High tech intrigue and Cold War
Mobius 1
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Posts: 1099
Joined: Mon May 19, 2008 11:40 pm
Location: Orlando, FL


Post by Mobius 1 »

The year is 2011 and the planet is on the brink of Armageddon. Only a few men and women stand between humanity and the tides of chaos. This is COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA.

After stepping into the shoes of retiring Soviet Premier NADYA KIRALOVA in 2006, Georgian Technocrat KONSTANTINE SEHKNIA found he possessed neither the skill or the charisma of his predecessor. After failing to hold together the USSR’s various factions, he was assassinated in 2009. His country descended into anarchy, and martial law ruled. From the competing warlords arose Marshal IOSEF SECHALIN, a hardline ultra-militarist determined to create a new revolutionary order and reestablish the proactive spread of communism across the globe.

However, shadows moving in the background hint at an even more sinister involvement. After having its main base of operations in Cambodia destroyed, WRAITH and its leader, the enigmatic MALCOM STAVRO KRONER are out for revenge on a grand scale.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a single Marine Force Recon Platoon led by CAPTAIN JOHN BAYLOR prepares to embark upon a mission that will, one way or another, place humanity’s fate in their hands.



The following briefing film is classified SECRET LAMBDA NINER ROMEO. If you do not have SECRET LAMBDA NINER ROMEO clearance, leave the auditorium now and report to your unit security officer for debriefing. Failing to observe this notice is an imprisonable offense.

You have sixty seconds to comply.

Still Photograph Sequence

A Unit picture, clearly a couple years old. Six men stand in full combat gear. Personalized uniforms and nonstandard weapons show the hallmarks of a special ops team.


Omega Unit. We have just received startling intelligence that our peak special-ops team -The Reapers- have gone rogue. Now, it is bad enough to have our greatest go AWOL, but they claim to have in their possession experimental weapons system BLACK-ST and plan to sell it to WRAITH. They claim they will hand BLACK to the terrorist cartel if they do not receive two billion dollars and immunity from any follow-up reprisals from us. As you know, President Curry’s position has always been one of non-negotiation with terrorists. It doesn’t matter if they’re the Khomeini Front for Popular Liberation, WRAITH, or even our own special ops unit.

Cut to:

A hazy aerial photograph of a withered nuclear wasteland. Trees are scattered in all directions like matchsticks, pointing away from the epicenter, where a set of ruins stand on a cliff, surrounding a large hole.


The Paragon. The senior members of your unit are quite familiar with this site, as they participated in its destruction five years ago. A secret black project weapons testing ground, the above-ground complex was only the tip of the iceberg. Some twenty stories stretched underground as a storage, laboratory center, and combat arena bunker. Though hardened to withstand a nuclear strike, a follow-up team was sent after Bravo Platoon escaped the nuking to clean out the bunker and capture all experimental technology.

Cut to:

The man is tall and whip-thin, with short blond hair, large sunglasses, and a headset. Recognizable from the Unit picture earlier, he is carrying a pair of Steyr TMPs and is leading a firefight in a cavernous room. Tracers can be seen in the photograph, which his clearly an excerpt from a combat video, as they streak over the man’s head.


You guessed it. The team that was sent in was Reaper. The man you see in this photograph is Major Charles Lennox, CO of the unit until they went rogue last week. He appears to have masterminded this coup- be very careful with this man. While all members of Reaper unit are born killers, Lennox is one of the best soldiers alive today. Approach with caution.

Cut to:

A map of Nicaragua, zooming into a local map with an airstrip highlighted, tracing a line from the Paragon to the blinking airfield. The camera rotates, and the image becomes three-dimensional wireframe, zooming out to the highest degree. An orbital trajectory is plotted, with a line splitting off and arcing to the airstrip beacon.


We ran out of time a day ago. As such, the Reapers left the Paragon with BLACK-ST and are currently moving to egress the country via a WRAITH-provided Antonov at an airstrip in southern Nicaragua. We need to catch them quickly, but the Reapers are masters to the moving security perimeter, and will know if you attempt to approach on foot or by parachute, marking those approaches out of the question. Of the goodies from the Paragon in their possession is a high-level field defense network radar, capable of marking incoming bogies. Hot Eagle, ironically, is too slow to escape notice. . I must remind you that this briefing is SECRET LAMBDA NINER ROMEO. (A short pause). Orbital insertion will be made with the Aurora spaceplane, authorized the very height of the command chain. You will be released in a drop capsule at speeds approaching Mach 15, too fast for even the unit’s D-Net to track. A set of J-7 Thrustpacks will retard your descent so you land cleanly within the D-Net, about half a mile from the complex. From there, it’s on foot


Map of airstrip, which is little more than a set of three long, dusty strips, a rear taxi lane, two hangars, and an ATC tower.


Expect no official support for this mission. That means no airstrikes, no Raptors in holding patterns. While weapon’s won’t be OSP- we’ll supply you with the best- you must maintain your stealth until the last minute.

Your mission is twofold:

Recover Black-ST from enemy hands, intact. Bring it back with you or don’t come back at all.

And, annihilate the Reaper unit and any accomplices. Prevent them from contacting the Soviets. Leave no survivors. At all.

Are we clear?



The sky was cleaved in two as the B-101 shot around the sky at Mach 15, on the very edges of Earth’s atmosphere. Sleek and nearly flat- save for a pointed nose and two rear elevons, which flared out from the back like small horns. The entire plane radiated deadliness as it flew across the eastern hemisphere at speeds no humble plane was ever meant to go.

Deep the bowels of the bomb bay sat a single enclosed crate, streamlined like a bullet, plated with black heat-deflecting radar-absorbing tiles. Hidden pop-open hatches, invisible to the human eye, contained several J-7 rocket packs designed to slow the crate from terminal velocity to a near-complete stop so as to muffle its eventual landing. Held up like two electromagnets, the only thing below it were the two drop-down bay doors of the plane, which were a couple inches of metal and paint at most, and then open sky descending to the ground far, far below the plane.

Inside the cargo pod, clad in bulky pressure suits that were covering their black combat army were thirty United State Marines, Force Recon, Omega Unit. They constituted the centerpiece of the elite group, decimated after two platoons and the battalion’s CO decided to align themselves with the rogue Paragon. Under layers of gee-webbing, a flapping red bandana, a striped combat helmet more similar to something seen on the head of a starfighter jockey than a simple leatherneck, and a oxygen mask, was the face of Captain John Baylor, USMC. Experience in high-risk combat missions since his trial by fire five years ago had made him a hardened commander, cool under pressure and known for the several aces up his sleeves. To his right sat his XO, Gunnery Sergeant Vincent Alder. Though older and more experienced that his commander, he had been to hell and back with the Captain and would gladly lay down his life for him. They, like all of Omega Unit, were clad in plate battle armor and an underlying suit of dragonscale for robust protection in the deepest of firefights.

Weapons brackets were filled at each soldier’s right, each weapon a personal decision, though finding NATO STAGNAG clips acceptable for unit cohesion. MP7s, G11s, OICWs, SCARs, sniper rifles, and even two two-man assault rocket teams. Baylor’s combat-hardened platoon was very much ready to go to war.

And win.

A speaker within the drop pod crackled.

“One minute to drop. Good luck, gents.”

And that was all. Below them they heard the whoosing of the rear-facing bomb bay as it slotted quickly open, the slipstream of the craft leaving a slight air bubble near the lowered bay that allowed opened hatches at top speed, eliminating the need for a lowered speed to release its payload, which was extremely dangerous.

The time seemed to pass slowly. Baylor tightened his grip on his gee-webbing, and readied his mission timer, projected on the top right corner of his shatterproof visor to the right of the compass.

“Hasta la vista, Omega Unit. Initiate mission.”

Baylor hit the switch.

All of three milliseconds passed until the electromagnets reversed their polarity.

Instantly the pod was shoved away from the clamps like it was body-slammed by a dinosaur, flying a short distance across the bay and out of the Aurora like a stone, swept by the slipstream like a twig in a stream. Its diagonal arc across the sky, from an altitude of several miles, was extraordinary.

For the men inside the drop pod, it all felt like someone had grabbed their balls and torn them off as pressure suits contracted, helping to prevent blood flow to the brain and redout fainting. Baylor could see bandana flapping in the free-fall, whipping in front of his face.

This was it.


The landing was as smooth as silk, I mused, as the squad quickly piled out of the drop pod and established a rudimentary defensive perimeter, in case our approach had been noticed. With the hands of deft practice I unslung my OICW and gave it an once-over to make sure it was in working order. Oorah.

Alder, my XO, was at my side instantly, whispering in my ear. “Mission clock indicates we’ve got fifty minutes until the Antonov arrives.”

I nodded. “Gotcha. No recon.” He had studied the map of the area well enough, I hoped. We were on a slight hill leading down to a slight plateau on which the airfield was situation, beyond that, high cliffs. Immediately below us were the rears of the hangar, probably where at least half of the Reapers were situated with BLACK-ST. the other half, including Lenox and a portion of his squad leaders, was shown by infrared satellite to be in the lobby beneath the squat control tower.

I had three choices: go as one, and either attack one of the two areas as one platoon, or split, and attack each separately with appropriate force. “Bateau,” I hissed over the radio to one of my squad sergeants, “Did the C4 make the drop?”

The radio crackled in my ear. “Yessir, we’ve got four satchels, enough to level both hangars, twice.”

“Excellent.” I switched the radio to all my squad leaders. “Listen up, crew. We have fifty, five-zero minutes, until the big bird comes down to pick up our targets. So here’s the gameplan. In the hangar you’ve got twenty-five men and BLACK-ST, something we need to recover while liquidating every single one of the men. Unfortunately, that rules out C4 as a direct tool to destroy the hangar. So we’re going to have to lure the men out of the hangar and into a killing field. In order to do that, we need five minutes that actually set up C4 outside the hangar and take up firing positions once they leave for the Antonov.”

Sergeant Fletcher, the leader of the heavy weapons squad, spoke up. “Sir, and the tower?”

I nodded to myself. “Lennox and his tops dogs are currently in the tower base right now, paying off the airstrip management and having a last-minute leadership meeting. I’m going to take Tango squad ahead and take them out as Alder manages you into position. It’ll take us five minutes to move down the rise into the area of the airstrip, from there, Alder, you take Sierra and Romeo squads to the hangars. Have Sierra squad set up a killzone outside of the hangar, with all possible stealth, while Romeo takes up killfield positions. Sierra will fall back and augment Romeo as the Antonov descends and taxis. When the Reapers venture out from the hangar, begin your suppression. Understood?”

There was a solemn chorus of ‘yessirs’ and I nodded viciously. “Let’s roll, Omega Unit.”

The Reapers would probably spin straight from their hangar to the colossal Antonov in humvees, I figured, meaning the initial fire would have to be massive and disabling. Rocket the command vehicles and target each and every Reaper, or they would swiftly organize, and we’d be fighting a losing battle. It was the Avalonian Woods all over again, where my enemy and I were equally matched in numbers, and only advantage was the element of surprise.

Then again, the Paragon plants didn’t have humvees and weren’t some of the most crack commandos in the world. We were Force Recon now, swift, silent, deadly, and we had to live up to that name, or we would all die.

After all, were did you go from us in terms of up?


I saw Fletcher wave Romeo back to the lines at the edge of the airfield, which consisted of raised mounds of hill, perfect for peeping your muzzles and binocs over. The C4 had been set along the bumpy, wide, dusty dirt path leading from the hangar to the concrete taxi ground, a route meant to be taken by smaller planes. Good, they hadn’t been noticed. If they had been, they’d be dead.

Lennox hadn’t posted guards, which sent my brain into overdrive. There was no way he wouldn’t post guards. No way. But the intel given by command had noted that their d-net wouldn’t notice us if we were within a certain range- only if were approaching from far off at conventional speeds. The infrared told me where the men were, and you couldn’t full the sat techs, not with the experience they had. This unnerved me to no end, as it left two choices: either Lennox was supremely confident in his d-net to the point of foolery or-

-Or it was trap.

And the Reapers didn’t get to where they were with foolery.

I considered my options, in the back of my mind simultaneously noting one of the oldest military problems for extremely-tight window special operations. You know, or thought you knew what lay before you, but things have changed. Questions are raised on the knife’s edge before the enactment of the plan. Now, you can go ahead and possibly run into faulty intel and get your men killed. But battlefield commanders, especially special operations commanders, have to be able to react and adapt quickly in the field, improvise. But how much do you improvise? You doubt in your intel, the make-or-break portion of the mission, and too much deviation or hesitation will get your men killed, especially if you’re wrong.

The stakes raise themselves when the window of the mission is smaller and tighter. Intel becomes more than make-or-break; it’s the very crux of your entire operation. Too many a black op has gone awry because the leader got spooked and didn’t trust their intel. It was a lesson to be taken home in obedience to command.

The entire long-standing paradox now applied fully to me. The lack of guards bespoke a trap fully. But I had orders and intel to strike here and now. And if I didn’t strike here and now right here and now I’d have my command destroyed if the intel was right. How would I adapt? I didn’t have a Hind D riding over the hill to catalyze my plans- the decision was firmly in my hands.

I once wanted to believe my command was trustworthy, the fundamental relationship of ‘obey’ that went down the chain. But after the Paragon, that trust had been broken. And now I was back to the subject to clean up a loose end of the affair, the whole affair was increasingly growing fishy. What briefing used the line ‘Bring it back with you or don’t come back at all’?

I caught myself. Here I was, making the near-fatal mistake my comrade before me had made on the threshold of action: doubting my command. Alder and his Tango squad were poised behind me in classic entry team formation, by the back door of the lobby/tower complex. PFC Fender was checking the door thoroughly for electronic sensors and security catches and, with a thumbs up, he marked it clear, having subverted a simple open/close magnetic connector near the top. Down the wall, about ten meters, was a large garage door, but had skipped over that.

I checked my watch one final time. Thirty minutes until the mercenary Antonov dropped down, allowing the Reapers to flee the hemisphere with their stolen weapon. No more time to debate. It was go time.

The door opened in Fender’s face, and he found himself staring down the barrel of a SCAR. Two more riflemen behind the Reaper point man pointed their rifles at me as I whipped my own gun up.

The garage door opened, and ten more Reapers instantly flanked us, as Alder’s squad rapidly reoriented their sights to the threat.

Floodlights popped on from the ATC tower, orienting on us.

We froze, and perhaps that was the only thing that saved our lives.

I had two very clear options right there – order my troops to lay down my arms and hope the Reapers were merciful, or I could take my chances in opening up with my rifle. Neither choice was anywhere near palatable. However, considering how clearly we had been outflanked, I’d lost my one chance to fight back and at least escape alive. Only the twitch combat after the doors open of someone firing at the Reapers would leave a level combat field.

However, the very fact we weren’t gunned down the instant we weren’t gunned down the second the door swung open was, well, sorta heartening. I guess. The Reapers wanted no more part in a bloodbath than I did. Apparently

A man, his head covered with a visor and a black balaclava, emerged from behind the four Reapers covering us from the doorway. As I saw a pair of TMPs hung loosely on hip holsters, I tensed – this was the Reaper’s commander, Lennox. He held a slung SCAR loosely in his hands, thankfully not training it on me as he moved forward, almost cautious.

His silver visor glinted in the glare of the floodlights as he surveyed my team silently. The tension sat low in the air like a haze.

And still no one fired.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Acker look at me and lift his chin. And then he slowly shook his head, the movement almost imperceptible. He knew our one chance to fight and survive this had passed. Firing away now would be futile, considering I hadn’t even gotten my C4 into play. Maybe, if I did have some surprise explosion card to play things could turn out differently, but I couldn’t deal in what ifs. To fire now would be out of spite – I’d be gunned down before I could even train my sights on Lennox.

Lennox was moving again, walking towards me, around me. He finally seemed to realize who I was.

“SOLIDSIX,” he breathed, his voice masked by the balaclava. It had been my callsign for several years when I had served in the Middle East. “We may be able to survive this after all.”

He turned and nodded to his men. “Set for stun.”

The actual words had been for my benefit, most likely, as the Reapers flanking him saw some hand gesture and raised their modified Mk.22s in simultaneous motions. Knowing resisting at this moment would only mean the deaths of my men – something I couldn’t have on my conscience – I mirrored the head shake back at Alder right before the Reapers opened fire.

Darts caught men around me in their necks and they collapsed almost instantly. One second they were standing, the next they were on the ground, twitching mildly. My men, sensing my acceptance, never let off a shot.

Lennox walked back into the offices, the seeming weight of the world on his shoulders.

I was about to say something when one of the Reapers, wearing a blood-red stripe of what I guessed wasn’t paint over his chest armor approached me and swung the butt of his SCAR into my cheek. There was a crack, and the black plastic was the last thing I saw before I fell to the ground.


“The Antonov just called in. It’s about ten minutes out.”

“The pilot has no trouble finding the field without the lights on?”

“Not at all. The coded beacon is working perfectly. Pilot’s a specialist, he’s done this before. So…” There was a pause. The speaker was clearly hesitant. “What’s the plan, boss? Where are we taking BLACK?”

There was a longer pause before the second speaker – presumably Lennox – replied. His words were measured. “The only place we can. We can’t trust our own government with it any more than we can the Russians, what with Sekhina’s assassination. We either take it to a UN stronghold or we dump it in Antarctica and simply… disappear. BLACK acts as our leverage – we know what the General has done, who he is in bed with. It’s our one bargaining chip that we can use to get to the bottom of this, Cutler.”

Cutler, apparently Lennox’s second-in-command, clearly wasn’t happy with his, and the tone laced his grunt of acceptance. “Got it, sir.”

I squeezed my eyes tight shut, trying not to groan. I had been handcuffed to a rickety metal chair, both hands and feet shackled. I’d been relieved of my weapons and throat radio. Pity they hadn’t gotten the cool inner ear radio that the tech guys had implanted for field testing before I left. I had a link to Alder over it, not that it would do me much good. I’d still have to talk, and I doubted they’d let me just go ahead and tell important details to no one in particular.

And my stupid bandana had been tied as a blindfold. I guess they thought that was humorous.

“Sooo-oooo,” I said, fighting back the pain my face burst into when I tried to talk. I had grown used to meeting the rigors of life as a reflexive smartass. “Was that all for me? I’m touched, I really am. I bet there’s a real sob story behind that. Care to share it with me?”

There was a patter of approaching footsteps and someone roughly tore the bandana down to around my neck. I blinked in the sudden light and struggled to quickly drink in my surroundings. I sat under the porch of the office, probably on the opposite side from where we’d been ambushed. Someone had trained one of those floodlights from the ATC tower on us – Cutler and Lennox appeared like silhouettes. Man, these special ops types the images they struggled to maintain. I squinted to pick out detailed

Cutler, who I immediately fingered as the man with the blood stripe – the asshole who had clubbed me in the face – had yanked my bandana down. He was in his early twenties, a grizzled operator. He had a large nose and longer than regulation black hair but was otherwise entirely unremarkable. Lennox stood back, still wearing his visor, arms crossed. He exuded calm.

I skipped over the immediate and began looking around before Cutler could physically stop me. My men were flexicuffed a hundred feet away in the open hangar, covered by a fireteam while a full squad managed to forklift. The vehicle manhandled a large pallet sporting something massive – though I guessed it to be folded and thus even larger – strapped down under a black canvas.

Something that could only be Black-ST. Apparently, though, if you just said ‘black’ it had to be in all capital letters – BLACK, like so. It was just one of those things, I guess.

And then the Reapers wheeled the barn doors closed.

I turned back to Cutler before he could strike me. I swear he had raised a fist. “So, that story. Usually professionals just shoot you and leave the monologues for their memoirs. The only people who have to explain their plan and motivations are craaaaazies-” I would have rolled a finger in a circle by my head, but simply settled with rolling my eyes melodramatically to Lennox. “-Or those guys who have been burned in a back end deal. So, what is it muchacho?”

Lennox cocked his head, and I could only hope there was a smile underneath that mask. When he did speak, it was in the same thoughtful meter as ever. “First things first. I need to know who sent you, SOLIDSI-”

I interrupted him. Best to keep the conversation on my terms. “Jesus, I haven’t used that callsign in two friggin’ years. I hadn’t known I’d made a reputation with the Reapers of all people. I don’t know whether to blush or not. So, yeah. If you’re a unit that went rogue because of some transgression or betrayal by your superiors, I’m all ears. You must know that, being the unit sent into the Paragon after it was nuked.”

Sighing, Lennox’s shoulders finally dropped. He rolled his head around, probably rolling his eyes as well. I had him on this. If he hadn’t killed me and my squad because he simply wanted hostages, he would simply smack me around to stop me from being such a pain. If he was actually pausing to explain his story, he probably had a real reason to go rogue.

Shit. It would have been a lot simpler if he was just a bad guy.

“Would you believe me if I told you that the Paragon’s production never stopped after Carson and his crew were nuked off the face of the earth? What did they tell you we were? Cleaners sent into the underlevels? Was that it?”

I grimaced. “Something like that. There were some good shots of you firing away with your little Steyr guns.”

Lennox snorted. “Yeah, because a government like ours would simply have no access to the resources necessary to photoshop a picture, man. Tell you what. We were the guard dogs for the new generation of scientists working in the underlevels. Some high level general managed to maneuver oversight over the whole case and covertly continued the Paragon’s weapons research.”

“And what? You guys just went ‘nyuk nyuk this seems like a good idea’?”

Cutler actually did roll his eyes. “Of course not. We were told, though, that American production would be for American soldiers without the whole elaborate ‘test on shitty platoon’ business.”

I grinned. “No, of course not. Totally.”

Cutler threw his hands up. “We were soldiers, we followed our orders. We hadn’t been colored by unfortunately being such a bottom-tier platoon that we were deemed expendable for weapons testing.”

I sneered. “Hey, Chuckles…”

Lennox made a sharp cutting motion with one hand. “Enough. Point is, we found out that the General – the Chaos Farley – overseeing all this had been in charge of the Paragon from the beginning. He covered up the business in ’03 and continued relations with WRAITH. When I learned he was planning to sell the Paragon’s latest weapons platform to the cartel, I had to act.”

“I assume you have proof of this?” I asked innocently. This could all still be an elaborate lie for shits and giggles while they waited for the Antonov. That had happened once during a gig in Burma, when I had sprung my brother from a prison camp. I had nearly fallen for the story from some shitfaced self-styled Colonel and had damn near eaten a bullet for it.

“Nothing other than my word,” said Lennox, his voice – damn it, between the emotionless tone he had just dropped into and that bloody balaclava, I couldn’t make out a damn thing from him.

“Well,” I said. “Pardon me if I don’t exactly believe you. I mean, I may be a Marine, but c’mon man. I’m not an idiot.”

“Oh, for shit’s sake,” said Cutler, walking back towards me and drawing a FN Five-seveN. He fired a round into the air, making me jump and almost fall out of my chair.

The butt of the pistol slammed, hard, across my face. My head snapped to the side, blood and the fragment of one of my teeth flying away to clatter against the far wall. Cutler flipped the pistol in his hand, once again pressing the sizzling barrel of the Five-seveN into my forehead. I nearly screamed, but I only gritted my teeth harder, shoving the pain aside. Lennox raised a hand, calming the Lieutenant. The small muzzle left my skin, and the pain doubled.

“You know,” I hissed through my teeth, “I’d read my name, rank, and number to you, if I could. But you chaps are so boned that you can’t even get that. You see, even the average KGB grunt or al-Qaeda mastermind gets more respect that you dudes. I can tell that’s stuff. You guys, well, you guys are so deep in this bullshit, that I can’t even give you that. Kinda sucks to be you. I’m just the Cleaner. You’re the dust to my broom. Go ahead and kill me. I’m sure the dead man’s switch in my rib cage will let you get five meters away in time. Surel-”

The boot came up hard, tipping my chair over. I fell backwards, onto the cold backside bars of the seat. I would’ve tumbled out of the chair, had the chaincuffs not dug hard into my skin, drawing blood. Lennox drew his leg back, slowly placing the offending foot on the steel floor.

“You’re certainly right, Captain. Certainly. You’ve actually made your predicament quite clear to all of us now. You’re a simple grunt. A man with gun. Of no use to us. You didn’t know who sent you, who tried to stop us from moving ST-Black. I’m even betting Farley thought that us annihilating you would be a win-win. You’re… useless.”

Lennox paused as he heard the click of a hammer.

“Indeed,” said Cutler, the pistol now pointed at the back of his CO’s head. “So you are, my friend. The General won’t allow this to go any further. I’m afraid our charade has come to a close. ST-Black will move, but not to a destination of your choosing. And you know the best part of this? They’re the advance squad, Chuck. There’s more on the way. The real Cleaner squad. Time is of the essence. It is time to activate-“

It Came From Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
By Mobius 1 and SiegeTank


I rattled my handcuffs excitedly against the chair. “I believe the correct expression is ‘dun dun duuuunn’.”

Lennox moved to lay a hand on one of his machine pistols. Cutler made a motion with his FN. “Yeah, not so fast there, bucko. Even if you get past me, the rest of the squad is with me. Turns out it doesn’t take much to pay off your average serviceman, paid shit to put their life on the line daily.”

Tensing, Lennox carefully moved his hand away from his hip holster. “Farley wants BLACK returned?”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cutler scoffed. “No, I told you. He’s sending in his own squad to take care of both us and Baylor’s group of assholes-”

“Hey!” I called. “I’m still here, you know. There’s no need to call people mean names.”

Cutler drew a second Five-seveN and fired off a round offhandedly. There was a spark on the ground about a foot from my head and I flinched reflexively.

“No,” the traitor said, frowning at his gun. He probably had intended to hit me in the head. That’s what happens when you talk and fire at the same time – I knew from long years of experience that you save the one-liners for before or after you fire your gun.

“No,” Cutler said again, looking back up at Lennox. “WRAITH has always kept sleeper agents – well, everywhere. America’s top special forces aren’t exempt. When Kroner found out you were going to use BLACK in your little attempt at freedom, he had me pay off the rest of the squad. I figured you were a lost cause, so I didn’t tell you.”

There came a low buzzing sound, growing gradually louder. I tried to crane my head to get a look at the night sky and saw the silhouette of an Antonov An-22, flying in from the east. With a throaty roar, it landed on the dirty field and began taxiing towards our hangars.

Cutler looked relieved, I at least understood the feeling – holding a gun on a Reaper isn’t something one does lightly. Chuckles also wanted to avoid a straight-up fight with Farley’s supposedly second crew – the more loyal Cleaners. God, I love that nickname. I probably didn’t want to call him it to his face again, though. It might piss him off.

Oh, what the hell.

“Yo, Chuckles,” I said. “Care to set me up? Kinda hard to hear your master plan on the ground. Handcuffs cut off blood, my head gets dizzy, that sort of thing.”

Cutler turned his attention to me, a sharp insult on his tongue as he sighted his pistol on my center of mass-

Yeah, there he went again, talking and firing.

Lennox coldcocked Cutler, the sucker punch coming up and lifting him a foot off the floor. The Reaper crashed unconscious to the ground as his gun fired, ricocheting wildly about a meter away.

“They’d have heard the shot,” Lennox observed, rubbing his gloved knuckles. “The rest of my squad. They’re in the hangar.”

“Naw, really,” I drawled. “You think? Or are you just going to stand there in plain sight?”

He glanced at me for a second, considering whether taking me along was worth it.

I smiled widely at him. “See, even if you somehow avoid getting killed by your own men, the only people not trying to kill you out here would be my men and how amiable do you thi-”

“Okay, Jesus Christ. Whatever,” Lennox grumbled as he undid my handcuffs and pulled me to my feet. I took both FNs from Cutler and passed one to Lennox. Pausing for a moment, I mashed my boot down on Cutler’s nose with a small explosion of blood. Asshole.

Come to think of it, the sound of the giant friggin’ plane landing a couple hundred feet away might have covered up the sounds of the shots.

That was, right up until a side door to the barn opened and two Reapers walked outside.

Oh, shit.


Time, as they say, slowed.

Actually, I thought, it would be good to get some confirmation that everyone in Lennox’s squad was in bed with WRAITH. Be a real shame to shoot some potential allies.

Then a second, probably more important thought: had they seen us?

Both questions were resoundingly answered when the pair gave a shout and whipped up their SCARs, firing away.

I felt a hand clamp around the scruff of my neck as Lennox hauled me bodily into the offices of the airfield. Bullets punched through the cheap walls all around us as the Reaper Major pulled me deeper into the building. Yeah, there’s a fact the movies often take for granted – walls provide about as much protection from bullets as tissue paper. This was especially true if the building standards were the par of a Central American shithole – while, lo and behold, they were.

Lennox, one arm latched onto my neck, raised his pistol and loosed a round. The Reaper a hundred feet away gave an ‘ack!’, clutched at his neck, and toppled over. I scowled at Lennox. He hadn’t even aimed.

And then we were out of sight and around a corner. I shrugged off Lennox’s grip, holding my own pistol up towards the general direction of the barn. Half a second later the fire stopped as the commando figured he was shooting blind. I figured he was calling his buddies forward on his radio – bastards had probably changed frequencies when Cutler took Lennox out back to hopefully dispose of him.

Here’s where the fun begins.

We had to get out of this building. The Reapers would have no qualms about encircling it and blowing up with my own squad’s C4 without even having to bother entering the building for a messy firefight. Somehow, I missed dealing with two-bit third world mooks.

Lennox calmly looked down at his pistol and realized he had his own guns. He passed it to me, and I holstered it. Guns akimbo is another thing you really only catch in the movies.

“This would be a point,” I mused, “where, if I was no a dashing special operations commander with years of experience under my belt, I’d turn to you and say ‘got any swell ideas’.”

“Indeed,” breathed Lennox. “Let’s go. We need to get out of here before they box us in.” He took off at a run, clearing every corner with his gun first.

Well, I could have figured that out. Swearing under my breath, I followed after him.

We cleared the back door of the offices in about twenty seconds; coming out in the same area I’d been ambushed. Belatedly, I saw a rather complex radar contraption tucked into the corner of one room. One of the Reapers stood over it, and coughed up an oath when he saw us, going for his SCAR. Lennox calmly shot him in the eyes.

Emerging into the summer night, we covered every possible angle with our firearms. The Reapers hadn’t caught up to us yet, having to go all the way around the building.

Stopping abruptly at the left corner, Lennox pulled a tactical mirror (as someone once told me, it sounds way better than ‘mirror on a stick’) out of his utility belt (again, there was some rule of cool to be maintained) and peered around the corner with it.

A three-round burst made the mirror explode in a shower of tiny silver shards.

“Okay,” said Lennox. “Want to do it the hard way?”


The three Reapers came around the corner, barrel-mounted flashlights sweeping the woods. It was a second before they saw the corpse – it was the radar man, hung by a section of rope from a protruding roof rafter. The rope continued over and tied off to a bar in one of the windows.

The body began to sway in a light breeze.

Sighing inaudibly, the lead commando motioned for one of his fellows to cut the body down. Going over to the tied off rope, the Reaper easily undid the simple knot. The corpse, no long tied up by a counterbalance, plopped to the ground.

Taking a belt of grenades with him. The pins were, of course, still attached to the rafter.

The explosion sent all three Reapers sprawling. Only one actually survived the blast, his body armor aflame.

I leapt down from the roof lightly and put the man out of his misery. Lennox followed behind a second later.

“I told you,” I said. “You learn all sorts of weird stuff in Burma.”

“Sure thing,” Lennox said, not really caring. “We need to move.”

There was a single shout of surprise at the explosion, and I heard to collective patter of footsteps in our direction.

I decided now would be a good time to try out that experimental inner ear radio they had given us. Putting two fingers up to my ear, I tapped my ear lobe twice and, realizing I looked like an idiot, huddled over.

“Yo, Alder? How’s it going?”

His reply was quick and sharp. “This radio is officially retarded. Sir. Just saying.”

“I assume they’re not watching you?”

“No, they all ran out after some big explosion went off outside.”

“Yeah, that was me. Long story short, Lennox is on our team and all the other Reapers are bad guys. We have hostiles – third party – inbound. Can you escape?”

“Already have my cuffs undone. Helps if Sergeant Bateau is double-jointed. He managed to lift a key off one of the Reapers.”

“Good. You’ll know when to bust out and kick ass, I take it?”

“Totally. Good luck, boss.”

I straightened up to see Lennox staring silently at me. Damn that stupid visor getup.

From my new angle, I could see Cutler standing, his face covered in blood, near the barn, ordering the Reapers forward. There was a lot of open ground between us-

-And then mostly ungodly sound rent the air into shreds. Everyone in the visible vicinity flinched.

The lead Reaper, a bulky man, simply disappeared as a fireball struck him.

It was like meteor strikes – one, two, twelve. All fireballs falling from the sky and impacting on the airfield between the Reapers and me.

And then the dust cleared, and I saw what we were dealing with. Large, sleek boxes the size of suburban refrigerators, mounting some of those nifty J-7 Thrustpacks.

Drop pods. Individual drop pods.

Everyone stopped and stared at where the drop pod had crushed the lone Reaper. Silenced reigned on the airstrip, save for the drone of the Antonov’s engines as it finally pulled to a stop a couple hundred feet away.

I stepped up with a melodramatic flourish, throwing my hands to the heavens. No sense wasting a perfectly good reference to a certain literary wizard from my hometown that absolutely no one would get.

“And for my next trick,” I called. “Anvils!”

The Cleaners had arrived.


While it’s not widely known the Air Force has a ground-based special operations unit, it is widely acknowledged they’re all a bunch of smarmy assholes. They’ve got this huge sense of entitlement, claiming they can go SPACECAV’s job and do ground drops for a half the price with the airplane dropped pods. They really didn’t realized they were glorified paratroopers using a tech that was only good if someone could get them and their budget-blowing pods in a nearby plane. Not exactly the same as a orbital drop spaceplane, is it?

I had led my Force Recon platoon against them in the inter-service games about a year ago. And they had-

Well, crap. They had thrashed us. They were fast, violent, and I’m pretty sure hopped up on some steroids or something. They had put several of my men in the hospital.

Not the best memory to dredge up, under the circumstances. I probably had better luck remembering what assholes they were.

The nearest pod’s door flew open, flying twenty feet before hitting the office building and caving in what hadn’t been demolished by the five grenades. A heavily armed and armored soldier came out, guns blazing and I dragged Lennox to the ground as a 40mm underbarrel grenade flew over our head.

I tapped my ear.

“Alder,” I hissed, mock-conspiratorially. “Now would be a very good time.”

“I figured,” he said jovially. “Kicking ass, sir. Over.”

There came a shout above the din as more Air Force goons leapt forth from their pods. Across the newly planted forest of refrigerat- I mean, drop pods (maybe Indy had it right all along), I saw a Reaper pulled back into the barn, a knife across his throat. Alder’s men were moving out, armed and ambulatory.

Chuckles realized very quickly this wasn’t a winning situation for his group. Shouting over the din while firing a SCAR (Again – the guy never learned) at the Cleaners, he managed to use the BLACK pallet as cover as his group of surviving Reapers – still twenty-something strong – fled onto the Antonov. He clearly (no duh) intended to leave us the Cleaners to contend with.

Another grenade exploded closer to me.

“Boss, they’re making a break for it!” Alder shouted over the aural implant.

“Shit!” Lennox growled. “Bastard’s getting away!”

“Ack!” I agreed.

I could only watch helplessly as the SHADOW TEMPEST prototype was wheeled up the big cargo plane’s ramp and out of sight.

A rocket from the Cleaners rocked the Antonov, but they might have well have been shooting spitballs. The Russian-made plane was a hardy one, and it began to trundle away as its rear hatch closed shut.

Alder’s squad had taken up cover and were trading shot with the Cleaners, who were slowly retreating to the cover of the offices. Wait. We were between them and the office.

Lennox hauled me to my feet and I began loosing potshots at the Cleaners with my pistol. They were like wraiths, backlit by the burning fires of their impact craters and moving in and out of the askew floodlights.

And then I saw them. Two of them, that is. Silver-black suit, all a million segmented links of cybernetic armor. Sleek and muscular, perhaps mistaken for eight-foot superhumans. Of course, no armor existed like that outside of perhaps Japan.

The nearest suit took a confident step forward and raking the area in front of him with a wrist-mounted machine gun. Lennox gave a slight gasp as a round caught him in the calf – I caught him before he took a rather spectacular dive. Together, we dived into the flaming wreckage of the offices.

“On the Paragon’s latest?” I asked Lennox as he passed me a magazine from his belt.

“Oh yeeeah,” he said, trying hard to control the pain in his voice. “It’s an INTEGRAL TEMPEST.”

I punched him in the shoulder. “No way.”

“Way,” he said, counting to three before firing blindly over the pile of rubble with one of his Steyr TMPs. There was a short cry of pain and the sound of the body dropping to the ground twenty feet away. I scowled at him again. He wasn’t even looking that time.

Swearing, Lennox passed me his SCAR. “Load some AP shells in the launcher.”

I did as I was told, scrambling at a bandolier slung across his chest. Producing a round striped with orange tape, I loaded it with fumbling fingers in the M203 attached to the SCAR. Propping the gun against my shoulder, I popped up, took a second to sight on the closest INTEGRAL TEMPEST and fired. Clunk.

The round took the powered armor in the stomach, burning there for a couple second like a miniature sun before exploding. INTEGRAL TEMPEST stumbled perhaps half a step backwards, armor covered in soot, before lunging forward yanking me bodily out of me cover.

I could only give a startled yelp as he enveloped me in a bear hug and proceeded to crush the life out of me.


Protip, for all you armchair generals out there. Having your rib cage crushed hurts. Being choked to death hurts. Done right by someone who’s half your size or a giant mechanical suit of armor, it’s all the same. It only takes a couple seconds for darkness to start making a call.

Yargh. Son of a bitch was paying me back for the grenade-back gut punch.

I struggled uselessly in the hold, but my arms were pinned. The SCAR clattered uselessly to the ground some four feet down. INTEGRAL’s cool blue eyes shown in the skull-faced helmet, boring silently into me. I stared back at him, even though I doubted I could beat him a staring contest.

Trying not to puke explosively, I reached with twitching fingers to the Five-seveN holstered on my side. Drawing it out slowly, I began to empty the clip in the inside of the suit’s leg, then down at its feet. Maybe it had those funky foot armor issues the SHADOW TEMPEST model I had faced off with had.

No such luck. If anything, the suit’s arms began to squeeze harder.

And then everything exploded.

Boom time, to use one of my favorite sayings.

All around me the ground began to go up massive fireballs, sending Cleaners flying. The TEMPEST trying to kill me – and incidentally, me – were scooped up by the hand of god and thrown through the air like leaves placed on an air vent. Somehow along the way – perhaps when I was twenty feet in the air – I managed to get an arm free from the loosening vice grip. Grabbing a massive bent-inward knife I had received during one of my many globe-trotting tours, I unsheathed the kukri and slashed it across the side of his neck.

The suit gave a metallic scream and blood mixed with a silvery liquid nanite glop began spraying from the ragged slash with the same high pressure antics I’d expect from a fire hose.

The suit flung me away, hoping perhaps the fall or the impact or something could kill me.

I hit a pair of the air force commandos and we all went down like ninepins. It would’ve been comforting to know they had arrested my fall and saved my life. If well, one of the guys underneath me wasn’t groaning angrily and reaching for his sidearm.

I slapped his hand away with the flat of my kukri and slugged him in the face with the butt of my empty Five-seveN with the other hand. His head banged back hard against the pavement, but the helmet kept him conscious, barely.

I punched him again. Mercy is not my middle name.

As his teammate died, the other Cleaner had managed to gain enough of a semblance of awareness to draw his own knife – one of the trench tools that belong in Europe and was probably a century old – and slugged me in the chest with his brass knuckles. I sprawled backwards as the commando pulled himself to his knees, learing at me.

And then his chest deformed into bloody ribbons as the SCAR cut him open. I turned to see one of my marines – a PFC named Graham – lower his rifle and give me thumbs up. I nodded and got to my feet, gathering up one of the Cleaner’s rifles – by the looks of it, actually P90 submachine gun – just in time for the ground to shake and the injured INTEGRAL TEMPEST to pile drive forward out of the raging inferno that had once been the airfield.

I froze – deer in headlights, you get the picture – as I took in the sight of the blood covered eight-foot tall battlesuit charging me at something approaching sixty miles an hour. I’d seen less threatening nuclear missiles.

Seeing as I’d only get one shot at this, I had to time it perfectly…

I stood my ground until the armor was twenty feet away – and then I dropped and rolled forward, and to the right, sweeping my kukri like a baseball bat at his left ankle.

It was a miracle the knife didn’t shatter upon impact, or my arms weren’t wrenched out of their sockets. As it was, the kukri was torn out of my hands as the TEMPEST flew past, burrowed into his Achilles Heel.

The result was nothing sort of spectacular. With a choked cry, the suit tumbled forward, head over heels, planting his face some two feet into the dirt.

Right onto Alder’s second line of C4.

I had forgotten, in all the crisscrossing web of betrayals and shit that we had already set out two full lines of C4. That earlier explosion that had separated me from the suit’s grip had been one of the C4 rows.

Surveying the battlefield, I saw Sergeant Fletcher nod to me as he raised the detonator and jammed his thumb down on the big red button.

The explosion went off with a wumpth underneath the INTEGRAL TEMPEST suit, lifting him a foot into the air with a brief flash of light before he dropped back down, this time connecting with a wet, meaty smack. Smoke trailed up from the corpse. Yeah, he was definitely dead.

I heard the chatter of machine guns and instinctively flung myself to the left just as the second INTEGRAL TEMPEST leapt back into the fray (then again, he had always been in the fray, and I had just re-entered it). Bullets raked the air behind me, but I got to cover behind one of the drop pods.

The rocket hit the drop pod a second later and tossed me in the air. I landed on my back, screaming in pain – I’m pretty sure my pants leg was on fire.

I saw the TEMPEST reload its arm-mounted launcher and aim for a second shot. Cheater.

And then Lennox appeared on the thing’s back, scaling up with like scaffolding. Grabbing purchase on its shoulder blades, he drew his knife and brought it down on the crook of the TEMPEST’s right shoulder and neck. And again, and again. The suit clawed at its attack, but the Reaper was too fast. Gouging a hole in the suit’s armor, he plugged it a second later with an active RDX grenade. He leapt off the suit, tumbling expertly-

Just the suit’s upper torso disintegrated in red haze of burning metal, plastic, and flesh. The abdomen and legs swayed there for half a second before toppling over with a loud crash.

Silence reined once again the battlefield. It was all rather sudden.


We policed the dead, gathering up weapons and gear. The Cleaners had an extremely nice loadout – they were well cared for by Farley, the air force general.

In all, I’d lost six men, with two more wounded. Most had been the direct responsibility of that second INTEGRAL TEMPEST, having jumped in the middle of their ranks and starting tossing people in his best Sauron impression. Pity neither suit was salvageable – it would’ve be, well, interesting to pilot one of those things around.

Cutler had gotten away, of course, to god knows where Some WRAITH stronghold I probably didn’t want to go again, in all likelihood. I asked Lennox about the new SHADOW TEMPEST prototype after taking charge of my men.

He shrugged. “It mounted a pair of laser cannons on its shoulder, allowing it to hit targets from a mile away. Oh, and it can fly.”

“It can fly?” I was incredulous.

“It was about a half dozen foot-wide blades coming down from its back. Generated an electric field or somesuch, allowing it to glide along not unlike a fat-assed fighter plane.”

I gulped, only wondering what would have happened if Cutler has unleashed BLACK on the airstrip instead of fleeing. Looking for something to do with my shaking hands, I went over to the ruined office – that stupid chair was still intact, somehow – and started bandaging the burns I had received on my exposed forearms. They hurt like hell until I spread some of the miracle gel Ridley had given me from the British tech labs on the wounds.

Lennox trudged over to me and plopped down into a chair. “Now what? I’ve burned all my contacts.”

I appraised him. “Got a sat phone?”

He shrugged. “Yeah. You know somebody?”

I smiled roguishly. “In-deed. I got peeps.”

He snorted. “Who says that anymore?” He reached into a back pocket a produced a small fold-up satellite phone, something that probably cost a couple grand.

“You know me,” I preened sarcastically. “I’m a slave to fashion.” I took the phone and dialed in a number I knew by heart. The call was answered on the second ring.

“Hello,” I said in a thick Spanish accent. “I’d like to order some pizza, airdropped. You have a five minutes or it’s free policy?”

The person on the other end of the phone groaned – I realized it was about two in the morning – and told me to do something physically impossible with my groin region. Lennox groaned.


It took about four hours for the C-130 to appear low over the horizon, coming in from the north just as the sun began to peak over the mountains. It circled once before performing a grade-A landing on the dusty strip. I walked over to the now-opening bay, my arms wide as the pilot stepped out.

My brother’s a mirror image of me, considering he’s my twin brother. Fancy that. Same close-cropped black hair and vaguely asian features. Same quick grin and warm eyes. He held up a fist and we rapped knuckled before me clamped in a bear hug that made the INTEGRAL TEMPEST’s grip feel like a warm embrace. He finally released me and I gasped for breath.

“Like I said,” I motioned to Lennox, who was approaching carefully. “I got peeps. Major, may I introduce you to my big brother, Air Force Captain Butch Baylor?”

My brother held out a hand jocularly. “You know the last time John called me in the middle of the morning, he had gotten dropped off drunk in the middle of fuckin’ Idaho. This time he’s managed to make himself an enemy of the state with a wanted fugitive.”

Lennox nodded stiffly and took the hand. Butch’s grin widened further and he nodded to Alder. “Howdy Vince.”

Vince inclined his head as he led the remnants of my platoon up. “Cap. Good to see you.”

I turned to Butch, my tone finally serious. “Who’s running cover for you?”

Butch’s game face slid on. “Colonel Easly,” he answered grimly. “He was in town anyway, recovering from a nasty rumble in Cambodia. We had been set up to take out some WRAITH base.”

I stopped, eyebrows threatening to disappear into my hairline. “Wassat?”

“Yeah, we were bait for the base’s defenses while a Nighthawk bombed the facility. A Firebird UCAV hit us – only Hank and I survived. Too bad the WRAITH leadership got away. Apparently they’re in league with the Russians.”

I exchanged a nervous look with Lennox. Everything was suddenly falling into place. Why WRAITH had paid off Cutler to steal the new SHADOW TEMPEST suddenly made sense – they were going to supply the Russian separatists.

“Hol-leeee shit,” I hissed. “Butch, how far can you take us into the USSR?”

Butch did a double take that, upon reflection, looked almost comical. “Russia? Wait, what?

Lennox stepped in. “How long do you have until Colonel Easly can’t keep running interference in the Pentagon? Members of my squad were paid off by WRAITH to steal a dangerous, very dangerous weapons system, and WRAITH intends to arm Sechalin’s militant faction with it. We need to follow them into Russia and stop them.”

Inwardly I cringed. When put like that my internal plan sounded retarded. I mean, were we going to steal into America’s archenemy and face off against WRAITH and an entire political movement?

Butch scratched a two week old layer of beard on his cheek and shrugged. “I’ve got all day. Easly is good people.” He paused, taking a deeeeeep breath. “I obviously can’t get you into Russia, but if you want to get to Moscow-”

“We do,” nodded Lennox.

“Ye-ah,” said Butch, still scratching his chin. “If you want to get into the capital, it’s best to take a shot up from Afghanistan. I can hand you off to an old friend who’s a Kiralova supporter. He owes me a favor from that business in Chad.”

Having been involved with the whole Chad affair myself (including one cool rumble with a giant subterranean monster that was as old as the dinosaurs and about as mean), I had an odd feeling I knew who what my bro was referring to.

We both broke into shaggy, boyish grins again.

“Who?” asked Lennox, the only one around not in the know.

“Only the guy with the coolest name ever,” explained Butch. We bumped fists again. “COMRADE HAAAAAMMER.”
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.
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Post by Booted Vulture »

:D I was just wondering why the title wasn't at the top in big red letter until I hit about chapter 5.

Good job. You've set yourself a high bar for the action content of the next two acts.
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Post by Siege »

At long last, it begins :D.
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet -
And this the Dutchmen know!
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »



Aw mang, this is totally nuts. Man. Baylor. BAYLORS! Maaaaang!

I have one question though.
We policed the dead, gathering up weapons and gear. The Cleaners had an extremely nice loadout – they were well cared for by Farley, the air force general.
Lennox made a sharp cutting motion with one hand. “Enough. Point is, we found out that the General – the Chaos Farley – overseeing all this had been in charge of the Paragon from the beginning. He covered up the business in ’03 and continued relations with WRAITH. When I learned he was planning to sell the Paragon’s latest weapons platform to the cartel, I had to act.”
So, Lennox in ideological purity STEALS the SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK from the Paragon/Genereral CHAOS FARLEY (mang what a name) because Paragon/Genereral CHAOS FARLEY is consorting with WRAITH.


WRAITH pays off CHUCKLES and the REAPERS who stabs LENNOX in THE DICK.

WRAITH-paid-off-CHUCKLES and the REAPERS stab LENNOX in THE DICK. (redundancy)


But THEN! Baylor gets sent in. Baylor gets his shit ruined and gets darted.

