Chapter 0:


Apocalypse Awakening

What’s the problem with winning battles? People like to ask questions after. Especially civilian types who haven’t grasped enough thorny answers to know better. But tonight was supposed to be one for good impressions, so Michael took out the best smile he’d found in the mirror and got to work.Bookmark here

‘How does it feel to win?’ He repeated. ‘I try not to get caught in the idea of winning or losing. You just do what has to be done in the moment and think on the results later.’ Bookmark here

‘So...’ The young woman, close to his own age, drawled as she leant back in her chair, giving Michael a chance to brace himself. ‘You have to treat a life-or-death battle as another day in the office?’ Bookmark here

He hoped his tight grin looked genuine as the audience chuckled. Bookmark here

‘So, Sergeant Conway-’ Bookmark here

‘Please Scarlett.’ He interrupted. ‘Just Michael.’ Bookmark here

The interviewer blushed. It wasn’t obvious. A subtle layer of make-up helped hide the reddening of Scarlett’s cheeks, but the bright studio lighting, plus Michael’s proximity to her a meter away, made sure he was the only one who noticed. If the audience had seen even a hint of her flush Michael was sure they would have started oohing and shouting. They were an excitable lot tonight. Always were after a recent victory. Bookmark here

‘So, Michael.’ The interviewer resumed, clearing her throat and acting as if the new form of address meant nothing to her. ‘In the light of the recent victories on the eastern campaign, questions have begun to crop up as to what’s next for the Alliance? Some have even gone as far as saying the military group has strayed too far from its original purpose.’ Bookmark here

Michael made sure to shield his surprise from the cameras feeding his reaction live to thousands of viewers around the world. Bookmark here

‘The Reform party.’ Scarlett continued, with that steely-eyed look interviewers got when they knew they had the upper hand. ‘Claim the baltharians are behind the spreading skepsis infection. Is the Alliance concerned about these allegations?’ Bookmark here

The quirk playing on Scarlett’s lips told Michael this was payback for startling her earlier. He smiled back, despite the nervous silence filling the studio. Michael was sure his producers backstage were falling apart in the question’s wake, but it wasn’t his job to spin such things into a pretty deception. Bookmark here

‘I’m a solider.’ Michael replied. ‘Not a politician. I’m not here to comment on conspiracy theories, but I appreciate that you think I’m qualified enough to do so.’ Bookmark here

The audience’s laughter was even accompanied by a few applauding hands as the tension drained. Earlier, Michael had turned to look before averting his eyes. The lights were shining directly at him, making the people behind look like lurking shadowy creatures. Bookmark here

Scarlett ever so slightly straightened in the armchair identical to his own, her blue suit-jacket straining, and cocked her head as she smiled at him with a remarkably straight row of teeth. Michael had been doing this long enough to tell she’d been genuinely impressed by his defense. Good to see he was getting better at this theatre act. Bookmark here

‘My apologies Michael. It’s easy to forget this is only your part-time job. So let me ask, how do you perform so well at your regular one?’ Michael stiffened much more at this question. Never mind the word “perform”, demeaning the Alliance’s fight to some sort of easy-going show like this one. Bookmark here

But it was true. He was good at his job. Very good. The best in fact. They praised him for it. He hated that they did. But he couldn’t stop. He wished he was back there right now. Bookmark here

‘Let me ask that in a better way.’ Scarlett said when she noticed his discomfort. ‘What makes a good soldier?’ He relaxed. She was right, it was a better way to phrase the question. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one good at his job. Bookmark here

‘The first thing you have to remember is that it's all relative.’ Michael grimaced as several people laughed. The media had recently picked up on that quote, even calling it his catchphrase. He’d promised himself to use it less, but the problem with good phrases was they tended to stick. Bookmark here

He ploughed on. ‘Out on the battlefield, everything changes. You’ll be punished for things you do every day at home without thinking about and rewarded for actions that would see you locked up anywhere else. In that regard, there’s four virtues one needs to follow.’ Michael sat up in his seat. Scarlett’s glance towards his chest pushing against the buttons of his shirt didn’t go unnoticed. Bookmark here

