Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dark Horizons

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Author’s Note: This is the first story I ever published online, way back when I was … 16? 17? … which entails that it’s understandably amateurish by my present standards. But then, we all have to start somewhere. And so, here’s my first foray into the literary arts (that I’m willing to let anyone else read).


Dark Horizons


— PART ONE —

The Dead City

It was a calm and tepid May night. The moon was shining bright in the starry sky, casting its eerie pearly glow upon the parched clouds and giving the waters and buildings below a surreal, almost phantomlike aura. A low, plaintive breeze made the few trees sway slightly, their leaves tentatively bristling before settling back down to a deathly still.

The massive towers of dark glass, steel and stone that populated the island stuck up like a forest of needles towards the sky. Their windows were blackened, mostly broken, and looked as though light hadn’t shone through them in decades. The buildings’ facades were prominently cracked and crumbling, the rubble from which formed mounds of debris in the city streets hundreds of feet below. Once bustling with life and action, these asphalt pathways were now silent and still, covered in a chaotic mess of rusted-through cars, fallen streetlamps, and other random garbage and debris that would’ve made walking amongst them a true navigational nightmare.

However, no-one was walking around. There hadn’t been a sign of human life in New York City for what had obviously been a very long time. Only insects and the rare animal managed to eke out a living in what was now a sprawling, towering ghost city.

Suddenly, the first hint of anything out of the ordinary appeared high in the sky, far above the skyscrapers. The clouds seemed to glow brighter and brighter, some yellow flooding in with the moon’s silver, until a hole was formed and brilliant rays of light shone through, dissipating the clouds around them as though being shooed away. The bright beams heralded the arrival of a large metallic craft that slowly descended towards the ground, its dazzling searchlights probing the dark expanse below. A low, resonating hum mixed with the sounds of hissing air were heard as the ship carefully aimed and fired its thrusters, guiding it towards the ground with surgical precision.

Wing-like structures on each side of the craft suddenly deployed and pivoted, revealing landing gears that positioned themselves as the vessel neared the ground. The thrusters suddenly hissed sharply, slowing the spacecraft to near-halt just feet above the ground as its searchlights probed all around it, giving the ship the appearance of a gigantic and positively surreal-looking disco ball. With one last shudder, the landing gears finally pressed against the ground, compressing slightly under the ship’s weight. Small jets of steam hissed and spluttered here and there as the spacecraft finalized its landing procedure.

Cast in its own light, a slightly rusty plaque at the front of the ship read in large letters:

USAF PROELIATOR

The house-sized craft rested on the ground for a few moments, its engines slowly whirring down and the streams of steam dissipating in the lukewarm night air. A sudden sharp hissing was heard as a hatch at the back of the ship lowered until it met the ground, forming a ramp into the ship’s brightly-lit interior. The light was broken by a silhouette in the form of a human, silent and unmoving, surveying the area from the top of the ramp. An unknown arrival on an unknown mission.

The figure slowly started down the ramp, and as it stepped onto terra firma the lights inside the ship automatically dimmed, extinguishing the blinding effect and throwing the person into view. It was a woman, and her appearance was one quite akin to the ship she’d just left. She wore an advanced, hi-tech suit and was decked out in a variety of gadgets and equipment, most noticeable of which was the intimidating and futuristic-looking rifle she held at her side. Something about her strict appearance and demeanor indicated she wouldn’t hesitate to use it. A small patch on the chest of her suit identified her read “CAPT. E. AMANTI”.

She paused, reached up to her temple where a sort of device was mounted to a small headset, and activated a little switch; at once, a powerful beam of light materialized from a deceptively small lens that was affixed there. She slowly looked around, scanning the dark surroundings, the headlight illuminating the ground for dozens of feet before her. Her left eye was hidden behind a flickering screen mounted to the headset, casting a pale green glow over her face which gave her a slightly sickly look. Even with this however, she was still remarkably pretty. Her shoulder-length, reddish-blonde hair was tied back in a tight bun, and her deep green eyes, glittering in the ship’s lights, were sharp and calculating as they focused on the Vision Enhancement Display Scanner (VEDS) screen deployed over her face. The enhanced display allowed her to see with superhuman acuity even in the lowest-lit of environments.

A slight breeze blew by, rustling her hair. Captain Amanti looked slightly uneasy as she surveyed the area through her VEDS screen, taking in every detail of the land. She and the Proeliator had landed in some sort of vast clearing, where the gentle slopes were covered in a patchwork of grass that struggled to take hold upon the barren soil, the relatively flat terrain broken only by myriads of what turned out to be old, carbonized tree stumps. They were haunting reminders of just how lush with beautiful greenery Central Park used to be, now so very long ago.

Place looks like a desert.

However, the park’s past beauty was obviously not on Captain Amanti’s mind as she finished scanning the land around her, apparently satisfied she was alone, and extended her left forearm. She wore a fancy sort of electronic bracelet, and as she activated a few buttons. The device suddenly projected a holographic screen over her forearm, a flickering green screen that moved along with her arm. Displayed was a highly-detailed map of her surroundings along with a little blue dot that signaled where she was currently located. Using her right-hand fingertips to manipulate the display, she zoomed out and the map revealed she and her ship were near the southwest corner of the gigantic, elongated rectangle that was Central Park. The map displayed every street, every building, every known structure, and a live uplink to a surveying GPS satellite ensured she wasn’t about to get lost anytime soon.