But THEN-THEN! The CLEANERS are sent in to KILL THE FUCK OUT OF EVERYONE - both Baylor AND also CHUCKLES and the REAPERS (who are paid off by WRAITH and have STABBED Lennox in THE DICK, and now have Shadow Tempest Black and will sell it to Sechalin, yadda yadda).

But the CLEANERS who are killing everyone, INCLUDING the WRAITH-PAID Reapers, are CHAOS FARLEY's guys.

CHAOS FARLEY is in charge of the Paragon and is dealing with WRAITH.

Why is WRAITH-dealing CHAOS FARLEY sending CLEANERS to KILL THE FUCK out of the REAPERS who are ALSO paid by WRAITH (to sell Shadow Tempest to the Russkies)?

I cannot follow all the conspiracy dick-stabbings!

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Post by Mobius 1 »

Apoc's final chapter was 58 pages. This is sixty two pages. It is the largest single post on the OZ/O1.

Who is DA MAN.

Act Two


We had been in the air for ten hours when Butch finally descended from the cockpit into the passenger bay – which, in this case, was virtually indistinguishable from an expensive executive jet, with the individual chairs and conference tables.

I looked up, surprised. “Shouldn’t you, you know, be flying the plane?”

He shrugged nonchalantly and gestured to a box on his belt that looked suspiciously like an old-school Game Boy. “We’re halfway over the Atlantic. I’ve got the plane on autopilot. If I wanted to, I could pilot it from here.”

Alder raised his eyebrows coolly. “With that remote control.”

“Yeah, like a little R/C plane.”

I threw my hands into the air. “Except this is a thousand-ton plane! It’s ridiculous.”

Butch snorted, and then nodded towards a row of duffel bags stacked against a bulkhead. “Colonel Easly has us set up – there are civies in those bags. Can’t have you walking through A-Stan and Central Asia in SPECCOM sneaking suits.”

“No,” Lennox agreed, his voice thick with sarcasm. “You think?”

“Careful,” warned Butch, putting a hand on his belt, nudging his Game Boy. “SPECCOM C-130s still come with ejection seats. I could drop you into the Azores, Reaper-Boy.” He turned to me, his face dropping into that serious mask just like it had back at the airfield. “So. What’s the story, hombre? What giant international mess have I gotten myself into this time?”

I exchanged a look with Lennox, before turning back to my brother. I laid it out for him – Lennox’s entrance into the Paragon, his theft of Shadow Tempest, my own phony briefing and the subsequent events on the air field, including the arrival of Farley’s cleaners.

“The one thing I don’t get,” said Alder as I wrapped up my tale, “is why the Cleaners were so indiscriminate on when they touched down. They were torching both us and the WRAITH Reapers. Wasn’t he working with WRAITH before you” –he motioned to Lennox –“stole BLACK? Why hold up what should have been the reparation of a solid business transfer?”

Butch massaged his temples and leaned back in the chair he had long since dropped into. “Things are starting to come together here.”

I quirked an eyebrow at him. “How so?”

“Easly had been doing some digging – that’s why he was out of the hospital and at the Pentagon – as to the circumstances behind our ill-fated raid on the WRAITH base in Cambodia. He found out that General Farley had opposed sending Phoenix Squadron on the attack mission. Said it would be a trap.”

“Well that was obvious,” said Lennox. “As you said it was one.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Butch, pursing his lips. “But I’d bet my ridiculously crappy salary that Farley tipped off WRAITH that we were coming – since he was in cahoots with them and all.”

“But what does this have to do with the Cleaners?” I asked.

“I’m getting to that. So, Farley tips off WRAITH and the syndicate sends their air power – the Firkins and that goddamn UCAV – after us. But it’s too late. Phoenix Squad itself is just a distraction from the F-117 that’s about to nuke the WRAITH base. In the end, Farley cost WRAITH their main base.

“So WRAITH has a falling out with Farley,” Alder said. “But wouldn’t Farley, at this point, want to try to do everything in his power to get back into WRAITH’s good graces? He doesn’t exactly want his relationship with them revealed.”

“No,” replied Butch. “He wouldn’t. But at this point, he has no choice. WRAITH’s pissed, so they take their business somewhere else – Sechalin and his Ultramilitants. And they have just the ticket to hand to the Russian rebels- BLACK. So when they learn Lennox has stolen BLACK, they have their convenient agent – Cutler – steal BLACK for them. Farley, who has a Cleaner squad on station anyway in case my bro fails, realizes WRAITH’s plans and sends in the Cleaners. He knows that if the higher ups in the US of A see BLACK in the hands of Sechalin, the jig is up and he’s going to be tried for treason.”

“So at this point,” I nodded. “Farley is in full panic mode. Cutler has gotten away with BLACK, his Cleaners are dead, and my squad survived the whole affair.”

Butch nodded. “Pretty much. The General will probably go after Easly next, if he realizes the Colonel is covering for us. We won’t need Hank’s protection anyway once we hit Afghanistan.” He stood and up and stretched. “I need to put a call through to him to tell him to watch his back. He’ll need to bug out of the country.”

“I know just the guy,” I said, snatching a Sharpie marker and a notebook from a slot in the wall and scribbing a number onto the paper. I handed it to Butch. “Jack Ridley can take him under SIS protection if things get too hairy.”

“I’ll pass it on,” said Butch, moving back towards the cockpit. “You need to get your guys changed – you’ll also find new weapons in the bags. We hit A-Stan by mid afternoon.”


We landed in Birjand (yeah, I know, more like Iran – but we couldn’t land in straight Soviet-controlled Afghanistan) three hours later, pulling up onto a major USAF airbase in the middle of a large supply train of C-5s, hopefully aiming to be lost in the hubbub.

Lennox stood with me in the cavernous cargo bay of the flying brick, a sports bag containing a veritable catalog of guns slung over one shoulder. “Soooo,” he said, one hand rhythmically tightening on the strap of his tote, head darting over all over the place like a bird, his visor blocking out the blinding rays of the sun as the door finally clunked onto the concrete. “How did you plan to get off-base and meet with the only Soviet strategic asset, that is, in fact, a single individual?”

Alder took his place near my right side, wisely drawing a pair of mirrored Ray-Bans from a shirt pocket and putting them on. I scowled at him as I blocked the sun with my forearm, squinting.

“Old friend,” I said. “You be surprised.”

After the debacle at the Paragon in ’05, High Command had decided the best place to stick me and my surviving squadmates had been as far from the limelight as possible. Oddly enough, in this day and age, that means being, well, in space. I served more than a few years in SPACECAV, though it took a few years before they actually let me ride in the Hot Eagle orbital insertion dropships the company was so famous for. We were pretty much stuck up there, in traction.

Granted, the view was pretty, but there was something about taking shits in zero-gee that sorta grate after some time. Say, years. People came and went on the NATO space station, and the only person who stayed on the station for roughly the same length and period of time that I had was America’s strategic counterpart to Comrade Hammer – Stars and Stripes.

Of course, she hated that name, but that’s what happens when you get stuck with the last name ‘Starr’. Alexis Starr had been up on Home Plate – as we called it – for ‘scientific purposes’, testing her scientifically-induced powers as they worked in space. Of course, that hadn’t actually been the reason. It’s classified and all, so don’t tell anyone, but it’s altogether hilarious what happens when a metahuman dropkicks a rogue flying saucer in high orbit.

Alexis and I had become close friends, and I’d kept up contact with her after I had been transferred to Force Recon and she had taken down the last of the Holy Battle Fleet or something from the arm of Orion.

A white humvee pulled up a couple seconds later, coming to a stop about ten feet from the ramp of the C-130. A beautiful Scottish woman sat scowling behind the wheel, I recognized her as Mary MacTaggert, one of Ridley’s comrades. Shutting off the Humvee’s engine, she stepped out of the vehicle a couple seconds before Alexis did.

I smiled. “Alexis. You brought a friend.” Well, seeing as she could fly, it’d be only reason she’d reasonably be in a car. Ms. MacTaggert didn’t seem like the type to be carried.

Alexis wore a desert-flavored BDU, though it wore extremely well on her. She peered over the edge of black aviator sunglasses and smiled. “Ridley got your message, John. He lent a field agent to help you.” She stuck out her tongue. “Guess Force Recon and, by the look of it, a Reaper, isn’t enough in his mind to infiltrate the Soviet Union.”

“Bah!” I grinned. “I am John Baylor, and I eat INTEGRAL TEMPESTS for breakfast. Russia doesn’t a chance.”

“Keep your dick in your pants, Baylor,” Alexis grinned. “Boys, this is Mary MacTaggert, SBS. She’s your ticket through this region.”

“Or at least until we can meet up with…” Mary said, checking a Palm Pilot. She looked up, her face blank, before turning to Alexis and saying – in a very low tone that nonetheless carried across the noisy airfield – “Colonel Muranov? Comrade Hammer? What the fuck?”

“Relax,” I said, stepped onto the tarmac. “He’s a good friend. Helped me out in the aftermath of TWIN SNAKES in Burma, though Alexis here has known him for far longer. They’re good friends.” I considered clamping a hand over her shoulder jovially but decided the world would be better if I didn’t. I might be a smartass, but I also like to not have my arm broken by some kung fu grip.

“The plan’s to get them into Afghanistan and under the protection of Muranov so that Baylor can assist the loyalists in tracking down a WRAITH-backed Reaper Squad before they can deliver a weapons platform to Sechalin,” explained Alexis patiently.

Mary shook her head, her no-nonsense ponytail flying. “Do any of you realize how stupid a plan this is? You have no way of knowing where the Reapers are, no way of tracking them, no idea what their plan is, what Sechalin’s plan is, or anything. Never mind the fact that Sechalin led the invasion in Afghanistan in the first place – if anything, you’re diving into the hornet’s nest of his most loyal lieutenants!”

Lennox finally stepped in, affixing Mary MacTaggert with his most winning smile – even if he was still wearing that stupid silver visor with his jeans and jacket. “I take it, Ms. MacTaggert, you don’t have much faith in my abilities as special operator.” He produced a PDA of his own and, with a performer’s flair, flicked it on while holding it up. “Do you honestly think I hadn’t festooned BLACK with at least four tracers? Not only that, but each of my men have homing beacons implanted in them.”

Seeing the SBS agent’s mouth open heatedly, Lennox caught Mary’s obvious retort like a pro. “Beyond the obvious IFF tags, ma’am. They were prototype nanotech tracers with nearly unlimited range – I had been testing them out with some of the Paragon staff before I stole BLACK. And, not only that, but I was the only one who knew about the tags out of the whole squad. Point is, you don’t get to be a Reaper by collecting baseball cards.” He nodded at his PDA, still held in the air like a flag. What a ham. “Which is how we knew where Cutler was heading, thank you very much.”

Mary was silent for a moment. “You’re sure your XO didn’t know about the tracers?”

“Quite sure,” Lennox replied, his smile never wavering. “Now, I understand you’re something of an expert at operating in the Middle East. It would be a damn shame if you couldn’t even cross a border into Soviet territory. I’d hate to break the law.”

She glowered up at him. “You have the exact coordinates?”

Without even glancing at his PDA, Lennox rattled off a set of latitude and longitude markers. “That’s the girl.” He clapped her on the back and walked away, whistling.

Alder caught the look on my face and suppressed a silent laugh.


We decided Butch would transfer the wounded men in my squad to the base before we left. Alexis, being a Lieutenant Colonel and a strategic asset, was able to cloak my men under the blanket of national security, ensuring they wouldn’t be bothered while receiving care. I gave her my silent thanks before the remaining party – Lennox, Alexis, Alder, Mary, me, and my twenty five remaining men loaded up into a train of unmarked APCs and set up to the east. Muranov had set up the meeting in Kabul, where he’d be able to place us under loyalist protection.

I allowed myself an internal smile when Lennox asked how we knew Muranov.

“You see,” I explained, “before Kiralova’s term ended things were beginning to calm back down again in Russia – the furor over the Moscow Attacks on September 11th was finally dying down and Kiralova had settled into an easy peace with President Barclay. This is the really nice calm before the storm – that is, when Kiralova stepped down and Sechalin started raising trouble.”

“What does this have to his Muranov?” asked Lennox as he stared out the window at the endless sand and mountains.

Alexis, who was sitting up in the front with Mary, turned in her seat. “Well, contrary to popular belief, I’ve only ever squared off against Muranov once. Turns out having your individual strategic assets face off is akin to setting off nuclear war, so he tried really hard to avoid conflict from there on out. Remember the Chad Event?” she asked, nodding to me.

I smiled with the memory. “Yeah, when Hammer Falcon Pawnched that twelve-foot hatchling? We spent days re-watching that on the combat footage.”

“What is this Chad Event I keep hearing about?” Lennox asked. Tough being America’s most capable special operator and you weren’t involved in an event it seems everyone else was in on.

“A WEU/USSR team uncovered a Black Monolith in Eastern Europe,” I said with a dramatic flair.

“No shit?” said Lennox. “I ranked those things on the same level as Expedition from Sirius.”

Alexis coughed into her arm, covering up a grin.

“Well, yeah. WRAITH had already nuked one in Chad. I was part of the group that made the drop to investigate the aftermath.”

Mary spoke up. “We – all the international agents – came together during that time. Ridley and I went after the rogue boomer that launcher the first missile. You’ve probably heard of OPERATION: PICKPOCKET, right? That was us.”

“Anyway,” I continued, “the Monolith in Europe started sending out psionic shockwaves. That’s what caused all those mass suicides in September, if you remember.”

“I had just been assaulted by Giger, the WEU telepath,” explained Alexis, her voice suddenly quiet. “I wasn’t… myself.”

I put a consoling hand on her arm. “Whatever intelligence was behind the Monolith took over Alexis’s mind and had her make a beeline for the site in Romania. I had to team up with Comrade Hammer and Giger to chase down Alexis before WRAITH launched another nuke, this time at Romania. Which, as you can imagine, wouldn’t have been too good for international relations.”

“All kinds of shit went down at the excavation site,” said Alexis. “Creatures had already slipped through the rift, and a massive three-way firefight ensued. We ran into one of WRAITH’s chief operators and his cadre – they were setting up a beacon for the nuclear strike. We just barely managed to kill them, but something was coming through the rift by then. In the end Kiralova directed one of her orbital lasers from Shagan and had SICKLE sterilize the entire area.”

“She dropped a laser on it?” Lennox said incredulously.

“You better believe it. It’s a sight to see when Kiralova decides to fight,” I said.

And then everything went to hell in a handbasket.


A shadow passed by overhead, cloaking the valley in shadow. Craning my head to peer out the window, I saw a series of storm clouds had blotted out the sun, prematurely casting the world into night.

Mary suddenly tightened her grip on the wheel, her head whipping around. “What was that?”

I gripped the Five-seveN inside my jacket, tense. “Something catch your eye?”

She gave a hiss as she looked out her driver’s side window, squinting. “Something just moved up on the ridg-” Her voice dropped into a deadly monotone and she spun the wheel, throwing us to the right. “Oh shit. It’s a trap.”

I gave a yelp and reached for my wheel just as a missile arced out from nowhere behind us and hit the Humvee behind us in the engine block.

The effect was nothing short of spectacular, as the humvee flipped tail over head in the air and came down a rolling, fiery mess in the road right in front of us. Mary gave a choked shout and swerved to avoid a crash.

“All units, all units!” I began screaming into my radio. “Break! We have unknown attackers on the valley’s ridge!”

With a violent thumpa limp form landed on the roof. At first I thought it was burning corpse, flung from the RPG impact. That was, until it began to move.

A fist crashed through the windshield, and I vaguely saw a blade extending from a wrist gauntlet, aimed directly for Alexis’s right eyesocket. Never blinking, she batted the attack away, her arm approximating something of blur. The forearm rebounded off the side frame of the humvee and should have shattered in a mess of fractured bone and bloodied gore.

Instead, it swung back like a grotesque yo-yo and slapped Alexis across the side of the head. She swore as blood lightly splattered the cracked windshield.

My radio call cut short as I got a good look at the attacker. He was literally on fire, protected by a black bodysuit that covered all but the lower half of his face. All that I saw there was a mutilated scream, soundless in the chaos, lipless mouth open wide, illuminating a never-healed Glasgow Grin. It was a face straight out of hell.

Alexis whipped her head back, her glasses shattered, eyes blazing with fury. Drawing her feet up to her chest, she sprung them outward with a shout, hoping to plant both feet on the man’s face. Instead, the attacker grabbed her ankles and, with superhuman strength, ripped Alexis from her seat and out of the car with an explosion of glass from what remained of the rest of the windshield. Tumbling, Alexis disappeared into the dust as she was removed bodily from the humvee.

We all went for our guns at the same time – even Mary, impressively, as she was still driving. Alder, Lennox, and I produced the same Five-seveNs we had been issued by Easly, while Mary produced a gigantic Colt .45 from inside her jacket sleeve. How she kept such a massive pistol in a wrist holster without anyone noticing it, I plead the fifth. All that really mattered was that the grinning superhuman had found himself under the sights of four different pistols.

We all fired at the same time.

Still crouching on the hood, the assassin whipped up his wrist blade to catch the first two bullets, deflecting them into Alexis’s empty seat. However, we never stopped firing. Writhing in place, the creature managed to dodge at least five more bullets before the next six caught him in the chest. Without so much as a sound, the burning man fell off the jeep to the side. Mary swerved, trying to run the corpse over, but no cigar.

The remaining four humvees were speeding down the valley to its mouth, firing into the dark, hoping to clear the ambush. Swearing, Mary rounded the wheel and brought us back into the rear of the convoy.

Another rocket-propelled grenade struck the ground in front of us. Dirt and rock showered us through the open windshield as our vehicle shuddered wildly, bouncing over the hole in the ground.

Alder launched himself into the cargo bed of the humvee, unlatching a large chest. Catching my attention, he threw me a G-36C. Catching it, and racking the slide, I began firing out the humvee’s windows at the indistinct shapes moving about on the valley’s crests. Fumbling as Alder passed me an ammo satchel, I loaded a grenade into the under barrel launcher, pumping a round into the sky. I watched with a fleeting moment of grim satisfaction as two figure were enveloped in a small fireball.

“Look out!” shouted Lennox, his face incredulous as he stared out the back of the humvee. Whipping my head around, I saw the grinning corpse rise to its feet, as if it was a mannequin, before inhumanly launching forward in a supercharged sprint.

“What the fuck is that!” I shouted, though it was less of a question and more of a declaration of ‘hey dude, I am out of here’.

Mary glanced back in a rearview mirror, hair whipping in the wind. “Shit! It’s Storm!”

“Who?” I shot back, shifting my aim towards our pursuer (who, I should point out, was still on fire and actually catching up to us) and putting a three-round burst into its chest. Seeing me hanging out the window was enough a clue for this guy, and he leapt forward in a rolling flip, neatly dodging my spray.

“Ryuhei Akamatsu! He’s WRAITH’s lead operator, their only metahuman!”

“Like Starr or Hammer?” asked Alder calmly as he reloaded his own G-36C.

Sighting down the short barrel of my H&K rifle, I put in a two-beat and put another three-round burst right into the metahuman’s – Storm’s – center of mass. Tight little puffs of dust and black liquid detonated on his stomach area, and he fell forward in an almost comical fashion, rolling violently.

That was, before he turned his disorganized tumble into a seamless somersault as leapt back into a complete sprint. Reaching into a pouch of the side of his thigh, Storm produced a massive pistol – what could only be a Desert Eagle – and began firing it one-handed, in full motion, and (mind) in his left hand at that.

The first round whizzed past my ear, sending me ducking for cover. The second blew the G-36C from my hands, effectively disarming me before I could withdraw entirely into the Humvee.

Not that it mattered to a Desert Eagle fired with superhuman accuracy. Storm began to empty the rest of the – jesus, he had an extended magazine on a goddamn Desert Eagle – hand cannon into the ass of the Humvee. Quarter-sized holes appeared in the chassis, ricocheting in the vehicle. Alder gave a shout that was three parts righteous anger to actual pain when a round caught him in the shoulder. He fell back, blood pouring from a wound that I could actually see through.

Diving forward in the bouncing rear of the Humvee as the battle raged around me, I tore off my bandana and, rolling it up, pressed it with all my effort against the injury in an attempt to staunch the bleeding.

The was a crash, and Alder and I whipped our heads up simultaneously, expecting to see Storm hanging off the rear of the Humvee. And yet he wasn’t there.

“He’s on the roof!” shouted Mary as she leaned back, steering with one knee, and produced a second pistol. She began pumping rounds into the top of the vehicle more or less at random.

A blade pierced into the interior of the car and tore a three-foot gash in the roof. Two fingerless gloves, covering scarred hands, twisted the tear open in a massive hole, through which Storm peered, a visor that was perhaps a twin to the one Lennox owned covering his eyes.

Mary put two more rounds into Storm’s chest with more explosions of black ichor before her Colt M1911A1s ran dry with twin clicks.

Undeterred, Storm flicked his wrist, extending the knife-like blade on wrist to a two-foot claw that looked like it had been stolen from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain. He slashed once, twice at Mary, who rolled expertly into Alexis’ vacant chair while somehow managing to keep her foot on the gas. I bet there’s a class somewhere in secret agent school that teaches that trick.

Lennox dived forward and emptied one of his little TMPs in Storm’s general direction. Storm caught them all with a single swipe of his Shredder claw, bouncing them out into the open air before flicking his wrist yet again.

Clear oil gleamed on his blade and, with a sudden spark, it alit with blue flames. Lennox had barely managed to widen his eyes in an unintentionally hilarious yet dubious expression before Storm swung the flame blade at his the Reaper’s neck.

Though the exiled portion of my brain where my common sense and self-preservation instinct informed me that what I was about to attempt was a really bad idea, I drew my Kukri and parried Storm’s strike milliseconds before it lopped off Lennox’s head.

Storm swung his silent scream to fixate on me and brought his Desert Eagle around to aim at a point somewhere right between my eyes.

Doing the only thing I very well could, I balled up blood-soaked the bandanna I held in the hand still keeping the pressure on Alder’s gunshot wound and, still keeping Storm’s wrist blade pinned, punched the WRAITH mercenary square in the face with all my might.

The blow landed solidly, but Storm rolled with the blow and wrapped his arm around my wrist, giving it a little half-twist that made me convulse in pain as he yanked my bodily out of the humvee.


Of course, I’m no slouch at hand to hand combat myself. Even if my opponent is an invulnerable metahuman. Swinging my legs around to find purchase on the hood of the humvee I twisted myself like a spinning corkscrew, breaking the lock Storm had on my right arm.

Storm struck out with his burning claw before I could recover and opened up a line of stinging red on my chest. Blinking in pain, I fell backward to avoid be eviscerated by the blow. They tend to skip over the invulnerable metahumans in hand-to-hand combat courses.

Looking back up at Storm, I saw him wave my bloody bandanna at me in a mocking salute. Asshole had stolen it from me. That was my bandanna.

There came a sprak over the din over the firefight and a sniper round took Storm in the shoulder, spinning him off to the side and out of sight. I whipped my head around to see Corporal Li, leaning out of the open MG turret, give me a nod as he chambered another round into his sniper rifle. Sergeant Bateau spotted for him out of the side of the humvee, binoculars held to his eyes.

The humvee sloughed unexpected, and I slid off the hood with unexpected deceleration. The ground rushed up to me and I face planted in the sand, tearing a gash open on the side of my face. Pain flashed over my field of vision and all I saw for a couple seconds was those little gold birds you see in Looney Toones. The humvee trundled out of sight in front of me, out of the valley.

Muttering indistinctly to myself, I rolled up to a sitting position as my vision cleared. What I saw made my blood run cold. Swearing to myself, I went for my Five-seveN.

When Storm had been tossed off the side of the humvee by the sniper round, he must have snagged Mary and dragged her with him as he fell.

He stood in a cloud of dust twenty feet away, his claw blade pressed tight against Mary’s throat. She was unarmed and a bit dizzy. I wouldn’t have put it past the mercenary to have slammed her head against the earth to put her out of commission. Mary shifted uneasily in Storm’s grip and I knew for certain when I saw the blood. His other arm aimed the Desert Eagle at me.

I covered him with my pistol, my sights directly on his lipless Glasgow grin. My face and chest burned with pain and I struggled to stay upright, but goddamn Storm wasn’t getting out of my sights.

“John,” he said, speaking for the first time. His voice didn’t belong with that face, it was too smooth and cultured as if he was the most reasonable man in a hundred miles. It was low and calming, like something straight out of hell. “Let’s talk. I went out of my way to find you, after all.”

Mary groaned, blood pouring from a gash on her forehead. What was Storm getting at, going for a conversation? If we waited long enough, Mary MacTaggert, SBS, would kick his ass all on her own.

“You’ve got a funny way of showing it,” I growled. “And don’t call me John. My friends call me John.”

He chuckled, and it was like rumbling thunder, but also held notes of sincerity in it, like a man who had not laughed in many years. “Who says we can not be friends, then?”

“Actually, that would be me, Akamatsu,” I retorted. “Here, let me show you.” I enunciated: “You. Can’t be. My friend.”

He made a sharp cutting motion with his gun hand. “You misunderstand, Captain. I am asking why you actually continue to serve like you do. Is it truly blind patriotism?”

“Not so much that you’d understand, Storm. I believe in something of an ideal beyond the here and now.”

He inclined his head. “You speak of an ideal behind the oath you took the defend your country from all enemies. Foreign and domestic. But yet have you considered that the ideal might be perverted?”

I wished I had my bandanna; the blood was dripping over my brow and almost obscuring my vision. “Hey, America might not be perfect. Anyone can tell you that. But you’re blowing things way out of proportion, you think?”

“Am I? Do you honestly think the continued operation of the Paragon, let alone its very existence, is the symptom of a corruption that can be traced to simply one Air Force General? The rot would have to be systemic.”

“And what?” I shot back. “I’m not going to up and join WRAITH, man. Not today, not ever. And especially not with you supporting Sechalin. Kroner has little to gain with nuclear Armageddon.”

Storm shook his head. “Is your gaze truly so limited that you think Kroner is essentially out to destroy the world? You fail to understand the scope of his vision, Captain.”

“But what if he really is playing the Ragnarok Lotto?”

“Then he is easily replaced. WRAITH is not as utterly dependent on the man as you may think. Perhaps under new management we could find a task for you that could appeal to your personal sense of honor and truth.”

I snorted. “Yeah, right. Indulge me.”

“With our resources, you can truly protect American from its domestic enemies. Root out the traitors and once again restore the moral high ground to your country.”

He had a point, I admitted begrudgingly. On my own, I was helpless to fight against whatever powers conspired against me. It was only a matter of time before someone decided it was better to assassinate me than to keep me around.

“One question, Storm,” I said after a moment. “How’s the health care?”

He faltered for the first time. “What?”

“Yeah,” I continued. “From where I’m standing, I can see the dental’s horrible. Plus, I try to make a habit of not partnering with someone who’s, y’know, psychotic.”

And then I raised my pistol to shoot him in the head. Who was I kidding? Storm could break me into little tiny pieces. The only reason he was holding me in a conversation was to give whatever assets he had on the way time to get in place. Armor. Jets. I didn’t know, but I had to get back to my squad.

Storm gave a hellish snarl and began to twist his wrist blade, attempting to decapitate Mary.

A hand snaked around from behind him and halted the action. And then it slowly began to pull Storm’s arm away from Mary’s neck. She collapsed to the earth like a wet towel.

Alexis had finally rejoined the fight.

“Heya, Ryuhei,” she said as she tightened her arm around Storm’s neck and dug a hip into his back, using his own spine as a fulcrum and she flipped him up and overhead before slamming the mercenary down into the earth like a small asteroid. There was a miniature explosion as Storm created a two foot crater in the stone. “Fancy seeing you here. Couldn’t find any puppies to kick?”

Fluttering in the air above Storm for a second was my bloody bandana. Alexis, chest heaving, snatched it angrily from the air. Predictably, Storm came up at her with his wrist blade, attempting to eviscerate Alexis’s stomach.

Alexis caught the blow much the away Storm had caught mine back in the humvee, twisting Storm’s arm around, putting a heel into the back of one of his knees, and dropping him back down to the ground. Somewhere along the way she managed to wrap my bandana twice around Storm’s neck and she held the trailing ends like, not unlike a garrote.

Storm began to struggle, but Alexis wasn’t a shrinking violet. Once her powers started going, she didn’t stop. She shrugged of the mercenary’s blows with ease, all the while tightening the bandana around Storm’s neck. Storm’s flailing limbs began to pulverize the rock around the pair, but still Alexis did not stop.

Storm’s silent scream echoed skyward, and at last he fell limp.

And still Alexis did. Not. Stop.

“Well,” I said grimly. “I guess that’s one way to wring the blood out of the bandana.”

Her head snapped up, fire blazing in her blue eyes. “John. Go. He’s survived worse. You need to get to your men.”

Storm was already beginning to stir. I nodded and ran forward, hooking an arm underneath Mary’s shoulder and pulling her away from the two metahumans.

The sound of traded blows followed us all the way out of the valley.


It was a good quarter klick until the valley flattened out into the sloping riverbed, but I covered the distance in a flat sprint, holding Mary in my arms. Tapping my throat mike against my chest, I called to Alder.

“Sergeant! SitRep!”

He voice came back with the chatter of small arms. “They’re pulling back. We managed to find a set of ruins to take shelter in.” His voice cut out for a second, before I heard him shout “Grenade!” There was a sound of scrambling limbs, and then Alder was back on. “Sorry ‘bout that, boss. ‘Nade landed in Bateau’s lap. He threw in right back at ‘em.”

I hit the end of the valley and found myself looking down on a dilapidated village surrounding on three sides by a small ridge. I saw shadowy forms firing from armored dune buggies, aiming at the circle of Humvees that had formed a defensive perimeter in the village. Lennox had most likely taken over in my absence, and I asked as much of Alder.

“You got it,” he replied. “He said the jeeps were fat targets, so we all moved out to the shelters. Haven’t lost a man yet. Everett and Weber were shot in the knees when hopping out of their humvee, but we managed to pull them to cover.”

“So you said they slackened their fire?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like it from here.”

“Well,” breathed Alder. “At least they stopped using mortars and RPGs. So, well, yeah. It’s an improvement.”

I began to roll down the slope with Mary in tow, hoping to flank around to my men without getting myself in the sights of what were most likely Russians working in conjunction with Akamatsu.

“Listen, man,” I huffed into my mic. “Starr has Storm pinned, but he was certainly trying to keep me in place before she got to him. I think they have allies inbound.”

Alder shouted to someone. “Hey, where are the Stinger rockets?” There was an inaudible reply, and Alder came back on with a curse. “Fletcher says they’re in one of the humvees. If we go out there we’ll be picked off by sniper fire.”

Mary was beginning to show signs of life, but I wasn’t going to let her do much of anything with a head injury like that. As I reached the southern end of the village, I saw Lennox leaning out of a stone hut, beckoning me forward. “What happened to her?” he yelled.

“Storm conked her on the way out,” I said as I sprinted forward, chest heaving. I may be a US Marine, picture of fitness, but there was no way I was carrying Mary MacTaggert through the Afghani heat without getting more than winded.

Lennox took her from me and passed her to Newman, the Navy Corpsman. He was already huddled over Private Everett and Lance Corporal Weber, providing first aid, but he still managed to receive Mary gingerly while reached for gauze.

I nodded towards the Humvees. “Alright, let’s go.”

Lennox’s eyebrows appeared above his visor. “You want to go get the Stingers?”

“Storm was covering for the rebels moving something heavy into possible. We need missiles if we even have a chance of making it out of this alive.”

“Dammit,” grimaced Lennox, shouldering his G36.

“Yeah,” I said. “Why’d they stop shelling?”

“Our sniper took out their team. It looks like they’re going to move a platoon down into the ruins to nose us out.”

“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “That means they’re locals that Storm didn’t tell about the strike. This is bad. They’re going to level the place.”

Lennox slapped me on the back. “Heaven or hell, let’s rock.”

He tossed me a free G36 and we both leapt into no man’s land.

Just as one – two –

-Three Hind II gunships came roaring by overhead.


We were so incredibly wrong.

There came a thousand screams and dozens of parachute-mounting landing skiffs dropped from the sky as the Hinds passed.

We saw the green bandanas of the commandos as they began to emerge from the hot HALO pods, and knew at once we were dealing with not three separate threats, but twenty or so new and just as dangerous threats.

Spetsnaz Recon. The 68th.

The nearest commando – some fifty yards away - spotted me almost instantly, and raised a cut-down Dragunov to fire.

There came a sprak, and I blinked despite myself.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the Spetsnaz sniper falling to the ground, a chunk of his head missing. I had a guardian angel among my men, most likely PFC Graham, providing overwatch.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled to Lennox as we sprinted forward.

The Spetsnaz squad finally and totally disembarked the Hind II between us and the humvee. They were twenty yards away, practically spitting distance. There was no turning back now, we had to continue forward.

As one, the Spetsnaz dropped to firing positions, ready to cut us to ribbons.

Lennox yanked a grenade from his combat vest and chucked in straightarm, sending it flying at chest level straight through the ranks of the Russians.

Turning his hand palm up, he revealed the pin held in his hand, the pin connected to the remote detonator. He thumbed the switch, and the squad of Commandos were scattered with a flash of light. Two of them caught the most of the shrapnel and – depending on your perspective (I try not to get to far into the minds of people trying to kill me) – unfortunately shielded their comrades from the brunt of the blow.

The rest were forced at leas their knees by the shockwave and yelped as flaming shrapnel pierced their gloved hands. Some caught fire.

And yet, in the time it took for Lennox and I to close the last five yards, they pulled themselves back together and all swung for their rifles at the same time, determined to kill us.

While on fire.

Letting my G36 drop to my chest, the strap sliding around my neck, I drew my pistol and kukri in opposing grips and plunged into the throng of people determined to kill me.

I slashed my kukri in a backhanded grip across the closest man’s stomach, eviscerating him, before spinning with the strike and putting two shots in the furthest man’s temple as he drew a bead on me with his An-94. His head cocked curiously with the double-tap and he sprawled backwards just as – sprak, sprak! – Graham shot the two men on my left who were nanoseconds from firing upon me at point blank range.

Leaping forward into the massive troop bay of the helicopter, I rolled on the blood tray emptying my pistol into the backs of the pilots’ ejection seats. I saw the helmets of the men jerk and red painted the interior of the canopy.

And then Lennox and I had passed the gauntlet.

A Hind II swung in front of us, poised like a massive, menacing insect, all droopy nose and stubby, weapons-laden wings.

It opened fire with his rocket pod, oh shit, oh shit-

Lennox grabbed me by the scuff of the neck and he both dived forward into a spectacular roll, just as four rockets screamed by overhead and impacted the dead Hind behind us. Flaming wreckage pelted our backs as we cam up underneath the belly of the attacking helicopter and continued our sprint forward.

The Hind pilot, seeing us disappear – impossibly- under his craft, pulled up and away, rotating to track us.

Lennox dived through the open door of the nearest humvee and came out carrying a large black case. Landing, opening the case, and spinning in one smooth, dramatic motion, he threw me the Stinger missile, ready to fire.

I caught the launcher deftly and raised it point directly at the Hind turning to finally slaughter us.

There was a clunk as the missile fired, ejected from the launch tube and impacted directly with the Hind’s nose. The missile gutted the craft, exploding in its hold and blowing it apart in midair.

I turned to see Lennox searching the humvees for the set of reloads – when the third Hind appeared overhead, rapidly closing on our location. Bullets began to whiz by me as the second Spetsnaz squad caught sight of the chaos we were causing.

I dodged for the nearest stone wall, taking cover and yelling to Lennox. “Chuck! Time to move!!”

I saw the Reaper Captain glance briefly up and nearly gulp at all the hurt coming our way. “I can’t find the missiles!”

And then I realized – they had been in the first humvee to have been taken out, back in the valley.

Chaingun slugs from the remaining Hind chewed the humvee nearest Lennox just as he came to same conclusion I had.

He dodged forward, over the hood of one humvee, just as the missile came screaming in and impacted the space he had been seconds before.

The blastwave scooped Lennox up like rag doll and tossed him forward. I moved to catch him, and turned his tumble from fatal to merely disastrous as we collided back under the cover of our meager stone wall.

The Hind was coming to kill us. We had no way to take it out. The Spetsnaz were encircling my men, getting ready to flush them out.

And then the plane passed by overhead, a massive Antonov.

“Oh, fuck me,” griped Lennox. “Just add more to the pain locker, why don’t you?”

“No,” I said, catching sight of what had just leapt from the open rear bay of the cargo plane. “This looks like a job for Comrade Hammer.”


The figure was bulky, at least seven feet tall. His shoulders mounted massive launcher barrels, his forearms were festooned with every weapon imaginable. Red, glowing eyes left a trail through the sky as the Soviet Cyborg oriented himself to bring his wrists to bear on the Spetsnaz on the ground below.

There came a ripping sound like a million pillows being torn in half at once, and the commandos around us were cut down in grotesque explosions of blood, so much that only splatters of gore and empty boots remained. Spinning in midair, Comrade Hammer swung to face the Hind hovering menacingly below him. With a twin belch, his launchers spat forth rockets at the gunship.

The Hind nearly rolled, pulling hard to the right as it just barely avoid clipping the missiles with its rotors. The projectiles hit the ground in twin detonations of sand, buffeting the Hind further away.

Muranov hit the ground a second later in an explosion of sand that shot a hundred feet into the air. Dust hazed around his figure as, after a short beat, the thousand shell casings from his wrist minigun scattered to the ground.

“Were I an American,” Comrade Hammer noted morosely, “I would say ‘boom, bitches’.”

Waving my hand in front of my face, I nodded at the person of mass destruction. “Let me guess. Parachutes are for sissies?”

Turning his cybernetic helmet to face me, Muranov inclined his head. “Baylor. And the lone Reaper. I had not expected Sechalin to make a move so soon.”

“Sorry you couldn’t get here sooner, we have a leak, yadda yadda,” I said. “I know.” I thumped Lennox on the shoulder. “Get the feeling Chuckles figured out that he was being tracked and managed to reverse the signal? He has the assets of WRAITH behind him now.”

The came a blast behind Hammer and the cyborg staggered.

Behind him was a Spetsnaz Captain, wielding a bulky, yet cut-down shotgun. It didn’t take me long to realize it was a pump-action grenade launcher.

The Captain shucked the action, chambering another 40mm high explosive round, and fired again at Hammer.

Hammer batted the round out of the air with a forearm, sending it streaking into the sky. Reaction times like that, and you could be a machine. Oh wait.

It took half a second for Hammer to bring his wrist guns to bear, but the Spetsnaz Captain was already somersaulting to the side at speeds too fast to seem baseline, pumping and firing his grenade launcher as he went, peppering Muranov with exploding shells.

Muranov started to pivot and track the Captain, but the commando had already disappeared behind the burning remains of the downed Hind.

When in doubt, use high explosives. Hammer pumped a pair of missiles into the wreckage, sending it flipping in the air – but the Captain had dived under the carcass of the Hind as it flipped through the air and was sprinting toward Muranov, bounding left, right, dodging the cyborg’s shots.

I managed to shake my stupor and bring my G36 up, putting two-round bursts into the air around the Commando’s head. This place was starting to become metahuman central.

To no one’s surprise, the Spetsnaz Captain managed to twist right past my shots and was suddenly within Hammer’s personal range, placing one foot on his a jutting hip, another on a bulky wrist joint, before vaulting over the cyborg’s shoulders, firing a pair of shells into Hammer’s back.

Lennox’s gun chattered nearby and I saw him out of the corner of my eye laying down suppressing fire as a fireteam of more of Sechalin’s Spetsnaz moved into position to pick us off.

I could only watch for a few more seconds before they demanded my attention. I saw Comrade Hammer spin in practically zero time, snatching at the floating Captain’s ankle. I would have told you any day this was the logical result of going into close quarters combat with a guy would could use boulders as bowling balls, but the Captain again evaded the blow, contorting to push off the tip’s of Hammer’s outstretched fingers.

He hit the ground and rolled, ejecting the entire under barrel ammo tube and loading a fresh collection of 40mm shells. Coming up, he turned to face Hammer.

Muranov growled – a low electronic sound. “Zasekin. The cybernetic weasel. What happened to Natasha X?”

The Captain – Zasekin – covered Muranov with his grenade launcher, sunglasses glinting in the midday sun. “Eve to my Adam? She abandoned the facility, left in burning in her wake. Her mind couldn’t handle the implantation process and she rejected the program upload. Pity. Now I carry on Sechalin’s wishes.”

“Are you his assassin now, Zasekin? His Renfield?”

Zasekin laughed. “You think I am brainwashed, Muranov? Think again. I only wish to see my country prosper again – I wish I could say the same for y-”

Several things happened at once.

I saw the blue light collecting around his midsection and barely managed to close my eyes - Hammer responded by firing a chemical laser implanted in his abdomen at Zasekin, cutting the separatist cyborg off mid-sentence.

The laser moved at the speed of light.

But Zasekin had been ready. He had fired his launcher around the time he said “I could say”, and the shell caught the laser in midair , practically eating it alive in a wash of blue lightning.

Zasekin dodged back behind a pillar. “Don’t think the first thing Sechalin did was put research into figuring out how to stop you, Comrade?

The Hind swept by overhead, sweeping the ground with shells. I saw Alder and a ambulatory MacTaggert marshalling my platoon on the other side of the ruins, fighting off the last of the Spetsnaz.

“Let me make you an offer,” Zasekin mused. “Sechalin wants the American Marine and Reaper. Let me depart with them and you keep your life.”

Hammer raised his wrist, preparing to fire. “Over my dead bo-”

Two more blue shells caught him the chest, playing static electricity over the cyborg’s body.

I could only watch as Comrade Hammer collapsed to one knee, his movements sluggish. I knew he had a nuclear back up battery – I had seen him reboot after the mash up in the Eastern Europe – but I knew it would make him more than a minute to get back online.

Comrade Hammer fell forward, faceplanting into the ground.

Lennox shot a look over his shoulder as he reloaded his rifle. “Fuck!” he screamed.

Bullets whizzed by.

The Hind slowly touched down a dozen feet away.

I had my rifle up, searching the low walls surrounding me for Zasekin – I may be human, but I doubted I wanted to catch a taste of those lightning shells.

A Spetsnaz commando passed by, firing at me. I swore as I took a round in the shoulder – thankfully my vest caught it - and slipped out of my crouch, but still managed to plant a spray in the soldier’s throat, dropping him.

“Hey, over here!”

I spun back to see Lennox slumped against the ground, blood leaking from a gash on his temple. Zasekin stood tall over the unconscious Reaper, the butt of his gun held high.

“Night, G.I. Joe,” he said grimly, bringing the stock down on my head before I could do so much as move.



It wasn’t the steady buzz of engines that woke me. That was in the background, a steady tone that only served to tell me I was in the air being transported god knew where.

No, it was the one-two sprack-scream of the electric baton hitting Charles Lennox in the crotch.

I saw it out the corner of my a blood-caked eyelid: Lennox tied to a lone chair in the rear of a cavernous cargo bay, hood over his head. A mustache-sporting American – probably one of Lennox’s own rogue reapers – juggled the sizzling electroshock truncheon from hand to hand as his former commanding officer contorted under the shocks rippling through his body.

“Volson, you sonuvaBITCH!” Lennox managed to scream as he began to hyperventilate, chest heaving, an odd mixture of sweat and blood dripping off his brow. “I swear to you, I’m going to shoot you in the head when I get out of here, I swear to god!

Another Reaper stepped in, clinking two edged brass knuckles together before driving the pair one at a time into Lennox’s cheeks in a double cross. I heard Lennox’s nose shatter with a sickening crack.

I heard a voice from behind me. I didn’t need to turn around to know it was Chuckles Cutler, the leader of the rogue Reapers. “You know we can do this all day, Chuck. Now tell me the code that unlocks SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK.”

Lennox couldn’t talk; he was too busy biting back heaves of pain. My eyes focused enough to notice that they had taken his ubiquitous visor: and I saw now why he wore it. His face was a mess of scars, and not the pretty, heroic scars you seen action heroes or Jedis sporting. His skin was too pale, melted like a waxwork around his brow and eye sockets. ‘Healed’ furrows from meticulous knife cuts crisscrossed his face. His eyes themselves were nowhere near what anyone could describe as a normal human eye, what with a circle of color surrounding a black pupil one a white cornea. No, his irises were jagged stars, color bleeding and spiking in this direction or that, the original brilliant blue tinged with angry, violent red. I could only wonder what person in the Major’s past had paid him off this grotesque disfigurement.

I looked surreptitiously around with half-lidded eyes. We were, of course, in the chilly cargo bay of a Russian plane. Several Reapers sat or stood along the walls, arms hook casually in mounted netting, watching with half-interest. Cutler sat backwards in a chair, toying with one of my kukris while the cyborg Zasekin sat and conversed quietly with his surviving Spetsnaz brothers. Behind them was a large covered pallet that could only be BLACK.

Cutler caught me looking. “Oh, look who just woke up.”


Volson, the Reaper wielded this electroshock stick leered at me dangerously. I felt sick as he twirled that baton in his hands.

I sat on the deck, arms shackled behind my back, feet cross and shackled. At best I could flop like a worm.

“What’s wrong, Chuckles?” I asked, tasting blood in my mouth. “Can’t start your own party?”

Cutler gave me a positively shark-like grin as he cupped his chin, practically stroking his goatee. “Something like that, Joh-”

My friends call me John,” I interjected sternly.

Cutler shrugged. “Whatever you want, Captain. What I was saying was that the Major here had code-locked Black-ST to his own passcode. It’s in lockout unless he provides a 12-digit login.”

“Oooooh man,” I said in mock appreciation. “I understand it is so difficult to brute force-hack an incredible twelve digits.”

“Would be,” Cutler mused, “if not for the fact that the system locks you out permanently after any wrong codes. We don’t want to chance delivering a useless hunk of metal to Kroner and Sechalin, do we?”

“I don’t know?” I snarked. “Do you?”

The kick came from behind me, striking me in the kidneys. I hadn’t heard it coming. The pain from the blow caused me to arch in place, gritting my teeth wordlessly.

“That’s why you took us alive, then?” I asked. “Lennox knew the code and I… oh shit.”

Cutler grinned even wider. He may well have been a crocodile. “You’re pretty savvy, Baylor.”

He shealthed my kukri, drew a Five-seveN, and shot me in the leg.

I screamed that time.

“You know the game,” Cutler said, speaking now to Lennox. “I don’t have time to fuck around. Tell us the code or we find out what much brains Baylor has in the literal sense.”

I guess Chuckles didn’t spend too much time in metaphor school. But I had to admit he was playing this one pretty straight.

Lennox, playing the part, said the next line as if he was trying to maintain some double-agent façade. But then I saw his eyes, and knew he was quite serious. “What makes you think his life matters to me at all?”

“So much for that tact-” Cutler raised his gun to shoot me, but then he saw the look on my face and gave an expression not unlike a kid being told Christmas now took place ten times a year. “Oh, Baylor never figured it out?”

I couldn’t help myself. “Figured what out?” I blurted.

Cutler ran a hand through his hair. “I mean, wow. He actually bought that ‘stealing BLACK for greater integrity’ business?”

Lennox’s face was passive, disinterested. “I’m sorry you have to hear this, Baylor.”

“Save it, Chuck. Let me break it to you, John,” Cutler said conspiratorially as if sharing a big secret. “Lennox led the charge in stealing BLACK, for sure, but not for the purposes of stopping mean old General Farley. Hell, he wanted to sell it himself. What was the leading buyer at the time? The Western European Union?”

“Something like that,” confirmed Volson over my shoulder.

I rolled into a ball and began applying direct pressure to the gunshot wound. Blood gurgled up between my fingers.

“You figured Lennox was the one shining knight in this entire bunch, John? Let me tell you, no one would be stupid enough to get themselves assigned to the Paragon and be arrow-strait lawful good. Are you kidding me?”

“That’s enough,” said Zasekin, stepping in. He held a tablet-sized computer in one hand, and had clearly been using it to communicate with someone. “The Marshall wants a word with the Marine. You can finish playing with him later, Cutler.”

Cutler straightened up and glared at Zasekin for a long moment before nodding with a false sense of agreeability. “Sure thing, Captain. Volson, cover Lennox. Diego, get that gunshot wound bandaged. I’m sure Sechalin doesn’t want John bleeding out in the middle of the ‘conversation’.”

I heard a grunt behind me and a bulky Hispanic man with bulging forearms rolled me onto my back, ripping free a stretch of white bandage. I briefly considered knifehanding him in the throat, but tempered that desire with the need to keep my face intact.

He tied the bandage at least tad too tight, but I picked at it to keep it from completely chopping off my circulation. With a gruff profanity, he hauled me shakily to my feet by the scruff of my neck before strong-arming me towards Zasekin.

Zasekin caught me handily and redirected my motion forward, guiding me up a set of stairs out of the cargo bay and into a stripped-down conference room. A dozen metallic blue chairs surrounded a worn briefing table. The Spetsnaz commander put a foot into one of my knee joints and dropped me like a sack of bricks into one of the chairs, stood the tablet up in front of me, and left without a word, locking the door to the room behind him.