‘You’ve got to be strong.’ He said, bringing Scarlett’s attention to his hands as he ticked off the word. ‘Only when you have the strength to look after yourself can you turn to help others. And to do that, you need to be brave.’ He said, folding another finger. ‘Start by hiding your fear, and real courage will quickly follow. Then, there’s passion.’ Bookmark here

He made sure to lock eyes with Scarlett on the last word. Saw her blush for the second time that night. Such games with women used to perplex him. Only recently had he realized how fun they could be. ‘You have to fight, not only for your fellow soldiers, but for a cause you truly believe in.’ Bookmark here

Michael turned in his seat, staring directly into one of the camera’s yawning lenses as his producers had told him to. Ready for the final blow. ‘And that leaves us with selflessness. To be willing to sacrifice anything, even your own life, for the greater good of others.’ He turned back to Scarlett as he finished. ‘That’s what makes a good soldier.’ Bookmark here

A roar of applause erupted from the audience as Scarlett gave him an admiring smile. It seemed soldiering wasn’t the only thing he was good at. A far cry better than the first round of interviews he’d taken part in. But amongst the avalanche of congratulations, Michael could still feel it. The need to get the hell out of here. Bookmark here

*** Bookmark here

Michael took a moment, a long one, to look at the nigh-time cityscape lying beyond his window. He was staying in a hotel room deep within the city, his view dominated by skyscrapers, monoliths of glass gleaming across central square, their innards lit by empty office lights and the soft green glows of fire-exit signs. High in the building as he was, Michael could see the patches of cloud floating above the skyscrapers and the hazy light-polluted skyline. Filled with a congregation of humming traffic and sporadic police sirens, it was a city just like any other. Bookmark here

Prosperity. He had visited plenty of cities in the last few weeks and Prosperity could have easily blended with the others, swept into the whirlwind of built-up coastlines and trendy riversides. The pre-planned grid of city was just like the rest. Except for one detail, if you didn’t count the peculiar name. Bookmark here

The Alliance headquarters. He could see the building now across the square next to the town hall. Turned out the bureaucratic high end of the Alliance resided inside an elongated brick of tinted-window buildings, replicating the same bland skyscraper as its neighbors, neatly tucked away for Michael to find amongst the countless interviews and airports. The discovery had brought him little joy. With each passing day he felt less a soldier and more a public figure. A has-been fighter turned superstar for wishy-washy tabloids designed to attract views and waste as much of their readers’ time as possible. Bookmark here

Michael knew the reasons for his latest round of appearances. To boost morale for the Alliance, to unite the dissatisfied countries that fueled the combined military effort and raise higher recruitment numbers. It had been working in the first weeks of the campaign, but he’d read the most recent articles. The ones focused less on the Alliance’s struggle to keep global order and more on his latest leaked shirtless pics. And now tantalizing, completely fabricated stories about who he might be interested in romantically dominated the headlines. Bookmark here

Yesterday, he’d resolved to avoid the internet for at least a week when he saw an article discussing the “Secret Conway Diet”, and whether he really had gone vegan or not. Vapid nonsense designed to distract from everything he’d been saying. It was time to step out of the spotlight. To get back to the frontlines where he knew he really mattered. Bookmark here

Michael felt a pair of hands tighten and pull on his back as the woman squeezed against him, sucking slowly and wetly against his neck. Michael softly hugged Scarlett who clung to him, murmuring in his ear about how warm he was. He only half-paid attention. Bookmark here

At one time, Michael would have loved the amateurish attentions of the gorgeous young woman, but it had been a long time since he’d left the small quiet town girls at home to be glorified by the military and thrust into the celebrity globetrotting life. The novelty had worn off quickly enough. So many fantasized about this exact scenario but they didn’t realize how fleeting it was. He should have been out there with the men and women he’d left behind on the front, achieving something. Not fooling around in here. Bookmark here