‘Where are you …?’ she muttered under her breath, activating a little menu on the screen. She selected an item; at once the display quickly zoomed out and scrolled by itself until it focused on a bright, pulsing green dot, located somewhere in the neighborhood that was once known as Hell’s Kitchen. Captain Amanti looked slightly relieved; at least the walk wouldn’t be too long. She didn’t intend to spend a second more in the city’s forbidding streets than she had to. The ghost city at night had an air about it that would strike unease into the hearts of the most hardened of operatives, but she had no choice. She had a mission to accomplish.

She turned back to her ship and activated a control panel next to the lowered ramp; a hiss later the ramp had lifted back up, sealing the ship to the outside world. The last thing she wanted was to return to a ship infested with God-knows-which critters.

Last time the damn ship got filled with rats. Took forever to flush ’em out.

With the ship now sealed and her destination displayed on her forearm, Captain Amanti took one last deep breath before resolutely starting forwards across the terrain.

The parched grass crunched underneath her thick rubber boots and the beam of light from her headgear danced around as she marched on, glancing in every direction through the moonlit gloom. Her VEDS screen was a true life-saver, allowing her to view what was around her with little regard for the enveloping darkness, though seeing the world through the green flickering filter made her feel like she was immersed in a sort of virtual reality. It was a rather disconcerting feeling.

Feels like a friggin’ videogame.

The halfway-bare terrain seemed to stretch on endlessly, despite the edge of the park laying only a few hundred feet ahead of her. The feebly-lit surroundings grew progressively dimmer as Dr. Amanti distanced herself from the Proeliator, watching as her shadow stretched on until she might’ve been a thousand feet tall from the length of it.

A few minutes later, she finally reached the southwest corner of the park’s rectangular layout and arrived at a wide, curved avenue rolling into a large circle, which a quick glance down at her holo-map identified as the Columbus Circle. She crossed through the center, where the decrepit remains of the once-proud monument depicting Christopher Columbus’ arrival at the New World now lay crumbling and weatherworn. She momentarily amused herself in imagining what the proud explorer’s reaction would’ve been if he had seen what this fabulous New World would become, some six hundred years or so after he first found it.

Once across the roundabout, she couldn’t help but feel incredibly diminished at the sight of the towering buildings facing her, their blackened facades staring at her as though taunting her, daring her to advance into the depths of the narrow streets that snaked through them. Shaking her head resolutely, she quickly started down the 8th avenue, heading south. She was soon enveloped in the towering structures’ shadows, the moon blocked by the high-rises and for the first time plunging her in near-complete darkness. Pearly rays of moonlight curtained in between buildings, cutting across the avenue like shimmering blankets of pale light and adding definition to the piles of fallen rubble and rusted vehicle carcasses that lay strewn everywhere in sight.

Talk about a bad traffic jam.

Even with the endless variety of strange and mysterious places she’d been sent to before, the combined effect of the moon’s translucent rays, the haunting debris-filled streets, the abandoned towers encasing her and the low, distant moaning from the breeze as it whooshed through the city streets threatened to endlessly distract her from her goal and gave her shivers that had little to do with the ambient temperature. She knew this disquiet was only gonna get worse the deeper she advanced into the heart of the old abandoned city.

She could hear her heart in her eardrums as she cautiously walked down the avenue, her beeline continually broken by her navigating around the endless obstacles in her path. Once or twice, she even nearly stepped right into half-hidden cracks in the ground which spanned the full width of the avenue, the results of decades and decades of erosion. Her vision grew extra sharp, even with the aid of her VEDS screen and light, and her eyes were wary as they endlessly swept across her surroundings in search of anything unwelcome or out of the ordinary. She wondered if the bright light from her VEDS dancing through the buildings and roads was a good idea, considering this was supposed to be a stealth operation.

She didn’t plan on drawing attention to herself.

Every few minutes, a distant resonating crashing noise would make her jump and twist around, searching for the source of the commotion, before she remembered what she was hearing was windowpanes, worn from lack of maintenance and falling out of their frames high above the streets, shattering on the pavement and rubble below. She found herself glancing upwards at the soaring buildings around her, wondering if a pane wasn’t about to fall out and land right on her head. This thought only made her accelerate her pace somewhat. As she passed buildings, she peered into windows high above her; every now and then she practically froze as she was certain she’d seen something move from inside the dark panels of glass, before realizing, each time, that it was obviously just a trick of the light. No-one and nothing could possibly have survived in these towers for over sixty years, anyway, so the mere thought itself was foolish.

After what seemed like a torturous eternity, she finally arrived at the intersection between the 8th Avenue and the West 48th Street. Following her holo-map was leading her to the pulsing green beacon, she quickly turned right, heading west onto the 48th Street. The buildings here were now low enough to permit the moon’s light, shining from somewhere behind her lengthwise across the street, to illuminate her path much better than previously. The lower buildings also served to reduce the sensation that she was being trapped between two endless and towering walls on either side of the street. The layout of these streets, especially in the dead of night, had a knack for spawning claustrophobic thoughts and fears in even the most agoraphobic of individuals.

