Book: The Forgotten Prince
THE FORGOTTEN PRINCE
Book Two of the Second Star Series
© Copyright 2015 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 Samantha LaFantasie
For more information on the author visit: http://www.joshhayeswriter.com/
When I started this project last year I thought I had a pretty good idea what the final product was going to look like, but I was wrong. Most of the concepts for The Forgotten Prince remained in the story from start to finish, but the story itself is much different from what I originally envisioned. And that’s a good thing. I believe the final product is a fantastic story and I would be remiss if I did not thank the people who helped me get it right along the way.
First, thanks to my beta readers, Scott and Tricia. You guys gave me some great feedback and not only that, kept me on track when I started to lose my way.
My editor, Samantha, as always you came through with some solid feedback during the beta-reading phase, and gave excellent editorial direction.
To the folks at Space Opera: Writers, from help with the blurb to the cover design, your thoughts and comments were greatly appreciated and helpful.
A big thank you goes out to all of you for supporting my dream and reading my books!
And finally, I need to thank my wife, Jamie, for supporting me, and only minding a teeny bit when I snuck away to sit in front of the computer instead of relaxing on the couch, sharing a 5lb bag of Twizzlers. Love you, honey!
For my Dad,
For telling me I could.
Commander Lewis Cardington raised a hand to knock on the stateroom door then hesitated. Only the First Ones could know how much he didn’t want to do this. Hell, it might well be the last thing he ever did. The captain didn’t like bad news, especially when said “bad news” came in the morning, before he’d had a chance to put himself together.
Images of his impending announcement and the consequent repercussions flashed through his mind. He wondered how it would go. Hanging? Firing squad? The captain might simply run him through with his shiftblade, he’d seen him do that before. Lewis wondered if losing one’s head was painful, watching it happen certainly had been.
He sighed, resolved to the fact that he was, in fact, not the master of his own destiny and rapped his gloved knuckles on the metal door.
An eternity passed, and Lewis contemplated knocking a second time. Maybe the captain hadn’t heard. He raised his hand to knock again, and the nondescript metal door rose into the ceiling. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room beyond. Every few feet, accent lighting shown from recesses in the ceiling, bathing the cabin in a eerie light. No matter how many times he visited the captain’s quarters, the darkness always made him uneasy. The man was unpredictable at the best of times and Lewis much preferred to interact with him in places he could at least keep an eye on him.
A gruff, raspy voice spoke from the dark, “Who is it?”
It was an arbitrary question. Nothing happened on board the Pride the captain was not aware.
Cardington cleared his throat. “Commander Cardington, sir, my apologies for disturbing you so early, but there has been an—” he hesitated. “There’s been an incident, Captain.”
After a long moment, the captain said, “You may enter, Commander.”
I’d rather not, Lewis thought, knowing all too well, that in the captain’s stateroom, there were no places to hide. He cursed silently and stepped across the threshold. The door closed silently behind him.
Movement to his right caught his attention as lighter shadows moved against the darker ones.
The captain said, “I was just about to feed the fish.”
A small light clicked on, illuminating the captain’s infamous aquarium, the light filtering through clear blue water inside. Lewis spotted the Razorfin almost immediately, not like anyone could miss it. Large blue and white fins moved gracefully around its long orange body. Its bulbous eyes rested above a gaping mouth where razor-sharp teeth protruded from its lower jaw. The deadly fish swam lazily through hollow corals and brightly colored plants, not a care in the world.
The tank rested on a pedestal in the center of the room. Another tank floated on a counter-grav platform next to it, filled with smaller, less attractive fish. Lewis had no question as to what those fish were for.
A net dipped into the water of the smaller tank, Lewis barely made out the captain’s hand as the net scooped up one of the lime-green fish.
“Do you know why I love fish, Commander?” The captain asked, still unseen in the shadows.
Lewis clasped his hands behind his back and raised his chin. Of course, he knew. The man always spoke about them, but he was not about to say as much to the captain. “I do not, sir.”
The lid on the Razorfin’s tank folded back as the net and struggling fish neared it. The captain unceremoniously lowered the net into the water and turned it over.
“Simplicity,” He said. The net disappeared, the fish darted away, and the lid folded back into place.
“Yes, sir,” Lewis responded, watching as the small, green fish moved frantically through the water, as if it was trying to make sense of its new home. Not for long, little fella.
The Razorfin seemed to become aware of the new arrival almost as soon as it entered the water. It moved away from the commotion at first, then slowly moved to inspect the new arrival from a different angle. The hunt began with slow, methodical movements, as the Razorfin moved gracefully through the thick foliage, flanking where the greenie held position.
“Take the Razorfin, for example,” the captain continued, “whether I keep him in this tank or release him into the wild, he would fare no different. His existence is simple: swim…”
In a flash the Razorfin darted out from an arched rock formation and snapped it’s jaws around the smaller fish, nearly cutting it in two.
Lewis’s eye twitched. Fish food, didn’t think about that one.
Shadows moved again, but Lewis’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he caught the outline of the captain’s form moving away from the tank then stop at a high-backed, counter-grav chair. A long dark robe flowed around him as he walked.
“Well, Commander,” he pulled the robe to one side and sat. The chair dipped slightly under his weight, then adjusted and returned to its original position.
Lewis straightened his uniform coat. The black fabric was over-starched just the way he liked it and rustled as he adjusted it.
Stop being nervous. “We are receiving reports, sir, that there has been at attack on the Garrison above Barreen.”
“Yes, sir, that appears to have been the primary target.” Lewis reported. “Whoever they were knew exactly where it was stored and targeted the tanks straight away.”
“The primary target?”
Lewis hesitated, then continued, “Yes, Sir, we also lost three skiffs, and a transport was also targeted.”
The captain seemed to consider this for a moment, then said, “I see. And what of the damage estimates?”
Lewis struggled to remain passive, but knew if there was any time to expect a bullet, now would be it. “By our earliest estimates, fifty-six percent of the compound reservoirs have been destroyed, along with twelve men killed and seven wounded.”
The captain didn’t respond right away. Lewis imagined the man contemplating what form of punishment would be the most appropriate. A common theme in the Regency was to never get on your commander’s bad side; it was a sure way to kill any hopes one had for a long and fruitful career. When it came to the captain, however, Lewis knew there was no bad side. It was either good or dead.
Finally, the captain spoke, “Fifty-six percent…”
Lewis knew what the captain must have been thinking; because it was the same thing he had thought only minutes before. It would take months to recoup from that kind of loss and practically no hope of continuing at their current operational tempo.
“And what of the enemy?” Captain asked, his eyes narrowing.
He held his breath for a beat, then said, “Sir?” Even as he said it, he knew it sounded foolish, like a child trying to put off a parent.
“Yes, Commander, how many of the bastards did we kill?”
Lewis’s heart pounded in his chest. Through sheer force of will, he managed not to stutter. “None, sir.”
“None,” The captain repeated.
Shadows moved again and Lewis watched the captain’s outline move away from the chair. For the first time in his life he wished he too was afflicted with the Blinding, then maybe he could see what was going on before him. But he also knew what came with that and refused to allow himself to turn into one of those mindless Duster freaks.
The captain’s voice was terse, “Twelve men dead, you say?”
“Yes, sir.” Cold sweat beaded on his brow. He resisted the urge to wipe it.
“And our forces were unable to inflict a single causality to the enemy?”
Lewis started to answer, but stopped short. Silence was probably more prudent than anything. He stood as the captain’s form moved through the expansive stateroom.
“Who is responsible for this, Commander?”
“Captain, we are just getting preliminary—”
A loud bang echoed through the stateroom, and Lewis took a startled step back. His hands went to his chest, expecting to find a large, bloody hole, but his fingers came away clean. His heart pounded as he fought to swallow the lump in his throat. He said a quick prayer, thanking the First Ones for keeping his body whole.
“Who?” The captain growled.
Lewis lifted his chin and forced his hands back to his sides. “We don’t know, sir.”
The captain let out a long breath. “Tell me, Commander, what do we know?”
Lewis opened his mouth to answer, but the captain continued before he could get anything out.
“Do we know how these…terrorists managed to inflict such damage on our facilities? Do we know how they were able to get through our security perimeters and aboard the Garrison without being detected? Certainly, someone can tell me who failed in their duties. One does not just waltz into our bases without challenge. Or, are you telling me we have a traitor amongst us?”
Confused, Lewis struggled with an answer. In truth, he hadn’t considered the possibility of a traitor. The Regency hadn’t had one since its inception after the Wars. The thought of someone turning against them was almost worse than being attacked.
No, it couldn’t be. There had to be another explanation.
“I do not believe there is a traitor, Captain,” Lewis said, “but at the same time I do not believe there was a breech in security. From all reports, there was no indication of a threat until the attack began.”
“Then, I’m confused, Commander.”
“You say you don’t believe there is a traitor and that there was no warning, however, do you not agree any attack made on the Garrison would have been made by air?”
Lewis nodded, understanding what the captain was saying, but did not respond.
“And yet, you say there was no indication of attack.”
“That is correct, sir.”
“If that is the case, then I can see only two possibilities: either someone failed to maintain vigilance at their post, or they deliberately chose not to report the attack. In either case, the punishment is the same.”
“My apologies, Captain,” Cardington’s voice wavered. He took a moment to compose himself before continuing, “There was no warning, because nothing was picked up on the scanners. No skiffs or cutters or yachts, or any aircraft of any kind were detected within five miles of the Garrison. None broke the outer perimeter.”
“Commander Cardington, you are beginning to test my considerable patience.”
“Again, my apologies, Captain, that is not my intention.”
“All right, Commander, then indulge me. If there were no penetrations of Garrison Security, how did these terrorists get aboard? Unless I’m mistaken, or the Garrison has been moved without my knowledge, it is quite impossible for anyone to just walk up and attack it.”
Lewis was able to keep his expression passive, despite his embarrassment. He couldn’t fault the captain’s skepticism; he had been equally reluctant to believe the reports. In fact, he’d put off coming here as long as he could, attempting to buy time for his people to finish their assessment. But, in the end, he decided there was simply no way around it. He couldn’t sweep this under the carpet.
“As of this time, Captain,” Lewis said, “we have not been able to ascertain exactly how they managed to get on board.”
“Are you telling me these bastards appeared out of no where, attacked our garrison unchallenged, then disappeared into thin air?” The captain asked, all pretense of amusement gone from his voice.
“No, sir,” Lewis responded, relieved to finally report some good news. “Our response forces have tracked the attackers down to a location in Old Town. I have additional units en route to secure the area and take the criminals into custody. We should have them within the hour, sir.”
A click came from somewhere in the darkness, then two small lights appeared at the base of the far wall. Two rows of lights turned on in sequence from the floor and formed a framework around a tall cabinet. The captain approached the cabinet as a pair of double doors folded opened with a hiss.
In the light, Lewis made out the captain’s form. His long red and gold robe loosely draped over his shoulders. Underneath, he wore a pair of black trousers, tailored specifically for his long legs, and a pair of red slippers. His jet-black hair was meticulously combed straight back, and Lewis spotted the very edge of his long, curly mustache.
The captain tapped a few buttons on the side of the wardrobe.
“I want you to think very carefully about how you answer my next question, Commander Cardington. If there were no transports detected around the station, then how were you able to track them to Old Town? How did they get off the station?”
Lewis cleared his throat. “They jumped, Captain.”
A loud bang echoed through the dark cabin, making Lewis jump. The captain swung his natural fist again and again, repeatedly striking the side of the open cabinet. Lewis was sure he’d heard the wood crack and split. The cabinet wobbled with each hit but didn’t fall. A string of curses filled the cabin. After several seconds, silence returned. The captain stood there, his back to Lewis, his shoulders rising and falling with every breath.
The captain muttered under his breath, Lewis only just made out what he said. “Goddamn bastards. That wretched girl and her goddamn Lost Boys!”
Lewis realized he’d been holding his own breath and slowly let it out, careful to make no noise as he exhaled.
A mechanical whirring interrupted the silence, as three arms folded out of the cabinet. One reached forward and removed the captain’s robe as an additional light—just barely a glimmer—illuminated the cabinet, bathing the captain in a pale glow. Even with the dim lighting, Lewis could make out the scars and bioware implanted in the captain’s back. Thin metal bands wrapped around the captain’s back and torso. Small electronic leads extended from stubby connectors and disappeared into flesh.
It wasn’t the hideousness of the captain’s back that put the lump back into Lewis’s throat, but the scarred and disfigured stump of his right arm. The twisted and discolored skin stretched and grafted haphazardly back together turned his stomach. No one knew how he’d lost the arm, but judging by the grotesque amount of damage the captain, Lewis guessed any other man would not have survived.
He’d heard countless rumors, of course, ranging from the outlandish to the downright ridiculous. Lewis Cardington never wanted to guess. Some things were best left unknown. Besides, what mattered more than how he’d lost his arm was who’d taken it from him.
Two barely audible pops followed by a mechanical whining interrupted the tense silence of the room, as two hinged-brackets turned grabbed something Lewis couldn’t see and detached it from the pedestal inside the cabinet. He knew what it was without having to see.
The sight of the captain’s mechanical arm rotating into place gave Lewis an uneasy feeling. It’s long, metallic fingers were too skeletal for his taste and he could never quite get the image of an undead monster out of his mind.
Inside the silver framework of crisscrossing metal bands, colorful wires wove through the open mechanical parts. Electro-muscles and pivot joints worked the arm back and forth and around as it swung into. Lewis watched silently as the captain slid the stump of his right arm inside contraption. Several small clamps folded out from recesses on the base of the arm and hooked into anchor points implanted into the captain’s body with tiny clicks.
The captain began to work the arm, testing the movement. Small mechanical noises corresponded to the movement of the arm as it extended and retracted. The long, thin fingers flexed in and out, making a fist, then spreading wide. If it hadn’t been for the mechanical sounds the arm made as it moved, Lewis might have thought the thing was just a natural, albeit ghastly, extension of the captain’s body.
After several moments, the captain turned away from the cabinet and the brought the mechanical arm up. It’s claw-like fingers curled around the back of the counter-grav chair in front of him.
“I want these bastards found, Commander,” he said, deadpan. “No mistakes. I want them found so that we can make an example out of them. We must send a clear message.”
“Yes, sir,” Lewis said, forcing a nod.
Just leave now, he thought, let him discover the rest when you’re not the only one around.
But even as he thought it, he knew he couldn’t just leave. He had to tell him.
The captain must have noticed the conflict on his face. “Is there something else, Commander?”
Lewis squared his jaw and said, “The Terminus was open.”
Commander Lewis Cardington never saw the fingers of the captain’s mechanical hand fold back, nor did he hear thunderous blast as the small weapon imbedded inside, fired. He felt it, though. A single round slammed into his chest like a sledgehammer, launching him into the air and back against the cabin bulkhead.
He slid down into a seated position and brought his hands to his chest. They came away covered in something warm and sticky. He frowned, trying to decide where the mess had come from. He looked up but everything around him seemed covered in a sort of haze, almost like he was dreaming. He couldn’t focus on anything.
Darkness began closing in around him. He wasn’t scared. It was as if someone wrapped him in a warm blanket of calming blackness, like a mother comforting a scared child. He saw his mother’s face smiling at him, and he smelled breakfast. He couldn’t remember if he’d had a good breakfast or not, and for no reason at all, decided that he really wanted eggs.
What a strange thought…
Somewhere, far in the distance, he heard someone talking. Whoever it was, they didn’t sound pleased.
Who wouldn’t be happy in a place this warm and cozy?
In the darkness, Lewis Cardington heard, “Bridge, this is the captain. Get me Pan.”
Then even the darkness faded.
John McNeal had heard many outlandish things in his lifetime, but he had to admit that this particular revelation beat out all the rest. Neverland? It was so ridiculous that he almost laughed.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, covering a smirk. Even after hearing it twice, he still couldn’t believe it. Glancing out the skiff’s side windows, he watched the pulsing green lines move around the engine housing. He watched the clouds drift by and tried to come up with some other explanation, some logical answer that his mind could digest. Neverland was a fairy tale, a bedtime story. It wasn’t real, it couldn’t be. Not that he could argue the point, if this really wasn’t Neverland then where the hell was he?
“You know,” John said, turning away from the clouds, “you could’ve just said the Hundred Acre Wood. I might have believed that.”
Michael frowned and stared blankly at John, his head bobbing slightly with the motion of the skiff. “The what?”
“Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger?”
The young girl, with the odd burnt-orange pigtails, giggled. “You know, you sure do say some pretty weird things, guy.”
“Hey, speak for yourself,” John said. “By the way, I didn’t get your name back there with all the rock-throwing, skiff blazing ruckus.”
A wide grin spread across her face, revealing sparkling white teeth. Light seemed to dance in her bright green eyes. “Bella.”
John coughed. “Seriously?”
She leaned back in her seat, frowning. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
John’s mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening around him. But no matter how he tried to justify what was going on, nothing made sense. Not this world. Not the aircraft they sat in, and not these people. He had to be dreaming. Had to be. There was no way—absolutely no way—he was in Neverland.
“No, not at all,” he said, finally. “Something tickled my throat, is all. I like that name, Bella. It’s a good name.”
John couldn’t help but smile at the almost comical grin that spread across her face.
“Thanks!” she said.
John spent the rest of the flight trying to explain the complexities of a stuffed bear that had a severe honey addiction and a tiger that loved to bounce. He was just getting to the grumpy rabbit when the skiff slowed and began to descend. He leaned over to scan the cityscape below. The early morning sun cast long shadows across the empty streets below. The city was still and quiet. Empty. Were it not for the insane events of the past few hours, he could have been back on Earth. The sunrise was identical.
War hadn’t touched this part of the city. At least, not in the way it had where they hand first landed. Vehicles of all sizes still lined the streets, but most of these weren’t destroyed piles of rubble and most of the surrounding buildings seemed more or less intact.
They passed a few H-shaped tenements—which also appeared empty—then slowed to a crawl over a long flat five-story structure that spanned two blocks. John couldn’t make out any distinguishing features, and either there were no lights, or they had all been disabled. The building’s dark grey composite exterior matched the surrounding buildings, blending in.
Bella leaned over to look out the window. “Ah, home sweet home.”
Confused, John craned his neck to see what he’d missed. If she was talking about the building directly below them, he didn’t see what could be sweet about it.
The skiff began a slow yaw to the right, holding steady about fifty feet above the flat non-descript roof. John scanned the length of the roof twice and either completely missed what Bella had seen or she played games with him. Neither would have surprised him.
He was about to ask what the joke was, when an opening appeared below as two large sections of the roof slid apart. From his angle all he could see was darkness. Within seconds, the opening spanned seventy-feet and skiff slowly descended toward it.
They passed through unceremoniously and the roof doors began to close. It only took a moment for John’s eyes to adjust and he was surprised by what he saw. A cavernous space, at least a hundred yards wide by two hundred long, stretched out below him. Large directional lights shown from the ceiling, illuminating expansive floor below. Several small craft, that could very well have been this world’s version of fighter jets, were lined up along one wall and three skiffs, like the one he was in, were arranged similarly along the opposite wall.
“There better not be anyone in my spot again,” The pilot said from the cockpit.
Bella groaned. “Oh, Graft, you’re such a whiner. So what if there is? How many other spots do you have to choose from?”
“It’s the principle of the thing, sis. I mean seriously, it’s not a difficult concept to understan—and there is. For shit’s sake.”
Bella winked at John and pointed out one of the windows. “Look, there’s a spot right there.”
“You know what, Bella, that’s fine, but it’s not the point,” The pilot said. “How about I go down to your workshop, use some stuff and just put it back wherever I want. How would that make you feel?”
Bella’s face went instantly serious. “Don’t you dare.”
She gave an exaggerated sigh. “Fine, fine, I see your point, not like there’s anything we can do about it now. Just put us down somewhere.”
“You heard that, Tom?” the pilot called over his shoulder. “That’s a point for me, count it.”
John watched through the side windows as they maneuvered around the space. Flight crews and mechanics made their way through the collection of aircraft, moving parts around and inspecting chassis. Sparks shot off one of the skiffs where someone sat crouched over an opening in the wing, obviously making some kind of repairs or modifications to the aircraft. The scene reminded him of his home, back on the flight deck of the NAU Lincoln.
“I guess this’ll have to do,” The pilot said.
Outside, the green and yellow lines pulsing around the engine chassis accelerated as Tim maneuvered the skiff toward the deck. A mechanical popping sound echoed through the passenger compartment followed by hydraulic whines John guessed were the craft’s landing struts. A second later they touched down, the struts groaned as they absorbed the skiff’s weight.
Tom unbuckled and had the compartment door pulled open before the thrum of the engines ceased. He hopped onto the deck without a word and moved purposefully away from the skiff.
“So what’s his deal?” John asked, unbuckling his own harness.
Bella pursed her lips and shook her head. “That’s just Tom for ya. Come on, help me.” She moved to Michael and unclipped his restraints.
“Are we there yet?” Michael asked. His voice had the musical tone of someone slightly over-medicated. John crossed the floor to him and saw that the man’s eyes were glazed over and his expression uncaring.
“Here,” John said, slipping a hand under the wounded man’s shoulder. “You got his other arm?”
He and the girl exchanged nods and lifted Michael out of the seat. Michael sucked in a painful breath.
Apparently not medicated enough, John thought.
“Easy,” he said, taking more of the man’s weight.
“Oh, stop being such a baby.” Bella chided.
“I not baby,” Michael argued.
The trio shuffled to the edge of the compartment then stopped.
“You got him for a second?” she asked glancing at John
He adjusted the man’s weight and nodded. “Yep, got him.”
She hopped onto the deck then cursed when her foot slid in a small puddle. She grabbed ahold of the skiff and laughed again. “Holy crap that was almost my ass. Did you guys see that? I just about lost it.”
“Damn, I would have paid real money to see that,” The pilot said, coming up behind John.
John turned and did a double take. He frowned, looked out across the deck, and then back at the pilot. “Wait, Huh?”
The pilot brushed long strands of blonde hair away from his face and held out his hand with a sheepish grin. “Yeah, we get that a lot. I’m Tim.”
John fumbled with his grip, trying to shift the man’s weight so he could take the offered hand and not drop Michael.
Tim seemed to notice his quandary and slapped him on the shoulder instead. “Don’t worry about it. Nice to meet you.”
His hair was longer and unkempt, but there was no mistaking that he and Tom were twins. He wore a tan sleeveless shirt tucked into brown cargo pants that bloused over a pair of black military style boots. Some kind of pistol was secured in a holster on his waist, accompanied with two spare magazines.
“You’re twins.” John said.
Tim grinned. “Nothing gets passed you.”
“It’s a gift.”
“You guys going to stay up there forever and talk, or what?” Bella asked.
John shifted his gaze back to the girl, then something behind her caught his attention. A large crowd had started to gather on the deck several feet away. As he looked over their faces, he realized not one of them appeared over twenty-five. He guessed the youngest was only fourteen or fifteen.
They’re just kids, John thought.
“Who the hell is that?” someone in the crowd asked.
John hadn’t seen who’d spoken, but the voice was deep and gruff, like an old man’s. He couldn’t imagine one of the kids sounding like that.
“For shit’s sake,” Tim muttered under his breath.
A tall man, at least forty, stepped around the edge of the crowd, pointing a finger at John. Like everyone else, the man dressed in dark, earthy tones. His pants were tucked into combat boots, and a well-wore leather jacket hung loosely around his chest over a faded blue shirt. John noticed he too was armed. The man gripped the butt of a pistol on his right hip.
“What’s this?” the man asked, nodding to John.
Oh great, John thought, Tom Number Two.
“He’s okay, Marb,” Bella said.
“Says you,” the man retorted, unsnapping the clasp on his holster.
She ignored him and gave the men in the skiff a “come on” gesture.
John felt the weight of Michael’s semi-limp body ebb. Tim had taken a hold of the opposite arm and together they helped Michael to a sitting position on the floor of the compartment. Bella pulled his legs over the edge.
Tim climbed down to help Bella pull Michael the rest of the way out, then John followed. On the deck, John straightened and met Marb’s icy stare. His fingers slid over his pulser’s grip, wondering if he’d be fast enough if it came to that. He’d been in the top three of his class in marksmanship training, but that had been firing at semi-organic targets in optimal conditions. The instructors had invited the class to participate in a quick-draw competition, to see who could put the most accurate rounds on target. Out of his class of twenty-two cadets, he’d lasted until the second-to-last round before getting knocked out by Allison Renteria with her split second groin shot that was the talk of the class through graduation.
As they starred each other down, each man seemingly waiting for the other to flinch, as tense silence fell over the group. John felt a bit like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral.
“Oh, for the love of the First Ones, Marb,” Bella said, throwing her head back. “Knock off your shit. This is ridiculous.”
Marb held his ground. “When it comes to the security of this compound, I decide what’s ridiculous or not. You people don’t just get to pick and choose what security procedures you don’t want to follow when it’s not convenient.
Bella squared herself to the man and jammed her fists down on her hips. “I said, he’s okay.”
Marb laughed. “Well, unfortunately, I don’t really give a damn what a little bitch like you has to say about anything around—”
“You call me that again!” Bella warned, stepping toward him.
“Bella, stop,” Tim said, grabbing her arm. He glared at Marb. “Watch what you say to my sister, asshole.”
“To hell with your sister, and to hell with you.” Marb said, jabbing a finger at both of them in turn.
“Your mission was simple. In and out. You both know what kind of schedule we’re on. We don’t have the time or resources to be dealing with shit like this,” he pointed to Michael. “And on top of that, you bring a stranger here?”
He lifted his chin toward John. “And an armed stranger at that. How do I know he’s not a Regency spy?”
“They were just following the Rules,” Bella argued, putting an emphasis on the same rules Marb had thrown at them. She pulled her arm free of Tim’s grasp.
John had had enough. He stepped around Tim and said, “Look, Mar—”
In a blink Marb’s pistol came up, it’s long barrel level with John’s forehead. Startled gasps from the crowd muffled the audible click of a hammer cocking back.
“Rules don’t apply to Regency spies.”
