Fate's Reprisal - Cw Scott - ebook
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The war lasted minutes, but the fight is far from over… PFC Kent Nielson, ex-Special Forces, finds himself disgraced, stripped of rank and thrown on a backwater world.His career all but over and his tour nearly up, resigning is the only option. When an otherworldly ambush tears through his platoon though, he soon realizes his life could indeed get worse.In his plight to discover what happened to his unit, and the rest of the planet, he discovers something much more sinister than a mere invasion. Powerful players with their own agendas are involved...And Nielson wasn’t meant to survive.

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Fate’s Reprisal

Book One of the Corporate Alliance Series

Copyright © 2015 by C.W. Scott

cwscottauthor@gmail.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Illustration © Tom Edwards

Cover art by Tom Edwards: tomedwardsconcepts@gmail.com

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 1

Dark clouds swept across the night sky, blotting out what little light the stars and moons cast. Rain scented the air, ensuring they would have a cold and muddy evening.

Private First Class Kent Nielson stumbled and cursed. He refocused his attention on the ground as he shuffled along at the end of the center squad. He glanced up occasionally to make sure he didn’t run into any of the small shrubs that pockmarked the ground, or the short scraggly growths that passed for trees on Corinth. The low-light enhancement built into his helmet visor hadn’t worked since he got it. He regretted not jumping through the hoops to get a replacement.

PFC Kent’s understrength Marine platoon had run an aimless search pattern since being dropped off on the edge of the Fringe three days earlier. Officially, they were looking for a downed shuttle. According to the locals, the stricken craft lit up the sky as it burned through the atmosphere and crashed to the west. The platoon assumed it had to be smugglers. Whatever the case, a drone could’ve covered the same area in an hour. Unofficially, it sure seemed like someone had told the lieutenant to keep his unit scarce for a few days. The boss sure found a great place to lay low.

The handful of nearby settlements were little more than small abandoned farms and a few homes built in anticipation of settlers that never arrived. Nothing human lived out here anymore except a few diehards looking for privacy. The few roads around simply ended in random fields. Same with the unfinished water and mechanical lines.

The sky opened up and Kent ground his teeth. Within moments, water sloshed inside his boots. The old viro-suit worn under his armor, which normally kept him dry, now held water against his skin, chilling him to his bones and slowing his movements. The light nano-weave armor he sported over his suit did wick some water away, but nothing helped against rain that came in sideways. Thunder shook the ground and traveled up his boots. The platoon’s grumbling only added to the staccato of the rain. Three days of patrolling, complemented by blisters, unwashed bodies and field rations, had everyone ready to break.

The weather punctuated Kent’s failed career perfectly. After six months at this post, and many more failed requests for a transfer, he fell into a slump. He couldn’t even rate a slot as a fleet Marine despite his experience. Why they hadn’t just kicked him out, he would never know. His stint, his entire career, would be over in a couple weeks anyway. He could just walk away, but this wasn’t how he wanted to finish out this chapter of his life. A pension wasn’t even an option. That would take another eight years. Eight more years of traipsing across this planet would drive him insane. They were little more than glorified babysitters, watching over the planet’s naval depot in a time of peace.

The rain continued to pummel them, making the uneven terrain even more treacherous and reducing visibility to near zero. His visor infused everything with a green hue laced with static. He tried to turn it off with a mental command, gave up and slapped the side instead. That finally cleared his view to standard resolution. If it wasn’t for the positioning and map data reflecting on his heads-up display, he would have disconnected the visor’s power source. The vision modes switched on and off at random, adding to the annoyance.

He could no longer make out Private Phillips, who should only be a few meters ahead. If not for the personnel markers on his HUD, he would have easily been separated. The troop markers kept drifting, with a few of them completely out of formation. After a good twenty minutes, the rain finally slowed to a drizzle. The front of the platoon column came into view. He had let his mind wander and fell behind. It would have gotten him killed in the past. Normally, the team leader would have kicked the private’s ass by now, but his particular team leader was either hyped up on stims or listening to music through his cochlear implants.

