Snow fell silently on the city as Madrigal’s harsh winter began to set in. A deadly cold wave had ravaged the city two weeks ago, grinding it to a halt. But now, the city was alive, celebrating a colonial holiday known as Festival del Armonía Espiritual, marking the planet’s solstice.
Fireworks boomed and crackled high into the sky, their light reflected off the windows and combined spectacularly with the snow and night sky. Cheers and celebratory shouting echoed off the walls of the city’s enormous skyscrapers. Young couples danced or played in the snow before seeking the warmth of the indoors. It was a wonderful night.
The colony had suffered sporadic bouts of insurgency years prior, but the inhabitants had been spared by the destruction wrought on upon by the rising instability and war in the early years of the 26th century. Madrigal prospered while the rest of the Outer Colonies burned around it.
But some wars are fought from the shadows.
Ashley Coeman continued her stroll through the streets of Castra, pleasantly watching the celebrations being held as she passed city blocks but vigilant for those who trailed after her. She turned into a courtyard, bleeding into a crowd of revelers. Wary of being watched, the crowd gave her enough cover to discreetly reach into her jacket to secure her concealed sidearm and made sure the data crystal chip was safely tucked away.
She pulled it out of her jacket to make sure it was undamaged. It glowed a faint blue, pulsingly steadily. With the chip still in good condition, she gave out a sigh of relief before resecuring it back into her coat.
Content with carrying on with the mission, she departed from the courtyard, back on her path.
She came across a busy intersection. Vehicles whizzed by as Ash waited patiently to cross. The frigid air made vapor blow from her nose, she tucked her hands into her pockets as they began to shiver.
Still waiting to cross, a small crowd of people began to surround her. Despite the innocent nature of the group, she kept her guard up. Slowly placing a hand within her jacket so she could quickly draw her sidearm in an emergency. Fortunately, the sign to cross lit up without incident, and Ashley reached the other side of the street.
She passed buildings of various types from pizzerias to skyscrapers as she neared her target. She continued down the block until a faint pink color started to blend in with the snow-covered sidewalk.
Finally, her destination came into view. Mixes of purple and pink neon lights enveloped her face as she viewed the structure and its name. “Rea’s Nightclub and Lounge...” she said to herself.
She crossed a narrow alley and reach the bottom of the club’s stairs. Despite being a cabaret, the building was an imposing structure compared to the rest of the city, overshadowing all other buildings next to it.
Ashley started to climb the stairs to Rea’s, taking note of the crowd that gathered around the structure. The plaza and stairs were occupied with what looked like hundreds of people, all flaunting their fancy and luxurious outfits and possessions to each other in the cold.
Ashley was halfway up when she heard a disturbance coming from the top. The commotion also interrupted the patrons as they all looked up with her and saw two intimidating bouncers carrying a rather unpleasant and fussy clubber.
Clearly drunk, the man was shouting all sorts of obscenities at the two men, and even managed to break free of their grasp and punch one of them in the jaw. More annoying than in pain, the bouncer grabbed the man by his neck and threw him over the stairs.
The drunkard collided with the stairs several times before slowing and rolling to the bottom. Many members of the crowd had already gasped or shrieked by the time Ash turned around to face the poor man.
The man’s body was tangled at unnatural angles, paralyzed from the neck down, but still alive. He was bleeding from several lacerations, bone protruded from the areas that used to be his elbows and knees.
It was a gruesome sight, but nothing Ash hadn’t already seen before. She felt pity for the man, but still had a mission to complete, and started back on her way to the top.
“Get your damn hands off me!” she heard as she traversed the stairs. A woman was squeezing between the two bouncers as she finally reached the edge. The woman saw the man and wailed uncontrollably.
She stumbled her way down the stairs, and when Ashley reached the top, she turned around and saw the woman leaning over the man.
“...somebody please!” Her cries for help were left largely ignored, but soon enough some people came over to her, one of them using their COM pads to call paramedics. “...he can’t breathe! There’s so much blood… he’s dying!” She continued to yell out as she cradled his head.
Ashley wanted to help but remembered why she was here and turned around to face the entrance of the nightclub. She saw the two bouncers standing at the door, they bellowed as they shared a laugh over what they had done.
She cautiously marched to the two men, the woman’s screams began to dissolve away in the frigid air as Ash focused her attention on the nightclub.
Before she could say a word, the largest of the bouncers threw his hand up near her face, halting her completely. His hand was massive, almost the exact size of her head, and nearly obscured the man’s entire face. It took more than a second and moving around his hand, but she recognized him easily.
Vorge, one of Rea’s most unpleasant goons with a nasty history and face to back it up. His long silver hair fluttered in the air from a slight breeze, revealing the ugly features that occupied the left half of his face.
Once a passionate secessionist from Gao, Vorge had been exiled from dozens of insurgent groups. A Rumblehead with an unnatural, and near superhuman talent for violence. Turns out that even his methods were too extreme compared to the worst the Innies had to offer. Time and time again he’d be removed from a cell, or betrayed by his own comrades when they put a bounty of his head. He’d survive, every betrayal, every battle, and every time it happened he’d take out his vengeance on the entire cell, wiping them clean. It wasn’t uncommon for UNSC peacekeepers to receive a tip from a local civilian about an insurgent base, only to arrive at the scene to a bloodbath with no survivors.
As heinous as it was, he did our jobs for us in those years and saved us a lot of time, but it wouldn’t be long before ORION would catch up with him.
But the bad news is that when we sent four of us after him, four caskets returned. We sent more, and still the only thing we got back were body bags of our own. Not even Hector himself could finish the job. After all was said and done, thirty-three ORIONs were dead, and Vorge was still out there. Nothing was ever the same after that, and yet here she was, standing face to face with the bane of ORION.
A massive scar that ran from the corners of his forehead running through his right eye, continuing through the remnants of his nose, partially exposing his nasal cavity. The scar came to an end just above his jaw, revealing the rest of his ruined face. Burned flesh and grafted skin covered the majority of his cheek and forehead, he left eye was missing, leaving nothing but fused skin that kept his empty eye socket closed.
He slowly examined Ash and her attire from the bottom up. Ash wore a padded jacket, cargo pants that covered her thermal layers, and a shawl that kept her neck warm from the cold. She removed her hood that protected her from the elements, revealing her short fiery auburn hair. An ugly and inappropriate grin formed on his mouth as he completed his “inspection”. His fellow bouncer nudged him on the shoulder with the back of his hand and his smile washed away as he took on a more stern and menacing expression.
“No freeloaders,” He voiced sounded like the grinding of gravel and glass. “Can’t dress the part, can’t get in. Go back to your slums.”
Knowing his history, Ash needed to choose her words carefully. “I've a job that’s been completed. Rea wants the package delivered personally. If you just let me in and show me where he is, I can deliver it to him and I’ll be out like I was never here.”
“Ari don’t see nobody unless they wearin’ a pretty fine dress and got the creds to pay.” Another vulgar smirk began to build upon his face as he amused his words.
“Look, I just—”
She was cut off as Vorge leaned forward, poking her four times roughly on the shoulder with his index finger, “No creds. No entry!” His breath was rancid with the smell of heavy alcohol.
She had come too far, worked too long, and chasing too many leads to be turned away now. Annoyed, she reached within her jacket. In a blur, she pulled out her sidearm and the data chip hold them in both of her hands. Ashley moved with such swiftness that before Vorge could realize what happened, her sidearm was aimed right at his midsection. Caught off guard, Vorge hesitated and slowly walked back a step. She held up the chip, “Okay, you’ve got thirty seconds to let me in or bring Rea down to collect the chip. If not, this chip self-destructs, I put six holes in your chest, and all that nasty shit about your employer goes public. Choose wisely.”
The crowd around her had been kept unaware, but she was unsure for how long. She just provoked one of the most dangerous men in the galaxy with a bluff.
Vorge’s eyes slowly peered down at her sidearm, and back to her face. His smile had disappeared completely. He remained motionless, but his eyes burned with a silent rage. Fighting his urge for violence. After a moment, he licked the bottom of his teeth and squinted as he considered her demand.
He turned his head toward the other bouncer, his arms crossed as he watched the standoff from the sidelines and shook his head at Vorge. He turned back, laughing all the way. His eyes met with Ashley's, and soon his laugh had turned into a howl, “I like you, girl! Come, I’ll show ya to Rea.”
Vorge turned away from her and started for the door to the clubhouse. Ash silently and slowly concealed her sidearm back into her jacket to not provoke an incident, looking off to her sides to ensure nobody had created a scene. She clutched the data chip within her hand and followed Vorge inside.
Ashley entered an arched corridor, the walls were lined with purple light, pulsing and flowing to the powerful beat of the club’s music. She followed closely behind Vorge, listening to the heavy muffled bass beyond. It got louder with every step she took, and soon she could feel the vibrations of the music as it relentlessly shook the walls of the hall.
As she approached another set of doors, she took a few quick glances at the groups of people scattered at the sides of the corridor. Dilated pupils, mindless drooling, vomiting, excessive perspiration, every person she surveyed looked more screwed up than the last. She recognized the symptoms. Feride. Took the Colonies by storm a few years ago, and recently they've been spotted showing up in the Core. Earth already has their hands full to act on it, and what makes the situation worse is that when taken in small doses, Feride acts like a performance enhancer. And to the surprise of no one, insurgents have started using it to replace rumbledrug shortages. But tonight, it's these wealthy idiots' ticket to an early grave.
The two reached the end of the hall, Vorge turned his head to see if Ashley was still following. Upon seeing her, he gave a half-smile and pressed a button that opened the door, sliding into the wall.
A sudden rush of warm air blew across her face, the music’s aggressive sounds came out in full force, giving Ashley's ears an unpleasant tickle.
All around her, Ash saw endless crowds of people stretching all around the club’s atrium, darkness engulfing them. The crowds danced and drank the night away to their heart’s content, their faces unobscured only for a moment by an occasional strobe light.
Paying no attention to the crowd ahead of him, Vorge pushed on ahead, roughly pushing away clubbers who were stubborn enough to not get out of his way.
As the two approached the center of the atrium, the music had become too powerful to resist, Vorge began to slowly sway his head and arms to the rhythm of the beat.
Beyond her, Ash spotted a set of curved stairs leading to a central balcony. The rest of the atrium surrounded it, with hundreds of faceless dancing silhouettes occupying the floor above.
Vorge stopped in front of her and faced her. But before he could say what was on his mind, his eyes shot out toward his left, and his demeanor turned belligerent as if lightning had struck him.
Thanks to her enhanced hearing, Ashley heard the breaking of glass only mere seconds before Vorge noticed the scuffle breaking out near the club’s ground floor bar. A dozen or so people made the unfortunate decision to start a bar fight in the lair of one of Castra’s most powerful crime bosses, and will likely pay with their lives for disturbing the peace.
Vorge raised his arm and pointed toward the balcony, “Boss is up there. I'm sure you can find your way, I have to take care of a more pressing matter.” Vorge, towering above nearly everyone in the club, moved like a storm toward the fighters. People who had spotted him ahead of time quickly moved out of the way, and formed a circular barrier of spectators. If the fighters hadn’t already drawn blood, Vorge was about to.
Ashley had already seen what the man was capable of and continued on her way alone toward Rea. Ash was halfway there before a cry of terror echoed across the club, drowning out the music only for a second. She looked back and saw nothing but a blur.
Vorge moved like a hurricane crashing against a coastline, his ferocity had already taken down half of the fighters on his own. They laid on the ground, blood, vomit, and alcohol pooled around their unconscious bodies. He moved with such speed that none of them even realized what was happening until it was too late. He grabbed one of the men by the neck, raising him up high into the air before dealing out successive blows to his abdomen. In response, the man coughed up whatever he had eaten hours prior. Narrowly dodging the stream of vomit, Vorge gripped his neck harder and slammed his body down onto a nearby table. Other than a few involuntary spasms, the man was no longer moving or breathing.