“Whoa, hey!” John lifted his hands. He felt strangely calm, despite staring into a black hole of death. His heart pounded, and adrenaline pumped into his system, slowing everything down. Lessons from hand to hand combat flowed into his mind and he weighed his options. They weren’t very good.
“Marb, take it easy,” Tim said.
“Listen,” John said, keeping his tone calm and level. “I can understand you not trusting me. In your position, I might feel the exact same, but I can assure you I’m no spy.”
“Oh, well hell, why didn’t you just say so.” Marb lowered the gun a fraction of an inch. “I guess we can all just go back to what we were doing then, no harm no foul. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
The gun came back up. “I’m going to need that gun.”
“Jesus, what happened?” A familiar voice asked, as Tom appeared from behind the nose of the skiff, pushing a wheeled office chair.
“Marb thinks John’s a spy,” Bella said, not bothering to hide her annoyance.
“Put your damn gun up, Marb.”
Marb’s face changed from determination to disbelief. “You’re vouching for this guy?”
Tom pushed the chair behind Michael and, on queue, Tim and Bella lowered him into it. After making sure the chair was steady, Tom glanced up at Marb, clearly frustrated.
“I’m not vouching for anyone. This was Michael’s call.”
At the mention of his name, Michael gave a slight grin and his head bobbed. John wondered how much he was actually registering. He turned back to Marb. The barrel-chested man holstered his pistol but John could tell the man wanted nothing less than to put a bullet right between his eyes.
“Regardless of whose call it is,” Marb pointed at John. “He will still have to turn over his weapon. No unauthorized weapons in the compound, those are my rules.”
He eyed Bella as he emphasized the last part, then turned back to Tom. “Does she know?”
Bella answered, “Of course she doesn’t know, idiot, we just got back. No way we’re going to broadcast this over the net.”
“Damn, I’d like to smack that smart mouth of yours.” He waved a dismissive hand to the side. “This is grown folk talk, honey, why don’t you go play with your toys. I’m sure they miss you.”
John stepped forward and spoke before any of them had a chance to stop him. “Listen, buddy, if you want my gun that’s fine, we’ll talk about it, but you need to watch how you speak to her.” He nodded at Bella. “If it wasn’t for her, none of us would be standing here right now. So as far as I’m concerned, if you have something to say to her, you can say it to me.”
Marb chuckled and rolled his broad shoulders. “Is that so? As a matter of fact, I might have something I want to say…”
He stepped forward in a blur of motion and swung.
Already moving, John caught the man’s thick forearm with both hands and twisted, using his momentum to pull the bigger man off balance. He twisted Marb’s arm down and around, while simultaneously putting a hand against the man’s shoulder and pushing back. Gravity did the rest.
Marb shouted in surprise as his feet left the deck and flipped backward. He landed on his back with a dull thud and gasped for air. A weak groan escaped his lips as John let go of his arm, and he rolled onto his side.
John stepped back. A buzz of conversation rippled through the crowd he’d forgotten was still there. Most seemed to be fixated on Marb, others eyed John with a mixture of suspicion and admiration.
“Oh, damn,” Tim said, surprised.
Bella bounced up and down several times, pointed at the fallen man and laughed. She tried to speak but the works jumbled to together and deteriorated into more laugher. She clung desperately to Michael’s chair, holding herself more or less upright.
“Hey, you c-can’t d-do. Back away f-from him.”
A bearded man, standing at most five and a half feet tall, stepped away from the crowd with a pistol clutched in stubby fingers. His expression seemed more terrified than confused. Small beady eyes darted between John and Marb, as if he was trying to decide whether to help his friend off the floor or defend him. The brown shirt he wore stretched at the seams and was tucked haphazardly into a pair of pants he had obviously outgrown about twenty pounds ago. The shirtsleeves were rolled to just below the elbow, showing off ridiculously hairy forearms.
He took another step forward. “B-back up!”
He raised his left hand slowly. “Easy, buddy. Just stay cool.”
As the man spoke, John flipped the catch on his holster and drew. He had the pulser leveled and ready before the man had any idea. Several of the on-lookers backed away. The man, however, didn’t seem to know what to do. He stood frozen, fat hands trembling, eyeing the man on the ground as if he waited for instructions.
After several seconds, the man stammered for the right words, “You…you can’t do that…”
Bella moved away from the chair, doubled over in laughter. She dropped to her knees and slapped the deck in front of her.
John, for the life of him, didn’t understand what the hell was so funny. He didn’t think it was anything he’d done or said. Granted, he was no expert when it came to women and what went on in their heads, but this was something else entirely. Maybe she’d truly just lost her mind.
“What’s so funny?”
She waved him off, shaking her head. It took several deep breaths to break the cycle then, spoke between breaths. Her voice trembled, struggling to keep her laughter under control.
“Oh…oh…that’s the…funniest thing…I’ve…seen in months.”
Now Tim stepped forward and raised a hand, his tone steady and calm. “Take it Easy, Oak. Everything is going to be all right. Marb is fine. Just relax.”
This seemed to confuse the man even more. John could almost hear the man’s internal monologue, deciding which thought to believe more, that his friend was okay or that he needed help.
“M…M…Marb?” Oak mumbled. Short, chubby fingers flexed around the grip of the pistol as concerned eyes scanned over his friend on the floor.
Marb groaned again, only it sounded more like anger than pain. He rolled over to push himself up and glared up at John.
Red faced with anger, he said, “You’re fucking dead.”
Oak moved closer, slipped the pistol into his waistband, and reached down to help his friend to his feet.
Marb smacked his hand away and said, “I’m fine.”
Oak gasped in surprise and jerked his hand back. He cradled it to his chest like a child who’d just touched a hot pan and frowned. For a brief second, John thought he saw the man’s lower lip protrude and quiver.
Bella, who must have seen it as well, laughed harder. “Oh, I can’t take it…where’s Carter? I can’t believe he’s missing this!”
A grin crept across John’s face as Bella gasped for air between bouts of laughter. He wasn’t sure which was funnier, the big man’s surprise and confusion, or the girl’s laughter.
She had a strange innocence about her. Something he wouldn’t have attributed to the girl who’d blown a skiff right out of the sky on their first encounter. She was full of surprises.
Satisfied the threat had passed, he gave Marb another look, then holstered his pulser.
Marb stood and brushed himself off. “This isn’t over.”
“Hey, I’ll be here all week,” John said.
John saw a flash of confusion cross the man’s face, quickly replaced by determination. He wondered if Marb even understood the reference.
“Oh, I seriously doubt that. In fact, I’d be willing to bet I’ll be throwing you out on your ass here in the next hour. So, don’t go too far.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Marb’s words seemed to strike a chord for Bella, who immediately stopped laughing and pointed a finger at him.
“If you’ve got fight with him, you’ve got a fight with me too, Marb.”
“Big words from a little person,” Marb retorted, then jabbed a finger at Tim. “Say them when your brothers aren’t here to protect you.”
“Stop,” Michael said, his hoarse voice barely more than a whisper.
They turned to him. He sat slouched back in the padded chair, his injured leg stretched out in front of him. He worked his tongue around his mouth and swallowed hard. He looked up at them, head tilted slightly forward. He spoke slowly, words slurring just enough that it was noticeable. He had to force a breath every few words.
“I’m vouching for John, Marb, he isn’t any concern…of yours. If you have a problem…with that, you know who…you can take it up with.”
Marb scoffed, “Well see, that’s where you’re wrong, Michael. Everything that has to do with the security of this place is my concern, and that most definitely includes armed outsiders. Even she knows that.”
He lifted his head, indicating somewhere behind the skiff.
“Take it up with her then.” Michael said, “But he’s staying with me and he’s keeping his gun.”
Marb returned Michael’s stare for several moments, like to cage fighters waiting for the other to flinch. John wondered who would break first, though he thought he knew.
He should have been a gambler.
Marb narrowed his eyes and spoke through clenched teeth. “We’ll see.”
He turned and shoved his way through the crowd. Some objected, others cursed, but none stopped him, and he paid them no attention.
Oak, still confused, simply stood there with a stupid expression on his face, like he didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to do now. He looked like he was on the verge of being sick or crying, neither would have surprised John; the man was obviously a few cans short of a six-pack.
Finally, the gorilla of a man turned and, without a word, walked away like nothing happened. He shuffled around the edge of the crowd, keeping his eyes low.
Tim slapped John on the shoulder. “Well, mister, I don’t know who the hell you are, but I like ya. Anyone who can put Marb on his ass like that is all right in my book. Feel free to stick around as long as you like.”
John shrugged. “The bigger they are…”
Tim raised an eyebrow.
John shook his head. “Forget it.”
For every way this world was like his own, there were five more ways it was not.
Bella clapped her hands together. “That was so great! Did you see his face? I bet he hasn’t been put down like that in years. God, I wish Carter had been here.”
“Well, I’m not sure I did myself any favors there. Hate to make enemies on the first day of school.”
She shook her head and waved both arms enthusiastically through the air. “Oh, forget about him. He’s all talk. And his friend there, well, I’m sure you saw. Doesn’t do much without Marb’s say so.”
John laughed and nodded. “Lucky for me. That guy looked like he could tie me up in a knot with one hand behind his back.”
“Shoot, he’s not smart enough to know what a knot is. And besides,” she turned to face Michael, “who does that ass think he is anyway?”
Michael shook his head, opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and took a long, weary breath.
“Ass,” Bella muttered.
“Where’d you find the chair?” Tim asked as his brother moved back around behind it.
Tom grinned. “Where do you think?”
He turned the chair slightly, revealing a brown leather jacket draped across the back.
“Oh, shit.” Tim ran a hand through his blonde hair. “Damn, brother, that’s gutsy move right there.”
Bella craned her neck and when she saw the jacket let out a long, “Oh.” She half-heartedly suppressed a smile, and turned to John, who raised his eyebrows curiously.
She jerked a finger at the crowd and whispered, “Marb’s”
“Nice,” John said with a grin.
“Come on,” Tim said. “Let’s get out of here before he realizes what happened.”
John followed the siblings through a maze of corridors filled with large supply cases and equipment, all stacked haphazardly along the walls. There didn’t seem to be any organization to it at all. Food bins were stacked atop ammo crates, and medical supplies were packed in with electronic components. Everything looked very temporary.
They had just made their third turn when Bella started jumping up and down; throwing a fit because she’d left her tribarrel in the skiff. She and Tom went back and forth about it for a minute, until finally he relented and agreed to go back and retrieve it.
She’d given him an enormous grin and said, “Oh, thanks, Tommy!” Then reached forward, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed.
“Okay, okay, sis, damn. Enough. It’s no big deal.” He said, finally pushing away. He rolled his eyes and started back toward the hanger.
“Don’t forget to plug it in!” Bella called after him. He answered with a wave.
They all watched Tom as he walked away and when he was out of earshot Bella turned to Tim and whispered, “You know you’re my favorite.”
He grinned and went back to pushing Michael down the corridor. “I know.”
They turned down another corridor and made their way to a nondescript down at the end.
“Ah, finally,” Tim said.
The door hung open several inches and John could hear mumbling coming from within.
Tim grunted. “I hope he’s not having one of his days.”
Bella leaned forward and listened for a moment, then grinned. “Sounds like a good day.”
She pushed the door open, waited while Tim wheeled Michael through, then she and John followed.
A short, thin man stood with his back to the door, focused on something on the counter in front of him. From behind, he appeared to be bald on all but the very left side of his head; strands of thin grey hair were combed over in a fashion that did nothing to cover anything. An untold collection of tools and whatever else he could fit into the pockets of the lab coat weighed it down significantly.
The room reminded John more of a modern, stainless steel kitchen than an infirmary. The cramped space was jam-packed with equipment, and storage containers, all surrounding a single examination table in the middle of the room. Cables and wires snaked around the floor to various modules and terminals. A cluster of data monitors and what appeared to be scanning and diagnostic sensors hung from the ceiling above the table.
Like everything else John had seen so far, the technology and equipment around him seemed temporary and second-hand. In a world so advanced it just didn’t make sense that so much of their equipment was old and run-down.
A loud crack echoed through the room and the man’s hands jerked away from whatever he’d been working on.
“God damn it! God damn it!” He shook his right hand vigorously before sticking his index finger into his mouth. He pulled it out a second later and inspected the tip. He winced and sucked in a breath before shaking it out. “Stupid piece of—”
“Hey, Doc, got something for you,” Tim announced.
Without looking up from his work, the man waved an irritated hand and said, “Just leave it on the table, thank you. I’ll get to it later, if there is a later, anyway.”
Bella giggled. “Well, see you later, Michael, hope you get better soon.”
“Doc,” Tim repeated.
The man gave an exasperated sigh and turned. “Honestly, I’m extremely—oh.”
If the man would’ve had eyebrows, they would have risen. His skin was pale, almost chalk white, and not at all smooth. His right cheek seemed stretched toward the back of his jaw ending in a mangled mass of scar tissue. Only a small portion of his right earlobe remained. That and a small pen-size hole were the only indications that he still had an ear.
His right eye drooped, the very top of the socket covered by skin pulled down from his forehead to the side of his head. A pair of clear goggles, wrapped around his head, made the eyes underneath look three times their normal size.
He looked down at Michael and made a tisk-tisk sound, then said, “I always do miss the best parties.”
He set the device he’d been working on aside and knelt down to examine Michael’s leg. “Well, nothing is ever simple with you, is it?”
He squinted and cocked his head at the plyform dressing. “Wasn’t your trip just supposed to be a quick in and out?”
“Yeah,” Tim said, “It’s been one of those days.”
“What happened,” the doctor asked, “decide you didn’t want this one?”
“Give me a break, Doc. It’s been a . . . rough morning,” Michael said, rolling his head to the side.
“Indeed.” Irving said. He reached down and inspected the plyform dressing. He ran his fingers over the dressing and leaned from side to side, examining it from different angles.
He looked up at Tim. “What is this?”
“Don’t look at me, that’s all this guy.” Tim jerked a thumb at John.
The doctor noticed John for the first time and lifted the goggles to his forehead. Even from across the room John could see that his irises were different colors, one bright blue; the other dull grey.
He stood slowly and said, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Finally, someone who doesn’t want to rip my head off, John thought. He offered his hand. “John McNeal. I crashed the party.”
“Indeed,” the doctor said again, giving John’s hand a hard pump. “Irving Smithe. That’s Smithe not Smith, if you like being healthy you’ll remember the difference.”
The scared molted flesh on his face stretched when he smiled, changing from a dull pink to almost white then back again.
John grinned, “I’ll remember.”
“He’s from the other side.” Bella offered, hopping onto the counter behind her. Two small containers toppled off as she made room to sit and clattered onto the floor. She crossed her ankles and smiled, seeming not to notice the commotion.
“Is that so?” Irving said.
She nodded. “Yep, came through this morning.”
“I didn’t know your people could get through on their own.”
“Oh, trust me, we can’t.” John admitted. “It just kind of happened.”
“Your lucky day, then.”
John laughed. “That’s not exactly what I’d call it.”
“Uh, Doc?” Michael leaned his head back to look up at Irving.
“Oh, for the love. Yes, yes, here,” Irving said, moving back to the chair. “Help me here, would you Tim? Let’s get him up onto the table.”
Together Irving and Tim lifted Michael out of the chair and onto the exam table. John pulled the chair away and backed out of the way. The doctor reached up to the control panel above the table and tapped a few buttons. Two spider arms unfolded from recesses behind the panel and extended into position just above Michael’s chest.
A flat orange beam emitted out of the one; green from the other. They swept back and forth along Michael’s body.
“Now, what did you do this time?” Irving asked. The beams finished their scans and automatically folded back in their recesses. A transparent hologram flickered into existence, Michael’s organs and skeletal and muscular structure overlaid in various colors just above his body.
Red indicator markers flashed above Michael’s wounded leg and words that John couldn’t read because they were backward to him, scrolled in the air beside.
Irving made the tisk-tisk noise again and shook his head. “Well, that’s not supposed to be there.”
“Got tagged running from some Rats during our exfil,” Michael said.
The hologram rippled as Irving reached through to inspect the plyform. “Not fast enough, I’d say.”
“Slowpoke,” Bella chided.
“So,” Irving clapped his hands together once, “let’s get this bandage and these pants off and take a proper look, shall we?”
Michael groaned. “Doc, I don’t really think that’s—”
Irving shushed him, already working on pulling his jacket off. Tom stepped up to help. Bella giggled as the doc finished with the jacket and Tom started on his boots.
“Oh, yeah, take it off.” Bella said, crossing her arms and grinning.
“Shut up, B,” Michael said.
With the jacket off, John got his first clear view of the harness that had saved his life; it didn’t look that impressive. Charred nylon straps held the device in place on top of his shirt and the steel front panel showed signs of fire damage. Michael was damn lucky his clothes hadn’t caught fire.
John pointed at the damaged harness. “Looks like we got down just in the nick of time.”
Irving said, “Indeed.”
Bella craned her head around to see. “What the hell?”
She hopped down off the counter and squeezed her way up to the table. Her eyes widened at the sight of the harness.
“What the hell did you do to my rig?”
Before Michael could answer she flipped the clasps open and pulled it free.
“You fried the entire assembly!” She said, turning the device over in her hands.
“That’s my fault,” John said.
She glared at him. Her stare pierced right through his skull. “Your fault?”
He back peddled. “Well, I mean, I didn’t break it, but . . . ”
“Ow!” Michael cried as Irving pulled his shirt over his head. “Damn, careful Doc.”
He leaned back on his elbows. “It’s not anybody’s fault, B, there wasn’t any other way. I’m sorry.”
“I had to get him off the refinery somehow.”
Bella shook the damaged unit at him, “It’s not designed to carry two, Michael. If I’d wanted it to carry two, I would have designed it to carry two.” She turned away and returned to examining the device, grumbling inaudibly to herself.
“Like I said, I’m sorry. But, hey, at least now you know it can handle it.”
She pointed to the charring on the front panel. “Does this look like it handled anything to you?”
“Okay, let’s have a look at his leg, shall we?” Irving said, stepping in between them. He cut away the pants with a pair of medical sheers, then grabbed another hand scanner and ran it over the plyform.
After a few moments of studying the data screen, the doctor said, “Well, I’m sad to say, that it appears that I am going to have to take the leg.”
The room instantly fell silent; everyone stared in disbelief at the doctor, who appeared unmoved at the revelation.
A mixture of shock and confusion came over John, the leg really hadn’t looked that bad and even without any of this advanced technology, he didn’t think the injury had progressed to the level of amputation.
Michael’s mouth hung open, lips working silently as he digested the diagnosis. He said, “Doc, wait, what? Come on, you’ve got to be kidding right? It’s not that bad, no way!”
Tim, also visibly concerned, said, “Doc, there’s got to be something you can do. That seems a little extreme.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it,” Bella said, her eyes wide.
Irving remained passive and retrieved a small tool from the tray next to the head of the table and held it up. “Yeah, I’m just kidding. Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Everyone but the doctor let out a collective sigh of relief, Michael collapsed on the table and Tim let out a low whistle. John chuckled and shook his head.
Bella folded her arms across her chest and glared at the doctor. “That wasn’t funny.”
Tim laughed. “It was a little funny.”
“Holy crap, Doc,” Michael said, rubbing his forehead. “You just about gave me a heart attack.”
Irving turned the instrument on with a click, its tip glowed bright red. “Well, I guess we wouldn’t have had to worry about the leg then, at least.”
“Not funny,” Bella repeated, then turned and stormed out into the corridor.
Irving briefly considered the holo-display again, moved to the leg and tapped the pressure bandage. “First, we need to get this wrap off.”
He dragged the glowing red tip down the length of the plyform. As he did, the bandage split apart. After finishing the cut, he set the tool aside and began to peel the bandage away from the wound.
John leaned forward as Irving tossed the plyform into a waste can. The skin had darkened around the wound and the SaniGel had lost some of its clean white appearance. Now several dark patches, sprinkled over the surface gave the gel a soiled look.
Michael looked down and said, “Is that stuff supposed to look like that?”
“It’s working to pull toxins out, the more it extracts from the wound the darker it will get.”
The doctor ran a finger over the SaniGel, then glanced over John. “Just a basic sealing, self-hardening bio-nanonic compound, yes?”
John coughed a laugh, surprised. “Uh, yeah, I think so. Not sure exactly how it works, but I’m sure that’s about right.”
The doctor did not elaborate, and John did not feel the need to ask what he thought was so interesting. The doctor was obviously knowledgeable, no doubt about that. But, he wondered how his knowledge would stand up to his counterparts back on Earth.
Irving tapped a few controls on the panel above the examination table and two arms folded down from the instrument cluster. They twisted and folded into position above Michael’s wound.
“Okay,” he said, pulling a small injector from a drawer, “just a little shot and the machine will do the rest.”
“No,” Michael said, grabbing the Doctor’s wrist.
“Michael, this procedure will remove this shrapnel from your leg and speed your recovery process considerably, but it is not painless. I understand your aversion to the treatment—I even sympathize—but this is a relatively small dose and—”
“I don’t want it,” Michael said, shaking his head. He pointed at John. “He’s got some stuff that does wonders for pain, Doc. I’ll take some of that, but I’m not putting that shit in my body.”
Irving looked over at John, who shifted uncomfortably. John thought if they’d met in a dark alley somewhere, the man’s scared face and stretched skin would have terrified him. Like some demented serial killer lurking in the shadows, ready to ravage his next victim. He stuttered as he tried to shake the image of the man choking the life out of him with deformed claw-like hands.
“I-I’m not sure how much I have left.”
The doctor didn’t skip a beat. “And without knowing the exact composition of the substance I couldn’t possibly, in good conscious, administer the medication. Honestly, the dosage is so low…”
“Not going to happen.”
The doctor signed and straightened. He looked between Michael and John for several moments without speaking, then said to John, “What is this medication he’s talking about?”
“Yeah,” John said, already holding up the injector and remaining capsules. “There are only two doses left.”
Michael nodded, as if he’d just been proven right in some in-depth theological discussion. “See, that’ll have to be enough then.”
John could tell the doctor wasn’t convinced. He held out one of the capsules for him. “Just your standard-issue, survival pack, pain suppressant. Again, I’m no medical professional. I can’t tell you exactly what’s in it or how it works, I just know that it does.”
Michael shifted on the table. “Stuff works great, Doc.”
Irving took the capsule and turned it over in his hand. “You’ve already administered this medication?”
John said, “Yes, right after I applied the SaniGel and wrapped his leg with the plyform.”
“And what are your medical qualifications?” Irving asked.
John shrugged. “Only the first-aid training the Union gives, which I’ll admit is not much, but it’s enough to at least make a person comfortable until we can get people back to the professionals. The kit itself is pretty much idiot-proof, in fact,” John unfolded the medical kit, inspected it for a moment, then said, “yeah, here it is, one capsule every four hours.”
Irving raised an eyebrow. “I see.”
He studied the capsule for another moment, then said, “Administering a medication without knowing anything about the chemical make-up of the medicine is not good medical practice.”
“Come on, Doc,” Michael interrupted. “It didn’t kill me. And I’m not going to let you put that shit in my body.”
“I said it’s not good practice, Michael. I didn’t say I wasn’t going to give it to you.” He took the injector from John, inserted the capsule and pressed it against Michael’s leg.
After several seconds, Michael sighed. “Oh, yeah…that’s nice.”
John wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d want Irving treating him if he and Michael’s positions were reverse. But, then again, all the rest of them trusted him. Maybe he was just used to the no nonsense manner of military doctors. Not to mention, this scarred man was quite possibly the only option for medical care and when it boiled down to it, he’d rather have a halfway competent doctor than none at all.
Without another word, the Doctor returned his attention to the instrument cluster above. He tapped in several commands, and the arms began working, cleaning and removing the SaniGel from the wound. As the greyish compound cracked and split Michael sucked in a painful breath and pounded the table with a fist.
“Ah,” the doctor said, “good thing you took that anesthetic.”
Michael bared his teeth muttered a curse under his breath. One of the arms carefully extracted the broken pieces of gel, tossing them into a tray at the side of the bed. Another seemed to lubricate the site with clear ooze and the fourth scanned the small piece of shrapnel still in his leg. The jagged piece of charred metal reminded John of a shark fin cutting through ocean water.
John cleared his throat and swallowed hard, forcing his stomach to stop turning.
Across the table, Tim made a gurgling sound and quickly covered his mouth. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”
“Yes, why don’t you all wait outside?” Irving suggested, without looking up from his work. “Don’t worry about Michael, he’ll be just fine. I should have most of this patched up by tonight.”
The prognosis surprised John. Even with the advances in medical technology they’d made on Earth over the last ten years, he still would have estimated at least a few days in the hospital.
“Tonight?” John asked.
Irving gave him a questioning look. “That’s right. Hard to say when he’ll be able to run ops again, but give him a few days and he’ll be right back on his feet.”
“Yes, well, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so…”
Taking the hint, John said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll let you get to it.”
“Hey,” Michael held out a hand to John, “thanks.”
John smiled and pumped the man’s hand. “I think I should be the one saying thanks, but if we’re keeping score, I’d say we’re even.”
In the hall, John found Bella sitting on a short stack of crates, still working on the flight harness. Tim was trying to convince her it wasn’t as bad as it looked, and Bella was ignoring him. Tim looked up as John stepped toward them shaking his head. He rolled his eyes and jerked his head as if to say ‘this is what I have to deal with’.
Without looking up from her work, Bella said, “I can see you.”
John nodded at the door, “Doc says, Michael should be good to go in a few days.”
“That’s good,” Tim said, “I was worried Doc was going to keep him in there a while. I know Michael and if he would’ve had to be in there as long as Carter had, he would’ve lost his mind.”
“That’s an understatement,” Bella said, not looking up from her work.
John slipped his hands into his pockets. She’d mentioned that name before. “What happened to Carter?”
“Long story,” Tim said. “The moral of which is: don’t jump out of a skiff just before it’s going to set down. And if you are going to, don’t land and twist your ankle and get it caught under the landing struts. It’s bad for your leg bones.”
