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Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 11

Happy belated Father’s Day to all the dads out there! Raising children isn’t easy, for anyone. Ok, now back to the grind. Let’s see what Kane and the boys are up to this week.

ELEVEN

Earth

There are few things in the vast universe comparable to the blinding violation of all things good and bad by evil. It is a darkness, pure and untouched for generations. The complete lack of sight and sound. A place void of emotion and senses. The air was stifling, threatening to suffocate those who were lost here. This was the Never, for it was a nightmare of unparalleled proportions.

Down through the ages, and on into future worlds of alternate realities, traveled the creations of a mad man. The Berserkers fell unchecked, pulled onward by a sudden desperation. Confusion and mist clouded them from each other. Whatever the Old Gods had in mind, there was no rush to reach it. Years passed before them. Some went so fast it was impossible to tell, others dragging on through eternity. Then, without warning, the pale green light filled the end of the void. Had they come back to the dying world they’d left?

It was the end of one journey and the beginnings of another, far more powerful one.

Were they capable, the Berserkers would have succumbed to a colossal fear, but they were not of some god’s impulse. They were the products and desires of a twisted and broken magician. One by one, they embraced the pain of the light until the void was left empty yet again.

The pain was sudden and unlike any ever felt. It coursed through their mutated bodies. Each Berserker twisted and writhed as if being pierced by a thousand nails. This new torture was so exquisite in feeding their hunger. The monsters reveled in the sick pleasure of it. They forced themselves into primal balls, at once hoping to relieve the tensions and remain in the rapture. Hell’s grand gates were thrown open before them in tender invitation.

A large wolf-like hybrid was the first to abandon the Never, hitting the grassy floor and rolling away. Named Death Shrike by the Creator, he was capable of inhuman levels of strength and an unending system of revitalization. Steam escaped his body in waves from a thousand different cuts and burns caused by the Never. Undaunted by the sudden pain, he was already scanning the area for any sign of potential threats. As pleasing as it was to have nothing awaiting them, Death Shrike felt cheated. The others were slowly coming to and shaking off the ill effects of nausea.

Standing on the alien shore for the first time, Death Shrike stared with wonder and amazement. This was a world of plush vegetation and water. He saw things foreign to their bitter deserts. Oceans of green were waving from a summer breeze, and he could smell a river not far off. The horizon was glowing a strange shade of orange, but from what, he could not see. Even the air was different. A strange yet eerily familiar scent came to him. It was so powerful as to stagger his senses from shock. He smelled the abundance of life. Another had followed him.

The clearing they found themselves in was surrounded by walls of mighty, wooden objects piercing up into the night sky. They were covered with small, paper-thin objects that made soft rustling noises every time a wind arose. Small flying creatures covered with feathers could be seen by the dozens. He amazed that such things could be so uncaring and innocent of the world’s ways. He focused on a small, four legged animal with brown fur and littered by white spots running the back and flanks. Nothing on Helscape was even remotely comparable. Nothing at all.

Death Shrike smiled while visions of conquest danced in his wicked mind. This new world was so ripe with life that it was practically begging to be raped by him and his kind. Another was kneeling close by, waiting for the dizziness to pass. Impulse made him snatch up a handful of the green substance covering the ground, and dirt and roots came with it. Bringing it to his nose, the Berserker sniffed hard, inhaling as much of this living world as he could. They were all equally fascinated by this new experience and beginning to succumb to the joys of such simple treasures.

They ran and rolled in the grass, relishing the softness and smell of it. This was so much better than the hot desert sands for which they were created to conquer. Their last memories of such things had been from the defeat on the banks of the Angril River. They’d been within sight of the green back then and nearly succeeded until the planetary army and their wizards stopped them.

Confident that this was, indeed, the paradise promised by Kargosh, Death Shrike made for the tree line, eager to discover what lay beyond the hidden doors of this world. The wolf monster stole through the night under the concealment of no moon and a line of chest-high shrubs. Not even the others could watch his progress. They were the furthest thing from his mind at the moment. Death Shrike eased through the shrubs and balked at the sight of a long, black monster winding across the lands.

“What is this?” he seethed through clenched teeth once it became apparent that the thing wasn’t going to attack him.

Death Shrike gingerly touched its surface, marveling at this newfound thing. It was hard and still warm from the sun. Matching yellow lines ran the length of its spine. What magic is this, he asked himself, for there were no such designs on Helscape to compare it to. He let his curiosity run wild and soon found himself following the yellow lines. Down long valleys and many twists and turns he walked, drawn ever closer to the glow of civilization. There, he knew, would be the answers to their quest.

A faint rush came from behind, growing louder the closer it came. The monster spun to confront his attacker. He was forced to throw his hands up to block the force of the lights blinding him. The beast made an irritating honking noise as it began to speed up. Death Shrike rolled away as the machine went by.

Forgotten memories crept back to him. He stared at the twin red lights until they disappeared. He’d seen such things before, though not quite so primitive, with glaring lights and rolling fast on rubber wheels. A familiar smell tainted the air at its passing. The armored soldiers. There were fleshlings here — many, from the smell of it — but were they soldiers as well?

If he stayed on this hardened path he knew he was going to be seen or caught. The safest way from him to go now was skirting along the tree line. He wasn’t sure how long he walked when he finally stopped to stare in complete awe. Before him was a sight that would have humbled the Creator. The valley below was crowded with an overabundance of life. Towers of steel and lights stretched up into the sky. He saw millions of tiny lights, mere pinpricks compared to the whole, covering the place. Hundreds of them were moving back and forth. More of the wheeled machines, he snarled to himself. He doubted there was this much life on all of Helscape.

This was a dangerous world with much need for caution. He stood transfixed at the scene below for what seemed like hours before remembering his vulnerability and the position of the others. They were no doubt hostile by now, and it was in his best interests to return. They had more than enough time to scout this new breed of human for defenses and weaknesses. For now, they would wait, developing their plans for the conquest of this new world.

***

Nathan Bourne looked down at his watch and growled. It was only 11:30, and he was more tired than usual. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes, he casually lit another cigarette. Smoke filled his lungs in a delicious flavor before floating out the car window in a lazy stream. The radio and a thermos full of hot coffee were the only things keeping him going, and he had to laugh at what his life had become. This wasn’t exactly going to put him on the cover of Success Magazine.

“What’s so funny, Nate?” his partner asked once he climbed back in and shut the door. He handed over a thick sub from the Greek deli across the street.

Nathan shook his head. “Nah, I was just thinking about how things might have been if I had a regular job.”

“What? And give all this up?” He gestured towards the dark city streets. “You must be mad.”

He was half as old as Nathan was, and far less experienced, but that meant little in the middle of the night. A bullet doesn’t care one way or the other. Nathan sighed as his partner went on about what he could be doing right now. Why the younger generations were so excited when it came to sex had always escaped him. Fifteen years with his wife, and he couldn’t really care less. But, for some reason he had no grasp of, the young always wanted to go on and on about what they did with which girl. Didn’t they know that no one cared but them? Nathan held his tongue and pretended to listen.

His own thoughts soon began to drift towards the relationship he had thought was going to last forever. He’d been a committed homicide detective for the past twenty years, much against the wishes of his wife. She was never one to understand why he was who he was and why he couldn’t find it in him to change. Not for her, and not for himself. That one thing alone had spawned a plague of arguments and was the eventual cause for her leaving with the kids. They’d managed to stand the test of a war while he was in the military and a thousand minor fights, yet one job was enough to make her leave. He liked to think that going in to Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division had been easier than married life.

It had taken a while before he’d eventually gotten over it, deciding that, if she couldn’t handle the hazards of his lifestyle, there were probably more things she couldn’t handle as well. Oh, he admitted making more than his share of mistakes too — more than he cared to remember — but for all the good and bad, he’d never laid a hand on her in anger and never once cheated. So much for loyalty, he mused.

When the courts had granted her full custody, he’d spiraled down into a seething rage. Some fool in a black robe with no idea the trauma behind the breakup had decided that Nathan wasn’t capable of being a father until the kids were both eighteen. Hate had kept him going, more often than not, through those long nights when sleep was near impossible. He wasn’t a bad looking man and was fully capable of getting most any woman he wanted. The charm was still there, even after all those years.

His six years in the army had laid the foundations for the physical condition he maintained today. A pencil-thin mustache and ghost of a beard accented his light brown hair and eyes. Nathan was in his late forties, and already tiny lines were forming across his face. Father Time was not going to be kind.

“Happy now, Steve?” he asked as soon as his partner stopped rambling.

Steve nodded with a smile and stared off into the shadows next to the store they were watching. Word had come down that there was something big going down tonight, and they had been slapped with the detail. Backup was available but still far enough away to not do much good if things went south. Steve grabbed Nathan’s arm and pointed. He could have sworn that there was someone or something out there, lurking in the shadows.

“I don’t see anything, bud,” Nathan said. “Might as well eat.”

Nathan was more concerned with things other than shadows bumping down empty alleys. Over a dozen partially devoured bodies had been found over the city during the last couple of days, and city officials were baffled. Reports of mythical demons sifting through the night swamped the precincts. The fear level was sharply increasing, and there was no answer in sight. Tensions were high, and the image reached the national level on the second day. The only good thing to say about this was that the crime rate had dropped to next to nothing. Petty thieves and thugs were too scared to run the streets.

A high-pitched scream shattered the calm, followed closely by an explosion. Nathan managed to close his eyes and turn around before the shockwave hit them. The windows burst inward, showering them with glass fragments and debris from the streets. The car was rocked and threatened to tip over. Across the street, the deli was destroyed. When it was safe to look, he watched the devastation with horror. Most of the building was gone, engulfed in flames and reduced to piles of rubble. The force of the blast had propelled the owner’s body into the middle of the street in a twisted, broken mass, dead before hitting the ground.