Unfortunately, not everyone was so occupied. A whistle behind him showed that the tail squad had gotten far too close. “Hey Recon! You ever walk in circles for days while in spec-ops?”

Kent ignored the snickering and kept eyes on the mud ahead. He had never been in Force Recon, but he’d been in other Special Operations Units. Most of them were unheard of. Even among the Marines. His career had taken him along an untraditional path. The details were all classified. How these grunts knew any of it… well, Recon was better than what they usually called him when they didn’t think he had his helmet’s external pick-ups tuned in.

“That’s probably how he ended up in our outfit,” someone else said to a chorus of hushed laughs. “See where you end up when you shoot civilians?”

“I thought it was children?” The first instigator chuckled, followed by more laughter.

Kent slowed. His face warmed and he was pretty sure his shaking wasn’t from the chilly air. Normally he ignored their prodding, but a few broken faces might speed up his retirement. He shuffled to a stop and spun around.

“Uh-oh,” Private Liang said. “Is that the rain or your tears?” More laughs. Liang was a well-known instigator, but disciplinary action just didn’t happen unless the lieutenant caught it. Of course, no one would turn him in, including Kent. There were better ways to deal with such people.

A hand on Kent’s shoulder startled him. He cursed himself for getting so worked up he didn’t hear someone approach.

“Don’t let them get to you.” He turned to see Corporal Phillips, a brute of a man, with a chiseled face and a physique that made his own one hundred kilos look childish. “They’re just trying to get you to do something stupid, Kent. They didn’t end up on this planet because of their outstanding work ethic.”

Phillips was one of the few in the entire platoon worth a damn, and someone Kent considered a friend. Like everyone else here, the corporal hadn’t volunteered for this post. Even in the dark, the unnatural glaze of his synthetic eyes glinted, serving as a reminder of how the big guy had ended up in the military. At thirty-two, he had a few years on Kent, and therefore able to opt for full body upgrades before they were outlawed after the Corporate Alliance War ended in 2167. Kent, a minor during the conflict, couldn’t afford extra implants. His mother certainly couldn’t float the money either. Kent was stuck with the standard nano-implants like everyone else. They allowed him to interface with basic electronics, but did little else.

Phillips bristled with nano-tech though, some visible under his skin, enhancing his strength, speed and agility. He had been an impressive athlete before any enhancements, competing in high school and part of college. After the war, most implants were banned. Certain devices, such as extreme physical alterations were strictly illegal, at least for civilians. So Phillips had few options other than to join the service or hide. For the rest of his life, since this was no passing prejudice craze. Black market doctors using cloned implants, or simply subpar procedures, had caused more than a few deaths. The only thing worse was when they succeeded in creating superhuman killing machines. Nobody wanted people walking the streets, especially unstable individuals, with the strength to crush a skull with their bare hands. No matter the damage this caused to so many mega-corporations, or to the crumbling economy.

Kent nodded at Phillips and slapped the big guy on his shoulder. Phillips gave the tail squad a hard look before turning around and trotting back to his position at Kent’s two o’clock. Kent picked up his pace. Not a minute after the altercation with Laing, Platoon Sergeant Banks, a short, overweight ball of intensity whose face grew several shades of red with each step, made his way back and halted at Kent’s position. The sergeant pulled himself up to his full height, included standing on his toes, and still barely reached Kent’s chin.

“Nielson! Why did you stop and break formation.”

It wasn’t a question. The sergeant’s heads-up display gave the location of everyone in the platoon. Everyone was out of position. Not that it mattered. Kent straightened himself up to his full one hundred eighty six centimeters, and kept his expression blank. “Don’t know what you mean, Sarge.”

Banks made a harrumph sound, as his face managed to get another shade deeper. “Wait until we get back.” Spittle flew from his mouth. He spun on his heels and marched back towards the front of the column.

Kent trudged on. Phillips glanced back and rolled his eyes. They had both been on the receiving end of Banks’s tirades for one infraction or another on a weekly basis. He wanted to feel sorry for the sergeant. He had a tough job considering the quality of person his platoon inherited, but like everyone else, the sergeant hadn’t requested to be posted here.