She only went a few hundred feet along the relatively narrow street, dodging a few more wrecked vehicles and fallen streetlamps, before a look at her holo-map informed her that she had arrived. Before her sat an old theater house, sandwiched in between rows of flats and looking rather inconspicuous amongst the surrounding buildings. The grayish stone facade of the building was lined with tall windows, all of them shattered and allowing only a vague glimpse into the darkness within. A few steps led up to the multi-door entrance where tall doors were rusted open, forming an easy entrance. Judging from the pulsing blip’s position on her holographic layout, her target was somewhere in the center of the building’s interior.

The thought of finally reaching her target, knowing what it was, made Captain Amanti tense a little from nervous excitement.

It’s been so long …

She slowly moved towards the building, climbed the stone steps leading to the entrance and passed through the open doors without a sound. The darkness inside the room gave her the peculiar impression she was entering a mortuary, and another small shiver crept down her spine.

She found herself in a somewhat narrow entrance hall, with a few steps before her leading down into the lobby, a high-ceilinged stone-and-wood space that was streaked with shadows and rays of glowing moonlight which poured in from the tall windows that covered the facade. The hall arced into a wide curve on each side, each end leading to sets of massive oak double-doors, with the reception counter at the center of the foyer.

She felt increasingly nervous as she realized she was just moments away from reaching her target at last, finally ending this horrible expedition. The green pulsing blip on her holo-map seemed to have grown stronger and stronger the more she approached; manipulating the map’s focus, she could clearly see it was actually just behind the right-side entrance to the main theater room that lay beyond the lobby.

Dr. Amanti’s pulse quickened a little as she saw the blip on the holo-map being approached by her own. She finally headed down the narrow hall towards the doors on the right. A faded plaque above the doors read “MAIN THEATER, RIGHT AISLE”.

She had to watch her step here; the floor was littered with what appeared to be shattered chairs and tables, with wooden sticks and legs sticking out at random angles and posing a tripping hazard to anyone who tried to pass. She did her best to kick some out of her way as she carefully walked through the jumbled mess.

Hesitating momentarily as she reached the end of the hallway, she almost failed to notice a particularly interesting detail on the ground to her right. Only when it glinted in the light from her VEDS did it catch her eye. Bending over to examine it, she found a shiny metallic plaque lying on the dusty stone floor. Its polish and lack of covering dust indicated it had landed there very recently. This sentiment was confirmed for Captain Amanti who felt her heart palpitate as she read what was inscribed upon it.

MAJ. C. AMANTI

Captain Amanti’s heart grew with excitement at the sight of the nameplate. After so many years, she was finally gonna see him again …

But as quickly as her excitement had come, it waned. This wasn’t right … What was the nameplate doing on the ground?

She stooped over and picked the tag up, but before she could think more any about this odd discovery, her holo-map suddenly gave a sharp little beep; glancing at the display, she saw the green beacon, situated in the room ahead, suddenly black out and disappear. The screen now indicated “SIGNAL LOST”.

Bemused, Captain Amanti toyed around with the controls and menus, trying to recalibrate her tracking device, but to no avail: the signal she had been honing in on had completely disappeared. This sent a chill down her spine.

What the hell’s going on?

Uncertain what to make of the strangeness of this apparent malfunction, Captain Amanti picked up Major Amanti’s nameplate and stared at it for a moment before pocketing it. She glanced around the hall again, her brow furrowed, scanning the ground to search for any other small details of importance, but found nothing. She then approached the tall doors ahead, which were firmly shut.

Hoping they weren’t locked, she gently pushed at the doors, trying to get them opened as quietly as possible, but they wouldn’t budge. She leaned against them, pushing harder and harder, but something behind it was blocking them securely. Even a few impatient shoulder-rams and kicks weren’t able to swing them open. They merely resulted in a slightly sore shoulder.

Dammit!

Staring at the entrance to the theater hall beyond with mild irritation and rubbing her shoulder, she realized she had no other choice: mere muscle power wasn’t gonna get these doors opened. She quickly stepped back, putting a dozen feet between her and the doors, and raised her rifle.

Open, you son-of-a—!

The plasma gun recoiled violently as she squeezed the trigger, nearly forcing her to take a step back as a bright beam erupted from the barrel and hit the doors square in the center. The hall flashed as though lit by a bolt of lightning and an ear-splitting roar echoed around; shards of wood flew everywhere as the two massive panels swung open with loud groans, crashing into the walls behind them. Once the dust, debris and echoes calmed down, Captain Amanti could see the doors opened into a deep blackness, the moonlight slowly piercing through the gloom and illuminating the first few rows of what were unmistakably seats in an audience hall.

A quick glance to her forearm map reminded her how the beacon had disappeared, with “SIGNAL LOST” flashing over the display. It had been from somewhere inside the dark room before her …

Where are they …?

‘Hello?’ she called out loudly, though unable to keep a slight quiver from her voice. All she got in response was total silence. What was going on? They were supposed to be just feet away from her –

She froze in her tracks, eyes wide.

Her eyes fixed on the muzzle of the rifle that had just materialized inches from her face. Rustling and cocking noises from around her let her know two other rifles were also pointed right at her. She was blinded as a powerful beam of light suddenly activated, shining right into her eyes and forcing her to shield her face with her hands –

She was only too aware of her own rifle hanging uselessly at her side.

Oh, shit … no …


— PART TWO —

A Few Hours Earlier

It’s so beautiful …

Major Amanti stared in quiet awe and wonder as the white and blue tapestry unfurled before his eyes, the thick windowpane inches from his nose sending him a ghostly reflection of his own face as he peered out.