“Oh shit!”

They could only stare as the nightmare stepped from the flames. Nathan opened his door and rolled away when he saw the monster spot them. He couldn’t believe this. Monsters weren’t real. Everyone knew that. Fumbling from shock, Steve tried to do the same, but the door wouldn’t open. The monster saw this and smiled. Reaching behind his back, the monster produced a weapon of sorts and began twirling it overhead. The faster the weapon moved, the louder it’s scream became until it threatened to burst their eardrums. He let it fly towards the car, and in that moment, Steve knew he was dead.

Helpless, Nathan could only cry out and fire off his clip into the monster’s chest. The force of the rounds jerked the monster back in sudden pain, and a smile painted his lips. Steve worked faster with the door. Nathan ran, out of bullets and exposed. The weapon hit the car with a bone-crunching sound and enough force to throw Steve’s body through the windshield.

The monster stalked across the open area, bone spikes protruding from the back of each elbow, and had the dying man in his grip before he had the chance to groan in pain. Both man and beast stared into each other’s eyes, one for the satisfaction of knowing what killed him, the other wondering what was going through his mind in those final moments. Death Shrike smiled.

Horrified, Nathan cowered in the shadows. A wave of helplessness sunk deep into him from acting this way. But, realistically speaking, what was he to do? He’d already pumped fifteen rounds into the thing, and the only effect they’d had was to piss it off even more than it already was. He also knew that it made no sense for both of them to die like this. He closed his eyes as the monster picked up his friend.

The Berserker ran a jagged claw under the human’s throat, drawing a thin line of bright red blood. Steve groaned again, making the monster balk. He’d thought the man already dead. This was going to be a delicious treat. Producing a sharpened spike, he thrust it into Steve’s belly and roared as the blood began trickling down over his hand.

He let out a baleful laugh and said, “Your kind always die so easily.”

Steve spat blood at the monster. Death Shrike smiled as the spit and blood slimed down his nose. The whine of sirens was steadily growing closer, and that meant there was little time left to enjoy the misery. Sinking a hand into the human’s flesh, the Berserker squeezed the man’s heart until it burst. He left the body where it laid, the broken heart still in his grasp.

Nathan fought to keep the bile from spitting out but lost. He felt like screaming out, but it would only give away his position. A river of crimson ran from under Steve’s body.

When he finally looked up at the monster again, he found it staring right back at him. He knew! With a last act of defiance, the Berserker heaved the organ at him and bounded down an empty road. Police and fire vehicles were just now rounding the corner.

The rage surging through him was empowering, and the last traces of fear dissolved. Nathan emerged from his hiding place and trailed after the monster. He had to know why, what it was. What manner of demon had descended upon them? Nathan needed to find out if for no other reason than the preservation of his sanity. Steve certainly deserved as much. Several officers tried stopping him, but he kept running long after the shouts were too far away to be heard. It wasn’t hard to follow the monster’s trail, thankfully for he knew there was no way he’d ever catch up on foot. And right now he wasn’t sure he wanted to come face to face so soon. The Berserker left enough damage behind to almost make Nathan think he was following a full-sized platoon. Nathan suspected the monster was heading for the river.

Screeching brakes and the smell of burnt rubber told Nathan that the creature was already at the highway. Nathan feared he was never going to find him. Infuriated, the detective broke into a run. He rounded a corner in time to watch as the Berserker slipped around a halted bread truck blocking the road. Hoping his aim was still true, Nathan raised his gun and fired. A car sped by after, blocking his aim, and he caught several obscenities directed towards him.

Frustrated, he hurried after the monster before the trail went cold. He didn’t need to be reminded of what would happen when the monster made it into the open countryside.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 10

It’s that time again, friends. Enjoy.

A New Mission

“Sir, we have a situation developing you should know about,” the young private said.

The duty officer sighed. Eighteen months on this rotten world, he thought. Setting his cup of water down and placing his hands behind his back, he eased his way over to the console. The rest of the skeleton crew on duty seemed to share a disinterest either from being on station too long or from the knowledge that they would never see the front lines. He held a scowl on his face as he stared down at the soldier. This was the last thing he was looking forward to tonight.

“What is it, private?”

The image on the screen went from blurred and dull to clear and sharp in a fraction of second. Together, they watched as the scene developed into a vision both knew all too well. The battle going on was nowhere he knew and fought entirely by an indigenous force, else they would have shown up in different heat signatures. Whoever was doing this had the Berserkers on the ropes. But there was something wrong with the whole thing. Berserker signatures were disappearing, but not from being killed. They were vanishing too suddenly for that.

“What in the…,” he let slip. He was confused. The course of his career had shown him things most men couldn’t conceive, but nothing like this. “Soldier, find out where they’re disappearing to, now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Normally an admittedly hasty man and never one to feel stress, he was left with an ill feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Sir, we’re not picking anything up. It’s like they’re vanishing into thin air.”

“Impossible! Nothing disappears like that. Are the scanners working right?” Of course, he knew they were, but his military mind refused to accept it.

“All systems are online and running. The Berserkers are not showing up anywhere our sensors can read them, sir.”

But why? The dead were still warm, though cooling quickly, and easy to read. The next decision hurt, but he knew it was the only one open to him.

“Private, I want a full squad suited up and ready to move in one hour. Deploy by chopper, and have the bird wait nearby. It is imperative that they learn as much as they can without compromising their position. Have them bring in those two locals for a debriefing upon completion. Make it happen, trooper.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Hey, Snake,” cooed the slightly overweight supply sergeant. “Look what I got for you, and don’t go telling me that you couldn’t use it, either.”

Snake Eyes was a man who rarely liked to talk about work when he was off duty, and since their fiasco in the village a few days back, he and his men — or what was left of them — had been given seventy-two hours of down time. It was a luxury he knew wasn’t going to last, but if it could have held out just a while longer…. He found himself looking down on the fat rear echelon trooper who was ruining his night. Fighting back the urge to slap the man and walk off, Snake Eyes stayed, making up his mind what the next course of action was going to be.

“And just what would that be, Scoops?”

Reaching into his jacket pocket with a smile the whole way, Scoops produced a fresh bottle of Izndo whiskey. It was one of the few fine delicacies throughout the systems. Snake was wise to him the moment he saw the flash of the label. There had to be a catch to this. You just didn’t offer a high commodity like this for nothing. The last six years had helped Snake grow up, both physically and mentally, and he was normally a very wary man. Scoops, on the other hand, was the kind of man who would rob from his own grandmother if there was a way to make a profit from it.

“What’s the scam, Scoops? You know I don’t like to play games.”

“Hey, come on. No scam. This one’s legit!”

“Uh huh. Why don’t I believe you?”

Grinning, Scoops fought hard to keep his scowl from coming out. “Look, I have this fine bottle of whiskey, eighteen years old at that, ready to give to you in exchange for the one thing you can offer me.”

Snake Eyes shied away from the last part of that. He didn’t know what the man was getting at, but it didn’t sound right. That and the fact that he hated pencil pushers more than dumb privates confused him when he stayed to listen.

“Go on. I’m all ears.”

“I need field time, Snake. I’ve been in this damned army going on ten years and I don’t have a day of combat time. You get me to the field and this is yours.”

As tempting as it seemed, Snake Eyes was unwilling to get the man killed, much less anyone else in his squad.

“Look. I need this. It’s the only way I have a chance at getting promoted. Help me out, man. Just one little op and I can get my combat service ribbon and be good to go. That, and I’d be in your debt.”

Now that one sparked interest. A supply sergeant in the debt of a ground pounder? Snake would never have to go without again. Snake Eyes accepted the bottle with a smile. “Scoops, you’ve got a deal.”

Leaving the man to wonder if his wants were sufficient, Snake Eyes worked his way back to the platoon tent. He found himself laughing. Be careful what you wish for, he warned the man a little too late and then made up his mind to get drunk.

There was no way he could have been prepared for what greeted him upon entering the hut. Half of the men and women assembled were busy double-checking field gear and ammunition supplies. Some were already in their armor, snapping down the sides and donning the leggings. What was this? They were supposed to have been taken out of the rotation.

Corporal Xill watched him enter and nodded, confirming Snake’s fear. “Word just came down to suit up. We’ve got a snoop-and-scoop mission.”

“I hate this place,” Snake whispered under his breath. “By who’s orders?” The bottle in his hands suddenly felt incredibly heavy.

“Came from the X.O. He wants you and the lieutenant to meet him in ten mikes in the war room.”

Snake Eyes offered the bottle to his friend and said, “Keep an eye on this for me. Lock it ‘til we get back.”

A single thought struck him as the door slammed shut behind him. Another frigging day in paradise shot to squaffa.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 9

Good Monday, my friends! I apologize for skipping last week but I spent Memorial Day remembering old friends who are no longer with us. War is hell, right? At any rate, let’s jump back into the story and see where Kane is getting to.

NINE

Rook Mountain

Rook Mountain looming in the near distance by the end of the following day, Kane and the Viper decided it best to make camp for the night. Kane’s unwillingness to risk his life without so much as a reconnaissance of the situation had put an end to that argument. Scowling at the man’s hesitancy, the assassin tethered the horses down and stalked off into the desert to look for lurking nasties, leaving Kane to throw up the rudely constructed tent they’d been forced to use when no natural cover was available.