John shivered, imagining the sick cracking of bone and scream that would have accompanied the pain. He had broken one bone before—his radius—after falling off his parent’s roof as a child. The memory was as clear now, as it was then. “I—”
A woman’s voice echoed down the corridor, interrupting him. “What in the shit happened out there, Tim?”
All three turned to see a woman, dressed in pastel yellow pants and a light grey sleeveless shirt. She stood in the middle of the corridor with her arms crossed, eyes burning a hole straight through them.
Long chestnut hair hung passed her shoulders, framing a face that might have been pretty had it not been for the two pink scars that cut jagged lines down the side of her face. Both started just above her right eye and ran down diagonally across her nose and underneath her jaw on the left side of her face.
“Wendy,” Tim said in a clipped tone, “didn’t see you there.”
The nervousness in the man’s voice and her demeanor told John all he needed to know. This woman wasn’t the caring, motherly Wendy from the stories. This woman was battle-hardened, and anything but sweet.
Her steeled eyes never left John’s, the rest of her face a mask of suspicion and deadly determination. The fingers on both hands wrapped around pistols, one holstered under each arm. Her jaw barely moved as she spoke.
For a moment John thought she had been addressing him, then Tim stepped next to him and answered, “I—”
“No,” she said. “You know what, I don’t want to hear it. Not from you. Where’s Michael?”
Bella pointed. “Doc’s working on him.”
John saw Wendy’s face flash from anger, to worry, then back to anger. Eyes glanced to the door, then expectantly back to Tim.
She opened her mouth to speak but Tim answered before she could even get the question out.
“Don’t look at me.” He held out his hands apologetically, “I just picked them up.”
Bella said, “It’s his fault.”
John turned to see she was pointing at him. He wanted to argue but quickly realized that for all intents and purposes, she was right. Michael had almost died saving his life and he didn’t even really know who he was. The magnitude of that choice humbled him.
Would I have done the same?
John said, “She’s right.”
“And who in First Ones are you?”
“Lieutenant John McNeal, North American Union, Ma’am. I’m from Earth.”
Wendy looked like she’d seen a ghost. Her entire body went rigid; she didn’t breathe for what seemed like a full minute as she worked her jaw back and forth. Her eyes bored into him, and for the first time since arriving, John felt truly uncomfortable.
Her lips barely moved. “That’s not possible.”
John sympathized, because he too had trouble believing it himself. “Preaching to the choir,” he said.
“How did you escape Regency confinement?”
“That’s the thing, I didn’t. They didn’t bring me here. Though, I guess they might have if they had the chance. That Portal or rift of theirs, whatever you want to call it, opened right in front of me and there wasn’t much I could do; it sucked me through. Didn’t have much of a choice.” John jerked a thumb to the Infirmary door behind him. “Michael and Tom found me and helped me get off the station.”
Wendy turned to Tim, seemingly for confirmation. He shook his head and said, “Like I said, I just picked them up. Grabbed them up around Sector 32, right out of the middle of a large Duster Enclave. They were pretty damn lucky, if you ask me.”
Wendy turned back to John and considered him silently, as if trying to process the information. Had their roles been reverse, John knew he would’ve been hard-pressed to believe the same story.
A loud bang echoed through the silent corridor, causing them to jump. John cursed and turned just in time to see Bella slam the harness against the corridor wall a second time.
“For Dust’s sake,” she said, completely engrossed in the rig. “Why does all of my stuff have to get ruined?”
She hadn’t even noticed she’d startled the others. John let out a breath and focused on slowing his heart rate.
“Damn it, sis, you scared the shit out of me,” Tim said. “Stop tinkering with that thing.”
Before John could stop himself, he laughed, knowing there was no way anyone else would get the joke. Only one thing was missing from this entire experience, and he couldn’t wait to meet him.
“Something funny?” Wendy asked.
“No,” he coughed. “Not at all. I was just wondering when I was going to get to meet, Pan?”
She moved so fast, John didn’t even know he’d been punched until his was flat on his back on the cold metal floor; stars dancing in his vision. He reached up and felt wet liquid trickling over his lip. A sour metallic taste hit his tongue. His nose was bleeding. Through blurry tears he made out the barrel of a pistol. His hands slipped on the metal underneath him as he struggled to push himself away, confused as to how he’d ended up in this position.
“What did you say?” Wendy demanded, jabbing the pistol even closer.
“Whoa, wait, wait, I—” A sharp pain stung his left leg as Wendy’s foot stomped down hard on his ankle. John couldn’t think, confused by the sudden pain, his only instinct compelled him to move away. He stammered, “I…I…”
As his back hit the corridor wall two unfocused figures appeared on either side of Wendy. Bella’s voice came next.
“Wendy it’s okay! Stop!”
John rubbed his eyes, trying to make his vision clear, and cried out at the sudden flash of pain as his hand brushed against his nose. He took a deep breath, trying to quell the pain and said, “Look, I didn’t…I’m sorry…”
Tim reached forward and strained to pull Wendy’s gun away. “Wendy, he doesn’t know.”
Wendy shook off the two siblings, but didn’t holster the pistol. “You think that’s funny?”
John felt his face start to swell and his nose throbbed. Pain pulsed through it with every heartbeat. One nostril already closed, and every forced breath making a wet draining sound. His voice sounded nasally. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“He doesn’t know, Wendy,” Tim repeated.
Wendy kept her eyes locked on John, eyes filled with hatred. However, he wasn’t sure if that hatred was for him, or someone else. He reminded himself that this was not the Neverland he knew, and made a note to keep his mouth shut in the future. He had a feeling Wendy was not the sort of woman you crossed twice.
“I don’t have time for this,” Wendy growled, then pushed her way past Tim and shoved open the infirmary door. John heard the doctor cry out in surprise just as she slammed the door shut behind her.
Tim leaned forward and offered John a hand. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Back on his feet, John touched his nose gently and sucked in a breath as fingers brushed over the sensitive skin. He blinked away a tear and he gritted his teeth and the pain. He couldn’t tell if it was broken or not, but damn it hurt. His sinuses felt like two over-inflated balloons.
“That’s going to leave a wicked black eye.” Bella said.
“What the hell did I say?”
Tim laughed and shook his head. “Of all the things you could have said.”
“Yeah,” Bella said, finally tossing the destroyed harness aside. It clanged off the corridor wall and landed with a hollow thud on one of the plastic crates. “Everyone knows not to bring him up, ever. How’d you know about him anyway?”
“Who? Pan? Hell, he’s the main character in the story. The whole book is named after him; Peter Pan.”
Tim frowned, “Story?”
“Yeah,” John said. “Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Wendy, Hook, Neverland, it’s all just a fairy tale; a children’s story where I come from. Disney’s made a killing on it.”
“What are you talking about?” Bella asked. “What’s a fairy tale?”
“It’s a kid’s story, with magic and well, I don’t know, kids stuff.” He mentally cursed himself for sounding like an idiot. “Anyway, that’s not the point, the point is, someone’s gotten back to my world from yours, so…” John glanced from Bella to Tim, neither of whom appeared to understand where he was going. “So, there has to be a way to get back, right. Someone did it.”
Brother and sister exchanged glances. Bella started to answer but Tim cut her off, “That’s a long story.”
John straightened. “Wait, you know who it was? Do you know how they did it?” Excitement rose inside him, maybe getting home was closer than he thought.
“Not here,” Tim said. “Not around her.”
“Come on,” Bella said, “let’s get something to eat. I’m starving.”
Regent Commander and Lord of Nevaris, Peter Pantiri, looked up as the Revenge passed overhead; the floating warship cast a long shadow over the platform where he stood. His connection to Pix told him the temperature had dropped marginally in the warship’s shadow, although physically he did not feel the difference. The pebble-sized bot hovered silently just above his right shoulder, continuously scanning the area around them.
Above him, the Revenge moved on, continuing her slow patrol around the Skyward Garrison thousands of feet above the city below. Four twin-turret cannons, mounted on the wide underside of the vessel, continuously scanned their sectors of fire, ready to lay waste to anyone foolish enough to come within range. Her matte black hull gave the illusion that she was simply a hole in the sky. Massive solar sails stretched out from her hull on either side, soaking up the early morning sun.
Pan took a long breath of the crisp, cool air then turned his attention back to the storage tanks in front of him. Thin trails of smoke rose from the obliterated containers, the acidic smell of dust filled his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose for the tenth time this morning, but despite the almost unbearable smell, he was glad to finally be back in the city. The last few months monitoring the Outlands had begun to tax his patience; besides, those damned workers were about as likely to revolt as the Graft were to return.
And to hell with them all if they did, he thought.
Pix sensed someone approaching, and instantly scanned and assessed. The information was overlaid in the left side of Pan’s field of view, showing him an image of the man and pertinent information beside.
Major Clayton Brigham stopped several feet behind Pan, snapped to attention and waited. Pan adjusted his black armored jacket—its dull metallic surface scarred and marked from uncountable battles—then turned to face the Major.
“Major,” he said in a level tone.
The Regency Officer nodded, his voice confident and professional. “Commander Pantiri, sir, it’s an honor to have you aboard.”
“Indeed,” Pan said, impressed that the man’s lie had come across thoroughly genuine.
For the Supreme Regent Commander to arrive on your doorstep during a time such as this wasn’t something any commander would welcome. Still, the man’s bearing was a refreshing change from the uneducated degenerates of the Outlands.
“May I offer you some refreshment, Commander? I’m sure after your—”
“No, thank you. I would prefer to get right to the task at hand. What information do we have so far?”
Brigham cleared his throat. “Of course, sir. Initial diagnostics of the Garrison’s systems revealed no issues with the outer perimeter sensors. Technicians are in the process of inspecting the hardware and software of the system.”
He motioned the smoldering tanks. Twenty cylindrical containers, fifteen feet tall and ten wide, sat arrayed in four equal rows. The innermost containers had taken the most damage, but even the ones around the edges were severely damaged.
“The attack inflicted moderate to heavy damage on several other station systems, however, as you can see the storage tanks were hit the hardest. Eighteen are completely inoperable and the other two will require extensive repair work before they can be recertified.
“Repair teams have been dispatched to several affected areas, however the Garrison, as a whole, remains largely intact.”
“I wouldn’t call a sixty percent loss of our most valuable asset ‘intact.’”
Pan glanced over the tanks for several more moments, considering the damage. A loss of this magnitude had never been calculated into any of the captain’s contingencies; it truly was a crippling loss. In fact, he was sure now that he’d confirmed the numbers, the captain’s timetable for the Regenics Project would not hold up.
At the moment, however, that was a secondary concern and one that he would defer to the captain. Right now, he needed to focus on hunting down those responsible.
“What of the enemy capabilities?” he asked. “Still no information on how many of the bastards made it on board?”
The Major shook his head. “From what I’ve been able to determine, most of the reports identify two setting the explosives which caused the damage here. Although, reports from the security personnel from the other side of the station report seeing three running through the superstructure.”
“So, we could be looking for at least five?”
The Major nodded. “That is a possibility, Sir.”
Five. Pan’s gloved fingers flexed around the soft grip of his shiftblade, secured on his belt. An outright attack on the Garrison was a bold move. Hell, most would call it insane, and he knew of only one-person crazy enough to attempt it.
She’s getting desperate, he thought, wondering who Wendy had sent. Probably Michael and one or both of the twins.
He doubted that she would have been among them, no one had seen or heard from her in years. It was a pity, if only he could get his hands on her, he could crush the insurgency and end this pointless war.
“And what of the other attack?”
“Yes, sir, the attack on the collector.” The Major lifted his jaw slightly. “The ship was attacked as it made its transit through the Terminus. The system logs show that it sustained major damage to its engines as it passed through the portal. Unfortunately, the Garrison went into full lock down shortly thereafter, and the emergency system shut the Terminus down. We have not reinitiated.”
Through its connection to the Garrison computer network, Pix identified the platform where the collector in question had been assigned and shot away, through the still morning air.
Pan adjusted the sleeve of the dark green shirt under his armor. The attack on the collector didn’t make any sense; it would be replaced within the hour, so why expend resources destroying it. The only conclusion he could reach was that it was simple a target of opportunity. Right place, right time.
“I want a search team sent through as soon as possible.”
“I doubt there will be any survivors, but I do not want those ignorant fools on the Otherside to get their hands on any of our tech.”
“Of course, sir, but there’s something else you should know.”
“What is it, Major?”
The Major glanced up as one of the patrol skiffs flew past, then said, “Immediately after the incident, I instructed my operators to review the data logs, in order to have as much data as possible about the attack.”
“Two of our Terminus stations reported anomalies they are having trouble explaining. My senior systems analyst has reviewed the data and tells me that the Terminus software most likely suffered some kind of feedback damage caused by explosions from the collector when it was attacked. We have shut down Terminus operations while the technicians work through the system. He assures me that the system will be repaired and back to full working order by the end of the day.”
Pan frowned. He had never heard of the Terminus system falling victim to any kind of software malfunction. Out of all the things the Graft hadn’t done well on this world, the Terminus had worked perfectly for as long as he could remember.
“What kind of anomalies?”
The Major hesitated for a moment, then cleared his throat again and said, “Some of the information indicates that a second transference might have taken place during the incident. Again, my people tell me the glitch will be correct by day’s end.”
As the major finished, Pan’s connection to Pix opened and what he saw made his blood run cold. His grip on the shiftblade tightened as his heart thundered in his chest.
Superimposed on his vision, the image of some kind of seat hung by thin cords from the support structure of the platform above. It rocked gently in the breeze as Pix circled around it, showing him every angle. He knew immediately what is was, even though he’d never seen anything like it before, and worse still, it was empty.
“There was no glitch.” Pan said, hardly believing what he was seeing.
This changed everything, Pan thought. He will burn the entire world down.
“I want this entire area locked down. The Garrison will be locked down and on Alert Level One. Is that understood, Major?”
“As of this moment, all leaves are cancelled. I want all personnel recalled.
No one is to leave the Garrison and under no circumstances is anyone allowed onboard.”
The Major, obviously confused and surprised, said, “Yes . . . yes, Sir.”
“Our forces tracked the enemy to the surface?”
“Yes, sir, to a Duster Enclave in Old Town.”
“Is the site secure?”
“Yes, sir, our security forces arrived on-scene shortly after the attack and have locked down a five block area. They are conducting a building by building search and detaining all the locals.”
“Inform the team commander I am on my way down.”
Without waiting for a response, Pan moved to the edge of the platform and activated his harness. A surge of energy flowed through him and lifted him into the air. Then he shot up to the Revenge.
Truthfully, the last thing on John’s mind had been food, but as they moved through the corridors and the smell of breakfast reached him, his stomach growled. He glanced at his watch, wanting to know how long it had been, but the small display was blank. He guessed it had been at least six or seven hours since he’d spooned the last of the meatloaf into his mouth, raising an eyebrow across the table at Mark as his friend’s face turned ghostly white.
If I’d only had the chicken, he thought.
He might have been puking his guts out, but at least he’d still be home. Then Mark might have been pulled through into this world and John wasn’t sure that he’d wish this one anyone. He decided a hot meal would do him good, but he would much rather find a way home.
A voice beside him said, “You all right?”
The question pulled John away from his thoughts. He glanced over at Tim who gave him a questioning look. “Oh, yeah, fine,” he said. “Just hungry, I guess.”
“How’s the nose?”
John had taken some gauze from his med-kit and held it gingerly against his nose until the bleeding subsided. Then he’d popped a few low-level pain pills into his mouth and dry-swallowed them. “Sore as shit.”
They stepped around a row of crates stacked in a row down the center of the corridor. Two of the crates had been pushed together lengthwise, and someone had laid out a pillow and several blankets. An open duffle sat on another with clothes piled up around it.
“Most people don’t like getting too far away from the hanger,” Tim explained. “Evacuations can happen pretty fast around here.”
“No fun to get left behind,” Bella added.
They rounded another corner and another familiar smell reached John’s senses. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Bacon?”
Bella grinned. “You like breakfast?”
“Favorite meal of the day.”
“Ha!” She clapped her hands. “You’re in for a real treat.”
As it turned out, the mess hall reminded John of almost every other mess hall he’d ever been in. A buffet line stretched along one side and the rest of the space was filled with tables. People sat on crates or footstools and sometimes even chairs, as the sounds of eating and morning conversation filled the air.
A short, pudgy man stood behind the buffet line with his apron hanging loosely around his plump frame. John was sure that the apron might have been white at some point, but the white had faded to a stained grayish color. He wore a burgundy shirt underneath, sleeves rolled over his wide shoulders. His thick arms looked like they hadn’t seen sunlight in years.
His gaze shifted to them as they neared the serving line. He pushed his wide-brimmed visor higher on his forehead and grinned.
“Morning, Bella.” His neck wobbled and rosy jowls wiggled when he spoke.
Bella waved and hurried to be first in line. “Hiya, Tubbs.”
She picked up one of the plates and snatched utensils from a plastic tray.
“Is that bacon I smell this morning? Please tell me its bacon.”
He lifted a pair of tongs. Long, crisp pieces of bacon held within its clutches, and he smiled.
His teeth might have been perfect, John thought, if he still had all of them; his left incisor and left K9 were missing. The rest, however, sparkled.
Bella jammed a fist into the air and cheered, “Yes!”
Tim put a hand on John’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “It’s not the best food around, but he tries. Stay away from the onion soup; just fair warning.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” John answered under his breath, not sure how onion soup fit on the breakfast menu.
John and Tim both selected plates from the haphazard stack, as the chef piled food onto Bella’s plate.
“That’s enough,” Bella said. “What else you got today?”
“Only eight pieces?” Tubbs asked with a grin. He re-rolled one of his sleeves. “There’s plenty more.”
“Oh, okay, you talked me into it.” She held her plate forward again, and he piled on four more pieces.
“Geez, sis,” Tim said. “You do know bacon is a side, not a meal, right?”
The chef set the tongs down. “Nonsense, in fact, bacon is its own food group. Did you know th—” He stopped short as his eyes landed on John. “Oh, hi, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Fresh meat, as they say. I’m John,” he said, extending his hand.
Tubbs wiped his hands on his apron, eyebrows raised.
“Well, I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m Ernie. Everyone just calls me Tubbs.” He motioned to himself. “It’s ‘cause, well…”
They shook hands, and John said, “Nice to meet you. What’s for breakfast?”
“Oh! Well, nothing special, some Swiper eggs, scrambled or fried, either way. I was able to pick up several different fruits from the Midtown market yesterday, and some wheat bread. It’s a little stale, but it’s still better than that brick-of-shit out of the ration packs. Some ridgeback boar chops, and yes, even bacon.” He nodded at Bella, who was already stuffing a piece into her mouth.
“So good,” Bella mumbled with her mouth full.
“Not too often we get new people around here,” Tubbs said, “but, glad to have you. Be sure to try the Onion Soup, it’s fresh this morning.”
Tim gave John a quick shot to ribs with an elbow. John coughed and smiled amicably, “’Never doubt the chef,’ that’s what I always say. I’d love to try it.”
A surprised look came over the chubby man’s face, and Tim coughed into his hand. John thought he heard a ‘no’, but wasn’t sure. The chef looked like someone had just given him the largest compliment ever. Large, brown-eyes twinkled as he shuffled awkwardly to the end of the table.
“Was my mother’s recipe,” he said, “‘course, I’ve made my own slight improvements.”
He spooned the thick soup into a bowl and handed it over. John thanked him and they moved down the rest of the line, making their selections. Tim politely declined the soup and they found a table near the back of the room.
Tim motioned to the bowl on John’s tray as wisps of steam rolled off the pale green contents. “I’m telling you, don—” His eyes flashed to something over John’s shoulder and he cleared his throat. “It’s good stuff.”
Tubbs stood behind John, beaming. He held a small pitcher of water and three glasses. The chef smiled, set the pitcher and glasses on the table then stepped back. He gave the soup a nod. “Let me know what you think. I always have plenty left over.”
“I will,” John said, taking a seat on an old wooden crate that creaked when he sat.
“Thanks, Tubbs,” Tim said with a bit of a forced grin.
“Not at all, you guys are my favorite.” He frowned and looked over his shoulder. “Hey, where’s Tom?”
Bella answered, mouth full of bacon again. “Who knows? You know him. He does his own thing.”
“Weren’t he and Michael on that mission last night?” His eyes fell on John and widened. “Oh, uh, are they okay?”
“They’re fine,” Tim said, pouring some water into his glass. “Michael’s a little banged up, but he’s okay. I’m sure Tom’s off sulking somewhere.”
He took a bite of egg, chewed, then said, “These eggs are wonderful.”
Tubbs nodded eagerly, “They’re almost all real this time.”
John, who’d just taken his own mouthful of the yellowish fully substance, almost spit them out all over the table. He choked, and used a hand to catch several small pieces that escaped his lips. “Almost real?”
“Oh, they’re eggs all right,” Tubbs said. “Brought in from the finest outskirt farm this side of the Whitecaps.”
He paused and added with a shrug, “‘Course, I had to add my own lil’ something to the mix to, uh, increase my supply.”
Bella said, “You didn’t use that old gigret paste again, did you? That stuff gave me the runs for a week.”
John lost all pretention of manners and spit the remaining portion of egg out onto his plate. “Gigret? You mean that that ugly little rodent I saw scurrying through the alley? Please, tell me you’re joking.”
“No, no, no!” Tubbs said, raising his hands. “Don’ be silly! This time I used, pure halpen milk and cheese. Haven’t used gigret paste in a long time. Takes too long to process the stuff.”
“Hey, Tubbs!” a man sitting at a table across the room called. “We need more coffee.”
The cook put a hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I have t’ run, was nice to meet you. Please, enjoy.”
He turned and marched away yelling back at the man, “Y’know, Fanst, you have absolutely no manners at all!”
John finished wiping off his mouth and poured himself a glass of water. “Well, there goes my appetite.”
“You going to eat your bacon?” Bella asked.
He slid his plate across the table, not sure he’d ever met anyone quite like her. He’d definitely never seen anyone eat so much bacon in one sitting before. She was bound to be sick later. He would have been.
“So, what’s this story you were talking about?” Tim asked, after finishing another mouthful of egg.
John downed his entire glass of water in three gulps, surprised at how crisp and fresh it tasted.
“Yeah,” Bella said, “tell us about the fury tales.”
John laughed, “Fairy, fairy tales.”
Bella shrugged and waved her fork at him, “Okay.”
He took another sip of water, swished it around in his mouth, and thought about where to start. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to tell someone that their entire world had been relegated to a children’s book. How was he supposed to tell them that it was a fun-filled adventure with a happy ending, when everything he’d seen of their world was decidedly unhappy?
Afterwards, he wasn’t entirely sure he’d told it right and he was pretty sure he’d confused parts of the Disney cartoon, the book, and the movies. Hell, it had been years since he’d seen the movies and couldn’t remember the last time he’d picked up a book.
His mother had been the reader of the family, and had made John and his brother read as soon as they could hold a book. She was a traditionalist, and loved all the old books, even had some hardbound copies on her bookshelf in the living room. John and Andrew had preferred digital.
Ironically enough, the classic Peter Pan cartoon had been one of John’s least favorite. A young girl named Sadie Clemens ruined that for him. Sadie’s parents and his own were close, and they got together almost weekly. As a rule, the guest was able to pick the movie in the playroom, and Sadie, without fail, always picked Peter Pan. God, if he had to hear Captain Hook scream like a girl one more time…
Tim stopped eating halfway through the story and Bella had eagerly cleaned John’s plate for him. Tim had interrupted John’s explanation twice, and both times Bella had given him annoyed slaps to his arm accompanied with an overdramatic groan and whine. Now, she sat, chin to fist, soaking in everything John told them.
“So,” Bella said when John finished, “I’m a fairy and I sprinkle magical dust on people so they can fly?”
Probably could have found better way to get that particular idea across. John sighed, “Well, yeah, more or less.”
She thought about that for a minute and grinned, “That’s pretty fantastic. I like the fairy me.”
Tim scratched the back of his head, obviously trying to make sense of it all and John decided he couldn’t blame him. It’s not every day you find out your life has been turned into a story and shared with a whole other world that you didn’t know existed. The fact that it was almost completely inaccurate really didn’t matter.
“I just can’t believe it,” Tim said, finally.
“What’s that?” John asked. He reached for the carafe of coffee Tubb’s had dropped off halfway through the story. He’d explained that Neverland’s Best was the finest whole-bean coffee this side of the Whitecaps, even better than the stuff they make in Baytown.
He poured a cup, watched wisps of steam roll off the dark liquid, and then took a cautious sip.
He immediately regretted it.
“Oh, God.” He reached for his water and chugged it down, trying to wash the taste of metallic sludge of out of his mouth.
If the damn Regency doesn’t kill me, this food will.
He gave Tim a pained look. “Is anything palatable around here?”
“Sorry,” Tim said. “I should’ve warned you. His coffee’s a touch strong.”
John wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Strong? Hell, you could probably fuel a jet with that stuff.”
Bella seemed oblivious to John’s distaste. “You say that everyone on the Otherside knows about Neverland?”
“Well, I don’t know about every single person, but I’d bet a good majority of them do.”
“Hmmm,” Bella rubbed her chin. “I wonder why she left so much out. I mean, she was always a little off, but to change the story that much…why even tell it at all?”
John raised an eyebrow. “You know who wrote it?”
Brother and sister exchanged glances and Bella shrugged, “Don’t you think?”
Tim pursed his lips. “I don’t see how it can be anyone else.”
Interested, John said, “Who?”
Tim tapped a finger on the table. “The person who wrote the story? She’s Wendy’s sister.”
Pan cursed as he stepped from the bridge to the quarterdeck. The brightness of the day made him squint. He took a few steps away from the hatch and looked over the Revenge’s mid-deck rail. Several hundred feet below, the barren, rotting cityscape of Old Town slid passed.
He’d decided to put off informing the captain about the second transference for as long as he could, hoping he would be able to rectify the situation before it got out of hand. The captain had been talking about crossing over for years now and Pan feared that this would be the final straw.