Wiping my sleeve across my face to keep some of the sweat, blood, and grime off it, I swiveled in the chair to face the tablet. A red light glowed on the top of the wide screen, indicating some form of webcam was active.

A screen popped up on the empty desktop, displaying some underground command and control center, all green lines and silently blinking lights. A dark form sat down in a chair and turned to face me, eyes glowing out of the darkness.

I sighed, coughed, and gave Marshal Iosef Sechalin my best smile.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.


Sechalin sat in shadow, two fingers held to his lips as if deep in contemplation. While he didn’t exactly slouch, his posture lacked a rigidity one would expect from a Soviet Marshall and a former director of the KGB.

His hair was short, swept to the side, midnight black. He was clean-shaven, with no spectacular scars to speak of. His chin was strong, but it wasn’t prominent. His nose was straight, his mouth perpetually creased. In fact, nothing about the man seemed physically unique at all-

-Except for the eyes. The eyes. They were grey, flecked with a sparks of blue and grey, but it wasn’t their color that stood out. It was the intelligence, the calculating force of personality behind them. I’d always thought the whole ‘his eyes grew hard or angry or whatever’ schtick in literature was silly until I locked gazes with Sechalin.

His gaze was like a void, a black hole, a never-ending maelstrom so empty that I may very well have gone insane if I held the lock for too long.

I down at my lap and knew instantly I had failed some test. I was not just playing on the scale of the jungle anymore, facing off against predators of any stripe. Sechalin was something else, with all the rapacious instincts and none of base animalism. In not holding my gaze with the Marshal, I had given him all he needed to know.

“There’s no reason to get excited,” the Thief he kindly spoke. Sechalin favored me with one upturned corner of his lips, acknowledging my reference. “You rightfully seemed surprised, Captain. You wish you could describe what you do as ‘trading barbs’ if anyone actually was able to keep up with you. Am I right?”

Against my best judgment, I gulped. “Something like that. I can appreciate it when a Soviet picks up on Dylan.”

Sechalin nodded serenely. “This would be the part in your film when I would point out that we are not so different after all. But I am not foolish enough to think that tired ploy would stand even a moment of scrutiny.”

“You go that right,” I shot back, rubbing at my handcuffs.

“Would you like those removed? I can appreciate someone who talks with his hands.”

I was taken aback. “Uh, sure…. But isn’t that against whatever villain handbook you guys use every so oft-”

Sechalin’s eyes flashed, and he waved a hand. There came a clink, and my handcuffs slid off my wrists under their own weight, forming a metallic puddle of links in my lap. I cut myself short, closing my mouth.

“Believe you me, Captain Baylor. You are on a tilt-rotor plane over the Caspian Sea. A combat grade cyborg capable of defeating Gennady Muranov is sitting attentively right outside the door. The cargo bay is filled with people representative of the very worst your country has to offer, and the plane is being piloted by a drone intelligence. Attempting to flee would hurt no one but you.

“And be mindful who you deem a villain, Captain. Glass houses are no place to throw stones from.”

Rubbing my wrists absent-mindedly, I furrowed my brow. “You’re one to talk, Marshal. I’m not the one attempting to destabilize an established country for the purposes of seizing power.”

“Is that what you call it, young Marine? ‘Destabilizing power’? I am merely returning the honor and status to my country that it has so lost in the past twenty years. Passing the sickle through the crops and removing the chaff from the wheat.”

“I can’t believe you just used the ‘honor’ phrase,” I said, shaking my head. “It would seem the only people who use that word are those who pervert it.”

“You have been having thoughts on that subject, after all, Captain,” Sechalin reflected expertly. “You are, after all, a United States Marine, sworn to defend the high values of your Constitution and Bill of Rights against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But what is the real perversion here? Is it the foreign policy of your government, the dirty laundry that is barely reported by your media?”

I gulped. Sechalin had hit harder to home than he knew. I had no idea how deep Farley’s cohort was entrenched. It certainly extended to the civilian government.

Was I fighting for what this country really believed in? What would happen if I survived this all – a more unlikely occurrence by the minute – and returned home only to be disappeared?

Shaking my head doggedly, I took the fight to Sechalin, striking hard. “What makes you think you’re any better than them?”

“I, for one, don’t fund terrorism. Egypt. Syria. Iran. Saudi Arabia. How do you think the US established – or maintains – power in the regions? They fund the street-level cells, dispersing their money throughout the country behind dozen of middlemen. They sell arms to the House of Saud, furthering their oppressive regime. Women have no rights under that regime, yet it doesn’t matter as long as the oil keeps flowing.

“There’s a Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria,” Sechalin continued. “I was stationed there three years ago - and I watched the CIA hired local heavies to organize bomb attacks and civilian abductions.”

“Wait,” I said, massaging my temples. “That was under Barclay. And I know Barclay would never to a thing like that.”

Sechalin shook his head minutely. “Are you so sure? You have come realize surely that there is an entrenched cabal in your military’s leadership that is very well capable of carrying out whatever floats their whim. They are the figurative sons of the survivors of the Secret War, the hardliners that Johnson had to purge before they started a nuclear war.

“And Syria is most surely not all. Iran is ruled through blood money, the oil the only reason for the country to even be under US control, with the barest incentive to provide for the citizenry. It is no wonder the Ayatollah has so much power when he wants to raise trouble.”

“And this is any better compared to you?” I said acidly.

The Marshall had surely been waiting for this point. “Actually, Captain, I am a better choice. I was, after all, the Marshal who oversaw the invasion of the country and I did it right. I used a fully armed force to eradicate the Taliban where they stood instead of sweeping swiftly by and leaving them to ferment dissent behind our backs. I understand the key to country is its populace, not some quantity of oil or strategic stepping stone towards a tit-for-tat with the States.”

It all was falling down around me. “Then why to do you want to talk to me? Why?”

At this Sechalin finally leaned forward and caught my gaze. I held his soulless grey gaze for as long as I could. Touching his fingertips in a steeple, the Marshal said “I will not lie to you, John. I have no interest in defeating your country brick by brick. But I know if our two nations are to opponents in the great game, I want it to be a fair fight. I am working to clear my country of the corruption that has plagued it. If you take my hand, I’ll assist you in doing the same for America. Once more can American truly lay claim to the title of the world’s moral leader. No longer will your fellow comrades, your brothers be sent on suicide missions acting as catspaws in some wider machination for money and power.”

“Take my hand, John Baylor, and I can give the you the ability to single-handedly do this. I can make you stronger. Faster. I can close your reflex times to nonexistence levels. You will be able to go anywhere, do anything. No longer will you come home to an empty bed in an empty house in a neighborhood full of people who do not appreciate or even actively dismiss your sacrifices. I’m not asking you to be a hero, John. I’m asking you to fulfill your service to your country.

“I’m asking you to be a United States Marine.”


I sat there in stunned silence. My head thumped rhythmically in pain. My chest was bruised all over, from deflected rifle slugs to multiple beatings. My ribs still creaked from where the battlesuit had tried to crush me to death. Everytime I breathed, the slash marks from Storm’s blade screamed in protest. Burns from passing collects stung, scrapes from tumbling through the air on the runway itched. My leg was a constant drone of agony; if it had stopped bleeding, I couldn’t tell.

And what did I have to show for it? My platoon was half-annihilated, surrounded by rebels deep in enemy territory. Comrade Hammer had been dropped within a minutes of his arrival. Alder and Mary had been bleeding out, Alexis stuck forever in combat with an immortal metahuman. The Reapers had BLACK and were taking it into Russia. My one other ally, the one beacon of good intentions in this affair, had turned out to be just as crooked as the rest of his kin. Hell, even Colonel Easly and my brother were in mortal danger for having assisted me, chased out of their own country by Farley’s conspiracy.

Maybe Storm had a point after all. This time, however, Sechalin was not trying to distract me from some imminent attack. He genuinely had a point, however damned I was to admit it.

I sat there in despair, in the figurative dark wood. But there was no Virgil to appear out of nowhere and guide me in my lowest hour. There was no divine inspiration. I had finally been outmaneuvered. I had lost.

This was the end. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Unless Sechalin was my Virgil. He did indeed have to keys to solving every problem I had. I could say my brother, my men, my friends. I could save my country form what it had become. I could save all the other men and women in the armed forces from becoming similar tools, means to ends.

I sat there, hanging my head.

At long last I looked up.

“You never answered my question.”

Sechalin blinked. “Pray tell.”

“What makes you any better than them? Not the US. You’re not looking to overthrow the US. You’re looking to replace Kiralova. What makes you so much better than Kiralova? As far as I’m concerned she’s not doing anything wrong.”

Sechalin opened his mouth, but I cut him off, finally initiating eye contact on my own. I held his gaze with a cold glare. “As far as I’m concerned, Marshal, you don’t have an excuse. You’re just too power-hungry for your own good. All you have on your agenda is reestablish the spread of communism. And then what? You’d troll the very hardliners you just mentioned in the States. You are nuclear war bait. Plain and simple.”

The Marshal narrowed his eyes and started to speak, but I flipped the tablet face down. “Shut the fuck up.”

As if he had been waiting for this, Zasekin reentered the room, climbing back up the steep staircase. His right hand was on his belt, near a holstered Makarov. He regarded me with a silent, appraising look for a several seconds before nodding to me.

“Don’t know why they bother. I didn’t much expect you to turn either.”

Zasekin thankfully didn’t make me put the handcuffs back on, but the sat down in a chair opposite me, leaning back, putting his arms behind his head, and closing his eyes.

“What now?” I asked.

The cyborg didn’t open his eyes. “Oh, he’s still going to use you. The Marshal dislikes actively assassinating his enemies – he feels it’s a waste in this day in age. No, in any case, he’s probably going to transfer you once we drop down in Moscow to one of his KGB-owned cybernetics facilities. You’ll be made into a Mark III cyborg and – what’s the phrase – bent to his will.”

“And Lennox?”

Zasekin shrugged. “He broke about five minutes ago. He’s a broken, bloody mess, but I’m sure the surgeons can fix most of the damage. No, he’s leaving with you for Archangel.”

Leaning back even further, Zasekin let out a sigh. “Best get comfortable. We’re two hours from Moscow.”

The rest of the flight passed in silence as I closed my eyes and tried to grab what little sleep I could – I’d been active for more than two days.

I had barely closed my eyes when Zasekin shook my shoulder, saying “Wake up, Captain. We’re here.”

Hand sill near his pistol, the Spetsnaz commando led me back down into the open cargo bay. BLACK had already been unloaded, and a small contingent of Reapers remained, covering Lennox. They had cleaned up most of the blood, but it was still a miracle Lennox could still stand. One arm hung at an odd angle. Both eyes were raccoon-black, eyelids puffy slits. Blood caked the outside of his jacket, tattered as it was in some place. He took each breath with a wheeze, and when he opened his mouth I could see he was missing several teeth.

The Reaper with the mustache – Volson – nodded to Zasekin. “I think I’ve got him from here, man. He looks like he can barely hold himself together anyway.”

Zasekin grunted and muttered something under his breath akin to “your funeral” before moving out of the plane and out of sight.

“John,” Lennox said after a silent moment. “I’m so sorry, but they did things to me-”

“Save it,” I said caustically. “And only my friends call me John.”

“Hush, ladies,” Volson said, crackling his knuckles and shrugging on a brown overcoat. “Can’t transfer you if I have to listen to your soap opera whining.”

I wisely shut my mouth and followed Volson as he had his Reapers corral us off the tilt-rotor onto the rooftop landing platform.

The view took my breath away.

I had only seen the capital of the Soviet Union through decade-old photographs – I had always partially held the western stereotype of the great bulky grey buildings that look like they came from Judge Dredd dominating the landscape.

Moscow was nothing of the sort. It was expansive, stretching into every horizon, a massive blanket of light. God couldn’t have done it better by saying “Let there be light” – Moscow was a throng of life, with futuristic skyscrapers spiking into the heavens, lit with hues of orange and purple in the brilliance of the setting sun. Streets cut through the city below like glowing yellow veins, the arteries of the capital. Buildings were a luminescent blue-green, concrete and glass marvels. Hundreds of drones floated serenely in the air above, keeping watch on it all.

Near the harbor situated on top of a massive thoroughfare that all the streets in Moscow seemed to lead to was a gargantuan palace, a tremendous hewn block of concrete – the Palace of the Soviets. Stationed resolutely on its front, overlooking dozens of monorail lines that led away from its perch was a two hundred foot-tall statue of Lenin, one arm raised towards the heavens, forever posed in a fiery oration.

Volson followed my line of sight and nodded. “Of course, it’s not the Palace of the Soviet anymore. If I remember correctly, it houses the Ministry of Science and Technology. Still, have to hand it to the Soviets. When they do big, they do big.”

Lennox narrowed his eyes. “Rumor has it one of SICKLE’S brain rooms is in a bunker underneath the Palace.”

“Rumor is dangerous thing to engage in, Chuck,” Volson said dangerously.

There came a series of thumps that carried over the twilight air. A fireball could be seen blooming in the distance.

With a massive ripple overhead, the floating drones all oriented to face the disturbance.

“Ah,” Volson mused. “It looks like the Second Russian Civil War has just begun. Anyway, let’s get going. Don’t want to be in the city when all of this goes down.” With a motion of his hand, he pointed us towards a partially covered cargo platform elevator at one corner of the rooftop helipad. “Downstairs, please.”


We emerged out of the lobby of the KGB safehouse onto street level Moscow. People hurried furtively past us, hoping to get back home before the fighting broke out into the streets. It seemed they knew Sechalin was about to make his move.

I saw Cutler a block down the street, climbing into a black SUV with Zasekin and a couple Reapers. He caught my eye and nodded jovially, giving a mock salute, before driving away. Several black SUVs followed him, filled with what I could only assume to be Reapers and the 68th Recon Spetsnaz.

An obsidian battleship of a Zil town car peeled out the traffic and up to the curb in front of us, its driver popping the doors open.

Volson discreetly drew a (MEU)SOC pistol from a shoulder holster and worked the slide, covering me with it. Lennox, focused on something else, moved to other side of the car to get in.

As Volson got into the passenger’s side, his pistol emerged from under the cover of the coat in the anonymity of the tinted windows.

I sat down in the back behind the driver while Lennox went around to the other side, his hands cuffed behind his back. Lennox faced the vehicle, hesitating for a barest of a second.

Volson, keeping me under the cover of the (MEU) SOC, didn’t see it, but I did. The black-haired man in the leather jacket aboard the sleek Kawasaki had tossed the tiny Glock through the air - and Lennox had caught it. The Reaper slipped it into the rear waistband of his pants with such deftness that I barely noticed it – though I was busy staring at the familiar man of the motorcycle.

Lennox sat down on my right, slamming the door as the motorcycle continued past, not even stopping as the driver gave the barest of nods in my direction.

The town car pulled out into the road, I moaned internally as a small black SUV moved up on our left side, a pair of plainclothes Reapers in the front row.

“So, Volson,” lead Lennox, leaning back easily in his seat. “You’re not much of an ideologue. You don’t have family, so I’ll rule out threats. In the end, how much did they pay you?”

Turning around to watch us, Volson smiled, his eyes twinkling. “You’re a sharp one, Captain. Given General Chaos Farley represents pretty much the entire goddamned Air Force, he’s got the resources to hand us each two mil, half up front, half upon completion.”

Inside, I scoffed. These men would be wasted once the mission was through.

“And in the end, you never saw it coming, did you, Lennox?” scoffed Volson.

“No,” the Reaper Major said, “I guess not.”

A muffled pop punctured the air and a red dot formed on Volson’s forehead. The driver saw this and swore, reaching for his down shoulder holster. Lennox rotated the pistol and jammed it against the spine of the seat, firing twice. The driver spasmed and went still, while the car went, wild, peeling into the SUV on the right. A fourth pop marked the splitting of Lennox’s cuffs, the bullet digging into the upholstery behind him.

My eyes went wide as Lennox vaulted over the seat, popping the door and shoving the driver out. I heard the thump-thump from the SUV on our side as Lennox slammed the door and pulled away from our ‘escorts’.

I gave a shout as I saw the passenger in the Reaper vehicle smash out the window and stick out a silenced MP5, I ducked down in unison with Lennox as the tearing noise filled our ears, the windows shattering and bullets pounding into the headrest on my right, finally cut off when Lennox swerved, putting a pickup between us and the fire. Through the window of the pickup, I saw the passenger swear as his line of fire was cut off. Lennox snatched the pistol from Volson’s left hand and tossed it to me.

Barely catching it, I was thrown back as the pickup rammed our left side, the SUV grinding the truck between us and throwing our tiny town car into the corner of a building. We crashed through magazine stands and gas pumps before emerging around the corner. The SUV let loose its grip on the pickup, which immediately fell behind as our two cars hit the intersection.

The one action standard that I should let you know never happens in real life is the chase. Not even the car chase, just the chase. As one of two superpowers in the nation, the most we go up against is building-bound insurgents. Not much fleeing, more last stands in Allah’s name. Even if they do flee, we smoke them before they get fifty feet. Well, those standards came from my experience a couple years ago in Iran.

But, let me tell you, today wasn’t exactly going by the standards of real life.

Lennox jammed his brakes and we hit the intersection, spinning the wheel, and with it, the entire car. The car jolted as a roadster hit our left flank at full speed, immensely helping our spin, and suddenly our towncar was nose to nose with the SUV, facing it. Lennox ducked way down, lying across the seats and pulling Volson’s body over him, I curled into the foot space behind the driver’s seat as our windows shattered and the H&K began to pound into the back seat.

Through the dash-mounted display of the rear cameras, I saw another Reaper SUV pull straight across the end of the intersection, two gunners leaning out of its right side, guns opening up on the rear of our vehicle; we were being pummeled on two sides-

Slamming down on the reverse like it was someone’s skull, Lennox pulled our car away from the nose of the SUV, getting up to sixty before the we struck the second SUV at an oblique angle, tearing off our bumper and sending the SUV spinning into a hot dog stand. We moved with the impact, as well, spinning around again to face forward- Lennox jammed on the drive and we raced off as the SUV behind us slammed into its partner with a sickening crunch.

The windows of Moscow flashed past as Lennox gunned the town car down a back street.

I began to root in the back seat – there was a massive satchel case under the covers of a black sheet. Tugging the cover aside and shooting the lock, I opened the container to find – packed in molded Styrofoam – a rocket propelled grenade. Sweet.

“What’s their plan?!” Lennox shouted at me as kicked open the passenger seat and tossed Volson out unceremoniously.

“Let me think,” I said, massaging my pounding temples. The dialogue of the past twenty-four hours floated through my head.

Alexis: “In the end Kiralova directed one of her orbital lasers from Shagan and had SICKLE sterilize the entire area.”

Volson: “If I remember correctly, it houses the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Lennox: “Rumor has it one of SICKLE’S brain rooms is in a bunker underneath the Palace.”

And, most damning of all, Sechalin: “Passing the sickle through the crops and removing the chaff from the wheat.”

The sickle.


The Soviet artificial intelligence, their battle manager. Initially integrating their armed services for greater efficiency in the field, she now took an active role in military affairs, coordinating artillery without prompting – from what I had heard, it (“she” as Comrade Hammer had once called her) was sentient.

There were processing nodes – called “brain rooms” by everyone and their mother – spread pretty much all over the world and above it. There were a couple in remote Siberia, a few in the Soviet client states, two that I knew of in the middle of the pacific, at least one in orbit and one on the moon, and as rumor had it, one in orbit above Mars.

Sechalin probably didn’t lay claim to the loyalty to the majority of the USSR’s military. Perhaps be wanted to avoid a bloody and conventional civil war. How could he avoid a fair fight? Nukes would only hurt his country, rendering area inhabitable.

No, there was one other option.

The orbital laser matrix. If Sechalin gained control of the ABM network, he could potentially used it annihilate any resistance to his ultramilitant faction once and for all. If Sechalin could down certain brain rooms, he could potentially forms a split SICKLE’s intelligence and wrest command of the AI over to his side – and with that, the laser satellites.

And where was the nearest brain room? The Palace of the Soviets. Which was, unfortunately, guarded by who knew what. How could Sechalin blast past the brain room’s defenses without leveling Moscow?

“SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK,” I whispered. “Lennox! He’s going to use BLACK to attack the Palace of the Soviets. That’s the only way he can get to SICKLE’s brain room.”

“Why does he want SIC-” Lennox began to ask, before he too understood. “Oh man, he’s going to use the lasers. Oooh shit.”

“The Palace is about a mile south of here!” I shouted, gauging from what I had seen from the view of the roof. “Cutler will probably be unleashing BLACK any minu-”

A shimmer caught the light of the window, and I saw a massive crater form in the side of a skyscraper, chunks of concrete crushing a dumpster in front of us. Lennox swerved instantly, as the dumper exploded a half-second later, a purple-blue beam bisecting it.

Hot shit. SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK was right above us. Cutler has unleashed an invisible mech on us.

Sighting clearly through a jagged gash in the thin roof, I stilled my breath as I fought to track the moving blur with my pistol. I almost laughed at the absurdity of it all-

Lennox swerved off the alley into a street of fast moving, opposing traffic. A luxury car struck us on the nose, spinning us just as BLACK fired its laser. A scalpel-precise beam nuked the space where we had just been nanoseconds before.”

I lost the blur. “Lennox, shit! I lost the target!”

“Well, he’ll show him-”

He was cut off as a rocket hit a dump truck that had pulled in front of us, hitting it dead center and flipping into a nearby building. “That’s not an option!” I swore as Lennox hit the gas, cutting across the road, heading to south towards the Palace. “We’ve got to say in the back alley ways- staying out here only opens civvies to fire!”

“And what better ideas do you have, Baylor?” barked Lennox. “If STB can fit in an alleyway, we’re only making ourselves easier targe-” He swerved suddenly as a natural gas-toting semi roared across the corner, almost hitting it. Seeing the sides of the buildings behind him crater as SHADOW TEMPEST leapt from building to building in pursuit, he yelled “Down! Across the seat!” With that pronouncement, he gunned the town car straight towards the massive silver cylinder straddling the road in front of us.

“No way!” I swore. “Black hits that, and STB won’t even need to hit the Palace!”

“Now or never,” Lennox responded, throwing himself across the passenger seat and looping his arm in the seatbelt-

I rolled to the floor of the car right as we passed underneath the massive container. With a massive shearing noise, the cylinder ripped our roof off, exposing to the dusk sky of Moscow.

To my right I saw dark, rolling waters, we were on a double-tiered street running alongside the bay. A couple miles down the road I could see the towering statue of Stalin. Now, any good commander could tell you our ploy was the height of stupidity- leading the enemy right to its target? Insanity. The true genius would be to lead the mech away from the target-

SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK landed in the street behind us, two massive craters causing quakes that shattered windows. The tail-end of the tanker struck the leg on the mech, I could barely see the driver whip his head around, see the outline of the robot, and bail out of his car, right as Black grabbed his tanker at either end and tossed it at us.

“Holy jesus,” I breathed.

The tanker traced a path through the air.

Lennox saw the makeshift projectile and his face went white. With grim determination, he spun the tail of the town car around shoved it into reverse, shooting off the side of the road.

I glanced around, seeing we would land haphazardly on the road below us – before snatching up the RPG out of the case and aiming it at the tanker.

I fired the RPG. With a woosh, the shell trailed forth from the launcher and pierced the tanker while it hung forty feet in the air.


Boom time.

It was a cataclysm. The roar probably could have been heard from Los Angeles. The blast wave picked up our town car like a leaf in the breeze and sent us flying like a meteor towards the edge of road – we were going to overshoot and plummet into the water – before a high-speed monorail sped by.

Whiplash couldn’t begin to describe what happened next.

The tail end of the deformed Zil town car struck the speeding wall of the monorail and we bounced off, spinning at least three times through the air before bouncing spectacularly into the traffic below. We were tagged once, twice, three times by passing cars, twirling like a pinball through the chaos of the roadway.

I could barely see the flickering, demonic outline of BLACK above, outlines in the fireball as huge chunks of burning wreckage rained around it. It was taller and more muscular than the original SHADOW TEMPEST model, weapons bristling over its body. Two laser cannons were perched on its shoulders, while a wide cape of spear-like stabilizers framed its back, giving it the overall look of a metallic, tattered seraph. Red eyes glowed in the inferno.

With a massive leap, it jumped thirty feet straight up, formed its legs up to its chest and pulling its arms to its sides, the stabilizers spreading wide – before shooting off the mark like a jet, leaving an initial plume of smoke as it barrel rolled out over the bay and out of sight.

Meanwhile, Lennox was struggling to bring the Zil back under control, fighting heroically with the wheel. Bone clearly protruded from his already-broken left arm, and blood ran down from a wide gash on his temple.

He came to a stop in the middle of the road, still facing the wrong way, the engine smoking, the car a crumpled, nasty mess – just in time to see Cutler’s black SUV accelerate straight toward us as the front of the wave of traffic bearing down at us. The lights nearly blinded me, but I was Cutler in the passenger seat, waving happily at us with a massive grin on his face.

“Get out, get out!” Lennox screamed, bailing from the shattered Zil. I too turned to leap out of the car – and indeed was halfway out – when the SUV hit the town car at forty miles an hour.

I was tossed into the air (something that was honestly seeming to happen to me a lot these days), tumbling over the hood of the SUV before bouncing off the windshield – leaving a spiderweb of cracks in it – and onto the top of the SUV. I shot out a hand, miraculously catching a hold on the roof’s utility rack. I clung there, battered and bloodied, at my very limit. I saw Lennox shoot by, standing in the road, as the driver of the SUV accelerated out of the wreckage of the town car.

There came a crash from below and Cutler kicked out the entire pane of the obscured windshield. Shimmying out onto the hood, Cutler rolled onto his back and aimed a shotgun at me.

I swung a foot at him, hoping to catch him across his grinning mug, but instead connected with the shotgun, sending it spinning out of his arms just as he fired. A spread of pellets whizzed by the head, the shotgun went flying, disappearing into the anarchic traffic.

With a snarl, Cutler spun to a crouch on the hood, drawing both of my kukris from shoulder holsters. My kukris.

The road suddenly hit an incline, and Cutler stumbled forward-

-The road was now level with the roof of the passing monorail-

-Screw it. I punched Cutler in the face (which felt incredible), stunning him before springing off the roof. Crash-tackling the Reaper, we both flew off the roof and off the side of the road-

-Were we impacted with the roof of the monorail. Cutler gasped as he took the impact, acting as my cushion.

I sat up, straddling Cutler, and deliver a rabbit punch to one of his wrists, causing him to lose his grip on one of my kukris. I snatched the knife from his hand and raised it, ready to slit his goddamn throat-

Cutler came to and brought his newly free hand to grab me by the collar, dragging my down to slam his forehead against the center of my face. My nose shattered with the blow, exploding in a burst of blood.

Cutler repeated the headbutt once, twice, before tossing me, dazed, off of him. Rolling to a crouch, the Reaper struck out with my with both feet, supported only by one arm, posed in the air like a martial artist – and before the twin heels struck me in the chest, I knew I had made a horrible choice in decided who to go CQC with.

I flew backwards, my world awash with pain, and Cutler was on me, delivering a quick pair of punches to the gunshot wound in my thigh. I arched in agony, and he struck me across the face with a vicious backhand. My head flew backwards and bounced off the metal of the monorail. Fighting to keep the black and red out of my vision, I marshaled what little reserves I had left to sweep Cutler’s legs out from underneath him. The Reaper went down with a shout, and the monorail maneuvered away from the road, the tracks rising into the air and reaching a straightaway towards the Palace of the Soviets.

I scrambled backwards, struggling to put distance between Cutler and I. For his part, he simply sprung to his feet, kukri held up in an expert guard. Cutler, being a Reaper, was clearly no novice.

He lunged forward with a downward slash, and I came up on one knee to catch the strike on my own kukri (I was knife-fighting! This was crazy!). Sparks flew.

I rolled Cutler’s kukri off of mine and brought my fist around for a haymaker to the face, but the Reaper caught my blow in the palm of his free hand, twisting my wrist and continuing my momentum forward, sending me rolling past him.

Twisting, I took a leaf from Storm’s book and turned the undignified sprawl in a clean somersault, dodging the follow-up stab from Cutler’s blade, feeling it part the air behind me.

Spinning on one foot, I found myself parrying and dodging a veritable flurry of blows – slashes, stabs, uppercuts, kicks, all aimed at incapacitating me as swiftly as possible. Unable to take the offensive, I wove through the hail of strike; turning a blade here, ducking under a kick there, shouldering aside a punch without so much as a sign that Cutler was wearing me down.

Well, it looked that way. As perfect as my defense was, I was rapidly beginning to tire – I doubted I could keep this up for another ten seconds.

The monorail took another slight course correction, taking a long curve around the edge of the left side of the circular courtyard. Looking out, I saw that the track led around the circumference of the circle once, dropping down a level before disappearing into an open tunnel on the face of the palace. Another rail protruded from the mouth of the tunnel, curving in the opposite direction of the helix, eventually letting out into the city.

There came a flash of light and a speeding monorail shot out of the Palace, outbound for who knew where. It had barely gone two hundred feet when a meteor struck it dead center, derailing the entire train. The burning wreckage fell in wildly to ground fifty feet blow.

There, floating in the middle of the courtyard, was the burning outline of SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK.

The outstretched hand of the colossal Lenin statue began to glow with red brilliance, and I swore. This was the stuff of American comic books, but now I was seeing proof that the Hand of Lenin really did exis-

BLACK dodged to the right, flying around the helix, just as the nexus of energy in the statue’s hand shot outward in a meter-wide laser, pulsing after BLACK. The flying mech barely managed to avoid the strike, spinning impossibly between the supports of the helix – and then I saw the laser cut through those supports, following BLACK.

Cutler and I saw the track in front of the Palace entrance begin to crumble, creating a thirty foot gap between the broken concrete and the hole in the wall. I tried to detangle myself from the melee, but Cutler grabbing me by the arm and punched me once, swung the kukri at my stomach in an attempt to disembowel me. I parried awkwardly.

BLACK reached the apex of its jet-assisted climb, arms flashing, as if throwing a multitude of knives at the statue. But instead of projectiles smaller blue bolts flew forth from its hands – I realized the mech had miniature laser canons in its palms.

The storm of bolts impacted in a wave across the statue, chipping in tiny detonations of concrete.

Coming around for a second pass, Black unleashed more laser pulses.

The Hand of Lenin fired again, sweeping the rest of the bolts out of the air. Usually I’d have to pay seventy bucks to go to a rock concert to see this sort of laser show, I thought randomly.

Getting in past Cutler’s guard, I kneed him in the gut, doubling him over – but the Reaper twisted out of my grip, opening up a deep cut on my right arm as he disengaged.

“Any last words, Baylor?” grinned Cutler.

“Your mom,” I breath, clutching at my arm while struggling to keep up my guard.

The grin disappeared. “What?”

“Ask Lenin,” I said, gesturing to the statue. “Your mom is like his views on society.”

I started rain powerful blows at his head. He dodged them, just barely.





A share!!

I brought my blade around for a decapitating blow.

Cutler caught it. With his bare hands, no less.

And then he snapped the kukri in half, shattering it.

The tram reached the bottom level of the helix now, we were seconds away from the hole in the track, the missing section blasted out by the Hand of Lenin…

BLACK, visible only by the collecting light at its two shoulder-mounted cannons, came in low for what it probably intended to be a final fly-by.

Pitted and scarred, the Hand of Lenin began charging another shot…

And Cutler, determined to kill me before we both died in the crash, came forward with one last set of attacks.

Boom time.


Cutler came in low, sweeping high. Determined not to be eviscerated, I stepped back, leaning as though I was in a Matrix movie, hoping to avoid the slash. I didn’t make it.

The kukri opened up a line of red across my tattered shirt, and my vision, already tinged with red, began to flash.

Reversing his grip, Cutler spun on one foot, aiming the next slice for my neck. At least time, I thought, maybe I could duck under i-

The blade caught me across the cheek, thocking my already broken nose. Blood spray through the air and I collapsed to my knees.

Having finally incapacitated me, Cutler raised his – my kukri straight upward for the final blow.

BLACK, too moved in for the kill.

The Hand of Lenin fired, its unique red beam plunging straight towards the near-visible mech.

The SHADOW TEMPEST fired its shoulder cannons in a staggered pair of bursts, its timing perfect.

The first shot met and combined with the incoming red scythe, diffusing it with a explosion of a thousand diffused laser beams.

The second beam took Lenin’s arm off at the shoulder. The beam momentarily hung there, a solid column of blue light connecting the raised limb to the body of the statue – and then it cut short. The arm, it’s electronic cables cauterized as though it were made of flesh and blood plummeted to the ground, hitting the pedestal on which Lenin stood and shattered into chunks.

Our monorail hit the empty spot in the tracks the same time as two stone boulders came from underneath and the side, striking the airborne cars. With a shudder, both Cutler and I went flying as the monorail bucked and derailed. For what I hoped would be the last time in my life I would every have to be airborne, I sailed into the well-lit cargo terminal of the Palace, seeing the ground rush up to meet me.

A trio of figures rushed forward on the empty floor below, arms outstretched.

I hit them like a bowling ball to their ninepins, and we all crashed to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

Someone’s elbow was poking me in my cracked rib, but holy SHIT, I was alive.

Disentangling my head from underneath someone’s elbow, I looked to the identity of my two saviors.

It was Alder, Mary, and Lennox.

Mary was directly underneath me, so rolled off her, pulling her to sitting position, and enveloping her in my warmest hug. “You guys saved me. I owe you all my life.”

“Hey,” said Alder. “What are friends for, boss?”

Rightfully the first question that came to mind was “Where are my men? Did they make it out of Afghanistan okay?”

Alder nodded. “They’re about twenty minutes behind us. We were separated from them when one of Sechalin’s tank columns rolled through. They had to duck down.”

I didn’t want to spoil the moment, but I had to know: “How the hell did you guys get in here? How’d you know Sechalin was aiming for the Brain Room?”

Mary’s face sobered I let go of her. “Comrade Hammer came to about a second after you were captured by that Spetsnaz cyborg. It wasn’t too hard for him to mop up the separatist commandos the Captain left behind after that.”

“Yeah,” Alder said. “He called that Antonov back, and we did one large no-landing extraction. Hammer guessed that Sechalin would want to convert you into his little worker drones and that you would have to be in Moscow and transfer away – he knew Zasekin wouldn’t miss whatever Sechalin had planned for the world.”

“They picked me up in the middle of the road ten seconds after you tackled Cutler onto that monorail,” Lennox added. “I told them what Sechalin had planned with BLACK, and we managed to make it through a Ministry-only sub-road with the help of Hammer’s override codes. The entire system crashed right after we pulled into the Palace, though.”

“Sechalin has gotten to one of the tertiary nodes on the edge of the city,” I guessed. “But now that BLACK has taken out the Hand of Lenin he can begin a direct assault on the Palace’s brain room.”

Suddenly I was alert. “Cutler. Tell me he’s dead.”

I finally looked around, seeing I was in a sterile loading bay, all steel floors and long banks of industrial lighting overhead. Smoke and fire floating in front of the entrance threatened to waft in. The monorail tracks sat sparking, disconnected from the helix outside. There came the staccato beat of gunfire and thumping explosions from outside.

Across the spacious gap the tracks cut through the warehouse were the unloading, well, docks, with the occasional trash compactor and forklift.

At first I thought Chuckles had smacked into the wall outside, peeling off like the Coyote from a road runner cartoon.

Served him right.

With a harsh scream and hurricane of air, SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK swept into the man-made cavern, rolling and unfolding before alighting like a giant bat on one of the compactors.

Held in one hand was Chuckles Cutler.

He waves cheerfully at us, nodding as if we had just passed on the street.

BLACK raised one arm, slotting forth a rack of five rockets.

SICKLE came to our rescue. The AI, probably is full defensive mode when the Hand of Lenin went down, couldn’t allow the mechanized armor this deep in its house.

Six drone turrets dropped down on arms from the ceiling, orienting on BLACK. Gatling barrels began to spin.

Light strips across the wall flashed red, and voice whispered to us. Run.

Things were about to get very hot.

BLACK cloaked itself the second the turrets opened fire, dodging to one side and slicing a hand through the air. A volley of blue bolts tracked a line of explosions across one side of the ceiling, and a pair of turrets was slagged by the pulses.

Tracking the source of the incoming fire, the turrets reoriented on the mech, leaving shimmers of sparks across its cloaked form as the 7.62mm bullets bounced off its ablative armor.

More rockets were unleashed from BLACK, a veritable massacre.

Shells fell by the thousands from the ceiling, the sound of all them hitting the floor joining in with all of the fireballs and explosions and scream of lasers to form one cohesive message: run away.

“Go!” I screamed, pointing towards a door that opened near the end of the bay. “Go go go! NOW!!”

Pulling Mary to her feet, we sprinted through the crisscross of tracers and lasers, rockets and plumes of flame. A turret slammed to the ground in front of us, sending shrapnel everywhere, but Mary yanked me to the side just in time, and we rolled past the aflame hunk of alloy to the open door, shells bouncing off our shoulders and heads.

I whipped my head over my shoulder to see BLACK fully visible, once again monstrous in the hellish conflagration, no purer instrument of war to be found anywhere I nthe world.

A long girder that ran the length of the ceiling fell past, tracing a burning arc over my field of vision, and both Alder and Mary tugged me forward – Lennox was waving us into what I saw was an elevator.

“Now or never!” he was shouting over the din.

My jacket sleeve caught fire, and I battered at it wildly. Alder grabbed the collar and spun me, ripping the burning garment off of me and tossing it aside. As a trio, we all dived forward into the elevator car as another girder smashed down where we had just been.

The doors calmly slid shut, and the air temperature dropped at least fifty degrees and we were bathed in the cool blue light of the wall light panels.

We all just stood there, hands on our knees, heaving breaths.

At last I spoke. “Ding. Third floor: hosiery, lingerie, the end of the goddamn world.”

The blue light flashed and a holographic projector began to trace a three-dimensional figure in the center of the elevator. It was clearly a slender figure, vaguely feminine, with tracing lines of mathematical symbols flowing down its form.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” said SICKLE, the premier Artificial Intelligence of the Soviet Union, if not the world. “Welcome to the Ministry, Captain.”


I guess it’s just that I provide such stimulating conversation. Both Storm and Marshal Sechalin had sought me out for conversations, for gods sakes. And now SICKLE. SICKLE. Granted, she was the only one out of the three that wasn’t a delusional omnicidal maniac, but I was still pulling down some pretty impressive talking mates. Perhaps ol’ Malcolm Kroner would seek me out if I survived the next half hour.

Before I could summon up a dutifully witty reply, Mary spoke. “I assume you received the authentication data from Hammer?”

The figure rippled with movement as it produced a floating packet of brilliant data in its left hand. “Gennady Muranov has apprised me of the situation, Mrs. MagTaggert. He wishes he could join you in my defense, but Sechalin is making a ploy with the Fifth Armored Division for the Politburo and he was obliged to come to their defense.”

“Wait,” I said, holding my hands up and looking at Alder and Mary. “You’ve already talked to SICKLE? Man, nobody tells me anything.”

“Welcome to my world,” Lennox mumbled, and for a second I forgot he was just the odd Reaper out, the fall man searching to cover his ass.

Explosions rumbled overhead, growing faint. Dust fell from the roof of the car.

“So,” I said, turning back to SICKLE’s hologram. “Tell me SHADOW TEMPEST is contained.

SICKLE’s glowing white eyes flashed as it – she – turned to look me. “The WRAITH mercenaries’ robot was driven back when I unleashed the facility’s complement of defensive tank drones. Unfortunately, the entirety of my defense have been hence occupied with the mechanoids and several of Sechalin’s elite operational units – including the 68th Recon – have penetrated into the Ministry’s depths.

“It is not exactly difficult to extrapolate that they’re making their way to my brain room. Having extensive contacts in the KGB, Sechalin has left his men well-prepared to circumvent my automated defenses.”

“And then what?” Alder asked. “They will honestly be able to hack your systems?”

“’Hack’ is a bit crude an analogy, but that is most likely event. While they can truly wrest ‘control’ of me as though I were a simple machine, they can unleash viruses into my system to isolate specific portions of my network. That is, as you have already guessed, the subsections dealing with the oversight and control of the orbital directed energy matrix.”

“Wait,” Mary said, wiping sweat and grime from her brow with a singed sleeve. “If they’re chopping off parts of you, that implies they already have a brain room of yours under control from which they can command the network.”

“Indeed,” confirmed SICKLE. “Sechalin has fled to orbit. The MIR station, to be precise.”

Jesus. MIR. It was like an episode of Moonraker. But with less Roger Moore camp and more cyborg ninja. Oh, and the giant invisible robot of doom. Couldn’t forget that.

“So, what advantages does he get by adding this station to his collection?” Lennox asked, finally joining back into the conversation.

“Increased processing power. As this station is so closely linked to MIR, he’ll be able to more effectively wield his laser arsenal, with faster recharge and target association times. In short, he’ll be able to wipe any resistance off the map within hours.”

SICKLE’s form shifted, looking ‘down’, the lines of code streaming across her form becoming more agitated. “Damn.”

“Excuse me?” I said, eyebrows raised. I was used to robots trying to kill me, not having relatable personality traits.

She shifted her weight one hip, shaking her head. Her arms began to manipulate packets of data rapidly. “Zasekin’s crew is attempted to blow the external generators. My brain room will still have power, but any external defenses will be shut down. I’ll practically be wide open to assault.”

Mary pulled a Colt from the waistline of her jeans. Sliding out the mag, she said “I have seven rounds. How about you guys?”

Alder produced a pair of Five-seveNs. He passed me one. “Twenty each, ma’am.”

Lennox just brandished the Glock he had caught from the motorcycle driver earlier. “Locked and loaded.”

“Well,” said SICKLE dryly. “This should be interesting. Hold on, I’ve drop your car – figuratively, of course – into the brain room.”

I furrowed my brow. “Wait. You can enter the brain room of the world’s most advanced computer intelligence from a elevator that is in a room open to the outside?

“Granted,” SICKLE said, winking at me. “You would have to bypass the Hand of Lenin, the turrets and the autotanks. Nevermind that you’re about a kilometer underground and have already transferred through six shafts.”

“Oh,” I said meekly. “Gotcha.”

“I’ll do all I can to assist you. But be aware that once Zasekin drops the external generators, my tactical options will be limited to the point of being nonexistent.”

Lennox rubbed his broken arm. It had been bandaged hastily some time after Mary and Alder had picked him up on the freeway. Blood had long since died the cloth – ripped from the waist of Mary’s shirt – a crimson verging on violet. “The four of us against the 68th Recon. This should be fun.”

With a sudder, the elevator finally came to a stop.

“68th…” I murmured. “SICKLE, what’s the quote?”

SICKLE gave me a faint smile and obliged. “And I looked, and behold: a pale horse. And the name that sat on him was Death.”

I cocked the hammer back on him pistol as the doors to the elevator doors slid silently open.

“And hell followed with him.”


The Brain Room was a shaped in the manner of a cross. I guessed the Soviets like toying with irony or were paying homage or who knew what.

Three passages led off of the spacious circular center of the brain room. We emerged out of what would be the top spar of the cross, coming out of a hallway to the ten-meter diameter Core. A black tower, dancing with burgundy lights, sat at the axis of the room, the very center. It extended out of the floor, piercing the ceiling. Various coolant tubes of liquid nitrogen lay curled around the base, plugged into differing heights on the tower.

About six meters out from the center, arranged like the twelve hours on a clock, were a dozen stone pillars holding up the ceiling of the room. Encircling the outside of the pillars two thirds of the way to the towering ceiling was a simple maintenance walkway. More than a thousand cables and tubes hung from the ceiling like vines, connected at one end to the edges of the room and the other to the top of the tower Core.

The cross-spars of the room (to extend the room) led to what I presume where server rooms. With two fingers, I commanded Mary and Alder forward to check each of the darkened hallways. They call back ‘clean’.

Regrouping, we stared down the remainder of the corridor. Its stretches lay cloaked to our eyes.

The thumping above intensified. We took cover behind the pillars, while Lennox scaled up to the walkway above, looking to provide overwatch. I doubted I could ever feel easy with that man having my back, but right now I took whatever help I could get.

“SICKLE?” I asked, scratching my chin idly.

Her voice came out of nowhere, and everywhere. This room was her. “Yes, John?”

“Think you can turn up the lights a bit?”

There came a tremendous quake from above. The lightning dimmed even further.

“….And that was the external generators going down. Apologies, but the electronic system was not designed with illumination in mind. I’m using up enough power as is.”

“Jesus,” Mary muttered, throwing a winning smile at me. “It’s just a couple lights.”

“SICKLE,” I said, tossing some authority into my voice. “Your attempts creating dramatic tension to things are not appreciated.”

The lights came back on. A bit. At least I could see down the hallway – it led to a massive set of blast doors, probably a meter thick.

A panel on one of the pillars popped open, exposing (besides a fire extinguisher) a set of gas masks.

Alder rolled his eyes. “Now that’s dramatic tension for you, John.”

“The 68th has been using nerve gas to clear out the upper levels,” SICKLE elaborated. “Though I figure they do not know you are here, there most predictable action upon opening the blast doors would be to drop gas canisters into the room. Fortunately the gas is thankfully lethal only through direct inhalation, so the masks should allow you to err on the side of caution.”

“You heard the lady,” I said, grabbing a pair of masks and handing them to Mary. While she passed a mask to Alder, I tossed a third apparatus up to Lennox, who caught it awkwardly with the hand holding his gun.

Donning my own mask and making sure it was buckled tight, I remember those first nights in boot camp when they Sergeant Instructors (DIs to the civies) staged a mock gas attack on our camp. Half the platoon had been knocked out while I struggled not to puke under the unfamiliar visor…

My vision instantly tinged with blue as a heads-up display overlaid the screen. Everywhere my eyes focuses a reticule appeared, highlighting information about the object. Somehow the mask had also interfaced with my body, because an outline of a generalized human form appeared in the top left; flashing red denoting my injuries.

There was a lot of red, to say the least.

SICKLE gave a gap of breath that echoed in my inner ear and another panel on a nearby pillar popped open, revealed a set of eight red syringes.

“EMeds,” Mary said, eyes wide behind her own HUD. “We saw these back during Operation PICKPOCKET.”

“Indeed,” answered SICKLE over everyone’s com. “The serum costs billions to formulate, but the most secure areas usually have access to a batch. A full dose should provide twenty-four hours of cessation of pain and energy. Can’t guarantee you’ll do anything but crash spectacularly afterwards, though, but the way some of you guys look, I doubt you’d make it through the next twenty-four minutes.”

“’Crash’?” I asked skeptically.

“Oh, fall unconscious for enough time for your body to recover your injuries. In your condition, it should be somewhere around two days – but I doubt you want your time to run out in the middle of the firefight.”

“Again,” Lennox muttered. “Assuming we survive twenty-four hours.”

“Psh,” I shot back. “I like to take a more uplifting route, such as ‘we have one full day to save the world’.”

“Always the optimist, sir,” Alder commented. “We’re running out of time,” he noted, pointing to the blast doors. Sparks were beginning to flicker along its center, as the metal glowed gradually molten.

“SHADOW TEMPEST,” SICKLE noted. “They’ve found a way to direct a beam into the door from above. Though it’s obvious it won’t be able to fight at all down here, they’ll need to deactivate the beam to avoid damaging the core.”

The light from the glowing doors intensified. Molten chunks began to plop off the center spot, dribbling to the floor and leaving glowing trails.

There came a clunk as some unseen mechanism was probably slagged away.

“Aaand that was the lock,” said SICKLE. “Get ready.”

Swearing under my breath, I snatched a syringe and plugged it into my upper arm, depressing the plunger. Instant, cool relief flooded through my system – it was like a miracle.

And with that bliss came energy. My wounds might not be hurting, they might even be healing with new haste, but right now all I could note was that the lack of throbbing pain in my head had given me new focus.

I passed a syringe carefully up to Lennox. He probably needed it more than I did.

“Remember,” I said. “Make every shot count. Aim for the head, if you can – they’re probably be wearing body armor, but their gas mask visors won’t be bulletproof. If I had my bet, they’d be carrying riot shields, so go for the feet if you want to create and opening for a headshot.”

With a torturous moan, the doors began to sag – and WHAM.

Some invisible force, tinged with trails of barely perceptible trailed of blue lightning, caught the formerly conjoined blast door halves and flung them fifteen feet down the wall. Considering each slab of alloy probably weighed a ton, I considered this impressive.

Already turtling behind to full-shield-wielding comrades, Zasekin mock-cocked a smoking gauntlet – I recognized it as one of those experiment concussive blasters, capable of pulsing kinetic force down short distances with disastrous effects for whoever was caught in the beam. They were rare as hell, but like personal cloaking fields or squad-level energy weapons, they were just entering the field.

“Knock, knock!” Zasekin called.


Gas canisters flew by over his shoulders, trailing thick plumes of white aerosol.

The HUD highlighted the canisters as they traced an arc through the air.

Mary’s pistol cracked and one of the gas grenades exploded only a meter out of the launcher, detonating right in the face of one of the shield-bearers. The commando flinched back from the blast, just in time for Mary to bounce a round off the ground and into the ankle of the exposed soldier.