Once finished, Kane pulled out a canteen and stared up at the lonely mount. It was much larger than he remembered, carrying a certain dominance over the landscape and those of weaker stature. He could feel night coming on. The sudden coldness rushed up to tear at his exposed flesh. Kane sighed. An emptiness suddenly filled him, one he’d felt a hundred times over. Evil was waiting for them.

The assassin strolled back into camp in time with the second sunset, his dust-plastered black clothes nearly indistinguishable from the forming shadows. He sat down near the entrance of the tent and removed both boots so he could rub his sore feet. Neither of them had spoken much since the previous night’s attack. The Viper wasn’t the kind of man who needed others. He was a solitary figure, better suited to combing the shadier places of the world alone. It was easier to move and do what needed to be done that way.

“We need to be there by first light,” he offered finally.

Kane nodded. “The enemy does not stalk the night alone. It seems now as if there is no longer the safety we once knew. Night or day, it will dark under there. This bodes ill for us.”

“Ill or not, we really don’t have a choice, now, do we?” the Viper sighed. “Or am I to believe that we’ve wasted the last week of our lives by coming this far to turn back now?”

Kane returned his gaze to the massive Rook Mountain and said no more.

 

Kane awoke sometime later to the subtle rustlings of the Viper pulling at his feet. A leather-gloved hand quickly clamped down on his mouth before he could speak. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the purity of the night, and when they finally did, he saw the vile red eyes of his companion staring down at him. Kane could have sworn he saw the faint flicker of fear deep in them. The assassin shook his head in a short, jerky movement and pointed towards Rook Mountain.

There, his deepest fears were realized, and the promise of the future dwindled. The mount was bathed in an eerie green light, pale as a dead man’s skin and bright as a dying sun. A pallid glow was cast across the dunes. The cold they experienced was far deeper than anything natural. What dark manner of Hells made this? Kane wondered.

The Viper was already suiting up for battle by the time Kane even began to realize the portent of the night. There was little doubt for either of them that the Berserkers were already there. Kane dressed quickly, taking his time only to ensure his weapons were loaded, and the pair stole off into the night.

 

With a mighty roar and tremendous burst of strength, a Berserker broke through the crusted cavern floor of Rook Mountain. Expecting a battle and finding none, the Berserker sniffed the air from a fighting crouch. The armor plates running the length of his spine wagged reflexively. The Berserker snarled for the others, and they filed up from their tunnel. It took seconds before they stood in a huddled knot awaiting further instructions.

Mnemlath looked idly about, holding his hands before him in bewilderment over the green glow. It lent his warriors a devious look well suiting them. A winged Berserker circled him, staring down a long, water-hewn passage. He sniffed the stale air for signs of humans, snorting displeasure at the amount of life in the dark tunnels. The fleshlings were close.

Shaking out his flaming blue hair, the Berserker growled, “Down here. I can feel it.”

Another launched into flight and glided down the hall, his shadowy form easily lost in the darkness. Whatever lay in store for them, whether it be the promise of an extended future or a grizzly demise, the Berserkers rumbled to life. Regardless of the outcome, Mnemlath had every intention of keeping it for himself, Kargosh be damned.

They stalked in single file, studying the surroundings though there was no sign of the enemy. Silent as the wind on a cold winter day, the Berserkers passed without a sign. Not even a footprint in the sand. The glow grew brighter the closer they approached the source. Mnemlath felt the adrenaline building, flowing through his veins in a delicious power.

They reached the innermost chamber without problems, and were forced to shield their eyes from the blinding light. The intensity was sickening, but the Berserker kept going. He entered the chamber without regard, casually coming to a halt at the base of the light. The purity of it was enough to spark elation in him. Euphoria spread to the others, and they rushed in to join him. This was total bliss. The Berserker stretched forth a hand to touch the light, to touch the very soul of the Death God himself. They had found perdition at last.

Roaring from the intense pain suffered, the Berserker watched his hand disappear, as if sucked into the embrace of a darker evil. He fought and struggled to regain himself but was fighting a losing battle. Mnemlath could do nothing but watch as the winged demon was claimed by the Death God. The others stepped away, a sudden fear clutching them at the disappearance of one of their own. Yet the light was enthralling, almost possessing. They lost all sense of time and awareness. Could this be the path to enlightenment? If this nirvana was so powerful as to consume the whole of their fellow, then why should he be the only one to experience the totality of it? One by one, without knowing what lay on the other side, the Berserkers made ready to follow.

 

The killers stole their way through the undiscovered catacombs, breathing lethality. Assassin and Slayer, though having shared a near death experience, lacked total trust. Each would do his job, but at what price? Loyalty was an expensive luxury this deep in the desert. Kane stayed along the tunnel walls, moving with the grace and litheness of a cat. His rifle was raised and trained on the open passage. The Viper, with an eternal flare for the dramatic or maybe just a flaunted fear of the obvious, strode without shame or concealment. He was thumbing the safety catch on a thermal grenade. Anything surviving the initial blast wouldn’t last long after that — of that much he was sure.

Death was a primitive fear for which a man like the Viper had no time. Everyone was assured death in their own time and fashion, so why should one be concerned over it, he argued. His only concern at the moment was the oddity of light ahead of them. Neither had ever seen the like, and that did worry him. He’d lived through the creature from the other night and felt no fear, spent most of his life around thieves and cut throats without fear. So why was he worried now? The catacombs had an air of un-holiness about them.

Kane signaled a halt as soon as he was able to pick up the first Berserker voice. They were right around the bend from each other. Double-checking his weapons a final time, he and the assassin readied themselves. He offered a passive glance to the Viper, who nodded his confirmation. But something was wrong. Normally observant, the Berserkers should have been expecting them. None even bothered with a glance their way. Kane knew better than to question. This was going to be their best chance at stopping their enemy. Clicking off the safety, Kane rounded the corner and attacked.

The explosion shook the ancient walls, threatening to rip their eardrums apart. None of the Berserkers saw it coming. The thermal grenade had bounced off the back of one and rolled away. Mnemlath saw the object rolling and had begun barking orders slightly before the explosion. The Berserker nearest the grenade realized too late what it was. The explosion melted the monster as shrapnel sped outwards to strike a number of the others. While they were confused and disoriented, a rain of ice blue ion fire spit into the chamber. More Berserkers howled from the sudden pain.

Mnemlath smelled the air as he rolled to cover and smiled. The Slayer! The rancid odors of burnt flesh and fresh blood brought his bloodlust to a boil. This was the reason for their creation. Dark blood splashed across his cheek, and he turned in time to see another nearly torn in two from the crossfire. A sudden fury seized him, and the time for retaliation had come.

“Attack!” the monster bellowed.

They moved as one. Smoke and ion haze choked the air, making it hard for all of them to see, even with the Berserkers’ enhanced senses. For the humans, it was a scene like a nightmare in the cave. A minor rumble knocked the Viper on his back with a leaping Berserker coming down atop him. Long fangs dripped a burning drool across his cheek, and the monster smiled. The Viper could see death approaching, reflected through the empty eyes of the Berserker. Neither of them saw the silver spear come in to pierce the side of the monster’s head.

Seeing how badly things were transpiring for them, Mnemlath decided it was time to end this until another day. He growled his commands, and the last of those few chosen to enter the Death God’s embrace leapt into the light. That was the easy part. He also knew that there was no way he could leave this gateway open to the fleshlings — not when he stood on the threshold of obtaining its newfound power, one strong enough to turn the tide of this war in his favor. Another explosion ruined the chamber. Mnemlath was forced back, retreating enough to assess the situation and regroup for another attack. There were enough bodies on the ground for now.

He snarled another set of orders, and the Berserkers disengaged the enemy, leaving them dazed and slightly confused. The last to leave bellowed once and then shattered the archway to an exit tunnel. The collapse was enough to seal them away from the mortals. This battle was over.

Kane helped the Viper to his feet and stepped closer to the light. Whatever it was, the column of light was humming now. Of the living Berserkers, there was no sign — not even a hint of where they had gone.

“This is not what I was expecting,” the Viper admitted, still trying to catch his wind. He also knew there was no way he was going to go back to Redemption with this.

Kane ignored him so he could finish inspecting the curiosity. “This is no weapon. I’ve never seen anything of its like,” he finally said.

“Squaffa load of good that does us then,” growled the assassin. His ribs hurt, and he could tell one was broken.

Kane scowled. “This is a prize far greater than any of our expectations could have produced. The last vestige of a golden age we will never know.”

“Who cares. Looks like we made this trip for nothing. My employers can’t use this, and I’m not going to even try and explain where the Berserkers disappeared to.”

Kane had a bigger concern. Why had the Berserkers abandoned their find so easily? A gnawing feeling bit into him. They were going to find out before this affair was finished. He hoped the answer wasn’t as bad as he was guessing.

Tomorrow’s Demise CH:8

I spent a few days last week re-editing this book- and the 2nd. They are my babies, you see. The first books I wrote in my adult life. That they haven’t been given the love of my later books troubles me somewhat. My last publisher gave me garbage covers and left the books out to dry. Hopefully I can do them better service in the near future. Enjoy, my friends.

Desert Attack

A soft wind blew across the dunes, stretching out to kiss Kane’s cheeks and tousle his hair. Out here, alone in the world, he found it easy to forget the strain of everyday life. The sounds of Black Tide soon faded, leaving him lost in the soothing croon of the winds. Argots patrolled the skies in search of the unsuspecting meal. The leathery birds seldom bothered with humans, though often was a menacing glare cast. Kane smiled to himself. He was at peace; the desert was his home. The only sign of civilization he had seen since leaving Black Tide was a peddler’s caravan en route to one of the bigger cities in the south. Most carried goods from Furnace Island and the Northlands beyond — goods unobtainable in the south. Heavily armed and watchful, the caravan passed the two travelers without a word.

