, but with a determined strength. "Don't do that," he said.
"Enough," Wendy said. She stepped up, but didn't move between them.
"You've all lost your way," Marb said, his voice nasal and pained. "And the worst part is, none of you can see it."
"Marb, give it a rest," Wendy said.
All three stood, none waiting to back down. None wanting to show any kind of weakness.
After a few long moments, Irving stood and started around the fire. "Let me take a look—"
Marb waved him off. "Forget it, Doc, I'll be fine. Like everything else around here, I'll take care of shit by myself." He nodded at Michael. "We're not finished."
"You let me know when, I'll be there."
Marb grunted, then turned and left without another word.
"Ignorant ass," Michael muttered, returning to his seat.
Irving reached down and tossed another log onto the fire. "Forget about him, my friend."
Michael grunted and picked the assembled rifle back up. He pulled the bolt back, looked into the chamber, then sent the bolt forward again. It slammed closed with a metallic clack. He pointed it into the darkness, flicked off the safety and pulled the trigger. Click. He cycled the action, engaged the safety again, and set it down next to the other finished weapons.
"He's becoming more of a liability every day," Michael said.
Wendy lowered her head. "I'll talk to him."
"I didn't mean to start anything," John said softly.
Wendy shook her head. "It's not you. We're all on the edge out here. We've been asking these people to give us their all, and haven't been able to give anything back to them in so long. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. I'm surprised it took this long."
"John is right, thought," Michael said. "We don't have the resources to take on Hook's entire regime, much less Pan and his damned Revenge."
"What about other clans? Hell, what about just other normal people?" John asked. "You're going to tell me that everyone in Neverland supports Hook? I don't believe that at all, not with what, a hundred thousand people in the city? There's got to be people out there that don't want to live under Regency rule."
"There are," Wendy said, staring into the fire. "And we're going to find them."
John finished screwing the panel into place, then straightened and stretched, pushing a hand into the small of his back. He grunted, feeling several vertebrae pop, and rolled his neck. It had been a long day. A long couple of days, actually.
"Okay," he said, leaning around the hatch between the skiff's cockpit and cabin. "Finished, ready to test."
"One sec," Tim answered, his voice muted slightly by the hull.
A metallic clanging echoed through the skiff's chassis and John grimaced. "You okay?"
Tim appeared just outside one of the cabin doors, wiping his hands on a soiled rag. He shook his head. "Damn converters, they don't ever fit right."
John grinned. "When they don't want to, force them. That's what I always say."
"Give it a shot."
John turned back to the control panel he'd just installed and blew out a nervous breath. "Here goes nothing."
He flipped the switch, and the orange light next to it began to blink slowly. A low harmonic whaaa filled the compartment, its pitch ever increasing, until two dull thunks cut it off after a few seconds. The Fuel Status Display panel to John's left flickered, then vanished, replaced by a blank screen.
John counted off five seconds.
"Come on," he muttered, tapping the newly installed panel with a finger. When his taps of encouragement failed to bring the display back to life, he slammed the heel of his palm down hard on the metal dash. "Come on, work, damn it!"
The orange light turned a steady green and the display gauge came back on, this time showing new information. A green bar slowly rose from the bottom of the screen, showing him how much fuel he had in the new secondary tank.
John laughed and glanced over his shoulder. "See, told you."
Tim rolled his eyes. "Yeah, your ideas always work, sometimes."
"Well, it's true."
Even though they both knew that wasn't entirely accurate. Their refit on Skiff One had taken several more days than they'd originally estimated, mainly because John had to learn the craft's mechanics from scratch as they moved through the project. Tim, however, had admitted several times that without John's help, they wouldn't be anywhere near where they were now. And honestly, they were almost finished.
John let the indicator bar fill completely, then flipped the switch back off. This time the harmonic whaaa came after the clanking and the fuel screen flickered and returned to the display.
Not too bad for two guys who have almost no idea what they're doing, John thought, tossing the small screwdriver back into his tool bag. I just hope all this is worth it.
As it turned out, Wendy's plan to track down additional forces hadn't been strictly limited to the population of Barreen. With the exception of Marb, no one had really commented on her idea, and John didn't know if that was a good or a bad thing. A few had mentioned the First Ones, but hadn't elaborated on what exactly the First Ones were.
"So," John said, hopping out of the skiff. "These people we're going to look for?"
Tim sniffed and pulled his gloves off. He ran a hand through his hair, which after two days of hard work was now more brown than blonde. "The First Ones?"
John nodded, leaning back on the skiff's hull. The skin was warm to the touch after baking in the hot afternoon sun, but had cooled as evening came on. "You've mentioned them before, back when you all first brought me back to the Hideout. What's the story there? Why won't anyone talk about them? Some kind of taboo?"
Tim shrugged. "No, nothing like that, it's just…" He paused for moment, eyes darting around, scanning the area. "How do you talk seriously about something you've known your entire life was a myth?"
"I don't follow."
"The First Ones were the First Ones to come through the Portal, right? The Graft brought them here. Well, the mythos is that way back in the day, when the Graft disappeared, so did the First Ones—or Redleen, if you prefer."
"It's what they call themselves. 'The First Ones' was just something people called them because of what they represented. And from what I hear, they were pretty hated back then, which is probably why they left."
John popped the cap off a water bottle and took a drink. After taking several long gulps, he poured the rest over his head, relishing the cold water flowing over his sweaty body. He shook his head back and forth, sending water spraying in all directions. "Hated?"
"A lot of people believed that the First Ones helped the Graft. That they were a kind of liaison between our two races, like trustees in a prison or something." Tim shrugged again. "I'm not sure how true that is, but there are still a lot of people that won't ever mention their name unless they're using it as a curse."
"And we're going out there to look for these people?"
Tim chuckled. "That's the rumor."
"Now," John said, frowning, "this might be a dumb question: but if these First Ones really are out there, don't you think someone would have found them already? With the resources Hook has, it would seem to me that if they were out there to find, he would have done so. I mean, do we even know they're still out there?"
"Not much gets by you," Tim said, grinning.
"What can I say?" John asked, arms spread. "I'm a wonderer of things."
"Well, I don't know if I have the answer to that," Tim admitted, shoving his gloves into a back pocket. "As to whether or not the Regency has found them or not, I don't think so. We certainly haven't come against any information that would suggest otherwise."
"Do you think they're still out there somewhere, then?"
"You know, at one point in time I did, but that was a long time ago. Now?" He slapped the skiff's hull, and a hollow twang reverberated around them. "I guess we'll find out, won't we?"
"And if Hook is out there looking for them?"
They both looked up as Irving, Wendy, and Michael came around the nose of the skiff. The Doctor carried a small duffle over one shoulder. Wendy all but ignored them and began to inspect the work they'd done to the aircraft.
"Looking for who?" Irving asked.
"Come on, Doc," Michael said, "you know who."
"Ah, yes, the mythical First Ones," Irving said, his tone thick with sarcasm. "Here." He unslung the duffle and tossed it to Tim.
Tim caught it with a grunt. "Easy, Doc."
Irving made a tsk-tsk sound and waggled a finger at Tim. "Need to work on your reflexes, my friend."
"Or, maybe just a little bit of a heads-up," Tim countered, turning the bag over. "What's in here anyway?"
"Well," Irving said, stepping around a small work table covered with tools and spare parts. He nudged a half-empty sack of bolts off a crate next to it and sat. "I'd tell you what's in that bag, but I'm pretty sure you could figure it out if you thought about it hard enough."
Tim had already pulled the zipper back, balancing the brown bag on a raised thigh. John looked over Tim's shoulder, watching as he rifled through the contents.
"First aid kit," John said.
"That's right," Irving said, crossing his legs. "It's not quite as good as having me around, but let's face it, something is better than nothing. And I figure where you bunch are headed, you might want a little bit of something."
"You're right about that," Michael said.
"Not going, eh, Doc?" John asked. "A learned man like yourself not interested in a little scenic tour of the world?"
Michael cut in, answering for him. "Kind of hard to enjoy a tour when you're terrified of flying."
Irving grunted. "I think terrified is stretching the truth just a bit, Michael, it's more that I'm simply not the adventurous type, I'm afraid. I've seen more than my fair share of those, and have no desire to willingly put myself through more than necessary. Besides, some of my patients here still require a great deal of care."
John pulled off his sweat-stained shirt, and wiped the moisture and grime from his face as the sun began to disappear behind the distant mountains. He glanced over at the shallow pool of clear water just past the skiff's tail and told himself he was due for another dip.
"You know," he said, draping the damp shirt over his shoulder. "I'm not sure what her plans are for this expedition, but I'm thinking the fewer members, the better."
"Didn't know we had that many volunteers," Michael said.
John shrugged. "Keeping the team to a minimum will cut down on weight, which means less fuel consumption, which will give us more time to search."
"It will also make us vulnerable," Michael countered. "More people means more guns."
"True, but considering the threat, the difference between two or three guns and ten is negligible. I mean, lions and tigers and bears, oh my, right?"
The five Neverlanders exchanged slightly amused looks.
John shook his head. "Forget it."
"Well, that's debatable," Michael said.
"John's right," Wendy said. "It doesn't matter if we take an army or not. If we run into trouble out there, no amount of backup is going to help us."
Michael sniffed and seemed to be on the verge of arguing his point, then thought better of it and remained silent.
Wendy continued, "Which is why I'm not going to order anyone to go, and I'm thinking no more than four. And," she looked at them all in turn, "I'm not asking any of the others, just who you see here."
Michael massaged an earlobe with thumb and forefinger. "And Marb?"
"I've already spoken with him," Wendy told him, shaking her head. "He'd be a good asset to have, but we both agreed his talents would be more useful here, protecting the rest of the group. And to be honest, with what's happened, I don't trust anyone else."
It wasn't the admission itself that surprised John, so much as the fact that she'd actually made it. Not that he'd known her long enough to write a case study, but she didn't seem like the type of person to admit weakness, least of all to a group such as this.
"You know I'm with you," Michael said.
Wendy nodded, motioning at his leg with a finger. "That going to be a problem?"
"Not for me it's not, as long as Doc doesn't have an issue with it."
Irving grunted, not looking up from a notebook he'd been writing in. "Like you people listen to a damn thing I have to say."
"I always listen to you, Doc," Wendy said with a grin. "As long as what you're saying is something I want to hear."
"Well, two's a good start," Michael said. "Looks like you two are nominated by default."
Tim inhaled deeply, biting his lip, eyes never leaving the ground. "I can't. As much as I want to go, I can't." He looked up at Wendy, eyes almost pleading. "I have to know what happened to Bella and Tim. I have to. Until I know for sure, either way, there isn't any way I can be totally focused, and that could put every one of you at risk. I can't do that. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Wendy told him. "If I was in your shoes, I can't say I wouldn't say the same. They're lucky to have you as a brother."
"Well, shit," Michael said. "I guess that leaves it up to me to fly this pile of metal, then." He rapped a knuckle on the engine casing. A hollow gong reverberated from inside.
Tim scoffed, and mined tossing something into the skiff. "You might as well just stay here and drop a grenade on the whole thing now and save everyone a whole bunch of time."
"Your words cut deep," Michael said, covering his heart with both hands. "I'm a pretty fair pilot, maybe not as good as you, but I'm heads and tails above her." He pointed to Wendy.
Tim laughed, throwing his head back. "Not even close, my friend. You two aren't even in the same league, and even then, you're both playing a completely different sport than I am. When was the last time you even flew a combat mission?"
"Hell yeah, different sports. I've logged more hours in a rig than anyone else in this outfit by almost double."
"Which isn't anywhere near the same thing as piloting one of those." Tim nodded to the skiff behind Michael.
"That's saying a whole lot. Even Marb can fly them."
Tim threw his head back again, this time in obvious frustration. "Oh, come on, I know you just didn't mention Marb and skiff piloting in the same sentence. Even you wouldn't stoop that low. I must have been hearing things."
John raised his hand just as Michael was about to respond. "I can fly."
Michael's mouth hung open for a brief moment, then closed. An abrupt silence fell over the group as all five Neverlanders considered John. Immediately, he felt like he'd said something wrong in class and his flight instructor was preparing to lecture him at length.
"John, I—" Wendy started.
John cut her off with a hand wave.
"Look, I know I'm still more or less a visitor here and I'm still figuring out my way through this place, but it doesn't look like I'll be getting any opportunities to go home any time soon. I may not understand everything at stake here, but if I'm going to be stuck here, I want to contribute. You need a pilot. I'm a pilot."
"And a very good one," Tim added.
John gave him a nod.
Wendy stared at him for a long moment, considering, then said, "All right, then, we have a pilot."
The last of the gear was loaded in just before daybreak the next morning. With only three of them heading into the unknown, they'd removed the additional seating from the passenger cabin, shedding even more weight. Now the cabin continued two seats, both on either side of the hatchway to the cockpit, and the rest of the space was taken up by containers secured to the bulkheads.
As they'd pumped the final bit of fuel from Skiff Two into the secondary tank, Tim had slapped the pump's nozzle and said, "You know, with all this extra fuel and reduced weight, I'd say it gives us a range of just about five thousand miles. Give or take."
John wasn't too thrilled about the 'give or take' amendment to his calculations, especially when so much of surviving the trip depended on how much fuel they had. It just wouldn't do to suddenly plummet to the ground because someone's take was a little off. Even after seven positive tests of the tank sensors, John wasn't completely convinced they were one hundred percent accurate.
The newly christened Neverland's Redemption sat under blinding floodlights in the middle of the makeshift landing field, surrounded by empty supply crates, metal scraps and tools. Michael and John were in the middle of the final inspection when Tim walked up, holding a small grey case. John turned away from the starboard engine chassis, leaving a hand on the fan blade he'd just checked, and nodded. "Come to send us off, huh?"
"Something like that," Tim said. He held out the case. "Here, I want you to have this."
It only took John a second to realize what it was.
Michael held up a hand. "Tim, no, I can't."
"No, I'm serious. It's not doing anyone any good sitting around here, and I'm sure as hell not going to put it on. Besides, she'd want you to have it."
Michael signed and reluctantly accepted the case. "I'll try not to fry this one."
Tim laughed. "Hell, I'd almost say do it anyway, just to get under her skin."
"Yeah, no thanks. I like to live dangerously and all that, but that's just plain asking for trouble. Trouble I don't want, not from your sister. There's no telling what she'd do to me if I brought her another busted harness."
"Oh, I know exactly what she'd do, and it's not something that I'd ever want to experience."
Michael chuckled. "My thoughts exactly."
Tim nodded to the Redemption. "How's she looking?"
"Good so far," John said.
"You ready for your first solo flight?"
"Oh, I think I should be able to handle it," John told him with a grin.
"You think?" Michael asked, eyes wide in mock shock.
John shrugged. "Yeah, I mean as long as we don't have to do any intense dog fighting or complex aerial maneuvers or, you know, get lost looking for the next rest stop, we'll be just fine. You have the map, right?"
Michael looked at Tim and gave John a sideways nod. "This is what you're sticking me with?"
Tim grinned. "Hey, it could be worse."
"I could have stuck you with Marb."
Michael opened his mouth to retort, then stopped and closed it, saying nothing. He sniffed. "Good point."
"Seriously, though," Tim said. "Be careful out there. I know it's important, but…" he trailed off, looking over his shoulder. "Don't stake your lives on the Redleen. I hope for Graft's sake they're out there, but if they're not, don't kill yourselves trying to find them. With or without them, you guys are no good to us dead. Remember that."
Michael nodded, shifted the case under his arm, and extended his hand. "You got it."
Tim pumped the offered hand. "And don't fry the rig."
Michael laughed. "I'll do my best."
Turning to John, Tim extended his hand. John took it.
"I'm not sure if you believe in fate or divine intervention or what," Tim said. "But you coming here was more than just a small miracle. I truly believe that you were sent here for a reason, and you're going to be the turning point in this whole thing. Thank you for helping us."
John flushed, slightly embarrassed. "I, uh…you're welcome. But I'm not any kind of miracle."
"Well, we'll agree to disagree. Either way, be careful out there and try not to ding her up too badly."
John patted the hull. "As long as she does what I want her to, we shouldn't have any problems," he said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.
In truth, he was more apprehensive about the whole plan than he'd let on. All other factors aside, he'd only ever flown the aircraft once, and the thought of taking the thing on a cross-country journey seemed a daunting proposition. It wasn't his first long distance trip, however, and during his time refitting and preparing the aircraft, he'd learned much about its capabilities and limitations. Physically, he knew he could fly the thing; it was the mental hurdle of not entirely trusting the aircraft that taxed him now.
Half an hour later, the trio of searchers had said their farewells, and were loaded up, ready to set off. Wendy took the co-pilot seat next to John, leaving Michael alone in the back cabin, just behind her.
After finishing his preflight systems check, John started up the engines and, with Tim's help, ensured they were aligned. The two pilots exchanged one last wave and John pushed the throttle forward. The skiff's engines whined and the craft lifted off the ground. John worked the controls, maneuvering the skiff in various directions, getting a feel for how the additional weight would affect it, then lifted above the trees and into the air.
He saw the enormous wall that surrounded the city, hazy in the distance, and wondered if they truly would be coming back. Even after such a short time, John trusted these people, but that didn't shake the feeling that they were heading off into the unknown with no real destination. The endgame, as far as he knew it, wasn't clear, and that bothered him.
"So," he said as they soared out over the sapphire ocean. "Where we headed?"
Wendy adjusted one of the straps on her harness. "South."
"You know," John said, adjusting their heading, "I get the whole 'playing your hand close to the vest' technique works well in most situations, but eventually you may want to consider sharing more than just the minimum. Like exactly where we're going and how long it's going to take to get there. Always be prepared and what not."
She sighed. "I…"
"She doesn't know," Michael said.
John turned to her, both eyebrows arched. "What the hell do you mean you don't know?"
Wendy shot Michael an irritated look, then said, "I know where to start, okay?"
"Know where to start? What does that even mean? Please, tell me this isn't just a dog and pony show for the rest of them back there. I'm all well and good with putting my life on the line for an actual cause, but if we're just going out there to fly around just to say we looked and didn't find anything, I'm not okay with that."
"No," Wendy said. "The First Ones are out there, I know they are."
"Wendy," Michael said, concerned. "You know I'll follow you to the end of the world and back if it means freedom for Neverland, and I've kept quiet through this whole thing out of respect for you, but I've got to ask: how do you know? What did Lily tell you that she didn't tell the rest of us? Did she tell you how to find them?"
Wendy sat silent for a moment, then shook her head. "No, she didn't tell me anything."
"Then how do you know?"
"Because of something she said at the funeral."
"The funeral? Ace's?"
When Michael didn't answer right away, John turned and caught him frowning out of the corner of his eye, obviously trying to remember.
Michael shook his head. "What?"
"She said she couldn't wait to return to her white caps, that she missed watching the dawn over the mountains, and she wasn't talking about the Northern Range."
"Wendy…" Michael trailed off.
"Like I said, it's a start."
On the navigation panel in front of him, John watched as the S moved around to the top of the display, then brought the skiff level. He pushed the throttle forward until they reached maximum cruise speed, then settled back for the ride.
"Can't help but feel like a kid in the back seat asking Dad if we're there yet."
Wendy raised an eyebrow at him.
John scoffed. "Well, obviously you guys know something I don't. I mean, I know I'm the new guy around here and everything, but I don't think keeping me in the loop is that much to ask."
"It's a long story," Wendy said.
John motioned to the endless waters, stretching all the way out to the horizon. "We appear to have some time."
Wendy turned, considering John for a time, then began her story.
Tears blurred her vision. Wendy cried out for her mother and heard nothing but the screaming of engines. The cabin bucked around her, throwing her hard against the wide straps of her harness. Across the small cabin, Maggie held tight to her own harness, mouth open in a scream that Wendy could barely hear. Next to her sister, her mother's limp body bounced around with the movement of the cabin.
Sparks shot out of a vent in the ceiling with a loud pop, and a small panel bounced against the floor with a loud clang. Wendy shielded her eyes as more sparks continued to spray from the damaged vent. Some landed on her hair, filling the cabin with an awful smell as he batted them away, terrified her thick black hair would burst into flames.
Outside, the engines changed pitch and she felt herself lift slightly in her seat, despite the harness. Her sister's scream died away as she ran out of breath, and Wendy heard her father shout. She couldn't see him, only the gun he held to the pilot's head. Both men sat in a small cockpit in the front, just behind Maggie and her mother.
"Put us on the ground now, or I swear to God, I will kill you."
She'd never heard her father speak like that to anyone. His menacing tone didn't scare her, however, it strangely encouraged her. She knew that with her father fighting for them, they would be all right. She relaxed slightly, knowing there was nothing to worry about. Father would save them.
"Listen, you maniac," the pilot screamed, "they've blown out one of our stabilizing engines, it's hard enough just keeping us from crashing. Keep that damn gun out of my face so I can concentrate."
The little craft shook again, and a series of loud twangs reverberated through the cabin. Another panel burst from the ceiling, spraying sparks, and a thick black smoke began to fill the cabin.
"Daddy!" Wendy screamed.
"Get us down!"
Wendy felt her body fall forward and press against her seat's harness. They were going down, fast. Maggie screamed, her little hands covering her face. At sixteen, Wendy understood what was going on, but she doubted whether or not a six-year-old could, and despite her own terror, Wendy wished desperately that she could wrap her arms around her little sister and comfort her.
Wendy felt her lungs constrict, and she coughed violently as the smoke began to fill the cabin. Across from her, Maggie's cries were choked off in a similar fit. She squeezed her eyes closed, though they were already burning from the contact. Some part of her knew to get as low as she could, but the harness straps held her in place.
For the first time in her life, the thought of dying, seriously dying, entered her mind and at that moment, Wendy Darling decided that she was not going to die today. Not like this. Not with her father fighting to save them. She had to help him. But how?
I have to get rid of this smoke, she thought, mind racing. She didn't have any idea where it was pouring in from, and even had she known, she didn't have the first clue about how to fix it. But how to get rid of it?
Then it occurred to her: the door. She struck out blindly, slamming her fist against the glass panels. She fought through the pain, striking the glass over and over. It didn't break, didn't even crack. She wasn't strong enough, and the only thing she'd succeeded in doing was causing a throbbing pain in her hand.
"Da—" Smoke filled her mouth, choking her. It burned her throat. She coughed violently, chest on fire.
She reached out to brace herself against the throbbing in her lungs, fingers brushing against something sticking out from the door. She stretched and felt the curved surface. A handle! she thought, it's a door handle. She couldn't break the window, but she could open the door. She tightened her grip, but just as she was about to pull, another violent coughing fit came over her and she pulled both hands back reflexively to her chest.
Her chest on fire, the fit passed, and Wendy held her breath against further inhalation. She reached out, searching, eyes shut tight against the smoke. The engines screamed outside the cabin. She felt around where she thought the handle had been, but found nothing. Gritting her teeth, she strained, stretching her arm as far as she could.
There. Her fingers brushed against the edge of the handle, feeling the cold metal. She grunted, trying to extend her arm further to get a grip, but it was no use: the handle was too far away.
In the cockpit her father was shouting, cursing at the pilot, threatening him. The pilot responded, but their voices were just background noise, she couldn't understand them. It didn't matter; she knew she needed to get rid of the smoke. Her father put his life at risk getting them free. She had to help him.
Before she knew she was doing it, Wendy unclipped her harness latch, almost falling out of her seat as the straps clattered apart. She caught herself, however, and reached for the handle. This time she found it with ease and yanked it back with both hands.
The thunderous blast of air pushed her back into her seat, the howling wind pummeling her senses. She had to squint against the torrent of wind, but as the smoke cleared she could see her sister and mother once again. Her mother still bounced limply in her seat, while her sister coughed and cried, both of their faces filthy.
Wendy took several large gasps, her throat still aching, but her lungs graciously gulped down the clean air. Smoke still seeped from a broken panel in the ceiling, but now instead of filling the cabin, the rushing wind sucked it right out.
Outside, buildings rushed by in a blur. They were taller and bigger than anything she'd ever seen before. The angle of the descent changed as the skiff pitched back, and the engines changed pitch. They were slowing down.
"Daddy?" she called, leaning around, trying to see him.
"It's okay, honey," her father called back. "It's going to be okay."
"Something's wrong with Mom. I'm scared."
"How long?" George Darling asked.
Wendy hesitated, not understanding, then realized her wasn't talking to her.
The pilot said, "There isn't any place to set down, can't you see that?"
Her father's pistol came back into view. "I'm not looking for a red-carpet invitation, damn it. Set us down in the middle of the fucking street for all I care, but put us on the ground."
"You're making a big mistake," the pilot said. "You have no idea what's going on here."
Her father jabbed the gun at him. "Just shut up and get us on the ground."
Individual buildings seemed to merge together until they were just a large mass of brick and glass. They passed several streets and alleys and vehicles she didn't recognize, people stopping and getting out and staring up at them.
"There," her father said, "put us down over there."
The cabin bucked sharply. She screamed as the skiff suddenly banked sideways. The world shifted around her and she began to slide from her seat.
Wendy screamed, frantically groping for one of the loose straps flapping around her. The skiff bucked again, throwing her into the air as panicked fingers closed around one of the metal buckles. Her legs slammed against the cabin's doorframe, feet dangling free in the cool air outside. Terror at the thought of being sucked out of the little craft flashed through her. She took hold of the buckle with both hands, fingers straining white, and pulled.
A loud gun blast echoed back through the cabin and her father shouted, "Level us out, now! Do it! Do it, now!"
Her fingers ached. The roaring wind clawed at her, trying to pull her out of the cabin. Shock overcame her as she felt her grip loosening. I'm going to die!
The skiff twisted again, coming back upright. Pain shot through her, the hard impact knocking the air from her lungs. Her fingers opened reflexively and the buckle slipped free from her fingers. She slid across the hard metal floor, coughing for breath, fingers clawing for purchase on the cold surface.
"Daddy," she tried to scream, but her words came out as no more than a hoarse whisper. She bumped into something hard. She looked up and saw her sister's face, streaked with tears, stained black from the smoke, looking down at her from her seat.
"Wendy, hold on!"
Hold on to what? Her mind raced.
The wind continued to roar, blowing her hair around. She glimpsed buildings flying past, and knew she wouldn't be able to hold on if the skiff turned on its side again. They held steady, however, engines whining as they descended through the air.
Gritting her teeth, Wendy pulled herself up into the seat next to Maggie and quickly strapped herself in. When the final latch clicked she let out a long breath, relieved.
"…a stunt like that again and I'll kill you," her father shouted. "I swear I will. Get us on the goddamn ground right now. Wendy, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think so," Wendy said after taking a breath.
"They're going to kill you, you know that, don't you?" the pilot shouted. "They'll find you and they'll kill you. They'll kill me for helping you."
Wendy glanced out through the window. They were maybe a hundred feet off the ground now. She could see people on the street, all staring up at them as they flew by.
"No more talking, just land."
The skiff angled up again, slowed considerably and descended almost straight down. Outside, colorful lights and signs flashed brilliantly, casting a kaleidoscope of color through the little signs that read "Alacot" and "Picinne Dels" and "Laden & Kotch," and others that didn't make any sense to her. Enormous glass windows that made up entire walls reflected the lights and signs. Wendy had never seen windows so massive.
They were getting awfully—
The horrifying realization hit Wendy too late to do anything but open her mouth to scream, but even that didn't have a chance. The impact was deafening as the little craft slammed into a building and twisted in mid-air. A brilliant fireball erupted outside, fire rolling across the skiff's fuselage. Tendrils of flame leapt into the cabin through the open door. The heat was amazing.
Metal groaned as one of the large engine turbines was ripped off its support girdles, disappearing in the fireball trailing behind them. Dust and brick, sheared off the building they'd collided with, spilled into the cabin, bouncing and sliding across the floor. The entire craft spun and Wendy screamed as the straps dug into her skin.
They slammed into the ground with a thunderous crash. Metal groaned and creaked around her as the frame warped and bowed. Sparks shot from everywhere, popping and snapping. Several fires danced outside, bathing the dark cabin in a dull orange light.
Stars danced in her vision from the jarring impart. Her body ached. Everything seemed muted and fuzzy, as if it were all a dream. Confused, she looked around, trying to gain her bearings. They'd landed at an angle, the back end of the craft pointing up, gravity pulling her back into the seat.
"Daddy?" she called out weakly.
There was no answer.
Numb fingers fumbled with the metal clasp. They weren't doing what she wanted them to do, felt awkward and dumb trying to work the mechanism.
"Come on," she pleaded, pulling hard on the clasp. She gritted her teeth and finally the lock clicked opened and the straps fell away.
She rubbed at her eyes, trying to work the blurriness out. To her right, the entire side of the craft had been completely torn off. A sharp corner of dark-colored brick was now embedded into the metal frame around her. Black smoke drifted up from a damaged panel on the bulkhead across from her, curling up and out of the gaping hole beside her.
Somewhere, above the constant ringing in her ears, she heard a quiet moaning. She turned, almost as if she were in a dream, and saw her sister hanging limply against her own harness. Long brown hair covered her face.
For an instant, fear paralyzed her. No, she thought, she can't be dead. It's not possible.
Then she saw Maggie's chest rise and fall, and an enormous weight seemed to lift from her. She slid out of her seat, and knelt in front of the unconscious girl.
She gently brushed her sister's hair aside. "Maggs?"
Maggie's eyes fluttered slightly, but didn't open. A small streak of blood ran down her temple. Wendy examined the area and brought back three fingers, sticky with blood.
Wendy swallowed hard. "You're going to be okay, Maggs. I'm going to get Dad."
She peered through the small hatchway and saw the body of the pilot. He was slumped over, blood dripping from a gory hole in the side of his head. Wendy swallowed again, biting back the urge to vomit.
A sense of panic she'd never felt before came over her as she realized what his silence could mean. Lips trembling, tears welling in her eyes, she reached out and touched her father's shoulder. "Daddy, please. I don't know what to do. Please, wake up."
Sparks burst from the control panel in front of her. She stumbled back, lifting her arms to protect her face. She tripped over herself and fell hard on her backside. She gasped as pain shot up through her spine.
"Damn it!" she yelled, slapping a hand down on the metal floor. She ignored the stinging pain and pulled her knees up to her chest.
Not knowing what else to do, Wendy cried.
She had no idea how long she sat there, sobbing into her hands. Nothing she'd ever experienced could have prepared her for this. She had no idea where she was, or how she'd even arrived here. She didn't know why people were chasing her, or even who those people were. Nothing made any sense at all.
Until he spoke to her.
A soft, caring voice spoke over the crackling fires outside. "Hey, are you okay?"
Wendy cried out, almost falling over backward as she spun toward the voice. A teenage boy was peering through the open cabin door at her, his face a mask of concern and intrigue. It was the most beautiful face she'd ever seen in her life. It was the face of her hero.
Curly brown hair framed his oval face, his skin smooth and gorgeous. Green eyes, brighter than any she'd ever seen, sparked back at her. He smiled at her.
She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came.
He wore a black leather jacket, open in the front, over a dark green shirt tucked into charcoal-grey pants. His clothes looked old and worn. As he stepped into the cabin, a flap of his jacket pulled back and she noticed the hilt of a sword at his waist. There was no blade that she could see, just a small silver guard and black grip.
"Can you speak?" he asked, kneeling in front of her.
Sparks popped again, and Wendy gasped, ducking away from the shower of orange and red.
"I…" She paused, mind racing. "Yes."
The boy's face lit up. An eyebrow rose and a broad smile spread across his face that Wendy couldn't help but return.
"Hi," he said.
Wendy ducked as another eruption of sparks burst from the damaged panel above them.
The boy laughed. "Careful." He stepped past her and pulled hard on the opposite door. It didn't budge.
"Damn, that's really stuck in there." He cupped a hand around his mouth and shouted, "Hey, Ace, gimme a hand, would ya?"
Wendy frowned. "I don't under…" She trailed off as another boy appeared.
"Oh, hi," the new boy said, giving Wendy a small wave.
He appeared to be the same age as the first, sixteen or seventeen, just slightly older than Wendy herself. He was shorter and had jet-black hair. His clothes were even more worn and tattered than his companion's, but the boy didn't seem to be bothered by that at all.
"Shit, you're lucky," he said stepping around her. "Haven't seen a skiff like this in a long time. Pan, you remember that time—"
The other boy cut him off. "Later, come on, let's get them out. Enforcement will be here soon."
Maggie, still strapped into her harness, moaned. Her head came up groggily, eyes only just barely open.
"Maggie!" Wendy cried, forgetting about the two boys. She scooted over and wrapped her arms around her little sister. "Oh my God, Maggs, I thought, I thought…" She couldn't finish. She began to cry again.