Maybe he should stop sleeping around so much, but what would that accomplish? He would be gone by the end of the week regardless. A few nights alone in bed or a few nights in the company of a beautiful woman’s body, the results were the same. Bookmark here

Scarlett pressed a hand to Michael’s front, trailed it down to his abs and started pressing against his six-pack as if testing how hard the sheet of muscle could really be. She tipped her head forward and sighed into his shoulder, her long hair trailing and tickling his firm back where her other hand grabbed his neck. A lithe woman was writhing against him while he brooded. Inexperienced or not, Michael was only punishing himself by ignoring her. In the midst of this, he’d only found time to worry. It really was all relative. He leant down and Scarlett latched her arms around his nape and kissed his neck as he prepared to-Bookmark here

A shrill ringing filled the room. Michael dislodged himself immediately from Scarlett. He saw his smart gauntlet buzzing on the bedside table, outer screen glowing as it received a call. Bookmark here

‘Leave it.’ Scarlett whispered, trying to regain a hold on Michael’s neck. ‘It’s probably another studio trying to steal you away from me.’ Bookmark here

‘It might be the Alliance.’ Michael said, too concerned for the jovial mood. Bookmark here

‘The Alliance will still be there when you wake up. Just ring them- Hey!’ Bookmark here

Michael brushed Scarlett off, leaving her tangled in the bed sheets as he stood and picked up the gauntlet. His suspicions were confirmed. A private number was calling. Alliance command. Michael slid out the tiny earpiece from the gauntlet’s left side and clipped it into his ear. He couldn’t risk Scarlett, a member of the press, listening in on this conversation. Bookmark here

Scarlett let out an annoyed huff, crossing her arms below her breasts as Michael answered the call. Bookmark here

‘Conway speaking.’ Bookmark here

‘Michael?’ Bookmark here

He recognized the voice right away. Lucio Cornelius, the man responsible for starting the international media blitz campaigns. Lucio had never been one of those superiors who shouted themselves hoarse at the new-starts. He had a commanding, but friendly aura which Michael had seen earn him respect without particularly trying for it. Bookmark here

‘Major.’ Michael replied. Bookmark here

‘How are you?’ Came the kindly voice. Bookmark here

Michael glanced over at Scarlett who had just started stretching her arms back and over her head, pretending not to notice the sheets fall to her lap. ‘Can’t complain sir. Yourself?’ Bookmark here

A dry chuckle crackled through the gauntlet. ‘That’s a dangerous question to ask. There seems to be more bad news every day but it's important not to get bogged down.’ Bookmark here

‘I see.’ Michael said with a slight awkward pause. Lucio was undoubtedly talking about the spreading rebel group who’d recently taken to calling themselves the People’s Legion. It was one of the points Michael had been told to underplay if brought up in an interview. The Alliance were worried that an admission of the true scale of rebel victories would encourage more. Bookmark here

‘But the situation is improving.’ Lucio said in a lighter tone. ‘We have better equipment arriving and recruitment numbers are up, thanks to you.’ Bookmark here

‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Michael said with earnest. Lucio had done a lot for him these past few years. It felt good to finally be paying back the mountain of favors between them. ‘ it enough?’ Bookmark here

Lucio laughed again. ‘It's more than enough.’ Michael wasn’t sure he agreed but he continued. ‘But I’m afraid it’ll have to come to an end for now.’ Bookmark here

‘Oh?’ Bookmark here

‘The rebel threat has gotten worse, and our new recruits lack experience. I need you to come down south to help on the front.’ Michael felt his chest swell. Back to the front. Away from the civilian gossip and wasteful parties. He was sick of being told about the good work he was doing. Now was his chance to fight again. To see some results. ‘I’m sorry, but-’ Bookmark here

‘No need to be sorry sir.’ Michael interrupted. He glanced over at Scarlett’s confused face as a broad smile filled his. ‘I’m glad to help. It’s been too long.’ Bookmark here