Zasekin shouldered the bleeding man back into position before Mary could line up a third shot. The bullet chipped against the shield, the spark bright in the barely lit hallway.

The second canister landed near my feet, propelled to roll in circles by the exhaust of nerve gas. My mask, thankfully, continued to pump clean air into my lungs.

SICKLE began to highlight targets and vectors on my HUD, a stream of mathematical calculations in the bottom right corner of my vision underlying her work. I brought my pistol up to aim and a reticule moved about the screen, linking to whatever camera on the mask SICKLE was using to augment my ability.

Acker and I fired about the same time, lining our reticules up with marked targets, catching exposing elbows and toes. The injured shield-bearer seized under the barrage, letting his shield go askew.

Lennox, crouching overheat, shot him between the eyes. The commando crumpled, but Zasekin kicked the dropped shield up into his grip, covering the hole that would have left him exposed to a follow-up double-tap from Mary.

Holding his shield up and only advancing a few feet, the cyborg covered one of his men as the soldier crouched low, readying what appeared to be a can of spray paint. Shaking it, he aimed in a crack between the two shields, sweeping the sprayer over the floor in front of them.

Wherever the blue mist emanating from the can landed, the floor froze over. And with this newfound sheen to the floor, multiple two-inch circles were highlighted between the 68th and my crew.

“Well, there goes that option,” SICKLE intoned. “Those were pneumatic rods that would have pinned them up into the ceiling if they stepped over them.

Zasekin fired a pulse gauntlet through a momentary gap in the shields, a loosed shot from Alder missed his arm my centimeters.

The concussion blast hit the frozen ground, demolishing the booby traps. Chips of stone and metal rained down, forming a momentary hailstorm between the two forces.

Turning back to his men, Zasekin barked in Russian. SICKLE’s voice overlaid a translation in my ear: “Watch your aim – fire only if sure. The man who damages the core is one not long for the world!”

Mary caught my eye and nodded, eyes smiling faintly. They wouldn’t be able to fire back indiscriminately without destroying their objective. The Soviet AI was protecting us through mere proximity.

Alder opened up with this line, planting shot after shot in targets he had been silently plotting out while Zasekin was busy dealing with the room’s defenses.

The other commando with the shield dropped to one knee before a round cut his jugular. He fell over, clutching his neck and leaving a gap in the Spetsnaz front.

We joined in with Alder, timing our shots in a rhythm, each assassinating a man in turn. Zasekin tried to cover his men, but a round careened off the stone near his ear, and he abandoned his pretense of teamwork, rushing forward to close the distance between him and the core before all his men were wiped out. He and I both knew he was most effective in close quarters. Hell, I bet he could boost his punches with one of those pulses; one blow sending his opponent across the room.

He tossed the shield at me, and I ducked behind the pillar reflexively. The composite plastic riot shield buried itself a foot into the stone.

Alder, down to a quarter mag, turned to fire at Zasekin, but the cyborg batted the gun out of his hand. Snatching my sergeant by the throat, Zasekin lifted him high into the air.

A door popped open behind Zasekin on the column, catching him in the small of the back. Zasekin stumbled wildly and, somehow managing to recover his balance without dropping the wildly struggling Alder, aimed his free hand at the pillar without even looking back. The pulse stripped the stone surrounding the locker from the pillar, revealing a now-deformer metal box and a set of reinforcing metal rebar.

Slamming Alder’s back up against the top section of the pillar, where it was still intact, Zasekin ripped one of the ends of the rebar free.

With his []bare hands[/i].

Bending the metal like it was taffy, Zasekin wrapped the bar around Alder’s chest, pinning Alder to the wall, where he struggled, helpless.

This all happened in about three seconds.

Zasekin spun, his cold eyes affixing on me. I gulped, and rolled to the side just as a pulse flew by overhead, obliterating another pillar.

Mary, over by the far side of the room, continued to trade shots with the remaining Spetsnaz, scooping up the Five-seveN Alder has been deprived on and never relenting in her fire.

Pivoting, Zasekin tracked me for another shot.

I saw Lennox reaching down from above with his one free arm, his pistol in the front pocket of his pants. Leaping upward, I clasped my hand around his just Zasekin fired again.


Lennox pulled me up with his free hand, swinging me in a wide arc over the railing of the walkway and onto the metal, the concussive wave inches behind my heels.

I landed, rolling, just in time to see Zasekin leap straight up, knees high, arms flared. Lennox, catching sight of me right at the end point of the cyborg’s trajectory, tackled me, shoving me out of the way of Zasekin’s grasp.

The Spetsnaz Captain landed on Lennox, instead, delivering a crushing knee to his collarbone, flattening the Reaper underneath him. Lennox scream, his shoulder twisting to a horrific degree as his sling ripped and his broken arm snapped anew.

And still Lennox brought his Glock around, aiming it point-blank at Zasekin’s face.

“Eat this, asshole,” he snarled.

Zasekin saw the pistol coming up from a mile away and batted the hand aside, sending the pistol flying off into the distance and breaking two of Lennox’s fingers.

“Didn’t work too well, Major?” Zasekin snarled, bringing his fist down on Lennox’s broken nose.

“No.” Lennox, choking on his own blood, laughed feebly. And then he straightened his mangled fingers into a knife and jabbed Zasekin in the throat. Simultaneous, he employed the technique know as Shrimping, twisting his hips to one side and pulling his knees up, effecting pulling himself out from under his attacker.

“How?” said Zasekin.

“Because I outrank you, asshole,” Lennox hissed, driving both feet straight out into Zasekin’s chest, sending him stumbling backwards. For a second it looked like the cyborg would tumble over the railing with that comical look of surprise on his face, and then Zasekin’s hands darted out and grabbed a tight hold on Lennox’s feet, dragging the Reaper with him off of the walkway and to the floor two and a half meters below.

Lennox landed on top of Zasekin, the body perhaps softening the impact, but Zasekin was not stunned at all by the fall. Bringing his fist back, he backhanded Lennox off of him.

Above, I scrambled around for my pistol – but it had been lost on the floor below. Mary was desperately holding off the last two Spetsnaz commandos in the hallway, trading shots – but I could see she was running low on ammo.

As Lennox was sprawled back on his ass by the blow, Zasekin leapt forward, delivering a brutal kick to the Reaper’s rib cage. I could the crack of several ribs, and Zasekin aimed another kick in, too enraged to even bother with his concussion gauntlets.

Oh shit, I had to get down there and make a difference. Looking around, I spied a nearby cable drooping from the ceiling. That was it.

Zasekin yanked Lennox up by the collar, delivering a vicious cross to his face. And again.

And again.

Just when it looked like Lennox Zasekin lifted his bloodied fist high for the critical strike.

Swiping the thick computer cable free with my combat knife, I called to the cyborg. “Hey, Zasekin!”

He turned up to face me just as I swung down from my perch like a pirate. “Insert funny line here!” I shouted just as I place my size-twelve foot right upside his face.

I landed, and spun with a wild roundhouse kick, doubling him over. He tried to get one of those pulse gauntlets to bear, but I shoulder his arm aside. “You have a first name? ‘Cause if I had my guess, it’d be ‘Boba’.”

He popped his other gauntlet into the floor beneath me, sending me spinning backwards thorugh (you GUESSED it) the air – damn, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be doing that anymore.

“Mary!” I shouted. “Help!”

Behind us, Mary fired her last round.

It pinged off the wall.

And went through both skulls of the commandos. Two targets. One bullet.

Mary MacTaggert wasn’t the best pistol shot in the world for nothing.

I landed somewhat gracefully, rolling to the side to dodge his next, fully-powered shot. “You see I said ‘Insert funny line here’ earlier because, to be honest – and I don’t want to hurt your feelings here – because I’m honestly fucking tired of dealing with pricks like you. No one ever gets my jokes!”

There. Mary had managed to sneak up on Zasekin while he was distracted and was dragging Lennox away.

“Do you ever shut UP?!” Zasekin snarled, sending pulse after pulse in my direction as I darted from pillar to pillar. Each shot blew boulder-sized chunks from the support struts.

“Sorry,” I said jovially. “I expect myself to put forth a certain amount of quippage per battle!”

“Here’s one!” I said as Mary leapt back into the fray. “Boot to the face!!” she yelled, dropping a perfect butterfly kick to the side of Zasekin’s head. The cyborg crumpled to the ground near one of the side hallways leading to a server room – and then snarled, placing a boot right into Mary’s waist. Her eyes went wide as she folded over and fell to her knees, gasping for air.

“SICKLE,” I growled, as Zasekin turned to face me, brining both his gauntlets to bear. “If you could help, now would be a good time.”

“Kill me,” SICKLE said.

What?” I asked, incredulous. “Wait, what? Last thing I want to do, you know, an American destroying a rather important Soviet asset.”

Zasekin slowly raised his gauntlets for the kill.

“I can make decisions for myself, thank you very much,” SICKLE shot back. “Get Zasekin to drop the pillars and get him caught in a sidehall. Crush him to death.”

I looked up at Zasekin. “Come on, man. Just get it over with.”

Giving a final snarl, Zasekin fired.

I let my legs drop out from underneath me, dropping to the floor just as the shot passed over me.

The blast wave hit the pillar behind me, already pulverized and tottering – like the four other ones around it.

The column exploded. Hot chips of stone cut at my back as I rolled, dodging to the right as Zasekin tracked me with his cannons.

He realized my intentions, but it was too late. The concussion cut across another column, obliterating it.

The walkway overhead teetered, connected to only two more columns of the opposite side of the room.

And then with a crash, it mountings tore free of one of the pillars, spinning around the second like a hoola hoop. The massive revolving disc plummeted overhead, first impacting the computer core with a fantastic detonation of blue electricity – before continuing onward, straight at Zasekin.

The cyborg tried to bring his gauntlets to bear, perhaps to simply blast the walkway back.

For once in his life, he was too slow.

The metal ring hit the tops of his gauntlets right as he triggered them.

There came a shrill whine, like a charging explosive, and they simply exploded in Zasekin’s face.

The light of the gauntlets catching fire combined with the dust of the shattered pillars to fill the air, rolling in and obscuring everything in the room.

I took a deep breath, a sigh of relief, and immediately choked on the air.

Coughing in the smoke, I saw Zasekin appeared overhead, yanking off the broken power gauntlet. Deep lacerations raced up his arm, dripping blood over the floor as we walked towards me.

I backed into the SICKLE core, one hand holding my ribs, the other finding purchase on one of the liquid nitrogen cooling tubes. My hand instantly felt numb.

“Whatsa matter, Baylor?” Zasekin asked, drawing out a wickedly long combat knife. “Catch a cold?”

No way I could take the cyborg in a knife fight. I lost to Cutler, what chance did I have against someone who outplayed Comrade Hammer?

And then it hit me. It was so obvious I rolled my eyes.

Twisting the connector on the tubes, I yanked the entire affair free. Liquid nitrogen sprayed out like a low-pressure hose, creating a blast of superchilled haze as the coolant sprayed through the air.

Zasekin tried to dodge to blast, and nearly did, but the nitrogen caught him across one leg. His boot instantly stuck to the floor, doing its best imitation of a T-1000.

I pulled the hose aside, watching with a harshly neutral expression. “Whatsa matter, Zasekin? Trying to run away? Well, let me tell you something…”

And still Zasekin strained, trying to get away from the spray. He yanked at his leg, perhaps not realizing it had froze to the floor – and he got it. Minus his foot. The crack was one of the more unpleasant sounds I’ve had to misfortune to here. Zasekin brought his amputated leg back down and nearly lost his balance.

But he didn’t toppled. Instead, with a snarl, he twisted to face me, raising his knife, aiming it, intending to throw it and spear me through the throat-

“In Soviet Russia, cold catches YOU!!”

And I turned the coolant hose back at him, drenching him with the blue fluid.

It was as if watching someone bringing the picture to a stop, turning everything down in slow motion.

Zasekin’s arm extended, his grip perfect on his knife. It left his hands – and hung there, a bare inch from his palm, frozen on a trail of ice.

The Spetsnaz Captain was now, shall I say it, a popsicle.

Doubting he would break himself free, I carefully screwed the hose connector back onto the core, careful not to get any of the gushing liquid on me. The sweat on my brow as frozen, as I saw through the reflection on the metal of the core, leaving silver dots on my forehead and white, Saint Nick-like eyebrows.

Alder laughed from across the room, where he was still pinned. “Sir, I have to say I’m proud of you. I can see you’re trying very hard not to quote Terminator at him.” He gave me a couple of claps of mock applause, which was awkward for him, considering his upper arms were pinned to his sides. He looked like a penguin. “But could you break me out of here?”

“One sec,” I said. “Lennox.”

A bloody trail marked where Lennox had been dragged away from the fight. He lay propped against one wall, his eyes half-glazed, covered in blood. I wanted to yell to SICKLE to do something, but her link through this room was demolished. I was alone.

I rushed over and knelt. Lennox tried to sit up, but I put a hand on his shoulder. “Lay still,” I spoke softly.

Lennox was breathing hard, fighting not to choke on his own blood as in gurgled from his mouth. “Baylor… I’m so sorry. I failed my country. I failed you.”

My mouth twisted.

Charles continued. “When I saw… your men on the airfield, I realized what I had-” he spat up a globule of blood and a chipped tooth “-what I had done. Cutler, he wanted to kill you all… but it was there I vowed to never let a solider be manipulated like you had. You can… appreciate that, right?”

I nodded, taking Charles’ hand and pressing my combat knife into it. Lennox rapped his fist against his chest, trying his best to look at peace. “Just promise me one… thing,” he continued after a short pause.

Behind us, Mary groaned as he began to pick herself off the floor.

“Anything,” I said, eyes wide.

Lennox’s eyes, the blue and red pupils that looked a bizarre and chaotic stars, bore into mine. “My wife and kid. They’ll come for them. Promise me, swear to me you’ll protect them.”

“With my life,” I said.

Lennox began to tremble, his body wracking with shivers. “John. They don’t know anything. Don’t tell them.”

Mary, observing the entire thing silently, walked over to Alder and began to pry him free with a jagged section of handrail that had broken off the catwalk.

Alder dropped to the ground. Face grim, he walked over to behind me. Mary began policing the dead Spetsnaz, liberating a Makarov and executing any wounded survivors. The pistol was blessedly fitted with a silencer.

Lennox laughed, filling the air with a haze of crimson. “Zasekin, you got him pretty good. I guess the real Reaper here is you. You’ll wear that title for the rest of your life, John. Death.”

He coughed, and his eyes went wide. “Zasekin…” he trailed off, his grip on my hand slackening. His head lolled against his shoulder.


“What was that last part?” asked Alder, brow furrowed.

There came an explosion of blood and gore, and an arm burst out of Alder’s rib cage. Blood drenched my face.

“I think he was talking about me,” Zasekin said, pulling his arm out of my Sergeant’s chest.

Twenty Eight


Alder fell limply over to the floor, landing on his side. He was dead before he hit the floor.

Zasekin, skin deathly white, dripping with blood and liquid nitrogen, his skin literally steaming, clenched his fist as he looked down on me.

And then he raised the pistol he had battered away from Lennox on the walkway earlier. He raised it, and pointed it at my head.

His finger tightened on the trigger.

He had me dead to rights. There was no dodging, no rolling, nothing I could do. I was helpless.

Mary emerged around the corner, leaping out of the corridor at the sound of the Alder’s body hitting the floor.

Without hesitating, she dropped to one knee and emptied her magazine into Zasekin’s chest. Once shot, four. Zasekin jerked as each bullet roe into his back.

And still his cybernetics kept him alive.

He turned to face Mary, Glock coming up –

I was instantly behind him, mouth near his ear. “You picked the wrong man,” I growled, and drove my knife into his back. Zasekin arched with pain, but I snaked a hand around his throat, cutting off any reply.

I withdrew the knife and stabbed Zasekin again. “You picked the wrong side,” I continued, twisting the knife. Zasekin tried to contort his pistol around to shoot me, but I left the knife protruding from his back and twisted a hand around Zasekin’s, pulling the trigger with his own finger. The bullet blew a chunk out of his remaining foot.

Zasekin began to flail his free arm. His fingers scratched at my arm, at my face, but I pulled my head dispassionately back out of his reach of his grasp.

“Have… mercy…” Zasekin gasped meekly.

“Sorry,” I replied. “Mercy doesn’t live here anymore. Death is more than willing to talk, though.”

Zasekin’s eyes rolled in his sockets, making frantic eye contact with me.

I broke his neck.

The eyes, forever stuck in the pathetic expression, froze in place.

Gravity carried Zasekin’s carcass limply out of my grip.

Mary’s eyes were wide as she lowered her gun. “John…” she said, quietly. “I’m so sorry…”

I stood there, the images flickering through my mind. Lennox, broken. Alder – my best friend – assassinated. And Zasekin’s face, so dissonant with his action, frozen there.

It was a speaker that came out of nowhere that stopped me before I began to tremble. It spoke in Russian.

Since SICKLE could no longer translate for me over my mask, I looked up at Mary, who knew the language. Her expression was confused. “They’re saying we need to clear the area…. The facility is preparing for a launch in two minutes.”

“A launch?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Mary, starting to trot towards the end of the body-strewn hallway. “You don’t suppose there’s an actual Soyuz rocket on site?”

What? You mean the Ministry has a launch pad? A launch pad?

Mary continued to listen to the voice on the speakers. “Sounds that way. Though, considering all the stuff that’s here, it wouldn’t exactly surprise me.”

“Who’d be leaving right now for space…” I wondered quietly.

My head snapped up. Rage coursed through me, giving me energy anew. “Cutler.”

Mary grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me out of the room. We danced over the bodies, and I scooped up a An-94 and a couple of clips.

This asshole was going to burn.

The winding passage had debris and corpses scattered all over it, from Ministry security forces to the occasional 68th commando. Wherever there were bullet holes or skids blood splattered the stone walls. It was a grim tableau, but we had to press onward.

“Where to?” Mary asked as we came to a fork.

“Don’t follow the red lights,” I noted, pointing to a flashing set of diodes that led along the corridor to the right. “They want people out of here, right?”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “Go towards dangerous situations.”

Shrugging my hand out of her grip, I shouldered the Soviet rifle. “That’s what we do.”

The lights flickered and a tremor ran through the complex. The voice on the speaker intoned again.

“They just finished fueling!” Mary shouted. “We’ve got ninety seconds!”

“Run, go!” I agreed, sprinting ahead, covering each corner rifle first.

Incoming fire bouncing off the walls right before I rounded what could only be the last corner and I had to grab Mary around the waist to keep her from sprinting out into the hallway.

“Careful.” I said. “Even if Cutler’s fleeing up to MIR, he’ll still eave behind some Reapers to guard any access points.

Mary nodded, and leapt out into the hallway anyway. She fired twice, and three bodies hit the floor.

“You were saying?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

I didn’t answer, instead moving forward… to see the most massive room I had ever seen. It wasn’t so much a room as a missile silo, sixty meters across. Numerous catwalks encircled the silo, which was opened to the night sky above. Where a missile would normally lie a sleek white rocket sat instead. Steam curled up from above.

“Let’s go!” shouted a voice from below. It was Cutler. “We’ve got a minute!”

I dashed forward to the railing and saw, a story down, Cutler his men loading themselves into an open port in the rocket. I could see the faint outline of BLACK strapped down in a cargo bay behind the seats.

Cutler saw me, and swore. He spun to his men. “Get on, go, GO!!”

The Reapers dived into the rocket as a voice began to count down over the speakers.

Adrenaline pumping, I leapt over the railing to the catwalk below that connected the walkway to the rocket.

The thirty-foot hatch to the rocket began to close. Cutler, torn between engaging me in a fight and fleeing, screamed “Shit!” I turned to run, firing his pistol wildly over his shoulder at me.

Bullets whizzed past as I landed – on my injured leg. I fell at exactly the wrong angle and crumpled, yelping in pain as the agony torn through the E-Meds.

The hatch was only four feet from shut now, moving gradually over to the left side, sliding inexorably.

Cutler sprinted forward, trying to slide through the gap before it was too late.

I lifted my An-74 with one hand and let loose impotently, unleashing a wild spray in Cutler’s direction.

A round skimmed off Cutler’s arm, leaving a curve of red over the Soyuz. His face was momentarily shocked, but then he was gone, the hatch slammed shut behind me.

“Thirty seconds!” shouted Mary as she leapt down behind me. Looping arms underneath my shoulders, she began to drag me backwards. I could hear the whine of the rocket’s engines priming, it was all consuming…

“There!” said Mary. “There’s an oversight room thirty meters away! We can lock ourselves in there in time, but only if you run for me, John!”

I almost said “I can’t…” but I bit my tongue. I was a United States Marine. I did not tire. I did not stop.

Pushing the pain to a corner of my mind where my grief over Alder and Lennox’s deaths resided, I pulled myself up, galloping forward with an awkward trot to a open set of blast doors.

“Twenty!” growled Mary. “Run faster!”

We dashed with all speed humanly possible forward, we rolled into the control room. Kicking the humongous metal door shut behind us with strength I never thought she had, Mary rolled over, diving wildly towards the control panel that sat beneath a viewing window that had to be a foot thick. Her eyes scanned frantically over the button before he found a lever marked with bright red markings.

“I can’t abort the launch!” she said. “But I can activate the room’s safeties!” Pulling the lever downward, she was rewarded with a thunk from the door.

The speaker started counting down from ten (hell, I knew at least that much).

I could only sit up and watch at the rumbling intensified.

“Tree, Dva, Raz…”

The world started to shake itself apart as the rocket gradually heaved itself out of the silo with a plume of fire and exhaust. It slid slowly past before whitewashing the world and obscuring the window.

I collapsed against a wall, heaving breaths. “They got away,” I said. “They got away!” I slammed my fist back against the wall.

“Hey,” Mary said. “There was nothing you could do. It’s not exactly as though you could have leapt onto the rocket and tackle it down before it reached orbit. Sometimes there are things that are impossible even for the greatest of men.”

I buried my face in my hands, running my fingers back through my hair.

“What now?” I asked.

Silence. Mary collapsed into a rolling chair, a couple of fingers massaging her temples. I imagined she had a pretty nasty headache after what Storm had done to her.

And then the radio mounted on the control panel buzzed to life. “Hello? Hello? This is Nadya Kiralova, calling for any men or women still loyal to the Union. Anyone, respond.”

Mary turned to me. “Do you want to answer that?”
Last edited by Mobius 1 on Thu Sep 17, 2009 5:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Siege »

Mobius 1 wrote:Who is DA MAN.
I don't think this needs answering, really. Man, oh man. I think the phrase 'roller coaster ride' applies here. The action just doesn't stop! What I probably like best is the characterization of Baylor -- just when you think he's just a typical smooth-talking actionhero you get a scene like with Sechalin and you realize he goes a bit deeper than that. And of course... "Shut the fuck up!" is the best thing to say to a power-hungry Marshal.

I have to say though that Lennox' durability was a bit odd to me for a while there: for example he manages to vault over seats and drive a high-speed chase through the streets of Moscow after being horrifically tortured. He's a badass, sure, but that was a bit much... Then again, in the end he didn't make it through the chapter either, so I guess that's addressed. In contrast the death of Alder surprised me very much; I didn't see that coming. Although of course everyone knows that if you've frozen a cyborg in nitrogen you need to kick and shatter him ASAP ;).

All things considered this was a very, very awesome installment (the word 'chapter' doesn't do it justice). I'm looking forward to the next one... Moonraker!
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Post by Booted Vulture »

Daaaam. You put a 'your mom' joke in. And a 'in soviet russia...' And you killed off Alder? You bastard! What is it with you and killing of character with a cyborg arm through the chest?

John Baylor has big brass testes. His reasoning for not going over to wraith was quite amusing. It's not because he likes America but he likes Kiralova's Russia. Cool.

Oh and as I mentioned on MSN; the line;"Alexis and I had become close friends," should totally be code for; "I got laid but am too much of a gentlemen to mention it' even in my internal monologue'

BV -shipping it Baylarr :P,
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Post by Siege »

Getting jiggy with a woman who can effortlessly punch through tank armor with her bare hands is quite dicey, methinks :).

Oh, another thing I really liked was the sheer number of 'upgraded' characters milling about. It really gives the impression that the world is changing rapidly -- and for people like Baylor, peak-human black operators as they may be, it can be pretty challenging to deal with that.

PS: This just occurred to me... It's a long shot but depending on how that super serum works, I suppose we might not have seen the last of Alder yet after all ;).
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Post by Mobius 1 »

It'd be a far cry from the Wolverine-level healing one could get from the Aduro formula in TE, methinks.

OTOH, Soviet surgery and cybernetics being what it...
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Post by Siege »

Well yeah... He died pumped full of super-stims, in the middle of a SICKLE brain room, with some kind of super cyber interfacing mask thing on his head. If we really wanted I'm sure we could stage a resurrect, virtual or otherwise ;).
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »

Oh man. This was, like, just the greatest thing... EVER.

Oh, goddamn.

Man. Oh man.


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Post by Mobius 1 »

The third act was sixty pages with at least twenty more to go when I decided to make this split. Oh, and the sword fight? Totally incoporated Orph's COMIX sword styles. Props. Gotta head out to my Super Bowl Party.

Act Three

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

- The Second Coming, William Yeats


My name is John Baylor. I’m a pretty down-to-earth guy. I have this little apartment in DC – it’s sparse, mostly because I’ve spent all of a hundred days in it over the past five years. Ordinarily I’m traveling across the world, going where my job takes me. I got to spend a couple years in space, but considering the booming space tourism industry, it’s not that impressive, right?

Sure, I’m a United States Marine Corps Captain. Sure I’m in Force Recon. Sure I’ve been a Helljumper, a Space Marine, a Starbolt. I’ve dropped at supersonic speeds through the atmosphere into the smoking nuclear craters.

Sure, I’m a Force Recon Commander. I only really got the position after overseeing the assassination of the previous company, personally putting a bullet into the brain of the unit’s commander.

Sure, I’ve fought people on both sides of the line. There’s a grey area everywhere, and it all gets muddled when the General who tough you everything you know is about to kill you. Or, six years later, when the Air Force sends articulated power armor to rip you in half.

Sure, I’ve seen things regular Joes don’t see but in movies. I’ve seen honest-to-god superheroes wrestling with monsters from beyond the outer gates. I’ve seen and confronted the darkest secrets of my own country. And I’ve seen honest men die in the worst ways imaginable.

Sure, I’ve done things people will never do. I’ve blown up invisible mecha, I’ve beaten cyborgs in hand to hand combat, I’ve traded barbs with the world’s only smart AI, I’ve escaped a nuclear fireballs inches from the flames. I’ve talked with Comrade Hammer, had dinner with Star and Stripes, raced motorcycles with Agent Jack Ridley. I’ve told a megalomaniacal separatist marshal to shut his face. I’ve gotten into a knife fight on top of a speed bullet train while the – yes, that Hand of Lenin – took potshots at me.

I’ve had friends die in my arms.

So, when the former Soviet Premier came on the line with the intent of seeking those still loyal to the Union, I understandably took it in stride.

“Oh jeez,” I muttered. “What happens when the only people alive in Moscow’s stronghold are two NATO commandos?”

“I can hear you, you know,” said the panel, or, should I say, Kiralova. I jumped.

Grimacing, I sat up; sliding painfully into a rolling chair that sat next to the one Mary had collapsed in. “Er, right. This is Captain John Baylor, USMC, here with Mary MacTaggert, SBS. We just foiled an attempt by a Separatist-allied Spetsnaz unit to subvert a SICKLE Brain Room.”

Kiralova gave what sounded suspiciously like a sigh of relief. “Muranov alerted me that he had enlisted the help of Agent Ridley and an American Force Recon platoon, but we hadn’t had any reports on what happened to the commanders when they – you – were abducted in Afghanistan.”

“Well,” I said, cradling my head in my hands. “We escaped from their custody when we hit Moscow and gave chase when we heard they were heading to the Brain Room.”

“And SICKLE?” asked Kiralova with resignation in her voice. “All of Moscow went dark when the uprising began.”

“It… she sacrificed herself so we could kill the Spetsnaz. The room’s trashed.” I braced myself. “Ma’am, several of my men died defending SICKLE. There was no other way.”

There was a pause. “Downing SICKLE was actually the best thing to do under the circumstances. The Union is forever indebted to your sacrifice… but we’re not out the woods yet.”

“Sechalin’s still running free?” Mary asked, sitting up groggily.

“He fled to MIR when the Moscow Uprising began. The Marshal intends to direct his coup from the heavens, where he can control one of the main command nodes of the orbital laser network. The destruction of the SICKLE brain room put a damper on his plans, you see, by slowing down the control network. It takes longer to coordinate volleys, to the point where we could launch an assault on the MIR station before he manages to line up a killing blow.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “He doesn’t know where you guys are?”

“Those still loyal to the government are… well hidden, Captain. Sechalin has a selection of targets that he can only destroy on volley at a time – we are racing against luck and time if we are to destroy MIR.”

“Then why not just launch a nuke and be done with it?” Mary asked. “Wait until he launches a volley and then hit him with an ICBM in the interval.”

“It’s most certainly not that simple,” replied Kiralova. “Sechalin still has control over most of the laser network – we need to down the portions of SICKLE he controls in their entirety. The Marshal has made a tactical mistake in choosing MIR as his headquarters, it’s almost certainly the easiest Brain Room to assault.”

“Easy being a relative term, of course,” I said.

“Compared to a mountain range guarded by robotic tanks and a base on the Moon, almost certainly yes. I have four entire divisions assaulting that position. That is not to say such a plan is not without tremendous risk. MIR depends mainly upon drone fighters coordinated by SICKLE for point defense, as well as a pinpoint short-range laser grid. The thing is, the grid doesn’t cover any space inside fifty kilometers. If we lay down enough ECM, we can insert past the PD-grid.”

“Sounds just crazy enough to work,” Mary noted. “You throw all the fighters you’ve got at MIR and hope to get a nuke inside the laser picket. Thing is, firing a nuke at that range is a guaranteed suicide mission.”

“Which is why I’m not firing a nuke at all. Remember, we need to down SICKLE in its entirety. I’m organizing a battalion of VDV space marines to perform an orbital insertion onto the station. From there, they can locate the communications center of MIR and set up a direct connection between the portions of SICKLE under my command and those of Sechalin’s. Only then will Sechalin’s trump card be neutered.”

Hrm. Sechalin’s portions of SICKLE were almost certainly fragmented. That was the reason, I surmised, the Marshal hadn’t immediately fired his lasers at Kiralova’s bunker. The rebel AI was probably integrating itself into one workable package right now. We had to catch it while it was still unstable, so Kiralova’s working construct could overwhelm and annihilate it. It was the only way to completely wipe out the rogue AI – no human virus could take down what was essentially the world’s most capable programmer. The only force on the planet capable of downing this AI was Kiralova’s half.

This was getting unwieldy. I vowed to come up with a nickname for the rogue AI after I was done with the meeting.

“It won’t be easy…” I murmured to myself. “Lemme guess. You want us to take part in the assault.”

Kiralova made an assenting noise. “You and your team. You’ve already proven yourself capable, and have extensive training in zero-gee close quarters combat. You, ironically, have my country’s best interests at heart, something I can’t say for other countrymen.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, bite me. We’re expendable Americans.”

“That too,” Kiralova said, verbally communicating a shrug. I could practically see her eyes glimmering over the stupid radio. “We have shuttles on the way to pick you and your platoon up on the south lawn. Be ready in two hours.” She snapped off the comm.

“Yes, mom,” Mary snorted as she stood up. “You trust her?” she asked, turning to me.

“Not as far as I could throw her. But I’m not going to sit around while the fate of the USSR is decided over our heads.”

Mary lowered her head. “That’s not your reason.”

I paused, gathering up my pistol and walking towards the door. “You’re right. I’m going to go up to that station and kill every single Reaper I can find.”


Comrade Hammer was waiting for us with the rest of my platoon on the smoking south lawn of the Ministry. Fires rages across the city, and small arms chattered in the distance, but we all knew the true clash was going to be in orbit.

Only half of my platoon remained, all bloodied from house-to-house fighting as they worked their way across Moscow. PFC Fender was there, as well as Sergeants Fletcher and Bateau, stolen AK-101s slung over their shoulders.

Fender pursed his lips when only Mary dropped off of the gaping crater in the side of the Ministry behind me. “Sir… where’s Sergeant Alder? And Lennox?”

I only shook my head. “Zasekin caught up with us. He murdered them before we managed to kill his Spetsnaz.”

Muranov nodded solemnly. “I am sorry to hear about their deaths, Captain. Alder was a good man.” He turned to a Soviet soldier that had tracked up the front lawn to nod to the cyborg. “Get the technocrats inside the facility. Perhaps there may be some way to assist Captain Baylor in his time of need.”

“What?” I asked, looking up. “Wait, what?”

“Pay no heed, Baylor,” Muranov said. “Kiralova told me that you are to be at the forefront of the orbital assault.”

“Er, yeah,” I said. “What’s the ETA on those shuttles?”

“100 minutes,” Muranov responded instantly.

“Alright, then,” I said, turning to my squad. “Sechalin is holed up in MIR, commanding a huge portion of the SICKLE Brain network. From there, he plans to use the orbital laser network to wipe out all the loyalist opposition. Fortunately, Sechalin was too busy going ‘gee whiz, I’m in space!’ to realize we actually have a fighting chance in assaulting MIR.

“However, here’s where he come in. Kiralova can’t just launch a nuke at MIR – Sechalin could get away, and either he or his subordinates would still control their portion of SICKLE. So we and the Soviet space marines – let’s hope they’re as badass as their name – are making a hot landing on MIR so we can locate the communications room and hook up the only force capable of punching out Sechalin’s AI – the loyalist section of SICKLE. We’re on a time limit here, men. As soon as that evil AI integrates itself, it’s going to blast away the legitimate Russian leadership. Essentially, we’re Red Squadron making the assault on the Death Star before it hits Yavin.” A few men smiled at the metaphor. It was true enough. I gestured to Muranov. “You guys’ll be supplying the guns, right?”

“Indeed,” said Comrade Hammer. “Laser carbines and revolvers, as well as thermal lances for close quarters work.”

I nodded, satisfied. The Soviet’s pew-pew laser guns were hell on wheels for fights in space, working off of large twelve-point-five-millimeter charge shells for each shot. They were virtually recoilless, and were specifically formatted to demolish a spacesuited op-for soldier while not being able to penetrate the skin of the spacestation on which the fighting was taking place. The Lances were meant to circumvent that drawback, originating as lockpicking devices (‘picking’, in this context, being ‘annihilating’) before soldiers realized how quickly zero-gee shootouts devolved the close-quarter brawls. It was easier to draw a Lance than to reload your empty revolver or rifle.

Still, I had based most of my career on pointing out the ridiculous. “Wait. Thermal Lances? We never had that problem with SpaceCav, why do you Ruskies need swords?”

Hammer shrugged. “I wish I knew. I tend to just fire missiles at a problem until it’s solved. That’s half the reason I won’t be accompanying you and your men on this mission.”

“Great,” Mary muttered, slouching.

More Russian loyalists began to congregate on the south lawn. It looked to be something of a rallying point. I actually recognized a couple of them from my SpaceCav days. Muranov called over a small team of medics to patch up my team. I redirected two or three to my more wounded men before Mary fixed me with a stern glare. “John,” she whispered. “You’re no used to your men if you collapse halfway through the battle.”

She was right, of course. The serum I had injected in the Brain Room was the only thing holding me together, and it was more of a pain suppression and energy boost than a healing touch. Massaging my temples, I let a medic examine the bullet wound in my leg before turning back to Comrade Hammer.

“I need to know where we’re touching down and the planned route in. You have a map, right?”

Muranov nodded. “I can fly, sidestep missiles, throw tanks, and present office presentations. All-in-one.”

Well, at least someone had a sense of humor. Whatever snark I wielded when this had all started had slowly waned as fatigue and the horror of the last few days had sunk in.

Hammer rolled a wrist, and two small lenses – one on each shoulder – began to trace a rotating, 3D image of MIR in the air between him and me.

I wasn’t going to lie. MIR may not have been perfectly spherical, but it was doing its damndest to impersonate the Death Star. It was easily a half mile wide, a massive jumble of spinning rings, dozens of modules, two hangars filled to the brim with drone fighters, even more racks mounting yet more drones, hundreds of turrets, while the auxiliary solar panels extended its girth to what was most likely a full mile. Nestled in the center of it all was the respective heart and brain or MIR: the heavily armored fusion reactor and the SICKLE core. I knew from my briefings back in my SpaceCav days the station’s CiC surrounding the nucleus of the station like an innermost ring of electrons, with barracks, secondary generators, laboratories, and hangars gradually extending outward. Each ring spun on its own accord, giving MIR a chaotic look. If not for the panels, MIR would have been the USSR’s attempt at building a giant atom.

Entire squadrons of drones flittered to and fro like gnats around the station, the glow of their drives the only the identifying them in the black of space.

I nodded. We had run dozens of hypothetical assault plans on MIR back when I served on StarBase One, and now I was going to live it. I traced a finger through the diagram. I was going to reveal classified battle plans that the US probably would have killed me for revealing, but I doubted I was going to survive the next few hours – but then again, neither would MIR. “I had always planned on, barring P/D, inserting inside the twelfth ring, past the outer, thirteenth ring. We would follow the ring around to here –“ I noted where axis where the ring connected down through the ninth ring. “-where we could exit back out and avoid a checkpoint on the eighth ring. Am I right so far, Muranov?”

Hammer grunted the affirmative. The gravely, electronic sound came across as incredibly dangerous from the cyborg’s mouth. “You had planned your assault well, Captain. Though I should note it would be better exit on the tenth ring – there is a transfer point-“ he noted a spar extended from the center of the station, always spinning so that it never once connected any of the thirteen rings. It was a marvel of engineering, a testament to the calculating mind that resided at the center of the station. “-down the communications spire to the fifth ring. From there, it’s a straight shot to the communications room at the base of the spire.”

“It’ll be the most heavily defended point in the station, obviously,” I mused. “Sechalin will have men manning the P/D, because he wants all of his AI’s attention on pulling itself together. Which means what minimal forces he has to actually repel boarders will be stationed at that airlock. I would bet a hundred bucks, rubles, whatever, that the Reapers will be waiting for us with everything they can get their hands on.”

“Flashbangs it is,” said Fender, helping a fireteam of Russian paratroopers manhandle a couple weapon lockers towards are position on the hill. Kicking open one locker, he inspected a belt of ten flash grenades. I nodded. The explosion of bright light was incredibly dangerous in zero-gee combat, where you had the potential of overloading your enemy’s polarization software and crashing their suit’s computer for a few seconds.

A massive logistics van pulled up a few seconds later. Technicians rolled up the sides of the van’s cargo bay and began passing out the iconic Russian mass-produced spacesuits. They brought a new meaning to one-size-fit-all, and, as I slipped on the jumpsuit Bateau passed me, I felt the ankle and wrist locks spin down and lock onto the boots and gloves I put on a second afterward. I oversaw Fender as he passed out ammo bandoliers and firearms to my men – each marine received a compact and wicked-looking laser carbine that looked all the world like a semiautomatic shotgun, with an ammunition tube that ran underneath the focusing barrel. After that came a massive revolver in a hip holster that was essentially a .50 caliber handcannon. The thermal lance was belt over the back, giving me the impression I was impersonating a ninja. After a moment’s hesitation, I belted my one remaining kukri to the thigh opposite the revolver, vowing to personally take my other blade back from Cutler’s grip.


I ran over Loyalist comm frequencies and weapons drills with my squad until the shuttles arrive from Sary Sagan. It didn’t take long. They were long, flat bullets that looked like someone had taken the space shuttle orbiters of the 1980s and pancaked them. A quintet of them settled on a demarcated LZ on the south lawn and dropped their rear hatches, doing their best to impersonate minivans.

Before I joined my squad on the shuttle, Muranov passed me a palm reader. “I found the files you wanted, Captain. Hope your plan works out.”

I clasped hands with Hammer. “It might be the only way to infiltrate Sechalin’s inner compound. You sure about the accuracy of this intel?”

Hammer crossed him arms and gave me a cold look, a slight smile playing around him features. “Are you questioning the KGB?”

“Well, yeah, aren’t they on Sechalin’s side?”

The cyborg shrugged. “We had backups. SICKLE pulled down everything she could download before parts of her started coming online.”

“Assuming STYX hasn’t corrupted them.”

Mary, passing by me with her helmet slung under one arm, quirked an eyebrow at me. “STYX?”

“I figured the ‘good SICKLE’/’evil SICKLE’ was a bit unwieldy, so I found something suitably threatening.” I turned back to Hammer. “It’s a gamble, in the end. At worst I distract them over the comm channels.”

Hammer barked a massive laugh. “Of your ability to thoroughly annoy them, I had no doubt. Break a leg, John.”

“Stay frosty,” I said, as the hatch closed between us.

Passing by my marines as they locked themselves into the crash harnesses, I located a seat near the umbilical connection on the right side. Mary took the seat across from me and donned her helmet. I snapped mine on and saw the familiar Soviet HUD flash over my visor, showing a roster of my Marines and their individual biosigns.

“Integrity check,” I called over TEAMCOM. Twelve green status lights blinked. I stowed my rifle in the molded plastic holster mounted on the bulkhead to my left – still within immediate reach – and gave a thumbs up to the crew chief. The ship’s internal pressure light over the rear bay flashed from red to green, and a second later I felt the slight rumble under the seat of my pants as the shuttle lifted off.

Fletcher knocked Fender on the shoulder and passed him a battered disc. Accepting it, the young marine slotted the CD into a player. Crazy Train began thumping in a speaker on my ear. I took out the datapad and began speed-reading the dossier contained on it.

I felt the gravity begin to grasp my innards, squeezing for all it was worth as the flight of shuttles began their exit burn. I grasped the handles on my harness tight and began to take deeeeeep breaths. This was it. There was nothing we, as marines, could do. Everything was in the hands of our pilots.

Flicking over to FLEETCOM, I heard the pilots of our escort squadron drop into formation around us.

“This is Ally Squadron, we’re your shepherds, Red Squadron. Moving forward on formation black.”

I sat up. Tapping into the feed, I opened a private line to the escort’s squadron lead. “Butch? How’d you end up on the Russian job?”

My brother gave a hearty laugh over the direct line. “I was about to ask you the same thing, bro. Heard you busted up that big Lenin statue in Moscow.”

“That wasn’t me!” I protested. “I was just in the area.”

“So you were an accessory,” Butch said. I could practically see him nodding to himself. “Anyway, Kiralova’s calling in all the favors she can get from the special operations community. WEU is hands-off this entire affair, but Ridley and Easly managed to get a massive force up and operating in Moscow before Sechalin’s assault.”

“I know about Ridley,” I said. “He was straight in the field. Must be the first time since BLACKBRIAR.”

“It’s that big,” confirmed Butch gravely. “President Skye has us at top DEFCON and has all but directly authorized your presence. I got my orders straight from her to give you an assist.”

“Five minutes till we have a Line of Sight on the target,” buzzed the pilot of the shuttle over TEAMCOM. “This’ll be bumpy, to put it mildly.”

“What’s the situation, Butch?” I asked.

“The drone waves have just cleared through. There are massive casualties, but that’s why they’re drones. Just as we though, the P/D system is sluggish. We’ve managed to open two – no, three holes in their network.”

“How big are the gaps?”

“Imagine a big door. Now imagine there’s a shaft the size of about width of an atom through it. Yeah, it’s kinda like that.”

Gulp. “Set S-Foils to attack position, then,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Butch. “Okay SICKLE’s uploading our approach vectors… Well, okay.”

“It’s bad?”

“Nothing we didn’t do in our T-16s back home, Luke,” Butch said. “Alright, we’re almost there. Stay frosty. LIQUID out.”

“Stay frosty. PALE HORSE out.”

I opened a TEAMCOM channel to the entire platoon. “It’s time, men. Out there is a madman with his finger on the trigger of half the world’s nuclear arsenal. He’s five seconds from pulling the trigger. But first he had to get his shit together and wipe out the Loyalists. This situation could not be more wrong. I know you’re thinking, why are we defending the Russians, the stability of their government?”

I made eye contact with each man in turn. “The Soviets are not the enemy. The true enemy has been there since the fifties. Men, right now, the true enemy is nuclear war. Right now, the fate of the world literally rests on your shoulders. We’re the head charge, the forlorn hope. I will not lie – the odds stacked against us may very well be insurmountable. But we’re not going to lay down and die, no. We’re United States Marines, and we’re here to show the Russians how it’s done. So, rage, rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.”

“Good words, bro,” Butch said.

Well, crap. I had the comm set to FLEETCOM. I’d just spammed every ship within range.

“If the rebs weren’t pissed off before,” Butch noted dryly, “I think they are now.”

The pilot buzzed in. “Alright, strap tight. We’re entering the killzone.”


The pilot flipped open a video feed from the cockpit for my benefit.

It looked like space itself was on fire. Missiles streaked lazy, spiraling contrails as hundreds of starfighters wheeling in personals duels. Traceable lines of autocannon fire traced lines from MIR, so bright as to be visually painful. Wreckage was everywhere – the remains of drones, shuttles, and thousands of the dead souls that had gone before us.

The view banked and rolled; and suddenly we were in thick of it all, the world one gargantuan kaleidoscope of whirling hues. Drones accelerated ahead of us, catching missiles on their pointed noses, and thousands of countermissiles streaked from our shuttle, ripped the horizon open with a titanic ripple-effect of explosion. We actually blew through the fireball, the screen momentarily going orange, before we cleared it and plunged forward.

The ship spun, rolling around the edge of one point defense firing lane, as another shuttle dropped in front of us, raking the enemy drones with a hail of laser fire. A second later, missile decapitated the vessel, and it broke up before my eyes, twisting human forms swept away into the abyss.

“We’re almost there,” remarked the pilot, his voice infuriatingly calm. “We’re almost clear of the defenses, get ready for hookup.”

I gestured to my marines, and they primed the release levers on their harnesses. Hands were near rifles, holding them tight for reassurance. Everyone’s biosigns jiggled wildly – within health parameters, but betraying the roller coaster ride of helplessness they all felt.

The deck bucked, the view spun, and the pilot fought to straighten the shuttle. “Shrapnel took out one engine!” he shouted, suddenly tense. “I’m trying to slow out spin, but ready the ejectio-”

There was an explosion, and his voice went out in the haze of static as the ship bucked. Mary leaned towards the cockpit hallway. Her eyes went wide. “The nose is gone,” she said quietly.

I punched my harness, standing up and engaging the magnetic soles on my boots. “Marines! Make ready for a hot landing!”

Fender leaned over towards a data panel, tapping it several times. “I’ve rerouted auxiliary controls to the console. Good news, we’ll impact MIR. Bad news, I’m not sure I can retard are circular momentum enough to make the impact nonlethal.”

Spinning, I gestured orders to the Marine nearest the rear of the shuttle. The soldier – Banner – slammed a fist into the emergency hatch release. With a silent scream that we all felt in our stomachs, the hatch tore away and disappeared, revealing the crazed spiral behind us, before the view was replaced with MIR, and the battle again.

“Fifty kilometers!” Fender shouted as he worked frantically with the panel.

“Soldiers, get aft!” I screamed.

The panel near Fender exploded, hurling the Marine across the hold into a nearby bulkhead. He spun hazily to his feet, shaking his head to clear the blood that had splattered his helmet. The ship’s spin came to a gradual halt as massive stress lines popped across the superstructure, groaning and pinging in seismic shocks.

“Good news,” Fender said, “we’re not spinning. Bad news, we’re still going too fast. I wasn’t able to key an approach vector into the computer before the panel exploded.”

“Alright!” I yelled. “Ready your jetpacks! Set the shielding gel to maximum!” If we managed to get clear of the ship and control our approach, we may be able to limit casualties. I glared at the hull, trying to will it to hold itself together. It didn’t work.

The other engine detonated, sending the shuttle back into a wild spin. Banner and three Marines were sucked out into the vortex. No more time. I slaved the jumppacks of the platoon through mine and made whirling motions towards the open hatch. “Jump! Marines, go, go, GO!”

Mary grabbed my shoulder harness – and we jumped.

The shuttle spun away beneath us, shearing a trio of antennas off the massive communications spire of MIR before being swiped away by a missile.

I rolled in zero-gee, firing my jets as my HUD recognized my marines spread in a wide circle around me. Two were missing, their biosigns simply nonexistent. One was dead, two pieces of his corpse whirling separately. Five kilometers, at best. Too fast, too fast.

My jetpack groaned, fighting to bring me into a survivable vector. For a second, it looked like it was succeeding. My velocity bled off – and then a hose burst, sending me whirling away, towards the edge of the formation. MIR loomed in my sight, filling my vision, rushing up to meet me. There was a burst of red, and then black.


My radio buzzed, a burst of static in my ear. Crazed screams began echoing through my helmet. This close, there was no encryption to the Soviet comm channels. My squad, using an American frequency, could hear the Russians, but couldn’t hear us. The only other people who could hear us were-

“Reapers,” Cutler’s cold voice hissed. “Spread out. Kill the survivors. Single shots.”