Her sister's voice was weak. "Where's Daddy?"
The cabin door groaned, cutting off Wendy's response.
The two boys pulled on the cabin door, but it didn't budge. After a few rounds of cursing and pulling, however, the stubborn door seemed to relent, and slid open.
"There," her hero said, sitting back on his haunches. He nodded to Wendy. "Can you walk?"
Wendy sat back and nodded. "Yes."
"How about her?"
Wendy turned back to Maggie, concerned. "Are you okay?"
Maggie coughed and wiped away tears. "I…I think so. I don't know. Where's Mommy and Daddy?"
"This one doesn't look too good," the second boy said. He stood next to Wendy's mother, carefully looking her over.
It was the first time Wendy had noticed her mother since they landed. The raven-haired woman had been unconscious ever since the guard had slapped her back on that strange station. The memory of her father's attack and their escape to the little aircraft came back to her in a flood. She'd always thought of George Darling as a sweet, warm-hearted man who wouldn't have hurt a fly. But the way he'd gunned down those guards...
She shuddered, pushing the memory aside for now. She had more important issues to think about right now.
"That's my mother," she said, the confidence in her voice surprising even her. "My father's up there." She motioned to the cockpit.
A commotion outside caught her hero's attention. He stepped back, turned away, and a second later cursed. "We don't have much time. Come on," he told Wendy, then nodded to Maggs. "Let's get her out of here."
"Go where?" Wendy asked, already working on unbuckling her sister's harness.
"I want Daddy," Maggie said, sniffling.
Wendy brushed back Maggie's hair back, and brought her face level with hers. "It's going to be okay, Maggs. I promise you."
Wendy's words surprised her. And what surprised her even more was that she actually believed them. Her hero's appearance had given her a strange confidence, one she'd never felt before in her life.
What is wrong with me?
"Here," the second boy said, hands outstretched.
Wendy grunted, lifting her sister out of the seat, and moved to hand her over. Little hands and feet wrapped tight around her, however, preventing Wendy from handing her off. She gave a small whine of disapproval and buried her head into Wendy's shoulder.
"Hey, hey," Wendy said, reassuring Maggie, "it's okay, they're going to help us. It's safe."
"I want Daddy!"
Wendy bit back a curse, reminding herself that Maggie was only a child, she didn't understand. "I know you do. I know. But right now, we have to get out of this thing and then I can help Daddy."
Maggie straightened and turned away from Wendy, searching. "Help? What's wrong with him? Is he hurt? Daddy!"
Wendy caught the second's boy's concerned gaze. "Maggie, stop, it's going to be okay. Stop." She pried her sister's arms from around her neck and hefted her towards the boy.
"Take her," she said, even as Maggie fought against her.
"No, no, no," Maggie cried. "No, I won't go without Daddy! Daddy!"
The boy took the crying girl in his arms and immediately ducked through the cabin's open door. Her sister's cries faded; however, as they did, she heard other voices coming from beyond the door. Angry voices.
Outside, a crowd had surrounded the crash site. Hushed conversations flowed through the mass of people. The tension grew as more and more people joined, several shouted warnings to leave before Enforcement arrived, others cursed Wendy and her family for bringing unwanted attention to their blocks.
"Enforcement will tear down this block looking for them!" one shouted.
"They're going to kill us all!" cried another.
Her hero turned from the crowd. "Come on," he said, moving up to Wendy's mother. "We don't have much time."
Without thinking, Wendy moved over to help him, and a thought occurred to her as they carefully undid Mary Darling's harness. "I don't understand. What's going on? Who are those people? Who are you?"
The boy grunted as Wendy's mother dropped into his arms. "Pan."
Wendy frowned. "Excuse me?"
"My name," he said, lifting Mary's lifeless body onto his shoulder. "It's Pan."
Wendy followed him out onto a wide street filled with angry people. Skyscrapers, bigger than anything she'd ever seen, surrounded them. Streetlights lit the area in a pale-yellow glow. She didn't recognize any of it.
"Get out of here, ya bastards!" Pan shouted, jerking his head at the crowd. "If you're not going to help, get lost! Bunch of worthless Graft-loving shitheads!"
He moved over to the side of the street and set Mary down, careful so her head wouldn't hit the concrete. A few feet away, Ace was showing Maggie something near a set of stone steps. The street was lined with rows of townhomes, identical in every way, from the stone steps to the clay-colored entranceways and trim.
"Here," Ace said, holding a small plastic cylinder out for Maggie. "Take care of this for me, would you?"
Though she'd stopped crying, lines from her tears streaked dirt and grime on the little girl's face. She took the offered container and held it close, as if it was the most important thing in her life.
With the girl distracted, Ace turned to Pan and nodded at the growing crowd. "We need to disappear."
"I know." Pan looked around, as if gathering his bearings. "Anything come to mind?"
Ace shook his head. "Not a clue."
Wendy knelt down next to her mother, putting a hand on the woman's forehead. Her eyes flickered, but didn't open. She ran her thumb above the gash just below her mother's hairline, feeling crusted blood. Mary's face was almost entirely covered in dark red blood, some dried, some not. Wendy remembered her father telling her once that facial wounds often looked worse than they were.
Pan squatted down next to her. "Doesn't look like it's bleeding anymore. Pretty good gash, though."
Wendy nodded but said nothing.
The noise from the crowd grew louder, the voices full of anger or fear or both. Several had decided that the mass of people in one area wasn't the best thing for the block, and were trying to disperse the crowd, but their efforts had little effect.
"Come on," one older man with gray hair shouted, arms outstretched, trying to usher people away. "You don't want to be here when Enforcement shows up!"
"Get them, they've got to have some kind of reward," a woman shouted, though the people around her were trying to pull her back into the masses.
"Are you crazy? They'll kill us just for being near her," the gray-haired man shouted.
"Pan," Ace said, voice urgent.
"I know," he said, considering the crowd. "I just—"
"Hey," a boy said, jogging up to them. He leaned over on his knees and looked at Mary's unconscious body. "She okay?"
"Stay away from her," Wendy said, taking a step toward him.
The boy straightened. He couldn't have been but a couple of years older than Maggie, if that. Messy red hair hung down over his eyes. His clothes, obviously too big for him, were torn and dirty.
He held his hands up. "Hey, easy, no worries, okay? Need help getting away from the masses, eh?"
Wendy frowned at him, then gave Pan a questioning look.
He stood. "You know a way out of here?"
"Sure do, just that way." He pointed up the street.
Pan seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing at the crowd, then back at their little group.
The boy seemed to pick up on Pan's reluctance. "Tunnels go for miles," he said, then jerked a thumb at the crowd. "These shits couldn't find their way through them if the Graft showed them."
Finally, Pan grinned. "What's your name, kid?"
"Carter," the boy said, returning Pan's smile.
It's infectious, Wendy thought, realizing she too was smiling.
"Okay, let's go. Ace, can you and Carter carry her?" Pan motioned to Mary's unconscious body.
"Yeah," Ace said, and moved up to pick her up.
The boy smiled, his teeth crooked and discolored. "Sure thing."
"Wait!" Wendy almost screamed. "My father! He's still in there. I can't leave him here."
Before she knew what she was doing, she was ducking back into the smoking wreck, climbing through the cabin. She ignored the blood and gore on the floor this time and moved right up between the two seats. Lightly, she touched him on the shoulder, praying he'd wake up to her touch.
George Darling sat, eyes closed, leaning forward against his harness. The pistol he'd used to shoot the pilot was on the floor between his feet. His clothes and skin had been sprayed with blood.
"Daddy?" she said, her voice trembling.
She felt a slight movement and repeated herself, feeling a sliver of hope work its way into her. "Can you hear me?"
She almost jumped out of her skin as bloody fingers slid overtop her own. She almost collapsed in relief. "Daddy!"
His voice was barely audible, but she could still hear the agony in it.
"Wendy," he whispered. "You're okay?"
Tears streamed down her face. "Yes, Daddy, I'm okay. So are Mom and Maggie. We're all okay. A boy is helping us." She reached down and started fumbling with his harness. "Come on, we have to go."
A hand stopped her. "Wait, stop."
Wendy shook her head, confused. "No, we can't wait. We have to go, people are after us, remember? We have to go now."
George coughed, spraying fresh blood over the control terminal in front of him. "I…I don't think I'm going anywhere, little one."
"I don't," Wendy frowned. White-hot fear blazed inside her. "What do you mean? You have to come!"
Her father looked at her, eyes pleading, then reluctantly lifted his jacket away from the right side of his body. Wendy gasped, hands shooting up to cover her mouth. A jagged piece of metal protruded from the side of his abdomen, just below his chest. The shirt around it was stained a dark crimson.
Wendy felt her legs weaken slightly, and tightened her grip on the seat. "Oh, no, no, no. Daddy, no, you're going to be all right." She reached down for the harness again. "We just need to get you out of there."
He stopped her again. "Wendy, you have to go."
She shook her head. "No, Dad, no, I won't leave you here, I won't."
A loud crack reverberated through the cabin as sparks shot out behind them. Wendy ducked.
"You have to," George said, looking at her with a fierce determination. "You have to take care of your mother and sister."
He coughed again, sending tiny droplets of blood into the air. Blood trickled from the corners of his mouth and down over his jaw.
Wendy sniffed. "I don't know how, please, you're supposed to take care of us. Come on, you have to get up." She pulled on him and he cried out in pain, his face contorting.
"Ugh!" he cried out. "No, honey, don't. I'm sorry, sweetheart, I couldn't get you home. I'm sorry."
"No. No, you're going to be okay, we'll figure out a way to get you out."
Her father put a hand on hers. "Wendy."
"Just hold on, we'll get you out. We'll find a way."
"Wendy," he said again, as caringly and as lovingly as he'd ever spoken to her, bloodstained fingers reaching up to touch her face. "I want you to promise me something, okay?"
Tears blurred vision. "No, I can't."
"Yes, you can. I need you to promise that you'll take care of your mother and your sister no matter what, okay? Can you promise me that, Wendy? Promise me you'll try to get them home."
She couldn't hold back any longer. She started crying, dropping her head to his shoulder. "Daddy, I…"
"Shhh, it's going to be okay. You always were the brave one. Always the one I could count on. I know you can do this, Wendy. I know you can."
He coughed, and this time his entire body convulsed with the effort. "You have to go, Wendy."
Slowly, she brought her eyes up to meet his and took his hand in hers. Her body quivered and she attempted to get a full breath, and failed. With her whole world crumbling around her, she had no idea what she was supposed to do. "I'm scared."
"I know you are, sweetheart, but it's going to be ok—" Another coughing fit came over him. He grimaced in pain. After it passed, he said, "You know she's not as strong as you are, her or your mother. You're going to have to take care of them. They need you, now more than ever."
"I, I don't know if I can," Wendy whispered, shaking her head.
"I know you can. You're the bravest girl I know, Wendy, and the smartest. You'll find a way, I know you will."
He coughed again, bringing up more blood. "I love you, Wendy. I love you very much."
She reached out and touched his face, her fingers drawing thin lines of red across his cheeks. She leaned in and pressed her forehead against his. "I love you, too, Daddy. So much."
George Darling pulled his daughter close one last time and held her. He whispered in her ear, "I love you more than anything else in the world, and you…"
His last words faded as his breath gave out and Wendy felt his hand relax. She leaned back and squeezed his hand. Her heart raced as her entire body started to tremble.
"Daddy? No, Daddy, no! Please, please, wake up."
For the second time that night, Wendy's legs betrayed her. She slumped to the floor and pushed her forehead into his hand. "Come back. Please, come back. Please, Daddy. I love you."
Grief overtook her then, and she sobbed freely, tears running down her face, dripping on her pants below. Again, she lost track of space and time, knowing only her pain and sorrow and anguish. But, strangely, as she sat there on the cold floor, those thoughts and feelings began to fade away, replaced by others she didn't expect. They rose from somewhere deep inside and washed over her like a hot shower. An unexplainable rage filled her, the force of which she'd never felt before.
The time for tears is over, a voice inside her said. Her father's voice, confident and unwavering.
She clenched her teeth together and wiped the tears from her eyes.
As she sat there, his hand cupped tightly in hers, the hate continued to well up within her. Hatred for the men who'd brought her here. Hatred for those who'd taken her family from their home and paraded them around like cattle. Hatred for the men who'd taken her away from everything she'd ever known and loved.
"I promise," she said, then kissed her father's hand.
The days following Wendy's violent arrival in this world were a blur: a constant rotation of hiding places accompanied by scavenged meals and sleepless nights. She'd lost track of how many places they'd stayed in, and didn't care to remember her last meal. Wendy desperately wanted a shower, even to just jump in the river, anything to get the grime off that seemed to permeate through her entire being.
It wasn't until the second week that Wendy finally began to have meaningful conversations again. But even those had seemed to blur together as the days went by. It was almost a competition between Ace and Peter to see who could tell her the most in a day, and even though Peter never seemed to have anything importation to say, Wendy liked listening to him the best. His voice calmed her, and his eyes were the most beautiful things she'd ever seen. Gazing into them, Wendy lost herself.
Gunshots rang out in the distance and Wendy jumped, almost dropping her plate to the cold, dusty floor. Her eyes instantly shot to the window, where the afternoon sun cut beams through dusty air. The initial blast was followed up by several more, then silence.
How long until they're shooting at us? she thought, adjusting her position on the floor and leaning back against the wall.
Next to her, Carter took a bite of his sandwich and said, "Graft, they don't ever stop, do they?"
Peter caught Wendy's look and seemed to see the worry in her eyes. "Oh, don't worry about those, they're at least five, six miles away. Probably out in the middle of Oldtown."
"I wasn't worried," Wendy told him, trying to force herself to look more confident than she felt.
"Course you weren't." He stood, leaning against the opposite wall in the small apartment, legs crossed, finishing his last bit of food. He tossed his empty plate at the boy. It bounced across the floor, landing several feet away from Carter.
He peered out through the window next to him for a few seconds, before turning away and taking a seat in the only chair in the room. "Probably just shooting at some gigrets."
Not that many shots, Wendy told herself, forcing herself not to roll her eyes. Peter had a habit of downplaying everything, to the point that she wondered if he actually believed what he was saying, or if he was just saying it to sound tough. Either way, it didn't matter. She kept her opinions to herself regardless.
Peter smiled at her, and before she could stop herself, she smiled back. Those green eyes of his seemed to sparkle brighter than anything she'd ever seen before in her life, and there was no getting away from them. Her heart fluttered in her chest as he winked at her, and she felt her cheeks flush. She desperately tried to come up with something to say, but no words came. She felt a twinge of panic as he raised an eyebrow at her, obviously noticing her inner turmoil.
"Good dinner, Ace," Carter said, through a mouth full of sandwich.
Wendy let out a breath of relief. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and gave him a slight smile of thanks. He smiled back. She wondered if the look on his face meant that he knew what was going on inside her head, or if he was just politely returning the gesture.
"Hey, thanks, man," Ace replied, lifting his cup to him in salute. "My pleasure."
Peter leaned back against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. His infatuation with green had become more pronounced over the last few weeks; his new bright green shirt and matching pants had been quite the joke, until Peter had explained to Ace and Carter that his clothes weren't funny. They'd both hurriedly agreed with him.
"Could've used some cheese," Peter said.
Ace laughed. "Well, shit, next time lunch is on you."
"I didn't like them, either."
Everyone turned to Maggie, who was lying on her side, facing the wall on an old lumpy mattress. She'd curled up underneath a pastel yellow blanket, one of the only blankets they'd come across in the old tenement. Her sandwich was still on the plate next to her, a single bite missing from one corner.
Anger boiled inside Wendy's chest, and she fought back the urge to yell. Instead, she gave Pan an apologetic frown. He dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
Maggie didn't talk a lot, but when she did, it was almost always negative. At eight, Wendy couldn't expect her to understand what was going on around them, but she'd hoped by now she'd realized how hard they were all working to stay alive and keep her safe. After all, she'd promised.
"Tough crowd today," Ace said. "Maybe Chef Ace will just take a vacation, how's that?"
Carter turned from the window and looked at Ace with wide eyes, a piece of lettuce hanging from the side of his mouth. "Hey, I like your stuff." The little piece of lettuce fell free and dropped to the floor.
"Ah, the people have spoken," Ace said, arms spread wide.
Carter wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Maybe some eggs tomorrow?"
"Now, this is more like it! Carter, the world needs more hungry souls like you. Damn straight, eggs are a fine choice." Ace mimed writing on a pad. "And how would you like those, sir?"
Carter grinned. "You know how."
"Eggs over destructed." He made a checkmark in the air with his finger. "Check."
Maggs groaned without turning away from the wall. "We just had eggs yesterday."
Wendy rolled her eyes. She opened her mouth to tell her off, but Carter cut her off.
"Yeah," Carter said, enthusiastically, "But they were great. I'm definitely down for more."
Wendy smiled at him. Such a peacekeeper, she thought. She'd gotten the impression over the last few weeks that Carter hadn't grown up in a three-meal-a-day home. Hell, he probably hadn't grown up in a one-meal-a-day home, if he'd had a home at all. But he had taken on the peacekeeping role of their little group almost from the start, and had smoothed out a fair number of arguments over the last several weeks. They were all stressed and hungry and scared, but shouting at each other wasn't going to solve anything.
Maggie sighed heavily and sat up. "I'm going to check on Mother."
Peter motioned to the door as Maggie disappeared into the other room. "What's eating her?"
Wendy shook her head, and raised a finger to her lips. Maggie hadn't adjusted well at all to their new situation. She barely spoke, speaking only to complain or demand that she wanted to go home. There had been several times when Wendy had wanted nothing more than to slap the negativity right out of her, but it wasn't her fault. She didn't understand this place any more than Wendy did. She was only eight, after all.
It was better not to talk about Maggie when she was around. Not only had she not adjusted well to their current situation, she was adamant that she wanted to go home and that she hated this new world they'd found themselves in. There were times when Wendy wished Maggie had resorted to their mother's way of coping: refusing to do just about anything.
After learning of her husband's death, Mary Darling had shut down, not speaking a word since. She'd barely eaten. In fact, the only time Wendy could get her to eat was when she forced her to.
Wendy's hope that eventually her mother would come around and return to her normal cheerful self quickly vanished. And the ache of sadness in her heart, longing for her mother's caring, protective touch, was quickly replaced by anger and frustration.
She wasn't ready to take care of her family like this. After losing her father, Wendy had desperately wanted someone to hold her, to reassure her, to love her. Back home, before this place, Mary would have been there, comforting and loving. Now, she just laid there, staring blankly at the ceiling. Wendy wondered if her mother would ever return.
An explosion in the distance interrupted the awkward silence that had fallen over them. Wendy glanced toward the only window in the room and saw only the dark shadow of the adjacent building.
"That's got to be out past the river," Carter said.
"Yeah, but they're getting closer," Ace said.
Wendy looked at Peter. "Do you think the clans will ever make it to Baytown?"
"Ha! That bunch of undisciplined assholes can barely find their way around Oldtown."
Wendy forced herself not to roll her eyes. Despite Peter's unwavering belief that the clans would never amount to anything, the fighting between them had been almost constant, and they were growing more and more dangerous as time went on. The Lost Boys—a ridiculous name, in Wendy's opinion—had done a fairly decent job of staying away from most of the fighting, using the abandoned infrastructure of the city to move and stay hidden. But even the city's shadows were becoming increasing risky.
With all the clans vying for control of various parts of the city, there weren't too many safe zones left. Most of Oldtown, the abandoned outermost portions of the city, was still empty wasteland, remaining home to several smaller clans and roving Duster Enclaves. Baytown, the core area along the coast, had been immediately locked down by Enforcement. And why not? That was where the money and power was, there wasn't any way they'd allow that to be taken over.
Midtown, however, where most of the working class in Barreen called home, was a different story. Token Enforcement patrols moved through the streets, there were even sentry posts scattered throughout the district, but by and large they were absent. Midtown had become the primary battleground for the clans looking to make a name for themselves.
They'd done a fairly decent job of staying in the shadows, restricting their movements to nighttime, changing locations every few days, though finding suitable locations to hide were becoming few and far between.
"They sure are moving through Midtown, though," Carter said.
Peter shook his head. "As long as Enforcement stays on top of things, I don't think the clans will ever have a chance at the Core. The Committee will stop at nothing to keep their precious port open. Not to mention the power station."
Ace dropped his own plate on the floor and lay back across the couch, propping his feet up on the end. "You know, I'd really like to know where they're getting all the new recruits. Everyone I've ever talked to said they hate Enforcement, even some on the Midtown/Baytown border. So what gives?"
"Lot of people in Neverland," Peter said.
"I know, but still. Are there really that many that actually want to fight on their side? The only people they protect are the bastards in the Core, and I don't see any of those stuck-up pricks volunteering to fight."
"Maybe they're not volunteering," Wendy suggested.
Ace raised an eyebrow at her. "You think they're forcing people to fight?"
Wendy shrugged. "Happens a lot where I come from. Lots of wars have been fought with slave armies."
"I hear they've been trying to recruit some of the smaller clans," Carter said.
Peter laughed. "Good luck. The clans hate Enforcement even more than they hate each other, and now that the Committee has declared martial law, it's given them even more reason to resist. You can only kick a dog so much before it bites back."
"Yeah, but it's the regular people that are getting bitten, not the clans," Carter said. "Problem is that even if the clans care enough to help them, they're all too wrapped up in their own petty turf wars."
"They're selfish," Wendy said. The words were out before she'd even realized she had something to say on the matter.
"They're protecting their own," Peter said, matter-of-factly.
"And that makes it okay?" Wendy asked. "If everybody just looks out for themselves and no one else, then what's the point? We're never going to make any progress if everyone is just looking out for their own interests."
Peter scoffed. "Progress? Ha! You think anyone in this city wants progress?"
Wendy flushed. "What's wrong with that? Why can't people want to improve their lives?"
"Look, Wendy," Peter said. He spoke like an adult explaining something to a child that wouldn't understand, no matter how deftly he put it. "There's only one thing the people of Neverland want to do, and that's survive. Everything else isn't important."
"Well, it should be," Wendy told him. She felt a strange determination build inside her, a feeling she couldn't turn away from. "If someone needs help, someone should help them."
"Yeah?" Peter said. "And who's going to do that?"
Wendy straightened. "We will."
"No," Wendy continued, ignoring him. "If someone needs help, we're going to help them. No questions asked."
Ace raised an eyebrow. "How did you become the rule maker all of a sudden?"
"Well, who else is going to do it? If we're going to change things around here, there need to be some rules, otherwise we're just contributing to the problem instead of helping to fix it."
"Wendy," Peter said, his voice low and steady. "Our little group here isn't in any shape to change the world, much less help anyone. We can barely keep ourselves out of trouble."
She locked eyes with him. "We're going to help people, Peter. The world can change, it doesn't have to be like this. One person at a time, that's how we'll change it; one person at a time."
Peter started to respond, but a shush from Ace cut him off. "Look at this," Ace said, motioning.
Wendy sighed, rolling her eyes, then joined the boys at the window.
On the street below, two squads of Enforcers were making their way carefully up the block, one on each side of the road. The two six-man teams moved in sync with each other, clearing sidestreets and alleys and covering off rooftops as they went. What little foot traffic there was on the street quickly vanished as word began to spread. Contact with an Enforcement squad was generally looked upon as a bad idea.
Wendy frowned. "What are they doing?"
"You think maybe it's just a random patrol?" Carter suggested.
Ace gave him a look. "You ever known Enforcement to do anything at random?"
"Well, I mean, the last time I was in Baytown—"
"Since when were you in Baytown?" Ace asked, cutting him off.
"Oh, come on, don't bust my balls, all right?" Carter told him, looking away from Ace's reproachful look. "I was careful, I always am. I know these streets better than anyone else alive. And besides, they're not looking for little ol' me, they're looking for Dusters and sympathizers."
"Still a dumb move, man."
Peter nodded. "Agreed. You need to be a little more discreet, Carter. At least tell us where you're going beforehand, that way we'll know where to look for you."
"Yeah, yeah. You know, just cause you guys are a little bigger than me doesn't make me a helpless little baby, okay? I took plenty good care of myself before you guys showed up, you know? I don't need you guys becoming all parental on me and shit."
Wendy tried to hide a grin and failed. He was right after all. Even at almost three years her junior, Carter was quite adept at getting in and out of places normal people wouldn't even dream of going. He had an ear for the streets that they all envied.
"Anyway," Carter said, nodding to the soldiers. "You think they're out here looking for anyone specific, do you?"
"Oh, now you're worried, huh?" Ace said with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Carter gave a clipped cough and pointed a finger. "No, I'm not worried at all, I'm just curious. I hadn't heard anything on a patrol coming this far east, that's all. Usually, I hear about these things."
Ace gave Wendy a sideways glance. "Ooooh, I see."
Peter shh'd them, holding a finger to his lips and nodding to the street just below their window. "Look," he whispered.
Another eight-man Enforcement squad was following the first two. This group wasn't as heavily armed as their companions, and wasn't paying too much attention to their surroundings. They crossed the intersection and stopped at the entrance to one of the tenement towers. After a few moments of discussion, the team formed up and entered the building.
"Duster sweeps?" Ace asked, his tone serious now.
"Could be," Peter said. "But it can't be a full-on sweep, they skipped all the buildings on this block."
The squad reappeared several minutes later and continued its patrol down the street. They passed several more tenements then, seemingly at random, stopped at another, formed up, and went inside.
"Come on," Peter said, stepping away from the window. "Let's go find out."
Ace raised an eyebrow at him. "What, you mean go down there after them?"
Peter nodded, already halfway across the room.
"That's crazy," Carter said.
"What are you going to do?" Ace asked, crossing his arms. "Go down there and offer them a drink and ask about their day? Come on, man, think about that for a minute. They don't have any idea we're here, why shouldn't we just take that as our lucky pass today and move on?"
Peter waved a dismissive hand through the air. "For Graft's sake, you sound like an old lady. Where's your sense of adventure and excitement?"
"Right here in this room, where it's quiet and safe."
"Aw, need someone to keep you safe?" Peter flicked his wrist, grinning. The razor-sharp shiftblade folded out from its hilt. It took less than a second for it to reach its full length of two and a half feet. It gleamed in the room's light as he turned it over. "I'll keep you safe."
Wendy felt a sudden pang of anxiety. "What about Mom and Maggie?"
Peter waved her off. "They'll be fine."
"No, Peter, we can't just leave them here by themselves."
"Well, it sounds like Mister Safe and Secure here is going to stick around and miss all the action."
"Would you stay?" Wendy asked. "Stay with and keep them safe?"
"Of course, I will," Ace told her.
Wendy moved to the doorway separating the rooms, and looked in on her family. The apartment's lone bed sat in the corner of the small room. Her mother lay on her back, eyes closed, covered in a tattered sheet. Maggie lay curled in a ball at Mary's feet, purposely squeezing her eyes shut.
Her sister still wasn't adjusting, even six weeks later. And their mother…
Mary Darling wasn't doing well at all, and hadn't spoken to anyone since she'd woken up and learned her husband had died saving them. She slept a lot-- too much, Wendy thought--and only ate when they forced her.
In some ways, though, Wendy was glad for the distraction. It helped with the hurt that seemed to constantly eat away at her. The numbness and confusion and pain this new world had thrust upon her faded, gradually replaced by something else entirely. Anger.
She was careful, however, not to let her emotions boil out of control. She kept them locked away, as if she was storing them up, saving them for the perfect time to unleash her fury on the world. How exactly she would do that was a separate question entirely.
"Good," Peter told her as the shiftblade retracted. "With the both of you guarding them, they'll be as safe as they can be."
Wendy frowned, her anxiety turning to frustration. "What do you mean? I'm not staying here, I'm going with you."
"Because you're a—" He stopped short, his mouth open in mid-sentence.
Wendy crossed her arms. "I'm a what? A girl? Is that what you were going to say?"
Pan chuckled and grinned nervously. He gave Ace a sideways glance. "No, that's not what I was going to say. I was going to say that you're a perfect choice to stay here and protect them."
"Oh really," Wendy said, cocking her head to the side. "And why is that, exactly?"
Pan hesitated. He shot Ace an almost pleading look, then said, "Well, uh, you're, well, shit, I don't know. Damn it, come with us, then. But you'd better stay out of the way, this isn't just some stroll through the park, this is serious stuff."
"I'm not afraid."
"Yeah? Well, you remember you said that."
They moved along the rooftops after the squad. Fortunately for them, most of the tenement buildings in this part of town were identical. All made at the same time, with only one purpose: to house as many people as possible in as little space as possible. Most were connected by duct work that spanned the upper floor, air conditioning pumped in from a central plant somewhere else in the block. Moving between the buildings was as easy as hopping down onto the ducts, crossing the span, then climbing back up to the roof.
After the third roof, Wendy had the entire operation down to a science. Carter, however, was not enjoying the same amount of success.
At almost a full head shorter than the rest, he was having to take a running start to reach the ledge and pull himself up. Twice he'd missed, and dropped back down to the ductwork with a long metallic clang that reverberated around them. The large rifle he carried probably didn't help either.
When he'd finally managed to climb onto the fourth roof, Wendy stopped him and held out a hand. "Why don't you let me carry that for you?"
Carter hesitated, grabbing absently at the butt of the weapon. He shot Peter a worried glance, as if looking for guidance.
Peter, who already had one leg up on the wall, ready to jump, considered them both for a moment, then sighed. "Just don't shoot us, okay?"
Wendy narrowed her eyes at him and her rebuke came out before she could stop it. She felt her cheeks starting to flush before she'd even finished speaking. "For Graft sake, Peter, I'm not stupid, okay?"
"I didn't say you were stupid, just be careful, that's all." He pointed to the rifle as Carter handed it over. "It's not a toy."
Wendy gritted her teeth. He doesn't even know I'm embarrassed, she told herself, which almost made the entire episode even worse. The urge to shout at him was almost overwhelming. Instead, she took a deep breath and spoke in a low controlled tone, over-enunciating her words. "I know it's not a toy."
She took the weapon from Carter. Right away she noticed it was heavier than it looked. The long barrel stuck out from the stock almost three feet. The workings of the gun looked similar to the old rifle her father had owned back home. He'd let her fire it once, on her fourteenth birthday, and the ear-splitting blast had scared her to death. She hadn't wanted to touch one since.
She looped the sling over her head and let it hang diagonally across her back. After adjusting it once, she nodded. "Okay, let's go."
The two boys gave her curious looks, then, smiling, continued on their hunt. Two rooftops later, they came to the end of the row of identical tenements. A two-lane street separated them from a row of squat four-story warehouses that ran on for another few blocks. They waited for the Enforcers to cross the intersection, then scaled down the building's fire escape to street level and crossed to the first warehouse.
The blue sign on the corner read VATAIR and WASSEL. Wendy made a mental note to remember the names, even though she didn't have any idea where they were in the city.
Two minutes later they were moving across the wide flat roof, staying low and watching the Enforcers closely. They crouched next to the short parapet wall, and watched as the squad entered the seventh building of the evening.
"You'd think they'd've found something by now," Carter whispered.
Pan sat next to him, back against the low wall. "Well, shit, this turned out to be a huge waste of time."
"What do you mean?" Wendy asked, adjusting the rifle for the hundredth time. She was beginning to regret offering to help Carter with it. The thing was so bulky, and it had grown increasingly heavier as the night wore on. "Aren't you glad they're coming up empty-handed?"
Pan extended his hands out in front of him, palms up. "But they aren't doing anything. I was thinking we'd at least get to join in some fun and shoot a couple. Where are all the clans at? I know there's at least two near this area. Word must've reached them by now."
"Actually," Carter said, adjusting his footing, keeping his attention on the soldiers below. "There's really only one, and they're pretty low-key."
"Oh yeah? Who?"
A single muffled gunshot rang out. The sound bounced off the surrounding buildings.
"What was that?" Wendy asked.
Peter frowned. "Bet you one of those thugs popped off a round on accident."
"Maybe they were shooting lunch," Ace said.
"Doesn't matter," Peter said, then lifted his chin to Carter. "What was that you were saying?"
Carter shrugged. "No one seems to know a whole lot about them. Just that they come up every now and then and push out any rival clans that try to move into the area and take over. They don't even have a name. Leader's name is Black, that's all I've been able to find out."
Carter's penchant for gathering information continued to amaze Wendy. No matter where they ended up, the boy always managed to uncover the details on everyone and everything that went on around them. Sometimes she wondered how much was actually good information and how much he simply made up. After all, there wasn't any way any of them could prove him wrong.