Kane and the Viper rode on in silence. There was nothing needing to be said following their debate from a few days ago. Each received a measure of solace they sought. The truth would come out when they engaged the enemy. For now the peace was strained, but in place. It wasn’t ideal but Kane quickly accepted it for what it was and came to terms. He could live with the Viper…for the time being.

They rode at a leisurely pace, ensuring the horses weren’t overworked. Without a word, they stopped at the first well. The sun was at its highest, burning into the sands. A man unaccustomed to the heat and emptiness would have already succumbed. The desert was as unforgiving as the night. Nowhere was it safe.

Towards dusk, Kane spoke the first words of the day. “There’s a storm brewing.”

The assassin craned his neck to check the skies. He too knew the ways of the sand. “We should find shelter.”

“There’s a small rock formation about a league ahead. I think we can make it,” Kane said. Dark clouds were brewing on the far horizon. They rode a little faster, anxious to miss the desert storm.

 

It was a long and cold night. The storm hit much sooner than they’d anticipated. Kane and the Viper lay huddled in the cold without even a meager fire to keep them warm in a small cave they’d found just after dusk. They sat in silence for the most part; neither had anything to say to the other. There was something unusual about the way the Viper was carrying himself, making Kane’s nerves stand on end.

“Rough night, eh?” the Viper called above the howling winds.

Kane nodded. “Rough enough, but I’ve seen worse. Pretty sure we both have.”

The Viper only nodded in return. They watched the storm rage, neither comfortable with the prospect of going the night without a fire, but there were too many creatures about. There were far worse things than Berserkers in the deep deserts. Dragons and shadow wraiths stalked the night in search of an unsuspecting traveler for an easy meal. Once upon a time, long before the Berserker nightmare began, young men used to venture forth into the dunes in the name of quest and glory. Of course, many never returned. But it was a more civilized age then, when men could walk the night untouched and unafraid. Those days had been long lost for this decaying society.

The Viper left Kane sitting in the dark and went to the cave’s mouth. Kane could smell the aroma of the tobacco even before the pipe was lit. It was a foolish thing to do, especially for an experienced man like the Viper, but the assassin knew what he was doing. Kane saw it as a way for him to expel his fears and calm down. Both of them had spent the majority of their lives traversing these dunes hunting the bad guys. And the Viper always felt he had more to fear from civilization than from the things that go bump in the night.

Inhaling the smoke deep, he enjoyed the rich flavors. A smile came to him as he imagined a scowl on Kane’s face. “You’ll give us away,” he’d say. Who really cares? Few men had control over their time and place of death. The Viper considered it a luxury to know all that. He was looking forward to it. The thrill of the unknown. To his satisfaction this night, he believed it was going to be somewhat peaceful.

“What’s out there?” Kane asked as he quietly slipped beside him.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve been acting strangely since we left the Inferno. I know the look when a man thinks he’s being hunted. It’s a look you’ve been carrying for days now.”

The Viper offered a thin smirk. “You always think you’re one step ahead of the game, don’t you, Slayer?”

“It has nothing to do with that, and you know it. What’s out there?”

“I don’t know, but I feel. We’re being followed, and I’ll be damned if I know by what or whom.”

Kane followed his gaze out into the desert for a moment. He already knew he wasn’t going to find anything. Whether it was man or beast out there, they all knew enough to remain covered somehow and wait for the two to drift off to sleep.

“How light a sleeper are you?” the Viper asked.

“Why?”

“We’re going to have to wake up fast sometime before dawn.”

Exhaling a series of immaculate smoke rings, the Viper smiled and went back in. He double-checked his horse and weapons before curling up in the far corner and going to sleep. Kane watched him, a measure of mistrust still lurking. Was he being set up? The thought had occurred to him that this may be some elaborate scheme designed to get him away from any contact so the Viper might collect the bounty on his head — though, to the best of Kane’s knowledge, there wasn’t one.

He’d always felt a certain peace out here but was never able to fall asleep so quickly and soundly as the Viper had. The dangers far outweighed the securities. Kane knew that harm wasn’t going to fall on him unless he went and sought it out, but still…. For a brief moment, he found himself thinking about what it would be like to live in the plush green valleys and forests he’d heard so much about across the river. He went to sleep with a smile for the first time in many months.

 

Kane shot awake, reaching for his rifle. He risked a glance across the shelter and was surprised to find the assassin already manning the heavy weapon. Kane noticed a single bead of sweat trickling from his brow. He was about to comment when a low, baleful moan drifted across the dunes. A latent fear clutched deep in Kane’s stomach. He knew that dreadful sound and hoped the creature hadn’t smelled them. More men had been killed for their carelessness by the graack than any Berserker attack. Luck was not with them this night.

Loose sand broke free and spilled over a small ledge to Kane’s right. Heavy footfalls trembled the ground, gradually growing louder. The graack had picked up their scent. Risking their protection, Kane leaned out into the darkness just enough to look into the desert. Colorless moonlight blocked by a thin layer of clouds added a haunting effect to the sleeping world. Shadows moved and shifted, offering nightmares free reign on the minds of men and beasts alike. The footsteps loomed as thunder in a mountain pass, yet Kane couldn’t find the source.

And then he saw it. The graack was surrounded by a thick cloud of mist. Twenty feet tall and as massive as a small house, the graack was marching directly towards them. At first, Kane wanted to believe his tired eyes were playing tricks on him, but there was no mistaking it. The mist was gathering and moving their way. He wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn he picked out the burnt orange eyes of the monster glowering at them from the distance. Bipedal with a short tail used primarily as a club, the graack was an ancient monster of unknown origin. Little was known about the species other than they had an unquenchable thirst for fresh blood and flesh. Bones and carcasses had been found since men first laid claim to the Wastes.

The graack wailed again. It smelled food.

“Get back behind me and feed me ammo when I tell you,” the Viper commanded in a smooth voice.

Kane wondered if the man knew fear — not that it mattered, but a brash man might get them both killed. The Slayer slowly did as he was told. His kind took more chances than was often necessary, but he was no fool. You didn’t live as long as he had by putting yourself purposefully in harm’s way.

“I hope you’re ready for some fun,” the Viper said. Again, his voice betrayed no emotions. “It’s going to be an interesting night, to say the least.”

“Have you faced a graack before?” asked Kane, passing the assassin a sidelong glance.

The Viper smiled menacingly and patted the side of his machine gun. “Not with one of these. Get ready. It’s coming.”

The smell hit them first. A combination of decaying flesh, bile and feces permeated the air, announcing the monster’s presence. Cold tendrils of mist stretched into the small cave. The graack was very close now. Kane fought his revulsion, forcing the vomit back down his throat. His body trembled from the sudden cold. Instinctively, he tightened his grip on the machine gun feed. The monster’s heavy breathing assaulted their ears. It was so close, they caught images of its pale yellow flesh, sickly and scaled, through the mists. Patches of green-black hair littered its body. Lesions and puss-dripping sores covered a vast majority of its skin. The graack looked as if it had been dead for many nights, but it was anything but. The graack was fully alive and hungry.

The graack’s hulking mass blocked out the waning moonlight, filling the shelter with shadow and dread. With a smile so small it was barely noticeable; the Viper charged his super weapon and squeezed the trigger. Ion residue flew from the discharged rounds, falling on their exposed hands and burning off the hairs. Haze mixed with the mists, interrupted by a steady stream of bright orange flame spitting from the barrel. The Viper roared above the carnage for more ammo. Kane glanced at the barrel, which was already beginning to glow a deathly red.

“You’re going to melt the barrel!” he yelled.

“Ammo damn it!” the Viper snapped back.

The graack screamed. Blood and great chunks of flesh flew from the monster with every impact. The air smelled burnt. Kane could have sworn he heard the sizzling of cooking flesh above the roar of battle. And slowly, the mists retreated. The Viper kept firing, not willing to take the chance of the monster regrouping to attack again. His madness forced Kane to jerk his hand away from the trigger.

“It’s gone! Save your ammunition in case it comes back,” the Slayer cautioned.

Insanity gleaming in his red eyes, the assassin shrugged his companion away and yelled back, “I’m not taking that chance. Pop a red flare. I want to finish it off now.”

Not waiting for Kane to respond, the Viper snatched up the incendiary and leapt out into the open sands. The flare whooshed into the sky, popping a hundred meters in the air and bathing the immediate area in a bright red. Against his better judgment, Kane slipped behind the sights of the heavy machine gun and scanned the desert. Of the graack, there was no sign. It had simply disappeared. Huge pools of blood mixed with pieces of rotted flesh littered the area in front of the shelter. Kane wanted to see nothing more. Any death was difficult for him, regardless of the situation. Unlike the Viper, he did not relish taking lives. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply for the first time once the red light died away.

“Would you look at this,” the Viper exclaimed in awe as he reentered the shelter.

Kane opened his eyes. He was surprised to see the assassin standing before him holding a severed finger still dripping black blood. The appendage reached his waist before a twisted nail, broken with scrapes of prior victims buried beneath the surface, curled up towards his chin.

“Nasty thing, wasn’t it?” asked the Viper. “I don’t think it’s going to be coming back any time soon.”

Aradias Kane shifted his gaze back to the sickly colored skies. Dawn was but a few hours away. He hoped the assassin was right. They’d been lucky tonight. He wasn’t so sure that luck was going to hold out.