The Major had had a grueling life, and his body – particularly his face – was testament to such, despite him being only about thirty years old. His sharp brown eyes, military-short brown hair and overall toughened appearance sent the clear message that he was the man in charge, yet for all his strictness and roughness in appearance, Major Amanti was widely known as a very pleasant and relaxed sort of commander, the kind most military folks wished they served under.

He was currently slumped against the wall in his bunk, lost in thought as he stared out the window from which he could see every detail of the beautiful white-and-blue planet as the ship slowly circled around it towards their destination. It was hard to imagine, judging only from the blanket of clouds and the pure blue oceans, how far the world had fallen from its peak of sophistication, only sixty years ago or so.

He momentarily tore his eyes away from the small porthole and glanced around the ship’s cabin. It was a small landing and deployment vessel, commonly referred to as a dropship, and interior space was confined and restrictive at best. He was currently at the back of the cabin where the bunks and living amenities were, which included five small bunks and only one (very cramped) restroom. The front of the ship held the cockpit and control center, where a man was seated at the controls, carefully guiding the ship towards its destination. A multitude of screens, displays and control panels flashed various colors and made various electronic beeps as the ship, the USAF Corruo, navigated through the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, coming slowly but steadily closer to the ground below.

It was in the nature of dropships like the Corruo to be sent to the most varied and random of places, and this time the aging craft had been deployed by the military panel to the heart of Philadelphia, where a group of survivors had recently become stranded following a surprise attack. Major Amanti and his team of four had been dispatched via dropship in a secretive bid to try and extract the surviving rebels before it was too late. They were the best recon and advanced operations agents and soldiers the panel had at their disposition, and their abilities – and track record of successes – were practically legendary.

They ship had been speeding towards Philadelphia for the last half-hour or so, during which the crew, already equipped, armed and prepared, had had precious little to do other than small talk. Despite his affable nature, Major Amanti wasn’t the socializing type and had dropped out of his other teammates’ conversations to sit on his bunk at the back of the ship, staring out the porthole at the beautiful blue planet that had once been humankind’s home.

Until they screwed it up, of course.

He did resent the fact he hadn’t been able to grow up in such a beautiful environment because his predecessors had continually fucked themselves over. But that was human nature, he supposed. He couldn’t say the current chapter of humanity was all that better though, even if they lived in Space rather than on terra firma. Even through the discomfort that caused him the heavy-duty combat suit he was wearing, he still managed to lose all track of time and urgency as he drifted away in his thoughts.

He was shaken awake from his reflections as the ship jerked suddenly, rattling the equipment in its racks. The windows suddenly began to glow orange, fiery.

‘Now entering burn phase,’ the man at the helm of the ship announced over his shoulder at the others around the cabin. ‘Sit down and strap up.’

Major Amanti climbed out of his bunk and headed to the front of the ship, where four seats awaited each member of the crew. He strapped himself in as a bulky Black man came up and sat in the chair behind him, wearing the same advanced suit as he was. Sergeant McEnroy had spent the last part of this deployment trip casually discussing modern economics with the others whilst disassembling his rifle and cleaning the parts as a habit. The man was a walking contradiction between brains and brawn.

‘How’s it goin’, Major? Still fantasizin’ about livin’ down there?’ said McEnroy loudly over the shuddering craft, smirking. Major Amanti gave him a “Yeah, so what?” sort of look, and they both cracked grins.

The remaining two of the five comrades came up and joined them, sitting in the last two seats.

‘What’s our ETA?’ asked First Lieutenant Reynolds, a sinewy man whose remarkable strength was usually underestimated due to his slightly diminutive stature. He was sitting adjacent to Major Amanti, performing some final examinations on his rifle and VEDS equipment.

‘Arrival at downtown Philadelphia estimated at 10 minutes,’ the pilot answered, reading from the screen displays.

‘Ground-level activity readings?’ enquired Second Lieutenant Hitch who was seated behind Lieutenant Reynolds, his long blonde hair tucked into his collar down his back as his sharp green eyes jumped across the control panel at his side, effecting his checks.

‘Satellite readings show a localized pocket of movement down by the southern sector, right where the survivors are,’ said the pilot.

‘Doesn’t sound like too much of a dickey,’ said Lieutenant Reynolds bracingly, starting to affix his VEDS headset to his temple. ‘Standard operating procedures and we’ll be outta there in no –’

An ear-splitting roar – a blinding flash of light – a huge lurch – crushing pain –

And darkness …

*

It was dark and quiet. All the better – his head hurt. Bad. As did the rest of him.

He couldn’t think; his mind was stuck in a tar pit, unable to focus on anything other than the pulsing waves of pain that swept through his body. He didn’t know where he was – he didn’t know who he was.

Strange, unfocused, garbled sounds came to him, piercing through the thick fog that was his consciousness, but he was unable to recognize them.

Come on … come on … wake up …

With a seemingly superhuman effort, he pried open his eyelids.

At first his vision was blurry as though looking through murky water; blinking furiously, his eyesight slowly focused as whatever he was looking at swam into view.

A wide starry expanse. Parched clouds here and there.

Groaning in pain and feeling as though every inch of his body had been pummeled, he slowly pushed himself upright. The ground underneath him felt hard and rocky; looking around, he realized, numbly, that he was lying in the middle of a street.