One of the unlucky bastards pulled out a knife that he had smuggled in, and Vorge slowly turned to face him. The bar’s lights shined on the man’s face, revealing his fear for all the club to see. His hands were shaking, barely holding onto the knife as he tried to lash out, but it was for naught.
Vorge grabbed his wrist, twisting the knife out of his hand and crushing his arm and forcing it to bend unnaturally. He cursed in his native language and his screams made some of the clubbers turn away in horror, some even began to file out of the nightclub in a hurried pace. Vorge caught the knife as it fell, stabbing the man near his femoral artery and threw him onto the bar counter.
What remained of the brawlers were now grouped together, sweat dripped from their heads, and their skin paled as fear overtook them. They all hesitated to make the first move. Two of them grabbed a pair of stools, using them as futile shields.
Vorge feinted, and they bolted for the exits. Feeling satisfied, Vorge calmed himself down and waved the crowd that gathered around him, “Back to your business, people.” he said to the remaining spectators and gestured toward a group of club security to begin cleaning up the bloody mess he made.
After finally seeing him in action, Ashley now understood why ORION failed to take him down, why nearly everyone that was sent after him came back dead or worse. He was ORION.
With the brawl concluded, Ashley turned around and climbed the flight of stairs to meet with Rea.
Just as Ashley reached the top of the stairway, her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass, followed by a loud thump on the floor above her. The commotion came into view as she climbed the final set of stairs, Rea Vargas stood on the mezzanine, a furious look on his face.
His navy blue suit reeked of alcohol and tobacco smoke. He raised his voice at the barmaid kneeling below him. The woman cut her fingers as she hastily grabbed the countless glass shards that littered the carpet of the mezzanine as Rea cursed her.
Ash noticed that one of the girl’s heels was damaged, the heel had broken away from its sole. She motioned ahead to help the girl but was stopped by one of Rea’s bodyguards.
Rea escalated his abuse, cursing the girl in his native tongue, his acquired Madrigali accent accentuated his words, making him sound more intimidating than he was in reality.
The abuse got worse as he reached down and grabbed the girl by her chin. He whispered something unintelligible to Ash, before striking her on the cheek. The girl fell to the ground, shards of glass dug into her back, and she began to bleed. “Rea.” Ashley tried to elevate her voice over the music, but he didn’t answer.
To Ashley’s surprise, the girl only winced in pain, either the girl was stronger than she appeared, or she’d simply become accustomed to the treatment expected by working here. The waitress slowly lifted herself up but was abruptly stopped by Rea when he kicked her in the stomach. He only managed to stomp one time on her abdomen before Ashley stepped in.
“Rea!” she shouted with authority this time, pushing aside the guards with little effort. They resisted, quickly regaining their footing and looking startled at the person who had pushed them. But before they could draw their sidearms, Ash had already gone to work.
Like a flash of light, Ashley moved between the two. She elbowed the guard to her left first, breaking his nose and sending his recoiling back in pain, followed by a series of quick strikes at his now exposed mid-section. Before he could regain his composure, Ashley retrieved his sidearm from its holster, holding it by the barrel and clubbing the guard’s head with the grip knocking him out cold.
With one down, Ashley moved to the other who had finally drawn his weapon and began to aim it. She darted forward and sidestepped, removing the gun from his hand before he could get a shot off and grabbed his face with her hand. She slammed his head against the wall, but in a moment of desperation, the guard used one of his legs to push Ashley away only for a moment. Before he could recover from his daze, she was on him again, pulling him down by the shoulders and driving her knee up to his gut. He dry heaved and fell to the ground clutching his stomach grimacing in pain.
Ashley breathed heavily, replaying the events in her head and observing the area around her. To her, the fight felt like it had taken minutes, but in reality, only a few seconds had passed. Everyone but Rea and the girl had already noticed Ashley’s shocking entrance, and Rea’s two other guards rushed ahead of him, their sidearms were already drawn.
Trying to defuse the situation, Ashley raised her hands up slowly. The converging of his guards was what finally drove Rea’s attention away. He looked at the girl briefly and locked eyes with Ashley. Like the flip of a switch, his attitude and demeanor changed completely, a wide smile drew across his face.
Admittingly, Ashley found him very handsome. His beard was long and unkempt and reminded her of her father. While he may have been pleasing to the eye, his character was of dubious quality. ONI’s dossier given to her a week before provided her all the information she needed to know about the monster that was Rea Vargas.
“Klara, my dear! I did not receive word you were in the city tonight.” Rea walked in between his guards, using his hands to lower their weapons away from Ashley. He leaned toward one of the guards, “These are your best men?” He raised his voice again, berating his guards, “I pay you fools 1,800 creds a night and this is the best you can provide!” His forced accent was almost laughable, but Ashley did not move. “1,800 a night.” He walked toward the one guard that was still conscious, inspecting his face before knocking him out with a kick to the face that shattered his teeth. Rea turned back toward his guards with his hands on his hips. “Dispose of these damned fools before I lose my temper.”
The guards silently nodded before grabbing their unconscious co-workers and dragging them out of the mezzanine. To the bewilderment of dozens of clubgoers, the guards dragged the bodies several meters before additional club security came to assist, lifting them up onto dollies moving them into a room off-limits to non-employees.
As things began to settle down, Rea plopped down onto his seat, leaning forward as he rubbed his forehead. Exhaustion and annoyance dominated his face.
To break the silence, he ushered away most of his entourage, waving them away as he grabbed two nearby shot glasses and placed them on the table in front of him.
“So,” He poured some kind of whiskey into the glasses a quarter of the way full. “What brings the lovely Ms. Strand back into my company so early?” Rea finished pouring and took a swig of whiskey from his glass and filled it again. He slid the other glass away from Ashley, gesturing for her to sit at the opposite end.
Ashley walked over toward the seat, stepping over the remaining shards of glass as they cracked under the weight of her boots. “Moonlight.”
Before Rea could take another shot of whiskey he interrupted himself and raised his eyebrows, half in surprise, half in disbelief, and slowly turned them toward Ashley. He lowered his glass and clasped his hands together. “You do have it.”
Ashley reached down into her coat pocket and pulled out the data chip, its soothing blue glow flowed slowly along its tiny crevices before pooling together in the middle. For a moment, she contemplated the morality of what she was doing, trading away one evil to find another. A man who by all rights should be locked away in the deepest pits of some backwater world was about to have his slate cleaned forever. She understood the risks and concessions needed to be made in her field of work, but those realizations did little to help in clearing her mind.
She held the chip next to her cheek, “Every corruption scandal, every murder witness, every laundering scheme, all of your other... deeds,” She hesitated at the thought, “All of it. Locked away in this chip. It’s the only copy that exists. Clean the board and play again, they say.”
Rea finished another glass of whiskey, savoring the moment before setting the glass down and breathed a loud sigh of relief. He was full of pride, but Ashley could sense the doubt within him lingering.
“Everything, huh?” He asked.
“A deal is a deal. Every copy was erased.” Ashley slid the data chip across the table, Rea stopped it from falling over the edge as he caught it with his hand.
He held the chip between his index and middle fingers, his mind drifted off for a second before shooting his eyes told Ashley. “That’s what you spooks always say... How do I know you’ve kept your word?”
Ashley leaned forward, “Because if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation and your ass would be rotting in a cell.” Her tone left him disconcerted.
Alcohol soaked deep into his beard, he set the glass down slowly on the table. “You ONI types always play yourselves up to something fierce... but you...” Rea sat forward, pointing his finger at Ashley. He examined her from head to toe, only for a brief moment, nodding to himself like some kind of psychiatrist. “...you’re more, something wicked. I like that in a woman” He said brazenly.
“There’s only one thing I’m here for.”
“Yes, of course.” He patted the outside of his coat, searching for something. When he found it, he reached into his inside pockets and pulled out a translucent rectangle no larger than his hand. He flipped it around and grabbed the object by the corner, it expanded to twice its size and came to life, giving off a faint sage color as he read the screen. Ashley was familiar with the device. It was known as Kairan, a device most people commonly referred to by its misnomer, “digitized paper”. In an age where privacy was near nonexistent in the core worlds, Kairan provided many with the means to store information and data away from prying eyes. Security on the device was so unyielding and revolutionary that not even ONI’s best programmers and intelligences could crack into, at least enough to give ONI pause for a time. Eventually, with some clever political maneuvering, they managed to tie the creators of Kairan to some obscure insurrectionist group and got the device banned. With production stopped, Kairans became highly treasured artifacts. And now it would soon be in her hands.
“But there’s just one thing,” Rea looked up from the screen and looked right into her eyes. “I’ve read the files. Needed something to help me fall asleep on lonely nights. This isn’t just some tag and bag op, this is personal to you. Something close.”
“Was close to me, but now I only want to end this job.”
He interjected with sounds of disapproval. “Oh, no, no, no. You wouldn’t come all this way, for all this trouble just to take this and leave,” He waved the device back and forth. “What is it that you truly want, my dear Ashley?”
Her eyes widened. She scanned the area around her, watching to see if she had been caught in a snare. She kept searching for threats around her, all the while not trying to provoke Rea into doing something stupid. The club was still full of civilians, if she had to fight her way out, a lot of innocents would be caught in the crossfire. That thought sent her drifting back to her past, back to everything she had done in those terrible days. Her hand instinctively reached down to where her sidearm was concealed, but in her trance, a voice called out. It was warm and low, reaching out to her. The voice was familiar but almost completely alien to her. Ashley called out, but the voice began to drift away and faded from her view. It brought her back and she exhaled, she felt like she was underwater for hours. She hesitated, the words stuck in her throat. “I—”
But a sea of warmth rushed over her face, she was calm. Ashley knew the words. “Justice, I suppose. Stability. Order.” She looked down at the table and took a drink of whiskey from her glass. “Closure. That’s what I need. To finally understand what happened all those years ago.”
“You and me both.” Rea tossed the device at Ashley. She caught it with one hand and clenched it close to her chest.
“We’re nothing alike.”
He stroked his beard and chuckled. “Oh, but you are. When you finally read what’s on there, you’ll finally come to terms with what you are.” Rea pulled out another one of the Kairans, as well as the data chip she had given him.
Ashley watched his place the chip on the device, the chip glowed a bright blue and flickered away. “There.” He threw the chip to the side, rolling away before it fell and bouncing from one stair to the other, clinking all the way down. “It’s done, I’m a free man now.” He said with an arrogant smile.
“Don’t be so sure of it.” She said as she skimmed through one of the files on the Kairan. Most of the file was useless to her until she came across a passing mention of Dwarka ‘06. Most of it was classified information she had never seen before, it disturbed her. Operation: HEMLOCK they called it, the day that broke ORION.
“Oh, I know. We’ll see each other again, I’m sure of it.” A half-smile raised on his lips. “But until then, get the hell out of my club.” For once, they were on the same page.
Ashley closed the Kairan and tucked it away safely in a coat pocket. She left the mezzanine the same way she had entered. She spied droplets of blood that still remained from her earlier handiwork, the blood was halfway stained when she continued down the stairs.
She walked through the crowds and waved off drunkards that tried to stop her and strike up a conversation. Clearing the crowd, the entrance hallway was finally in view, she stopped in her tracks when she found Vorge, standing high up on a balcony above. She returned his scowl with a frown and continued on her way out of the club ignoring him, but his gaze never left her.
The drug heads and drunks of the hallway were gone or removed, but the stench of their depravity remained, stronger than ever. A haze occupied the hall as well, obscuring some of her vision. The smell reached up into her nostrils and she coughed. The entrance to the club opened and Ashley stepped outside.
