Book: The Reaper Plague




The Reaper Plague

Table of Contents

Chapter -1-


Chapter -2-


Chapter -3-


Chapter -4-


Chapter -5-


Chapter -6-


Chapter -7-


Chapter -8-


Chapter -9-


Chapter -10-


Chapter -11-


Chapter -12-


Chapter -13-


Chapter -14-


Chapter -15-


Chapter -16-


Chapter -17-


Chapter -18-


Chapter -19-


Chapter -20-


Chapter -21-


Chapter -22-


Chapter -23-


Chapter -24-


Chapter -25-


Chapter -26-


Chapter -27-


Chapter -28-


Chapter -29-


Chapter -30-


Chapter -31-


Chapter -32-


Chapter -33-


Chapter -34-


Chapter -35-


Chapter -36-


Chapter -37-


Chapter -38-


Chapter -39-


Chapter -40-


Chapter -41-


Chapter -42-


Chapter -43-


Chapter -44-


   ---


Epilogue




THE REAPER PLAGUE


Plague Wars Series Book 6



by


David VanDyke




The Reaper Plague Copyright © 2012 by David VanDyke. All Rights Reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, except for brief excerpts for the purpose of review or quotation, without permission in writing from the author.



Books by David VanDyke

Plague Wars Series

The Eden Plague - FREE

Reaper’s Run

Skull’s Shadows

Eden’s Exodus

Apocalypse Austin

The Demon Plagues

The Reaper Plague

The Orion Plague

Cyborg Strike

Comes The Destroyer

Stellar Conquest Series

The Plague Wars continues 100 years later!

First Conquest

Desolator

Tactics of Conquest

Conquest of Earth

Conquest and Empire

Star Force Series - with BV Larson

Outcast

Exile

Demon Star Books by D.D. VanDyke

D. D. VanDyke is the Mysteries pen name for fiction author David VanDyke.

California Corwin P.I. Mystery Series

Loose Ends

In a Bind

Slipknot

Off The Leash

For more information visit http://www.davidvandykeauthor.com/


-1-

The alien shuttle lifted smoothly, accelerating without the heavy G forces Skull expected. He kept a close eye on Raphaela as she manipulated controls, making note of what she did and what resulted, hoping to learn enough that he could fly the thing if he had to.

Raphaela sat calmly in her seat; like his, hers had extruded itself from the floor when she had first begun piloting.

Skull noticed the chairs had slowed but not stopped in their forming, subtly shifting shape beneath them until they were very comfortable. He suspected they conformed to their individual bodies. “Can you make some kind of viewscreen? A big one in the front, like on Star Trek?”

Raphaela nodded silently, touched several controls, still incomprehensible to him – perhaps she saw colors he couldn’t – and granted his request.

A giant screen manifested itself slowly in front of the control room, smaller displays and instruments moving smoothly out of the way, as if they floated on the surface of the wall. The display flickered to life, showing a blazing but immobile star field.

Skull smiled, tired but pleased. “Damn. I wish I’d have asked about that sooner, when we were still in the atmosphere. You know what, I flew in the cockpit of a C-17 coming back from Iraq. After a stopover in Naples, the plane was mostly empty of passengers and the flyboys let me sit up front as we were going over the Alps toward Ramstein. We could see airplanes above and below and to the side of us in the air corridor, some going in our direction, some flying the opposite way. It was amazing. Like an IMAX movie, but real.”

Still Raphaela said nothing.

He lapsed into distracted wonder, gazing at the starfield for some minutes more, finally asking, “Shouldn’t we see some movement? Is that a still picture?”

She waited, then finally spoke. “It’s a hyper-accurate representation of the human-visual view from the front of this shuttle. We are still accelerating at one gravity, but interplanetary space is vast enough that any apparent motion is very slow.” Her voice was flat, dull.

Skull didn’t notice her lack of affect. “Can we see something? The Earth, the Moon?”

Obliging but stone-faced, Raphaela touched controls and the view careened wildly until it settled on the Earth, a small cyan disc. It jumped to hugeness as she raised the magnification, and now his mind filled with wonder once again at the blue beach ball floating in the black. It’s been a long time, he thought, since I was amazed by anything.

“How about the Moon now?” He kept her moving the pickup around, finding the planets and looking at them at the best magnification the ship could give them. Skull became so engrossed that he forgot to closely watch how she was manipulating the camera, or whatever passed for one in a Meme ship. For long hours he also forgot her silence, and the anger smoldering beneath her compliant exterior. Eventually he simply stared at the screen and the blanket of bright pinpricks in the ocean of night, drifting.

Suddenly he shook himself, looking sharply at Raphaela. Skull couldn’t afford to sleep; not yet, not until it was impractical to turn around and get back to Earth. He looked at his Patek chronometer. Eleven hours. Add to that the uneasy time aboard the B2 stealth bomber and he hadn’t really slept in at least a day. Have to keep awake.

“Do you want to talk?” he asked.

“Huh,” she grunted, and said nothing further.

“So…” he trailed off. Skull really had no idea what to say to her. He’d never taken a hostage or kidnapped anyone in his life. It wasn’t his way. Normally he just killed people. He just didn’t know how to relate to someone in his custody. Finally he said, “How long did you say this would take?”

“To reach the Watcher station will take about a week.” Neither her head nor eyes had moved from their frozen observation of the instruments in front of her, and her voice remained flat.

He wondered if she had decided to try to punish him for her situation. Some sort of psychological tactic, flattening emotional responses? Or simple sulking pique? He could only guess; he was no expert in psychological warfare. Trying to remember his counter-interrogation classes, he attempted to recall what techniques would be used to break down resistance or disturb a stable psyche, but it had been too long. Damn it, Skull, he berated himself, you’ve become a one-trick pony over the last ten years as a sniper. Running his hands over his shaven pate he detected the bit of stubble growing. I should probably just minimize my interaction with her for a while, until I can get some sleep.

He found himself staring at Raphaela, idly wondering what she would be like in bed, and then he scolded himself for such thoughts. Having lived so long as a celibate warrior monk, might all that pent-up energy be finally shaking itself free? Or was it the effects of the self-replicating nanobots swirling through his bloodstream, supercharging his five-decade-old body?

He shook his head. If there was one thing he really hated, it was too much change, unless he was driving and controlling it. Present circumstances were of his making, he had to admit in the privacy of his own head, but now he found himself far less comfortable than he’d expected.

“Maybe you ought to get some sleep. Can you put this thing on autopilot?” he asked. Even to himself he sounded whiny. It must be the lack of rest. Up for thirty hours and his body seemed as awake as ever thanks to the nanobots, but his mind was another story. Remembering from the briefings that the nanos did not – should not – cross the blood-brain barrier, theoretically this meant they would not directly affect his mind.

Theoretically. Did those things get in?

Her response to his question was calm, hypnotic, lulling. “There is no autopilot. Meme do not sleep. This ship was not made to be piloted by a Blend. I can sleep in the chair. You can also sleep in the chair. It is all right to sleep in the chair…”

“Uh huh.” Skull found himself drifting into a light and pleasant trance. Can’t go to sleep yet, but this is okay. Have to travel far enough out into space so we can’t go back…. He sat up abruptly, shaking his head as he shifted his hands on his drooping assault rifle.

She stared at him now with apparent amusement. “Warrant Officer Denham –”

Wryly. “Call me Skull, please. It’s not like you have a rank, after all.”

“Oh, but I do. It’s Captain, Free Communities Armed Forces.”

Skull laughed. “Is that what she told you? The woman you ate?”

Raphaela’s rich contralto voice suddenly resonated and penetrated his nervous system, and he had to clamp down hard to quash the desire rising in him.

“I didn’t eat Captain Sophia Ilona. I am her, all of her and all of Raphael, and now I am Raphaela. And I very much enjoy being Raphaela, and being a woman. And I’ll call you Alan.” She rose from her seat, languid, her curves showing through her gown as she sashayed – he could describe it no other way – toward him.

…and his head dropped back limp and hit the panel behind, jarring him awake. For a moment two scenes shared his mind, the false one of fantasy and the true one of waking. Abruptly it resolved into the conscious one, the real one where Raphaela stared at him from her seat, expressionless.

It didn’t happen. Did I want it to? Anger surged through him, at himself for drifting off and dreaming what he dreamed and at her for that insufferable amusement and condescension – but that was in the dream... He snarled and gripped his assault rifle harder. “Shut up, you.”

She blinked at him, eyes narrowing, puzzled, then turned away, hunching. “I didn’t say anything.”

An idea struck him, a fearful one. “You’re…” Skull closed his mouth, determined to try an experiment. He formed a thought of leaping to his feet and bashing Raphaela violently with the butt of his weapon, bludgeoning her repeatedly until in his imagination she became a mass of blood and torn flesh.

She blinked once, slowly, staring at the new viewscreen.

“So I guess you’re not a telepath? Or perhaps you’re a very good one.”

She turned back to him, raised an eyebrow, sarcastic. “Oh, I can talk now?” She folded her hands in her lap. “And how would you know if I was?”

He smiled thinly. “I suppose I wouldn’t, not for certain.”

“Well, I’m not. And by the way, I actually am human no matter what you think, and I’m getting tired of being on the wrong end of that gun, and I’m just plain tired. This is about as perfect a body as Raphael could build but it’s not invincible. Meme don’t sleep, but I’m not a Meme anymore so I’m going to bed for a while. Maybe you should get some rest too.” She rose from her seat, no sashaying this time, but her barefoot pace across the naked floor was elegant and lovely. An opening in the bulkhead appeared before her and she stepped through.

Anxiety roused him, almost panic, at her leaving his presence. Before the opening could close he leaped across the control room to stand in the doorway. After a moment he realized that he might have done a very stupid thing. If the iris should close with enough force it could chop him in half, but it didn’t. Instead he watched as Raphaela lay down on a cushioned half-circle dais that extruded from the floor. She faced away from him. A pillow rose from the bed to support her head, and she seemed to fall asleep instantly.

Skull wondered now what he should do, whether he should go forward or back. Forward, he decided; he could always compel her to let him out of the room, but he might not be able to get back in. As soon as he did, the wall sealed itself behind him, silently, cleanly. He half-turned to examine the surface but could find no hint of a seam or hinge or flaw.

“Alan…”

He regarded her looking at him with that contemptuous amused catlike expression – am I dreaming again? – and so he took two quick strides and slapped her hard across the face, hating the look, hating himself and his own violent desire, the anger within him.

Raphaela didn’t throw her hand to her face in shock. She didn’t shriek or scream or even flinch. She just took the blow and turned back to him, tears forming. “Alan…you don’t need to abuse me or threaten me. I told you I’d do what you wanted.” She was very near now, and she sat up straighter on the bed, closer to him, and he felt her presence like furnace heat on his face, upon his body.

I don’t care if it is a dream. The dams of his control burst. His lips sought hers and she responded eagerly and his world became nothing but her and him and him and her for a space and a time, until he lay wrung out, twisted, gasping, with nothing left but to drift off into a long-forgotten sleep of peace.


-2-

The Secret Service agents that led Jill Repeth to the Executive Mansion command center were stiffly deferential but Jill knew she was still an outsider, not quite an opponent, almost an enemy. She’d turned half the Presidential detachment into Edens with Needleshock and she’d avoided killing anyone, but it wasn’t their bodies that retained the pain, it was their pride.

She’d made it to within a hair’s breadth of shooting President McKenna, and the fact that he’d wanted to be shot, had wanted the Eden virus, didn’t change a thing in their minds. They’d been lax, had almost failed. Actually had failed, since they’d missed the syringe of Eden Plague she’d left in a pretty box on his desk.

If it had been a bomb, their principal would have been vaporized.

One of the agents motioned her to an empty desk with a computer and then backed away. She had to get a tech to help her set up the call, all the way to South Africa. The internet was generally slow and unreliable since the satellites died, but Presidential priority got her through.

The first face she saw was a most welcome one. “Rick! I’d hoped you were on duty. I’m calling through official channels. It’s…I’m…” She ground to a halt, suddenly overwhelmed. She’d been in Marine mode for so long that now, with strangers all around her and half a world between her and her love, she just couldn’t say what she wanted to. Couldn’t really even put words together.

He smiled, delighted just to see her face. “It’s all right. Do you have a personal phone number where I can reach you?”

“Yes, use Christine Forman’s quarters.” She rattled off the number of the place she had been hiding in plain sight for so long. “Listen, Rick, I…I love you but I’m hogging someone else’s priority line. I just wanted to tell everyone back there that I’m staying.”

Astonishment warred with distress on Rick Johnstone’s visage. “Staying?”

“Yes. The President pardoned me – in fact he pardoned all American citizens who took political and military action against the Unionist regime – and I’m a US Marine. I have to stay. There’s too much to be done.”

His face fell but he nodded gamely. “All right. I can hardly remember America. I was eleven when I left…but I’m sure we can work something out.”

She nodded, emphatic. “Yes, we can and we will. Call me tonight at that number and we’ll talk, all right? I still love you.”

He smiled weakly. “Good to know. A guy’s gotta wonder when his girl keeps going off to war every other week.”

She sighed. “It’s been the same for every warrior since Sparta.”

“With your shield or on it, huh? Okay, I’ll pass the word.”

“Please do. I have to go; I’m getting the stink eye. Bye, sweetheart.” She flipped the webcam cover shut before she said something really stupid. Even stupider than I already did. I still love you?Lame, Jill, and weak.

What she’d said about dirty looks was true and it wasn’t. The techs didn’t care; she thought they might even be enjoying the soap opera. The two agents, however, radiated hostility; doubly so because of what she just said about staying in the US.

Whatever. She got up and mentally put the mantle of the Marine back on, stalking haughtily out, ignoring her two escorts, a lioness attended by sheepdogs. From what I hear, they’ll get theirs soon enough.


-3-

Brigadier Nguyen sat down at the round table before his colleagues. As the most junior member – in seniority, not in age – he made sure he was not the last one in. That honor was reserved for Ariadne Smythe, first among equals of the Committee, the shadow power within the Australian Free Community.

In truth, Nguyen reflected, it was a strangely functional Jekyll-Hyde relationship between the two halves of the power structure.

Well-behaved, normal Edens carried out the ordinary and overt functions of government – legislation, law enforcement, collecting taxes, keeping records, organizing, training and equipping the military forces – everything except those things that by biology they could no longer do.

The Committee and its apparatus, composed of Eden Plague-infected narcissists, “Psychos” to the layman, encompassed the black arts, the lethal activities that were so useful – as long as they were tightly controlled. Each of the nine members was powerful, and each was selfish and jealous and careful, looking far into the future. The Plague, even for Psychos, had extended their view, changing the definition of “short-term” from months to years or even decades. Lengthened lifespans naturally made people conservative.

Smythe finally arrived, just late enough to emphasize her status while not so late as to cause offense. It was an old dance with new, rejuvenated faces.

“This meeting of the Committee is called to order. Welcome to our newest member, Brigadier Nguyen Pham Tran. I hear his comrades call him ‘Spooky.’” Chuckles rattled off the walls, died at Nguyen’s face. “I’m sure everyone’s spies have thoroughly researched the Brigadier’s background so I won’t waste any further time with biography. Mister Johns, please remind us of any old business?”

The meeting proceeded quickly, dealing with important but routine issues: Australian and enemy military deployments, covert operations, psychological and physical experiments on their own raw materials – remanded Psychos in their custody.

A short discussion ensued about what to do with the five defecting US nano-commandos. In the end, they voted unanimously to assign them to General Nguyen’s new Direct Action command. They pointedly did not discuss the five hostage children; Nguyen had already insisted on handling the matter personally.

Behind Nguyen, Ann Alkina took notes. Now dressed as a plain Army captain, she functioned as his aide and personal assistant in public, his lover in private. The tapping of her fingers on the keyboard joined the background noises of other aides and assistants behind their respective principals.

Nguyen waited until all old and other new business had been dealt with before he spoke. “I have a new topic for consideration and study.” His eyes swept the table. “Let me briefly review. This nation is largely unaffected by the recent nuclear exchange and by the Demon Plagues, but our biological research facilities are not as advanced as those in South Africa, where the Free Communities – pardon, the other Free Communities –” quiet laughter at the table “– have concentrated their research facilities. Our intelligence services have an incomplete but sufficient picture of the United States’ massive nanomachine project ‘Tiny Fortress,’ and within hours we will have actual living examples of the results. The Chinese still have a considerable cyber-warfare capability. The Russians as usual have nothing but a mess.” Another round of chuckles. “And the Neutral States have economic power. But what do we have?”

James Ekara, the shadow Minister of Research and Development, answered, looking down at his perfectly manicured nails. “We have an undamaged continent, a lot of undeveloped natural resources, and a bunch of shiny happy Edens to work their arses off for us.”

“And we have the long view,” snapped Smythe. “Still, our lives are not infinite. Make your point, Nguyen.”

“My point is, madam, the rest of the world is working frantically to beat the Demon Plagues. They have opened the floodgates on research for everything biological and, in many cases, nanological. We can acquire anything we need in these areas without investing much – after all, Markis is giving away every beneficial medical development the Free Communities come up with, and I believe he will persuade the Neutral States to do so as well. We already have the US nano-vaccine for Edens, and soon we will have living samples of their latest supersoldier-makers. But no one is looking past the Demon Plagues.”

Right on cue, Ekara asked, “Looking past to what?”

Nguyen was glad he had primed the prissy scientist beforehand.

“To the real invasion,” he said, “when the aliens show up to colonize us. So let’s assume the rest of the world does save themselves and us from the biological threat. We need to put minimum resources into such research and maximum resources into the next area of war.”

“Which is?”

“Space. As long as the aliens have control of the space around this planet, they have the high ground and we will always be vulnerable. The alien Raphael said they do not have faster-than-light travel, and that one of their ships will be here within a year. If that ship can drop objects on us at will – more diseases, or perhaps asteroids – we will never progress into space, never beat them. And we do not know what will come after, when they find out that their plagues did not wipe us out. We must get into space. We need a genuine warship.” Nguyen folded his hands in front of him, looking contemplatively, even humbly down at the table in front of him. In this group of powerful and jealous people, it paid to speak softly.

Transportation magnate Mathilde Van Berson, large, puffy, florid – Spooky hated to think what she would look like without the Eden Plague working overtime to force health upon her protesting body – asked, “What about the alien and the nanocommando – Denham? – that took off with the alien spacecraft?”

Nguyen’s soft response hinted of steel. “We have only a few initial reports right now. I will inquire of Chairman Markis as soon as his and the Nightingale children are on their way back to them. I know Denham well: whatever he is doing, he is doing because he believes it will help to save humanity.” A bit of shading the truth, but… “No matter, we cannot depend on my friend Alan Denham’s desperate gamble.” His eyes sought each member in turn, emphasizing his connections to so many important players, enhancing his new status within their assembly.

“But the resources!” Van Berson whined. “Our economy is at full capacity, we are experiencing inflation, labor shortages, fuel shortages…we can’t support the projects already underway.”

“It seems to me that is a matter for the Free Communities Council. Chairman Markis is very adept at forging cooperative enterprises. And the Neutral States have enormous reserve industrial capacity. They should be invited to contribute to Earth’s defense.”

“Yes, I’ll get the Prime Minister to look into it. Back to the topic at hand,” Smythe grumped. “Who will control this warship?”

General Nguyen responded, “If we build it, we in Australia will have a great deal of control, though the rest of the world will want their piece. It might be a genuinely international effort. That’s for the politicians to work out. But we will build it, and the second, and the third, and so on. It will increase our power and influence naturally. Australia, and therefore this Committee, will take a place of preeminence. Researchers will flock to us. Money will flow to us. The gratitude of billions will lift us up.”

The nine around the table were silent for a moment, each lost in thoughts of power and selfish advantage. Finally, Smythe spoke. “It is an interesting topic for consideration and assessment. Mister Ekara, would you please take on the task of studying it and give us a preliminary report at next week’s meeting.”

Spooky hid his satisfied smile.


***


The long-range transport landed at the Free Communities Australian Air Force Base Richmond near Sydney after nearly fifteen hours in the air. The parachutes the nanocommando Huff and his remnant of the rogue Fortress Team had requested sat unused, still strapped to their pallet.

A military truck with flashing lights led the enormous airplane to its stopping place within an equally enormous hangar. Ground crew placed chock blocks, and as soon as the engines shut down the giant hangar doors slammed shut. A couple of dozen troops, lightly armed, secured the inside perimeter of the hangar, but only one man approached the personnel door near the rear, a short Vietnamese highlander in a Brigadier’s dun-colored uniform.

Spooky Nguyen.

Standing a few steps from the door, he waited with his hands clasped behind his back, unarmed. Watching as the door opened, he showed a hand signal to the crew behind him. Other than that slight motion, he remained still.

A rifle-wielding and helmeted male figure clad in midnight armor stepped into the plane’s doorway, looking around. He jumped down, and then sauntered over to Nguyen, to stop facing him from arm’s length. The two men were of a height, each about five foot five, one squat and muscular, one slim and erect.

The faceless man gained a visage by tipping up his HUD plate, revealing exquisitely white teeth that contrasted with his blue-black skin. He laughed loudly, a clownish thing, all teeth and tongue. He saluted, mocking.

“Chief Master Sergeant Huff reports as or-dered, suh! You must be Spooky Nguyen.”

“I am Brigadier Nguyen.” The General’s left hand froze in the hand signal while his right blurred out to seize Huff’s rifle, twisting it deftly out of his hand. The weapon came to rest pointing at Huff’s groin, Nguyen’s finger on the trigger. Somehow it was now set to full auto.

Huff’s return blow, cat-quick, nevertheless found only air as Spooky moved slightly, leaning away from the hand just enough.

“Stop!” barked Nguyen with a voice that struck Huff like an invisible blow, which caused his muscles to stutter and his mind to stumble.

Huff did stop, then deliberately relaxed, all bravado. “That won’t even penetrate my armor,” he sneered.

“But,” Spooky said calmly, “your groin protection is soft, and it’s going to hurt like a son of a bitch. When we spoke last by radio, you told me that you would join my command.”

Huff twitched, itching to strike out again. “So?”

“Do you always speak to your commanding officer in the familiar? I do not recall giving you leave to address me so. Here in Direct Action, you will earn your privileges, no matter what advantages you were given by injection.”

“What if I decide to kill you right now?”

Spooky smiled. “I took your weapon from you without difficulty. There is more to personal combat than raw speed and strength. If you tried, at best you would die with me, for I have given orders to that effect.”

“But I have the children.” Huff did not seem quite as confident as before.

“The only reason,” Nguyen replied, “that I care about those children is to maintain good relations with Daniel Markis, not out of weak-minded sentimentality. So at most we have a standoff, but that will slowly change. No matter what you do, no matter whom you threaten or kill, this airplane will not leave the hangar and you will have no kind of life or status in this nation unless I will it. You are only as free as you are useful to me.”

Huff licked his lips. “Shit.”

Spooky wasn’t sure whether Huff’s exclamation was disappointed or derisive. “Yes. Deep shit. You know my reputation. I’ll forget about this childish boundary-testing if you will uphold your part of the bargain and act properly from now on. I’m a man of my word.” He reversed the rifle, handing it back to Huff. “Are you?”

Huff looked around the hangar as if searching for the catch, or a way out, but Spooky knew he would see nothing unless he was very, very observant. Eventually he took the weapon back, pointing it at the ground.

Nguyen nodded. “Come now, let’s get those children off the plane. I suppose they’re cranky and eager to get home.”

Huff chuckled. “Actually, they have been having a blast. It’s all a big adventure to them, even eating combat rations.”

Spooky made a slight face. “Disgusting. Come on, Chief, talk to your men. Everything’s set.” He stayed in place, left arm still behind his back, hand signal showing.

Huff nodded, appearing to accept their new relationship with equanimity. Turning to leap lightly into the personnel door of the airplane, he flipped hinged stairs out to touch the ground. A few moments later all five Fortress Team One commandos and their five young hostages stood on the polished hangar floor in front of Nguyen.

Spooky nodded affably, raised a casual right hand in greeting, and gave another signal with his hidden left.

A loud hum attacked their ears from overhead and the commandos immediately dropped writhing to the ground. At the same instant Nguyen leaped forward, propelling the two boys and three girls away from the focus of the electromagnetic field.

Old age and treachery, he thought, beats youth and skill every time. As if I would honor my word to child-napping scum like you.

From a nondescript doorway a line of men and women scurried to the twitching figures, efficiently stripped them of all their weapons and gear, then wrapped them in specially made, metal-free restraint suits. They injected powerful narcotics and paralytic agents using nonmetallic syringes, then signaled for the beam to shut down. IVs dripped drugs as they lifted their charges onto five gurneys to load into unmarked medical trucks.



Other men and women, Edens selected for their particularly kindly disposition, took charge of the children. They checked them over, questioning them gently and eventually loading them onto a minibus that took them to a teleconference with their families.

Spooky supervised the evolution throughout, deliberately putting on a faintly pleased expression for the benefit of his highly efficient subordinates. I appreciate Edens for this kind of work – young in body, balanced in mind, eager and efficient and hardworking. Mormons without the theology. I couldn’t ask for better slaves, just as long as they never find out what they are. The gods of my ancestors bless the human desire to serve something greater – as long as I am that something.

He accompanied the five precious commandos, his breeders, on the way to the hastily expanding laboratory. Each was an endless source of self-replicating nanobots, a ridiculously useful gift of shortsighted Tiny Fortress officials. Nguyen’s careful prying conversations with Daniel Markis, and his old friend and comrade Larry Nightingale, had revealed the outline of the Americans’ foolishness. He mused that he himself would never have let living, functioning nanocommandos into enemy hands. I would have installed fail-safe devices to shut down, deprogram, or otherwise render the nanobots useless – and I will. I will not make such mistakes, nor squander this windfall.

Even as they drove, his industrious, well-paid and happy Edens were improving the nanomachine research facility that he controlled. In his jealously guarded hand of political cards, that was his ace in the hole. The Committee underestimates nano-cybernetics’ role in the coming conflicts. They had relegated nano research – at his own suggestion – to his Direct Action command. Naturally the nanocommandos fell within his purview.

In return he had given up all but a peripheral role in the development and production of Ekara’s first space warship. The Committee believed in a division of power among its members, and this was the price he paid. Still, he had always preferred the blade to the bludgeon, and his ambitions were not, in his own estimation, overweening. Few powerful people have ever been content with “enough,” but I shall be. Perhaps I should instruct Ann to recite “remember, thou art mortal” to me at least once a day.

---

The convoy rolled out into the countryside well away from the Sydney urban sprawl. Nguyen observed the bustling economy with satisfaction. Spared both the nuclear strikes and all but a few cases of the Demon Plagues, Australia was booming. Well-educated, carefully vetted immigrants – many of them from among the extended Nguyen clan – filled high-tech positions, ensuring the nation remained at the forefront of scientific progress. Given the state of the rest of the world, Australia had a hundred applicants for every open space. Things were going very, very well.

Spooky wondered when Murphy would show up to spoil the party.

They drove past the busy heavy equipment planting fence posts and sensors in a new, wider ring, before passing through the older compound gate. Concrete trucks poured their contents into molds full of rebar, heavy haulers dispensed loads of wood and metal and prefabricated pieces. In a few weeks he would have triple the floor space upon which to dig out the secrets of the nanomachines.

The five nanocommandos soon occupied five beds in a bay full of medical equipment. A squat, strangely out-of-place machine pointed its electromagnetic array down the full length of the room, the final backup if other control measures failed. It was twin to the one that had incapacitated the subjects in the hangar. Though it would ruin some of the more delicate pieces of medical and scientific equipment if it were ever used, Spooky was a careful man. Machines could be replaced.

Captain Alkina met him there, watching as the technicians bustled about, preparing the helpless men for their role as the incubators of the future. Nguyen felt her gazing at him in adoration, and he touched her secretly, briefly, sending a cascade of emotion through her body. He sensed her response and it reassured him.

If he ever failed to detect that reaction he would take special measures to safeguard himself, for it would mean that the eventual, inevitable loss of her dependency had begun. For now, though, she was utterly his.

Once he was certain that everything was proceeding according to his wishes, he steered her into his on-site office, locked the door, and proceeded to remind her of his dominance, and of her submission.


-4-

Chairman of the Free Communities Council Daniel “DJ” Markis looked up as his intelligence chief Cassandra Johnstone entered his new fourth-floor corner office.

Its entire southern and western walls were composed of deceptively tough armor glass composites. So clear were they, she had the impression DJ could roll his desk chair backward and off into space. She sniffed. Everything smelled new, of glue and paint and plastic. “Nice. Can I have one like this?”

“You know you can, but you wanted something more secure.”

“You should have something more secure too.” She walked to the west wall to look out over the grounds. A crew dug the future reflecting pool while a woman walked her dog along the edge of the construction barrier. Near the next building, lovers on a blanket under a tree ate their lunch between bites of each other. She rapped on the glass. “This won’t stop everything.”

“It helps me think, the feeling of open space. I grew up flying with Dad and it’s worth the risk. Besides, who wants me dead now?”

“I have a list of people if you want it.”

Markis laughed. “Between you and Karl I’d never leave the Bunker if you had your ways.” The Bunker was the new, high-security lab they were building in the played-out mines nearby.

“Speaking of the Bunker, I want your authorization to add a special annex. It will be expensive but I think it’s necessary.” She handed him a folder, which he looked over.

“Containment and confinement. For the commandos?”

“Or people like them. With that final plague coming in the next six weeks – I think ‘Reaper Plague’ is catching on in the media – we might need it. I know I’m not comfortable where we’re holding them right now. It’s inconvenient to the lab and people that need to study the nanos and their effects on human physiology. And they tell me there is a small but real chance that the nanos in their bloodstreams could escape to replicate elsewhere. Unlike the Plagues, they can theoretically jump species. Do we really want nano-rats with nano-fleas running around?”

Markis sat back slowly. “Dear God. No, we don’t. Okay, you sold me. Until then, do whatever you must to keep that from happening. If you have to sedate them until it’s built…whatever it takes.”

“What I’d really like to do is try to dialyze them and take the nano out.”

“And then what?” Markis asked.

Cassandra, with a growing smile, replied, “There’s an old saying. If you want to destroy an enemy, make him your friend.”


-5-

Even at six in the morning the day looked to be heading toward hot. It was breezy with a hint of dust when Master Sergeant Jill Repeth marched up to the scratch Military Police platoon drawn up in formation in front of their hastily erected barracks on Butts Army Airfield, Fort Carson, Colorado. Time to play the role again. Her uniform was impeccable, her eight-point cap starched to cut paper, and she radiated a palpable intensity, an eagerness that translated into a sense of urgency obvious to everyone there.

Thus it was all the more surprising when the pudgy Army staff sergeant standing in charge merely gave her a casual nod and kept chatting with the front ranks.

While of course enlisted ranks do not salute each other outside of certain formal cases, she at least expected an acknowledgment, perhaps a “what can I do for you?” Her mental respect-o-meter, a little rusty from working in special operations for so long, abruptly jolted to life in her head.

“Staff Sergeant.” Her voice was sharp.

He turned around to face her, an insincere smile on his face. His name tag read Grusky. “Yes, Sergeant?”

“That’s Master Sergeant,” she ground out. “I know you’re not a Marine, so I’ll overlook that error just this once. Now call this rabble to attention and turn it over to me properly.”

She heard some mumbles and a chuckle from the rear rank. Grusky stared at her for a moment, evaluating. Finally he said, his voice deceptively casual, “I don’t see how I can do that.”

Repeth stared at him in turn, shocked by his indiscipline but determined not to show it. She took a long side-step to the right so she could see the platoon, a formation of some forty personnel, four out of five male, all wearing MP armbands, their only uniformity. None were above the rank of Sergeant E-5 or the equivalent. She could see a few Navy and Air Force uniforms, with the rest about an even mix between Marines and Army. She glanced to her right, where fifty yards away she could see another platoon of troops – if one could call them that – in navy blue that was almost black. Homeland Security…most of them probably former Security Service. Great.

Finally she addressed Grusky’s statement in a glasscutter voice. “Really? Why?”

“The way I hear it, you’re a deserter.” Muted laughter from some of the troops in formation, with an unsettled undertone. Others looked uncomfortable, glancing to the side or down at their boots.

She clasped her hands behind her back. “So, Grusky,” she said conversationally, keeping her eyes on the troops, “the Marine Corps and the President of the United States are idiots.” Her head swiveled toward him, a turret. “Right?”

The man looked uneasy for the first time. “Of course not, Sergeant.”

Master Sergeant.” Her eyes bored into him.

He licked lips grown suddenly dry. “Master Sergeant,” he finally repeated.

As if to a small child, “So you think the President and the Corps are fools.” This repetition brought some muttering from the Marines in formation.

“Not generally, no,” he answered more confidently.

“But you must,” she said with false brittle brightness. “After all, the Corps granted me this rank based on my fourteen years of experience and demonstrated fitness to hold it. When I left my unit the Unionists were in power and I never took an oath to those pigs. When I escaped from a Unie prison camp I had already been stripped of my rank and status. I was a civilian. In fact, I was declared an enemy of a state that does not even exist anymore. There is no more ‘United Governments of North America.’ There is only the United States of America, God bless her.”

This elicited more rumbling from the troops, and a few cheers. “At ease!” called one of the squad leaders, bringing back quiet.

She plowed onward. “But recently the United States Marine Corps, at the personal direction of the President of the United States, saw fit to fully pardon and reinstate me. So,” she raised her voice, making a parade-ground left face and thrusting her nose to within an inch of his, “you must think those two sacred institutions have somehow been hoodwinked.” Her voice dripped sarcasm. “Obviously they couldn’t have actually meant to put me in charge, because a disgrace to the uniform like you has decided he’s smarter than they are. Right?”

Grusky gobbled, then snapped to attention and faced left toward the troops. “Platoon, atten-shun!” He performed a creditable about-face and stood waiting, obviously expecting her to step in front of him and formally take charge.

Instead, she stalked through the ranks, looking them up and down. There were some dirty and wrinkled uniforms, accoutrements out of place or incorrectly worn, cables – loose threads – hanging from pockets or button-holes, untucked laces – in short, a shoddy group with just a few standouts who cared about their appearance.

Finishing her once-over, she marched back up to face Grusky, who saluted sharply, proper military ceremony for giving and taking charge. She paused a moment, just enough to emphasize her displeasure, then returned the salute. He moved out to take his place to the formation's right, facing her.

She drew a deep breath and pitched her voice to project. “I am Master Sergeant Repeth, United States Marine Corps. I am sure you all think I am a hardass by now, and you are correct. You people look like shit, and as long as you people look like shit you will act like shit and you will be shit on my shit list. The sooner you get your sorry act together, the sooner you will get off my shit list. Until then, until you earn your way off my shit list, it is my explicit and stated intention to kick your sorry asses until you start looking and acting like United States military personnel and not a miscellaneous collection of confused and worthless ragbags.”

She began to pace, warming to her topic. “Now some of you are thinking to yourselves, ‘MY uniform is pressed. MY boots are impeccable. I’m just fine, thank you!’ But as far as I am concerned, that’s a reprehensible and selfish attitude. ‘To those whom much is given, much will be required.’ That means you will look after your fellow troops, be they Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, male or female, gay or straight, Eden or normal, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jew or whatever other belief system they hold because I don’t give one flying rat’s buttocks, you are all the same now. You are the Fourth Platoon, First Military Police Company, Second Joint Civil Operations Battalion, and I own your asses from now on, and I don’t like my things reflecting badly on me.”

Repeth passed to the side of the formation, looking for any laughing, anyone who was bold or foolish enough to try to make light of the situation. She saw no one, so she went on.

“Some of you might be wondering why you don’t have an officer in command of this platoon. I could rightly say it’s because you don’t deserve an officer, but the truth is we don’t have enough. Until the academies and schools start producing shiny new butterbars, we will have shortages because many officers are tainted. They all had to join the Unionist Party and swear allegiance to the Triumvirate, and now they all have to be interviewed and vetted for readmission to the real United States military. So until such time as we obtain one of those exalted personages, I am in charge. If you want to get technical, the company commander, Captain LeBrun, is dual-hatted as the platoon leader, but as far as you are concerned, he might as well be on the moon, and I am your new goddess of war for this mission.

She walked around the formation to stand in front of them once again. Though they were already hanging on every word, she thought she saw that declaration prompt even greater attentiveness. “That’s what I said, our mission. We have one week to get ready. We are taking back what’s ours – reclaiming lawless territory in the United States. Between the nuclear strikes and the alien plagues, there are large parts of our country that have simply ceased to function. These zones are inhabited by frightened and infected people. Some are sick with radiation exposure. Some have contracted one or both of the Demon Plagues. And some have just decided to build their own little bandit kingdoms on the backs of ordinary citizens. Our mission will be to set that right, and to secure the medics to inoculate everyone. We will provide traditional Military Police functions, and we will back up our comrades in Homeland Security –” she gestured toward the other formation – “when they get in over their heads.” This jab at their civilian counterparts brought suppressed laughter.

“But it won’t be fun, people. It will be difficult, and it will be unpleasant. We will have to coerce people, detain and arrest citizens, even shoot some of them, and there will be deaths. I am going to do my damndest to ensure none of those deaths is you or me.” She looked pointedly at her watch. “You are released to breakfast. Assistant Platoon Sergeant and squad leaders will report to my office at 0700 hours, then all NCOs at 0715. Enjoy this little break, people, because it’s the last one you’re going to have for a while.”

With that she turned the platoon back over to Grusky and marched toward the mess hall. It’s going to be one long week.


-6-

Skull bolted upright. His head snapped left and right searching for her, but she was gone. He lay on the bed naked but for his Patek, which said he’d slept for two hours. Nanosilk armor and boots lay jumbled in a corner and the hard pieces of his rig lay scattered about the floor. His assault rifle stood, propped against the wall, magazine still in it. Other than these, the room was empty.

Quickly pulling on his jumpsuit and boots, he grabbed the rifle and – what now? He banged a fist on the place where the door should be and the second blow went through empty space, the wall irising to let him through. He stared from the opening across the main control room space, at the woman in the chair.

“What the hell did you do to me?”

Somberly she forced a smile, not meeting his eyes. “Shouldn’t I ask you the same question? It seemed like you were the aggressor, and you did things to me.”

“Did you drug me or…or pheromone me or something like that?”

“What, now I’m some kind of space-succubus that seduces Earth’s most eligible bachelors?” A weak laugh dribbled from her lips. “Yes, it was all part of my elaborate plan, the way we ended up here. Couldn’t you tell?”

“Then what the hell happened? I didn’t rape you.”

“Didn’t you? Are you sure? Methinks milord doth protest too much. And how should I know what happened? Half of me was an alien until a month ago and the other half was nearly a virgin, so I don’t have a lot of experience with all this! You should be telling me! Aren’t you, like, fifty years old or so?”

Like, something like that,” he mocked. He walked over to sit down in the other control seat, placing his rifle against the wall away from her reach.

“And if that wasn’t rape it sure wasn’t making love,” she sneered, “not since I’m your hostage. What should we call it? Sexual abuse of power?”

“It wasn’t like that at all!” he yelled. “It was good! It was good…” He trailed off, to his own surprise caring what she thought, caring what anyone thought for the first time in many years. “Wasn’t it good?” he asked, uncharacteristically unsure.

She hung her head, her long dark straight hair falling over her face, hiding her expression. Mumbled something.

“What!” he barked, fighting anger and fear. What am I afraid of? Rejection? Why do I give a shit what she thinks?

“I said I don’t know. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t fair!” Her face broke through her hanging hair, tears sticking strands to cheeks. “My mind said no but my body overrode it. That’s not fair. It’s not me, and it’s not…Meme.”

“Welcome to the human race.” Skull leaned forward, reaching tentatively toward her, stopping with his hands inches from contact. His fingers furled to fists. “I’m…” Taking a deep breath, he said, “I’m sorry. I think…I think both my mind and body wanted you, but I just don’t know why.” Plaintive. “This really isn’t like me.” Skull looked down at his right hand, opening and closing it convulsively. “I have no problem killing those that need killing, but I feel…” Refused to articulate the rest: ashamed.

Raphaela laughed, ironic. “Very selective, your conscience.”

“Stop that!”

“What?”

“Stabbing me when I try to say something real!” He felt cracks creeping through his emotional walls.

She stared at him incredulously. “What kind of conversation do you think this is? Is this a date? Did we just have make-up sex in the wrong order, so the fight is now?”

Skull glared at her. “I think you’re just feeling guilty and angry it happened and you want to blame me for it. Women never want to take responsibility for doing something improper. They want the man to do it so they’re free of guilt. Ooh, mom, he made me do it!”

“Wow, that’s some projection you got going. I do want to blame you for it because you’re to blame! You kidnapped me from the lab at gunpoint and forced me to pilot this ship off into space and then you took – we had – whatever you call it, what we did, and how can I help but be angry at you! And I feel guilty, yes, because I wasn’t strong enough to say no!”

Skull sat back, grasping the arms of the seat in frustration. “You’re right. You are human. No alien would be so damned…female!” He thrust upright, seized his rifle and stalked into the bedroom, throwing himself onto the bed-dais.

Rolling over, he stared at the ceiling. What the hell is going on? Who the hell am I? This isn’t me. Something is happening that’s messing with my head. Is it the nano? Is this what it did to JT? And the others, Section Three that suicided, I just figured they got too froggy and high on their abilities. But Huff, all that stuff I could hear him saying over the link, crazy stuff, I just figured it was for effect, to keep control of the situation, but maybe not.