The lieutenant called a stop around two a.m. Kent could just make out the sergeant talking to him. Conversations soon buzzed up and down the line. A few individuals up ahead took the time to lift their helmets slightly and attach PCD’s, or personal communication devices, to the implants behind their ears. Probably calling their significant others, friends, or retrieving messages. Not the smartest thing to do. In order to attach the PCD, the wearer’s helmet had to be disconnected, breaking its link with the person’s main interface contact pad behind the ear. Of course, that also cut you off from any platoon communication and made it impossible to tell if you we about to receive a command, or a reprimand.

Grumbling soon followed. From what Kent could decipher, no one could make an outgoing call, or retrieve messages. They didn’t make much of a fuss about it though, since complaining to the sergeant about their unauthorized use of personal equipment would make the coming weeks hell. He thought about trying his own PCD, but Phillips was the only one he regularly talked to. At least the only one he acknowledged. The lieutenant got them moving again after a few minutes. Kent wasn’t sure what the short break was about, but didn’t really care anymore.

The tortuous drizzle eventually faded and a faint glow accentuated the horizon. Kent prayed the lieutenant would call a rest. He kept them going all night with only the one brief stop. Everyone’s shoulders drooped, boots dragged across the ground, and the early morning cold made movement difficult. They could walk past a burning heap and no one would notice, nor care.

The direction beacon on his heads-up display flipped off. New coordinates lit up, with a symbol representing a pickup point flashing below it. The landing zone was quite a ways from their current location. Kent thought it was close to the border of the Fringe. Might even be in the nearest town of Desmon. A few cheers rose up. At this point, he didn’t think anyone cared about the repercussions from all the noise they made. Nobody seemed curious about why they had to walk to the pickup point. The transport shuttle could pick them up anywhere. Perhaps the lieutenant was having trouble with his gear. With their outdated and worn out equipment, it wasn’t surprising.

He tilted his head slightly. Something carried on the wind, like a howl. He turned up his helmets external pick-ups. Very few dogs lived on Corinth. Most colonists couldn’t afford a ticket off Earth for their family, let alone the price to take a pet. Native Earth pets were reserved for the rich. Besides, this noise was different in pitch. No indigenous animals could produce the sound either. The only animals he ever encountered were small rodent-like creatures that squealed when startled.

The cheering had died down, leaving only the wind. The platoon had turned east, and entered what may have been an old riverbed, the walls sloping up gently to either side of the column. He took one look at the terrain and un-slung his rifle, tried to hear over the wind, and used his visor to scan the surrounding area, zooming out as far as possible. Now he was certain they weren’t far from the small town of Desmon. The most westerly town in the area. In good weather, it could probably be seen with a riflescope. Perhaps a local gang was having a bit of fun. Although taunting a group of armed Marines wasn’t the smartest thing to do.

The sun hadn’t peaked over the horizon yet, making it difficult to identify visually everyone in the first squad. By correlating their positions with his HUD, he could identify which shadow was the lieutenant. The active-camouflage on their armor hadn’t worked in months, but picking out individuals was still difficult. He turned on the icon identifier on his HUD. Private Wickes, on point, kept about ten meters ahead of them. The private had probably pissed off the lieutenant, because he certainly wasn’t qualified to be there. As usual, most everyone was out of position. He thought-keyed a private frequency to warn Phillips, who would actually acknowledge him, and switched back to the command frequency to warn the lieutenant. Phillips would heed his warning and had already checked his rifle. The lieutenant however, would probably invent some new words at the interruption.

By the string of profanities defecating through his implants, he had guessed correctly. The lieutenant stopped and turned around, mostly likely to drive the point home that Kent should relay the information through the squad leaders, or someone that gave a damn. Kent halted too, as Wickes, still on point, had hunched over. The screaming lieutenant forgotten, he brought his rifle up to look through the scope in time to see the private slump to the ground. His implants picked up no weapons fire, and he started to wonder if maybe Wickes had fallen due to exhaustion. No burning or other signs a laser had been fired. Although not used in decades, lasers could kill from a distance with hardly any sound or visible light. The early sun cast shadows across the ground, concealing details, making it difficult to determine the source.

