The overhead rumble of airships droned in Clayton Ebris’s ears as he moved through the conifers. Laser cannon strapped to his forearm, he positioned for a shot and scouted his section of the grid. He anticipated movement from his targets. He prayed in equal measure they had fled.
Unfortunately, the heat sensors in the main airship’s reconnaissance filter maintained a 99.9% accuracy rating. His recent border patrol sweeps validated their accuracy. Fifteen encampments located with infected adult humans, all of whom battalion A6F had terminated over the last hundred miles of wasteland.
It was impossible to tune out the dismal memories in the midst of this barren forest. What little life existed burrowed deep and played dead when the termination squads marched through. The tundra just beyond the timberline had proved to be an even less hospitable environment. Clay suspected the targets had gone to ground there, using the forest only to forge for water.
A flash of blue cloth caught his eye. The color blinked, for an instant, and then disappeared between branches ahead. One sharp crack echoed, and reflex sent him to his knees. He focused on the target’s location but stopped breathing as three faces stared back at him from behind scrub brush and a fallen tree trunk.
The communication chip embedded behind his ear crackled to life. “Third Officer—target in range. Launch now.”
Stunned recognition of the view before him delayed him a second too long as the command reverberated through his mind. “Negative. Civilian children. I repeat. Target has children.”
In a high-pitched whine, followed by a quick whistle, the world went to hell.
Rocks and debris exploded in bright, sharp images before everything in his periphery morphed into a painful white haze. Three more concussive explosions shook the ground. Clay noted the number, but his consciousness wavered too much for a response.
He didn’t feel himself go down. The frozen ground slammed against the back of his head and body. Arms spread wide, he lay motionless, still clutching his weapon. He struggled to fend off the thick fog of disorientation. His brain barely responded, and his head and hands refused his commands to move. The position offered a clear view of the gray wisps in the blue sky above but no line of sight to the other soldiers from his unit. Four had flanked him on each side.
Seconds, perhaps minutes later, he blinked at the layer of smoke and sparks brushing across his face. The fleeting thought registered that he hadn’t received confirmation of a hit to the targets.
His next thought held for longer—he couldn’t move his legs or shift his spine. He could turn his head enough to confirm three members of his unit lying beside him, their injuries permanent if the gaping head wounds and unnatural body positions were any indication. He glanced at the team stat meter on his wrist—seven slashes—one for each team member, showing varied levels for health. All of the team reflected injury with only one left alive.
The breeze blew more smoke. A small bit of blue fabric drifted within his line of vision. He canvassed what he could see of the timberline. Sparks smoldered, one lighting to full flame before the blue bit vanished in the thickening smoke. Clay closed his eyes with a wince.
“Commence vaporization.” The command from his comm device cut through his regret, provoking his response.
“This is Third Officer Ebris, request pickup of wounded.” Not receiving a response, he shouted the command a second time.
A groan echoed to his right, cutting off a third attempt. The wind swirled, and he got a clear glimpse of his first officer, Fremier, shooting each of the junior members through the head with his laser rifle. That explained who had survived. Clay ground his teeth and fought against the paralyzing hold on his body as another sizzle of the laser sounded.
“Continue with vaporization countdown and send a beam for me.” Fremier turned and met Clay’s gaze.
The comm device crackled again. “Confirm again the load for the extraction beam?”
“One.” Fremier adjusted his aim and pressed the trigger. The hot bite of pain, as the electrical jolt fried Clay’s communications device, stole his breath, his voice, and seared the few muscles still responding.
“An effective hybrid would have taken the shot.” The only man in the unit without the cyber adjustments for endurance and harsh duty, Fremier squatted beside him with a look of disgust. The first officer, a premier scientist with Regent’s glacial army unit, had obviously decided to scrap the entire team in favor of newer cyber-soldier upgrades. “I would have put you out of your misery if you’d at least done your job, Ebris.”
Clay could only watch in mute resignation as a red beam of light descended over Fremier, phasing him to translucence before extracting him to the safety of the personnel ship several hundred feet above.
Sixteen fucking years of horrific surgeries, demeaning security enhancements, ruthless training exercises, followed by nightmare missions, and now he faced incineration like trash. Clay gritted his teeth and glared at the sky, waiting for a first visual of the end. Fermier’s betrayal was a surprise, but this ending was inevitable. Not that he ever had another choice—once forcibly recruited, no one left the Regents’ service. Neither circumstance made the bitter taste in his mouth dissipate.
The blue fabric had snagged on the end of a branch, jiggling to break free in the breeze. He fixated on the cloth, preparing for death, until a shadow passed over him. Blinking, he tried to make sense of the large man with a visor shield standing over him. The cloak and hood of brown leather hid the man but not his stature.
