Standing, Dwayne ignored her pleas, his mind already sorting through all his options. By the time he left, he knew what he had to do. He was the Castellan of the city and he would fulfill his duty.

Denman found the cave shortly after midnight. It was high up on the mountain and for several terrifying minutes they had scaled the rock face in plain view of the valley below. Thankfully, none of the tiltrotors were patrolling in the area. When they reached an outcropping, Denman hoisted himself up into a narrow opening before stretching his hand out to Maria. Gripping his wrist, she used the treads of her boots to give her leverage against the rock.

Scooting back, Denman hauled her through the gap. Maria gasped in the cold air and tasted dust and mold. It took several minutes for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but little by little the details of the space they were squeezed into began to emerge.

The ceiling was very low. There was no way they could stand and they could barely sit with their backs straight. There were large boulders pressed around the entry. At some point the opening had been larger, but a rockslide had nearly plugged up the entrance. Denman activated his med-pad and used the light from its interface to crawl deeper into the cave. Maria followed, the rocks biting into her hands and dirt dusting her face and skin. They squeezed through a very-pinched curve in the tunnel to emerge into a much larger space.

The dim light from the med-pad illuminated the roughly-hewn walls and jutting rocks. Maria crawled onward cautiously. Denman slid into a crouch and slowly rotated, the brightness of the pad pushing back the shadows.

“Maria,” Denman whispered. “Don’t move.”

Startled, Maria froze in place. Following Denman’s frightened gaze, she saw that she was next to a pinned Inferi Scourge. His coveralls were mere scraps, but he appeared to be a workman. He lay silently, his eyes staring directly at Maria. His hand rested on the ground near her arm.

With very precise movements, Maria rolled onto her side and pressed against the rocks. Using her feet, she scooted herself past the creature.

Denman crawled over to the Scourge and studied it up close while Maria cleared the creature and hurried to a safe distance.

“Looks like he may have tried to hide up here when the gate failed and ended up in a landslide.”

Shivering, Maria rubbed her arms as she watched Denman.

“Maria, remember what your father said. I don’t think he was full of shit.” Denman scowled slightly. “I really never talked to you about this, but one of the things that always bothered me when I was out among the Scrags was that I felt...them.”

“What do you mean?”

“I felt connected to them. I know I’m not the only one. When I spoke one on one with squad, they said the same thing. We were more a part of the Scrags than we were a part of the humans in the city. It was the most frightening part of becoming what we are.” Denman rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully as he sat back on his ankles. “Do you know what I mean?”

Maria shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. Kind of. I never thought about it in any great detail.”

“You’re stronger than the rest of us,” Denman conceded.

Maria laughed, shaking her head. “No. I’m not. I’m scared out of my fucking mind.” Another rolling pain slid through her body and she flinched.

“Another one?”

“Yeah. Worse this time.” Maria clutched her stomach as another spasm ripped at her insides. “Fuck.”

Denman scooted over to her, scanning her.

Sweat slid over her cheeks to her chin as yet another twist of her guts sent her over onto her side.

“It’s getting worse, Denman,” she grunted. It was if waves of dreadful agony were washing over her. Until now she had been able to ignore the occasional twinge and jab, but now it was nearly unbearable. “Fuck!”

Denman gently rolled her onto her back and pressed his very cold hand to her forehead. “You have a fever.”

“You’re freezing cold,” Maria retorted.

Chuckling, Denman nodded. “Yeah. Comes with being dead.” He slanted over her and stared into her eyes as he used the pad to shine light in her eyes.

Maria gasped.

“What is it?” Denman asked worriedly.

Rings of bright red rimmed the irises of Denman’s brown eyes. Fear gripped her as she gazed at her friend.


Touching his cold cheek, she stroked his flesh, realizing that something was terribly wrong with both of them. Her body was seized in another swell of anguish.