Pan raised an eyebrow. "Black, huh?"
"I wonder where they are now," Wendy said.
"It doesn't matter," Peter said. "These bastards couldn't find their dicks with a map. Let's get back, it'll be dark soon."
Peter pushed himself up, careful to stay low, and moved back across the roof the way they'd come. Carter shrugged at Wendy, and followed. Wendy, who wasn't entirely sure Peter was correct, hesitated a minute, turning back to the soldiers and watching as they formed up to continue up the street.
"What if they're not looking for Dusters?" she said, to no one in particular, almost surprised that she'd spoken her thoughts aloud.
"What do you mean?" Carter asked.
"I don't know," she said, sighing, knowing how silly it sounded. She shook her head. "Forget it."
"Come on," Carter said, "Don't want to be out after the sun goes down."
She saw the explosion before she heard it, and as the red and orange fireball curled into the air she staggered back, surprised. Hands clamped down hard on her from behind and she felt herself being pulled to down to the floor of the roof.
Pan and Carter appeared next her, weapons out.
"What the hell was that?" Carter asked, scanning the surrounding buildings.
"Let me go," Wendy said, shrugging the boys off.
Down on the street, the Enforcers had scattered, taking cover behind whatever they could find: some returning fire, others shouting commands. Several blocks ahead, the two advance squads appeared to be under heavy fire. Smoke curled up from the wreckage of a car, now embedded in the side of a building.
"Someone's attacking them?" Carter wondered aloud.
They all crouched down and peered over the wall, watching the battle below. Several of the soldiers lay motionless on the ground around the burning wreckage of the car, their companions trying to pull them to safety.
A high-pitched whistle cut through the air, and Wendy just barely caught a glimpse of the rocket as it slammed into the building above the advance. A brilliant fireball erupted from the impact, rolling up the composite wall. Debris sprayed out in all directions and chunks of broken building rained down on the confused soldiers. Several escaped the deluge, while others were simply crushed. Large pillars of dust and smoke began to fill the evening sky around them.
"Whoever they are, they're well-armed," Peter noted. "Haven't ever heard of clans having that kind of firepower. How 'bout you?" He nodded at Carter.
The younger boy shook his head without looking away from the carnage below. "Been rumors of clans raiding weapon stores around town, but nothing like this. What do you want to do?"
Peter sniffed, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, seeming to consider the situation.
The smaller sweeper team had left the cover, and were now charging down the street to join the fight. Rifles barked out rounds and several soldiers shouted out orders, pointing at various locations.
Two more soldiers in the advance team dropped. One of their companions slung his rifle over his shoulder and lunged forward to help. On his second step, his body jerked upright and a second impact sent him spinning like a top. He bounced off the back of the wrecked car, then fell motionless to the street.
Carter looked at Peter. "Well?"
Peter laughed. "Let's kick some Enforcement ass."
"Wait," Wendy said, taking hold of his arm. "We don't even know who's shooting at them."
"Does it matter?"
"Well, it might, I don't know." She felt frustration boiling up inside her, but couldn't explain why. "Do you always have to run into things all half-cocked? I mean, you don't have any idea what's going on down there."
"For Graft's sake, Wendy," Peter said with a grin, "that's half the fun." He nodded to the rifle in her hands. "Think you can cover us?"
Wendy glanced down at the weapon. "I—"
"Great, come on, Carter!" Peter leapt to his feet, moving quickly to the side of the roof.
She held out the gun. "But I don't know how to use this thing!"
"Here," Carter said, turning the rifle over in her hands. He pointed to a small switch on the side. "That's the safety, make sure it's off, don't point it at us, and just squeeze here." He indicated the trigger.
"Carter!" Peter shouted.
"Okay! Here." He unclipped the small radio from his belt and tossed it to her.
She snatched it out of the air, almost dropping the rifle in the process. "Damn it, Carter."
Already moving after the other two, he called back over his shoulder, "Remember, don't shoot us."
They disappeared over the side of the building, leaving Wendy alone in the night. She cursed and brought the rifle up onto the ledge in front her. After setting the radio down next to her feet, she scanned the street directly below, looking for the trio of misfits.
She gritted her teeth. Please don't do anything stupid.
They appeared out of the shadows, moving from the alley, and began making their way up the main street. The three Enforcer squads had now merged into one unit, still fighting the unseen attackers. Gunfire echoed in a constant barrage through the surrounding buildings, making it impossible to determine where any of it was coming from.
"What the hell do they expect me to do from up here?"
You can do this, her father's voice told her. Remember.
She knelt down behind the ledge and brought the rifle into her shoulder. Through the optical scope, the battle raging down the street seemed like it was happening only a few feet away. Faces, rank insignia, blood spraying from bullet impacts, all now clearly visible. A distant storm of gunfire echoed through the buildings around her.
The radio came to life beside her and Peter's voice came through. It sounded distant and mechanical. "Wendy, are you there?"
"Of course I'm here," she said, irritated.
She glanced up from the scope and took a second to find Peter and the other two. They'd moved into the shadowed entry alcove to one of the tenements.
"Okay," Peter told her, "we're going to—"
Carter's voice interrupted him. "Hey, hold up, what's that?"
After a second of silence, Peter said, "Shit, hold on, Wendy. What the hell is that guy doing?"
Wendy frowned at the radio. "Peter?"
He didn't answer. Carter was pointing at something and Peter was shaking his head.
"Damn it, Peter," Wendy said, leaning back into the scope.
She panned the rifle in the direction they were looking, and for a moment didn't see anything. The evening sun was throwing odd shadows around the street. Then she saw it. Movement across the street from her two friends, and a half a block ahead of them. A lone figure was moving up the street, toward the Enforcers.
A dark jacket hung open over dark shirt and pants. It looked like there was some kind of patch on the jacket's shoulder and it almost looked like…
"Oh my God," Wendy said. She snatched the radio. "Peter, Peter, wait! He's got a gun!"
The radio clicked and Peter's voice came through the speaker. "Yeah—"
Carter interrupted him, his voice sounding very distant even though he was standing right next to Peter. "Is that a police shield on his shoulder?"
"No, it's not a—oh, shit, yeah, it is a shield. What the hell?"
The figure made no effort to hide his approach. Wendy was sure one of the soldiers would turn and see him any second.
"What is he doing?" Wendy asked aloud to no one. It didn't make any sense, why would someone be moving after the Enforcers? Then she saw his hand come up, and froze as she realized what he was about to do. "Oh, no."
The figure let out a guttural yell and his pistol bucked. The gunshot was barely discernible from the barrage of gunfire down the street. The man never broke stride, continuing to fire at the Enforcers as he charged them.
A solider at the back of the squad took the first rounds, throwing him into his companions. A second looked like someone had punched him in his shoulder, spinning him like a top. A third's leg snapped out from under him, and he bounced off a wrecked car on his way to the ground.
By the time the third solider hit the ground, the surrounding soldiers realized they were being flanked and turned to address the new threat. Two fired off successive bursts, hitting around the charging figure, sending dust and bits of composite into the air.
"No," Wendy gasped, without knowing why.
As two more soldiers turned to engage, the figure dove behind a flight of stairs leading into another tenement building. The stairs exploded, sending chucks of gray composite flying into the air over the man's head. Bullets slammed into the building's facade around him, shredding it like paper.
He aimed his pistol over the stairs, fired off several rounds blind. Through the scope Wendy saw his face, tight with rage, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was talking to himself while swapping magazines. Reload complete, he lifted the pistol and fired off another barrage.
She didn't understand what was going on, but even so, felt an almost overwhelming urge to help him. If he stayed down there by himself, he might take out a handful of the Enforcers, but in the end, he'd die too, and for some unexplainable reason, Wendy didn't want him to die.
She clicked the radio. "Peter, you have to help him."
"Are you out of your mind?" Peter asked. "He's the jackass that started shooting! Idiot should have kept his head down like everyone else."
Carter's voice came through in the background. "Where'd he even come from? You think they missed him back there?"
"It doesn't matter, if—"
A thunderous roar completely drowned out the rest of Peter's words. Wendy ducked as waves of hot air pummeled her from above. Dust and litter kicked up violently around her. She covered her head and willed herself to become part of the wall next to her. A second later, the roar lessened slightly and the torrent of wind and debris died down.
She peeked over the edge a second later and watched as a skiff moved down the street, toward the fight. She saw the words NEVARIS ENFORCEMENT 153 painted over a large crescent moon on the fuselage. Twin-barreled cannons mounted under each wing scanned the street below.
It passed over her three friends and continued on. Wendy let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, wondering if it had missed her friends, or just hadn't cared enough to engage them.
The skiff's matte black fuselage became an ominous shadow against the glaring setting sun as it banked slightly to cross a large intersection. Soldiers below raised their arms, cheering the arrival of their reinforcements, then ducked down behind what cover they could as the cannons opened up.
Peter's voice came over the radio. "Wendy, get down here, we're leaving."
"What about him?"
"He made his bed, Wendy—"
"No!" Wendy shouted, shaking her head. The intensity washing over her shocked even her. The lone man was trying to move away from the stairs, but sporadic gunfire was keeping him in place. "No, Peter, you have to help him!"
"Wendy, there's nothing we can do for him! This place is about to be crawling with Enforcement. Once they get here, these blocks and everything in them will be blown to bits. We have to leave, now!"
She slapped her palm down on the wall. "He needs our help! We're not leaving without him."
Below, she could see Peter and Carter discussing something, but couldn't hear what was being said. After a moment, Peter shook his head as Carter patted him on the shoulder.
The man that had saved her life looked up at her and lifted the radio to his mouth. "This is a bad idea."
Wendy started to answer, but saw Pan had already slipped the radio into a pocket without waiting for a response. She frowned, feeling a mixture of relief and frustration at his attitude. She didn't understand what he was so upset about. If it were her in the stranger's place, she would want them to help her.
Wasn't that how people were supposed to act? If someone needed help, you helped them. Wendy didn't see the problem.
Wendy watched as Peter and Carter moved up the street, staying in the shadows, keeping wary eyes on the Enforcement soldiers down the street. She brought her rifle up again, panning across the scene unfolding in front of her.
With the arrival of the skiff, most of the rear guards seemed to reconsider their positions and moved to join the fight. Only two of the soldiers remained focused on the new threat, but had stopped showering the area with bullets. Instead, every now and then they'd shoot off a short burst, just enough to keep the stranger pinned down.
They stopped behind a small truck, parked haphazardly over the curb, and Peter waved at the stranger. Either he didn't notice, or he was simply ignoring the gesture.
Something exploded in the distance. They needed to hurry. Wendy felt the urge to help, but wasn't sure how. Sitting atop this building wasn't doing anyone any good. She needed to be down there with Peter, down where she could do something useful.
Wendy watched as Peter moved around the truck, still trying to get the stranger's attention. Like you could do better, she thought. What exactly did she know how to do? She was more of a tag-a-long than anything else, and she absolutely hated that feeling. She wanted to help.
A flash down the street brought her eyes up from Peter, and she scanned the facing buildings, frowning. After searching for several moments, Wendy told herself it was nothing, but as she turned back to the street, she saw it.
Movement, several stories above the Enforcement soldiers. A shadow moved along a metal fire escape, keeping low and out of sight from anyone on the street below. From this distance, it was difficult to see clearly, then Wendy remembered her scope.
She brought the rifle up, taking a second to settle in behind it, then peered through the optic. After a moment of searching, she found her target.
Definitely Enforcement. Wendy could see his name and ID number stenciled across his chest armor. He moved up another flight of stairs, appeared to check his position, then hunkered down.
Wendy cursed as he unslung a long rifle from his back, propping it up on the railing in front of him. A quick glance told her where he was aiming.
"Peter!" she said, grabbing the radio. "Peter, look out!"
Down on the street, Peter ignored her warning. It looked like he'd finally gotten the attention of the stranger, but Peter appeared to be having some trouble convincing him to retreat with them.
"Damn it, Peter! Look out, there's—"
In her peripheral vision, Wendy saw the flash, and even in the midst of the chaotic gun battle, a split-second later she heard a single terrifying crack. Wendy screamed as sparks erupted from the truck's roof at Peter's back. He ducked and Wendy's stomach turned as she realized he hadn't been hit.
Several more shots rang out, but now that Peter had pressed himself down onto the street, every one of the bullets missed. Puffs of dust and bits of street sprayed into the air around the trio, pinning them down.
"Shit, shit, shit," Wendy said, adjusting her position. She had to do something.
Fingers fumbled with the safety as she peered through the optic again, trying to line the weapon's crosshairs up on the solider. Her sight picture bounced wildly. Her heart pounded, and her muscles tensed as she tried desperately to control it.
Relax, George Darling's voice said, his tone calm and loving. Breathe, little one. Breathe.
Wendy shook herself, taking a deep breath, tension fading from her limbs. Her fingers relaxed, and by the third breath, her sight picture had steadied considerably. She watched the sniper, his body jerking slightly with every shot.
Slow and steady.
Her finger slid around the trigger, feeling its rough texture. She breathed in through her nose, held it and squeezed.
Wendy barely registered the report as her rifle fired, recoil slamming it back into her shoulder. She let out a gasp, kicking a foot out behind her, keeping her upright. She peered through the scope, and she cursed.
The soldier was pushing himself up from the floor of the balcony, head darting, searching for the new threat. He leaned over the rail, looking down at his companions, pointing in Peter's direction.
He's telling the rest of them where they are, Wendy thought. She forced herself to relax again, lined up the crosshairs and pulled the trigger.
"The hell?" Wendy said, frowning, examining the weapon. Then it hit her.
"So stupid," she said, reaching up and pulling the action back. A silver casing spun from the chamber and clinked across the roof. She slammed the action closed again.
The soldier had his weapon back up, panning it around the street. He hadn't found her yet, she still had time. Wendy took a breath, lined up her shot, and—
A bone-jarring explosion ripped through the air, blast wave slapping Wendy, pushing her off-target. She looked up from the optic and saw flames belching from the skiff above the Enforcement soldiers. It spun in the air, smoke and fire trailing out behind, and slammed into the street below. The skiff exploded in a brilliant fireball, sending flaming debris streaming into the air.
There seemed to be a brief pause in the battle as the squad watched flames dance from the downed craft. There was no sign of the crew. After a moment, the soldiers seemed to collect themselves, regrouped and continued the fight.
Wendy looked back through the scope. She found the spot where the sniper had been perched and her heart almost stopped. He wasn't there.
"Shit," Wendy said, panning the rifle around, searching. Two flights up, she caught sight of him, moving along the walkway toward another set of stairs, rifle slung across his back.
Can't let him get into a better position.
She waited until he started up the stairs, then fired. The rifle bucked, but this time she was ready for it. As she reacquired her target, Wendy saw the soldier's body bounce off the wall, then fall limply to the metal walkway.
"Yes!" she cried, pumping a fist in the air, almost dropping the rifle in the process. "Take that, you—"
Something roared above her. Waves of hot air pounded against her and she hit the floor, curling into a ball. A second later the onslaught of hot exhaust moved on. Wendy saw the tail-end of a skiff pass over her. She sat up and watched as it moved down the street, replacing the skiff that had been shot down. Its auto-cannons roared.
A muted voice crackled somewhere near her. Wendy frowned, looking around, confused, then spotted the radio.
"…here now!" Peter's urgent voice was saying.
"Peter? Peter, what was that? I didn't hear you."
Peter's voice popped through the small device. "—down to the street! We're getting the hell out of here."
As the sounds of gunfire faded into the distance, the five haggard renegades slowed, turning down the hundredth side street as they put as much distance as they could between themselves and the Enforcers. Three more combat skiffs had flown into the area as they retreated, engines roaring, guns searching for anything and everything to shoot at.
"Here," Carter said, nodding to a recessed door in the middle of the street. It looked like it hadn't been used in years. He gave it a hard kick and it snapped open with a crack, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
The space inside was small. Wendy moved along the wall, looking at what might have been a bakery at one time. Now it was just a decaying store front. The windows had been boarded up, fading sunlight cutting streams of light through the dust-filled air.
"Going to be dark soon," Carter said, peering out through a crack in the old boards.
Wendy sneezed. "It's filthy in here. We're not going to stay here, are we?"
"For shit's sake," Peter said, moving around one of the display counters. He kicked at something and a hollow clang echoed through the store. He glared at the stranger. "What kind of shit you trying to pull, man? I've seen some dumb crap in my life, but I think what you just did takes the cake."
The stranger had taken a seat along the back wall, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Dirt and grime matted his brown hair, which was still glistening with sweat. The worn jacket bore the local police force's batch and rank stripes along each sleeve. A sharp crease still ran along the front of his black pants, despite their obvious wear.
When he didn't answer, Peter took a step toward him, hands on his hips. "Hey, I'm talking to you. You almost got us all killed back there."
"I'm no hero," the man said without looking up.
Carter hopped up on a counter, legs dangling over the edge. "What are you then, some kind of adrenaline junkie?"
The stranger looked up, his face tired, eyes bloodshot. He looked slightly older than the rest of them, but still only in his twenties.
Wendy flinched at several distant gunshots. No one else seemed to notice, and she was glad for the darkness of the room; they couldn't see her blush.
She'd felt a mix of emotions during their retreat, but had resolved herself not to cry. Wendy Darling didn't feel strong, she didn't feel accomplished. Wendy wanted to curl up in a corner and cry herself to sleep and forget about what she'd just done.
I won't cry, she told herself. She wouldn't show any weakness in front of the boys. She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve like her sister…
"Maggie!" She shot Peter a wide-eyed glance. "They don't know what's going on. We need to get them."
Peter looked at her for a moment, seeming almost confused, then said, "They'll be fine for now, as long as they don't make a ruckus. Moving around right now probably isn't the safest idea." He pointed toward the ceiling as the sounds of skiff engines passed by overhead.
"Damn," Carter said, angling himself back and forth at the crack in the boards, trying to get a better view outside. "They really are calling in the cavalry, aren't they? Makes you wonder who the hell they were fighting back there, doesn't it?"
"Mmmhmmm," Peter murmured. He lifted his chin and spoke to the stranger, "You know anything about that?"
"How would I know anything about that?"
"You're a cop."
"What then, you kill one and take his jacket?" Peter asked. "Not a very smart move, my friend."
"This is my jacket."
"I'm not a cop," the stranger repeated, glaring at Peter. They held each other's gaze for a time, then the man's face seemed to soften and he looked away. "Not anymore."
Carter moved away from the window. "Quit, huh? Job too much for you?"
An almost frightening hardness crept back over the man's face as he turned to consider the younger boy. The tension in the room was so thick Wendy imagined she could reach out and grab it. But there was something else there, Wendy thought, something more than anger on the man's face. Was that hatred? She couldn't tell.
"And what the hell were you thinking chasing after an entire Enforcer squad like that? Good way to get yourself killed," Peter said.
The stranger looked away. "There's worse things than death."
Peter and Carter exchanged looks.
Another explosion echoed in the distance. Everyone looked up, then exchanged knowing glances.
"This place is going to be crawling with Enforcement troops before too long," Carter said. "Might need to think about vacating sooner than later."
Peter sighed. "Agreed."
"Back to the hideout?" Carter asked.
"Only to get Ace and the other two, then we need to find someplace new. Someplace far away from here."
"What about him?" Carter asked.
Peter eyed him for a second, chewing on his bottom lip. After a moment, he sighed and said, "Well?"
"I'll be fine," the stranger said, waving a hand.
"There, see, he'll be okay," Peter said. "Don't bother mentioning the fact that we saved your life or anything. You're welcome, by the way."
The stranger didn't respond.
Peter huffed in frustration. "Look, just don't follow us, all right? You've caused us enough trouble for today. Feel free to head that way, or stay here for all I care, just don't follow us.
"Wait," Wendy said, confused. "He's coming with us, right?"
Peter turned to her. "He just said—"
"Hey, we already talked about this," Wendy said, cutting him off. "Did you already forget about rule number one?"
"No, I don't want to hear about it. We decided already, and the rules are the rules, no exceptions."
She stepped forward, and after adjusting the rifle slung over her shoulder, extended her hand. "I'm Wendy."
The man hesitated for a moment, then shook the offered hand. "I'm Michael."
John looked up from inspecting the welds on the skiff's fuselage as some unseen creature trumpeted in the distance. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say that was an elephant."
"Does it sound like they're getting closer to you?" Michael asked, setting down another crate, adding to the small collection underneath one of the engine turbines.
They'd set up camp in a small clearing, within walking distance of the small tributaries that cut through the seemingly endless jungle. After ten hours of flying, it hadn't taken much to convince Wendy a break was in everyone's best interests.
John had spent twenty minutes working the soreness from his muscles and stretching the stiffness out of his back. The evening was cool, and the aroma of searing meat from the steaks Wendy was grilling filled the air. He'd been slightly apprehensive at their orangish color, but Wendy had assured him their taste was above par.
"Best-tasting meat in Neverland," she'd told him.
One of the small sentry-bots flew an arc around their perimeter, light glinting off its round metallic body. It disappeared into the tall slim trees surrounding them, heading off into the jungle. John hoped the little bots were good at their job; he didn't have any wish to meet whatever beast was out there.
They were surrounded by jungle on three sides, the slim trunks reaching forty to fifty feet into the air. Near the tops, long slender branches reached out, intertwining with those from the trees around them. Their wide teardrop leaves formed an almost solid canopy above the jungle floor.
John finished his inspection and took a seat on one of the crates around the fire. "It's too bad it's not cold enough to really enjoy that."
Wendy gave him a questioning look as the fire popped and snapped.
"You know," John added, "sweatshirts, blankets, marshmallows, s'mores." Her face remained passive, obviously not understanding. "Never mind."
Michael sat down across from John. "Those about ready? I'm starving."
"Just about," Wendy said. "Hand me a plate."
Michael held one out. The steak she offered hung over the edge of the plate, juices dripping on the grass. John's stomach growled, the smell and sight of the charred steak making his mouth water.
He sliced off a piece, examined the orange color, then took a bite.
"Oh, wow," he said between bites. "That's amazing."
"I told you," Wendy said, pulling her own slab off the fire.
"Sure beats Ace's sandwiches," Michael said.
Wendy coughed, almost spitting out a chunk of meat. She managed to wash the bite down and said, "That's the truth. He'd be all over these."
Michael nodded, chewing another large piece.
They finished eating in silence. Despite the questions growing in the back of his mind, John decided he was grateful for the quiet meal. The sun dropped behind the jungle canopy as they finished, turning the sky above into a majestic canvas of purple and red.
"It's beautiful out here," John said.
Michael collected their plates, dropping them into a tub of water for cleaning.
"You know," John said, "I never would have pegged you for a cop."
"I'm not," Michael said. "Not anymore. Not for a long time."
"You miss it?"
Michael paused, gazing down at the dirty dishes as if they held some truth the others couldn't see. "No," he said, finally. "Even if I'd stayed on, I wouldn't have stayed long. Black disbanded the local Enforcement precincts as soon as they took control of the CAC. Once the Committee was gone, there was nothing to hold him back."
John raised an eyebrow. "Not the Regency? What about Hook?"
"The Regency wasn't even a thing back then," Wendy said. "Hook didn't come to power until much later. In fact, no one even knew who he was back then. Even Black was relatively unknown until he started his movement. Most clans back then were fighting small territorial battles; nobody had dared war against the Committee."
"So where'd he come from?" John asked. "What was so different about Black?"
"Weapons," Michael said.
"Well, it wasn't just that," Wendy said. "Granted, that gave him the edge, but people identified with Black, especially back then. With all the confusion after the Graft left, there was a lot of uncertainty and downright fear. People naturally gravitate to strong, charismatic leaders. Black gave the people something they'd never had before. Purpose.
"When the Committee decided that whatever drove the Graft away might still be present, they started the Cleansing and--" Wendy cut herself off, eyes darting to Michael. "Oh, Michael, I didn't mean…"
He held up a hand. "It's okay."
"Your wife was…" John started.
Michael nodded, staring into the fire.
They all sat there in silence for a time, watching the fire, listening to the flames snap and pop. In the darkness of the jungle, the stars above shone more brilliantly than John had ever seen. He tried to connect the dots to form his own constellations, but gave up after several tries.
Another high-pitched blast sounded in the distance, and they all looked up.
Wendy checked a small display screen next to her. "Nothing."
"Well, I'm going to turn in," John said, stretching. "Wake me up when it's my turn for watch."
"Michael and I will take care of it."
"Hey, don't leave me out. I'll do my fair share."
"Trust me," Michael said. "You've done more than enough. And besides, you're the pilot of this little outfit. If there's one of us that needs to be one hundred percent, it's you."
"He's right," Wendy added. "Get some sleep. We can sleep through the flight."
John nodded. "All right. Just don't let me sleep through the apocalypse."
"Oh, we'll wake you up for that for sure," Michael said.
In the morning, John was convinced the knots in his back were worse, not better. In fact, his whole body felt like he'd slept on a rock. He sat up in the skiff's passenger compartment and tried to stretch the tightness out of his body. The jacket he'd used as a pillow when he'd gone to sleep was hanging almost completely out of the compartment several feet away.
Figures, John thought.
The morning air was cool, a welcome change from the tropical heat of most days. A bird called out in the distance as rays from the morning sun started to stretch across the sky. The morning was surprisingly still, almost serene. John found himself wishing they could stay here and enjoy the wilderness, instead of heading off on a mission to save the world from destruction.
John scooted to the edge of the skiff, yawning. He stretched and looked over their campsite. Thin trails of smoke curled up from the smoldering embers of their campfire. A few feet away, Michael lay curled up in a blanket. A second blanket lay opposite the fire, empty.
Movement to his right caught John's attention, and he turned to see Wendy walking up the hill from the stream. She'd changed her clothes and was toweling her hair dry.
"Morning," John said, stretching.
Wendy tossed the towel on the floor of the skiff. "Morning."
"I haven't had a swim like that in a long time. Water was fantastic, a little cold, but not bad."
John turned back to the sunrise. "It's beautiful out here."
"Morning is my favorite time of day," Wendy said, tucking in her shirt. "It's like a fresh start, like everything that happened yesterday doesn't matter. That's what my father used to say, anyway."
Wendy bent down to lace her boots. "Yeah."
"My dad loved camping," John said. "We used to go all the time when I was a kid. He loved getting away out of the city and away from being connected to everything all the time."
"Where are you from?"
"Got it in one," John said, pulling his shirt over his head and wiping his face.
Wendy looked at Michael, still asleep on the ground by the campfire. "What year is it?"
John flipped the shirt over his shoulder. "Back home?"
If Wendy was surprised by the revelation, she didn't show it. Her face remained passive. She nodded her head, silently processing the information. She finished tying her boots and stood and walked away without a word.
John let her go. He didn't know exactly what she'd been through, but from what she'd shared so far, it was far more than anyone should've had to live through at that age. He knew how much he wanted to get home; he could only imagine how she felt. For her, though, returning home to a world where everyone she left behind had passed on, and everything she knew was gone, John couldn't imagine that. Didn't want to imagine that.
He decided a swim might be just what his stiff muscles needed. The water was more than a little cold, and after about five minutes John decided that he'd had enough and got out. He pulled some fresh clothes from their stash and got dressed. The brown cargo pants were a tad big, but that was better than the alternative. The old plain grey t-shirt was worn and had a hole just below the collar, but it fit and it was clean.
After lacing up his boots, he moved on to the task of inspecting the skiff. He went about it just as he would have with one of his own fighters back home, checking welds, rivets, cables and panels. As he finished inspecting one of the engines, Michael appeared, bringing up one of the crates from their campsite.
"She going to make it?"
John closed the maintenance hatch on the turbine and wiped his hands on a rag. "There's a little wear and tear on the compressor, but it's nothing that a little duct tape and bubble gum won't fix."
Michael lifted the crate into the back of the skiff. "That's encouraging."
"She'll hold together all right. Your guys did a hell of a job piecing her together."
"That's what they're good at."
"So let me ask you something," John said, checking their surroundings. When he was sure Wendy wasn't within earshot, he said, "You think we're actually going to find these people? I mean, this whole thing isn't just some wild goose chase, is it?"
"I don't know."
"Then why come all the way out here?"
Michael laughed. "It sounds dumb, I know, but I trust her."
John gave the ex-cop an unconvinced frown. "Trust is one thing, blindly following someone into the unknown with little chance of success, that's… something else entirely."
"She's brought us through worse. Trust me."
"You mean Pan?"
Michael's eyes darted toward Wendy. "Right."
Michael shook his head.
Despite himself, John let out an exasperated sigh. "Why doesn't anyone talk about it?"
"You have to understand, Pan was the glue that held everything together. When he was taken, we almost fell apart. Wendy held us together. A lot of grief and pain was just pushed to the side and never dealt with. There wasn't any time to deal with it, we had a war to fight. It was easier for us to pretend he'd never been our friend, to go on like he'd never existed as one of us."
They both turned as Wendy crossed the camp, carrying one of the crates.
"You boys just going to stand around and gossip all morning and let me do all the heavy lifting?"
Michael jabbed a thumb at his box. "I carried the food."
"I fixed the engine," John said.
"Besides," Michael said, stepping out of her way, "looks like you're doing just fine without us."
Wendy slammed the crate down into the skiff and glared at them. "I haven't had any coffee and my back feels like someone stomped all over it. I'm not sure if this morning is the morning you want to get cute."
Michael threw up his hands in surrender. "I'll get the rest."
John laughed. "Who made the list for this trip, anyway? Coffee should have been number one."
They reached the foothills to the mountains two hours later. Random rock formations reminded John of the Needles in Utah: towers of multi-colored rock, sprouting out of the lush green jungle. Some reached hundreds of feet tall, while others just barely broke through the canopy.
Off to port, two massive towers rose out of the jungle, each roughly a hundred feet in diameter. The jungle began to split as it neared the formation, and John could see blue water below the opening canopy. A column of mist rose into the air on the far side.
"Oh, wow," Michael said as they made a wide turn around the tall formation.
A wide column of water split two large rock faces, spilling into a large pool below. Rock and brush lined the bank, which formed a half-circle around the pool. A stream stretched out from the pool, disappearing into the jungle.
"Holy shit," Michael said, pointing.
John had just seen them, too. He brought the skiff to a hover, shaking his head in disbelief. "Now that's the brightest elephant I've ever seen."
In the clearing, a herd of large sage-green animals, which bore a close resemblance to terrestrial elephants, mingled together. They stood almost ten feet tall at the shoulders, with large barrel-shaped midsections supported by four muscular legs. Instead of having long trunks, however, these creatures' heads were situated at the ends of long thick necks, like brontosaurs. Two large eyes sat above a short snout, which was flanked by two long tusks. A mane of sage-green fur ringed the animals' heads. Black and grey spots speckled the sage-green fur covering the rest of their bodies, disappearing completely at the knees, revealing dark grey skin underneath.
"Ele-what?" Michael said.
"Elephants," Wendy said with a chuckle. "Well, not quite. Then again, it has been a long time since I've seen one."
Two of the creatures looked up at the new arrivals. One opened its wide mouth, showing off a double row of molars and large incisors that looked like they could slice a man clean in half. It let out a bellowing high-pitched call, and hundreds of birds alighted from the trees surrounding the pool, cawing and screeching as they rose into the air. Several more looked up, seemingly curious to see what their herd mate was causing such a ruckus about. Another bellowed an answering call. After a few moments, all but the first turned away, returning their attention to munching on the grass at their feet.
"Well, whatever they are," John said, "they don't seem to be that worried about us."
Michael laughed. "Look at them, it's not like they have any reason to be. They've got to be at the top of the food chain out here."
John frowned. "Wait, you mean you don't know anything about them?"
Michael shrugged. "Not exactly a tourist attraction out here."
"Yeah, but look at this." John motioned to the falls and serene pool beneath. "This is a paradise. It's beautiful. Why would no one want to come out here and experience it?"
"Yeah, but there isn't any protection out here," Michael added. "Those things don't look too terribly frightening, but I know there are other things out here that are much worse. Hell, most people in Barreen have probably never even thought about coming out here. Their entire world is the city, they don't have any reason to leave. Even if they managed to evade the Regency, which most don't have the skills to do, they wouldn't be prepared at all to live out here with no support. The wilderness isn't the safest place in the world, you know."
"I don't know," John said, "they look fairly docile to me."
"Maybe, but out here I wouldn't take anything for granted. The Graft didn't fortify the city for no reason, so something out here must have put them on edge, and that alone should be enough to scare the crap out of you."