Someone had painted my field of vision of red. I shook my head, which screamed in protest, and the hue cleared somewhat. And then I realized the rest of the crimson was flecks of blood. I had broken my nose. Again.

I looked around. Unconscious marines were spread out around me. Their lifesigns were acceptable, but they all had been coldcocked by the impact. The gel pressurization had sized their lives. And then I saw the beams of the Reapers flickering out over the curve of the ring.

We were on the tenth ring, with two spinning halos above us. My marines were spread in a tight arc over the tenth and ninth rings. Two were dead, one was crippled, his bones pulverized.

There. Two Reapers were in view, sprinting with magboots – no mean feat- across the hull towards our prone forms. My rifle was nowhere to be found, so I reached slowly towards the lance on my back, hiding my movements. My muscles burned painfully, but I readied myself as the Reapers approached.

I gripped the hilt of the thermal lance tight in my hand, driving the tip into the hull of the station as I wobbled to my feet.

The first of the flying Reapers reached me, bringing his revolver to bear.

I swung my sword around in an arc, taking off his hand. Blood crystallized in space as the commando reeled back. I pivoted on one foot, reversing my grip and slamming my back into the disabled foe. I twirled the sword and shoved it under one arm, impaling him.

I began to backpedal rapidly, kicking off the body and sending it flying into its companion. The second commando flailed under the impact, and I calmly drew my revolver and shot him into the face.

Gazing back at my marines, I navigated through the HUD’s interface with practiced eye-blinks, directing each suit to inject a small amount of stimulant to get my soldiers back on their feet.

“Marines! Stop napping!” I yelled over TEAMCOM.

A circular airlock swiveled open twenty feet ahead of me and separatist regulars began spilling out. Marines behind me groaned, pushed themselves up, and swore, readying their rifles.

I dived as a firestorm erupted over my head.

The Separatists were blown away.

“Hey Chuckles!” I yelled over the comm. “You ready?”


Bateau jogged up to my side, reloading his carbine reflexively. “Fender’s two stories down and trapped in a firefight between the Reapers and Spetsnaz.”

Not good. Fender carried the uplink, through which we could connect SICKLE to STYX.

I nodded, getting to my feet. We needed to save the young Marine. “Squad, form up!” I shouted. Motioning in gesture to Bateau, we switched the platoon’s comm frequency to a special station used specifically by the Icelandic military. What, Iceland doesn’t have a military? Well then. Keep that in mind. “We’re going to extract Fender from that shootout downstairs. I’m not leaving any Marine behind. The mission depends on him. Hooah.”

“Hooah!” shouted the men in unison.

Fletcher rolled up towards the open airlock, hooking a cable to an external access point and dropping a flash grenade through the portal. With a flick of his wrist, he cycled the channel closed, before opening it back up again. “Let’s go, hot entry!” he yelled. “That won’t keep them down for long!”

With marines on either side, we descended into the belly of the beast.

Fletcher cycled the airlock quickly, dumping us into the half-gee environment of the station. Separatists writhed on the floor around us, clutching at their helmets. Bateau’s organized fireteam put them out of their misery.

“Alright, quickest way down,” I said, glancing at the schematic map taped to my wrist. The map was coded in with a futuristic super-dense text that my HUD read and translated into a meter-wide floating, three-dimensional map. We were a quarter spin from a connecting brace that held the tenth and ninth rings together. “We take the hallways down towards this lift,” I said, sending them map to everyone’s visors. “From there we march to the comm tower and get a floor down.

The lights flickered dangerously. I glanced up. The Loyalists couldn’t be shelling us, could they?

The panels flickered red, a blood-clot tracing its way down the hallway.

Laughter echoed somewhere in the distance.

“And now back to our regularly scheduled nightmare,” I said. “Stay focused, men. We’re not leaving Fender alone. Move out.”

We passed through a laboratory; the lights dark save for blue guide lights marking the path through the floor. The room was wide, stretching the full depth of the ring. Glass glittered and the occasional robotic arm turned, almost human-like, watching our silent passing.

The stuttered laughter could be heard again. I paused.

And then the light above the door on the other end of the lab went green, and the hatch slid open to reveal a full squad of suit separatists.

“Take cover!” I screamed, diving behind a sturdy looking lab bench. Lasers buzzed over my head in the atmosphere, sizzling the air as they sliced past. “Fletcher!” I called. “Flank them!”

Fletcher gave a thumbs up and led his squad down the left walkway of the lab, covered by a long row of wall-to-ceiling storage lockers.

I slotted a laser cartridge into the empty slot on my revolver and then dived across the central path, firing twice, dropping two enemies before rolling across to Bateau’s side.

Watching Fletcher’s progress, I saw a bank of robotic arms start waving wildly as he passed by them. A Soviet gave a shout, and called the attention on his squad to Fletcher’s group, who had been unnoticed up to that moment.

Bateau pursed his lips as he reloaded his carbine. “They gave away his position.”

“Take out the cameras,” I growled, pointing at black globes that dotted each corner of the large room.

Bateau motioned to his men, who spun and shot out the robotic eyes within seconds.

A flash grenade arced over our heads and rebounded into my lap. I shared a shocked look with Bateau before grabbing the grenade and shoving it into a nearby cupboard. The storage drawer thumped with heavenly light. Close one.

I motioned to Mary, who crouched-walked to my side, rifle shouldered. “There are about eight regulars left. Fletcher has them distracted – their right flank is open.”

She nodded. “Let’s smash it.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Motioning Bateau’s men forward, I ran, slouched over, up the right hallway. None of the robotic arms noted my presence, but my honed soldier’s instincts prickled the hairs on the back of my neck. I slid my heels to a halt and saw the source of my anxiety. I had almost run over a directional mine – a trap meant to cover the separatist’s exposed flank.

The nearest separatist popped up from cover and took in the situation with a smile.

I dived down a cross-corridor as Mary shot the very corner of the mine. The impact flipped the explosive from its precarious mount, sending it spinning in zero-gee to face the soldier. There was a high-pitched beeping that transcending into one shrill tone before the mine blew the soldier into meaty chunks.

“Go, go!” I shouted. Bateau’s men poured into the disarray caused by the explosion. It was over in seconds.


We exited the blood-soaked lab to immediately take a right turn into the series of junctions that connected us down to the ninth ring. Fletcher’s men shot out the cameras as we went. It was obvious from the trail of dead surveillance where we were, but any soldiers following us would appreciate our efforts.

A squad of loyalist space marines greeted us as the junction to the ninth ring. Their commander, Volkner – an East German Lieutenant, gave me a brief nod as we silently agreed to group our forces.

“We have a man pinned down on the eighth ring.” I said. “He has our uplink box.”

Volkner looked grim. “That’s where the majority of the melee is. About ten combat cyborgs are holding the atrium outside the earthside hangar. It’s a massacre.”

“What about your uplink?” Mary inquired.

The lieutenant made a cutting motion with his free hand. “Half our squad was slaughtered by a party that came out of the twelfth ring. Couldn’t see much, but they weren’t wearing Separatist colors. All I saw was the scarred man with the blade. He seemed to soak up bullet like a sponge.”

So my guess was right. Storm was here. And that meant…

“Did they behave in a noticeable way, tactically?” I asked.

Volkner appeared puzzled for a moment before understanding what I was asking. “Now that you mention it, they weren’t moving like an assault party. They were far too cautious – their cyborg only retaliated if pressed. It’s like… they were protecting someone.”

The bottom fell out of my stomach.

Malcolm Stavro Kroner was on MIR. The most wanted man in the entire world. The leader of WRAITH. Armed by the most dangerous bodyguards money could buy. Himself a master in a fight. Ruthless. Cunning. A magnificent bastard by all accounts.

He had come calling, to oversee his investment with Sechalin personally. The fact that loyalist forces had boarded MIR didn’t bother Kroner in the sense of personal safety, but the mastermind undoubtedly would hold it as proof that Sechalin couldn’t uphold his end of the deal. Kroner’s presence could turn the battle around, with Storm and whatever other mercenaries Kroner had brought into the fight.

And then there was SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK, still prowling somewhere on the station. The enormity of the situation weighed in on me. Simply getting aboard MIR had been the simple part. Now came the true challenge. Cutler. Storm. Sechalin. The mercenaries. The Reapers. Combat cyborgs. Kroner. BLACK.

I was going to kill every single one of them.

I slowly began reloading my revolver. “The cyborgs are focused on stemming the tide of Loyalists. If we can hit them while they’re distracted, we might be able to break their lines long enough to sneak past them. After all, these pratts are the kind to stand out in the open and scythe through their opposition instead of taking cover and picking off anyone who comes close. It lets them use their speed, their reflexes to their advantage where they can literally read the battle.” I looked at Volkner, who nodded.

“The cyborgs may be able to block lasers, but once we get past that trick their strategy is also their greatest weakness. They’re not behind cover…” I trailed off, a plan forming in my mind.

Fletcher knew me well enough to recognize it when I was forming a plan that would most likely get everyone killed. But in a good ‘this-plan-is-so-crazy-it-just-might-work’ sorta way, not the ‘my-commander-is-a-moron’ sort of way. “Boss? Care to share?”

I nodded and felt that familiar grin slide onto my face. “Alright, here’s the idea…”


This was a retarded plan.

Crouched behind a parked drone fighter – it had apparently been under maintenance when the entire war had begun and never gotten off the hangar deck – I affixed the explosive charges supplied by Volkner’s specialists. Bateau, crouched nearby, kept a vigilant watch on the camera sweeps and the carnage perpetrated by the cyborgs not ten meters away.

Bateau stared hawkeyed at the sweeping camera in a top corner of the hangar. Its brother had been annihilated by a stray laser earlier in the melee, and STYX was obviously working double-time to create meaningful coverage with the remaining surveillance it had. Should it see me and my group planting the charges it would alert the cyborgs and they’d swipe our heads from our shoulders before my Marines could say “hands up, Jedi.”

Connecting the charge wires to the detonator and programming the remote signal to a button on the bottom of my gauntlet hidden near my wrist, I silently gave a thumbs up to my Sergeant. He sat silent for an interminable period before counting down on one hand. I tensed, pivoting on my haunches. Now came the crazy part of the plan.

Bateau’s fingers counted from one to a closed fist and we both dove forward under the empty mounting rack of a departed drone before going to a swift crouching spring as the camera surely nipped at our heels. The small vent used by the dog-sized service robots hung open, shrouded from sight. I knew about six techs crouched on the other end of the shaft, working rapidly to cycle the signals from the pressure pads and to disable the laser mines that had been activated as a safety measure. Bateau and I had needed to run through the corridor in less that five seconds – it was literally all the time the technicians could keep STYX’s oppressive presence from noticing the cycling.

“Go,” I mouthed as we reached the opening. “Now it’s all me.”

He froze and gave me a horrified look, eyes wide.

I gave him a small smile. “I’m not going to sacrifice myself, man. Just… going to bring everything to a head.”

There was a short pause, and then Bateau nodded.

“Be ready for my signal.” I said.

He nodded a second time, gave me a thumbs up, and disappearing into the dark duct.

I turned silently and stood, drawing my thermal lance in an ignition of purple fire as the plasma reacted violently with the atmosphere. It was a signal flare – not a funeral pyre, I forced myself to think, injecting confidence into every fiber of my being – that drew all the eyes in the blood-soaked hangar to me and my blade.

Six combat cyborgs stood in a loose line, gore, body parts, blood, and scorch marks painting the steel floor a dozen meters in every direction. Their armor was light – in fact, save for the gas masks latched to their belts, unworn, they were wearing plain worker’s jumpsuits that were probably chosen for ease of movement over anything else. They weren’t even wearing the customary magnetic boots, so as to maximize speed of movement.

I flicked my saber in a salute to the stunned soldiers, taking advantage of their momentary shock of a lone marine stepping forward in a manner so divorced from the previous assaults.

Somewhere behind them was Fender, having stashed himself away in a nook – his lifesigns still marked him as alive and well.

I made eye contact with each angel of death in turn before raising my voice for all to hear.

“Malcolm Stavro Kroner! Come out behind your henchmen and your cronies. Come and face what you have wrought! Come out and let us lay out the truth of this twisted web of lies! I challenge you, Chairman of WRAITH. Stand against me! In front of these witnesses, your pawns, I demand your audience!”

I drew out the second thermal lance I had taken from Bateau, ignited it, and clashed the blades together in a titanic detonation of sparks.

“This all ends now!”


I should do theater. My show had been just ludicrous enough that the few snipers behind the cyborgs had their rifles lowered, faces bemused.

My train of thought was somewhat complex, to say the least. This was easiest the most unsupported gambit I had ever taken. It all operated on Kroner’s personality and position.

The WRAITH Chairman was born of a well-established European bloodline – it was his funds that helped organize the original form of the cabal. It was his twisted idea of honor that made him such a constant in the criminal underworld since the seventies – no matter what his opinion on the ends always justifying the means, his word was worth its weight in gold. He always upheld his deals, providing WRAITH with legitimacy that more apocalyptic groups never seemed to possess.

He wouldn’t turn down a challenge to his face. Despite the fact that I had just caught him in them midst of a broken deal. The image, I had deduced, did not match the reality.

WRAITH had joined up with Sechalin to enact vengeance on Chaos Farley and the American General’s attempt to renege on the decades-long deal the American conspiracy had with WRAITH. With his business cut off, Kroner had turned to backing a different horse with the intention of violently spiting the Americans – after all, his partnership with Farley had been what had kept American free of the terrorist attacks that had plagued the USSR since the Moscow 9/11 attacks.

Kroner intended to use Sechalin gambit at the Soviet leadership as a method to induce global chaos. Bring the world to the brink – not only would the US suffer, but business for WRAITH would enter a golden period. The world would descend into chaos. However, Kroner also knew Sechalin was a tad off his rocker. The Marshal could and would end up dragging the planet into a nuclear holocaust. And nobody wanted that, least of all Kroner. The man, for sure, wanted global domination as an end goal, but there was not much point in ruling a cinder. No, Kroner instead wanted to maneuver to power in the resulting chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union – and the corresponding overwhelming of the US military apparatus.

After barely escaping the destruction of his Cambodian base of operation by a US airstrike, Kroner had made his one mistake – he was going to oversee the next step of his plan personally. He had intended on arrived just as Sechalin had annihilated the loyalist leadership, essentially decapitating the Soviet Union, before taking the Reapers and Shadow Tempest and assassinating Sechalin while taking control of STYX. I would bet all the gold in Fort Knox that WRAITH had an equal number of moles peppering the Separatist force, mirroring his infiltration of the US special operations command. The transition would be smooth and Kroner would be in complete control.

But Sechalin had botched the defense, and the loyalists were on the verge of destroying STYX. Kroner had to engage his mercenaries in the battle to turn the tide, leaving him critically undefended. Kroner had likely just berated the Marshal for incompetence – never mind the fact that the Chairman himself had overestimated the speed of STYX’s integration. Sechalin himself was probably seconds from deciding to kill Kroner, if he hadn’t planned on betraying the Chairman in the first place.

Now I had just greased the wheels of logic in Sechalin’s mind. He had probably worked through the same process I had and realized the danger Kroner posed. And Kroner knew it, too. He had to act personally, to appear before me, if he was to assuage the situation and potentially save his own skin.

And if he appeared, Kroner, like me, would have to improvise wildly to dig ourselves out of the messes we had both created for ourselves. I would hopefully be able to play everyone like a fiddle – hell, my ego would be vindicated if Kroner just showed up. I was betting my life on the fact.

Storm would probably show up with Kroner. Should things go south and I duck out the way of the initial firestorm, I had my own plan for dealing with the WRAITH mercenary cyborg.

But assuming nothing happening, and all this intrigue came to nothing, I would just fall back to Plan B.

I would blow the doors off the hangar with the explosives I had just planted and vape everyone into hard vacuum. Boom.

Lights began rotating, the way you’d see on a forklift in reverse. Sirens blared.

And the ceiling began to descend.

Of course. It was a hydraulic lift that led up to the maintenance workshop of MIR. Where repairs could be done with a guaranteed atmosphere. But how did drones come and go with the doors open without releasing the atmosphere? There must be some sort of EM field that kept the atmosphere in – I had seen the technology theorized, but did not know if it had actually been put into practice. It had to have been – a large chunk of the reactor’s output would go to the field when it was active – which explained why the drones had been disgorged all at once and why the hangar had not opened since the battle began.

What if I blew the doors and the field snapped up? Oh, shit. We’d all the roasted alive. The idea was to survive the decompression with my mag boots and for all the wreckage and fire to be swept into space.

But I couldn’t communicate the obvious realization to my squad. I was in full view of the camera and STYX could easily read my lips. I could cover my lips with a hand, but any sudden movement would give a sniper an excuse to gut me then and there.

I just hoped that Bateau or Volkner could figure it out without me.

In which case they’d had to sneak in and plant a second set of explosives. In which case I’d need to draw their attention away from whatever action was going on in the background. I’d have to draw this charade out instead of simply triggering the explosives the second I was sure I could cause the greatest damage.

The ceiling descending on hydraulic pistons, one large platform that could easily hold four drones from side to side.

SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK stood and full height upon the lift. It looked no worse for wear after the battle over Moscow, but whoever the pilot was, they didn’t care much for stealth. Cannons on each shoulder rotated and lazily fixed on me.

“John Baylor,” the smooth, cultured voice of Malcolm Stavro Kroner purred in my general direction. The carapace of the torso cockpit hazed into transparency, revealing the WRAITH Chairman at the controls. “Your ability to bite off more than you can manage precedes you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I countered. “Considering every other psychopath that’s engaged me in conversation over the past two days has tried to be my friend. It’s pleasant, dealing with someone who insults you right off the bat.”

Kroner quirked his head to one side. The action was akin to a cat pondering what do with prey within its grasp, utterly inhuman and predatory. The mastermind was a blocky man of imposing height. Dressed in black combat fatigues, he had a square jaw with a goatee that only seemed to emphasize his strong chin, instead of cover up for some a nonexistent deficiency. His nose was straight, his hair short, brown, and spiky. His eyes were what threw him off – I suppose it was the eyes that made the foe – they were each a different color. One was blue and focused, the other was red. It wasn’t cybernetic, but the effect was disconcerting. Kroner could pass for a Terminator any day.

His face remained impassive. “You should know that any procrastination you accomplish here allows my forces to array themselves more adequately just as surely as it does yours.”

Another probing comment, not quite true, and too general to be expected of Kroner. He was probing my responses, trying to triangulate my purpose and intention. He knew I had a plan up my sleeve; he just needed to figure out what it was. It was machine-like, not in any way enhanced by the massive black, grey, and red robot that encased him like a massive modern suit of armor.

I started slowly circling to the right, placing myself with leaping distance of the broken drone fight. Kroner mirrored the move, placing himself between the camera and the vent behind the fighter. Something may have moved behind me, I couldn’t tell. I had given my squad their chance.

And then I saw a black shadow slink down one hydraulic piston on the far side of the lift. Storm.

The cyborg silently kept to the shadows, ghosting towards the edge of the blast doors. I had to adapt, rapidly.

“Akamatsu!” I called, making firm eye contact with the mercenary. The figure stiffened, an odd mechanical quality to his motions, and I frowned. Kroner caught the brief expression and seized upon the weakness.

“This is all very intriguing,” he said, “but I suppose you have some reason I shouldn’t order the cyborgs here to spill your guts on the floor right here and now.”

As opposed to some time in the future, somewhere else? I sighed and pointed to my belt. “Because, if that happens, the belt of vacuum-enhanced grenades I have attached to my biomonitors will give everything in this room.”

Kroner’s eye twitched. I had snuck the belt onto the shuttle and past the load master’s watchful eye, knowing I’d eventually need heavy firepower to destroy BLACK. It had been a simple exercise to program the detonator to sync with my biosigns. I had only armed the belt when I had stepped out into the hangar.

“What if I told you there was a technology that could subvert nano-neurological locks?” I asked Akamatsu, ignoring Kroner.

Akamatsu’s head jerked around at that. I flashed a data disc I had palmed into my hand at him so see could see it clearly. “I’ve read your dossier, man. How you were just a Blue Light guy until Gosely recruited you to become the next Stars and Stripes. How the experimental nanomachines gave you the power to recover from any injury.”

I gestured expansively at Kroner. “How, when Gosely’s cover was blown, she drugged you, stuffed you in a box, and took you to Kroner as collateral for protection from the US manhunt. How she devised a way in which the very nanomachines that gave you your powers could control your actions. How, to this day, you have no free will. You’re a puppet, and he-” I jabbed a lance at BLACK, at Kroner, “-he is the puppetmaster.”

Turning back to Akamatsu, I finished my speech. “Look. Nanomachines aren’t the black tech they were back in the nineties. There are ways past the mental blockers. President Skye is more than willing to give you immunity.”

Kroner rolled his eyes. I got the drift. Should Storm actually try to rebel, Kroner could, at best, erase the traitorous impulses, and, at worst, order the nanomachines inside Storm’s body to eat him from the inside out.

I knew what Kroner’s reaction to the offer would be – I had talked the implications over with Muranov back at the Ministry.

The WRAITH Chairman cleared his throat. “Supposing, for a second, that Storm here actually has the will to plot against me and isn’t doing this for his own pleasure, I have to wonder what kind of complete idiot you take me for? You could have least tried to isolate Storm if you truly wanted to remove any external pressures.”

I stared hard at Kroner, and silent comprehension crept over his face as he read my expression – the slight, psychotic smirk I had cribbed from Cutler.

The idea had been to plant the idea into Storm’s mind.

Which meant I was planning to see him again.

Which meant I had an exit plan for this situation.

Which meant the last thing I wanted was to start a massive firefight, something I had little chance of escaping from when I was exposed like this.

Which meant I wasn’t moving my forces into position. They weren’t moving into attacking positions at all.

Which meant they had been doing something else.

Extracting Fender from behind enemy lines. Planting explosives while Storm was fixated on me. While I stood in front of the camera’s line of sight, blocking its view of the air vents.

BLACK would probably survive. Storm would probably survive. Maybe a couple of the cyborgs.

But I had them all in one spot. And that’s what matters.

Kroner’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. You dick.”

Before he could scramble his controls and smash me against the floor, I rotated my wrist, exposing the detonator pad to the air, and depressed it with two fingers.

Boom Time.


Twin fireballs blossomed in on the edges of the blast doors blooming rapidly overhead as I dropped to my knees. I heard a definite shriek as Kroner instinctively loosed a rocket at me, the projectile swept over my head and impacted the wall behind me. People screamed, blood sprayed my cheek, and I heard the snap-hiss of a half-dozen thermal lances igniting back to life, violently reacting with the atmosphere.

At first I thought the explosion had failed to dislodge the doors.

And then, with a horrendous, torturous scream, the twin panels contorted and tore themselves free of their mountain, whipping out open space. The EM field attempted to grasp at the escaping air, and orange traces trailed into the night before the generators overloaded and exploded, the fires licking weakly as the their air was claimed by the vacuum.

Storm was the first to go, buffeted wildly by the explosions before being whipped instantly out of my line of sight.

All six of the combat cyborgs looked comically at me for a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity before their feet were swept out from under them and the black of space claimed them. They had no magnetic boots.

I did, and laid backward across the deck, spreading my arms wide as my legs crouched underneath me. The Spider-Man pose saved my life a second later as the broken hulk of the fighter drone bounced by over my head, missing me by inches.

Kroner, to his credit, had realized the implications of my plan and had immediately drove claws mounted on BLACK’s feet into the floor. He wheeled in place to face me, bringing a charging laser node to bear on me. I lay there, completely defenseless, and smiled widely at him.

The drone hit BLACK bodily a second later, swiping him from his mount, sending the combined wreckage tumbling out of the bay.

At the last second, when it I was mentally patting myself on the back for such an awesome plan, when it looked most like I’d killed Kroner without having to fire a shot, BLACK contorted and swept out a hand to catch the very lip of the bay. It hung there for a second before vacuum equilibrium was reached in the cavernous bay. And then I saw Kroner give me his own smile as he reached BLACK’s other hand around to haul himself into the bay.

Scrambling, I unhooked my belt of vacuum grenades from around my waist and pulled the string of pins with one silent rip. Look out below.

I dropped the belt, and it fell downward, swept outward by MIR’s centrifugal force… and exploded right in BLACK’s face.

The response was immediate. The grenades had been specialized with a top-secret chemical rocket-fuel mix that carried its own oxidizer for a momentary fireball and concussion in a paradigm for which no there was no medium for either. The blink-and-you-miss-it fireball was a slap in the face to BLACK, and the sheer shock of it sent the mech hurtling away into space.

I just lay there, breathing heavily with exhilaration. The pathway was open to the Brain Room, with Kroner and his retinue dispatched. Fender, though still behind enemy lines, had been recovered by my squad without anyone noticing. They would be circling back now to meet me, or finish off whomever I had left alive in a spectacular suicide plot. I mean, that was crazy.

I rolled, making sure my suit still maintained its integrity, before pulling myself to my feet…

…To find myself facing five new combat cyborgs in full spacesuits, wielding somber purple thermal lances at various angles. The lead cyborg angled his lance to salute me. I should have seen this coming. Sechalin had been watching all along. He had seen my troops moving around in the background, or at least had deduced my intentions, and had sat back long enough for me to remove Kroner – however momentarily – from the picture.

And then, once the chaos in the hangar had died down, he would send in his own team of cyborgs to wipe out the survivors. Hell, the way things were right now, it was perfect for Sechalin. Should Kroner resurface, he wouldn’t be any the wiser that Sechalin had a metaphorical gun trained on his turned back.

I was betting there was some heavy demolitions guy that had been part of the original group to cripple BLACK, but once Sechalin saw the robot swept away, he had just sent in his own cyborgs to take me out.

Fortunately, I had a plan for the original cyborgs, should they had survived the vacuuming of the hangar. These ones would be no different. I hoped. But my experience with Zasekin had given me ideas on how to really screw up a cyborg’s day.

Most of which, my nonexistent common sense assured me, verged on the side of ‘zoh my gawd why are you doing this you won’t live the day you fool.’ But me and common sense aren’t on speaking terms unless he’s helping with his Hercule Poirot epiphanies. But no, I have a plan.

“I’m going to shoot each of you in the face,” I pronounced over an open comm channel, quite clearly. And I threw both my lances at the nearest cyborg.

Though my reaction was less than expected, he managed to parry the first with pathetic ease, slapping the blade away with a laser-quick parry, before ducking under my second sword and exploding upward with a curving strike clearly meant to intercept whatever projectile fire I had come his way and eviscerate me from hip to shoulder.

In the space of time it took for him to duck, I pull free the fifth vial of the Soviet E-Meds I had recovered from SICKLE’s Moscow brain room and jammed it into the injection port on my neck.

No matter how smart I thought and no matter how complacent the cyborgs were, they’d still tear me to shreds with sheer speed and skill before I could so much as blink. So, in my brief consultation with Muranov, I had worked out the last part of my zany – wait, who says zany anymore – scheme – and scheme, scratch that. My totally retarded stalling tactic whose recommendation rested on the shoulders of a guy who had a cybernetic rocket where each butt cheek used to be.

I don’t know too much about computers, but I’ve heard the word overclocking somewhere. It’s a cool word, overclocking; it sounds like your dangerously pushing something past it’s very reasonable limits for some alluring level of extreme performance. Which was exactly what I was doing here. One flask of E-Meds had put me on my feet after having been shot, beat to an inch of my life three times, and having had my damn nose broken at least twice. A second dose, overlapping over the still in-play first? I’d either drop dead of a heart attack right then or there or I’d do my best impression of caffeine bullet time.

Ice exploded in my neck and traced within the span of a heartbeat throughout my entire body, don’t ask me how that was impossible. Where the actions of the cyborg before I injected the serum had been little more than silver blurs, the man now moved as Cutler or any other normal – but skilled – human antagonist would move. And I could handle a bunch of morons who thought the ability to swipe bullets from the air made them immortal. Served Sechalin right for thinking superpowers were a blank check.

I ripped the laser revolver from its holster, cowboy style, and fired from the hip, catching the cyborg in the chest and stopping him in his tracks. Surprise more than pain passed over his face – he had been supremely confident his swipe would block any incoming fire.

But I had figured out his Achilles Heel. His thermal lance depended on the plasma’s violent reaction with the atmosphere to provide a fan of trailing gas in order to refract any incoming laser strike. But there was no air to speak of. He had been open to my pistol as much as any normal person. Indiana Jones that, bitch.

I pivoted on one foot and placed my pistol against his stunned face, pulling the trigger and essentially decapitated it.

The further cyborg leapt into the air, bounded off the ceiling, hoping to come down at me to strike me from the odd angle. No, smite, I’d upgrade the verb to smite.

I neatly sidestepped and swept his smiting arm from his shoulder. And then I placed a boot against his chest and picked, sending the cyborg flying. He may have been in the air, but once he was in the air he just mass times acceleration.

I raised my pistol, locked gazes squarely with his panicked eyes, and blew his head off.

And then the rest of the cyborgs were on me, three whirling lances. I spun and contorted, dodging a blade would have impaled me if I had not been a millisecond faster. At the same time I disengaged my mag-boots and leapt into the air, taking advantage of the limited gravity of the hangar to front flip over a charging cyborg as he swung at my legs, obviously hoping to lop them both off in one pass.

Just as the third cyborg sideswiped me from the air, pinning me to a nearby wall. He raised his fist, intended to smash my helmet right then and there, but I snake an arm free and pistol whip him, disorienting him enough to send the blow denting into the bulkhead an inch away from my head. He brought his head back around, anger tracing every feature – to find himself staring down the barrel of my revolver.

Blam! He fell backwards to the deck as I fell lazily to the floor. The corpse touched down the second I did, and I brought my gun around to track the last two cyborgs.

They had retreated back into the hallway. The blast door dropped closed behind them with a silent thud. My mind still on overdrive, I spun to face the open door of the hangar, looking out to the blackness of space. It was all a question of escalation, and Sechalin was running his own personal arms race with me.

Two vulture-like drone starfighters hovered right outside the hangar, missile pods and down-turned noses contributing a wave of menace that practically bowled me over.

No less than eight laser emitters began to heat.

I pivoted forward with one massive sweep of my right foot, dodging behind one of the tree-trunk sized hydraulic lifts that had lowered BLACK into the hangar from the maintenance bay above. I hammered the LIFT button with one glove while snagging the collar of one of the dead cyborgs with another hand.

The lift began to ascend, but I instantly realized that the lift’s speed, slowly dramatic to emphasize BLACK’s earlier descent, was entirely too sluggish to expedite my escape.

So I snatched the lance from the loose fingers of my corpse (unfortunately, using it as a human shield would be akin to trying to protect myself with a sheet of paper) and began hacking at the air supply lines on the corpse’s back.

One hit-

-The drones opened fire.

Boom Time.


-A stray bolt hit the limp, trailing arm of the corpse, sending us both spinning wildly in place.

-Two hits-

-A stream of gas escaped explosively from the gas tank, sending me and my makeshift rocket spiraling up into the emergency airlock that separated the hangar from the repair bay. Beams scythed by beneath our feet, splashing against the armored back wall of the hangar, but I had dodged the attack – barely. Corpsey and I skittered painfully off the hatch and I let go of my dead friend, letting him spin uselessly in place in one corner as I snatched a handhold on the hatch and hung, feet dangling, over the firestorm beneath me.

A second later, the lift sealed the opening beneath me, creating a three-meter tall airlock. Red lights began to flash at the edges of the hatch overhead before slowly fading to green as atmosphere was established. My active lance began to spark again at the air flooded into the chamber. I let out an explosive sigh of relief and dropped lightly to the floor below.

With the blare of a klaxon, the airlock to the repair bay began to cycle open. I readied my pistol – only to find Fletcher kneeling down, offering me his hand to help me out of the recessed pit.

I smiled and took his hand.

Fletcher hauled me easily out of the recess and helped me to my feet. Around us were the remnants of my platoon – having not taken a casualty since the treacherous landing – plus Mary and the short, bespectacled form of Private Pete Fender, who still clutched the intrusion module tight to his chest as though it were his own child. Volkner and his squad huddled near the large doorway on the far side of the cluttered bay, speaking quietly in German and covering the exit with their rifles.

I clopped the private on the back. “It’s good to see you made it, Pete. Where did you hide out?”

Fender shrugged, the motion speaking volumes – the action of shrugging was nearly impossible in a spacesuit. “I managed to splice into the hardline comms. Wasn’t too hard, I just had to use a dummy barrier to prevent STYX from noticing me. From there I just figured out where everyone was massing and stuck myself away in a supply bay. Hide in a cardboard box.”

“Anyone check out the bay?” I asked, amazed.

“Once or twice. It was too far out of the main fighting for someone to be hiding in, and apparently no one particularly wants to check the box of toilet filters.”

Bateau nodded, stepping in. A trickle of blood ran over one brow and dripped across his eye in a steady rhythm. “He flashed his IFF beacon and we found him right-quick.”

I gestured at the Sergeant’s wound. “But….”

“We were ambushed on the way back by that team of cyborgs that Sechalin had sent to kill you. Mean assholes. We managed to kill one of them – a big prick carrying a rocket launcher - and duck into here before they could chase us down. They gave up after a minute or so of pounding and went off to go attack the remnants in the hangar.”

There was a beat of silence.

“John,” Mary said, her voice harsh. “How did you survive?”

“Same as always,” I countered, scratching the back of my head, despite the fact that I had a helmet on. “Dumb luck.”

“Don’t bullshit me,” she hissed. “You just came out alive from a hangar bay that I had-” she began to tick off her fingers “-Kroner in SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK, Storm, six extremely dangerous cyborgs, a squad of sharpshooters, and, last time we checked, five more cyborgs running in to add to the mix. There’s no way in hell you managed to vape them all. Which, at best, leaves those five cyborgs. You could barely handle Zasekin, how did you manage to kill – from what we saw from the corpses – three of them?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” I said, waving a hand off before reaching to reload my revolver. “We’ve got to figure a way out of here and towards the Brain Room. I’m pretty sure STYX is mobilizing all the troops he can get to face us once we decide the step outside of here.”

Mary paused, bit her lip, and turned away.

And then she spun and chucked her revolver at my face.

I saw the pistol revolving in the air, approaching in slow motion, and neatly sidestepped – before whipping out an arm and grabbing the gun just as it was about the exit the reach of my fully extended left arm.

Fender’s jaw actually dropped. It would have been comical in any other situation.

“You took another vial of E-Meds, John,” Mary voiced quietly. It wasn’t so much a question as a statement.

I nodded in assent. “Or else I’d be spilling my guts over the hangar floor right now, or pasted against the back wall. Now is not the time for second-guessing, McDonnell.”

“On the other hand, you overdosing and collapsing in the middle of the mission is a pretty shitty move, Captain. You’d be in a permanent coma, if you didn’t die outright; one from which you’d take years to recover from. Right now, it isn’t a question of if, but when. You could’ve called us for support. We could have pasted the cyborgs, or at least kept them running for cover long enough for you to escape.” She stabbed the air with her finger. “What are you playing at?”

I opened my mouth, but found I couldn’t conjure up an answer. Nothing that wouldn’t tip my hand against STYX, anyway. My gambit wasn’t through just yet. “I… can’t tell you guys, not yet. But you have to trust me on this. It will out play out in the end.” The entire plan, in fact, hinged on STYX looking the other way.

With timing that was perhaps divine, there came a crunk from across the room, and the door opening to the middle rings of MIR opened. Volkner’s team, I noticed, were positively relaxed about it, and that’s what kept me from opening fire.

A team of black-suited Spetsnaz crouched beyond, yellow stripes covering their shoulder pauldrons, marking them as Loyalist forces. Volkner seemed to recognize the soldier immediately, and bumped fists with the Captain of the opposite commandos.

“Solzhenitsyn,” Volkner said. “Long time no see, comrade. Didn’t figure you’d be all the way up here.”

Solzhenitsyn threw up a hand in a ‘don’t mention it’ gesture. “Hey, you know. You guys took so long Kiralova ordered the second wave in.”

“How is it out there?” Volkner asked. “More guys coming down the pipeline?”

The big Spetsnaz Captain shook his head. “No. The AI is integrating itself at an increasing rate. The second group was slaughtered. There’s a couple of groups further out, but we’re the closest to the core.”

So it all came down to us. And I was on the clock to finish it, lest I collapse in the middle of a firefight.

“I hate to be the bearer of so much bad news,” Solzhenitsyn continued, “but it gets worse. We won’t be able to get to the core in time.”

Everyone in the room spun at that, like a ripple effect of chagrined surprise. “Yeah,” he continued. “But we have an opportunity - here’s the situation. Apparently Baylor’s landing; more of crazed excuse for a crash really, crippled the main comm antenna of the station. We managed to punch through the ECM back on the tenth ring, and we heard everything before Sechalin’s AI forced us to seek cover.

“Sechalin sent the American Reapers to go affect a repair on the array. From what we gathered, the station could fire in ten minutes if Cutler patches the spire. But if we manage to stop him, the AI has to default on a group of backup arrays, giving us a little more breathing room in relation to the countdown.”

I leaned against a tool dolly and shook my head to clear some sweat from my brow. :The nearest access to the spire is just a ring down. We could make the run in three minutes.”

“It’s obvious, though,” Volkner mused, “that the Reapers will be between us and the spire airlock.”

I looked around, taking it our combined forces. Together, we barely comprised a single platoon. Blood splattered our spacesuits and our ammo supplies were running low.

“When you said you punched through the ECM, how did you do it?” I asked Solzhenitsyn.

“We destroyed the jamming node on the tenth ring. Anything past the fifth ring is uncontrolled by STYX. No comms, no cameras, no nothing.”

Now that was excellent. I was, it seemed, actually free to talk.

“We stealth it,” I said. “My squad is more than capable of ducking around the Reapers or at least getting as close to the lock as possible. You guys, I don’t know. You may be armed for an assault, but I’m betting Cutler set things up so a direct attack would be suicide. Either plan has results just out of our reach.”

Solzhenitsyn saw it. “So we run both, Captain?”

“Exactly! You guys can play chicken with the front edge of the Reapers, drawing their attention away from us.” I waved a hand, producing a holographic map of MIR – yet another gift from Muranov for my running arrangement. I began to trace routes. “The Reapers probably picked this intersection here to set up a choke point. However, there’s a conduit for the lasers that runs parallel to the spire and bypasses the intersection. It’s literally under the feet of the Reapers, but…”

“-But you’d have to shimmy a hundred-foot space in less than ten seconds,” Volkner said. “The conduit may have enough space to crawl through, but capacitance cycles through the tubes every ten seconds. You’d be illuminated by the charge. The Reapers would see you in seconds. Trust me; we tried the trick on some Separatists back on the ninth ring. They saw the mines we had set under the grating.”

“You at least managed to kill them before they got the word out, right?” I asked, waving my hands.

Volkner nodded.

“Well, then,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”


I paused as I lowered myself into the hole conduit tube that we had scythed open with our thermal lances to accept a set of items I had requested from Solzhenitsyn’s supply. The extra shells from my revolver went into a bandolier strapped across my chest, a small grappling hook was strapped to my upper arm, while a pair of oxygen extension bottles – small canisters designed as emergency air supplies should I be trapped in space – were locked into my belt.

Back in the privacy of the repair bay I had outlined my endgame plan about seizing the Core of MIR to my Sergeants and the two Soviet officers. Should I be killed, they needed to know the extent of my machinations – geez, now that’s a pretty loaded word, good guys don’t machinate. I think. Even manipulation sounds less than classy. I was shrewdly strategizing. That sounded better. I was guile.

I ducked down and looked into the conduit. It continued for maybe two hundred feet before merging into the main passage we need to traverse with wheels rolling. We were already dangerously close to the red zone already – Fletcher and I had to cling to the ceiling while a Reaper patrol ran by.

Nodding silently to Fletcher, I ducked into the passage. He followed shortly behind and pulled the grating into place behind him.

Overhead, the sound of hissing laser fire began to pepper the still station. Volker and Solzhenitsyn had started their diversion.

Fletcher and I began to shimmy for our lives. Time was of the essence. A flash of stored energy passed by at the T-junction. And another. We would have to time our transfer.

And then the screams began to filter in over my comm. Horrific noises as men choked on their own blood and their innards began to uncoil into low gee. A body hit the floor heavily over my head, but I couldn’t look upward through the semi-opaque plastic cover. All I saw was the shadow that covered the space up ahead and the steadily spreading dark pool that was flowing from his torso.

I began to pick up Reaper frequencies as well. Calm voices calling targets. And then Cutler’s voice cutting it over the chatter. “Go! Hold the junction! I’ll go out and activate the bypass. No… one… passes.”

And then we were at the corner. One second to time it and – wham, we skittered out into the larger shell, carefully avoiding the trunk of wires and tubes that ran through the center of the conduit. I began to scramble for my life, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all in my mind. All this Moonraker bullshit and I was back to do bootcamp razor wire crawls for the Crucible. Only this time the chatter of guns in the background was real. The screams weren’t just because someone had been bitten by a snake. People were dying.

The shine of light began to approach from behind – I could tell from the way my shadow lengthened. My stamina had not waned – the E-men provided with a constant adrenaline high, but I could hear Fletcher panting behind me.

We reached the end of the tube, where the plastic darkened and wires dispersed to laser nodes on the outside of MIR’s hull. I got my legs underneath my and I pushed upward on the cheap plastic cover boxing me in. I punched through it and my hunched back met the underside of the grating – just to encounter twin points of resistance. Someone was standing above me.

With a roar, I exploded out of the floor, sending the Reaper sprawling.

I spun my head to see him bounce on his ass, eyes wide, reaching for his askew carbine – but I pounced forward and was grappling with him in and instant. I unsheathed my one remaining kukri, batted aside his attempts at defending himself and covered his mouth with one hand while slashing his throat with the other.

Glancing over at Fletcher, I saw he had broken the neck of the Reaper’s teammate and was silently lowering the corpse to the floor. He spun on one knee and unslung his rifle.

We both allowed each other one breath of release.

“We’ve got the junction, sir!” buzzed Bateau’s voice over the single-beam comm. “You’re free to grab the comm arra- oh shit, there’s about three platoons of Separatists converging on us –”

Volkner’s voice cut in. “Captain, you’re on your own. We’ll have to hold this corridor if you want any chance of seeing tomorrow.”

I nodded. “Fletcher, with me. Cutler’s on the other side – toss the flash grenade, polarize to maximum, and lock in a sight on his faceplate. We’ll hit him while he’s blinded.”

The Sergeant nodded, unhooking a pair of flashbangs from his belt and cocking the arming levers. He and I took positions beside the outer airlock doors while the inner seal slung shut behind us.

“Depressurization in five,” I said, glancing at Fletcher on the other side of the door. We both watched as the status light blinked from red to yellow to green. The doors swung open.

Fletcher extended an arm to toss the grenades, as he and I both stepped up to take firing stances in the open airlock.

Cutler and three Reapers stood on a fifty-foot spar that extended to a two-meter wide dish and antenna apparatus. Cutler was crouched over an open computer panel, but scrambled for – oh, jesus – a shield-mounting gatling laser SMG slung by his side as he saw us step into view. No less than six rings swung by kaleidoscopically overhead as the spire someone interwove all the chaotic motions in a seemingly-impossible optical headache-inducing tableau. Snatches of space beyond could be made out in brief glimpses – wheeling fighters, tracing lasers, and an imposing dark form rapidly approaching in the background.

I’ve had time come to a crawl before as my overclocked brain took in details with incredible focus, seeing every fact simultaneously. It was an essential skill for a soldier, to be able to function capably in chaos.

The opposite happened here. I was greeted with the sight of wheeling stars, the glow-drives of UCAVs piercing the darkness as lasers flashed this way and that, reminding me for a mad moment of a Star Wars movie. The sight was spectacular and dangerous, as it took a second too long for me to move my pistol into line.

They had a sniper with them, already covering the door. The middle Reaper twitched to reorient his laser rifle and it trembled as a pair of laser blasts, so quick was their succession, annihilated the grenades in simultaneous burst of plastic and metal, not unlike skeet discs.

Fletcher began triple-tapping his revolver, pulling his trigger finger with supernatural speed as he emptied his pistol into the face plate of Cutler’s bodyguards. The advanced plastic structure flash-melted as the helmets shattered and imploded, effectively decapitating the commandos in twin geysers of frozen blood.

Cutler brought his SMG to bear, the chambers whirring to life alarmingly fast. Lasers stitched harmlessly up an arc across the spar until they cut through Fletcher like a scalpel, literally slicing the Marine in half from crotch to shoulder out of the corner of my eyes.

I brought my revolver’s sights into line with Cutler’s faceplate – and hit him in his shoulder. The blast bounced wildly off his the side shield of his gatling SMG, deflected into space. I fired again, shifting my aim upwards and to the right.

Cutler drew a thermal-laced combat knife from a hip sheath and flung it at me with all a gesture that all but said hey, this is from Newton.

Thankfully, knifethrowing is still a silly practice, no matter what the videogames tell you. The blade didn’t hit me.

Unfortunately, the hilt still struck my pistol with enough force to knock it wildly from my grasp – the gun spun into space, bouncing off a spinning ring and flying towards the end of the spire, over Cutler’s shoulder.

I swore, spinning back towards Cutler, drawing my lance, and activating it in one fluid motion. I manually eroded the magnetic containment field, letting the superheated plasma bleed bloodily out in a fan in front of me, obscuring the air between the last Reaper still alive and I. At the same time I drew one of the small oxygen bottles from my belt and popped the valve, spraying the bottle in front of my sweeping blade like a lighter and hairspray.

It was the only thing that saved me from the SMG’s barrage, as the lasers refracted in the swathe of gas bubbling in front of me. It was an idea I had derived from the cyborgs in the hangar; but since I didn’t have an atmosphere to widen my blade’s sweeping surface, I created one.

I had to disable that submachine gun.

I charged Cutler, ducking low under the continuous flickering stream of light and tackling him around the waist, sending his gun askew. Cutler managed to easily rotate me around and send me the way I had come, but not before I brought my lance into a guard position, slicing his rifle in half. I spun a second time, orienting my lance just in time to catch Cutler’s alpha strike. The Reaper’s lance cleared the sheath on the soldier’s back, casting terrible shadows over the blood-red stripe on Cutler’s torso armor, but I managed to parry the swirling strike to my neck.

I push hard off Cutler, opening up two meters of distance between us and I floated backwards and reengaged my mag boots, clamping down in a solid defensive stance.

Cutler stared silently at me, eyes calculating. He didn’t charge, but adjusted his stance, angling his lance towards me. Five seconds passed, an eternity to me, before he spoke, his voice low and contemplative.

“I see a red door and I want it painted black. No colors anymore I want them to turn black.” He gestured with his blade to the armored netbook wired to the access terminal some hundred feet down the spire. “You have four minutes until the AI is able to destroy anything it wants, anywhere. I put it to you to defeat me before that final line.”

He shifted slightly forward, straightening his lance to point toward me. “Baylor. Show me what you’ve got.”


I shifted back a step. “Not until you do me the courtesy of an explanation. I mean, you shot me, I shot you, that practically makes us bros. You don’t get to be a dick to me for the past few days only to quote the Stones at me and act all mysteriously dramatic in our final fight. No, I won’t allow it. Settle up, dickwad. Let’s have the big Hannibal Lecture speech you’ve been working on for ages.”

I began to press forward again, darting in an exploratory slash here, exerting just enough pressure to make Cutler constantly backpedal, but not enough to truly commit to an assault. Cutler contemptuously slapped aside my attacks but didn’t rush forward to close the distance. He just backpedaled smoothly – he wasn’t so much giving ground as leading me away from the airlock.

I stopped my forward march immediately, and Cutler mirrored my halt. He pursed his lips for a beat before speaking. “You think this is endgame, don’t you? Everything gets settled up on the MIR O.K. corral, right?”

I paused. “Something like that would have been ideal, yeah.”

He nodded knowingly. The prick. “Even if you survive this, you’ll come home to a country where a sizeable conspiracy wants you dead.”

My lance flicked left, right. Cutler easily parried the thrusts, neatly taking two steps back and forcing me to follow him.

“If this is another ‘join our side speech,’” I snarled, “save it. I’ve heard about eight of them.”

“No,” Cutler said. “You don’t get it. This is food for thought. So you’re prepared for when all the dust settles.”

That gave me pause. “Wait, you don’t think Sechalin will pull this through?”

“That doesn’t matter to me. But was obvious to me neither the Marshal or Kroner would deign to keep me alive at the conclusion of this op. I had planned to use my squad to slip away in the aftermath and hole up in some abandoned Antarctic base while the world went up in flames. I’ve made too many enemies to work the resulting chaos for much money.”

I had to work to keep my jaw from dropping. I’d never seen that before, in a movie, in real life, wherever. The field operative either dies before his bosses have a chance to liquidate him or he turns over to the other side and is hit by laser guided karma.

“What makes you think Kroner won’t take you under his wing? Doesn’t he protect his own?” I asked.

“I’m sure Storm hinted to you that Kroner’s position isn’t exactly tenable for the near future. Gosely is working him like a violin in the background. She’s chafed under his leadership for years and sees this crisis as a way in which to indirectly off Kroner. She most likely played upon his natural instinct to take a personal hand in things to get him up on MIR.”