Lucio paused. Chuckled again. ‘What would we do without you?’ Bookmark here

*** Bookmark here

There were a lot of military uniforms waiting at the gate, green and brown camouflage advertising the type of terrain they’d be fighting in. The men and women gathered were fresh to the business, young faces excitably chatting, rather than old scars grimly ruminating. The experienced lot were already with the new sets of armor, waiting at the other end of the flight where Michael would have been too if not for this last month of interviews and undeserved luxury. Bookmark here

Few civilians stuck out amongst the throng of Alliance soldiers waiting to board. The place they were flying to hadn’t seen much of a tourist season these last years. A few of the waiting soldiers looked his way but none approached the lonely spectacle sitting on the empty bench by the white-washed wall. That was fine by him. It was still more comfortable than lounging in the comfy seats of the first-class area with the other sergeants, separated from his peers by a glass wall of false value. Bookmark here

A TV screen played above his head, ignored by everyone except one bored soldier, chewing her gum between the breaking news headlines. Bookmark here

“Alliance officials have given Ceeama Core permission to expand operations on Mars in exchange for exclusive rates on all raw materials mined. The move gives the company a complete monopoly over resource extraction on the planet, despite opposition from groups who say-” Bookmark here

‘What are you playing at bro? A loud voice shouted, a feat of drink lifting it high above the rest, drowning out the TV’s white-noise broadcast. ‘You know I like her.’ Bookmark here

‘And, so what?’ Another voice asked, tinged by a drunken slur. ‘Everyone knows that.’ Bookmark here

‘Then why are you messaging her?’ Bookmark here

‘She messaged me!’ Bookmark here

Michael sighed when he saw the boisterous group round the corner. Bookmark here

‘Come on man, let it go.’ A third man said without much enthusiasm. Still better effort than the fourth member of the group, grinning like an idiot at the prospect of his two friends throwing fists. Bookmark here

‘Yeah.’ The smaller man who’d been doing the messaging said. ‘It’s not like you had a chance with her anyway.’ Bookmark here

‘Oh yeah? You want to go?’ The first man said, turning and squaring up to him, bunching a strong set of muscles together. Michael stood. Bookmark here

‘Only if you want to.’ The smaller man said, not backing down in the slightest. ‘I’m not a bitch.’ Bookmark here

‘I’ll make you wish you were.’ The big man shoved. His hands didn’t reach the smaller man. They found Michael's chest instead. The big man stumbled back, his sour look turning to shock when he saw who he’d pushed. Bookmark here

‘Leave it Poss.’ Bookmark here

‘Michael.’ Poss’s pout made him look all the less intimidating. ‘Sticking up for your brother, huh?’ Bookmark here

‘Out of the way.’ Finn said, not breaking his stride. ‘I can take this small fry.’ Bookmark here

Michael shot a look that shut him up quick. Bookmark here

‘Defending him again are you?’ Poss asked, readjusting his stance, finding it harder to tower over his new opponent. Bookmark here

‘Not defending his actions.’ Michael said. ‘I’m sure Finn has been a little shit as always. But that doesn’t change the fact family’s family. So, if you want to get to him there’s a line you have to go through first. Don’t worry. It’s not long.’ Bookmark here

There were a fair gathering of eyes on them now and Poss glanced about him, uncomfortable in the heat. Bookmark here

‘Whatever.’ He turned and stalked off, all injured pride with half the bluster. The two friends trailed after. Michael grabbed Finn’s arm before he could follow. Bookmark here

‘Let me go.’ Finn complained, loud enough for the others to hear. ‘I’ll show him a thing or-’ Bookmark here

He stopped as soon as Poss was out for earshot. Gave Michael a relieved grin that lit up his face, made all the more boyish by the wisps of hair around his mouth. ‘Thanks for that. He would’ve beaten the shit out of me.’ Bookmark here

‘I suspected as much.’ Michael said, letting go of Finn’s arm and making for his seat, ignoring the departing whispers. Bookmark here

‘Which part? Me not wanting to fight, or him winning?’ Bookmark here

‘Both.’ Michael sat. His brother plopped into the next seat. ‘I should be telling you off.’ Bookmark here