His thoughts ran around in his skull like rats trying to chew their way out. Eventually he slept, fitful.


-7-

Brigadier Nguyen composed himself, resisting the urge to stroke his thin goatee, to check his neat short hair. In a normal, or even an Eden, “composing himself” would be idiomatic, metaphorical. With an aberration like him, it was more literal. He consciously changed minds, wrapping himself in his earlier, warmer, pre-Psycho persona. Method acting, some might have called it, to put himself so deep into a role that he believed it, became that person.

He pushed a button on his intercom phone, an ancient piece of technology – at least twenty years of age. Spooky liked antiques, liked to keep others off balance by using unusual approaches and devices, liked to impress people. “Send them in please,” he ordered courteously into the device.

Politeness has no cost, he thought. Like Pascal’s wager, it is always win-win. For my enemies I keep them quiescent, guessing, underestimating. For my friends – those who believe themselves my friends, those who serve me unknowingly – it maintains our relationships and their esteem. And for those who are not yet either, it smoothes their path to join the ranks of my loyal subordinates. Win-win. He laughed to himself at the play on words. Nguyen-Nguyen. Likely only a speaker of Vietnamese could hear the difference.

His head of nanotech research, a distant Nguyen cousin called Erik, led his two senior subordinates in to stand in front of Spooky’s enormous polished wooden desk. He bowed, and though not Asian, the other two also bowed with reasonably practiced motions.

With his cousin the bow was customary. The other two had learned that it seemed to please the Brigadier, had told themselves that they were culturally sensitive.

To Brigadier Nguyen, it simply reinforced his authority. Win-win.

He smiled, encouraging. “You have had four weeks to work with the nanotech. I have seen your reports but I wanted your firsthand impressions. Specifically, what is the best way to employ this technology in the short term?”

Erik bowed again reflexively and spoke English for the benefit of the others. “Honored Uncle, in the short term we need trustworthy normals. The commando nanobots cannot be injected into Edens. We are working on reprogramming and improving them but that is a project for months, if not years. We are starting from scratch.”

Spooky nodded, spoke mildly. “Trustworthy normals, uninfected by any Plague – Eden or Demon – are rapidly disappearing from the planet. The advantages of the Eden Plague are obvious. With the collapse of the United Governments of North America, only the Chinese and the Russians in their paranoia have not embraced Edens, and even there, self-infection is growing in their population. We need another approach.”

The swarthy man to Erik’s right, Saul Birnbaum, twitched slightly, clearing his throat. Spooky waited until Erik nodded to him before asking, “What is it?”

“Sir, I'm spearheading an attempt to modify the US-provided nanovaccine that is compatible with Eden Plague. The bots are far simpler and less capable but I believe that within months my team will have some that will boost human performance significantly. Perhaps as much as twenty percent. And it will still function as a vaccine.”

“Excellent.” Nguyen praised. “Please pay special attention to anything that will improve human capabilities in space.”

The three men looked surprised. “Space?”

“Yes. Our first priority is not ground forces or commandos on Earth. The war will eventually move into space, and I want to be ready to provide, oh, let’s call them Space Marines. Men who can operate effectively in weightlessness, extremes of cold and heat, even vacuum, if possible, are your goal. For example, men who could delay breathing for minutes or longer.”

Birnbaum nodded, then bowed again self-consciously. “Yes, sir.”

“How long until prototyping?”

The scientist cleared his throat nervously. “Perhaps…three months?”

“You have two. I want to see something then.” The general turned to the other. “What about you? Do you have another approach?” His eyes held those of the second subordinate, Deliah Pelapolos. He approved of her short dark hair and her no-nonsense manner, and she looked back at him with no fear.

Perhaps I shall take this one for myself as well…assuming I can do it without interfering with her usefulness. It might be interesting to try to manage an Eden mistress. Yes, a stimulating challenge and something to keep Ann on her toes, perhaps. But not yet.

“I am working on the long-term modification and reprogramming of the CCNs. The difficulty is in turning off their defensive immune functions, the programming that makes them attack all viruses.”

Spooky’s eyebrows went up. “Just viruses?”

“Yes, sir. They are not yet advanced enough to discriminate between normal cells and, say, a bacteriological infection. If they were programmed to kill bacteria, they would kill a lot of body cells as well, not to mention the beneficial bacteria that most humans need to survive – in the gut, on the skin. I believe this was the best the Americans could do at the moment. So the current nanocommandos can fend off viruses but not something like staph, or bacterial meningitis.”

“That sounds like an interesting area to study for bio-weapons against enemy nanocommandos.”

Eric nodded. “Yes, sir. We have a tentative plan for that but it’s not the priority right now. Unless you wish it to change.”

Spooky pressed his lips together but nodded in agreement. One cannot fund and pursue every avenue. I need more resources. “I understand. How long for your prototype?”

Deliah looked distressed, turning to Erik, her immediate boss, avoiding Spooky’s eyes this time. “I don’t know. There are too many unknowns. Best case…four to six months, unless we get more people and equipment. I really need a new supercomputer. Two would be better. And a number of other things.”

“Supercomputers are hard to come by in these dark days, but I will see what I can do. Do your best with what you have. I have confidence in you all. Erik, have a list of people, or at least skill sets, that you need, in priority order, in case the funding comes through. If there are specific people, give me a basic workup on each – who they are, where I can find them, and so on. Perhaps they can be persuaded to join us. Is there anything else? No? You may go.”

Spooky watched them walking out and timed his request carefully, casually. “Oh, Miss Pelapolos, I have one or two more questions for you. Would you come back in please?”

Corrupting an Eden…a worthy challenge.


-8-

A quarter of the world away in South Africa, two similar rooms contained the two nanocommandos captured there. Miller had died of his wounds, but Banson and Marquez had survived due to the efforts of their nanites, desperately rebuilding tissue in the face of multiple assaults. Needleshock rounds had delivered Eden Plague directly into their wounds, but the tiny defenders had frantically destroyed millions of individual viruses, fighting off the infection, suppressing hematoma and closing wounds, speeding circulation and the carrying of oxygen and nutrients, a monumental, mindless effort to assist the men’s bodies’ natural healing.

It was a triumph for the nanomachines, a tribute to their design team’s years of work, but beyond saving their lives it didn’t help the men. They lay conscious but confined by restraints and a low-level tuned induction field that suppressed the nanites’ functioning. It made them sluggish, the machine equivalent of a tranquilizer, so they were hardly stronger or faster than ordinary men and should be helpless in the face of Cassandra Johnstone’s interrogation. Presuming the nanites don’t help them resist, she thought. So much we don’t know.

The Free Communities Council’s Chief of Intelligence – really Chairman DJ Markis’ spymaster – entered the bare access corridor in the block of a hastily renovated old South African local jail, now incorporated into the Carletonville research facility.

There was limited need for confinement in any Free Community. Crime, especially of the violent sort, had dropped by more than ninety percent in the last ten years even as reporting, policing and the judiciary became more efficient and less corrupt. The reinforced-concrete walls and inch-thick steel doors that used to hold drunken miners and accused diamond thieves now provided one more line of defense if the two commandos got loose somehow.



She wasn’t entirely happy with her new role as jailer and interrogator, as she wasn’t really professionally fit for either. The call was out for assistance but it took time to find, hire and assign the proper people. Right now the lab complex’s security forces were doing the best they could running the jail while simultaneously trying to recover from the beating they took at the nanocommandos’ hands.

Ditto for the medical personnel – the few that were available. Biological and nanomachine researchers were handy and eager to literally dig into their prisoners, but most of them were not medically qualified. She really needed someone competent to determine and administer correct dosages of drugs to men whose veins swarmed with millions of exotic microscopic machines. She doubted such a person existed in this hemisphere. Just have to make do.

She nodded at the four guards, two men and two women, standing in the corridor holding exotic weaponry. She only knew two of them. “Morning, Karl, Bettina, officers. Sorry to abuse your skills this way.”

Karl Rogett, the chief of Chairman Markis’ Personal Security Detachment, or PSD, smiled a hunter’s smile. “No problem, ma’am.” He hefted his weapon. “Gives us a chance to play with some new toys.”

Cassandra looked over the guards’ equipment. Karl sported a heavy device that looked like a Buck Rogers ray gun grown to rifle size, a super-taser designed to temporarily knock out the nanites and the target with a heavy jolt of electricity. One of the men she didn’t know held an automatic shotgun loaded with, she’d been told, alternating beanbag rounds and cartridges full of solidified gelatin pellets impregnated with knockout drugs and Eden Plague. The other, the woman, held a grenade launcher with a selection of tanglenet and sticky shells, and Bettina Looscher had a PW10 submachine gun with Needleshock in case the rest of them failed.

Unfortunately, borrowing the Chairman’s personal security detachment was a short-term option. When they were unavailable she had to content herself with ordinary security guards and the physical restraints. I really need to find some confinement specialists.

“Open the door,” she ordered. Bettina waved a badge at the scanner, then put in a code and the door clicked. She turned a handle, lifted a bar on a swivel, and stepped back.

Karl went in first, checked the room then took position in a corner covering the man strapped to the table. Cassandra walked around to the other side, out of the line of fire. She hoped that electro-blaster didn’t have much collateral bleed.

The man looked to be asleep, but the video feed she’d recently watched showed him looking around so she knew he was feigning unconsciousness. “Mister Banson?” He didn’t respond, so she reached across to pinch his nose shut with one hand while she covered his mouth with the other. A few seconds later his eyes popped open and he threw himself uselessly against the restraints. She let go.

“That was just to demonstrate your helplessness, mister Banson. You need to understand you are helpless. Do you understand?”

Banson glared at her. “Banson, Robert J., Sergeant First Class, 549-23 –”

“Mister Banson, I’m not here to interrogate you. I just want to make sure you are all right, and that you know the terms of your imprisonment. You are a prisoner of war and will be treated in accordance with all the terms of the Geneva Convention, but because of your nano-enhancement you are particularly dangerous to yourself and others. I need to know that if we treat you properly you will not hurt anyone or try to escape.”

“It’s my duty to try to escape,” he snarled.

“I realize that, but perhaps you could just agree to put that off for a day. A one-day parole. You give me your word that you won’t try to escape for twenty-four hours and I’ll let you out of these restraints and you can eat and drink and we can sit down and talk like two normal people.”

He shook his head. “Go screw yourself.”

Cassandra sighed, smiling sadly. “That’s not too farfetched, as I haven’t had a date in ten years. Much too busy dealing with problems like you. Oh, my name is Cass, by the way. Can I call you Robert? Rob, or Bobby? Bert? No? What, then?”

He jerked at the restraints. “Banson, Robert J. Sergeant First Class –”

“Stop that, Robert.” Cass laid her palm on the man’s arm, a calculated caress. “You’ll hurt yourself. We have the nanites suppressed. If we have to, we will clean them out of your body.”

For the first time Banson looked worried, then he froze his face and stared at the ceiling, silent.

Cass patted his arm sympathetically. “Just let me know when you’re willing to give your parole,” she said, and then withdrew, signaling Karl to follow her out.

Bettina shut the door with a clang then dropped the bar with metallic finality. “Why didn’t you push him harder?” she asked Cass conversationally.

Cass waved them farther down the corridor, then replied quietly. “Effective interrogation takes time, subtle psychological pressures. Rough measures rarely elicit reliable intelligence. Torture is counterproductive. Trust me to do it my way.” She waited until the others nodded in acquiescence. “All right, let’s see the other one now – Marquez. After that, I’ll be back every four to six hours. In a few days they’ll want to tell me everything I need to know and a lot I don’t.” I hope, she said to herself. Then: Admit it to yourself, Cass, you like this stuff. It’s fun to have power. She answered herself: Sure I do. Power isn’t evil, just its misuse.

She turned to the other room, where Marquez waited helpless. Then she had some more fun.


-9-

Master Sergeant Repeth bolted breakfast and immediately went to talk to Captain LeBrun. She’d formally reported to him yesterday evening in her dress uniform, but there had been little time to talk. The formation of Homeland Security troops she had seen one barracks over had brought some questions to her mind.

“What is it, Repeth?” LeBrun was a weathered man, tanned leather over Eden Plague over age, she thought. He seems old inside, old for an Army captain, most of whom are younger than thirty. Maybe he’s up from the ranks. She pushed her speculations aside.

“I was wondering about the Homeland Security platoon next door, sir. What are they doing here? Are they coming along?”

“Yes, they’re coming along. That’s actually a company, Master Sergeant. Smaller unit size, though they will pick up a few more before we go.”

She frowned. “It may not be my place to say, sir, but…unless they’re Edens now…”

LeBrun nodded. “The atrocities.” He took a deep drag from his cigarette, and Repeth noticed the well-used ashtray, formed in the shape of a Ranger tab, half-full of butts. Fresh butts, she thought, since first thing this morning.

“Yes, sir. I wonder how many had ‘SS’ instead of ‘HS’ on their uniforms just a few weeks or months ago. There were a lot of bad apples in the Security Service.”

LeBrun stared at her, leaning back in his creaking metal chair, a piece of furniture that, like everything else in these barracks, looked like it had been in use continuously since the Vietnam conflict. “And I heard you have some personal experience with them.”

He picked up a file from his desk. Inside she caught a glimpse of her own official photo. He spoke as he skimmed, “Triathlete, black belt in several martial arts, never failed to max the male standard PT test, even went to the Olympic track and field trials. Expert in all weapons quals, honor grad at your 3RT school, honor grad at jump school, distinguished grad at Close Quarters Combat school, on and on and on. Lost both feet to a mortar shell in Iraq where you were assigned to train their police in special tactics. And then it ends abruptly. The report says you deserted, were convicted in absentia and dishonorably discharged, but it’s a Unionist document so I don’t put much stock in it.”

LeBrun tossed the file back onto his desk with a thump. “Then it picks back up with a blizzard of nearly simultaneous orders – signed by the President, for Pete’s sake – pardoning you for all acts, rescinding the charge of desertion, reinstating you in the Marine Corps, promoting you, awarding you the goddamn Navy Cross for saving the President’s life, and then assigning you to humble little me.” His expression was not unfriendly, but skeptical.

“And you want the gaps filled in.”

“That would be nice,” he said drily. “I do need to know my people.”

“Yes, sir. I contracted the Eden Plague on the cruise ship Royal Neptune – the one they sunk on Infection Day. I swam across to the USS Somerset and sneaked aboard. I found the chaplain there and told her what was going on – she believed me once they sank the cruise ship – and she smuggled me off with the wounded. I thought about rejoining my unit but my feet were regrowing. I hid the situation as long as I could, but when martial law was declared they mandated Eden Plague testing for everyone. That was when I went AWOL. On the other hand, they had suspended the Constitution, so –”

LeBrun waved her explanations away with his hand. “Never mind the legalities, just the facts.”

“Yes, sir. Well, they caught me in Alabama when I ran out of mountains to hide in. They put me in a camp in Iowa. I escaped from that, made it to the Mexico border, swam the Rio Grande and made my way to South America. I volunteered for the Free Communities Armed Forces. US refugees with the right training were being swept into a Special Operations command under Colonel Nguyen, who was working for Chairman Markis. I was involved in a number of missions culminating in my…well, in the action described on the award.”

Singlehandedly saving the life of the President of the United States,” Lebrun quoted from the award’s text. “What in the hell do I do with you, Repeth?”

“What do you mean, sir?” She drew herself up, dropping unconsciously to parade rest.

“You’re a bona fide hero, but you’ve been fighting against your country for the last ten years.”

Her expression tightened. “With all due respect, sir, the UGNA wasn’t my country. My country is the people and Constitution of the United States, and I was fighting for them, against the fascists. Sir.”

LeBrun stood up, and she realized he was no taller than she was, a whippet of a man of perhaps five foot eight, but his sharp eyes and intense demeanor gave him an outsized presence. He took a final drag on his current smoke, then ground it out. “Good. I just wanted to hear it from your own lips, Top.” Clearly the nickname was an expression of trust: “you are my top soldier,” in Army terms.

He reached up to the breast pocket of his camouflage jacket and pulled out a new pack of cigarettes, looking speculatively at her as he performed the smoker’s ritual of rapping the packet twice on his palm to seat the tobacco, opening the cellophane, then the box lid, then the foil inside, finally drawing forth one of the coffin nails to light with tilted head.

She suddenly had a vision of him with a fedora, film noir.

LeBrun took a deep drag before he spoke, fragrant smoke puffing from his lips with his words. “Do you think you’ll have any problem making the adjustment from the Special Operations mentality back to a line unit?”

She took a slow breath, thinking over her response. “Not if you let me do my job my way, sir,” she finally said.

“By which you mean stay out of your hair. You’re the only platoon leader that isn’t an officer. On the books you’re just my platoon sergeant and I’m the platoon leader. That means there’s no green looey to blame things on if they go wrong. No buffer between you and me. That means neither of us gets any excuses for screw-ups. You okay with that, Master Sergeant?”

She nodded sharply. “Yes, sir.”

“Fair enough.” He waved in the direction of the door with the hand holding the smoke. “You’re dismissed.”

“Sir.” Repeth snapped to attention, faced about and marched sharply out of his office. She was halfway to her barracks office when she realized they hadn’t discussed the Homeland Security company. She wondered whether that was deliberate.


-10-

When Skull awoke the door was shut. Suspicious, he grabbed his weapon and banged it open, to see Raphaela sitting on the floor, stretching her hands to her toes. She smiled at him wanly, a halfhearted thing, but he counted it a good sign, a better alternative to being flayed with her tongue. Stalking over as she watched, he threw himself into his chair. “What is there to do?” he asked, vaguely irritated.

“You can start insulting me again.” Her tone was bantering.

“Tempting. But really.”

“Waah. ‘Mommy, I’m bored. Are we there yet?’ Well, space travel is boring,” she said, matter-of-fact. “We can tap in to a lot of Earth broadcasts. I have thousands of books in the memory stores.”

Deliberately suppressing a retort, trying to keep the peace, he asked, “What about food? I’m hungry and thirsty. You must be too.” And he realized he was; the nano must have been holding the sensations at bay. He had eaten a combat ration, his only one, shortly after they came on board. He cursed himself for not thinking to have ordered Section Three to steal cases of some kind of preserved stuff, which might also have given them an excuse to rejoin the team and saved their lives.

Or maybe not. Skull sighed grimly. What’s done is done.

Raphaela softened. “I made this. It’s not very good but it’s nutritious.” She handed him a lump of something brownish the consistency of cookie dough, along with a clear misshapen plasticky bottle of water.

The lump smelled like meat gone faintly old, and he took a nibble. “Not too bad. I’ve had much worse. There was this time in Ecuador that we lost all our food and we ate raw snake, and the insides of some kind of beetle, and some grubs. Now that was awful.” He laughed, drank. Maybe if we keep talking normally it will all be normal. Whatever normal is.

“Well I’m glad you like my cooking. More like my programming.”

“What’s it made out of?” Skull asked.

“Ship.”

“What?”

“It’s made out of ship, just like everything here. It’s basically one big biomachine.” She waved a hand at the surroundings.

“Huh. So as we eat the ship gets smaller?”

She shrugged. “Slightly, but there’s a lot of mass that’s just there to provide materials. You should be much more worried about the amount of fuel we’re using.”

“Okay, how much fuel are we using?”

“A lot. Constant one G burns a lot of mass even with the highly efficient fusion reactor that powers this thing. Though it’s less efficient than it used to be.”

“How efficient is it?”

“It’s down below ninety-three percent now. That’s horrible. Almost failing.”

“Since when is ‘used to be’?”

“Since Raphael came to consciousness. Four thousand years, give or take.”

“Pretty well built.” He ate some more of the meat-dough. “So why are you being so amenable now?”

Her dark eyes were liquid, clear and open. “How else would I be, in the long run? I’m an Eden, remember?” She tapped her skull. “Mentally well-adjusted. I can’t help it. I can’t hate you, and anger isn’t sustainable.”

Skull slumped down in the seat, stunned, mind revving. Of course she was an Eden, because Captain Sophia Ilona had been. Somehow he’d forgotten about the Eden Plague, or figured the Blending had bypassed it, made it irrelevant, cured it. Then he’d just made it with an Eden…and maybe that explained something.

“How do you feel?” he asked. “Think hard. Think carefully. Try to compare it to how you felt before, when we were, umm, emotional. Before, during and after.”

She cocked her head, stared at him while thinking.

He found that mannerism endearing, but it was a thin emotion, well-bound, in no danger of breaking loose. He closed his eyes to do some thinking of his own. They stayed that way for some minutes.

“I suppose,” she eventually ventured, “that before you kidnapped me I felt very rational. Sophia Ilona was a  cerebral woman and before the Eden Plague she was a chubby teenager and she probably carried her attitude forward with her. She didn’t think herself attractive even after she got infected. So she based her self-worth on her mind and her skills. Raphael was much the same but more so. He’d interacted with humans from afar, using biorobots and, uh, I guess you’d say special effects tricks to play god to more primitive cultures.”

He nodded. “So you are the combination of two very rational beings and you probably didn’t think about what it would feel like. Suddenly Raphael was human with all the drives common to woman, and Ilona was made into a goddess. But you immediately went to work in a laboratory and you were focused on science and you shut everything out. Right?”

“Yes,” she agreed, “for sure, you’re right. The time you and I spent together in the first day was the longest stretch I’ve just sat down and been near someone without being totally consumed with a task. So you think my biology just took over?”

“I think that’s part of it.” He told her about JT Tyler’s behavior, and Huff’s, and McCarthy’s violent reaction to the nano. “I think the nano and the Eden Plague create some unpredictable effects together. I don’t even know whether they are the same from instance to instance. Obviously when I touched you, when I grabbed you and then whatever is floating in the air – I know the virus isn’t supposed to be airborne but there must be some in the air, in the droplets of your breath, even at sub-infection levels – well, they did something. Maybe fending each other off at the microscopic level unsettled our emotions. I don’t know; I’m no scientist.”

“No, but I am. Or at least, Raphael was, of a sort, and Ilona was a very smart woman, and this shuttle has basic bio-analytical equipment, so I should get working on finding out.”

His hooded eyes gazed at her, brooding. “Sounds good. But…I still don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“I’ve been asleep twice, and you’ve done nothing. You know this ship, but I’m clueless about it. The only thing I can do is threaten you. I bet you could have done a hundred things to take control of the situation. You could have drugged the food or the water or put gas into the bedroom…hell, you didn’t even take my rifle away.”

An impish smile broke through her serious mien. “Actually I kind of did.” She pointed at the ceiling at a small fitting, at a device of metal a few inches long embedded there.

“That’s…that’s the cylinder from my weapon.” He laughed, rueful.

“Yes, and if you need it I’ll let it go, or if you tried really hard you could probably pry it out in a few minutes. And you’re still a lot stronger and faster than I am, but this makes me feel a little less vulnerable.”

Skull shrugged. “Fair enough. It can stay there. But the question still stands. Why haven’t you done something and turned us around?”

“If I’m going to answer your questions, you have to answer mine.”

He shrugged. “All right. Shoot.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You mean why did I do it, or what’s our goal?”

“Our goal first.”

Skull answered immediately. “I want to see what you have out here, for several reasons. I want to see whether Raphael was completely truthful, and I want to see whether there is something that could be used to fight this Meme scout ship, to buy us some time. They don’t think humans have any significant space capability, and they have no reason to think that one of their own has defected. Maybe we can sucker them somehow.”

She nodded. “But you don’t expect to live through it.”

His gaze was steady, and then he shook his head. “I didn’t expect to live through it when I started, and I’m not suicidal, but I am willing to die for a good cause.”

“That’s a relief. I wasn’t sure. Someone like you…”

Someone like me what?” he asked sharply.

Her nostrils flared below narrowed eyes. “A born killer. It has to take its toll.”

“I wasn’t born this way, I was made.” His tone was harsh. “I hope that’s not pity I see.”

She lowered and shook her head. He could see tears fly from under her hair. “No…just sympathy. There’s a difference. But you’re not as tough as you think you are.”

“Yes,” he said firmly. “I am. But that’s because I’m always careful not to overestimate myself. A man has got to know his limits.”

Raphaela laughed, looking up. “Dirty Harry.”

“What? Oh, yeah.” he laughed with her, easing the tension. “But he said ‘limitations.’ Close enough. So…answer my question.”

“About why I haven’t tried to regain control? I don’t want to kill or imprison you unless I have to. I don’t want that responsibility. And I’ve been thinking that maybe what you’re doing is worth doing. It might be the best strategy.”

“No, the best strategy would have been to take us all to Australia and turn this ship and its technology over to them, and try to make more of them, something like that. But I’m not that selfless, and I don’t trust the Aussies. Something funny is going on there. So I compromised. I sent the other nanocommandos. If I know Spooky, and if my suspicions are correct, that will be enough help for him.”

Raphaela ran her hands through her hair, stretching, mildly distracting him. “That segues nicely into the other question – why did you do all this the way you did?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “it seemed like a good idea at the time. Making the best of a bad situation. I told you about JT Tyler. I couldn’t know who in the US government was compromised, whether he was a rogue or part of a wider plot, whom to trust. Our mission at Carletonville was to destroy as much of the Free Communities research program as we could, kill as many leaders and scientists as we could, kidnap or kill you, and try to get your ship back to the US for exploitation.”

She let out a long breath through pressed lips, a sound of disdain and derision. “Stupid.”

“Yes, really stupid on so many levels. The research program is the only thing that will stop the Plagues. And while I would have liked to have the US get ahold of your technology, I wasn’t at all sure who I would be turning it over to. No, we can always do that later, if we make it through this.”

“But how did you convince your comrades to go along?”

“I’d already decided to do something, but this assignment made it clear that things were screwy, even to the gang of yahoos they stuck me with. All I had to do was explain it in two-syllable words and they followed my lead. I told them they should all defect to Australia and I was going to take you and the ship back to the US. I told them the Aussies would welcome them like heroes, and I played up the risk to them back home. They were all drunk on nano-power anyway. It was an easy sell.”

“And now,” her grin was thin, “you have the biggest bargaining chips in the world. Me and this ship.”

“Yes, something no one among the Free Communities leadership realized right then. Edens are too trusting. They have difficulty thinking like their opponents. I suppose I should thank the pressure of the Demon Plagues, otherwise you’d have been helping them understand your spaceship technology and how to convert it for human use, rather than working around the clock on countering the coming epidemics.”

“You know, Alan – can I call you Alan? I like that better. You’re sounding more reasonable all the time. More human.”

“Now there’s some irony, coming from you.”

Raphaela sighed. “Now you’re doing it.”

“What?”

“Stabbing me.”

Sorry. He kept his mouth shut with difficulty, afraid of opening to her and what it might mean. This isn’t me. It can’t be me. I can’t go soft and weak. Skull stared at the view screen for a minute, avoiding her eyes. “I’m going to bed.” He could feel her gaze following him as he left the control room, but he ignored it, throwing himself down on the bed-platform and falling quickly asleep.

His dreams were troubled, unusually so. He’d seldom had any problem sleeping, yet tonight his demons, shut tightly behind bars of steel certainty and locks of black iron control, rattled their chains and moaned.


-11-

“I have to admit, you have turned into one slick politician, DJ.” Cassandra lifted her glass to Daniel Markis from across his living room that evening. Nine-year-old Ezekiel Markis stopped picking at the piano keys to turn his wide eyes toward her. She winked at him, and he solemnly winked back. He seemed none the worse for his round trip to Australia with the defectors.

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment,” said Elise Markis as she put a veggie tray on the coffee table in front of Cass and sat down next to her. “The roast is taking longer than I expected, so here’s something to keep you from starving.”

Daniel scooted his chair forward to pluck a carrot stick, waving it like a baton. “You’re just envious that you didn’t think of it. It’s my job to –”

“ – think outside the box!” finished Ezekiel with sudden enthusiasm.

“That’s right, Zeke!” Daniel smiled warmly at their son. “Auntie Cassie has a tough job and she works so hard at it that sometimes she forgets about the big picture.”

“That’s enough buzzword clichés, you three,” groused Elise. “Someone tell me what you’re talking about?”

Cassandra nodded. “I was trying to figure out how we contain and quarantine the two nano-commandos we captured when DJ pointed out that we can just get rid of them and keep the nanobots for study. If we really want a human test we can find a volunteer who is already trusted and vetted. We still have a few normals kicking around. Better one of them, cooperating, than a twitchy enemy supersoldier.”

“Get rid of them?” Elise looked horrified.

Daniel laughed, bringing even more distress to her face, until he said, “Not get rid of them. Repatriate them. Send them home after dialyzing all the nanobots out of them. If we miss a few and they come back, that’s Tyler’s problem. The US has an enormous nano program. They can handle it.”

Ezekiel spoke up. “Dad, what if the US people kill them?”

Daniel responded patiently. “Good question, Zeke, but remember, these men are prisoners of war. We can’t be responsible for what their own country does if we give them back. But I don’t think they will anyway. There’s no reason to do it. Also, a few of our people that want to go back home to the US can accompany them. It will send a positive message.”

“But we need to wait until the interrogations are done,” Cassandra declared. “I’ll have them dialyzed as soon as possible. That will dramatically ease our need for these extreme precautions.” She paused, pursing her lips unhappily. “I still think we should make them Edens.”

Daniel shook his head. “If we were keeping them I’d say yes. I know it’s a fine point, but I don’t want McKenna to think I played him foul. It’s reasonable enough that we’re taking the nanobots out of them for our own use – spoils of war and all that. Returning them irrevocably altered with Eden Plague might seem high-handed.”

Cassandra laughed ruefully. “High-handed? You? From the man that infected the world with the Eden Plague? That’s a political decision, then, because you can’t tell me it’s a moral one.”

“No, morally I’ve long ago come to terms with making people Edens against their will. God and history will be my judge in that.” He held up a forestalling hand against a resurgence of their old argument. “I know, and all the chaos proceeding from it might be my damnation. We’ll just have to wait and see if the payoff is worth the pain.”

“That’s what you keep saying,” Cass grumbled, “just wait and see. But there’s always one more crisis and one more link in the causal chain. There’s no way to say whether this better world of yours really is any better.”

Elise spoke up. “I guess you just have to have faith ‘God is in control.’”

“Low blow, Elise.” Cassandra was only half-joking. “Just because I was raised Presbyterian doesn’t mean I believe everything is predestined. It does mean I don’t have your airy conviction it will all work out.”

“Yes, you Scots were always a dour lot. But that’s an asset in your line of work.”

“Granted.” Cassandra fell silent for a moment, munching and sipping. “What about the Reaper Plague?”

“That sounds,” Daniel observed, “like a deliberate change of subject. But all right, what about it? Elise?”

“We’re working on it. We have forty days or so, if Raphaela was correct. But just like Demon Plague Two, we have to have samples to develop a biovaccine. The antiviral nanovaccine that we have now attacks everything except the Eden Plague. That will give Edens significant but not complete protection, and it’s the best we have now. We’re working on some broad-spectrum approaches using an amalgamation of the Demon Plagues’ proteins that we think – assuming the Reaper Plague is not too different – we think will give about thirty percent immunity. At that level we might as well give normals the nano instead.” Elise sighed, showing her weariness.

Daniel stood up, to pace the strip of hardwood floor behind his chair while Ezekiel continued to play quiet random notes. “Speaking of Raphaela…” He smacked his fist into his palm, contemplative. “What’s the latest report?”

“They’re halfway to the Mars orbit line. She’s sent a few texts saying everything is fine. Anyone with a radio telescope could pick them up but I swore all of the FC astronomers to secrecy and the media don’t seem to have found out yet. They will eventually, though. Someone always talks. Does it matter?”

“I guess not. Nothing much we can do from here. Has she responded to our messages?”

“Not directly,” said Cass. “I don’t know if her receiver is sensitive enough. I’ve been loath to send a high-powered transmission for fear of interception. I wish we’d set up a code of some sort before this happened.”

Daniel snorted. “Lots of things we didn’t do because we failed to anticipate something like this. Skull had a point – we were so focused on the plagues that we forgot about the spaceship and its technology. Five-meter targets.”

“Shoot the nearest ones first, I know,” Cass responded ruefully, “but sometimes the farthest ones away are the ones that get you.”


-12-

Master Sergeant Repeth took a deep breath outside her office door and readied herself for her coming performance, then opened the door. Her five key noncommissioned officers stood at parade rest in front of her desk as she stepped inside. “At ease!” called Staff Sergeant Grusky, the command the Army used when a more senior NCO entered a room in a formal situation.

“Grusky, stand fast. The rest of you get out and stand by,” she snapped. The four squad leaders filed out while Staff Sergeant Grusky stood stiffly at parade rest.

Once they shut the door, she exploded into action. Her hands reached for Grusky’s shoulders from behind and spun him around, grasping his lapels in a classic bully’s grip as she drove him backward until he slammed into the bare cinder-block wall. She lifted him up onto his toes as his eyes bulged with shock and fear.

“You know, Grusky,” she snarled, “my father, Marine Sergeant Major Marion Repeth, used to tell me about the old Corps and the days of wall-to-wall counseling. In my time in service, we’ve had a kinder, gentler military, but no longer. Welcome to my new old way of doing business.”

She spun him two hundred seventy degrees around, slamming him up against the adjacent wall. His head cracked against the concrete and his eyes crossed. “We don’t have time for namby-pamby crap. You think because I’m an Eden I won’t put you through hell? Well, think again.”

She spun him again, one-eighty and five long steps to the far wall, this time taking care to knee him in the guts as she did it so his head didn’t take another blow. She wanted him conscious. “Oh look, here’s another wall. Are you an Eden yet, Grusky? No? Well maybe you will be before the day is out; either that or you’ll be in traction.”

She manhandled him once more, this time sideways to bounce off the fourth wall, and then she dropped him into the chair in front of her desk. Her voice menaced him beneath a mild, contemplative sarcasm. “Now just so we understand each other perfectly, I will tell you this in plain fifth-grade language. I will not tolerate the kind of attitude I saw from you today. It’s bad for discipline, it’s bad for the mission, and if it continues it’s going to be very bad for you personally. You have one chance and one chance only to straighten up, and this is it. You start demonstrating to me that you deserve those stripes right now, or you will be packing your bags. Are we clear?”

The man struggled to his feet gasping, sweat pouring from his face. “Clear, Master Sergeant.”

“I said ARE WE CLEAR?”

“CLEAR, MASTER SERGEANT!”

She turned her back on him, simultaneously contemptuous and giving him his shot if he wanted to take it. “Then go tell the others to come in.”

She listened carefully for any aggressive move, but the only sound was the door opening and his feet thudding as he ran to get the others. She smiled to herself, knowing the story would spread like wildfire, making it that much less likely she would actually have to do it again. It should also shortly become obvious which way Grusky was going to break – for her or against her. She needed to know that right away, because there was no way she was going to go on a combat mission with an untrustworthy second in command.

When her NCOs came back in she was all affable business. “Relax, people. Now, I need your names and very brief backgrounds before we go on.”

The first to speak up was a round-faced black man, his manner precise and forthright. “Sergeant Nathan Tunner, 31 Bravo. Did my first tour at Schofield, then Fort Richardson, Alaska, then this.” He didn’t elaborate further, so Repeth nodded at the next in line, a Hispanic woman.

“Sergeant Gennifer Doran, 3PO51A.”

“Dog handler.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.”

“Do you have a dog?”

Pain crossed the woman’s face. “No, Master Sergeant. He got killed down in Mexico when some insurgents hit Azteca Air Base.”

“Sorry about that. But you’re going to have to forget about that for now and lead your squad.” Repeth looked at Doran sharply. The other woman nodded, her jaw set. Repeth snapped, “You will answer me properly, Sergeant, and you will have to bury that grief until you have time to deal with it because right now people’s lives depend on you.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant!” Doran responded coldly.

Better cold than soft and mushy, thought Repeth, and she better get used to compartmentalizing. It’s the only way you get through combat.

The other two, Sergeants Derrick Shute and Randy Butler, ginger and blond respectively, gave simple, even bare stories of one assignment in Iowa. Repeth’s ears pricked up.

“Sounds like you two were together, from the way you said that.”

The two men answered “Yes, Master Sergeant,” in near-unison.

“In Iowa.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.”

“But I noticed you didn’t say where.” Her eyes were sharp, and she knew she was on to something.

The two men stood silently at parade rest, eyes front and not meeting hers.

“Out with it. I can’t have people not telling me things.”

Butler licked his lips, then spoke. “Master Sergeant…we were Air Guardsmen at Des Moines Air National Guard Base…but when they reinforced Mexico with more SS they took us to Two-Forty to help them there.”

“Two-Forty Internment Camp,” she said flatly. “I’m familiar with it.” Very familiar. One winter starving there convinced me the Unionists werent going to come around to accepting Edens. “Did you commit any atrocities?”

Sergeant Shute swallowed convulsively and led a chorus of “No, Master Sergeant!”

“In fact, Master Sergeant,” he went on, “we smuggled food in to the S – the Edens there.” His eyes pleaded for understanding, for forgiveness.

I’m not here to be nice to these people, Repeth told herself. Play the role of the hardass. They have to believe you’re tougher and harder and meaner than anyone here, that you won’t respect them until they earn it.

“Is that supposed to make me happy?” she snapped. “Make me your friend, your buddy? I’m not interested in your past sins or the guilt on your souls. We’ve all done things we regret. I’m only interested in now and going forward, do you all copy? So the one thing that concerns me right now is how you two managed to end up together and as my third and fourth squad leaders instead of being split up. Well? Someone speak up.”

“Uh, Master Sergeant…” Butler said, “I swapped with another guy that didn’t want to be here. Here in Fourth Platoon, that is.”

Repeth stared ice at Butler, then the rest. They in turn looked hard at the wall. Finally, she growled, “Fine. I don’t want anyone in this platoon who doesn’t want to be here anyway. But if I see any problem with you two bosom buddies, we’ll flip a coin and one of you will get transferred. We clear?”

---

After meeting her leadership team Master Sergeant Repeth spoke to the rest of her NCOs to establish her standards and expectations. After that she addressed her platoon as a whole as they stood in formation after breakfast.

This time SSG Grusky called them to attention and saluted smartly. “Fourth Platoon, all present or accounted for.”

Repeth returned the salute, formally taking charge of the formation, and Grusky spun about, wooden-faced, and marched precisely to his position. She addressed them in her best parade-ground voice, pitched to carry.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the training schedule is posted on the platoon board. You may notice that today’s extends until 2100 hours, and each day from now on begins at 0440 wake-up and 0500 physical training. Every moment from now on will be full. And the first thing on the training schedule is a readiness line. We all know the drill – make sure your records are in order, your will and life insurance is updated – and inoculations.”

She paused, looked them over.

“Everyone here is going to receive a vaccine that protects against the Demon Plagues – Edens get a nanovaccine, normals get a biovaccine. This is mandatory. A copy of the written order is also posted on the platoon board. Once you get your shot, the Edens among you will move on and finish their readiness processing then report back to me here. Those of you who are not Edens will be given the opportunity to receive the Eden virus.”

She let that declaration hang for a moment, watching her people. She saw a few darting eyeballs and heard a few coughs and indistinct sounds but by and large they stayed tight to the position of attention. Good. They heard about my wall-to-wall counseling already and are straightening themselves out. And it looks like Grusky is either a very good actor or has taken his medicine and is ready to get on with business. Their uniforms even look better. Some of them must have worked on them during the breakfast break.

“Listen up. All Eden Plague carriers, on the command to fall out, fall out to my right and form two perpendicular ranks. The rest will stand fast. FALL OUT.” About a quarter of the people fell out and took places in a new, much smaller formation to the side.

Repeth lifted a hand to point at a large Army corporal remaining in the second row of normals. “You. What’s your name, big man?”

“Donovan, Master Sergeant.” He had a rough but intelligent face, and hangdog eyes that matched his Blue Ridge mountain twang.

“Corporal Donovan, front and center.”

The man moved out smartly and reported to her. She told him to stand to one side. “At ease,” she called, and the platoon relaxed slightly. “Many of you have a mistaken idea about Edens – what the Unies called ‘Sickos’ in their more lurid propaganda. They told you that Sickos can’t fight. Does anyone here think Edens can’t fight? Come on, be honest.” Some of the younger or bolder normals raised tentative hands.

“So, Corporal Donovan,” she said, turning to the looming soldier, “I want you to attack me. Remember, I will heal from anything short of death. Come at me any way you want to – hands, feet, rocks, sticks, that knife on your belt, whatever you like. And make it good. I hate a weak effort.” She took a half-step backward and loosened her joints, opening up her gaze and focus to encompass her opponent.

Donovan nodded, stepped back, put up his hands and threw a couple of snapping jabs to test the waters.

She’d picked him because taking down a big man is always more impressive. She’d found they usually weren’t as skilled as smaller people who’d had to rely on something other than bulk, but Donovan was different. Obviously had some boxing training. This is going to be even better than I expected.

Neither Donovan nor the rest of the onlookers could know how she’d trained in FC Special Operations Section. How at first Spooky had drilled her personally, and then brought in skilled instructors in the combative arts. How she’d driven herself to muscle failure, to battered broken bones, to shock and to pain, and how she’d gotten up each day fresh and healed and done it all over again, until there was no fear of pain left in her, no terror of destruction short of death itself.