Huh.

His muscles felt like stone as he wrenched himself up off the street and to his feet, swaying slightly as blood and sensation returned to his limbs. Glancing down at his body, he found he was wearing a sort of high-tech combat suit. Thus was his first clue to his identity: he was obviously some sort of fighter, a military operative. However, his groggy mind still didn’t allow him to make any further connections.

Examining his surroundings, he realized he was apparently in the middle of a large city of sorts, as the street was bordered in both sides by tall buildings as far as he could see. The area was bathed in a faint but discernible glow from the moon that shone high in the sky.

However, something was weird: there appeared to be a red glow to the place, as though it were lit by a nearby fire. He turned around towards the source of the strange light.

He jumped so high he nearly fell over backwards. He had been too preoccupied with his hazy state to take much notice about his surroundings. That was the only reason he hadn’t noticed the carnage that was wreaked around him.

I’m in Hell.

A whole city block of buildings had been leveled completely and was now burning as though firebombed. The glow from the blaze lit the street and buildings up for hundreds of feet all around, and the heat was so intense that he could feel it from where he was, an estimated two hundred feet away or so. The inferno kept popping as small explosions continually erupted, as though fuel tanks burst one by one. Yet, oddly enough, there was very little smoke coming from the fires; whatever had happened held a clean burn. The man didn’t even think one would see the smoke from more than a mile or two away.

As he stared at the blaze, silent and unmoving, without any idea of where he was or what he should do, he was suddenly interrupted by a voice from behind him.

‘THERE! McEnroy, I found him!’

Slowly turning around, the man witnessed another man running around the blaze towards him, decked in the same sort of advanced armor suit as he himself was. The man was holding a rifle at the ready as he ran – the same sort of rifle he, too, had by his side, as he found to his mild surprise.

The stranger skidded to a halt just feet from him. He took a cautious step back, examining the newcomer: long blonde hair hanging in a disheveled mess around his face, piercing green eyes scanning across his face as though examining him for injuries.

‘Sir! Are you all right?’ the man said, staring at him with obvious relief – but he had no idea who this was.

‘I’m fine,’ he said, somewhat mechanically. He scanned the man’s suit and came across a small nametag on his chest: “2LT. T. HITCH”.

Hitch …? Sounds familiar …

Of all the questions that were flooding in his mind, he spoke the first one to pass through his lips:

‘What’s going on?’

‘We crashed,’ said “Hitch”, indicating the inferno. ‘No idea what happened – I think we were most likely hit by something but I can’t imagine what, we were way out of range of standard missiles or artillery strikes …’

The blonde man talked on, explaining what had apparently happened, but he wasn’t listening; it finally happened: his memory kicked into overdrive.

A thunderous roar … a blinding flash … a man being thrown out of his seat and smashing into a cockpit windshield –

He knew who he was and what they were doing here.

‘How’s Reynolds?’ Major Amanti cut across Hitch’s explanations, somewhat brusquely, still reeling from the sudden flood of memories.

‘Oh – he’s alive. He’s banged up pretty bad but we managed to get him outta there in time before the whole place blew up,’ said Hitch, nodding again towards the nearby blaze. ‘He’s with McEnroy now, but he’s still out cold –’

‘Hey, guys! C’mon, we gotta move!’ came a booming voice from behind them; peering around, they noticed Sergeant McEnroy standing by a narrow alleyway a short distance down the street.

Major Amanti and Lieutenant Hitch hurried over towards McEnroy, though Amanti could only move at a sort of hobble at best with all the bruising and tenseness his body was experiencing. Being thrown out of a crashing ship into the streets hadn’t worked wonders for his well-being, despite his heavy-duty suit saving his life from the impact, and he was already groaning and wondering how long it would take before he could run without looking as though he’d been kicked in the gonads.

‘Hey, Major,’ greeted McEnroy, holding his rifle at the ready as Amanti and Hitch joined him at the mouth of the alley. ‘You doin’ okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ said Amanti. He glanced behind McEnroy where a crumpled figure was lying slumped against the wall. ‘How’s Reynolds?’

‘Bit of a bump to the head, may have a cracked vertebra,’ said McEnroy. ‘Breathin’ fine though. Couple a’ bruises here an’ there, but nothin’ critical. He’ll be alright.’

The three men paused for a moment, staring at the glowing brazier down the street. The small explosions had stopped now, though the blaze burned happily with no sign of letting off.

Something was still prickling Major Amanti’s mind.

‘Any idea what happened?’ he questioned towards his men, noticing a piece of hull amongst the wreckage and flames that hadn’t yet been charred black; large painted letters could still be read, forming the Corruo’s name. He couldn’t remember the crash, but he did remember the violent explosion that had gripped the ship moments before losing his memory.

‘Negative’, replied Hitch, shaking his head. ‘Radar and scopes were clear. We were alone up there, so either we failed to pick up something on our screens, or something broke down … or …’

‘Or we were hit,’ completed McEnroy grimly.

‘But what the hell could hit a dropship moving through the atmosphere at a thousand miles an hour?’

At this, the other two fell silent, obviously short on ideas. No plasma blast could reach that high up in the atmosphere, and no missiles were anywhere near as accurate …

Not that the bastards ever use plasma or missiles, anyway.