John couldn't argue that point. There were plenty of predators on Earth that he'd just as soon not come across in the wild, and he decided those sentiments applied here in Neverland as well, perhaps even more so. He stared down at the animals, wondering if this was what Earth had been like before the corporations took over everything and turned the planet into a gigantic factory. What a life it would have been to live when there were actually untouched lands, where wildlife still dominated the landscape.
"Is all the water in Neverland that clear?"
Michael frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
John nodded at the pool below them. "The water, it's probably the clearest water I've ever seen, and it was the same back in the river that cut through the city."
"You have different kinds of water where you come from?"
John grinned. "Well, no, but some are definitely nicer than others."
"Well, I can't say that I've actually thought about that before, but I'd say yes, they pretty much all look like that."
"Hey, look," Wendy said, pointing at one of the large creatures, who'd suddenly lifted its head from the water and was scanning the tree line behind the herd. Even from this distance, John could see the fur from the base of its neck to mid-back change color to a considerably darker green, and stand on end.
A moment later, several more of the bigger ones turned, fur mimicking the first. The smaller ones didn't seem to notice, keeping their attention on their meals.
The sage elephant that had bellowed "hello" to them let out another high-pitched call, then shook its head back and forth, its thick mane waving around its head.
"You think we spooked them?" John asked, sitting forward in his seat.
"No," Wendy said. "They aren't looking at us, they're looking into the jungle."
John tweaked the controls a bit, bringing the skiff to face the tree line.
Now more sage elephants joined in their leader's call, several different pitches and strengths echoing around the small clearing. Their trumpeting was loud, reverberating inside the noisy skiff.
"They're pissed about something," Michael said.
The herd shifted. Now, even the smaller ones seemed to take notice, and began moving in and through the larger creatures' massive legs. Near the back of the herd, a baby moved back through the legs of an adult, almost five times its size. The adult bellowed and stepped sideways, apparently started at the little intrusion into its space. Its back leg came down in a powerful stamp, kicking up dust around a large round pad, missing the infant by inches.
"Shit," Michael said, "that one almost got crushed by Daddy. Did you see that?"
"Or Mommy," John said.
"Whatever it is, it's got them pretty riled up. Let's back off a little bit. If it's got them spooked… "
"Right," John said, giving the engines some power. With all the extra gear they'd loaded on, the craft wasn't anywhere near as responsive as he'd like, but over the last day's travels he'd adapted, and worked the controls accordingly. He maneuvered them so they were directly over the falls.
"That's an impressive sight," John said, looking down at the clear blue water cascading down to the pool below. "Don't get to see things that that too often. Especially not where I'm from."
"Don't get to see things like that around here too often either," Wendy said, without taking her eye away from the spooked animals.
John nodded in silent agreement.
"There." Wendy pointed.
A blue, cat-like head, barely visible in the tree line, appeared through the thick green underbrush. Its reptilian skin was covered in blue and grey scales. Two long ivory fangs extended down from its upper jaw to either side of its smaller lower jaw. Another set of horns sprouted out from behind erect ears and curved forward around either side of its head.
It was hard to tell for sure, but from the size of its head, the animal had to be at least as big as a horse. Two more blue heads appeared, each about fifty feet to either side of the first, all three eyeing the herd of sages intensely.
The sage elephants went crazy, trumpeting warnings and stomping up and down with their forelegs.
"There's always a bigger hunter," John said, not surprised.
"That's not a hunter, that's a nightmare," Michael said.
The saber at the end of the tree line emerged slowly from the thick foliage. Angular pieces of bone protruded from the blue scales along its shoulders, giving the animal a hellish look. The scales, which became less pronounced the further down its back they went, gleamed in the sunlight. Despite its size, the saber moved gracefully, keeping low to the ground, eyes locked on its prey. A long leathery tail flicked back and forth purposefully.
"Nightmare is right," John muttered.
The closest saber emerged next, moving around to the north. It kept abreast of its companion, keeping low, poised to strike. Its mouth opened and closed, but it either didn't make a sound, or it was too soft for John to hear.
The herd of sages bellowed and pounded the ground mercilessly. Divots formed underneath their powerful blows, filling the air around them with dust and grass. The large sage took up position at the front, shaking its head and trumpeting loud warnings to the advancing sabers.
Both advancing sabers hesitated at the show of strength, but quickly regained their composure. One lowered its head and let out an earsplitting roar, exposing enormous fangs. Its companion repeated the battle cry. They continued to circle around the herd, backing the sages into a tight cluster with the water at their backs.
One of the bigger sages trumpeted and rushed toward the closest saber, stomping down hard with each step and turning its head side to side. The saber snarled and backed up a step.
The sage elephant stopped several feet away from the saber and reared back on its hind legs. It trumpeted and slammed its feet down again. The saber shudder-stepped and answered with a fierce roar of its own. The sage elephant shook its head, turned and hurried back to the herd.
"There's no way those things can take on the entire herd like that," Michael said. "They'll be flattened before they get one or two down."
"Eh, I've seen lions do the same thing to antelope back home," John said. Wendy and Michael gave him identical looks and he shrugged. "I like National Geographic."
Wendy pointed. "Look, the tree line."
Four more sabers emerged from the jungle, all moving with choreographed efficiency. Taking calculated steps, they crossed the clearing, forming a veritable line of death with the first two. They advanced toward the now frantic herd, each seemingly keyed onto a specific target, but all working in unison.
Five of the adult sage elephants stamped forward, pounding the ground and trumpeting. The rest of the herd had backed into the water, the little ones now clearly panicked. The five charging sage elephants rose up simultaneously. When they slammed back down together, the ground shook.
"Damn," John said.
The sabers stopped, exchanging glances as if second-guessing their plan.
"Not lunch today, fellas," Michael said.
The sabers circled in place, snarling, clearly agitated.
Wendy leaned forward in her seat. "I don't think they're through yet."
John opened his mouth to agree, but words didn't come. The saber on the far end of the line moved, crossing the distance with unbelievable speed. It leaped into the air, baring razor-sharp claws, jaw open wide, ready to sink its long eyeteeth into flesh. Its target never had a chance.
The sage elephant wailed as flesh tore and teeth clamped down through fur and muscle. Its long neck whipped around, trying to pummel its attacker, but scored only glancing blows. The saber didn't even seem to notice.
"Holy shit," Michael said.
At once, the other sabers advanced. Two took on the largest sage elephant, attacking it from both sides. The sage elephant bucked and stamped its feet, but all the posturing in the world wouldn't save it now. Within a matter of minutes, the large animal collapsed, only able to kick its legs feebly in defiance while the sabers ate.
When the dust settled, one of the sabers lay dead, its head crushed beneath a sage elephant's powerful leg. The herd, however, lay in a decimated mess of dismembered bodies and sliced flesh. Several managed to escape the slaughter, mainly some of the smaller ones and one or two of the average-sized adults.
The largest sage elephant lifted its head, gave a final defiant roar, then flopped down on the blood-stained grass and lay still.
A stunned silence hung around the tree travelers as the sabers milled around the dead sage elephants, picking and choosing their bites. Their speed and agility was truly amazing for their size.
"They move so fast," John said. "I thought they'd be able to snag one or two, but six? That's incredible."
"Did you see how those claws just sliced through them? Almost like they were paper. They never had a chance."
"I can see why people are reluctant to venture outside the city," John said.
"You know, I have to admit," Michael said, "I've always thought most of the rumors that circulate about the wilderness were all just a load of crap. Stories the Graft made up to scare everyone into not leaving the city. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine anything like that."
"You mean nightmares," John said.
Michael grunted. "You got that right."
"We should probably be going," Wendy said. "I want to give us enough time to set up a good security perimeter tonight."
"You really think anything we set up will defend against something like that?" John asked.
Wendy sighed. "It's better than nothing."
Shaking his head, John pushed the throttle forward, and they lifted away from the devastation below.
After several minutes of silence, Michael laughed. Both John and Wendy turned around, giving him questioning looks.
"What?" Wendy asked.
Michael held up a hand as he suppressed another round of laughter. "I was just thinking," he cleared his throat. "I was just thinking, that if Tom was out here and you said that shit to him, he would've probably flipped his lid."
A mischievous grin spread across Wendy's lips. "It's true."
"You do that shit to him on purpose, don't you?"
"Of course I do, how else do you think I'd survive his constant bitching? Bella does the same thing."
That made him laugh again. "Shit, yeah, she does, for Graft's sake. Sometimes I think she's trying to get him to stroke out."
John tweaked their course slightly, then said, "She's definitely got spirit."
Wendy scoffed and looked up at the scattered clouds above them. "You have no idea."
Wendy pulled her jacket tight against the rain and shivered. Even tucked back into the alcove, the torrential rain was finding ways of reaching her, and she was beginning to regret her decision to become more involved in their operations. Of course, they decide to do this on the rainiest day of the year, she thought. What she wouldn't give for an umbrella. Though, according to Peter, that wouldn't have been very tactically sound.
But I'd be dry. She wondered how Michael and Ace were doing. They were probably holed up in some nice dry place, out of the wind and rain, quietly laughing at her for being stuck out in the storm. She didn't have any room to complain; after all, she had been the one to request the assignment, and even after Peter had attempted to dissuade her, she'd insisted. Now here she stood, cold and wet, cursing the rain and her own dumb stubbornness.
She clicked the small radio in her hand. "Anything?"
The earbud crackled. "No," Ace said.
"Shouldn't he have shown up by now?"
"I don't know."
"He should have shown up," Wendy repeated. "Do you think he spotted us?"
"Quiet," Peter said. "He'll be here. Just keep your eyes open."
Wendy suppressed a sigh. His confidence was one of his most attractive attributes, but damn, it could be annoying. "I am."
"Besides, if he had seen us, this place would be crawling with Enforcement. I haven't seen a patrol yet, which means he doesn't suspect a thing."
"He'll be here, just give it time."
Or so you hope, Wendy decided not to say.
"Remember, it's not just Jukes we're looking for either," Peter reminded them all. "Black's out there somewhere, and where the dealer is, that maniac won't be too far behind."
Everyone in the underground was talking about the Blackhand, even though no one really knew anything about them. They'd appeared out of nowhere, bringing smaller, less-prepared clans under their umbrella of power, and over the last several weeks had been consolidating their power throughout the whole of Midtown. They were disciplined and well organized, and thanks to a mysteriously well-connected weapons dealer, they were well armed. People were calling them the "Vengeance of Neverland", and the way they'd torn through that Enforcement brigade, it was hard to argue the point.
It had taken three entire brigades for Enforcement to finally turn the tide in battle of Vatair, and even then, the City's Army had taken heavy losses. The entire town was talking about it. Some were complaining about the increased Enforcement presence throughout the city, but most were cheering their defeat. The last three weeks had seen a significant rise in anti-Enforcement sentiment, and the amount of support for the clans waging war against them increased. The war for Neverland was in full swing.
Jukes, however, had been an entirely different story. Carter and Harry had searched for weeks, and called in several favors, in an effort to uncover who had made this new rebellion possible. The weapons dealer was surprisingly difficult to track down, and even now, Carter wasn't entirely sure they'd located the correct person. But as soon as they'd presented their findings to Peter, he'd been absolutely sure Jukes was the one responsible.
The dealer, much like the Blackhand, had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and even now, many had no idea who he was. His name was growing in familiarity, however, and now that they'd finally caught up with him, it was easy to see how he'd kept such a low profile. Unlike a lot of the businessmen through the majority of Midtown and Baytown, Jukes kept to himself. He wasn't flashy, and made it a point to never boast or brag about any of his accomplishments. A single bodyguard was with him at all times, and he never stayed in the same place for longer than a week.
Michael had used his last contact with the Enforcers to pull the man's record, which was surprisingly clean. "It's got to be a mistake," the ex-cop had said. "After ten years of dealing with these scumbags, I've never seen anyone with the connections and product this guy has, and have not so much as a speed citation."
"Maybe someone's wiped his record," Ace suggested.
"No way," Carter said. "Harry would have found traces of that during the search, there's no way to wipe out that much of someone's life. Not even the Committee has that much power."
"Don't be too sure about that," Peter said. "See said the same thing a couple of months ago, and now look what he's doing. Dissolving the police because 'they represented a hindrance to the continued security of the city'. I don't put anything past him or his damn Civic Action Committee."
"So where did he come from?" Ace asked. "How did he get his hands on all these weapons?"
Wendy's answer had caused a small uproar within their small group, and Carter had joked with her about it for several days afterward, but it was also the only one of their theories that actually fit the facts. "Maybe he just found them."
Nobody really knew what had happened when the Graft left, or why. But they'd gone in a hurry, and left almost everything behind. There were a lot of Graft strongholds and secret facilities that had been inaccessible to humans before the exodus, and as long as the CAC didn't catch wind of it, if you found it, you kept it. The idea that Jukes just happened to come upon a secret stash of highly advanced weapons was borderline crazy, but not unbelievable.
That stash had been Peter's goal as soon as Wendy had voiced her theory. They'd been following the dealer around Baytown and Midtown for the better part of two weeks, and he'd yet to lead them to it. Ace had suggested it might not even be in Barreen, but Michael had been adamant that it was somewhere within the city's walls.
"He's not going to want to be that far from his treasure," Michael said. "And moving those kinds of weapons around would be a surefire way to get yourself caught, or worse. No, the stash is here somewhere, but he's smart, he's not to know people are on to him, he's not going to lead anyone straight to his honeypot."
"Okay, heads up," Peter said, interrupting Wendy's thoughts. "Wendy, he's heading your way on the north side of the street, should pass you in another minute or so."
Wendy's heart pounded in her chest. Her eyes, that had been dropping for the last twenty minutes, now shot wide-open, scanning the passing crowds. The chill she'd been battling all evening was replaced by white-hot anticipation.
"Wendy, you there? Did you hear me? He's coming toward you."
She shook herself. Get hold of yourself, Wendy. "Yeah, yeah, I heard you. I'm ready."
"Okay, just stay calm. He'll be there in a minute."
"Peter," Michael said, "you want us to move to the backup spot or hang tight?"
"Hang tight. Looks like he's heading home."
"He's running a bit late," Ace said. "That's not like him."
"Forgot about it," Peter told him. "Focus on the plan. Carter, you in position?"
Wendy pictured the street in her mind, remembering where the others were, remembering the plan. She repeated her instructions softly to herself. "Take him to Jay Street. Ace picks him up from there and it'll be a straight shot back to his place."
She concentrated on the opening to the alcove, waiting for the pudgy short man. Time slowed and blood pounded in her ears as she waited. She listened to her breathing, trying desperately to calm to a steady rhythm. Then he was there, his beard tucked into his long dark jacket, hat pulled down over his face. Wendy watched as the man's eyes darted nervously around him, scanning for enemies in the crowd. He didn't look much like a high-end weapons dealer. More like a scared child, trying to get home before his mother yelled at him for being out so late.
The bodyguard kept pace, slightly behind and beside his master. He was a monster of a man, almost six and half feet tall and built like a composite house. Rain pelted bare forearms that were bigger that Wendy's waist. He held a wide-brimmed umbrella in one meaty hand, the other free and waiting to crush any threat.
"I see him," Wendy whispered without moving her jaw. "I—"
Jukes stopped in the middle of the road, fishing for something inside his jacket. He turned his head to say something else and his eyes stopped on the alcove where Wendy stood. She froze, her blood running cold as she felt the dealer's eyes on her.
A second later the dealer turned back to the road, producing a small packet from inside his jacket. The bodyguard reached around him, holding something in front of Jukes. There was a spark, and the dealer leaned forward to light a smoke.
Jukes took a long drag, blew out the smoke, then continued walking down the street. The bodyguard followed silently, both seemingly oblivious to Wendy and her hiding place. Wendy let out a long, slow breath as they disappeared around the corner.
She brought the radio up, but stopped as another person stepped into her line of sight, walking briskly in the direction Jukes had just gone. He was soaked, rain dripping from his dark cobalt jacket, his blond hair matted to his scalp. He turned and locked eyes with her, holding her gaze until he disappeared around the corner. There was something about him…
"Peter, I—" her voice caught again.
"Wendy, what's going on? Are you okay? Michael, can you see her?"
Wendy shook herself. "I'm fine. Jukes just passed me, I'm moving to follow."
She stepped up the edge and peered into the street. The umbrella wasn't difficult to spot, not to mention the mountain carrying it. Movement caught her eye, and the back of the blond man's head appeared in the crowd. He glanced furtively over his shoulder, then turned back as he crossed the street. Wendy followed his gaze, and could've sworn the man was looking at Jukes and his bodyguard.
No, she told herself. You're just being paranoid.
She turned her attention back to the weapons dealer, stepping out from her hiding place to follow. The rain had let up some, she noticed, and she was thankful for that. She flicked water from her sleeves and began zig-zagging her way through the crowded street.
Bright neon lights, displayed on either side of the street, added their multi-colored hue to the pale white street lamps reflecting off the wet concrete. A deep bass rhythm coming from one of the clubs pounded through her so hard she felt it in her teeth. A mirrored window vibrated in time with the beat within. The door next to it opened ahead of her, music pulsing into the street; two girls giggled and laughed their way out of the club. They held each other up, both balancing on their high heels, laughing as they stumbled and bumped into a passing pedestrian.
Both wore barely any clothing at all; what scraps of material they were wearing only just covered their privates. One wore strapped high-heeled boots, the other a pair of platforms that looked awkwardly high. Wendy couldn't understand why women were determined to wear such unpractical clothes.
"Ugh," Wendy told herself, shaking her head. "How do they even think that's attractive?"
A voice answered her, but it didn't come from her earpiece. "I don't think they look all that bad."
Wendy spun, bringing her hand up to slap the offender, but Ace grabbed it, smiling, and held it just inches from his face. "Whoa, easy."
"Damn it, Ace!"
He let go of her hand. "Sorry, Wendy, didn't mean to scare you."
"For Graft's sake, Ace." She put a hand on her chest, trying to quell the pounding within. "What are you doing?"
The older boy shrugged. "I hate just standing around waiting."
Someone let out a high-pitched yelp down the street, and Wendy turned just in time to see the woman in platform heels lose her footing and collapse to the ground. Her companion tried desperately to pull her up, but was no use to her friend in the high-heeled boots. A man in a smart-looking suit stepped up to help the two women, smiling.
Wendy looked back over her should to Ace, one eyebrow arched. "Seriously?"
"Gotta love the heels."
"I really don't understand you men at all."
"We like it that way," Ace said with a grin.
"Hey." Peter's voice chided them over the radio. "Let's try to stay on mission here."
"Right," Ace agreed, putting a hand on Wendy's shoulder.
It only took a second to find the umbrella, and after another cursory scan of the surrounding street, they started off after the weapons dealer. They followed him through growing crowds, making sure to keep plenty of distance between them and their quarry. Now that they had him in their sights, they didn't want to ruin it by giving their position away.
"Okay," Peter said. "Looks like he's making his way back to Thornton Street. Michael?"
"I'm on my way."
Ace leaned close to Wendy and said, "Keep an eye out for spotters here."
Wendy nodded silently, already scanning. Her gaze darted from person to person, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Someone paying too much attention to their surroundings, or trying to look like they weren't. These were all things Peter and Ace had shown her over the last few months, and Wendy liked to think she was getting pretty good at it.
She was about to give the all-clear when she saw him. The back of the blond man's head appeared behind a couple walking arm-in-arm. His hair was starting to curl as it dried in the cool night air.
"Do you see…" She trailed off as the blond man turned abruptly and headed down a side street, away from Jukes and his bodyguard.
"You okay?" Ace whispered in her ear.
Wendy hesitated, watching the man cut through the crowd.
Ace stepped up next to her. "Wendy?"
"Sorry." She shook herself. "I thought I saw—"
"Jukes is stopping." Michael's voice in her ear cut her off.
Wendy and Ace watched as the dealer and his protection left the street, stopping in front of a large department store display. Large brightly lit letters above a windowed storefront read LADEN & KOTCH. Inside the display, headless mannequins wore expensive suits and dresses of various colors and cuts, chalk-white hands and fingers decorated with sparkling jewelry.
"Okay," Peter said, "Wendy, Ace, hang back a minute. Michael, take over."
"Got it," Michael said.
Wendy couldn't see where Michael had set up, but had little doubt he was in the perfect position. The former Enforcer was almost as adept at moving secretly through the city as Carter was. Peter was a good teacher, and she enjoyed the alone time the training afforded them, but there were times when she thought she'd learn more about the underground from the people who'd made it part of their lives for so long.
She felt Ace take her hand, pulling her gently out of the sea of people into a small alley. "Better hang out of sight, Michael's got this."
But it wasn't Michael she was worried about. She turned her eyes from the weapons dealer, and watched as the blond man reached the far side of the street, scanned around, then took up position behind a parked box truck.
"No way he's just out for a stroll."
"What's up?" Ace asked.
She nodded. "I think we have a problem. Black jacket behind the truck, blond hair."
"Yeah, okay, I see him. What's wrong?"
"He was following Jukes back at the alcove too. Look how wet his clothes are, he's been out in the rain all night, just like us."
The man pulled a phone from his jacket and turned away from the street, talking heatedly to someone on the other end. But his eyes, his eyes kept flashing back to where Jukes and his bodyguard still stood admiring the expensive clothes. He wasn't talking to anyone, Wendy realized, he was pretending.
"Everyone's been out in the rain all night," Ace said. "Of course he's wet."
"No, he's not right. He's been eyeing Jukes the last several blocks. Ever since I saw him at the alcove. He's up to something."
Peter's voice came through her earpiece. "Michael, you see him?"
"Yeah, I got him. Definitely looks like he's eyeing our guy. No, wait, he's turning away."
Wendy watched as Blondie turned right and disappeared into the alley behind the truck.
"See," Ace said, "nothing to worry about."
Wendy frowned, not taking her eyes off the alley. "I—ow!"
Someone bumped into her, sending her stumbling sideways. She caught her balance and glared at a bearded old man who considered her with watery, bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol thick on his breath.
"Hey, watch it," she said.
A look of indignation spread across his face. "Hey, yourself," he said, drawing the words out. Then a smile crept across his cracked lips. "You, you're purty. I l—" He hiccupped. "I like you."
"Back off, asshole," Ace said, stepping between them.
The smile disappeared, watery eyes hardened. "I'm n-not talking to you, buddy." He hiccupped again. "I'm talking to th-this li'l lady here."
Ace started for him, but Wendy stopped him. "Thanks," she told the drunk. "But no thanks. Go home."
As she moved to pass him, he reached out, grabbing her with one dirty hand. "Now, yer just hol' on there, missy. I—"
Wendy twisted her hand, breaking his grip the way Peter had shown her, fingers closing around his wrist before he had time to react. She twisted his hand backward, rotating his arm almost completely over. She turned him until he faced away from her and folded his arm across his back.
He cried out in agony. "OW! What the—!"
"Shut up," Wendy said, pushing him away. "Get the hell out of here."
The drunk gave her an angry sideways glance and muttered several curses under his breath while cradling his injured arm, but he moved away as instructed.
"Come on," Ace said, wrapping an arm around her.
A small crowd had formed to watch the show, and were now pointing and jeering at the drunk as he made his way down the sidewalk away from them. Some clapped for Wendy as Ace led her away, while others just shook their heads and continued on.
"Damn it," Wendy muttered.
"You guys have quite an audience down there," Peter said.
Wendy shook her head. "Jerk walked right into me."
"Yeah," Ace agreed.
"Forget it," Peter told him. "Focus on the mission."
She glanced toward the department store, but Jukes was gone. "Shit, where is he?"
"I got him," Michael said, "just turned down Flor Street, heading north, away from the safe house."
Ace craned his neck, looking around the gathered group of people. "You think he's on to us?"
"No telling," Peter said. "He's got to stop eventually. Let's keep the net loose."
Wendy signed, frustrated. "Why don't we just snatch him now?"
"Too risky," Peter said. "Too many witnesses, too many chances for things to go wrong."
"Come on." Wendy took Ace's arm and pulled him through the crowd. They stopped at the corner, and she picked up the umbrella almost immediately. Not getting away that easy, she thought.
Fewer people moved along the two-lane side street than the main street they'd left, but still enough for them to lose themselves in the crowd. A flatbed transported lifted in to the air from the street next to them, quad-turbines whining. Wendy covered her face as she quickly stepped past, holding her breath against the torrent of dust and trash the exhaust tossed into the air.
As the air settled, she wiped her face and spit dirt from her mouth. "Are you serious right now?"
Ace put a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I—" Wendy blinked hard, doing a double-take. She glanced back the way they'd come, then back across the street. "Impossible."
Wendy motioned to the lone man standing slightly in the shadows cast by the flickering street lights, his curly blond hair matted by the rain. His jacket was a different color, green and not black, but it was the same man, she was sure of it.
He couldn't have gotten ahead of us that quickly. She was sure that the mysterious blond man had been heading south as they'd followed Jukes north.
"Wendy, what's wrong?" Ace asked again.
"Something is wrong. That Blondie there, it's the same guy from the alcove, I'm sure of it. But…" She trailed off as the man glanced around, scanning the faces of the passing pedestrians.
Wendy shook her head. "I don't know."
"What's going on?" Peter asked?
Ace gave Wendy an expectant look, shrugging.
Wendy signed. "Something isn't right here."
"Is there a threat?"
"Yes—no, damn it, I don't know."
"Guys," Michael interrupted. "He stopped. Looks like they're scanning for tails."
Ace pulled Wendy behind a rack of vid-phone terminals, out of the weapon dealer's line of sight. She pulled her arm free of his grip, glaring.
She leaned out, keeping her eyes on Blondie. He stood seemingly relaxed, his hands inside his jacket pockets, one shoulder pressed against the dark brick wall. His eyes continually scanned the people moving past. There was something wrong here, Wendy could feel it. The way he was making too much effort to appear like he wasn't paying attention.
To everyone else he just looks like a normal guy, standing on the side of the street, Wendy thought. His eyes, though, they told a different story. They darted around far too quickly and purposefully to simply be people-watching.
Then suddenly, his eyes met hers and stayed there. Wendy held his gaze for a second, then looked away, feeling her cheeks flush. She cursed under her breath, counting silently in her head. After ten seconds, she risked a glance and her stomach instantly turned.
"Shit." She pressed her back to the wall. "He's coming this way. Peter, he's coming right for us."
Wendy barely heard Peter's voice over her heart pounding in her ears. "I'm coming to you. Michael, stay on Jukes."
"Come on," Ace whispered, pulling her completely behind the phone bank.
Wendy couldn't force herself to look directly at the approaching man, but she felt him coming all the same. Must be a lookout for Jukes, she thought. She reached inside her jacket, fingers closing around the grip of the pistol holstered under her arm. "He's made us."
"You don't know that," Ace said.
She risked another glance. He was halfway across the street know, zig-zagging through the crowds. He wasn't looking in their direction any longer, but he was still coming. He has, she decided, popping the clasp on the holster, and began to pull her weapon slowly out.
Her body tensed as Blondie closed, and just as Wendy was about to draw, he stopped, touched a hand to his ear, then abruptly turned and veered back into the street, merging with the crowd. He never gave them a second look as he made his way south, back to the main avenue.
Wendy let out a long breath. "Holy shit."
"You okay?" Peter asked.
"We're fine," Ace told him. "Blondie's on his way back to Crestway."
Carter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, shaking water from his navy-blue rain jacket. "Man, this rain pisses me off. You guys okay? What the hell was all that about?"
"It's not nothing," Wendy interrupted. She jammed her pistol back into its holster, then turned and took off after Blondie.
Behind her Ace said, "Shit, Wendy, wait."
"I want to see what he's doing." She shrugged his hand off her shoulder.
"Wendy, take it easy," Peter warned. "Whoever that guy is, he's not the mission. Jukes is the mission, don't forget that. We don't have time for this."
At the corner, Blondie turned left and disappeared. Wendy quickened her pace, reached the corner a few moments later and stopped. Blondie checked both directions, then crossed the four-lane avenue, making a rude gesture at a car that had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting him.
"Jukes is moving again," Michael said.
"Wendy, stop," Peter said. "Forget about him. If he really was a threat, he wouldn't be leaving the area. Let him go, we have a job to do here."
"Damn it." Wendy stopped under a glowing awning, her eyes never leaving the back of Blondie's head.
Ace came up beside her. "What's your deal with this guy?"
"I don't have a deal. Something isn't right about him."
"Okay, but what, though?"
"I don't know what, but something. He was watching Jukes. Following him like we are."
"Wendy, I didn't see anything like that at all. Maybe he's just walking. Hell, I'm sure a hundred people out here looked at Jukes tonight."
"No," Wendy told him. "He's not just walking, Ace. He's out here for a reason, I know it."
Michael's voice chirped through the radio. "Guys."
They ignored him.
"Look, the chances of this guy working the same mark we are is so remote… I don't even know what the odds are. And besides that, he's leaving. It's kind of hard to follow a guy you're not even watching."
"I know what I saw, Ace."
"Guys," Michael called again.
Carter stepped up between them. "Maybe let's not have this discussion out here right now?"
All three answered Michael in unison. "What?"
"Jukes is leaving the street. He just entered 1637, main floor entrance. Tan door, trimmed with brick."
Wendy turned, just barely catching sight of the bodyguard disappearing through the first-floor entrance to a red brick housing block. He shook the umbrella out over the steps, then closed the door behind them. When she turned back to find Blondie, he was gone.
She ground her teeth together and cursed under her breath.
"I'm almost in position," Peter said.
Wendy and Ace had to rush to get back into position.
"Come on!" Ace took off at a run, Carter close in tow.
Wendy shot another glance around for Blondie and saw no sign. "Damn it."
The string of brick residence towers had been manufactured quickly and cheaply. The multi-shaded brick each was built from was chipped and crumbling. The door Jukes had entered was situated in the middle of the row at the top of a short staircase. The first-floor windows had been boarded over years ago, and only broken shards of glass and twisted frames remained of the windows above.
As Wendy ducked behind a broken-down transport across the street, she caught a flash of movement at the roof. Peter rolled over the ledge and slid down a cluster of pipes, to a balcony on the fifth floor. His movements were so graceful, so smooth and effortless. He leaned over the metal rail and she heard his voice through the com. "Can you guys see anything?"
"No," Ace told him. "All the windows are covered."
There was a moment of silence and Wendy cursed under her breath. What are you thinking? She had a feeling that whatever it was, she wasn't going to like it.
"All right," Peter said, "hold tight, I'm going see if I can get a better look."
Wendy jumped to her feet as she realized what he planned to do. "Peter, don't you dare do—"
He was over the rail and dropping through the air before she could finish. His feet bounced off the balcony rail on the floor below, sending him into a backward somersault. Wendy's breath caught in her throat as he flipped, grabbed the edge of the balcony and swung down, feet first, through the remains of the third-floor window.
"Damn it, Peter." Wendy ducked down behind the transport. Carter appeared next to her shaking his head, smiling. Wendy pointed a finger at him. "And you encourage him."
Ace held up his hands. "Hey, I'm down here, he's up there."
"What now?" Carter asked.
"We sit tight," Ace told him.
Wendy turned back the abandoned building. "We can't just sit here and do nothing."
"That's exactly what we're going to do," Ace said. "Pan knows what he's doing."
"Oh, come on, Ace, you know as well as I do he doesn't have a plan at all."
Ace answered him, "Move across the street, Michael, you're in the best position to get in there quickly."
"Okay," Peter said, "Michael, how close are you to the front entrance?"
"All right, I've got eyes on. It's just the three of them, I'm pretty sure I can take Jukes and the other one without a problem. Ace, you and Michael jump on Big Ugly. Wendy, Carter, watch our backs. Make sure no one comes in behind us."
"Three?" Wendy said. "Who's the third one?"
"Some blond kid, I don't know. Ace, you ready?"
Panic shot through Wendy's body. "Blond? Peter, no!"
Peter ignored her. "Go!"
Ace jumped to his feet, leaving their hiding place, ignoring Wendy's shouts for him to stop. She saw Michael in her peripheral, zig-zagging through the crowd toward the apartment's front door. Wendy moved to follow, but hands grabbed her and pulled her back.
"No!" Carter hissed. "We stay put, Pan said! It'll be okay, he's got a plan."
She shook him off. "He always says he has a plan, but he really never does."
Ace and Michael reached the steps one right after the other and bounded up without stopping. Wendy slapped a palm down on the transport truck's flatbed, immediately regretting it as pain shot up her arm. Again, she'd been pushed to the sidelines. She brushed wet strands of hair out of her face, deciding that regardless of how tonight went, she was going to let Peter have it when the night was over. And he would listen this—
"Oh, shit!" Wendy dropped down, peering over the flatbed. "Shit, shit, shit."
Carter leaned close. "What?"