“Denman,” Maria whispered, thinking of his wife and kids waiting for him at home. She thought of him sitting by the lake with Dwayne sharing a beer. Memories of his friendship and devotion throughout their ordeal brought tears to her eyes.

“Maria, you’re scaring me,” he said in a tender voice. His hand gently pulled her hand from his face and he held it to his still chest.

“You’ve been a good friend,” she said at last.

“And so have you. Soon, we’ll be home with our families and this will all be a nightmare. I promise.” He kissed her hand and laid it on her chest.

Maria doubled over as another wave hit her. Shivering, she was relieved they had found shelter before she had been crippled by the terrifying spasms.

“Maria,” Denman whispered, peering down at her with his red-ringed eyes. “How long ago did you start to feel hungry?”

“I’m not,” Maria answered, her teeth chattering.

“Strange,” Denman said, shrugging. “I am.”

The tidal wave of pain hit her and shoved her consciousness down into a place of darkness tinged with red. Struggling to remain awake, she gripped his arm. But the red waters of agony swallowed her whole and she faded from the world.

“You’ll exit here and head directly to this area. That subway exit is very close to where Maria’s wristlet is reporting they’re holed up,” Lindsey said, pointing to the holographic image projected above the table.

In his armor, Dwayne felt more like a soldier than he had in a long time. His backpack was packed with everything he needed to get to Maria. Petra had even provided weaponry for both of them with silencers.

The holographic image was reflected in the dark eyes of Commandant Pierce as she studied the route Dwayne was taking out of the city. They were the only three in the small room off of the command center. Petra and Vaja had retired to the ready room to eat and rest upon Commandant Pierce’s not-so-subtle hint. Dr. Curran had been assigned quarters inside of the Constabulary and was under guard. Dwayne had not told anyone about their discussion.

“Where does he exit the city?” Commandant Pierce asked.

Lindsey pointed at the subway entrance that was sealed at the bottom of the Constabulary. “I can make sure they don’t detect it opening. Any of the others will take more time.”

“Then I’m willing to risk it.” Commandant Pierce decided. “Once we get Denman and Martinez back inside the city, we’ll be able to secure them inside of the Constabulary for their own protection.”

Lindsey nodded in agreement. “Vaja and I almost have the worm ready that will deliver all the nice goodies about the SWD to every wristlet in the city. I can also, technically, take over the newsfeed.”

Commandant Pierce laughed. “Where did you find her?”

“Lindsey? Her dad and I were friends,” Dwayne answered.

Lindsey glowed under the praise. She was crippled physically, but her mind was her true weapon.

“I think she’s due for a promotion,” Commandant Pierce decided.

“Aw, shucks, ma’am, I mean, sir.” Lindsey blushed.

“So at oh eight hundred hours you can make sure every single person in the city will have all the information?” Dwayne asked.

“Absolutely. Vaja even uncovered the little stash of deleted communiques from Admiral Kirkpatrick to Mr. Petersen where they laid out the entire plan for the coup against the government.” Lindsey’s grin widened. “Add in the Inferi Boon, the manipulation of the food resources, the crippling of the Constabulary-”

“And you have all the steps of a coup d’état.” Commandant Pierce rolled her shoulders and set her hands on her hips. “We have them. Despite their maneuverings, the Constabulary outnumbers them.”

“If we can successfully pull this off, we will have stopped a hostile takeover of the city. The Constabulary will never be under the heel of the SWD again,” Dwayne said confidently.

“So are you ready?” Lindsey asked.

Dwayne snagged the holographic image and dragged it to his wristlet. It loaded onto the device and vanished from the table. “I’m ready.”

“Okay, just one more thing.” Lindsey handed him a small drive. “This will update the program installed on Maria’s and your wristlets. It will also install the new program on Denman’s wristlet. It completely blocks out the signal to the city, but gives you the ability to contact me and each other. If you get stuck out there, just stay low until the dust settles.”

“I’ll send someone out to get you,” Commandant Pierce promised. Copyright 2016 - 2023