Someone in the lead fire team shouted out. There was slight hesitation before his implants became alive with conflicting orders. Teakes, second in line behind Wickes, went down. Teakes however, didn’t simply fall over. Something had cut her in two, her torso tumbling off her legs. There had been a noise, like a whistle as something passed through the air, right before she fell, but still no visual sign of the enemy.

The lieutenant didn’t need to use his radio to be heard over the noise, but he wasn’t spitting out commands, he was screaming and holding his chest as he crumbled to the ground. Shouted orders, somebody screamed ambush, and another opened up with a rifle. More whistling from their left flank as Berks and Cam in second squad fell.

Targeting icons lit up his HUD, and what was left of the forward squad began tossing grenades and firing in that direction. No explosions followed though. Perhaps in a panic they had forgotten to key their grenades. Unlikely, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it, as something struck his chest, forcing him to the ground, the air bursting from his lungs. A small spike stuck straight out of his chest armor. If not for the uniform shape of the object, and lack of explosion, he might have taken it for a piece of shrapnel. He didn’t think it had penetrated deep enough to draw blood, and pulled it out, but it would certainly leave a bruise. More structured commands began to upload to his HUD along with additional objectives. Somebody had taken the initiative near the front of the column. He rolled over and spun to face north, brought his rifle up and began throwing rounds downrange, despite not being able to see what had hit them.

His rifle didn’t have quite the kick he expected. Their standard issue MC-20 could accelerate a slug at extremely high velocity. Although no chemical propellant was used, the sudden charge build-up and release had a noticeable effect, jarring his hand slightly as he fired. The weapon, linked to his HUD through his palm interface, showed a full charge. He shrugged internally and continued firing. They needed to move out of the riverbed.

The lieutenant’s voice cut through the chatter, and the man had managed to get to his knees. Almost everyone hit in the first moments was up and moving again. At least their helmet radios worked, but radio discipline stopped as soon as Teaks fell. Others began firing. It was difficult to see up ahead, hear the sergeant’s commands over the radio, and figure out what was going on. Kent had to rely solely on information fed through his HUD to direct his fire.

Something shimmered from atop the riverbank. Another shift of shadows as it seemed to leap into the air, and land near the remains of first squad; a four-legged creature, with broad shoulders and low-slung hips, followed by a long thick tail tipped with what looked like blades. Its skin color was impossible to determine. Maybe it was the shadows, but its skin, which had plating of some kind, swirled from gray to the color of the ground and back again. Its large maw made up most of the head and overflowed with long teeth, while its front feet sported curled claws that pierced the ground. It easily reached one hundred and fifty centimeters tall at its head, and must have weighed close to one hundred and eighty kilos. It moved blindingly fast, and in any direction, making it impossible to determine its path until it stopped. He squeezed the trigger of his rifle as it leaped again, landed beside the sergeant and swiped at him with its front claw, the motion a blur. The sergeant stood frozen, his weapon still pointed at the creature. Suddenly he dropped his rifle and clutched his stomach. For it to slice clean through the sergeant’s armor, it must have had tremendous power.

Kent fired a short burst. The round hit the creature’s broad side with no effect. Then he remembered the light kick. He could carry two hundred rounds in a single magazine since no casing or accelerant was needed. The magazine readout on his HUD showed eighty-five standard rounds that would pierce most soft armor, and one hundred hardened armor-piercing rounds. He selected armor piercing and fired again. There was no noticeable change in the rifle. The weapon would adjust the power depending on the round. The armor-piercing round had a slower rate of fire due to the increased charge time, but also had quite a punch.

He kept putting rounds towards it, but too many teammates were behind it for a clean shot. The creature, too fast to track, leaped again. It moved with a purpose. Never pausing, it leapt from the rocky ground in great leaps and bounced among the Marines it was mauling. Every time it landed, another warrior died. Whether using its tail to club or slice, gouging with its claws, or biting with jaws that opened large enough to bite a human in half, blood fountained from wherever it attacked.