She took a deep breath of the cold, fresh air of Madrigal. She felt alive and glad to no longer feel trapped in that suffocating building. She looked up into the night sky for a while, finding the brightest stars that shone through the heavy light pollution of the city and she wondered to herself if one of them was home. Her mind raced to the memories of Minister, of her parents, her sister, and to her surprise, even that night on Beta Gabriel all came flooding back to her. In the freezing night of the Madrigali winter, those memories felt like a warm summer day. But it was late and getting colder by the minute, the celebrations and fireworks had died out, everyone returning to the warmth of their homes. The chill of the air started to discomfort her, and light snow began to fall.
She walked down the long stairs, remembering her first encounter with Vorge, and the man he had thrown from the top. She visualized the couple at the bottom of the stairs, the man twisted unnaturally and dying, the unsettling screams of his partner. But they were long gone now, an ambulance arriving at the scene, rushing the couple to a nearby hospital, only for the man to bleed out and die in the emergency room. She wanted to hope the man would live, but it wasn’t the first time she saw someone being mangled in that way.
Clearing her mind, she reached the bottom of the stairs and crossed the street into an alley. Feeling safe and alone, she spoke. “Did you get everything?”
“Everything.” The voice responded.
“Good.” The earpiece dangled from her as a gust of wind rolled through the alley. It was disguised like an earring, with a small, virtually invisible piece extending curving into the ear in order to hear from the other side.
“What was all that about him knowing your real name?” The voice said.
“It’s not important, Levi.”
“Are you sure? You seemed a little spooked. Your heart rate spiked, you froze...”
“It was nothing.” She said sternly.
Levi paused, “If you say so. When will you be back in Fairbound?”
“I should be home in time for breakfast.” Ashley exited the alleyway and turned down into a stairway leading to the city’s underground train system.
“Good. Because there’s something you need to see.”
It was cold. Colder than she had ever felt before, and she looked down at her hands they were as black as coal. Fear overcame her and she screamed.
But no sound came from her mouth.
The reality she found herself in began to darken and collapse, drawing closer to her with an ever increasing speed. She closed her eyes and waited for the void to envelop her.
This was just a nightmare, she thought. Any moment now the void would collapse and she’d awaken in the comfort of her quarters.
She waited, and waited, and waited. But nothing changed, locked here with no escape, the void collapsing on itself infinitely.
From where she stood, Ashley felt like she had been there for an eternity. She had nearly given up her wits until a sudden sharp and shrill voice echoed from every conceivable point. Startled, her eyes shot open scanning the featureless void that surrounded her.
There was nothing for a time, then came the grey mist, guiding her to somewhere deep into the void.
Ashley ran her hands through the mist and walked forward. The mist felt like silk, a white veil that flowed gently and gracefully across the blackened void around her. It was beautiful. She kept walking for what seemed like hours, but finally stopped ahead of a cliff, extending down into a bottomless abyss.
She felt like jumping, hoping that somewhere down there it would throw her back into her own reality. She stared down into the pit and saw something move from depths. The shadow slithered along the cliffside, paying no mind to Ashley. It terrified her, but she could not look away. The more she stared into the abyss, the more it stared back; the urge to jump growing stronger with every second.
No! She felt herself losing control of her own body, her legs moving on their own toward the cliff. Ashley fought herself with every step but those efforts were futile. Her hands were frozen solid from skin to bone, and she couldn’t remember her training. Her body was pulled further to the abyss.
Please. She had been pulled to the end, teetering on the edge of life and death. She no longer fought, no longer resisted. Ashley stared back into the abyss again, the shadow was gone, retreating back into the darkness from where it came. A calmness overtook her, and she closed her eyes. With a final deep breath, she moved her leg over the edge.
Ashley leaned forward, accepting the abyss, but when she opened her eyes, her foot was planted on an invisible platform, a bright white light was rising from the abyss below.
Before she could make sense of what was happening, an explosive burst of wind shot upward from the pit, sending her flying back.
Please wake up. Ashley shielded her face from the gusts as she stood herself back up, her body felt sore and bruised. Her vision was blurred by the wind, but she could hear an aggressive, crunching sound as something rose high in front of her.
The crunching began to slow and wither away, the pillar stopped growing. The winds ceased, and Ashley’s vision cleared.
It was a mountain peak, black and gray in color. At the top Ashley spotted a figure, its features shadowed and ambiguous. But the closer she looked, the figure morphed into something feminine with long black hair.
The silhouette looked directly at Ashley and beckoned to her before walking away to the center of the peak.
A final gust of wind rushed from behind the mountain and washed over Ashley’s face, It was warm. Her hair waved in the breeze and as the wind settled and particles resembling snow fell around her.
Ashley walked forward to the base of the mountain and looked down. She cried out in anxious glee at the sight of her hands. They were no longer frozen down to the bone. She brought them together, similar to a prayer to feel the newfound heat emanating from them. They were warm, full of life. Holding her face in her hands for a moment, her cheeks took in the warmth.
Calm and confident, Ashley began the long journey to the top of the mountain.
She had climbed up halfway when a shriek come from below. It was a pained sound, and joining it were the sounds of ripping flesh and tearing bone. It disturbed Ashley but she had no other choice but to keep climbing, only stopping when a figure appeared in the corner of her eye.
It was the shadow again, rolling and wriggling on the ground in torment, something was happening.
Still climbing, Ashley found a small ledge to pull herself up to. From there, she stood there watching the shadow continue to thrash around. The sounds of gore got worse, making Ashley feel nauseous and sick.
She clutched her stomach and placed a hand on the mountain’s side. The fleshy and crunching sounds worsened even more. It tore its limbs apart, again and again, reshaping itself into something more grotesque than the last. The creature did this several more times, it made Ashley throw up a tar-like substance.
The creature’s wailing stopped abruptly when a pair of legs ripped through its skin. It tumbled over itself trying to regain its balance, but could not learn to stand up properly.
It was frustrated now and roared so loud it made Ashley’s ears bleed. It made a watery gurgling sound and it collapsed, exhausted by its struggling. Ashley wiped her mouth, coughing up the last of the tar-like liquid and began to climb again.
She nearly reached the peak when a high-pitched screech rang out from below. The creature had finally learned to use its newly grown legs, and it stood upright. But something was wrong.
Before Ashley could comprehend what she was seeing, two pairs of feathered wings sprouted out from its back. They were golden in color, glowing brightly with an almost heavenly aura. The color began to flow from the wings to the rest of its body, giving shape to the creature.
Allured and entranced by its sight, Ashley marveled at the glow that radiated from it. The creature took flight, flapping its wings through the air and circling around the mountain. Up close, Ashley now recognized it.
It took the form of a hawk, the blue-crowned hawk from Meridian to be exact. Pure gold in color, and twice the size of a blue whale.
Posing no discernable threat, Ashley climbed the rest of the way.
She pulled herself up to the top. Exhausted, she laid there for a while. Her arms were sore, feeling like they would fall off if she tried to stand up. But as she was laying, the womanly figure returned, a white glow obscuring Ashley’s vision. She stood up, not of her own will, watching the figure walked slowly toward her.
Ashley squinted, shielding her eyes with a hand. But as the woman got closer, the glow faded away revealing the woman bare.
Her heart skipped a beat, she could not believe it. It was her. “Carissa?” Ashley called out.
Carissa tilted her head in bewilderment and smiled, but she did not respond. “Carissa? It’s me, Ash. God, it’s been so long.”
Ashley walked slowly toward her, her eyes full of tears. “It’s me, Riss. It’s me…”
She ran to her, hugging Carissa tightly. By now, Ashley was bawling. But when Carissa did not make a move or sound, she released her from the embrace. She stared into Carissa’s eyes, but nothing looked back. Only a lifeless vessel of flesh and bone stood before her.
Without any expression, Carissa wiped away Ashley’s tears from her face. Her hand was cold, making Ashley shiver from the touch. She wanted to say something, but before she could, Carissa pulled her close and kissed her.
Her lips were freezing, and a terrible dead odor came from her body. Ashley pulled away in discomfort, backing away from Carissa when she saw the knife.
Ashley tried to open her mouth to speak only to be met with the biting cold that froze her lips shut. A maniacal laugh echoed from Carissa, her eyes were now as white as milk glass. She brandished the knife and charged at Ashley. Her eyes widened in fear, unable to move.
Carissa brought the knife down, but Ashley managed to barely block the strike with her arm. She now struggled with Carissa, holding the arm that held the knife with all her strength. But Carissa proved too strong, her ORION enhancements were present, while Ashley had hers stripped away. Carissa overpowered her and brought the knife down.
It felt like she had fallen into a pit of fire, the knife buried deep into her lower abdomen. Ashley looked down at the wound, she cupped some blood in her hand and wiped it across Carissa’s face before collapsing to her knees.
Carissa was silent again, standing over Ashley as she bled out. She stood staring for a while, unblinking. With a final satisfied grin, Carissa turned and walked to the side of the peak. In the distance, the hawk came into view.
It landed on the peak, it’s golden aura shining bright in her final moments. It looked at Ashley, then Carissa. She nodded at the hawk and turned back to face Ashley, intent on watching the hawk finish her off. Eager for its meal, the hawk walked over to Ashley’s limp body, sniffing her scent and her blood. A last, triumphant roar resonated from the hawk before it looked back down and devoured Ashley, engulfing her in darkness.
Ashley awoke in a cold sweat, unable to breathe. She was in her quarters, tucked beneath a weighted blanket. The room pulsed a dark red color as her alarm pulsed silently from her bedside shelf.
Ashley felt disoriented and could not see straight. Her vision was blurry, her arms and legs feeling sore to the bone. Every part of her body ached, feeling like she had spent days climbing a mountain.
She threw off the blanket, wearing nothing but a basic shirt and briefs. A sharp pain suddenly came from her abdomen, she sucked in air and held at the source of the pain with her hand. The same spot she had been stabbed in her dream. It burned as if she had been branded, but there were no bruising or marks to be found.
She rubbed a gel around it, hoping to quell the burning feeling,
But when she applied the gel, the sensation turned from a slightly uncomfortable feeling to a painful sweltering. It felt like her insides were boiling. She ground her teeth and ripped the gel away, screaming and cursing herself before throwing it off to the side. It smacked against the door, sticking for a moment before finally falling to the ground.
Ashley sat up at the side of her bed, rubbing the sides of her face before standing and walking to the washroom. She undressed and took a cold shower.
When it was done, Ashley walked out of the room and toward her bed, still drying off the inside and back of her hers. It was then she noticed the pale blue light pulsing silently near the main door.
She pressed it and listened.
“Good morning, ma’am. How was your rest?” It said.
“Thank you, Asura.” Ashley searched through her drawer for something to wear. Undecided, she threw several sets of clothing onto her bed. Frustration built up within her as she forced herself to remember the dream she all. But all she could remember was waking up to the feeling of something stabbing her, and the phantom wound on her stomach. “It was unpleasant.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.” The AI paused, the two spheres that made up its avatar collided, forming into a single large sphere. Rather than adopt a human avatar, Asura instead composed of two pale blue spheres, orbiting around each other endlessly and occasionally colliding together in a brilliant pale blue explosion of light, similar to the dance of two neutron stars before merging into one. It was a dumb AI, commissioned many years ago by ONI to serve in military intelligence and support roles for agents in the field. Ashley had never been very fond of AIs, but she did her duty like everyone else regardless.
After a moment the AI spoke again, “Agent Kestlin requires your presence in the operations room.”
She turned her head halfway, “Did they find something?” Ashley slid an olive turtleneck sweater over her head and pulled it down. After fixing her hair, she slid on a pair of tan loose-fit cargos.