So she contented herself with letting him punch for a while, blocking his jabs and his hooks, dodging his uppercuts and absorbing his body blows with no response, no expression.

Then she smiled and gave him a deliberate opening.

He reacted as expected, throwing a straight right that would have put an ordinary woman – or man – on the ground.

She ducked into it so his massive fist hit her in the top of her forehead, right at the widow’s peak. Perfect. Her head rang and her scalp split in an impressive crimson spray. She stepped away for a moment, wiping the backs of her hands across her face, smearing the blood, letting her head clear. Then she put her guard back up and nodded. Try again. It’ll heal.

Donovan went for the body as she kept her arms high, kept wiping her bloody face, kept accepting the hammering of his fists. Donovan hit her harder and harder as he realized she wasn’t going down despite being outweighed by a hundred pounds, despite feeling her ribs crack under his knuckles. She saw the puzzlement come into his eyes, heard the cries of the troops as if through an echo chamber, smelled and tasted her own blood sucked into her nose and mouth as the bellows of her lungs pumped in rhythm.

She hadn’t thrown one punch since the start of the fight, and Donovan was finally slowing. Four or five minutes of intense combat tired the fittest man.

Now to administer the lesson.

Left-right, left-right, Repeth slammed triphammer blows into his ribs until he dropped his hands. She threw sharp elbows to his shoulders and arms, stomped his insteps and shins, kicked his thighs and buttocks and torso, punishing him, inflicting hurts without striking to the head, without the risk of knocking him out. Her skill and her exquisitely trained athleticism and her Eden Plague-perfected health allowed her to concentrate her energy into one incredible burst of effort. In nine seconds and twenty-five blows she had him kneeling, cringing, helplessly shielding broken ribs.

The impacts of her fists and feet became more deliberate, but didn’t cease.

One part of her, the softer part, felt bad about the beating she meted out. The harder part, the steel forged by the fires of her instructors and her own adamant will, the part that knew beyond doubt that this was a necessary thing, even a good thing, powered her fists and feet as she demolished an undeserving human body.

If only he’ll accept his reconstruction.

Her final blow was more of a push, almost gentle, that curled him into a fetal position. She stood above him, deliberately blood-drenched, waiting until he lifted a feeble hand in surrender.

Of course I could have taken him down at any time with a precise kick to snap the knee joint or a knife-hand to the throat. But what would they have said? Okay, she’s quick, and skilled, and maybe she got lucky. Now they know I’m unbreakable, and they’re not.

Now they know I’m the biggest, meanest damned dog in this junkyard.

Repeth stepped back, momentarily raising her crimson fists overhead. The copper-iron smell of blood surrounded the tableau. Taking a calm breath, not straining at all as she pitched her voice to carry beyond her own platoon, to the other formations nearby, she called, “Anyone still think Edens can’t fight?”

Silence reigned. Not one of the normals would meet her eyes.

She went on. “No? But now we have a little dilemma. Corporal Donovan is messed up. He has two choices, only one of which is the right one. He can go to the hospital, lie in bed for a week, and miss the mission. Or he can go get an Eden virus shot in the readiness line and tomorrow morning he will be good as new. Better than new, because you know what else? Not only will he heal ungodly fast from any future injury, he’ll live a thousand years, they say.”

A buzz swept the normals’ ranks, some discussing immortality, some healing, all of them unsettled. She went on louder, overriding them. “Officially you don’t have to take the Eden shot unless you want to. Maybe you’re afraid it will turn you into a Sunday-school-sucking wimp. Well I go to Sunday school. Anyone think I’m a wimp?”

Build the image, feed the myth. Tell the story, because people live and die for the story. She swept the ranks with her eyes. “Do you think maybe the Unies lied to you?”

She let those questions sink in before she continued, putting sarcasm and contempt into her voice. “And here’s the clincher, people. The vaccines will probably – probably – protect you from the Demon Plagues. But none of us are getting the super-soldier nano treatment you might have heard about. And this assignment will be dangerous. Everyone has a much better chance of living through it if they have the Eden virus and the nano-vaccine that goes with it. So frankly, you’re an idiot if you don’t get the shot. And I don’t want idiots in my platoon. So it’s your decision, but if you haven’t got it by the end of the week, I’ll do my best to get you transferred out. You can go be a burden to someone else.”


-13-

When Skull awoke again his mind was rainbow clear where before there had been only blacks and whites. He felt young again, but his hands still showed their age. That proved the EP hadn’t gotten him. Getting up, he went into the waste closet - what passed for a bathroom, but there was no mirror. I’ll ask Raphaela later.

Never had he felt so dependent on someone else, so out of control of his own destiny. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Kill some aliens, be a hero. Stupid and shortsighted. I always prepared thoroughly until now. Not like me. Must have been the nano. Here I am trashing the others, but the power-high got me too.

The rancor and self-loathing he was accustomed to circled at bay, unable to break through his new and better mood. For the first time since Linde died, he didn’t want to kill something for breakfast, but thinking of his dead love threw him back to the day that gutted his life.

---

Linde was beautiful, viewed as only a young man does, perfect beyond perfection. She was everything to him, and his world had been complete that day as a thousand cubic centimeters of motorcycle screamed between their knees, her body pressed against his as they took the turns at twice the limit. They’d raced up and down the California coast, Mount Tamalpais gazing down on them, a benevolent god. She’d laughed squealing, delighted, until the blind curve at the top of the hill.

He’d slowed the big Kawasaki, but not enough to miss the bicycle that appeared out of nowhere, rider boy pedaling joy madly within his own cocoon of speed, a mirror of Skull’s. Only Skull wasn’t Skull back then, just plain Alan. But his crotch rocket had taken the kid’s leg off and the crash had thrown Linde high, a freak flight of physics ending with her chest spitted on a bent old signless post.

He’d tumbled clear into soft earth and grass, had rushed to her in time to watch the light fade from her eyes. Clamping down on his grief to save the boy, he’d ignored his fiancée’s corpse impaled there, an offering to some twisted and vengeful spirit.

His belt was a tourniquet for the boy’s severed leg and he held the kid’s shaking body in his arms by the side of the road, jacket wrapped around both of them. He despaired of help until an antique Mustang convertible piloted by a ruthlessly cheerful young Special Forces lieutenant drove up, picked them up and hauled them in to Marin General in a mad screaming rush.

The boy had lived, but Linde’s death robbed all humanity from Alan’s heart. He and Lieutenant Ezekiel Johnstone had returned with an ambulance to pull her lifeless corpse off of the rusty pole, shoving the paramedics away to place her gently on the gurney and lift it onto the truck themselves, premature pallbearers.

He’d sat stoic through his abortive court martial for negligent homicide, deadlocked by Zeke Johnstone’s testimony and eventually pleaded down to loss of a stripe and Alan’s motorcycle license. The only good thing to come out of the whole crippling circumstance was the unwavering friendship between the two men, a bond that lasted almost thirty years.

---

For the first time since, he replayed the day in his head without descending into a cold killing rage. A black bird flew free, the death-crow carrying its carrion stench away. Skull watched it go with fearful regret but he found himself unable to hold on to it in the face of his new sanity.

And he realized what that must mean. He could think of no other explanation.

Angrily barging through the iris into the control room he leaned down over her seated form. “I don’t know how, but I’m a God-damned Eden now.”

She put a hand up to his chest, but didn’t push. “You shouldn’t swear. It’s uncouth.” Raphaela’s tone was light but her eyes weighed him down. “I’d say ‘thank God’ if it’s true.”

He seized her hand, bringing a wince. He shoved it away then and rolled his eyes, trying to hold on to the edge of his anger and failing. “Not you too. To hell with God.” His voice held little conviction. “Do you even believe in God?”

She shrugged, massaging her fingers. “Not really. But I believe in being thankful for what I have, and in getting along with people. If it takes a plague to do that…is that so bad?”

“Yes, it’s bad. It takes away your free will. If you can’t choose evil, is it a choice?”

“Edens can choose evil. We still have cops and courts and jails. Just a lot fewer of them.”

Skull snorted skeptically. “Same difference. I didn’t want this. Now I’m useless.”

“Useless how?” she asked.

He thought for a moment, trying to frame his arguments. “Look, I’m a killer – and now I can’t kill.”

“You sure?” Her tone held no trace of sarcasm or taunting, for which he was thankful. His walls, his emotional armor so recently cracking, now seemed to have disappeared entirely.

She went on, “How do you feel about all the people you killed?”

He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Not terrible. No burden of guilt. Is that what you mean?”

“Then you’re not really an Eden.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I talked to them. Edens. And I am one. And when I Blended I took on the memories and experiences of a four-thousand-year-old alien that has killed countless beings starting with over a hundred of his Meme siblings, and I still feel it; I still feel every one of them. I have to lock those memories away from myself, because Meme have perfect recall. Every piece of knowledge, every experience, is physically encoded in an RNA-like molecule, like a video recording. If I brought them to mind my Eden brain would never function. But you…”

“…Aren’t affected that way!” He raised his fists overhead as if in triumph, to bump the ceiling. “Then what the hell happened?”

“There’s no way to tell for sure. This ship doesn’t have a laboratory sophisticated enough to find out.”

“What about your base?”

She shook her head. “The base is crumbling. Perhaps a quarter of the biomachines are still alive.”

Skull put his head into his hands, rubbing his eyes. “So overnight my brain gets rewired but I’m still me.” He turned over, did a one-handed stand. “I’m just as strong,” he said as he sprang back to his feet, “and fast. Maybe it was my nanos? Maybe they got into my brain?”

“I don’t know, and there’s no way to tell. More practically…here’s a test. Imagine killing someone. See how it affects you.”

“Huh. Right.” He did as she suggested, visualizing the frantic minutes when he wiped out the missile team in Geneva. “Nothing. No problem.”

“So you’re not an Eden. You just…got better. Maybe…” She bit her lip.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He grabbed the sides of her command chair, face close to hers. “What? Come on.”

She crossed her arms beneath his looming presence as her eyes smoked. “Nothing. Don’t push me.”

He stared at her for a long moment, nose to nose. Before I’d have been angry. Now…it’s no big deal. He shrugged, backed off. “Okay. Let me know when you want to talk about it.”

Her jaw dropped. She whispered something under her breath that he didn’t catch.

He wished the nanos could heal his hearing but apparently they couldn’t do such fine work. He was still somewhat deaf from all the gunshots he’d fired in his lifetime, so he put a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” he said, banality to fend off the dark.

She touched his hand, not looking at him, staring instead at the viewscreen. They stayed that way a long time. Neither wanted to move or ruin the moment, nor make more of it than it was.

Whatever it was.


-14-

Marquez and Banson stood warily in the holding cell as Karl Rogett and his team came in. Their handcuffs and shackles clinked and rattled, but the men didn’t move, except to shrink slightly at the weapons pointed their way.

“Gentlemen,” Cassandra began, “we’re sending you home.”

They stood there confused for a moment, until Marquez asked, “Why?”

“Shut up,” interjected Banson. “The lady says we can go home, let’s go home.”

Marquez cleared his throat. “I still want to know why. Or at least how. Did General Tyler make some kind of deal?”

“No deal.” Cassandra smiled pleasantly. “You’re just more trouble than you’re worth. Besides, we have all we need from you.”

“Bullshit. You didn’t get nothin’ from us!” Banson feinted a lunge but Cassandra didn’t flinch. Karl raised his weapon, a naked threat.

“I got plenty. Remember those long conversations we had? And then there’s this.” She held up a metal cylinder. “Say hello to your little friends.”

“Huh?” Banson’s jaw slackened.

“She means, that’s our nanos. They took our nanos out. That’s why we’re weak,” Marquez explained.

“No…” Cassandra said, dropping her head in a show of pity, that’s not why you’re weak. You’ve always been weak. That’s just why you’re going home.” She turned her back on him in contempt, shaking the cylinder idly.

Banson broke, lunging for his tormenter. Karl’s monster taser flashed and he dropped like a stone. Bettina caught him as he fell, laying him gently on the floor.

Marquez didn’t move except to look down at his comrade. “He never could control himself.” Raising his eyes, he said, “Ma’am. I don’t want to go back. What do I need to do to make that happen?”

Cassandra turned around. “Don’t want to go back? Why ever not?” Catlike merriment danced in her eyes.

“Let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be treated kindly. Either of us. But you don’t want him anyway. Me on the other hand…”

She laughed, throaty. “What could you possibly offer me that I don’t already have?”

“I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Cassandra’s laughter strengthened. “Like I just said…I have everything you know already. You have nothing I want.” Not exactly true, but…

Marquez’ voice broke. “Look, Señora, I’ll do whatever job you want. I’ll be a prison trustie. I’ll work in the mines. South Africa still has mines, right? I’ll start over as a private, whatever it takes. Or send me to Australia. I hear they’ll take anyone.”

“Comes from starting out as a penal colony,” she remarked, thinking. “All right, I’ll make you a deal. One time offer, non-negotiable. First, we debrief you completely, and you hold nothing back.”

He nodded.

“Second, you become an Eden.”

He gulped, then nodded again.

“Third, you go where I tell you to, do what I tell you to, until I decide otherwise. If you step out of line, you’re back in a cell. And remember, as an Eden, a life sentence is a really, really long time.”

“Okay,” he agreed, defeated. “Whatever you say.”

“Good. Karl, prep Banson for his flight home. Then take Marquez here to the clinic and shoot him up.”

Karl looked at Cassandra expectantly. “And then?”

Her smile was Cheshire. “Send him to Antarctica.”


-15-

General Travis Tyler had a reputation as a hard man. Fair, but hard. He was a man for this time, a time of nuclear and biological horrors, of an America licking terrible body wounds, an America with a third of its population killed within the last few months.

As a long-serving combat veteran and the head of the all-important nanobot research project Tiny Fortress, he commanded loyalty and not a little bit of fear. Not since Major General Leslie Groves headed up the Manhattan Project did one military man have so much leeway with a United States administration.

The scene he had in mind was designed to leverage, to use, that power and that fear.

For the best of reasons, of course.

He looked at himself in his office lavatory mirror, rubbing at his rapidly smoothing face. It had been only days since he had accepted the Eden Plague virus, and already he was feeling fitter, smarter, younger.

And a bit less ruthless.

Tyler accepted the inevitable with good grace: immortality in exchange for his killer instinct. It was a good trade for an old man. Yesterday he and his wife had made love with forgotten vigor and satisfaction. For the first time in years he’d finished his five-mile morning run without downing a handful of pain pills, and he’d begun to see the lines in his face disappear. Instead of sixty, he now looked forty.

Fortunately his gray hair would take a while to go.

That made it even more important that he get on with this job. Soon many of his troops and staff would instinctively dismiss a man who looked twenty-five, no matter how many stars he wore. It would take years, perhaps a new generation, to get over humanity’s biologically based judgment ascribing wisdom and gravity only to mature appearance.

He strode down to the waiting convoy of vehicles that would take him to his meeting with the entire Secret Service Presidential security contingent. “We have the body?” he asked rhetorically. The nanocommando team leader was a good man, and they’d discussed the plan several times; there was no doubt he had it.

Still, trust but verify.

“Yes, sir.” The two men piled into the back of the armored SUV and the five-vehicle group raced off.

It was only ten minutes or so to the Presidential Mansion complex, but they bypassed the main residence to pull in at the large double doors of a basketball gym left over from the days when the government compound was a university campus. Inside, ranks of Secret Service men and women sat in the bleachers, most of them in their usual dark suits.

Army troops controlled the building this time, not the Secret Service. This fact made the latter distinctly uncomfortable; Tyler could see it in their eyes and their demeanors as they sat. He could also sense their unease at having been disarmed.

His ten nanocommandos stayed near him at all times. They weren’t unarmed, and his people and some of the Secret Service eyed each other like stiff-backed dogs; however, most of the Service people kept their eyes down.

They had a lot to be ashamed of.

Two of the commandos carried a stretcher in, its burden covered by a blanket, and set it down in the center of the floor. Looks like the right time for a coup, Travis thought. Some of the Secret Service people are smart enough to sense it too. But are they smart enough to wait and see? Well, that’s one reason I had them disarmed.

“Colonel,” he addressed the commander of the Army troops, “clear your men out and set up an external perimeter. No one comes nearer this building than thirty meters.” They filed out the several exits, and then he told his commandos to double-check the security. Only when there was no one but his bodyguards and the Secret Service people remaining did he begin his speech.

“Most of you know me by sight, but for those who don’t, I’m General Travis Tyler, in charge of the lab complex and the base as well. And some of you knew my son.” He reached down to flip the blanket off the body on the stretcher, revealing the corpse of Major John Thomas Tyler, US Army, deceased.

A gasp went up from the Service personnel, and a buzz of conversation.

“Silence!” Tyler roared. “Now I’m going to tell you all something some of you already know. For those of you who don’t have a clue, count yourself lucky. For those who do, I suggest you prepare yourself for hell, because there’s only one way through.”

He gestured with a straight arm at the body. “This was my son. I executed him with my own hands, for murder, for treason on the battlefield, and for suborning treason. My son betrayed me, he betrayed the President, and he betrayed the United States – and so have many of you. Some of you are even now hooked on an addictive nanobot, one which serves up euphoria and steals your free will and your self-respect. I hear you call it nanocrack. I bet some of you are already feeling withdrawal effects. And guess what – you aren’t getting any more. Ever. Not from him, and not from anyone else. I’ve already cleaned house in the labs. I’ve already summarily executed three more people. Remember, we’re still under martial law.”

Tyler could pick out many of them now by the horrified, trapped looks on their faces. Others, showing confusion, were likely innocent. He went on, gesturing at the body again.

“I considered locking JT up, trying to treat him medically, trying to rid his body of the viruses and nanomachines he had injected himself with in a quest to be a superman. But he spread the nanocrack he discovered to others. He spread it to those he wanted to control; he spread it to many of you; and he slipped it to the President, to try to control him too. We don’t entirely know how deep the corruption goes, but I couldn’t take the chance that my son and his hidden allies could pull off the coup he planned. He had to be made an example. My example, so you know how serious I am.”

Tyler paced up and down in the middle of the wooden floor, the body and his commandos his backdrop. “Some of you are wondering if I’m taking over instead. The answer is unequivocally no. The President is being cleansed and detoxified. For those of you who are addicted, this is your one and only chance, right now, to save yourselves. If you are addicted, stand up and walk over there, where my men are waiting.” He pointed with an arm. “Right now, no kidding, do it right now. If we find anyone with those nanos in his system after this one-time amnesty, the penalty will be summary execution.”

Several people stood up immediately, resolutely, followed by more in a wave. Within a minute over fifty people, about half of the Secret Service Presidential security detachment, were standing in the designated place hanging their heads. “All right, the rest of you stay in the bleachers. There is a medical team coming in to run tests on all of you right now.”

A man, red-faced and sweating, stood up suddenly from the bleachers and bolted for the addicted group. Tyler smoothly and unhurriedly lifted his .45 from its holster, cocked it and shot the man three times in the lower torso. He collapsed to deathly stillness on the polished wooden floor.

A ringing silence followed the three sharp reports, and Tyler thumbed the hammer down as he swept the bleachers with his gaze. “Apparently he didn’t believe me when I said that was his last chance. So. One final amnesty. Five seconds. Now or never.” He waited, but no one moved, and eventually he nodded sharply and holstered his weapon.

“Now listen, all of you. You will say nothing about what happened here today. Nothing whatsoever. No one can know the President’s protection is so incompetent, or how you people failed.” His tone dripped with contempt for those who had lapsed in their duties. “No one need know how you soiled yourself and your reputation. That includes what happened to my son, or this man, or any other details. Until the United States has full control of its own territory again, this is all top secret.”

He turned to the commandos. “Captain, take these sorry sons of bitches to the hospital for treatment. And get that body out of here.” He gestured at the man he’d shot.

Shot with Needleshock, but no one needed to know that right now. He’ll live, though he’ll never be in the Secret Service again. I hear the Free Communities have a nice rehabilitation camp in Antarctica.

As soon as the addicted ones had been herded out, the Army troops moved back in, warily watching as a military medical team tested the remaining personnel. Before they finished, General Tyler went to see the President. He had a report to make, and he’d heard that President McKenna had a new assignment for him.

And retirement orders.

Not surprising. From his point of view, I have too much power. It has to be spread around. Well, I have a long life ahead of me. Maybe I’ll be a general again, after a few years, or a few hundred.


-16-

Skull watched Firefly through again, hoping it would give him some inspiration. There were parallels with reality, with his situation. A slow-moving spaceship, no warp drives or sparkly transporter beams, no energy guns. Well, none that I know of, he thought. Have to ask her about that.

And being locked inside a floating tin can with people you didn’t particularly like.

Still not sure about that, actually. Not sure about anything. He’d come unmoored somehow, floating out here in the void between the planets. He felt himself gravitating toward her but distrusted the feeling. She doesn’t actually want me; she just wants someone now that she has time for her chick brain to start whispering to her. She doesn’t respect me. She feels sorry for me. To hell with that. To hell with all of them. Can’t have a woman that doesn’t respect you.

Can’t have a woman at all, can you Skull?

If you do, she’ll die too.

“Good show, that.” Raphaela interrupted his thoughts, pointing at the video. She nibbled on a food-lump. “I always liked it.”

“Half of you did.” He put some bite into the comment, pushing for distance.

“Both of me did,” she objected without heat. “Raphael watched a lot of television too. He thought the stories gave him insight into the human psyche.”

Skull snorted. “Maybe. Like vomit gives you insight into digestion.”

She didn’t answer. They watched Captain Mal Reynolds get his crew out of another situation, something with Reapers or Reavers or Raiders. Neither of them was really paying attention to the show. They were trying too hard not to pay attention to each other.

Finally he said, “Turn it off please.”

She touched a screen.

“How come you don’t have something better than touchscreens?”

“Like what?” She drank from her bottle of flat, tasteless water.

“I don’t know. Holo-sensors. Something like that.”

She shrugged. “What advantage would it give? A touchscreen is display and control in one, infinitely reconfigurable. The only better thing I can think of might be cybernetic implants, and the Meme…let’s just say they would think putting machines in their bodies as disturbing as you would find attaching a parasite to yourself.”

“What about faster-than-light travel?”

She chuckled. “That’s impossible.”

“What about wormholes? Folded space?”

“Wormholes move the traveler forward in time in direct proportion to their lengths. Nothing moves or propagates through the space-time continuum faster than light. A wormhole is just a tube that moves you a certain distance in a certain amount of time.”

Skull’s brow furrowed, struggling. “So you can’t cheat.”

“Not really. The time spent is always a function of lightspeed. A wormhole two light years long would deposit you at its end two years later. You would experience virtually no time because of infinite dilation, just like Einstein said. Stop worrying about it. There’s no way to gimmick the system. The main thing a wormhole would do for you is give you a free trip. No energy or fuel needed.”

He nodded, thoughtful. “Then how long before the scoutship gets here?”

She touched a screen, read the display. “Just under a year, if they slow down to match orbit with Earth. If they don’t, they could fly through the solar system in a lot less. Say four months. This is presuming I am correct in my calculations and assumptions, based on things like the wavelength dilation and Doppler effect in their transmissions, partial records on the base detailing normal Meme practices, things like that.”

Skull snorted. “Things like that. Sounds like a lot of guesswork.”

“You want to try to refine my guesswork, go ahead.”

“I don’t need to. They’re not going to go to Earth first.”

“What?” Raphaela put her hands on her hips and stuck her chin out. “How do you know?”

“Put yourself in their place. You lost contact with your base. What would you do?”

Her hands lifted from her hips to hug herself, rubbing her arms as if cold. “I’d want to know why.”

“Right. Is that prediction too human?”

She turned to pace the floor, short choppy steps, thinking. “No. You’re right. That’s what they will do.”

Skull smiled. The stubble of his unshaven face gave him a devilish look. “Good.”


-17-

By the end of that day’s readiness processing all but seven of Repeth’s troops had accepted the Eden virus. Donovan had taken it and was already healed, for which she was glad. He’d nodded solemnly to her at dinner, and she knew she had another convert. She didn’t explicitly bring the virus up again, hoping that these skeptics would be won over by observation of their fellows.

Critical training took up the next several days. She ran them hard each morning before breakfast, knowing the Edens would recover easily and their capacity would increase rapidly, while the few remaining normals would suffer. By day four she was down to three holdouts. She asked Captain LeBrun to transfer them.

Part of each day they spent on the firing range, learning their new, Free Community-supplied weapons and ammunition, a gift of the FC Council. Enlightened self-interest, she thought. Every shot that makes an Eden and saves a life strengthens the Free Communities and the human race. Pudgy SSG Grusky turned out to be an excellent marksman, and the virus melted the roll of fat around his waist. She deliberately hadn’t said anything to the troops about the virtue effect, but she had counted on it to help Grusky and Donovan get over any wounded pride lingering from the thrashings she had given them.

Time out of each day was spent in the classroom learning about the “death zones,” parts of the US devastated by radiation and Demon Plagues, and the permutations of benighted citizenry they would encounter.

Normals infected by Demon Plague One they nicknamed “Onesies.” DP1 caused general surliness and malaise, sometimes a pox, hair and teeth loss, but the people remained more or less nasty versions of human. The real danger was how it set their bodies up for the Demon Plague Two infection. Cooperative or not, they would have to be inoculated with Eden Plague and nanovaccine and brought back to the refugee camps being set up at the edges of the zones.

Reports and the theory said that Onesies infected by Demon Plague Two – “Twosies” – turned animalistic, savage, violent, likely to attack in packs or run and hide, spreading the infection further. These might have to be hunted down and inoculated by force, shot with Needleshock perhaps. The Eden Plague should cure their bestial natures, but unfortunately it couldn’t restore their minds. Perhaps they could be reeducated.

The big brains said the Meme made the Demon Plagues this way so that at the end they would have a bunch of human animals with no minds to resist their takeover and Blending.

There might be some uninfected normals as well, and perhaps even a few Edens that had remained hidden in American society until the nukes fell. Complicating this mix of human types were the reports of well-armed bandit gangs, even warlord kingdoms, claiming territory and preying on everyone and everything around them.

Personally, Repeth thought it would be even more complex than the disturbing intelligence briefings made out. There’s always an X factor, always a Black Swan popping up out of nowhere. Unknown unknowns that we don’t even know that we don’t know.

On the way from one class to another she caught sight of a familiar figure striding through the hall, a pleasant-faced Adonis in a highly-starched lieutenant colonel’s uniform. A swirl of mixed emotion went through her and she called out, “Colonel Muzik!”

Lieutenant Colonels, sometimes called “Light Colonels” or even “Phone Colonels,” were almost always given the courtesy of being called “Colonel.”

His face lit up when he saw her. “Jill Repeth! Master Sergeant, no less. Now it’s ‘Top’ instead of ‘Gunny,’ right? I heard you turned down the President’s offer of a commission. That took balls.”

Repeth’s answer was cool, her eyes icy. “I got balls, sir. Besides, what would I do with butterbars on my shoulders?”

“You could have asked for a warrant.” Muzik’s tone had started friendly, but then stiffened in response to Repeth’s clear reticence.

“A one-rank bump is good enough for me, sir. I told him if I get killed he can promote me posthumously to whatever he wants, and if not, well, I have a lot of years to work my way up without any freebies. I took a chance to get him the Eden serum, and I got lucky. It didn’t mean I suddenly knew how to be an officer.” She stared at him a moment longer, then made as if to go past. “Good day, sir.”

He held up a hand. “Look, Master Sergeant…Top…Jill…Again, I’m sorry about the…about what I did on the sub. I can’t change the past. I’d like your forgiveness, but if you can’t go that far, then at least I’m sure you’re enough of a professional to not let it interfere with our mission.”

He didn’t sound sure.

Repeth glared at him for a long moment, remembering how he’d let himself be seduced and tranked by that murdering bitch Alkina, then relented. “I accept your apology, sir. My mind knows it wasn’t your fault, even if my guts think otherwise. Alkina had us all fooled. I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my mind and I already beat myself up for everything I should have done and could have done to change how it turned out.” She looked down at her empty palms for a moment, as if seeing something there. “And if you want to get down to it, I have a lot more blood on my hands than you do, so I have no room to judge you, sir.” She made a decision, held out one hand to clasp his. “Bygones?”

Sighing with relief, he said, “Absolutely.” He smiled, lighting up the area around him as he took her hand. A passing female instructor walked into a doorjamb with a thud as her eyes locked onto his perfect face. He nodded to her and she blushed to the roots, then glanced at Jill.

“Boo!” Jill said, making a face, and the civilian stumbled off. “I’d forgotten the effect those pretty eyes of yours have, sir,” she said as she let go of his clasp.

He grimaced. “Yeah. Hell of a cross to bear.”

“Horrible heavy thing.” She laughed. “So it looks like you’re back home and got to keep your rank.”

“Yes, the vetting process was a pain but Markis put in a good word for me. And with Spooky gone…”

“I know what you mean. FC spec ops just wasn’t the same. And frankly, this is like coming home, being back in a line unit. What are you doing here, sir?”

He looked down, affecting embarrassment. “I guess I’m your new commander. Second Joint Civil Operations Bat.”

“That’s outstanding, sir. I’m glad you decided to come home.” She found she meant it.

“It’s another test, Jill. They don’t want us repatriates anywhere political, so they are sending us to the front lines. If we prove ourselves there, then maybe they will trust us a little. And if we die, problem solved.”

She frowned. “I never thought about it like that. Makes me glad I’m riding my people so hard. They need to be ready.”

He laughed. “Yes, I heard about your counseling sessions.”

She tensed, waiting for him to disapprove, but he just cocked an eyebrow at her. “I trust you know how much of that sauce to use before it spoils the goose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, because I hear you already have the best platoon in your company. Maybe the battalion. I have people asking to join. I have lieutenants asking to be given command of it.” He watched her attentively.

Jill’s lips pressed together. “Sir, if that’s what you decide…”

“I know. Semper Fi and drive on. And if we had a month I might pick out a snot-nosed young zero and let you whip him into shape too, but I’m not going to derail your train at the last minute. No, Top, you go into battle leading your own troops.”

Her face dimpled with a genuine grin. “Thank you, sir!”

“Don’t thank me until you see what we’re up against. Before this is over you might wish you had an officer to take the load off your shoulders.”


***


It took until the fifth day before Repeth was able to get ten minutes alone with Captain LeBrun. She wasn’t entirely sure if he was avoiding her, but this time she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. She resolved he’d have to order her away this time.

“All right, Repeth, what you got? Make it quick.” His office was filled with cigarette smoke despite the open window and the fan.

“Sir, I want to know about those Homies.”

“The Homeland Security Forces? What about them?” He seemed casual but she thought she noted a certain reserve.

“What will be their mission? How do we integrate? What is their jurisdiction? I still have no idea and a lot of my people don’t trust them. There are wild rumors going around. Are they nano-enhanced? Does it make them mentally unstable? Are they going to shoot sick civilians on sight? Lots of things like that, and the scuttlebutt usually frames the answers in the most lurid and negative terms possible. I need some ground truth, sir.”

LeBrun put his feet up on the desk. “Their mission is classified. We are supposed to provide security so our civil affairs folks can do their jobs. That’s what MPs do: provide security. Keep order.” He eyed her warily, sucking on another tobacco tube.

“Dammit sir, I know what our mission is. I need to know enough about the Homies to tell my people. They aren’t robots, and Edens are not good at blindly following orders. They need to know the ‘why.’ And the other platoons are wondering too.”

LeBrun twitched, refusing to relax and open up, even on that professional level she had come to expect. Still, he answered. “All right. Here’s what I’ll tell you, which is more than I should. They are all getting nano but it’s not the supersoldier stuff. It just heals them and protects them from disease. I’ve been assured all the war criminals have been culled out.” He held up a hand, cigarette pinched between fingers, to forestall her response. “I know, who can tell for sure? Look, you’ve been an Eden so long you got spoiled, and you’re bigoted about it. I’ve only been one for a few weeks so I can see it a lot more clearly.”

Repeth clenched her teeth. “What do you mean bigoted? I treat everyone the same.”

“Really? You told everyone in Fourth Platoon that they would either get the virus or transfer out. Isn’t that bigotry?”

“The way I see it it’s just insisting they equip themselves with the tools of survival.”

“I’m not saying what you did was bad for your platoon – in the short term – otherwise I’d have stepped in. I’m questioning why you did it. You sure you don’t have something to prove?”

“A woman in combat always has something to prove.”

LeBrun sighed heavily, ground out his current smoke. “Not ‘A woman,’ Repeth. You. Last time you were in the US the Unionists tried to take away your identity. They kicked you out of the Corps, threw you in prison, told everyone you were a traitor and mentally ill. Now you’re back, and you won. You’re vindicated. I figured you’d have to get some of that happy-dance out of your system but now that you have your platoon in shape, it seems to me you’re expressing your prejudice against normals.”

Jill breathed deeply for a moment, trying to push aside her denial, trying to examine herself objectively. Finally, she said, “All right, sir. Maybe so. But aside from that, I’m worried…aren’t you worried?”

LeBrun lit another smoke from the burning butt. The fresh smell assaulted her nostrils. With the first drag he replied, “I have concerns, but they aren’t much different from the concerns of a normal unit before Infection Day. I wonder how soldiers – sorry, joint military troops – will react in a hostile environment where we have to actively sort friend from foe, where no one is wearing a uniform except us, where there are a thousand wrong moves and only a few right ones. Where one wrong move can get you killed, Eden or not.”

She nodded, casting her eyes down. I’ve been so focused on getting Fourth Platoon ready I forgot about the bigger picture. It’s great not to have an officer looking over my shoulder but it’s easy to get trapped down in the weeds, lose my perspective. “Yes, sir. You’re right. I’ll try to keep what you’ve said in mind.”

He nodded, gazing steadily at her, as if waiting for something. Jill wasn’t sure what he wanted but there was one question that had occurred to her. “Sir…you’re a bit different from the average captain I’ve worked for before…” She trailed off, not sure how to ask him “why?”

He chuckled grimly. “I’m not a career officer. Or I wasn’t; who knows now? I was a permanently stuck captain in the Nebraska National Guard and the sole policeman in the bustling metropolis of Crawville, population one thousand. They activated me just a few weeks ago. So pardon me if I’m not dyed green enough yet or I don’t fit your template. I’m a cop, first and foremost, and you are too. I think you’ve been a commando for just a little too long.” His gaze sharpened. “I think you need to start being a cop again.”

Repeth flushed, suddenly ashamed, realizing he was right. “Aye, sir. Thank you sir.”

“You’re welcome.” LeBrun gave her one more searching look. “Dismissed. Oh,” he said, standing up, “there was someone here earlier looking for you. A civilian. I told him he could wait in your office.”

She opened her mouth to ask who it was, then shut it again.

“Maybe you’d better run along and see. Go on.” His eyes were amused.

“Aye aye, sir.” So she ran along, curious. So curious that she forgot he still hadn’t answered her queries about the Homies’ mission.


A duffel bag and a civilian-style dun-colored rucksack were thrown untidily on the floor outside her office. There were no markings on them. Puzzled, she opened the door to find out who her visitor was.

“Rick!” She threw herself into Rick Johnstone’s arms, staggering him. They half-fell against the wall and reintroduced themselves for a minute or two. When they came up for air she asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Coming with.” His smile was wide.

She scrambled backward to arms’ length, just now noticing he was in FC-style fatigues. “What? You can’t!” She felt ashamed as she saw his face fall. Who am I to tell him he can’t come along? “Sorry, I didn’t mean that, you just startled me. I mean…why? What’s the deal?”

Rick crossed his arms, trying to hide his hurt. “I’m a Free Communities liaison officer. It was part of the agreement to provide the weapons and ammo, that the FC would have some people embedded. To observe, you know.” He looked at her uncertainly.

Jill was aware of the familiar smell of him, the deodorant he used, the shampoo, and she bitterly regretted her first reaction. Not fair, to surprise me this way, she cried inside, but instead forced a smile and said, “Oh, and you just happened to be assigned here, to Colonel Muzik’s battalion.”

He grinned weakly in response. “I admit I pulled a few strings. Okay, one big string.”

“A string named Markis, I bet.” She stepped forward again and put her face up to his, reaching for his lips. She kissed him tenderly for a moment, then ferociously as her feelings took over. She buried herself in his arms. “It’s so good to see you,” she husked.

“Now that’s the welcome I expected.” He stroked her pinned-up hair.

She could tell he was still stung, and she thought of how she might soothe that hurt, in the age-old way of a woman. But not yet, not now, and not here in the barracks, where everyone knows everything about everyone else. And what about my new commitment to God and Christ? What about all that stuff about fornication and premarital sex? I wish I’d had more time with Christine, so she could explain to me how a believer lives in the real world.

“So where are you staying?” she asked. “The BOQ?”

“No, the Trailers. They said I got a private one, but I came straight here. You can…” He trailed off, as if uncertain how to frame an invitation.

The “trailers” were FEMA-type emergency dwellings, economy single-wides equipped for two or four people. They’d brought in a bunch of them as Pueblo swelled and boomed with people serving the new provisional capital of the United States.

“That sounds great.” And it did. I’ll stay the night with him, even if all we do is snuggle. She laughed at herself inside. Riiiight. Going to be an interesting evening. “Let me grab a bag from my room and talk to my Assistant Platoon Sergeant. Just stay here and don’t answer the door.”

“Why, you ashamed of me?” His tone was bantering but he was half serious.

She put her hands on her hips. “Not a chance. But I’ve worked hard to earn a reputation as an unforgiving iron maiden and I don’t want to blow it now by seeming human. Just do as I ask, all right? A leader has to maintain a certain image.”

“Yeah, okay.” He sat back on the edge of her desk, picked up one of her souvenir coins to fiddle with it.

She shoved his bags into her office with her foot and shut the door on his bemused expression, cursing under her breath. A good and welcome surprise but I’m going to pay for it tomorrow in sleep. Whatever. I’ll catch up next year. She hurried down the barracks corridors to her room at the end, throwing a few things in her gym bag. Then she sat down on her bunk and called Chaplain Christine Forman.

“Hello, Jill.” Forman’s smooth, clench-teethed Brahmin-WASP accent was unmistakable. “What can I do for you?”

“Talk?”

“Of course. What’s on your mind?”

“Sex.”

“Do tell. Let me get comfortable, and then tell me all about it.”

Fifteen minutes later Jill begged her friend and counselor to let her hang up. “I think that’s enough for now and Rick is waiting for me. Thanks for explaining things.”

“I’m always available for you, Jill.”

“Ditto. Take care, Christine.”

She ended the call, then she looked for Grusky, spotting him in the dayroom playing cards with the squad leaders. She signaled to him from the door. He leaped to his feet and hurried to join her. In a low voice she said, “You handle PT tomorrow morning, I have another appointment. Make sure they’re standing tall after breakfast ready for training.” There, that buys me some sleep. She felt a bit guilty but she knew she had been driving herself harder than anyone up till now. I deserve a little me time. “Reach me on my phone if you have to, but it better be serious.” She slapped him on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can handle anything.”

He grinned, genuinely pleased to be put in charge, a true convert to the Church of Repeth. “No problem, Master Sergeant.”

Jill nodded and left him to his card playing. Remarkable what an attitude adjustment, a good example and some respect will do to a junior leader. I’m really glad my gamble with him paid off. It could have turned into a mess. She walked quickly back to her office to join Rick.

They scampered out of the building into starlight and walked the half-mile to the dusty prefab town near the end of the runway, sharing the load of his gear. Supply trucks full of water, food, porta-potties, furniture and everything else the hastily erected sprawl needed to operate drove past them. They stayed well off the road and upwind, but they still caught the stink of engine fumes now and then.

On the way they talked about impersonal things, operational things, professional things. How the Markises and the Chairman’s staffers were doing now that they relocated permanently to South Africa. How the children were safely returned from the kidnapping. How they’d caught the two nanocommandos and were holding them as POWs. How the President had decorated and restored her.

Anything to avoid talking about personal things in the noise and clouds of dust and diesel smoke.

Threading their way through the dark-bright maze of trailers and prefabs was a nostalgic, slightly surreal journey. For Jill it recalled temporary military compounds in desert lands half a world and more than a decade away. This time, though, most of the people going about their business under the glare of the lights were civilians. She hoped none of her people would be out here to see them.

As Rick fumbled at the lock to his trailer she felt vaguely guilty and excited at the same time. Ever since her repentance and spiritual renewal she had struggled as she anticipated this situation, as with the memories of sins throughout her life.

Intellectually she knew all her transgressions were forgiven. In her gut, they all came back to haunt her: big ones like her role in the missile launch, small ones like casual, gratuitous fornication. That’s what I have to keep calling it in my mind, to remind myself that it’s wrong. It’s harder to explain to myself, much less him, but I’ll have to try.

Inside, door locked, she tossed his rucksack and her gym bag into a corner and looked around at the Spartan accommodations. Two bare single beds with decent mattresses, two dressers, two wall lockers, a small refrigerator, a door into a small bathroom with a shower. An air conditioner set in the wall.

“Not exactly the Hilton,” Rick remarked.

“I’ve lived in a lot worse. You can probably draw linens from some kind of supply point.”

“I have a sleeping bag. We’ll make do.” His face lit up, eager, as he stepped toward her.

“Wait a second, Rick. We have to talk.”

His face fell. “Uh oh. Whenever the girl says that, something bad always happens.”