Clay would have flinched from the touch as the man squatted beside him as Fremier had. Without muscle control, he had no choice but to submit to whatever the stranger planned.
A soft flicker of lights and the low hum of a med scanner hovered over Clay’s body, assessing his injuries. The faint sounds were quickly drowned out by the rapid beeps and a heavy thrum of the vapor field at the far edge of the tundra. The airship had begun its sweep.
“You need to leave.” He grunted out the words. The man made no move to escape, though he lowered his shield, and they scrutinized each other. Dark brown skin framed eyes the color of sand; dozens of narrow, dark braids capped his head.
The man tapped the side of his head. “Level of injury?”
The beeps from the air ship intensified.
An unfamiliar voice said, “Spinal and right ambulatory quadrant severed. Functionality reparable with some work via his digital interface.”
At the second voice, Clay’s eyes widened. He squinted against a brief break of the sun through the smoke, struggling to make out the shimmering replica of another man standing behind the squatter. No substance or solid outline framed the three-dimensional rendering of the semitransparent form.
“Go. The vapor unit will kill you.” Clay tried again, the effort comparable to sandpaper working down his throat. He didn’t care. He couldn’t take another innocent life on his way to purgatory.
The man glanced at the sky and then unbuttoned his cloak. “Radar, counter measure and estimate?”
“Nine-foot projection shield activated,” responded the ghost image. “I’ll need to temporarily disable his network to project dormant stasis.”
“This is going to hurt,” the man said to him as he positioned a knee on either side of Clay’s hips to cover them both with his cloak. A pulse of vibration curled against Clay’s flesh, followed by a low-level beep.
The sizzle of the Regent’s vaporizer was close enough he considered it responsible for the sensation, if not the noise. Yet the vapor’s rising heat registered only along Clay’s extremities not covered by the cloak. An internal shock, accompanied by mind-numbing pain, coursed along his major nerves as the silicon network controlling his legs, spine, and the extra chambers of his heart seized and then stopped.
The beeps grew faster and louder, challenging the pain for his attention.
The beeps won.
“Fuck.” Clay sat up in his bed, scrubbed at the sweat on his face to dispel the nightmare, and glared into the darkness as the beeps from the next room intensified.
One minute later, he curled his fingers over a cylindrical illumination of letters and numbers and focused on the six screens generated against the back wall. The neurofibers in his left eye cycled through the last five hours’ worth of images from each of the screens in seconds, distinguishing movement, tactical positions, and threat levels. The bubble communiqué transmitted over his secure network held his attention for longer.
Minute deviations in pitch and frequency—digital codes wrapped like layers of skin around innocuous transmissions from New Delphi’s public communication platforms—resonated against the crystal microphone chip at his eye’s center. Each bubble of sound vibrated. The wrappers dissected and translated in an instantaneous process within his cybernetic eye—a seamless integration of sound and sight sealed to the cerebral cortex of his brain. Neither enhancement left him feeling remotely human.
Clay blinked the last of his nightmare away and tapped a security code sequence. Active.
Eyes have made target
Radar: Still local?
His network was secure. Even so, he couldn’t afford a hacker to relay all the information he’d unearthed. Two years they had been searching. Too long to trust to any network.
Need to meet
3 @ lockbox The three eight-hour intervals would give him enough time to confirm his final intel on the return of Squad Five and their landing at the far edge of New Delphi’s grid. He had the rough framework of a plan for extracting their target, yet too many holes remained to risk any underground operatives’ lives.
Radar: Add new team—you specify skills
Start with medic
Radar: Copy—stick with Onyx
Worked for Clay. He trusted Onyx, Trace Boden, and had bypassed the need for security code names with him several years ago. He’d run several risky missions with the former Regent doctor. Trace’s personal connection with Aaron alone warranted his team presence. Building a new team around the plan would be harder. Although it seemed Radar was holding nothing back on this mission. Not that he blamed him.
Clay had met their target, Aaron, when he was a skinny, punk-ass young man with the determination of a pit bull. From day one, the youth provided valuable reconnaissance and info for team members in the underground network. His capture had sent an angry ripple through the rebel teams.
That the Regent scouts trolled Down Below for human resources was a way of life. Young teens, old enough for training as guards and soldiers, fell easy prey. Food, clothing, and a solid, if not long, career was hard to turn down when you were starving, poor, and at risk for much worse fates.
Unfortunately, the Regents didn’t conscript twenty-one-year-olds for anything but the squads—suicide missions, one-way teams organized without longevity in mind. If Aaron had returned with the squad Clay had detected, and survived physically, two years would have seriously messed with his head.
Few people knew the realities better than he did. The details of Aaron’s extraction brought the images of Clay’s dream back in a déjà vu that coated him in fresh sweat.