“Yes, ma’am. Agent Benson’s findings from earlier had, as humans say, ‘opened a can of worms’ on the investigation.” A half-smile drew on Ashley’s face as the AI tried to mimic Benson’s voice. “With my assistance, the Kairan was scrubbed of all information and copied to several secure servers. The files gathered on Subject Hyde and his followers revealed information that Agent Benson saw to be of personal importance to you. They await your review in the operations room.” The AI split back into two separate spheres, circle around each other over and over again. It reminded her of a ballroom dance commonly seen during European Middle Ages.
“Importance to me?” she thought for a moment, and then it came to her, “You mean—”
The AI interrupted her before the rest of the words escaped her mouth, “Ma’am, I cannot judge the content that relates to you, I only know that Agent Benson believed it was something you needed to see with your own eyes. Again, both agents Kestlin and Benson request you in operations.”
“Right,” Ashley looked into the mirror, staring into her own eyes, still trying to remember her dream. The harder she searched, the more the dream fragmented and was lost to the deepest corners of her memory. Giving up, she tended to her unkempt hair. It was as red as fire, it was wavy, and reached just barely to the tops of her shoulders. Ashley tied the hair into a loose bun and turned to the door. “Tell them I’m on my way.”
“Yes, ma’am. I shall notify them immediately.” The AI flickered away and dissolved into the air.
Ashley walked the hallway alone, her footsteps echoed off the walls as her footsteps thudded against the metallic floor. The lights were dimmed, indicating that it was still night outside. She could hear the faintest sounds of a chaotic blizzard whistling above. She shivered at the thought of being out there. The winter here made her think back to all those summers growing up on Minister, dreaming of the honeyed summer wines from Port Violet, picking ripened lemonhearts from their trees, the rolling breezes coming up from the windswept hills of the Sebald plains not too far from her home. These memories warmed her, forgetting about the chill that occupied the hallway. She always dreamt of going back home, back to Minister and the farm, back to her apartment in the city. But she had been gone for years, seen too many things, lost too many people. She wasn’t ready to reopen old wounds yet.
The walls groaned lightly as the blizzard outside intensified, a light flickered here and there and shadows danced around her. Ashley reached the end of the hall, the operations room just beyond the door in front of her. She took another step forward, and the door opened, seemingly already aware she was there. A warmth washed over her face as the door opened, the heat generated from the room filled the hall with crisp, warm air.
The operations room was alive with green and yellow lights, wires snaked and tangled around the floor in every direction. If Ashley wasn’t careful, she was sure she’d trip over one.
“It’s too dangerous.” a woman’s voice said. “We’re only a handful of people. Going after Dressler now would only fan the flames. He’s surrounded by fools and fanatics night and day.” The voice became clearer as Ashley walked closer, it was Kestlin. She was speaking with someone Ashley has not met.
“He just threatened thousands of people, Larra.” He spoke with a heavy Arabic accent, ancient and gravelly. It was familiar to Ashley, characteristic to people from Camber. “Madrigal will drown in a panic if this video gets out to the public.”
“We’re not an army,” Larra was leaning over a table. “The Sink doesn’t believe Dressler is as dangerous as I say. ‘ONI has bigger priorities.’ she says.” She rolled her eyes.
“You might not be an army, yes, but I never said you needed one. You already have everything you need.” The man chuckled softly with a half-smile. “Hard to believe the great Larra Kestlin allowed this one to slip under her nose so easily.”
Larra raised an eyebrow, confused and staring at the man as if he had gone mad.
“There’s no need to spy,” The man turned his head and looked directly at Ashley.
Ashley was startled, unable to move as his eyes burned into her own. When she stared back, all she saw in his eyes was a cold emptiness. His presence unnerved her, a feeling she hadn’t felt since…
Larra looked around, trying to pinpoint what the man was looking at. Unable to find Ashley, she asked him a question that was ignored. He never took his eyes off Ashley.
Finally, Ashley stepped out from where she had hidden, walking slowly to the two and into the light.
Larra recognized her, the look of annoyance on her face. “Glad to see you’re awake,” she said sarcastically.
Ashley pretended to ignore her, facing the man. “I’m sorry for eavesdropping, we don’t often see new faces around here.”
“Well, I hope my face is not one too many.” He tried to make a joke.
An awkward smile drew across Ashley’s face only for a moment, but enough for the man to notice. To break the silence, Ashley held out a hand and introduced herself to this stranger, “My name’s Ashley.”
The man took her hand and shook it, his grip was strong and commanding. He gave a slight polite bow of his head and said, “My name is a rather long and boring one, but all my friends call me Hagi.” His face was hard and ancient, his hair slicked back and a beard that was poorly managed and thinning. There was a slight stench to him, but not as bad as to make someone recoil. His dulled brown eyes pierced into Ashley’s, she felt a sense of unease around him.
“Friends,” Larra sneered.
Hagi refused to take the bait, keeping his eyes locked on Ashley, studying her.
Feeling awkward, Ashley broke eye contact, speaking to Larra. “I was told you needed me here.”
Larra was no longer kneeling over the table, her smile had faded away. She took a seat on a chair behind her, rummaging through a desk next to her. Finally, she pulled out a dark rectangular block and threw it onto the table. It was the Kairan. “This.” It was no longer translucent, but charred black and burnt all the way through. “Benson almost melted half his face off when this thing went off. Looks like you got played. Again.”
Ashley’s concern went to Levi first, walking suddenly closer to Kestlin. “Where is he? Is he okay?” Ashley said in a tone that sounded far more confrontational than she intended. She didn’t understand the suddenness at first, reacting anxiously and reaching for a weapon on her hip that wasn’t there. They'd been at odds ever since Ashley was assigned to Madrigal a few months prior. The investigation had stumbled under Kestlin's leadership, only making progress again when Ashley took an active role. She no doubt had felt insulted, and the tension between them lingered and grew stronger with every new break in the case.
Kestlin calmed herself down and took a breath. “He’s fine. His hand is burned, nothing too bad but he won’t be working the Ops for some time.”
“That’s good.” A feeling of relief swept over her, her attention turning back to the broken Kairan on the table. “So, we lost our best lead to Dressler.”
Larra shook her head. “We managed to recover most of the data on it. Benson, Asura and some techs spent hours combing over it, extracting and copying data as much as they could. But once we started digging out more information on him they apparently triggered some hidden failsafe. Next thing we knew half the Ops room was on fire.”
“I knew it was too good to be true. I need to get answers from Rea.” Ashley started to turn back to the hallway door to gather her things and hunt down Rea.
Larra stopped her. “You put too much faith in your contacts, Coeman. And now it seems your last contact mysteriously fled town. Rea’s gone, his nightclub: raided by the Madrigali government for distributing Feride. All the while you’ve been locked in your room for three days.”
Three days? Ashley thought. Her voice was like a whip on Ashley’s ears. “No, that’s not right.”
“Yes, it’s not. We’re back at square one no thanks to you.” Larra stood from her chair.
Ashley’s face flared with anger, about to say something she would regret.
But a hand rested on Ashley’s shoulder and she turned around. It was Levi, wearing a plain white shirt and jeans. “There you are.” His voice sounded like he hadn’t seen her in years. “I’ve been wondering where you’ve been. You dropped off the device and retreated to your quarters before I could even say anything. Are you alright?”
Ashley ignored that last part, staring at the bandages that covered his hand and up to his elbow. She could see some exposed flesh, the burns were deep and dark and unpleasant to look at. “Your hand.” She said with a quiver in her voice.
Levi smiled. “I appreciate the concern, but I’m fine. Really. There’s a more important issue at hand, and I hope you don’t run off on me this time.”
Ashley laughed and followed Levi to the Ops center at the end of the room. Larra was still standing, a scornful look on her face as Ashley passed by her.
The Ops center was a gigantic computer that occupied a third of the room. Made up mostly of screens, the Ops was tapped into every city on Madrigal, allowing surveillance of everything and everyone on the colony. It connected to several servers that also occupied the Ops room with the best security and encryption ONI could provide. An extra layer of security was the safehouse’s artificial intelligence, Asura protecting computers and servers from any and all outside interference, always standing guard. Ashley had not always been a strong advocate for artificial intelligence, but they were dutiful constructs and that’s all she needed from them.
Levi sat in his chair in front of the computer, typing in commands and bringing up a folder on the screen. He stopped himself and swiveled in the chair to face her. “I hope you’re ready. I tried to recover as much as I could, but the device locked me out, and soon after that it popped like a balloon and gave me this.” Levi raised his bandaged hand and waved it around jokingly.
Ashley was beyond curious now. Her mind was racing, seemingly already knowing of what that folder would contain, but afraid to look anyway. “Show me.” Levi nodded hesitantly and turned back to the computer, opening the file and showing her the first file. It stunned her.
“I’m the only one here that knows what happened that day. When I came across it myself, I couldn’t believe it. I can’t even begin to think what you’re feeling right now.” Levi said looking down. His eyes refused to meet her either out of respect or fear.
And he was right, he couldn’t know what she was feeling. Even she could not believe what her eyes were showing her. It was a group photo of twenty-seven, no, thirty people together. Most of the faces were blacked out, with the exception of a few. Only one stood out to Ashley, as recognizable as the back of her hand. Pale skin, black hair, and eyes that blazed like hot coals. “Are you sure that’s her?” Ashley said to nobody in particular, not taking her eyes away from the screen.
Levi found the bravery to look her in the eyes. “I cross-matched it with dozens of databases, even the ones ONI doesn’t want me to see. It’s her. Carissa Yun Zheng. Born two November twenty-four seventy-six, O-positive blood type, Hundred and eighty centimeters, Navy Special Warfare.” Levi stopped himself, his eyes looking down again. “Killed in Action on Dwarka during a counter-insurgency operation gone wrong, eight years ago.”
That last one knocked the wind out of her. Ashley’s face was as pale as milk, she felt like fainting. “Where is she?” Ashley demanded.
Levi opened his mouth to speak, but the words became stuck in his throat. It was then a voice from behind answered her.
Hagi stood behind her, hands in his pockets. “If you want to find her, you must find yourself first. Remember who you are. What you are.” Ashley turned to Hagi and felt the tears building on her eyes. The coloration returned to her face, and she wiped away the tears before they could fall.
“If Dressler has her—”
Hagi interrupted her before she could finish. “How do you know she isn’t working with him? Are you prepared to find your friend alive, only to find a stranger? Dressler is manipulative, cunning, charismatic. He broke ORION, it’s time to put the pieces back together.”
“ORION was a weapons project spearheaded by the Marines. Didn’t go beyond the planning phases.” Levi said with a puzzled look.
“That’s the official story anyway. The product of ORION stands before you.” Hagi gestured with his hands toward Ashley.
Levi only looked more confused but didn’t say anything.
“ORION is gone. Shut down quietly after we took a beating by Dressler’s men. ONI didn’t know what to do with us so they shipped us off somewhere else or made us retire. We’d need an army to go after Dressler.”
No, not an army. Dressler is weak, an aging man full of delusions and fantasy. Infighting plagues his people now that he edges closer to death. You’re all we need to finally bring him down for good. Come.” He gestured to her to follow.
Ashley wasn’t so sure. Dressler and his men fooled her and her comrades before, ending in a horror show that got most of her friends killed and ruined others for life. She sensed a trap lingering over her, but couldn’t resist the chance at getting revenge that was long overdue.
Hagi and Ashley approached the table where Kestlin remained. She was reading something on her datapad and looked up. “Yes?” she said, bewildered as the two loomed over her.
“Who are your two best men?” Hagi said, his body blocked the light, leaving a shadow on Kestlin’s face.
“Jonah and Bira, why?” Her eyes darted suspiciously to Ashley.