As far as he knew, no one had ever come through the Terminus without strict controls in place and those that did never left the custody of the Regency guards. But, then again, somewhere deep down he felt that wasn’t true either.
A slight twinge pulsed behind his right eye at that thought, and he pressed two fingers to his temple. But it wasn’t the pain that bothered him; it was something else. Something he couldn’t quite comprehend. For a fleeting second, there was something. A memory, or a memory of a memory. Then it was gone.
He reached into his pant pocket and produced a small cylindrical injector, about the size of his thumb, then pressed it to his skin behind his right ear. It hissed as medicine rushed into his veins, and within seconds the pain and fuzziness subsided.
Pix sensed Major Starkey’s arrival just before he stepped through the tall hatchway.
“Yes, Major,” Pan said. “What is it?”
“I just wanted to inform you, sir, that the area has been secured by our forces and we will be on station in another minute.”
Two sets of patrol skiffs lifted off the foredeck and screamed out over the crumbling buildings. Strictly speaking, they weren’t needed. Pan had little fear that anyone would attack them, especially aboard the Revenge. But he knew the rumors about the attack on the Garrison were spreading, and he knew his men were feeling the pressure. Patrolling gave the pilots something to do instead of sitting around gossiping.
“Very well, thank you, Major. Maintain station here and launch an additional patrol.”
Pan took the short staircase to the mid-deck, crossed the flight deck, and climbed up another flight of stairs, to the bow. Pix followed, zigzagging back and forth across the ship’s deck behind him. A pair of crewmen working on one of Revenge’s many deck-mounted cannons, stood and acknowledged his passing. He ignored them.
Pan leaned over the gunwale slightly and looked at the tall gray buildings below. Directly ahead, two pillars of smoke pinpointed the locations of two separate crash sites, flanking either side of a tall grey building identified by his advanced teams as the Landen and Kotch Building, some ancient retail conglomerate. The first pillar of smoke rose from a parking structure just behind the main building.
He would start there.
Pan activated his rig then lifted off the deck. He angled around the edge of the old building and immediately began assessing the damage on the rooftop below. Pix shot down to the still burning aircraft while Pan chose to circle around and take in the view from above.
Large chunks of composite and framework lay strewn across the rooftop, blown out from a large hole in the side of the building. There’d been a fairly decent firefight, Pan decided, counting the bodies tangled within the rumble. He counted six Regency uniforms and a handful of others dressed in oversized rags, sprawled out where they had fallen.
Security troops held position around the scene, while several technicians moved through the mess, looking for anything to salvage. The smell of human remains, mixed with burning fuel and machinery, reached him as he glided effortlessly through the still air. He twisted his nose briefly at the acrid odor then wiped any expression of disgust away. Around his people, he was above any emotion and refused to display anything other than complete control.
He touched down several feet away from the skiff, where technicians worked to retrieve the data computer in the destroyed cockpit. He made one complete walk-around before stopping along the side of the craft, eyeing the scorch marks and impact points of weapon fire he couldn’t place.
One of the techs, a short woman dressed in a perfectly tailored Regency Uniform, looked up from her crouched position near the nose of the skiff. The silver pins of a Lieutenant stood out against the dark black lapels of her uniform.
She stood and saluted. “Commander Pantiri.”
“I hope you have good news for me, Lieutenant.” Pan said, wondering if she’d been able to collect anything at all. Pix had been scanning for almost a full minute—an eternity for the bot—and had yet been able to collect any conclusive data.
“The main core is fried, sir. The only information I’ve been able to collect so far is fragmented and next to useless. I’m working on pulling data from the secondary sensor suite, but the units don’t speak the same language, so it may take some time to retrieve any usable information.”
“Some of the fragmented information suggests that the skiff was hit with an abnormally high amount of focused energy.”
Pix had just come to the same conclusion and busied itself with cataloging the residual field distortions left behind by the powerful weapon. Pan ignored the raw data. Until the bot had time to translate the information it meant nothing to him.
“Interesting, what kind of energy?” Pan asked.
“I’m not sure about that yet, sir, some kind of weaponized plasma. I’ve never seen anything like it, but there isn’t enough information to make an accurate determination. Once I get the sensor logs back to the Revenge, I should be able to find an answer for you.”
Determining what kinds of weapons were used would have to be a secondary concern, but it would be interesting to learn where they had come from. He wondered if Wendy found another stash of Graft tech. If she had, would it be enough to tip the scales? He knew finding the Revenge was what had led to the captain’s victory during the war, but because the captain refused to tell him the particulars, he felt like he was missing some larger piece to the puzzle.
Pan glanced to his left and watched two men dressed in olive green coveralls move the bodies of the assault team out of the rubble. He would have to make a statement about the deaths of his men, and that in and of itself would motivate. All his men needed were targets to focus their grief on and he would give it to them.
The Lieutenant said, “This wasn’t just a random insurgent group, was it, sir?”
Pan debated his answer for a moment, trying to decide how much information would hurt his campaign and how much would benefit it. Only two people had a direct connection with the Star’s Pride, and by extension, the captain: Pan and the City’s Chairman, Smee. The captain’s massive ship never stayed in one place for very long and limiting the amount of contacts she had kept her location secret.
Pan could control Smee. If he released the information about the Othersider locally, chances were good he would be able to locate him before the captain caught word. In the end, he knew this would be bad, whether the captain learned of it later or sooner, but if he already had the problem in hand he might be able to limit the fallout. But the information needed to be handled correctly and delicately.
“No, Lieutenant,” Pan said, as the two workers lifted an armored body into the back of a waiting truck. “It wasn’t.”
The dead men will be honored, of course. The captain was not beyond paying proper respects to those who’d served him well. After all, the loyal members of the Regency weren’t the animals that Wendy and her ilk made them out to be.
“I don’t understand why they keep fighting,” She said as the team loaded the last body. “Nevaris has never been as safe as it is now, and we work hard to protect that peace. I don’t see why they don’t understand that.”
“Some people will never see the truth, even when it slaps them in the face.”
Pan moved away from the wreckage and inspected the large hole in the back of the Laden & Kotch building. Pix zipped past him and began examining the charred composite. As the data registered in his mind, he picked out several similarities in the burn patterns and residue on both the wall and the skiff behind him. He wondered if the technicians would pick up on them.
“Where are the miserable junkies being held?” Pan asked.
“I believe they are down street level, sir. A Guard squad is handing their security.”
“Very well, Lieutenant. Continue your work.”
The dust around his feet rippled as the harness activated and he lifted into the air. Behind him, the woman responded, but he was no longer interested in what she had to say. He flew around the tall, gray building and over the avenue beyond.
“You’re kidding, right?” John asked, then paused for a moment, considering everything that brought him to this point. He shook his head. “No-no, of course you’re not.”
“Nope, but,” Tim looked around nervously, “can you do me a favor and keep that little bit of information to yourself. In fact, I probably wouldn’t repeat that story to anyone else.”
“Yeah, especially Wendy.” Added Bella.
“Why is that?”
“Eh, Wendy can be a little…” Tom trailed off, apparently attempting to find just the right word.
Bella finished his thought for him, “Bitchy.”
Tim looked around again. “Damn, sis. Watch it.”
“What? I don’t care if anyone hears. She already doesn’t like me. What’s a little bit of name calling going to get me? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.”
“I was going to say, touchy,” Tim said. “Especially now, with everything as hectic as it is.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I tell you, John, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to come over.”
“It’s not like I had much of a choice.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Well, you know what I meant.” Tim finished off his water. “Look, no one has talked about Maggs in years. Hell, most of the new people who’ve joined our little group, in the past few years, wouldn’t even know who she was if you asked them. And Wendy’s gotten to the point where she won’t even acknowledge that she even had a sister.”
“That’s a long story.” Tim took a bite of his cold toast then wiped the crumbs off his chin with the back of a hand. “No offense, but I don’t really want to tell it. No one around here, who knows the story, enjoys telling it.”
“Okay, but, tell me this,” John said, “there is a way back, right? I mean if this Maggs got back, then I can too, right? I’m not stuck here?”
Tim sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s not that easy.”
“Sure it is,” John said. He wasn’t about to let them off the hook no matter what kind of taboo surrounded the story. If there was a way back home, then, by God, he was going to find it. “If someone’s already done it, there has to be a way. If the Regency goes through, then I can too.”
“That’s just it, the Regency controls the Portal. They are the only ones that go through. Have been for, well . . . ” Tim glanced up as though i thought, “ . . . hell, as long as I can remember.”
“But Michael and Tom were just up there. I mean, they would have had been close to the thing when it opened. They found me almost as soon as I came through.”
“That’s the thing, they should never have been there. Being on that side of the factory was never part of the plan. He took a big risk attacking that transport, and, honestly, I’m surprised any of you got off that factory alive. It took weeks of asking before Wendy would let him go, not to mention the amount of planning that went into the operation. Now,” Tim shrugged, “we’ll probably never go back.”
John sat back and crossed his arms. It didn’t seem all that complicated to him; get up there, open the damn portal, and go home; simple as that. He couldn’t decide if they were just being overly pessimistic or if they just didn’t have the ambition to try. In either case, John knew he was going to get home, no matter how difficult they claimed it was.
Tim must have read his expression. He leaned forward, forearms on the table, hands clasps together, and said, “Look, a lot of things went wrong when Maggs went through. Bad things. After what happened to Pan, well, from then on, Wendy refused to let anyone else try. Hell, she’s physically stopped a few people from trying. I don’t know what you’d call it. Survivor’s guilt maybe. I don’t know. But up until a few days ago, the Refinery has been strictly off limits.”
“So, why the change? If she’s been so against it for as long as you say, why change her mind now?”
“Because of Hook.”
John raised his eyebrows and opened his hands, expecting him to elaborate.
Tim rubbed his nose again. “No one really knows what his end game is, but all of the information we’ve gathered in the last few weeks tells us that whatever it is, he’s getting close. Whatever they are, Wendy’s only goal is to make sure he doesn’t succeed.”
Bella put a hand on the table and whispered, “Hey.”
Both men glanced at her, then followed her gaze to Marb and his barrel-chested sidekick walking to the serving line. John’s body temperature rose at the sight of the two men. Marb gazed over the people sitting and eating as he took a plate, found John, and stopped short.
Oak, obviously oblivious to the fact that his friend had stopped, walked right into him. Marb stutter-stepped forward and muttered a curse that John couldn’t hear. A few people glanced toward the commotion and seemed to pick up on the tension in the room.
“Come on,” Bella said, “I can’t stand eating in a place filled with shit.”
A part of John wanted to stay and continue their little battle of wills across the lunchroom, but he relented and stood with them. They deposited their plates and dirtied utensils in a bin near the door.
Tubbs called out to them as they moved to the doorway. “You guys need to come back for lunch, I’m making my fried chicken special.”
Bella turned and waved. “Thanks, Tubbs!”
John snorted and shook his head.
“What?” Tim asked.
John shook his head. “There’s just something about chicken today.”
Pan wasn’t entirely convinced questioning the Duster Clan would yield useful information. But he wasn’t anything if not thorough. He doubted Michael would’ve looked here for assistance, but stranger things had happened. Why else would you run straight to a Duster Enclave? Most people avoided them like the plague.
As Pan dropped to the avenue, a fit, tough-looking sergeant moved to greet him before his feet were firmly planted on the ground. He tucked his battle-helmet under his left arm and rendered a salute, right fist planted firmly against his chest.
The man’s smoke-grey of the Regent Guard, accented by red and yellow lines that trimmed the hardened armor plating, bore signs of battle similar to the armor Pan himself wore. The chevrons on his left breastplate identified him as a Master Sergeant and the name emblazoned in black letters underneath read, SIMMONS. The sergeant’s weapon—a long auto-rifle—rested vertically in clasps on his back.
“Commander Pantiri,” the sergeant said, after Pan returned the salute. “My men have collected a small number of squatters and addicts from the surrounding buildings and have corralled them here.” He indicated a ten-foot high fence behind him. “They are, however, being less than cooperative.”
Pan had no doubt of that. What kind of cooperation could you expect to get from junkies whose only thoughts were of their next fix? “Show me.”
“At once, sir,” Sergeant Simmons said, then spun on his heel and marched toward the fence.
The Dusters were clustered together in several groups, closely guarded by six fully armored Regent Guardsmen. Picked from the best of the best, Pan wondered how these men thought about being reduced to mere prison guards. Not that he cared. They were sworn to serve, and they would do that however he or the captain saw fit.
The Dusters were filthier than the last bunch Pan dealt with, even though he’d been sure at the time that it couldn’t get any worse. Disgusting people.
No, he thought, they don’t deserve to be called people.
A private opened the gate as the Master Sergeant and Pan neared the fence, proceeded through without a word. The gate clicked shut behind them.
“So far, we’ve located thirty-seven of them.” Simmons said. “Most were found in this building.”
He motioned at the Laden & Kotch building to their right. “Several others were located in adjacent buildings. My men are still conducting sweeps of the area.”
“You have done well, Sergeant. You and your men will be commended.”
“It is our duty to serve, sir.”
There were many among the higher echelons of the Regency who did not consider the Dusters to be alive, but merely shells of people fueled by Dust. The mass of junkies cowered under the watch eyes of the Guard.
A few in the front shifted their gazes as Simmons stepped to the side, allowing Pan a full view of the captured junkies. Most wore loose overcoats with hoods pulled low. All of them wore the tell-tale goggles, blacked out against the brightness of the day; their vision ruined by the Dust their minds craved. Their clothes weren’t much more than rags, baggy shirts, and jackets. Fashion wasn’t much of a priority when you lived in a world of intoxicated darkness.
Pan didn’t bother with introductions. “I am looking for information, and whoever gives me that information will be greatly rewarded.”
No one spoke. They shuffled and turned away, trying their hardest to get inside their own little huddle of people, not that it was any safer inside than out.
“Who can tell me what the Insurgents wanted?”
A Corporal, who’d been slowly circling one of the groups, stopped and jabbed his rifle into the side of the closest Duster. “Speak up!”
The Duster cried out and collapsed onto the dirt-covered street, but didn’t speak. Two reached out to help their fallen comrade, but quickly changed their minds when the Corporal swung his weapon at them. He shouted for them to get back and kicked the leg of the first.
“Talk!” he growled.
Pan didn’t need any help, but appreciated the man’s enthusiasm. “Someone amongst you knows something. You will tell me.”
He looked over the huddled group. All of them looked away. It took Pan a moment to choose, then finally pointed at the Duster cowering under the corporal’s massive frame. “Bring him.”
Simmons moved forward, grabbed the Duster by the collar of his oversized jacket and lifted him off the ground. The man cried out, clawing at the sergeant’s gauntleted hands as Simmons dragged him away from his people. The sergeant tossed the man hard at Pan’s feet, kicking puffs of dust into the air.
The man rolled to his side and curled into a ball. The hood fell away, and the man’s goggles shifted on his face, uncovering one sunken eye. Pale skeletal fingers shot up to protect his face, quickly moved the goggles back into place. His cries turned to whimpers.
“Get up!” Simmons shouted and delivered a kick to the small of the Duster’s back.
The Duster screamed and his body stretched out uncontrollably. Simmons grabbed his jacket again and forced him to his knees. He held the man in that position as Pan stepped forward.
“You know something,” Pan said, hands clasped behind his back.
The man whimpered and kept his head bowed, refusing to meet his gaze.
“You will tell me.”
The old man remained silent. He almost seemed oblivious to what went on around him. Pan thought that probably was not too far from the truth. Even if he knew something, Pan wondered if the man could physically tell him.
Simmons delivered another kick to the Duster’s back that sent him flying forward. The man barely got his hands up in time, protecting his face from a hard pavement.
He coughed, rolled to his side, and in a barely audible voice, the man said, “I don’t . . . I don’t know anything.”
Pan saw Simmons start to kick again and raised his hand. The Duster looked up and noticed the outstretched hand, his face softened briefly, thankful to be spared another painful blow. His gratitude, however, was short lived.
Pan flicked his wrist, and Pix shot forward, slamming into the man’s chest. The blow sent him sliding across the pavement. A gasp of surprise and terror erupted from the Duster’s still huddled together. The man rolled to a stop, his loose clothing wrapped haphazardly around him.
The man doubled over and coughed onto the dusty street. The cough turned to hacking, and after a few long, gut-twisting heaves, the old man spit splotches of red blood and mucus onto the street.
“Please,” the man wheezed, “I don’t—”
Pan stepped forward again, arms extended to either side. A little bit of play-acting, but it helped sell the image he wanted them to see. Pan the All-Powerful.
Just as Pix readied to strike, a high-pitched voice cried out. “He didn’t see anything!”
Pan turned, scanning the crowd for the speaker. A group of terrified Dusters made it easy enough, shuffling away from the culprit. Pan frowned.
The boy couldn’t have been older than ten; his tan pants were too short for him and his shirt too big. His matted hair stuck out in clumps, and looked like he hadn’t washed it weeks.
The boy gawked nervously at the Duster’s still moving away from him, then seemed to steel himself and straighten. He turned and gazed squarely at Pan. If he was scared, he was doing a superb job of hiding it.
It wasn’t every day that someone stood up to him. In fact, Pan couldn’t remember the last time it had happened.
I like this one, he thought.
One of the guards moved over, grabbed the boy by his arm and pulled him toward Pan.
“Let me go!” the boy growled, trying to pull away.
At best the boy weighed seventy pounds, the soldier didn’t even seem to notice his struggles. They moved around the first Duster, still laying in the street, and stopped a few feet from Pan. The boy gave one last valiant effort to pull free and failed.
“I said, let me go!” he cried again, this time pounding against the soldier’s armor with his free hand.
Several of the other soldiers laughed and pointed. After a few harmless slaps, the boy relented and once again, turned his angry stare on Pan.
If only my own men had half of your spirit, what I could do to this world.
Pan waved a hand. “Release him.”
The soldier released his grip on the boy, who jerked his arm away and glared at his captor. The soldier grinned, but did not return the boys stare.
“You were saying?” Pan asked, feeling more anticipation than he wanted.
The boy glared at Pan. “He didn’t see anything.”
“Yes, you said that. If you know so much about what he did not see, why don’t you tell me, what you saw?”
“If I tell you, will you leave?”
“A bargain?” Pan chuckled. “You are in no position to bargain, young man.”
The boy crossed his arms. “If you promise to leave, I’ll tell you.”
This boy intrigued Pan. He stepped closer and took a knee in front of him. “What is your name?”
“Aaron. My name is Aaron.” There was a hint of embarrassment in the boy’s voice when he answered.
“Aaron,” Pan repeated. “Tell me, Aaron, do you know who I am?”
A nod. “You are the one they call the Corrupted Prince.”
Pan heard the name before, of course, but until now no one had ever dared say it to his face. The name had never made any sense to him, but then again, very little of what the clans did made sense.
He nodded, “I have heard that before yes, but do you know who I am?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“I am the Lord over everything you see, and all that you don’t see. This world is mine, including everything in it. I am responsible for Nevaris and all its many inhabitants, including you and your clansmen here.
“I am also responsible for the safety of all who live and work here, so when there are people who threaten the peace and safety of my people, I take that very personally. If someone threatened the safety of your family, would you not protect them? You are a fighter, I like that. I believe you would fight to protect them.”
“To the death,” the boy responded without hesitation.
That impressed Pan, but he couldn’t help but wonder if that boy actually knew what that statement actually meant. “Indeed. Well, I feel the same way about my family, Aaron, and right now people are threatening my family. Will you help me find them? Will you help me protect them?”
The boy lifted his chin. “If you leave, I will help you.”
Pan grinned. “You are a brave boy. Tell me, where do you get this courage from? Certainly, you did not get it from any of your clansmen here.”
He motioned to the Dusters. Some watched the exchange, most however, still huddled together in fear. Their cowardice put a sour taste in his mouth.
“My father told me to always protect the Clan, no matter what.”
“A noble sentiment. Where is he, I’d like to commend him on raising such a brave young man.”
The fact that the boy’s tone never wavered impressed Pan even further. There was something about this boy. Something he liked. Not a great many things peeked Pan’s interest anymore, but this boy definitely had. Despite his feelings, however, he could not show any kind of weakness in front of the other Dusters or his men.
“A pity he did not also teach you manners. I will not bargain with you, boy. You will tell me what you know, then I will consider what is to become of you.”
The boy chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, then said, “There were three of them. Flew out of the sky like birds.”
The boy paused for a moment, as though remembering. “I’d never seen anyone fly before. My friends neither. I saw you fly too, but their clothes didn’t look anything like yours.”
Pan raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure. They looked too . . . ” he paused and glanced up in thought then said, “ . . . they looked too nice. The one, he looked like a soldier, but not like any of these. And he didn’t seem to know what was going on, like he was lost or confused or something. Then the other soldiers got here and destroyed our home.”
The twinge behind his right eye caused him to wince briefly.
Damn, he thought, that was sooner than expected.
He kneaded his temple with a finger, trying to will the irritation away. He pulled the dose from his pocket and examined the casing. It glowed orange. Only three or four doses left. He’d gone through this one faster than the last. He touched the small cylinder to the spot behind his ear and pressed the release.
His relief was sort lived, however, as he realized there were several eyes watching him. Dosing was simple reflex; he hadn’t thought about how it might look in front of the Dust Junkies. Far from their corrupted drug, his medication actually did help him, not that it would matter to these people. It didn’t matter what he was dosing.
He glanced over the captive Dusters, most of who were transfixed on him and the boy, waiting attentively to see what would happen. The boy had confirmed his own suspicions; someone had come through. But, how? The opening of the Terminus was secret, even to his people; there was no way anyone on the other side would know where it would open. And even if they did, how would they know what it was or what to do with it?
Simmons moved behind him. “Orders, Commander?”
Pan considered this. Operationally speaking, it would be to their benefit to collect this raggedy bunch and ship them off to the Pride. He knew from speaking with the project directors on the enormous battleship they were in desperate need of new test subjects. Even now teams were scattered through Old Town hunting down suitable candidates, but in the end, he decided against it. Security above all.
Pan eyed the boy, still standing defiantly. “Get rid of all the evidence, Sergeant.”
“And them?” Simmons motioned to the captives.
“Get rid of them, Sergeant. As far as anyone else knows, nothing happened here today,” Pan said. “No witnesses.”
After leaving the cafeteria, Bella led John and Tim through the corridors of the compound and down several levels to a space she described as her little piece of heaven.
“Don’t touch anything,” Bella said, lifting finger as they entered.
Tim gave John a look, rolled his eyes and leaned back against one of the shelves, crossing his arms.
She stepped around a long table in the center of the cluttered room and bent over to work on something John didn’t recognize. Periodically, she switched out tools and talked to herself. No, she talked to whatever she worked on, as if ordering the device to comply to her will.
A grin spread across John’s face, and after a few minutes he motioned to the worktable. “Wha—”
“Shhh!” She raised finger at him. She worked a small tool into the side of a small flat device. “All most there.”
After a moment she stood and set the tool down. “There.”
She flipped a switch on the side of the metallic casing. Nothing happened. She frowned, cocked her head to the side, then glanced up at John and Tim, like she expected them to know what was wrong.
After a moment her eyes widened and she clapped her hands together. “Oh, yeah!”
Without explanation she turned and disappeared through a small door behind her.
John’s eyebrows went up, and he glanced at Tim with a questioning smirk.
Tim shrugged. “What can I say, she’s particular.”
“I heard that,” Bella called back. She appeared a second later, carrying a small cluster of wire. She tossed it down on the table, and opened the side of the device.
“Michael’s damn lucky this one’s about done, or he’d be out of luck.”
She set the panel aside and began installing the wire.
John gazed around the workshop. “You’ve got a pretty nice setup here.”
It reminded him of the Lincoln’s machine shop. He’d only been inside the shop twice, and after the second time, he’d been told under no uncertain terms was he allowed to enter the space again. The Union’s engineers were a finicky bunch; he guessed Bella would fit right in with them.
“Thanks.” She grinned. “It’s taken me years to collect all this stuff. This is the only place I’ve been able to have it all unpacked and out.”
She finished installing the wire and replaced the panel. “Just need to make a few last minute adjustments and this’ll be good to go.”
Tim carefully moved a box of parts from a stool in the corner of the room and sat. “Yeah, who are you going to get to test it?”
She glared at him. “What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Well, dummy, it is fine and,” she pointed the screwdriver at him, “I’ll test it myself, since you’re too much of a pansy to.”
“Hey, I’m not a pansy. I just like having all my body parts connected.”
John stepped up to the table and pointed as Bella pulled the unit’s back plate off. “So, tell me, how does this thing work?”
Bella’s face lit up. Behind him Tim swore and said, “Oh, great, now we’ll be here all day.”
“Hey, at least someone appreciates my work,” she told him, then smiled at John.
“It’s fairly simple, actually. The main unit here,” she tapped the box, “generates a field that changes gravity around the wearer and based on how the wearer moves their body, shifts gravity around them, allowing them to move around like they are weightless. I based it on some Old Tech we found back when we first started fighting. ‘Course it took me a while to make it work.”
Tim chuckled. “Yeah, and few broken bones.”
Bella shushed him. “All scientific advancements comes at a price. And it healed up nicely, thank you very much. Doc does good work.”
She waved her arm around, emphasizing her point.
“So, you all have been together for a while then?” John asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Bella said. “Since the War. Actually, Wendy started putting us together before Hook took over everything and we were some of the first to take up the fight against him.”
“Let’s see,” she counted on her fingers. “Wendy, Maggs, Pan, Tom, Tim, me, and Marb. They found the Doc right before Hook managed to take power. He was pretty messed up when we found him.”
Bella nodded. “Yeah, he doesn’t look it, but Doc is one tough guy. He’d been shot twice and was beat up pretty bad. He was in a coma for a week, and when he woke up, he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten that way. He was pretty lucky. Once Hook decides you’re not worth keeping around, death is usually a given.”
“Wait,” John held up a hand. “You’re saying Irving worked for Hook during the war?”
“Yep, took Wendy almost a year to trust the guy. We never did find out why Hook tried to kill him. Then again, that psycho doesn’t function on the same level as the rest of us, so I guess he really didn’t need a reason.”