The blond man appeared in a crowd moving across the street a block north of their position. He looked back over his shoulder and picked up his pace, jogging to the far side of the street. When he reached the sidewalk he touched his ear, mouthed something that might have been a curse, then took off at a sprint, heading straight for the door Ace and Michael had just entered.
Without knowing exactly what she was going to do, Wendy jumped to her feet and ran for the door. Horns blared and tired squealed on wet pavement as she ran, barely noticing. Blondie was up the stairs and through the door without giving her so much as a cursory glance. Somewhere in the distance she heard Carter shouting, but couldn't understand the words. She took the stairs two at a time and pulled the pistol from its holster, praying she wasn't too late.
Wendy shouldered through the door and practically fell through the entryway into a large open room, stumbling through several steps before she was able to catch herself. She saw everything at once, but it took her several seconds to actually comprehend what she was seeing.
Blondie stood just a few feet in front of her, looking back at her over his shoulder, his arm raised, a pistol in hand, the weapon pointed directly at Michael's head. Michael also had his pistol out, pointed at the bodyguard, standing five feet way. The bodyguard had two guns up, one pointed back at Michael, the other at Ace. Ace had his pistol aimed at Jukes, who was standing very still, the point of Peter's shiftblade hovering centimeters from his neck. Peter also had his pistol out, aimed at…
Impossible, Wendy thought. Twins?
She looked from the blond man a few feet away and the blond on the far side of the room. Aside from how they were dressed, the two men looked identical, right down to their curly hair.
"Ah," Jukes said. "Finally. I was hoping this sausage-fest would be short-lived. Welcome, little lady, I'd offer you a drink, but…"
"I said shut up," Peter told him.
"Honestly," the blond at the far end said. She realized he'd been the first one she'd seen back at the alcove. Blondie One continued, "You guys need to put down your guns before this gets really nasty."
Ace laughed. "Us? Can't you count? You're outnumbered here, bud. Four to two are horrible odds in any game."
"We're not putting our guns down," Peter said. "We have important business with Jukes here."
"Not until we're through with him," Blondie One said.
"There, you see," Jukes said, still smiling. "It's rude to interrupt business. Though," he gave Peter a confused look, "I don't remember putting either of you on tonight's schedule. Perhaps there's been a clerical error? Oak here is a terrible secretary."
The big man gave Jukes a hurt look. "But—"
"I said shut up," Peter repeated. He looked over his shoulder at Blondie Two. "You guys are making a big mistake here. I'm not sure want you're after, but you're not going to get it tonight."
Blondie Two looked past them all to his twin. "I guess that depends on what you're after, because we're here for him, too." He indicated Jukes with his pistol.
Jukes let out a loud, sarcastic laugh. "For Graft's sake. Honestly, here I was looking forward to a nice cold pale and taking it easy for a night, and it turns out I'm double booked. What a predicament! Well, I would say I'm sorry for the mix-up, but—"
An explosion ripped through the ceiling, and a ten-foot hole appeared as the rest collapsed in a cloud of debris and dust. Ace and Michael only just dove out of the way, and the bodyguard was knocked backward against the far wall. Jukes ducked away, covering his face from the blast, and Peter took several steps back, staying close to the dealer.
A chorus of coughing filled the air as a thick cloud of dust rolled through the room. Wendy looked up through a gaping hole in the ceiling into the floor above. A green light seemed to grow near, brightening as it neared the hole. Tendrils of coherent green light licked down just as two small boots floated down through the opening. Wendy squinted against the bright pulsing light, trying to understand what was happening.
A girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, touched down in the middle of the rubble, a large grin on her face. Her bright blue hair was done up in several thick spikes, pointing out in all directions. She wore a maroon vest over a tight, grey sleeveless shirt, and skin-tight maroon pants, which disappeared into calf-high boots.
She barked a cough.
Blondie One brushed off his jacket. "Subtle."
"Oh, screw this!" Jukes said, pushing himself up to his feet.
Peter moved quickly, crossing to Jukes and disarming him with a twist of his hand. "Not so fast."
"Ow!" Jukes cried, grabbing his wrist, dropping to one knee. He looked across the room to his bodyguard. "Oak, do something, you idiot!"
The barrel-chested man was having trouble picking himself out of the rubble. He stepped on something, losing his footing and crashing back down to his knees. Whatever he'd tripped on slid across the floor to Michael, who stopped it with a foot. He picked up the bodyguard's oversized pistol, and examined the weapon.
"Huh, not as heavy as it looks."
The bodyguard stumbled to his feet, reaching for the lost weapon. "That's mine!"
With an effort Michael aimed the pistol. "Easy there, big fella."
"Fucking grab that little bastard and go to work, Oak!"
The bodyguard looked back and forth between his boss and his gun, a mask of confusion and fear on his face.
Jukes tried to pull away from Peter, but failed. "You're all dead. You hear me? Dead. Do you have any idea who you're messing with? Oh, boy, did you pick the wrong house tonight. None of you are going to see the light of dawn, I can guarantee you that."
Wendy crossed the room and, without hesitation, punched him dead in the face. The dealer's head snapped back and his legs collapsed underneath him.
Peter grunted, shifting to hold the unconscious man's weight. "Damn it, Wendy."
The girl burst out into laughter, doubling over, pointing. "Holy crap, that's the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
"You just blew through a floor," Blondie Two pointed out.
She straightened, hands on her hips. "Yeah, I did, didn't I?"
"Okay, enough," Blondie One said. He turned to Peter. "Look, I don't know who you people are, my sister's little pyrotechnic show is sure to have been noticed. I don't know about you all, but I sure don't want to be here when Enforcement shows up."
Peter nodded. "Michael, Ace, help me with Jukes. Carter, we need transportation."
"Got it," Carter said, heading for the door.
The girl cocked her head to the side. "You guys need a ride?"
Bella shivered again, rubbing her hands against her arms in a vain effort to work some warmth back into her body. A thick fog had rolled in, making it impossible to see the bow of the ship. Not that she could see anything without the fog. They'd been on the move for several days now, and she'd given up trying to figure out where they were.
A cluster of deck hands ran by, talking in clipped, excited tones. They began clearing the deck as a second group appeared and started cleaning everything from the gunwales to the deck. They hadn't been this active in days.
"Hey," Bella whispered, reaching over and gently touching her brother's shoulder. He twitched away from her touch and Bella grimaced, hoping she hadn't hurt him. "Tom, wake up."
Tom rolled over slightly, his eyes bloodshot and confused. He spent most of his time sleeping, he needed it, and Bella tried hard not to wake him most of the time. The cut above his eye he'd received during the last session had finally stopped bleeding, though his eye was still swollen shut and dried blood still covered his forehead.
"What is it? What's wrong?" he asked, his voice weak and broken from the pain.
"Something's happening." She nodded to the busy crewmen.
Tom hissed in pain as he pushed himself up onto his elbows. He watched for a moment, then said, "How long have I been out this time?"
"About six hours."
"That's longer than usual."
Bella nodded. "We hit this patch of fog this morning. I guess we're still over the ocean, I haven't seen anything but water for two days now."
Tom reached up, gingerly examining his swollen eye. "Maybe they're taking us somewhere for some rest and relaxation. I think I'm finally wearing them down."
He shook his head. "It's okay, I don't remember the last session, so it must have gone pretty well."
"It's been getting worse."
Everyday two crewmen would take Tom away, question him for hours, then bring him back. Never Bella, they left her alone for the most part--sometimes pushing her when they came for Tom, but they never took her away.
"The only good thing about the sessions is it gets me out of this damn chill for a while," Tom said, rubbing his wrists.
"You'd think they'd give us blankets or something."
Tom laughed. "Hell, sis, they barely give us food, do you think they give a damn whether we're comfortable or not?"
"I'd really like to know where they're taking us."
"Oh, I'm sure wherever it is, we'll have our own personal tour guide to show us around and give us the lay of the land."
Bella laughed. "Maybe a handful of butlers to bring us food on big silver platters?"
"Now you're talking."
Bella pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. "Mmmm, and neverberries and a cold pale." She licked her lips. "Damn, what I wouldn't give for a pale right now."
"Me too. Hey, careful." Tom nodded to an approaching guard.
The man was dressed in Regency black and red. Bella had seen him before: Rogers, the first officer. His jet-black beard sharply contrasted his pale skin. He hadn't been mean to them, but hadn't gone out of his way to be kind either. In fact, he'd seemed to go out of his way to avoid them during the entire trip.
"Get up," Rogers said, motioning for them to stand.
Four Regency Guardsmen, wearing smoke-grey uniforms and body armor, appeared behind him.
"Go to hell," Bella said, then spat through the bars.
Rogers smiled. "Miss Bella, I understand your anger, but trust me when I tell you that cooperation is the best thing you could for yourself. Especially today."
Bella frowned. "Why?"
"Please, just get up. My men can help you if you're unable."
Bella pulled herself to her feet. "I don't need any help. I—"
Bella trailed off as the cloud cover faded. The barge rose above the clouds, and bright sunlight washed over the deck. She raised a hand, squinting against the light. As her eyes adjusted, she glanced out past the bow and her breath caught in her throat.
Several hundred meters away, another ship floated in the sky, its enormous hull dwarfing their small vessel. It was the biggest ship she'd ever seen. The twin-hulled behemoth was easier six times the length of the Revenge, and three times as wide. Several cannon turrets protected the wide deck that connected the two hulls. A huge superstructure rose up from the deck about two-thirds of the way back from the bow, stretching all the way back to the massive engines in the rear. The underside of the hull was covered in thick armor plating, broken only for turret emplacements and clusters of sensors.
Long wings extended out from the control tower at the top of the superstructure, forming a "V". A line of windows wrapped around the front of the tower, looking down over the deck filled with various aircraft.
A pair of sleek fighters shot past their barge, banking high to join two others as they flew past the massive ship.
"It's the Pride," Tom whispered.
Bella turned and helped him up, making sure he had a good hold on the bars before letting him go.
"That's right," Rogers said.
The barge slowed, passing over the edge of the Pride, descending toward the foredeck. It settled onto its landing struts a minute later; then Rogers and the guards escorted Bella and Tom off the barge to the deck below.
A platoon of Regency soldiers awaked them, standing in formation, forming two lines leading to a hatch at the base of the superstructure.
Rogers motioned for them to stop about halfway across the deck.
The hatch opened, and a tall figure stepped out. In an instant Bella knew who it was.
Hook walked with a slight limp. His black Regency uniform was trimmed in red and his red cape billowed in the wind as he made his way toward them. Bella cringed at the sight of his mechanical arm, its oversized metal fingers opening and closing as he walked.
"Ah, finally we meet the ingenious Bella and the fearsome Tom," Hook said, stopping a few feet from them. He pointed one of his long mechanical fingers. "You two have been a considerable thorn in my side for quite some time."
"Glad to hear it," Bella said, forcing herself to stand tall.
"Such a firecracker," Hook said. "I'm honored to have you aboard my ship. She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"I'm glad you like her; she is my pride and joy, after all. I do hope you enjoy your stay with us."
"I hope you die a long and painful death."
"Yes, well, I'm sure you're not the only one who shares those sentiments."
"What do you want?" Tom asked, pulling against the guard holding him up.
"A great many things, my friend. Not the least of which is the location of your friends. I would very much like to meet the fascinating Wendy I've heard so much about."
"If you think we're going to tell you that, you're dumber than you look," Bella said.
"Indeed," Hook said with a smile. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that, of course. I would've hoped for a little bit of cooperation. But, alas, perhaps that was too much to hope for. We will talk later. Some time on the Pride may help you reconsider your position."
"I doubt that."
"We will see, young lady. We will see. Take them to the Pits, Commander. I'm sure our guests will have a change of heart once they see what becomes of people who don't cooperate."
"Look," Peter said, pointing, "there's another one."
Wendy pulled the maroon curtain back. From her vantage point, just inside the bay window of their twenty-story apartment, she could see more of Barreen than she'd ever seen before. Her eyes darted over the dozen or so skiffs moving around the tall skyscrapers of Baytown, trying to find the one Peter was meaning. She was about to give up when she saw it: the unmistakable black hand painted on the skiff's silver fuselage.
"What is that, three now?"
Peter nodded, adjusting the harness. Wendy rolled her eyes. He'd been itching to test Bella's new harness for weeks now, and Wendy had a feeling that no matter how today went, Peter would find an excuse to use it.
"They've got some pretty impressive electronic countermeasures running over there," Carter told them from the back of the room. "I'm having trouble even connecting to the building's control net."
"Can you get through?" Peter asked.
"Not sure. This would be a lot easier if Harry were here."
A loud clap made everyone in the small apartment jump. Wendy grabbed for her rifle, heart pounding in her ears. She cursed when she found the cause of the sound and glared at him. "Damn it, Tom!"
The blond twin she'd forever marked as Blondie Two—or "asshole," depending on the day--looked up from the rifle he was cleaning and returned her glare with mock surprise. "What happened?"
Bella snickered, but quickly hid her smile when Wendy turned her glare to the blue-haired girl.
Peter ignored the exchange, looking at Carter. "Can you get through?"
"Yeah, it's just going to take me a little bit," Carter said.
Tom set the rifle aside and stretched his legs out on the couch. "By all means, take your time."
"Hey," Wendy told him. "If you've got somewhere else you'd rather be, by all means."
"Oh, trust me, sweetheart, there are many other places I'd rather be right now, but if you think I'm going to let you all screw up this thing, you're crazy."
"Then stop complaining and do something productive," Wendy said.
Tom picked up another rifle. "What do you think I've been doing for the last hour?"
Wendy rolled her eyes and turned back to the window. Arguing with him would only make her angry, and that wouldn't solve anything. She stared across to the tall building two blocks away and wondered just what Black was doing in there.
They'd been tracking his men for weeks, watching as they systematically picked apart Enforcement and the Civic Action Committee. It was surprising how efficient they were. They'd tried, without any success, to identify their leader, but the man they knew as Captain Black was notoriously paranoid and came above ground only on rare occasions.
As it turned out, Jukes had known very little about where all these new weapons were coming from, and less about who was actually responsible for finding them. He'd only met this Rendlee once, and that was several months ago when they'd first agreed to work together.
"A handful of money speaks louder than anything in the world," Jukes told them. "Don't really make a difference where the money's coming from."
However, despite not being able to give them his supplier, Jukes was able to point out the buyer. "His name is James, that's all I know. We meet in Baytown about once a week."
"You can do better than that," Peter had told him, pressing the shiftblade just a little harder into the weapon dealer's thigh.
"Okay! Okay!" Jukes cried, skimming away from the sharp blade. "I have a contact number. We connect about once a week to set up deals, that's it."
Peter held out a comm. "Call him."
It had taken Jukes several minutes to compose himself enough to make the call, but even he was surprised when the tall, dark-haired man named James said, "Jukes! Long time no see, I was worried something had happened to you. Unfortunately, we no longer require your services. It was a good arrangement, but it doesn't make any sense to go through you for the equipment when we can just go straight to the source. Stay out of trouble."
The connection terminated and Jukes looked up at Peter, dumbfounded. "I…I…"
"Well, that's just great," Tom said. "Now what?"
"Actually, this is a good thing," Michael said.
Peter raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"Well, we know where James is, right? So if he's dealing with the source of the weapons…"
Peter snapped his fingers. "He'll lead us right where we want to go."
And, much to Wendy's surprise, he had done just that. Unlike the mysterious Captain Black, this James hadn't been one to stay in the shadows. Three days of tracking him through the city had brought them here, to one of the densest population centers in Baytown, and to what the Lost Boys hoped was their answer to their war.
"Almost got it," Carter said.
"Who do you think this Rendlee guy even is?" Bella asked, getting up from her spot on the floor and moving over behind Wendy and Peter.
"Someone who knows a shit ton about Neverland," Carter said.
"Eh," Tom said. "Maybe it's just some lucky ass who stumbled on a gold mine. Not like it hasn't happened before."
"I don't think so," Peter said. "People have been hunting for Graft tech ever since they left. I'd think if there was any left, it would have been found already."
He's always so damned confident, Wendy thought. Peter had been wrong on a handful of occasions since he'd saved her, not that you'd know it by listening to him talk. He always sounded so convincing. And even more difficult to discount were his eyes; they were always so captivating.
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm good. I'm okay," she answered, turning away, face flushed. Despite her embarrassment, she couldn't resist, and turned back to look into his bright green eyes. They made everything around her meaningless. She felt something stir inside her, something deep and powerful.
She opened her mouth to tell him, but the words never left her lips. Michael's voice came through their comms. "Hold on, guys, who's this? Balcony, about twenty floors up."
It was too far away to really make out his face without the binoculars, but Wendy could see an average sized-man looking down over the city, hands on the railing in front of him. The long black coat he wore flapped in the breeze, covering his all black clothes.
Captain Black, she thought.
"He's here," Peter said.
Behind her, Tom jumped up, moving to the window. "No shit? I'll be damned."
Peter stood, shedding his jacket, revealing the harness strapped around his torso. "Bastard's never going to know what hit him."
"What are you doing?" Wendy asked, the knot in her stomach twisting. "You're not seriously going after him, are you?"
He laughed. "Well, what the hell did you think we came all this way for? Just to sit and watch? We can cut the head off this snake right here and end this war before it really gets started."
"Hold on," Bella said, stepping between them. "This thing looks a little cockeyed." She took hold of the straps and began adjusting them around Peter's frame.
Blood pounded in Wendy's ears as she glared at the girl's spiked blue hair and before she knew what she was doing, she stood and forced herself between the girl and Peter. "I'll take care of it."
"Hey, okay, no need to push anyone." Bella stepped away, hands in the air. "I'm just trying to help."
"Wendy, what are you doing?" Peter hissed under his breath.
She glared back at him, speaking through clenched teeth. "I'm adjusting your straps."
"Yeah, I—" He grunted as Wendy yanked the strap tight. "Damn, Wendy, easy."
"Okay," Tom said, "he's gone back in."
Peter pressed the control panel on his harness. "Michael, you ready?"
The hair on Wendy's arms stood on end as the harness powered up, green lines of energy beginning to wrap around his body. A strange tingling sensation washed over her body as the pulsing energy grew more intense, until the harness bathed the entire room in a bright emerald hue.
"Yeah, we're ready," Michael answered. "Just let us know when."
Wendy stepped away from Peter, not sure whether it was the pulsing energy in front of her or the mission that was making her nauseous. "I don't like this."
Peter lifted slightly off the floor, grinning. "See? All it takes it a little positive thinking and away you go."
Wendy crossed her arms and glared at him. Why did he have to be so damned arrogant and nonchalant about everything? It's going to get you in trouble someday, she refused to say aloud.
"Uh, guys," Carter said, sounding somewhat worried. "I'm in."
They all turned to the younger boy, the flickering glow of his screens reflecting off his pale skin.
"How many?" Peter asked.
"Not sure. Seven, maybe eight. And it looks like they have a skiff waiting on the platform on the other side of the building." He shook his head. "But I'm still getting some pretty bad interference. There could be more and I'm just not seeing it."
"Doesn't matter," Peter said, turning for the balcony.
Wendy gave him a horrified look. "It does too matter."
"No, it doesn't, Wendy. There are some really bad things happening in Neverland right now, and I'm not just going to stand by and watch them happen. There's a war coming. A war we might be able to stop right here, if we're lucky. There's no way in hell I'm passing this opportunity up."
Tom lifted a finger. "Uhh… "
"What?" Peter snapped.
"I don't mean to interrupt your speech or anything, but I was just curious who we had climbing up the side of the building over there."
Peter flexed his jaw muscles, eyes rolling. "We don't have anyone climbing up the side of the building."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Tom pointed.
They all turned and saw what Tom was seeing. Three figures were working their way up the side of the building, just below Rendlee's apartment.
Wendy snatched up the binoculars. All three wore a mishmash of dark browns and blacks. They wore a strange kind of mask which covered their faces, the clothes covered with some kind of plated armor. All three had rifles strapped to their backs, and they appeared to be climbing without the help of any equipment at all. A long mane of black hair, sticking out from the lead climber's helmet, blew in the wind. Bright orange bands, tied every few inches, held the hair in a long ponytail
"It's a girl," Wendy said.
"Who cares what they are," Tom said, coming up behind them. "Where'd they come from?"
"More importantly," Peter said, "what are they going to do?"
"Hey, guys, what's going on?" Michael asked through the comm.
Wendy snatched it up before Peter could respond. "Michael, wait. There's something…"
They saw the explosion before they heard it. Glass, concrete and steel blew apart, debris streaming into the air. The three climbers pulled themselves over the balcony and disappeared into the apartment before the fire had a chance to die down.
"They're attacking?" Wendy said.
"Come on!" Peter leapt from the window, spreading his arms out wide. The harness' energy output increased, the pulsing quickening to an almost steady glow.
Someone pushed past Wendy, another flash of green, and Wendy cursed as Bella followed Peter into the afternoon air. The two soared between the buildings, spinning and twisting around each other. Peter grinned back at Wendy for a moment, then turned and shot toward the dwindling flames.
She raised the comm. "Michael!"
"Yeah, we saw him," Michael said, the frustration heavy in his voice.
Gunfire echoed in the distance.
"Damn it, Peter." Wendy grabbed her rifle from where it stood against the window frame, and laid it across the balcony's metal railing. Through the optics, she could clearly make out the smoke curling from the gaping hole, and flames dancing within. Something flashed across her enhanced field of view, and she leaned back to see Peter spinning sideways, flying around to the north side of the tower, Bella close on his heels. They touched down a few moments later and disappeared into the building.
"Damn it, Peter," Wendy hissed, sitting up. "He always does this."
"Does what?" Tom asked.
Wendy waved an exasperated hand at the smoking tower. "Goes off all half-cocked without thinking things through. And I'm stuck out here not knowing if he's okay or what to do or anything."
Tom raised an eyebrow at her.
Instantly, she realized what she'd said and stuttered to cover herself. "I, I mean if they're okay, everyone. The mission. I'm worried about the mission."
"Uh-huh." Tom slowly nodded in obvious disbelief.
Wendy flushed and turned away. "I just hate sitting on the sidelines."
"Sucks being on the sidelines, doesn't it?"
Wendy looked back at him, frowning.
"You know, always being on the outside, picking up the pieces. Bella's the same way. Younger or not, she runs this family." He gave a half-grin and nodded toward the smoking tower. "They're perfect for each other."
A sudden ball of hot anger turned in Wendy's stomach and before she could stop herself, she said, "No! He's mine!"
Tom leaned back, eyes wide in surprise. "Uh…"
"God damn it!" Wendy said, turning away again, blood pounding in her ears. She felt his eyes boring into the back of her head, the sounds of battle outside fading to a distant murmur.
Get hold of yourself, Wendy, she thought, tightening her grip on the rifle. But she couldn't stop the images of Peter and Bella running through her mind. The thought of walking straight up to that little blue-haired twit and punching her right in the nose kept interrupting the image of the two holding each other close. Wendy wouldn't allow that. Peter was hers; she just had to find a way to tell him that.
A scream pierced the gunfire, bringing Wendy back from her thoughts. A body falling away from the smoking building caught her attention. She gasped, terrified it was Peter, then breathed easy as another figure emerged from the smoke and appeared to stand on thin air, his hands on his hips.
Tom laughed. "Well, I'll say this about your boyfriend, he's got flash."
"He's not my boyfriend!" Wendy snapped.
"Oh, shit, look out!"
Tom pointed just as the building behind Peter erupted in a barrage of cannon fire. He shot away from the series of small explosions, spinning through the air, trailing bands of green energy. A skiff flew past Wendy's vantage point, the image of an open black hand painted on its fuselage. It angled toward Peter, cannons blazing.
Peter's glowing form disappeared behind the tower just as another skiff shot past Wendy's window. Auto-cannons fired, their reports reverberating through the onlookers as it chased down the Blackhand skiff. Both skiffs banked away from the tower, heading deeper into Baytown, banking and turning through the towering skyscrapers.
"Ha!" Tom cried. "That's a boy, Tim! Give 'em hell!"
Tim's voice crackled over the comm. "Damn, these guys are fast!"
"You going to be able to handle them all by yourself?" Tom asked.
"Shit, I don't think they're even wanting to fight, they're heading out of the area at full speed."
As the skiffs disappeared into the forest of buildings, Wendy turned her attention back to the smoking tower. Gunfire continued to echo through the air, but the battle remained confined to the interior of the skyscraper. She brought up her rifle, peering through the optics, but Peter was nowhere in sight. A lone skiff appeared from behind the building, moving slowly at first, but picking up speed as it lifted higher into the air, heading away from the fight.
Wendy lifted the comm. "Peter? Bella? What's going on over there?"
Peter sounded out of breath. "Did you guys just see a skiff take off out of here?"
"One just took off," Wendy said.
The skiff banked and flew past Wendy's position, heading for Midtown. She couldn't miss the large black hand.
"Son of a bitch!" Peter yelled. "That's him!"
A second later Peter emerged through the smoking hole. He paused briefly in midair, then found what he was looking for and took off after the skiff. Wendy leaned over the balcony, watching as he shot through the air, but even she could tell it was no use. The skiff flew hard, its engines screaming as it angled still higher. Peter didn't have a chance, he'd never catch it.
Peter seemed to come to the same realization a second later, and let out a long string of curses. He turned and flew back, more slowly this time. When he spoke, he sounded frustrated and tired. "Tim, if you haven't already, break off. Grab the rest on your way back and meet us over here. Bring a medkit."
The smell of gunfire, dead bodies, and energy blasts filled the darkened corridor as Wendy and the Lost Boys neared Rendlee's apartment. The eggshell walls were pocked with bullet holes, discolored and scarred by blast marks. Light panels along the ceiling flickered. A loud pop echoed around them as one of the panels exploded in a shower of sparks.
Wendy stopped short when a man, who'd been squatting over one of the dead, looked up. She recognized him immediately as one of the climbers, his mask now pushed up on top of his head, revealing a painted face underneath. Black circles of war paint surrounded each eye, and red jagged streaks ran diagonally across his face, giving him a menacing look. He considered her for a minute, then turned back to the figure lying on the floor. Wendy's stomach twisted when she saw a matching helmet lying on the ground beside the still warrior.
"My God," Wendy whispered.
"Nice hat," Tom muttered.
Peter took her gently by the arm. "Come on."
The inside of Rendlee's apartment wasn't much better than the corridor leading to it. Smoldering fires still burned near the gaping hole in the side of the building, and light filtered into the apartment through the smoke, still curling into the sky outside. It wasn't a very big apartment, just one main room and a small en suite off to the left. What little furniture it had was pushed to the side, leaving a large open space in the main lounge.
Bella leaned against the doorframe leading into the suite, arms crossed. Dirt and grime smudged her face, and her blue hair was disheveled from the fight. She nodded as they entered. The third climber, her black hair still tied in a long ponytail, stood opposite the girl, hand on a holstered pistol. Her mask was up as well, revealing a deeply tanned face painted red and black. Between them, a naked, barely-conscious man sat in a chair, head hanging slightly to one side, eyes barely open.
"What the hell is this?" Wendy asked, shooting Peter a confused look.
"And I'm okay, thanks for asking," Bella said.
Something flashed near Wendy's head, and she ducked instinctively. A small silver orb hovered in the air, spinning. After a moment, it glided silently to the seated man. It stopped near his chest, a band of dull orange light appearing from it, passing over the man's torso and head.
Wendy turned to Peter for an explanation. He shook his head, holding a finger to his lips.
"Come on, Rendlee," the woman said. "We need to know."
The man in the chair coughed. When he spoke, his voice was weak and raspy. "I… I don't think—" Another fit of coughing cut him off. He raised a hand to cover his mouth. Red ligature marks, where he'd been tied to the chair, surrounded his wrist. His face was a bruised and bleeding mess.
He took a long breath as the coughing fit subsided, then said, "I'm sorry. I just… I just couldn't wait any longer. The Elders, they're weak. They'd never act. I had to do something. If I didn't act, who would, Lily? You?"
The woman sighed. "It wasn't your place to act. That's the Elder's decision."
Rendlee coughed again, shaking his head. Lily squatted down in front of him, putting her hands on his knees. Even through the war paint, Wendy could see that she cared deeply for the wounded man. Tears began to stream down his dirty cheeks. "Please, don't tell Fran. I can't… I couldn't bear that."
Lily shook her head. "You've always been such a fool, Rendlee. Do you think she doesn't know already?"
A mixture of coughing and sobbing came over Rendlee, his shoulders bouncing.
The third warrior entered the apartment behind the Lost Boys, making his way to the small table about the right wall. He started to pick through the pile of electronics and other small effects as Lily and Rendlee continued their conversation.
"How much did you tell them?" Lily asked. When he didn't answer, she said more firmly, "Rendlee? Did you tell them about the Sanctum?"
At that, Rendlee's eyes came fully open and he lifted his head to look at her. "No, I didn't."
"Are you sure?"
"The Sanctum and everyone in it are safe."
The woman gave an obvious sigh of relief.
All four gave a start as the other warrior barked a curse and slammed a fist onto the table. "It's not here," he said, glaring at the wounded Rendlee.
"Where is it, Rendlee?"
"He gave it to them," the man growled.
Rendlee shook his head. "No. They took it. I didn't have a choice."
The woman popped the latch on her holster with her thumb, standing.
Wendy stepped forward. "Whoa, you can't kill him."
"Back off, girl," the woman snapped. "This is none of your concern."
"Please, Lily, I beg you…"
The woman leveled the pistol at Rendlee's head. "You don't get to beg me. You betrayed the Sanctum and endangered the lives of your people. You have forfeited your right to beg."
Wendy could've sworn the man, beaten and bleeding and on the verge of death, laughed. He looked up, past the barrel of the pistol, into the woman's dark eyes. "What life? The Sanctum is no life, it's a death sentence. Why should we spend our lives in squalor while these bastards enjoy everything Nevaris has to offer? For what? Waiting for a victory you and I both know will never come?"
"And what are the costs of these luxuries you've been enjoying? They've certainly cost you much. If Black finds the Fortress…"
"But if he does… Will they be able to access the core?"
Rendlee sat forward and buried his head in his hands. He spoke through his sobs. "Yes, but I doubt they'll be able to interface with the systems. You know how long it took us."
"You're talking about the Graft weapon, aren't you?" Peter asked.
The woman shot him a confused look. "What do you know about it?"
"I don't," Peter told her. "Not really. But we've been tracking this guy down for a while, knowing he'd probably found another lost stash. The dealer he's been working with got a little greedy, started selling to the wrong people. If Black's got hold of it, there's no telling what will stop him."
The woman stood, folding her arms across her chest. "I thought you said you were a friend?"
"I am, we are. We've been fighting against Black for a while now. We were hoping to stop him here." Peter stepped forward, offering his hand. "I'm Pan. These are my friends, the Lost Boys."
She considered him for a moment before taking the offered hand. "Lilliana of the Redleen. That's Brycin. I don't think I've heard of your clan before."
Peter grinned. "That's the way we like it."
"It appears as though you're already familiar with Graft weaponry," Lily said, nodding to the shiftblade on Peter's belt. The silver orb shot forward in a blink, stopping inches from the padded hilt, its orange beam passing over it.
Peter put a hand over the hilt, as if protecting it from the orb's scan. "A little."
"I'm impressed. Operating Graft technology isn't something the average people can understand. I'm surprised you can handle it."
"I do okay."
"Telekinetic operation is a really interesting science," Bella said. "Then again, most of the tech I've worked with requires a more sophisticated controller method than we're able to produce. Whoever they were, the Graft had tremendous mental capabilities."
Lily gave Bella a surprised look. "You understand Graft scientific theory?"
"Eh, I grasp the high points." The blue-haired girl shrugged. "It's what I based the GDF on."
Bella pointed at the harnesses she and Peter wore. "Gravity Defying Fliers. Designed them myself. Built them myself."
Lily considered the harnesses for a moment. "Impressive."
Bella shrugged again. "I like to tinker."
Irritated, Wendy said, "Okay, but what are we going to do about Black? It doesn't sound like he has this weapon yet, whatever the hell it is. So we can still stop him, right?"
Lily exchanged a look with the other Redleen, who'd moved away from the table and was now just standing, watching the exchange. He considered her for a moment, then gave a noncommittal shake of his head. "Even if we can beat Black to the Fortress, it's unlikely we'd be able to keep him from the weapons."
"But we have to try," Wendy said, aware of the desperation in her voice and not caring. "We can't just sit back and let Black win."
"Do you know where he's going?" Peter asked.
Lily looked at Brycin, who nodded.
"Well then, let's go."
"It will not be an easy fight," Lily warned.