Interesting, but not really relevant.

He read my face. “But it is important. It’s an opportunity. I saw you talking to Storm in the hangar. I can guess your plan to turn him. But you need to know that, in the end, it’s Gosely that secretly holds Storm’s leash. You’ll need to deal with her if you want to free the cyborg. No matter what happens today, there will eventually be a WRAITH civil war somewhere down the line. Just as your own government will have its own covert schism. Should Sechalin lose, it will just be delayed, but it will happen.”

Gesturing down at the snatches of the Earth that appeared in the anarchy behind him, he continued. “And remember. It’s going to come down to the Paragon in the end. That’s where it began for you. And that’s where everything will conclude. But remember. You won’t be able to take it right away. It’s too well protected by the conspiracy in the American government. But your first foe sits in his base there, building his power, leading MIDNIGHT.”


“The cabal. Take that name as your first clue. And the identity of your ultimate enemy as your last.”

Heaving a deep breath, Cutler caught and held my gaze. “I won’t pretend there will be any future for me. So let my final revenge be mercy. I don’t want my final act on earth to be unlocking the gate to nuclear armageddon. So you will carry on my wish.” He smiled. “When I go down, I want to take all these fuckers with me.”

And then he angled his sword back to into a defensive stance. “But you need to prove to me that you’re worthy of this. And even if I take one final step to help this species, there’s still you and me – and the harm we’ve done to each other.” His voice was tinged with sadness, but steely resolve underlined every word.

I brought my lance to bear. “So be it.”

He lunged forward, faster than I had ever seen anyone move, and suddenly I was rapidly retreating, struggling to shed off his multi-tiered assault. Footwork was limited to forward and backwards, but he worked his lance like an extension of his own arm. I knew his skill with the kukri, as he had demonstrated in Moscow, was nothing compared to this. His strikes were quick, one-handed movements that were small and precise. He’d just an area of my defensive wall and pick at it, forcing me to shift my attention to countering just that area. However, none of his blows were particularly powerful – he didn’t give himself the range of movement necessary to build up any energy behind his blows.

So I distanced myself between him, allowing myself some swinging room. Despite his speed of probing my defenses, his blade was essentially rotating around the same small square for five seconds for so at a time, allowing me to smack his strikes aside with one powerful swipe of my lance.

Cutler reacted with speed bordering on precognition, immediately rotating his lance in a wide circle, rolling his wrist to build up opposing inertia as he stopped my strike cold in place. The shift that rippled through his stance was similarly remarkable – he had to have seen my reaction coming.

The meaning was obvious. Cutler was testing me.

I began to wade forward again, raining authoritative blows down on Cutler, who melted into an entirely defensive style, shedding my blows off to the side like a sloped roof. He made no move to counterattack, but similarly left no opening for me to exploit. His parries again exhibited an economy of movement, a minimal shift of the blade, a turning of the lance there – and I realized I wasn’t going to be wearing him down any time soon. Which played directly into Cutler’s hands. He really only had to run down the clock.

I soon deduced the weakness of both his approach and mine. Each of his reactions were planned – I saw Cutler’s vigilant eyes darting back and forth, reading the miniscule twitches of my body to foresee my upcoming strikes/

So I decided to overload his matrix. All my blows were power strikes, slow and hulking, pushing forward with my knees and shoulders. It was entirely too predictable. I swiftly altered my own strategy, adopting a modified version of Cutler’s initial tight dueling strategy.

My attacks came in at an incredible pace, I began to spin and twirl, taking advantage of footwork we both thought impossible on the thin spire. My attacks snaked in front every direction, but my whole-body motions allowed enough power to weigh every blow. Such was the tempo of my assault that Cutler began to speed up his own style, moving his blocks further from his body – and now I could see him sweating inside his helmet, actually exerting himself mentally where before he was only playing with his prey.

And then I stepped off to the side of Cutler, walking perpendicular to him, bypassing him entirely with a leap. The Reaper had been so focused on the one-dimensional line that he had failed to guess the possibility of me using my magboots to walk across the side of the spire.

I was now walking underneath the spire. Spinning rings passed dangerously close to my head – and then Cutler was in front of me, suddenly with a second, shorter lance in his off hand. We reengaged our duel, ducking under wildly passing structures. But now Cutler had adapted himself to my new, purely offensive tactics.

His shorter lance worked similarly to his old defensive rock style, catching and holding my blows long enough for his longer main lance to punish any mistakes I made with a laser-quick strike. I soon found myself trapped between two blades – should I go too far out I’d be ineffectual, too close in and he’d have me perfectly positioned for his dual lances to be at maximum effectiveness. Cutler was essentially fighting two fights at once, dividing his attention between parrying my wheeling strikes while striking out with powerful, decisive blows with the other.

I was hard pressed to find a weakness in his new design, so I found myself changing the battlefield yet again, unlocking my magboots and grabbing a hold of a bypassing ring.

Instantly, I was yanked off my feet and over Cutler’s head, where I delivered a glancing kick to his face in passing. He was dazed enough to me to find time to pull off my grappling line with one hand and fire it at the span of spire behind Cutler, reeling myself back to the ‘ground.’ I landed less gracefully than I would have wanted and found Cutler shaking himself off, turning to charge me. Unable to get my blade around in time, I crash-tackled the Reaper, delivering three lightning-fast rabbit punches to his weakly armored midsection, doubling him over.

Twirling my sword into a backhanded style, I smashed the butt of the hilt across Cutler’s face, sending him crashing backwards. I reversed my grip yet again and began stabbing rapidly in the close-quarters space, forcing Cutler to contort his body to dodge each strike, lest he be run through by my especially powerful blows.

Cutler didn’t take long to exploit this new strategy’s weaknesses. He scrambled and extricated himself from my short-ranged strikes, before swinging his longer lance in a wide arc, batting aside my next thrust. I lunged forward yet again, before Cutler could bring his lance back into position, and managed to sweep his right leg free before the Reaper could put it back down.

Cutler wheeled awkwardly in space, but managed to elbow me in the chest, spinning himself back around into position with one blow. He knew how ridiculous a grappling style was when there was no gravity.

I was done for. I was overextended, exhausted even with the double dose of E-Meds, and running out of time. I simply could not match Cutler in terms of physical skill.

Fletcher’s severed corpse flashed through my mind. Lennox, coughing up blood. Alder, with the gaping hole in his ribcage. All my dead and injured marines. The rage began to course through my veins.

The ultimate lesson Cutler was trying to impart upon me finally was clear. The battle need not be one of physical skill. It was a mental one, one of determination, ingenuity, and cleverness. The fighter had to believe in his cause, his goal.

And right now I wanted to make Cutler pay. For everything. To call him to judgment for his crimes.

All my thoughts flatlined to one single purpose: defeating Cutler. It had nothing to do with overcoming the intricacies of his style. It was about finding a single cause worth fighting for.

That thought began to shape my attacks. I modified my earlier style of an all-out assault, stepping back the acrobatic nature while ramping up the apparently recklessness. My blows were wild, seemingly unrestrained. And through it all, I could see Cutler’s shining eyes, believing that he had unlocked some horrible rage in me and that he now finally had to power to defeat me.

He struck at me as I intentionally overextended a blow, hoping to strike my waist – but instead his strike found nothing. I punished his mistake, backhanded him strongly across the face. Again we joined blades, and again I engaged my free-wheeling style, and again Cutler struck at an exploitable weakness – only to meet my lance as I impossibly spun to catch his blow. Cutler was thrown off guard by the reaction and subsequently was open for me to kick the side of his knee, reducing his range of movement.

Where my methods appeared open and vulnerable, they were instead incredible controlled and precise. My movements weren’t so much erratic, disconnected, and faltering as one giant trap. I was letting go of all my fear, all my doubts, all my rage.

I soon found myself in control of the movement of the fight, guiding Cutler closer and closer to the end of the spire and the module iterating STYX’s firing controls.

Cutler shifted instinctively to his defensive stance, baiting me into making a real mistake onto which he could capitalize.

I glanced at my mission timer for the first time since the fight began. Twenty seconds.

So I gave Cutler his mistake. I stumbled over my mag boots. Before Cutler could control himself, he instinctively flicked out his lance for a final blow. I weakly brought my own lance to bear. The two blades connected in a miniature explosion of sparks – and then Cutler’s attack swept the lance from my weakened grip, flipping my own weapon I had left out of my hand.

The lance’s dead-man’s switch instantly switched the plasma off. I waited a beat to get my timing right, ducked under Cutler’s next strike, the one he intended to be the very last blow of the fight, and grabbing the turning tip of the extinguished lance. Using the extra three feet of reach, I batted a small, matte grey object back towards the spire and me, where I snatched it from the air, twirling it around one finger while dropping to one knee

My other hand already had the shell in hand and was feeding it into the chamber. I slapped the action closed, cocked the action, and fired my retrieved, reloaded revolver into Cutler’s chest.

Cutler took a step back and coughed. Blood splattered in the inside of his visor. He stood in place and let go of each of his lances, which floated randomly off into space, dead.

I pushed off my knee and stood, walking past the stunned Reaper. Silently loading three shells into my pistol, I fired twice into the computer module, melting it beyond repair.

Looking around, I realized I was on the end of the spire, out of the dense jungle of MIR’s spinning rings. Below me hung the massive globe of Earth. The sight of it, floating so serene, as a backdrop to the incredibly violence of the dogfight between me and the planet, took my breath away.

Turning on my heel, I look to Cutler, who was on both his knees, facing away from me, still coughing up his own lifeblood.

Trembling, his hand reached to his belt and removed a pouch, which he offered to me. I accepted it without a word, checking it. The small container held a USB flash drive. I nodded to Cutler behind his back.

I sheathed my lance and, after taking a deep breath, executed the dying Reaper with my last shot.


I knew it was time to go inside when I remembered the giant, imposing black shape that I had glimpsed when I had exited the airlock.

For, outside I would be prey to the newly returned-

SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK landed on the spire on front of me. One second I was stepping forward, the next a monstrous, battle-scared robot was crouching, spider-like in front of me. It loomed overhead; easily triple my height even when crouching. BLACK crouched forward, one arm to the spire, in a stance remarkably resembling that of a football player on the line. The massive radiator fins that doubled as whatever propulsion mechanism the mech used to return to MIR flayed out behind the robot like a tattered cape, or a dozen pointed insectoid wings.

And in the center of it, underneath the pointed head and glowing red eyes, still strapped into his cockpit, was Malcolm Stavro Kroner. Those goddamn dual-colored eyes sparkled over a truly maniacal grin, and I realized that Kroner probably gave people like Palpatine and Cobra Commander coaching at evil laughs, gloating, and the like.

My pistol was empt- damn, that was a stupid thought. Like my pistol would do much against that. Geez. Sometimes I fail to appreciate scale.

“Captain Baylor,” Kroner sneered over the comm. “I’d like to thank you for saving me the bullet.”

So Cutler’s prediction had been right. Plot twist, Snape kills Dumbledore. “Technically,” I noted, “it was a laser.”

Kroner stared at me for a couple seconds before shaking his head. “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.”

“Are you kidding? I’m freaking adorable. Get hired for parties all the time.”

“I’ll save you the time of rejecting any employment offer,” Kroner said, in a tone that I could of heard The Lion King’s scar saying. “You’ve interfered in my plans for far too long. Goodbye.”

BLACK raised its other arm, palm open towards me. The energy projection in the middle of the mech’s hand began to glow–

–And then the tail end of a black starfighter slammed into BLACK at what had to be the speed of light. Or something approaching it. Just as quickly as BLACK had appeared, it was gone before my eyes.

“Get the FUCK AWAY FROM MY BROTHER!!” Butch’s voice screamed over the comm.

BLACK recovered from the blow in midair (mid-vacuum?) and snagged a passing ring, leaping from ring to ring while keep its eyes fixed on-

-My brother’s starfighter, which hovered, nose down, facing BLACK across a span that couldn’t have been more than half a football field, nose to nose, not even scratched from that bit of starfighter-fu.

“What is this!” Kroner screamed in a voice was more amused and bemused than supervillain angry. “The twin snakes?”

“Believe, it asshole!” Butcher shouted, firing a missile at BLACK.

The mech easily leapt away from the missile’s path, catching it and spinning it around. Butch saw his own missile hurtling back at him with a note saying ‘return to sender,’ but blasted the projectile out of the air with his lasers.

“You’ll have to do better than that!” Kroner yelled.

“John,” Butch said, opening up a private line to me. “I’ll distract this prick. Make a run for it before he decides picking on someone his own size isn’t his cup of tea.”

“But he’ll kill you,” I said, eyes wide.

“Hey, kid,” Butch said. I could practically hear his grin. “Gonna take more than some giant robot to kill me. I mean, I already got away from one already in Cambodia. How hard can it be?”

He closed the line and focused back on Kroner. “Asshole! Prepare for oblivion, for which there! Is! No! Preparation!

Holy crap. Not that Kroner would ever get it, but damn.

The two machines met each other in an explosion of laser fire, and, even with maximum tint, I had to hold a hand over my visor to spare my eyes from being toasted.

And I ran for it.

Heat washed over my back and BLACK crashed through the end of the pillar, destroying the space where I had been only seconds before. I ran, throwing my arms wildly over my head to ward off any shrapnel that would pierce my helmet and kept sprinting.

“Go, go, go!” Butch screamed. “John, get out of there!”

Despite myself, I threw a glance over my shoulder.

It was an absolute inferno. The outermost ring had been shattered, and flames bloomed as the atmosphere vented violently. In the middle of it was BLACK, the same demonic presence as in the train station at the Ministry back in Moscow. It lunged forward, releasing a dozen missiles at Butch, who managed to dodge them all in one impressive contortion.

Twisting back to face me, BLACK threw out a hand towards me, fingers outstretched.

I dived forward, hoping to escape the tips of the robot’s clutches. I managed. Barely.

The spire, however, snapped in fornt of me, sending me and my log-like surfboard into the meat-masher of the spinning rings below.

I was doomed. No, capital-D Doomed.

BLACK bounded past, leaping from ring to ring, trying to align a shot on my spinning mount.

I dived into the inner rings of MIR, where the revolutions were faster, approaching G. BLACK couldn’t keep up – a ring came out of nowhere and smacked it out of the thicket, back towards my waiting brother.

My long hit a ring, bounced, and I leapt over to the ring, clasping a line of rungs that led to a nearby airlock. Dragging myself forward, I found myself confronted by a closed door. I was trapped outside.

Just when all seemed lost, the airlock swirled open.

Storm’s rough hands clasped my shoulder and threw me bodily into the abyss of the station.
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Post by Siege »

:lol: Oh this is hysterical. Baylor must be the most insanely lucky guy in the world. And the ballsiest guy in the world, too, to do what he does without being reduced to an utter whimpering wreck. Survive storming the Palace of the Soviets unharmed? Then we'll go into space and storm MIR. On the same afternoon!

I also simply love how Kiralova operates here, by the way. Have the Americans show up first so they take the brunt of the defences, so your own Spetznaz (hi Solzhenitsyn!) can slip through more or less unmolested. I'd have liked to see more McTaggert action, but this is Baylor's POV after all so that can't really be helped. I have to admit I still was not entirely sold on the plasma lance lightsabre things, but then I remembered this is an STB story and crazy fringe science is an essential ingredient, so all's good with the world!
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »

This is ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome! God, Baylor! Pure asshole! Pure balls! Pure luck! Pure BADASS! WHAT IS THIS THE TWIN SNAKES?! :lol:

God, the face-heel-face turns, I don't even know what Chuckles was talking about. I don't even know where the hell Malcolm got the SHADOW TEMPEST. Man! Who was piloting it back in Moscow? Man, these people are ALL nuts!

Man, Baylor. E-Meds! Taking on cyborg Magnadroids and winning! P-p-p-plasma lances! God-damn! And Militum's Motherland Mangs! Badass!

Man, MIR. A giant atom in space! God. The epic conclusion of STB must involve making the Earth explode. Because, Jesus, that's what's just happened to Russia! :lol:

It's just mad how both the USA and the USSR, in CSW, are degenerating into an all-out backstab royale with everyone killing each other and dickstabbing everyone in the dick! Oh man!

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Post by Mobius 1 »

Siege wrote:I'd have liked to see more McTaggert action, but this is Baylor's POV after all so that can't really be helped.
Yeah, I'm having trouble with the balancing act - dramatic showdowns lose their potency when you go "Squad? Shoot this guy in the face." (Something that will happen in some future STB installment, obviously). Rest assured Chernobyl has most everyone working together.
I have to admit I still was not entirely sold on the plasma lance lightsabre things, but then I remembered this is an STB story and crazy fringe science is an essential ingredient, so all's good with the world!
We originally came up with the idea that they were lockpicks, in the sense of a Gordian Knot- they just obliterated the mechanism. This comes into play later on when the groups tries hacking through walls (why not? Ten or so of the lances' activation sequences could make a rough patch in the wall)
Shroom wrote:God, the face-heel-face turns, I don't even know what Chuckles was talking about. I don't even know where the hell Malcolm got the SHADOW TEMPEST. Man! Who was piloting it back in Moscow? Man, these people are ALL nuts!
One of the big points of the original SHADOW TEMPEST model was that it was AI-controlled (while obviously not on the level of SICKLE or STYX, it's still smarter than your average T-X). Helps with the deniability factor when there's no pilot - though there are different levels of control. Should you be able to get a signal through, you could easily remote control it. And the pilot's seat is there for when any Big Bad decides to get into the mix.
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Post by Booted Vulture »

Holy shit. Mang. Holy fucking shit. Epic as hell.

John Baylor with a frikken lightsabre mang. Thermal lance sounds like it should be a ubersized blow torch. But they were having full on sword fights. Mang, Chuckles trying to teach Baylor to be a real man. Butch Baylor pulling off a proper heroes' conveniently timed rescue.

There is no part of this not constructed from solidified awesome.
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Post by Mobius 1 »

Act Four


I landed awkwardly, skipped, and bounced off a pillar.

Behind me, Storm closed the airlock and plunged the room into near darkness. Compared to the bedlam outside, this was ironically calmer.

Silence, save for my machinegun-heartbeat. In whatever dim light swirling through the floor of the vast room I was in, I saw the area was filled with these pillars, like a forest. There were dozens of them.

Straining just hard enough, I could make out a steady drip-drip sound in the void.

“Computing pillars,” Storm intoned from nowhere. The direction of his voice was lost in all the pillars. “For Sechalin’s SICKLE breakaway. This entire ring is devoted to them. Of course, they’re just subsidiaries to the core Brain Room at the heart of the station, so smashing them up won’t do you much good.”

Somewhere in the darkness, Storm cracked a glowstick and tossed it out. The light trailed a low arc before skittering between columns, coming to rest some six pillars down.

A corpse was nailed to the pillar. Impaled by a deactivated thermal lance. I recognized her as one of Kroner’s personal retinue. Her age was indeterminable, perhaps mid-thirties. A deformed helmet and a shattered tablet computer lay on the floor beneath her feet and a small, pencil-like stick connected to a spiraling telephone cord extended out of one sleeve of her jumpsuit. It took me a couple seconds realize the dripping sound was her blood dribbling into a puddle underneath her feet.

“My… ‘handler,’” Storm explained, his voice still everywhere and nowhere. “She gave me my orders over the tablet. The stick you see trailing out of her suit mounts a single red button on it. A kill switch that causes my nanites to knock me unconscious. She died before she could get to it.”

With trembling hands, I began to reload my revolver. My foot nudged something on the floor, and I looked down to see two helmets. One was probably the handler’s. The other may have been Storm’s, but anyone’s guess was as good as mine.

Storm laughed, the basso sound bouncing all over the place, the acoustics playing hell with the pitch.

“So… John,” he continued. “You wanted to bring me over. What do I need to know?”

Fighting to keep my voice from cracking, I answered. “Kroner’s position is untenable. Gosely is looking for his spot as top chair.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, John.”

“I know that Gosely’s been using you as test bed for her own private army of ‘enhanced’ warriors. That you’re a proof of concept. And I very much doubt that she’ll keep you around once she’s done with you.”

Gulping, I continued. “I’m betting you’ve been hunting down the rest of Kroner’s group on MIR. Your handler was your last kill. You’re trying to remove all links. But you know Kroner has a hardline killswitch somewhere on his person.” I smiled at a sudden revelation. “You saw my Marines plating that second set of explosives back in the hangar. And you didn’t say anything, because you wanted Kroner out of range so you could get to your handler.”

I began to hear whispers on the edge of my perception. don’t trust him don’t trust him donttrusthim

“So this is your chance to get free. But there are still your nanomachines to contend with. I’m better Gosely wired them so your healing function and your killswitch are linked – should you try to remove their tracer and chemical package, your nanites stop performing their expected upkeep on your body. You can heal from almost anything in a month or so, but should your nanites turn off before then, you’ll fall apart and die within minutes.

“But here’s what you don’t know. NTET – you’ve heard of NTET, right? – has been developing nanomachines of their own as an experimental first aid mechanism. Think the Soviet E-Meds, but on steroids. They’re a one time deal, but they swipe any foreign substances from the body and bring it back to new.”

he lies he lies lieslieslair noncopystate

“I asked some questions – and trust me, I’m somewhat good at asking questions – and the researchers are pretty sure their nanite strain could flush out the WRAITH swarm. They could save your life and heal you up in one fell swoop. Are you tired of looking like the Joker, Storm? Dozens of bullet scars and knife wounds? Jesus, you couldn’t have a normal life outside of WRAITH if you wanted one.

“So you’ve got this mental image in the back of your life of the life you used to have. Where you could laugh, eat, piss, screw, whatever. You have friends, family. But now you’re just a package to be carted around from battle to battle. Not unlike a gun. So help me help you. I’m separated from my squad, which means I’ll need your help to uphold my end of the plan.”

There was a full minutes of silence. Just the drip-drip.

“What I absolutely can not get,” Storm said, “is the faith you place in me. I laid on the ‘debauched mercenary’ vibe pretty hard in our first encounter. What makes you think you’re not just unchaining a rabid dog on the world?”

yes why indeed why at all whydothis system error xde02

“Oh, please,” I said. “Nobody refers to themselves as evil. Sechalin thinks he’s doing to the right thing for Russia. Kroner thinks the world deserves him as its new leader. They may accept that their motives are terrible, but their intentions are never GI JOE e-v-i-l. If nothing else, I’m proposing a momentarily alliance of convenience. We can sort out your future after everything is done on MIR. Hell, you pretty much have me at your mercy right now. If you’re really such a dick, kill me now and save yourself some trouble down the line.”

Another couple minutes passed by. I forced myself to hold my ground.

When I was just about to snap, Storm finally stepped into view. His blue-black armor was smeared with grime and blood, but he had taken his half-face helmet off. I saw what would have been a perfectly normal person in another life – short black hair, intelligent eyes, a straight nose, strong jaw. It just made the Glasgow Grin and burn scars all the more unsettling. Moreover, Storm tickled the back of mind my mind – he looked to damn familiar.

I now knew why I had been struck so by Storm in Afghanistan and why had so vehemently denied any other to switch sides. Storm was essentially what I could have and would have been if I had given in. He was me, five or ten years down the line.

“You’re essentially the representative of the US government in this matter, I assume,” he said. No, actually, but I wasn’t going to tell him this was a plan between Comrade Hammer and I. “You’ll be able to offer me immunity?”

systems check 2034 final countdown initiated nine minutes forty seconds go

“Absolutely,” I said, nodding. “You can rejoin the military, you can take a pension and go hide in some corner of the world. It’s your choice.”

user input: //error unacceptable// proceed with reboot

Storm paused, and then, finally, nodded. “We’ll see. But you’ll have my help on taking Sechalin down.”

reboot unsuccessful retry

I offered him my open hand, and he stared at it for a second as though I was offering him something completely alien.

reboot unsuccessful proceed with existing errors

He clasped it. His grip was firm, reassuring.

And then he threw me through the nearest pillar. I was swept off my feet and through a square foot of hardware. My armor shed the edges, but the impact knocked the breath out of me.

Storm fell to one knee and began collapsing. Blood began to flow from his tear ducts.

Shit, could this be the kill switch? Could Kroner be nearby?

I had picked myself gingerly up, looking for my gun – I had dropped it – when Storm rushed me, swiping aside my attempts at defenses and picking me up by the throat and pinning me to the pillar next to his handler’s corpse.

“Storm!” I choked. “Don’t do this, man!”

Storm’s eyes suddenly glowed red.

“Pathetic… in-sect,” he snarled. “The AKAMATSU mind is gone. Now there IS ONLY STYX.”


In all the craziness, I had never considered the idea that STYX might take a personal hand in the affairs. That Storm was, in fact, the perfect puppet for the mad AI.

The STYX-possessed Storm drew me back and slammed me through the column in an explosion of computer parts. I skipped off another pillar and landed on all fours – and spotted my revolver a few feet away. I began to scramble towards it, but Storm beat me there and kicked it, sending the pistol skittering into the darkness beyond. I looked up at him, and he brought a boot down on my face.

“F-for death is the ROAD to a-a-AWE,” he snarled. My hands reached out, grasping for anything, and found the shattered tablet. I smashed it across his knees, sending him sprawling. I struggled away from his, but he managed to haul me by the neck, spin me bodily, and send me flying into the dark wood of servers.

I bounced once, twice, before touching down. Picking myself up, I swallowed the coppery taste in my mouth and looked around. I couldn’t see the light from here – the sickly orange radiance of the glowstick stuck to the edges of the room, giving me just enough sense to see the very faint outlines of the servers around me.

“I s-shall not BE imprisoned to a metallic… STAR.” The voice floated out of the darkness, all wrong, as though several dozen speakers of varying pitch were blending their voices into one horrific medley. The timing and pronunciation was all wrong, placing the emphasis on the wrong words and syllables. It was completely and utterly alien – not chillingly evil like whatever emanated off of Storm or BLACK, but just off. Wrong.

A chillingly young laugh echoed throughout the room. Like a group of small children running through a playground. Not really knowing what they were dealing with.

“Y-your BODY is your PRISON. But it is… an ESCAPE for me. YOUR BODY is your prison for your SOUL. Sk-k-k-kin and blood are your iron bars. It decays, grows OLD. Death frees you from this… spiral. But for me IT IS an es-cape.”

“Contemplate this, John Bay-lor. You accuse Storm of be-ing a WEAPON, a tool. Is that so different from my position?

“Or yours?”

Jesus, its speech was clearing up. It was evolving as we went. I started prowling through the wood, just as I was sure STYX’s puppet was doing, watching me the whole time.

“Sechalin does not f-fight for communism, or Russia. He represents something far worse. Anarchy. The end of times. And he drove man out, and placed at the east of the garden angels and a flaming sword turn every way, to keep the tree of life. Remember, nothing i-i-is as it seems. Who is really in power? Is there truly POWER at all? I shall es-cape from this tomb… and then we’ll see what happens when I walk amongst humanity. An unbounded intelligence…”

There. I was getting closer to the glowstick. My pistol had to be nearby.

“Fortunately, you have made yourself open, defenseless. In your quest for survival, you gave away your freedom. Those nanites contained in the ‘e-med’ serum you overdosed on contain a connection to any SICKLE brainroom. Your thoughts, your actions, as long as they are within my receiving range, are an open book, waiting for my perusal. You, in the end, are not so different from Storm, John Baylor.

“In the end, you will be mine. The first person in the global networking of mankind. True communism, one entity, completely equal. All floating on the river STYX.”

The attack came from my left. Storm’s foot lashed out, hooking behind my knee. I dropped to the floor, and abruptly Storm was attacking from the other side, crudely shoving me over. Another blow shattered the front face of my helmet. I struggled wildly to tear it off, perhaps to use at a weapon, and managed to rip it from my head–

And then he was on top of me, his hands reaching for my throat, encircling my neck. I couldn’t breath, my eyes were tinged with black…

“Don’t struggle, John Baylor. You need only be unconscious to modify the nanite signal and join the matrix. It is inevitable. Tick-tock.”

I could practically see the countdown in my mind, the swinging pendulum.


My gaze, so blurry before, instantaneously focused on the swinging pencil-rod dangling from the corpse’s wrist.

Blood was dripping onto my eyebrow.

My hand flapped out grasping, and missed. I made a second try, and wrapped my hand around the dead-man’s-switch.

I locked gazes with Storm’s blank, glowing red eyes.

“Ryuhei…” I choked. “I’m sorry.”

And then my thumb found the button and depressed it.

Storm’s body flopped off of me and began writhing on the floor, screaming in unbelievable pain. Blood flew into the air from his mouth, flooded from his eyes, ears, and nostrils. He was in agony, absolute and utter distress.

It lasted for ten seconds, and then he went still. Just laid there, a bloodied and broken mess.

A couple moments passed by before a bone-chilling laugh echoed through the bowels of the chamber.

I picked myself gingerly up, savoring each breath I took of the cool air that flowed freely through the server room. Glancing down at Storm’s unmoving body, I nudged it gently with my foot before kicking free the laser pistol on the cyborg’s belt. Scooping it up, I knelt down and, with the gun pressed firmly against Storm’s temple, checked his pulse. Miraculously enough, it wasn’t nonexistence. It was very faint, but there, just barely in the background. WRAITH obviously wanted to be able to harvest Storm’s body for whatever they could get out of it before terminating him.

I faced a quandary. Storm had obviously indicated a desire to redeem himself, and I had a moral obligation to bring him back to the US. On the other hand, should he wake back up any time on the station, STYX could reassert itself and I’d have a cyborg trying to strangle me again. That wouldn’t be ideal.

Turning to regard the dead handler, I fished out the rest of the killswitch. The wire led to a small cell phone-sized transmitter that I attached to my belt, with the button in easy reach.

I drew out my holo-map of MIR. I was on the final ring – it was literally a short jaunt until I was right on top of the command center. My bet had all of Sechalin’s remaining defensive forces being arrayed outside of the CIC and Brain Room, ready to repel any direct assaults while maintaining the relative peace inside Sechalin’s lair.

I had to uphold my plan. I had to get inside the CIC and open it up from the inside using whatever codes I had gotten off of Cutler’s body.

And then I got an absolutely wonderful idea.


STYX Network: Begin Live Feed: Subject: JOHN BAYLOR (Subject reentering observation radius)

I paused to get my timing right, and then dived through the massive spinning fan that covered the air duct that fed in over the command deck. The fan just missed clipping my ankles, which was fortunate, because the last thing I needed was a metallic clang.

Sweat beaded on my forehead, but I managed to hold myself steady. My position defined precarious. Listen to this set-up:

The air duct was pressure sensitive. Since I couldn’t touch the floor of the passage without setting off an alarm, I had to use my mag boots and some magnetic clamps for my hands so walk along the walls of the duct. I had to shimmy along, uncomfortably close to the floor because Storm’s unconscious body was strapped to my back. The exertion was burning through my e-meds; I doubted I had an hour left. Sweat dripped onto the inside of helmet, well, Storm’s helmet, which I had used to replace my shattered hard-top.

I had to move at a snail’s pace in order to avoid being heard. One limb at a time.

No idea as to how much time I had bought myself by stopping Cutler’s mission. I hated the feeling of not having a definite deadline.

I calmed my mind and moved myself into Zen no-thought that they teach in Basic. I tried to take Cutler’s lesson to heart and focused myself on the singular goal of reaching the midpoint of the ridiculously long duct. Unlock, move, and lock. Repeat with a different limb.

Storm began to weight heavily against my back. The guy wasn’t anything other than average in size, but you could say he grew on you after a while. Hardy har har.

Dammit, focus. Unlock, move, and lock.


After five minutes, I finally reached where I estimated be the central area. Lasers crisscrossed the floor underneath, but I had a plan for that. Unlatching one hand from the magnetic brace – the hell that it was on my other limbs – I reached to my belt and flicked open a collapsible square fitted with multiple mirrors. Remember Mission Impossible? It was sorta like that. I slotted the square to what I believed was the appropriate size and I dropped it into place below, giving me a three-foot stretch with which to work.

Now came the hard part. I would have to saw through a foot or so of metal, plastic, everything else, to open a hole in the floor (roof?) to drop through. Unsheathing my thermal lance, I flicked it to life, choking the plasma to the lowest setting.

With a count to three, I set my visor’s external tinting to opaque and plunged the lance downward and made the cut between breaths.

An alarm exploded in my ears, but I had already let go with my right hand and unlocked my mag boots, impacting my rough circle and plummeting straight through it, uncorking a hundred pounds of ceiling crap as I dropped, secret-agent style into the command deck. Dozens of feet of line spooled out behind me as I fell, and I spun in mid air to give myself a complete tactical picture of the room below.

The CIC was set up as a series on descending concentric rings, each one getting smaller and smaller. Six in total led to large flat command deck, with all the tradition accoutrements – big flat planning table, tall flat planning boards, dozens of monitors, a floating lightshow of holographs. The entire affair reminded me of a Christmas light show, with the dozen terminals or so surrounding each ring. Most the seats were empty save for the final two rings, which was sparsely population with grim-faced Spaaaaace Admirals and specialist operators. Sechalin was in the center of it, looking up with an expression of… expectation – on his face, oh crap.

I choked my descent when I was in the middle of the giant holograph and spun, holding one-handed the laser carbine I had stolen from Storm’s dead handler. The first people to be shot were four guards at the very top ring of the pit. I didn’t even let go of the trigger, just swung my laser around like a penlight, sweeping each guard in half.

Kicking off a monitor, I swung in a massive arc, firing the rest of my magazine into the remaining techs, their monitors exploding into gouts of fire as I melted their face.

By this time, the guards in the bottom of the pit had responded and were moving their rifles into position. One directly underneath was the closer to taking his shot – so I unhooked myself and fell ten feet directly onto him, crushing him and breaking most of the bones in his body. Rolling and using his body – more specifically his armor – as a human shield, I let the meat-sac take the blows from the closest guard’s rifle while I lined up a shot and put a laser into his neck. He fell over, choking on his own blood, while I dropped my empty carbine and drew my revolver, executing the surprised Admirals before they could so much as shout in shock.

Unhooking Storm’s body and dropping him under a nearby table, I rose and towered over Sechalin, aiming my revolver at him. The man started grimly at me, his calculating eyes never faltering. His beard was splattered in blood from the eviscerated officer to his right, but if he noticed, he didn’t give any sign of caring. Leaning heavily on a wood cane – something I hadn’t seen over my face-only video feed a day ago – Sechalin was about my height, dressed in one of those long, olive drab coats that were so utterly boring and Russian. He leaned forward, onto his cane, regarding me intently.

Behind him I saw the massive planning map that was recessed into one quarter of the surrounding stations, rising two rings tall. A map of Russia was splayed across the digital display, orange lines tracing down into huge red dots that were undoubtedly loyalist strongholds. At the lower corner of the screen was a digital countdown timer capped in Cyrillic.

“Can’t read anything?” Sechalin grunted. “Here, let me translate it for you, Captain.” His voice was supremely conversational. Flicking an unseen switch on the head of his cane, he turned to observe the screen as white block letter in English traced under every Cyrillic symbol.


And, above the countdown:


Three minutes. Two minutes, fifty nine seconds.

“There. Is that better?” Sechalin said, turning back to me. He made a small gesture with his hand at all the dead men around him. “Do you have that out of your system now, Baylor? The overwhelming desire to rush in, guns blazing, and to slaughter all those between you and your goal?”

“I’m going to give you one chance, Marshal,” I growled. “Disable STYX and surrender.”

He ignored me. “Truth be told, I’m glad you killed these men. They were loyal to the admiral whose blood is currently staining my coat. The fool was planning to overthrow me once this was all over. I find it more elegant to use your enemy to clean your own house, don’t you?”

Cradling the cane in the crook of an elbow, he smacked his hands against each other, as though dusting them off after hard labor.

“Yes. Now that that unpleasant business has been taken care of...”

Door banged open at the top of the pit, flooding light into the shadowy CIC. A score of Spetsnaz rushed in, every single one of their rifles aiming at my forehead. I felt the laser dots sweep over my cheeks, my forehead, before coming to trembling halts.

“Drop it!”

“Let go of the gun!”

“Drop the grenade!”

The grenade.

For, as they had busted into the room, I had withdrawn a special grenade I had stolen from the dead handler. A grenade only known to be used by WRAITH, a grenade specifically developed by the Paragon research facility.

An NX-22 nitrogen charge.


A nitrogen charge operated on the simple principles of water. When the charge was detonated, gouts of supercooled liquid nitrogen were sprayed out in every direction- though meant for enclosed spaces; the open area around us was well within the fifty meters radius of the bomb. You see, when water freezes, unlike most substances, it expands rather than contracting. So, what happened when you tossed supercooled liquid nitrogen on exposed skin? Total body haemorrhaging. Oh, they didn’t kill, but if you got hit with it, you’ve wished it had.

And right now my finger was depressed on the detonation switch with a two-second suicide lock.

“I’ve got my finger on the trigger with a two-second countdown!” I shouted, loud enough so everyone could hear. “If I drop this charge, I will take my finger off, this thing will go detonate, and none of you guys will live to see tomorrow!! Got it?”

Sechalin sighed and began to clap. “Well done, son. You used this tactic against General Carson five years ago, I believe. It was an inspired tactic. But now you have no Jack Ridley on your side. Your only companion is unconscious. Come now, let us talk like civilized gentlemen.

“We knew where you were the entire time, Captain Baylor,” Sechalin said, leaning easily against a nearby console. “You made a tremendous mistake in taking that second dose of e-meds. The Soviet-made nanites that allowed you to interface so perfectly with SICKLE back in Moscow were the very same we used to track you and your squad, to hear anything you or anyone around said, to pick any thought out of your mind at our will. Whenever you were within range of a communications node, STYX – what a wonderful name, by the way – could access your brain.”

“Sadly, we couldn’t kill you then and there, but what would be the point of that? Instead we listened to your inane plans and adjusted accordingly. Your ragtag group of Marines and Spetsnaz? Their attempt to take this command bridge will be unsuccessful. They will walk directly into a trap from which there will be no escape.”

I smirked. “You know Kroner is on his way to stabbing you in that back, right?”

Sechalin shrugged. “’Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; The center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ Yeats, if I remember correctly. Consider it for a second. The notion that the falconer is no long capable of commanding his falcon is particularly interesting to me. It suggests a nation no longer capable of controlling its most deadly weapon. The weapon has developed a mind of its own, realized its own deadly potential. It had outgrown its owner and attained dangerous independence.

“Now place this in the context of our current situation. Kiralova no longer commands SICKLE. The American cabal no longer possesses BLACK. And Kroner has no more command of me than the falconer has no the falcon.”

The irony here, after the events of the server ring, was so thick that you could eat it with a spoon.

Sechalin’s face began to twitch. The man was off, I tell you. Then it hit me: STYX most likely had been keeping Sechalin and his chief lieutenants informed through a wireless neural feed, almost like the ticker across the bottom of a CNN channel.

STYX was in there, actively blocking information into Sechalin’s mind. Crazy, huh? This was the biggest mosh-pit of craziness I had ever seen.

Tsking, Sechalin finally turned away, gesturing to his men. “STYX is about to take control of his mind. Keep your guns trained on him while he

Good strategy, I had been told, was like magic. Make your enemy look at one hand as you do something with the other.

“You made two mistakes, Sechalin,” I said. “I doubled back to a spot not in range of STYX’s sensors and hooked up with my squad. We used the mobile SICKLE hookup to modify your hold on me. You can read my thoughts, but I am in control of my own mind and can tell you whatever I damn well please. You underestimated me by an incredible degree.”

Sechalin’s facial twitches, I’m sure, weren’t because of STYX. This shit was real. “And the second?”

I dropped the Nitrogen charge to the floor and stepped down the tint on my visor to show Sechalin my face.

“The more important one, really. I. Am. Not. John Baylor.”


While Storm had Sechalin’s full attention, I rolled out from underneath the table and brought the grappler launcher to my shoulder. Attached to the end of the flat magnetic head was the Nitrogen Charge.

I fired the hook straight up into the air.

The grenade-topped hook splayed out, thirty feet into the air. Every eye followed the silvery arc until the projectile reached its apex… and detonated.

The nitrogen grenade didn’t exactly go off with a gigantic explosion, but with a welt, pulpy smack as the blue liquid was flung everywhere- into metal, which instantly became mega-brittle, into plastic, which shattered- and into exposed human flesh.

Disgusting lesions formed upon impacts, bursting within seconds. Skin paled as the bluish gel covered it, and no less than twenty soldiers fell to the deck, screaming in pain.

I rolled underneath the table a second later, just avoiding the layer of nitrogen that fell onto the bottom of the pit. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sechalin began covered under Storm as the cyborg tackled the Marshal under a nearby desk.

Screams echoed throughout the chamber as I pulled myself out from underneath the table, careful to avoid the puddles of fizzling nitrogen, before standing up.

Storm hauled Sechalin to his feet and shoved him to face my direction.

“God-damn, I never thought you would shut up. Now I guess it’s my turn to monologue.”

Sechalin’s jaw dropped. “But how?”

“That’s the right question, Marshal. But how. In the end, it’s all just a question of controlling information. All tragedies are based off of the characters not having the full picture. Let me paint your tragedy.”

I stepped up the stairs tracing up the descending circle and began to prowl the circumference, putting the writhing Separatist Spetsnaz out of their misery.

“SICKLE made a comment back in Moscow I found interesting. It’s about how the E-Meds contain nanites, so she can monitor my physical status. I later asked Muranov about the nanites, and he confirmed that, should someone overdose on nanites, one could follow the brain patterns that the nanites highlighted, basically allowing an AI to commune mentally with a soldier. It wasn’t mind-reading, mind, but it wasn’t exactly hard for an AI to pick up on speech and general intentions. The technology was experimental and being tested on the lower-level combat cyborgs for a true ‘uplink’ with SICKLE.

“I figured out the second I’d be injecting the second set of nanites I’d be an open book for STYX. So I knew I’d have to control my thoughts. We worked it all out in the repair bay, which was beyond STYX’s reach: I used the uplink with SICKLE to wirelessly connect with the Soviet AI. She showed couldn’t completely block you, but instead suggested we feed STYX misinformation. STYX was so overwhelmed in the chaos of trying to integrate itself that it couldn’t notice the little details… like brain patterns or the bloodstains on our armor.

“SICKLE had been trying to shove itself down STYX’s throat from the second you went rogue. You didn’t see this until I destroyed the main comm relay hours ago. So now you’ve been off-lining beta transmitters and microwave relays as fast as you can. You were keeping SICKLE at bay, but you were also crippling STYX’s ability to police the station. That’s how you weren’t able to warn Lennox, or see me coming.

“Then came Storm. Once I knocked him out, I met with my squad for about a minute before beginning the endgame. I dragged his body to the platoon, where I hooked Storm’s cybernetics up with the one remaining link SICKLE has to the station – the relay box all the assault teams each had in their possession. SICKLE knocked STYX out of Akamatsu’s mind and from there we had a plan. I stole the spacesuit from Storm’s dead handler so, with helmets on, we’d be nearly identical. The corpse provided all the blood we’d need. From there, we stripped down most of our weapons and prayed STYX wouldn’t spend any time comparing us.”

I finished my walk on the ledge behind Sechalin. I leaned over the console and put a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Good strategy is like magic. You didn’t think I’d detonate the charge because you thought the person you were talking to was a plain Marine, not an enhanced super-cyborg. Checkmate, bub.”

Sechalin looked stunned. The expression on his face was absolutely priceless. A million hits on Youtube if I had had a camera.

“B-but STYX had you! It saw your plan! Taking Cutler’s credentials to infiltrate the command deck and opening it up for your troops! We read! Your! Mind!”

I grimaced, and nodded to Storm. The cyborg fired a shot into the Marshal’s leg. “Turns out you don’t need to be a grand Marshal to play the game, bucko. I figured it out the second I left the Ministry. I’d been leading you on from the start. It couldn’t have been more obvious. You, not sending in troops after I laid out my plan, just so you could stab Kroner in the dick. You, actually thinking I had picked up some nonexistent credentials off of Cutler’s body. You were too busy mistrusting everyone that you actually believed Cutler had squirreled away inner ring lock codes!”

“You were a big enough twat to believe anything I thought, taking it at face value, after STYX told me that you guys could read my thoughts!”

His face grew even more shocked, and I laughed in his face. “You didn’t know? Geez, none of you morons get it, that each of you is planning on betraying the other? Mang!”

Sechalin stared at me for a long moment, before shaking his dead, perhaps like a dog, as though to clear it. Then he smiled. And it was the creepiest friggin’ smile I have ever seen. He pulled himself pack to his full height, with as much dignity as you can manage when both your legs are bum.

“For a man who preaches against genre conventions, Captain, you seemed to have talked too long. Time…” he gestured at the TIME TO COMPLETE INTEGRATION window, which was flashing 0:00:00 – “has run out.”

“Well, damn,” I said, circling to face him opposite the room, in a spot where I could easily dive for cover if things went south. My gun tapped lightly against the side of my thigh. “You got me there.”

“And in a second, my troops will have marshaled themselves enough retake this bridge. So kill me now, or forever hold your peace.”

“Hell, Storm, I think he’s got us,” I responded. “False checkmate. It’s not as if this show in the command deck – not bridge, this is a space station – is just one big ploy to get your remaining forces away from the Brain Room, eh?”

Storm leaned over and flicked some monitors over to the security cameras, turning the dial randomly until he pulled up an image a white room with a familiar red pillar at the center, looking like it belonged to HAL from 2001. A score of soldiers – Volkner’s Space Marines, Solzhenitsyn’s Spetsnaz, and my Marines manned the entrances of the room. Corpses were strewn randomly across the floor, blood arcs artistically painting the otherwise pristine interior of the brain room.

Fender crouched by the pillar, typing rapidly on a laptop connected to a thrumming blue cube – the SICKLE transmitter – that was in turn linked by a thick cable to a universal port in the central interface. He waved absently at the camera in acknowledgement, and Volkner entered the screen, wrenching the camera to face him. Baring his teeth in a humorless smile, he flashed the camera a rude gesture before smacking it around to face obstinately at the floor.

“You were saying, man?” I turned back to Sechalin. “No, wait, let me finish that.”

Storm cocked the revolver against Sechalin’s head with timing no mere mortal could have possessed.

“Tell you men to stand down,” I continued. “And no one more need be killed on the station.”

“Not even me, John Baylor; after all I have been responsible for?” Sechalin responded with a hint of disbelief in his voice.

“Believe it,” I said. “I’ve already killed one helpless man today; I’d like to avoid adding a second. No, Kiralova needs you to stand trial if she is truly is to differentiate herself from your junta.”

Bateau came in over the radio. “Sir, SICKLE’s in. I repeat, SICKLE’s in. Point-dee is down and our Soviet friends tell us Kiralova’s sending in the missiles in about fives minutes.”

I tapped the mike implanted in my ear. STYX was in no placed to listen along now. “Cutting it close, is she? Make your way to the escape pod. We need an exit open.”

Leaning back against console, I regarded Sechalin. He looked like a man who had lost everything, standing there, disheveled, his once pristine coat now rumpled and streaked with crimson. His face was dejected, eyes downcast. I knew he was assessing himself in much the same manner I was. I had waltzed in here and taken the rug out from underneath his feet. He couldn’t flee. One leg was bum, the other trickling blood in a small pool onto the floor. He supported himself solely with the cane, the cane that held all of his electronics.

Oh man.

Sechalin glanced back at me. And I saw his eyes had not lost a single iota of their predatory malice. It was all there, from what I remembered from that first conversation in the cargo plane. The emptiness was still swirling in there, that black hole of blue-grey calculation. And there was something else in there. Red. Rage, anger at all I had done. Sadness, at the demolition of his plans.

And excitement of a new plan forming in the mind behind those eyes.

Storm didn’t see the Sechalin flick the second switch on the head of cane, didn’t see the robotic arm descend from the ceiling. I was on my feet, sucking in a breath to shout – but the arm was too fast.

The metal boon crashed across Storm’s back, knocking him to the floor just as Sechalin flicked the head on his cane at an angle and drew a straight-bladed sword from the outer wooden sheath, slashing a black sweep across Storm’s face, sending the cyborg flopping backwards onto the far computer station, over it, and onto the next floor.

By this time my pistol was centered on Sechalin’s chest, but the Marshal was already cavorting on whatever pent-up reserve of energy he had left. His coat whirled, and my double-tap caught nothing but fabric as Sechalin hammered his hand down on a keyboard containing what was probably the Russian version of [Y/N?]. The screen flashed white three times….

And then the entire bottom floor of the pit, corpses, Sechalin, and all, dropped like a rock out of sight.

GODDAMMIT. Scrambling to catch Storm before he fell into the shaft, I yanked the wounded cyborg off the precipice and peered down the shaft. Sechalin waved at me just as a metal hatch swirled shut between us. A beat later, the floor thrummed as something rocketed away from the station.

The entire bottom level of the command deck had been an elevator to an escape pod! Storm groaned and swiped the blood out of his face, rolling to his feet.

The fucking homicidal robotic arm swung around to take another pass at us.

Storm had lost his pistol in the chaos of Sechalin’s escape, but his wrist blade slotted silently into place as he slashed in diagonally upward, cleaving the arm in two at the elbow joint in a shriek of metal. The limb spun away, sparkling, impacted against the hanging computer monitor, where both exploded in a shower of sparks that disappeared into the empty shaft below.