***

Leggis Fint put down his binoculars and unwound the sand colored scarf from around his mouth. Even though it was night the winds managed to kick up enough sand to get in those places he never imagined. His yellow eyes were crusted with grit and he swore he’d never be able to get rid of the taste of sand for the rest of his life. He and Kreegin were more than a klick away from the fight, watching from the subtle rise in dunes. Sparse shrubbery spotted the distance between them and Kane although instead of shrinking the distance they served to increase the loneliness.

They were leagues from the nearest city, if these primitive gatherings could be considered such. Helscape was unlike any world he’d ever been to, and never wanted to go to again. Wind threw more sand in his eyes but still he smiled. He liked what he’d witnessed during the battle. This Slayer was good. Much better than most of the others they’d witnessed over the past year. Maybe after the Imperium came and went Leggis would try to recruit Kane for his crew. An extra gun never hurt in his line of work.

Kreegin Faul yawned, finally waking up. He swung his legs down off the dash and jumped out of the hover jeep. Years of experience left him with the uncanny ability to sleep through just about anything. Stretching himself awake, he squinted his eyes towards where Leggis was looking. “Are they done yet? I’m about tired of all this damned sand.”

Leggis shook his head, still amazed that even after working together for so long Kreegin could find the smallest matter to bitch about. “Yes, Kreegin, we can go now. You really should have seen this one. Most impressive. I think we should follow him for a while longer. He’s better than the rest we’ve seen so far. I want to know about these people just in case we get caught up when the Imperium’s heavy fist arrives.”

“We didn’t sign on to fight a war.”

Leggis agreed. “No, we didn’t, but if we don’t stay a step ahead of those warmongers we’re going to come out on the losing end of this one.”

“Sure boss, whatever you say.” Kreegin held out his already onyx arms. Was it possible his skin was even darker now than it had been before arriving? “Can we leave now? I need a mug of ale.”

Leggis tossed his gear into the back of the jeep and climbed aboard. “Tell me again why I hired you?”

Climbing back in, Kreegin gunned the engine and smiled. It was a horrible sight to behold. Most of his teeth were broken and yellowed, but those still intact were nearly two inches long. “Because I’m the best damned tracker in the galaxy.”

The mercenaries left the beleaguered Slayer and his bounty hunting ally to their task. Like Kreegin said, there was ale in need of drinking and Leggis needed to check in with his inside man down at Fort Evans. The Imperium was approaching must faster than any of them liked.

Tomorrow’s Demise Ch:7

It’s that time again friends. Enjoy.

Trust

There was a sense of freedom in the desert despite the danger lurking beneath the surface. The open air, endless for hundreds of leagues and freed from the encroachment of civilization. Rolling hills of sand blocking the far horizon. Skies of pure blue seldom occluded by clouds.

Kane enjoyed being in the desert. He enjoyed being alone. Unfortunately he was far from it. The Viper’s company complicated what he considered an otherwise plain lifestyle. Kane found the man’s arrogance choking. It forced him to rethink his decisions leading up to their tenuous agreement. Men like the Viper were cancerous in the best of times. Driven by greed, the bounty hunter was an exact opposite of what Kane represented.

He glanced over at his new travelling companion. The Viper rode on, seemingly ignorant of Kane’s radiating disdain. Sloppy, shoulders slumped, the Viper presented a slovenly appearance. Kane wondered who in their right mind would bother hiring such a man. He felt his muscles tense. Deep-rooted anger bristled just under his calm exterior. He knew without pause that he and the killer for hire would never see eye to eye.

Yet for all of the Viper’s obvious faults Kane was able to see the lethality the bounty hunter tried so very hard to keep hidden. Secrets were just as valuable currency as coin in the Wastelands.

Kane had heard of the Viper long before they ever met. A whispered name when men didn’t want attention. A shadow of a thought just outside of the realm of consciousness. There was darkness in the heart of the world. Darkness in need of taming. The Viper was the sort who thrived upon the chaos born from that darkness. In his own way, and perhaps without knowing it, he helped keep the foul powers of chaos at bay. Funny how life could be so twisted.

Kane almost grinned at the irony.

“Find something amusing?” the Viper quipped.

Kane refrained from answering, knowing it would only serve to intensify their unspoken conflict.

The Viper’s eyes narrowed. “Not speaking eh? Isn’t that a bit childish for one of your…stature?”

“I didn’t come to play games with words,” Kane finally sighed.

“Who’s playing games? You’re the one sitting there with a sly look, praying I don’t catch you staring.”

Annoyance flared. “Call it what you will, but there is no love lost between us.”

“Why should there be? We’ve never met, Kane.”

“That is not the point.”

The Viper reined in, cutting Kane off. “Just what is the point? I came looking for you, you specifically, to help me carry out a paying job. What has your dull, unimaginative mind conjured of me that makes you dislike me so much?”

“You mean aside from you pulling a weapon on me back in Black Tide?” Kane countered.

The Viper held out empty hands. “Can you blame me? One doesn’t confront a Slayer unless there is a tactical advantage.”

Kane had no choice but to stop. The Viper’s argument was sound enough. Plenty of Slayers were slightly more unhinged than Kane, but that didn’t give any man the right to take such liberties when seeking assistance. Being naturally taciturn didn’t work in Kane’s favor either. The quiet comforts of self-reflection aside, he was finding it most difficult to work alongside what he considered to be part of the scum underside of humanity on Helscape.

“Move aside,” he said.

“What?” the Viper asked, taken back.

Kane sighed, unwilling to give in to provoked confrontation. “Move your damned horse. This bickering is pointless. You came to me with a job and I accepted. We can either spend all our time arguing or we can do what we are contracted to do. The choice is yours. We move forward now or I return to Black Tide.”

And wallow miserably in pools of your own sorrow. Not a chance, Kane. We may not have met but I know you. Oh yes, I know you almost as good as I know myself. The desert owns us. Who are we to fight it? You belong out here beside me. Fighting it is pointless, even if you know it will be your demise. But you know that, don’t you?

The Viper offered a wry grin and pulled his horse aside so Kane could continue. “Very well, but don’t think this conversation finished. I’ve merely decided it was too hot out to carry on.”

Snorting, Kane clicked his horse forward. It was still days to Rook Mountain. Plenty of time for them to get back at each other’s throats. Plenty of time.

XXXXX

One thing about nights in the desert anyone first learns is that they are cold. In fact, temperatures on Helscape plunged the moment the second sun dropped below the crest of the horizon. Without a fire or proper equipment more than one unwitting traveler died from exposure, their bones left to dust, forgotten in the endless sea of sand.

Kane sat glumly next to the small fire they’d chanced in making. Berserkers seldom went after small targets but there were bigger, worse predators stalking the night. Rifle in hand and spear gun within arm’s reach, the Slayer stared into the fire. What he thought of was only known to him.

The soft sounds of well worn boots scuffing over the sand reached him. Kane tensed only briefly before catching the Viper’s unsavory scent. He watched as the younger man finished his patrol and all but collapsed on the opposite side of the fire. A closer looked showed Kane just how hard the bounty hunter’s life had been.

Unnecessary lines creased his face at odd places. Sun spots covered his face and hands, making him seem much older than he really was. Life in the Wastelands was hard on anyone. Kane admitted that. But it was a special, or maniacal breed of man who purposefully put themselves in harm’s way for the hard comforts of coin.

They hadn’t spoken since their earlier confrontation, each content with riding in silence. Their thoughts, however, strayed down remarkably different paths. Kane remembered his village every time his eyes closed. The smell of smoke from that fateful day continued to haunt him. The Viper envisioned coffers filled to the point he never need take another job again. It was a small dream.

It was the Viper who broke the silence, having had enough of being alone. “There’s nothing out there tonight.”

“Should there be?” Kane asked.

A shrug. “You tell me. You know these deserts better than most I suspect. What hidden dangers lurk beyond the edge of our grasp?”

“Too many,” Kane said. “Too many and yet you find it appropriate to kill your fellow man.”

“Have you ever?”

“Ever what?” Kane asked.

The Viper removed his hat, using an old scarf to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Killed a man. Much different from those nasty Berserkers you Slayers are so fond of.”

Fond is most assuredly not the proper word. “No. Slayers only hunt the monsters. I would think you knew better.”

“Maybe you should try it sometime. There’s more sport in it, that’s true enough.”

Kane was less bothered by the admission than he would have imagined. “What could possibly be strong enough to make you want to kill your own kind?”

The Viper’s face darkened. “There are plenty of monsters among our kind, Kane. You don’t even need to look very hard to find them.”

“I don’t buy it,” Kane said after studying the Viper’s face. Secrets within lies. An interesting web woven. “You speak too plainly to be convincing.”

“Think what you will, but there is a sickness at play here, Kane. I know you’ve felt it. We all have. I am…to take liberty with the term, a doctor of sorts. It falls to people like me to excise that sickness.”

Kane’s eyes widened in shock. “By committing murder?”

“Murder? I haven’t murdered anyone in years,” the Viper smoothly replied. “I only work on contract and then it needs to be worth my time. Killing a man is easier than going after those damned Berserkers, and more rewarding too.”

Impossible scenarios played out in Kane’s mind. He couldn’t fathom the justification to wantonly kill other humans, or even aliens for that matter. The Berserkers were the threat on Helscape. Nothing else mattered.

“I can see what you’re thinking and you’re wrong. The Berserkers are a danger, there’s no mistaking that, but in the absence of law society devolves. When that happens…”

He let the thought stew in Kane’s mind before continuing. Morality was at its highest in the Slayer. So high he was nearly blinded by his internal sense of justice. That men could be evil was a distant belief for men like Kane. The Viper knew that. It had the propensity to distort reality when truth was needed most. The only way he was going to be successful in convincing Kane was by letting him work through it.