‘Yeah, because we both know how great at lecturing you are.’ Bookmark here

Michael smiled. He used to get annoyed at Finn, the cheeky attitude and his ignoring of Michael’s lessons when there had been no one else to give them. But at one stage he’d learned to give into his brother’s ways, to drop the burden of being the wiser older brother, and since then they’d been getting along all the better for it. ‘You managed to find the bar then?’ Bookmark here

‘Right next to the gate.’ Finn said, unsuccessfully trying to hide a beer-scented hiccup. ‘This airport wants to get us drunk.’ Bookmark here

‘And now you’ve fallen out with Poss? Again?’ Bookmark here

‘Yeah, but that’ll be fine. We’ll make up soon enough. Again.’ Finn said, putting on a deep voice for the last word. Bookmark here

Michael nodded, partly admirable of Finn’s ability to be so flippant about nearly fighting his friend, part solemn about his own inability to do the same. Brooding, brooding, always brooding. There were only a few years between him and his brother, yet Michael felt he’d aged far more than he was due. Bookmark here

‘What’s got you so down?’ Finn asked, never one to overlook Michael’s moods. ‘Something on your mind?’ Bookmark here

‘That’s the problem.’ Michael said, looking about the busy room for eavesdroppers, not entirely sure he cared. ‘I’ve been thinking too much.’ Bookmark here

‘About the war?’ Bookmark here

‘There’s enough discussion over that already. No, my thoughts haven’t been clear since I slept with this woman the other day.’ Bookmark here

‘Wait.’ Finn said, sitting up. ‘You had that interview on Channel Four a few days ago. With that hot bird.’ Bookmark here

‘Bird? Really?’ Bookmark here

‘Was it her you screwed?’ Bookmark here

Michael resisted the urge to tell him off for swearing. Often forgot his brother was 23 now. Just nodded instead. Bookmark here

‘You dog!’ Finn yelled, making a few heads turn. ‘What a dog.’ He repeated, punching Michael's arm. It wasn’t the reaction he’d been looking for. ‘I knew you’d do it.’ Finn said, smiling wide, proud as if he’d been the one to sleep with Scarlett. ‘Our little Michael’s all grown up.’ Bookmark here

Strange sentence coming from his considerably smaller brother. Bookmark here

‘Remember when you could hardly look a bird in the eye? Then you join the army and started picking them up left and right.’ Whereas the terms “bird” and “dog” seemed to be the main things Finn had picked up since enlisting. ‘This is great. I just won my bet with Poss.’ Bookmark here

‘That’s what you’re putting money on now?’ Michael asked, smiling at Finn’s building enthusiasm. Bookmark here

‘Among other things.’ Finn said, giving his cheeky grin again, brown eyes sparkling. ‘You’re a lucky man.’ Bookmark here

Michael’s smile dropped. ‘That’s the thing though. Sleeping with women, the money, the fame - the fame worst of all – it's meant to make me feel good, but...I just don’t.’ Bookmark here

Finn looked confused. As if feeling good was a weird topic to broach. ‘So, when do you feel happy?’ Bookmark here

In battle. In the midst of fighting where the rules were set and the objectives made clear. Us and them. Survive and kill. Nothing more, nothing less. He’d discovered the joy several years ago, and he sorely missed it each time he was dragged away from the frontline. Michael couldn’t say any of that of course. Admitting to that line of thinking turned a man from role-model to sociopath. Instead, he simply shrugged. Bookmark here

Finn’s smile slinked back. ‘You know what it is? You’re thinking too much.’ He sat up straight, copying the style of a too-formal talking to. ‘Why did you not enjoy sleeping with that woman?’ Bookmark here

‘Because I didn’t connect with her.’ Bookmark here

‘So what?’ Bookmark here

‘So, wasn’t it meaningless in the end?’ Bookmark here

‘Yeah. So what?’ Bookmark here

Michael felt a little taken aback. ‘Then what was the point?’ Bookmark here

‘Did you feel like it at the time?’ Bookmark here

‘Well, yeah.’ Bookmark here

‘And did you enjoy it?’ Bookmark here

‘Yes...’ Bookmark here

‘And did she?’ Bookmark here

‘She certainly seemed too.’ Bookmark here

‘Then there you go.’ Finn said, patting Michael’s shoulder, the black leather bracelet with “Conway” etched on the metal band clearly visible. Michael had given him the bracelet to match the one around his own wrist. A marker for the two remaining members of their family. ‘That’s all there is to it. What more is there to think about?’ Bookmark here