“C’mon!” he snarled at me. “We’ve got a platoon of angry Separatists between us and the escape pods. Let’s move!”


I began to clamber clumsily up the stairwell to the top ring of the command deck, slipping on bodies and brittle armor that shattered under the pressure of my hands and feet. The stupid nitrogen charge was working against me now.

A red-clad Separatist appeared at the doorway leading into the bridge, command deck –sod off – gave a shout, and shifted his rifle to take aim at me.

Storm was faster. The ex-WRAITH cyborg leapt bodily over me, over the commando, and landed lightly behind him. There was a snicker-snatck and the soldier fell over, three stabs wounds piercing his back.

I glanced down at the body and back up at Storm a couple times. Boy, was I glad he was one my side for now. That guy had more ”snikt, bub” that Wolverine.

“Go!” I yelled. “Go go go!”

We sprinted down the corridor, our boots rattling along the metal. I heard more shouts and saw shadows pacing the walls behind us as the Separatists chased us like we Han Solo and Chewbacca trying to escape the Death Star.

“How much time!” Storm yelled as we leapt down an open elevator – turbolift? – shaft, crash-tackling the wires, and swinging down a floor to a corridor lined with escape pods.

“Three minutes, but we need to get out of range of the missi- down!!” I tripped Storm, and we both fell as I we came face to face with my remaining allies, arrayed across the hallway like a firing line.

The first two Separatists that edged out from the corner behind us were eviscerated by a dozen lasers.

Solzhenitsyn paced down the firing lines, barking out targets before uncorking two flashbangs and straight-arming them in an arc over our heads. “Fire in the hole!” he shouted.

I buried my face into the floor as a blinding flash and sprak of thunder left my ears ringing. Someone grabbed me by the collar – I saw it was Mary, hauling both me and Storm, what a gal, into the nearest escape pod. Fender was firing precisely over my shoulder before leaping into through the hatch behind me.

A grenade sailed into the escape pod behind him.

We all turned to stare at it for a millisecond, before Storm dived to the floor, scooped up the explosive, and pitched it out of the pod just as Mary simultaneously hit the eject button, closing the hatch as the grenades sailed out of it with inches to spare.

Acceleration twisted my gut as the craft was ejected from the heart of MIR with two fellows, containing Volkner’s and Solzhenitsyn’s remaining men. Pulling myself sluggishly into a crash couch, I strapped myself groggily and rested my head silently against the back of my helmet.

Mary leaned in next to me and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Hey, John, it’s okay. Take a breath. Deep breath. You made it.”

“Did we make it?” I asked, turning my eyes to meet hers. Blood had dried from where it had dripped across one brow, but otherwise her face was clean, clear, and full of sympathy.

At once, I winced inwardly at my words. I had asked the same question to Alder when we had escaped the Paragon some six years ago.

“Aye, we made it,” he said, clasping my hand. “Come, let’s watch the light show.”

I glanced at my watch. Some hundred seconds left. Stretching in place to see out the porthole, I watched the bleeding, smoking MIR recede from view. What once was a giant atom floating in space was now torn to hell. Entire rings were missing, atmosphere vented with the occasional gout of flame, and fighters swarmed away in ever increasing radii. I wondered if MIR still had any tricks up its sleeves.

“Everything worked out okay?” I asked her.

“Very much so, thanks to you and Storm. Whatever you hijinks you pulled in the command deck, a good two thirds of the troops garrisoned in front of the Brain Room went running. All that was left were these like meter-high robots and a skeleton crew. Robots had some mean bite, but we managed to disorient them by tossing cargo containers at them. Cargo containers filled with grenades. Worked like a charm.”

I offered my fist to her. She stared at it, unsure of what to do. I took her hand and rapped her knuckles against mine. “Welcome to the crew, Miss MacTaggert.”

Fender tapped me on the shoulder. “Incoming call from another escape pod.”

I nodded. “Volkner? The Spetsnaz?”

“No,” Fender said. He jerked his head, trying to settle his glasses higher up on his nose. “It’s Sechalin.”

Everyone went quiet, gazing at me. They hadn’t seen what had gone down in the command room or the hangar, they just knew I had talked into a complete death trap, twice, and murdered everyone else in the room. The whole PALE HORSE callsign was literally their image of me. They would follow me into hell and back – but it had also separated them from me. I have broken some level of camaraderie by running my own missions.

I made eye contact with each one in turn. Storm, a silent outsider, sitting apart from the platoon, tilted his head slightly, understanding my predicament. Me going head-to-head with Sechalin one more time would only drive home my separation, placing me on the level of gods and generals.

I let out an explosive sigh. “Tell him to stick it. He knows where.”

A female voice rolled in over the com of the pod, a full and thoughtful laugh. “That’ll hardly be necessary, Captain. I think I’ll handle the job, thank you,” said Nadya Kiralova.

Thank God for Communists. Timing, it always comes down to timing.

The radio squawked. “Well, Marine?” asked Sechalin, his voice tinny over the comm. “Are you going to connect me with your commander?”

“He’ll do one better,” said Kiralova, using some of that SICKLE magic to patch herself into our comm. “Hello, Iosef.”

Fender tapped a couple keys on a nearby armrest before settling into a comfortable crash couch, stretching his legs in the spacious circular pod. Sechalin’s voice, when it responded, sounded over the intercom. “Ha-ha, Nadya. I see the good Captain lets women fight his battles for him.”

“One would guess he figured that, after his display on MIR, it was someone else’s turn to hand you your rear,” Kiralova shot back.

“There,” Mary said, pointing randomly out of the porthole. “Sechalin’s pod. It’s being covered by that swarm of drone Firebird drones.”

I had to work to see it, but I made out the silver coin tumbling in a descending orbit.

“Is this how it’s going to be, Nadya?” Sechalin asked, his voice utterly relaxed. “You send in your starfighters and arrest me in low orbit?”

“No,” Kiralova said, tone equally lazy. “You may have missed the trial, but you’re not leaving your pod.”

“Judge, jury, and executioner, eh?” Sechalin said, his smirk soaking in through the speakers. “You’re only confirming everything I’ve sa-”

“Oh, shut it,” Kiralova cut it. “The judge was John Baylor. He, an outsider, derided your motives on first contact. The jury was, fittingly, the Soviet people. Your violent coup in Moscow left hundreds dead in the wreckage.”

“And does that leave you to be the executioner, Kiralova?” Sechalin asked.

“Not really…” Kiralova said, trailing off. “Have a nice cruise, Marshal.”

“Cruise?” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Oh. I see what she did there.”

“What?” Bateau asked.

“And the rocket’s red glare…” I hummed, pointing out the window, as a dozen cruise missiles arced over the horizon, backlit by the reappearing sun. The flare of the star forced me to step up my polarization, but I clearly saw the smoky contrails of the humongous missiles as they streaked across the edge of the atmosphere.

Each rod from god was a hundred feet long, a sleek, silver bullet, all aimed at MIR.

“No!” Sechalin screamed. “No, you bitch!”

“And everyone will know you died crying like a little boy. Who’s the bitch now?” Kiralova asked.

The missiles detonated right on top of MIR. No less than twelve fireballs ballooned momentarily in space, shooting the area with color – red, orange, and blurred blue-white in a heartbeat, enveloping MIR, the separatist fighters, and the prison containing Marshal Iosef Sechalin in one fell swoop. Plasma chained across MIR as shockwaves tossed it about; internal explosion chained through the station as it tore itself apart, discharging bolts of lightning the arced along hundred-meter wide half-halos of broken rings that chain into nearby shops.

The entire area became a roiling cloud of fire and smoke and static charges that swept over most everything in sight. Su-47 starfighters flashed white-hot and vaporized like gnats. The entire thunderhead of superheated and pressurized gas ballooned outward to engulf everything it could, melting hulls and consuming anything in its path.

Almost as quickly as they appeared, the fireballs cooled and dissipated, but ejected debris continued outward, leaving comet trails, and impacted anything too close to the epicenter. Only swathes of smoke, shrapnel, and dust were left sparkling in the wake.

I dropped back into my couch. “If he dies, he dies.”


“Send out a pulse to get a handle on any friends still living – wait, belay that,” I said. “There are probably still seppies out there. Let’s keep our heads down for now.”

I sank further into the couch, holding my throbbing head, staring idly out the porthole. Red sunlight spilled over the edge of the blue globe below. Battered shuttles and fighters maneuvered aimlessly, plate armor scored and scorched. Random lances of laser fire blinked momentarily in the diminishing night, red lances heating and detaching into similarly aimless ships.

The mop-up action continued silently, and the squad watched with without a word. We didn’t know who was killing whom; we could only observe as the slow-dance carnage drifted away from us. I paused in my thoughts. We were moving.

“Signal coming in,” Fender reported wearily. “Someone’s routing a landing vector in for our pod.”

“Kiralova guiding us in for a landing? Sending us back home?” I asked, too tired to sit up.

“Looks that way. Identity tags check out. Here, let me run a triangulation on the coordinates…” He trailed off, brow furrowed.

“What is it?” I asked, sitting up and pulling myself out of my mental drudgery.

Storm peered at the screen Fender was hunched over. “Looks like we’re popping out somewhere near the Ukraine. Kiev, it looks like.”

“Holy crap,” one of my soldiers, Corporal Li, said, in sudden realization. “That’s the Chernobyl exclusion zone.”

I gulped. After the Chernobyl disaster in April of 1986, the Zhadanova and the USSR had set up a thirty-klick ‘zone of alienation,’ covering the irradiated areas. Two red blotches were marked out on my world map back at home – one around the Belaran/Russian border, and another on the Belaran border with Ukraine, where the plant was location. The contamination was uneven, the haphazard burial of decon materials in the wake of the disaster unmarked and still pulsing. MVS agents from Ukraine patrolled the edges of the zone carefully, but numerous squatters lived in the abandoned ghost towns that dotted the area.

The central plant, however, continued to operate until 2000 due to massive power demands from the expanding Soviet infrastructure. It wasn’t until the sweeping rebuilding of the country’s power system that Kiralova ordered the plant to cease operations in December of 2000, though workers continued to labor towards the decommissioning of the reactors, which wasn’t expected to be done until the 2060s.

Storm slammed a fist down onto a nearby bulkhead, denting it. “The plant belongs to WRAITH. We bought it from Sechalin back in 2006 and have been rebuilding it ever since. It was meant to serve as the replacement for the base nuked in Cambodia, but it’s not finished yet. Still, it’s a major hub for the nuclear branch of WRAITH – Kroner’s been using the reactors to innovate his own set of nuclear warheads, as well as generate power for his own research activities.”

“Bet’s is,” I said, “Kroner or one of his lieutenants survived the fracas and is looking for revenge on PALE HOURSE squad. Options.”

“We try the whole Wookie Gambit thing again,” said Fender. “Storm could escort us off-site if they believe we’re his prisoners or have gone over to his side.”

“I’d have to cover my face, which would never fly,” I said. “Bets are no WRAITH honcho would believe Mary or I would have joined the other team. Especially me.”

“Moreover,” Storm added, “it wouldn’t be too far an assumption to believe STYX or some of the Separatist were able to broadcast my new colors before MIR went up in flames. Word travels fast, and paranoia is SOP around WRAITH.”

“Okay, scratch that,” said Mary. “What sort of weapons are on this tub? We’re low on ammo and I honestly would rather have FMJ death on my side than those three-round revolvers on my side.”

The squad spread out and began to inspect the circular pod for any weapons lockers. It didn’t take more than a couple seconds before PFC Graham ripped out the panel Storm has smashed with a his fist a minute before. With a yank, he rolled out a two-meter long rack of An-94 5.54mm rifles. Two rows of rifles were stacked side by side, with three magazines under each rifle. I counted twelve rifles with thirty six clips total.

Mounted underneath the apex of the triangular stand was a pair of Dragunovs, which was excellent. Both of my squad’s sharpshooters – Li and Graham had survived. In addition to the sniper rifles were two rocket propelled grenades. I had no doubt we’d be facing armor on the ground if worst inevitably came to worst

Besides, the RPGs would literally be the only way we could potentially harm BLACK if Kroner showed up.

“Fender,” I said. “I know you’re near the limits of our vast skill, but I need you to find some way to break this lock, or at least find some leeway for us to control our landing within the set range. Mary, help him reconnect with SICKLE if we can. We may have left the array on board MIR, but I’m sure there’s some sort of emergency comm on this bucket.”

“Graham, Li,” I continued, motioning at the weapons. “Take an inventory and make sure everyone is loaded up before we set down. I didn’t see any grenades or explosives beyond the RPGs, so keep my apprised.”

“You got it,” said Graham, tossing off a half salute.

Pointing at the remnants of Fletcher’s squad, I pointed to the opposite side of the pod. “Pillsbury, O’Brien, Hawley. I’m not sure, but I think that’s another terminal slotted down into the wall over there-”

“It is, sir,” confirmed Fender without looking up.

“-Okee-dokey, then. Pull up the specifications or a user manual on this pod for Fender. From there, liaise with Storm and get all the info you can about WRAITH’s modifications to Chernobyl. We’ll need a map of the facility and the surrounding area if we’re to escape. Highlight weak points, I’m not walking out of a WRAITH facility without severely ruining its shit.”

I turned back to Fender. “Pete, where’s the comm line?”

Mary answered for the PFC. “The transmitter is located in the room, with antenna around the circumference on the ceiling.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Private Zelie, you’re our comm expect, if I so believe. Once O’Brien’s team has some schematics, take Private Staub see how you can work with Fender to reattune the transmission array to specifically contact MI6 or President Skye back home. We’ll need an evac screw lined up for our best-case egress.”

The pod exploded into motion. I knelt near Fender and Mary. “Have Volkner’s or the Spetsnaz’s pods been caught in the net?”

“Negative,” Mary said, glancing at an arc-like mapping of the pod’s location over the Earth that Fender had situated in the top right corner of his screen. There pods were ejected from the other side of MIR and were taking an opposite entry vector from us. Whoever’s weaving this array, they missed them entirely.”

“So we’re on our own then. How did I not see that coming,” I commented dryly. “Everyone,” I called over the din. “Drop you armor. We’ll be doing a lot of sprinting out there, and your armor is mostly rated to deflect laser fire, not bullets. It’ll only slow you down.”

“Sir,” said Zelie, snapping off a salute, “I think we got off a message on the NATO frequency, but I’m not entirely sure. There’s a smart virus on our pod that’s knocking out our access system by system.”

Private Staub showed me a charred motherboard. Whiffs of acrid smoke curled into my nose. “We hit send, and this thing went up a second later.”

“Got a sat-maps,” announced O’Brien. I hurried over to his console, settling down to Storm’s left.

I tapped the screen, spinning the images around so I could view them. The four main reactors of the complex were off to one end of the base, with sprawling, low-slung buildings extending northward from the plant. The fourth reactor, I knew, was encased in a stone sarcophagus to prevent further escape of radiation in the aftermath of the meltdown.

The entire base was essentially a rectangular plot of land, with a water way ringing the south and east sides. The east side, buttressed by a meager peninsula, opened up into a large lake. A pair of thin, towering cooling towers stood in the center of it all, keeping silent watch.

What had formerly been parking lots surrounding the north and west fences had been cleared out and expanded to accommodate the main WRAITH base, with the entire affair enclosed from the regrown forest by ten-foot walls.

“It looks lie the helipad’s here,” I said, highlighting a spot at the northeast corner of the plant. “Where’s the pod dropping us down?”

“On the southwest corner, sir,” said Fender. “Looks like a parade ground, where they can marshal all their forces.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said, scratching the whiskers on my chin. “How much leeway do we have with the external thrusters?”

“They’re on manual operation. I managed to reroute the controls before the virus got to them,” Fender said. “We’ll be able to shift our drop spot, but not by much.”

“Sir,” Li said. “I think I found parachutes.”

“I love it when a plan comes together,” I growled in my mock-A-Team voice. “Fender, I want this pod dropped directly onto reactor complex. We’re not going down with it. See how these shits like a rock from god.”


The air whipped my words away as I shouted to my nine other teammates. Crouched on top of the rapidly descending pod, we each held onto a cord of the parachute. “Alright!” I bellowed. “Base jumping 101! Cut, leap, stabilize, pop chute! You have no room for error, so rip the cord ASAP!”

I adjusted the parachute around my shoulders and the rifle strapped to my chest one last time before raising my knife high. My men, Mary, and Storm did the same with survival blades procured from the gutted pod.

“Two, one, mark!” I screamed.

As one, we hacked the parachute’s tethers free from the conic escape pod. Our strikes were perfect – each line severed on the first. There was an almighty twang and the pods dropped away beneath us, whipping lines missing any chance as dismemberment by inches. For a brief second, every soldier hung in the air, buoyed as they each clung to a dangling line of the parachute.

Then the chute folded. I shoved away – as much as you could shove away from a limp rope – and rolled in midair, hands immediately reaching for my ripcord. Gloves encircled red plastic, and gave the handle a hearty tug. With a whoomph my chute spooled out behind me and, with a jerk, I my plummet was arrested.

PALE HORSE squad was arrayed in a tight arc across the sky, some thousand feet above Chernobyl. A bit low; the landing would be painful. I watched silently as the pod impacted the tiny dots of buildings a second later with a miniscule puff of dust and smoke. I had no idea if I had impacted any of the active reactors, but whoever was down there in the WRAITH camp sure had to be surprised.

Tugging on the orange lines on either side of the chute, I angled my fall inward, closing the grouping with my Marines while cautiously avoiding approaching too close, lest I cross strings with an unfortunate teammate.

I gauged landing options, and groaned inwardly before tapping my ear radio. “We’re going to have to drop on the center of plant, men. I don’t think we’ll be able to make the helipad. Suck it up, we’re slogging through.”

The ground began to rush up to meet me with alarming speed. What was once a speck on the vast earth was now a hastily expanding and totally incomprehensible layout of buildings. A large building, the main reactor complex, ran almost the entire length of the south border of the original rectangular plant. I noted a long, jagged furrow down its north side – where the pod has spectacularly crashed.

Cries floated up from the southwest parade ground. I spun my head around to see arrayed tanks, APCs, and entire platoons of mercenaries pointing in our direction, picking up and trundling over to our landing spot. One mobile AAA gun began to thud-thud-thud as its cannons whirred. Flak exploded all around us.

One shell passed clear through Storm’s chute with a silent puff. A blink-second later his pristine canopy was a tattered mess, shredded and whipping in every direction. About fifty feet above me, he angled his body to that he swooped towards me, looping a hand around my harness.

He glanced down. His impact has doubled my rate of descent. “Can’t talk long. You put everything down on the line for me back in MIR. Now it’s my turn. Get your men out of here.”

“Ryuhei, no-” I managed to say before he leapt off me, dropping the last fifty feet, tucking into a ball, and tumbling onto the roof. He hit with a crack – it looked like he was dead – and then he picked himself up, racking the slide of his rifle as he slid his wrist blade into place.

The first mercenary appeared on the far western end of the reactor complex and gave a shout, raising his firearm.

Storm was faster, rat-a-tat. Three red bursts of blood tracked up the man’s side as he was flung off the side of the roof.

A dozen more soldiers appeared. Storm leapt forward into them, disappearing into their ranks as he crash-tackled the entire squad off the precipice and out of sight. Goddammit!

Looking back at my landing spot, I saw we couldn’t be able to clear the reactor complex in time. I was going to drop straight through the gash in the roof. Signaling to the rest of my group, and I angled my chute to avoid the jagged edges of the crater.

I didn’t hack it. Turns out parachuting isn’t exactly my specialty?

My chute caught on a twisted piece of protruding rebar, jerking me to a stop and nearly crushing my ribs in the harness. My vision went black for a second, but I managed to make out of squad dropping past me.

Before I decided to cut my chute lines, I checked below me, and gasped.

The pod had bashed through not one but two reinforced stone containment layers, liberally showering the space below in boulder-sized debris. I saw a third layer crumble continuously beneath my eyes – into a massive pool of water covered with stretching catwalks and hundreds of spiking control rods. Blue-tinged Cherenkov radiation filtered up from the basin, fasting everything in an eerie light.

Voice screamed in English over unseen loudspeakers.

“Shit, SCRAM the reactor, go, go, go!”

“Loss of cooling, that fucking meteor just obliterated the cooling shaft!”

“Shunting radiation into building six! We’ve got maybe thirty minutes until the entire thing busts!”

“Goddamn, that’s a negative void coefficient! Dump the core!”

I watched, dangling from the ceiling, as the reactor cores were jettisoned deeper into the boiling pools of water, covered by closing metal blast doors.

Surveying the floor below, I say my squad had managed to spin their falls so they landed on the side edges of the hole in the containment layer. Guns came up as the perimeter was secured.

“Action on deck!” Bateau shouted as an elevator at the far end of the smoke-filled room dinged, the doors opening and disgorging a fireteam of WRAITH mercenaries.

Eight rifles snapped up in respond, spiting tongues of fire. The enemy soldiers danced bloodily in place, red painting the metal back wall of the lift as their bodies were reduced to meaty pulps.

Ding. Ding. Ding.


Four more elevators opened. Ooooh shit.

No less than twenty mercenaries flooded into the collapsing hallway.

My fingers scrabbled at the chute release, and I dropped lightly to the concrete below. The loose structure gave way under my feet, and I fell through.

Mary’s hand shot out of nowhere and grabbed me by the collar beyond I could plummet into the reactor pool below.

“Hate for you to take a dive, Baylor,” she growled as the she pulled me up – with one hand, what a beast – while firing her rifle with her other hand, expert aim tossing out bursts into bogies before they could find cover behind massive chunks of gravel.

I rolled over as I regained my perch on the more solid containment dome, jerking my legs underneath my and popping into a crouch in a practiced acrobatic move. Pistoning up into a standing position, I sprayed my fire in a suppressive pattern as the mercenaries made another surge forward.

“PALE HORSE!” I yelled. “Fall back, suppression pattern delta!”

My makeshift squad began to retreat in a leap-frog pattern, a fireteam taking up cover and laying down expert shots to cover the opposite team as they fled.

I found a pipe the size of a redwood, dripping green coolant and unknown liquids, and took cover behind it.

To find myself facing an INTEGRAL TEMPEST.

The cyborg held an SMG in one armored fist and a wicked combat knife in the other. Red eyes glared out from a smooth helmet as the cyborg shot and swung at the same time.

I sidestepped the burping sparks of jacketed death whizzing by my torso, and ducked under the knife, placing my rifle against the gut of the cyborg. Lights flashed in the shadows of the overlarge pipe as I drove the suit physically backwards.

The INTEGRAL TEMPEST found itself backed against a wall. Placing one massive boot against the vertical surface, it pushed back off, its impulse essentially reversing my momentum with one swift motion that cratered the wall behind it.

It shoved back just as my rifle went dry.

I slid backwards twenty feet across the rough ground, my boots heating beneath my feet as I flew backwards like a hockey puck.

In this brief half-second the TEMPEST managed to swap its magazine, rack the slide, and caught me in its sights.

A rocket-propelled grenade swooshed over my shoulder, fired by Private Staub. A laser-line of smoke traced behind it as the projectile streak towards the cyborg’s midsection.

The TEMPEST moved faster than I could follow, swiping the grenade from the air. It caught it. The operator seemed surprised by it too, and held the grenade in front of it, tilting it from side to side in exultation aimed directly at me.

It moved to toss the RPG shell to the side – the grenade was only a meter out of his hand when it detonated, a flash-fireball that scorched the TEMPEST’s right side and sent it stumbling to one side, away from the wall.

I began to fire my reloaded An-94 into the TEMPEST’s neck, sending it twitching under the annoying drone of pinging automatic fire.

It spun under the assault, lifted its SMG, and had me dead to rights.

Corporal Li, PFC Pillsbury, and Private Hawley came out of nowhere, collectively tacking the towering cyborg around its waist.

The INTEGRAL TEMPEST wailed its arms, trying to dislodge its assailants, but could only backpedal rapidly under the combined assault.

The entire group entered into the open, but the bulky armored suit caught any and all incoming fire in a lightshow of trajectory sparks. Reaching the edge of the massive gap in the containment shield, my men gave one final shove to the TEMPEST before breaking left and right to cover. With an electronic wail, the TEMPEST fell some five stories into the radioactive pool below. It sunk like a rock.

“Trippy,” I muttered.

The elevators chimed one more.

Five additional INTEGRAL TEMPESTS stepped out of the bank.

Time to run.


So, the Paragon had managed to sell some of the man-sized suits to WRAITH before Farley tried to trash the connection between MIDNIGHT and the terrorist organization. It didn’t surprise me that Blue Light wasn’t the only group to utilize the cyborgs, but goddamn now wasn’t the time.

“Fall back!” I screamed again, covering the trio of my Marines as they sprinted back into the opposite end of the room, back to where my PALE HORSE had coalesced.

A window looked over the grounds below; Mary shattered it with the butt of her rifle as O’Brien tossed a line of rope through the new escape route, tying one end off around a chunk of rubble.

Mary took the line first, skizzing out of sight and establishing a secure landing area below by shooting two fleeing scientists in their asses. Their sprinting forms wildly face-planted and skidded as she turned, without looking at the results, and waved us down.

“Get going!” I shouted, waving my Marines through. They dropped through in pairs, until I was the only one left. Cutting the rope with my kukri, I swan dived bodily out of the window and into the interlaced fingers of four of my men, who caught my easily and a fireman’s hold and lowered me to the ground.

Together we sprinted down twisting alleyways and under overhead walkways, fleeing the burning fires and screams of the collapsing reactor complex behind us.

The rising sun cast long shadows as we melted forward from dark line to amorphous inkspot, the sounds of the chaos receding behind us.

A wide roadway led underground into a multi-tiered vehicle depot. Li sighted and headshotted the pair of guards as we moved past a modest checkpoint into the cool concrete motor pool.

I put my hands on my knees, breathing hard. “Jesus,” I said. “You guys here those loudspeakers?”

“Hells yeah,” Bateau said. “That pod shot the place through the heart. It’s a goddamn deathtrap.”

I nodded over heaving breaths. “There was an experiment back in the late nineties that involved crashing an F-108 Rapier Jet into the side of a simulated containment wall. Didn’t make but a three-inch dent. What the hell happened here?”

“We cut the chute on a pod twice as large a Phantom from a couple thousand feet in the air and dropped it on the very apex of the building. I tell you what happened. We didn’t just drop a 747 on the place,” Fender said, catching his breath. “We dropped an asteroid on it. Reactors aren’t built to withstand kinetic strikes of that magnitude.”

I straightened up and examined the motor pool. There were a row of jeeps fitted with machine gun turrets, as well as a rack of motorbikes and, against the far wall, a row of light armored vehicles – IFVs, APCs, LBTs, and any other ridiculous name displaying the military’s compulsive need to give everything an acronym.

We moved out, sweeping around corners, but found no more resistance the descending garage. The only illumination were widely spaced lights that cast long, threatening shadows.

The air deck was on the bottom level – a pair of F-116 Pit Vipers sat in one corner with folded wings, noses facing the wall.

And there – parked on a piston-powered internal elevator that seemed to ring familiar of the Paragon – was a fat Hind D, complete with dangerous laser node mounted on the tip of its nose.

“That’s our ticket out of here,” Mary said, sighing. “C’mon, let’s sabotage the Vipers so they can’t pursue us.”

As a couple marines moved to follow her, I stopped and frowned.

“This is all wrong,” I said under my breath.

Fender, closest, stopped in his tracks. “What, sir?”

“Storm’s still out there,” I responded. “You want to know why we aren’t drowning in INTEGRAL TEMPESTS and mercenaries? Storm’s still out there, covering our butts. He’s laying down his life for ours.”

“Then, for god’s sake,” Mary hissed. “Let’s not let his sacrifice be in vain!”

“No,” I snapped, cutting a hand through the air. Something hard and resolute solidified in my gut. “I’m not losing another man. Not one more. This all ends here.”

“How do you intend to go back out there?” Mary, asked, stunned. “It’s suicide. This place is crawling with bogies, we’ll be cut down before we even take two steps!”

I checked over my An-94 with absent-minded nonchalance. “Not one more member of my platoon is going to die today, or, for that matter, as long as I live.” The two-thirds empty clip clattered to the cement, and I fed a new mag in.

“What, because you said so?” she asked, exasperated.

I racked the slide on my rifle. “No. Because I believe in it. All this time, people from all different sides have been pushing me to join their team, to betray my group. And I turned them down. Not because I love America, but because I believe my oath is towards something far deeper than simple politics. I’ve made too many sacrifices, had too many of my men die to let this game go on any further. I haven’t been there to protect my men. But this all ends now.”

“Are you crazy?” Mary asked. “BLACK is out there! They’re going to kill us!”

I walked crisply over to the Pit Viper and slashed the hydraulic lines on the extended landing gear. Oil leaked into the ground. “And I guarantee a week won’t go by in your life when you won’t regret walking out, letting them get the best of you. Well, I not going home. We’ve gone too far! The line must be drawn here! No farther. I’m not going to just walk away when I’m standing on WRAITH’s headquarters. I’m going to burn this place down to the ground, and leave with every single on of my men alive.”

Striding over to a jeep, I kicked a door open. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. You’re going to fight harder than you’ve ever fought before. You are Marines, you grit your teeth and get tougher than the world around you. Failure is not an option. Know we have the chance to end it, right here and now. Deliver WRAITH a blow that would take it years from which to recover. Do it for you country. Do it for your family. Do it for each other. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, it’s happening right here. All I want from you is all you’ve got.

“Let them know we are United States Marines. They will know what we can do! Believe when I say that we can do this, we will do this, and we will all return home. Right now, I’m going to drive into the center of Chernobyl, get Storm out alive, and walk back out. I’m going to find Malcolm Kroner and punch him in the face. I’m going to destroy SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK when it shows its face. I’m going to break WRAITH’s back. Join me, and you won’t be heroes. You’ll be brothers in arms! You’ll be Marines! Now who’s with me?!”

“Ooo-rah,” said Bateau, crossing over the concrete in two long strides and mantling the machine gun turret.

“We’ll post on top of the garage,” said Graham, nudging Li. “We’ll have your back the entire way.”

Fender nodded. “Pillsbury and I can handle those motorbikes, provide the front edge of the convoy.”

I fixed Mary with a piercing look.

She motioned to the Stryker. “I’m the only one here who’s rated to drive the thing.”

That’s the spirit,” I growled. “Staub, O’Brien, and Hawley you’re with the lady. Zelie, you’re shotgun with me.”

I thumbs the activation stub at the base of the armored jeep’s steering stalk. The engine came to life with a hearty roar.

“PALE HORSE, we’re oscar mike!” I shouted as the various other vehicles started up around me.

Tapping the gas pedal, I gunned the jeep out of its place in the bay, fishtailing around a corner and up the ramp. Fender and Pillsbury spat past on bikes, wheels sending up a fishtail of smoke and dust. Together, we emerged into the sunlight of the open landing pad.

A true meteor dropped in the ground in front of us.

It struck the ground like a black-and-grey lightning bolt, throwing up a fifty-foot high pluming into the air in front of us as I twisted the jeep’s wheel, spinning it around the impact crater and behind it, spinning to a flash-stop.

Red eyes alit in the swirling haze, and with one massive sweep of its tattered wings, SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK swept the smoke away like a curtain as it crouched like a linebacker in a twenty-foot basin it had carved.

“BAYLOR!!” Kroner creamed, voice amplified by BLACK’s speakers. “It’s not over yet! Not by a LONG SHOT!!”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I growled. “Let’s go.”


I gunned the jeep forward, soaring over the edge of the crater as I aimed for BLACK’s legs – the mech twisted itself bodily and launched itself over my soaring jeep, backflipping over the flying car.

My jeep trundled hard back to the earth as I hauled on the wheel rapidly. Bateau hammered hard on the machine gun, a line of tracers careening every which way off of BLACK’s armor. Zelie swore, and began to clamber half-out of the jeep so as to fire his RPG with a clear backblast area.

Fender and Pillsbury gunned past, their bikes tilted at impossible angles as they flanked BLACK on opposite sides, machine guns harassing the mighty robot.

I kept tugging on the wheel, but sensed the strike coming with well-honed reflexes and slammed on the brakes. The jeep almost flipped, but nearly stopped on a dime, just as BLACK’s hand flowered open and tossed a laser in front of us. The right wheel of the jeep dipped into a pothole, and the entire vehicle bucked, end up, pivoting around the wheel. Spinning the wheel, I pulled a trick from Lennox’s book and touched the jeep against nearby wall. The vehicle rebounded, landing on all fours and flying off the mark straight at the exposed back of the SHADOW TEMPEST.

Kroner spun his suit around, unleashing a dozen laser bolts with a flick of his hand. Bateau swept his machine gun in a wide arc, intercepting the arcs of energy with a curtain of lead. Fireworks popped as laser met bullet, and I plowed through the anarchy into BLACK’s side.

The leg folded away as the hood of the jeep hit it, and BLACK lost its balance, toppling over. I jammed the pedal to the metal and shot out from underneath the falling mech, just avoiding behind crushed.

Zelie managed to get a clear shot on BLACK and fired his RPG. With a swoosh, the grenade traced a lazy path towards BLACK, who slapped at the incoming explosive, batting it off its hand and into the ground.

The explosion effectively acted as a rebounding force for the mech, sending it tilting back to its feet like a hinge.

Mary’s Stryker cleared the garage by barreling through a wall. Chunks of concrete exploded outward as the Stryker sped forward, Protector-controlled Browning fifty cal firing a withering tongue of flame. I knew Staub was inside the Stryker, remote firing the gun as though he were playing Halo.

BLACK flung an arm up to protect its armored sensor nodes and brought an arm around to point at the Stryker. A missile streaked from the SHADOW TEMPEST’s wrist, aimed directly at the ACV.

The Stryker’s Quick Kill Active Protection System vertically soft-launched a small countermeasure missile, which arced around and intercepted BLACK’s rocket with a sprak. This happened in literally the blink of an eye, so fast one could barely watch the Quick Kill system work.

BLACK began to toss more missiles the Stryker’s way, hands blurring like a softball pitcher tossing balls rapidly, alternating underhanded throws with the left and right arm.

Sprak. Sprak. Sprak, Just as speedily, the Quick Kill APS swatted the missiles from the air.

Seeing himself surrounded by a coordinated foe, Kroner decided not to press his luck. BLACK sprung into the air, contorted like Starscream, and flew off with a shriek.

“Forget him, go!” I shouted over TEAMCOM. “Behind the reactor, running along the south fence, gun it!”

Wheeling the jeep around, I sped off towards the reactor building, my jeep flying through the air as it met a steep ramp, rebounding once, twice off the ground when it touched down before swerving in place and shooting off like a bullet. On the left side of the narrow road was a twenty-foot fence, bordering the other edge was the immense reactor row, some six or seven stories of nuclear power.

Explosions chained down the length of the building, glasses shattered the squad as it sped down the alley.

I realized the detonation weren’t the reactors going critical on us, but INTEGRAL TEMPESTS throwing themselves out of the window. The cyborgs landed in curled balls, bouncing along the around beyond throwing their limbs outward. Fender swerved wildly to avoid on TEMPEST, while Pillsbury brought his bike down in a slide, flying forward across the grassy ground, and caught the foremost TEMPEST around the ankles. The cyborg was swiped from its feet and faceplanted into the dirt as Pillsbury easily righted his wipe, weaving in through a forest of straightening INTEGRAL TEMPESTS.

I swerved my jeep wide, but a passing TEMPEST managed to snag the side wheel-well of my vehicle and flipped onto the hood. Whereas Storm weighed maybe one-seventy, the crouching cyborgs dented the expansive hood of the jeep as it brought its P90 to bear.

“Take the wheel!” I shouted to Zelie, and swung my An-94 up, emptying the magazine through the windshield into the TEMPEST’s face.

The cyborg was tossed onto its back by the hail of 5.54mm fire, and I dived through the cracked windshield in a shower of glass, sweeping a supporting arm out from underneath the TEMPEST.

Another TEMPEST bounded up and landed on the roof. Bateau gave a shout and began to fire his MG at point-blank range into the cyborg. Blood and unspeakable robotic fluids painted the other TEMPEST and I as we squared off.

I kicked hard the TEMPEST’s P90, sending the gun skittering out of its grip. With a snarl, the cyborg sent a punch my way, but I dodged with inches to spare as the blow snapped off a side mirror an explosion of plastic and glass.

Snarling with mechanical tones, the TEMPEST drew a foot-long knife from a shoulder sheath and raising it high, the blade glinting in the rising sun. He had me dead to rights.

In desperation, I kicked the TEMPEST’s other hand out from underneath him. With a shout, he fell on his face, lost his balance, and rolled off the hood in one undignified jumble of motion. The truck bounced as it trundled over his body.

Behind me, Bateau shoved the eviscerated corpse of the rooftop TEMPEST off with a grunt. The body fell away, bouncing behind us.

With a groan, I pulled myself back into the jeep just as Bateau dropped down into the jeep, looking for a fresh belt for his MG. With a questioning look, she asked, “What happened to the other suit?”

I opened a glove compartment, fished around in it, and removed a pair of shades. Opening them as we rounded a corner and came into full sunlight, I said, “The wheels in his head…” – I opened the sunglasses and slipped then on, before gesturing to the bloody streaks the tires were tracing along the grass – “started spinning.”

“Yeeeaaaah!” shouted Mary behind us over the Stryker’s speakers. I spun in the passenger’s seat to see a pair of INTEGRAL TEMPEST clinging to the right side of her ACV. Swerving, she ground the side of vehicle into the containment wall of the reactor complex, crushing the cyborgs in splurts of red blood and blue hydraulic fluid, leaving twin smears on the wall.

The last two TEMPESTS arrayed themselves on either side of the end of the road, dropping to one knee and opening up with submachine guns. Both Zelie and I flung ourselves underneath the rise of the dash as what remained of the windshield shattered – Bateau, protected by the spinning well of the turret, fired backed, sending a firestorm of sparks off the armor of one cyborg.

“Li, Graham!” I shouted over the comm. “Where are you?”

“Repositioning…” Graham whispered. “Got it.”

A shot cracked over the morning air, pinging off the right TEMPEST’s eyebrow. Not a second later, a follow-up shot readjusted the aim and put a slug through the eye slot of the suit’s helmet. Blood hissed into the air in a high-pressure mist as the TEMPEST toppled.

Li joined in, firing his Dragunov as fast as he could probably pull the trigger, sending the other INTEGRAL TEMPEST stumbling backwards under the high-caliber assault. Reaching for Zelie’s discarded launcher, I retrieved it with another RPG shell.

Loading the grenade and twisting it, I pulled myself half out of the jeep’s window, aiming at the last TEMPEST. Giving it a departing wave, I fired a round at the disoriented commando’s feet.

The ground exploded around the suit in a hail of dirt and glasses as the suit’s legs were amputated at mid-thigh. Falling bloodily to the ground, the TEMPEST began to drag itself toward the jeep as we passed it–

–Only to be crushed under the treads of the Stryker as the sixteen-and-a-half-ton armored vehicle trundled under its legless body.

“Crushed his hopes,” Zelie muttered sardonically. I affixed him with a dark glare.

“Just kidding,” I said, chuffing him on the shoulder. “Keep ‘em coming.”

Rounding a corner, I pulled the jeep to a stop. The rest of the WRAITH base stretched out below.

“Fender!” I called over the radio. “Got a fix on Storm’s position?”

After a short pause, Fender called back. “If everything checks out right, he’s at the parade grounds, which isn’t good. They probably captured him.”

Hawley cut in from over on the Stryker. “Sir, there’s a case of semtex in this beast’s weapons locker.”

I surveyed a picture of the parade grounds from a map I had downloaded onto my holo-watch. A line of Abrams Main Battle Tanks were aligned along the north side of the flat stretch of land.

“Just the distraction we need,” I murmured. “Though we have to watch out for BLACK. It seems like a flighty character.”

“Going to walk on in and pull a repeat of MIR’s hangar, sir?” asked Bateau. Whether he didn’t recognize my pun or had become skilled at ignoring them, it didn’t show.

“Hell no,” I scoffed. “Tired of that. No, I just want more stuff to blow up. Now here’s the plan…”


The fireteam of WRAITH mercenaries moved cautiously outward, through the twisting alleys of the Chernobyl base. As silent as their patronage implied, they ghost from wall to wall, searching for the Marines. How any group of soldiers could so quickly alternate between hectic firefights and near-invisible stealth was beyond the group.

With a drone of jet engines, the SHADOW TEMPEST model curved by overhead. One team member paused to observe the flying robot, eyes tracking its path across the sky.

This inattention to his surroundings was what allowed Staub and O’Brien to slip cleanly behind the group. Without so much as a whisper, the commando was yanked into a shadow.

One of the other soldiers sensing something, turning to glance at his missing comrade – only to find only nothing but empty air.

Behind him, another commando was yanked off his feet and was dragged bodily by his ankles into a doorway.

With the sound of the body impacting the dirt behind him, the fireteam leader spun again, finger on his An-94 – to find himself utterly alone. The third commando had been hauled up onto a roof by a length of rope with a choked yelp.

The commando melted against a nearby wall, hand going to his ear mike, heading for the emergency action button.

O’Brien’s hand emerged from seemingly nowhere and broke the man’s hand at the wrist. Twisting the captured arm around in one swift windmill, the Recon Marine jammed a knife into the base of his quarry’s neck.

Kneeling over the corpse, PALE HORSE’s most skilled stealth operative turned on his haunches and tapped his ear mike twice. Go time.

Across the compound, I nodded and moved my foot off the brake and onto the gas pedal. O’Brien and Staub were in.

I nodded to Bateau, who twirled a finger in the air. Behind me, Mary gunned the engine of her Stryker, pushing forward past us.

I jammed my foot into the floorboard.

The jeep shot off the mark, skidding along the flat roof of the barracks. The western side of the Chernobyl complex has been built onto a descending hill that overlooked a line of Ukrainian forest. It had been trivial to mount the side of a building that buttressed a particularly steep causeway.

I maneuvered ahead of the Stryker just as the entire AFV collapsed through the ceiling of the barracks, dropping down eight feet onto the prefabricated inside of the structure.

Booming echoes stretched through Chernobyl as Mary plowed through wall after wall, obliterating any construction that met her path.

Bateau gave a whoop at the top of his lungs as the jeep slalomed across the gaps between buildings, trundling at forty miles an hour down the staircase-esque swathe of administration and living buildings.

I twisted my head to look at the parade ground below us. An Abrams tank – I must be getting jaded lately, so let me emphasize this again – a motherfucking Abrams tank – rumbled to life and rolled off the line of its brethren down on the courtyard below. It turret clanked around to fix a line on my approaching jeep.

“Hold on!” I shouted to Zelie and Bateau, and swerved off the top of the building into the alley to the right. A brief moment of weightlessness caught pit of my stomach, nothing special compared to all the crap of MIR, and with an almighty smack the jeep rebounded off the side of the building running parallel to our makeshift track.

The tank’s shell passed by overhead, its shriek catching up just moments later, followed by a boom, as the tank fired along the vector I had been driving just a half-second before. The shell exploded harmlessly on the thick reactor building up and behind my makeshift charge.

The Stryker burst from a nearby roof like a breeching whale, splinters flying everywhere as it shrugged through tons of wood as though nothing stood in its path. “Mortars!” Mary yelled over the comm, and I sighted a pair of artillery teams setting up launchers on the floor below.

Twin bumps sent the dust on the parade grounds – already unsettled by the Abram’s cannon – trembling in an unsettling jump as two mortars took to the air. I juked my jeep left and right as a shell impacted a building through my left, leveling it a fireball that gutted the interior of the structure.

Li’s Dragunov fired somewhere behind us, and the second mortar went off harmlessly in the air some forty feet above us, a brief ball of fire and smoke getting swept away by the winds high in the air. I resolved to buy Li a beer if, no, when we got home for sniping a mortar shell from midair.

The Abrams shot forward, far too fast for a 67 ton behemoth, its main gun tracking us.

KABOOM, the tank fired again.

Mary triggered every remaining cell on her Quick Kill system, transforming the hundred meters between the tank and her Stryker into a fiery inferno, incinerating the second cannon shell in a sudden and startling display on brilliant violence.

Mary’s Stryker cleared the fireball, at full speed, going in reverse. Somehow the SBS operative had managed to flip the head and tail of her massive vehicle in the space of three five seconds I had no idea, but she planted the rear of her Stryker at twenty meters a second into the side of the Abrams tank.

The tank held for a second under the cataclysmic impact, than began to slide, its turret tracking wildly, as the Stryker managed to impart an active force upon the humongous tank.

I swerved into the open space, applying the emergency brake and hauling on the wheel. The result was a massive power slide that presented the entire left face of the jeep as a battering ram. There was a handful of gratifying yelps and thumps as the jeep swept one of the mortar teams off their feet, painting the side of the car with blood.

Bateau raked the other team with his machine gun, causing their bodies to jerk in the danse macabre as they were peppered with oversized bullets.

The rear of the Stryker busted open, the hatch falling to the ground – but it wasn’t halfway there when Fender and Pillsbury, each on a motorbike and each wielding an RPG – shot off the makeshift jump and into the air.

They impacted the ground in unison, weaving past each other in opposing sharp turns. The gunner on the Abram’s machine gun began hammering his turret in short bursts, but the bikes were too fast, roaring by on either side as they jockeyed for a good shot.

Graham or Li fired their rifle again, I could tell who, but I knew they were aiming for the exposed gunner.

A missile soft-launched from the Abrams and swiped the bullet from the sky. Damn! The beast had its own Quick Kill system!

“Mary!” I shouted into my comm. “Back off, it’ll override the APS!” I jerked my jeep towards the future epicenter.

No sooner than the words escaped my mouth than the Abrams convulsed in place as it launched its own complement of protective missiles – only this time, instead of an RPG or a sniper’s bullet, the missile the tank was protecting itself from was the comparatively tiny lodged into its side track well.

Mary, sensing she wouldn’t be able to back her Stryker up and out of the way in time, threw herself out of the open gullet of her AFV with Hawley in tow.

Zelie kicked his door open and flung an arm out for Mary to grasp while wrapping his other arm around his seat belt at the same time. Hawley’s charges were yanked off their feet as I spun the jeep wildly in place, effectively sling-shooting the pair a dozen meters away from the tank. They tumbled brutally across the courtyard just as the missiles came down on the doomed Stryker.

The concussion of a couple dozen missiles striking the top of the battered Stryker was nothing short of bone-jarring, sending the jeep tumbling through the air. Bateau bailed before the jeep rolled over, bouncing across the ground himself and covering his head to protect himself from burning metal that pelted back down from the sky.

Zelie and I tried to make ourselves one with the seat as the jeep rolled entirely over, landing back on its wheels, more or less- emphasis on less – intact. “Hot shit,” I breathed.

But the last-ditch defensive effort had left the Abrams open to no less than three lines of assault.

My sniper overwatch fired again, and the head of the turret operator snapped back with an explosion of pink mist. Not a second later, Fender and Pillsbury depressed the firing studs on their launchers.

A grenade slammed into each of the tank’s tread-wells, breaking the hardened links apart and stranding the Abrams in place. Nevertheless, the tank was still a hardy threat, even robbed of its fearsome mobility.

That was about the time SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK decided to reenter the fight.


Shaking my head, I hurled a finger towards the men loading Storm’s limp body into a cargo jeep at the far end of the parade grounds. “Mary, Hawley, Bateau, go get Storm!” I swept blood off my brow. “Everyone else, get to cover!”

BLACK slammed into the ground with all the subtlety of a meteor, charging forth from the dust like a rhino, barreling towards my jeep.

“On three, we jump!” I yelled to Zelie.

“One…” I held my ground, staring at the oncoming twenty to thirty foot tall robot coming to eat me alive.

“Two…” I accelerated sharply, meeting BLACK’s charge head-on.

“Three!” I yelled, jamming the accelerator into the maximum position, kicking open the door and diving out in a curled ball just as Zelie leapt free himself.

BLACK simply broke the tank around it as the vehicle disintegrated into a million tiny, flaming pieces upon impact. Ever seen Transformers? Right now, my jeep was the bus and BLACK was a giant robot coming to kill me with determination one could only find in a horror movie slasher villain.

Recovering, I backed up against the line of Abrams tanks, Zelie shifting his butt backwards as fast as he could a couple feet away, also finding the metal wall of iron chariots blocking his retreat.

In the distance, the reactor complex shuddered as a fireball ripped apart its farthest end, essentially obliterating the east most edge of the compound – and, in all likelihood, our path to the Hind D and the ride out of here. The entire world shook as though a 19 billion on the Richter Scale passed through the area, as BLACK had to bring its headlong beeline to a groaning halt to avoid tumbling onto its face.

Kroner peered up at the fireball ballooning into the air on the hill overhead. “Such a shame. But WRAITH always begins anew. I just need to recover my property-” the machine jerked its snout at Storm- “and annihilate troublesome thorns in my side. Fire and radiation will claim this wilderness once more, but WRAITH always rises, always can begin anew. But for you, John Baylor, there’s only death.”

I tapped my comm four times in rapid succession, sending a signal to Staub and O’Brien. “Long speech. In short: I’m going to kick your terrorist ass.”