Even then it proved a risky process.

For his part, the Slayer frowned in thought. So much of his life had been dedicated to the eradication of the Berserkers he now realized that a small part of his humanity was dead…gone. Never to return. Perhaps even more than a small part. He suddenly feared what he might become should he continue blindly down the road he’d set out upon following the death of his parents.

When he spoke it was slow, deliberate. “Even among the worst of us there is that spark of righteousness. I refuse to believe, I can’t believe, that we have sunk so low as to prey upon each other in the midst of this crisis.”

“Think what you will. The truth is plain for any who seek it. The world isn’t perfect, Kane. It’s up to men like us to keep the natural order.” He rose, stretched, and groaned. Endless hours in the saddle often left him sorer than a good fight. “I’m going to be down. Wake me in a few hours for my guard shift.”

Kane watched him stalk towards his bedroll. How anyone could sleep after having such a conversation was beyond him. Warring thoughts prevented Kane from relaxing, much less grow tired. It was one of the few nights the Viper was allowed to sleep until the dawn.

XXXXX

Midway through the following day Kane slid from the saddle to give his mount a rest. He pat the horse gently on the neck with a gloved hand, taking the time to rub the side of the neck. Horses he understood. People, well, the previous conversation with the Viper left him with much doubt. He reached for the nearest saddlebag. The water from his canteen felt cool as it flowed down his throat, despite being exposed to extreme heat. Kane made sure to wet his lips before sealing the military grade canteen and turning to the Viper.

“How can I trust you?” he asked flatly.

“I haven’t given you any reason not to. You see me as I am. Just a man looking for a paycheck.”

Kane wasn’t satisfied. “That’s not good enough. If we are going to succeed, survive even, I need to know that I can absolutely trust you to have my back.”

“You do.”

“Prove it,” Kane said.

The Viper held up his hands in frustration. “How?”

“Tell me your name.”

“That, boy-o is not something I give. Ever.”

The Viper fell silent and continued to ride. He only went a few meters before stopping to look back over his shoulder. “Unless you earn it. If we make it through this you can have my name. No squaffa. Help me earn this commission and I’ll even consider making you tea for breakfast.”

He barked a rasping laugh and rode on. Rook Mountain called and he was tired of being in the desert. Sand and wind played murder on his skin.

Tomorrow’s Demise Ch 6

Sorry for the two day delay gang, but when my back is screaming I don’t want to sit behind the computer. It is only through great endurance and your desire to keep reading that I struggle on now! Hopefully you have enjoyed the story thus far. I’d love to hear from you whether you do or don’t.

The Hive

Flanked by a pair of winged guards, the survivors of the war party that had run into Kane marched down a crumbling hall to the inner chamber of the Berserker lord. Mnemlath held his head high, though the loss of two of his own was more embarrassing than public execution. Anger filled his cold, black eyes. He knew he would have to atone for his crimes. Not that he cared. Death was their life, whether their own or a victim’s. Killing was their sole purpose for existing. Bred from the mind of a madman, the Berserkers had become a near unstoppable force.

But they were not invincible. Their one flaw lay in their inability to reproduce. Each death brought them one step closer to extinction. The Creator’s dream was slowly dying. Clutching the hafts of their spears, the guards moved with a purpose. Shadows from the countless torches lining the walls danced in shapeless patterns. Cobwebs and dust covered most of the ceilings and floors, covering cracked marble tiles and vaulted paintings. This had been a grand hall at one time, but age and succession had worn it down.

Few Berserkers dared to venture this deep in the Hive, for this was the lair of the hand of the Creator. This was where Kargosh, the First One, dwelled. The flavor of the air grew sour with the stink of rotting flesh, smoke and excrement. They passed a well, old and dried up many years before. Mnemlath stole a glance down into the yawning dark and wondered if this was what Kargosh had in store for them. He didn’t need to look around to know that the First One’s assassins and personal guards were close at hand, lurking in the dark places where prying eyes couldn’t see.

“Stay,” growled the first guard once they entered the antechamber overlooking the main hall of the Berserker’s underground hive. Despite being buried under a quarter mile of hardened sand and rock, the lair was vast and full of life. Fires raged everywhere the eye looked, lighting the cavern in a way much resembling damnation. Ventilation shafts had been bored out to allow the smoke and gases to escape. Great columns, a thousand feet around, supported the roof from a hundred points on the cavern floor.

Mnemlath stared at his world and dreamed. He could just make out the edge waters of the huge lake back in the depths of the hive. Beneath the betraying calm of the water laid a monster more terrible than the Berserkers themselves. More than one of his brothers had been claimed by those long tentacles from the deep. The Wastelands of Helscape were unforgiving. Life was forced to struggle for survival each time the twin suns rose. Such was the cycle of life; it was no different for the Berserkers.

This foul place suited his kind, though there was so much more to be had. Life was abundant across the river, green and verdant — a life they had been denied two centuries before when the Great War had raged across the planet. The Creator once had a dream for his kind, and here Kargosh sat, wasting away in a throne once used by powerful men. As if he were afraid to achieve what they had been created for! Kargosh wasted their opportunity. Wasted what the Creator had in mind. The past was useless, broken memories for a Berserker warrior, but the promise of the future lured them down dark paths. Mnemlath wanted more. His primal hatred for humanity demanded more. The time was almost ripe for his bid for power. One day, Mnemlath would sit upon the Berserker throne, and Helscape would drown in its own blood when he did.

He let his memories carry him away, back to a time when the Creator began his obsession. The Creator had chosen this place well. It was hundreds of leagues away from the more civilized parts of the Wastes. He’d even used this part of the Hive as his private laboratory during the days of Creation. After years of effort and hardship, the Creator’s work had at last been ready to be revealed to the world. His armies had swept from their hiding places in waves, crushing the unsuspecting humans. The Berserkers ad attacked with such force humanity had had no choice but to abandon the Wasteland regions. A planetary army had been raised, and they’d actually held the Berserkers at bay along the shores of the Angril River, establishing the boundary for the world today.

Everything had been lost in stalemate until the arrival of a new enemy a few years ago. The silver-clad armored warriors of the Imperium had been called upon by the Regents of Helscape, safe in their grassland homes in faraway Draken. Thinking this would be nothing more than a mop-up operation, the Imperium had only committed one brigade, less than a three thousand men. Helscape was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of galactic design and, therefore, unnecessary to occupy. The one benefit was that it could be used as a base from which to strike at their enemies in the Xempsarillian Empire. Their miscalculations had cost them dearly. Slowly but surely, the Imperium had found itself bogged down in an ugly conflict with little hope for the victory they’d thought easy to come by.

“Inside,” the guard grunted upon his return.

Armed guards stripped him of his weapons and ushered him up the crumbling stair into Kargosh’s private chamber. This was the heart of the Berserker Empire, now grown old and wasted from lack of proper use. Nonetheless, it was the seat of power for the First One. Few torches lined the walls, for the First One preferred the tranquility brought by darkness. Mnemlath jumped as the heavy doors slammed shut but managed to keep his head up.

The ebony throne of the Berserker lord occupied the end of the short hall, hidden by shadows and looming from flames at the same time. A dark shape sat upon it. Mnemlath felt evil eyes boring into him even from here. Only a few years older than the rest, Kargosh bore a thousand times the weight. He had a long, gray beard, adding character and partially concealing the stress he felt. His leathery wings were old and covered with dust. Mnemlath always found it odd that Kargosh would look so old when Berserkers did not age like normal mortals. He snorted derisively. Kargosh was a fitting symbol of what their once grand empire had stagnated into. Named for the ancient god of Hatred, he now wasted away on his decaying throne.

Mnemlath strode confidently to the foot of the throne where he kneeled to show respect. Respect for what it represented, not the creature sitting upon it. When he finally had his way, he would remove this throne and have one made from the bones of Kargosh himself.

“Rise,” rumbled Kargosh’s deep voice.

The Berserker warrior did as he was told, stepping back some when Kargosh spread his great wings in a shower of dust.

“Again you bring me defeat, Mnemlath. Could it be that the fleshlings are getting better as time winds on?”

Mnemlath bowed his head with mock shame. “It was a Slayer. They adapt quickly. Soon, they will be able to stop us.”

Kargosh roared to his feet, arms spread in a symbol of aggression. “We, who are the perfect killers? We have killed since conception, but now you inform me that the fleshlings are better? Humbled by mere mortals! I should have your head for that cowardice.”

Mnemlath snarled the rage he felt. Jealousy nearly consumed him — almost forced him to act before it was time. Kargosh had been given every gift of the Creator. The others had been forced to learn with time. It was a travesty. The Berserker Horde deserved more.

“I can assure you….”

“Enough.” The First One resumed his seat, some of the fire gone. “I am tired of this life. For every one of us that falls, ten of their own die. Yet still they persist on fighting. Why?”

“They fight for their survival.”

Kargosh laughed. “And we do not? The day is fast approaching when this war will end, for good or bad. Leave this place, Mnemlath. The sight of you disgusts me.”

He waited until Mnemlath was nearly to the door before adding, “If I hear of more carelessness on your part, I will have your head mounted at the castle steps as a reminder for the price of failure.”

The Berserker warrior snarled to himself and left the throne room. There was much he wanted to say and do, but it was best to keep his thoughts private. To speak them would be traitorous. No; instead, he decided to let Kargosh play his little games. There was time enough to deal with him in the near future.