Michael paused. ‘Nothing.’ Bookmark here

‘Exactly. You know how many men would kill to be in the position you’re in? What’s that thing you like to say?’ Bookmark here

‘It’s all relative?’ Bookmark here

‘There you go.’ Finn said. ‘You always like to overthink things no matter how well they’re going. But at the end of the day, why bother?’ Bookmark here

Michael found himself smiling again, did that a lot with his brother these days. His mind felt better too, all the crap in it scrubbed clean. Had he really been considering himself the mature one out of the pair of them a few minutes ago? Bookmark here

‘I’ll talk to Major Cornelius when we arrive. We’ll see about putting you on a post away from the front lines.’ Bookmark here

Finn suddenly frowned. ‘Can you not do that?’ Bookmark here

‘I’m not having you-’ Bookmark here

‘Please.’ He said, a rare awkward look about him. ‘I don’t want any special treatment. Not because of who my brother is.’ Bookmark here

Michael wasn’t sure he agreed. The reason he’d said yes to Finn joining the army was because he knew he could protect him in it. Bookmark here

‘Finn, I-’ Bookmark here

‘Don’t do it.’ Finn stood, looking away from Michael and towards Poss, stumbling back with his two friends in tow. Bookmark here

‘Bro.’ Poss cried, thrusting out his arms. ‘Forget about her. We can’t let a woman get between us.’ Bookmark here

‘Absolutely not bro!’ Finn roughly hugged him, the embrace resembling more of a wrestle. ‘Good thing you came back. I just won our bet.’ Bookmark here

‘Which one?’ Poss asked pulling back, big face crumpled in confusion. ‘The one about that redhead and the-’ Bookmark here

‘No!’ Finn shouted, loud enough for the whole room to hear. ‘About my brother and the bird from Channel Four.’ Bookmark here

‘No way, you dog!’ One of the other friends shouted towards Michael. Bookmark here

‘What a dog.’ Bookmark here

‘Absolute dog!’ Bookmark here

‘Alright, get out of here all of you.’ Michael said, failing to keep the amusement out of his voice as the laughing group lurched towards the queue for the plane, arms wrapped around each other's collective shoulders. Bookmark here

Finn looked back over Poss’s shoulder as they left. ‘Will you be at the base when we get there?’ Bookmark here

‘Yes, but I’ll be busy. Command wants to talk to me.’ Bookmark here

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Finn shouted with his famous grin. ‘You’ll see me again before you know it!’ Bookmark here

*** Bookmark here

He had not thought he would need the sliver of metal tonight, hanging dry from his belt as it had done for many months. Clean of sin. The day for it to be wetted again had arrived. Bookmark here

‘Look there. They just moved out of cover.’ Bookmark here

‘I can see that.’ Bookmark here

Michael silently listened to the two men, unseen. Wasn’t hard to hide back here, amongst the black of the trees, surrounded by the clicking of cicadas, chirping birds, and nocturnal animal calls punctuating the unceasing drips of humid rainwater. Bookmark here

He couldn’t hesitate. Not now. He might not have expected to use it, but that was more the reason to carry these things. Just in case. Bookmark here

‘Why don’t we shoot them?’ Bookmark here

‘Not ‘till the others start. That’s the order. Wait for my go.’ Bookmark here

He didn’t like it, but there was no choice in the matter. He had chosen his path, and they theirs. From that point onwards, this collision had been destined. Fate steering, deciding the outcomes. At least, that’s what he told himself to be true. Always did get preachy in his head before the madness began. That sweet, simple chaos. Bookmark here