Jill laughed. “Oh, you have lots of experience with girls?”

“Mostly my mother and my sister, and whenever they say that, there’s nothing good coming up next.”

Jill sat down on the bunk, patting the mattress next to her. He sighed and sat down, woeful and dogfaced. His eyes were brimming as he asked, “Are you breaking up with me?”

“Oh, God, no!” She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “No way. I love you, Rick.”

“I love you too, but please put me out of my misery and tell me what’s going on.”

“Well, ah…” She ground to a halt.

“Is it about…what we did?”

She nodded thankfully. “And what we’re going to do, a lot, I hope.” Her face dimpled in mischievous mirth. “But not yet. That’s all. Not tonight. Last time I talked you into it, and I know you were not…well, it wasn’t fair. I wasn’t a believer back then, but I am now. I’ve repented and asked God for forgiveness and having sex with you right now as we are would just be…”

“Indulgent? Bad timing? Awkward?” He laughed with relief. “Is that all it is? You were worried I would be insulted or disappointed?”

She nodded, looking down. “I was all ready with the big speech about not cheapening intimacy and stuff.”

“Well, parts of me are very disappointed. Mostly the parts below the belt. But official monogamy is God and society’s way of ensuring we’re responsible.”

“Make me feel bad now,” she teased, “because I pushed you into it. You’re such a goody-two-shoes.”

His expression turned serious. “That’s not it at all. I just want everything to be right between us. And a good start is all the more important now that we have a lot longer to be together. We’ll just have to hit the reset button. On the other hand,” he grinned, “I’m not going to agonize about it just because I got to preview our life together.”

He’s so earnest and young. It actually makes this easier. He wants to please me so much, she thought. All I have to do is say so and he agrees. Wonder how long that’s going to last? God, Jill, you’re cynical. “Aren’t we a couple of pansy Edens. If my platoon could see me now…”

“It’s hard for a woman, isn’t it?”

“Don’t you start too; I just got an earful of that from my CO. I’m not torn between my womanhood and the Corps. Every Marine loves the Corps, but the Corps does not love every Marine. It’s the Corps that has a problem with women, sometimes. That’s changing, but all I’ve ever wanted to do was be a Marine.”

“Maybe so, but you have to hide your femininity because of the Corps’ attitude. Keep it under lock and key. Only let it out in private.”

“Sure. Just like you don’t like to show anyone your poetry because you think it’s not manly.”

He blushed. “I guess so.”

Jill took his hands in hers. “Everyone plays roles, all the time. That’s okay, as long as they’re honest. When I play Master Sergeant Hardass, it’s an honest part of me, and it’s to prepare and lead my troops the best I know how. And I hope you realize that’s who I am when I’m out there.” She pointed emphatically in the direction of the barracks. “Out there, you’re not my…boyfriend.”

“Right,” he responded with an agreeable smile, “I got it. I won’t embarrass you. But speaking of sex, and roles, and poetry…” He slid off the bunk onto one knee. At first she thought he was tying his bootlaces but he reached into his pocket and brought out a velvet-covered box. “It’s not much, just a little thing I picked up in South Africa…”

Her breath caught and her heart almost stopped as she beheld the biggest diamond she had ever seen outside of a museum, set in a pure gold ring. “Oh, my…”

Rick cleared his throat and recited,


Camouflage and calling cadence

Kicking ass and taking names

All that tough stuff seems to make sense

As long as you remain my flame


Through the days and through the dark nights

I’ll endure most anything

Through the battles and the hard fights

As long as you will take my name


“So…will you marry me? You be Mrs. Jill Johnstone and I’ll be Mister Master Sergeant Hardass?”

“Yes!” She stuck out her shaking left hand and melted into his embrace as the ring slid onto her finger. “I’ll marry you, but I’m not so sure about the name. I’m the last surviving Repeth that I know of. All the rest died in the Los Angeles nuke.”

“Whatever makes you happy, Jill.” Rick stroked her head as it pressed against his chest.

“Ah, you’re learning.” She lifted her lips to his. “It’s you that makes me happy, Rick.”

“Damn right it is.”


-18-

“I know I’ve said it before,” Skull complained, “but I am bored out of my…skull.”

Raphaela giggled. Responded coyly, “You want to suggest something, be my guest.”

“I already am.” He stood up to pace.

“My guest? Wow, that was almost a joke.” She stood up too, stepping in front of him, forcing him to stop. “It’s just cabin fever. Let’s do something else.” She stepped closer to him.

“Like what?” I know what, and I’m not playing.

“I don’t know. A game? I have some programmed into the ship. Or I could make a sniper simulation using your rifle and some interactive components.”

He roughly seized her upper arms. “A game? Killing people isn’t a game. It’s a necessary evil.” He shoved her back.

“You can say that,” she said as she rubbed her arms, “but you don’t believe it. That’s just an excuse so you can keep killing people and not feel the weight of it on your soul.”

“And that’s bullshit.”

“What’s bullshit is how you start hitting and grabbing and pushing me whenever I say something that strikes too close to an inconvenient truth. When did you turn into a woman-beater?”

He raised his clenched fist as his anger surged, then froze as she stared unflinchingly at him, at the blow ready to fall.

She’s right. It’s true. But it’s not the only truth here. He uncurled his fingers, put his hand down, deliberately relaxing. “You know what? You’re right. I’m letting myself be provoked. Because you’re provoking me. Testing me. ‘Is Skull a good guy? Can he prove it by not hitting me when I prod him? What’s he going to do next?’ So is that from the Meme side or the human? He loves me, he loves me not? Or am I just some kind of lab experiment? Trying to figure out the effect of the nanos?” He held his arms out to the side in an exaggerated shrug, a whatever gesture of frustration and contempt.

“Alan…I just want to know who you are.”

“There are better ways to do that than jabbing me with emotional cattle prods. Just talk to me like a normal human being.”

Raphaela choked with laughter then, gasping until Skull turned away, certain she was deliberately provoking him again. She held up a hand, forfending. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It was just so funny, what you said, since neither of us is anything like a normal human being.”

He stared at her, and suddenly couldn’t help himself as laughter bubbled up inside and burst forth. Soon they both collapsed on the deck holding their sides, struggling to breathe in violent shared amusement.

She reached across the deck with her hand to take his, and he didn’t pull away. “Alan…I want to like you. I want to be your friend – or, whatever, maybe more. But that’s this body and this biology talking, I think. We don’t make sense, you and me. It’s only because we’re trapped here in this ship that anything like this could happen. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. We are here, after all.”

Skull stared at her with his head resting sideways on the deck, a strange perspective, a child’s experimental viewpoint. His fingers twined with hers, and it felt good in a way he hadn’t felt in forever. Since Linde…he jerked his hand out of hers, standing up suddenly. “You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. You’ve just got, what is it, Stockholm syndrome or whatever. Identifying with the captor.”

She sat up on the deck, put her arms around her knees. “That only works if you’re really my captor. But you aren’t. My fate is not in your hands.”

“Then it’s wounded bird syndrome. Women see some tragically damaged man and want to fix him.” Skull growled, “I don’t need your fixing.”

Raphaela sighed, exasperated. “Can’t you just accept that someone might like you? Think you’re an interesting and unique man? Might see the possibilities?”

“No. I’m really not that likable.” He reached over to start the Firefly video again. “Shut up and watch.”


-19-

Oh-dark-thirty. I used to say I wasn’t going to do this, yet here I am, Repeth thought. When I was a lower-enlisted Marine I swore I wouldn’t make my troops hurry up and wait all the time. When I got to the exalted position of senior NCO I’d do away with all that nonsense. Yet here I am, making them hurry up and wait. And why? Murphy’s law. Something always goes wrong, and the smart leader is the one who gets everything done early, builds extra time and flexibility into the schedule.

But she had to admit her people were handling it well as they sat on the edge of the runway with their backs against their rucks, smoking and joking. Their duffels and sea bags and hard cases were palletized and getting loaded right now into the C-17 Globemaster transport planes, visible in the glare of the portable generator lights half a mile down the runway. She looked upward but because of the harsh lamps she couldn’t see the usual desert-sky spray of the Milky Way. The moon was bright, half-full and setting in the west.

A breeze brought the aroma of jet fuel from the tanker trucks topping the big planes off, along with the sharp smell of exhaust from the aircraft’s auxiliary power units already burning gas and supplying power. She knew loadmasters were arranging their cargo as maintainers, pilots and copilots ran preflights and safety checks: endless rituals to propitiate the unforgiving gods of the air.

She knew the fifteen aircraft here represented almost half of the remaining C-17s in the entire United States Air Force. Once there had been almost two hundred and fifty, but most of them had been destroyed by the Nebraska’s nukes.

Nukes I launched. Keys I turned, God forgive me. She bit back tears.

Her heart ached for her country and her once-proud military forces. I should be glad we are getting this kind of priority. Fifteen sorties to lift the entire battalion – thirteen platoons and enough vehicles and supplies to operate for two weeks. After that, we’re on our own. Still, there should be plenty of salvage where we’re going.

She mused on the bombs, forcing herself to think about it. Each miniature sun had created a circle of destruction, a dead zone. Each ground zero marked the heart of a city, or a military base, sometimes a piece of both. About half of the bombs had fallen on the great population centers and bases of the Eastern Seaboard. The oval encompassing Washington, D.C. and Baltimore had hosted a dozen fireballs as far south as Quantico and as far north as Charm City itself. The Capitol and the White House, the Pentagon, Langley, Andrews, Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade, Dulles and Reagan and BWI airports, all were irradiated, vaporized, sterilized.

Even that might have been a horrible but manageable crisis, with the states of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia mobilizing to reestablish order and provide relief, had the alien Demon Plagues not been cast like a deathly blanket upon the fragile surviving societies and institutions, crushing them under the weight of chaos and tragedy. As far as anyone could tell, nothing functioned in the death zones more organized than a volunteer fire department.

She and her troops faced enough work for a hundred battalions for a hundred years, helping the medics to get the survivors inoculated. The priority airlift was a tribute to the importance of their mission, to begin reclaiming the national capital region. They could have started anywhere, but the symbolism, President McKenna felt, was important.

It just wasn’t the United States without the city that bore George Washington’s name.

When times are tough, people need symbols. God knows I do, and right now it’s Old Glory flying above the Battle Color. We’ll raise them on the banks of the Potomac yet. She squeezed and surreptitiously wiped her eyes.

Repeth walked among her people, greeting most by name. She walked over to the other platoons of First MP Company, saluting their officers, conferring with their senior NCOs, taking the pulse of the whole unit. In her estimation, morale was high and the troops were eager to get on with it.

The faint and far-off tones of the aircraft down the runway changed as they fired up the first of their jet engines. Battery power had already started the Auxiliary Power Units, tiny turbines that generated electricity for the aircraft. Now the power from the APUs drove electric motors to turn the huge turbofan engines that would lift their enormous loads into the sky. First one started, then another, each in turn supplying more juice to the system until all four house-sized propulsion units on each bird sang their songs of power.

“All right, Fourth Platoon, on your feet! Ruck up, ladies and gentlemen, those birds aren’t coming to us! ‘Platoon, tench-hut! Right, hace! For-ward, harch! At ease, harch!” In four files the platoon marched easy down the edge of the tarmac, Third Platoon dimly visible in front of them as a mass of bobbing heads, shoulders and rucks. She looked behind at the company of Homies gaggling after them. She knew that in back of them, the clerks and lawyers and doctors and nurses and morticians and engineers and many other experts, the professionals that were the heart of Civil Affairs, were loading buses. Rick would be back there, probably embarrassed to be with the pogues, but he was no soldier, and it would send the wrong message for him to be here at her side.

She had laughed when Transportation had asked her when she wanted the platoon to be picked up. “It’s less than a mile from the barracks to the airfield,” she told them. “Don’t waste the nation’s gasoline.” When the other MP platoons had heard, they cancelled their rides too. I guess the Homies couldn’t let us show them up. Good for them. At least they have some pride.

The mass briefing the night before had finally given them some details on the landing zone. Fort AP Hill, south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, possessed the airfield closest to the south side of D.C. that could take the C-17s. Other units would work the west and north.

The landing zone was also well outside the direct blast zone, though not outside the radiation plume or the reach of the Demon Plagues. As a US Army installation not open to the general public, it might have retained some semblance of law and order. Or at least be safely deserted.

Unfortunately, no one had been able to contact any units stationed there. Reconnaissance drones had shown some human activity but no vehicles moving, and the base power plant revealed no heat signature. As far as they could tell the place was dead, as were most of its people. However, there did appear to be some organization in the city of Fredericksburg immediately to the north.

The briefing officer had said, “We’ve got a pair of Super Hornets off the Harry Truman that will give you some air cover and surface suppression as you land, and there’s a Force Recon team from the Somerset that is supposed to be moving in right now on foot. They’ll give the planes the final call via UHF about conditions on the ground, then they’ll attach themselves to the battalion after you land. The MP company debarks first in platoon order to set up dismounted security, then Homeland, then Civil Affairs and Medical. The aircraft will offload hot and extract immediately. After that you’ll be pretty much on your own for one to three weeks, until the ground forces pushing in from the west link up.”

On your own. Her people hadn’t liked that much, and she had to remind herself they weren’t special operators like she was, used to the idea of being alone and unafraid deep in enemy territory. They were security forces, not commandos, not even infantry. Well, I’ve gotten them as ready as I can.

The roar of the engines drowned out her thoughts as the formation marched into the staging area in front of the hangars. Ground crew with glowing flashlights and bulky headphones directed them to their bird. Its tail ramp gaped open, providing easy access to the enormous interior space. Pallets squatted on the spine of the plane, fastened down to hardpoints in the floor, and her people walked along the left and right to take their places on the red-orange fabric jump seats.

Her heart beat faster despite herself as she boarded. To her, jet fuel smelled like action. Half an hour later they roared into the sky, powering upward like an express elevator to Heaven.


-20-

It had been two days since Raphaela reversed the spacecraft and started it decelerating. Except for the brief period of weightlessness while the shuttle traded end for end, nothing really changed. One gravity of deceleration felt the same as one G of acceleration.

They’d kept their conversations on safer ground. Skull told her of the days when the whole Eden Plague thing started, with Zeke and Markis and the Watts Island raid.

She listened, fascinated, but reserved her judgments; she knew he wasn’t in the mood for critique or commentary. In return, she told him the story of Raphael’s “childhood.” She watched Skull’s eyes watch her; they revealed nothing of his thoughts as she recited. She almost despaired of finding that spark of humanity in him again, but she resolved not to give up.

A dirty snowball now filled the viewscreen, rotating slowly against the black-velvet backdrop, a faint mist streaming off antisunward. “Where’s your base?” Skull asked as he studied it. “Is that maximum magnification?”

“Yes it is, and the base is only a hundred yards across so you won’t be able to see it until we get closer. The comet is over a mile in diameter.”

“And you – they – put the base on a comet because?”

“Because water was the most important resource. When it’s close to the sun, the biomachines use photosynthesis to make food and solar electricity to crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen. They store everything they make for the part of the orbit when it’s far from the sun. That’s when it uses hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel cells. It recycles everything. Nothing needed but periodic inputs of solar energy.”

“Very efficient.”

“Yes, the Meme are nothing if not efficient.” There was an undertone of irony in her words. “The most efficient way to colonize a planet and spread the race is to use its own biology against it. But that presupposes the targets don’t have the technology to fight back.”

Skull sighed, “And we did. Barely. Without the Eden Plague and the way it drove biotech and nanotech in the last decade…”

“We’d have nearly all been reduced to animals. Maybe a few thousand people living in isolated places would have escaped…but without the vaccines, we’d have been meat for the Meme.”

“So we owe everything to Markis. That’s irony for you.” He coughed, a harsh chuckle.

“Really? That’s what you think?”

“What else is there to think?”

Raphaela shook her head and grimaced, as if spitting out a bad taste. “Alan, causality is lost in chaos. What if that IED hadn’t wounded Markis? What if he’d never retired, never met Elise, never gotten the Eden Plague, never called Zeke for help? What if you hadn’t gone to help Zeke? What if you hadn’t rescued Elise from the island, or Markis from that Company prison? There are a thousand what-ifs.”

“Almost makes you believe someone’s watching out for us.” He thought about what the nuns had taught back in grade school, then pushed the thought away again.

Raphaela dropped her chin to her chest, pensive. “The Meme have a religion. They believe their god watches out for them. That it’s on their side. That it’s their manifest destiny to take the planets away from useless savages who are too primitive to develop them properly. That only the Meme are truly worthy.”

“Huh. My Apache grandfather would have recognized that thinking. But this time the injuns got some surprises for the white-eyes.”

She nodded, solemn. “Let’s hope they do better than the last bunch.”


-21-

The empty Globemasters left a ringing silence in their wake, and Repeth felt the oppression of isolation as she stood on the roof of the Humvee, binoculars out and scanning. She was certain her troops felt it too. Forty-seven people and two Humvees to cover three hundred yards of frontage spread them dangerously thin.

“Keep your eyes on the treeline!” she yelled as some looked at their rides, now receding dots in the western sky. Others glanced inward at the Civil Affairs company rapidly setting up the Tactical Operations Center in the space between the four airfield buildings. They would barely have enough time to get concertina wire strung and some patrols out by dusk.

Tonight would be dangerous. There had been no time for any recon.

Repeth had protested the arrival time. They should have landed just after dawn, to have a full day to secure the area. “The airplanes are fully scheduled. Deal with it,” had been the response from the Air Liaison Officer. She’d been tempted to deal with him, and had to remind herself that no one was going to overlook an NCO clocking an officer, no matter how much of a jerk he was. Sometimes she longed to be back in FC spec-ops, where expertise counted for more than rank.

Maybe I should have accepted that commission after all.

She wondered where the Homies were. They should have been either securing a piece of the perimeter or helping set up the TOC but she didn’t see their distinctive dark navy blue uniforms anywhere.

A pair of Super Hornets roared low overhead just sub-Mach, unseen until they were almost past. The noise barely preceded their arrival but it lingered with their climbing departure, showing their hot twin tails. “WHAT’S THAT SOUND?” Repeth bellowed when she could be heard again.

A couple of her people knew the right answer. “THAT’S THE SOUND OF FREEDOM, MASTER SERGEANT!”

“You damn right,” she responded cheerfully. “Now get your eyes back on the treeline!” With guilty smiles they returned to their sectors. She nodded in satisfaction. Not too bad. Unless we get assaulted by a real combat unit, we should be able to handle anything.

It took two hours, twice as long as it should have, to get all the pallets broken down and loaded onto the vehicles. Once that was done, they began a tense road march. This was the most worrisome part of the whole operation, the movement from the airfield to the bivouac site near Fredericksburg.

There’d been debate about the wisdom of moving closer. AP Hill Army Airfield was about twenty miles from Fredericksburg, though, and they didn’t have enough wheeled transport to operate from that distance. Their mission was to assist the Fredericksburg population – like it or not – to become a functioning town again, the northernmost outpost of civilization on the south side of Washington D.C. They couldn’t do that with twenty-mile supply lines.

So they marched. Fast. More like jogged.

It wasn’t quite Ranger standard, she thought, but it was a damn fine effort. Fifteen miles in a little over three hours. They used the back roads through the base, as the aerial photos showed the civilian highways clogged. When they ran out of back roads they picked up the Fredericksburg Turnpike and bivouacked on an abandoned golf course just south of town. Two months of neglect and it already looked like some pretty good pastureland. Might be some good deer hunting. At least we got here before the sun went down.

She spread her platoon out to recon and guard their sector as the Civil Affairs troops began hastily unloading at the abandoned clubhouse complex. She’d normally have been happy to send some MPs to help with the tent setup but she needed every one of her people to stretch along the perimeter. She ran her eyes over the terrain, then looked back and touched her push-to-talk. “Charlie One Alpha this is Papa Four Alpha. How long are we going to be static?” She meant, how long until she could send out recon patrols.

Captain LeBrun responded. “Just until the Fox team shows up and gives us their report. I don’t want any fratricide.”

“Yes, sir. Friendly fire – isn’t. Why haven’t they called?”

“Not sure, Master Sergeant. You’re the Marine, you tell me.”

“I have an idea, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Oh?”

“They’re going to try to sneak in and show us up.”

LeBrun’s voice was incredulous. “With live ammo? Cocked and locked like we are? And I assume they’re not even Edens. Somebody could get killed.”

“You don’t know Force Recon, sir. They’ll take the risk, if they’re anything like they used to be. In fact…stand by, sir. I need to check on something.” She hopped off the Humvee, seating her PW10 into her shoulder, trigger finger extended and ready, and walked through the knee-high grass toward the treeline. Grasshoppers fled her feet, clicking and buzzing in flight. She stopped near some bushes, calling to the troops that had recently walked past and beyond them. “Smith, Martin, turn around. Look my direction. What do you see here inside our lines?”

The two men in question did as they were told, scanning. Smith shrugged. “What are we supposed to see?”

Repeth pointed at the bushes, low scrubby things, six of them in a rough ring.

“What? Bushes?” asked Martin.

Repeth said nothing, but took three long strides forward, turned to her left and kicked the nearest scrubby plant. Instead of a swish and a rustle her boot connected with something solid, eliciting a grunt.

Suddenly the bushes rolled onto their knees and revealed themselves as camo-painted Marines wearing Ghillie suits, coverings made of cloth strips, twine, burlap and foliage. Near-perfect camouflage. Their stubby assault rifles pointed out in a ring, and all except one had his weapon trained on a nearby MP.

The exception had Repeth’s PW10 at his throat, her hand locked on the barrel of the man’s assault rifle, forcing it skyward. She raised her voice. “Very impressive, gentlemen. But I made you from fifty yards. If I’d wanted to do a little recon by fire with that .50 cal on the Humvee you’d all be dead. So let’s stand down. We’re all friendlies here, right?”

Jill’s man made a hand signal and rose to his feet, as did the rest of his team, lowering their weapons. “Made by a split-tail,” he said in disgust.

Resisting the urge to punch him, she just chuckled, loud and for effect. “That’s Master Sergeant split-tail to you, Gunny. Next time stick to your TTPs and move at night. Less ‘Force’ and more ‘Recon.’”

The troops around laughed, some of the Recon team joining in. The team leader let his weapon retract on its sling, then pulled out a can of dip and stuck some behind his lip. It smelled like Pepto. He held her eyes, challenging. “They’re making Master Sergeants pretty young these days,” he observed neutrally.

The question lurking beneath that observation irked her. “Never ask a woman her age, Gunny. But I earned my stripes; I’ve got almost fourteen years in service. Welcome to the new Corps. You’ll just have to get used to us Sickos.” It occurred to her how right they were about owning your own epithet. She felt the insult lose power every time she turned it around on someone.

Surprisingly, he didn’t flinch, but he did grin sourly under his face paint. His voice was resigned, ironic. “Eden, huh? Oo-rah, Master Sergeant.”

Still watching him, Repeth touched her radio. “Charlie One Alpha this is Papa Four Alpha, I have your Fox Romeos, bringing them in.” She gestured to the team. “Follow me, gentlemen, you can make your report to the battalion commander.” She started walking toward the buildings. Without looking she called, “Grusky, get their eyes back on those sectors.”

Turning to the Recon team leader walking beside her, she stuck out a hand. “Repeth. They call me Reaper sometimes, though with this new Plague inbound I’m not sure that’s the best handle I could have.”

“Gunderson.” He shook her hand with a leather paw.

“They call you ‘Swede’?”

“Inevitably. Though I’m Danish.”

“I could have a lot of fun with that line. Ich Bin Ein Gunderson!”

Drily, “Oh, a comedian.”

She snorted. “I’ll keep my day job.”

“The world thanks you.”

“Do they select Force Recon for their smart mouths, Gunny?”

“No, just their outstanding good looks.”

“I thought that was SEALs.”

“Ouch, low blow. I’ll shut up now, Mas-tah Sar-junt.”

She let him get in the last word, since it was actually a capitulation. Twilight stole over the battalion encampment, and they heard one of the battalion’s two generators rattle to life.

As a special operator she hated the things. They destroyed the quiet of the night and called attention to their positions. And electricity brought lights, and lights killed night vision. For a unit in the rear, they were necessary. But now they were on the front lines and she really wished they could have done without until the area was secured. Eventually they would be dug in, with earth to muffle the sound somewhat.

They saw lights come on in the clubhouse building and nowhere else, and blinds drop rapidly down. Well, at least the glare will be confined, once they black everything out. She closed her shooting eye as she nodded at the door guard and led the team inside into the bright. She found Captain LeBrun, who led them to the battalion commander.

She was about to withdraw when LeBrun told her to stay. “Your people will be fine. Remember, you’re covering for your nonexistent LT. That means it’s your job to listen to the intel briefings.”

She grunted unwilling assent.

Inside a room crowded with officers and senior NCOs, Swede made his report to LTC Muzik. “We’ve been in the area three days. Do you have a map?” The Battalion intel officer ran to get his easel. “As I understand it you want to work your way northward, start to reestablish law and order, and see how bad D.C. is. Right now you have two main problems.”

“We. We have two main problems, Gunnery Sergeant, since your orders are to attach yourself to my battalion.” Muzik’s declaration was confident, his manner easygoing.

“Uh, yes, sir. We have two main problems. First is the crazies. Packs of them, some of them forty or fifty together. They look like people but they act like apes or something. You can’t tell what they’ll do for sure. Some just run away. Some scare with a few shots. And some attack. We had to kill one group of ten or so that came after us with rocks and sticks.”

Muzik nodded. “Those must be Twosies. The ones with Demon Plague Two. We should be able to handle them. All of our small arms fire Needleshock, and the Eden Virus should pacify and cure most of them, supplant the Demon Plagues. It remains to be seen what kind of minds they will retain. Oh, and make sure you draw Needleshock for your weapons. You can have your lethal rounds back when you leave my command.”

“Aye aye, sir.” He looked unhappy at that order. “The other problem is more serious.” Swede stopped, looked around as if not knowing quite how to explain. Finally he said, “It’s Fredericksburg. It’s…hostile.”

“Explain please.” Muzik’s tone was light but firm.

“Well, sir…all we know for sure is they have roadblocks and checkpoints, and picket lines and fences, and no one except the crazies –”

“– Twosies –”

“– Yes sir, no one except the Twosies live outside of their defense lines. We approached a checkpoint with weapons slung and our hands empty, but they fired on us anyway. We E-and-E’d out of there as quick as we could. Then we reconned most of their lines. We split up and went left and right.”

“Show us on the map.”

Swede traced the edges of the Fredericksburg defenses. They ran up the Rappahannock to the East, along Route 3 on the south, and along Interstate 95 to the west. “We didn’t get all the way around, but if they follow the terrain the north end should be about where the river meets the freeway.”

“Roughly the northern half of Lee’s position on December tenth, 1862,” Muzik mused. “Burnside took a beating. The terrain is very defensible. Five miles between us and them. We have no artillery, no armor, just some air if the Navy can spare it. We’re not a maneuver unit anyway, we’re Civil Affairs. We can’t intimidate them, so we have to find a way to talk. A white flag?”

“I’ll go, sir,” Repeth volunteered. “They’re more likely to talk to a woman. And I’ll heal in case of trouble.”

“Ah, sir, my men –” Swede began.

“Are normals, right? Are you even inoculated with the Plague vaccines?”

“Yes, sir. They flew some out to the LPD.”

Muzik grunted. “Then you can back her up. But I mean back. Pick up Plague injectors ASAP, and tomorrow we’ll have a medical team with Eden Plague standing by. This isn’t a battle, Gunnery Sergeant, it’s a parley. We need to know who these people are. What they’re afraid of, what they’re forted up against. They’re our own citizens, people. They’re not the enemy.”

“Unless they choose to be, sir.” Swede stuck his jaw out. “They did shoot at us.”

Muzik’s Adonis smile broke out wintry. “Understood. But let me say again, and very clearly, Gunny,” as his eyes bore into Gunderson’s, “these are Americans, no matter how misguided. We’re not looking for a fight.” He raised his voice. “All right, everyone back to work. Make sure your people get some sleep. We initiate the parley at 0700 tomorrow.”


-22-

Skull stared at the base again on the viewscreen. “It doesn’t look like much.”

“There isn’t much to see. What you’d call the roof is just a solar collection surface, and everything else is underneath. But now you at least know I’m telling you the truth about a base.”

“It’s a base, yes. I still want to see it. At least to get out of this ship for a while. See something except these two rooms. I’ll be the only human ever to have set foot on a comet.”

She looked at him with pain in her eyes.

He stared back. “What?”

She shook her head, mumbled something again.

“What did you say?”

She pressed her lips together, looked down, shook her head. Tears spattered with the motion.

“Gah. Women.”

She raised her head, suddenly furious. “Which is it? I’m a woman, or I’m an alien? One minute you’re screwing me and then the next minute you’re declaring you’re the only human on this ship. Which is it?” She picked up her empty bottle and threw it at his head.

He caught it with casual speed. “Come on, I didn’t mean it that way. I meant, the only full human…unchanged human…huh. I’m not even that, am I?” he mused. “I guess you’re right to be upset. Neither of us is human anymore.”

“Yes we are! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all this time. Being human isn’t about your biology, it’s your mind and your soul that makes you human.”

“But what about your Meme mind and soul?” he asked, half-serious.

“That’s why they wipe the minds of the species they blend with. Meme have very little personality, and no soul. They have no art, no music, no appreciation for beauty. Their emotions are weak compared to ours. They are just big bags of knowledge and memories. And Raphael never met any Meme except his siblings. He was terrified of the ones that are coming, and fascinated by humanity.” She slapped her chest with her palm. “My personality is mostly Sophia Ilona’s, even if my memories include Raphael’s. My brain and body are human, deliberately human. As much or more than yours. If you can’t get past your gut revulsion to me, I understand. But if it’s just a mental reservation, then for God’s sake get over it. And if by chance you’re beating yourself up about what you…what we did, then get over that too. I don’t blame you for it. It just…happened. And,” she dropped her voice near to a whisper, “I really wouldn’t mind it happening again.”

Skull turned away as if he had not heard, ignoring the invitation, rejecting the complexity of this thing between them, this relationship that was growing like crabgrass despite his efforts to pull up the roots or mow it down.

After a moment he heard her weeping. More manipulation. Not giving in. He clenched his teeth and said harshly, “How long until we land?”

Between sniffles she said, “Six hours. You’ll feel the G forces lessen and eventually almost disappear. When we set down we’ll have microgravity. Treat it like zero G and you’ll be fine.”


-23-

“Swede. You sure you don’t want me to bite you?” Repeth raised and lowered her eyebrows a couple of times, mocking.

“I’ve never answered ‘no’ to that question until now. Especially not coming from a beautiful woman.” Swede turned his rock-jawed head and spat a stream of dip juice, then looked back, eyes narrowed, at the checkpoint two hundred meters away across the open field. They stood well within the trees, unseen.

“Oh, suh, you’ll turn mah head. The spitting is especially attractive. But seriously. Why not?”

“I don’t really want my balls cut off. So to speak.” He spat again.

“Just wait till your lip falls off from that stuff. You’ll beg for the Eden Plague. Besides, I got enough balls for both of us.” Repeth took off her cap, folded it carefully and slid it into her cargo pocket, then pulled the pins out of her hair. She shook her shoulder-length mane loose, a rich crown of brown matching her eyes and well-tanned skin. Then she unbuttoned her tunic and rolled that up, tucking it into her small field pack. She seated the straps on her shoulders, smoothing out her t-shirt and jutting her small breasts well forward.

“I like the look,” Swede said, eyeing her appreciatively.

“Enjoy it while you can. It’s not for you. I don’t want them thinking I have pects instead of boobs.”

“You do have pects. I saw you doing those push-ups.” He whistled. “You’re one hell of an athlete.”

“Save it. And you’re never getting in my pants, so stop wasting your energy with the compliments.”

“Why, you a rug-muncher?”

“Nope. But I am engaged. And an Eden, remember?”

He sighed. “Damn. All the good ones are taken. Or infected.”

“Or maybe all the infected ones are good. But don’t believe everything the Unies told you about us. We’re not mindless drones or angels, just an itty lil’ bit new and improved. You could do worse.” She took a deep breath, let it out. “Now you ready to do this?”

“Yeah. But I still think it’s a bad idea.” He scooped the dip out of his mouth and she caught another whiff of wintergreen as he flicked it onto the ground. He waved his team into prone positions and they low-crawled up to the edge of the slight hill overlooking the field. In their Ghillie suits they were just about invisible.

Repeth picked up the stick with the piece of white cloth attached, a banner she’d prepared back at the airfield. She looked back at the two Humvees that had brought them out, and at the team of medics standing near them. Captain LeBrun, perched on the hood of one of the vehicles, gave her the thumbs-up.

She turned to trudge down the road, a two-lane strip already going to ruin. Tree branches and fallen trunks, animal carcasses and bones, a wash of alluvial sand from a flash flood – ten weeks of neglect and already the works of man were blurring, fading. She held the white flag high.

Halfway there, a hundred yards from the barricade made of a couple of dozen vehicles with an abatis of salvaged materials, the sentries noticed her. Pretty bad security, to let me walk so far up to them without even seeing me in the middle of the road. She raised the white flag, swung it back and forth. She felt exposed, and waited for a shot that didn’t come.

As she trudged deliberately forward, a figure – a man – stood up, holding a rifle. He didn’t point it, just braced it on his hip and waited. As she got nearer she saw that he was mostly hairless. Closer, and he seemed disfigured, scarred and burned. Ten yards away he dropped the rifle barrel to point at her.

“That’s fur enough. Who are you and what ya want?”

There was something funny about the way he talked, she thought. He had something in his cheek, probably tobacco, but it was more than that. Radiation? Or Demon Plague One? “Did you get sick?” she asked loudly. “Right after the bombs fell?”

“Yeah. Ever’body got sick. Radiation or sumpin. Though Doc Jones said it was a mutated flu. He said you cain’t catch radiation.” The man smiled, revealing jagged teeth she could count on one hand. His eyes were beady, feral. He gestured with the rifle. “Now shut up and answer me.”

She nodded. “I’m Master Sergeant Jill Repeth, United States Marine Corps. I’m part of a US military unit that has reoccupied Fort AP Hill,” she said, stretching the truth a bit. “The United States Government is back to help.”

“Riiiillly.” He made chewing motions, then spat black juice. “They ain’t no more US gub’mint. I been up to the dead zone. Ain’t no more White House, ain’t no more Congress. Ain’t no more Pentagon. Ain’t many of you damnyankees left neither as far as I can tell. But what there is,” he said, “is the Confederate Republic of Fredericksburg, and y’all now a part of it. We could use a pretty white breeder like you. Tommy-boy, open the small gate!” A man-sized gap appeared to the left of the barrier as his men pulled a piece of fencing backward.

Shit. Time to go. Without preamble or warning Repeth dropped the banner and bolted to her right, away from the gate, to sprint serpentine across the open field. There was a draw with some bushes that meandered back toward the Recon team’s position. If she could make it there she could easily evade to them.

Rifles cracked behind her and she felt bullets pass uncomfortably close. One kissed her thigh, stinging. She could see muzzle flashes as Swede and the rest opened up, giving her covering fire, but she focused on running and not falling on the broken ground.

Someone stuck a hot poker into her back, searing agony that cut the strings in her legs. She felt herself collapse in mid-stride, a discarded rag doll. This is not good was all she had time to think before the darkness took her.


-24-

The shuttle touched down like a feather in the comet’s microgravity. Skull felt a prolonged grinding then a slight bump, and they were still. Raphaela touched her control screens, and slight jerks and shudders went through the ship.

A sense of disorientation swept over him as he abruptly felt himself hanging from the ceiling, yet he hadn’t moved. He clamped his hands on the seat, and watched a water bottle fall upward – downward – no, the viewscreen showed they were settled bottom-down on the surface. Yet his body wanted to fall to the ceiling, very slowly.

“It’s the comet’s rotation,” she said. “After the asteroid struck it set it spinning. The centrifugal force exerts slightly more outward pressure than its gravity pulls inward. If we weren’t clamped down we’d just fly off.”

“How could you operate here?”

“My siblings and I reconfigured everything we could once we became sentient. We made the ceiling the floor. I could do it for the ship if I wanted to but it’s not worth the time and energy. Just flip over and stand on the ceiling. We’ll float anyway.”

It was true. The tiniest push from the floor sent him flying. He fought down nausea and tried to treat it as weightlessness. “Let’s go,” he said roughly.

“Through there.” She pointed at an opening behind him.

He glanced down at the rifle bolt that he’d never retrieved from its decorative position on the ceiling-now-floor, then shrugged. He was still in her hands, and he just couldn’t believe everything he’d seen was some kind of an act to lull him into complacency. He floated through.

Faint lights came on and showed a tunnel leading upward, into the surface of the topsy-turvy comet. He used his fingers and toes to propel himself through it, Raphaela following behind. A short distance, perhaps twenty yards, and he entered the base.

Disappointment shot through him. He thought it would be grand, a place of wonder, rooms full of throbbing machines of power or incomprehensible objects. Instead, it looked rather like a large version of the shuttle interior. In fact it was rather bare. The only significant objects he could see were a teacup Meme-chair and a control console with several of the hemispherical screens.

“Where is everything? This can’t be it!”

“It’s all put away. The base is just like the shuttle. It’s one big biomachine, infinitely configurable, if you have mass and energy. The computers, the data storage, the physical storage, the fuel cells, everything is either inside the base’s structure or it’s just waiting, a potential pattern until I call it into being.”

Skull turned around, looking at everything as if the answer – no, the question – would jump out at him and then he would know what to do. I got this far, now what? I can see the end of the thing, more or less, but I can’t see from now through the middle part. Reluctantly he decided to confide in Raphaela.

“When they get here I want to ambush them. For that I’m going to need your help. Let’s find someplace comfortable and do some brainstorming.”

“Are we in a hurry? We have almost a year. Six months at the absolute minimum, and that’s only if they burn their ship like a candle. We’re here now. Let’s make this place livable. I’m tired of that biomass I made to eat. The base can do a lot more for us.” She ran her fingers along a wall, and it split where she touched, forming a long slim countertop.

“I thought you said this place is breaking down. Falling apart.”

She smiled, shook her head. “Sorry, I was speaking by Meme standards. It won’t last another hundred years. But it should easily last one.” She walked over to grasp the teacup, which slowly morphed into a human-usable chair. She touched screens and controls, which came to life with dim light. “I have a lot of improvements to make. Hours at least, if you want a functioning bathroom and kitchen.”

“Why don’t you let me help?”

Amusement flitted across her face, banished immediately by her fear of showing him disrespect. Carefully neutral, she asked, “What can you do?”

He stood next to her, staring at the console. “I may not be able to make anything but I can control things. So first set me up something that will give me a task. For example, make a big screen like you did in the shuttle and connect it to the biggest telescope you have, something I can aim. Then I’ll start looking around.”

“What will you look for?”

“I won’t know until I find it.” Skull grinned fiercely. “But if there’s something to find, I will.”

“All right. Give me a few minutes of quiet, will you?”

A half our later he had his viewscreen and a set of controls he could use. After a minute’s instruction he sent her away, saying he would learn as he went. Have to keep myself occupied somehow, he thought. He forced his mind away from the obvious entertainment two people could make for themselves. Gritted his teeth. Concentrated.

Hours later he had made cursory examinations of several of Jupiter’s moons, as well as the enormous swirling planet itself. By magnifying to its limit he could bring forth astonishing views, peer deep into space at stars and distant galaxies, bring asteroids so close they seemed to be floating a short way outside the base’s walls.

Raphaela walked up behind him with a steaming cup. She put it down next to him and began to rub Skull’s shoulders. He allowed her ministrations for a moment before thinking that this was just another trap, to become affectionate like she seemed to want.

“What’s that? It smells good.” He used the food as an excuse to disengage from her, swiveling his seat around.

She handed him the mug. “It’s chicken soup, as close as I can make it. I’m experimenting with flavors. Meme senses are nothing like human.” She watched him closely as he sipped. “What do you think?”

“Not bad,” he admitted. “Actually pretty good.” He drained the mug.

She lit up with a smile, bringing a scowl to Skull’s face.

Her own countenance fell in response. “Do you have to make everything good I do into something bad?”

“Do you have to keep trying to manipulate me into liking you?” He held the empty cup up to press against his forehead, breaking eye contact.

Raphaela turned away with tears. “Why do you call simple kindness manipulation? I care for you. I’m not going to stop caring. You don’t have to care back but at least you can treat me like a comrade, not an enemy.”

Skull ground his teeth. I’m outgunned here, he admitted to himself. I could handle a woman, probably, and maybe a 4000-year-old alien, but this hybrid of the two is just impossible. She’s right, in a way. I should just quit reacting. Shut down all my emotions, treat her like a colleague and nothing more. Not let her get to me. Then we’ll be able to have a simple conversation without it turning into an emotional swamp every time.

Skull forced himself to relax. He put on his blank face, saluted her with the cup. “Sorry. It was good, and thanks for making it. I look forward to your next improvement in our menu.”

Her face lapsed into a disappointed passivity as she took the cup from his hand. She refilled it and brought it back to him without comment, movements stiff and hurt as she left the room.

He drank the soup as he ignored her and went back to using the telescope viewer. After a while he put the mug down, feeling suddenly tired, and his vision blurred.