After a few moments of being lost in thought, Major Amanti cleared his throat.

‘Come on, let’s go,’ he said. Turning towards McEnroy, he added, ‘Anyone still got a functioning VEDS?’

‘Negative for me,’ said McEnroy. ‘Mine busted up on landing. Same goes for Reynolds.’

‘Mine still works though,’ said Hitch, pulling his little temple-mounted headset device out of his utility belt. ‘Well, sorta. Screen’s broken, only the beam still works.’ He flicked the powerful little light on and off to illustrate his point.

‘Then you lead,’ said Major Amanti. It was time to pull together and get going if they didn’t plan to stay here all night.

‘Here’s the plan: we need to activate the distress beacon, but we need to do it somewhere safe. Don’t want those fuckers finding us, especially like this,’ he said darkly. ‘We’ll scout the area for a few streets; Hitch, you’ll lead with your VEDS light. We won’t be able to see a damn thing once we’re away from that fire. McEnroy, you cover the rear, make sure we leave a clean trail and aren’t followed. I’ll carry Reynolds.’

The other two gave curt nods and quickly trotted down the alley towards Reynolds’ lank form. Major Amanti stayed back for a few moments, staring at the inferno that was chewing through what had once been his ship, his glowing face forbidding.

He finally turned around towards his men, who were propping the barely-conscious Reynolds up against the wall for Major Amanti to carry.

‘Let’s get outta here before they show up.’

This is gonna be a long night.

*

They walked for well over an hour by Major Amanti’s watch as they trudged along the dark streets at an urgent pace, him hoisting the still-unconscious Reynolds over his shoulder, Hitch lighting the way ahead of them with his VEDS and McEnroy tailing them, his rifle at the ready. The mountains of garbage and debris on the streets made progress very slow, but they nevertheless covered decent ground without exhausting themselves too much. Perks of their mechanized suits: increased strength and endurance always came in handy.

The dark rows of buildings and streets slowly passed them by as they moved on, taking seemingly random turns as though trying to shake off an unseen stalker. They used the abundant shadows for cover, and apart for Hitch’s VEDS beam, there was very little to indicate the four were even there at all as they marched on, quickly and silently.

Ghosts in the night.

Finally, they were walking down a narrow street identified as the 48th West when they passed in front of a peculiar structure that much resembled an old theater hall, stuck in between rows of dingy flats. They shared a glance and wordlessly agreed that this would be a perfect place to hide and camp out while awaiting rescue.

They headed up the entrance stairs and slipped through the rusted-open doors into the light-streaked lobby. Taking a brief look around the relatively small hall, they proceeded to the right-hand end where large doors were identified by an overhead plaque as opening into the right-hand aisle of the theater hall beyond.

However, as they approached the door, Major Amanti felt something catch his foot; before he could look down he lost his balance, already precarious with Reynolds laying limp over his shoulder, and fell to the ground in a great crash.

Hitch and McEnroy whipped around in alarm at the commotion, only to find a sheepish and irritated-looking Major Amanti picking himself up gingerly from a pile of wrecked chairs and tables. They’d never even seen the hazard, and Amanti had walked right into them.

‘You okay?’ said McEnroy, lending him a hand whilst unable to repress a grin.

Oh, shut up.

‘Fine,’ said Amanti mechanically, hauling the still-inactive Reynolds back over his shoulder as he got to his feet.

The doors leading into the theater hall were mercifully unlocked and swing open easy with a low grinding sound, and the light from Hitch’s VEDS slowly threw the chasm into relief. It was a fairly large room, with dozens of rows of seats leading down at an angle towards the stage at the opposite end of the room, where the curtains lay drawn across the platform. The area had a thick, musty, unventilated smell to it that nearly made them gag as they slowly stepped inside, watching their step and making sure not to trip over the steps leading down the aisle.

They filed in and settled themselves down into the last row of dingy seats, helping Reynolds off of Amanti’s shoulders with relief. The area illuminated by Hitch’s VEDS, Major Amanti then closed the doors behind them. He then ripped out one of the old seats from the last row; it came loose quite easily. He wedged it under the doors’ locking mechanisms, effectively locking them shut. Not that they expected anyone to come barging in – but again, just in case.

You never know. Not in these parts, anyway.

The light that had filtered through the doors now vanished, all that was visible through the absolute blackness of the room was the bright beam of light emanating from Hitch’s temple and whatever few details of the room the focused ray was able to illuminate at one time. Getting an idea, Hitch carefully disconnected the light-piece from his headset and set it down on a seat facing them, ensuring they were all lit up and able to see. It wasn’t much, but it beat blindness.

Hitch and McEnroy glanced at Major Amanti, who got the message: do it. He rummaged in his equipment built and pulled out a relatively small object, which he deployed into a sort of miniature satellite dish. He carefully activated a few buttons, and at once the device sprang to life, beeping and with small little diodes lighting up and flashing.

Satisfied, Major Amanti carefully deposited the Distress Signal Activation Device – or DISAD – onto a seat next to him, where it continued to beep at short intervals, letting them know that the distress beacon had been activated and was currently making all sorts of screens and alarms light up in a large military spaceship, some hundreds and hundreds of miles above the Earth. It was a somewhat reassuring feeling despite their current predicament.

And now, we wait.