His fingers tapped at the characters in the air with one hand as he initiated a second command keyboard. Five of the screens on the wall flashed to new images. Twenty-four hours wasn’t much time to find information on one unit returning to town. On the plus side, few people had the contacts in the network he’d managed to establish and a return of a death squad would stand out from even the Regent’s worst. Contacts in Down Below should be alive with rumors, ones he would have to weed out from the truth.
The bigger problem—what to do with Aaron once they extracted him. Two years in hell meant his body would be tough and rugged. The question was, how much remained of his mind?
Esme jumped at the knock on her bedroom door. Well, not hers really. That was the problem.
“Esme. It’s Ty. If you’re there, I’d like to speak with you.”
She had expected this confrontation from the moment she’d arrived a week ago. Still she hesitated and then felt ridiculous for her reaction. It wasn’t as if the room or the door warded off confrontation. The illusion, however, had offered her peace while she fought through her demons from the last several months.
No longer able to pretend invisibility, she crossed the room and opened the door. She’d taken several steps back before she realized Ty Vier hadn’t followed her.
“I was hoping you would join me downstairs in the study to talk before dinner.” He stood patiently waiting at the threshold, his arms crossed and his broad shoulder braced against the doorframe.
She frowned, not wanting to say yes, but she had no good excuse to refuse. She’d taken all her meals in her room and only once met the other inhabitants, more pressure for her to accept now.
Seeming to understand her reluctance, he opened his hands in resignation. “If you choose to come down, the study is the first door on the right.”
He stepped out of the room, pulled the door closed, and left her again in quiet, if not peace.
Deep breaths did nothing to stem the urge to clench her fists and crawl back to her seat beside the window. Yet only a coward would hide away in this room. Given the reason Vier had married her, the study was probably a safer place to hide. With a measure of confidence under her belt, Esme made her way to the top of the stairs.
Sinea Vier paused halfway up the stairs and stared at her as if she’d sprouted three horns from her forehead. Frail and petite, Ty’s first wife offered an initial impression of a young girl until one was close enough to see her translucent skin and the tiny lines of stress around her eyes. Esme didn’t make eye contact with the striking and painfully shy woman. Carley Vier, Ty’s second wife, walking next to Sinea, was a whole other matter.
Esme started down the stairs, using Carley’s frown to test her own mettle. The buxom blonde exuded menace; however, since her animosity seemed to revolve around protecting Sinea, Esme ignored her. The two women passed her without a word. However, their inspection burned at her back all the way to the study’s door.
Pausing before the double door, she glanced sideways to take in the huge marble foyer, vaulted ceiling, and high walls coated in programmable artwork. The day she arrived, the images had reflected a study in gray and black charcoals. Today’s décor resemble a more subtle and soothing collection of pastoral scenes.
Who picked the daily view and where the artwork originated from wasn’t as important to her as the thought that a home with such opulence and culture might mask rage and torture.
Not quite certain she was ready to head down that path of doubt, she pushed open the door.
Ty turned from a vid screen on the wall, leaving the image of the street in front of the Vier townhouse and the rear exit visible. “I’m glad you decided to come down. Please make yourself comfortable.”
He gestured to two facing chairs before a large, roaring fireplace.
She didn’t want to sit and resisted her instinct to flee. He would only catch her or his security detail would.
“You’ve been here a week, Esme. I wanted to give you time to settle in, but I think it would be best if we cleared the air between us. Unless you would prefer to continue locking your door every night in fear?”
Her fingers dug into the silk of her pants. She forced a breath and released her hold with a great deal of effort.
With a pointed glance at her hands, Ty released a quick sigh. “I didn’t say that to frighten you. You are welcome to lock your door or not. I just want you to understand you don’t need to lock it to keep me out. I have never taken a woman against her will. I have no intention of starting now.”
“And yet you told the Regent council you chose me in marriage for breeding.”
“Yes.” His expression suddenly implacable, he turned to stare into the fire. “The things I told the council were for your benefit and mine. However, I’m clearly reading you have no interest in an intimate relationship with me.” He looked back. “I apologize. I can’t offer you what you may have had with your…former husband.”
“Former.” She couldn’t stop the harsh laugh. “Dead works better, given his execution for anarchy and treason. If I’m thankful for one thing, it’s that you don’t want to follow in his footsteps.”
What response she expected from him, she wasn’t sure. The compassionate, calm expression and the concern in his fawn-colored eyes certainly wasn’t it, though it was at odds with the rebellious looking long, dark braids on his head. Then again, perhaps his expression wasn’t compassion but guile. Another trick of the Regents to extract more information from her, to ply her while she was vulnerable. Well, screw them. She didn’t know anything anyway, although she bit her lip at the possibility of Ty’s complicity.