Then fear surged through him. She drugged me, he thought as he tried to leap from his seat, but he barely twitched, then slumped into the chair and his consciousness faded.


-25-

Repeth woke to the kindly but grave face of one of the nurses – Tech Sergeant Ronall, if she remembered correctly. Her mind was clear and the IV dripping nutrient solution into her arm reassured her, I’ll be fine.

“She’s awake.” Ronall took his hand from her forehead and stood up.

Jill felt there was something off about his expression, something odd for a nurse taking care of a live Eden, by definition a patient with a positive prognosis. She looked around the room, presumably inside the converted clubhouse, and spotted a more welcome figure. “Rick.”

He stepped forward after Ronall nodded his permission, sat down in a chair pulled close. He took her hand. “Hey kiddo. How you doing?”

She looked at him quizzically. “Just fine, like always. I’m alive, so I’ll heal up. What? You don’t look so sure.”

His eyes were serious. “Jill, you’re not as fine as you think. You have a .308 round in your spine and you’re not moving for a while.”

“Ugh.” She tried to wiggle her toes and failed. Her head slumped on the pillow. “That sucks. Okay, so what next?”

“They’re prepping a surgical suite. But we don’t have any real surgeons, just a couple of GPs and nurses. They’re worried. They want to wait for an experienced cutter off one of the ships, but the Navy isn’t too hot to fly a helo this far inland. Too many nuts taking potshots at them, from what I hear. And Fredericksburg is unfriendly.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” She squeezed Rick’s hand. “Just tell them to do it. I’ll heal. Worst case and they screw it up, someone else can repair it later. Play the odds. I can’t be lying around here like this. Ronall, you tell them to do it just as soon as they can. Go in straight, get the thing out. I’ve been shot seventeen times and I’ve always come through.”

“Seventeen, huh?” The nurse seemed impressed.

The door opened suddenly and Swede barged in. She almost didn’t recognize him without his face paint and Ghillie. He nodded at her, glanced at Rick and their clasped hands. “You okay there, Top? So this is the lucky guy, huh?”

Rick let go of her to stand up, holding out a friendly hand. The two men stared at one another until Swede stuck out his too. Rick looked a little sick as the Marine’s paw crushed his.

Swede let go and turned to Jill. His manner dismissed Rick as inconsequential. Apparently her fiancé had been found wanting. “Just thought I’d check in on you, Master Sergeant,” he said pointlessly.

“I’m good, Swede. Thanks for getting me out of there. Those people are Onesies. I could see it in their eyes and on their skin.”

“Yeah, well, once we brought a .50 cal up they ran off like chickens. Drove the Humvee right up to where you fell. We recovered a couple of their bodies for the docs to look at.”

“Speaking of chickens…did you notice anything funny about the barrier guards?”

Swede looked quizzically at her, shrugged.

“You see any color there?”

“Huh?”

“That guy I talked to, their boss…he called me a ‘pretty white breeder.’ Said they were the Confederate Republic of Fredericksburg.”

“Ahh.” Swede nodded. “Some kind of Aryan Nation nut jobs?”

“I think it would be KKK wannabees around here, but yeah. Make slaves of the women and mud people.”

“Good thing you aren’t black, I guess. No offense, I just mean…”

She forced an ironic laugh. “Being a woman is bad enough, I guess. I ran because they had rape in their eyes.”

Rick coughed from where he stood, and Jill realized how awkward it must be for him. “Thanks, Gunny. Now get out of here, will you? And send Grusky to see me ASAP.” She gave Swede her best glare.

He glanced around the room, eyes resting for one more moment on Rick, and shook his head wistfully. “Aye aye, Master Sergeant.” He turned and left. His posture told it all.

Rick forced a smile. “Doesn’t think much of me, does he?”

“Don’t worry about it. I know the type. Thinks he should own any woman he wants. Thinks every girl should dump her boyfriend and throw herself at him.”

Rick remained uncertain. “Why shouldn’t he think that? He’s big, strong, tough, good-looking, confident…”

“So am I.” Jill laughed. “I’m a warrior, living and working with warriors my whole life. If I wanted that kind of man I’d have sealed the deal with someone like Muzik long ago. But then again, you don’t get to choose who you fall in love with.” She reached out to grab his leg, and he moved back to her side, bent over to kiss her.

“Thanks, Jill. You sure know how to make a guy feel like a special accident.”

She laughed. “I do my best.”

“So hey,” he changed the subject, “you missed the big action.” He sat down carefully on her bed.

“I think I had enough action for one morning. What was it?”

“A couple dozen Twosies out in the woods to the southwest. They had improvised weapons, sticks and shovels and things. They rushed a perimeter patrol.” Rick’s face reflected pain. “Killed most of them, all except a few who ran away.”

“Killed them? Why?”

“They didn’t survive the Needleshock. The docs think it was the Plague interactions, Eden versus Demon Two.”

“Damn. So we can’t save the Twosies, at least not with a simple Eden shot. I guess that’s something for the long term, some kind of cure. At least it works on the Onesies.”

“Yeah. Small favors.”

Jill pushed herself more upright and asked Rick to hunt her up some lunch. Once he came back with a heated MRE she asked, “So what else is going on?”

“Well, they got all the tents up. The medical folks say they are ready to start inoculations as soon as we can bring them customers, and send out teams if we can find villages or gathering places.”

“What about you?”

“I wrote a preliminary report. It won’t get through for a day or two probably, until they get good comms set up…until then I’m helping with the computers.” Rick went on to chat about the battalion and expected to go back to his duties when SSG Grusky showed up, but the shooting started first.


-26-

Skull awoke with a start and tried to get up, but found himself held fast. Trying to move his head, he realized that he was naked, immobilized, and completely encased in some kind of material – presumably the same modified base-stuff that made up the walls and floor. He was upright, with nothing but his face showing outside the cocoon.

He carefully exerted his strength, building until he could feel his own arms bruising and his skin threatening to split, but no matter what he did he could not move more than a half an inch in any direction. Resigned, he cleared his throat. “Raphaela?”

She walked into his range of vision, looking guilty. “I’m sorry, Alan. I gave you every chance I could, but I have bigger concerns right now. You may not agree, but that’s just the way it is.”

“The way what is? What do you plan to do? You can’t keep me here forever.”

“I can keep you there for a long time. The mechanism I’ve set up will tend to all your needs.”

Changing tack, he asked, “What do you mean bigger concerns? What’s bigger than saving the Earth?”

“We’ll have just enough time for that. I’ve re-run the calculations based on the incoming scout ship’s latest signals. They will be here in just over nine months.” She raised her eyebrows at him, as if that period of time should be somehow significant.

He looked around the room, searching for something to give him a clue as to her purpose. “Is that supposed to mean something to me? And do you mean to keep me in here for nine months?”

“Almost. You’ve made it clear you don’t want to be my lover, or my friend, or my…or my anything. But like it or not you’re going to be the father of my child, so like all single mothers down through history I’m just going to have to deal with things as they are and do the best I can. I wanted us to be together somehow, but since you’ve rejected me I have to put my energy into our son.” She tried but failed to keep anger out of her voice.

He gaped at her, his mind in turmoil. “Our son…but…this changes everything!”

“Really? How? How, Skull? How?

It was the first time she’d called him Skull since they’d been together, and he realized it stung. That maybe he had been trying to deny this thing between them so vehemently because there was truth to it. “Because…we’re having a child!”

“Yes I’m having a child, without you,” she said bitterly. “You’re going into stasis. Just as soon as this conversation is over. It’s as wonderful and endearing as every other talk we’ve had. You’re going to stay there until he’s born, because I can’t trust you. You’re a danger to us both.”

“I’d never hurt my own child!” he cried.

“How do I know that? Do you have one back on Earth that you never told me about? All I know is that you’re unstable, violent, and super-nano-infused. I gave you every chance and you blew me off.” Now that she had allowed herself to give vent to the anger she had been holding back, it spewed forth in a wave. “You’re the stupidest man I know, Alan, which isn’t saying much because I don’t know very many men, but I bet there are ten thousand guys on Earth that would love to have me and would be better fathers and better men than you so you can just suck it up and deal with it, isn’t that what you Marines say? Suck it up and deal with it and if you’re very lucky I’ll be in a better mood when you wake up.” She reached for a control.

“Wait! If you’re determined to do this, what can I do? But I wanted you to leave me here to ambush them. Then you – you and the baby now – could go back to Earth. You’ll be safe there.”

Raphaela laughed. “Safe on Earth? That’s a laugh. And what do you care anyway?”

“I do care about you.”

“You’re just saying that now that you’re helpless.”

He tried to shake his head but failed. “No, I…nevermind. Whatever. You haven’t listened to me since we took off.”

She choked. “Who hasn’t listened?” With that she touched a control.

“Wait! I…” He trailed off as his vision went from gray to black, and his thoughts did likewise.

Raphaela sat for a long time on the floor next to the cocoon, tears running uncontrollably down her face, sobs racking her body. She already felt the loneliness of his absence and her guts cramped with the fear of it. She rolled over onto her side and curled into a ball of pain.

She wept for her failure to make him love her, or even treat her decently, and she wept for herself and her predicament and for her unborn son. Eventually she wept herself to sleep as the warm hum of the dying base accompanied her into Morpheus’ arms.


-27-

Major Dionicio “Denny” Vargas, commanding Alpha Company (Homeland Security – Detached), rode in the center vehicle of their seven Mine-Resistant Armored Personnel-carriers, commonly called MRAPs. After landing with the Civil Affairs battalion, they’d quickly and efficiently mustered and moved out on their mission, heading south. Vargas was proud of them for that.

Each armored truck mounted either a .50 caliber heavy machine gun, a 7.62mm six-barreled electric Gatling minigun, or a 40mm grenade launcher. After furious, nearly mutinous “discussion,” the heavily armed paramilitary company had been issued a mix of lethal ammo and Needleshock rather than pure nonlethal. He’d had to go over Colonel Muzik’s head and make his case to the new Deputy Under Secretary of Homeland Security, but eventually they’d hammered out a compromise.

All the personal weapons were supposed to be loaded with nonlethal ammo – though Vargas wasn’t going to try too hard to enforce that one. But the heavy weapons had standard lethal rounds available, as well as a nonlethal supply. He’d argued that Needleshock grenades or .50 caliber wouldn’t penetrate armored vehicles or structures like good old high explosive or full metal jacket. On the other hand, he had to seem to accept the new military leaders’ arguments that anyone they were shooting at was an American, and their responsibility was to minimize casualties and save lives.

Denny didn’t give a shit about that. Kill them all, the sooner the better. Let El Diablo sort them out. He breathed the cool morning air as he stood in the top hatch of his MRAP, ecstatic just to have his own independent command.

His convoy crept southward along Highway 1 toward Richmond. They’d thought about using Interstate 95, but the Navy recon flights had shown that hundreds of thousands of fleeing vehicles had turned that artery into a hopeless parking lot filled with evil and death.

He flogged his mind, reviewing the special intelligence briefings they’d had, much more detailed than the ones given to those dumbass military personnel.

Immediately after the warheads had fallen, those at the edge of the death zones had fled, despite being told to stay in their homes. Marginally smarter people fled westward toward the mountains and the rural areas. The hopeless sheep, the professional classes of Northern Virginia, had joined hundreds of thousands of their closest friends in a pointless attempt to flee southward. Most had no plan, no supplies, and no skills, just a vague notion of getting away toward the rural South, where the rumors said no bombs had fallen.

When hours in their cars became days with no food, no water and no fuel, many had turned on each other, fighting and killing for something to drink or eat or just because they were frustrated. Some escaped overland into the farms and small towns, until they overwhelmed the people living there, who began to turn the refugees away.

Sometimes with bullets.

With martial law’s advent the National Guard, regular troops and first responders everywhere made a valiant effort to bring the civil disaster under control – and they were making progress. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands had died in the aftermath of the bombs, but slowly order emerged from chaos.

Until Plaguefall One.

The population was hard-pressed, already straining to cope with fallout, radiation burns and sickness, scattered outbreaks of cholera, violence and starvation. When Demon Plague One spread down the East Coast, the camel’s back broke.

It was panic as much as anything that shattered the fragile remains of civilized society, especially in the zones north of Richmond. With over a million infected refugees, Virginia’s shaky remnants of state government had no choice but to establish strict borders around the capital and close them to all but a careful trickle of refugees.

Camps sprang up at the edge of the defended zones, hellholes of exploitation, rape and murder. Richmond tried to alleviate the problems by passing out food and sending armed parties to repair water sources, but soon gave up. There were just too many human animals. Demon Plague One had seen to that. Whatever vestiges of civilized behavior might have remained, the alien virus swept them all into a Darwinian nightmare, individual survival of the fittest as the virus destroyed any sense of community, any finer feeling, any decency.

Even that situation stabilized, somewhat. Then the next Demon Plague fell. All those infected with Plague One were fallow fields for number Two.

Onesies were nasty, brutish but still recognizably human.

Twosies became animals, no better than apes. Worse than apes, for primates showed affection and rudimentary kindness to their own. The only cooperation the Twosies showed was to band together to kill, to eat, and to kill again. Sometimes, for the sheer lust of it.

So Vargas could expect Richmond to have killed, driven off or captured their Twosies, but there was no telling how they had dealt with their Onesies. The federal government had airdropped vaccines and information into the city, but had often been shot at for their trouble, and the State authorities had refused to negotiate until ground forces showed up, citing empty promises and memories of FEMA failures.

So Vargas was back to delivering the Special Envoy in person.

They’d laagered that first night in the enormous parking lot of some kind of ruined motorcycle shop south of Fredericksburg, and no one had bothered them. A few stealthy figures crept about the periphery but no one challenged the unit’s right to be there or really seemed to care. Most of the shops and buildings had been looted; a few showed signs of fortification and defense.

Now the convoy moved carefully past intermittent vehicle pile-ups along the highway. Some had crashed and burned; others looked to have been blockaded and looted. Still others had simply crowded up in their own traffic-jam volume, unable to get by, and thus had been abandoned. The MRAPs with their enormous tires were usually able to make their way around these obstacles, through the fields and pastures. Sometimes they pushed cars out of the way, occasionally dismounting a double dozen troops to clear obstacles by hand.

It made for slow going.

By midday they made it some twenty miles, averaging three or four miles an hour. Vargas cursed loudly at his people. Their progress was hardly faster than the blue and gray armies that had marched up and down this green countryside so long ago.

They’d passed tiny crossroads villages like Thornburg and Cedon, Ryland Corner and Ladysmith. The remnants of buildings were broken teeth set in the green gums of pastures and peanut fields. Their first sign of occupation, or at least of a live community, was at the resort town of Lake Caroline. Vargas called a halt to the convoy as it came into view.

He lifted binoculars to his eyes and surveyed the west side of the highway. The crossroads and turnoffs were clear, but he could see that they were all blocked and barricaded about a quarter mile back. A wise precaution, if the community was still functioning and civilized. No need to contest passage along the highway, but he figured anyone that left the roadway to go in their direction would encounter well-armed citizens.

He could see a glint of sunlight at the barrier and could make out figures manning it. “Furth, tell everyone to lay their weapons on that barrier.” Go ahead, shoot at me, cabrons. Give me an excuse.

Disappointingly the townies did not fire, and he had a mission to complete, so he signaled the trucks to drive on. The MRAP lurched and he put the binoculars away, hunkering down inside the hatch, using the periscope in case of snipers. Maybe they’ll fire as we get closer. Por favor?

Vargas noticed the current stretch of road was empty of vehicles, apparently cleared by bulldozer; the cars and trucks were all off in the ditches and the lanes of pavement invited them to speed up and make some time. Smart, he thought. Encourage travelers to go by, wherever they were headed. Damn. They won’t give me a reason. He thought about telling them to open fire, make up some excuse later, but he decided against it. Not time to make a move yet.

As they passed Golansville and hummed southward at speeds approaching fifteen or twenty miles per hour – hallelujah! – his RTO came over the intercom headset. “Sir, you’d better hear this.”


-28-

A far-off chattering of small arms surged, then the deeper hammering of a .50 caliber heavy machine gun joined it from nearby. Rick let go of Jill’s hand to poke his head out of the room. Medical personnel and support staff ran hither and thither, yelling and pulling on battle gear. “What’s going on?” His questions went unanswered.

“Rick,” yelled Jill, “get your gear and your weapon and take your post.”

“Hell, no, I’m not leaving you!”

“Rick, you have to get your armor and your weapon. You have to take your place or someone will be without support! Just hand me my stuff. If they get this far we’re screwed anyway.”

Angrily he shoved her PW10 and web gear at her. “I’m no soldier! I’d just get in the way out there.”

She grabbed his sleeve, shook it hard. “Look, those doctors and lawyers aren’t fighters either. Go where you’re assigned and do what they tell you, and don’t be afraid to shoot. It’s Needleshock. But whoever is attacking has lethal weapons, so get your Kevlar on and keep the enemy out of this building. That’s how to keep me safe.”

Agony in his eyes, he kissed her one more time then ran from the room.

Jill gritted her teeth and dragged herself upward in the bed, using the headboard. Pain shot through her lower back, and her thighs tingled above the numbness near her knees. She slapped at her legs, but it was useless. It felt like they were asleep but they weren’t waking up. That bullet was lodged in there good and deep.

She locked and loaded her weapon, set her magazines within easy reach. Planned her actions if someone did try to get in the room. Sipped some water. Loosened her knife in its sheath. Looked at the IV but decided to leave it where it was. The more nutrient solution she had in her, the better.

Heavier explosions manifested, each coming closer. It sounded like some form of antitank weapon. Then a boom and a crash, and she cursed under her breath, then muttered a prayer for forgiveness. Tanks! Who the hell is attacking us with tanks? We don’t have the equipment to deal with armored vehicles for long. I hope we can get some air support in here fast.

She shrugged into her web gear, switched on her radio. The command net was full of sound and fury, all bad news. It sounded like at least four tanks, eight or ten light armored vehicles and over a thousand troops were attacking from the north. Fredericksburg. We got overconfident. They’re paranoid and they saw us as a threat. My fault. I walked up and told them we were here. I thought they’d respond to a little patriotic flag-waving and it might cost us our lives.

Lord, a little help right now would be welcome.


***


Thank God they’re using the tanks as a platoon rather than as infantry support, Swede thought. If they’d split them up and kept infantry deployed around each of them, backed up with those Strykers we could never mousetrap them like this.

“Stand by,” he said over the Recon squad’s net. Invisible in their Ghillie suits, the team waited in ambush in a sunken clump of trees, knee-deep in boggy ground. Gunderson’s men had snatched up all the antitank weapons they could carry and sprinted out here just in time.

The tank platoon, four older M1A1 Abrams with the insignia of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 11th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Stonewall Jackson) painted on them, advanced slowly in tight diamond formation toward the clubhouse and the tents pitched near it. Too tight. Two hundred yards range to the Civil Affairs tents and the clubhouse was point-blank for their heavy main guns. Swede surmised that whoever was commanding the tank platoon was either stupid, overconfident, or under orders to ensure the infantry felt supported. They should have stood off at a thousand yards and shot the hell out of us. He hoped it would be their undoing.

The tanks did nearly the stupidest thing, which was the best thing from the Recon team’s point of view.

The very best thing would have been to split and go around the copse of trees. Next best was to skirt it closely, with no supporting infantry to clear the nearby terrain, and fortunately that’s what they did.

The sixty-five-ton vehicles clanked forward at a crawl, firing their main guns slowly, deliberately. Walls shattered and fires burned. The Recon team endured one final concussion wave from a 105mm cannon at less than fifty yards, then Swede yelled “Ready One.” This gave the three men with the antitank rockets time to come to their kneeling, firing positions.

“Fire!”

Three Armorshock rockets flashed out too fast to see, a ripple of explosions as the booster charges and the heavier blasts of the warheads blended into a cacophony of point-blank slamming hell. Subdued flame blossomed at the left rear of the three nearest tanks, the most vulnerable spot, and an enormous discharge of eye-searing blue lightning accompanied the impact. Cyan sparks crawled across the turrets, shorting out systems, burning out servomotors and fusing traverse mechanisms. The discharges also set off all of the defensive smoke grenades in each tank’s fixed launcher set. A moment later the scene disappeared in overlapping circles of thick artificial fog, with a strange clear space in the middle.

All three tanks had lost their engines and main power. They squatted on their broken treads, apparently lifeless. Better than I expected with these experimentals. Like most veterans, he hated brand-new weapons technology. Now it’s time to pay the piper. Swede saw the last tank slew toward them to present its glacis and lower its main gun toward the group of trees where they sheltered.

“Down!” he yelled and the team hugged the earth like a lover.

His lover bucked, a bronco throwing him skyward mixed with pieces of tree and chunks of mud. He fell broken onto his side, slamming his head into his shoulder and outstretched left arm. The grinding of splintered bones stabbed his ribcage. It hurt to breathe.

Swede reached up with his good arm to key his radio. “This is Gunderson. I’m down,” he gasped. “Anyone still up, engage that last heavy. Remember your final option.” And it’s about time for mine, he thought, reaching. The hard plastic case in his cargo pocket was undamaged, and he painfully dragged it out to pull off the top with his teeth. “Oh well,” he said aloud. “Better than dying.”

He jammed the Eden Plague injector into his thigh.


-29-

Vargas’ RTO switched his channels and chaos filled his earphones. It sounded like the Battalion net but several people were chattering, stepping on each other without discipline so he couldn’t make it out. The best he could tell they were in the midst of some kind of firefight. He snapped, “Furth, leave me on that channel and tell the convoy to halt, close-in deployment, no dismount, stay sharp. Tell the other RTOs to monitor the other company pushes, Guard freq, the Navy, everyone you can think of. Use runners to coordinate if you have to. I want everyone’s ears on signals and I want to know what’s going on, now.”

The convoy quickly halted and soon Vargas had his answers. He looked at his section leaders gathered around, then focused on the young, confident-looking civilian he’d been charged with escorting. He summarized what they had found out. “Sir, Battalion just got hit. Tanks and armored fighting vehicles, maybe a thousand infantry, they can’t tell. They’re getting overrun. It would take at least eight hours, six at best, to get back and help them. There’s no point in that. We have to go on with our mission. If they can fight them off, or some of them can withdraw, the best thing we can do for them is to get Richmond on our side.”

He didn’t ask the civilian’s opinion, but waited for it anyway. Men like this one always had to put their two cents in. What was worse, rumors said he held an Army Reserve Major’s commission and was the son of a well-known general. People like that always meddled.

Vargas waited for the stupid to flow.

Instead, the man just nodded. “Thank you, Major. I agree. Carry on.”

“My pleasure, sir.” Will wonders never cease? Don’t let on, Denny. Yes sir, three bags full, sir. Vargas turned aside. “Furth, try to get through to the Navy. Maybe they can send Battalion some air support. They might have lost their long-range transmitter. And keep the RTOs listening on their alternate channels. The rest of you, give everyone ten minutes to stretch and whiz, standard security.”

Back up on top of the tall armored truck, Vargas scanned the surroundings while sucking down a precious red-box Marlboro. He should have thought to try to loot a few cartons along the way, but he hadn’t wanted to waste time. Now he wished they had been delayed six hours, so they could have rushed back to help, play the Cavalry arriving in the nick of time.

That would have been glorious, and maybe the Envoy could have died bravely and heroically. Too bad.

The convoy chugged southward not yet halfway to their destination. Vargas had hoped to make the journey in one day, but at this rate it might be sundown before they reached the outskirts of Richmond – and that was without Murphy’s intervention. No one had challenged them yet. No one had as much as taken a potshot at them, but he expected something eventually. Perhaps it would come at Ashland, the first decent-sized town on the route. Perhaps at Hanover Airport.

They passed the dozenth brown sign directing travelers to yet another Civil War battlefield. Once again he thought of the irony. They were walking – all right, driving – in the bloody footsteps of Lee’s and Grant’s armies.


***


Inside the command vehicle, the Special Envoy sat, his back braced against the padded wall of the troop space, thinking. He ran his hand over his smooth face, through his thick hair. I could pass for twenty-five now. Absolutely amazing. And what do I get for it? Promotion – if you can call it that – from commanding armies to being carted around like a piece of meat without even an aide. And masquerading as my own dead son, to boot.

He snorted to himself. Now I don’t even have the gravitas of my years. And what if Governor Allaine doesn’t believe me when I tell him who I am? Would I believe me? Everything depends on the residual loyalty of a man who was a Unionist party member. Hopefully a reluctant one. Will he remember and rejoin the real, constitutional United States of America? Will he cling to the now-defunct United Governments, may it rot in hell? Or will he simply think himself a bigger and more successful warlord, King of Richmond with some neo-feudal vision of Virginia? I have to get him cooperating, vaccinating his people.

Travis Tyler, General, United States Army (Retired), mused and dozed to the jouncing and rocking of the MRAP. Infantrymen learn to sleep anywhere. He found he hadn’t forgotten how.


-30-

Jill’s ears rang and the building shook, raining ceiling tiles, shards of glass and pieces of light fixture onto her. She rolled out of bed and slid underneath, the IV ripping painfully out of her arm. Right now the threat of the second story coming down on top of her was greater than that of enemy fire. She was just about to slide out from under the bed when a stronger shock and a blast of debris swept the room. Two inner walls collapsed, and pieces of the ceiling and floor above rained down. The outer wall leaned drunkenly, sunlight pouring in.

She heard weapons fire, frantic and close. Screams and cries of triumph mingled with the smells of blood and the stink of death, smoke and cordite. We’re being overrun. She racked her brain for a way out, pleaded with God for a miracle that would fix her broken spine and free her legs to move. Christine said God always answers prayer but don’t sit around on your ass and wait for Him. Good advice in my book.

She looked around, then upward to the hole in the ceiling. Maybe… She slung her PW10, pulled on her gloves and started climbing. Five hundred pull-ups a day paid off.

Up a slanted wooden beam she dragged herself, slithering along its inclined plane like a snake to emerge into the room above. It was some kind of office, disused and dusty. Bracing herself awkwardly, she shoved the desk over to the window so she could climb up on it using only her upper body strength. Lying on the flat surface, she knocked the jagged remnants of the window glass out and took stock.

She could see three immobile tanks out by a clump of trees, and another halfway to the clubhouse. Its main gun spoke again, pointing to her right, and the flimsy steel groundskeeping barn disintegrated. If he aims at this building, I’m dead. Have to stop that damn tank somehow.

She started trying radio nets – her platoon, her company, then Battalion. All she heard was confusion and transmissions stepping on each other. Discipline had crumbled. The Battalion might as well be a kicked-over anthill for all the organized resistance it was putting up.

She tried the Force Recon freq. “Swede here,” she heard him rasp. “That you Repeth?”

“Roger that. Any chance someone can get that last tank? We got nothing to stop it back here.”

“I’m looking for an intact weapon right now. This Eden Plague is some shit, by the way. Got me back on my feet in no time.”

“Glad you like it.” The tank gun roared again, this time aiming at the row of golf carts. It appeared the tank gunner was just blowing things up for the fun of it. “But you better do something soon.”

“I’m your huckleberry, Top. Here I come.”

Repeth reminded herself how glad she was that Larry Nightingale had gotten the bugs worked out of the Armorshock rounds he came up with. Not only were they less lethal, they were actually more effective in knocking out heavy tanks. They packed a penetrating but relatively low-power kinetic shock to stun the crew, then an enormous high-voltage discharge designed to burn out electronic systems.

She watched as a lone figure, ragged in mangled Ghillie, broke from the copse of trees behind the tank and ran, antitank missile launcher in one hand, assault rifle in the other. Swede.

He sprayed short bursts of full-auto fire at the nearest enemy infantry, some of whom were crowding close to the sixty-five-ton monster. She saw him let go of his rifle as he went to his knees. He sat back on his heels and lined up the rocket. Nearby grass whipped and shredded as the enemy infantry fired in his direction, and then the launcher spoke. A cloud of smoke wreathed the Recon Marine and the rear of the tank exploded, destroying its turbine engine.

The beast ground to a halt, but there was no accompanying burst of blue sparks. The electrical discharge must have malfunctioned. The turret still operated on battery, and it slewed rapidly around.

Swede grabbed his rifle, leaped up and charged forward. It was a race, the Marine switching magazines and ignoring bullets fired by the rattled Fredericksburg men as the tank gun came around inexorably to aim directly at him.

She didn’t know why it did not fire immediately, or why the coaxial machinegun didn’t cut him down. Perhaps the gunner was faster than the loader. Perhaps the tank had lost some internal systems. Whatever the reason, Swede expertly popped each human target in turn, for all the world like a dynamic range exercise – bang, swivel bang, swivel bang bang, aim, bang. The Needleshock rounds put them down with brutal efficiency.

Then the tank gun roared.

The whole tableau disappeared in smoke and flame as the high-explosive round plowed up the ground behind the Marine, throwing dirt high in to the air.

“Swede!” Jill cried involuntarily, but there was no answer from her radio. Then she saw the turret was still functioning, turning, the muzzle questing for another target.

I have to get out of this window before they slew that gun back around and hit the building. She emptied her magazine in the general direction of a squad of infantry working their way cautiously forward, then heard an ominous hammering to her left.

Straining to look out at an extreme angle, she spotted a light armored vehicle sending groups of 25mm shells into the clubhouse. She could hear the rounds rattling the structure, poking fist-sized holes in walls. She had to get out.

Reslinging her PW10, she lizard-crawled to the floor and rapidly out into the hallway, dragging her useless legs afterward. Her back twinged and she prayed once again that the bullet would work itself loose and allow her EP-boosted body to heal so she could walk and run again.

God said no again.

She crawled onward.

Bodies littered the hallway, some dead, some torn up but living. She had to leave them, could do nothing for them. Dammit, I’m helpless, she thought, like nothing since I looked down at my missing feet eleven years ago. I think I took life for granted for too long. And it could all end right here.

At the back door she stopped, sliding her head out to survey the situation. The tactical ops center tent was in ruins, charred and collapsed. Something moved beneath the material, though. Seeing no enemy, she scrambled across the debris-littered ground, pulling her carbon-steel blade from her boot and slicing carefully through the waterproofed cloth. “Hold still,” she hissed, “I’m cutting you out.”

When the hole was big enough a muscular arm came through, then a shoulder and head. “Nice to see your smiling face, Jill.”

“You too, sir,” she said as she cut more hole for Colonel Muzik to worm his way through.

He rolled out and carefully worked his way to his knees. Something seemed odd to her, about the way he moved.

“Your arm!”

Muzik looked at the empty space at his left shoulder. “Yeah. Misplaced it somewhere. You got some water?”

“Holy shit. Aren’t we a pair. Gimpy and one-arm.” She handed him the canteen off her web gear.

He guzzled the whole quart. “Sorry. Lost a lot of blood. Knocked me out. What’s our situation?” As if in answer a burst of 25mm came through one building, passing over their heads and poking holes in the far treeline.

“They got some kind of LAVs, old Strykers or something. Swede’s team immobilized all the tanks but there’s at least one with an active main gun. Their infantry have stopped advancing, though. They’re shaken; they’re not pros. Content to let the 25-mike chew us up for a while.”

Muzik nodded. “Yeah. We have to gather up as many as we can and fall back to the south. They hit us from the north. If they were smarter they would have used their vehicles to get in blocking positions, surrounded and annihilated us. If we move fast, we might be able to get some of our folks out.” He reached down, grasping both straps of her webbing from the front with his one big hand. “This might hurt.” He lifted.

She screamed as her lower body exerted traction on her vertebrae. The pain spread up her spine and along her skeleton like electric fire, then cut off abruptly, leaving nothing but a throbbing heat. “Don’t worry about it, sir,” Jill gasped out. “Just go. They can fix me later.”

He didn’t waste time with sympathy, just threw her over his good shoulder like a sack of potatoes and started yelling. “Battalion!” he bellowed. “All Civil Affairs troops, rally to me! We’re falling back!”

Muzik worked his way southward, picking up two dozen shaken stragglers. Jill kept her abdominals tight, trying to stay stable as she jounced, staring at the Colonel’s heels. The broken building burning behind bought them some time. With their tanks dead or immobile, the Fredericksburg troops apparently had no stomach for further assault.

They could hear the tock-tock-tock of 25mm cannons as they fired into the wrecked structure. Stray rounds whizzed over the retreating US troops’ heads, struck the ground around them, or in one case took a Civil Affairs lawyer’s hand with it as it flew. First, disarm all the lawyers, Jill laughed giddy to herself as her surreal, pain-filled journey continued. She saw Donovan loop the man’s good arm over his shoulder and haul him along.

From her crazy angle they all looked like drunken contestants in a three-legged race as they stumbled across the golf links and into the woods. Smoke and fire and intermittent explosions from the Battalion’s ammo and fuel stored inside the barn shielded their march, and now with trees hiding them Muzik stopped and gathered his people around him after putting Jill gently down among the scrub oak.

“Listen up, people,” he began. “This was a disaster, but we’re not dead, and we’ll all heal. Even you, Master Sergeant.” he said, turning his grim face toward hers. “And I’m going to need every one of you to stay positive and focused if we are all to stay that way – and to help our people back there. We have to regroup, and figure out a way to rescue them.”

What if they kill their prisoners? Jill thought, but held her tongue. No need to bring that up. She glanced around, looking for Rick among the faces there, again not seeing him. Like looking for something you lost in your house you keep looking in the same places, over and over, expecting it to be there. She threw a quick prayer skyward again, for her love and her commander and her people and all the people with them. And smite these evil people, Lord. And protect the prisoners they took.

It seemed a fair request.

“Anyone hang on to a radio?” Muzik asked. Three people raised their hands but Donovan handed his over first. “Good, three is good. Not sure what we’ll do, but…” he muttered as he selected a frequency and began calling for anyone to respond.

Jill rolled over, away from the cluster around their commander, and dragged herself to a sitting position near a tree. Donovan noticed her moving and rushed to help her, but she waved him off. “Thanks, Corporal. I’m just as good and bad as I am until they can get this bullet out of my spine.”

“Sorry, ma’am. Master Sergeant, I mean. You oughter be an officer anyways.” The concern in his eyes was touching and his Appalachian drawl was comforting but it wasn’t a leader’s place to be coddled by her subordinates.

At least not until I’m actually dying.

“Don’t you worry, Corporal. Colonel Muzik’s a better man with one arm than most are with two…” She trailed off and stared at something deeper in the woods. Stared harder.

What is that?

A face. A small boy’s dark face. It was his eye whites that she had noticed.

Jill raised a tentative hand.

The body attached to the face waved back, fingers curled and bobbing, a child’s gesture. He looked about six years old.

Jill beckoned him. “Donovan, get behind me and make sure no one comes this way. Keep them back.” Her eyes still on the boy, she dragged herself forward on her palms and thighs, feeling nothing as her knees scraped along the forest floor. When he showed signs of bolting, she stopped and sat, her back to a tree. She heard the noise and conversation die down behind her and knew the others were watching from a distance.

She reached into a cargo pocket and pulled out a granola bar, tearing off the wrapper, her eyes never leaving the child’s. She nibbled, mimed eating. Smiled.

The boy stared, and crept forward. He was wearing torn jeans, a Tupac t-shirt and the remains of tennis shoes. The exposed parts of his feet were callused but not bleeding.

She looked for signs of wounds, scratches, or blood, but saw none. She began to hope, and held out the granola bar. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “I’m not one of the bad people.” Whoever they are, I’m not one of them. Come on, kid. Say something. Don’t be a Twosie.

He stepped up to within arm’s length and slowly extended his hand. Delicately he took the bar and, never taking his eyes off hers, ate a piece, solemnly handing it back. That was almost a ritual, she thought. She took another bite, then held it out again, chewing slowly. They continued this way until it was gone and he had popped the last corner onto his tongue.

She reached for her canteen, then realized Muzik had drunk all her water. “Canteen,” she said softly, and Donovan brought one slowly over. The kid didn’t run. Jill took a drink then handed it to the boy.

“Master Sergeant!” Donovan hissed. “What if he’s got a plague?”

“I don’t think so. Not a Demon Plague. Look at him. His clothes are all torn up but there’s not a scratch on him. I think he’s an Eden. Besides, I’m inoculated.”

Some movement from behind her startled the boy, and he backed away. He didn’t seem afraid, just cautious, but the spell was broken. He nodded to her once, a wise old gesture in such a young visage, then turned to vanish into the deep undergrowth.

One of the survivors stepped up to lean against Jill’s tree. Her name tag read “Horton,” and the caduceus on her collar marked her as a doctor. She asked, “How do we really know what a Twosie looks like? We were supposed to capture some and run some basic tests but we never got a chance.”

Jill shrugged, then focused on the doctor’s insignia with sudden determination. “Doc,” she said, “you gotta get this bullet out.”

The doctor squatted down to look Jill in the face. “If you’re sure, I’ll try. It’s dangerous but being carried around like this may do permanent damage anyway.”

“Worst case is no worse for me. Maybe better, since I keep getting shooting pains as the bullet moves around in there.” Jill shrugged. “I’m a burden right now. We need everyone contributing.” And if Rick is still alive I can’t very well rescue him parked on my butt, can I? “Can you do it right away?”

Doc Horton masked her distress well but there was plainly a war going on inside of her. With a touch of relief she objected, “I don’t have anything to operate with.”

Jill reached down to her boot and drew forth her slim, carbon-steel combat knife. Its design hearkened back to the classic KA-BAR of World War Two Marines, but it was a handmade custom blade her father had bought for her when she’d graduated from Basic. She handed it to the doctor hilt-first.

“I don’t think you’ll find anything sharper.” She looked over at Colonel Muzik on the radio, caught his eye. “Are they coming after us, sir?”

He shook his head. “I think they’re content to loot our stuff. One of our people is pinned in the wreckage and giving me reports. If they leave, we may be able to get him out. I’m hoping the enemy pulls back to their lines and we can sneak back in, try to salvage some equipment, save some people.”

“All right,” Jill said mildly, looking in the doctor’s eyes. “Let’s do some surgery. You up for this, Doc?”

She nodded sharply. “As long as you are. We have no anesthetic.”

“Damn.” Jill had forgotten about that. “Donovan. Grab three other guys and come over here. Anyone got a poncho in his ruck? Spread it out on the flat place. Okay, gentlemen, pick me up and put me down on my stomach on that poncho.”

Once they had done that thing she reached up to pull her tunic and t-shirt off, leaving herself bare-backed. She unbuckled and unbuttoned her trousers and shoved them down a couple of inches, exposing skin to her tailbone. “You understand what you have to do, Doc?”

“Sure.” She put a comforting hand on Jill’s back. “All right, I want each of you men to pin her down by a limb. Sit on her if you have to.” Once they had, Jill felt the doctor put her knee, with increasing weight, on her buttocks, immobilizing her lower back.

“Okay miss, this is going to hurt like hell. Don’t fight passing out. The best thing you could do is lose consciousness. Now tell me where it is.” The doctor started probing with her fingers, soon finding the place in Jill’s spine where the hot ache lived.

“My name is Jill, Doc.”

“And my name is Hazel. Someone find Jill something to put in her mouth – a smooth green stick, or a leather belt. Don’t want to aspirate broken teeth.”

When a piece of soft fresh wood was in place, tasting like nature and smelling of greenness, Jill put her head down on the poncho and mumbled, “Ready.”

That was a lie. Pain like this was a completely different animal from the hurts of blows, of a fight, or even the sudden searing touch of a bullet or the point of a knife. It began but did not end, and she could feel the blade going in slowly, feel the hot screaming bite of it. Her stomach protested with nausea and she fought to keep her muscles from seizing up, from deflecting the doctor’s razor probes and leaving her worse than before. Mercifully her vision grayed and she drifted off to a place where the pain was just a dream.

Horse my body stumbled,” she quoted vaguely to herself before oblivion seized her.


-31-

Major Vargas smoked and stared at death with straining eyes. Through his binoculars he could see two M1 Abrams tanks obviously flanking the road, and two M2 Bradleys back on a small hill on overwatch. I’m not a big-war officer, I’m a counterinsurgency specialist, but I do know one thing: a well-aimed main gun round will demolish this MRAP and me in it.

He could also see some Humvees near what looked like a tactical operations center, tents with radio antenna masts reaching for the sky. It was about where he had expected the first possibility of an encounter with the locals. Ashland was big enough that it might be worth controlling the road going by – and through. He also had to find out whether Governor Allaine and Richmond controlled Ashland, or someone else.

The convoy was stopped in the middle of the pavement on top of the last rise before the edge of the town. He’d backed up the MRAPs behind the crest of the hill, with just the tops of the hulls showing to the tank gunners.

Just in case.

“Anybody got a marker? Get me a piece of cardboard. One of those MRE boxes will do.” When he got them Vargas wrote a frequency and the word “CLEAR” in big block letters and held the cardboard up, facing forward. He could see one of the tanks was lined up on him and knew the gunner was looking at him through its superb optics. He can probably see my mole hairs at this range. He hoped the man was smart enough to understand the sign.

“Furth, put me on this freq.” He tossed the cardboard down to her. “In the clear.” He began calling for contact.


-32-

Jill Repeth awoke in Corporal Donovan’s lap. The man I beat to a pulp, she thought as she looked up into his simple clear eyes. Holding me like a baby. Men are funny creatures.

Seeing her awake he lifted a canteen to her lips, a smile on his own.

She let him pour some water down her throat, trying to assess her condition. She slowly stretched, working her back muscles, then tried to shift her toes.