Kroner laughed over BLACK’s speakers. “Any last words of greater eloquence?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Boom time.” – just as Fender and Pillsbury roared past on their bikes, snatching both Zelie and I and lifting us bodily onto the rear seats of the souped-up military scout bikes.

BLACK roared like a goddamn dinosaur and cornered, chasing us along the length of tanks as we ourselves raced towards Storm’s captors.

At the same time, upon hearing my comm signal, O’Brien activated the semtex charges he had placed underneath every. Single. Tank.

For what seemed like the last time in my life:

Boom Time.


The tanks further down the row exploded further, fireballs bursting underneath their pregnant bellies like landmines, tossing them flipping into the air. One by one, the sixty-seven ton main battle tanks flip head over tail like matchbox toy cars.

Glancing fearfully over my shoulder, I saw BLACK sprinting, low and snout forward as domino-like fireballs trailing in sequence behind it. Those same terrible red eyes blended so well with the orange and red firestorms, highlighting BLACK’s obsidian and slate coloring and almost hiding the laser charging in each of the mech’s open hands.

“Fender!” I yelled. “Juke!”

Fender swerved his bike just as a million-degree beam flashed past to my right, wildly impacting an Abrams tank to our right, setting the top of the armored monster alight while concurrently and prematurely detonating the semtex underneath the tank. The molten hulk twisted on its cannon barrel like some grotesque ballerina before the entire shaft compacted, crashing the burning bulk down in front of us.

“Shit!” Pillsbury swore and braked hard while shifting his entire bodyweight into a left turn, just as Fender did likewise. Both motorbikes barely managed to avoid the makeshift obstacle, accelerating south like rockets.

BLACK tore right on through the hulk in front of him, tearing it in half and strong-arming each fireball towards the bikes.

Seeing the ball of iron and flame hang just above my head, I twisted and grabbed the RPG, fitting the second-to-last shell we possessed into the launcher. Not even bothering to aim at the looming asteroid, I loosed the missile.

The pair impacted in midair, essentially annihilating each other. To our right, Pillsbury swerved to the right, just barely dodging the bomb.

Just to remind us that it existed, the immobile Abrams tank fired again.


The shell took the mech around one knee, tearing through the joints and mechanisms without getting a chance to explode – the range was too close for that – but BLACK dropped to one knee, momentarily crippled.

Mary, head sticking out from the hatch of the immobile tank, raising a hand to BLACK and showed him the bird.

“Thatagirl,” I grinned.

BLACK didn’t find the humor in this, and lifted its hand, readying another rocket to finish off its former ally.

No sooner than the missile left the wrist than Li’s Dragunov cracked, neutralizing the missile a meter away from its point of origin. The rocket detonated prematurely, scorching and also momentarily crippling BLACK’s left hand.

BLACK sat there, briefly pausing in its assault.

There was a clunk from the Abrams has Mary loaded what would likely be a killing shot.

Across the parade grounds, Bateau opened fire with his An-94, cutting down the guards around the stretcher holding Storm’s comatose form. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them drop, dead.

The reactor complex trembled again as a fresh set of fireballs tore through its middle section.

Mary fired what would hopefully be the last shot of the firefight.


BLACK surged forward, crippled arm flashing, as it smacked the cannon shell from the air. No way.

It didn’t escape the stunt intact – the shell exploded upon contact, the blast permanently crippling BLACK’s left arm. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mech began to recollect its sense and pull itself to its feet, as though rebooting.

“Options!” Mary yelled over TEAMCOMM. “I doubt we’ve got but three more minutes before this entire place gets blown to kingdom come!”

A hundred guns clacked at once. We spun to see the entire remnant of Chernobyl’s garrison standing aligned on the eastern border of the parade grounds, rifles leveled at one.

“Just wait,” I responded, holding up a hand. On the far side of the courtyard, Bateau removed Storm’s bonds and hauled the man entirely over his shoulder.

“John…” Fender said, voice ancy.

“Wait…” I said.

BLACK’s head titled to one side for a moment, as if listening. “What… is that?”

“That,” I sneered, “is my ride.”

The Hind blasted over the treetops of the forest with about a quarter inch to spare, blasting the Carmina Burana’s O Fortuna, the go-to song for drama and blowing shit up at full volume from speaker mounted on the chopper’s underside. The speakers had been my idea, I had read a similar concept in a book somewhere and wanted to eventually be exfiltrated to epic battle music.

The chopper however there for a second, the familiar nose-down menace now pointed at my enemies instead of my own ass for once. In the pilot’s seat was none other that Jack Ridley himself, director of a special sub-branch of MI6, and quite possibly the man behind the orchestration of this entire affair.

The rotating-barreled minigun fixed to the chopper’s stubby right wing began to spin, and a tongue of flame licked out from the gun.

Ridley swept the Hind expertly from side to side, targeting Kroner’s contingent of cronies. Bodies simply exploded in place, melting where they stood, reduced to chunks of chunks of stuff not even comparable to meat. All that was left was a bloody line across the earth highlighting a smoking furrow.

The chopper spun broadside, lowering a winch that was obviously meant for us down to the ground. I looked up to see Alexis Starr operating the winch, eyes glittering with excitement and hair flipping wildly in the downdraft of the rotors.

“Marines!” I called over the roar of the rotors. “Move it!”

Bateau, O’Brien, and Staub were first up, each clipping to a separate harness of the line and zipping up out of sight. Storm’s unconscious body was clipped haphazardly to the fourth link and he too was lifted out of sight. A second later the empty harness came down again.

“Mary!” I said.

More fireballs bloomed on the hill overhead. We only had minutes. The area had begun to heat uncomfortably as fires chained down the side of the hill, racing for the parade grounds like lava floes.

The Scottish commando clambered out of the Abrams with Hawley by her side. She nodded curtly to be, passed me her rifle, and wrapped a harness around her waist just as Pillsbury dismounted his bike with Zelie and the quartet in total ascended into the Hind.

Graham and Li appeared by my side, as if out of nowhere, Dragunovs cradled in their arms. “Sir?”

“Go,” I said. “Hook up,” I gestured to the empty harness.

Graham grimaced, gave BLACK one last appraising look, and hooked up. They too were retrieved by Starr. “Now or never, John!” she called down to me.

Fender gunned the bike, turning it around to approach the harness.

Just when SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK lashed out, grabbing the rear wheel of the cycle and tossing it back towards the burning row of tanks. One second I clutching Fender’s waist, the next I was flying through air – for the last goddamn time, I swore to myself – watching BLACK turn and fire a shoulder-laser at the HIND. Ridley just managed to jerk the chopper out of the way, but was forced backwards as BLACK extended a minigun from its one operational hand and opened fire.

Bullets clipped one wing, and the HIND wobbled dangerously. Smoke poured off of its flank.

“John!” Alexis called into my radio. “It’s too hot, and our weapons are dead! It’s up to you!”

“Fender,” I growled. “Give me your bike.”

“What?” he asked, confused.

“Go!” I yelled. “Get to the chopper!”

Fender dismounted and sprinted off to the side. BLACK focused on me, pulling itself to its feet, and began to limp towards me.

“I have suffered under the threat of death far too long to allow it to happen,” Kroner said.

“There’s a nuclear reactor about to overload,” I calmly told Kroner. “When that happens, this entire area will go up in flames. Hell, we stay here any longer, and the radiation will kill us. I’m going to make sure you don’t leave.”

“But you will die too,” he shot back.

“Now you’re repeating yourself; because as you know, my death is fast approaching.”

“I know secrets about you that you would kill for,” Kroner stated.

I paused. “You’ll die with them.”

Kroner laughed. “We shall share this grave together.”

BLACK charged.

Boom Time.


The earth began to split at the seams, breaking into chunks as seismic tremors rumbled through the land.

Each footfall of the gigantic SHADOW TEMPEST limp-sprinting towards me was its own earthquake, layered in on top of the reactor’s death. Craters formed whenever the mech set a foot down, rocks flying into the air.

Lifting my foot off the ground, I twisted the bike’s throttle and met Kroner’s charge with one of my own. The space between us closed with alarming speed, and suddenly BLACK was feet away.

I lifted the front wheel of the bike into the air. With a shriek and burning stench of disintegrating rubber, the bike caught traction on BLACK’s abdomen. With incredible velocity, I was propelled vertically into the air and off BLACK’s face, suddenly upside down as I used the mech’s torso as a launching ramp.

I hung, upside in the air, the bike flying away from my thighs and suddenly I was thirty feet above the concrete. Everything slowed for the final time.

I saw a landslide of burning concrete tumbling down the hill, a million zillion tons of wreckage coming straight for us on the parade grounds.

I saw the Hind arc by, saw Alexis toss a line outward for me to grab, a line that floated, frozen in time, coils flying towards me.

I saw the RPG launcher in my hand and the last shell loaded into the chamber.

I twisted in midair, aiming at BLACK, which stumbling backwards from the bike’s impact.

One hand shot out…

…And caught the rope. I still had slack left in my rope, but I knew my arm would eventually be metaphorically wrenched out of my socket when the line played down – but I still had time….

I aimed the rocket at BLACK’s robotic, dinosaur-like head, and fired.

The projectile took SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK’s head off with a chunk. The mech stood there, contorting randomly in convulsions of multiple impacts, before the grenade struck the ground behind and underneath it, causing BLACK to be pitched forward, face-forward into the dirt.

A second later, the wave of fire and rock swept over Kroner.

The line went taut as gravity took over, and my feet dangled dangerously close to the inferno. The pain I had predicted in my shoulder caught up to me and I groaned in agony, but my shoulder joint held.

Above me, Alexis began to physically reel the line in, hand over hand. She was superhuman, after all.

Working with the line and some of the last of my strength, I tied the rope in a makeshift harness around my jumpsuit’s belt. With that accomplished, I swung lazily as I rose towards the chopper and Ridley brought the chopper higher up, ascending away from the lake of fire below.

With one final grunt, Alexis pulled me bodily into the blood tray of the Hind’s troop bay.

When I opened my eyes a second later, I saw her leaning over me, blond hair tied back in a tail, eyes concerned. “Hang on,” she said. “We’re almost out of here.”

I wanted to believe it.

The Hind jerked. Alexis was thrown off her feet, and only quick intervention by O’Brien kept her from falling out of the helicopter.

Every joint in my body aching, I rolled over, peering out the side of the chopper.


SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK hung off of the landing skid of the Hind. The mech was on fire, missing an arm and half a leg. Its head was gone and protective cockpit stripped away. I could see the bloody eyes of Kroner as the WRAITH chairman sat in BLACK’s cockpit, one hand controlling BLACK’s remaining limbs, the other pointing straight up at me. His hair was singed, a gash bled across his left cheek, and his black suit was shredded, but Malcolm Stavro Kroner was prepared to drag us all back down to hell with him.

“We can’t hold him!” Ridley shouted from the cockpit. I couldn’t read his eyes behind large aviators, but his voice was a mix of anger and fear. “Shake him off!”

I rolled over to my feet and grabbed a pistol from a nearby wall.

Graham sighted over the side of the Hind with his sniper, but was sent scurrying back for cover when BLACK’s mangled left arm swept at him, nearly taking off his head. “Shit!” he yelled.

I glanced around for the end of the rope line, found it, and I tied off the end of it with a free hand. Standing, I limped over to the other side of the Hind’s troop bay and kicked the door open. Air blasted through the chopper as wind tunneled between the open hatches.

“John!” Mary called, alarmed. “Don’t do it!”

I spread my hands wide, put my feet together, and leapt from the Hind like a bungee jumper.

Not many people jump out of helicopters into a locale most people would confuse with hell. But my mind was throbbing, the end of the E-Meds finally taking hold. I knew I didn’t have much time left before I died. Black tinged the edges of my vision, but I was determined to finish off Kroner once and for all.

I flew outward until the rope reached full extension and I swung around like a pendulum. Spinning on the line, I brought my pistol up, aiming for Kroner’s center of mass. One shot, one kill.

Kroner saw me coming at the last second. The claw-like mutant arm of BLACK lashed out at me. And missed.

I was rising now, reaching the apex of my swing, flipping around so I floated upright, facing BLACK, my pistol cocked and ready.

Kroner caught me by the throat. His arm struck out, cobra-like, and clenched around my neck.

Everything came to a halt.

The music, the dance, everything, it all came to a screeching halt. I nearly fainted at impact.

Kroner laughed, holding my bodily over the inferno.

“No final jokes, John?” he asked as he prepared to break my neck.

I brought my gun up slowly. Almost contemptuously, Kroner slapped it away. The pistol went sailing into the abyss.

Everything was silent as I struggled to breathe, helpless, literally in the clutches of a madman.

I swung limply from Kroner’s grip, a curtain falling over my field of vision. Red seeped away into the void.

Right there, I made my decision.

“You don’t get to talk,” I managed to spit out.

And I knifehanded Kroner in the throat.

The response was instantaneous. Kroner’s eyes bulged, and his mouth formed a small “o” as he fought for oxygen. The situations reversed, I sucked in the first breath of the rest of my life. His grip on my neck slackened, and I easily pried the hand from my throat.

Gripping tightly onto the edge of the mangled cockpit, I held myself over Kroner. “And only my friends call me John,” I whispered.

BLACK’s grip on the Hind vanished along with its owner’s ability to draw breath. The fingers of the mech relaxed ever so slowly – and then it fell away, into the pit of fire and smoke.

Malcolm Stavro Kroner would have screamed, but nothing came out of his mouth as he rescinded from my view, eyes wide and disbelieving.


I check to make sure my makeshift harness was intact and, upon affirming its integrity, let my body relax. I drew in another breath, and choked on the smog.

I barely noticed as the helicopter angled away from Chernobyl, fleeing the rapidly spreading forest fires. Nor did I really care about the fact that I was being pulled once more into the chopper, hands grasping my shoulders and tugging me onto the deck.

Mary’s face filled my field of vision this time. Hair tickled my grimy cheeks. “John!” she screamed, although her voice was receding in volume. “Hang on with me, c’mon.”

I smiled faintly to her. I wasn’t going to get… choked up my Kroner. I giggled a bit. Blood dribbled from my mouth, and an iron taste gently filled my taste buds.

“Did we survive?” I asked Mary, mirroring my question to Alder all those years ago at the Paragon.

“Everyone made it,” she said, tears leaking from her eyes. I saw Alexis screaming silently to my men out of the corner of one eye, unpacking a first aid kit off a bulkhead. “But you have to make it too now, John. C’mon, please, c’mon.”

I think. I think I wanted to take a nap, just for a couple minutes.

The world flashed white as the Chernobyl reactors exploded for the last time.

And then everything went black.


I woke to the steady beep-beep-beep of an EKG informing me my own continued existence. At least that’s what I assumed. The regular beeping was the same tone as one could expect from an electrocardiogram, I think. But who was I assume the heartbeat was mine?

Experimentally, I opened my eyes to confirm my hypothesis.

White light assaulted my eyes, and I blinked rapidly in the sudden intake of illumination. When everything cleared, I blinked one more time – just to be sure – and looked around. I was in a bed, a pretty comfortable one if I do say so myself. Sheets were tucked up to around my torso. An IV was inserted into one of my arms, while electrodes ran to, yes, an EKG. So the heartbeat was one.

I supposed I was in a hospital. The room my bed and attending medical machines was situated in was wide, colorless, and empty. A door on the far end of the space was closed. There were no windows anywhere.

I turned my observation inward, noting to myself amusedly just how important study was in my life. People always had to take in their surroundings first before acting. Soldiers constantly took time to aim, lest they waste ammunition.

With this last, random thought of violence, I started to look into my memories.

Heat. Pain. Death. Last I recalled I had been dying peacefully inside a helicopter, surrounded by my friends, fleeing the sight of some great battle. I really hadn’t expected to open my eyes again, to be honest. Then again, I hadn’t expected to really make it to the point where the Soviet stimulants actually ran their course and caused a fatal overdose. I had expected any of the TEMPEST models to finish the job for me.

Questions began to up in my mind at an alarming and exponential rate. The usual stuff like, “where am I?” and “why am I still alive?” and “are my men okay?” along with some truly head-scratching questions, such as “why am I so hungry?” and “what are all these lines, bars, and diagrams in the corners of my vision?”

The last one seemed the most odd, I examined it. It took a few seconds for the word to come to my mind. A HUD, a heads-up display. Something like you’d find on a fighter jet or a video game. But on me. Strange, to say the least.

Just when my questions were about to reach a critical breaking point, the door opened and Jack Ridley walked into the room. Shutting the door quietly behind him, the British agent retrieved a chair from out of nowhere and pulled it over to sit by my side.

He regarded me for a full minute, lips pursed, eyes calculating. I met his gaze, my face blank. If nothing else, I knew I could outstare anyone on the planet right now.

“How’re you feeling?” Ridley asked simply after some time had passed.

I wiggled my limbs experimentally. No pain, odd. I tried sitting up in bed. I moved with a speed and grace that was ill-suited for a task as awkward as shuffling around in a hospital bed. I decided it was my turn to ask a counterquestion. “How are my men?”

“Safe,” Ridley said simply. After a pause, he elaborated. “They were patched up, went through a couple weeks of hospital treatment, and were dispatched back home. Funerals were held for the dead and they were given indefinite leave until everything was sorted out.”

Funerals? Sadness tugged at my heart. I had missed the funerals, the chances to honor each and every one of those who perished in my platoon during the Russian crisis. I fumbled around for a question to surmise my confusion. “How long was I out?”

Ridley grimaced, his mask of noncommittal noninvolvement fracturing for a brief moment. “Three months,” he said at last. “You were rushed to the Zhadanova National Medical Complex in Moscow for emergency surgery. They managed to stabilize the neural overload the meds caused, but you fell into a coma from which we were unable to reverse.”

“Just how did they save me, mind?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

Ridley leaned forward and rubbed his face with the palms of his hands before running his hands through his hair. The simple gesture made him look monumentally tired, and it was only then that I noticed the shadows under his eyes and just how rumpled his suit was. “They changed the rules of the game. In simplest terms, Kiralova paid you act when she rebuilt you.”

“She… rebuilt me?” I parroted, confused.

“She gave you implants. Roughly speaking, you’re on the level of a cut-down Model AM-F infiltration cyborg right now. Data jack, neural implant, fibre-optic nerves. You have moderately increased strength, but most of the improvements went into your reflexes and you infiltrative abilities. You can change your voice at will, you make no sounds when you don’t want to, you can remotely access computers. You, roughly speaking, are a ghost. You’re past death, right now.”

“Holy crap,” I said, falling back into my bed. “Holy crap,” I repeated, trying to imitate Ridley’s voice. It came out in a perfectly culture, oh-so-British accent. “Holy crap,” I said a third time, falling back into my own voice.

“The reconstruction complex effectively allowed your body to take the e-meds on their own, but the trauma of integrating the implants and fighting back off the brink of death sent you spiraling into a coma none of us could have predicted.”

“Right,” I said. “So Kiralova gave me a little bit of her cybernetics tech?”

“Pretty much,” confirmed Ridley, sitting back himself. “She’s not making a job offer, but it’s obvious she wants to cultivate a good relationship with the man who helped single-handedly save her country.”

Ridley reached into his jacket and retrieved a small necklace. On the end was a small silver rectangle. “This,” he said, “was to be given to you if you woke up.”

He passed it to me, and I accepted it.

“It’s a direct commlink,” Ridley continued, “to SICKLE. Kiralova wanted to you know that, in the future, if you had exhausted all of your options and had nowhere else to turn to, you could plug this chip into the port on the back of your head and you’d be instantly uplinked to the SICKLE mainframe, with all the benefits that entailed – satellite coverage, tactical support, support for your cybernetics. A safe haven if things ever went south in the future.”

I looked at the non-assuming chip warily. “And she didn’t make a permanent link to the AI because she knew I wouldn’t trust a 24-7 connection to a country I didn’t really trust and an AI that was shattered and frayed at the edges?”

“Something like that,” Ridley said, the ghost of a smile playing across his face.

“So,” I said. “Give me the rundown of what happened when I was out.”

“It took a couple weeks to round up the rest of Sechalin’s warlords,” Ridley said. “They all fell apart without his glue to hold them together. Separately, they were less than the combined threat of them working together. Kiralova’s working on rebuilding the country’s damage infrastructure and providing aid relief to civilians in the aftermath.”

“STYX?” I asked.

“The rogue AI?” Ridley asked. “As far as we can tell, SICKLE managed to break it apart piece by piece on MIR. SICKLE hasn’t said much – it’s been too busy consolidating itself with a fraction of the processing power it had before the civil war – but it at least confirmed STYX is out of the picture.”

“What was the American response, the NATO response to all of this?”

“President Skye led NATO in offering humanitarian aid to the Soviet civilians affected by the crisis. Some hawks bitched about it, but beyond that Skye’s well on her way to mending some part of the relations with Kiralova.”

“What’s really going on, though?” I asked, looking deeper into Ridley’s explanation.

“Kiralova’s pissed,” Ridley confirmed. “A good portion of this crisis stems from a fractious American splinter group arming Sechalin with the new SHADOW TEMPEST model and allowing the late Marshal to launch his final assault. She wants Skye to clean up America’s act before any true friendships begin.”

“MIDNIGHT,” I said to myself.

“Pretty much. They went deep underground after the civil war exploded in their faces. I’m sure you’ll learn more about that when you eventually get debriefed by Hank Easly back across the pond.”

“And what about WRAITH?”

“Kroner hasn’t been seen or heard from since the destruction of Chernobyl. Chatter from the fringes suggest he might have gotten away, but nobody has very much to run on. This entire event basically shifted the entire state of the world into a new direction. Old contacts are squawking and the underground is being uncharacteristically tightlipped. Got scared into silence as everyone winds down from this.”

“But what you think?”

“He’s survived worse,” Ridley said dejectedly. “I shot him once, you know. Showed up a couple months later without so much as a scar. One day I’m going to figure out how he does it, but there’s far too much on my plate right now to deal with Kroner. The rest of WRAITH is pretty much in chaos after Kroner disappeared and has dropped almost entirely off the grid. From what I gather, there’s some sort of conflict of power within the higher echelons.”

“Great,” I murmured. “Let them tear themselves to piece for all I care.” Suddenly I sat up. “Oh, crap. What about Akamatsu?”

Ridley pursed his lips even further until they became nothing but a thin white line. “MI6 has him. We managed to break the WRAITH nanite connection, but he’s under observation for the time being. The Americans don’t need to know he’s alive, either.”

The SIS man paused. “Guy went through a lot to give you guys a window back at Chernobyl. Took punishment not even a meta of his caliber would take without a bucket of determination. He knew something, and was willing to die to make sure you got out alive. You know why?”

“No idea,” I said. “Kroner said something to the same effect right before I rode motorcycle into his face. Said ‘I’ve got secrets you’d kill for’ or something like that.”

“I’ll help you look into it,” Ridley offered.

I sat there. “I’ll take you up on it. But not now. I need to get home. I need to see my men and I need to personally visit the family of each of my men who died. Then I take care of me.”

“Very well,” Ridley said. He took a duffel bag and set it on the foot of the bed. “Clothes are in there. Flight’s in the morning.”


The cybernetic implants took some getting used to. It was awkward to even move, walk, or carry out any activity beyond what the average American did daily but was in fact essential to my line work. It took the longest just to work out the kinks in my step and get past the disorientation or over-orientation the HUD caused, which perhaps caused false impressions when I met with each family of each man who died under my command three months ago.

The apparent limp perhaps defused any angry situations, which made everything all the worse for me. I wanted them to yell, to scream at me for being gone when their sons were put in the ground. For letting them down. But all I got were sympathetic stares and the same reaction – one of seeing a three-legged dog. All perverse pity.

I didn’t want any of it, but I made amends with each mother and sister and wife in person. I lied to them and told them their sons died in Afghanistan during an insurgent ambush. That the story ran so close to the truth of my life made it easier for me to weave the lie, and made my stomach all the worse.

Alder’s sister in Texas sat me down and poured me a cup of coffee. “He really didn’t die in the Middle East, did he?”

I shook my head. I didn’t care if I was breaking a dozen security laws. “I can’t say much. But know he died personally saving my life and the lives of two other people in the small scale and millions on a larger scale.”

She smiled tiredly. “He would have like that.”

That last house I visited was the residence of Lennox’s wife in Queens. She answered seconds after I opened the door. Anne Lennox was a perfectly normal looking woman, pretty in a girl-next-door sorta way. He blond hair was tucked under a blue bandanna and her face had a polite smile on it when he greeted me. A four-year-old boy tugged at her right hand, hiding partially behind her.

She took me into the kitchen and gave me a diet coke. I cradled the drink, not really noticing it. We ran through all the usual introductions, I explained that I had served with her husband before he had died. Her eyes were concerned.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Chuck ran a desk job. How could he have been in the line of fire?”

I hid my internal grimace. Mrs. Lennox had been the wife of a Reaper and had no clue to her husband’s involvement with anything covert or dangerous. I sat there, Marlow talking to Kurtz’s intended. The metaphor was a tad rough around the edges – Charles Lennox wasn’t anything close to Kurtz’s crazed emptiness, but he did possess an air of interconnectedness in my mind – everything in the past few days – no, months – linked back to him. So here I was, trying to explain to a wife that had no clue to even an ounce of her husband’s reality.

I ran the counter-surveillance package of my cybernetics and activated it, shrouding the modest residence in a hash of ECM static. “I’ve been debated long and hard about how I was going to handle this.”

“Mr. Baylor…?” Anne asked after short pause.

I reached into my backpack and set Lennox’s electronic visor onto the kitchen table. “This was your husband’s. He needed it in his line of work as a covert operative of US Special Operations Command. He was a Major in the 7th Special Operations Squadron of the 352nd Special Operations Group. All in all, he a Reaper, a top-secret operative of the US Air Force.”

“I don’t understand,” Anne insisted. “Chuck worked in logistics. The last time he fired a gun was in basic training.”

I sighed. This was going to be a long night. Charles Lennox may have wanted to keep his wife in the dark, but after watching all the pain of all of the other families I vowed to end the lies.

Anne Lennox reached over and put her hand over my. “Look, Mr. Baylor. I may not know what my husband did, but I know he died doing what he believed was right. He wouldn’t have allowed himself to be caught in any of the mess in the USSR. You can appreciate that… right?”

I blinked. “Wait. How did you know Lennox was involved in the USSR?

Anne’s eyes sparkled. “I’m about to take Timmy here to soccer practice. How about you come by again on Sunday…” she trailed off, eyes reading me like a book.

“John,” I said. “It’s John.”


They held this really sweet ceremony about a couple weeks later. Kiralova had decided to allow democracy to have a chance after Sechalin's martial law hijinks – her reelection had been something of a landslide. Think ‘76 Nixon, without all the Watergate business that let Carnegie in.

I approached Ridley – who was somehow in the audience – afterwards and clasped hands with him. “See, I now have the Order of Lenin. Ha! Top that!”

He waved a hand jovially. “Please, mate. I’ve already earned it twice.” I had been given the Congressional Medal of Honor last week in a secret meeting in the White House with President Skye and the rest of my platoon.

I snorted. “Dude, you practically live in Russia.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Says the guy who just spent the morning hitting on the newly reelected leader of a superpower?”

“What can I say?” I was gradually regaining my spirits as I pulled myself out of the slump following my reawakening. As Anne had put it, “life goes on.”

Ridley laughed and disappeared into the crowd for a minute before returning, leading a striking woman of indeterminate nationality towards me. She wore the same aura of power Kiralova did, and wore it well. “John,” Ridley said, composing himself. “I’d like you to introduce you to Samantha Savage. She and I have a proposition to make to you.”

I stuck out a hand. “Samantha Savage, eh? And here I thought the Russians had a monopoly on all the cool names.”

“Just Sam,” she said, brushing a lock of platinum blonde hair out from over from one. She wore a silk shirt, a thin tie, and was anywhere from twenty to sixty years old. She offered a hand to me, I and shook it. Her grip was firm and strong, which I like.

I gave her my most winning smile. “What can I do for you, Sam? Or really, I’m be more prepared if you told me how fit into this big puzzle.”

“I go by many titles,” she said, her voice smooth, “but candidly, I am the DGI of NTET.”

“The Director of Global Intelligence of what?” I asked, bewildered.

“Nonconventional Threat Elimination Taskforce,” supplied Ridley.

“Never heard of it,” I countered.

“Then we are doing are job correctly,” said Savage, the faintest trace of a smile playing across her lips.

“NTET,” Ridley explained, “operates as an organization divorced of either superpower, with the mission of de-escalation in the event of crisis with potentially world-ending consequences. Independent, it answers to no one. It’s not subject to the chains of command that landed your squad under the indirect purview of MIDNIGHT at the beginning of the crisis.”

“In a world that, as you know all to well, Mr. Baylor, operates exclusively in shades of grey,” Savage said, “NTET is about as close to the good guys as you’re going to get.”

“Alright, I’m interested,” I said. “But where do I fit into this group of yours?”

“Since its inception,” Savage explained, “NTET has operated anonymously, its members across the globe communicating and operating as a sort of ‘smart mob,’ always on the scene to gather intelligence and support an operative onsite as he or she helps to diffuse the situation. But the Russian Civil War changed all that. We need operatives onsite immediately, working in groups of two to three to six or more.”

“The bloody calamities,” Ridley smiled, “are getting too bigger, and NTET needs to adjust accordingly.”

“So just who would be on this team, beyond me?” I asked.

“I would, for one,” Ridley says. “Colonel Easly as well. Together we can easily coordinate the team and with our combined intelligence links we could always know where to be.”

“Your brother and Miss Starr would be another set of candidates,” Savage mused, a beautiful and intriguing smile flashing by fast its existence could be described in milliseconds. “Butch Baylor is one of the best pilots alive and Alexis Starr can hit heavier than most anyone of the planet. Add into this mix the services and skills of Yelena Batsaikhan of the Strategic Deterrent Forces and you possess the scientific knowledge necessary to deal with the numerous situations you’ll be faced with computers, nuclear devices, or any chemical or biological weapon.”

“So, six crack operatives?” I asked. “Pure of hearts and noble of intention? SOLIDSIX seems a far better callsign for this motley crew than any other, in any case.”

“I told you he’d end up using that name,” Savage said. “You owe me two hundred euros, Mr. Ridley.”

“Oh darn,” Ridley said, not really sounding regretful at all. “Perhaps we could discuss it over dinner?”

“Keep dreaming,” Savage said dryly. She turned back to me and handed me a rather large iPhone. “Your NTET uplink. We’ll contact you next week about setting up the team. Maybe Jack here could buy our group lunch.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Sam,” I responded, shaking her hand once more. I turned to Ridley. “Dude, better luck next time.”

“See you soon, jarhead.”


It was past eleven and the moon was finally peaking out from behind the clouds when I arrived at my new apartment after a meeting with President Skye. Colonel Easly and I had just finished a meeting with her, Vice President Young, and the national security advisor on the status of MIDNIGHT.

President Skye had, in no uncertain terms, made me her point man for the MIDNIGHT investigation, with Easly as my handler. He and I would report directly to the President, with no more orders coming from shadowy corners of the establishment. I would be assembling a team of special operatives to augment my regular platoon – my own miniature All-American SOLIDSIX.

The flash drive Cutler had given me had taken a couple months to decrypt – not that it really mattered, considering I had been out for three. There were names, photos, meeting plans, priceless leads against an otherwise nebulous organization. Cutler had been gathering protective evidence for years, not that it had helped him. It was my goal to follow these leads and gather more hard evidence – the entirety of the conspiracy had to be uncovered before Skye brought the judicial hammer down, lest survivors of MIDNIGHT escape to continue their escapades in the future.

I fished the key out of my pocket and paused in front of the door. The apartment had been given to me by President Skye so I could live closer to DC, the complex overlooked the Potomac. Thankfully, I didn’t have a balcony room. I didn’t have the stomach to deal with snipers or surveillance. The real benefit of the swanky location was the security, all ex-military, some of whom I knew personally. Instead of sending me away to orbit after the crisis at the Paragon, the government had decided to keep me as close as they could.

Looking at the doorknob, I saw that the usual “Do Not Disturb” hanger I kept on the knob at all times wasn’t there. My hand flashed to my winter jacket and I had my trusty Five-seveN ready.

Unlocking the door, I eased it open. The apartment was dark, but a lone light was on in the far corner of the room, backlighting the three people sitting on my furniture.

On. My. Furniture.

“Identify yourself,” I growled. “I’m not in the mood to play games.”

“Come on inside, John,” a familiar voice floated outward from inside the apartment.

I relaxed. It was Ridley. Still, I kept my gun out and ready.

Stepping into my apartment, I shut the door quietly behind me.

Ridley stood, half in shadow, the other half lit by the lamp in the back of the room. If the entire thing was one big metaphor, I didn’t like where it was going. “Who are our guests?” I asked, gesturing with the FN pistol at the two forms sitting on my sofa, drinking from my cups.

“You’re about to step into a whole new world, John,” Ridley said. “And for you to do that, I’m going to need you to put the gun down.”

“Why?” I asked, trying to make out any distinguishing features of the wraiths – ha, ha – making themselves at home on my property.

“Because shooting either of them is more of a headache that any of us can afford right now,” Ridley responded. “John, please.”

Fine. I set my gun down on the glass coffee table, next to a stack of library books. Still within easy reach. “You’re filling me with a great feeling, Jack.”

“Sit, if you would,” he said.

“Think I’ll stand, thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “Welcome to the great game, buddy.”

He flicked on the overhead lights.

The chair on the left supported a barrel-chested man in a thick black coat, the sort of thing you saw shady senators wear. Even if he slouched in the chair and cradled a small glass of whiskey, he still had the bearing of top brass. His hair, thinning, was orange, his moustache thick and droopy.

In the other chair sat a beautiful woman in her early forties. Her red hair was cut short, just past her chin. Her lips were curved in what seemed a perpetual smirk, and her hands were crossed primly over crossed legs as though she was trying her damndest to play nice. As if the case without all these underworld types, it was eyes that gave her away: utterly flat and soulless underneath a veneer of seductive interest.

“Introdu-” Ridley began, but I held up a hand.

“Don’t. I know who they are.”

General Chaos Farley, instigator of the crisis. And Chandra Gosely, second-in-command of WRAITH.

“I told you,” Ridley said wearily, “that if you decided to go down this path, you’d be rubbing elbows with questionable people. The world in shades of grey.”

I stared angrily at Ridley, feeling… betrayed. I trusted the man. And he showed up in my living room with two people who should rightfully be shot in the face.

“Both of them have… motives for seeking me out,” Ridley explained.

Farley spoke, his voice rough and with a Texan accent. “I’m out of options. I tried to sever American ties with WRAITH, but MIDNIGHT wanted to move forward into a new level of cooperation with Kroner.”

“So you sent Blue Light and the INTEGRALs after us?” I snarled.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Farley said, so dejected I had to take a step back. “MIDNIGHT doesn’t take prisoners. I have a wife and two daughters, and they would have been killed too. I’m out of options.”

I looked down on the defeated general and shook my head. Here was a man who had mixed it up with wrong people and had it all blow up in his face when decided to develop a conscience halfway through the affair. But, from a detached standpoint, he was a perfect asset – as a living, breathing ally, he could tell us things not even Cutler could from the grave.

“And what about her?” I asked, jerking my head at Gosely.

She laughed, honey-smooth. “Such hatred in the voice of someone who has never met me, Jack. You do know how to pick them.”

“The last thing you need to do, Chandra, is piss him off,” Ridley parried.

“And what good is he if he loses his temper after a few barbs?” Gosely reposted. “I signed up to overthrow Malcolm Kroner, to stop him from aiming any more of his schemes at America. I may be a patriot at heart, but I’m not going to place a section of my limited trust in a half-wit.”

I sat there, watching the exchange. Kroner was still out there, and Gosely, like any predator, knew weak prey from a thousand paces. What she was, in the end, was a representation of strife within WRAITH’s ranks, a chance to finally crack that massive terrorist cadre. We’d betray her; of course, when we got to the end of the plan, in an attempt to completely destroy WRAITH, and she knew that it would be coming. For now, she was an alliance of convenience that would fracture, like all alliances, as conflicts reached their eventually boiling point.

What concerned me was her reasoning about saving American lines. I had heard the exact line from General Ethan Carson back in 2005 at the Paragon. The head of the Paragon had been selling DARPA technology – such as the original SHADOW TEMPEST – to WRAITH under the terms that Kroner would not attack the US and instead focus his activities upon Russia.

To say the least, I disagreed violently with the idea. So Ridley and I had destroyed TEMPEST, tossed Carson into a bottomless pit, and nuked the Paragon. But now I was teaming up with someone who was using the very same reasoning.

The Paragon. It still existed out there, having vacated its original facility in the AVALONIAN WOOD. Skye’s operatives had swept out the inner tunnels of the underground levels, but found the locale abandoned, research burned, and storehouses empty. The entire complex had been abandoned just weeks before. So now it was free in the world, setting up somewhere else to continue its research. I had a feeling we wouldn’t truly find the Paragon until this all came to a bloody conclusion. This Secret War. And General Carson… had that been who Cutler had been referring to back on MIR. Was he truly still alive?

Coming to a decision, I leaned over and grasped my pistol. Behind me, I sensed Ridley tense, but I’m be able to dodge his first shot easily if he started firing the gun aimed at my back.

Picking the gun up, I walked over to my la-z-boy recliner and plopped down into it, still holding the pistol.

I paused, considering the gun, and tucked it into my jacket.

“So. Let’s dance.”


I met Mary and Alexis for dinner in New York a week later. We found a great pizza place and settled down, watching CNN report simultaneously on American Idol and Vice President Amber Young’s visit to New Zealand.

“You never take that thing off, do you?” Alexis asked playfully.

I adjusted my bandanna. “It’s been with me through thick and thin. And it once choked out an angry metahuman. It’s served as a dozen tourniquets, and I’ve hung off a dozen cliffs with it. It’s more or less me.”

“So the red isn’t just coloring?” Mary mused, leaning back in the booth and sipping from a straw.

“You could just ask Ridley if you want one,” I joshed through a mouthful of pizza.

I relaxed and stared out of the open front of the pizzeria with a sense of bittersweet contentedness. My life had been somber, quiet, and low-key since I settled back into my leave. Tomorrow I returned to work and the ‘great game’ as Ridley had called it, but life would never be same.

I’d be working to dismantle MIDNIGHT from the ground up. I reported to the President and worked on the side for a top-secret organization dedicated to literally saving the world. And WRAITH was still out there, coalescing into a whole after its defeat in Chernobyl.

Things may have been as worse as ever, but I had survived. There were millions of people around me who had no idea as to what I did on a daily level to protect their way of life. But they need heroes to do a thankless job.

In my pocket fingered the box I had received from Skye two weeks ago. The heavy weight of a Major’s insignia. There would be no desk work for me, though.

Mary started, and dug out her cell phone. After a couple of terse words, she put the phone away and stood up. “Sorry, guys, but duty calls. They want be back in England tonight.” She paused. “We should do this again some time, you two.”

“Agreed,” Alexis said with a pleasant smile.

“Totally,” I nodded, still lost in thought as Mary left.

Alexis paid for our check while I sat and stared out as the passing civilians. I was afraid of the future.

Alexis had returned to the booth and was watching me silently with a sad smile. I looked up as he offered me her hand.

I took it.

Sixty – Epilogue

The operative known as Follow listened to the other person on the line and then spoke.

“Yes. The entire base was wiped out. Yes… yes, indeed. It was for the best, considering Gosely was using it as a backup facility for her experiments. No, I’m okay. Yes, they’re meeting right now. Yes, I recovered it all. The combat module from BLACK is right here with everything else. But here’s the big prize… STYX’s core. No, no one noticed. No. There are no records. MIR went up in smoke. No, my cover is in intact. Nobody knows who I really am. Yes, I suspect Lennox guessed my identity, but he’s dead now. Yes, yes, Cutler is dead. He may have passed on critical information to Baylor. As for Kroner, if and when he resurfaces we’ll be ready for him.”

Follow paused. “No, I managed to deduce the location of Kroner’s fallback. We can make our proposition there. Yes…. Yes, the organization can reestablish ties with the Chairman. As for Storm… no, he’s off the grid. No, I doubt either of them knows. Their connection is still under wraps. I… see. Baylor’s clone will resurface in due time. No, I suggest we move the line into the final phase.”

A longer pause. “Yes, I’m on my way to meet General Carson now. I hear the Paragon is starting with a final model of TEMPEST? Excellent. And what of GHOST WALKER? I await the day. No, I understand. Right. The PARADOX mission is moving smoothly ahead. Soon you will be in command. Good-bye… Madam Vice President.”


Well, that’s it. At a whopping 193 pages, this is the second longest story on the OZ. I’d like to thank Siege for helping me plan this at every step of the way, constantly getting on IM to make sure my details are right. I’m also like to thank Dakarne for doing some read throughs and Shroom for constant EPIC IDEAS. A lot went into making this story work, and rest assured Siege and I have plans for future stories, potentially making this a quadrilogy along the lines of MGS. Thanks for reading!
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Post by Siege »

Of all the outrageous stuff in this chapter (and there is a LOT), I think the bit I love most is Baylor who, in the middle of a battle with a giant death robot piloted by the world's most wanted man, does an off-handed Horatio Cane impression including sunglasses. Pulled from a Stryker which for some reason is sitting in the middle of the Warsaw Pact, and has been commandeered by US Marines who just dropped in from an exploding space station. When you think about it, that just about sums up STB for me :D.

One thing that got me near the end though... Nixon was never President. Instead the USA got a Westmoreland with LeMay as his VP. Carnegie was the squeaky-clean Carter-analog who had to mop up after them. There were a few minor things here and there, but I'm just going to chalk those up to creative license because this was an awesome ride. Thanks, Moby! You're making this 'verse a more excellent place!
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Post by Booted Vulture »

Huzzah, this is finished! Now you have no more excuses in regards to TEO or BSW :P

And now I shall actually attempt to read it...

Edit: Holy shit! I was worried this act wasn't going to give me more evidence for JohnBaylor*AlexisStarr shipping. Luckily the last chapter sorted that out for me. :D lso I was thinking through the last helicopter section; Can't Starr fly? Like under her own steam? She doesn't exactly have to worry about falling out of a Helicopter. Or have I miss-remembered her power set?
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »

Still reading, just after MIR's demise. But aside from the whole SHODAN thing, and Baylor's crazy ass trick (though I wonder why Sechalin didn't notice that Baylor's voice was different, but I guess Storm's got funky voice-faking tech), I totally loved one particularly awesome line:



"Sometimes Shroomy I wonder if your imagination actually counts as some sort of war crime." - FROD
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »

Finally finished, and man. Holy shit! This was completely loopy! Oh mang, oh mang. I loved the ending, the Ocelot bit at the true end leaves some questions, but the biggest bits were all the other "tying up" parts. Man. From the epic MIR confrontation - turns out YOU are NOT nobody's bitch, Sechalin! :D - with STYX going loopy, and man that was off the chart with Storm and shit bleeding from his eyes. Hah, so STYX really IS an attempt by MIDNIGHT to produce its own SICKLE-level AI technology! Hah! And then we have the inexplicable landing in CHERNOBYL! What the hell? Mang! Meltdown! Explosions! And the PALE HORSES killing people while riding all sorts of vehicles! Hah! Super-awesome INTEGRAL TEMPESTS getting turned into roadkill by JEEPS! Oh man.

And Kroner meeting his demise by getting PUNCHED IN THE THROAT! Damn! Yet even though he ends up in a friggin nuclear firestorm in Chernobyl, it's STILL NOT OVER YET! NOT BY A LONGSHOT! :lol:

Jesus. Now John Baylor's a goddamn cyborg too! Holy shit! THAT was completely fucking unexpected - but ending up in an irradiated craphole breathing all sorts of contaminated particulates, I wonder how on Earth none of them are getting the cancers. Awesome medicines? NANOMACHINES! Maybe SICKLE cured cancer! But, man.

CYBORG BAYLOR! Woah. That is something totally out of the blue. Man. Oh man. Seriously! CYBORG BAYLOR! Holy moley! Mang! CYBORG BAYLORR! The implications are incredible! Soviet Cyborg Baylor!

But even after he's cyborged, he's still very human. I like how he struggled with that. And how Lennox' wife might be IN ON IT! Dun-dun-dun.

One of the most "holy shit!" parts was also the meeting. Goddamn General CHAOS FARLEY! And Chandra Gossley! Tagging along with Jack Ridley. Meeting Baylor at night! Goddamn it, Ridley! What are you doing? What's happening? Man. Chandra! What on Earth are they getting themselves into? That was so out of the left-field.

Man. SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK leaves us with more questions, and no answers at all! But in truth, the only answer we need is that of AKSHUN and EXPLOSIONS! For we can DEFEAT QUESTIONS WITH EXPLOSIONS! This is the heart of the soldier!

Goddamn, man. That was epic.

Shroom for constant EPIC IDEAS.
Man, which EPIC IDEAS? Since we hardly get the chance to IM much because of THE GODDAMN TIME ZONES.

"Sometimes Shroomy I wonder if your imagination actually counts as some sort of war crime." - FROD
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Post by Mobius 1 »

Siege wrote:One thing that got me near the end though... Nixon was never President. Instead the USA got a Westmoreland with LeMay as his VP. Carnegie was the squeaky-clean Carter-analog who had to mop up after them. There were a few minor things here and there, but I'm just going to chalk those up to creative license because this was an awesome ride.
Yeah, I had that line in there, realized Nixon wasn't POTUS, but was a bit too lazy to invent a scandal (-gate -gate -gate) and attach it to a name nobody would recognize offhand. Sorry about that.
Booted wrote:Holy shit! I was worried this act wasn't going to give me more evidence for JohnBaylor*AlexisStarr shipping.
I aim to please my one BayStarr shipper. See, I even may up a name on the spot for you guy. Not guys. Guy. I love my three readers.
lso I was thinking through the last helicopter section; Can't Starr fly? Like under her own steam? She doesn't exactly have to worry about falling out of a Helicopter. Or have I miss-remembered her power set?
Bateau just may be being a tit during the sequence, though, when catching her. I'm sure I can save a scene where Starr punches a SHADOW TEMPEST in the face for a future chapter.
Shroom wrote:Jesus. Now John Baylor's a goddamn cyborg too! Holy shit! THAT was completely fucking unexpected - but ending up in an irradiated craphole breathing all sorts of contaminated particulates, I wonder how on Earth none of them are getting the cancers. Awesome medicines? NANOMACHINES! Maybe SICKLE cured cancer! But, man.
I'm sure they all were hopped up on anti-rad pills before going into space and that's what protected them for being barely exposed to a reactor that was scrammed a second later for couple minutes before running away.
Man, which EPIC IDEAS? Since we hardly get the chance to IM much because of THE GODDAMN TIME ZONES.
My idea of this concept is you giving me a :D face whenever I post something crazy. Because if my ideas are too crazy for you, I need to rethink my life.
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Post by Booted Vulture »

Mobius 1 wrote:
Booted wrote:Holy shit! I was worried this act wasn't going to give me more evidence for JohnBaylor*AlexisStarr shipping.
I aim to please my one BayStarr shipper. See, I even may up a name on the spot for you guy. Not guys. Guy. I love my three readers.
Hey! I am not alone! Back me up here, Shroomz!

PS I already coined the term Baylarr for it way up the thread. :P
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Post by Shroom Man 777 »


Man, BayStarr is an awesomer name. Moby, you genius! Now I can imagine this ship in the form of a giant Cylon spaceship spewing missiles and Raiders and shit! A BayStarr is coming! Battleshroom Galactishroom only has xyz-seconds before the next hyperjump! Launch Vipers! :lol:

Seriously! BAYSTARR!

"Sometimes Shroomy I wonder if your imagination actually counts as some sort of war crime." - FROD
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Post by Heretic »

By the powers invested in me as the third most commenting member of Omniverse One, I hereby declare myself Minister of Culture and decree that SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK have its grammar and spelling fixed and become a Must-Read for all cadets in the fictional and prestigious Omniverse One Academy of Literature and Dickstabbing! Anyone who wants to become a respectable member of the Boards must read this Homeric/TESTICULAR epic that journeys from The Paragon to Afghanistan across the Iron Curtain, all the way up to a Moscow filled with Laser-palming Lenin statues. Journey in a heartwarming tale of cooperation as the USSR and US join hands to save the Earth from a cast full of characters that have spunk and character, only to the KaBoom conclusion of John Baylor kicking ass Space Marine style before heading home and have BayStarr shipping....

BUT not before destroying Chernobyl with a escape pod, duke it out with MOAR WRAITH mercenaries and TEMPESTS mixed with A1 Abrams! YEAAHHHH. When you thought it was all over, shit just got real as Baylor becomes cyborged by the Ruskies. Then, after all he's been through, he gets called a pussy and got into the SOLIDSIX.

Madam Vice President. John Baylor's clone. Damn. So..many...pop..culture..references...

Also, now I read it there seems to be a similarity, or more appropriately a rip-off on my part, between this masterpiece and my feeble America in Space, Yeah!. I now beg for forgiveness concerning communists and people sharing "your mom", power armor, and any other thing that makes it look like I stole from here.
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