‘But we might miss our chance.’ Bookmark here

‘We’ll only be ruining everyone else’s if we get carried away. Hold your nerves together. I think that’s a major over there. If we get him first, then the whole chain of command will collapse.’ Bookmark here

They had spotted the blue “A” on the major’s upper arm. Very good eyesight considering the thick tree canopy above preventing any moonlight from reaching the dark forest floor. Or maybe they were assisted by a handheld device, hidden by their backs, brown coats blending into the bath of shadowy foliage. The two men must have spent hours waiting and crawling through the foul-smelling jungle muck and ditches, circling past the piquet line and scraping by the sensors buried in the bushes and long grass. A terrific effort. A mighty waste. Bookmark here

No time for a countdown. There were no rewards for hesitancy. He was close enough to hear the two men’s breaths, shallow and out of tempo with the drops of rain beating onto the surrounding layers of fanned leaves. Bookmark here

A round of gunfire rang through the forest, breaking the rhythm of jungle life, echoing and calling out for its rebellious brothers to join. Michael grabbed the opportunity, lurching forward and embracing the man on the left. The one in charge. Bookmark here

A chorus of clattering rounds joined their leader, ripping through leaves and splintering thin trunks, furious orange streaks sinking into the larger trees. He could hear the owners, newly developed charger rifles, biting loud with every round fired. A spitting sound between the snarling of a large beast and the revving of a powerful sports engine, repeated dozens of times from the far tree line. Bookmark here

The distant night forest was lit up by glowing orange projectiles flashing in the distance, dashing through the air and burying themselves into the far side of the ruins. Michael could see his allies, proud men and women of the Alliance, crouching behind the ancient clumps of moss-covered stone and firing back with their blaster rifles, drenching the dark forest in blue light and synthetic screams, as the blaster shots rocketed towards their assailants. Bookmark here

‘Sir, should we shoot now? Isn’t that the signal?’ Bookmark here

Michael doubted the man’s comrade would be responding to the panicky questions. The arm wrapped around his neck and the blade jammed into his back prevented any chatter taking place. Michael wasn’t surprised by the lack of noise the victim had made when he’d stabbed him. No one made much complaint when stabbed in the back. Their bodies must realize how pointless it would be to protest. Bookmark here

He had been prepared for a stunned look from the other man followed by a string of charger rounds. A sure final ending. Instead, the stabbed man's gasp had went unnoticed, drowned out by the sounds of gunfire accompanying his end. Bookmark here

‘Our guys are letting up! They need our-’ the man paused in his shouting. Stared at the knife handle protruding from his commander’s back and the hand holding it. Michael would have met the gaze, if not for the visor of his helmet giving nothing but a blank window for the terrified man to see. He let go of the knife and jumped. Bookmark here

The man’s shock had delayed him, long enough for Michael to grab the round barrel of the charger rifle and shove it down to the dirt. He threw himself on top of the man and they tumbled onto a tangle of leaves, softening their fall. He easily pinned the other man to the ground, the mass of his newly armored body crushing all resistance. Bookmark here

The man’s arms were thrown to his sides, and Michael dug through the dark tangle of grass, grabbing the concealed wrist. Michael rammed his thumb into the wrist’s underside, making its owner yelp as he pressed hard between the spindly bones and delicate veins. He didn’t need to check if the man had released the rifle. He had felt the muscles spasm and squirm under his thumb, losing all their strength. Bookmark here

The man had lost this battle, and he must have known it, the attempts to shift off Michael’s weight were far too weak. He could see the fear in the startled, cornered-prey whites of the man’s eyes. Michael was in control and for that, he was grateful. Now it was up to him how he incapacitated the young man. An opportunity to spare a life. You take the small wins where you can. Bookmark here

Michael stooped into a crouch and rolled the man over, shoving him face-first into a pile of soggy roots and decayed leaves. He sat back on top of the man, straddling the scrawny back and wrapping his forearm under his neck. He placed his other arm behind and squeezed, neck caught in the scissor of steel-encased muscle. Michael’s breaths thundered in his ears; the trapped sounds reverberated back by his helmet. He could only just hear the man’s desperate choking between the bangs of nearby gunfire. Bookmark here