“It’s time to make our move. Dressler’s days are numbers,” Hagi turned his head to Ashley. “Suit up, Ms. Coeman. It’s time to remind him that the ORIONs are still kicking, and here to help him into his grave.” Ashley could feel a fire burning within him as he said it. Much like her, this mission felt personal to him and she slowly began to understand why he was here. She watched him turn away from the table and walk out into the hallway, fists clenched and ready for a fight.
When Ashley turned her head back to Kestlin her face was all that needed to be said. The shocked expression, her eyes staring deeply into Ashley as the realization came. It gave Ashley more satisfaction than she could ever admit.
The next day, people moved back and forth around the safehouse like ants in a colony as they prepared for the coming raid. Ashley slipped into a thin titanium skinsuit that was broken in two halves. It covered most of her body except for her head, forearms, and legs. It was a tight fit and clung stubbornly to her skin. It wasn’t comfortable by any means of the word, but it would keep her alive.
I am the sword.
Then, she donned a ballistics vest, sliding it over her face and bringing it down, securing the straps tightly around her waist.
I will be the warden of Earth and her Colonies, casting down those who would wish them harm.
Next, was her jacket, padded and lined with insulation to combat this planet’s harsh winters. The jacket was riddled with holes that had long been patched up. She wasn’t supernatural by all means, but this jacket had saved her life more times than she could count. It only felt appropriate to take it again as she was about to jump into the lion’s jaws.
They called for blood. . .
Ashley picked up the sidearm on her bed, inspecting it. It was an M6A magnum with a black polymer finish, full of scars and scratches of brown and silver from years of use. She checked to see it wasn't already loaded and slid a fresh magazine into it. She switched the safety on and tugged it safely into her jacket.
. . .and I will answer them with the fury of my brothers and sisters.
The words echoed in her head as she stared at her face in the mirror. Her memories went flooding back to that day when ORION finally fell apart.
Operation: HEMLOCK was meant to be routine. ORION had already taken out hundreds of groups that threatened stability across the Colonies, and this one was seen as no different than the last. But we were wrong, all of us. Too arrogant to see the signs that she could now see. All it took was four of them. Our comrades in arms, or so we thought.
Even for ORIONs, the war had taken a toll. Some became disillusioned with the job we were doing, and Ashley couldn’t blame them. ONI turned us into tools of war, and we were damn good at it. But when more and more of our missions became more about settling scores rather than preserving the stability and security of civilization, some began asking questions. The answers they got sent them down a path from which they could never return. Comrades became enemies, and their plan was set in motion.
HEMLOCK started off well enough, infiltrating a Prosvetite stronghold, and eliminating most of their leadership. But when the dust settled, most of ORION was in the trap, and soon enough hell let loose.
First, it began with us losing our communications with the mission handlers, then came the blinding flashes of light. Ashley’s ears were still ringing when her eyes cleared, and she could see the bloodbath around her. Ten ORIONs were already dead, their blood pooling together into a large puddle. Carissa was among them, her body was soaked in her own blood with lifeless eyes staring back at her. The rest of them were either fighting back or tending to the wounded. The Sówka brothers were leading the effort, ordering the retreat as shadows danced across the atrium, firing down on them with every weapon they had. There were hundreds of them, like ghosts coming back from the dead to haunt them. Above them on a balcony, Leon Dressler watched the massacre, the four turncoats stood beside him, their faces dark and unreadable.
Ashley eventually managed to take cover behind a rusty iron bar, bullets whizzed around her head as she looked for a weapon. But before she could pick up her rifle and return fire, multiple bullets caught her in the leg, ripping through flesh and bone. It sent her to the ground, and she felt like she had been tackled. The Sówkas was still ordering everyone to retreat, with one of the ORIONs blasting a hole into the wall to allow them to escape. Noah, the youngest Sówka found her sitting behind a wooden bench, half her face caked someone else’s blood while her own rushed from the wounds in her leg. He carried her in both hands. She could hear the rounds cutting into Noah’s back as he carried her, he grimaced every time he was hit. The last thing she saw was the eldest Sówka, Bartosz shouting orders left and right evacuating everyone that could still walk while he covered them. But a sudden explosion rocked the atrium where he stood, engulfing Bartosz in a ball of flame. Noah cried out, and Ashley lost consciousness soon after that.
When she woke up six days later aboard the UNSC Ambient Dream, Noah visited her and told her the news. Twenty-four ORIONs were dead, seven missing, and many more were wounded. His brother had barely managed to make it out, slurring his words and bleeding from head to toe. Bartosz had to be put into a medically induced coma, and nobody was ever sure if he’d wake up again, Noah told her with sadness in his voice. When Ashley asked about the ones who were killed, Noah had said that none of the bodies of the slain were recovered. When Marines and ODSTs later stormed the building in force, none of the bodies remained, and Dressler and the traitor ORIONs were long gone.
That had been the end of ORION, too many personnel were now dead or too mentally damaged to remain in service. Those who were still fit to serve were transferred to other branches or departments, some were asked to retire if there was no spot for them. ORION was then quietly shut down, and its files sealed away forever.
A banging on her door brought Ashley back to the present. “Coeman?” his voice was sudden. “We’re on the move in twenty. We’re all waiting for you down in the garage.” Jonah complained, his South Wales accent breaking through.
She listened to him linger at the door for a moment, followed by the sound of footsteps echoing off the hallway and eventually faded away. Ashley looked one last time into the mirror and saw only the faces of the dead.
You’ll get your justice. All of you. I promise, she whispered under her breath, then she turned to the door and walked to the garage.
Technicians and intelligence officers cycled back and forth through the hall, it was the most active she’d ever seen. Fairbound wasn’t a massive complex by any stretch, but could hold almost two-hundred people, not including security, and was partially built into the ground to protect against the harsh climate of the planet and from outside attack. The entrance to the compound was guarded by a 25-ton blast door connected to the garage. It could within stand any blast just shy of a HAVOK nuke. Lined along the walls and floors of the compound were vents designed to combat, capture, and contain all chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents in the air. By all sense of the word, Fairbound was a fortress, though it was still nothing compared to the elaborate labyrinths on Earth and Reach that housed the top brass of the UNSC.
In a rush, a young man was clumsily running down the hall with a handful of documents and other items. A cable slipped from his grasp and got tangled in his legs, tripping him and sending the contents he was carrying flying around. His body hit the floor with a loud thump, when he sat up he was rubbing the back of his head. A few people ignored him, some laughed and others stopped in their tracks and helped the poor man.
Ashley came up to him and kneeled down, picking up the documents and handing them to him. He had dark brown hair, blue eyes, and olive skin. His face was innocent and young, almost too young for someone to be working at ONI. When he gathered all his things again, they stood up in unison. It was then that he finally peered at her, and recognized her. His eyes grew wide and there was a nervousness in his voice. “Good luck,” he said with a curt nod and briskly walked away before she could say anything. She watched him bewilderedly until he opened the door to the Ops room and disappeared from view.
Ashley turned at the end of the hall and entered the cafeteria. A few people were spread out around the hall, swiftly finishing their meals as the intercom called everyone to their positions. On the way out of the cafeteria, she passed a man and woman standing near the exit as they argued over something unimportant.
When she opened the door to the garage a chill blew in, indicating to her that the blast door was already open. From the top of the landing, she could hear the faint sounds of the winter wind, and across the garage, Hagi talked with Kestlin. Unnoticed, Ashley descended the stairs and approached them.
Jonah sat alone on a crate as he cleaned his rifle, a shortened MA5 assault rifle that had been modified so much it barely resembled the original. His bald head glistened in the light, contrasting with his beard which was long and groomed. He grew up in Swansea in South Wales and joined the Marine Corps at the age of eighteen. He was a veteran of a hundred different wars, as he often quipped. The Seventies had been a decade of one isolated uprising after another, each contributing to the tensions that finally boiled over twenty years later. He was an ODST by the time the Insurrection broke out, so he had his fair share of dirty work. Jonah tugged at his salt-and-pepper beard, he was just shy of sixty, but age had done him well and he looked younger than most.
Bira walked up to him, her lips formed into a question. Jonah responded with a shrug, but when his eye caught Ashley walking toward them he laid out his hand toward her with a response and waved. Bira turned her head as Ashley waved back. She was now within earshot and could hear Hagi and Kestlin arguing.
“There you are,” Jonah began, standing up from the crate. “I worried you wouldn’t show.” He finished with a welcoming smile.
“We were beginning to think you were too fainthearted to join us.” Bira chimed in. Out of everyone here, she was the one that looked most like a killer. She had grown up on Mamore, already fighting a war before she turned thirteen. Jumping from faction to faction just to keep from starving. Even after the fighting died down, the war could never escape her. She barely survived the bombing in Haven three years ago. Most of her body was burned, with a nasty scar stretching from her waist up to her neck. She also lost an arm in the blast, which was now replaced by a prosthetic. Since then she’s been on the Navy’s payroll, compensated for how good she is at murdering enemies of the state.
Ashley distrusted her deeply and wondered why she hadn’t already cut all our throats in our sleep.
“I thought I’d take a final tour of this place before we bag our guy,” she responded.
“Leaving so soon?” Bira grunted. Her eyes examined Ashley from top to bottom, trying to figure out who she really was. She wasn’t about to give her that satisfaction.
“This weather doesn’t agree with me. I’d sooner get this job over with and be on a shuttle to someplace warm before sunset,” she said with a smirk.
Jonah chuckled and took hold of his rifle leaning next to the crate. “That we can agree on,” He folded the stock and slid the sling through his arm, concealing the weapon at his waist.
Ashley turned her head at the sound of laughter. Four men clad all in black stood between them and Hagi and Kestlin, who were still arguing. She didn’t recognize them. “Who are they?” she asked.
“Hagi’s men. Came strolling into the compound with him when he arrived. Scary folk, Navy black ops, I'd wager.” Jonah peered at them with caution in his eyes.
Navy black ops. . . she pondered. The thought rested in her mind as she examined them. They were bald, cleanly shaven all around. Two of them already had their faces obscured by masks, inspecting their weapons and gear in front of a black Überchassis. The other two leaned against the vehicle, the tallest had dark skin and was heavy set. The other was fair-skinned and rubbed the back of his neck. When he removed his hand, that’s when she spotted it.
The tattoo was black on red, shaped like a hand with the all-seeing eye placed inside it. It went by many names. The Red Hand, the Red Eye. . . but Ashley knew of them as Alpha Group.
Alpha Group didn’t exist, but she knew them well. ORION had more than enough run-ins with them, and not all of them ended bloodlessly.
Her attention was finally taken away from them when Jonah lightly pushed her shoulder. “Hey,” he said, with a hint of worry in his voice. “You all there?”
“Yeah.” she hesitated. Her eyes darted from them to Jonah, he looked like a father concerned for his daughter. She wanted to tell them who they were, but if she did he was as good as dead.
“If ya keep eyeballin’ those fancy lads you’ll go blind. Leave the spooks to their business,” he said. “C’mere there’s something I been meanin’ to show ya.” He turned around and opened the crate he had been sitting on earlier. A small cloud of dust blew up and dissolved into the air as Ashley came up next to him.
“Dinah received a shipment of these a few weeks ago,” he began. “New models, Henixes they call ‘em. Beauties are what I call ‘em.” He grabbed one of the rifles and laid it on top of the crate. Dust jumped off the weapon as it struck the crate like a hammer. “Packs a helluva punch, and its mobility is second to none.” It was jet black in color, no longer than sixty centimeters and fired a 6.5-millimeter full metal jacket, armor-piercing round from a twenty round magazine. Pressing a switch near the upper part of the rifle turned on the ammunition counter and holographic sight. The counter flickered red as it detected no rounds present in the rifle.
“I hope you didn’t forget the ammunition.” She said, looking up from the rifle at Jonah.