They needed to move out of the riverbed and fast. Bodies, whether alive or dead, were dragged up and over the old riverbank by tall, blurred forms. Screams pierced the morning air as those still alive clawed at the ground, looking for anything to hang onto. Kent began firing as fast as he could despite the uselessness of the rounds, keeping his aim high to avoid striking someone friendly. The creature closed in, cutting through everyone in his squad. One more leap would put it in range to strike him. He could sense Phillips off to his right, firing towards it. One final leap and it landed between them.

He was lying prone on the ground, and immediately let go of his rifle, and used his left arm to push himself up to his knees while simultaneously drawing his sidearm. The large bore, chemical fired weapon used case-less forty caliber slugs that could take out most soft targets, and was a lot more powerful than the pistol he had been issued. The hand cannon wasn’t standard-issue, but in its holster the sergeant couldn’t tell the difference. The creature faced him, not more than a meter away, as he got to his knees, pistol pointed at its face. Before he could fire, it spun around with blurring speed, part of its tail striking his helmet with the force of a sledgehammer. He flew backwards, the blow so powerful it lifted him off his knees. The only thing that saved his head from getting cleaved in half was the nearness of the creature, the center of its tail hitting him, instead of the blades.

He landed on his back, his lungs emptying again. His vision blurred, and he couldn’t tell if there was a crack in the visor, or he had simply been hit too hard. Something heavy landed on top of him, and splattered blood on his visor. His body refused to move. Even turning his head became a nightmare of pain, overshadowed only by trying to keep his eyes open. Above him, at the rim of the small culvert they had found themselves in, a figure stood. It had to be at least two hundred and fifty centimeters tall, with long lanky arms. The left ended in some kind of device that resembled a weapon. Kent, his vision turning black around the edges, noticed its skin shifted color, and that it wore some kind of armor. The most terrifying thing about it was its lack of movement. It stood there watching, motionless, even as rifle fire continued to pierce the air.

The creature looked in his direction, but he could no longer focus.

Chapter 2

Every step was a hot knife penetrating his feet. Kent tried to run, but his legs were heavy and unresponsive. There was something behind him that he needed to get away from. The pain blinded him, causing him to stumble and fall, small rocks in the soil cutting and digging into his face. He closed his eyes, trying to hold back a scream, and gave into the darkness.

****

The pain in his chest became unbearable as he tried to take a lungful of air. He forced his eyes open and found himself staring at a pockmarked ceiling, dimly lit from an unknown source. He breathed heavily, which only hurt more. Looking down at his chest sent stabbing pain through his head, but nothing was there.

Chapter 3

Desmon. Empty lots, vacant homes, and garbage in the streets. Except for the empty lots, it wasn’t much different from most Fringe cities he’d known. The distances between homes still amazed though. Growing up in the city, and never traveling as a child, meant Kent hadn’t seen an actual yard until he left Earth for the military. His childhood home had been packed so tightly with others, with mile-high skyscrapers towering overhead. He could only see the sun for a few hours a day.

His father, career Navy, kept everyone on Earth while he gallivanted around the stars. Other than advertisements for colonization, Kent hadn’t known what else was out there. Joining the military was the easiest way off planet, although he was really starting to doubt that career choice.

Nothing moved in the distance, but he stayed off the road anyway. The sun would be up for a while and the active camouflage on his armor didn’t work. Other than the homes themselves and a few burnt-out vehicles, he had no cover.

He didn’t know what to do about the civilians. They would get in his way. At least they seemed to have done all right so far. He could always go back later. Sam mentioned everyone in the house was on the run for the last couple of days. Had the captain known what was going on? Why hadn’t he let the lieutenant know instead of having the platoon search the middle of nowhere for days while civilians were being killed?

He held Sam’s sidearm up. A forty-five. A very old 1911 style forty-five actually. Probably a cloned remake of a classic manufacturer, but must have been in Sam’s family for a generation or two. He checked the magazine. The brass cartridges glimmered in the sunlight. Must have cost a fortune for the custom ammunition. He’d only seen cartridges like that in display cases back in boot. They would stop a full-grown human though.