The four men sat there, still and quiet, listening to the low beeps coming from the DISAD and alternating between staring darkly at each other and glancing futilely around the room. They eyes slowly acclimatized to the absolute darkness around them, allowing them to see a little bit clearer. Their hearing became highly honed; Major Amanti could easily count each breath from each of his three comrades. The room around them had the unnerving property of producing haunting echoes of whatever sounds they made, so that even their low breathing and occasional fidgeting sounded like ghosts were imitating their every move. It was a very uncomfortable situation, both physically and psychologically, being stuck in the darkness and relative cold of the dank, dusty room with nothing to do at all but wait for help to arrive.

And they had no idea how long that would take. For all they knew, they were gonna be here a very long time indeed.

The hours crept by, and none of them said a word; not that they didn’t have much to talk about, but the dark room had a strangely oppressive feel to it that removed all desire to create noise or disturbances. In addition, Amanti even started developing a tinnitus, a dull, high-pitched ringing in his ears he couldn’t shake away, as it usually occurred whenever he was in a silent area for an extended period of time. It was quite annoying.

And so they sat, and waited … listening … hoping …

Hitch was the first to succumb to the effects of exhaustion and anxiety as his eyelids slowly dropped lower and lower; soon he was lying back in his seat, mouth hanging open, snoring loudly. The others didn’t seek to silence him, however; the steady snores were the only indication they had, other than the dimly-lit numeric clocks on their wrists, that time was passing by at all. For all they know, they’d fallen into a limbo, caught in between their world and nothingness … emptiness … darkness …


— PART THREE —

The Theater

‘Sir! Sir, wake up!’

Major Amanti awoke with a start. McEnroy was just visible in the VEDS light, staring at him with wide, troubled eyes. This effectively brought Amanti to his senses.

‘What?’

‘Someone’s there,’ McEnroy whispered. He was pointing at the doors Amanti had wedged shut with a chair earlier on, indicating the lobby behind them. As he listened, he could indeed hear slight signs of movement. But it was impossible to tell what it was.

‘Rescue team?’ whispered Amanti hopefully, glancing at the DISAD distress beacon, which was still beeping quietly in the seat next to him. He noticed Hitch was crouching by the door, his rifle cocked in his hands and ready to fire. Reynolds, groaning lowly in his unconscious state, was lying in a chair.

McEnroy shook his head. ‘No team. It’s only one person, an’ they’re comin’ this way.’

He silently approached the door, his rifle aimed; Major Amanti jumped to his feet, grabbing his own rifle –

They followed us here.

He froze in his tracks, realizing … the only way the unknown individual could know they were stranded here was by following the tracking device. And seeing as the directors’ panel would never have sent a single operative to rescue four stranded soldiers …

Major Amanti quickly picked up the DISAD and forced it shut; the beeping stopped, indicating the signal had been broken and the device had powered off. The three alerted men stared at each other and at the doors, their rifles pointed right at the panel, ready to fire at a splitsecond’s notice. The steps were getting closer; just as they seemed to reach the threshold of the locked doors, Major Amanti quickly grabbed Hitch’s VEDS light, still illuminating them from its perch on a seat, and deactivated it, plunging them into darkness.

As they waited and listened, their hearts beating in their ears at the approaching threat, the unknown threat behind the doors apparently tried to get them open, even going so far as kicking them from the sounds of it, but Major Amanti’s chair was holding solidly.

As they strained their ears to pick up the slightest sound, they heard the footsteps quickly recede from the door; but just as they were thinking the stranger might have departed, a sudden BANG nearly blew their eardrums out as the doors erupted in a blast of fire and shards; the panels swung open, the chair disintegrated, revealing the lobby behind the doors, which was comparatively brightly-lip by the moonlight streaming in through the foyer windows.

Major Amanti silently rushed forwards and lay flat against the wall to the side of the busted doors; Hitch and McEnroy did the same. They stood there in silence and darkness, waiting and listening as the footsteps from the lobby resumed, slowly coming closer and closer …

A figure suddenly materialized in the entryway, looking around, a bright beam of light emanating from a headset – they had a VEDS device.

What the hell? Who is that?

The men watched in silence, hidden in the shadows, as the figure took a few more steps into the room. They were plunged in darkness that their VEDS were contrasting against, and it was hard to make out any details about them at all. All Amanti and his men could tell was that the figure wore a sort of high-tech suit, not as heavily-armored as their own but of similar type.

But the enemy was known for their trickery and deception skills. Merely wearing USAF military suits wasn’t enough to confirm for Amanti that this wasn’t actually one of them in disguise.

You’re gonna have to try harder than that, you bastard …

The figure, which had stopped moving now, was glancing at its forearm. Squinting, Major Amanti’s eyes narrowed when he realized what he was looking at – a holo-map.

That’s how they found us. They were tracking our beacon signal. The bastards …

Behind the figure’s back, Amanti slowly started approaching, extra careful to avoid any footstep sounds, and in the corner of his eye he saw the other two take his lead and approach as well, keeping their rifles fixed on the stranger’s back, preparing to fire –

‘Hello?’ the figure called out; it was a woman’s voice, and a slight quiver indicated she was apparently as nervous as they were. This momentarily stunned the men – what the hell was this woman calling out for?

But none were as shocked as Major Amanti, whose eyes were now wide. That voice ...