Jonah kicked a smaller crate from behind him and opened it, revealing the magazines tucked tightly together in a blanket of bandoleers. “Dinah was being an arse this morning so this is all we got.” Ashley grabbed three magazines and tucked two of them into pouches on her vest.
“Unsatisfying night?” Bira snickered.
Jonah swore at her in his native tongue. His face was red with embarrassment as he walked to the other side of the Überchassis. Bira's snicker became bellowed laughter. Ashley saw him turn to the other side as she slid a magazine into the rifle. The counter switched from a red zero to a blue twenty and indicated the rifle was ready to fire. She made sure the safety was on before she swung the sling over her head.
“Hope you know how to fire that thing,” Bira walked up next to her. “Not sure if I feel comfortable with a glorified mailman watching my back.” Her breath was strong with the smell of rum and tobacco.
Ashley turned her head left and right, pretending to act like she was talking to someone else. “It’s a good thing I don’t deliver mail, then.”
Bira grinned. She stood a head taller than Ashley, her short chestnut hair covered by a knitted cap. Her body was heavily muscled and her arms bared scars where she used to inject rumbledrugs. Ashley noticed a barely visible amber tint to her lips, it was common among insurrectionists constant use of unpurified rumbledrug cocktails taken orally.
“Just because you have a personal stake in this guy doesn’t mean you get to wave that thing around like some cowboy.” Bira lifted up the rifle, the sling tugged at Ashley’s neck as she pulled on it. “Keep your head down and let us handle it. Don’t be a hero, soldier-girl.” Bira chided. She let go of the weapon, it slapped against Ashley’s jacket harmlessly.
Bira was gone before she could say anything back. Hagi strode past her as she walked away. Kestlin was nowhere to be seen, having stormed off back to the Ops center.
“There you are,” Hagi said. “Now we can get on our way.”
Ashley chewed on her cheek. “Are you sure it’s legit?” she said with doubt still in her voice. The night before, just after meeting him Hagi called her into his quarters. He showed her his information regarding the location of Dressler. Information that Kestlin could only dream of. He was ONI, sure, but deep down something was telling her not to trust him. But the intel was telling, it was good, too good. As it turned out, even Alpha Group was watching Dressler, no doubt trying to succeed where ORION failed.
“As legit as reality itself.” Hagi laid a hand on her shoulder. “This is your chance for retribution. They think ORION is dead and gone, apocalyptic boogeymen slain by the righteous. We can show them just how wrong they are.”
Ashley shrugged away at his hand. “The last time we went after him we had the equivalent of an army, and he still made us look like fools. Now you want us to go after him with far less, and you say he’s just out in the open? Your intel is rotten.”
“Not in the open per se, but what can be seen directly is what keeps you unseen.”
“You expect seven of us to go in as if his goons will just let us take him,” she said with irritation.
“If we don’t go after him now, he’ll light up Castra into a hundred burning candles before disappearing again for another ten years. This may be our last window to end it for good.” Hagi’s patience was running thin now, a storm raged in his eyes.
“You don’t know Dressler.” Ashley fretted.
“No more than he knows you.” Hagi asserted with strength in his voice. He had never been so motivated as he was now.
Ashley felt some reassurance, but doubt still lingered within her. She nodded silently, and he did the same in response. One of the Alpha Group members came up to him and whispered something into his ear.
“It’s time to go, Ash. It’s now or never.” He said softly now. The Alpha Group man made his way back to the front Überchassis, getting into the driver seat as the rest got inside.
Hagi turned away from her before she could form an answer. Whether he didn’t care or already knew it, she couldn’t tell. But her answer formed into a whisper. Yes, she said under her breath and followed him to the second Überchassis.
Ashley sat behind the driver’s seat as Bira took the wheel. Across from her sat Jonah, fidgeting with a TACPAD on his arm. As Hagi got into the front passenger side Jonah spoke into the pad. He nodded in acknowledgment when he got an answer. “We’re good to go, drones are already in the air. I’ll relay to you if anything changes.” He looked up from the pad and spoke directly to Hagi. “It’s your call.”
Hagi nodded and spoke into his personal radio, the Überchassis in front of them revved its engine and began moving, Bira followed them. The Überchassis were matte black with its windows tinted. From the outside, it was impossible to tell how many people were in the vehicles. The vehicles turned up onto a ramp and outside the blast door. It was cloudy, and a fresh layer of snow had just finished falling. They drove into the city and passed through a small industrial district before they turned onto a highway going out of the city.
Talis was a small city. Only a little over a hundred thousand lived there, the cost of living was unattractive to most due to it being settled along Lake Machad, which produced lake-effect snow that towered high and blocked out roads and homes for most of the year. Meanwhile, Talis's Superintendent worked tirelessly, sending out an army autonomous snowplows to keep the roads cleared and safe. It was the northernmost settlement on the planet, and the region was sometimes locked in winters that lasted as long as ten months. The only thing that kept this city form being completely abandoned was its forestry industry that harvested a unique and highly valuable wood that only grew in this specific area of human space.
Ashley looked out of the window and saw a snow devil form above the frozen lake, it landed on the ice violently and pushed inland. A storm gained strength behind it and followed it toward the city, getting ready to bury Talis in another layer of ice and snow. Hagi told them it would be a two-hour drive to Castra. She ignored them as they struck up a conversation to pass the time. Their words faded away.
Ashley’s head rested against the window. Their faces each flashed before her one at a time. Carissa. Noah. Bartosz. Dressler. All of them. They each reminded her of what needed to be done. It burned into her mind. She stared out into the gray wastes of Madrigal for the entire drive down.
Two hours had passed since they left Fairbound. Bira and Jonah both tried and failed to start conversations to pass the time, but the ride was solitary, and Ashley took in the warmth that the car provided. The warmth calmed her, but it wasn’t enough to quell her feeling of unease.
The silence gave her enough time to reflect on the situation. Time to think about her failures, and time to find ways to prevent the next one. Eventually, the quietness of the ride made her mind drift, made-up scenarios danced in her head one at a time, and not all of them good. By the time the sun set, she had visualized Bira’s and Jonah’s death half a dozen times.
They came upon an interchange and the Überchassis shook as it rolled over a bump on the highway, it continued on a straight path toward Castra, overtaking several civilian vehicles, their passengers completely unaware of what was inside the tinted tempered glass.
After some time, Jonah finally broke the silence, repeatedly tapping into his TACPAD. “There’s been no change to the area.” He swiped the pad to the left, bringing up a different chain of information. “The Riverfront is mostly cleared of civilian traffic. The occasional passing car, but nothing major.”
“Civilians or not, we go in,” Hagi stated, Ashley barely noticed the passing glance of his eyes toward her from the rearview mirror.
Jonah shook his head, clearly in disagreement. “With all due respect, I didn’t sign up to shoot civvies. You mighta’ showed up with your shadowy ragtag group of mean lookin’ individuals, but we do this the right way.”
“We do our job whatever way gets the job finished. You were a Marine, Mr. Merrick. Be a Marine.” Hagi spoke as if it were a command.
“That’s not me,” Jonah motioned with his head toward Ashley and Bira. “That’s not us.”
Us. That last word lingered in the air, and Hagi shot another knowing glance at Ashley.
Trying to change the subject, Ashley looked at Jonah and gestured toward his TACPAD. “How long until we arrive?”
“Our exit is coming up soon,” Bira said instead. “Showtime in twenty,”
“Benson’s been monitoring the mission too he’s got a few words to say,” Jonah said. “Linking him to your comms now.”
“Speak,” Hagi said plainly.
Benson cleared his throat. “I double-checked over the blueprints of the building and found an old layout from the city’s public archives. There’s supposed to be an underground garage below the building. The only problem is that the archive never stated whether the garage even exists.”
“Wasn’t it supposed to be a medical campus?” Ashley asked.
“Clinic. But construction was never finished, and the city abandoned it entirely when they built the Cahn Medical Facility thirty years ago.”
“Can we expect any unwelcome tenants? She added.
“The building had a history of squatters, the city even motioned to demolish the building once but as you can clearly see, that never happened,” Benson continued. “Aside from unwelcomeness of Dressler and his goons, I wouldn’t worry too much about collateral.
“Escape route from the garage. . .” Hagi pondered. “Noted. But what about the top of the building? The target is up high, I doubt they’d be able to get him to the garage in time without us getting to them first.”
“As far as I can tell, most of the top floor is still unfinished. They’d be dodging holes in the ground and trapped against boarded-up doors if they went there.”
“He’s right,” Jonah spoke as he looked down at his TACPAD. “Scaffolding and old prefabs still litter the top floor and the roof of the building. No way out but down.”
“Noted. Thank you, Mr. Benson.” Hagi finished.
The sky grew darker as they approached the city. Castra covered the horizon with buildings, all under a hazy dome of yellow and white city lights. Castra’s skyscrapers grew in size as they got closer, gray and black monoliths that seemed to pierce through the sky itself. That feeling of unease grew within her, and not even the warmth of the vehicle could abate it.
The Überchassis turned off to the exit of the highway. They passed through a small suburb and then onto a bridge as it crossed one of Castra’s four rivers. Finally, they drove into an abandoned industrial district that merged into the riverfront. Their objective was now only a few blocks away.
Street lights danced around the car as it approached the riverfront. It was fully night now, with a layer of clouds obscuring Madrigal’s crimson moon.
“Get ready,” Hagi said. “This next turn. That’s it.”
Ashley felt a surge of adrenaline rush through her body as those words came out. They turned into a dark alleyway, out of sight from nearly everything aside from the drone hovering high above them.
When she opened the door, all the warmth from the Überchassis dissipated and she felt the crisp cold and the stillness of the air. When she looked up, the clouds began to part, and the blood moon of Madrigal came to life above her. There would be no snow. But tonight the ground would be coated under a layer of blood instead.
“Masks,” Hagi spoke over the comm. Ashley fastened a black mask over her nose, ears, and mouth, stopping the vapor from escaping when she breathed. While not the best for this weather, the mask helped regulate some of the body’s temperature for a short time.
By now the rest had exited the vehicles, their masks obscuring most of their facial features. The group moved like silent shadows, a pack on the hunt for their prey. The Alpha Group members scanned the area around them, moving around the courtyard ahead of them in pairs of two as they secured a small perimeter. Ashley pulled out her Henix assault rifle and switched off the safety. She kept the stock collapsed and hugged it close to her torso.
Ashley relaxed herself to checked her gear. Her M6A was loaded with a spare mag, and other two Henix magazines were bound tightly to her vest. She rearranged her setup one last time to make sure everything was good to go and easily accessible. Satisfied, she placed the magnum back into its holster.
When the Alphas returned from their sweep, the group huddled around Hagi between the Überchassis.
“Right, so here’s the gist,” Hagi pulled out a small projector and placed it on the hood of the car. A hologram lit up before them, showing a three-dimensional projection of the blueprints of the clinic. He waved at the hologram, grabbing the building as if it was a real physical object and circling around it and zooming in and out to show points of interest. “Dressler is here.” He pointed at a small blinking red dot on the hologram. “Third floor, room C112. He’ll be hooked up to monitors and a respirator. If we’re lucky, he’ll be unconscious. If he’s not, we need to apply a sedative as fast as possible before he can do anything stupid. He's of no use to us if he bites down on a capsule.”
“So he’s a vegetable,” Bira said. “If poor old Grandpa Cult is a veggie, that’s fine by me. Easier job for us.”
“He may be sick, but he’s not someone to underestimate. His body might be frail, but his mind is as sharp as ever.” Hagi conceded. He took the projector off the hood and the hologram dissolved in the air. He pocketed the device and turned around. “If you have any questions, now would be the time. If not, the target is around the corner, Alpha will take the lead.”