“It’s a good thing too,” Tim said. “I’m sure a lot of us wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Doc.”
She rolled her eyes. “It was just a broken arm, stupid. It wasn’t anywhere near life-threatening.”
John crossed his arms. “So, why all the fighting? What started the war?”
“The only thing worth fighting for in this world,” Tim said, “Dust.”
“So, what, it’s like a drug or something?”
“No, it’s not like a drug, it’s the drug.”
This twenty questions stuff is really getting old, he thought, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“That really doesn’t tell me anything. People fight over all kinds of drugs back home. Hell, they fight over just about anything to be honest.”
Tim frowned slightly, rubbing his chin. “Hmmm, how do I explain this?”
He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then continued, “The dust is everything here; it’s in the food you eat, the water you drink, even the air you breathe. Everyone here is touched by it.”
John rubbed his jaw. “Well, great, that tells me everything I needed to know, thanks.”
“Yeah, sorry. Look, I don’t know all the technical stuff. Michael can explain it a lot better than I can.”
Tim paused again, then said, “What we call Dust is actually a mineral found in the rings around the planet. The mineral filters through the atmosphere and is absorbed by everything on the surface. Course, it took years to figure this out. The First Ones didn’t start experiencing the effects until they’d been here a few years.”
“Sorry,” Tim waved a hand through the air. “The First Ones were brought here from your world; from Earth. No one really knows how many there were, but the consensus now-a-days is a few thousand. Maybe even tens of thousands. Not that it really matters much anymore.”
John almost knew what the man was going to say before he even asked the question, and he already didn’t believe him. “What do you mean, brought here, brought here by who? Why?”
“As to the why, who can say? As to the who, well, no one knows what their true name was, but our name for them is the Graft. Some say they brought us here to experiment on us, others say bringing us here was the experiment. I think they were planning on invading Earth and wanted a place where they could study us before launching their attack. But, like I said, no one really knows.”
“Maybe they just wanted to be friends,” Bella said with a hint of sarcasm.
Hundreds of thoughts raced through John’s mind: UFOs, abductions, Roswell, little green men. His mind started making connections to several unbelievable events; things that didn’t make any sense to him back home, but if what Tim said was true, they made perfect sense now.
“So, what happened to them?”
“Also a mystery,” Tim answered with an apologetic frown. “They left. Abandoned everything overnight. They’d spent years building up the city and infrastructure. Hell, practically a whole other civilization for all their human subjects. Then one day they just up and vanished. Didn’t even bother turning off the lights.”
“And what? Life just went on? Why didn’t people just go home?”
“The Wars. Fighting over the control of the Terminus, not to mention the Dust. If you can control those two things you can control the world.”
“Wait, I’m confused. If the Dust is so good for humans, then why does everyone call it a drug? Those Dusters we ran into didn’t look healthy at all.”
“Yeah, well, what can I say? For every good thing, someone can find a way to pervert it. Cut with the right ingredients, the mineral produces a drug that basically allows people to live their dreams. The drug produces almost life-like hallucinations; it brings the images straight from the person’s subconscious.
“In its basic mineral form, dust is harmless. In fact, it boosts immune systems and somehow drastically slows the aging process. Compress it enough, it becomes an injectable solution and targets the pleasure centers of the brain and produces a kind of euphoric state.”
“Let me guess,” John said, already knowing. “There’s a catch.”
“There’s always a catch. Like anything, the more you use, the more it takes to find the good high again. After a while, coming down out of your self-induced paradise leads you straight into hell. I hear it’s pretty painful. Not to mention the light-blindness.”
John’s eyebrows went up. “The goggles?”
Tim nodded. “Causes ultra-sensitivity to light. Most Dusters don’t leave their Enclaves until dark and even then they don’t like to travel too far away from home. Hell, I’m surprised they’re able to walk around at all, with all the shit they take and it’s damn hard to get off. You have to bring them off slow. Most cases take a few years. Some, well, some get stuck on a medicine drip and never come off it.”
“So that’s why Michael didn’t want Doc’s meds? Because of the Dust?”
“Well, it’s not exactly the same thing, but Michael doesn’t make distinctions between good and bad uses, he’s against any using.”
A familiar voice startled them. “It’s a hell of a thing not to trust yourself or the people around you.”
They turned to face Tom, leaning against the doorframe in the entrance to the workshop; arms crossed over his chest.
Tim shook his head. “You know, sometimes, brother, you really say some dumb shit.”
“All the time,” Bella added.
Wendy appeared next to Tom in the doorway, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the room. John thought he could cut the tension in the air with a knife. She stepped past Tom and into the workshop, never taking her eyes off him.
John let out a sigh and took a step toward her. “Look, I’m sorry about before, I didn’t know. I didn’t mean anything by what I said.”
Wendy shot Tim an angry glance. He immediately threw up his hands defensively. “Hey, whoa, now, I—”
She ignored him and turned back to John. “You mentioned a name before, how do you know that name? How do you know about us?”
“You mean P—”
Tim coughed loudly into his fist. “Nothing.”
John glanced at Tim, whose face seemed to say, please don’t, then shifted his gaze back to Wendy. He tried hard not to focus on the long scar that ran down her face, again thinking the innocence of the story he knew didn’t do this place any justice. He knew telling this woman her story was nothing more than a fairy tale wouldn’t go over well.
In the end, he simply laid it out as accurately as he could. He told her the story he knew as Peter Pan, trying his best not to mention Pan by name. He stuttered once or twice, and even once let it slip completely. Wendy’s stern expression never wavered.
He told her about the Portal opening up in front of him and how he had been pulled through and just how thankful he was that Michael and Tom had found him and helped.
When he finished, the tense silence returned and everyone waited to see how Wendy would respond. She stood silent, staring at nothing, almost like she was in a trance.
Finally, she said, “I don’t know that I trust you, Mr. McNeal, but at the same time, I can’t dismiss everything you say as false. I can’t fault Michael for bringing you back here either. We have rules, and whether I like it or not, those rules have served us well over the years. I’m not about to discount them.”
She pointed to the pulser strapped to his leg. “I assume you’re skilled in firearms and combat?”
“I can fight, yes. My expertise is flying, but we are required to maintain proficiencies in small arms.”
“You can fly?” Tim asked, obviously intrigued.
“Oh, geez, not another one,” Bella moaned, rolling her eyes.
“I’m a fighter pilot back home,” John said.
If Wendy was impressed, she didn’t show it. “There is a lot that I don’t understand about this, but I have talked it over with Michael and we both agree that the best way to handle this situation is to keep you here. So, for now, I’m going to put you under the supervision of Tim, here. You will report directly to me, and until you prove different, I am prepared to trust that everything you have said so far is true. Please don’t make me regret that decision.”
John had a feeling he’d just been drafted. He’d been pulled away from one war to be dropped into another. The only difference was this war seemed like a personal one. Whereas, the one he’d left had been political. He felt no real connection to either; back home he was only a number, and here, well, he wasn’t really sure where he fit in.
There was so little that he knew about this world, and most of what he did know, he didn’t understand. But he did know people and even after only being around them for a short time, he knew couldn’t just stand by and watch them struggle.
“Thanks,” John said, finally. “I’m not sure what all I can bring to the table, but I’ll do what I can.”
Wendy opened her mouth to answer, but a beeping interrupted her. She frowned and snatched the small com from her belt. “What is it?”
She cocked her head and she put a finger to her ear.
A second later, she said, “Okay, we’ll meet you at Harry’s in five.”
She clipped the small unit on her belt and turned back to John. “Don’t thank me yet,” she warned. “This isn’t a game, and if you decide to stay, I accept no less out of you than I do out of any of these people here right now. War is coming to Neverland, Mr. McNeal, and our fight is going to be a long a bloody one. Don’t make me regret it.”
Tim lifted his chin toward Wendy. “What’s up?”
“Carter’s back,” she answered, then turned and left the workshop.
Harry’s, John found, was a dimly lit room packed full with display screens and input consoles. Every screen displayed different information, from video feeds to scrolling lines of unreadable data and status. A constant hum reverberated around them. The amount of raw computer power displayed had to rival the command and control center of John’s old ship, the Lincoln.
As with everything else John had seen in the hideout, everything looked pieced together and temporary. Cables were spliced together, computer casings were patched and pieced together with what whatever they could get their hands on.
Thick bundles of cables snaked through and around stacks of computer equipment, all arranged around a raised platform in the center of the room. Recessed lighting in the ceiling shone down on two men standing with their backs to the entrance, both of whom were oblivious to the new arrivals. One sat in a chair, the other leaned over his shoulder shaking his head.
“No, no, no, Carter, it doesn’t work like that,” the standing one said. “You’ve got to wait for the link to sync up.”
The man sitting in the chair threw his arms into the air. “This antique piece of shit is worthless.”
“It’s not,” the other man argued. “You’ve just got to have little more patience.”
Wendy approached the platform and crossed her arms. “Harry.”
“There see,” the man standing pointed at the terminal in front of them and slapped the other. “I told you. Just a little patience is all you need.”
Wendy tried again, this time a little more forceful. “Harry.”
Both men turned. The one Wendy had addressed as Harry straightened and smiled. “Oh, hey, Wendy.”
Something rattled across the floor, and Tim cursed. “Geez, Harry, would it kill you to pick up every once and a while?”
Harry, a tall, gangly man, waved his arms around and rocked his head back and forth. Shoulder length, auburn hair flapped around wildly. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a few days. “Oh, right, sorry about that, I’ve only been keeping the damn Regency bugs out of the system for three straight days, let me tell them to hold on a minute while I tidy up.”
Bella whistled and pinched her nose. “Geez, Harry, when’s the last time you washed?”
The man stomped off the platform. “You know, I don’t get any respect around here.”
He waved a finger at the siblings. “Some of us don’t get the luxury of just sitting around waiting to be told what to do, you know. Some of us have to be proactive.”
Bella opened her mouth to protest, and Wendy held up a hand.
“Later,” Wendy said. “What do you have?”
The man sitting in front of Harry turned in the chair. He opened his mouth, as though he was about to say something, only to shut it again when he noticed John. He frowned and nodded. “Uh.”
Wendy waved a dismissive had. “He’s fine, Carter. What is it?”
Carter raised an eyebrow, hesitated for a second, then said, “Okay, well, you’re not going to believe this.”
He turned back to the computer terminal and continued working. Every now and then, Harry would correct him and point to something on the display. After a few seconds, the four screens in front of them blinked to life, forming a single image.
A massive cityscape sprawled out along the coast for miles. Tall skyscrapers reached into the clouds in tight clusters, covered in marker lights and colorful signs. The scene reminded him of Las Vegas, only several times larger.
Countless landing pads extended at all angles from the tall modern structures. Flying craft of all shapes and sizes filled the sky in not-so-orderly flight lines through the city; a very different environment from the one he’d experienced so far. Everything looked clean and much more advanced than anything he’d seen so far. Which begged the question, why did most of their equipment look so old and patched?
After a few seconds of watching the feed in silence, Wendy said, “Okay, so what are we looking at?”
“Give it a second,” Carter said, then pointed to the right side of the screen. “There.”
They all watched as several ships flew into view, there must have been a hundred of them, from small skiffs to large frigates. It was hard to judge the scale, but John guessed several of them were five or six times the size of the skiff he’d flown in earlier. As the swarm of the ships flew over the city, several dropped out of the loose formation and descended into in the city below.
“For Graft’s sake,” Tim said.
His brother turned to Wendy, concern spread across his face. “What the hell are they doing here?”
Wendy nodded in John’s direction. “Looking for him.”
The Twins, Bella, and the two men at the terminal in front of them turned their gazes to John, who stood speechless. She was right, of course, even though he wished she wasn’t.
I wonder how long it will take them to cut their losses and turn me in, he thought.
He felt the need to say something, but before he could open his mouth, someone entered the room behind him and bumped past him.
“Easy,” John said, taking a step forward to catch his balance. He recognized the man at once, and his blood pressure spiked.
Marb ignored him, walked to the edge of the horseshoe and examined the images. His barrel-chested companion followed after, glaring at John as he passed.
“I knew it,” Marb said, turning away from the screens. He drew his pistol and leveled it at John’s head.
John did not hesitate. His pulser was out and pointed in response.
“Whoa!” Tim shouted.
Wendy sidestepped out of the way, bringing both arms up. “Stop.”
“He’s a spy,” Marb growled.
Bella stepped up, furious. “Damn it, Marb. You stupid prick, back off.”
John stared into Marb’s eyes, finger gently squeezing on his pulser’s trigger. The barrel of Marb’s pistol was a deep black hole looking into oblivion.
An eerie silence fell over the room as both men glared at each other. John knew if Marb decided to pull the trigger first, he would probably never see the blast that killed him and wrestled with pulling the trigger himself. He didn’t want to kill the man, but his desire to remain whole slowly ate away at his reluctance.
The clicking of another pistol’s hammer broke the silence.
The tunnel vision that John hadn’t even realized had formed, faded. Marb’s gun was smaller now, but another gun came into view, this one pointed at the side of Marb’s skull. It took John a second to realize who held it.
“Put it down, Marb,” Wendy said.
Marb gave the pistol a sideways glance, squinted, and then squared his jaw. “He shouldn’t be here.”
“Not your call.”
You can’t beat two of us, John thought, mentally willing the man to comply. He felt a presence behind him and shot a glance over his shoulder. Oak stood there, a mixture of confusion and anger covered his face. He looked like he would snap at any moment.
Another hammer clicked and Marb’s pistol dropped. John hesitated for a second, then let his own fall. Wendy kept hers leveled.
“Our fight is not in here,” she said. “Our fight is out there. Our fight is with Hook.”
“Yeah, well, it looks like he’s bringing the fight to us.” Marb retorted, jamming his pistol away and nodding at the screens behind him.
Wendy lowered her pistol and considered the images again. “This changes everything. We’re going to have to move sooner than planned.”
“How soon?” Harry asked. “I just got all this stuff running smoothly again.”
“Two days at most. The longer we stay here, the more vulnerable we are.”
“Two days, I can’t—” Bella said, giving her brother a horrified look. “Damn it!” She turned and disappeared through the doorway.
Tom said, “That’s not a lot of time. We won’t be able to get everything moved that quickly.”
“Then we’ll just have to deal with what we can,” Wendy said then turned to Carter. “Send another team out tonight. We need accurate information on their movements. Tim, I want teams working in shifts, make sure people sleep. I’ll take a team to the clinic tomorrow morning, then we’ll start moving the other essentials.”
“I’ll go with you,” Marb said.
“No,” Wendy said. “You’re going to stay here and manage the evacuation.”
“That’s ridiculous. With Michael down, you’ll need another.”
She seemed to think about that for a moment, then to the surprise of everyone, including John, she turned to him and said, “He’s coming.”
Marb almost choked on his words. “You can’t be serious.”
Ironically, John thought the same.
“If he’s going to fight with us,” Wendy said, “then he needs to see what we’re fighting for.”
“Now he’s fighting with us? Have you gone completely insane? Wendy, you know nothing about him.”
“It’s no different than when we found you, Marb, or Oak for that matter. You know the Rules.”
“Yeah, well, if I’d written them, they’d be very different.”
“Then it’s good that you didn’t write them. You have your instructions, I’d suggest you get started.”
Marb stared at her for a long moment, then stormed passed her.
Oak lingered, staring at John, fist clenched.
“Can I help you with something?” John asked, hoping the words would lessen the chance of a confrontation, not sure if he’d be able to handle the brut of a man without the benefit of surprise.
“D-don’t trust.” Oak managed after a moment.
Tom called after Marb, “You forgot something.”
Marb’s voice echoed from the corridor outside. “Oak, come on!”
The barrel-chested man relented and left without another word. Tom eyed John, then shook his head. So, Tom was an equal opportunity ball-breaker. That made John feel a little better.
“Wendy,” Carter said from his seat on the platform, “there’s something else.”
When he didn’t answer right away she turned from the doorway, gave John a quick look, then moved back to the platform. Carter turned to the terminal and punched in a command. The view of the city disappeared, replaced by a very different view, one which John recognized immediately. The Laden & Kotch building stood in the middle of the screen, flanked by the smaller, decaying buildings of Old Town. The shot was taken from a high angle, presumably from another high-rise in the area.
The image panned up, showing what could only be some kind of large warship. Whether in this world or his, John knew cannons when he saw them.
“It can’t be,” Wendy whispered.
The camera panned over the warship for a few seconds, then moved down to the avenue in front of the old department store. Several groups of people sat clustered near one end of the building, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. The image zoomed in again, focusing on a lone individual facing the group of people. A boy stood before him.
A second later the figure turned and the image froze. Carter turned to Wendy. “I’m sorry.”
Without a word, Wendy turned and left. John wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d seen a tear running down her cheek.
Oak ducked into the shadows of the alley again, as another skiff flew by overhead.
How many was that now? Four? No, five.
They were everywhere. He couldn’t ever remember seeing so many. No wonder Wendy was so upset.
All because of that bastard from the other side. That man caused all of this to happen. The arrival of John Mc-whatever-his-name-was made something burn deep inside Oak, something he didn’t really understand, but as his anger grew, so did the burning. It was like the feeling he had as a child when he tried to understand what everyone else found so funny, or when he didn’t understand why people pointed and whispered when he was around.
He had always been big. Big as a tree, his mother used to say, which of course, was how he had earned his nickname. He wondered if anyone even knew his real name anymore. At night, when he was alone, he would remind himself, afraid that if he didn’t, then maybe someday he would also forget and that was something he did not want to do.
Paul Allen Gibbs would remember.
He crossed the street, pausing briefly for a transport truck to pass, then turned down a side street and continued north. Halfway down the block, he stopped and glanced back the way he had come, suddenly unsure. He had never come this far into Mid-Town without Marb, but he was almost positive he had followed the path from their last trip.
His pulse quickened, but the fear of being lost was overshadowed by the need to find Marb. He turned another corner and pressed on.
After leaving Harry’s he’d followed Marb back to his room, listening as his friend worked himself up, arguing his points to himself, and cursing loudly. At first, Oak thought that his friend was angry with him. Slowly, he realized that he was furious at everything. He didn’t understand all of what his friend was going on about, but he damned well agreed with all of it.
As the hours went by, his anger seemed to subside, but as sunset came Marb worked himself up again and stormed out. Oak followed as best as he could, but didn’t want Marb to know, so he had stayed out of sight. Now he feared he had stayed too far back. Now, not only did he not know where Marb was, but also he didn’t know where he was either.
Oak crinkled his nose at the industrial stench of Mid-Town. The blocks reverberated with the constant hum and sounds of the factories and food possessing plants around him. Ahead of him, the spires of a large plant rose up behind the long square tenements that lined the streets.
Workers made their way along the sidewalks in quiet droves. No one noticed Oak, and no one cared. If Old Town was home to undesirables and junkies, Mid-Town was home to the only just tolerable. Everyone stayed in his or her personal bubble.
Every so often, a car would pass him on the street. Even fewer cruised by in the air above. A few blocks ahead of him, a flattop barge lifted into the air in a cloud of dust and loose trash. Several people ducked away from the turbulent engine wash, cursed, and threw up arms in outrage. As the barge cleared the rooftops a man leaned over the bow and shouted curses of his own.
As Oak made his way through the blocks, each busier than the last, he became acutely aware of increased Regency soldiers. The odd patrol here and there was normal, a constant reminder that the Regency was present and in control. But there seemed to be a patrol on every corner in the form of two heavily armed soldiers wearing full combat armor.
Twice, a patrol skiff passed over the street and spotlighted the ground. Soldiers moved in, contacted a group of citizens, and after several minutes moved off again, allowing people to continue on their way.
Oak watched all of this from the shadows. If there was one thing Marb always told him, it was to keep an eye out for Patrols. Marb drilled it into Oak’s head; do not get caught. Oak made sure he was extra careful. He did not like being out alone.
Two boys darted across the street, almost running into him. He stumbled to keep his footing.
“Hey, w-watch it!” he called after them.
They pointed and laughed, but offered no apology and continued running. He grumbled under his breath, watched them disappear in the crowd, and then continued on his way.
After fifteen minutes of navigating his way through the crowded streets, he stopped and reluctantly decided he was not going to find Marb after all. He gazed around at the buildings and people, hoping on the off chance that his friend would appear out of the masses and they could go home.
Marb did not.
A small door opened in the center of a non-descript store front, the windows on either side boarded over and covered in unreadable graffiti. Oak watched as a man stumbled out and almost slipped on the sidewalk before continuing into the street. Tires screeched as a small car stopped short, inches before hitting him.
The man just stood there weaving like tree branches swaying in the wind, gazing back at the angry driver with uncaring eyes. The driver stepped out and shouted at the drunk, who listened for a few moments, waved him off, and then continued on his unsteady way across the street.
Another skiff appeared over the street down the block, its spotlight sweeping back and forth across the street as it moved toward the stopped car. A loud crackling voice boomed, “There is no loitering in this area. Move along or you will be subject to detainment and arrest.”
The message repeated as the skiff moved closer, and Oak instinctively pressed into the side of the building, trying to will himself through the brickwork. He glanced sideways, saw the door the drunk had just stumbled from, and then yanked it open.
The door shut behind him, muffling the voice on the loudspeaker, and the distinct smell of stale smoke and alcohol reached his nose. Smoke hung in the air, swirling around slow turning fans on the ceiling. The dark-wood floor looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years.
A slight vibration, caused by the passing skiff outside, encouraged him to move away from the door. He stepped through a group of empty, round tables, to the bar, a took a seat on a stool at one end. The legs creaked and shifted under his weight, but held firm. Oak let out a long breath, relieved both to be away from the skiff and that he wasn’t laying on the floor among pieces of a shattered stool.
The woman behind the bar approached and smiled. “Hi, there.”
Her voice was sweet and musical and every single bit of fear and nervousness inside him faded away. She had the most beautiful brown eyes he’d ever seen. Her long brown hair was tied back in a side-ponytail, and her thin lips seemed to sparkle in the dim light of the bar.
Oak swallowed hard. “H-Hello.”
Damn it, he cursed himself, fist clenched underneath the lip of the bar. Don’t stutter.
She draped a towel over her shoulder and leaned down onto the bar with her elbows. “What’s your poison, sweetheart?”
“What can I get you to drink?”
“Oh,” he said, feeling his face flush. “I’ll, uh, I’ll have a, I th-think it’s called a W-Wilson Twist.”
She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “High roller, eh? Okay, but I have to warn you, it’s been a while since I’ve made that. Give me a minute, I’ll see if I’ve got the stuff.”
Slightly embarrassed, he said, “If you don’t h-have it, it’s okay, I don’t w-want you to have to go to any trouble.”
She laughed. Oak’s heart seemed to flip inside his chest; it was the sweetest laugh he’d ever heard.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “its no problem at all. Give me one second. I’ll be back in a snap.”
She gave him another quick smile then disappeared through a narrow door.
His heart pounded hard against his ribcage. He looked around for something to distract him and found a half-empty bowl of bar nuts just a few stools down. He grabbed a handful and popped one in his mouth. He bit down and heard loud crack. At first he thought he had chipped a tooth, but after spitting out two pieces of the nut he let out a breath and put the rest back in the bowl.
No more of those or I will lose a tooth.
The woman appeared a few moments later, just as he wondered how many other people had had their hands in the same bowl.
“You’re in luck, friend,” she said, setting a bag filled with colorful orange and red fruit down on the counter. “Last bag of ommarts in the house.”
“Oh, t-that’s good.”
“Should charge you double for these,” she said, pulling one of the first sized fruits from the bag. “No telling when I’ll get another batch in, with the Regency staking claims again.”
Oak opened his mouth to respond, only to realize he didn’t know what he wanted to say.
“What’s your name?” she asked, not seeming to notice his hesitation. She pulled a small knife from behind the counter and sliced the ommart into six equal slices.
“I’m…my name’s, Paul.” He ran a finger along the bar. “B-but, everyone just calls me Oak.”
She pointed at him with the knife. “‘Cause you’re so big?”
Before he could stop himself, he said, “No, because I’m so dumb.”
His face immediately flushed and he looked away.
For the briefest of moments, she stopped and stared, then went back to preparing the drink. “Oak, huh? Well, I’ll just call you Paul. I like that name better.”
“Okay,” he said, unable to bring his eyes back to her. No one had ever liked his name before.
“I’m Mary. My friends call me Mary.”
He glanced at her briefly and said, “Hi.”
Mary raised another eyebrow and for some reason Oak was relieved that she didn’t respond. He watched as she mixed two different liquors together, combining to make a light blue mixture in the clear tumbler then shook it vigorously. The light blue changed to dark and she poured the mixture into a small glass and squeezed an ommart slice of over it.
“Hope it’s how you like it, I’m a little rusty,” she said, grabbing a napkin and setting both down on the bar in front of him.
Something about the color didn’t look right, but he didn’t know exactly why. He took a sip, let the drink roll around his tongue for a moment, and then swallowed. It was the worst he’d ever tasted.
“It’s good.” He coughed, desperately trying to mask his distaste.
“Liar.” She poured herself a glass, sipped it and made an awful sound. “Oh, Graft!”
She promptly emptied the glass and mixer into the basin in front of her. “That’s awful. Here, gimmie that.”
Someone at the far end of the bar called out as she dumped his glass into the basin. She looked toward him and said, “Don’t lose your shit, Don, I’ll be there in a second.”
She turned back to Oak, frowning. “Sorry, I’ll just be a minute.
Mary made her way out from behind the bar and over to one of the tables, where two new patrons had just sat. She took their order, seemed to exchange some banter, then returned to the bar to pour their drinks. He looked down and traced the wood lines in the bar top.
Marb would like this place, Oak thought. He always liked the more low key places. They’d never drink at the bar itself, always opting for a side booth or table. Better for privacy that way, Marb had explained. Remembering that, Oak began to worry that he’d made a mistake sitting at the bar. He was just about to get up and find a table when he heard that sweet voice again.
“Looks like you’ve got some deep thoughts going on there.”