But – it can’t be –

His mind reeling with shock and confusion, he finally acted. He rushed the woman, sidestepping her, and pointed his rifle right at her face. Hitch and McEnroy hurried forwards from behind her, surrounding her and pinning her between their rifle barrels. Amanti switched on the VEDS light, shining it right in the woman’s face; she raised her arms to try and shield her eyes, effectively blinded, and Major Amanti was finally able to get a decent view of her features: her red hair … those deep green eyes … Those incredibly familiar green eyes …

His heart missed a few beats.

He slowly lowered his rifle, eyes wide and jaw hanging. Hitch and McEnroy just stared at him in confusion.

‘Sir –?’

But Major Amanti raised his hand to silence Hitch, still staring at the woman. He shone the VEDS light away from her eyes; blinking furiously, she stared back at him. At once, her face registered shock – and relief.

‘Chris?’ she said softly, a slight smile spreading over her face.

‘Erica …’ Amanti’s voice was barely more than a stunned whisper.

Hitch and McEnroy were now looking thoroughly baffled. Major Amanti quietly motioned at them to lower their rifles. They complied yet remained silent, unsure what to make of this encounter.

Major Amanti and the woman stared at each other for a moment; then suddenly she leapt forwards and flung her arms around his neck, pulling the dazed Major into a rib-crushing hug. He slowly reciprocated, embracing the woman tightly. Emotion threatened to overwhelm them as they stood there in each other’s arms.

‘Big brother …’ hushed Captain Erica Amanti into her brother’s armored shoulder. A tear crept down her pretty face.

‘Erica …’ repeated Major Chris Amanti numbly. He couldn’t believe this was happening – he couldn’t believe his little sister was here, that he was holding her in his arms –

They broke apart, she staring at him with humid, glittery eyes. Her smile was gone.

‘What happened to you?’ she whispered.

‘I …’ he started hesitantly, but McEnroy cut across him:

‘Major, what the hell’s goin’ on? Who is she?’

‘She’s …’ he started, but Erica interrupted, in an oddly official tone:

‘I’m his sister. Captain Erica Amanti of the United States Air Force, 82nd Battalion. I’ve been dispatched by the administrative panel to extract survivors of the Corruo crash. I’ve been tracking your distress beacon for nearly two hours now, until …’

She stopped, a perplexed expression crossing her face. She stared at Hitch and McEnroy’s bewildered faces.

Realizing, Chris went over to the seats and snatched the deactivated DISAD beacon, which he held out to Erica. She took it, staring at it quizzically.

‘Why is it –?’

‘I thought we were being tracked,’ said Chris quietly. ‘Not you,’ he added at her glance. ‘Them. So I shut it off before whoever it was came in – and it was you.’

‘That’s impossible. You know they can’t locate our signal, our frequency,’ said Erica. ‘It’s out of their range.’

Chris grunted. ‘Didn’t feel like finding out, just in case,’ he muttered.

They stared at each other for a few more moments, their eyes full of meaning and unexpressed emotions, before Hitch coughed loudly.

‘Uh, Major – Miss – I’m sure you’ve got plenty of things to say to each other, but what do you say we get moving first?’

‘Yeah, let’s get outta here already,’ agreed McEnroy gruffly.

Chris and Erica Amanti blushed slightly, as though they’d momentarily forgotten where they were. They turned away from each other; Chris went to the seats where Reynolds rested, all but forgotten in the excitement of these latest developments. As he approached, Reynolds gave a slight jerk and his eyes slowly opened; he groaned, feebly propping himself up on his shoulders.

‘Wha … where …?’ he moaned hoarsely. Chris helped him up to a seated position.

‘Take it easy, Mike,’ he said in a low voice. It was a token of how close Chris was with his men that they were on a first-name basis. ‘We crashed, you’ve been out cold for a few hours now, but you’re alright. Can you stand?’

‘Maybe …’ said Reynolds, trying to push himself up onto his feet; he swayed for a moment, his knees wobbly, but then fell back down into his chair with a groan.

‘Think I’m just gonna sit here for a few minutes …’ he said, looking quite dizzy.

‘That’s alright, take yo—’

But Chris never finished his sentence; at that moment, the ground suddenly shuddered as though hit by a small earthquake, making the benches rattle around. Before any of them could react, a blinding ray of light shot through the exploded-open door. Shadows were streaking across, moving closer …

‘SHIT!’ roared Major Amanti, whipping his rifle into action and joining his men and Erica in pointing it at the door and the sudden arrivals. A loud hissing and whirring was heard from beyond – unmistakable signs of a foreign aircraft.

They found us!

The shadows grew larger as the hostile arrivals drew closer –

‘OPEN FIRE!’ yelled Chris, crushing the trigger; at once the powerful plasma rifle erupted into life, jumping in his arms as beams exploded out the barrel into the blinding light beyond the door and the shadows that emanated from it; Erica, Hitch and McEnroy immediately followed, screaming in mingled terror and rage, their combined streaks of firearm discharge blasting through the portal, aiming around wildly, blinding them with the intensity of the light, deafening them with the roars of their cannons …

IT’S NOT GONNA END LIKE THIS!

Indeed it wasn’t.

Major Amanti couldn’t see what was happening beyond the blinding light. He couldn’t see the dozen ships that had suddenly materialized in the sky, beaming their spotlights through the theater house’s windows, their engines roaring as they waited … waited …