Thank God! She moved her booted feet backward and forward, left and right, then gently drew her legs up. Nodding thanks she sat up, then rolled over onto her knees and hands. Carefully she stretched out her muscles, searching for twinges or lingering problems, then stood up, using Donovan’s shoulder as a support. Thank you Lord. You make the lame to walk. You and good doctors.

“Thanks, Corporal,” she said, squeezing his shoulder as she let go. “Maybe you should apply to the Nurse Corps.”

His smile got wider. “Maybe ah should. Always did like helpin’ God’s creatures get better. Mama said I should be a vet but that was too much schoolin’ and the recruiter said the Army needed policemen.”

“Well, things are changing all the time. When we get out of this mess I’ll put in a word for you. Maybe we can get them to retrain you for a medical MOS.” She checked her watch, saw it had been two hours since they had started cutting. We’ve become so blasé about these medical miracles. It took nearly getting killed to remind me how amazing this body is.

“Naw. People don’ hardly need no nurses no more with the Eden Plague.” He looked sad. “But maybe the animals do.”

“I think we’ll always need people who care,” she said distractedly as she looked around their little hideout. She walked the perimeter where troops crouched or lay behind cover and concealment, accepting quiet congratulations on her recovery, encouraging them in the face of the disaster, finally coming up next to Colonel Muzik.

“Good to see you up and around, Jill,” he greeted her. “I knew you were too tough to keep down.”

“Thank you, sir.” She looked over his shoulder across the golf course at the wreckage of the battalion’s former position. “We should have dug in.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it. Who knew someone would hit us the day after we landed, with armored vehicles and enough force to take on five hundred troops? Right now, though, we need to go get some people out of there.”

“Are the Fredericksburgers gone?”

Muzik smiled up at her. “That’s what I’m going to go find out.”

“No, sir.”

“What?” He looked at her in quizzical disbelief.

“I’m going.”

“You’re barely up and around.”

“And you’re short an arm. Everything’s fine, sir. I’d tell you if it wasn’t.” She squatted down by him, leaning in close. “I can’t hold these people together the way you can, and losing you might break them. You’re in command, sir. So command. This is NCO work. Let me do my job. I’m sure you’ll get a chance for appropriate heroics later.”

He stared at her for a long moment, then shook his head, resigned. “All right. Good hunting. Best horses get ridden the most.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, sir.”

He raised binoculars to his eyes. “I haven’t seen any hostile movement over there in a while. I think they withdrew back the way they came. The tank crews bailed out and got picked up by their Strykers. So take a radio and go do some recon. If it’s clear we’ll come back and dig the survivors out. There has to be someone alive underneath all that mess. It’s mostly drywall and wood construction. Edens should make it if we get them out soon.”

“All right, let me gear up.” She recovered her load-bearing equipment and weapons, picked up ammo, and was back in two minutes. “Here I go. Give me what cover you can.”

It was déjà vu all over again as she jogged out of the woods, across the thick grass of the verge and onto the fairway toward the wrecked buildings. A haze of smoke drifted eastward to her left, smelling of burning plastics and wood. Fires smoldered among the rubble.

She angled rightward to take advantage of the smoke and approached the mess from inside the plume, suppressing a cough. Once she reached the cover of wreckage she worked her way around to the right, up the eastward side. When she got to the edge of the smoke she got down and low-crawled forward.

When she had examined the open ground to the north she reached for her radio. “Sir, you copy?” She abandoned code names to rely on simple voice recognition. The radios were encrypted anyway, it was unlikely anyone would overhear; code names were mostly for net control. With a network of only three radios, that wouldn’t be a problem.

“I copy.”

“They’ve withdrawn. I can’t see anyone. There might be observers in the treeline to the north but there are none visible. Advise you come back and we try to find our people.” Any that are left.

Five minutes later Muzik led the double dozen survivors in beginning the process of dragging pieces of rubble out of the way and calling to find anyone trapped beneath. Jill put two observers on the north corners and then set to work with a will.

They found nineteen of their people in various states of injury. Food and water restored most of them once they were free, though one had lost a leg at the knee.

During this time Jill made a cursory recon of the perimeter, then she hustled back to the remnant of the battalion and reported to Colonel Muzik that she had found no enemy.

“That’s good news,” he responded. “They must have fallen back to their defense lines. But now they have a problem, though they might not know it.”

She looked a question at him.

“They have Edens as prisoners. They took most of our people.”

“How do you know?”

He swept his hand around in a semicircle. “Not enough bodies. Normal wounded to killed ratio in a firefight is something like four or five to one. We have almost a hundred dead bodies here. That means four hundred are missing.”

“Some of these have been executed. Effing sons of bitches.” Jill turned over a body with her foot, one with an extra hole in its head. “This is Sergeant Shute. He was a good kid.”

“They were all good kids.”

“Why did they do it?” She raised her head to stare to the north with cold anger.

“General meanness? You said the Onesie you talked to seemed paranoid.”

“Yes…Demon Plague One effect. Boss…how come I don’t see any dead Homies?”

Muzik looked at her sharply and shook his head, but the damage was done. Others nearby had heard and were all looking at the Colonel. He sighed. “I guess it doesn’t matter much now. They had a classified mission. They took off yesterday at nightfall.”

Jill bit back angry words. Eighty more troops might have made a difference, along with the Homies’ MRAPs, armored trucks with heavy weapons mounted – and they weren’t Edens. They might have been able to employ their lethal antitank weapons to take out the enemy LAVs. But she kept her mouth shut. There was no way for Muzik to have foreseen this, no reason to hold back the Homeland Security company. What they should have had was air cover on standby overhead ready to hit armored vehicles with precision guided munitions. But they’d messed it up, top to bottom, herself just as much as anyone because she didn’t foresee it either, didn’t speak up.

“In hindsight, we should have kept them another day,” he admitted, looking around at his people. “I screwed up. But I won’t screw up again,” he declared grimly.

Jill let out a hiss, changing the subject. “We should have insisted on air cover overhead. We should have run earlier. Shoulda woulda coulda.”

“Would you have run? If you weren’t crippled?”

She grimaced at her boss. “I guess not. Not until it was too late.”

Muzik cleared his throat. “But back to the problem at hand – we have to find a way to get our people. And then there are all the ones we shot with Needleshock. There are a couple of dozen dead Fredericksburgers scattered around but they didn’t leave any live ones, not even unconscious ones…”

Jill broke in excitedly, “If they don’t die, most’ll be new Edens. Their friends and neighbors will see them get healed from their burns and scars and wounds – and the old ones will become young. What do you think the Onesies will do?”

Muzik shrugged. “If I had to guess, the same things all the other paranoid control freaks do – internment, quarantine, prison, execution?”

“Then we have to move fast. Tonight, if possible.”

Muzik sighed. “We have maybe forty effectives. Most of them are civilians with uniforms on, a few cops – and you and me. What’s your plan?”

She straightened, smiling crookedly. “Me and you, we sneak in and break them out. Just like old times, sir.”

“Not much of a plan. Gonna be tough.”

“Tougher than the Nebraska?

“At least we had hot showers. And Spooky.”

“And both your arms. Wish they were all with us here.”

“Me too.” He rubbed his eye with a grimy finger, digging out something that he flicked away.

“Keep them searching around here, will you? Just in case?”

“Sure. But if they find Rick…”

“He’s probably dead. Yeah. Even so.”

Muzik sighed. “All right. They’ll make sure. I’ll tell the doc. She’s senior after me.”

“Thanks, boss.”


-33-

The Homeland Security convoy laagered overnight in Ashland at the insistence of Colonel Ray Moore. His Virginia National Guard battalion garrisoned the town on behalf of Governor Allaine, and Major Vargas was not about to argue too strenuously about the invitation, not in the presence of armor that could make short work of his MRAPs.

Besides, if he had wanted the Homies dead, Moore could have destroyed them at a distance with tank fire and there would have been nothing Vargas could have done about it. No, someone had to extend some trust, and Special Envoy Tyler had made it clear that that someone was going to be Vargas.

I knew he’d start to meddle sooner or later. I should have killed him on the way and got it over with. Vargas started to sweat, despite the cooling afternoon breeze. He felt nervous, shaky, and suddenly wondered whether one of the Plagues had gotten to him despite the inoculations.

“I insist on coming along with you, sir,” he’d boldly declared to Tyler. Now Vargas wondered what his recklessness had gotten him into. He hadn’t stayed alive and moved up taking stupid risks, but now…well, the man did have the ear of the President. A distinguished action now might set his career on a meteoric path. Hell, they’d offered that puta Marine a commission, though the dumb bitch had turned it down.

So he’d volunteered to come along, commanding the one vehicle they had let drive into Richmond – after a thorough search. They’d allowed the crew to keep their personal weapons but had dismounted the minigun, and the infantry squad had to be left behind.

Just a driver, an RTO, the Envoy and himself.

A Humvee led them and a clanking Bradley followed behind, its chain gun aimed point-blank at the rear of the MRAP. Apparently trust only went one direction right now. Vargas looked around again, wondering if the Richmonders were going to double-cross them on the way or when they got to their destination. That gun’s a message, clear as day, they intend to kill us. Kill me. Yeah, that’s it. They’ll blow my head off because they know I have the full combat nano, and leave Tyler to get the glory. Bastards. Tyler must have already contacted them somehow, talked them into it. Vargas wiped his burning brow. His hand came away bloody but he failed to notice.

The roads were clear, at least the ones they used. Vargas saw people working, using heavy equipment to clear wreckage and salvage vehicles. He could see vapors from distant smokestacks, so some kind of industry throve. He also saw plenty of burned-out buildings, and once a derailed train sprawled, a giant child’s mad jumble of toys. Still, civilian trucks and cars moved cautiously about, more and more as they passed through checkpoints toward the heart of the city. And every one of the people looked at him with secret smiles.

Tyler wedged himself up through the hatch, then climbed up to ride on the top of the moving truck. Vargas could swear the Envoy was enjoying himself, the wind of movement whipping through his crew-cut hair. Just trying to tempt me…he’ll heal up from a fall. And if he didn’t…what kind of reward would the President give to the man who saved the mission by negotiating a settlement with Richmond after such a tragedy? One little push…but it will have to be certain.

Vargas eyed the treads of the twenty-five ton Bradley rumbling behind them, and he itched to reach out, snap the man’s neck, then toss him under. It would be easy, with his full combat nanites.

He was thankful no one had ever forced the Eden Plague on him, so nothing would mess with his head. In fact, he felt his mind was clearer than ever.


-34-

Only when the last survivor was dug out of the fallen buildings did Repeth face the unpleasant task she had been dreading. She walked out to the last tank sitting immobile in the field, the one that had made it the closest. The one that Swede had immobilized, had given his life to stop.

The behemoth squatted there in the tall grass. Already it felt deserted, like those old tanks on static display in front of public buildings, empty and dead. Two bodies lay nearby, far fewer than Repeth would have expected, until she remembered that most of the wounded would be Edens – either enemies newly infected by the Needleshock rounds, or the ones on their side. Only the dead – or the trapped – stayed in place.

Two minutes later she discovered another possibility. The fourth body she found still breathed. Unfortunately he was hamburger and bone splinters below the hips, and suffering from healing starvation. She cursed herself for the delay, hardly believing that even an Eden could be so badly wounded and still live.

She knelt down, keying her radio as she examined him. “Colonel, can you send out the doc with an aid bag and a stretcher team? I found Swede Gunderson, but he’s in a bad way.”

When Doc Horton got there she dropped the aid bag and knelt down next to Swede. The doctor’s jaw set as she saw the extent of the damage. “I’m surprised he’s still alive. It’s going to take a while before his legs and…”

“Yeah. And the rest of him.”

“God, what a mess.” The doctor deftly threaded an IV needle into the man’s arm and rigged a bag on the holder attached to the stretcher. “But if he survives today, he’ll eventually get it all back.”

“I’m sure he’ll be glad of that. Man’s not a man without a manhood.”

The doc chuckled grimly. “Better work on that sense of humor. It’s not dark enough.”

As the stretcher team arrived Jill swept her vision along the treeline to the north. She didn’t see anything but since she was halfway there… “Doc, if you’re okay here I’m going to do a deeper recon, see if I can clear out any watchers they might have left.” Once the doctor grunted assent, Jill took off, angling to the right at a crouch. She reported her intent on the radio.

Again she was crossing a large open space, and her skin crawled as she remembered the hot stab of the bullet in her spine. The sun burned bright overhead, heating the Virginia air to its usual humid swelter. She was glad of the heat, for it let her excuse herself for sweating. It’s just the temperature, she told herself, not fear. I don’t get scared. Right.

Paralysis had reminded her about fear. That some wounds the Eden Plague couldn’t just fix. She rubbed a phantom ache in her back.

Inside the cooler forest she worked her way leftward toward the north, searching for any sign of reconnaissance, but amazingly she didn’t find any. These people aren’t really military, she realized. They’re just a mob with weapons.

Turning to go back, she spotted a flickering movement deeper in, cloaked in the forest shade. Freezing in place, she opened her perceptions, defocusing, looking just for movement. A moment later she found it, a darker patch with white eyes in it.

The boy.

Immediately Jill sat down with her back to a tree, placing her weapon on the ground and her hands on her knees. Then she waved.

He came cautiously but confidently forward to place himself in front of her, on his knees as well, about five feet away. Just outside of grab range. He’s careful.

“Hello,” she said quietly. “Can you understand me?”

The boy shrugged, said nothing.

Jill smiled broadly, and the boy matched her expression. “Can’t you talk?”

He shrugged again, then shook his head no.

So he can understand, at least some. Wonder why he can’t talk. Not important right now. “That’s all right, I’ll talk for the both of us. Do you live alone? No? With people then. Good people? Okay. Can these other people talk? No? Interesting. Did you used to be able to talk? Yes. Did you all get sick and lose your voice? Aha.” Something a Plague did. Wouldn’t be DP1, the Fredericksburgers got that and they can talk just fine. Must be DP2 or some variant. The medical briefings said they thought it would make people stupid and animalistic but not this one or his people.

Jill picked up a twig and smoothed a patch of dirt. “Can you write? No. Used to before? Hmm. Can you read? No. Could you read before? Yes…so it took away your ability to read and speak, but not understand. Oh…were you Edens before? Do you know what that means?”

The boy shook his head no.

Damn. Maybe they were Edens and that’s why they ended up this way. “Did anyone die when everyone got sick? Yes? How many, a lot? Yes…about half? Yes.” That’s it, then. These people were Edens and got hit with DP2. Those that survived lost some part of their higher functions but not all of them. The kid seems bright enough.

“My name is Jill. Do you have a name?”

The boy thought for a minute, then shrugged. He didn’t seem distressed by the lack.

“I’ll call you Bobby, then. How’s that?”

He shrugged, smiled.

Jill thought to herself that she would very much like to meet Bobby’s people, but she had little time. Such a meeting was also fraught with danger and uncertainty – what if his – tribe, maybe – were not as friendly as he was? What if they tried to keep her prisoner or make her someone’s mate or …who knows what kind of society these people might have built hiding in the forest?

But they might be able to help her. She couldn’t be sure they had all lost the ability to speak or write. Local knowledge of Fredericksburg could be invaluable. She made a decision, reached for her radio. “Colonel, this is Repeth. I’ve made contact with the boy we saw before. I’m going to see if I can liaise with his people, maybe find something out.”

Bobby stared at her with big eyes, as if trying to understand why she was speaking into the air.

“Roger,” Muzik replied. “But get out at the first sign of trouble. Remember all of our people who need your help. You’re vital.”

“Will do. Any luck with the Navy or the Homies?”

“Still can’t reach them. We’re trying to rig a better antenna, but these tactical radios aren’t made to go so far. Unfortunately the long-range ones are scrap.”

She signed off, then slowly stood up so as not to spook the boy. She held out her left hand, and Bobby immediately took it. Her right stayed on her PW10.

He led them northeastward for perhaps two miles, staying to the woods, avoiding open fields, crossing small roads quickly, furtively. He seemed to know exactly where he was going and what he was doing, and she speculated on the qualities of a six-year-old that roamed so far from his home. Fearless, self-reliant – but then, an Eden would have even less fear of injury than a normal boy, and after the bombs fell, more reason to search, scout and scavenge.

They finally broke out of the intermittent wooded hills to see a stretch of neat old brick homes surrounded by yards gone to ruin. Doors and windows were broken open, as if they had been carelessly looted. She expected Bobby to go to a house or building, but instead he crossed to a place by the woods where a drain emptied onto a wild slope, obviously an outflow for the built-up area. He led her into the four-foot pipe.

She stopped at the entrance, fished a tiny light out of her pocket. She shone it down the dark tunnel but could see nothing past about twenty feet. “All right, Bobby, lead on. Hope you know what you’re doing.”

He tugged on her hand impatiently.

Five minutes and several tunnels later she found herself in the mouth of an opening looking out upon a village. That was the only thing she could think of to call it – something primitive, like out of National Geographic.

The tiny town was built around the inner rim of a hundred-yard-diameter bowl, with three other four-foot pipes leading into it. She surmised it must be some kind of drainage sink, where water from heavy rains would run and be absorbed into the ground. They had converted it into a dwelling place, with a well in the center, crude huts made of pallets and pieces of salvaged materials, and the pipes as gates. When winter came it might flood, but until then it was defensible for the tribe.

For a tribe it was, and right now they were all staring at Jill in absolute silence. She stepped out of the pipe and into the sunlight, still holding Bobby’s hand, and she marveled. Twosies. Sort of. Twosies plus Eden Plague maybe. Eden Twosies. Probably no language, no names. This is what the aliens want us to become, so they can Blend with us…be us.

Only we won’t be us anymore.

She keyed her radio and quietly reported what she had found. Muzik wanted her to come back and prepare for the attempt to rescue their lost troops. She replied. “Colonel, I have an idea, if I can establish communication with these people. Give me a couple of hours.”

Muzik sighed wearily, “Okay, but you watch yourself and get back here as soon as you can.”

An hour later she was crouching inside another pipe. Bobby and a warrior she had dubbed Ug had led her through dense woods and storm drains near the Rappahannock River to a point inside the Fredericksburg perimeter. Easing forward, she got a view of an open field of new rich soil. A tractor dragged some kind of attachment across the dirt, and hundreds of bedraggled people worked with hand tools and wheelbarrows, pulling out rocks, stumps and bushes. More than half of them were black or Hispanic. All of the guards were white.

Many of the workers were her people. She could see Grusky and LeBrun among them, but try as she might she could not pick out Rick. And something else was odd…it took her a minute to figure it out, but then she realized.

No women.

No females at all, though there were boys as young as six or seven it seemed, and older men as well. She didn’t like to think of what that might mean.

“Okay,” she addressed her Twosie guides. “I’ve got to sneak in close to talk to one of my people. Wait for me here, all right?” They both nodded, Bobby’s eyes solemn, Ug’s wary.

She slipped a piece of camouflage stretch-netting across her face and head, slung her weapon on her back so it would stay clean, and crawled forward along the brush lining the new field.

Men with guns drifted here and there around the edges of the working party, but not as many as she would have expected. A concerted breakout attempt would probably free almost everyone. But where would they go? The whole rump town was surrounded by walls, berms, abatis, barbed wire, gun jeeps and armored vehicles – and the river on one long side. Many would die if they made a daylight breakout.

The field sloped slightly downward to the river, and there were only a few guards with rifles nearby. They probably figured any of the prisoners that tried to swim the river could be easily shot by riflemen. Her eyes traced a way along the edge of the beach. That’s my opportunity. If I have to I can hold my breath long enough to escape under the water.

Jill wormed her way through the bushes until she reached the river, then crawled along its sunken bank, barely out of sight. Reaching the point across from a large oak tree she had set as a landmark, she cautiously raised her camouflaged head.

“Grusky,” she called in a low voice. “Don’t look around, just work your way over here.” She watched through the blades of long grass as the bored-looking guard waved a buzzing fly away.

Sergeant Grusky glanced up with a slight jerk at her voice, but she could see him forcibly relax and begin meandering in her direction. Soon they were near enough to talk in low tones.

“Glad to see you, Master Sergeant.”

“Can’t say the same about your situation, Staff. Where are the women?”

Grusky grimaced. “They separated them out when they brought us back. Talked about doing women’s work, but they also took the prettiest handful off separate. Said they were for the Professor’s brothel. Johnson got himself killed trying to prevent them from taking his girlfriend.”

“Not good. You have to tell everyone we’re going to stage a rescue tonight, sometime after one a.m. No more pointless resistance, everyone needs to stay alive until the breakout attempt. Take this.” She tossed her PW5 pistol into the grass within his reach when the guard’s back was turned. “Tell everyone that when the shooting starts they need to make a break for it and meet right here by the bank. That oak tree is your marker. We have local guides and a way through their lines. Also, everyone needs to pass the Eden Plague to everyone they can, friendly or not. Bite, scratch, bleed on them, whatever you can do without getting killed. A lot of the enemy must have been hit with Needleshock and they are already Edens. That’s going to undermine their power structure and cause confusion. Some might even help you.”

Grusky nodded and had barely concealed the pistol in his pocket when the guard came over and yelled at him to get back to work. Jill shrank back under the bank, burying her face in the fetid mud beneath the grass overhang. A moment later she heard the sound of water falling, a stream of urine that arched over her and struck the tiny beach at water’s edge. As she hid, she cursed herself for forgetting to ask about Rick. She waited for a full five minutes before carefully prying herself out of her hidey-hole and slipping away.


-35-

Special Envoy Tyler could feel Vargas’ eyes on him. He just couldn’t figure out why. Nothing he did here would have a negative impact on the man’s career, and he hadn’t offended him as far as he knew. In fact, he could easily get the man promoted, or his choice of assignment – or both.

He turned around to look at Vargas and noticed how his hands gripped the holds on the top of the MRAP. Saw the snake behind the man’s eyes, and saw the bloody sweat on his forehead where it looked like he’d raked his fingernails across it.

He realized just where he’d seen that look before.

Forcing himself to smile neutrally, Tyler shifted his weight and abruptly rolled headfirst through the hatch into the interior of the moving armored truck. He barked his knees and shins painfully on the way down and caught himself on his hands as he hit the floor. He collapsed his body and struggled to a sitting position on an interior seat.

The move was so unexpected that Vargas simply sat there stunned on top of the MRAP. He had no idea what prompted such gymnastics from the Envoy, but it didn’t matter. Now that Tyler was inside again, no one would see as he eliminated the maricon.

Inside, Tyler looked around for something to use as a weapon. He himself was unarmed in keeping with his status as a diplomat. The driver, the RTO and Vargas each had a gun. Tyler knew the madness percolating inside Vargas, the insanity that cropped up in a small but growing percentage of nanocommandos, would eventually push him over the edge as the tiny machines gained a foothold in his brain.

Tyler could see only one sensible option, and he was rapidly running out of time. He looked casually at the RTO, Furth. If he could surprise her and take her submachine gun, he had a chance. Glancing up through the hatch to make sure Vargas wasn’t watching, Tyler leaned forward onto his feet behind the seated woman, and then slugged her as hard as he could in the jaw from behind.

She slumped over the radio, and the driver didn’t notice a thing as he concentrated on his task. Tyler quickly grabbed her stubby automatic weapon, racked the bolt back and turned to point it out the open hatch at Vargas – to see the business end of Vargas’ own weapon staring him in the face.

Tyler didn’t hesitate. He trusted in his healing ability, and in any case the die had been cast. It was kill or be killed, and his Eden conscience did not inhibit him as he watched the sanity leave Vargas’ eyes. He pulled his trigger and rocketed to his feet, trying to get the lip of the hatch between his own head and Vargas’s gun.

Both weapons belched bullets and Tyler felt the hot wet smack of the slugs stitch him across his ribs and down his abdomen and leg. He barely had time to feel the pain and shock before he went under.


***


Tyler came to with the muzzle of a gun in his face, and he thought, I’ve lost. Then he saw the driver’s frightened face behind it and hope returned. Without moving he took stock of himself and decided he would live, if the driver let him.

“Son, I ain’t gonna move, and I been shot up pretty bad, so maybe you could take your finger off the trigger of that weapon?”

The young troop swallowed, moved back out of reach and repositioned his grip. “What the hell happened?” he asked, shaky.

“Hey, you in there, what the hell is going on?” The voice came from outside the MRAP and Tyler realized that of course they were stopped, since the driver wasn’t driving. That meant the Richmonders had stopped too, and now they wanted answers.

“Son,” Tyler went on, “Major Vargas tried to kill me. I had to shoot him. I’m the President’s representative, and I’m in charge of this mission. Now you need to open up this vehicle and let the Richmond people in. And don’t get yourself shot!” he added as the man reached for the armored door’s handle.

It took half an hour to get it all sorted out, time Tyler desperately needed to heal from the seven or eight bullet holes in his body. The ones that didn’t go through will work their way out eventually. He’d convinced the driver to give him an MRE to eat, which helped considerably.

Once on his feet he’d checked Vargas. Two holes through his skull relieved Tyler’s concern, and he had them wrap the man’s body up to be taken with them. He’d explained the situation by telling them that Vargas had always been high-strung and he’d snapped and turned his weapon on his superior. The Richmonders bought it, more or less, but they disarmed the MRAP crew completely this time, and put three guards inside for the rest of the trip into the city.

They hadn’t mentioned his remarkable recovery from the bullet wounds, by which Tyler deduced Edens were nothing new to them. Looking closer, he realized that several of the escorts probably were already Edens. Several were Onesies as well, which brought to mind the question of why they hadn’t used the Eden Plague to cure the DP1.

Probably saw how DP1 and DP2 sickened and killed some Edens, and figured the reverse would be true. But actually, giving the Eden Plague to Onesies would cure them, and with Twosies it should at least fix their bodies. Knowledge is power, it has value…perhaps as a lever, perhaps as a gift.

He eyed the men guarding him for a moment, then closed his eyes and planned his negotiating strategy.


***


They’d rustled up a decent off-the-rack suit from an abandoned clothing store, and now Tyler strode in to meet Governor Allaine with something like confidence. The lord of Richmond was tall, graying, and smooth-faced. Uninfected, it seems. The Envoy held out his hand and introduced himself to Allaine with a firm handshake. What came back was all politician, and Tyler rejoiced.

Rejoiced because it was the usual bureaucratic politics he saw in the man’s gaze and stance – how to turn this meeting to his advantage, make himself look good, hold on to his office, power and authority – through legitimate means. This first fifteen seconds told Tyler all he needed to know: he’d made the right decision to kill Vargas, and now it all just came down to horse-trading.

But first… “Governor, I have a time-critical favor to ask of you before we discuss anything. On the way here we received word via radio that the Civil Affairs battalion at Fredericksburg was being heavily attacked. Then we lost contact with them, and I fear the worst. I am sure the Federal government, and the President himself, would be very grateful and look favorably on a sincere attempt to help them.”

“Attacked by the Professor’s people?” The Governor’s gaze was hawklike, careful.

“I don’t know. Who is this Professor?”

“A man out of his time. He fancies himself a reincarnation of Nathan Bedford Forrest trying to resurrect the old South, or maybe create some twisted vision of a fascist future. Or both. In any case, he’s a madman, and he controls Fredericksburg with an iron fist. If your people got too close and he felt threatened, he would attack them.”

“We landed the battalion at Fort AP Hill airfield. They were supposed to move northward to a position a few miles outside of the occupied part of Fredericksburg. We came south to talk with you. Then, as I said, we heard on the radio they got hit by armored vehicles and infantry. Then nothing.”

The Governor shook his head. “Then the Professor hit them for sure. I can see you want me to do something about it.”

Tyler nodded, stood up and rubbed his hands together with nervous tension. “Yes, sir, I do. And I think you need to. As an experienced military man, I can tell you this: the MPs in the battalion would have fought hard. They might have been beaten but this Professor would have paid a heavy price. And there are some very unusual individuals attached to the battalion that will make this guy’s life hell for as long as they can – special operators with some very specific skills.”

Allaine looked skeptical. “Experienced military man? No offense, but you don’t look old enough to make that claim.”

Tyler noticed that Allaine had left himself an out. That’s all right, I can be gracious. He spoke mildly, respectfully. “Governor, I’m sixty-five years old. It’s just the Eden Plague lying to you with my face. The President retired me at four-star rank so that I could become his Special Envoy. I’ve been commanding troops for pert’ near forty years.” So I think I know what the hell I’m talking about, he deliberately didn’t add.

“Unh,” the Governor grunted. “I suspected something like that. You’re that Travis Tyler? All right, what would you do in my place?”

“Hit them now. Use all your mobile forces in a lightning thrust. Most of our battalion are either Edens or they have nano-enhancements. They’ll be hard to kill, even if they have to fight a guerilla action. What they don’t have is heavy weapons.” I argued for them but got turned down, he thought. Not enough lift capacity, they said. Water under the bridge. “Bring along small arms to reequip our people, and all the tanks and APCs you can spare, attack helos if you have any. Take out the Professor while he’s weakened and licking his wounds.”

“And if you’re wrong? If F-burg had an easy victory and your people are all dead or captured?”

“You have to do it sometime, Governor. You can’t allow rebels to occupy a piece of Virginia unchallenged. Not if you really want people to respect that title.”

Allaine sighed. “You’re right. But it means I have to ask good people to go and die.”

Tyler smiled faintly. “Welcome to the joys of command, Governor. Once we get the military operation moving, you and I can discuss what your Federal Government can do for Richmond, especially about getting you all the vaccine you can use. In about a month another plague is going to fall out of the sky onto you and lots more people could die. We need to get everyone vaccinated, and to do that we have to clear up this little problem. So right now I’d advise you to give the Fredericksburg job to your most aggressive and respected officer so he can take care of this, and you and I get on with our business.” See, I speak politicalese too.

“Her, actually.” Allaine stepped to his office door to call an aide. “Tommy, go get Alice. Tell her that her F-burg plan is a go, and to come see me as soon as she can.” When the aide had gone, Allaine turned back to Tyler. “Alice Zimmer is the best we have. Armor officer. I think you two will get along.” He gestured for Tyler to sit down at the small table across from his desk, then joined him there.

“Okay, let’s talk turkey.”

“Well, first, I can help you with your Onesies…”


-36-

Repeth had left Ug and Bobby back at their village, explaining to them that they had helped her enough, and she would take it from here. They seemed to be natural hiders and pacifists, not carrying even the most primitive of weapons.

Colonel Muzik and the rest were still hard at work digging people out of the wreckage and salvaging what they could. They had recovered one Armorshock weapon, and Repeth made a mental note. She saw they had also gotten one of the Humvees and a couple of golf carts functioning and were shuttling people and equipment southward, away from Fredericksburg and into the woods.

The open space of the golf course would be a buffer and a fire zone in case the Fredericksburgers came back in force. Their little group could shoot and run deeper into the forest if they had to.

Night was starting to fall and it tore at her – and the rest, she was sure – to know that there still might be more of their people buried in the rubble. That Rick might be stuck there, unable to call out, slowly dying. She hadn’t seen him with the other prisoners, but there was nothing she could do about it. The rest of the troops would keep working through the night, with their handful of remaining MPs on picket duty, ready to give the alarm. Jill, she told herself, you have a job to do and there are a couple of hundred people depending on you to help them escape, so pull your head out of your fourth point of contact and put him out of your mind.

But she couldn’t, not really.

Still, she jammed the concern back into a dark corner, a lockbox where she kept all the scorpions and snakes and demons of her life, all the regrets and sins and mistakes. This may be one downside to a longer life, she thought. More stuff to shove into a mental container already full to bursting with a hundred million deaths.

As they broke for a meal of heated MREs she briefed Colonel Muzik on everything she had learned, all the details she could recall. Checkpoints, rally points, linear obstacles, she told him everything as she used the mapping function in her tactical radio to display their route. Without GPS satellites it wasn’t all that accurate but the inertial tracker should serve well enough.

By midnight they had not located Rick – or anyone else for that matter since nightfall, and Muzik called off the recovery efforts, sending everyone to sleep back at the forest camp except for those on watch. “You ready to do this?” he asked her as they checked their weapons and gear.

“You really nervous enough to ask questions like that, sir?” she bantered.

“Losing most of my command makes me nervous, yes, Master Sergeant,” he responded drily, but she could hear the warmth in his underlying tone.

“And your arm.”

“You had to bring that up.”

“Gotta hand it to me, sir.”

“But I can’t anymore, right.” He grinned that movie-star grin. “Come on, let’s go get those people out.”

Trite phrases before battle, Repeth thought, but somehow comforting. And I’m damn glad it’s Muzik coming with me. After Spooky, I’ve never served with a finer officer. She shook the thoughts out of her head and rolled her shoulders to loosen them, then jumped up and down a couple of times. She taped down one clink then did it again, and camoed her face with a tube from her pocket.

Muzik said, “I’ve ordered a diversionary attack on the Fredericksburger lines to the southwest, away from the escape area. That’ll start when I call for it, or at 0200 in any case. It should draw their attention.”

“Good idea. You’ll need knee pads, sir, for the crawling.” She fitted her own, getting the tightness right, and then helped him with his. Her camouflage stretch net went over her head, and she was ready.

She saw Muzik had fitted a night vision sight onto his PW10. She had already considered and discarded that idea; she preferred to operate without the dangerous delay of changing modes and switching eyes. Still, it might be useful. She dug her suppressor out of her ruck and threaded it onto her weapon, as did Muzik. The shots they fired would now be almost silent.

They moved out at twelve thirty, and she only had to refer to the GPS once before finding the long storm drain pipe that led through the enemy lines. Inside the pipe she asked quietly, “Any chance of the Homies coming back in time to help?”

“No. Their job was to go down to what’s left of Richmond and see if there was a state government. If Virginia can start functioning again, it will help put the US back together again. It’s the northernmost and the wealthiest of the mid-Atlantic states that didn’t get plastered.”

“What about Maryland?”

“Hit too hard by the nukes and plague both, I think. And the people are different. Marylanders on this side of the Bay are mostly urban or suburban people, basically liberal statists. They’ll fall back in line with whatever governance shows up. The ones on the Eastern Shore will have come through better, but will only have enough resources to help themselves.” He chuckled quietly. “But most Virginians are an ornery self-reliant bunch, at least those south of about Quantico. They’re suspicious of the Feds ever since the War.”

Repeth looked at Muzik sideways. “What war?”

“The War of Northern Aggression, of course. If they decide to resist the rebuilding – notice I didn’t say ‘reconstruction,’ that’s still a dirty word to Southerners – it could make things very hard. So we sent the Homeland Security company with a special envoy from the President.”

“I hadn’t heard about all that.”

“You weren’t supposed to.”


-37-

Major General Alice Zimmer’s eyes burned with barely controlled fury as she screamed orders at her staff. “I don’t care if George effing Trebow says he needs to hold back three tanks, tell him he will send all nine or I will personally come down there and kick his nuts up between his shoulder blades, and you can quote me. What about Jimmy-John?”

“I’m here, Alice.” The woeful voice proceeded from a pale hound-dog face, but the man’s manner was confident and his eyes stared at the short middle-aged black woman without fear. The very fact that a Lieutenant Colonel called a two-star by her first name said it all, though only a close inspection of their matching wedding rings would have revealed what “it all” was.

She took three steps over to her much taller husband and put a hand on his arm. “Jimmy-John, you got to go corral George for me. That chickenshit son of a bitch doesn’t want to weaken his defenses but hell, there ain’t no one to defend against closer than Raleigh, not since we cleaned Petersburg’s clock. He don’t need those Abrams. The mobile gun systems will do him just fine for emplaced defense.”

“Sure, Alice. I’ll handle it.” He leaned down to kiss her, and turned to go persuade Nervous George to give up his armor.

“James,” she said to her aide – she called him James to clearly distinguish him from her husband – “you got them plans run out to everyone?”

“Yes, ma’am. Everyone should be ready by first light.”

“You keep after them, hear? I got to go see the boss and some fancy-boy from Washington. I mean Pueblo, I guess. Just don’t seem right…” She turned and stomped out of the operations center and jumped into her Humvee. A few minutes later she pulled up to the front steps of the Governor’s Office building, waving at the nearest Capitol police officer to park it. They were used to her proclivities; she was a force of nature and there was no point protesting. Besides, with martial law declared she seemed to think they worked for her, and they weren’t about to argue.

She marched past all the Governor’s functionaries and gatekeepers, ignoring their looks and faint protests to barge right into his office. She crushed Allaine’s hand in hers. “Howdy, Howard. What the hell is going on?”

He never could figure out how she generated so much strength out of a body no taller than his armpit. “That’s what I called you to discuss, Alice.”

She tried the same trick on Tyler, but he squeezed back, unperturbed. She said, “Good to see you again, General. Got the virus and they put you out to pasture? Well, I can’t blame you. Marcy musta got tired of your willy going limp every time you tried to give it to her.”

“Alice!” cried the Governor, but Tyler waved him off with a laugh. “Don’t worry about it, sir. Alice and I are old friends. I can’t think of anyone better to put in charge of this operation. And no, Alice, I didn’t get retired because I’m an Eden. I’m working directly for the President now, trying to put the country back together again.”

“You jes’ keep telling yourself that, Travis. Nice suit, by the way. I thought you had better taste.”

“And I thought you had better manners. Now can we skip the lovefest and talk about saving my peoples’ lives?”

Alice Zimmer sat down like a jack-in-the-box run backwards and peered intently at Tyler. Her face puckered up like she was sucking lemons. “Okay then Travis, git on with it.”


-38-

Repeth fell silent as they approached the end of the drainpipe. I guess a Master Sergeant isn’t good enough to know the top secrets. Then she laughed silently at herself. I turned down the commission. I’m already having it both ways, keeping my three-up, three-down and commanding a platoon both. Stop whining, Jill.

They moved slowly and carefully into the dark old town area. The moon had gone down and the shadows were deep, pitch-black in places. Off in the distance she could hear engine noise and see artificial light, and they made sure to keep obstacles between themselves and the source.

A few buildings seemed lit by primitive sources, lanterns or candles, but most were dark. Once a dog rushed out of the blackness barking and Repeth’s weapon coughed. She hoped the Needleshock had spared it but she could hardly let a dog’s life weigh in the balance against all of their people.

From the edge of the lighted zone she could see a cluster of buildings illuminated by large industrial lights. One section was surrounded by a ragged cyclone and barbed wire fence, with concertina wire crudely fastened to the top. They could see a couple of bored-looking guards with rifles, obviously there to keep prisoners in, not rescuers out.

The other section had no fence around it, but lights blazed from every window. One building sported garish neon signs. It appeared to be a bar or club. Other buildings seemed to house governmental functions. The Confederate battle flag flew above or adorned the walls of these buildings. People filled the club, spilled outside. Celebrating their victory, it seemed.

Repeth put her mouth close to Muzik’s ear. “We need to take out the lights. Or the generators. Then you can pop them with your night scope while I move in close.”

“That’s it? That’s your plan?”

If his tone hadn’t been light she would have taken it for incredulity. “I’m going to try to find the women. They might be in that club building.”

“No. I sympathize, but that’s bad tactics. You take out the generators, then I’ll tap the guards in my night scope. While I do, you steal a truck and crash through that fencing. We have to rely on Grusky to have the prisoners ready to overpower the guards, and we have to help them. Then instead of two people we’ll have hundreds. Someone will know where the rest of our people are – the women, Rick, whoever. If we have a little luck we’ll clean out this nest in one fell swoop.”

Repeth’s protest died in her throat, because he was right. “Okay. One fell swoop it is. What does that mean, anyway? Never mind, tell me later mister college smarty-pants officer. Here, take the radio.” She clipped it onto his shoulder strap.

Muzik choked a chuckle. “Okay. I’ll call in the diversion in one minute. Get moving, Little Miss Reaper.” He set himself in position with a clear view of the whole south side of the prisoner barracks, cover from the sides, and a fallback route to his rear. Then he made the radio call and waited for the lights to go out.

Repeth circled around to the west, keeping to the zone outside the artificial lighting, not looking at the bright lights. She navigated by the sound of the big diesel engines running, eventually finding the generators in a fenced-in yard to the north. Unfortunately they were accompanied by two light armored vehicles just like the ones that had assaulted them earlier. In fact, they could be the same ones, though there was no way to tell.

Absent explosives – something she did not have – she would have to sneak into the yard and shut the generators down by hand. Gonna be hard – everything is lit up. There’s a catch-22 for ya – generator power to the lights that illuminate the generators. Then she thought of another possibility as she noticed the open rear door on one of the LAVs.

Sloppy.

Working her way around, eventually she was able to see directly into the cramped interior compartment of the vehicle. There were several uniformed troops in it, but they weren’t moving.

In fact, they were asleep.

Really sloppy, and just what I need.

Without waiting to think it through or talk herself out of it, she silently charged the open hatch, PW10 tight to her shoulder as she made her rapid approach under the bright lights. No one responded until her boots hit the ramp. Then she fired short bursts on full automatic until everyone inside was incapacitated.

She was fairly sure that the confines of the vehicle and the noisy generators would cover the faint sounds of the suppressed shots. She tossed the infantrymen out of the back with several convulsive heaves, but kept their weapons inside.

Dragging the unconscious turret gunner out of his position and down the ramp to join his buddies, then the driver, she started up the LAV’s engine. She frantically tried to recall everything she’d learned about how to operate one of these things. She managed to get the ramp closed, its electric whine filling the inside, then she spent a precious two minutes working out how to drive it. Once she was sure how, she crawled back into the turret space.