Mary stood in front of him, stirring something in another mixture. How long had she been standing there?
“Here,” she took the first glass and set the new one down, “this one should be just right.”
Oak sipped, expecting the worst but was pleasantly surprised. A smile spread across his face. “T-that’s a Twist.”
Mary returned his smile and lifted her own glass. They clinked both together and sipped. She finished her drink in one pull and slapped the glass back down on the bar. “I forgot, you have to stir it not shake it.”
“So, you want to talk about it?”
Oak frowned. “Talk about what?”
“Whatever you have going on up there?” She pointed to his head.
It took him a moment, then, luckily, he made the connection. The fact that he had made the connection surprised him, but not as much as this woman talking to him. No one had ever talked to him like this before.
“Oh, n-no, it’s nothing. I don’t want to b-bother you with m-my problems.”
Mary laughed and poured another glass. “Sweetheart, after the shit I’ve heard in this place, nothing bores me anymore. Hell, I’m more a psychologist than bartender, I think, and I don’t even get paid extra for it.”
Oak didn’t know what she meant, but decided he didn’t need to. “Yeah.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“It’s just . . . ” he took another drink. “ . . . I don’t understand things sometimes. P-people think it’s because I’m dumb, but I’m smart enough. But sometimes I don’t understand why people do what they do. I’m not dumb.”
Even as he said it, he knew how it sounded and hated himself for it. He didn’t understand why he was even telling her this, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Well, I don’t think you’re dumb, Paul.”
He gazed at her, surprised, and couldn’t stop another smile. He’d never met anyone like her before in his entire life. No one had ever cared enough to call him by his real name. It was always: ‘Do this Oak’, or ‘Take this over there, Oak’. Even Marb tolerated him.
“Come on,” Mary urged, “Tell me.”
He took another sip and shook his head, feeling all the anger he didn’t know he’d been suppressing come flooding up to the surface. All the negative things he’d wanted to say to Tom and all the rest and never been able to.
“I’m tired of just being pushed around.” Oak said, finally. “I’m not just a dumb worker.”
His body temperature rose and his veins pulsed hard in his neck.
“I don’t think you’re dumb at all.”
The words spilled out without any conscious thought to what he said, like someone else was speaking and he listened.
“T-they think I’m only good for a l-laugh. Oak’ll do it, he d-doesn’t understand anyway. Well, sometimes I d-don’t, but does that m-make me a bad person?”
He clinched his fists tight against the aging bar top, fighting the urge to pound it into splinters. He gritted his teeth against the strain, everyone of one of his muscles screaming for release.
“I’m not a b-bad person,” he continued. “So what if I d-don’t understand sometimes? I’m a good p-person. But they hate me anyway. I d-don’t understand how they c-can hate me and love this n-new guy. They don’t even k-know who he is. They j-just take his word that he’s f-from the Otherside and just like that he’s part of the t-team.”
Oak took a heavy breath. A great sense of relief came over him as he heard the words flow out. “He’s going to get us all killed. They all love him, and I hate him.”
Soft fingers ran across the back of his hand. Tender fingers. Fingers that radiated compassion. Fingers that instantly calmed his rage.
“Hey, it’s okay.”
Her voice was soothing, calming every nerve, and every impulse and urge to lash out faded.
“I think you’re very sweet. Don’t worry about what they say. Sticks and stones right?”
He didn’t understand, but when his eyes locked with hers, it didn’t matter. Her gaze melted him and he forgot everything else in the world. Angel eyes.
She smiled at him.
“Here,” she set another glass down in front of him. “This one’s on me.”
Oak took the drink, letting out a long breath. She was the most beautiful woman in the world and he knew, without really understanding, that he loved her.
“Listen,” Mary said after a minute. “I’ve got some stuff to put away, stay here, relax, and I’ll be back in a little while, okay?”
He watched her work, totally engrossed.
At the far end of the bar, Calsi Diehm, sat and watched from the shadows, the drink on the table in front of her completely forgotten. Instead, she focused on the large man sitting at the bar, nursing his light blue drink. She sat perfectly still, replaying in her mind what the man had just finished saying, still trying to wrap her head around it.
It can’t be that simple, she thought.
Hell, the notice had just been sent out on the S-band four hours before, she almost hadn’t read it. Like most broad-spectrum dispatches from Regency Internal Security, she’d assumed it was just some propaganda about the on-going hunt for undesirables. It wasn’t until she’d seen where the dispatch had been sent from that she read it. After all, it wasn’t every day the mysterious Commander Pan sent out anything directly.
Of course, even after reading it, she knew the odds of actually tracking down such a target would be extremely difficult, and she damn well wasn’t going to be trolling around in Old Town on just a hope and a prayer. Talk about a needle in a stack of needles.
Calsi left her unfinished drink on the table and quietly slipped out of the bar. It took her five minutes to find a place to watch and noted the time. Another 2 hours before the Regency curfew would take effect. Sure, she could probably talk her way out of it. Being on the RIS clearance list certainly had its advantages, but if she could avoid it, she’d much rather not have any contact with them at all.
Almost an hour passed before the man appeared and she cursed. The bartender stepped out with him, holding his arm, steadying him as he stepped onto the sidewalk. She shook her head; no way had he just picked her up. No way. A moment later she let out a relived sigh as they hugged, and the man slowly began to move away. The bartender gave him one last look, then stepped back inside the bar.
He was obviously close to his limit, Calsi decided, watching the man weave and bob as he walked. It was probably a good thing; with his size she wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle him without complete and total surprise, even with a shot from her disabler.
She waited from him to pass, counted a beat, and then made her move.
John woke up wondering if everything had all been just a dream. The ache in his back from sleeping on the hard cot Tim had found him, and the blinking light in the ceiling above him, told him it was not. He sat up and stretched, finding it ironic that after years of hating his bunk on the Lincoln, he’d give anything to be in it again.
He found his boots and made his way through the corridors to the expansive hanger bay. People eyed him suspiciously as he walked across the deck, but no one stopped him. No one even spoke to him. As soon as he made eye contact they would turn away. He had never been the stinky kid in class, but he had a feeling that this was what that kid must have felt like every day he walked through the halls.
He stopped in front of the only familiar craft he saw and slowly examined the retrofitted skiff. Silver panels created a patchwork across the skiff’s otherwise matte black hull, no need to try and hide the repairs. Even some of the patches had been patched. John found no aircraft numbers or unit insignia on the craft; no way of knowing who had produced it or where it belonged.
On Earth, most standard military fighters had a shelf life of about ten or fifteen years. After that they would become obsolete and ineffective. His own Falcon Fighter—resting in pieces at the bottom of the Atlantic—still had a good ten years left before the aircraft would be phased out. As he stepped closer to examine one of the engines, John found nothing that would indicate how long the craft had been in service. Judging by its condition, however, John guessed it had been a while.
“She’s a beauty isn’t she?” A voice behind him made him jump.
John turned to see Tim standing there, two mugs of dark, steaming liquid in each hand and a curious smile on his face. Unlike John, who was still wearing his black NAU flight suit, Tim had changed clothes. He wore a long-sleeved grey shirt over black pants, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and pants tucked into his boots.
“She is,” John said and nodded to a large cluster of silver patches that formed an angled pattern on the nose. “Been through hell, looks like.”
“Yeah,” Tim replied, offering one of the mugs.
“My own recipe,” Tim said with a grin. “It’s safe.”
John took the mug, held it up to his nose and was surprised at the pleasant aroma. It wasn’t exactly what he was used to, but it was close and noticeably lighter than the so-called Neverland’s Best. He took a sip, tasted a simple roasted bean with a hint of mint and felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
Tim gave a nod and lifted his own mug, seeming to understand. “Told you.”
John took another sip before saying, “You have no idea.”
“Glad you like it. Took me a few years to get the mix right, it’s hard as hell to find the farla beans sometimes but I think they make the blend.”
“After tasting that, whatever you call it yesterday, I was almost convinced this place was hell and everything was just going to be horrible.”
“Only a few.”
“No problem, figured you’d need it after the day you had yesterday.”
John turned back to the skiff and took another long whiff of the coffee. “I’m still trying to process everything. It all just seems too,” he hesitated, searching for the right words, finally settling on the simplest. “Unbelievable.”
“I imagine that’s everyone’s response when they get here.”
“Been flying long?”
“Oh, probably twenty years or so,” he shrugged. “More than ten and less than thirty.”
John frowned as he considered this, coming from a man who didn’t look more than twenty. But time was funny here, wasn’t it? This was Neverland after all. He couldn’t help picturing that outrageous, cartoon version of Captain Hook, curly mustache and all. Was there a crocodile with a ticking clock chasing him around to? From what he’d experienced of this place so far though, he doubted it would be anything that comical.
“I know,” Tim said with another grin. “I don’t look it.”
“Just how old are you?” John asked.
“Well, that’s a funny question.” Tim answered after taking a sip of coffee. “One that would be a hell of a lot easier to answer if I knew exactly when I was born. Then again, I’d still probably be off a few years, give or take. Tom and I have argued about it for years, the way he sees it, we’re probably closer to thirty or forty.”
“Forty years old?”
“Nevaris years that is, I’m not sure how that equates to Earth years. There isn’t a whole lot of science on the matter, some say its longer, others say its shorter. He glanced around, then said, “Just between you and me, and this ol’ pile of bolts, I think Tom’s probably right, but you’ll never hear me admit that in public.” He grinned and pointed a finger. “If you ever tell I’m I said so…”
John held up a hand. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Tim took a sip of his coffee. “God, if he knew…”
“Never let you live it down?”
“Hell, it would be his greatest achievement. He would carry it around like a trophy forever and make damn sure everyone knew what it was for.”
John thought of Mark and how many times they’d won Spades by sheer luck on his friend’s side. How many times he had stood, proclaimed himself Master of the Cards, and paraded through the barracks showering himself with praises?
“I know what you mean.”
Tim shuttered. “He’d be unbearable to live with.”
“Does he fly too?”
“Hmmm. Well . . . ” he paused, stepping closer to feel one of the silver patches. “The answer to that is, yes, he has the ability to fly. Whether or not he’s a skilled pilot is a whole other question entirely.”
“He seemed to operate the flight harness just fine.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll give you that, but the two skills are not synonymous. It’s one thing to push yourself alone through the air, it’s quite another to pilot one of these babies, especially with a full load and people strapped in the back.”
John turned and looked through the clear glass dome of the skiff’s cockpit. “I’d love to get a look inside.”
Tim’s face lit up. “Oh, yeah, sure, come on up.”
They climbed into the cockpit; Tim slid into the left seat, John the right. Tim spent the next twenty minutes pointing out the skiff’s systems and explaining the controls. To John’s surprise, they weren’t all that dissimilar from the standard flight controls back home, and he caught on quick. By the time Tim’s demonstration was complete, John was ready to take control.
“So,” he said, flexing his fingers around the control handles in front of him. “How about we take this baby for a spin.”
Tim barred his teeth. “Yeah, you know, Wendy would kill him if she knew I let you take this baby up.” He scanned the hanger deck through the windscreen before him. “Hell, she’ll probably be upset I’m even showing you this stuff.”
John followed his gaze across the hanger deck. It was empty, save for the few workers he’d passed on his way in.
“Come on, just a quick little jaunt around the hanger.”
Tim shook his head, obviously not convinced but John could tell he was on the fence. He pressed on. “Come on, will be up and down before anyone notices. She’ll never have to know.”
“Oh, man, I don’t know.”
“Tell her I forced you.”
That brought a laugh, “Yeah.”
Just a little further.
“Look, if we got caught, I’ll take all the blame. I won’t let you take any heat for it.”
Tim looked at him for a long moment, let out a frustrated sigh. “Damn.”
He flipped a switch on the middle console and the skiff’s electronics hummed to life. Lights blinked on and instrument clusters booted up.
John clapped his hands together once. “That’s the spirit.”
“She’s gonna kill me.”
He flipped more switches. He turned sideways and glanced back at the left engine, then looked back over his right shoulder.
“How’s Number Two look?”
John twisted in his seat, examining the large omnidirectional thruster. An electronic hum began to reverberate through the skiff as the energy bands surrounding it began to glow.
“Two looks good.”
“Alright,” Tim said, “you always want to make sure your turbines are lined up, especially on this bird.”
John watched as he manipulated the controls, the thrusters outside moved in response to his commands.
“The counter-grav system’s pretty touchy,” Tim continued. “If the engines are not synced, you’ll be in trouble when you lift off. Happened to me one time and I never want to relive the experience.”
John heard the thrusters outside click several times before thrumming to life. Lines of pulsing green and yellow energy spread around the cylindrical cowlings, increasing in speed and intensity until they blended together in a single ball of light.
“So…” John started looking from one glowing engine to the other.
“Bella’s design,” Tim explained, adjusting a few more controls. “Took her forever to get it right. Had to scrap four aircars and an old barge just to get enough components for the engines. To be honest, I didn’t think she was ever going to make it work. Hell, we only just convinced Tom to fly in it for the Refinery mission.”
“Just a bigger version of her harness device I’m assuming?”
Tim gave a noncommittal nod. “The way she explains it is a little more complicated than that, but essentially, yes. Here, strap in.”
“Expecting a bumpy ride?” John asked, locking the clips of his five-point harness together. They reminded him of his seat in the Falcon and wondered if it was still dangling from the platform.
“No, but you can never be too careful with Bella’s toys.”
Before John could respond, Tim pushed a lever forward and the skiff lifted off the hanger deck. Behind him, the intensity of the pulsing energy increased, but the noise they generated did not. Compared to what John was used to, the ride was smooth and fairly quiet.
“Small movements,” Tim warned, maneuvering over to an area relatively devoid of equipment. He zeroed out the controls and brought the skiff to a hover a few feet above the deck.
He nodded to the control handles in front of John. “Please try not to wreck would ya?”
John didn’t respond and lightly wrapped his hands around the controls. He flexed his hands and fingers found their places. It was like getting to know the body of a new woman. He took controlled, relaxed breaths, and then went to work.
The skiff responded immediately to his movements and rotated on the spot. He tilted the handle left and the skiff complied, banking slightly.
“I see what you mean,” John said, leveling out.
“Yeah, takes a little getting used to. Here,” he flipped a pair of switches on the panel above them and a hydraulic whine reverberated through the cockpit, followed by dull clanking as the landing struts underneath folded up into the chassis.
John spent the next ten minutes experimenting, getting feel for the aircraft. The flight dynamics were similar to anything he’d flown back on Earth and after only a few minutes he felt right at home.
“I have to say,” Tim said, after several minutes of flying. “I’m impressed. It took me almost a week to get that comfortable with the controls. Hell, Michael refuses to fly this one, doesn’t like how the counter-grav feels?”
“Is it that different from the base model?”
“I don’t think so,” Tim shrugged, “but I’ve spent more time in them than most. You feel comfortable enough to set her down?”
“Yeah,” John said, a little more confident than he felt. “I think so.”
Tim pointed to a bare spot on the deck ahead of them. “Why don’t you set us down over there.”
John nodded and guided the skiff over. Tim reached up and flipped the landing strut controls, the hydraulics whined again as the struts folded out and locked into place. A status light on the middle console indicated they were properly deployed.
John pulled back on the throttle, reducing power slightly and the skiff continued its decent. He brought them to a standstill and eased them down until the struts touched deck below. Pistons hissed as the skiff settled and the thrumming of the engines lessened.
John smiled. Nothing matched the thrill of flying. There was something almost hypnotic about being in the air, as if he belonged there. He’d always felt more at home in the air than on the ground. Something he’d tried to explain to his mother on several occasions when she pleaded with him to find something safer to do with his life; something not in the air.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thought of his family so much. Back on the Lincoln, he could go weeks without talking to them and never bat an eye, but now, stuck on a whole other world, he missed them. It may have been the first time in his life that he had been legitimately homesick.
Tom’s voice brought him back. “Oh, shit.”
John glanced at Tim, who nodded through windscreen to the deck below. Twenty feet away Wendy stood, arms crossed, her icy gaze fixed pointedly on them. Tom and Carter stood on either side of her, Tom shaking his head and Carter making no effort to hide his amused smile.
John grunted. “Hmmm, well, it was a good life, I guess.”
“So says you,” Tim muttered from the side of his mouth. “You think she’d notice if we just took off again and never came back.”
“It might be worth it to try. That face is killing me.”
They stared back at the trio of on-lookers for another minute, before Tim sighed and unstrapped his harness. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Hey, maybe it’ll be a quick death,” John said, climbing out after him.
They hopped down out of the skiff and made their way around the engine chassis to where Wendy stood, waiting, arms still crossed.
Tim spoke first, “Look, Wendy . . . ”
“It’s my fault,” John interrupted, “I asked—”
“Stop.” She hadn’t even raised her voice, but as before, the authority in it was undeniable. “Not interested. We’ve got too much to do, and don’t have time. We’ll talk about his later. Right now, we need to start making final preparations to vacate this place.”
Wendy jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Is there enough fuel in Skiff Two to get us across Midtown?”
Tim seemed confused. “Uh, yeah plenty. Why?”
“We need to take a trip.”
In the end, it didn’t take half as long as she thought to get the information she needed, and what she learned scared her. Calsi had gone into the whole thing with an open mind, not knowing exactly what she was going to find. The dispatch hadn’t been specific. Even now, she almost didn’t believe, and never would have believed, had she not heard it from this idiot’s mouth.
Oak—a fitting name, she decided—sat, bound to a chair, in the back room of one of her safe houses. She’d finished working on him after only an hour and had spent the rest of the night trying to decide what to do with the information she’d pulled out of him. In the end, she decided she needed another opinion.
“So?” she asked, arms crossed.
“I don’t know, Cal,” Len Lorne answered, clearly not sold on the idea either. When he’d finally answered her call, it had taken almost twenty minutes to convince him that she hadn’t fully lost her mind. And when he’d heard it from the man, himself, Len simply stood shaking his head, dumbfounded.
He stood beside her, considering the bound man. After a few moments, rubbed his chin and said, “It just seems too good to be true, you know?”
“Graft, Len, I’ve been telling myself that all night, but it’s hard to argue the facts.” She motioned to Oak. “I mean, he doesn’t exactly seem like he’s smart enough to just make that stuff up. He’s kind of an idiot.”
Oak rocked his head slightly and moaned. His words were drawn out and slurred. “Noooo…diot…ki…ooo.”
“Yeah,” Len said.
“I’m telling you, it can’t all be coincidence. No way. Not with what the dispatch said. I mean, shit, Len, everyone is looking for him. Everyone. Do you still have your contact in the Guard?”
“Of course, I do. Do you think I’d be able to keep up my better-than-average fee schedule if I didn’t? It’s much easier to overcharge the government when you know someone in government. Why, what are you thinking?”
Calsi scoffed. “What do you think? I’m thinking about getting paid. Come on, we have to report this.”
Len signed and chewed on his lower lip, clearly conflicted.
Asking him for a favor like this was no small thing, Calsi knew. If they were wrong he’d probably lose all the influence he had in the Guard. One did not make it very long in the Regency by making mistakes.
After several long, silent moments, Len said, “I’ll send him a message and see what he wants us to do.”
Calsi breathed a heavy sigh as Len turned and stepped out of the room. She had gambled big even bringing him in on this, but if this all turned out to be what she thought, both of them would never have to worry about money again.
Oak moaned again, sounding like he was trying to say something else, but Calsi couldn’t make it out. She ignored him. He was a payday, nothing more. All she needed to do now was keep him alive long enough to turn him over to the Guard. After that, she knew what would happen to him. Though, if everything she had learned was true, she wondered how it would effect her current situation.
Not many people had the skills she possessed, both in information gathering and target elimination. Precision was her specialty, invisibility her lifestyle. There were not many things the Regency could not do. Subtlety, however, was not part of their repertoire. She could be a scalpel, where they could only ever be a battle-axe.
Most of her work so far had been surveillance jobs, keeping eyes on prominent businessmen or city government officials. But even those jobs were becoming more few and far between. She needed this, and she needed it to be right.
The door opened behind her and Len stepped into the darkened room. “Okay,” Len said, “We’re in.”
John squinted as the skiff rose into the early morning sunlight. The two moons of Neverland still clung to the sky on one end of the horizon. At the other, a warm yellow sun rose.
“Check it out.” Tim said, pointing to the pale blue, cloudless sky above.
A hazy band stretched across the sky from horizon to horizon. At first glance, it looked like one solid ring, but as John starred at it, he discovered it was actually millions of individual specks.
“That’s where all the dust comes from?” John asked, wondering just how big those specks were that he could see them at this distance.
Tim nodded. “Kind of funny isn’t it?”
“That we’re all fighting over some naturally occurring, overabundant rocks.”
“War’s have been fought for less,” John said, still trying to comprehend the size and scope of the ring. It must have been several hundred miles across and God only knew how deep. The massive sight dwarfed everything else around them.
Tom pushed the throttle forward and they flew over the rooftops.
In the passenger compartment behind them, Wendy, Bella, Tom, and Carter were discussing evacuation plans. John barely heard them, instead focusing on the city around him.
Barreen stretched for miles in every direction, easily as big as any major metropolitan center on Earth. They reached the industrial complexes of Midtown in under five minutes. Grey smoke rose from exhaust vents and slender stacks in a perfect picture of heavy industrialization and automation. They flew past the refineries, warehouses, housing tenements, and processing plants. In the distance, the modern towers and spires of Bay Town were painted black against the sunrise.
They passed over several rivers, cutting their way back and forth through the city, to the unseen the bay beyond. Everything seemed focused around that particular area. It made sense, almost all large cities on Earth developed around stable water sources and spread out from there. Why should this place be any different?
As they continued across the cityscape, a large six-lane, divided highway came in view. Supported by massive pylons, it towered over the surrounding structures. A handful of vehicles traveled the road, weaving in and out of the abandoned wrecks that lay strewn across the surface.
“Impressive.” John said, indicating the highway.
“You should have seen it before the war,” Tim said, turning the skiff to follow the road’s winding path through the city. “Years ago, the Bay Route was the most traveled road in Barreen. Traffic was horrible. But it was the easiest way to get across town.”
“You mean everyone doesn’t fly around in aircars or skiffs?”
Tim laughed. “Are you kidding? The way some people drive, I’d be terrified if they flew. No, most people drive ground cars, but even those are becoming scarce.”
“Oh?” John asked.
“No one wants to be a target. If you haven’t noticed, Barreen isn’t exactly the safest place.”
Tim nodded to the bridge. “Used to be mainly for commuting from Old Town to Bay Town. ‘Course that was back when people used to live in Old Town. Now-a-days, it’s used for supply shipments and whatnot coming in from the farms on the outskirts.”
“How long has it been?” John asked.
“What? Since people have actually lived in Old Town and it wasn’t just a bunch of junkies squatting?”
“Long time. Hell, Old Town has been dying a slow death since before the war. The big migration happened probably twenty years ago. Mid Town is where most people call home now, even though it doesn’t look it.”
“And Bay Town?”
Tim sniffed and lifted his chin.
“That bad huh?”
“It’s not that,” he paused, and looked up at the blue sky around them, seemingly searching for the right words. “It’s that they live in their own little bubble down there, like it’s a completely different world there than it is out here. Hell, I doubt they have any idea what goes on out here, beyond the safety and security of their precious Core. They don’t care that the Regency is slowly chipping away at everything that makes them human. The illusion of freedom and choice is all they really have.”
John nodded and turned his gaze back across the city. He had trouble coming to grips with the size of the city. More than that, he couldn’t believe the amount of space that went unused, simply abandoned and left to rot. The city expanded in front of them, the buildings growing taller and more elaborate as they neared the bay. He didn’t doubt the accuracy of Tim’s statement, remembering his own lack of knowledge about world events before joining the military.
After a several minutes of silent flying, John noticed an increase in traffic, both in the air and on the ground.
Below, John made out the forms of people, moving along the streets, living out their lives, seemingly obviously to the military patrols around them.
Tim pointed out two military patrol cutters off to their left, long, flat-topped barges with open decks, both cruising above wide streets and large clusters of apartments and warehouses. Uniformed soldiers stood watch at various points along the sides of the aircraft from the bow all the way to the stern, keeping constant vigil citizens below.
“Not very often you see two cutters in such a tight formation,” Carter said from the back. “Especially this far out from the Bay.”
“Most of them keep to the inner parts closer to the Core,” Tim explained. “Every now and then a patrol might venture out this far, but only when expressly ordered to.”
“They don’t patrol Old Town?” John asked, watching as a frigate, about three times larger than their skiff, lifted up from between two warehouses, hovered for a second, and then sped away.
Tim shook his head. “They have their hands full as it is. Besides, the only thing they have to worry about in Old Town is Dusters and scavengers, and the Snatchers usually take care of those.”
“Two more patrols to the right,” Bella said.
Tim glanced sidelong in the direction his sister indicated and said, “Bastards really are everywhere.”
John worked his jaw and stared at his hands. It was his fault all this was happening, even though he really didn’t have any idea what was actually going on. A pang of guilt came over him. It was irrational, he knew. There wasn’t anything he could do to change the situation, but knowing he caused it made him wish he could.
From the back, Wendy said, “How are we looking?”
Tim adjusted their flight path slightly and said, “Well, either they have no idea we’re here or they’re playing it cool and waiting to see where we end up. I haven’t been able to pick up any tracer bots or scans, so I’d say we’re in the clear. We should be at the clinic in,” he checked the console’s clock in front of him, “about five minutes.”
True to his word, a few minutes later Tim guided the skiff between two long, tan brick buildings. Both ran the length of a block and stood four stories. He eased the skiff down onto the concrete between them and the landing struts hissed under the skiff’s weight. Wendy and Tom pulled the doors wide, and were out before Tim had the turbines completely shut down.
Bella poked her head into the cockpit as John pulled his harness free. “You coming?”
“Do I have a choice?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Come on.”
John raised an eyebrow at her brother, who said, “I’ll keep the lights on for you.”
John climbed out after Bella and they followed Wendy and Tom to one of the buildings, down a short staircase, and through heavy metal door. A short, dimly lit hallway brought them to a set of double doors, which Bella held open so John could pass through. Her usual smile had been replaced by the first serious look John had seen on her face.