Peter laughed, patting the shiftblade's hilt. "Easy isn't in our vocabulary."
Behind Wendy, Tom spoke up. "What about him?"
The Redleen woman looked down at the still-sobbing man, contempt in her eyes. She brought the pistol up again and said, "The Elders have spoken, Rendlee, formerly of the Redleen, and I have been called upon to deal out their Justice. You have lived free, apart from this world, and now you will die free, apart from it. No one will remember you."
After an hour of trekking through the jungle, which all in Barreen feared, the Graft Fortress was finally visible through the trees. The massive earth-covered dome stood twice as high as the tree canopy, forty feet above the nine Lost Boys and one Redleen warrior. The Redleen woman, Lily, had taken up position off to Wendy's right, behind one of the large brown canopy trees, her attention fully on the hidden Graft Fortress.
The jungle ended abruptly, emptying into a large clearing where the Fortress stood at the base of a sheer rock cliff. The cliffs reached almost two hundred feet into the air and stretched for several miles in either direction. If she hadn't known what she was looking at, Wendy could have sworn the Fortress was just a part of the rock face beyond. From where she stood, the Fortress was nothing more than a dark shape through the trees; but she'd had a chance to see the dome several miles back, and even from that distance the structure was intimidating. Up close, it was downright unnerving. Not to mention the heavily armed soldiers patrolling the clearing surrounding it.
"Hey," Lily called under her breath. "Keep an eye on those three, I'm going to scout a little bit more to the north."
Wendy turned to answer, but the Redleen woman was already moving away, disappearing through the thick foliage. Frustrated, she brought her rifle up, laying it over the fallen tree she'd taken cover behind. The woman, while she'd finally given into Peter's offer of combining forces, didn't seem to like the idea. Her companion, Brycin, had seemed to care less for the idea that she had.
The Blackhand guards stood just outside a small alcove at the base of the Fortress, quietly chatting amongst themselves. All were armed with rifles, but none looked especially worried about attack.
They don't expect anyone to come all the way out here from the city, Wendy thought.
A row of three heavily-armed skiffs sat a few hundred feet away from the alcove, their pilots paying more attention to inspecting their craft than to their surroundings. One had even sprawled out on his back in the passenger compartment, apparently taking a nap.
Wendy felt movement next to her, and looked up as Tom squatted down beside her.
"I don't like this," Wendy told him, without actually knowing why.
Tom, who'd been uncharacteristically quiet during their journey, laughed. "Really? What about being stuck in the middle of a jungle filled with man-eating monsters, chasing after a group of heavily-armed men who won't hesitate to kill every single one of us, led by some mysterious woman who shoots her own people when they cross her, don't you like?"
"Hey," Carter hissed, "keep your voice down." Tom rolled his eyes, started to move away, then froze as distant laughter reached them. All three froze. Two of the guards at the alcove were doubled over, laughing, while the third was picking himself off the ground, glaring at his companions.
After a moment, Wendy let out a long breath and gave Tom a glare of her own. He shook his head and carefully moved off.
"They sure aren't doing a very good job of guarding, are they?" Carter said, crouching beside Wendy.
Wendy nodded. "We're in the middle of jungle that no one ever ventures out into. They aren't expecting anyone to bother them."
"Yeah, but you'd think they'd be paying a little bit better attention than that. Hell, we could probably walk right up behind them and they'd never know."
"I doubt that."
"How many do you think are out there?"
"Not sure," Wendy told him, cocking her head to look through her rifle's optic. "Each one of those skiffs over there carries at least eight. If they were full—"
The roar of engine turbines cut her off, and the jungle thrashed around them. They both ducked, heads snapping upward, looking for the source of the hot exhaust wash. The canopy overhead blocked much of her view, but Wendy could just make out the shape of a skiff flying past. Her stomach turned.
"Holy crap," Carter said. "Is that Ace?"
"No, it can't be, it's not time yet."
Carter snatched his comm from a pocket on his vest. "Ace! Ace, is that you? What are you doing?"
The passing engines noise drowned out the reply, and Carter repeated his frantic question. Wendy frowned, trying to discern the shape through the trees. It seemed too big to be a regular skiff.
A faint response came through. The words were garbled and inaudible over the engines.
"What? Say again, Ace, you didn't come through. What are you doing? None of us are in position yet."
Wendy centered her optic on the guards, who were pointing up at the approaching aircraft. After adjusting their gear, they formed up, but made no move to bring their weapons to bear on the incoming skiff.
Ace's voice came through the comm. "What's that, Carter? I didn't copy."
"Ace, are you there? Did you just fly over us?"
"What are you talking about, Carter? We're still at the rally point, waiting for you slow shits. What the hell is going on?"
Carter hesitated, watching with Wendy as the craft slowed and descended toward the ground. They got their first good look at the craft, and instantly Wendy knew what it was.
The yacht was indeed larger than any regular skiff Wendy had ever seen, at least three times as long and twice as wide. Instead of two main turbines, this craft sported four, two in the front and two in the back, all of which moved in synch as the yacht flared, then touched down fifty feet from where the guards were now standing at full attention. A section of the port-side fuselage popped out and slid open, revealing a large passenger compartment. Four men climbed out, and Wendy's heart pounded.
The first man to appear from the yacht was tall, needing to duck under the port-side turbine mounted neat the bow of the craft. Engine wash blew his long black coat around him, revealing all-black clothing underneath. He wore a holstered pistol strapped to his leg, and a shiftblade attached to his belt. His neatly trimmed, jet-black beard matched his hair, slicked back, precisely cut.
He turned and spoke to a taller man--dressed in a matching coat, but his shirt and pants were blood red, and he wore a wide-brimmed red hat that bathed his face in shadow.
Black, Wendy thought, feeling a lump in her throat.
The Captain turned, waiting for a second man who also had to duck under the turbine. The second man held onto a wide-brimmed black hat, trimmed in red, ensuring the engine wash wouldn't blow it off his head. He wore an identical black coat, though the clothes he wore underneath weren't black; they were a very distinct red. He straightened as he stepped past the turbine, letting go of the hat, scanning around, taking in his surroundings.
"That's James," Carter said, pointing. "That's gotta be Black, holy shit!" He lifted the comm again. "Pan, Pan, are you there? Black just landed, they're entering the Graft Fortress. Pan, can you hear me?"
Pan sounded out of breath. "We're trying to get into position on the back entrance. Give us about five."
"Copy that," Carter said.
Wendy barely heard him. Everything around her faded to a distant, unimportant shadow as she brought the crosshairs down, centering them on Black. She kept the crosshairs trained on him, blood pounding in her ears as he made his way through the clearing. Her chest heaved, and she felt the weight of the entire world on her shoulders as slid her finger over the trigger. She could end the war right now, before it really had a chance to get going. But what if she missed?
Take the shot, her father's voice told her.
The rifle thundered and bucked against her shoulder. Carter cried out, surprised, and ducked for cover. Shouts and curses from the Blackhand soldiers filled the air. Frantic, Wendy steadied her hold on the weapon and looked through the optic, checking her shot.
No. Her stomach turned and she had to fight from vomiting. She caught a glimpse of Black and his cohorts running across the clearing; then a second later they disappeared through the alcove, into the Graft Fortress.
Gunfire erupted through the clearing as the soldiers overcame their initial surprise. Bullets ripped through the jungle, tearing through leaves and shredding the trees around them to pieces. Wendy dove to the ground, curling into the smallest ball she could make.
"Shit, shit, shit!" she cried. She screamed in her mind. How could you miss, he was right there?
Shouting filled the air around her, and the Lost Boys took cover wherever they could find it. Wendy brushed hair out of her face and spit dirt and grime from her lips. She stared up at the disintegrating jungle, cursing herself for her mistake. Branches and bits of bark rained down around them, and leaves twisted and fluttered through the air, some catching more fire as they fell and burst apart in puffs of green.
We're all going to die out here.
"What the hell are you thinking?" Carter screamed over the cacophony of gunfire. Carter lifted his rifle above a fallen tree and fired wildly back at the soldiers.
Wendy looked at him, not really understanding the words he was saying.
He shouted at her again, eyes wide. "Wendy!"
Another figure appeared beside Carter, her red- and black-painted face streaked with sweat. The Redleen woman had to shout over the gunfire. "What the hell happened?"
Carter ducked at another barrage, then said, "I don't know, she just started shooting." He jerked his head at Wendy.
Lily frowned at Wendy. "What is it? What happened?"
Wendy tried to remember, but for some reason she had trouble recalling what had been so important. She brushed a fallen leaf away from her face. "I… I don't…" Then she knew. She sat up, remembering. "He's here. Black is here!"
"Damn it, Wendy!" Carter shouted, pulling her back down. Several sharp cracks ripped through the air as bullets shredded the fallen trunk, sending bark flying everywhere.
Lily seemed to consider Wendy for a moment. Finally she said, "Are you sure?" The small orb appeared over Lily's shoulder, lights blinking slowly, almost as if it was considering what Wendy was saying.
A cold sense of purpose washed over her as the realization hit home. "Positive. He's here."
Lily quickly glanced around, as if she was trying to come up with a plan.
Another voice crackled over the comm. Dash, one of the new additions to the group, was panting, shouting over the gunfire. "Wendy, the skiffs!"
"I'll take care of them," the Redleen woman said. She pointed at Tom. "Come with me!"
Tom's face twisted in indignation. "Now, hold on—"
Wendy's temper flared. "Tom, go!"
He shot her an angry look, then winced as more bullets tore through the jungle around them. He hesitated for another moment before shouting a curse, and taking off after Lily.
A strange calmness came over Wendy, and the voice started speaking to her again. The soldiers, you need to take out the soldiers.
Wendy got to one knee, ducking as another bullet sent bark spraying, and brought her rifle up. It only took a moment to find her first target, and without any hesitation at all, she fired. The solider closest to the entrance alcove jerked back, the force of the impact lifting him off his feet, throwing him to the ground. She barely saw his body land before she moved to the next target, firing as soon as she had a bead.
The bullet caught him in his shoulder, spinning him like a top, sending him sprawling to the ground. The third soldier, seeing his companions drop, ceased his almost constant barrage into the jungle, and ran for the safety of the alcove. She adjusted her aim, held her breath, and fired.
The shot missed, slamming into the ground just behind the fleeing solider, tossing dirt and grass into the air. Wendy cursed under her breath, aimed again, fired. This time she couldn't tell where the round had hit, but it certainly hadn't hit her target. The solider slipped behind the wall of the alcove, disappearing from view.
Wendy slammed a palm on the trunk. "Son of a bitch!" She held her aim, wanting the soldier to reappear, then cursed again when he remained hidden. She leaned back from the rifle's optic, surveying the scene. The constant stream of bullets had ceased, and the two soldiers she'd shot still lay, unmoving, where they'd landed. However, now that it was relatively still around her, she could hear gunfire to her left, coming from the row of parked skiffs.
"Come on, Carter!"
Two of the skiff crews were pinned down behind their aircraft, a barrage of fire from the tree line preventing them from reaching their respective cockpits. She couldn't see the third crew from her position, but Wendy assumed they faced a similar predicament. Through the thinning jungle, Wendy saw Black's yacht lift off the ground. She cursed, but kept moving; there wasn't anything she could do about it now. It banked away from her and disappeared over the top of the Graft Fortress.
As Wendy reached the edge of the tree line, she paused, examining the surrounding trees and clearing ahead. The entrance alcove to the fortress was still empty, the fleeing Blackhand solider probably now inside with the rest of them. Just for a moment, conflicted, she turned back to the sound of the gunfire. She desperately wanted to get inside and stop Black, but she knew that Lily and Tim wouldn't be able to keep those skiffs on the ground indefinitely.
It only took a moment for her to decide. She moved along the edge of the trees, making her way to where she thought Tim and the Redleen woman would be.
An earsplitting crack thundered across the clearing, and the ground shook as if the very earth was splitting apart. Instinctively, she dropped to a knee, looking around, trying to identify the source of the commotion. Even the gunfire paused briefly. It seemed Black's soldiers were just as curious as she was.
Carter crouched down beside her. "What the hell was that?"
Did the yacht crash? Wendy wondered, looking for any sign of smoke. "I don't see it!"
A second crack thundered, seeming to split the very air around them. Wendy ducked again.
Behind her, the comm crackled in Carter's hand. Wendy barely heard Ace's voice as the gunfire at the skiff row resumed. "I don't know who's on the ground next to those skiffs, but take cover, I'm going to try and help you out."
Wendy looked around as a third crack rumbled across the clearing, then she heard the screaming sound of skiff turbines over the jungle. A second later, the skiff closest to Wendy and Carter exploded in a tremendous fireball, flame and debris streaming into the air. Ace's skiff appeared over the canopy. He flew through the rising smoke, angling up and over the fortress.
"Pan! Pan, do you see that? The whole roof is breaking apart!" Ace said.
Wendy glanced up. From her angle, the only thing she could see was a cloud of dust expanding through the sky above the Fortress, fading away as it grew. Is the roof collapsing? A small part of her jumped with joy, imagining Black and his crew being crushed under heavy chunks of falling debris.
"Wait," Ace continued. "No, hold on, it's not breaking apart, it's opening. Shit!"
More cannon fire echoed in the sky above, though these blasts were a slightly different pitch than Ace's had been. Wendy saw a flash as Ace's skiff appeared from behind the Fortress to her left, Black's yacht dead on his tail, cannons blazing. Both craft vanished above the jungle's thick canopy.
Wendy felt panic start to rise within her, quickly becoming overwhelmed as the battle raged around her. There was just too many things happening at once, and she couldn't affect them all. Another round of auto-cannon blasts sounded, this time from the row of skiffs to her right. Behind the smoking hulk of the first skiff, one of the pilots had managed to climb into the second and was firing wildly. Whole trees shattered and blew apart as the large-caliber shells tore through the jungle.
She watched horrified as round after round ripped through the trees. There wasn't any way anyone could survive that. Movement at the back of the craft caught her attention. The second pilot appeared from behind the skiff's tail and climbed quickly aboard. She couldn't let them get into the air. You can do this, Wendy, her father's voice told her.
With only the hint of a plan, Wendy ran.
Wendy could only just barely hear the whine of the skiff's engines through the constant barrage of cannon fire. She slowed her run as she neared the flaming wreckage of the skiff Ace had destroyed, bring her rifle up. Something popped inside the smoldering heap, sending tiny bits of flame and smoke spinning and twisting through the air. Her heart pounded, blood pulsing in her ears as she slowed to a walk, knowing that in just a few more steps she'd be in full view of the deadly cannons.
She didn't hesitate for a second.
Wendy, girl from another world, girl who'd made a promise, stepped past the flames, eyes hard with determination. The skiff was already off the ground, hovering several feet above the green grass of the clearing. The faces of the two soldiers inside the skiff turned, seeing her, one pointing, shouting. The auto-cannon fire ceased, and the turret on the nose of the craft began to turn. Wendy squeezed the trigger.
The rifle bucked, but she held it steady, pulling the trigger again and again, sending round after round downrange. The skiff's glass windshield disintegrated, sending thousands of tiny pieces flying in all directions. Bullets slammed into the two men, their bodies convulsing wildly under the onslaught. Time seemed to slow as the rhythmic pounding of her fire continued, her father's dying face the only thing she could see.
The skiff listed to one side, engines screaming to keep the craft level, but failing. The port-side turbine slammed into the ground, exploding. The fuselage followed, rolling through the flames, coming to a rest upside down. Wendy watched, awestruck at what she'd done. Flames snapped and popped, and just as they started to die down, another explosion ripped the craft in half, a massive fireball curling into the air.
She followed the trail of smoke with her eyes, then something much higher caught her attention. An enormous cloud of dust was expanding across the sky above, flowing out of the Graft Fortress. Wendy stood there, watching the cloud begin to dissipate, and briefly wondered if the cloud was related to the loud cracking booms.
The panicked voice brought her back from her thoughts. She looked around, confused, and saw Carter emerge for the jungle, arms waving.
"Get down!" she shouted, pointing at something behind her.
"What…" Wendy turned in the direction indicated and froze, horrified. She'd forgotten about the final skiff. It was still grounded, but its cannons were coming up, searching for a target. Searching for her.
Something slammed into her, knocking her to the ground. Carter's voice howled in her ears as the cannons roared, but she didn't understand the words. He rolled off her, pulling her with him, moving behind the burning wreck of the first skiff Ace had shot down.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he shouted, wincing.
Wendy rolled on her back, looking up at the bright blue sky overhead. Puffs of grey darted across the sky as the fire from the final Blackhand skiff cut through the pillar of smoke still rising from the wreckage behind her. Waves of warm air beat against her as the rounds zipped past overhead.
I'm sorry, father, Wendy thought, staring up at the cloudless sky. I'm sorry I didn't keep my promise. Tears obscured her vision as she thought of her mother and sister and wanting to see them just one more time. Please, find a way home.
Something exploded in the distance and the cannon fire died away.
"Yeah, Ace!" Carter called, sitting up, fist pumping. "Way to go!"
Sunlight glinted off a fuselage above her as Ace's skiff turned. His voice came through the comm. "That'll teach those—"
Ace's skiff erupted into a brilliant fireball. Streamers of flame and smoke spread out through the sky. The force of the blast sheared off the port-side turbine, and it streaked off through the air, disappearing over the jungle.
"NO!" Wendy jerked upright, screaming.
Carter got to his knees. "Oh my God, no."
Wendy watched, horrified, as the remains of Ace's skiff fell, spinning almost lazily through the air. It broke apart into several pieces as it fell, trailing a thick column of smoke from behind. Another explosion obliterated the tail section, sending streamers of flame and debris flying through the air. The craft fell through the jungle's canopy, disappearing save for the smoke curling up through the trees.
"Ace," Carter whispered, his voice trembling.
Hands wrapped around her, Carter pulled her close as she began to cry, shuddering. He can't be dead, she told herself. He's not. He's not.
The comm buzzed on the ground next to them, Tim's voice breaking as he shouted. "Goddamn you bastards!" His guttural, wordless battle cry crackled, and Wendy heard cannon fire in the distance.
Wendy wiped tears away, searching the sky for Tim's skiff. She could hear his constant cannon fire, but couldn't tell where it was coming from. Her eyes fell back on the lone pillar of smoke, watching it curl and lift higher into the air. She scanned the tree line below, hoping, praying Ace would appear, beaten and bloodied, probably even burned, but alive.
He didn't come out.
Movement off to the right caught her attention, and she gasped, a mixture of shock and relief washing over her. Tom and the Redleen woman emerged, Lily's arm around Tom's shoulder. She walked with a limp, careful not to put any weight on her left leg. Even from a hundred feet away, Wendy could see the blood covering the side of her face, her clothes torn and tattered.
They flinched as more cannon fire echoed in the distance, both looking back over their shoulders, searching for the source. Wendy followed their gaze, but saw only trees and sky. And smoke, she reminded herself, looking back at the pillar from Ace's wreckage.
Carter released his hold on her, getting to his feet as Tom and Lily neared. "You okay?"
"Fine," the Redleen woman answered, voice strained.
Wendy met Lily's gaze, the woman's left eye almost completely swollen shut. "You saved my life," Lily told her.
"I…" Wendy paused, not knowing what to say. The lump in her throat threatened to turn any moment. She wanted to curse her for bringing them all the way out here. For bringing them out here to die. For getting Ace killed. A rage burned within her, a rage she hadn't felt since…
"We need to get out of here," Tom said.
"No," Wendy said, getting to her feet. "No, we have to fight. We can't let Ace die in vain. We have to—"
A shadow played over them, moving across the grass, toward the jungle, blotting out the sun. It was massive.
"Oh my God," Tom said, looking up.
Wendy turned, and her heart sank.
A massive grey hull slid out from over the Graft Fortress, covering the clearing below in darkness as it blotted out the sun. It moved relatively silently through the air, with only a slight hum reverberating from somewhere Wendy couldn't see. A sensor cluster pointing out from the tip of the bow appeared first, some extending several feet away from the hull. Wendy gasped as six massive cannons came into view on the either side of the forward section, all pointing down and away from the ship. They were bigger than any weapon she'd ever seen, and Wendy had no doubt they were capable of devastating anything that attacked the warship.
As the rest of the warship appeared, its seven-hundred-foot-long hull cast the ground into darkness. Four struts appeared from either side of the ship, extending away from the hull. As they extended, translucent tendrils of blue and white light appeared, individual strands of color kitting together to form a seemingly solid sheet of energy.
Lily was right, Wendy thought. This will change everything.
A hand touched her shoulder and she jumped.
"Whoa, easy," Carter said, gaze locked on the ship above.
"We need to leave," Lily said.
The warship continued to creep slowly through the sky, a silent behemoth, a predator looking for prey.
"Wendy," Carter whispered, "please."
She didn't know what to say. She was locked in place, held by some invisible, powerful force. An overwhelming sense of despair came over her, pushing her down, crushing her. How were they supposed to stand up against something like this? Fighting soldiers on the ground was one thing, even the occasional dogfight between skiffs, but this? The warship wasn't anything like they'd faced before. What chanced did their small group of fighters have against such power?
"Wendy!" Carter stepped forward, squeezing her arm.
"For shit's sake," Tom said, pulling the comm from a pocket. "Bella, Tim, it's time to go!"
Wendy turned to him, shocked. "What about Peter?"
"He's a big boy, he'll be okay."
"Kinda busy right now, brother," Tim said.
Cannon fire echoed through the air. They all turned in the direction of the sound. A second later, Tim's skiff shot out from over the jungle canopy, climbing high, Black's skiff chasing close behind. Tim's skiff twisted into a corkscrew, narrowly avoiding the incoming fire.
Beside her, Carter was on his own comm. "Pan, you better get out here, man!"
"Way ahead of you," Peter replied, sounding out of breath. "Are you guys seeing that ship?"
Tom frowned. "Is he kidding?"
"Hey, Tom," Tim said. "You remember what Oscar did to that Enforcement patrol back at the docks?"
Tom chuckled, shaking his head. "Lunch for a month if you pull it off."
Wendy gave the twin a confused look, wanting to yell at them both for how nonchalant they were being. One of her closest friends had just died, and they were making bets?
Above her, Tim's skiff stopped spinning and to her surprise, seemed to slow and begin to flip backwards. A moment later, Tim had completed his flip, now flying straight down toward the approaching enemy, cannons blazing. For a moment Wendy felt a surge of excitement as she watched the skiffs close on each other, then cursed as the enemy skiff banked hard, avoiding the incoming fire.
"Son of a bitch," Tim said. He pulled his skiff out of the dive, twisting to follow.
They're heading for the warship, Wendy thought. "No," she said, turning to Tom. "Tell him to break off! Those cannons will tear him to pieces."
The Blackhand skiff disappeared briefly as it shot over the warship's deck. Wendy heard faint shouts coming from the warship. Was that cheering? Tim chased after the skiff, following it over the warship and toward the cliffs beyond. A barrage of gunfire rang out from the warship's deck, but these weren't the sounds of cannons; they sounded like small arms.
"Almost got him," Tim said.
A mechanical whine brought Wendy's attention back to the warship, and a cold sense of horror ran down her spine. The ship's massive cannons were moving.
Frantic, she snatched the comm out of Carter's hands. "Tim, the cannons! You've got to—oh, no, Peter, don't!"
A lone figure shot out from the Graft Fortress, flying through the air toward the warship. Green tendrils of energy flowed off Peter as he twisted through the sky, arms outstretched. He was holding something, but Wendy couldn't make out what it was. He spun, launching himself high into the air, bringing what looked like a large rifle to bear.
"What in the hell?" Tom said.
The warship's cannon continued to rise, its operators seemingly oblivious to Peter's arrival, searching for Tim's skiff. Wendy's stomach turned as it came level, paused briefly, then the end began to glow.
Oh, God, please, no.
The cannon fired, sending a bright orange beam of energy tearing through the sky. Wendy raised an arm, shielding her eyes as a high-pitched hum reverberated through her. The air around her rippled with residual energy, making the hair on her arms stand up. She turned away, fighting the urge to vomit as she pictured Tim's skiff disintegrating.
Carter stepped around her. "What's he—oh, shit, look out!"
Wendy almost tripped as Carter yanked her away. Tom and Lily were already moving, running for the jungle. She glanced over her shoulder, and saw flames and smoke rising up from the bow of the warship. Peter zipped down out of sky, away from the debris raining down.
A deep rumble rolled through the air around them and as Carter pulled her into the trees, the massive warship started to rise higher into the air. The rumble increased to a powerful thrumming as the ship increased speed, climbing higher.
They're getting away, Wendy thought, horrified. "We've got to stop them!"
Beside her, Tom was shouting for his brother over the comm. Lily had moved back out into the clearing, watching the warship disappear over the thick jungle canopy. Above the clearing, Peter fired his weapon: a small orange beam of energy shot out of the rifle, tearing across the sky toward the fleeing ship.
"Peter," she cried into the comm. "We can't let them get away! We have to stop them."
The small orange beam vanished, and Peter just stood there in midair, watching. Why was he just standing there?
"Peter! They're getting away!"
"It's no use," Peter said. He hung there for a moment, then began slowly gliding back down to the ground.
She ran out to him. "We can't just let them go!"
Peter dropped the new beam rifle as Wendy reached him, his expression solemn. "It's too late. Black's won. There's no way we can win against that."
Wendy stopped short, stunned at what she'd heard. "No," she said, shaking her head. "We can stop him. We have to."
"And how do you propose to do that, Wendy?" Peter barked.
Wendy stepped back, shocked at his tone. She looked into his eyes; the boyish sparkle she loved so much was gone. Those bright green eyes, usually so full of fun and adventure, had turned into dark pits of sorrow and anger. His cold stare twisted her stomach. This was not the same man she'd woken up next to.
Above them a skiff appeared, flying out from the Graft Fortress, smoke billowing out from one of its engines. It slowed, descending through the air, and touched down near the line of destroyed Blackhand skiffs. Tom rushed over, embracing his brother as he hopped down from the craft.
Wendy looked around at the devastation surrounding them. The bodies of Black's soldiers sprawled out awkwardly, smoke curling up from the destroyed skiffs, torn-up earth and jungle from cannon fire. She looked out at the line of trees to her right and saw the faintest hint of smoke filtering up through the canopy. Another wave of nausea came over her as she turned back to Peter, tears welling up in her eyes.
"They killed him, Peter. They killed Ace."
Some of the hardness faded from Peter's eyes at her words. He pulled her close, pressing her head into his chest. She felt him take in a ragged breath, then Peter Pantiri did something she'd never seen him do before.
The compass display twitched again. If he hadn't been focusing on the instruments, John probably wouldn't even have caught it. In the hour since Wendy had finished telling them about Ace's funeral, there hadn't been really anything to say. The lull in the story caused John to have to focus on something other than Wendy's words, and the only thing other than the blue sky outside to look at was the skiff's instrument clusters.
John waited and a second later, the display blinked again.
"That's not good," he said, frowning.
"Hmmmm?" Wendy asked.
"That's the second time my displays have flickered in the last hour."
"Is that significant?"
"Well, if my display goes out, we won't have any way to get back to the city, so I'd say that's pretty significant."
Wendy glanced at him, eyebrows raised.
"Sorry, just been cramped up in this seat for too long."
Wendy eyed the instruments panel in front of her. "What do you think is causing it?"
"Whoa, guys," Michael said from the passenger compartment. "Starboard side, about five hundred feet out."
John leaned forward and arched his neck to see around Wendy.
Wendy put a hand on the window. "Well, that might explain your gauges."
Outside the skiff, a boulder the size of a house floated in mid-air. Green moss grew in patches over the surface, strands of roots hung from the underside.
"Well, that's new," John said.
"That's impossible," Michael said.
"Come on, Michael," Wendy said, not sounding the least bit surprised. "You know better than that."
Quickly, John rechecked all his gauges. They all appeared normal, but he kept his eyes locked on them nevertheless. "If gravity out here is messed up, we probably don't want to stay in the air much longer. Gravity does bad things."
"There's another one," Michael said.
It took John a moment to find it, but eventually saw it, another massive rock slab floating several hundred feet away and higher than the first.
"They look like broken pieces of the spires we've been flying over," John said. "See the color rings? And the bottom, there, looks like it snapped off somehow."
The further they went, the more floating spires appeared, some smaller pieces, others enormous pieces of earth seemingly ripped from the surface. John got the sense that some fierce battle had been fought here ages ago, and it didn't look like anyone had actually won.
He kept their speed steady, refusing to take his hands from the controls. After thirty minutes of careful flying, John realized that despite the strangeness of floating rocks and occasional display interruptions, it didn't seem like anything was actually affecting their flight. He started playing with the controls, testing his theory.
"What are you doing?" Wendy asked after he'd banked the skiff for the second time.
"Whatever's affecting those rocks doesn't seem to be affecting the overall gravity of the area. It's not hindering my flight, anyway."
"Then what the hell is keeping those things in the air?" Michael asked.
"Hey, it's Neverland, right?" John said.
"So we're good to keep flying?" Wendy asked.
John pursed his lips and sniffed. "Flying is one thing. If those glitches turn into more than just glitches, that's something else entirely."
After a second, Wendy said, "We keep going."
John strained to keep his exasperation out of his voice. "I really hope whatever you're looking for is worth it."
"Now I know how Han felt in Empire," John said, maneuvering around yet another floating spire.
"I'm sorry?" Michael asked, raising an eyebrow. He'd exchanged seats with Wendy an hour before, allowing her to stretch and eat.
"In the asteroid field… oh, never mind, it would definitely lose something in the translation."
Michael jabbed a thumb outside. "I wonder what's down there."
John looked outside his own window, down at the thick cloud cover hiding the surface from view. Jagged peaks sporadically broke the undulating grey blanket of fog. The floating pieces of rock and earth had grown denser as they travelled deeper in the field. From their position, John couldn't see an end to the expansive field of rock.
"For once," John said, trying to shake off the unease growing in his stomach, "I'm in total disagreement with you."
The instrument panel flickered again, some displays blinking off completely. John felt a definite fluctuation in the skiff's power systems. The controls became sluggish in his hand for a moment, but then almost as suddenly as it had vanished, power returned and his steering normalized. The panels, however, remained dark.
John tapped one the blank displays. "Hmmmm."
"What's up?" Michael asked.
After a second the panels returned to life, and John let out a relived breath. He eased back on the throttle, slowing their advance through the floating spires.
Wendy appeared in the hatch between them. "What's going on?"
"Lost power for a couple seconds," John said. "And that time the skiff's power systems were affected. I'm not sure how much further we should go."
"What do you mean? They came back on, didn't they?"
"This time they did. But the glitches are becoming increasingly worse, we get too far in there and they might not come back on."
"We keep going."
John's nostrils flared. "Wendy, I—"
"We keep going," Wendy said, her tone almost desperate.
"Wendy, we don't even know if your friends are out here."
"They're out here. I know they are."
"But what if they're not? What if there isn't anything, or anyone, out here to find? What then?"
"Guys," Michael said.
"Or," John continued, "maybe they don't want anyone to find them. We can't look for them forever. We've only got enough fuel for another day or so before we have to turn back, and even that's pushing it."
"They're not hiding," Wendy told him. "They don't have any reason to hide. They're out here, and I'm willing to bet they've already seen us and are just waiting on us to make contact. Trying to figure out if we're a threat or not."
"Look, let's just say they are out here, there's obviously a reason they decided to live all the way out here, and I doubt it's because they wanted to have a whole bunch of uninvited guests knocking on their door wondering if they've heard the good word."
"Guys," Michael repeated.
They both ignored him.
"They'll help us," Wendy said. "Lily is a warrior, she won't just stand by and let this world fall."
John couldn't take it anymore. "But where have they been since? What have they done for Neverland since they helped you attack Black at the Fortress? When the attack failed, she left. She abandoned you and ran home."
For the first time that John could remember, Wendy's confidence seemed to be cracking. She slapped the bulkhead. "She didn't have a choice. If she didn't return to tell the rest of them about what happened…"
"Right, then all would be lost," John said, not hiding the sarcasm. "She abandoned you, and put this crazy idea in your head that someday, when all the stars aligned and the right amount of people did the magic rain dance, they would suddenly appear and save the day, good ol' deus ex machina style."
Michael cut her off. "Guys!"
"What?" both shouted.
John followed the ex-cop's finger out to the distance clouds. He watched for several seconds, seeing nothing but floating chunks of rock. "I don't—"
A second later he saw it.
"Holy shit," John said, not believing what he was seeing.
In the distance, a long serpentine shape snaked through the clouds, gliding effortlessly through the air around, over, and underneath several long spires before disappearing behind one of the large floating slabs.