One more minute and she was ready to try out the 25mm electric chain gun. “Here goes nothing,” she said out loud and rotated the turret to aim at the other LAV. She lined up the gun very precisely, using its optics to place the crosshairs on the lower outer edge of the enemy turret, where it met the body of the vehicle. Then she depressed the trigger.

Vibration rattled her bones as the electric motor screamed, driving the mechanism that rotated shells through the gun breech. Explosive sound pummeled her as the 25-millimeter rounds fired and then impacted her target at less than fifty yards, point-blank for such a weapon.

Her guts twisted as she saw the deadly effect of her gun on the other vehicle. She had tried to fire at a place that would disable and lock up the enemy turret without necessarily killing the people inside, but the LAV rocked and then exploded. One of the rounds must have ricocheted inside and set off ammo or fuel.

This is war, she reminded herself with gritted teeth, and they have Rick and the others. She rotated her turret, walking the heavy bullets across the generators. A moment later they caught fire and ground to scattered halts with horrible, tortured-machinery noises. Abruptly the compound plunged into darkness as much of Fredericksburg lost power.

Glowing dashboard lights were now the only illumination, but that was all she needed to drop into the driver’s seat and pilot the vehicle forward, her head out the small front hatch. She crushed a car and ran over some garbage cans before she got the hang of it. She could see people running frantically hither and thither but none of them fired at her vehicle. They had no reason to think it was hostile.

Thirty seconds was all it took until the makeshift prison compound was in sight. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of figures poured out of the barracks and rushed toward the fence. Shots rang out and she screamed in frustration as she could see the startled guards indiscriminately gunning people down. She swerved to hit and crush one, reminding herself of the lives she saved by doing so. “Get back from the fence!” she hollered over the noise of the engine and the shooting, and turned toward the barrier.

Some prisoners saw what she was doing and dragged others back, but there were too many to just bull through. She’d end up crushing them. Instead, at the last second she swerved to strike the fence at an oblique, tearing it loose from its steel poles and then driving down it lengthwise as she gunned the engine. The eight wheels and powerful power plant of the twenty-ton vehicle dragged post after post out of the earth, but eventually enough debris piled up in front that she ground to a halt. By that time she had ripped almost the entire west fence down. Prisoners escaped in a wave behind her.

Someone pounded on the hull, but she couldn’t see who. Then Butler materialized next to her driver’s vision hatch. “Hey, Sarge,” he greeted her, giddy with his release. “Great job! Need any help in there?”

“Yeah, I’ll drop the ramp, then I’ll pull it right up. We need fighters, not passengers,” she replied. “If you can get a few of our people in there we can use the 25-mike and the gun ports.” She reached for the ramp control.

Thirty seconds later she started backing up as the ramp was still rising. She had to gun the engine to get loose of the tangle of fence poles and wire fouling the front of the LAV, then she swung the vehicle in a tight circle and began hunting.

“Butler,” she yelled back into the turret, “can anyone else drive?”

“I can,” came a high young voice. Repeth switched places with a compact young female MP from a different platoon, and immediately climbed up to open the commander’s hatch in the turret. Butler took his place below her on the gun. He handed up headphones and she saw him put his on.

She said over the intercom, “The best thing we can do with this thing is keep the chaos going, break up any enemy counterattacks, especially if there are more armored vehicles around. All the prisoners should be running for the rendezvous point to the southeast. Driver, turn left along the prison perimeter and look for enemy. Butler, engage any enemy vehicles or heavy weapons you see. I don’t know how much ammo we have. I’ll try to pick off singles.” She snapped a shot with her PW10 at a Fredericksburger in uniform just as an example. She missed, but he dove for cover.

A Humvee rounded a corner ahead, top-mounted .50 caliber machinegun firing at fleeing prisoners. “Target front! Humvee, one hundred meters! Engage.”

“Target front, Humvee, one hundred meters, firing.” Butler replied calmly. The electric turret whined as it centered. Repeth crouched in the hatch as she saw the fifty line up on the LAV, and then the 25mm chain gun spoke. Five rounds punched through the armored jeeplike vehicle. The shockwave of the shells as they holed the compartment burst enemy eardrums and rendered them unconscious even when missing them entirely.

The enemy gunner, strapped into his seat behind the fifty, kept firing grimly. “Ram them!” Repeth yelled unnecessarily into the intercom, and the driver accelerated, steering for the now-immobile Humvee. Twenty tons met four, no contest; the gunner’s body whiplashed and the force threw him clear as his harness snapped.

“Halt!” she barked. When the LAV came to a stop Repeth stood up in the hatch and blinked, trying to sort out which patch of darkness was the fallen gunner. She carefully lined up her PW10, thumbing the selector switch to semi-auto, and fired at the man lying there unconscious. Far from executing a fallen enemy, she was trying to wound him with a Needleshock round, which would fill his bloodstream with Eden Plague and save his life. On the third try she saw his leg jerk. “Get going! Head west!” she snapped, and the LAV swung back the way they came.

As much as she wanted to try to find the women – and Rick – she knew her best tactic was to keep commanding the LAV, hunting the enemy. She spent the next twenty minutes racing back and forth, east and west, disabling or destroying several more Humvees and trucks, driving back the enemy where she found them. Old Town Fredericksburg, filled with wooden and brick buildings dating back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, was burning merrily in several places, giving her plenty of light to see by. Butler had gotten the thermal sights working and soon they were unopposed by anything that could hurt them.

She wondered where the other LAVs were. Eight of them had taken part in the attack on the battalion, and she accounted for two – theirs and the one she had destroyed. Assume one or two were down for maintenance after the combat action, and she was waiting for the other ones to show up. If the LAV unit commander had any smarts at all – questionable, given how they had been employed in the attack – he would keep what he had as a unit and gang up on her.

“Butler,” she called through the intercom, “do we have anything portable to handle armor?” She hadn’t had time to check herself.

“There’s an old AT-4 down here. The gun is the best thing we have.”

“Unfortunately the other LAVs will have guns too. We can’t win a four to one standup fight. We have to hit and run. Butler, if we spot another LAV, try for a mobility kill. Shred their tires. It’s more of a sure thing; penetrating their armor with the twenty-five is iffy, and immobilizing them is as good as out of action as far as we are concerned.”

She raised her head cautiously out of the hatch and directed, “Driver, back up into that old barn there.” The Old Town area was dotted with such anomalies, preserved from earlier times. “What’s your name anyway, soldier?”

“Lockerbie, Master Sergeant. And it’s Senior Airman.”

She skillfully backed the vehicle into the barn, tearing its wooden door off its hinges in the process but otherwise placing it perfectly.

“Touché.” Repeth wondered where an Air Force Security Police troop learned to drive armored vehicles. “Drop the ramp.” She took off the headphones, climbed out the hatch and jumped off the side of the vehicle. From outside the ramp she looked into the interior, where four troops she didn’t recognize sat clutching captured weapons. “Hand me that AT-4. The tube there. Anyone here know how to use it?” They all shook their heads. By their expressions and uniforms she thought they were all support troops, not MPs. Dammit, I told Butler to get fighters. “Anyone here ever crew a track or armored vehicle?”

More murmured denials.

“Well, that kills that idea.” Just then came the hammering sound of a 25mm gun. “Hear that? That’s an enemy vehicle. We have to find and engage them, keep them away from the escapees. You four, did they tell you where the escape rendezvous is? Yes? You need to go now. I know you don’t want to get out of this nice armored ride but we are going straight toward a fight where we’re the underdogs, so you’re actually safer on foot. Keep moving, shoot at anyone you have to, but keep moving, all right? If you get lost go east until you hit the river then work your way south. Swim if you must; the river flows southward and you can drift out of enemy territory. Keep those weapons. Go now. Go!” She grabbed the nearest one and shoved her down the ramp.

They went reluctantly and she cursed the timidity of support personnel in a combat zone. “Hurry!” She walked inside and yelled, “Raise the ramp! Let’s get going.” She climbed past Butler back into the command hatch, dragging the AT-4 with her. She wedged it down by her feet, with no fixed plan, just the germ of an inkling that it might be useful. In training, Spooky had said to always consider all your weapons and their possible application.

Lockerbie nosed the LAV out of the barn and onto the road as Repeth put the headphones back on, then lifted the earpieces at the front, allowing her to hear and hopefully triangulate on the direction of the 25mm noise. “Take the next right, then go up one block, then I think left.”

As they took the last left she could see an enemy LAV ahead, perhaps two hundred yards south along the road. Unfortunately it was between them and their escape route, and that meant merely immobilizing it wouldn’t help them very much, though it would keep the enemy from pursuing. No battle plan survives enemy contact, she thought, then a wry motto popped into her head: Semper Gumby. Always Flexible. DJ Markis had quoted it to them during one of the frequent times he came to train with the Free Communities Special Operations teams.

So flex, Jill. Think.

The obvious and safe thing to do was to hammer the thin back hatch of the enemy LAV with 25mm fire until the armor failed, but that would mean killing its whole crew. She cursed the ironic strictures of her Eden conscience. I’m like one of those stupid superheroes in comic books; I can’t kill anyone unless it’s very nearly an accident. The Eden giveth and the Eden taketh away.

She stood up in the hatch and made a full three-sixty sweep as her LAV rolled forward. Only the one enemy armored vehicle in sight.

Normally that would mean it was the rearmost of a platoon of four, but it wasn’t behaving like the rearmost of anything. It was sitting there on the right side of the Parkway firing southeast, presumably at escaping friendlies, or possibly just at phantoms. She could barely see the enemy commander in the hatch silhouetted against the slight sky-glow, his back to her.

Abruptly a plan clicked in her head.

“Lockerbie, creep up on them at a steady twenty miles per hour or so and hug the right side of the road. Be careful, there’s a four-foot drainage ditch just off the shoulder. Butler, when I give the word, open up on their right side wheels. I want all those tires shredded to make them sag to the right. Keep firing as long as you can hit that side. Lockerbie, when I say so, swing to the far left of the road then turn right and ram them hard enough to knock them into the ditch. Don’t immobilize us. Got it?”

“Roger.” The driver eased the LAV over, and at one hundred yards, Repeth spoke quietly.

“Fire.”

Butler hammered a long burst into the bottom of the right rear wheel, each 25mm round bouncing off the pavement and continuing through all four right side tires, tearing enormous holes out of the run-flats, spewing chunks of rubber. The enemy LAV settled heavily to its right, and Lockerbie slewed left and accelerated without being told. Repeth dropped down into the interior and braced her back against a forward bulkhead, screaming to Butler, “Hang on!”

Repeth felt the LAV actually slow down and wondered what Lockerbie was doing. Dropping the nose? Of course, just like ramming a blockade with an armored SUV. Dip the nose with the brakes, hit the gas at the moment of impact.

Right before the crash Lockerbie jammed the accelerator forward and the front of the LAV lifted, catching the left underside of the enemy LAV with twenty tons of upward force multiplied by momentum. Since it was down by its right side already, the enemy vehicle flipped over into the ditch and onto its side like a child’s toy.

Lockerbie jammed on the brakes as her vehicle climbed up the enemy hull with its fat forward tires. She broke them loose by the simple expedient of flooring the LAV in reverse, shaking the crew like mice in a coffee can as they jounced free.

“Fine job, Lockerbie,” Repeth said. “If we live through this, you’ll all get medals if I have anything to say. One down, several more to go. Turn onto Tidewater south and keep a sharp lookout.” As the vehicle stabilized, she climbed back into the command hatch so she could survey the battlefield.

The road was empty in front of her as they raced southward. A mile away she could see the faint line of the outer defenses, the abatis and ditches and fences. Astride the roadway she could see the piled-up vehicles where she’d tried to parley less than two days ago. “Butler, put a couple single shots into the barricade.” She put on her headphones and rose up out of the commander’s hatch, bracing herself for the noise of the 25mm gun firing.

She thought she saw figures here and there running across the fields and sneaking near the treelines to her left – east toward the river. The gun spoke three times then was silent, and she realized Butler was awaiting orders. There were a few answering small-arms discharges but obviously they had nothing heavy there.

“Lockerbie, turn us around. We need to keep doing them damage.” The LAV swung around in a tight circle and drove back on the road, headed north toward old Fredericksburg, then west, retracing their route. They passed the wrecked enemy LAV. A man crawled away from the wreckage and Repeth put a shot into his leg and he lay still. One more Eden, one less Onesie.

To the west, now on their left, loomed higher ground, behind a few buildings. They raced northward toward the confusion and scattered fires of the remains of Old Town.

Suddenly her plan didn’t seem so sensible anymore. She saw Humvees racing around and it wouldn’t be long before the enemy figured out that her LAV wasn’t one of theirs. She had no intelligence about where the enemy headquarters might be, or where Rick might be, or where the rest of the missing women might be. In fact, for a rescue attempt she’d be better off on foot, just one figure in the dark. Her duty to command warred with her personal desires. Finally she made a decision.

Maybe the wrong one.

“Butler, I’ve changed my mind. You and Lockerbie here take this thing and haul ass back south. Shoot your way through the roadblock if you have to and link up with the Colonel. The Battalion can use the armored vehicle. I have to stay here and try to find the rest of our people.”

Butler’s protest died in his throat as he saw her determined expression. “All right, Master Sergeant. Good hunting.”

“Don’t worry, Butler. I’ve been in far tighter spots. Remind me to tell you about them sometime.”

“All right, but you’re buying,” the Midwesterner joked.

“No problem, on my generous paycheck.” She dropped the headphones through the hatch, grabbed the AT-4 and levered herself out the top and down the side. “Get moving!” she ordered. The vehicle, grown enormous now that she was outside it, roared off into the night.

Now what to do? She jogged northward, waving at vehicles and silently shooting the odd straggler. In the dark no one could see who was who and anyone heading deeper into Fredericksburg territory, alone and unafraid, they must think friendly.

She picked up a boonie hat from a fallen Fredericksburger and jammed it onto her head. Her braided and pinned hair stayed well hidden. There were apparently no female combatants among the Fredericksburgers so she had to masquerade as a man.

She spotted some lights on a hill off to the northwest. It was as likely a place as any to try to find the nerve center of this dysfunctional bandit kingdom, so she worked her way up the streets toward the heights. Eventually she came to the edge of the campus of the University of Mary Washington, proudly proclaimed by signs here and there. She could hear the hum of generators in the distance and could see some electric lights in the still-intact windows of campus buildings.

Must be a separate system. This is where I’d put my headquarters if I was a warlord – the heights command the town and give a view to all sides, and they probably can fall back to the better defenses of the hill. And lots of nice well-built buildings, not these wooden things of Old Town. She vaguely recalled Colonel Muzik pointing to this hill on the map and telling her that the Confederates under Longstreet had held it against all comers in the eponymous battle, inflicting horrendous casualties on the assaulting Union troops.

Climbing over an old stone wall alongside a sunken road, she ghosted through the trees up the slope northwestward toward the buildings and lights. Ahead of her she saw a faint glow spring to life, then fade.

Cigarette. Stupid. Good for me. She watched the silhouette until it turned away, then slipped forward and shot the sentry in the buttocks. A shout came from her right and she whirled, stitching his partner across the abdomen with her silenced Needleshock. Then she bolted away in the direction of the buildings, sticking to the shadows.

Feet pounded behind her and she ducked into a low mass of decorative juniper. Guards, already jumpy from the night’s events in the town below, ran hither and thither, calling to one another in excited tones. They grouped up when they found their fallen comrades, and she took the opportunity to sneak into the nearest darkened building.

The women’s restroom beckoned her and she made a quick pit stop, sucking down as much water as she could hold from the sink tap. She had not realized how dehydrated she had become. Downing a ration bar, she reconnoitered through darkened hallways festooned with incongruous campus pride posters and announcements of student activities from before the Demon-Plaguefall. Soldiers looked in the outer doors but didn’t search deeper. She couldn’t blame them – given the quality of troops she had seen so far, these probably didn’t really want to risk finding her.

One interior office was lit. Sidling up, she put an eye to the window inset into the door. A woman with glasses, obese and in her sixties, sat tapping on a computer.

Perfect.

Repeth turned the handle and slid smoothly into the room. “Quiet,” she hissed at the surprised woman. “I won’t hurt you if you don’t cause trouble.”

The woman froze and her mouth worked silently, then she nodded.

Repeth turned off the light, leaving the office in darkness lit only by the glow of the old desktop computer screen. “Who are you and what do you do here,” she asked quietly.

“I’m Margie Finley. I’m…I was a professor here. English Literature. They have me keep track of salvage in the warehouses now.”

“All alone?”

“I refused to move out of my office, and I’m too old and ugly to be interesting to the Professor and his Associates.” She spat this last word and her hands trembled. “Who are you?”

“Not your enemy, that’s who. Master Sergeant Jill Repeth, United States Marine Corps.”

“Oh, thank God. Are you taking over?”

Jill’s mouth twisted. “Actually it’s just me right now, until my Colonel can rebuild the battalion and come back. They hit us pretty hard yesterday. I need to find our women. Will you help?”

Margie licked her lips and her eyes widened with fear. “Just you? Oh, they’ll catch you and put you in the Dormitory. With the others. And you don’t want to be in there.”

Jill sympathized with the terror Margie put into that word “Dormitory” but there was no time for sentiment. “Look, Margie, I need information. I need it from you. We already broke the men out of the work camp below, that’s what all the shooting was. Please tell me where the women are. Are they in this Dormitory place? There should be almost a hundred of them somewhere.”

The large woman quivered and began to cry. “If I tell you they’ll do things to me. They don’t use me in the Dormitory because I’m old and fat but that doesn’t mean they won’t hurt me…”

She’s broken, thought Jill. “I’m sorry, but there’s no time for this.” Repeth reached over and grabbed Margie's pudgy hand, drawing it to her mouth and biting it suddenly. She clapped her other hand over the woman’s inevitable howl until she quieted down.

“Listen,” Repeth hissed, “I am an Eden Plague carrier. Now you are too. I just passed you the virus. You will live to be a thousand, you will heal any wound, and you will slim down like magic over the next few weeks. Soon you’ll look like you’re twenty-five, better than you ever did. So now you owe me – and if you don’t help me, soon you will be young and pretty and they will want to take you for their Dormitory. So now you have no choice. Help me and I’ll help you get away.”

Margie sucked on her wounded hand, sobbing softly, but soon enough she took it out of her mouth. “Hey…it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“You’ll soon say that about everything else – your fallen arches, your sore back – but like I said, right now I need information.”

“All right.” Margie took a deep breath. “Most of the women are held in the Dormitory – one of the old residence halls. They have to rotate through the brothel downtown, but up here they are reserved for…services. It’s a benefit of being an Associate.” Loathing dripped from that word. “That’s what the Professor calls his bullies.”

“This Professor, he’s the boss? Did he teach here?”

“Yes. He has a doctorate in Phys Ed, if you can believe that. Physical fitness nut, martial artist, pro wrestler…the TV kind, not the real kind, but he’s big and dangerous all the same. He was some kind of local bigwig in the National Guard, too. His real name is Stone, Scott Stone.”

“I’ll try to keep out of his way. Or maybe I’ll just shoot him.” Jill put on her best shark-smile, and then softened it. Not the right ploy to try to out-terrify Margie’s terrifier. “Then you’ll have to show me where the women are, and I have to try to bust them out. One more question – there’s a man named Rick Johnstone. He wasn’t with the men in the work camp. Do you have any idea of where he was taken?”

Margie shook her head. “No, but sometimes if a prisoner has a special skill, like a doctor, they put him to work somewhere else.”

“He’s a computer expert.”

“Then he might be in the Professor’s headquarters. They are always having trouble keeping their computers running.”

“Okay…do you have a campus map? Show me where the Dormitory is, and the headquarters. I’ll go break them out and then I’ll come back for you. If I don’t, you’ll have to try to sneak away southward to the golf course on Route Two. That’s where my people are. I know that seems beyond your ability right now but your body will start getting stronger right away. Pretty soon you’ll be able to run ten miles without stopping. You’re an Eden now.” Jill stepped back, put her hand on the doorknob. “Welcome back to the human race.”

Then she was gone.

---

As soon as Margie was sure the scary soldier-woman had left, she picked up the landline on her desk and began to dial. Stopping midway through the number, she stared at her bitten hand, now healed. She rubbed thoughtfully at it in continuing amazement.

Maybe she’ll do it. Be brave, Margie. You can’t live in fear forever.

Slowly she put down the handset. It might have been the hardest thing she’d ever done.

---

Repeth clutched the cheap paper campus map, orienting herself and identifying each building or hall as she went from bush to bush, tree to tree. It was slow going as her brush with the sentries had stirred up a hornets’ nest of activity. There was less than she expected, though. She figured some of these Associates must have been drawn away to the general confusion in the town below, or were chasing her escaping comrades.

Her first goal was the Dormitory. It was close, just the third large building away, but the grand scale of the university campus turned a two-minute walk into a half-hour ordeal of careful sneaking, punctuated by two more suppressed shots. She stashed the unconscious men – always men – under the bushes.

The Dormitory was better lit than other buildings, and garish with colored lights. Red predominated, apropos to its purpose. Except these aren’t Amsterdam prostitutes, carefully protected, regulated and taxed, free to leave at any time. These are sex slaves. She ground her teeth with revulsion and rage.

Eeling her way from bush to bench to dumpster corral, she got as close as she could before being stymied by a wall of concertina wire. Tripled tangled tubular coils circled the Dormitory, likely to keep the women in as well as discourage unauthorized liaisons. She knew from history that immoral license would always cloak itself in regulation, as if having rules and a system legitimized the abuse. The men would have a specific number of visits allowed, perhaps based on rank or status, and would have to sign in and sign out. Discipline among the troops would never be maintained otherwise.

Blasting in via the front door was a recipe for disaster. Her considerable skills depended on stealth and precise application of force, not on Rambo-like grand gestures. As she scanned the three-story brick building she decided her route in would be up the fire escape to the roof. Once there she would be out of sight and could force a door or access hatch.

There were welded bars over all the windows she could see, and she’d bet dollars to doughnuts they couldn’t be opened from the inside. Her brain started chewing furiously on the problem of escape. No ideas leaped to mind, but it didn’t matter yet. The first thing she had to do was get inside and make contact, gather information.

The building was heavily guarded. One man walked the perimeter on the inside of the wire on each side of the building – or at least, on the two sides she could see. Her best chance to make it across was to aim for a corner and time her entrance for when both guards were facing away from her, but there was still the problem of the tall, man-high tangles of wire.

Drawing a multi-tool from her belt holder, she rearranged it to form wire cutters. Not optimal; real snips would speed up the process immensely. Then she thought some more about how and where she was going to make it through, and how long it was going to take, and discarded the notion.

She racked her brain for techniques. She could try to crawl under the wire on her back, cutting as she went, trusting to the darkness and her camouflage to hide her as the guards came by. This was the way the Viet Cong had done, greasing their bodies up and accepting the inevitable bloody gouges.

Had she been assaulting the building with a team, one or two members could actually throw themselves onto the wire, cramming it down and the rest running across their legs and backs. She had no team, though. But maybe…

She examined the dumpster and the big plastic lids, each of which covered half of the stinking container. The multi-tool proved its usefulness after all as she worked the pins loose from their hinges. Within minutes she had a three-by-five-foot section of tough material that should easily protect her from the wire while remaining light enough to handle.

After stashing the AT-4 antitank weapon behind the dumpster, she hefted the awkward lid, testing her grip and maneuvering it while still hidden inside the pierced-brick dumpster corral. When she was fairly certain she knew how to handle it, she slung her PW10 and carried it around to the darkness on the side.

She took deep breaths, waiting long minutes in the shadows until the guards were both turned away from the corner and far enough – she hoped. She sprinted the short distance to the wire and, like a body-surfer flopping onto a wave, threw herself forward.

The plastic crushed the tangled wire downward and she let herself skim across it. She gripped the forward edge and somersaulted in a gymnast’s move, vaulting forward over the wire to roll onto the unmowed grass and weeds that surrounded the building. Barbs from the wire dug painfully into the backs of her hands but she was ready for that and she clamped her mouth shut against the pain. As she rolled she dragged the flat shield off the wire with her momentum and let it fall flat on the ground.

She froze in the tall vegetation and waited for any reaction from the guards. They might have heard the noise, or when they came back they might notice the piece of plastic, though there was enough debris and detritus scattered around that she hoped it might blend in, might be ignored as just another piece of junk.

Raising her head carefully she saw the nearer guard, the one along the shorter side of the building, returning without apparent haste. He walked past the plastic without seeming to notice it, then turned around at the corner.

As soon as his back was turned she leaped for the fire escape, an old painted steel ladder barely useful for its purpose. Swarming up the rungs, she ignored the urge to watch the guard so close below her and concentrated on climbing silently, but as fast as she could. Fortunately the rumble of the generator covered the noise. Rust and old paint scraped and cut her palms until she reached the top and stepped down onto the roof.

Her right foot came down inside some kind of hole, but her weight was already committed to the step so she just got her other foot down on the roof as quickly as she could and held onto the parapet. But when she tried to move, she found her right leg immobile and her right foot wedged fast. It was inside some kind of exhaust vent pipe, curled back upon itself and impossible to withdraw.

Grumbling quietly, she fought with it for several minutes until she gave up and carefully sliced the boot with her knife. Eventually she was able to draw her foot out and she caught the shredded footgear before it could fall down the shaft. Fishing a roll of ninety-mile-an-hour tape from her lumbar pouch – so called originally because the duct-tape-like material was soooo high-speed – she wrapped the damaged boot around her foot and swathed the whole thing in sticky OD-green tape.

Once she was mobile again she searched for a way in. She found a trap door. Locked, but the hinges were on the outside, where she could reach them, made for keeping people inside from coming up, not for keeping people out. Five minutes with her multitool had them off, and she levered the steel cover out of the way, bending the locking mechanism hopelessly out of true. It would be hard to seal again.

The ladder bolted to the wall beneath led into a darkened room, so black that the faint glow of her watch, deliberately freed of its cover for that purpose, showed her its contents. Sanitary and cleaning supplies – mops, buckets, toilet paper, paper towels, rags, bottles of bleach and cleaners – and boxes of women’s hygiene products in abundance. That confirms it. I wonder what they do about pregnancies. Not sure I want to know. Almost any answer seems horrible.

Readying her weapon, she tried the door handle slowly, very slowly. Easing it open a crack, she looked out into the corridor beyond. It was dimly lit, and she watched a ragged-robed woman walk by, her shoulders slumped with despair. Waiting several minutes, the floor remained quiet, with no movement. Of course, this is the third floor. Perhaps “visits” happen on the first floor in special rooms, or perhaps the men check the women out like library books. Well, here goes nothing.

She opened the door wide and looked quickly both ways. With no one in sight she had to just gamble that any slave here would welcome her. Or else a Needleshock round would put her out and convert her to Edenhood. So she went to the closest door, almost across the way, and opened it, stepping in suddenly.

“Who is it?” came a sleepy voice.

“A friend,” Jill replied. She felt her way to the single bed and sat down. “My name is Jill.”

“You don’t sound like Jill. Are you a new one? And why are you in my room?” The woman’s waking voice sounded dull and only slightly curious rather than outraged.

“Yes, I’m new, very new. Please talk with me. What’s your name?” Jill’s finger hovered over the trigger to her weapon.

“Zyra. What are you wearing?” The woman’s voice rose. “Oh, my God, do you have a gun?

Jill reached up to put her hand over Zyra’s mouth. “Quiet. I’m from the outside. I’m here to rescue you, but you have to be calm. I need to know how this all works.”

Zyra breathed harshly around Jill’s hand, panicked. “Noooooo –” she whined, getting louder all the time.

Crap. Jill shoved her back, pointed the PW10 at the woman’s thigh and pulled the trigger. The weapon coughed and Zyra jerked hard from the electric shock, to slump back onto her bunk. Dammit, why couldn’t I have lucked onto one with a spine? All right, to be fair, one less beaten down anyway.

She heard a stealthy noise in the corridor and wondered if one of the other women had heard something. There had been no alarm so she didn’t think it was some kind of reaction force. Jill padded over to the door and listened. She heard what might have been a footstep, and a feminine whimper. Great, another lost soul. Have to take control of this one too.

She opened the door and light blazed into her eyes. “Freeze!” came a powerful voice, and several gun barrels shoved forward, covering her from all angles.

She froze.

“Weapon down! Now!”

Cursing herself inwardly for her overconfidence, she lifted her finger off the trigger. Unfortunately her weapon had been pointed off to the side, or she might have risked a full-auto blast into the enclosed hallway. Now even if she had wanted to go down in a blaze of gunfire, she couldn’t – her mission was too important. Grinding her teeth, she unslung and lowered the PW10 to the ground, immediately raising her hands to interlace behind her head.

Armed men poured into the room, pushing her back. They roughly stripped her of her gear and she did not resist. Best to let them underestimate me for now. Until I have a chance.

The men she saw were all rough-looking, fit and competent, though most were pockmarked and scarred. Some were missing teeth and hair or other non-vital pieces such as ears and a few fingers. They all had body armor, weapons, and were dressed more or less uniformly in something resembling black police field uniforms, such as SWAT wore.

“Sir, she shot Zyra,” one reported.

“Take her to the doctor,” an enormous voice rumbled from the corridor. “We can’t let such pretty flesh go to waste, right boys?” The body attached to the voice stepped in and Jill caught her breath. Perfectly proportioned, nearly seven feet tall, showing bodybuilder’s muscles and sporting long cornsilk hair, he looked like a cross between a blonde Rambo and the male lead on the cover of a bodice-ripping romance novel.

The Professor. Has to be.

The man stepped in as two henchmen held Jill’s arms clamped behind her. Again, she refrained from resisting. She did look up boldly at him though. She sorted through possibilities before deciding on a course of action.

He opened his mouth but she deliberately interrupted him. “So you’re the scary Professor, eh? I heard you’re a tough guy. I’d be tough too with a bunch of thugs to rape my women for me.”

Intelligence and cruelty gleamed in his eyes, and amusement, too. He replied, “So you like raping women? Most chicks don’t but I suppose there are always exceptions, and you military bitches are all dykes anyway.” He reached down to grope briefly at her crotch, jerking out of reach at her attempt to bite him. “Temper, temper. I don’t feel anything down there, so you’re out of luck, you stupid bull. We’re the pitchers now, and you’ll be a catcher for my Associates.” He rubbed his jaw. “Still, it was a brave thing to break in here. You lose a girlfriend?”

Playing along with his banter, she replied, “Naw, I just wanted to re-enact ‘Prison Women in Leather Heat.’ Or maybe I wanted to join your Associates.”

He snorted, reaching out to fondle her breast. His nails were perfectly manicured, and she realized the man was wearing cologne – and makeup. “I suppose you think they call me ‘The Professor’ because I’m stupid?” He reached up to rub her ear between thumb and forefinger, then squeezed and pulled with all the strength of his huge hand and arm.

Her lobe and half her ear came away with a sickening tear, horrible to hear since it was so close to her auditory nerves. She cried out despite herself, more in surprise and shock than serious pain. She’d been hurt far worse but this deliberate cruelty still rattled her for a moment.

But only a moment.

The huge man’s glittering gaze and flared nostrils showed her that he enjoyed inflicting pain. Still, her plan depended on getting some kind of control of the situation, some kind of freedom to maneuver.

“That the best you got? Scott?” she taunted. “I kind of liked that. I kind of like you too. You got a woman? This door swings both ways, and I don’t mind sleeping my way to the top.” She cocked her hips suggestively, licked her lips. “Come on, big man. Let’s take a ride.”

The warlord’s booming laugh filled the room, and his men cawed along with him, and not just following their leader. Their amusement was genuine. The Professor said in his cultured voice, “Oh, dear me miss, you’re barking up the wrong tree there. I might have responded to some rainbow solidarity, but you just made the wrong ploy and now I know you’ll say anything. So shut up.” His enormous fist lashed out and she felt her nose and cheekbone break, and her left eye went dark.

She’d tried to roll with the blow but, held fast as she was, the smartest thing she could do was fake complete unconsciousness. She almost blacked out anyway as they carried her roughly from Zyra’s room and tossed her into another. She heard the door slam and a lock click shut.

This room held nothing but a bunk, a wall locker and a student desk. She crawled up onto the mattress and lay there on her back, her head swimming and the ceiling spinning. She felt nauseated, concussed, and her vision tightened to a black-spotted tunnel. He’d hit her hard; the man was enormously strong.

She wondered how long it would be before one of the Associates decided to try out their new toy. Holding her hand to her shredded ear, she had no choice but to lie there, pray and wait for healing.

And try to make a plan.


-39-

Major General Zimmer exulted in the feel of the 1500 horsepower turbine engine driving the M1A1 Abrams tank beneath her boots. She kept it under thirty – it was a gas hog even at the best of times – but it could do sixty or better in a sprint. Right now it was the fifth M1A1 – an old tank but still a monster – in the convoy that drove steadily northward along US1 toward the rogues of Fredericksburg.

Where the road was clear they raced along. Where it was clogged with broken vehicles, the lead tank, fitted with a dozer blade, would shove a way through. It was glorious, and her blood sang with the ancient song of the cavalry.

Twenty-one tanks, six Bradleys, a gaggle of other war machines, supply and tanker trucks – and the MRAPs with the Homeland Security troops. It was probably the most powerful armored force within three hundred miles, but Alice didn’t believe in half measures. There was no such thing as overkill in her book. If the task force overawed the enemy into surrender, that saved lives. And if it didn’t, she wanted to smash them flat, fast.

By mid-morning the lead heavy rolled up to the wrecked former golf course and linked up with the survivors of the Civil Affairs battalion. Zimmer took the opportunity to have a team fly a tactical recon drone over the enemy lines.

It wasn’t long before her caution was validated. The drone video showed seven M1s scattered in hasty defensive positions, facing south, along with a dozen Stryker light armored vehicles. They must have gotten wind of our coming. Probably have at least one spy in Richmond with a radio. We’ll win this; the only question is how much it will cost.

Though she preferred to lead from inside a tank, she had brought along a command track for her tiny staff. Inside its pop-out tent she gathered her officers and those of the broken Civil Affairs battalion. “Lieutenant Colonel Muzik, good to meetcha.” The man looked worn out, but his grip was firm. “This here’s Jimmy-John, he’s got Alpha Company. Marty Fiddles here has Bravo. Chuck Gowler has the Bradleys.”

“And I have one Stryker, two Humvees and a couple of golf carts,” Muzik quipped. “And about three hundred support troops. A few of them are MPs, but I can’t call any of them grunts. Oh, and I guess the Homies are mine, though I’m happy to chop them to your command.” He grimaced wearily. “I’m really glad to see you, though, because they still have most of our women, and a few of our men.”

“Yeah, Stone always was a sonuvabitch and once he got power he got to let it all run free. We’ve known we had to clean the nest out eventually.” She turned to Envoy Tyler. “Travis, you said they’d be all discombobulated, but they got seven tanks emplaced, maybe more. Frankly, I don’t want to go nose to nose. We’ll lose people. You got any ideas other than the big stick?”

“Me?” Tyler laughed. “It’s your show, Alice.”

“Ma’am?” Colonel Muzik waved his only hand. “What you see is probably all they have, facing you here, dug in at the battlefield park. If you can flank them to the west, you can roll them up. We have information from their defectors that their center of power is on the campus of Mary Washington College, on Mary’s Heights, and that’s where the women’s slave barracks is.”

“Understood. Fix ’em, flank ’em, fight ’em, finish ’em. All right gentlemen, I got a plan in mind. We’re going to use all our tricks to save your people and teach the shitheads of Fredericksburg just what a huge mistake they made. That means you too, Colonel pretty-boy, with your best people.”


-40-

Jill came to with a start as the cobwebs cleared. Light leaked in the barred windows of her third-floor prison cell. Someone had put a bottle of water, a sandwich, and an apple on the desk. There was a bucket and a roll of toilet paper in the corner. She stared at it, then shook her head and chuckled.

The head-shaking was a mistake as the pain returned with a vengeance. She probed carefully at her face, which was swollen and tender. By tomorrow the soft-tissue damage should be mostly healed; the bones, however, might need some surgery. At least she could see through her left eye again, though it was blurry.

She heard a wail and an animal grunt from somewhere nearby, and muffled male laughter. Listening more carefully, she soon made out a rhythmic thumping and squeaking, and a woman’s cries of pain in time with the noise.

Unfortunately she thought she knew what it was. All stoicism fled as she contemplated her probable fate. I’m supposed to use the bucket, eat the food. It might be drugged. Then five of them will come in and beat me up some.

And for dessert, they will take turns holding me down and raping me.

She ran her special ops resistance training through her mind. “There are several strategies to cope with sexual assault,” she could hear Spooky’s classroom voice in her mind. “Rape will not be limited to the women, because rape is not about sex, it is about degradation and power. I will teach you ways to limit the rapist’s power, and to take some of it back for yourselves.”

She had to admit, Spooky knew his subject. At the time it seemed an unlikely scenario. Now, she was very, very glad of the training. She prepared her first ploy.

Quickly using the waste bucket for its intended purpose, she strained to void her bowels. Afterward she smashed the apple flat, tore the sandwich to bits, and threw all the pieces of food into the improvised toilet. Then she emptied the water into it too, and used the bottle to stir the noxious mixture into a runny paste.

Then she turned the bucket over her own head.

She closed her eyes and held her breath, then used the pillow to wipe her face more or less free of the stuff. It stunk horribly. She smeared it all over her body, making sure to run it under her arms and into her hair. The more disgusting she made herself and the longer it took to clean up, the longer she might delay, defer or deter her violation.

As she ran her gooey hands over her body she paused at her taped-up boot. She’d forgotten it, and they hadn’t touched it, as it looked like just what it was: a field-expedient mess, barely functional. She ran a finger underneath the tape, then her thumb, and withdrew her combat knife sheathed inside.

She lay back down on her bunk and tried not to listen to the pain and humiliation down the hall. Holding the blade in a reverse grip, hidden but ready, she thought with rising hope: now I have options.


-41-

Half an hour later Zimmer gave Major Gowler the honor of opening the attack.

From the Bradleys on the low hills to the south, beyond extreme range of the enemy tank guns, six TOW antitank missiles puffed out of their launchers. The projectiles were slow compared to a high-velocity round, but they could reach almost twice as far as the Abrams guns could fire accurately. Unlike a main gun shell, the missiles were guidable all the way in to their targets.

One of the Fredericksburger gunners was on the ball. Realizing what the six puffs meant, he elevated his main gun and began lobbing high-explosive shells in the general direction of the offending Bradleys. Precious seconds later, the other six tanks began to do the same. They also all launched their smoke grenades, obscuring themselves.

One of the TOW missiles lost its wire guidance and plunged into the ground. Three others missed, their firers confused by the smoke. Two slammed home.

One struck the enormously thick front glacis of its target, rocking the tank and ruining its paint job but otherwise affecting it not at all. One knifed into an Abrams turret at a downward angle and exploded, the superheated jet of molten copper plasma from its shaped charge slicing through the thinner armor like a blowtorch through a chocolate bunny. The crew died instantly as the tank’s ammunition cooked off, blowing the turret sky-high.

Now lacking targets for the smoke, the Bradleys began working their way carefully forward as five big brother Abrams advanced frontally northward. They took the best hull-down positions they could find. At between one and two thousand meters, they began a deliberate rolling fire at the smoke-enshrouded enemy, dimly seen through thermal sights.

From this angle, their discarding-sabot penetrators usually glanced off their targets’ glaces. Two of the enemy tanks lost their treads to the ripping depleted uranium bullets, and one more exploded as a skilled or lucky shot found a weak spot where its turret met the hull. But Richmond’s tanks had no intention of pressing the attack home from the south.

Less than five miles away to the west, the flanking forces had turned to attack as soon as the first shot was fired. Sixteen Richmond tanks in four platoons raced eastward. The southernmost two groups of four, Alice Zimmer’s tank in the lead, pounced on the westernmost enemy tank and supporting Strykers and tore them to bits in a hail of main gun fire. They then moved on down the line to the next position, a textbook roll-up.

The northernmost two platoons spread out and bulled straight up on either side of Jefferson Davis Highway, destroying every hostile vehicle or emplacement they encountered with ease. Homeland Security’s seven MRAPs followed close behind, filled to bursting with paramilitary troops and as many MPs as Colonel Muzik could scrape together and rearm.

The tanks turned to their right and made a fast cavalry sweep in a line up the heights, through the university campus, then spread out taking alert positions in the open spaces between the buildings. Their gun snouts probed ceaselessly, looking for a tank’s worst nightmare in urban terrain: antitank-rocket-armed infantry on the roofs.

“Muzik team, deploy on this commons! You Homies, dismount and start clearing these buildings, I want reports, people. Find the women, find the headquarters! I want prisoners! MPs, assemble on me.” The colonel stood on the top of the armored truck as his forces poured out the back ramps.

The Homeland Security squad leaders took charge and began clear-and-hold operations, while he looked around from his vantage point, searching for…something. A key place, something that looked like a nerve center, where he could get some answers about where their people were being held.

In the middle distance his eyes caught an anomaly. Head-tall coils of concertina wire, razor-sharp and designed specifically to impede personnel, ran along the corner of a red brick building. The rest was hidden behind a larger structure.