*****

Hitting the silent running switch, the pilot brought the assault chopper down to a few meters above the desert plains. Sand kicked up by the rotor wash would give them away if anyone was watching, but it was a risk they had to take. Captain Smythe Menzel eagerly held onto the strap holding him in his seat. He was a pale-skinned man with cola black hair and a pencil-thin mustache. A normally quiet man, Menzel patiently watched the desert for any signs of life. Both suns had gone down, and the moon had yet to rise, but the chopper was still at risk. Heavy smells of fuel and machinery drifted away from it, and with them the scent of flesh. If the Berserkers were watching, they were dead.

Using recent data provided by General Gulluette, Menzel had commandeered this bird, replacing the crew with his own men. It had taken little to sway the actual pilot and crew. After all, this expedition wasn’t worth dying over. That was just over two hours ago, and here they were.

Only Menzel knew what they were waiting for. He was a man of infinite patience, and everything about him showed it. He had left behind his Imperium army uniform and wore clothes of a relatively light fabric. They were a shifting gray and surprisingly warm. Nothing betrayed him as an Imperium officer, not even the sidearm at his hip. He’d made doubly sure of that for him and his men. Should the bird go down and they be captured, it would only hurt them more if anyone found out the Imperium was behind this.

“There!” he shouted through his helmet.

The pilot turned his head in time to see a band of Berserkers emerging from their tunnels. The village they were about to attack lay but a few hundred meters away. Menzel smiled and turned back to the troop seats, where his gunner sat ready. Giving him the thumbs up, the gunner grabbed his rifle and took aim.

“Fire it just in front of them. I don’t want any of them injured.”

Slowing his breath and focusing on the calm, the gunner leveled his weapon, gently squeezing the trigger. The missile rocketed into the shifting sands a few meters ahead of the lead Berserker. The demons jumped back from the sudden sight of the flare, even without noticing the chopper turning around and heading back to base. Menzel had accomplished his mission. The world was about to change.

 

Tomorrow’s Demise: Ch 5

I think I am going to pick up the pace a little. There are close to 80 chapters in both books. Might as well make it fun. Read on, my friends. Read on.

FIVE

Fort Evans

07:00 hours. Fort Evans, sole Imperium fortress on the Wasteland Frontier.

The klaxons started sounding just as Sergeant Kimel, affectionately known to his soldiers as Snake Eyes due to his penchant for gambling, finished dealing the cards. Already ahead in the game, he threw his hands up in exasperation as the others tried to snatch back their losses. A primate-like private sitting on his bunk placed his head in his hands, praying to the gods of his world. Men and women stopped what they were doing to grab their armor and weapons. This wasn’t a drill. It never was.

“Here we go again,” Private Klausky grumbled as he slid the silver armored shell over his head.

A blue-skinned female thumbed her combat knife and smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s go. We got a war to fight.”

Snake Eyes was the last to leave the barracks, checking the bunks and piles of equipment to make sure no one left anything vital behind before heading for the door.

Snake took one last look at the ruined card game and cursed, “Squaffa!”

Infantrymen in full battle gear filed from their barracks to the ammunition supply point to draw their ammo. Motor pools came to life with the heavy sounds of engines turning over. Final pre-combat checks were already being made. For the soldiers stationed on this lonely desert outpost, this was an everyday occurrence.

A supersonic pop announced the deployment of a recon drone. It also told them that time was against them. Weapon specialists mounted their quad-barrel ion machine guns atop their armored personnel carriers while the crews climbed into the bellies. Quick prayers were mumbled in tune with magazines being slapped into rifles and knives being thumbed for sharpness. No one was looking forward to what they had to do, but it was their job. Some were here because they had volunteered, others because it was the only safe place for them. Bounty hunters tended to stay away from Imperium units, even with the prices on some of their heads.

Atop their track, the soldiers of Second Platoon watched the growing darkness on the horizon with great interest. Newer troopers shied away from the group, their eyes filled with a certain fear no instructor could ever train them to deal with. Veterans wore blank faces, wondering how many of their comrades weren’t going to be coming home this time or if this would their last mission.

“I got a bad feeling about this,” Klausky said to no one in particular.

Seli T’lain, her blue skin in contrast to the silver armor, slapped the back of his head. “Shut up, already. You got poor Timmons all shook up!”

Klausky turned to the diminutive trooper and shrugged. There was no point in fighting a feeling so strong.

“Listen up!” Snake Eyes shouted. “Looks like this one is for real. Put your party faces on, people. Intel says there’s a recon patrol pinned down in a nearby village by a force of unknown size. The Berserkers are waiting for us. Max out on ammo. This could be a long one.”

“Looks like recon needs to learn how to party right, Sarge,” T’lain laughed. Private Timmons rolled his eyes. He knew he was going to die.

XXXXX

Colonel Artur S. Russell sat waiting in his chair in the command tower. This was the part of the game he hated. He was old for his station, much older than many of his peers. Slightly balding and gaunt, he found the war added more wrinkles than he cared for. He was a thirty-year man who had seen more than his share of frontline combat. Helscape was supposed to be a quiet job to ride out the remaining time in his contract. That had been two years ago. Now, he wondered if he was going to make it home.

A young private looked up and said, “Sir, the drone is reaching the target area now.”

“On screens.”

Blurred at first, the image quickly developed into a full-blown disaster. Homes were burning out of control. Scores of mangled bodies littered the ground. Russell sat with a look of disgust. It was no different from any other time. The Berserkers were running through and destroying everything they touched. Russell had seen enough. “Signs of life?”

“Minimal. They never knew what hit them, sir.”

Of course they didn’t. Berserkers never give much warning. “Order the howitzers to open fire. I want the reactionary force out those doors in one. Launch covering air support. We just might be able to catch these bastards in the open and save some lives.”

The ground shook from the force of the cannons firing even before he finished relaying the command. Russell couldn’t help but feel sorrow for anyone caught under the barrage of his twelve 210 mm cannons. An incoming message blinked in from the field, and the private’s mouth dropped open. The ground rumbled again under the weight of the cannon blast. He shifted focus to the security monitors. The green light atop the back gate blinked on. Reinforced titanium doors slide open, and the assault force rolled into the open desert. Twin choppers lifted off close behind, targeting the course laid down by the plumes of artillery smoke.

Russell swore under his breath. “Tell the batteries to continue firing, and have the patrol break contact. Get them out of there.”

The private jumped back, clutching his ear. “We can’t, sir. I just lost contact.”

“How close are the reinforcements?”

“Five minutes. Enemy casualties are minimal. Shall I have them engage?”

A dozen howitzers fired again.

Russell closed his eyes. He was tired of seeing good lives lost for nothing in this damned war. Everything in the command tower seemed to stop, waiting for the word from their leader. What is he waiting for they wondered? The reactionary force was almost there.

Clearing his throat, Russell growled, “Get my people the Hells out of there.”

“Red leader, you are cleared for attack. I say again, deploy at will. Good luck. Command out.”

XXXXX

The lead track pulled to a stop just beyond the outer edge of the village. Snake Eyes searched for survivors through his helmet sensors. He watched the images from the recon drone as they flashed across the visor of his helmet. He’d been on world for almost a year now and was tired beyond imagining. What body armor he wore was stained from long months of combat and the need to lead by example. His troops loved him, and his foes despised him. For Snake, there was no better way of life.

The stench of death was overpowering, even through the helmet air filters. Despite what he was told upon planet fall, you never got used to it. Snake felt his stomach churn as the air support flew overhead. Rockets and bullets ripped mercilessly into the ruins. Fire, smoke and debris ballooned into the air. They’d all seen the same events a hundred times over and the results were never far from the same.

He caught a garbled transmission patching through his helmet. The words were hard to catch and mostly broken, but he knew enough to hear the desperation in their voices. The patrol knew death was stalking them. They had been out in the field for the last thirteen days and were on their way back to the base when they stumbled into the Berserker assault. Most had been killed right at the outset, but the survivors were holding their ground in the remains of the town hall. Tired and bloody, they were down to their last. If reactionary force didn’t reach them soon, there was no way they were going to make it out.

“This is…trol Delta…have encountered formidable resis…casualties are heavy…need help….”

Snake switched his visor to thermal and aimed in the patrol’s general direction. He could make out the three remaining troopers as they fought hard for their lives. It was a desperate scene, and they had to know they were about to die. Above, the air support had halted their firing, content with circling overhead in the hopes of catching the enemy in a mistake. Then, the ground erupted around them.

The men of the patrol did their best to ignore the rain of dirt and debris as they opened fire. The commotion was great enough to keep them from spying the Berserkers, but they could damn sure hear them. The corporal left in charge begged for a check fire so they could find what they were firing at. The scared privates watched the burning town through frightened eyes yet somehow remained calm enough to reload their rifles. As if sensing the futility in their actions, the corporal tried to raise anyone on the radio. A look of disgust crossed his face, and he threw the broken equipment aside. The monsters were on them even before it hit the ground.

Snake watched in horror as his fellow soldiers were pulled under the ground and murdered. A sickness struck him. All three heat signatures were slowly cooling and fading away by the time the assault choppers resumed their barrage. Missiles and ion fire shredded the ruins, killing one Berserker and wounding another. The command to attack barked through the intercom.

The operations sergeant’s voice filled with excitement. “We’ve got them in the open! Bearing seven-oh-four, seventy meters. Hit them hard!”