“Esme, you’re free to speak your mind with me. The house isn’t bugged, and I’m not here to levy punishment on you. I would appreciate your openness and honesty.” He paused a minute, seeming to consider some option. “Would you share with me why your husband didn’t earn your respect?”
When she hesitated, he shrugged. “If it helps, he didn’t earn mine either. While his cause to end the wrongs he perceived within the government might seem noble to some, his approach was self-serving and infantile. He harmed many more innocent lives than he helped.”
Surprised and bolstered by Ty’s admission, she decided to tell him. What harm could it do? “My husband bartered with my father for me when I was fifteen. Despite the Regent approach of cataloging everyone in the same mold, I had no more interest in becoming an anarchist than I do of becoming a kelp harvester.”
His mouth twitched at the edge, and she was surprised again. Kelp was one of the few products unaffected by the salmonella infestation, which had reduced the world’s population to one-tenth of its original size. While the outbreak had occurred one hundred and fifty years ago, the Vier family had made a king’s ransom harvesting and manufacturing the kelp products, which sustained the city of New Delphi and much of the world. He’d taken her slight with good grace. Enough that she almost felt rude ridiculing his livelihood. Almost. She wasn’t certain enough of her safety to feel polite yet.
Ty rested his head against the chair back, stretched his legs out to the fire, and folded his hands, unaffected by her outburst. “I see. Well, at least if he bartered for you, he must have valued your presence.”
“My husband valued my skills with technology and mechanics. I can construct tools or weapons out of anything—I have certain intuitive skills, ones he used without regard for others or me.”
“Was he such a rebellious zealot that he discounted the danger to you?”
“His only concern revolved around instilling fear in others to gain sensationalistic attention. Putting my life at risk didn’t lose him a moment’s sleep.”
Ty had watched her through her tirade without a word, though a strange look had come over his face and he had tilted his head as if scrutinizing a perplexing new species. “For that failing alone, he should have died. I take it you have about as much interest in developing a second marital relationship as harvesting kelp, as well. Probably even less in bearing a child at this point?”
“I realize the Regents are obsessed with growing the population.” She bit the inside of her cheek to quell her first angry response. “And I appreciate you saving my life, but—”
“Would you allow me an experiment?” He leaned forward in his chair, suddenly alert. Yet, he paused, waiting on her answer. “I won’t hurt you.”
She swallowed hard and stared at him for a long minute before she nodded.
He rose and walked to her, then pressed his hands to the arms of her chair. Slowly, he lowered his head, watching her eyes until his lips touched hers.
She froze. He didn’t press further or touch her in any other way; only his lips rested against hers. She stared at the rows of his long braids and counted the seconds until he moved away.
“Nothing.” He gave her an odd smile and a shrug. “There’s no chemistry or spark for you. I can see it in your eyes. It would be unpleasant to conceive a child with a man you have no feelings for. I have to say I have no desire for a child of mine to be born without love and passion.”
Oh God. He was going to send her back. One week of freedom and she faced return to the Regent council and execution.
“Esme, stop whatever thought just went through your mind.”
She risked a glance at his face. The frown woven between his brows was as fierce as his tone.
“You are not my slave. Our relationship—whatever we choose to make of it—is between us. No one needs to know what goes on, or doesn’t, within this home—not about you or Sinea or Carley. I didn’t marry you to abuse you. And I’m certainly not going to let anyone else abuse you.”
“Why did you marry me?” Fury and fear rolled together, trust having no place in the scrambled thoughts whipping through her mind. Babies, survival, betrayal, needs, wishes, and hopes—all had preoccupied her conscious moments the last few days—even her nightmares.
“To save your life,” he snapped back at her and then started pacing. “I’m sorry I can’t release you. Too many people would question my actions. However, you can pursue whatever interests you wish here. Our relationship will be nothing more than we have now. Someday, I hope you’ll consider me your friend.”
“That’s it? No pressure. No rules?”
“Well, avoiding arrest would be good. I do like peaceful coexistence in the house. Aside from that, you can requisition anything you need or want through the vid screens on the walls. Sinea runs the household, and Carley…” He laughed, scrubbing at the back of his neck with a wince and shake of his head.“ She pretty much does what she wants.”
“Why would you do this? You don’t even know me.”
He crossed his arms and leaned against the mantel. “I was in a position to save you, so I did. It’s that simple. I’m usually a good judge of character, and I think you have more to offer this world than an epitaph. I regret what you’ve suffered.”
“You could give Regents a good name.” Her comment brought a quick frown to his features.
“The only thing I ask is that no else one knows. You have a life and choices.” He stared at her. “Does what I offer sound so awful?”
It sounded too incredible. “I keep waiting for the ax to fall.”
“I can understand, perhaps more than you know. How about trying it for now? Maybe we can begin with dinner?” He gestured toward the door. In spite of herself, she felt the dread diminish.
She could survive dinner.