Something to keep people out…or in. That’s worth looking at. He jumped off the vehicle and waved at his score of eager troopers. “Follow me!” He jogged in the direction of the building.

At the intervening structure’s corner he called for a halt, then lay down and eased an eye around the bottom corner. He jerked his head back as a burst of gunfire stitched the wall, spattering chips of its concrete construction. “Machinegun nest on the roof, boys.” Muzik spoke into his radio. “Butler, you copy? Ease that truck northward a bit until you can see that red brick building. The one that looks like a dormitory, with the concertina wire around it. There’s a machinegun nest on the top of it somewhere. Drop some grenades on it, if you please. Stay away from the windows; our people might be inside.”


***


Four men held Jill down as the Professor stood over her. He ripped her camo pants off, then her underwear, and she lay naked on the thin mattress. His eyes raped her before he ever made a move. Then he reached for his belt.

Instead of exposing himself, he slid the length of leather from around his waist and doubled it. He snapped it against his leg a couple of times, then struck at her flesh. Skin ripped and bled as the belt whistled and stung, over and over, bruising and cutting…

Distant gunfire jolted Jill awake. Her heart hammered in her chest as she struck out with her blade at shadows. Calm returned as she examined herself in the dim light, finding nothing amiss. Relieved, she rolled to her feet and looked out the barred window. Only a few armed men ran around the campus like confused cockroaches.

She identified tank fire, outgoing and incoming, and a mixture of other weapons as she listened. Booted footfalls in the corridor brought her over to the door, to wait behind it, knife in hand. She quickly sliced her forearm with its razor edge, coating the blade. The cut would heal rapidly and any stab would pass the virus, making death unlikely. Though some of these guys deserve it for sure. Not my call. Infect them all, let God sort ‘em out.

The gunfire shifted direction, and sounded closer. No sound came from the corridor for long minutes. She wished she’d risked eating the food, now. Her stomach twisted in empty knots.

Then the lock rattled. Jill stepped back behind the door and braced herself for a fight.

It swung open slowly and an emaciated hand pushed it all the way back. “Hello?” came a hesitant female voice.

“Zyra?”

Zyra stepped quickly inside and shut the door again. The two women almost hugged, but at the last moment Jill held Zyra at arm’s length. “You don’t want to do that. I’m covered in poop.”

“Oh, why did they do that to you?”

Jill laughed and explained.


***


Muzik’s double squad watched as the MRAP rolled slowly across the commons, about four hundred yards from the brick building. Butler, in the open turret on the top, found the angle he wanted and started firing bursts of three to five 40mm grenades.

The machine gun, alerted to the danger, opened fire on the vehicle, spraying it with bullets while the grenades floated lazily overhead. They took almost three full seconds in their high lobbing arcs, and even then Butler had to observe their bursts, to walk them in to the target.

He jerked in the harness and slumped as the enemy’s 7.62 rounds punched through his body, but the machinegunner’s own fate was already en route. A moment later a string of explosions blew the emplacement from its perch.

Muzik reached for the radio again. “Lockerbie, you there? I need that MRAP to breach this wire.”

“Sir, Butler’s down.”

“I know that, Lockerbie, that’s why I called you. I need you to drive that truck over here and crush all of this wire you can, make me a breach! Come on, soldier, drive!”

“I’m not a soldier sir, I’m an airman,” Muzik heard her mumble under her breath. He chuckled to himself as he saw the MRAP turn and accelerate ponderously toward them. It was doing at least thirty miles per hour as it careened around the corner and lined up on the long side of the wire obstacle. Lockerbie drove the heavy vehicle straight down the line, crushing and dragging the wire, leaving large gaps in the barrier.

When Muzik saw the openings he yelled “Charge!” and ran for the nearest door, firing Needleshock at the opening. His men spread out behind him, shooting back as four or five guns opened up from the windows. Several men fell hit, groaning, but most made it to the cover of the wall, where the enemy could not get an angle to shoot.

Colonel Muzik planted a flying kick in the middle of the steel door – and bounced off. “Shit!” He scrambled into cover close to the wall. “Pop some grenades in there!” he yelled. His men crawled along the lower edge of the building, where they couldn’t be easily shot. One hand and arm tried to angle a rifle out between the bars and Muzik shot it. The rifle fell out the window and the arm withdrew as its owner fell back inside.

Still, they were pinned down outside, and it wouldn’t be long before they thought to get back on the roof and fire down on his troops. And Lockerbie had driven the MRAP around the corner and was working the wire on the other side of the building in an overabundance of enthusiasm. He looked around frantically for something to use to get into the building.

What the hell is that? From his position on the ground he could see an old AT-4 leaning against the dumpster. Apparently someone left it behind in the confusion. Muzik tried to signal his men but they didn’t understand, so he rolled to his feet and yelled, “Cover me!” He ran and dove for the weapon.

Turning, he got the thing awkwardly onto his shoulder one-handed as his men fired at the occupied windows and tried to pop grenades through the bars. One failed to go through, fell outside and detonated, downing two of his men with Shock, but they looked like they would survive. But the covering fire worked. Muzik lined the antitank rocket up on the steel door and fired.

The door blew outward as most of the shaped-charge blast went through it into the hallway behind. Same song, second verse he told himself as he dropped the empty launcher and charged the door. This time there was nothing to stop him as he pulled the pins with his teeth and tossed two Shock grenades inside, then dropped to the ground. Bullets quested for his body until the explosives detonated, sending electric shrapnel everywhere. Seeing what he was doing, his men charged past him as he scrambled to his feet to follow.

Inside the cramped dormitory corridors his men and the enemy fought viciously, needles against bullets, with far too many women in the way. Some of the Associates barricaded themselves in rooms and made their prisoners into human shields, not realizing that Needleshock rounds would eliminate their barriers of flesh with little risk to anyone. The Shock grenades, spitting their taser-like charges and Eden Plague splinters, proved their worth.

Muzik didn’t even recognize Repeth at first when he ran across her in the dim interior corridor. He thought she was just some bloody madwoman covered in crap and waving a knife. In fact that’s not so far off. “Wow, Top, you stink,” was all he could think to say.

She smiled through the grime and bruises. “Nice to see you too, sir. One of Spooky’s old tricks. Make yourself as unattractive as possible.”

“Well, it’s working.” He paused. “You okay, then?”

Her face went blank as she nodded. “Yeah. I was only here a few hours. And…” She waved the bloody blade.

Muzik smiled appreciatively. “Well I hope for your sake Rick doesn’t smell you like this.”

Jill’s broken face fell. “Did anyone find him yet?”

“No, but don’t worry, he has to be around somewhere. We just kicked their teeth in.” He didn’t mention the worst possibility.

Just then Sergeant Grusky ran up, nodded at Repeth with wrinkled nose. “Sir, there’s a bunch of them forted up in the basement. No easy way to get them.”

Repeth and Muzik exchanged glances. Repeth asked, “Did they tell you about the Professor?”

“Yes, the Richmonders had quite the dossier on him.”

“Well, he’s big and smart, and he’s cruel. At first I couldn’t figure him out, being so clean and healthy-looking in the midst of all these Onesies. Then I realized…”

“Psycho?”

“Must be. One that survived the Plagues, or dodged them. And he’s way too smart to be trapped down there.”

Muzik nodded. “So he’s not. There’s a tunnel.”

“Has to be.”

The colonel turned to Grusky. “Sergeant, take charge here. Test the basement from time to time. Maybe they left someone to die in place. Just make sure no one comes out, and see what you can do for these women. Try to get our female troops to take charge of the…victims. Jill, let’s see if we can figure out where your Psycho went.”

---

They caught up with some of the Associates trying to sneak out of town to the north, but the big blonde Psycho slipped away. After word of his flight got around, all resistance collapsed in Fredericksburg. They surrendered in droves, or melted out into the countryside to try to escape justice.

That night the leaders of the Richmond and Federal forces met in the antebellum banquet hall of Old Town’s Kenmore Inn. Amazingly, the owner had managed to maintain it relatively intact, and had hidden his wife and daughters deep in his wine cellars for the last two months. They managed to put out something resembling a feast for their rescuers.

The Governor of Virginia sent Lieutenant Governor Bilson to represent him, but his presence was eclipsed by Alice Zimmer’s ebullience at her swift and stunning victory. Her husband sat quietly drinking a beer, watching her with tolerant love, while the military officers listened to her toast her forces’ – and Muzik’s – skill, aggressiveness and discipline.

“She’s going to tie one on tonight,” Bilson whispered as he leaned over to Muzik. “She’s old-school that way. Probably why she never made her third star, but she’s Cavalry through and through. The Governor’s going to recommend she be reactivated and promoted, put her in charge of more operations like this.”

Muzik nodded soberly, sipping water. No doubt Allaine thought that was a good political move, to get one of his people near the President. Unlikely she would be taking any more orders from the Governor of Virginia if that happened, he thought. “I hope we don’t ever have to do an operation quite like this again. Sorry, sir, but I need to get back to my people.” He set down the glass and took his leave.

He’d gathered his battalion at the campus and they had settled in there. Abandoned dormitories – all except that one – provided beds and linens, and a determined search had turned up a lot of salvage. We’ll get by, he thought.

When he reached the group of buildings they were using, Master Sergeant Repeth opened his Humvee door and reported grimly. “No problems, sir. We’ve cleaned them all out. Those Associates were nothing but bullies. They weren’t real soldiers. You can’t get punks like that to sacrifice themselves for a cause.”

Muzik grunted and looked dully around at the light spilling out of the windows. His eyes were black pits, and Repeth realized that he had been awake for several days straight. “Sir, Captain LeBrun and I have this well in hand. You need to get some sleep.”

“Truer words never spoken.” He took three steps then stopped, turned back to her. “Any word on Rick?”

Jill’s face fell further, if that were possible. “We haven’t found him yet. Thanks for asking.”

“Damn. Don’t worry, he’ll turn up.”

She didn’t answer, just said, “Let’s get you fixed up, sir. Margie!”

The former professor of English Literature, already looking slimmer, younger and healthier, bustled happily over to Repeth. When she saw Colonel Muzik’s face she nearly drooled. “Oh, you poor man. Let me show you to a nice room. We have some all cleaned and ready. Oh, your arm! You poor dear…”

Another conquest without a shot fired, Repeth thought with what amusement she could muster. Watch out, Roger, or you may wake up with a plus-size cuddly companion. Probably do you some good to get your ashes hauled. Feeling slightly guilty for such salacious approbation, she shrugged, then her mind turned naturally back to her obsession.

Have to find Rick.

***


The next morning Repeth stopped in to visit a brother in arms. It’s the least I can do, for someone who almost gave his all.

Gunnery Sergeant Gunderson lay in his hospital bed, a nutrient drip in his arm, holding a year-old news magazine up in the air where he could read it. When he saw her standing there he shifted, tried to sit up.

“Stay there, Swede. I know you have a lot of healing to do yet.”

He looked down self-consciously at the blanket draped over a stiff cage that covered his mangled lower half. “Yeah. Ain’t much down there but they say I’ll have it all back eventually.” He forced a wan smile.

“Not many men have come back from the brink like that.”

“I don’t quit.” He licked his lips. “I hear you were the one who found me.”

“Almost too late.”

“But at least you looked. Thanks, Top.”

She shrugged. “I’d do it for any of my people.”

“Am I your people?” He put his head back, closed his eyes. “Just one big happy freakin’ family.” What slight enthusiasm he had displayed drained away.

Jill stared at him for a long time, puzzled. “I’d never have figured you for this attitude, though. I’m sorry I didn’t find you earlier, but no one could have saved your piece parts. Anyway, in a few months you’ll be fine, good as new.”

“You’re a bitch,” Swede said without heat.

Nonplussed, Jill crossed her arms. “So they say. What’s up your ass?”

“They’ve got this new nano stuff. They wanted volunteers. I had a chance to be a nanocommando but now I’ve got this damned Eden Plague.”

“You’d be a dead volunteer if you hadn’t.”

“I know that. Doesn’t make it better. Now I’m just going to be a good little boy. That’s how you like ‘em, right?” Bitter.

Jill shrugged again, ignoring the jab, the slam on Rick. “What’s done is done. Snap out of it, Marine. Besides, you can always try to make the switch, but think of what you’re giving up.”

“What? Make what switch?”

“I’m sure they could suppress the Eden Plague with enough antivirals to let the nanos take hold and cure you of it. You’d heal and get all that strength and speed but you wouldn’t be immortal anymore.”

“Screw immortality. It’s overrated.”

“You’d give up a thousand years of life to be strong and fast?”

“And be free of this guilt. Die young, stay pretty.”

“I’d say live long, stay pretty. And the guilt will fade as your psychology adjusts. It’s just your overactive conscience waking up.”

“Okay, how about ‘It’s better to burn out than fade away.’

“That’s a crock. But if you’re so hot for it, roll the dice, big man. It might kill you, but whatever.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm, fed up.

“Why do you have such contempt for me?”

She kicked his bed, rattling it. “Because even though you have your outstanding features, you’re still the stereotype for all the swinging dicks that I’ve ever known, beginning with my creepy stepbrother. Got to be a stud, super-macho. And you see me, you want me. If you can’t have me, you want me all the more. If you still can’t have me, you crave enough power or glory or money or status to prove how wrong I was to reject you.”

Gunderson’s mouth worked, as if chewing, then he turned his head away. Jill watched him in silence for a time. Finally he spoke. “You know what? I don’t have any counterargument to that, and I hate it.”

“Hate admitting the truth?”

“Exactly.”

“Welcome to Edenhood. But you know what that means?”

“What?”

“That deep down you actually are a good guy. It’s not the Eden Plague that makes you better. It’s your own conscience. The Plague just short-circuits most of those lies you tell yourself. Makes you face the truth you already know. Takes off the filters.”

“That sucks. I think I’d rather have my filters.”

“Takes a real man to be really honest. Only children can’t face reality. Only adolescent boys try to screw every woman they meet.”

“Who died and made you my shrink?” he spat.

Jill shrugged. “You can send me away any time.”

He stared at her for a long while. “You Edens aren’t anything like I thought.”

“Us Edens. And yes, you’re right about that. We aren’t.” She turned and left him there with nothing to do but think. I’m not sure what he needs but he’s not mine anyway. I can only do so much for people. After that, they have to do for themselves.

Saddle up, Jill. Best horses and all that.


***


Two weeks later US ground forces cautiously pushed in from the west to find no organized resistance. Their supplies and civil support troops were welcome, but the heavy combat forces had nothing much to do except spread out and help the medical teams enforce the inoculation protocol with desperate speed. It was a race with the coming Reaper Plague, to see who got there first. The alien probe could appear any day now.

They went farm to farm, house to house, seeking any signs of habitation. Once they found people, they had to persuade them to be immunized. Many times the people had to be forced, or even shot with Needleshock, to get them to comply. Even explaining that within just a few days the angel of death was coming to call didn’t suffice. After all the country – and the world – had been through, many just wanted to fort up and keep everyone outside.

But if they did that, they would die.

Jill Repeth and her MPs worked tirelessly bringing life to the people, always hoping to run across a sign of Rick Johnstone, or of the Professor. They questioned everyone they came across.

Of Rick, she found nothing but one frightened Fredericksburg slave who said he had helped out with the Professor’s computers, then had been “traded away.” Pressed about what that meant, the man could only babble about “shadow men” and “burn rooms.” He was remanded to the psych teams, and Jill kept looking.

They tracked the Professor and a few of his closest men northward into the death zone, where the only living things hid too well and too deep for the overworked search teams to dig out. Repeth pleaded to be allowed to go after him, but was overruled. Everyone was needed to get the vaccines to the people.

Almost she rebelled, considering desertion to go find Rick on her own. Or if that failed, to hunt down Professor Stone and demand some answers; but to do so would bend her sense of duty past the breaking point. Once, she’d deserted an unlawful regime for reasons she could live with, but this time it wouldn’t be justified.

Colonel Muzik promised that as soon as the Reaper Plague fell and had done its worst, he would let her pick a team and go. Until then, her first priority was to get the vaccines to the populace. Every inoculation meant one less to die. So she threw herself into that work like an ox in harness, attacking the task as if her individual efforts could significantly hasten its completion. Here and there she picked up a clue, or a hint, of where to look, and stored it away in memory.

Word of Fredericksburg’s fall spread to the edge of the death zones, and most of the newly-formed city-states capitulated as soon as General Alice Zimmer’s armored task forces showed up. She’d said that a helping hand and a tank company got much better results than a helping hand alone, and she was right. General Zimmer became the popular champion of the reconquest, but those in the know quietly spoke of a different hero, one who helped the people, eschewed the spotlight, and traveled deeper into her own darkness.


-42-

The last of the three Meme probes released its reentry bodies above the Earth. Their courses varied little from those that released the first two Plague bearers. Only this time, the payload was not chaos, or oblivion, but death. The sole goal of this Reaper Plague was to murder anyone that had not already contracted a Demon Plague.

As throughout interstellar space, six hundred sixty-five times already, the Meme plan was simple: weaken, stupefy, and kill. If the aliens had their way, the only homo sapiens left would be those prepared for Blending, and thus, ready-made for invaders.

Russia and China made valiant efforts to intercept the biological warheads, but they failed. The Reaper Plague rained down, and Death and Hell followed with it. As before, Australia, South Africa, and sparsely populated areas were spared at first, but eventually it reached everywhere. Spread on the winds, in the water, by touch and carried by the insects and vermin, it was cleverly designed for every animal to carry, for every living creature no matter how small or large to be a vector.

The vaccinated survived. Mostly. Statistically. About eighty-seven percent. But thirteen percent of six billion was still hundreds of millions who died in agony. And unvaccinated Edens might as well have played Russian roulette with three bullets loaded. Their death rate approached one in two.

But the Reaper Plague was by far the most virulent and deadly of the diseases and those without any protection died within twelve hours as it ate them from within.

The world’s medical personnel desperately tried to stay ahead of the infection. Sometimes they succeeded; other times the Reaper stalked the streets. The world convulsed and remade itself again as more than a billion human beings died.


-43-

Elise Markis gently shook Daniel, waking him up from a sound sleep. “That can’t be comfortable,” she said gently as he lifted his head off of his desk. “You have a paper clip stuck to your cheek.” She reached out to peel it off.

“Hi, sweetheart. What are you doing here?”

“Daily staff meeting?”

“Where’s Shawna?” He meant her administrative supervisor, who usually handled the staff functions.

“She needed a day off, and I needed to get out of the lab. And I wanted to see how you are doing.”

He rubbed his face, then reached up to grasp his wife’s hand. “I’m fine. Just let me get some coffee.”

Cup in hand and brain in gear, he walked in to find himself late and the Chairman’s large executive conference room already full with over a hundred people. He knew it would be more bad news, but he was numb. One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Old Joe Stalin was a crafty son of a bitch. “Sorry to be late, folks. What do we have? Military intel first.”

A Free Communities Armed Forces colonel stood up. “NSTR, sir.” This meant “nothing significant to report.” “Everyone’s too busy with the pandemic to make any significant military moves.”

“The Aussies? The Orion ship?”

“Still on track, sir.”

Chairman Markis nodded. He’d get more detailed and specific intel from Cassandra if he wanted it. “Medical?”

“Approximately 26 million more deaths this morning, as far as we can tally.” The doctor, crumpled note paper in hand, looked exhausted. Perhaps it was more from the horrifying statistics than sheer overwork. “That makes about one point one billion, we estimate.” He paused, took a breath. “The good news is the rate is slowing down. The disease is burning itself out. It’s found almost everyone without resistance.”

Chairman Markis nodded and the man sat down. “Elise, what about the cure research?” He was interested himself in hearing from her, unfiltered through the laboratory administration.

Elise stood up and smiled wanly. “I have good news, which is one reason I wanted to come make the report myself. It’s very preliminary, but yesterday we had our first post-infection Reaper Plague survivor.”

Scattered applause broke out and the Chairman waved for quiet.

“It’s tentative right now, it might be a fluke, but the tests are encouraging. It’s hard to reach infectees and administer the experimental treatments under anything like controlled conditions. I have teams all over Africa chasing infection hot spots and trying each serum batch out as they become available. But I am convinced we will have something reliable within weeks. I’m sorry it couldn’t be faster.”

More cheers and kind words poured forth from those in attendance, and this time Daniel let it run its course. Elise sat down with some embarrassment.

Eventually the Chairman rapped the table and spoke. “All right, people, that’s good news but people are still dying out there. We healthy people have to keep plugging away at our work, keep our spirits up, and do the best we can for humanity. Now, who’s next? Logistics? What, powerpoint slides again? Make it fast.” The meeting went on in true governmental fashion, grinding through bureaucratic reports ad nauseam.

Later, in his office, Daniel and Elise Markis embraced, pressing their bodies together with quiet warmth. “Good to see you again, O wife of mine,” Daniel husked as he kissed her.

“Ditto, O Lord of the Free Communities.”

“For the nonce. When this stupid Meme threat is over with, I’ll be happy to abdicate.”

Elise pulled Daniel down to his office sofa. “When is it over? Raphael said the scout ship is due in eight months or so. Let’s say the Orion battleship handles that threat. We have no way of knowing how long before the next one shows up. What if it’s some kind of Death Star thingy?”

“Thingy? What’s a thingy? Is that a scientific term?” He laughed, kissed her again. “Then we build some X-wings, train some Jedi, and go blow it up.”

“Come on, you know what I mean.”

“I’ve got a Red-Blue team already working on the problem, and they are in contact with others across the FC. I’m also pushing for a big open mil-sci conference in the next few months to share research. You just focus on the biological stuff, let me handle the politics.”

Elise stroked Daniel’s face. “Yes, my king, I hear and obey.” She reached for his top button. “Got time for an intimate meeting with your most loyal subject?”

“I think I can clear my calendar.” He reached for his phone and texted his staff to leave him alone for an hour, while Elise locked the door.


-44-


Brigadier Nguyen’s captive American nanocommandos now resided, if that was the word, in a state-of-the-art underground complex. Months of experimentation had dug out all their secrets.

Of course, they had experienced very little pain as they lay helpless, usually unconscious, strapped to the tables. Many of the laboratory staff were Edens, loyal to Australia and the Free Communities, but also unlikely to stand for anything that smacked of torture or inhumanity. Thus, Nguyen decided, it was time to make a change, to move to the next phase.

First he reorganized the research facility. Edens ended up working with other Edens on projects that, while important and vital, did not impinge on their sympathy for their subjects. They toiled at reverse engineering, reengineering, and reprogramming the American nanites in accordance with Nguyen’s instructions. Injected into humanely treated test subjects, the tiny robots healed tissue, carried oxygen, and protected cells from the damaging effects of the cold and vacuum of space. They boosted or slowed metabolism, they augmented muscle strength and reaction speed, all as they had been designed to do, but subtly altered.

The most important goal for Nguyen’s Eden scientists was to limit the nanites’ lifespan. To allow them to reproduce, but only so many times, allowing the user perhaps three months of full efficiency and another three months before their pseudo-life faded, halted, and they were excreted from the body. Once achieved, this goal would ensure both his control over the technology, and would eliminate the chance of rogue nano-replications finding their way out into the environment and running free in the ecosystem.

Before they were even a reality, they called these safer nanites Fully Controllable Nanobots, or FCNs, and the Edens were dedicated to improving them to the benefit of Australia, the Free Communities and the world.

Nguyen’s smaller staff of normals and Psychos – each implanted with a deadman charge next to his or her heart – worked on somewhat different projects. Where the FCNs were modified to avoid entering the brain, and to do nothing if they did, the American commando nanos became the basis for many interesting experiments. Had these become known to the Edens they would have been appalled and horrified to see what was done beneath their feet, in the deeply-buried underground levels of the laboratory.

Some days Nguyen would observe through the thick glass as a dangerous new nano was tested on the Americans. He especially liked to watch Huff as he screamed and struggled against his restraints, experimental machines running wild through his body for just long enough. Then the electromagnetic field would be fed power and the variant CCNs inactivated, dialyzed out, and FCNs reintroduced to help the man heal. Spooky enjoyed hearing Huff cry out for mercy from this hell, but sometimes he allowed the escape of unconsciousness.

Other days he locked everyone out of the private observation room except for Ann, and they would enjoy his screams together while indulging themselves. If only Deliah could see me now, he thought, she would be lost to me. To keep two mistresses, one Eden and one Psycho, is to walk the knife’s edge without being cut. What greater pleasure can there be than to do what is prohibited, and not be found out…and to do it again.

His pleasures never interfered with his efficiency…or so he told himself. Every day he meditated and performed an extensive set of martial-arts exercises. Twice a week he trained with one of several masters of the combative sciences, ensuring he kept his body hard and fit. And whenever he could, he wined, dined, and bedded Deliah Pelapolos.

She had been resistant at first, of course. Sleeping with the boss would be an assault on her integrity – and his, in her view. Still, his charms and persuasions had led to talks, dates, and eventually assignation. Most women can be seduced by power, he thought, by flattery, gifts, and the right kind of rationalization, no matter how nice a girl they like to think themselves. They say, “we really love each other, so the rules don’t apply.” Eventually they become so intoxicated they cannot resist.

He even took her out to see the Orion site, where the skeleton of Ekara’s spaceship was beginning to take shape. Nguyen was a VIP, so given the full treatment, and Deliah basked in his reflected power and status. She no doubt believed she would one day be more than merely his girlfriend, and he did not disabuse her of that notion…but he knew it would never be. If she ever grew tiresome, he had many ways of making her disappear. An unfortunate accident: yes, some particularly nasty nano, you see. No, her body was contaminated, it has been destroyed, but her government life insurance is quite generous and all of her relatives will be well-compensated, including you, sir…

All in all, Spooky Nguyen was as happy as a patient man with unsatisfied ambitions could be.

His only disruption, if one could call it that, came in the form of one old man called Maka. An Aborigine who accompanied the tribal warrior Kalti in his spear-fighting school, he always sat on the sidelines of the dirt practice yard with a look of intense concentration as the master trained his students. Every time Spooky came to train, he saw the gnarled fellow with his equally twisted stick.

As Spooky diligently added the native martial arts of Australia to his extensive repertoire, sweating and striking with his blunted spear, the wizened shaman would laugh at the strangest times. Clapping his hands, striking his heavy twined stick on the ground, he called out in his native Warlpiri, incomprehensible to the Vietnamese.

Despite his resolve and concentration, Nguyen found himself distracted, and would often be struck down by his huge, fit opponent, or by one of the other students. He presumed it was part of the training, to learn to be less distracted, but it seemed particularly difficult to block out Maka’s cries.

This latest session began as it always did, with a ritual warm-up much like Japanese kata, or form. Nguyen and several other advanced students followed the spearmaster Kalti in the heavy, stomping movements. When they were finished, instead of continuing with the training, Spooky walked over, intending to sit down next to Maka just out of arm’s reach.

As he did so, the old man reached out with his staff and struck at Nguyen’s foot. Instinctively the small Asian lifted his leg and was thereby unprepared for the stick’s hooking pull on his supporting knee, which brought him to the ground. Slapping the dirt and rolling, he came up facing the laughing elder.

Clever old man. I underestimated him. That will not happen again. He glanced toward Kalti, who also laughed uproariously.

Aborigines had a different sense of face and decorum than he, which was one of the reasons he attended this training, so he did not allow himself to be offended. I am here to learn, and I have just learned a valuable lesson. Or relearned it. Perhaps I am getting soft, with my power and my mistresses.

Spooky bowed to Maka, never taking his eyes away, and then with superb balance and awareness, stepped back to sit down next to the old man. This time there was no movement of staff, no test or demonstration. The two sat there in apparent peace and harmony, watching the rest of the session. Maka laughed and called out as usual, but Nguyen put himself into a hyperaware meditative trance, always ready for the slightest hint of attack.

It never came.

But his intense observation allowed him to realize what he had so foolishly overlooked before. The old man’s shouts and laughter reinforced or disrupted the training in subtle ways. They refocused the energy of the combatants, much as a kiai did for the karateka, much like he himself had used on Huff to disrupt his attack in the hangar. Like a wizard, the shaman stood back and conferred victory on whom he wished through a kind of psychological magic.

Yes, he thought, I have much to learn here, and the first lesson is humility.  The second is that the guiding hand is the real master. And the third is that partnership brings victory. I have been going it alone too much, relying on myself. Using people when I should be, at least in some cases, truly cooperating. He turned to Maka then, looking the man directly in his wrinkled prune-face where his eyes shone like opals. “Thank you for the lesson, Master Maka.”

Maka merely laughed, and spoke one word. “Dadirri,” he said, then went back to watching Kalti as he swung, spun and swept his spear.

Yes, there is much here to discover. I have buried myself in work, and in pleasure.

As a westerner would say: I need to get out more.

---

Cassandra Johnstone shrugged off her thick overparka, leaving just her down vest on, standard wear for those at the Free Communities’ Cormack Antarctic research station. The interior temperature was usually around 60 Fahrenheit, chilly for those not acclimatized. She picked up her tablet from the desk of her temporary office and read the email from Elise again.

It was couched in careful qualifications, but it still made her uneasy. Human subjects for Reaper Plague trials. This is where we start sliding down the slippery slope, she thought. So necessary, so important, the least of all evils, it could save millions. What’s one or three or a dozen prisoners’ lives compared to that? She almost slammed the thing on the desk, but remembered how everything here had to be flown thousands of miles, so she slid it into her jacket instead.

She wandered slowly through the building, greeting people now and again but mostly thinking. Her portion of the sprawling complex was a kind of genteel prison, housing low-risk detainees who still had information to give. They called it simply The House. She’d refused to consider using the place as an Antarctic Guantanamo, to hold people outside the law. That wasn’t her purpose. Everyone there was free to leave – to their own countries of origin. None of them wanted to go back. This was their path to Free Community citizenship and expiation of their crimes.

In fact most of her people here were defectors like the former commando Marquez, happy enough to have every drop of intelligence wrung out of them and to try to prove their value to Cassandra and thereby the Free Communities.

She didn’t say it too loud, but one of the important functions of The House was to recruit her own intelligence agents, spies who could adopt new identities, return to their native lands, and provide her with the information she needed.

Some well-meaning people thought the Eden Plague and its virtue effect had done away with the need for spies. But as long as there were nations with wildly differing goals and views of their destinies, as long as the Earth remained disunited, the Free Communities would need to know what was going on within the other regimes.

Maybe someday the human race will be united, Cassandra thought. You’d think that the threat of alien invasion would do it. Maybe we’ve made some progress in that direction, but it’s not happened yet. Until it does, Cass, you have a job.

She stopped in at the cantina for hot chocolate, tipping a dollop of brandy from a flask into the cup as she read the screen again. The sound of sweeping next to her didn’t get her attention, but the man in insulated coveralls who sat down across from her did. He held his broom handle against his cheek and smiled at her. “Hola, senorita. Que pasa?

“Hey, Marquez. How are you settling in?”

“This is a vacation. Mostly I’m bored. Getting in a lot of gym time.” He banged the broom gently on the floor. “This sweeping is such a workout.” He gestured at her cup. “Got any more of that boom juice?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You don’t have alcohol privileges yet. You know how much it costs to fly it out here?”

He shrugged philosophically. “Fair enough. So what you reading?”

Cassandra stared at Marquez for a long moment. “Are you hitting on me, convict?”

“Ouch. Low blow. I was a prisoner of war.”

“I have a copy of your FBI dossier, Julio.”

“Oh.” He looked crestfallen. “Okay, but that’s all in the past. And it was under the Unies. They gave lots of people pardons for what they did the last ten years. I’m an Eden now and I’m reformed. But hey…” He spread his hands. “Even spy ladies need boyfriends.”

The comment struck Cassandra so comically that she burst out laughing, drawing some glances. “You got cojones, Marquez, I give you that. Tell you what. Be a good soldier and prove your rehabilitation, in one year you can ask me out. Ah ah – I didn’t say I’d accept, just that you could ask.” She dropped the smile. “Until then, nose to the grindstone.”

Marquez nodded. “Okay, it’s a deal.” He stood up to go back to work.

“Wait a minute, sit back down.” Cassandra stared at the email from Elise again. “Let me ask you about something. You’ve been here long enough to get a feeling for the rest of your Housemates?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“I have something here. If I tell you, you can’t say anything. Period. Consider it your first test of rehab. You want to hear it?”

He rubbed his scruffy chin. “Okay. I can keep my mouth shut.”

She tapped the corner of the tablet on the table. “This is a request for experimental human subjects, for the Reaper Plague cure effort. I can’t for the life of me think that anyone here would want to volunteer, and the FC doesn’t do capital punishment, so there’s nobody on death row that might see this as an option.”

“They want to test the Reaper Plague on us? The one that’s killing everybody?”

“Yes. They want volunteers in exchange for a pardon for all past actions.”

“And you want me to do it?” he shrugged. “Okay.”

Cassandra’s jaw dropped. “Okay? Just like that? Are you nuts? Why would you risk your life?” She found that she had involuntarily reached across and taken hold of Marquez’s forearm in sympathy. She abruptly let it go.

His mouth quirked upward slightly as he pointedly watched her hand retreat. “I guess you like me a little bit after all. Those long conversations strapped to the table were interesting, huh?”

She shook her head and chuckled. “Stay on topic, Julio. I just wanted to know if you thought any of the Housemates would volunteer.”

“I dunno, but like I said, I will.”

“You’re trying to impress me.”

“Worked, didn’t it?”

Cassandra crossed her arms, for once nonplussed. “Okay. I pride myself on my judgment of people, but that was a surprise. I guess I need to ask the Housemates myself instead of assume I know what they will do.”

Marquez stood up and shrugged. “I guess so.” He paused, searching her eyes. “You a smart lady, Senorita Cassandra, but you don’t know everything.” He pulled out a silver crucifix from under his coveralls and kissed it, then went back to sweeping.


Three people volunteered. After a surreally impromptu going-away party – Cassandra donated all her liquor – they caught the next plane back to South Africa and the Carletonville laboratory where Marquez had been captured.

As Cassandra stood watching the ski-equipped C-130 Hercules take off, she mused on the unpredictability of human beings – for cruelty, for self-sacrifice. Who’d have thought he would be the one to touch my frozen heart. Just a little. I said the same thing about Zeke, and I’ve always had a weakness for military men.

Godspeed, Julio. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go watch you die. Ten years later and Zeke is too fresh. But I’ll pray you make it through alive.


Epilogue

Raphaela sat in her chair and stared at the cocoon, rubbing the slight swell of her belly. Thoughts of life growing inside her made her melancholy, and once again, as on every day before she went to sleep, she considered waking him up. And every day she talked herself out of it.

She stood up to walk over to the sarcophagus-like device. Running her finger over a touchpad, she caused a piece over his face to become transparent.

Alan…you look so peaceful there. I love you so much; I just wish I could trust you. She laughed silently at herself. Four thousand years of memories and I’m still a slave to human biology, human weaknesses. Raphael would kill Alan, or fit him with a mind control plug. But I can’t do that, no matter how much sense it makes. That proves I’m human. Love isn’t real unless it’s freely given, and I can’t give up on you now.

And if you never love me, then at least I set you free.

She opaqued the window with a sweep of her hand and lay down on the dais beside the cocoon. Its faint throb comforted her as she pressed her back against its warm resilient surface. Soon, mother and child joined Skull in sleep once again.

End of The Reaper Plague.

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“I got targets, Top, want me to light them up?” Butler asked, sounding eager. His incredible weapon quivered like a live thing, pointing toward the dozen or so vehicles parked in front of the office building.

“By all means,” Repeth replied in a droll voice, “but spare your ammo.”

Butler thumbed the selector switch that chose his burst length. The electric Gatling fired much too fast for mere human control; at 150 rounds per second, he would be lucky to guess burst size within 20 shots. So he clicked on “10” and put ten rounds into each vehicle in turn. “There’s an underground parking garage,” he warned as a tunnel leading down hove into view.

“Lockerbie, as soon as we dismount, push some of these hulks to block that tunnel. Butler, I see windows. I don’t like windows.”

Butler grinned. “Roger that, Top.” He flipped the gun back to full auto and walked a stream of rounds from the building’s corner to corner, holing every window and the front glass doors as well. They didn’t come apart the way they should, though. “Armored glass. Bulletproof. Good thing these ain’t bullets,” Butler muttered.

Profligate with ammo this time, he sprayed the penetrators along the top and bottom of the window line, and great gaps appeared as chunks of the hardened crystal fell to the ground by the hundredweight. “Ammo!” he yelled, and Donovan scrambled to reach over the seat and pull up several 200-round cases of 20mm penetrator. Grusky helped him manhandle the fifty-pound shell holders into the turret hoppers.

Without windows the rooms beyond were visible, well-lit offices with computers, shelves, desks, chairs. Tiny blue lightnings popped from broken electronics. Here and there a small fire started, smoke curling up toward the ceiling to activate the suppression system. In several places inverted fountains of halon gas poured down, obscuring their view.

And a few things, once human, twitched redly in the wreckage. The hundreds of penetrators had probably sliced all the way through the building to burst out the other side, slaughtering everything in their path.

Jill’s conscience banged on its box lid, trying to get out. Shut up, she said to that piece of herself. I’m not wrong about this place. Whatever is going on here, it’s evil. The only thing I am going to regret is if there’s no one left to give me intel.

“Hurry up!” she barked as she shoved The Beast’s heavy door open and dismounted. Her PW10 snugged on its retractable sling under her right arm, and in her hands she hefted the rotary grenade launcher. “Butler, finish loading the Vixen yourself, and keep an eye on that jail. There may be armed guards in there, but there may also be prisoners, so don’t perforate it. Grusky, Donovan, you’re with me. Get moving, go go go!”

The three burst out of the vehicle and followed Repeth as she jogged toward the shattered front door of the office building. Behind them, Butler reloaded his depleted bin as Lockerbie bulldozed wrecked cars to block the underground garage.

Repeth saw movement in a gutted room and resisted the urge to fire a grenade. I need information, not revenge, she scolded herself. For now, that other self listened. She clambered over the sill into the office and through the mess.

Legs struggled weakly beneath a heavy overturned desk. Repeth pointed and the two men heaved the thing off the body while she covered them. Beneath the wreckage lay a man in shirt and tie, bloodied and dazed. She reached down to haul him to a seat in a surviving chair. Grabbing his hair to look him in the face, she lifted an eyelid. Running her half-gloved fingers over his torso, she searched for the wound that had produced all the blood.

She found a moist, bloody but rapidly-closing hole in his abdomen, and she put her grenade launcher down on the desk behind her to pull up her PW10. She set its muzzle to his head. “He’s healing. Nano or bio of some kind. That’s good, he won’t die on us. Cuff him, Donovan.” Once he was secured and his eyes were starting to clear, she slapped him gently. “Hey, you. You. What’s your name?”

They heard a burst of Vixen fire, then silence. The man looked around wildly, realizing his predicament.

“Hey you. Focus. What’s your name?”

“Bill,” he said dazedly.

“Okay, Bill, are you an Eden?”

A sly look crossed his face before it smoothed. “Yeah, Eden. It’s legal now, you know.”

“Liar.” Repeth kicked him in the stones, her heel crunching down on his groin.

“Top!” cried Grusky as the man choked and gagged in pain.

“Shut up, David. He’s healing, but he’s not an Eden. He doesn’t deserve your sympathy. I told you, what’s in here is evil. Even if he is just a paper-pusher, he’s part of it. If you don’t want to watch this, go keep an eye on the corridor, make sure no one is creeping up on us.”

“Come on, Donovan,” Grusky said with a sickened expression, grabbing the younger man’s sleeve and pulling him to the office door to watch for enemy.

Repeth continued. “Now, Bill, I know you can heal from that, and you know I can make it happen over and over. Or I can just pop you in the head right now and goodnight whatever you are. You’re either a Psycho or a Nano and either way you’re only staying alive if you give me information. What is this place?”

The man raised his head to look into Repeth’s eyes and all resistance died. She could see self-preservation overrule any qualms he had about betraying his employer. “Look, I’ll tell you everything, just let me live. Once I’ve talked they’ll want me dead so you gotta get me out of here.”

She nodded. “My word on it.”

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The Reaper Plague

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Books by David VanDyke

Plague Wars Series

The Eden Plague - FREE

Reaper’s Run

Skull’s Shadows

Eden’s Exodus

Apocalypse Austin

The Demon Plagues

The Reaper Plague

The Orion Plague

Cyborg Strike

Comes The Destroyer


Stellar Conquest Series

The Plague Wars continues 100 years later!

First Conquest

Desolator

Tactics of Conquest

Conquest of Earth

Conquest and Empire


Star Force Series - with BV Larson

Outcast

Exile

Demon Star

Books by D.D. VanDyke

D. D. VanDyke is the Mysteries pen name for fiction author David VanDyke.

California Corwin P.I. Mystery Series

Loose Ends

In a Bind

Slipknot

Off The Leash

For more information visit http://www.davidvandykeauthor.com/


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my friends and fellow authors Vaughn Heppner and B.V. Larson, for their tireless encouragement, for persevering and showing me the way.


Thanks to my readers – my lovely wife Beth, my father Chet, my friend and fellow author Ryan King, and the members of our Friday Night Writes group – Carol Scheina, R. Brian Roser, and Duane Lee, talented authors all - for their excellent critiques; their feedback has made me a better writer and this book a better novel.

Cover by Jun Ares

Formatting by LiberWriter


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