"What is it?" Wendy asked. "I missed it."
John shook his head, still trying to process what he'd seen. "It can't be that big."
"No," Michael said. "It was huge. Did you see the size of that thing?"
It emerged again through a dense cloud and made a loop in the air. The dark body had to be a hundred feet long at least, and as wide as an elephant. Dark yellow stripes, alternated with matte black scales, covered its body all the way to its bright yellow head. Two eyes, dark black pits, sat behind a wide mouth that opened and closed as the beast floated through the air.
"There's no way something that big can fly," John said.
"Oh my God," Wendy said, finally seeing the creature.
"Do you think it's seen us?" Michael asked.
They all watched it intently for several moments. The long skysnake looped and whirled around and through rock and clouds, but gave no sign that it had seen, or cared about, the new arrivals.
John flexed his hands, keeping them loose on the controls. "I don't—"
Wendy interrupted him, pointing ahead of them and below. "There's another one."
"Yeah, we're getting the hell out of here," John said, checking his surroundings before pushing the throttle forward. The whine of the engines grew and the skiff shot forward.
"No, wait!" Wendy said, reaching over him, grabbing at the controls.
John pushed her hands away, taking his hands off the controls for a brief second. The skiff jumped slightly to the side and John cursed, taking hold of the stick again. He glared at Wendy. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
She stared out the windshield, eyes locked on something in the distance, ignoring John's protest. "Shit."
John followed her gaze and his stomach twisted. The skysnake had stopped flying, frozen in mid-loop, its yellow head and ominous black eyes locked on their small skiff. As they watched, the skysnake's long body began to coil up behind its head.
"Well, that's not good," Michael said.
The skysnake lurched forward, it's gaping maw open to impossibly wide.
"Hold on!" John yelled, slamming the throttle forward. He gritted his teeth as they rolled and banked underneath one of the larger spires. They dropped into the shadow of the wide slab, long roots scraping against the roof of the skiff. John killed the throttle, bringing them to a stop under the middle of the large chunk of earth.
"What the hell are you doing?" Wendy asked.
Before John could answer, a massive black shape shot past the far edge of the slab, yellow lines a blur as the skysnake tore through the air. Wendy and Michael learned against their windows, watching to see where the terrifying creature went. John didn't care, as long as it wasn't coming at them. He gunned the throttle again and flew out from underneath their cover.
"Might want to get on those guns," John said.
Michael shot him a surprised look. "Are you crazy?"
"We can't keep hiding forever. Those things'll rip us apart."
"For Graft's sake," Michael said, already bringing the skiff's auto-cannons online.
"What are you going to do?" Wendy asked.
"Hopefully not die." John rolled left, banking over another spire. "Do you see it?"
Wendy moved back into the passenger compartment and a second later said, "No, I don't see it."
"Me neither," Michael said. "Wait, no, behind us, four o'clock."
"Above us or below us?"
"Clever girl," John muttered, pushing the skiff into a dive.
Michael pressed himself against the side window. "Holy shit, that thing moves fast."
John gritted his teeth, knowing any second the monster would plow into the back of their little craft and turn them into so much flaming wreckage. He slalomed through a line of spires and cut back abruptly to the right, trying to throw the creature off.
"Where's he at?"
"Hold on, I lost him," Michael said, adjusting his position, angling his head, trying to get a better view. "Holy shit!" he shouted. "Down! Down! Down!"
John shoved the controls forward, putting them into a steep dive. A shadow came over the cockpit and a moment later, the mottled body of the skysnake shot by in a blur of motion. A high-pitched scream pierced the air as the tip of the tail zipped past.
"Son of a bitch," John said, banking around a spire the size of a house. The angled underside looked like it had been ripped right from the earth, long brown roots and green vines swaying in the air underneath it. Several trees grew from the topside. A slim land bridge appeared on the far side of the spire, connecting it to another twenty feet away. A car-sized boulder drifted into the bridge, breaking apart when it hit, sending bits of rock drifting through the air in all directions.
As they flew underneath the bridge, small bits of rock and earth bounced off the skiff's hull, giving John an idea.
"Can you at least give me some warning next time?" Wendy shouted from the back.
"Wendy, strap in, this isn't going to be fun," John told her, scanning the field around them for the snake.
Massive chunks of earth and rock filled the sky around them, some connected by small natural rock bridges. Dense jungle and foliage covered many of the larger pieces, like they had been ripped from the earth and pulled into the sky. They dipped underneath one and saw hundreds of vines and roots hanging out of the base. A thick mist hid the ground below and gave the field of floating earth an eerie feel.
A flash outside his window caught John's attention. He didn't see anything at first, but after a moment he saw it: a small spherical drone, its metallic body glinting in the sunlight. It held steady, a few feet outside John's window, matching their course and speed, almost like it was watching them.
"Ummm, Wendy?" John started.
Michael cut him off. "I think I—"
"Shit, John, pull up! Pull up!" Wendy yelled.
John didn't hesitate. He yanked back on the controls, bringing the skiff's nose up fast. Engines screamed and the entire craft shook under the stress.
An instant later the skiff lurched forward, throwing John against his restraints. The outside world spun. He lost his grip on the controls, and had to press against the roof as the skiff was tossed about like a child's toy. Warning alarms wailed and the instrument panels lit up like a Christmas tree. A brief feeling of weightlessness came over him as the skiff spun wildly.
Michael shouted, but his words went unheard. John strained against the g-forces, reaching for the controls. Emergency response training took over, allowing him to block out the chaos around him, focusing on keeping the skiff in the air.
John fought with the controls, attempting to arrest their spin. They shot past large spires, missing some by mere inches. He managed to flare the engines, pushing them over another land bridge.
"Feisty little bastards," John said through clenched teeth as he brought the skiff level.
"What the hell was that?" Michael asked.
"I'm pretty sure that skysnake bastard saw us. Do you see where it went?"
"It disappeared in the clouds," Michael said.
"Great," John said, adjusting their course. Keeping their flight path erratic might work for the short term, but he couldn't see any way to outfly the monster.
Michael looked back. "Wendy, you okay?"
"No, I'm not okay, damn it! What the hell are you doing up there?"
"Well," John said, "I'm trying not to be lunch for that big, evil snake-monster thing."
"There!" Michael pointed.
The skysnake appeared from behind a spire ahead, flipping over itself, black pits locked on them.
John tightened his grip on the controls. "Don't miss."
Michael shot him a confused look. "What"
The snake lurched forward, jaws widening to swallow them whole. John slammed the throttle forward and flew straight toward the charging monster.
"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" John yelled.
The skiff shook as the cannons fired, sending a hail of rounds downrange. John held their course until the last moment, then pulled up hard. The skysnake shot under them and John barrel-rolled to avoid its snapping tail.
"Did you hit it?"
Michael pressed himself against the window, trying to see. "Yeah, I hit the bastard. Left side."
John scanned the sky from his window and saw the skysnake making a wide arc around them. "Are you sure?"
"I hit it."
"You might want to tell it that."
Ahead, two large spires created a kind of floating hundred-foot canyon, their sides like dark cliff faces, twenty feet apart. A wide rock bridge arched between two of the larger spires. The space between the spires was just barely wide enough for the skiff to navigate; once they entered the canyon, they wouldn't have many options. Then again, neither would the skysnake.
"Michael, that archway ahead, can you target it?"
John pushed the throttle forward and flew through the entrance to the canyon.
"Wendy, is that thing following us?"
"Hundred feet, maybe less. It looks pissed."
John adjusted their course slightly. "Michael?"
"It's almost on us!" Wendy shouted.
Michael cursed and thumbed the triggers. The skiff's cannons roared to life. The archway erupted into a cloud of dirt and rock.
They shot under it a second later, small bits of rock and debris raining down around them. John banked left, flying up and away as the debris cloud expanded through the air behind them. He thought he caught the very end of the skysnake's tail disappearing into the falling rubble.
"Do you see it?" John asked, easing off the throttle.
Michael twisted around. "No, I—"
Wendy's panicked shout cut him off. "John, look out!"
The second skysnake appeared out of nowhere, shooting through the air directly toward them. John slammed the throttle forward and pulled hard on the controls, but even as he did, he knew it was too late. The snake was too close. Its gaping maw opened so wide that John could almost see the back of its throat.
A blinding red light flashed across the sky, slicing through the skysnake's mottled hide. The snake's eyes rolled back and its head twisted away from its body, passing mere inches from the front of their skiff. John jerked the controls, rolling away from the snake's body.
"What the hell was that?" Michael asked as they arched over the decapitated body of the skysnake, still writhing through the air.
John brought the throttle back, slowing their flight. He scanned around them, replaying the event over in his mind, knowing what he'd seen and not quite believing it. "Call me crazy, but I think something just sliced that thing in half."
Michael twisted to see out his window, watching as the severed head disappeared through the clouds. "Holy shit. What could do that?"
John tweaked the controls, yawing to the left, scanning the sky around them. "Keep your eyes open, guys, I don't think—"
He cut off as a long flat-topped craft appeared from behind one of the spires. It looked more like a boat than an aircraft. Four bulbous protrusions extended out from the underside, glowing green. Tendrils of energy streamed from the round pads. Two figures stood behind a large deck cannon mounted on the bow. A raised pilot house extended from amidships to the aft hull. Two additional gun emplacements were situated on either side of the pilot house, both manned and aimed in their direction.
The skiff's instrument panel flickered and a male voice came through the comm system. "Identify yourselves."
John and Michael exchanged intrigued looks, then John flipped on the comm. "This is John McNeal."
"What is your business in the Wildlands?"
Wendy appeared in the hatch and spoke before John could answer. "My name is Wendy, leader of the Lost Boys of Neverland. We're looking for the surviving members of the Redleen Clan. I'm looking for Lily."
After several seconds of silence, John gave Wendy a worried look. He keyed off the comm and kept his voice low. "Probably not smart to let the cat out of the bag before we're sure who we're talking to."
Wendy hissed at him through gritted teeth. "Who else could they be? Do you think they'd be talking to us if they were Hook's men? They'd have just let the skysnake eat us and be done with it."
John turned back to the attack boat. He couldn't argue her logic, but it didn't make him feel any better about the situation. They were clearly outmatched and outgunned here, and he had the distinct notion that no amount of imaginative flying would save their asses this time.
A moment later the voice came back over the com. "You will follow us. Deactivate your weapons systems and make no attempt to power them back up, or you will be fired upon. Do not attempt to deviate, or you will be fired upon. Do not attempt to make any transmissions, or you will be fired upon."
The instrument panel flickered again and the channel closed. John arched an eyebrow at Wendy. "Cheery bunch, aren't they?"
"What do you want to do?" Michael asked.
"Not much we can do," Wendy told him. "Do what he says."
John gave Michael a sidelong look and said, "Looks like we're going to get to see what's under the clouds after all."
John followed Michael and Wendy out of the skiff, under the supervision of seven armed warriors. The lead Redleen stood, arms crossed, watching as his men disarmed and secured the new arrivals. The warriors were all dressed in a variation of the same earth tones: black segmented body armor, covering a camouflage pattern of black, brown and tan. Their armor was decorated with various patterns and graffiti. Some wore masks, faces covered with black screens; others wore goggles pushed up on their foreheads. Most were armed with long rifles; all had side arms holstered to their waists.
"You have nothing to fear from us," Wendy said, then grunted as her guard pulled her bonds tighter.
"No talking," the leader said. A silver orb floated just behind him, tiny lights blinking.
John frowned at the sight of the small silver orb floating just above the leader's shoulders. He couldn't be sure, but it looked almost exactly like what he'd seen just before the Redleen patrol had killed the skysnakes.
The three prisoners were escorted away from their skiff, to the corner of the large platform. The guard ordered them to their knees, then stepped away, keeping a safe distance.
The platform jutted fifty feet from the cliff face and was half again as wide. The canyon they'd flown through to get here stretched away from them for miles, twisting and turning into the distance. It reminded John of the Grand Canyon back on Earth. Lights illuminated at least a hundred other smaller platforms along both sides of the canyon, some large enough to hold a craft the size of their skiff, some only large enough for one or two people.
They watched as the Redleens unloaded their gear, going through every panel and compartment on the skiff. The leader and another warrior argued on the far end of the platform. John strained to listen, but couldn't make anything out.
As if he'd read John's mind, Michael asked, "What do you think they're arguing about?"
"Whether or not to toss us over the rail?" John said, nodding to the edge of the platform. The thick cloud cover above made it almost impossible to make out the bottom of the canyon.
Wendy struggled against her restraints. "Damn it, we're wasting time. I didn't come all this way to be held captive."
"I don't think we have much of a choice," John told her.
"Hey," Wendy called to one of their guards. The Redleen turned, his expression unreadable behind his blacked-out mask. "I need to talk to Lily! Lilliana, she asked me to come here. She knows me."
The guard held her gaze for a moment, then turned and walked over to the leader. The leader looked over at them, then nodded and motioned the guard away. The guard disappeared through the large archway at the back of the platform, into the mountain.
"Huh," Michael said. "You think they're going to get her?"
"Graft, I hope so," Wendy said.
A loud bang echoed across the platform as one of the guards knocked something loose from the skiff. John watched helplessly as one of the fuel tank couplings rolled across the platform.
"Oh, come on," John called to them. "Be careful with that!"
The guard ignored him, letting the coupling continue until it rolled into the rail at the end of the platform.
"They're going to pull that skiff apart until there's nothing left," Michael said.
John sighed, holding up his restrained wrists. "Doesn't appear as though we're going anywhere any time soon."
They watched for another ten minutes as the Redleen soldiers took apart the skiff, piece by piece. They separated the food supplies and weapons into different piles and began inventorying them both. Two carts were brought in and filled with the supplies, then taken away into the mountain.
"Looks like no more canned meat for us," John said as the second cart disappeared through the archway.
"They can have it," Michael said.
Wendy straightened as a tall Redleen walked onto the platform, the guard she'd talked to close in tow. A silver orb floated around the new arrival's shoulders. "Brycin!"
The solider, dressed in the same camouflage uniform save the armor plating, ignored her, but the silver orb shot towards them, stopping several feet away. Small lights blinked on the surface of the orb and John got the distinct impression the orb was scanning them somehow.
Wendy struggled to her feet as the two Redleens spoke in hushed tones.
"Wendy, don't," Michael warned.
"Brycin, you know me," Wendy said. "We've fought together. Where's Lily? We need to talk. Why are you doing this?"
"I don't think he wants to talk to you," Michael said.
"It's possible he doesn't remember you," John said.
"No," Wendy said, shaking her head. "He remembers. He's just an asshole. Brycin, don't do this! We need your help. I need to talk to Lilliana."
Brycin and the leader of the guards finished speaking, and the taller solider turned, silently considering the three prisoners. He stood there for several minutes, then finally motioned toward the archway. "Bring them."
The Redleen guards ushered them off the platform, through the archway and into the mountain. They entered an expansive chamber that stretched away for hundreds of feet. Pillars of stone and earth stretched from the floor to the ceiling, thirty feet above. Illumination globes, floating through the air, added to the brilliant lights shining down from the ceiling.
Groups of people stopped mid-conversation throughout the room, all turning to inspect the new arrivals. They weren't all soldiers, John noticed. In fact, most appeared to be civilian, or the closest approximations.
"Look at that," John muttered as the moved through the chamber. "Here five minutes and already we're the talk of the town."
"I always wanted to be famous," Michael replied.
"Quiet," a guard said, giving Michael a shove.
They entered a side passage and several minutes later reached another chamber. Stone columns lined both sides of the expansive circular space, leading to a raised dais that spanned the back of the room. Twenty men and woman, dressed in purple, red, and black robes, sat in high backed chairs, quietly watching as the trio were ushered to the center of the room.
As they neared the dais, John noticed that most of the seated Redleens bore intricate tattoos on their faces. There was something else about them that John couldn't quite put his finger on, something about their faces.
The guards stopped the prisoners in the center of the room, all but Brycin backing away to the edges of the space. A man seated in the center of the first row of onlookers stood and moved to the edge of the dais, putting his hands on the rail in front of him. His tattoo crossed his face from his left temple to just below his right ear. His graying hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail.
They're old, John realized. He looked over the faces of the people sitting before him and realized they all appeared to be in their late fifties.
"Brycin, what is the meaning of this?" the standing Redleen asked. "I hope you have good cause for convening the Council at this hour."
Brycin stepped around the prisoners. "I apologize for the lateness of my request, Chief Elder. We caught these invaders coming through the Wildlands. They made it to the Forest before we were able to detain them."
Several of the Elders leaned close to each other, whispering. The Chief Elder waved them silent. "The Forest, you say?"
A woman seated at the end of the front row leaned forward. "And why did you bring them here? Why are they still alive?"
"Yes," another said. "This is a strict breach of protocol."
"They could lead Hook's forces straight to us," a third said.
"Silence," the Chief Elder said. He looked at Brycin expectantly. "The Elders are correct in their concerns. Explain yourself, Brycin."
"They were not followed," Brycin said. "And they have not made any transmissions of any kind since entering the Wildlands. Our security has not been breached."
"How do you know they weren't followed?" the woman asked.
Brycin's chin lifted ever so slightly. "They were not followed. They killed a serpa just before we took them into custody."
"Impossible!" someone shouted.
The woman held out an upturned hand toward Brycin and spoke to the Chief Elder. "Chief Elder, you cannot—"
"Latrice, I said enough. Brycin is quite capable of making such an assessment." He eyed the travelers, considering them for a time. "It seems you're quite capable. Taking down a serpa is no small task, and without a hunting crew no less. You have come a long way. I will allow you to explain yourselves."
Wendy tried to step forward, but a guard held her in place. She glared at him, then turned to the Redleen Chief. John hoped she'd show a little more tact in dealing with this man than she'd shown him when they'd first met. A right cross to the jaw probably wouldn't be as easily overlooked among this crowd.
"My name is Wendy Darling. I'm the leader of the Lost Boys. My friends and I have made this journey to ask for your help. Neverland is in trouble. Hook's forces are slowly destroying this world. We have fought long and hard to keep his forces in check, but we are losing. We don't have the resources to keep fighting this war." She paused, looking over the faces of the Elders. "I was told once that if I ever needed help, I could come here and ask, and it would be given."
The Chief Elder cocked his head to one side. "And, pray tell me, who advised you so?"
"Wendy!" A voice echoed around the chamber.
At the far end of the chamber, a young woman appeared, jogging toward them. Raven hair, tied in bright orange bands, bounced behind her. She wore a form-fitting dark shirt with cutoff sleeves, and pants bearing the same camouflage pattern as their guards. Well-worn combat boots pounded against the stone floor.
Wendy's eyes lit up at the sight of the Redleen woman, and John knew at once who she was. Wendy tried to take a step toward her, but her guard held her in place.
"Let her go, Tulls," Lily said as she reached the group.
The guard shot Brycin a confused look, who with considerable effort, nodded. Wendy pulled free and wrapped her arms around the Redleen woman.
"What are you doing here?" Lily asked, stepping back. "Michael, is that you?"
"Lily," Michael said, grinning. "Good to see you again."
She arched an eyebrow at John. "I don't think I know you."
"I get that a lot," John said, extending his hand. "John McNeal."
Lily ignored the hand, glancing at Wendy. "What are you doing out here? Where are Bella and the twins?"
Wendy chewed on her lip for a moment. "They… couldn't make it. A lot has happened since you left. You said you'd come back, what happened?"
"After what happened with Rendlee, the Elders refused to allow anyone to leave." Lily eyed the twenty men and women on the raised dais.
"Lilliana, do you know these outsiders?" the Chief Elder asked.
Lily put her hands on her hips, glaring at the Chief. "You know I do. Or have you forgotten the many nights we've spent discussing the events of my last trip to the city? No, you are well aware of who these people are and what they mean to me. You all are."
Several inaudible murmurs trickled through the seated members of the Council. The Chief Elder held up a hand. "The fact that I may or may not know who they are doesn't explain what they are doing here."
Wendy stepped forward before Lily could respond. "We're here because we need help. How many times do I have to say it? We can't win this war alone. We need your help. Neverland needs your help."
"War…" the Chief Elder said, straightening. "We are at war with no one."
Wendy stuttered, obviously flustered. "You can't be serious."
The Chief Elder turned to Lily. "Lilliana, I put her ignorance squarely on your shoulders, girl. Who is this that enters our sacred lands and disrespects this Great Council?"
"You know full well who she is, who they are," Lily said. "They are the ones who did not bow to the tyranny of Captain Black. Who stood up to the desolation caused by Hook. They are the ones who have fought and died, trying to save this world. Our world. They are the reason we," she looked at Brycin, "are alive."
Brycin straightened and turned to the raised dais. "Chief Elder, I must protest—"
"Enough!" The Chief waved a hand through the air. "Lilliana, you have spoken your peace, but it is not proper to address the Council in this manner. Protocol—"
"Protocol! The Council's protocol is nothing more than an excuse for your inaction. You have all turned a blind eye to what is actually happening to our world. Every day people are fighting and dying trying to save Nevaris, while you all sit up there, negligent and oblivious."
"Watch your tone, girl."
"My tone? We call ourselves the Warriors of Neverland, but what battles have we fought? We decry the evil brought upon this world, but are content to watch it die. We are content to call ourselves brave, yet cower in the face of true redemption."
"You forget your place, girl!" the Chief Elder bellowed.
"No," Lily told him, her voice steady and determined. "You have forgotten yours. You all have. You all, we all, have cowered behind these walls for far too long, content to let others fight for us. A battle that by rights is ours alone to fight."
"It is not time!" the female Elder blurted out.
"It is time," Lily shot back. "We must fight. Fight now or risk losing everything."
The Council erupted into a cacophony of conversations, everyone trying to talk over the others. Brycin stepped forward, calling for the Elders to listen, as Lily continued to berate them for their cowardice.
"Enough!" the Chief Elder shouted, raising his hands. He waited until the commotion died down, then spoke, his voice even but stern. "Lilliana, I know what you are feeling, I sympathize. But Elder Saris is right. It's not yet time for our fight, there is much work still to be done. We—"
"There is always work to be done," Lily said, cutting him off. "The work goes on and on and on, and for years it goes on. We are not workers, we are warriors. Our world is dying around us, you must see that."
"There is a war coming," he said. "That fact is not in dispute here. However, as of yet, the war is not upon us and we still have time. We must continue our preparations. I will not let my people charge into battle unprepared and ill-equipped."
"You are wrong," Lily said. "The war is here."
"Your passion is admired and respected, Lilliana. A trait long sought after for the Talfar."
An abrupt silence fell over the chamber. The crowd seemed surprised by the Chief's statement. Several exchanged shocked glances, some shared quick whispers.
Lily hesitated for a moment, almost as if she was confused by the Chief Elder's statement. Then she laughed. "You've got to be joking."
"The Talfar is no laughing matter, Lilliana."
"Let me get this straight," Lily said, stepping forward. "I come to this Council, asking that we do nothing more than stand up to defend our world. And you bribe me to stay home?"
The Chief stuttered. "Bribe? This is no—"
"You say war is not upon us, yet you would raise me to the warrior elite? An honor which should have been bestowed well before this day?" Lily turned and eyed Brycin.
"Are you refusing the Talfar?"
"If there is no need for war, then there is no need for warriors."
Brycin stepped up next to Lily, taking her arm. "Don't do this."
The female Elder stood. "No one has every refused the call of the Talfar! Chief Elder, you can't allow this to stand!"
The elders around her nodded agreement.
"Can't allow?" Lily shouted back, pulling free of Brycin. "You should all be ashamed of yourselves. What good is the sharpest blade if no one is allowed to use it? I see now that this Council has no intention of ever defending our world, and I can no longer tie myself to it."
"Heresy!" an Elder shouted.
"You dare stand against the Council?" the woman demanded, standing.
Lily spun in a blur of motion, hand flicking out. John caught a glimpse of metal flashing through the air. A loud thwack echoed through the chamber, followed by tense silence. A long double-edged knife stuck out of the wooden front of the dais, bone handle quivering.
"If you will not fight," Lily told the group of shocked elders, "I will find those who will. I will not stand idle while Nevaris is torn apart. When this war is over, the histories will say that I fought bravely for our world. Something, I fear, they will not say about this Council."
A roar went up through the chamber as Lily turned her back on the Elders, all of whom rose to their feet, shouting and arguing among themselves.
"What are you doing?" Brycin asked, his voice raised to be heard over the commotion.
"I must do something," Lily told him. "If not me, who?"
"This is not your responsibility."
"It is, Brycin," Lily said. "And it's yours as well."
As the cacophony of angry shouting died away behind them, John leaned close to Michael. "Not exactly what she was expecting."
Wendy and Lily walked ahead of them, neither speaking. John could practically smell the animosity exuding from Lily. The Redleen woman's jaw hadn't stopped working back and forth since she'd turned away from the Council.
Michael rubbed his wrist, red from where the restraints had been. Lily had removed their restraints even before they'd left the Elder Chamber. No one moved to stop them, not even Brycin, who'd hesitated for a moment, then stepped aside and allowed Lily to escort them from the chamber.
"In Neverland, I've come to expect nothing," Michael said.
They continued on in silence for several minutes, following Lily on a twisting path of corridors cut out of the depths of the mountain. Eventually, they came to another arched doorway opening onto a small terrace, overlooking the canyon they'd flown through to get here. John stepped up to the chest-high rail and saw their skiff, resting on a larger platform across the wide chasm.
Lights from the other terraces cast a dull yellow hue across the length of the canyon, and glowed off the blanket of clouds above. John could hear echoes of distant conversations in the still air, but couldn't discern the words. A loud screech echoed down the canyon, catching the attention of everyone in their small group.
"Something's hungry," Michael said.
"Actually," Lily said, leaning against the railing, "they're angry."
"The serpas," Lily explained, turning to face them.
"The flying snake monsters that tried to eat us?" Michael asked. "What could they possibly have to be angry about? They're at the top of the food chain out here, they have to be."
John stepped up to the edge of the terrace, looking over the railing. "We killed one of them."
"That's right," Lily said. "It'll be weeks until they're calmed down again."
"Remind me to stay on the ground for a couple weeks," Michael said.
"You and me both," John said.
"Who cares about the damn snakes," Wendy said. "Lily, what in the hell is going on here? You said your people were ready for a fight. You said they were ready for war. You never came back."
Lily turned and leaned back against the balcony's rail. "I'm sorry, Wendy. I tried, truly, I did, but no one would listen. There was nothing I could do."
"What happened?" Wendy repeated.
"After Rendlee's betrayal, and knowing Black had at least one Graft warship, the Council decided that our forces weren't enough to mount an effective campaign against him. They refused to risk our people in a fight we might have lost. It was a unanimous decision."
"I don't understand. You said that you were all warriors, that the Redleen would fight 'til the end."
Lily grunted. "Old soldiers are hesitant fighters. I was able to win several over, but it was never enough to push a majority. Eventually their taste for war soured, and they became complacent." She motioned at the mountain canyon around them. "Accepting this prison as our life." "And what happens when Hook decides that your presence threatens his power?"
"He doesn't know we're out here," Lily said. She motioned to the clouds above. "Our friends keep most scouting missions away, and those stupid enough to entire the spire forest don't last long."
Michael laughed. "Your friends tried to eat us."
"I'm surprised they didn't."
"Not for lack of trying," John said, the skysnake's enormous gaping maw still fresh in his memory.
Lily gave him a sideways look. "Honestly, I'm surprised you're alive at all. The fact that you were able to kill one all by yourself is unheard of."
"In all fairness, I had little help. And if it hadn't been for your brother, we'd definitely have been snake food."
As if on cue, another serpa screeched in the distance. They all turned, looking toward the sound. A second serpa's call echoed through the still canyon, then a third.
"It's a good thing it's not mating season," Lily said.
"So they don't bother you down here?" John asked.
"We have an understanding with each other."
John had the feeling it wasn't a simple as Lily let on, but he didn't press the issue, and the Redleen woman didn't offer anything further. Though when Wendy spoke, he wished he had.
"So," Wendy said. "You're content with hiding out here while the rest of us fight and die."
For the briefest moment, John saw Lily's calm and collected exterior fade, replaced by a pained mask of sadness. Almost immediately, however, her expression turned to one of stone-faced determination, anger flashing in her eyes.
"I have been fighting this battle longer than I can remember," Lily said. "I have bled more and sacrificed more than you can imagine."
"Don't talk to me about sacrifice," Wendy said, stepping forward. "We never stopped fighting. Never stopped sacrificing. You have no idea what we've lost during this war. Hiding out here in the middle of nowhere, safe and away from the fighting, isn't an option for the rest of us."
Lily opened her mouth to retort, then shut it without saying a word. She regarded Wendy for a moment, then her shoulders visibly slumped.
"My people are forgetful," Lily said, her voice heavy with regret. "Many haven't been outside our walls their entire lives. Most of them have forgotten that there is another world out there."
"Well, we don't have the option to forget. We can't forget. Too many people have already fought and died, are still fighting now, to save our world. We owe it to them to remember them, to keep fighting. I refuse to give up when there are still people we can save."
"Tell me," Lily said. "What happened to him?"
The skiff shook violently as another explosion rocked their craft. Wendy grabbed hold of one of the metal frame rails above her, cursing as they flew through a black cloud of smoke.
"Relax," Tim said, "I don't think they're shooting at—oh shit!"
Another airburst tossed the skiff's passenger sideways, almost knocking Wendy off her feet. "Damn it, Tim, stop screwing around and get us down there now!"
"What exactly do you think—" He jerked the skiff to the left, dodging another explosion. "—I'm doing here?"
The skiff banked again, and finally their destination came in sight. The Skyward Fortress loomed like a massive guardian angel over the city several thousand feet below. Swarms of skiffs from several factions battled fiercely in the sky, all vying for control of the old alien headquarters. The battle had been in full swing for almost five minutes before they had been able to get the skiff into the air and into the fray.
"According to this, Portal Control is on the northern end of Tier Three," Carter shouted from the passenger cabin. He sat in the middle of the rear bench, typing furiously on his terminal. "Should be right in the middle of the complex."
"And how exactly does that help me?" Tim yelled back to him. "I have no idea what the hell a Tier-anything looks like."
"For shit's sake, look for the tall towers in the center and head to the middle one, there should be two landing platforms just outside the main processing room."
Another airburst exploded outside. Fragments of shrapnel hit the windshield, pinging off the glass. A larger piece put a small spider-web crack in the right side, sending small pieces of glass spraying into the cockpit.
"Damn it!" Tim yelled through gritted teeth. "That was close."
In the cabin behind them, Maggie screamed.
"Just get us to that damn station," Wendy said, moving to check on her sister.
"This was a really horrible idea!" Tom shouted over the explosions.
"Shut up, Tom!" Bella told her brother.
Maggie's face was filled with terror, tears running down her cheeks. She had her feet up on the seat, knees tucked under her chin, arms wrapped around her legs.
Wendy squatted down in front of her sister, taking one of Maggie's small hands in her own. "Shhh, it's okay, sis. We're almost there, everything is going to be okay. We're going home, where we'll be safe."
"I'm scared, Wendy!" Maggie said between sobs. "Please, don't leave me, okay? Please!"
"I'm not going anywhere. It's just me and you, kiddo. I'm scared too, but I won't leave you."
"You're scared too?"
Wendy nodded. "Being scared is okay. Everyone gets scared sometimes. You have to be brave for me, okay?"
"All right, heads up," Tim called from the cockpit. "I've got the pad in sight."
Wendy glanced over her shoulder briefly, then turned back to her sister. "We're almost home."
"Open the door!" Peter shouted, unclasping his harness.
Carter shot him a shocked looked. "Are you crazy?"
Peter stood, pressing his hands against the ceiling to keep his balance. "Do it."
"You're crazy," Carter said, but yanked on the door.
Air rushed into the cabin, whipping Wendy's hair around her face. "Peter!" She reached out, grabbing his wrist. He turned, bringing his beautiful green eyes to meet hers. "I love you."
He smiled. "I love you."
Without another word, Peter ran forward and jumped from the skiff. He spread his arms wide as his feet left the deck, Bella's harness already glowing a bright green. Wendy laughed as, instead of falling, Peter actually flew away from them, wind buffeting against his arms and legs as if he were a soaring bird.
"Hang on back there," Tim called back.
The skiff's engines roared as it flared above the rectangular landing platform. Exhaust pounded against the surface, throwing up a cloud of dust around them. They bounced once, then touched down hard, skidding across the platform.
"Come on, you son of a bitch!" Tim yelled.
The skiff rocked as it came to a stop, pistons hissing as they settled down.