“What is this place?” John asked, his voice almost a whisper.
Bella held a finger to her lips and motioned for him to follow. They stepped into what he first thought was a large warehouse, then, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realized it wasn’t a warehouse at all. It was a hospital.
Several rows of beds filled the cavernous space, surrounded by small monitors and stands holding IV bags. Only a few lights hung above the beds. What light they shone was muted by opaque coverings. A solemn quietness hung in the air, like that of an ICU ward or funeral parlor.
Looking over the rows of beds, John did some quick math and figured there must have been around 200 people being cared for here. He only saw a hand full of nurses making their rounds, checking displays and charts, and was again surprised that the similarities between their two worlds.
Bella whispered, “It’s a Dust clinic. All these patients are in various stages of recovery.”
Quietly, John followed Bella farther in, stopping a few feet behind Wendy and Tom, who were already speaking with a woman sitting at a desk in the front of the room. Flickers of light from the monitors in front of her reflected off her glasses.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” the woman told Wendy. Her auburn hair, pulled back into a tight ponytail, seemed to pull the skin of her face tight as well. Dark circles under her eyes matched the tiredness the sunken eyes exuded.
Wendy stood, hands tucked into her jacket pockets, looking over the beds beyond. “How’s she doing?”
“She’s okay,” the nurse answered, though tone said otherwise. “She opened her eyes the other day when Sonya checked on her.”
“How’d they look?”
Wendy nodded silently for a minute, then said, “I won’t bother her too much.”
The nurse gave her a half-hearted smile. “You don’t ever bother her.”
Wendy and Tom stepped around the desk and started to make their way down the far right row. John moved to follow, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Give her a minute,” Bella said softly.
“Who is it?”
“It’s her mother.”
Wendy and Tom stopped halfway down the row, slightly more than shadow themselves, and took up positions on either side of a bed near the wall.
“She hasn’t been here in months,” the nurse, said looking back over her shoulder. “It’s not like her to show up like this.”
“We’re leaving.” Bella said, adjusting one of her hair ties.
The nurse did not seem surprised by this, but raised her eyebrows when she noticed John. She eyed him for a moment, then gave him a flirting grin.
“Who’s the new edition?”
Bella sidestepped, mirroring the nurse’s grin as she introduced him. John, who, for the most part, interacted with women better than most, couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so uncomfortable. The nurse practically undressed him with her eyes; he almost moved his hands to cover himself.
He remembered something his friend, Mark Keen, had said once, while they enjoyed a particularly warm day on the beaches of Spain. Most of the afternoon had been spent emptying a cooler full of beer and watching the Spanish girls walk up and down the beach. Mark commented on the catcalls coming from some enlisted men, as a group of young ladies made their way across the warm sand. “An eye-raping like you’ve never seen,” he’d said. John had spit half of his beer all over himself.
“I see,” the nurse said, cocking her head to the side. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you John.” She held out her hand, and John made an effort to grab it as lightly and as quickly as he could.
In an effort to change the subject, John said the first thing that came into his mind, “So, do people spend all day in bed here?”
He immediately regretted it, both because it was a silly thing to ask, and he’d wanted to steer the conversation away from anything remotely sexual, not turn straight into it.
The nurse was about to say something, but paused and frowned. She gave Bella a confused look, obviously expecting the younger woman to explain.
“First time inside a clinic,” Bella said, “He’s never seen an OD before.”
The nurse looked back to John. “How?”
John shook his head, not wanting to go through it all over again. “It’s a long story.”
“It’s true,” Bella said with a shrug. “Do you have time to show him the eyes? We tried to explain it to him, but . . . ”
“You really haven’t ever seen it before have you?” The nurse sounded truly surprised, but she didn’t pry.
She checked one of the monitors in front of her and said, “Come on.”
She stood and motioned for them to follow. As John passed the desk, he glanced at the displays. Four side-by-side screens displayed vital signs for what appeared to be every person in a bed. Heart rates, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and even with only having minimal military first aid training, knew the readouts were extremely detailed.
They moved down one of the rows near the center of the room and stopped at the tenth bed. The nurse moved around to the bedside display and checked the readout.
An old man lay on his back, covered by an old, worn blanket. Despite the blanket, it was obvious the man was nothing but skin and bones, with almost no muscle or fat to speak of. Several long strands of white hair sprouted out from his pale scalp, but most had fallen out. Vacant eyes starred uncaring into the darkness above him. Were it not for the man’s vitals displayed on the monitor next to the bed, John would have thought he was dead.
The nurse spoke in hushed tones. “Gerald has been her for almost five years,” the nurse explained in a hushed tone. “He’s finally starting to show improvement.”
“Improvement?” John said, a little too loud. Both Bella and the nurse shushed him. He looked over the man laying in the bed again like he’d missed something. But no, it was still the same shell of a man, who looked like he’d be knocking on death’s door any day now.
He whispered, “No offense, but this man looks like he can go any time now.”
“One cannot judge the health of the man by his outward appearance,” the nurse said, giving him an indignant look. “The mind governs the body. That is where the real damage is. We must fix the mind, cleanse it of all the toxins which have invaded it, and once the mind is repaired, the body will follow.”
“But he’s wasting away here.” John motioned to the man, like they hadn’t been talking about something completely different.
She kept her voice level and matter-of-fact. “Gerald, like everyone else here, is kept on a constant supply of nutrients and supplements, fed intravenously, and on a strict schedule. They are all kept in a semi-comatose state and monitored twenty-four hours a day. I assure you, they are all alive and well.”
Alive maybe, definitely not well.
Just the thought of lying in a bed for untold years, looking at the same ceiling day after day made him cringe. How could these people think this was even a humane way to treat someone? The entire thing seemed medieval. He was surprised there weren’t masked men with gigantic battle-axes walking through the rows, loping off people’s heads, as they were deemed unworthy. This wasn’t a hospital; it was a storage center for vegetables.
“How long do you keep them like this?” John asked.
The nurse ran a hand over Gerald’s forehead, as a mother tenderly caresses her child. “As long as is needed.”
A hand touched John’s arm.
Bella gave him a sympathetic smile and said, “The eye’s John. It’s the eyes that matter.”
He leaned over and looked into Gerald’s empty eyes. His pupils were constricted, surrounded by brightly colored, golden irises. Small particles floated around the iris, like leaves on the surface of a pond, sparkling as they twisted and turned.
“You wanted to know what we were fighting for,” Bella said. “This is it. This is what Dust does to a person. Hell, these are the lucky ones. Most just die, slow and agonizing deaths.”
She gazed at the hundreds of beds around them. “This is where most end up, and most of the ones who make it this far, never leave.”
John didn’t understand. How could people just stand by and watch things like this happen? But then, he knew why. It’s human nature. If something doesn’t directly affect someone, then it doesn’t really exist. It can be ignored and eventually forgotten all together.
People only believe what they want to believe.
“Why keep them hidden away?”
“Because, no one wants to see this,” Bella said, a hint of disgust in her voice. “No one wants to know these places exist. They don’t blend well with their comfortable lives. Well, as comfortable as living under the boot of the Regency can be.”
“Not even to help save these people?”
“You don’t get it, John. To most everyone, these people are already dead. People in the Core, even Midtown, won’t waste their time on these junkies.”
“But you guys care,” John said, “and if you do, there could be more.”
“Maybe,” Bella said, obviously not moved by his thoughts. “But there is another reason we keep this place hidden.”
“What else? The Regency.”
The nurse interjected, “There used to be hundreds of these clinics back when people still thought they could make a difference, but it was a different time back then. Back before people started disappearing.”
“The Snatchers?” John asked.
The nurse nodded. “The disappearances started slowly enough, but soon they reached three, sometimes five a day. After about a year entire enclaves started to go missing, gone without a trace. One clinic along the outskirts disappeared completely, over a hundred people never heard from again. That’s when everything started going underground. What you see here is one of the last functional clinics on Nevaris.”
The man lying on the bed wheezed as he inhaled a deep breath and made what could only be described as a moan, even though the sound itself was barely audible. He turned his head to look at John. A chill ran down his spine and gooseflesh prickled his arms. The man stared at him, his bright gold-flecked eyes appeared blank and unfocused, and yet, seemed determined to tell him something.
“Come,” the nurse said. “He needs rest.”
As they made their way back to the nurse’s station, an unexpected anger boiled deep inside him. He turned and gazed over the rows and rows of helpless patients and saw Wendy kneeling beside the bed.
“What’s her name?” John asked.
Bella followed his gaze and after a moment said, “Mary.”
“Do you think she’ll ever make it out of here?”
When she didn’t respond right away, John turned expectantly. Bella frowned and reluctantly shook her head.
A strong sense of foreboding hung over the skiff as they lifted away from the clinic, and for a time, no one spoke. John again felt an irrational sense of guilt about the whole situation, even though he had no way of knowing anything about this world. As long as he could remember, the story of Neverland and Peter Pan and Captain Hook had been a happy story, filled with fun and excitement. A world where a pinch of fairy dust and happy thoughts allowed you to take flight and soar through the clouds. But in this world, there were no happy thoughts, and the world was anything but fun and exciting.
Glare from the mid-morning sun refracted through the windshield and John turned to shield his eyes. Behind him, in the rear compartment, Wendy sat silently, staring out the window.
John leaned closer to Tim and asked in a hushed tone, “How long has she been like that?”
Tim glanced over his shoulder. “Who? Wendy?”
John shook his head, “No, her mother.”
“A long time. Their family’s been through a lot, and after Maggs went back, well,” Tim sighed. “We’ve tried talking to her about it, but it’s no use. She refused to talk about it.”
He held a finger to his lips.
“Oh, not to worry,” John said, tapping his temple. “I’m a vault.”
They flew in silence, following the elevated highway as it snaked its way back through the city. John convinced Tim to let him take controls. Focused calm come over him as he took over.
Tim adjusted himself in the seat and said, “Do you have cities like this back on Earth?”
John nodded. “Some two or three times this size. But most are overflowing with people. That’s why it’s so hard for me to get used to so much unused space. Overpopulation is one of the major trends in the Contested Zones.”
Tom lifted an eyebrow. “Contested Zones?”
“Sorry,” John said, “back home almost everything is controlled by global conglomerates, if not by name, by proxy. If it’s not profitable, it’s torn down and made so. On Earth, corporations own whole cities, and everything in those cities is set up to make money.”
“How many cities are there?”
“Hundreds. Hell, probably thousands. I have no idea. They’re spread all over the world. I bet I’ve only seen maybe ten or fifteen of the major ones, and who knows how many smaller ones.”
John gave him a sidelong glance. “Why do you say that?”
Tim shrugged. “Well, unless you count the farming and fishing villages on the outskirts, Barreen is the only city on Nevaris.”
“You’re kidding?” John said, finding it hard to reconcile the fact that these people had only ever lived in one place, and that, on an entire world, there was only one metropolitan area. He wondered if he’d ever fully understand the mysteries of this world.
“I’m afraid not,” Tim said, then pointed at something ahead of them. “Take us over the river.”
John banked the skiff in the direction Tim indicated, taking them away from the old highway toward a shallow river. The water was surprisingly clear, John saw multi-colored bedrock beneath the surface. They flew over what had once been a bridge; only four pylons remained, sticking out of the swift flowing water like large grey fingers.
Several dark shapes swam around the pylons and through the rubble that had once been the bridge. Though he couldn’t quite make out what they were, John assumed they were whatever passed for fish in this place. A scene from the movie Hook flashed in his mind and he grinned. He was about to ask about mermaids, when something ahead of them caught his eye.
A massive, ornate building sat alone at the end of a large square. Unlike the abandoned high-tech buildings around, it reminded John of an old courthouse or capitol building from Earth. A row of marble pillars lined the front façade, and even from this distance John picked out the enormous double doors behind them. A wide, concrete stairway led to the long square, the decorative rails on either side were topped with broken statues that might have been people at one point in time.
A faded mosaic covered the square floor, however most of the images had been cracked or destroyed over time. A single pedestal rose from the middle of the plaza, bearing two legs broken off just above the ankles. Two booted feet were all the remained, the rest of the body was nowhere to be seen.
Between the destroyed statue and the stairs sat a row of trucks, parked in a staggered formation. Three large transport trucks, with open beds and bench seating running down both sides, rested in a single-file line. The smaller escort trucks flanked them, two on one side, one on the other, each with a turret-mounted gun on the back. Several soldiers milled around. Some leaned against the vehicles while others sat on benches several feet away. One sat in the cab of one of the transports, legs hanging out, smoking. Another group was making their was way down the stairway toward the trucks, and as John studied them, he realized the two in the middle were Dusters, escorted by three armed soliders.
“What’s that?” John asked, pointing.
Tim craned his neck to see, then cursed. “Hey guys, check this out. Up ahead.”
A second later Wendy’s head appeared in the hatch between them. It took her a moment to register what they’d seen, then she too cursed. “It doesn’t look like they’ve seen us yet.”
“What the hell are they doing way the hell out here?” Bella asked.
John turned to find her head poking around Wendy’s, her orange pigtails bouncing with the movement of the skiff.
“Crap, crap, crap,” Tim said, scanning the skyline around them.
“What?” John asked, confused.
Before Tim could answer, Wendy retreated in the back and said, “Get us out of here, Tim.”
He already worked the controls. “Right.”
“What are you doing?” It was Tom’s voice this time.
John thought he almost sounded more confused that he was.
Tom continued from the rear cabin. “What are you talking about, Wendy, we can’t just leave.”
“Yes, we can,” Wendy corrected him, “and we’re going to.”
“And pass up an opportunity like this?” Tom argued. “Every opportunity, that’s what you said. Every hit counts.”
After a moment of hesitation Wendy said, “It’s too risky. We’re already too exposed from the little stunt you guys pulled yesterday. We bug out.”
The finality in her voice signalled the argument was over.
The controls moved against John’s grip as Tim took over. The skiff banked right, and John lost sight of the plaza.
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Tom said. “They wouldn’t give us the same courtesy. Every single one of them we get rid of now, is one less we’ll have to deal with when the real fighting starts.”
“That’s not our mission.”
John gave Tim a questioning look. Tim shook his head. Wendy didn’t seem like the person to make up excuses not to fight, especially weak ones. He wondered if their recent visit to the clinic had affected Wendy somehow.
“I don’t know, I have to agree with Tom on this one,” Carter said. “Look, they aren’t expecting a thing. We can take them by complete surprise, they’ll never know what hit him.”
Tim shrugged. “Might have some good intel down there, too.”
“Damn straight,” Bella said, “not to mention, I could use some more target practice with this thing.”
The click of the rack clips fell on John’s ears, and he knew she had pulled out her tribarrel. He’d seen her fire it twice before, but was eager to see it in action again. John had never been a gun-nut, but felt an overwhelming urge to shoot it and wondered how he’d convince Bella to let him.
“Hey, careful,” said Tom.
“Damn it,” Wendy cursed again.
John turned to Tim again. “Regency?”
Tim nodded. “They’re on a collection sweep. The official line is that the sweeps are meant to ensure the safety of the general public from an undesirable element. Old Town is littered with Duster Enclaves—hundreds of them—and when they get too close to the Core, the Regency will swoop in a clear them out. It’s happened a lot more recently.”
“What do they do with them?”
“Don’t know. No one asks, and they don’t tell.”
“So much for civil rights, eh?”
“Strange thing about the Regency, civil rights aren’t high on their list of priorities, if you haven’t noticed.”
John sniffed and nodded. He understood all too well what powers like that meant to the common people, and he cursed himself for having been a part of it.
Wendy appeared between them again. “How many?”
“Sorry?” John asked.
“Soldiers. How many were there?”
John replayed the scene from memory and said, “Twelve, maybe sixteen.”
Wendy shook her head slowly, closed her eyes, and sighed. “For shit’s sake.”
Tim grinned at John, who raised an eyebrow in return.
After a long moment, Wendy said, “All right, let’s make this quick.”
Pan took in a deep breath of cool, crisp air, held it in for a few seconds, then slowly let it out. Clean and fresh. The air invigorated him. He stood in the shadow of the massive starboard sunsail, which had been folded to allow the large transport barge to come alongside the Revenge. His hands rested on the gunwale in front of him as he watched the next tug in line moved toward the expansive cargo deck of the barge and deposited its load in the assigned position.
Two more transfer tugs waited in queue just off the Revenge’s bow, standing by to deliver their cargo to the waiting barge. Pan silently cursed to himself, repeating the same one he’d recited for probably the tenth time. When all was said and done, the barge would ship out filled to just under half its capacity, not even a quarter of the expected haul.
It almost wasn’t worth the effort.
He glanced up as two of the security escorts flew overhead, and watched as they made a wide arc around the Revenge and unarmed transport barge. Four additional skiffs had been transferred from the nearest surface garrison and added to the convoy, along with two frigates. He’d ordered the larger, less maneuverable frigates loaded down with all the firepower they could carry; enough to repel any possible attack. He wasn’t taking any chances.
The attack on the Skyward Garrison had proven to the Regent Commander they had become complacent, had taken too much for granted, and it had cost them dearly. A sour taste filled his mouth at the thought of Wendy and her Lost Boys destroying everything he and the captain had worked so hard to achieve. He only hoped that they would have enough to complete the project.
His gaze went to the barge, then to the hazy city below. His chest tightened, and his lips curled in a hateful sneer.
Damn fools, he thought, they have ruined this great city.
Pan could not understand their incessant need to wage a pointless war against them. Neverland had never been in better hands. How could they not see that? Would they rather the Graft return and plunge their world into darkness again?
“Excuse me, Commander.”
Pan turned to Major Starkey, standing with his hands behind his back, just outside the door to the bridge behind him. Pix scanned the man for any threats as Pan casually inspected the Major’s immaculate uniform. Everything about the man exuded professionalism and attention to detail, a fact some officers lacked. Despite his failure to stop the attack on the Refinery the day before, his service record was nothing short of exemplary, and unlike the captain, Pan was a forgiving commander.
“What is it, Major?”
Starkey stepped away from the bridge hatch, revealing another officer standing in the hatchway. “Sir, there has been a very interesting development in the matter concerning the Othersider.”
Pix shot forward and scanned the second man. The stripes on his sleeve identified him as a First Lieutenant, and the shield on his left chest displaying a stylized planet in the grip of a hand indicated the officer was a member of the Regency’s Counter-Intelligence Division. Almost immediately, the Lieutenant’s name, Alfred Grenald, appeared in Pan’s visual feed from Pix.
The presence of CID increased the level of Pan’s interest, from mildly curious to focused anticipation. Over the past several hours, his operators had vetted over a dozen leads in response to his security dispatch. All had led to dead ends if they had led anywhere at all. Fortunately, the news of the punishments being handed down for those erroneous reports had spread quickly and the flood of bad information dwindled to a trickle.
His command staff was capable and efficient, something Pan could not say of all the Regency departments. With the amount of resources available to them, he found it extremely frustrating to have to rely on simple freelance agents. Despite the wide net they could cast by using freelancers, they were, sadly, unreliable.
Lieutenant Grenald stepped forward to stand even with the Major then saluted. His black uniform tunic adorned with several medals and devices Pan paid little attention too. Recognition was for the weak. The decorated uniform did, however, tell Pan that the officer knew his business, and that was all Pan was interested in.
“Sir, this is Lieutenant Grenald, Control Officer for the Eastern Sectors. He runs a number of, shall we say, freelance operators throughout his area of responsibility,” the Major said.
Pan nodded for him to continue.
“Lieutenant Grenald has been running down several leads for us concerning our security dispatch. He contacted me this morning with information from one of his operators he believes to be credible. After personally reviewing the information with him, I have to agree with his assessment.”
The fact that Starkey endorsed the information before revealing what that information was, spoke volumes about the man. The Major’s willingness to stand behind his subordinates was, again, something that most other officer’s lacked. He obviously had a good reason to believe the authenticity of the information, and Pan was intrigued to learn why.
“What have you discovered?” Pan asked.
Grenald glanced briefly at Starkey, probably making a silent confirmation that he was supposed to address Pan directly, and after the Major nodded, he spoke.
“Firstly, Commander Pan, it is a great honor to meet you, sir. I never imagined that I would ever meet you, much less be reporting to you on an issue this sensitive.”
Pan nodded silently, having never been one to enjoy flattery, but he sympathized with the young officer. This encounter would most likely be the highlight of his career, no doubt. If the information was as good as Starkey obviously trusted it was, the results of this meeting would push him up through the ranks quickly.
Grenald continued, “As Major Starkey stated before, my office has been running down leads on your dispatch non-stop all night. All have been dead ends, until this morning. I have to say, however, that I was skeptical at first; the information just seemed too good to be true. My team and I spent several hours ensuring the accuracy of the information. As far as I can tell, everything we learned appears to check out.”
Starkey grunted. “I would hope so.”
Pan ignored the remark, even if the Major accepted the information as accurate, it was his duty to consider all information presented to his commander with just the right amount of cynicism. Especially in said commander’s presence.
Pix, who’d been floating around the trio of officers, picked up movement beyond the tall bridge door and moved to investigate. No one but Pan noticed, and several milliseconds later the little bot relayed the information to Pan.
Two other figures stood within the shadows, in front of a third who seemed to be bound to a counter-grav chair. A hood covered the seated figure’s head, and if it hadn’t been for the faint vital signs Pix registered, Pan would have thought the person was dead.
“And who are these . . . ” Pan paused, taking a moment to choose just the right words, “guests you’ve brought with you, Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant frowned. He glanced at the Major, then back to Pan.
“I…uh…sir, these,” he twisted back to the bridge hatch, motioned for the unseen parties to step forward, then continued, “are the agents who brought me the information.”
Grenald stepped to the side, allowing his commander to view the new arrivals even though Pan already had a much clearer picture of the two agents than any of them would ever know. He kept his distaste hidden as the man and woman stepped forward. The counter-grav chair slid silently through the air behind them.
The woman wore a tight-fitting, dark grey shirt and matching pants. The holster on her hip was empty, however Pix registered a small dagger strapped to the small of her back. Pan noted the weapon, then paid it no more attention, making a mental note to reprimand his security personnel before the day was out.
The man was unarmed and wore a long black coat, buttoned up the front. Of the two of them, he seemed the most nervous, and Pan wondered why. Then again, he conceded that being brought before the Regent Commander would probably make anyone a little nervous.
Grenald said, “Sir, allow me to introduce Calsi Diehm and Len Lorne. Both freelance agents in my operational intelligence network.”
The man offered his hand. “Commander Pantiri, it’s an honor to meet you.”
Pan had no desire to shake the man’s hand, and made no move to do so. A few uncomfortable seconds passed until Lorne realized Pan truly wasn’t going to shake his hand then with drew it and straightened.
Grenald cleared his throat in an attempted to interrupt the awkwardness. “Ms. Deihm came into some information last night we believe to be of upmost importance to the security of the Regency.”
Pan motioned impatiently for him to continue, irritated that he had to prompt the information out of him. What he wouldn’t give for every one of his officers to be as clear and concise as Starkey. He wondered how long the Major would allow the man to keep fumbling his way through the briefing, until he simply took over.
Almost as if he had read Pan’s mind, Starkey said, “Perhaps, we might allow Mr. Deihm to share the information directly, Lieutenant.”
Pan watched the air leave the young officer’s sails even before Starkey finished speaking. He imagined the young intelligence officer felt a combination of relief and embarrassment; however, he quickly composed himself, hiding any sign of discomfort.
“Of course, sir.” Grenald said.
The woman fidgeted with her hands, as if she didn’t know what to do with them, finally deciding her pockets were the best place for them. Despite her apparent nervousness, her voice was calm and confident.
“Commander Pantiri, I’d first like to thank you for the opportunity,” Calsi started. “Any chance to further the Regency’s mission is one I take on with pride and honor. As Major Starkey and Lieutenant Grenald already stated, a lead on the Othersider mentioned in the security dispatch did, in fact, cross my path.
“But,” she motioned to the figured in the counter-grav chair. “I think you’ll agree, that what I found is much more than just a simple piece of the puzzle.”
Pan listened to the agent’s story, and as she spoke, his pulse quickened. It took everything he had to remain passive. His heart pounded with anticipation, the thought of finally putting an end to the insurgency overwhelmed every other thought in his mind. The name, Wendy, echoed and blared in his mind.
He could not remember exactly how long he had been hunting them, but Wendy and the Lost Boys had been a thorn in his side for far too long. As the captain constantly reminded him, they’d been fighting this war since before Pan could remember. But even with the seemingly unquestionably validity of the information, he refused to allow himself any elation. Only when he crushed that bitch’s skull with his boot would he allow himself rest.
When Calsi finished, Pan took several moments to compose his thoughts, not wanting to give anything away. With this information he would finally crush Lost Boys and rid Nevaris of their stain for good.
Finally, Pan said, “You have done well, Ms. Diehm. You have done the Regency a great service by bringing this information to us during this desperate time. Not to mention, the gift you saw fit to bring with you.”
He motioned to Oak’s bound and hooded body still secured to the chair. “I am truly grateful.”
Calsi lifted her chin. “Of course, Commander, anything for the honor of the Regency. I only wish that I could have brought you more.”
“The only other thing you could have brought me would have been the head of my enemy, Ms. Diehm, and I fear that even for a woman of your obvious talents, that feat would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. Nonetheless, your efforts will be rewarded.”
Pan turned to the Major.
“Major Starkey, would you please ensure that our guests are given appropriate accommodations and see to it that they want for nothing.”
“Of course, sir,” The Major answered, then turned to Grenald. “Lieutenant.”
Fortunately, the Lieutenant either understood what was expected of him, or simply wanted to get away as soon as he could. He saluted smartly then said, “Aye, sir.”
He turned on his heel and motioned for the two freelancers to follow.
When they disappeared through the bridge hatch, Pan said, “Recall our forces, Major. Everything we have. I want to move on their base within the hour.”