He took off towards the east, staying close to homes and in shadow whenever possible. The streets remained quiet. If anyone on the sled Sam had mentioned remained alive, they didn’t have much time. Most of the homes lay abandoned but some civilians still lived here, as living space came cheap, and the drive to the port city of Thelon, a short jaunt. Vehicles littered the street, old and probably abandoned. If an attack had taken place here, it would be difficult to tell. He spent time in some of the better-kept homes, hoping to find signs of life, but the only traces of the former occupants were small spots of blood and broken furniture. Whoever had been taking humans, wasn’t asking them to come of their own accord.

He still had trouble believing creatures were responsible. His memory came back in brief flashes, mostly accented by the screams of his platoon. He began to believe it was a mistake to have doubted Sam. There wasn’t any way he could have ended up in this town some other way, unless he had stumbled several kilometers while injured.

It didn’t make much sense to drag away humans simply to execute them. Why take corpses? Outside the homes, drag marks and strange footprints led to the street. If they used a grav-sled then he wouldn’t be able to find much trace. Whatever had loaded the bodies followed behind on foot, or the equivalent of feet, leaving slight marks on the dust that blew across the road. He followed the tracks for a while, forgetting caution as he walked along the middle of the street. Eventually he came to an area of the road covered in scorch marks. The strange tracks ended there, near the edge of town. They had traveled around the town as though collecting garbage, and most likely loaded them onto a shuttle of some sort.

His head hung low, he sat down in the middle of the road. Was he the only one captured? Maybe he’d fallen off the sled. Perhaps anyone left alive remained somewhere out on the Fringe, lost and confused, or made it back to the depot. He looked off to the northeast, even though he couldn’t possibly see it from this far away.

He shook his head and stood. Sitting in the middle of the road, even in a seemingly abandoned town, wasn’t a great idea. Off in the distance he caught a glimpse of something. A slight movement on the next street over. If he saw them, they could see him. He cursed silently for letting his emotions get in the way of caution and hid behind a nearby vehicle. He hadn’t gotten enough of a look to determine if it was human, but it was tall. No human, save for himself, would be stupid enough to walk around in the daylight if there really were creatures around.

A howl pierced air. More memories of the early morning came flooding back and he closed his eyes, flashes of a nightmare vision shuddering through him. Just before the four-legged creature began slaughtering his platoon, he’d heard the same cry. Fast and lethal, and considering its predatory nature, the thing probably had a great sense of smell. The last thing someone who hadn’t showered in days could hide from. He turned around and ran, the pistol in his hand not much reassurance.

Another scream, closer this time, caused him to stumble, but he managed to keep his footing. Running back to the home Sam and the rest hid at wasn’t an option. He ran between two homes and up to another on the next street over. Its windows lay shattered on the ground and graffiti marred the outside. He hoped it abandoned. The back door wasn’t locked and he slipped inside. He ripped off the remainder of one of his sleeves and tossed it out the door, hoping to confuse his pursuer. There would be no place to hide. The entire place had been stripped. None of the interior doors remained, and the cheap nano-synth wood doors normally used wouldn’t stop anything but a small rodent anyway. He ran to the front door and froze.

The bedroom closet… The broken windows let in just enough light to see by. He went back to the bedroom to a small panel hidden in the floor. He pried the panel up and out of the way. Most homes in the area were raised up and housed all of the mechanical parts underneath.

The opening was just big enough to squeeze through. The crawl space below was unlit and had a dirt floor. He turned on his back to reset the access panel. The only light came from small vents that probably cooled the home at some point. He had just settled as a large crash shook the house. Something had taken out the front doors and now moved quickly, smashing into what seemed like everything. The home shuddered again, as though the creature simply ignored interior walls as it moved from one room to the next, creating a dust cloud in the small confines underneath the home. Kent held his breath as the creature stopped close by. From the noise, it must be near the floor hatch. It scuffled along the floor, bumping into walls as it sniffed the air.

The enemy remained quiet for a moment. Kent waited for it to claw its way in and tear him to shreds. Instead, the house shook slightly as it crashed through something, and then silence. Maybe it had left. A moment later it was back, directly above him, its breath huffing deeply. It raked something across the floor, slowly. It had to know. Could it be toying with him? He held the sidearm straight up. If it chewed through the floor, he could empty the magazine into its face and hope the rounds would penetrate the back of its throat.