“I don’t understand,” Ashley doubted. “Dressler was in perfect health. He was there. I saw him standing on the balcony. ORION didn’t die so that he could live his last days in a hospital bed.” She spoke directly to Hagi and had nearly forgotten about the others around her, and now she feared she said too much.
Her fears came true when she glanced at two of the Alphas standing behind Hagi. She could see the wrinkled frown of their eyebrows made as they whispered something to each other.
“You doubt my intel.” Hagi sighed, a slight frown formed on his lips.
“It’s too convenient. The last time our intel seemed good. . .”
“Then is not now.” Hagi finished for her.
Bira rolled her eyes at Ashley’s hesitation. Her long brown hair draped over her head, sheltering her face from the cold. “Then wait in the car if you’re not up to the task. Who the hell are you anyway? And what the hell is ORION?” Her face was dark, but she could still see the look of annoyance on her.
Frustration built up within Hagi before finally being unleashed “That’s not important!” He pointed a gloved finger at Bira. “Shut your mouth and fall in line. No more distractions. We go in.” He walked away from Ashley, Bira, and Jonah with the Alphas in tow. Bira and Jonah followed, and after giving it some thought, Ashley fell in behind as well, covering the rear.
The eight of them moved together in a group as they approached the target building. They came upon a rusty steel door blocking their entry. As the others lined up against the opposite ends of the door, the tallest Alpha kicked it in with so much force that an outline of dust remained just for a moment where the door had been before falling to the ground. Bira and another Alpha moved in first, clearing the corridor ahead of them.
Ashley came in last, her Henix raised to a readied position. With a built-in suppressor and a black finish, she moved silently through the darkness. Her enhanced eyesight started to adjust to the lack of lighting, and the rifle’s ammo counter and sight dimmed automatically in response to the low light conditions. While others needed the aid of night optics, what remained of her augmentations allowed her to see almost perfectly in the darkness of the corridor.
Jonah took the rear and Ashley took up a space behind Bira. She followed her until they came upon the first flight of stairs. She placed a hand on Bira’s shoulder and signaled her to go. They ascended the stairs together with the Alphas at their sides, watching for movement and any signs of life.
As they reached the second floor, Ashley noticed a faint light emanating from the bottom of the door ahead of them. “Hallway lights,” she said into the comm, and the group positioned themselves along the door with two watching the stairs.
“Jonah, are you in?” Hagi asked.
“I am now,” He acknowledged.
“Kill the lights.”
Jonah put in a series of quick commands into the TACPAD. When he was done, he raised a thumb.
The lights flickered off, and Ashley readied herself. The Alphas took the lead, slowly opening the door and poured into the hallway. “Contact,” one of them said.
“Engage.” Came the reply.
Quick, suppressed bursts spit and whizzed out in front of her as they were free to engage. When the shooting stopped, the sound of bodies slumping over echoed through the hallway. When she entered the hall, seven bodies were scattered over the floor, blood pooled slowly around them.
Alerted by the loss of light and the sound of suppressed fire, five faceless men ran out from their rooms away from the group. Bira and an Alpha fired their weapons, killing one instantly and catching the other in the knee. One of them tried to pick up their wounded friend. But when he reached down, one of the Alphas shot his arm, nearly severing it completely. The man’s cries of pain didn’t last long as a final shot finished him in the back of his head. The last two scurried as fast as they could but tripped over one another. Ashley stepped up next to Bira and they fired, three rounds to the back for each. Their bodies hit the ground hard, the guns they were holding slid across the blood-slicked floor.
After that, the group began to clear the rooms of the hallway of any more surprises. Ashley and Jonah took one room and she kicked it in. Jonah went in first and fired twice at a shadow crouched in the corner. Another shadow popped up from behind a chair brandishing an old MA2 assault rifle and Ashley put four rounds in its chest with another to the head before it could return fire. The body slid to the floor as a thick trail of blood followed it down.
“Room B107, clear,” Ashley said into the comm.
“Room B104, clear,” Bira said after.
“Room B106, clear.” said an Alpha.
When Ashley regrouped with the others in the hall, her body flinched backward as shots cracked and echoed from the other end of the hall. One of the Alphas wasn’t so lucky in finding cover, as several rounds hit him across his chest rig. He grimaced and hit the floor hard, cracking the old linoleum flooring underneath him. Luckily for him, he was dragged out of danger by one of his own into another room. Bira and Jonah returned fire and the man at the end of the hall hid behind an old, broken printer.
Behind her, Ashley heard the door to the stairwell open and two other men poured in with old military rifles. “We’ve got a problem.” Jonah pointed out.
“No shit,” Bira remarked.
When she got a closer look at them, they were wearing nothing but dirty winter jackets and tattered pants. “They’ve got no optics,” Ashley said. “They’re stalling us.”
“They’re moving Dressler. We need to get to the third floor now.” Hagi observed from cover. He was crouched between two Alphas, carrying only his sidearm.
The two men fired their weapons again. Dust was thrown into the air as the rounds missed their targets and impacted into the walls, Ashley returned the favor.
Two quick three-round bursts were all it took, and one of them fell to the ground, his kneecap collapsed and sent him falling to the floor. The other next to him panicked and tried to make a run for the stairwell. Ashley leaned out from her room and shot him twice in the torso, hitting near the heart. The force sent him to the ground and his movements slowed as he bled out.
“Stairwell is clear. One to go.” Ashley said. The Alphas acknowledged and moved out into the hallway, pushing forward toward the last man. When he tried to peek over the printer, he took a round to the face, blood and shards of skull painted the wall behind him.
She heard Jonah take a breath and stood up from his cover. “Wasn’t expecting that.” he chuckled. “Not gonna lie, they had us for a moment there.” Jonah moved next to Ashley and swapped out his magazine. Ashley did the same when her rifle’s ammunition counter shifted from blue to red, four rounds left. She slid a fresh magazine in and rejoined the others.
“Only a moment.” Hagi agreed reluctantly, rising from the safety of his bodyguards. “One more floor to go, and we can end this for good.”
“I’m just getting warmed up,” Bira said playfully.
“Let’s do this,” Jonah said as the adrenaline in his body filled him with motivation.
The group moved for the next opposite stairwell, with Ashley covering the rear again this time. When the others moved into the stairway, she was drawn to the body of the shooter behind the printer. She kneeled down and examined him. His face was a bloody mess and nearly mangled beyond recognition, but she could still point out some things. She looked at the remnants of his face for a while, and then it finally came to her. He was young, too young. No more than thirteen or fourteen.
She checked the kid’s pockets for identification, but all that was in there was lent and dirt and a magazine that wasn’t even the right type for the weapon he carried. She frowned for him. Only a kid. There was nothing she could do. But she felt that some measure of justice could be given to him by bringing this cult down. She stood up and traveled up the stairs to the third floor.
The group had entered the third floor without incident, but now they moved cautiously. The air felt different here. They moved down the hall slowly, waiting for some unlucky bastard to run out and die. But nobody came. The hall was deathly silent.
“There.” Hagi pointed out. “The next door, center of the building.”
Peering at the door, Ashley noticed that the room’s lights were still on, a low humming sound came from beyond it, a backup generator perhaps.
With the floor secure, Hagi ordered the Alphas to breach the door. “Bira, Jonah, cover the exits. Ensure we’re not disturbed. The two nodded in acknowledgment and took their positions. “Coeman, you’re with me,” Hagi said, walking up to her.
Ashley positioned herself along the wall and checked her ammunition. When she signaled the all-clear, the tallest Alpha breached the door with a strong kick and another threw a flashbang into the room. A bright white flash engulfed the room and the Alpha flooded in. Before she could see inside, a hail of suppressed weapons fire spat out, engaging dozens of nameless and faceless men and women. Only a handful fired back, but the disorientation from the flashbang was unrelenting, and most shot at nothing or at each other. It made no matter, Alpha Group swept through the room with a near surgical-like precision that she had not seen since her days in ORION. They were far more ruthless than she imagined and killed everything that moved. Ashley had barely touched her own weapon, only firing it once when one man ran out from a side room trying to be a hero. His body crashed into the door when she released a flurry of rounds at him, pockmarking his chest and abdomen with nine rounds before he finally fell.
As the air settled, Ashley noticed that most of the people in the room were unarmed, and looked rather different compared to others. She didn’t even notice the missing hospital bed until Hagi came in.
His face was in stunned disbelief. “Check the adjacent rooms. Now!” Hagi blurted out to the Alphas.
As they dispersed from the room, Ashley observed the pile of bodies that littered the floor everywhere. Many of the looks of their faces were frozen, the looks of fear and horror. These weren’t Dressler’s people. They were civilians. “Hagi. . .” Ashley said, a slight quiver in her voice.
Hagi had been pacing around the room manically, searching for Dressler as if he was still here but somehow invisible. “Where is he?” He called out.
“Hagi. . .” she said again, but he did not hear her. In a fit of anger, he kicked an almost cardboard box. It tipped over and spilled out the contents it held, revealing used food containers and drinking supplies.
Alpha Group’s leader returned to the room and told them that there were no signs of Dressler anywhere on the third floor. But he only ignored them, not wanting to believe he was wrong. The Alphas left the room just as Bira and Jonah entered, and not even they could comprehend what they saw.
“What the hell. . .” Jonah blurted out. He turned his head to Hagi, infuriated. “What the hell did you do?” He yelled.
Hagi did not respond. He was sitting on a blood-soaked bench, staring lifelessly into the wall in front of him. He was muttering something under his breath, unaware of the carnage around him.
Jonah kept calling out to him, flames in his eyes. Bira tried to place a hand on his shoulder but he shrugged it off and started forward. Ashley stepped in front of him, trying to stop him. “Jonah. . . don’t. . .” But he only pushed her aside, and soon Jonah was on him.
He tackled Hagi to the ground, cursing at him. By the time it took her and Bira to pull him off of him, Hagi’s face had already taken damage. Ashley held Jonah against the wall, her arm pressing against his neck. Hagi stood up, blood ran down from his broken nose. He wiped the blood with his sleeves and looked around.
Hagi finally spoke. “The intel was good.” He spat out blood. “It was good. I’ve never been wrong. Dressler is here. Search the bodies.” He said to no one.
Jonah scowled. “You spiteful little creature. Civilians are dead you stupid son of a—”
“Check the bodies!” Hagi seethed.
The exchange seemed to draw the Alphas back into the room. “This building is empty. Dressler’s not here.” the leader said with a sneer.
Hagi shook his head violently. He was in denial. But before he could respond, monitors came to life behind him. Most of them were shot up pretty badly, causing some short out and fail as sparks flew from them, but the rest turned on. The video flickered into place. He was an elderly man. He was ancient with a head of white and gray. Wrinkles littered his face and he spoke with a soothing voice but a non-accent that gave nothing away.
“I was wondering how long you’d find me.” The man said. “It’s good to see you again, dear brother.”
“I’m sorry to say I don’t feel the same,” Hagi responded. “Where are you?” He asked plainly.
“I’m everywhere and nowhere. Everyone and no one. A phantom to your past. A nightmare to your present. A savior to your future. You’ve been looking for me, but I’ve been watching you for far longer. I can bring you the salvation you so desperately desire.” the man spoke to Hagi, but Ashley felt like the words were meant for her. She let go of her hold on Jonah and he fell to the floor coughing. She walked forward and stood next to Hagi.
“You murder good people and call it salvation,” she said with venom on her tongue.
“Look around you. That was not my doing, it was yours. I am but the shepherd, and you were the crook, leading the people to a better world. When you see a horse lying wounded on the ground. You don’t nurse it back to health, you can’t. You mercy kill it. You end its suffering. So what happens when the war finally comes to Madrigal? The war Earth started? For twenty years humanity has been lying in the grass, bleeding and wounded. Is it not merciful, nor humane, to help end its misery?” Leon Dressler asked.