The Major stepped close and spoke just loud enough for Pan to hear. “Do you think it is wise to focus all our attention on this one piece of information without first vetting it? I mean, I’m sure that these freelancers aren’t foolish enough to bring us erroneous information, but would you permit me to send a recon team to at least verify that the enemy is where they say?”
Pan touched a finger to his temple, silently cursing the pain and its horrible timing. He took his last dose and returned the injector to his pocket. He could not discount the Major’s line of reasoning, but at the same time refused to believe the information to not be true.
A junior officer appeared through the bridge hatch, saluted and handed Major Starkey a slip of paper. Starkey read it and visibly tensed. The feed from Pix told Pan that the man’s blood pressure had jumped and his pulse quickened.
“Thank you, Mister Preble,” Starkey said and the officer disappeared through the hatch without another word.
“What is it, Major?”
“Another attack on one of our apprehension units, Sir. A team along the Old Town/MidTown border reports they are under attack by a small group of insurgents. Sector Security has dispatched two units to reinforce.”
The Major shook his head, obviously frustrated. “We’ve been suffering these random attacks for about a week now. Usually it’s nothing but untrained militia. Most of the attacks we have easily fended off, but it appears this particular group is well equipped. Honestly, I don’t understand what they think they can possibly hope to achieve by attacking us, they have to know our resources are next to unlimited, whereas theirs are not.”
The fact that these attacks happened at all was unsettling, to say the least. However, the fact that they’d been occurring for a week and this was the first he’d heard of them, upset him even more. Even with his overwhelming hate for the Lost Boys, he did not think they would be so foolish as to stretch themselves so thin at a time like this.
If the attacks truly were random, however, the people of Barreen desperately needed a reminder of the Regency’s power and might, and who protected them from the wilds of Nevaris. The captain’s justice would be swift, and it would be total.
“You have the coordinates for the compound?”
“Lay in a course, Major, and dispatch additional units to assist our collection unit. Before this day is done, the damned Lost Boys will be nothing more than a forgotten memory.”
“Keep the engines purring, would ya,” Tim said, climbing out of his seat and back into the rear cabin of the skiff.
John unclipped his harness and twisted to examine the smoldering wreckage twenty yards away. “No problem.”
Pillars of black smoke rose from the destroyed Regency vehicles, and the stench of burning metal and rubber filled the air. From his position in the skiff, he could see two of the fourteen Regency soldiers sprawled out on the mosaic plaza floor, pools of dark red blood gathering underneath each. One of them had nearly been blown in half by the skiff’s autocannons.
After blowing up two of the escort vehicles and gunning down four of the guards on their initial attack run, Tim brought the skiff down fast and hard, touching down just long enough for everyone in the back to bail out before lifting back up into the air. With John in control of the skiff’s weapons, they took out the last escort truck, and not wanting to harm anyone inside the transports, left them for the team on the ground.
The others moved in quickly and took down the remaining troops with mild resistance, Wendy and Carter moved in from the north while Tom and Bella came in from the east, pinning the Regency soldiers into a lethal kill-box. A few managed to find cover long enough to fire, moving tactically back along the row of smoldering trucks. Previously detained Dusters fled as soon as the fighting began, three were mowed down by a soldier firing an automatic heavy rifle before Tom got a bead on him and shot him square in the chest.
The battle didn’t last long and it was painfully obvious that the Regency Troops had nowhere near the level of training as military infantry back home. It was almost as if they had been recruited, given a uniform and gun, and told, “Go forth and conquer.”
They made fast work of searching the dead Regency troops. Which was only a little morbid, John thought. He had to keep reminding himself this world was very different from his own, with a completely different way of life. He wondered how the people in the Core lived, and if they were as oblivious to the savage nature of the outside world as most people were on Earth. Before he’d joined the military he hadn’t had a clue about the real world, now he wished he still didn’t.
“Here, help me out would you?” Wendy asked as she stepped up to the skiff. She pulled a small, grey trunk behind her, leaving a trail in the dirt behind it.
“Yeah, sure,” John said, hopping down. He moved around to the opposite side and grabbed the handle. “Find anything useful?”
“Everything is useful,” Wendy said, then counted to three, and they both heaved the heavy crate into the back of the skiff. “Looks like they were transporting ammunition stores to the outer garrisons.
She pushed the container farther into the compartment.
“How many garrisons are there?” John asked, rubbing his hands together.
“Six total,” Wendy said. “Three outer stations scattered through Old Town, but they are only for show, and aren’t fully staffed. If we really wanted to, we could take one out easily with just our group, but there isn’t a reason to bring that much attention to ourselves. The two in Midtown are fairly well staffed, and of course, Regent Headquarters is right smack in the middle of Bay Town.”
Bella appeared next to them, arms full of weapons taken from the dead soldiers. “Hey, a little help, please.”
“Here,” John said and moved to take two off the top of the stack. He slid them across the metal floor of the skiff’s deck, then took the next two and repeated the process.
Bella clapped her hands together, dusting them off. She grinned and nodded behind her, toward the carnage of burning, twisted metal. “Thanks. I’ll be back with another load in a minute, don’t want to leave anything for them to use against us later.”
“Good plan,” John said. “Need help?”
As John turned to follow Bella, the skiff’s radio cackled and came to life. The transmission was garbled and filled with static, but there was no doubt about the message’s content.
Michael’s voice was frantic.
“Wendy, are you there? The Compound is under attack! I repeat, the Compound is under attack. Several Regency squadrons are in-bound. Shit . . . ” there was a paused and the sound of muffled gunfire came through.
Wendy jumped into the cabin then snatched the handset from its cradle on the back wall. “Michael, are you there? What’s going on?”
All three of them exchanged looks as static and more gunfire came through the speakers.
“Michael!” Wendy shouted, looking at the speaker in the corner as if she could see what happened through it.
“Shit, I gotta get my gun!” Bella cursed, then sprinted toward the destroyed convoy.
Wendy turned and seemed like she was about to protest when Michael’s voice came through the speaker again. His words interrupted by heavy breathing. “Don’t know how they found—”
“What? Damn it, Michael, are you all—”
The roar of engines cut her off as a pair of attack skiffs tore through the sky above them. They looked up in time to see four autocannons open fire.
“Get down!” John shouted as the ground in front of their skiff erupted in tall plumes of dust. John dove for cover, landing hard and rolling underneath the skiff’s belly. He watched as a long trail of eruptions snaked toward the remnants of the Regency convoy.
Heavy rounds chewed into the first transport, and a second later, it erupted into a massive fireball. The heat from the explosion wash over John as he got to his knees. Twisted metal and debris rained around them, blanketing the plaza in tiny pieces of burning wreckage.
A high-pitched ringing filled his ears, turning everything else into a dull echo. Two shadows darted across the ground in front of him at full speed. They disappeared over the top of the old courthouse building, and John knew they didn’t have much time.
He climbed to his feet and desperately tried to find his companions. Tom and Carter scrambled to their feet near the lead escort vehicle, apparently after being knocked to the ground by the explosion. Heat waves from the fires distorted his vision, but they were okay, alive at least.
Bella darted through the wreckage, moving fast. She disappeared briefly behind the last transport, then appeared again, holding the tribarrel up ready to fire. She shouted something at Tom and Carter, but John had no way of knowing what it was and the two men didn’t seem to hear either.
John caught movement out the corner of his eye and turned to see Wendy shouting, but he couldn’t hear her.
Pointing to his ears, John said, “Can’t hear!”
Wendy leaned forward, inches from his ear and shouted, “Get the skiff airborne!”
“Right!” John shouted, his own voice a dull echo.
More cannon fire blared behind them as John pulled himself up and climbed into the cockpit. He dropped into the right-hand seat and began punching commands with one hand while simultaneously securing the straps of his harness with the other.
Fortunately, the engines had been left in standby mode, and took a second to sync and calibrate. He reached to push the throttle forward but stopped when he saw Bella dart from the front transport, running at full speed parallel to the large ornate building. After twenty feet, she slid to a stop, spun and brought the tribarrel up. A second later, the first attack skiff shot from over the courthouse. Bella fired.
Blinding bands of brilliant blue and orange energy shot through the air and streaked past the skiff, barely missing her target. The skiff pitched and raced away while the second came in for another attack.
“Goddamn it!” Wendy cursed. “Get us airborne, now!”
John glanced his shoulder to find Wendy trying to strap herself into one of the seats on the rear bulkhead. “What about—”
Another explosion rocked the skiff hard enough John grunted as his body jerked against the restraints. Wendy screamed behind him, followed by a smacking against the deck. He craned his neck as Wendy pushed herself up, blood running from her nose.
“Hold on,” John said, unclipping the harness, “I got you.”
Wendy coughed and spit blood. “No, stop. I’m okay.”
John ignored her, but just as he pulled himself out of his seat to help her, another figure jumped into the cabin beside her.
“Come on, get up,” Tim said, grabbing Wendy’s arm and pulling her to her feet. He glanced at John as Wendy stumbled into a seat. “Where are the others?”
Before John could answer, several loud twangs reverberated through the cabin as bullets punched through the skiff. The window panels on the right side exploded inward, blowing glass shards everywhere. Tim lunged forward, wrapping his body protectively around Wendy.
“Damn it, John, get us out of here!” Wendy screamed, poking her head around Tim’s torso.
“Shit!” John twisted around, dropped into the seat, and pulled the harness around him again. “I’m really fucking done with the adventure now.”
He threw the throttle forward, pulled back on the controls, and the skiff lifted off the ground with a roar, kicking up a massive cloud of dust.
John scanned for the skiffs, but from his position could not find them. Where the hell does she expect me to go?
Tim pulled himself into the cockpit then slid into the seat next to him. He slapped the weapons control as he sat, and pulled the straps around him as the computer came to life. “Come on, find me a target.”
At that moment, everything around John McNeal slowed, and he knew what he needed to do. He was home. Chaos turned to orchestrated grace as his hands worked the controls, and everything seemed to fall into place. All the uncertainty of being in this alien world left him. He let himself become a part of the aircraft, focusing every muscle fiber into what he had to do.
This was his business, and business was good.
He twisted the throttle then the skiff shot forward, climbing away from the square. The targeting computer Tim activated flashed, and two targets blinked into existence. Small red triangles on a black display in front of him blinked and targeting solutions scrolled beside them. Automatically, he assigned both a numerical value; the one to the right became Bogey One and the other, approaching the left, became Bogey Two.
“Okay,” John said, turning hard to the right. “Don’t miss.”
The Regency skiff came into view, flying straight for them. John saw flashes from the skiff’s cannons then jerked the controls. Their skiff rolled sideways, g-forces pushing hard against them. The concussions from the autocannon fire below their feet vibrated through the hull as Tim returned fire.
“For future reference,” Tim groaned as John leveled out again. “Could you give a little warning before you do something like that?”
“Sorry,” John replied. “Hang on!”
The skiff rolled back the other way, dodging another barrage from the attacking skiff. As they began their second roll, the targeting computer beeped and flashed red, indicating a lock.
“Shoot!” John shouted through gritted teeth.
The cannons roared again, and ahead of them, one of the attacking skiff’s engines exploded in a blinding fireball. The force of the explosion sent the skiff rolling sideways, flipping end of end through the air.
“Shit yeah!” Tim shouted, punching his fist into the air.
“Nice work,” John said, working the controls, already looking for the remaining target.
They turned toward the courthouse and the smoking Regency convoy. The middle transport exploded, belching flame and debris into the air. Movement near the end of the line caught John’s attention, and he watched as Tom and Carter moved out from the base of the stairs along the white walls of the building. Tom pointed at something ahead of them and Tim gasped.
“Oh, no, no, shit, no!” Tim cried, putting his hand against the inside of the windscreen.
John’s gaze followed and his blood ran cold. Bella lay face down, motionless on the ground, arms stretched out to either side. Her tribarrel lay just out of reach. He cursed to himself and adjusted their flight path so they could get a better view. From their altitude it was impossible to make out if she was breathing or not, but John was sure the dark spot underneath her was blood.
Wendy’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Guys, loo—”
Cannon fire pelted their skiff. Metal twangs reverberated around them and countless rounds whizzed by just outside the cockpit’s windscreen. The controls bucked against him as the skiff reacted to the impacts.
“Hang on,” John said through gritted teeth, struggling to keep the skiff from rolling out of control.
Hang together, baby. Please, hang together.
Tim pressed his face to the side windscreen, searching behind them. “He’s right on our tail! High over our left side.”
The controls fought him, and John cursed them for it. “Come on, damn it!”
“He’s angling back on us!” Tim shouted. “Incoming!”
John shouted and used all his strength to force the skiff into a turn, the controls bucking wildly in his iron grip. They finally gave, and the skiff turned over in a roll, away from the incoming barrage. They rolled twice before leveling out, then he slammed the throttle forward and dove for the ground. At twenty feet John pulled up and leveled off, then concentrated on the blur of buildings around him.
The red light that was Bogey Two flashed and moved around the display off to his left, making a turn to pursue. They came to an intersection, and John jerked the stick. The skiff rolled sideways and made a tight right hand turn to follow another street.
Tim shouted, but the words meant nothing to John. At that moment, John’s world consisted of the avenue ahead of him and the enemy behind. He needed to break off. Bogey Two closed the gap between them. Holding the same flight line would be fatal.
Buildings ahead of them erupted as autocannon fire chewed through the composite and metal structures around them. John yanked the controls, flipping the skiff on end then pulled the throttle back as they entered a wide intersection. He forced the stick over and groaned against the g-forces as the skiff made a tight turn onto the intersecting avenue.
“Where the hell are you going?” Tim asked, as they straightened out of the sharp turn.
“No idea, anywhere but here,” John answered, scanning the surrounding cityscape for anything that would give him the edge. The pilot behind them was good, but John knew he was better.
Tim twisted around again, checking their tail. “We can’t keep this up forever.”
John shook his head. “Damn it.”
He banked around a tall tree in the center of the road, caught sight of the landscape ahead and immediately had a plan.
Ahead, the massive elevated highway appeared, stretching across a wide river. The street below crossed beneath the split-road structure and continued into the distance.
“Watch it, he’s on us again!” Wendy shouted from the back.
Engines screamed and the controls vibrated in John’s hands as he pushed the craft to its limits. He banked hard, right out over the water and followed the river. The pillars of the highway rushed by in a blur, John’s vision tunneled as he counted.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” Tim asked, “They’re still back there.”
John ignored him, focusing on the pillars to their left. If his plan was going to work, it would take perfect timing.
This might be the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, John.
He nudged the skiff away from the pillars, every muscle in his body fighting to keep his grip firm and easy. Everything around him faded into oblivion as all his senses focused on the only thing that mattered; counting. Somewhere in the distance voices yelled, but couldn’t make out the words.
Proximity alarms blared, adding to the cacophony. Half a mile ahead, the river took a sharp turn and a tall metal-framed high rise stood in their path. John knew they were running out of time, but desperately prayed for more. The cadence in his mind hadn’t changed, the rhythmic counting like a musical masterpiece in his head.
Another alarm sounded and a lock-on warning flashed on his display. Any second, auto-cannon from the skiff behind them would tear them apart. He couldn’t wait any longer. He hoped his count wasn’t off.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four!
“Hold on!” John said through gritted teeth, then slammed the throttle back and twisted both controls left.
The skiff’s engines flipped over, reversing their forward thrust in a matter of seconds, while simultaneously throwing it into a barrel roll. They rolled, end over end, underneath the roadways above and through the gap between two sets of support pillars.
John grunted as inertia threw his body against the harness, the image of an elephant sitting on his chest flashed into his mind. The straps of his harness dug deep into his shoulders, and through sheer force of will, managed to remain conscious and aware of their position. At the last moment, he corrected the skiffs roll and brought them back upright in the thirty-foot separation between to the pillars.
As they rose between the two roadways, Tim let out a painful groan and said, “You’re some kind of crazy shit, aren’t you?”
John glanced over his shoulder and grinned. “Sorry, I—”
“You’re fucking crazy!” Wendy shouted from the cabin behind them.
“Hold on,” He said, still looking over his shoulder. He banked right over the roadway and took them across the water.
“What are you looking at?” Tim asked.
“Hold on, I’ll show you,” John answered, forcing his voice to be steadier than he felt. His hands shook as the adrenaline drained from his system, and he took several calming breaths as he brought the skiff around.
Tim said, “No way.”
John slowed them to a crawl and finally allowed his body to relax. In front of them, smoke rose from burning chunks of what remained of the skiff, embedded in one of the outer support pillars. Several long cracks extended from the impact crater along the surface of the pillar, and as they watched several small pieces of composite dislodged from face and fell to the water below.
Tim let out a low whistle.
“I’ve never seen anyone fly like that,” he said. “How did you know you could do that?”
John hesitated to answer, trying to decide the best way to respond. It had been a huge risk. A gamble he’d taken without really knowing the hardware enough to know if the aircraft could handle the maneuver.
Finally, John said, “I didn’t.”
Tim stuttered, but before he could complete his thought, another alarm sounded and five more red dots, arranged in a diamond formation, appeared on the contact display.
“Oh shit,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.
They approached fast, and despite the insane aerial maneuvers he’d just pulled off, John knew they wouldn’t have a chance against their superior numbers. “There’s no way we can take on that many.”
Wendy stepped into the hatch between them and pointed at the monitor. “We need to get out of here, right now.”
“What about the others?” Tim asked. “Bella, Tom, and Carter are still down there.”
Wendy shook her head. “We can’t fight the entire Regency in one skiff, and there isn’t enough time to pick them up. They’ll be okay. They know what to do.”
John wasn’t convinced. The old adage, ‘Leave no man behind’ rang in his mind.
“We can’t just leave them down there. When the soldiers get here, they’ll be captured or killed. They won’t stand a chance in hell,” John said.
“I don’t want to leave them down there any more than you two, but you said it yourself,” she nodded at John, “there’s no way we can take on that many. Hell, we barely survived two and I’m sure there was a fair amount of luck involved in that.”
“I’m not going to just leave them stranded.” John said, holding his ground.
“We don’t have time for this,” Wendy said, the frustration in her voice building.
“Those soldiers will be here in a matter of minutes, whether we’re in the air or sitting on the ground, and when they get here, they will not hesitate to kill us. We have rules for this type of situation. Everyone knows that. Now,” she turned to Tim, “Get us the hell out of here.”
Tim starred back at Wendy for a long moment, his face a mask of cold, hard resentment.
“I got it,” John said, taking over.
Tim turned away from Wendy and gazed out his window without saying a word.
John maneuvered the skiff away from the smoldering wreckage and muttered, “Rules? Whose bright idea was it to just abandon your teammates? What asshole would make a rule like that?”
Wendy pulled one of the headsets free from its clasp beside her and pulled it down over her head. “I did.”
She punched a code into the computer, waited a beat, then said, “White Bird to Lost Boys, White Bird to Lost Boys: initiate Castaway. Repeat: initiate Castaway.”
She pulled off the headset without waiting for a response and replaced it in the clasp.
“We’ll come back for them,” she said, putting a hand on John’s shoulder.
There were several things he wanted to say, but decided against them all. Reluctantly, he pushed the throttle forward and forced his attention to flying and not ripping Wendy’s head off. He had never left a man behind, not during training, and especially not in the face of the enemy. In his world, leaving a man behind was not even an option; the act itself unimaginable.
“I promise, we will come back for them,” Wendy said, seeming to pick up on his frustration. “They can handle themselves, trust me. Right now, we need to focus on losing them.” She pointed at the approaching red dots.
“If they have any idea who we are, they will stop at nothing to finish us off, and if we managed to get captured . . . ” she trailed off.
“She’s right, John,” Tim said, obviously frustrated. “If Hook ever got his hands—hand, I mean—on her,” he motioned to Wendy, “it would mean the end of everything. I love my brother and my sister very much. More than that, we can’t lose this war, and we need her to win it. We have to get her out of here.”
John worked his jaw back and forth, trying to relive the soreness built up from clenching his teeth together. Regardless of what either of them said, he didn’t agree and made a silent promise that after this was over, he would have a long conversation with Wendy and her damned rules and loyalty to your brothers and sisters in arms.
The skiff lifted up over the highway and John said, “Where to?”
“Just lose ‘em,” Wendy answered. “If we cut through Bay Town we’ll probably be able to lose them in traffic. We can cut across Merchant’s Cove and we should be at the rendezvous point by sundown.”
“And then what?” John asked, pushing the throttle as far as it would go.
Wendy turned back to the passenger compartment and said over her shoulder, “Then we go to war.”
The smell of death and destruction hung thick in the air as Pan stepped over what remained of a wall. His heart pounded with anticipation. In all the years he’d spent being just this close, the thrill of finally putting an end to the war put a smile on his face that he couldn’t wipe away. He decided that even if he could have, he would not.
The expansive bay he stepped into was dark, and had it not been for Pix’s enhanced visual feed, Pan would not have known exactly how big it was. Several craft sat in various locations throughout the space, some destroyed and still burning from the attack.
A squad of soldiers jogged passed, moving to secure some other part of the complex. Pan was proud of his men; their decisive attack had crippled the insurgent’s defensives and left them helpless and vulnerable. Many of them laughed and joked amongst themselves, which was something Pan normally would have frowned upon in the midst of an operation such as this. However, today, he would forgive their lack of bearing. After so many near misses and downright losses, his men deserved their victory, and he was pleased to give it to them.
Pan moved around the wrecked hulk of a skiff—reduced to a pile of twisted, burning metal—and squinted at the temporary floodlights installed by his men. The attack had been quick. The follow up afterword would not be. The task of examining and logging every piece of evidence, ensuring everything was accounted for, would be exhaustive.
Between the lights and work crews, countless fires burned, and pillars of smoke rose through the air and disappeared into the darkness above. Pix counted five disabled or destroyed aircars and three skiffs scattered throughout the expansive hanger; all burning piles of rumble. Eleven bodies had been located so far, all of which Pix scanned, identified, and dismissed; Pan was only interested in one.
Pan reached a corridor at the far end of the hanger and found another body lying face down on the floor. Pix shot forward to identify the body, which was surrounded by several pots and pans, all scattered around the corridor. Dark red blood pooled under the man’s body, and as Pan starred at him, a vague recognition came over him, and he did not understand why.
He leaned to get a better look at the man’s bloody face, knowing he never met the man before, but at the same time, something was familiar about him. Without really understand why, Pan knelt down near the man’s head and studied him for a long moment. The idea that he somehow knew this man plagued him, but no name ever came.
As he was about to stand, he noticed a small pendant poking out from underneath the bulging neck. Pan reached down and pulled it free with a snap. Not much bigger than a chip, one side of the silver pendant displayed the image of a bird in flight, the other an “E”. He slipped it in his pocket and stood.
Behind him, the voice of Master Sergeant Simmons interrupted the quiet solitude of the empty corridor. “Excuse me, sir.”
Without turning, Pan asked, “Have you found her yet?”
The Sergeant hesitated. It only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was there. He said, “No, sir, I’m sorry to say we haven’t. We do have several prisoners, however. None of them are Wendy.”
Pan put his head down, a fact that Simmons seemed to notice.
He said, “There are several rooms and corridors that have yet to be cleared. We will, obviously, continue to sweep until we have verified that the entire compound is secure. I’m confident that if she’s here, we will find her, sir.”
Pan closed his eyes, fighting to keep his rage in check.
Always one step behind, he thought.
He did not understand how such a small group of misfits and degenerates could manage to evade him for so long. She must be laughing at him right now, watching him pick up the pieces that would never lead to her.
“We have found what appears to be their command center,” Simmons added, obviously trying to bolster his commander’s sour mood. “I’ve called in technicians from one of our Midtown garrisons. They should be combing through the data within the hour. With any luck, we’ll be able to glean at least some information on the insurgents and hopefully we’ll be able to track them.”
Doubtful, Pan thought. “The prisoners we do have, are they talking?”
“No, sir. They are in the process of being ferried to Revenge for processing, I—” he paused and looked up at the ceiling.
Pan waited patiently.
After several moments, Simmons nodded and said, “Thank you, Lieutenant. Keep me updated.” He glanced back at Pan. “Report from our counter-assault force from the Midtown raid.”
Pan nodded for the sergeant to continue.
“Initial reports indicate there was indeed a raid on our collection team, and it appears as though our people were completely wiped out. Two transport vehicles and three escort units were destroyed, along with fourteen of our men. Based on the com traffic, it appears that an unregistered skiff managed to take out our first two responding units then broke away before our reinforcements arrived.”
Despite his best efforts, Pan’s temper flared. “Are you telling me that a single skiff managed to not only take out an entire collection unit, but two fully armed attack skiffs on top of that?”
Simmons held Pan’s gaze. “As I said, sir, these are only initial reports. However, that is not all.”
Pan looked at him expectantly.
“Our response force located two individuals attempting to flee the area. After a brief firefight, they were taken into custody and are being transported to the Revenge, under high security, as we speak. A woman and a man.”
Pan took a step forward. “Have they been identified?”
“I do not believe so, sir. From what I understand, the woman is barely in her teens. The response team leader says she has orange hair and she’s quite feisty. Apparently, the man is somewhat of an asshole.”
A grin spread across Pan’s face. Perhaps the day was not a complete failure after all. They may have missed Wendy, but if his suspicions were right about who they did have, they would be the next best thing.
“Keep them separated, Sergeant, and bring them to me,” Pan said and for the first time in many years the twinge of pain behind his eye did not bother him.
The Prince of Neverland smiled.
The battle for Neverland will continue in…
I am a lifelong science fiction fan. From TV, to movies, to video games, to the written word. If there are aliens, space ships, and cool technologies, I'll devour it and then some. After twenty years of playing around with the idea of writing, I finally "bit the bullet" and sat down to write something that I would not only enjoy reading, but was original and fresh. Second Star is what materialized.
When I first envisioned the series I thought I would write 5 small (25k words) books, then put them together in an omnibus when I completed them all. But the series has grown during the planning and plotting stages and I think, to do the story justice, it will end up being four (longer) books total.
The final two books are tentatively titled: Shadows of Neverland (Book 3) and Straight on 'til Morning (Book 4).
I hope to have Shadows written by Christmas and Morning by next summer. I hope you'll stick with me throughout the journey!
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