He doubted the creature could easily claw through the floor, but if others showed up, he would be trapped. Not that running was an option. The creature moved slowly around the home again. It let out another scream, shaking more dust loose and ran across the floor, crashed into something, and went silent. He was holding his breath again and let it out slowly.

Maybe it waited just outside, trying to bait him. He stayed there for what seemed an eternity, listening, straining to hear any movement save for his rapid heartbeat. He finally crawled out. Most of the interior walls lay in ruin and claw marks ravaged the floors. A large hole in the front of the house gave him a clear view to the street. He made his way out the back and between the same two homes passed earlier. Without his visor or rifle, he didn’t want to be caught out in the open again, so he kept well away from the street.

Kent hugged the backs of homes, pausing often to listen. He didn’t know exactly how far it was to get back, but he recalled the color and style of the exterior and a rough location. He heard a slight shuffle and only had time to raise the pistol as something clawed his shoulder, digging into flesh and sending him to the ground. He landed on his back, lost the forty-five, and looked up to see a dark shape jump from the roof.

Chapter 4

He rolled to the side and got to his feet in one swift move. Something warm trickled down his shoulder. If it was the four-legged creature from earlier hiding on the roof, his life would be over shortly, but what landed stood on two legs, although slightly hunched. Its skin slowly began to blend with the colors of the back of the home it stood next too. Perhaps it wore some sort of active camouflage, similar to his Marine armor. Even bent slightly, it towered over him by half a meter, yet its arms reached to the ground. The right one was used as a support, but there was something off about the left side. Bulbous and quite large, the arm didn’t seem natural, not that any of it was natural.

The entire creature shimmered again as its left arm swung towards him, striking him in the chest before he could react. A bright light from the sun, or perhaps his brain being hammered against his skull, pierced his eyes as he fell on his back again. The creature stood over him, put its foot on his already battered chest and raised its left arm. Actually, it wasn’t an arm at all, but some sort of device that completely enveloped its forearm, with a large bore at the end. A weapon, for sure, and pointed directly at Kent’s chest. His vision went dark as the pain enveloped him.

An explosion tore at his ears, but no warmth or any other sign the creatures weapon had fired followed. Something with a bore that large could take out much larger targets, but if it had hit his chest, then he wouldn’t be able to tell from the pain. He could breathe again and opened his eyes as the weight lifted. The creature lay on its side, the active camouflage had disappeared and its smooth skin with purple hues shimmered in the sun, its skull a pile of gore next to it.

He jerked as something grabbed him. “We need to move,” Sam said, standing over him, a rifle held in one hand. Kent sat up with a groan and with Sam’s help, got to his feet and started to move. The rifle shot would draw attention, and they sure didn’t want to run into anything else.

“One second.” Kent stopped and spent a moment looking for the forty-five. He found it quickly and grunted as he bent to pick it up.

He did his best to keep up, making it to the house in only a few minutes. He followed Sam into the kitchen and fell to the floor. Sam grabbed a bottle off the counter and ran back out. Pike left and came back a moment later with Julie.

She was all business as she knelt at Kent’s side. “What happened?” Between his chest injuries and running back to the house, he didn’t get anything to come out other than a groan. “Looks like you managed to ruin all my handiwork.” She spent the next several minutes taking off his armor and the upper half to his viro-suit, while ignoring his protests, and reapplied more bandages on his chest. “The shot I gave you is probably out of your system. You only had the one, so you’re going to have to tough it out until we can find more.”

He managed a nod and stayed on the floor until Sam got back. Together with Pike, they managed to get Kent back to bed where he fell into a troubled sleep. When he woke he didn’t feel better, and with no emergency injectors, it would be a while before he did. His internal clock said he’d slept for an hour. He sat up, drank the water somebody had placed on the table next to the bed, and got dressed. They needed to make the bunker at the naval depot. The depot would have water, food and sure better have a platoon of Marines laughing at the cruel joke they’d played. He didn’t know what to expect when he got there, but he didn’t plan to cower in an abandoned home for the foreseeable future.