Each of the quad-barrel machine guns simultaneously opened fire, spitting long streams of death into the burning ruins. Clouds of fresh debris flew up into the sky, and the echo of the guns rumbled like thunder across the open dunes. What was left of the village was efficiently reduced to mere rubble in the span of a minute. Snake was more than certain that, with the village destroyed, the Berserkers would already be on their way back to their hive. He almost let himself relax when one of the pilots broke in announcing that there was one human survivor, a small girl, in the mess, and the Berserkers were circling in to finish her off. Saving just one life from this debacle was a major victory, and the reactionary force wasted no time in forming a new plan.

The command came swiftly. There was no way the soldiers of the Imperium were going to leave a child alone for the Berserkers to murder. “Platoons on line, and hit the center of the town. I want that little girl alive.”

The APCs raced to the village’s edge and spun around, their back ramps dropping before they came to a halt. Streams of sweat-drenched combat troops emerged into the chaos. Squad leaders took a quick assessment for themselves and began forming their ranks. This was the worst situation they could face, but every man, woman and alien knew what was expected. All of them feared for their lives, but it was the fear of their combined deaths that forged them closer and gave them the will to fight. The ground beneath them trembled, mostly from the weight of the tracks and their rumbling engines, the rest from fear of the Berserkers.

Captain Marcus, the force’s commanding officer, was watching his men from the hatch atop the command vehicle. He had hoped the Berserkers would be gone before they got there, but things never went right when you came under the gun. The battlefield fell eerily silent. Why aren’t they attacking? Marcus asked himself. His answer came from the lonely sounds of cackling fires. Somewhere in that mess waited the Berserker hunter party. Sensations only combat soldiers often had were creeping back into him. He knew it was about to hit the fan any second. Fifty-two nervous soldiers crouched down and began scoping the rubble with their rifles, desperately trying to get a positive on the little girl. The sand and dust blowing around was making it near impossible for them to see past the reach of their arms, much less fifty meters. Sergeants barked for their people to group together in tight circles and protect each other’s backs until they could call off the choppers. The Berserkers instantly recognized the opportunity. They gathered in one mass and swelled into the hapless force, nearly breaking them.

A flamethrower operator spun around at the sound of something heavy approaching and was surprised when a set of claws ripped into the tank on his back. The explosion reduced both of them, as well as the woman standing closest to them, to ashes. They were the lucky ones. A trooper stepped towards them to see if there was anything he could do and had his head crushed by a massive fist. Ion fire lit up the darkening sky.

Men and women screamed out in death, and explosions began rocking the ground again in earnest. Marcus watched in dismay as his command was starting to be decimated. He knew there was only one thing to do to save even a fraction of them. As much as it pained him to do so, he ordered his vehicles into the fray. Gunners were already locked on target and firing away. A pair of monsters running along the burnt wall of a chapel was blown apart. The Berserker leader saw this new threat and howled in challenge.

The ground pounders, using this to their advantage, kept up their rate of fire and ran back to form a tight wedge. Moans from the wounded and dying tore at them, but all knew they’d suffer the same fate if they attempted a rescue. Sergeants contemplated a bold counter attack the tighter their defense became. Driven by anxiety, a fresh faced private made that decision for them. He lurched up and threw his last thermal grenade and laid down a suppressing fire. Moving as one, the rest of the platoon did the same. Ion cannons reduced the remaining superstructures to ashes.

A mass of Berserkers rose up from the ground right when the majority of troopers had to stop to reload. The closest troopers began falling as the monsters tore into them. Pain and fury raged on, and the body count rose quickly. It didn’t take long before the line collapsed and the Berserkers drove inward.

“Squaffa!” Marcus cursed. “All squad leaders get me a bead on that civie, and get her out of there. I want every last one of you onboard these tracks in five.”

He raised his own rifle and laid down a stream of fire into the head of a monster who had ducked low to remove both legs from an unsuspecting trooper. The Berserker’s head was ripping apart as he rammed a spear through the trooper’s chest. Marcus smiled to himself only to cry out when friendly fire accidentally fragged two of his own. Another fell, her body going one way and her head the other. Marcus had never felt so helpless in his entire life. He closed his eyes when a bearish Berserker leapt up and came crashing down next to one of his sergeants. This battle was hopeless.

Snake Eyes saw what was happening and knew that it was now or never if they were going to have any chance of winning through. He caught parts of Marcus’s message and snarled. “Piss on the civilian; we’ve got enough problems of our own.” His people were going down everywhere he looked. Having had enough, Snake Eyes stumbled to his feet and began barking orders. This also made him a prime target. Instincts told him to duck just before the Berserker behind him swung at his head. Snake’s combat reactions took control, and he spun in the blink of an eye, shoving a thermal grenade down the monster’s throat. He followed up by dropping down and kicking the beast in the chest. The Berserker stumbled back and exploded. A cheer went up from the surrounding troopers. Not only did it remind them that the enemy was not invincible, it also restored a measure of hope. The surviving troopers rallied around Snake, because he represented a way out, a chance to survive. He acted out of pure instinct.

Snake Eyes dropped his helmet once the optics went out and saw what was going on for the first time with his own eyes. He was surrounded by only fifteen troopers, and he was the only sergeant. Command by default, he scowled.

“Form up on me. I want a tight wedge. We’re going to punch our way through to that civie and get the Hells out of here,” he shouted above the roar of the fires.

“Looks like your party is over, Seli,” Klausky shouted.

Blood trickled down the left side of her face. Her eyes gleamed with rage. “It wasn’t my kind of party anyway.”

A grenade exploded nearby, throwing Timmons off his feet. Blood and dirt flew up from him. Klausky went to his side and fought to keep from vomiting. Timmons’ ruined body lay twisted in a small crater. His spine was broken in three places, and there was a hole in his stomach the size of a large rock. Seli helped remove his helmet, avoiding the blood. “Momma,” he gurgled, choking on the blood. “Momma, it hurts so bad. It hurts so….”

Seli T’lain looked up and yelled, “Medic!” She and Klausky went back to the fight. They’d done all they could. The rest of the squad spotted the little girl, a mess of tangled hair and torn clothes, hiding beneath a pile of rubble. Snake Eyes and Xill raced under cover and pulled the crying girl out. That’s when he noticed that the Berserkers weren’t attacking. Snake Eyes looked around in confusion. What were they doing? He and his troops were out in the open and about to rescue another, and still they didn’t move. He followed the path of their hungry looks and frowned. It was almost as if they were…

“Sergeant, here comes the Captain! We‘re saved!” a wounded private called.

The first track hit the edge of the village and opened fire. The bellow of the heavy cannon inspired fear in the Berserkers, and some danced to safety. It didn’t sit right with Snake. Berserkers never retreated from a fight. Primal instinct keep them engaged until the battle was over. The Berserkers weren’t running away at all. They were circling around to hit the track from the blind side. This reversed the role of the ground troops from rescued to rescuer. The only problem Snake Eyes could see in his plan was that it was probably going to get them all killed.

Pulling them all as close as he could, he said, “Listen up. Drop your packs, and start collecting ammo from the dead. We strike back when they engage the armor. Nobody stops until they reach the vehicles. Got it?”

They nodded, scared and nearly broken. He gave Xill a sharp look and whispered, “Don’t you dare let go of her.”

The Crendaphidian blinked his middle eye and nodded. “On my honor.”

Snake didn’t need to see their faces to know that they were all scared to death. Even after a decade of service, he was still the same way. Smoke was getting thick now that the fires were starting to die away. Snake’s throat was going dry, raw from the acrid smoke and fumes riding the air, and his palms began to sweat. This is it, he thought, the one defining moment in a soldier’s career that moved him into hero status.

The APC fired again, rocking back from the recoil. Residue and powder choked those close by.

“Ready!” Snake Eyes warned. “Grenades!”

A score of thermal explosives landed at the Berserker’s feet and melted everything for ten meters. Stunned, the monsters grasped their wounds and turned to face this forgotten threat.

“Attack!” Snake Eyes roared.

The remaining soldiers and one numbed and frightened little girl charged into the wall of doom.

XXXXX

The six men Marcus deployed to guard the command vehicle weren’t given the time to react to the brutal Berserker assault. The main gunner was all but useless, incapable of firing without hitting his own men. Marcus drew his sidearm and got off one quick shot before a flying monster took his head at the neck. Arterial blood erupted and stained his armor as the body dropped down into the hatch. A spear killed his gunner almost simultaneously. Only one of the six soldiers made it to another track.

Berserkers swarmed over the vehicle, killing the rest of the crew and taking control. The command track was lifted off of one side by a sharp explosion from two more entering the fight. It slammed back down with the Berserker leader training the main gun on the closest vehicle. Both choppers hovered low and emptied their rocket pods into the track and the surrounding area. The wolfish leader raised the quad barrels and left off one long burst before being shredded. The chopper and APC were hit at the same time, and the shock waves tossed everyone to the ground. The burning chopper howled a dying groan as it crashed into the APC.

Snake Eyes and Xill with the frightened girl clinging to him stared in disbelief at the level of the Berserkers’ ability to adapt. They were fast running out of time.

“Everyone to the tracks!”

Ten of them remained to hear him.

XXXXX

An anxious crew chief pleaded for the surviving ground forces to hurry. Snake Eyes had them gathered close, and they were battling their way closer to the APC’s lowered ramp. Air support tripled with the arrival of the reinforcements, sending a fresh round of missiles into the ground around them. Xill went first, whispering soothing words to the girl. She was safe now, and that was all that mattered. Snake watched them go by and idly wondered if the Berserkers had already left, for the wounded ones were the only ones left to fight them. He waited to until Klausky and another trooper dragged Timmons’ body up the ramp to board. The last thing he saw was the artillery striking the center of the village. Then the back ramp closed, and he was able to take a deep breath for the first time since the firefight began.