“What is so humane about placing a gun into a child’s hands and sending him off to kill?” she asked.
“I send my disciples to do Their bidding every day. It is not my place to judge Their word. But you must understand, don’t you? How is it more humane to manipulate soldiers into pumping them full of chemicals that alter their mind and physiology, and then send them off to attack those who stand against Earth? Everyone must die one way or another. But most refuse to accept it. Resisting that realization will drive you. . . insane.” he answered.
Ashley was at a loss for words. He remembers.
“You spread misery by terrorizing millions. You speak of salvation and bidding but you hide behind screens. You’re too much of a coward to do it yourself!” Hagi exasperated.
“True misery was sterilizing a planet with nuclear fire. True terror is invading and occupying worlds under the pretense of peacekeeping!” Leon’s voice grew irritated but he continued with a calmness that filled Ashley with dread. “I am no coward, I am the Shepherd. And soon all your misery will be washed away.”
Suddenly, red lights flashed into existence across the floor, Ashley could see the lights coming from the bodies sprawled out under her. When Bira kneeled down and lifted the shirt of one of the bodies, she saw the red light blinking from under the skin. Bira looked up at Ashley with a face of unease. Stitches lined where the cuts were made to place blocks of C-7 explosives deep into their abdomens.
“Run!” Ashley heard someone say. But it was too late. Bira was engulfed in a ball of yellow light and she felt herself being thrown from the room. Her vision blurred and went to black.
When Ashley awoke, running down her nose and the harsh chill of winter air. When she wiped a hand over her forehead and brought it back down, blood smeared across it. She wiped it away on her vest and looked around. She was between the Überchassis and when she tried to stand up a sharp pain ran up from her leg. A small triangular piece of metal was lodged into her fibula. She looked around again, and that’s when she saw the body.
It was one of the Alphas, a hole took the place where his eye would be. Bullet holes and shards of metal and other materials peppered his body as he lay on the ground. She reached over into his ruined chest rig and found a small cylindrical biofoam injector in one of the pouches.
She carefully pulled on the shard in her leg, screaming in pain all the while. Her screams seemingly attracted the attention of Jonah, who ran to her and took cover behind the Überchassis.
“What happened?” she asked, still a little dazed. She bit down hard on the biofoam injector as he pulled out the shard. She gritted so hard she feared she would chip a tooth. A tiny amount of blood began to stream out as she removed the cap of the injector.
“You were right,” Jonah answered. “Dressler got us good. Almost brought down the entire building with us. Barely pulled you out in time.” Suddenly Jonah stood and raised his MA5. He fired nine times at something behind her.
“That’s not the worst of it.” He knelt down next to her as she sprayed the wound with foam. She gasped and threw the injector to the side. It felt like she was being lowered feet first into a vat of boiling water. Eventually, the pain subsided and she lifted herself up. “Dressler’s men flooded into the building. We had to fight our way back here with the tall Alpha lad carrying you.”
Jonah looked down at her wound. He inspected it for a moment and frowned. “We need to get you back to Fairbound. It’s deep. Will you be able to walk?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said, standing up. She put most of her weight on her other leg, but even that one was throbbing in pain.
“Good,” He leaned down and picked up the rifle laying next to the dead Alpha. It reminded her of a MA5K carbine, but it was so customized it barely resembled the original model. “Because it’s just us now. And I don’t think you wanna know how many are out there.”
Confusion clouded her mind. Then she remembered. The flash of light. The blast. And then being thrown back. She didn’t think of herself as a religious woman, but now she was rethinking that stance. “Us? Where’s Bira? The Alphas?” she hesitated at the thought. “Hagi?”
The look on Jonah’s face didn’t reassure her. “Bira’s gone. Not even you could’ve pulled her out in time, or else you’d both be dust.” He shook his head. “We lost one of the Alphas as the building collapsed on top of him. And then another here. The tall one and the other went on the offensive just before you woke up. I haven’t heard from them since.”
Ashley felt a pit open in her stomach. “And Hagi?” she repeated.
She expected the worst, but those words did little to numb the blow. Ashley took a deep breath and recomposed herself. Everything now was about survival and she had to focus on the task at hand. “So what now.”
Jonah made a noise with his mouth that sounded like annoyance. “Well, we wait for the Alphas to return. Whenever that will be.” He peaked out from behind the car. “And then we get the hell out of here.”
“What about Dressler?”
“What about him?” Before he could finish, Ashley heard men yelling, followed by the sound of boots on pavement. Jonah leaned out from the back of the car and unleashed a dozen rounds from the source of the sound. “Eyes up!”
Ashley turned around and aimed. She fired twice at one of the chargers. He fell hard to the ground, lifeless. She then checked her targets and fired three more times. He stumbled and lost his momentum, tripping to the ground. When he tried to get back up, Jonah put a round in his skull. She went to another target and fired. Click. The ammunition counter was red and she cursed. “I’m out!”
“On my last!” Jonah replied, and kept firing.
Ashley threw the rifle away and she instinctively checked the inside of her jacket. When nothing was there, she felt despair. It’s gone, she thought. Her face went pale as the hostiles drew closer. And then the realization came, the holster.
She dropped a hand to her side and ran the length of it until she found her sidearm. The magnum was still there and untouched. By now what remained of the suicide charge had reached the car. She pulled out her magnum and fired as fast as she could at the first man. Three rounds punctured his chest and killed his movement. He stood there stunned silence, gasping for air as blood filled his lungs, then she finished him off with a round to the head. Perhaps too good of a mercy for him.
The second and last man was still running as his friend fell to the ground. But this time, she went on the offensive. Breaking away from her cover and rushing him, she fired the magnum five times hitting him in the chest, once in the neck and two in the head. His body kept running for a second and fell with a thump. His head hit the ground where her feet war. She scanned the courtyard in front of her and saw nobody else coming. But then she glimpsed silhouettes running back and forth on the roof of the building on the far side of the courtyard. She grabbed one of the dead man’s rifles and took cover back behind the Überchassis. She rejoined Jonah and saw that he had discarded his MA5 and opted for one of the dirty rifles carried by Dressler’s men. He gathered up as much ammunition as he could and split them between the two.
“Damn, you’re fast,” Jonah said, sliding a fresh magazine into his new rifle.
Ashley was breathing hard now, and every part of her body ached. She only managed a soft chuckle.
“Promise me you’ll tell me about this Orion of yours when nobody’s shooting at us. Over a drink?” Jonah passed her three magazines. When she inspected them, they were full of dirt and dust, carrying no more than seven or eight rounds each for what was supposed to be a thirty-two round magazine.
She smiled. “Let’s get out of here alive first, and you’ve got a deal.”
“Aye, kiddo.” He said with a laugh.
The break in the shooting ended when Ashley and Jonah had to fend off another two waves of these charging maniacs. After that, they were both out of ammunition, and any attempt to run to the Überchassis was stopped by a hail of gunfire from the roof of the building ahead of them. She was confident that she could take them on in hand-to-hand, but she was on the edge of tiring and the foam in her leg was beginning to leak out.
All hope of an escape had nearly been lost when she started to hear the sound of heavy bootsteps coming from the courtyard. It didn’t sound the same as Dressler’s men, but when she peeked out and saw the men on the roof stirring, she hoped it was who she thought it was.
Relief washed over her when he saw an Alpha turn the corner. He was bleeding and the body armor on his chest was riddled with dents and tiny scorch marks. The men on the roof finally realized who it was and started shooting at him, but it was too late. He took cover between her and Jonah.
Jonah gave a puzzled look at the Alpha. “Just you?”
The Alpha nodded. It wasn’t the leader, but one of the squad members. He had tanned skin and dark green eyes. A nasty old scar circled around his head and looked more like an animal attack scar rather than a scar made by a blade. He removed his mask and took in the fresh air. His nose was bleeding where somebody had punched it hard.
“Where’s Alpha lead?” Jonah asked again.
“Dead. I think. It’s just me.” He replied. “You guys got any spare mags?”
“We’re out,” they answered in unison.
“What about Hagi?” Ashley inquired.
“His comms are fried. Not responsive. I’m not holding out for him.” Ashley didn’t want to believe him but Hagi was as close to the blast as Bira was. And she got vaporized instantly. She couldn’t dwell on that now. All she wanted to do was be behind the protective metal doors of Fairbound. “Ya’ll have an exit plan?” he asked after some time.
“We do, but when we make a move for the doors, we get pinned,” Jonah said.
The Alpha thought for a moment and then jumped to his feet. “Get in front of me.” He said, with his back facing the enemy.
“This is crazy,” Ashley said.
An explosion rocked the ground behind her as a crater formed in the courtyard. Jonah swore, and he stood up so fast Ashley thought he was going to pass out. “We need to go, now!”
Ashley fell in behind and together they used the Alpha’s body armor as cover. She could hear the round hitting the armor and other less protected areas. The Alpha grimaced in pain while under fire. “Almost there,” he said. “Go! Go! Go!” Jonah flung open the driver seat door and sat inside. Ashley circled around the back of the Überchassis and got in the passenger side. By the time she was in the seat, the car was ready to go. Instead of following them, the Alpha turned around and picked up one of the rifles dropped by Dressler’s men. It still had ammo in it and he fired up at the roof.
Jonah swore when he saw the rocket launcher on the roof. “Shit.” When she saw it, it fired. “Shit!” he said again and reversed as hard as he could. The Alpha turned his head back and forth wildly in confusion. When he faced away from them, the rocket was already on him. His body converted into red confetti and the Überchassis next to him flipped over, its side became charred and blackened.
Jonah and Ashley barely made it out, she could already see the men on the roof reloading the launcher and moving for a clearer shot. She yelled at Jonah to drive, and he slammed his foot on the gas.
The wheels of the Überchassis whistled and screamed as he stepped on the gas. The vehicles finally accelerated and drove down the same road from where they came. Ashley turned around and looked behind the car, looking for signs of being followed. When no vehicles appeared behind them, she turned around to face the front. They came upon the first intersection, and she only noticed when it was too late.
A semi-truck came into view from her side. It headlights partially blinded her. Using her hand to obscure some of the light, she glimpsed at a pattern of a black and gold skull decorating the grille of the truck. The truck hit the Überchassis from her side, the impact nearly throwing her from the seat.
Jonah lost control and the Überchassis flipped and rolled. It rolled over itself six times before coming to a stop. By then the car was on grass, situated on some old park corner.
Ashley’s head pounded in pain as she recollected herself. She looked around and noticed that the car was upright. Trying to open her door failed as it was jammed. When she looked over at Jonah, she saw him open the door and crawl out.
Her vision was blurry and fading, but she got out of the Überchassis and sat leaning against the side. The grass around her leg turned red as the wound was reopened, the biofoam was gone.
Somebody killed the headlights of the truck, Ashley tried to stand up but the pain in her prevented her from doing so on her own. She used the hood of the Überchassis to stand, a dozen armed men appeared from the truck, moving up slowly to her.
The men became startled by something behind her and when she turned her head, Jonah had pulled out a small sidearm that had been hidden in his shoe. Parts of his face were swollen and bloody. He raised the weapon to shoot just as one of the others fired at him.
The round caught Jonah in the shoulder and he fell without a sound.
Ashley wanted to yell out to him, but no words could escape her mouth. She was frozen in shock, and when she turned to look back at the men from the semi-truck, something hard hit her in the back of the head.
↑Festival del Armonía Espiritual (Festival of Spirtual Harmony): A culturally significant holiday to the Madrigali marking the planet's winter solstice and plays a major role in the colony's localized religious groups.
↑Rumblehead: A derogatory term used to describe individuals heavily addicted to Rumbledrugs in the early 26th Century.
↑Common slang for the Commander-in-Chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence (CINCONI).