Tom was out first, rifle in hand. Carter followed him out, both heading for the door at the far edge of the platform. They took up positions on either side of the door. Carter pulled it open and Tom swung inside, rifle up, disappearing through the opening. Carter followed him through, and a second later emerged, giving the girls a thumbs-up.
Bella hopped out, flinching at the sound of a distant explosion. She turned back and nodded to Wendy and her sister. "You want help with her?"
Wendy helped Maggs out of her harness to the edge of the skiff's cabin, and Bella helped her out. Wendy went back for her rifle, then joined them on the platform. She stopped at the door, keying her radio. "We're clear, Tim."
"Stay close!" she shouted over the roar of the skiff's engines flaring as it lifted off the platform.
Gunfire and explosions echoed in the distance as they made their way through the Garrison's superstructure. The maze of gantries and semi-enclosed walkways had Wendy lost in a matter of minutes. She whispered encouragements to her sister, hoping Carter's map was accurate.
"We're almost there," Carter called back over his shoulder as he rounded a corner ahead. He cried out as he disappeared, falling back into the corridor, landing on his rear. He cursed, scrambling backward.
Wendy reached him a second later and saw another man pushing himself off the floor.
Still cursing, Carter pulled his pistol free, leveling it at the man. Tom pushed past Wendy, bringing his rifle up.
"Wait!" Wendy cried, seeing the man was unarmed.
The blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head had slipped in his fall, revealing mangled and scarred flesh on the right side of his face. His ear was little more than a scarred hole on the side of his head.
"What are you waiting for, Carter?" Tom asked. "Shoot him."
"No!" Wendy cried. "Don't shoot."
Tom shot her an angry glance. "He'll give away our position. We have to kill him."
"Please," the man said. "I'm no threat to you." His accent seemed slightly familiar to Wendy, but she couldn't place it.
"He's hurt," Wendy said.
"Then we should put him out of his misery," Tom said. "It'll be doing us a favor."
The man sat up, frowning. "Wait a minute, you're not Enforcement."
"No," Wendy said. She frowned, looking over his clothes. "Neither are you."
He finished securing his makeshift bandage and pushed himself off the floor. "No, no, I'm most definitely not. However," he reached up and gingerly touched what remained of his right ear, "in retrospect, they might have been the safer option. Damn, that smarts."
Carter got to his feet. "If you're not Enforcement, who are you with?"
The man laughed. "That, my friend, is a question of much debate of late."
"I don't understand. What happened to you?"
Distant cannon fire reverberated through the corridor, making them all jump.
"That is a story for another day, my dear. I think the first order of business now is to vacate these premises, post haste. But, suffice it to say, I've just recently become a free agent, so to speak."
Bella motioned to the man's bandaged head. "Don't look so good, mister."
"Ah, yes, well, unfortunately my free agency came with some setbacks. However, it looks rather worse than it is."
"You're one of Black's men," Wendy told him.
He grunted. "Actually no, not really. I mean I was…" He trailed off and laughed. "There have been some changes in leadership in the Blackhand, and not for the better, I'm sorry to say."
"What's your name?" Bella asked.
"Irving Smithe is my name," he said. "And that's Smithe with an 'e,' mind you, not that bastardized spelling."
Wendy couldn't help but smile.
"Pardon me for saying so, but I'll be damned to know what you kids are doing up here in the middle of this cluster. This battleground is not one for children."
"We're not children," Bella told him, crossing her arms.
Irving's eyebrows went up. "Oh?" He looked over all of them, his eyes falling on Maggie, standing behind Wendy. "I'd beg to differ, my child."
Bella took a step forward. "I told you, I'm not a kid."
Irving held up his hands placating. "My apologies, miss. I stand corrected."
"We're going home," Maggie blurted out, poking her head around Wendy.
"Maggie," Wendy scolded.
Irving frowned, then changed as he seemed to realize what they were here to do. "You're here for the Portal."
Wendy nodded. "That's right."
"I'm sorry to say, young one, but Hook's already taken control of it. In fact, that was one of the first places they boarded."
"How many men?" Tom asked.
Irving shrugged. "Sadly, I was never made aware of Hook's operational plans, so admittedly, my knowledge on such things is limited, to say the least. But I do know that the Portal is what he wanted more than anything else. It was his first target."
"What kind of a name is Hook?" Bella asked.
"A nickname, my dear. Ironically, one which I'm responsible for."
They all ducked as another explosion echoed in the distance.
"That being said," Irving said, "I'm fairly confident it's time we should be going."
Wendy frowned. "Going?"
"Leaving the station."
"We're not leaving."
"Sweet child, you don't—"
"I'm not a child," Wendy told him, a little more harshly than she'd intended. Her cheeks flushed slightly and she took a breath. "I'm sorry. But we're not leaving. We're going home."
"No, no, please, accept my apologies. I meant no offense, but my original statement is nonetheless true. If Hook's men don't have control of the entire Garrison by now, they will shortly, and trust me, you do not want to be here when the dust settles."
Wendy glanced back at Maggie, then back to Irving. "We're not leaving."
"Yeah," Carter said, "and we probably need to get a move on, Pan is probably already in position by now."
"What's a Pan?" Irving asked, sounding more than a little curious.
"Don't worry about it," Tom said.
"Of course, of course."
"Why don't you come with us?" Bella asked Irving.
Wendy and Tom both scoffed in disbelief. "No!" Wendy said.
"No," Tom echoed.
"I mean, no offense," Wendy said, turning to Irving.
"But look at him," Bella argued. "He's hurt, he needs our help. Besides, it's not your decision to make." Wendy straightened, opening her mouth to respond, but Bella waved her off. "No, you're leaving, Wendy. We're not. We still have things to do here and we're going to need him. We've still got a battle to fight and we need people to fight with us."
It was the first time the girl had ever said something that wasn't sarcastic or even remotely serious. It was hard to imagine this blue-haired girl, who constantly joked and played with everyone, having a serious thought, but Wendy had to admit that she was right. If all went well, she and Maggie would be home, back on Earth, and the Lost Boys of Neverland would still be here, fighting to survive.
The guilt that washed over her at the realization turned her stomach. In all the time she'd spent thinking about going home, she'd never considered what she was leaving behind. She looked down at her sister, whose eyes were still bloodshot from crying. Those eyes said it all. There was no turning back now, Wendy told herself. She'd made a promise to her father, and she was going to keep that promise, no matter what.
The radio on her waist buzzed and Peter's voice came through. "Wendy, Carter, where the hell are you guys? I'm in position about the platform."
"We're on our way," Carter said. "We had a bit of a delay."
"Delay? What the shit are you talking about, Carter? What delay?"
Wendy pulled her radio from her belt. "It's nothing, we're on our way. We picked up a--" She paused and considered Irving briefly, before saying, "friend."
"A friend? What—"
Wendy cut him off. "We'll explain later, hold tight, we'll be there in a few minutes."
She clipped her radio back on her belt, ignoring Peter's continued requests for some information, and said, "Okay, you're coming with us. Try and keep up and stay out of our way."
Irving considered her for a moment, then nodded. "You drive a hard bargain."
Wendy arched an eyebrow at him. He smiled. "You've got yourself a deal."
"Okay, let's go."
Five minutes later, Carter slowed as they reached another corner. He stopped and turned back to the group. "This is it. The corridor ends around this corner, then comes the gantry to the Portal area." He peered around the corner. "Oh, wow."
"What is it?" Wendy asked, stepping up behind him. He moved out of her way and she leaned around the edge.
Several bodies littered the floor at the end of the corridor, some wearing Enforcement uniforms, others not. A doorway, just past the collection of corpses, led to one of the Garrison's open-air walkways, separating the main parts of the complex.
"That hatch leads to the gantry," Carter explained.
"Stay close," Wendy told her sister, squeezing her hand. She did her best to hide the gruesome scene from Maggs as they weaved through the dead bodies. The smell of seared flesh and blood was thick in the air, and Wendy felt her stomach twist. She swallowed hard, forcing herself to stay strong for her sister.
They stopped at the hatch and Carter keyed his radio. "We're here."
"The junction is clear," Peter told them.
Carter pushed the hatch open and led them out on to the gantry. Wind whistled around them as they crossed, the sounds of the battle echoing in the distance. A skiff roared past, making them jump as it plummeted downward, smoke pouring out of one engine.
Wendy peered over the rail, watching it descend as another skiff raced after it, auto-cannons blazing. It was impossible to tell them apart, but as long as they were concentrating on each other and not them, Wendy decided that she didn't much care.
Carter pointed to the hatch at the far end of the gantry, shouting over the cannon fire. "The security room is on the other side of that door."
Wendy nodded. "Peter, do you have an eye on the security room?"
"Yeah," he answered, "hold on, give me a minute."
The stopped on the small platform outside the door and waited.
"Okay," Peter said. "There's a window on the east side, I can see in. Looks like three guards, one near your hatch, two on the far side."
Tom edged closer to the door. "Where exactly is my guy?"
"Five feet in, to your right."
"Okay," he turned to Carter. "I'll take the first one, can you handle the other two?"
She felt a tug on her jacket. Maggs looked up at her, eyes full of fear. "I'm scared, Wendy."
Wendy knelt down, holding her sister's face in her hands. "I know, but it's going to be okay, we're almost there."
"Okay," Pan said, "on three…"
Irving knelt down beside Maggie and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Just stay with me, little one, I'll keep you safe."
Wendy shot the man a look, wanting to pull her sister away, but stopped. Wendy kissed her sister on the forehead. "Just stay behind us, all right? This will all be over before you know it. I love you, sis."
"I love you, too."
Tom drove his shoulder against the hatch. It swung open and he immediately dropped, rolling into the room. As the door slammed back into the wall, Tom was up on a knee, pistol extended, firing. His rounds took the man in the chest, knocking him back over a table in the middle of the room.
The first man hadn't hit the floor yet, and Tom was already ducking out of the way, when Carter moved in and fired his rifle. His weapon bucked, sending rounds downrange. The two guards, who'd just started to react to the attack, jerked back, slamming into the wall behind them as Carter's bullets hit home.
"We're in," Wendy said as they filed into the room.
Irving pulled Maggs to the side, keeping her attention from the dead guards.
Carter moved over to the man he'd shot. "He's not Enforcement, that's for sure."
"I told you," Irving said. "This was the first thing they hit."
Wendy slung her rifle, then keyed her radio. "Peter, Black's men beat us here."
"It doesn't matter, the mission is the same."
"I see movement across the way," Tom said. He knelt at the far wall, peering through a window. Another gantry stretched from the security room they were in to another, larger room.
"That's the control room," Carter said, moving to one of the terminals.
Wendy turned to Irving. "How many guards?"
He shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, I don't know."
"Damn it, hold on, Peter." She moved across the room and peered through the window. On the other side of the twenty-foot gantry, Portal Control was easily five times larger than the security office. Through the windows, Wendy could see rows of electronic equipment and monitors. Two figures moved behind the three large mainframe servers in the center of the room. Two large sentry cannons guarded a large landing platform to the left of the portal control room, as well as one focused on the lone gantry leading to the room.
"I see two guards," Wendy said. Then she glanced back to Carter. "What about the cannons?"
"Working on it," Carter told her without looking up.
Wendy started to respond, but before the words came, the window in front of her exploded. Hundreds of razor-sharp pieces of glass cascaded into the room, knocking Wendy off her feet. She screamed, falling to the floor, pain shooting through her body. Instinctively, she brought her hands up to protect her face, and felt something wet and warm flow through her fingers.
Someone called her name in the distance and hands grabbed onto her, pulling her back. Muted pops of gunfire pummeled her senses as Bella appeared above her, shouting, her rifle belching out rounds on full-auto.
"Get her back!"
Wendy's face burned. She could taste the blood running into her mouth, but she could still see, and the pain told her she was still alive. Hands pulled her away from the broken window and shards of glass, behind the table that had been tipped over on its side.
Irving appeared over her, fingers inspecting her face. "Let me see what—"
"No, I'm okay," she said, pushing away the man's hands away.
She scrambled to her knees, searching for the rifle she'd dropped in her fall. "Maggie?"
"I'm here." Her sister's voice was faint amid the gun blasts reverberating around them. She was huddled along the left wall, knees to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, her eyes clamped shut.
"Shit," Bella yelled, ducking behind the wall. She ejected an empty magazine, immediately slamming in a fresh one. "Carter, would you hurry the hell up?"
Carter ducked down briefly as another barrage of gunfire tore through the security office. "Almost got it."
Pan's voice buzzed through the radio. "Wendy, what's going on? Are you okay?"
"We're fine, just having some issues with the locals." She brought her rifle up and fired off several rounds without aiming.
"Got it!" Carter shouted.
"Peter," Wendy shouted over Bella's gun blasts. "Peter, the guns are down!"
"Okay, guys," Peter said, his shouts slightly distorted. "Hang tight, this is going to be a real show."
Moments later an explosion shook the floor of the security office. Several sporadic gunshots rang out, followed by shouting and cursing; then almost as soon as the attack had started, silence fell around them.
Peter's voice came over the radio, sounding winded. "Okay, room's clear."
Irving helped Wendy to her feet and they all made their way across the gantry into Portal Control.
They made their way around the humming server racks to the main operating station near the far wall. Several screens were mounted on the wall, displaying information from the computers that filled the room. The two center screens displayed colorful graphs that shifted and pulsed in a seemingly random order.
Peter stood just in front of the station, shiftblade in hand, the tip held at the neck of a man dressed in all black. The guard was on his knees, arms raised in surrender, a look of sheer terror on his face.
"Holy crap," Carter said, coming up behind them. "Next time, I get the harness."
Wendy slung her rifle and stepped slowly around the dead bodies. "Peter?"
Tom stepped around Wendy, leveling his pistol at the guard's head. "Move and you die."
The soldier's eyes darted back and forth between the pistol and the sword. "I don't seem to have much of a choice, do I?"
"Easy," Wendy said, giving Tom a cautionary look. She considered their captive for a minute. There was something different about him, but she was having difficulty placing what it was. After a moment, it came to her. "You're not a soldier."
The man regarded her silently for a long moment, then said, "That's right."
He dropped his hands slightly.
"Ah, I wouldn't…" Peter said, pressing the blade closer.
The guard's hands went back up. "Look, I'm not a threat to you. I'm not even armed. I'm nobody."
"Don't give us that crap," Peter said. "Black wouldn't leave just anyone in charge here."
The guard shot Peter a confused looked. "Black, what are you talking about?"
"Later," Wendy said. "Irving?"
The wounded man stepped forward, and the guard's eyes widened. "Doc?"
"You two know each other," Peter asked.
"Gentry Adams," Irving said, crossing his arms. "One of Black's senior scientists, well, one of Hook's now, I guess. And a quite capable one, I might add."
The man's expression hardened. "Captain was right to get rid of you."
"A point I don't disagree with."
"He should have killed you outright."
Pan frowned. "Wait, what did you just say? What about Black?"
"Captain Black is dead," Irving told him. "Killed weeks ago, during a battle for the Revenge."
"Ah, sorry. An old Graft warship, kept hidden away for years. His company was attacked while trying to retrieve it… oh, that was you?"
"Black's dead?" Peter asked.
Irving nodded. "That's correct. Captain Hook is in charge now, I'm afraid."
"Do you know how to operate this?" Wendy asked Gentry, pointing to the command station behind him.
The man hesitated, cautiously eyeing Peter and Tom in turn. "And if I don't?"
Tom pulled back the safety on his pistol. "Then there isn't any reason to keep you alive, is there?"
The soldier nodded slightly, indicating the shiftblade still inches from his neck. "You're just going to kill me anyway."
They all ducked as a loud boom echoed outside.
Tom eyed Peter. "We don't have a lot of time here."
A barely audible clicking signaled Peter's shiftblade folding back into the hilt. He slipped it back onto his belt and folded his arms across his chest. "You don't have a lot of options here, my friend, just like we don't have a lot of time, so I'll make it as simple as I can. You open the Portal to where I say and I'll let you live."
A flicker of hope came across the man's face, but it vanished almost as soon as it had appeared. "That's a hell of a deal. You'll let me live long enough for the Captain to figure out that I helped you, and then I'm dead anyway."
"Can you activate the Portal or not?"
"Yes… I can. But once I do, Hook will know something is wrong. This place will be crawling with soldiers in a matter of minutes."
"It doesn't matter," Wendy said, glancing back at her sister. "We're going home. Back to Earth."
The guard followed her gaze, and seemed to see the small girl for the first time. "You want to go back? Why do you want to go back? No one ever goes back."
Somewhere in the distance, something exploded, and a moment later the room shook slightly as a small shockwave pushed against it. Bits of glass shook loose from the window frames, clinking to the floor. Outside, Wendy could see several skiffs shooting past, wondering how Tim was managing to keep out of trouble.
"Come on," Peter said, jerking his head to the computer terminals. "Hurry."
Gentry got his feet and cautiously moved around to the controls.
Peter keyed his radio. "Tim, you there?"
Static buzzed and a second later, Tim said, "Yeah, I'm still here, holy crap, what the hell are you guys doing in there? This isn't exactly a leisure flight out here."
"We're almost finished," Pan told him. "We should have the Portal open in a matter of minutes. You need to be heading this way, I'm not sure how much time we're going to have. The pad's clear."
"You got it, boss. Be there in a few."
Gentry tapped a series of commands into the computer. "I haven't had enough time to really learn the program, I'll need a minute to find the right sequence."
"I'm afraid we don't have a minute," Irving said.
Everyone looked to where he was hunkering down over one of Hook's men, one of their radios in his hand. He held it up. "He knows. They're coming."
A rush of panic washed over Wendy. She couldn't give up now, not when she was so close. She slapped a hand down on the counter in front of Gentry. "Hurry!"
Gentry pounded frantically on the keys. "I'm trying, I'm trying!"
Tom crossed to the gaping hole separating Portal Control and the landing platform outside. "Tim, we're going to have company any second."
"Okay, everyone to the platform," Peter said. "There's no way we can fight off a full-on attack here."
"No!" Wendy screamed. They were so close. "We can't leave, we can't! We need to—"
"Wendy, we can't stay here!"
She couldn't stop the river of tears. "No, no, no, I promised! I promised him I'd get them home!" Carter put a hand on her shoulder and she brushed it away. She pressed herself into the counter, willing the computer to work. "Come on! You've got to hurry, please!"
Gentry shook his head but didn't stop working. "Come on, come on, come on."
Peter stepped close, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Wendy."
A rage she hadn't felt sense her father had passed rose up within her. Her heart pounded in her ears and electricity flowed in her veins. The pain from her facial wounds forgotten, she stepped away, brushing his hand aside. "No, you go! We're staying. We're going home."
Peter cursed her through gritted teeth and said, "I'm not going to leave yo—."
A barrage of gunfire barked out, followed by a swarm of bullets tearing into the wall behind them. Sparks erupted from the monitors and electronics. Everyone ducked for cover.
"Tom, get the rest of them out of here!" Peter yelled, pushing off the floor. He raced across the room, shiftblade already out and unfolding. He pressed his back against one of the large server racks, then peered out toward the security room. After a second round of enemy fire, he brought his pistol up and returned fire.
Carter joined Tom near the platform, both taking turns firing back at the oncoming attackers. Irving held Maggs tight near the edge of the control booth, trying desperately to keep the little girl still. More enemy rounds pounded the wall behind her. Another explosion ripped through the wall at the front of the room, filling the air with dust, smoke and debris.
This can't be happening, Wendy thought, wiping tears from her eyes. She coughed against the building smoke cloud. Peter was pinned down near the center of the room; he wouldn't be able to hold Hook's men off forever. They weren't going to make it—
A suddenly brilliant light filled the room, blinding her. A blast of warm air hit her, rushing wind howling in her ears, drowning out the gunfire around her. Shielding her eyes, Wendy squinted against the brightness, and as her eyes adjusted, she saw a man-sized oval doorway appear in the middle of the room. Brilliant energy pulsed around the circumference, red and yellow and orange bands of lightning, lashing out in all directions. The stark white in the center faded, revealing a dark street stretching away from the opening, lit by dull orange streetlights.
The Portal. Home.
"Peter!" she shouted, scrambling to her feet. "Peter, it's open! It's open! Maggs, it's open!"
The server rack Peter had taken cover behind exploded in a shower of sparks and smoke, knocking him back. He landed hard, rolling backwards, using the momentum to push himself back onto his feet. He fired twice, while dodging to the right. "What are you doing? Get out of here! Get to the Portal!"
Wendy ran to Maggs, pulling her sister from Irving's arms. "Thank you, Irving. Thank you for helping her."
"You're very welcome," Irving said, pushing himself to his feet.
Another explosion shook the floor, almost knocking Wendy to the ground. She grunted, holding her sister upright. Irving stumbled away, heading for the platform where Carter was calling for him.
Maggie clung tightly to Wendy as she turned for the Portal. Both sisters helped each other across the room, toward home.
Gentry pointed at the swirling mass of energy. "There's only enough energy for one at a time."
Peter fired again, emptying his magazine, then looked over his shoulder at them. "Go, Wendy! Get her home, I'll be right behind you."
"No!" Wendy screamed. "Peter, no! You're coming too!"
The sounds of the battle faded slightly as she crossed the threshold onto the platform, replaced by the howling wind and snapping energy bands. A strange mixture of rage and despair came over her as she realized that the man she loved wouldn't be coming with her. She felt her sister pulling on her, begging her to come with her, begging her to return to their world. But somewhere inside, a part of her had begun to believe that Neverland was her home now.
"Wendy!" Peter shouted. "You have to—"
A powerful blast ripped through the wall behind Wendy, throwing her forward, Maggs slipping from her arms as she fell. The impact knocked the air from her lungs, and pain shot through her body. She curled into a ball, gasping for breath. Ignoring the pain and ringing in her ears, she looked around, confused, her vision blurry from the impact.
"Maggs?" she wheezed, as she sucked down gulps of precious air.
Her sister was gone.
Blood pulsed in her ears as she pushed herself up on hands and knees, eyes searching. Finally, her eyes locked onto the Portal. Maggs pushed herself to her knees, tears streaming down her face. "Wendy?"
Wendy pushed herself to her feet and stepped toward the portal. She really was going ho—
A thunderous crack ripped through the air as a blast of wind struck her head-on, pushing her back a step. Wind howled in her ears again as a second blast hit her. Lightning flashed, colorful bands of energy lashing out. A whistling filled the air around her, then a third clap of thunder echoed around her.
"Wendy!" Maggs screamed.
The floor trembled. Wendy cried out as another blast of wind hit her, knocking her off her feet. More energy lashed out. She could feel it pulsing through her. Through the swirling bands of energy, Wendy saw her sister reaching out for her. Wind howled in her ears, but something was wrong. The wind wasn't blowing against her, it was sucking in toward the Portal.
The Portal flexed, humming with energy. Light flashed, and a ring of energy pulsed out from the opening in all directions. It hit Wendy like a truck, throwing her across the floor. Her world became a blur as she tumbled away from the Portal. She slammed into something hard, her right side erupting in pain.
Wendy ignored the pain, pushing herself to her knees. Her sister's hand stretched through the opening, an opening that was slowly growing smaller. "No!"
Frantically, Wendy stumped to her feet. "No! No! No!"
The wind changed directions again, pushing hard against her, as if the Portal was fighting her, refusing her passage.
On the other side, Maggie was jumping up and down, wailing. "Wendy! Wendy, come on! Please, hurry!"
Another blast of energy slammed against her, pushing her back half a step, and another thunderclap reverberated around her. Energy bands snapped, and Wendy felt their power lash out and touch her. She could barely see Maggs through the opening. She screamed for it to stop, pushing against the wind as another blast of energy knocked her back.
"No!" She screamed. "Stop! You can't! No! MAGGIE! STOP!"
Her sister's face disappeared as the colorful, pulsating bands of energy met. One final burst of energy flared out from the center, and a second later it blinked out of existence. The wind's furious howling vanished, replaced by a sudden eerie silence.
Wendy screamed, collapsing on the floor. She pressed her face into the cold surface and screamed until her throat hurt.
Her father was gone. Her mother was gone. Her sister was gone. She'd failed them all. She'd broken her promise. Her entire body went numb as her heart broke.
Hands and arms wrapped around her, pulling her to her feet. She was only vaguely aware of voices shouting instructions. She heard muted pops in the distance: gunshots? She didn't know, she didn't care.
Let them kill me, she thought. She didn't have anything to live for now.
She felt herself being lifted into the air. "Leave me." Her voice was weak, barely audible over the shouts and gunfire around her. She bounced through the air, realizing that the person carrying her was running. They were taking her away from Maggie.
"No!" she cried, trying to wiggle free. "No, no, no, Maggie, I can't leave Maggie!"
"Wendy, stop," Carter shouted. "There's nothing we can do, we have to get out of here, now! Wendy, stop!"
"No, I promised! I promised! I have to help her! Daddy, I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
Another pair of hands latched around her feet, lifting higher. A second later she felt the cold floor of the skiff and turned to look back at the control room.
Smoke poured through the gaping hole in the wall. Unending gunfire echoed through the air as the back wall and control station disintegrated under the assault. Displays shattered, flames burst from broken panels, showers of sparks sprayed the room.
Tom lifted Wendy into one of the seats and began strapping her in.
"Come on, Carter," Tom shouted. "He's not going to be able to hold them off forever! Help me!"
Wendy fought to break free. "Let me go!"
Carter moved over and held Wendy down, helping Tom get the harness secured and tightened.
"Tim," Bella said, strapping herself in next to Wendy. "Come on, let's go!"
"He's holding them off," Tim shouted, moving into the cockpit behind Wendy. "Go!"
"NO!" Wendy shouted.
The world outside the skiff tilted and the platform dropped away. Acceleration pushed Wendy back into her seat as she struggled to undo her harness. "Wait, no! We can't! Where's Peter?"
Carter threw the door shut. "Stop her!"
Bella reached over, pulling Wendy's hands away from the clasps. "Wendy, stop! There isn't anything we can do!"
"We can't leave him!"
Engines roared. Wendy felt the small craft shake as it shot away from the Skyward Garrison. Away from Peter. Away from her sister. Away from home.
She twisted against the straps, craning her head around to see past Bella. Outside, the station grew small. She caught a glimpse of the warship as it appeared from the far side, before the skiff banked again and dove for the city. Even in the distance, the thing looked monstrous. There was no way they'd be able to stand against that.
"I'm sorry," Wendy said.
"He held Hook's men off so we could escape," Wendy said, staring up into the night sky.
"He was very a very brave man," Lily said, leading their little group through the maze of corridors cut from sheer rock. They turned a corner and approached two massive steel doors.
"Still is," Michael corrected.
Lily shot him a look and nodded. "Right. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…"
He waved her off. "It's okay."
They'd been walking for the better part of twenty minutes as Wendy had recounted her story. The Redleen fortress was massive. The tunnels seemed to run for miles, the entire complex cut from the rock cliffs and the earth beyond. Everything seemed oversized, and John wasn't sure if that was intentional or if the Redleen leaders just liked building things a little larger than life.
"Hell of a way to end a story," Lily said, moving to a small control panel beside the doors.
Wendy nodded, her jaw muscles clenching. Her words had become increasingly clipped and terse as she'd neared the end, and she'd had to pause several times before finishing. John couldn't fault her anger and hatred. With the amount of loss she'd suffered through, he was surprised she still managed to press on.
I'm not sure I would've been able to, John thought to himself.
Wendy eyed Lily for a moment. "It isn't over."
A slight grin appeared at the edge of Lily's lips. "I'm glad to hear it." She keyed the panel. It flashed and chimed a two-tone alert. A clanking echoed from the doors as internal mechanisms unlocked and the massive doors slid apart.
John and Michael exchanged questioning looks as the doors disappeared into the rock face, and Michael shrugged.
"Come on," Lily said, stepping between the still-opening doors. "I want to show you something."
They followed the woman onto a raised platform, looking down over an expansive hangar bay. The cavernous space was a hundred meters in width and twice that in length. Two rows of attack craft, like the ones Brycin had flown to escort them here, were lined up to the left. Several large transport barges were arrayed on the right. Support crews moved across the deck, transporting fuel, weapons, and supplies to the various craft.
"What is this?" Wendy asked, stepping up to the railing.
"The Elders may be reluctant to acknowledge the growing Regency threat, but our military is not. General Parsol keeps his people in an almost constant state of readiness. At any given time, they are running between two and five operations throughout the day."
A shuttle, slightly larger than the skiff, lifted off the deck, moving toward one of the three large circular exit points on the right side. As it moved off, John noticed the three larger ships near the back of the bay.
Using one of the crewmen standing below the first ship, John did some quick calculations in his head. The ships were at least forty-five meters long from bow to stern, with a beam of at least ten. A cargo ramp extended down between the two front landing struts, giving the crews easy access into the ship. Turret cannons, mounted on both the port and starboard sides of the bow, pointed straight up. Crew-served gun turrets were mounted along the gunwales every ten feet. Three-quarters of the deck was open near the bow, stretching back to a bridge looking over the deck.
"That's what I'm talking about," John said, having no doubt about the purpose of those ships.
"Serpa-killers," Lily explained, smiling.
"Those are bigger than anything the Regency have," Michael said. "Except the Revenge and Pride, of course."
"How?" Wendy asked.
"The Graft forgot a lot of things when they abandoned Nevaris," Lily said. "Forgot, or simply left it behind. They had other pressing matters to deal with at the time."
Wendy frowned. "I don't understand."
"They were dying," Lily explained.
Michael snapped his fingers. "I knew it. Was it the Dust?"
Lily nodded. "The bands of rock that orbit the planet contain elements that are obviously beneficial to humans: long life, enhanced immune systems, really, the list goes on. Turns out those same elements are deadly for the Graft. About a year after the first of us arrived, they started to get sick. A couple years after that, they started to die. By the time they realized what was killing them, they couldn't get off the planet fast enough."
John shook his head. "Where did they go?"
"We don't know. They kept their navigational charts and anything remotely relevant to their race strictly classified. Even the Trustees didn't have access to that, and it was some of the first data they purged when they left."
"Trustees?" Wendy asked.
"Some of the very first people the Graft brought here were set up as liaisons between the Graft and humans. They were given special privileges and freedoms that others weren't. The first council of Elders were the Trustees that managed to escape during the purge. Those first Elders were able to preserve much of the original data, hiding it away until the Graft finally left for good. I don't think the Graft even cared what they were leaving behind near the end, they just wanted to get hell off this rock."
"But why come all the way out here?" Wendy asked.
"As you might imagine, the Trustees weren't well liked among the human population of Nevaris. They were looked at like traitors to their own race, and hated for the extra freedoms granted them by the Graft. They were hunted down after the Graft left; they deleted everything the Graft hadn't, and fled here."
"What is this place?"
"We think it was one of their storage sites, but we're not sure."
"How many outposts did they leave behind?" John asked.
"Several, although most were scientific stations. Our scouts spent a number of years searching them out, cataloging them and bringing back anything of value."
"So if this wasn't where the Graft came from, what was it?" John asked. "Some kind of zoo?"
"Not so much a zoo," Lily said. "More like a testing ground. Of course, they never came out and explained what their plans were. They wanted to study humanity, that much was certain, but to what end, we may never know."
"It doesn't matter now," Wendy said. "It's our world now, and the only thing that matters is saving it from Hook's insanity. The Regency has done more damage to Neverland than the Graft ever did."
John leaned forward on the railing. "I bet you we could do some serious damage with the airpower you have here."
"Even with these ships, we don't come close to the amount of firepower Hook has at his disposal," Wendy said.
John shrugged. "Having the biggest gun doesn't always mean you have the advantage."
"It doesn't matter," Wendy said. "You heard the Chief, they don't have any desire to fight."
Lily turned to face her. "The Council is reluctant to fight, true. But that doesn't mean my people aren't ready to put their lives on the line to save our world. We have been preparing for this fight for longer than I have been alive. The stakes are more than you or I can imagine, and the fate of two worlds rests in the balance."
"Two worlds?" John asked.
"You think Hook will stop with conquering Nevaris? Once he's finished here, Earth will be next. If we lose this war, there will be no stopping him. It's time we stop running. It's time to take this right to Hook's doorstep. One way or another, the war for Neverland will end."
The battle for Neverland will conclude in…
Straight on 'til Morning
Thank you so much for following me on this journey! Shadows is definitely one of my favorite stories, and I can't wait to hear what you think about it! Straight on 'Til Morning should be out sometime late next year (2018) and I hope you'll bear with me as I think the final book in the series will really be worth the wait.
PS. If you're into learning more about the authors of your favorite books, be sure to check out the podcast I co-host with Scott Moon and Ralph Kern: Keystroke Medium.