It didn’t take long for the man to thrash, twist, weakly flail and finally, relent. Through the flexible armor plating on his arms, Michael could feel the neck muscles relax. He released his grip straight away. He might have just killed him or, maybe, the man was only passed out. At least he’d tried to save his life. No time to check the results. Bookmark here

He knelt amongst the treeline, stealing the position his enemies had been using. Hoped he wouldn’t be receiving the same surprise they had, but you could never count on luck to survive out here. He was ready for whatever came. Bookmark here

The forest in front of him was awash with sporadic blue and orange light, a dazzling firework display of both sides fighting to gain control over the clump of meaningless time-stained stone. Even with his helmet on, Michael’s ears were bombarded with the cacophonous noise, difficult to discern one thunderous gunshot from the next. The weapons’ sudden contrasting fire was stinging his eyes, leaving deceitful afterimages to play amongst the forest. He tried to spot the enemy beyond the shadow-line of the trees. It was a fruitless attempt. Stabbing bright charger rounds zipped from the depths of forested undergrowth that merged with cloaked, shifting men. Bookmark here

He focused on his own side instead. Soldiers, coated in armor designed with blocky flairs of jungle camouflage popped in and out of sight as they were illuminated blue by their blaster shots. They were sheltering behind a thin line of lichen-crusted stones adorned with grassy clumps. Cover that wouldn’t last long. Not against weapons as fearsome as charger rifles. At least the enemy were even worse off behind their unprotective string of leafy branches and tall plants. But it was obvious their numbers were greater, bolstering the attack. Impossible to tell how many that number was, which was probably the greatest disadvantage of all. Bookmark here

Where was Finn? Michael couldn’t spot him or any of his squad amongst the soldiers in the clearing. Hoped that was a good thing. He might be further back in the forest, where the Alliance numbers were thicker. Michael’s own squad had been ambushed coming back from patrol and he’d become separated, retreating alone to the forward operations base to find the two men waiting in the bushes. Clearly the rebels had been planning this large assault for a while. Michael would have to worry about Finn later. Had to deal with the immediate threat first. Bookmark here

He spotted Major Lucio Cornelius, who the two rebels had been preparing to shoot. He was crouching under an archway that stood further back from the walled defensive line and Michael spotted something about the archway that the major hadn’t. Bookmark here

The stones were flashing in and out of existence as blaster rifles near it fired, each shot painting a split-second picture of rock starting to crumble, dust sprinkling on top of the oblivious major. The immense kickback of vibrating energy flung through the air from the blaster rifles was causing the ancient stones to tremble and rub against one another, and the ruin of archway was ready to give into their dance. Lucio had a new set of armor on but that wouldn’t save him. It was designed to stop a lucky shot of gunfire, not half a ton of falling rock. Bookmark here

Michael could shout and warn Lucio or call him on his armor's communication system, but he realized the man wouldn't hear him and the call would take too long. Before he could properly think, his body had already acted. Bookmark here

Michael sprinted forward, barreling through the jungle vegetation. Branches snapped. Bushes and grass crushed underfoot. A charger shot zipped through the trees ahead of him, slamming dead center into the archway’s keystone. A great crack. The arch broke and stones tumbled down in earnest, hurtling towards Lucio. No time to warn. No time to drag him safely aside. All he could do was push and pray. Bookmark here

Michael jumped forward and shoved. Lucio went sprawling, arms stretched in surprise. He cleared the arch and fell behind the stone wall. Safe. Michael felt a brief rush of triumph. Bookmark here

Then the first stone hit. It crunched into his back, crushing his armor and mushing his insides. Felt something crack. Maybe lots of things. He vomited, a sluice of blood flooded his helmet, filled his eyes. Another stone hit the back of his head, knocking in the helmet, repeating the process. No longer able to feel. No longer able to see. Couldn’t hear or even smell. Everything was black. All gone.   Bookmark here

Taylor Victoria
Golden Boy
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