The McKenzie Files sample

The McKenzie Files

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

“Does it always rain on this damn planet?” Sergeant Colin McKenzie asked himself.

The young black male sprinted through the soggy forest behind the other members of his platoon. His hands maintained a firm grip on his AR-20 laser rifle as his boot squelched against the soft ground. He silently cursed the heavy, plastic protective vest that made his six-foot tall frame feel as though he were carrying a heavy brick over each shoulder. The vest’s dark green color scheme matched his rain soaked fatigues and knee high boots his trousers tucked into. The thickness of the vest provided him with a limited degree of protection, but its weight restricted his movements.

The heavy downpour was also working against Colin. It was irritating, the way the cold raindrops continuously pelted his helmet and face, making it difficult for him to see his destination. Of all the planets in the United Protectorate, Colin was unlucky enough to be stationed on Meridan; a sparsely populated planet with an environment comprised of weed-ridden fields and swamps infested by hoards of insects and parasites. The climate was always chilly, with the average temperature in the low fifties, though Colin felt the frequent rains made the climate feel much colder.

Colin’s squad approached their destination. He joined the other troopers as they took cover behind a line of trees and shrubbery, diving to the ground to take his place behind the broad leaves of a tall fern. Lying on the muddy ground, Colin peered around the foliage to detect any movement up ahead, only to see ivy covered trees and more tall ferns. Nothing moved. If there was any enemy activity out there, then he was certain that the noisy rain was concealing the sound of their movements.

Colin glanced over at his comrades. They were all quiet and still, expecting to engage in a raging firefight at a second’s notice. To Colin’s far right his superior officer, Lieutenant Paul Yates, crouched down behind a tree, his laser rifle aimed toward the forest beyond.

Colin’s personal communicator, a small oblong device with a keypad and a thin display screen strapped to his wrist, transmitted the lieutenant’s voice. 

“McKenzie, see anything?”

“All clear on my end,” Colin spoke into his communicator. But Colin knew that not seeing their enemy did not mean that there was no threat. The Brelac were as stealthy as they were brutal.

Like most troopers, Colin knew very little about the Brelac, as they remained silent about themselves and their objectives. When the Brelac had encroached upon the United Protectorate over a year ago, they attacked with the force of a tidal wave. The Protectorate was overwhelmed by the alien military force, though troopers fought back bravely on both land and in space. However, they had been pitifully unprepared to deal with the Brelac’s ferocity and advanced technology. The Protectorate suffered a year of crushing defeats. Seven star systems and twelve planets had been completely conquered by the Brelac. Many large cities, with their gleaming towers and bustling populations, were reduced to rubble. Now, it would seem that Meridan was next on the Brelac’s list.

Colin was startled when he felt someone touch his right shoulder. He twisted quickly, swinging his gun around.

“Take it easy, pal,” the trooper assured him, his hands held up defensively. “It’s just me.”

Ed Driscoll. Out of all the men in his platoon, he was Colin’s closest friend. He seemed to be near Colin whenever possible, almost to the point of being a nuisance. Back at their main base, Helios, Driscoll would eat with Colin, help him with weapons maintenance duties, and stick close by in the off-duty taverns and recreation halls. All the while denigrating the other members of the platoon. There were occasions when Colin almost felt like Driscoll was keeping him under surveillance. It was no surprise to Colin that the man would be shadowing him even here during an impending battle.

“Let’s move out,” Yates whispered through their communicators. 

Colin nodded to his friend, and motioned to the men on his left. The troopers began to advance cautiously among the wet trees and foliage.

The squad approached their destination at the top of a small rocky hill. A black, rectangular aircraft rested at the bottom of a rock pile, its nose buried beneath a mound of soil. The broad wings were sheared off. Bits of metal wreckage littered the area, and thick billows of black smoke rose out from the ship’s two damaged engine ports. It was a Brelac shuttle, shot down by a Protectorate fighter patrol. The squad’s mission was to investigate the crash site and see if any Brelac had survived, and to capture any cargo that was found to be reasonably intact.

Yates ordered the soldiers to spread out and descend the hill. Colin kept his dark brown eyes on the shuttle as he carefully made his way down, alert for any movement. Yates raised his hand, and the squad stopped twenty feet away from the shuttle.

“A type three enemy shuttle,” he announced after making a brief inspection.

The small craft had only one way to get inside. The main hatch located underneath the cabin. Since the platoon had no means of lifting a ship of this size, they would have to create their own door.

“Bossar, Craven. Take demo charges and blow the hull,” Yates ordered.

The two men rushed up to the ship. They took small packets from their weapons belts. The devices were magnetic, allowing them to attach them to the ship’s hull. They pressed small buttons on the side of the devices, and then ran to rejoin the rest of the platoon.

“Hit the ground!”

The squad ducked and covered their heads. The devices exploded, their twin blasts potent enough to rip a gaping hole into the side of the ship. Colin raised his head. He watched the smoke clear from the hole. Still no sign of any Brelac.

“Usher, Sealman, Driscoll, Craven,” Yates ordered, “you’re with me. The rest of you stay

alert.”

Driscoll placed his hand on Colin’s shoulder. His grip was firm. “Time to go to work, pal. Looks like it’s just you and me.”

Driscoll rose up and joined the other three troopers as they escorted Yates over to the hole in the side of the ship. Colin felt relieved to be momentarily free of Driscoll’s imposing presence. He stood and watched Driscoll and the other men. Yates entered the ship first, the others following close behind. Colin waited, keeping his rifle aimed at the ship.

After several tense seconds the lieutenant relayed their status into Colin’s communicator. “So far we’re all clear. Still no Brelac. Everybody move in, but stay alert.”

Colin slowly advanced toward the ship. When he was close enough, he peered inside the hole in the ship’s side and caught a glimpse of the shuttle’s cargo. There were eight tall, white cylinders standing on what appeared to be a magnetic platform. The platform’s strong magnetic field may have prevented the cylinders from falling over during the crash but it did not protect them from the damaging impact. Three of the cylinders were cracked, and oozed a bright yellow liquid that soaked the shuttle’s floor.

“Wonder what’s inside these containers?” Sealman asked.

“Beat’s the hell outta me,” the lieutenant replied. “They’re leaking shit all over the place. If there are any Brelac here, they might be in the cockpit.”

“Let’s hope they’re dead,” Usher muttered. “What about these cylinders? Can you see what’s inside?”

“No. Maybe we can break one of them open,” Yates suggested. “Driscoll, Craven. Give us a hand. Sealman, Usher. Go check out the cockpit.”

Driscoll placed his hand on Craven’s shoulder. Craven suddenly screamed and fell backward. The instant Craven hit the floor his torso shattered. His plastic combat armor easily splintered into minute fragments, followed by his head and arms.

The other men stood in horrified silence. Yates spun around and aimed his rifle at Driscoll. Driscoll delivered a forceful kick to the lieutenant’s chest and knocked him through the blown out hole and out of the ship. Yate’s fell onto his back against the soggy ground, splashing into a large puddle of mud. He quickly rolled and aimed his rifle at Driscoll a second time. Colin spun and aimed his rifle at Yates and opened fire. Four crimson bolts of laser fire easily ripped through the lieutenant’s body. The man emitted a painful grunt and lay motionless.

Colin was unsure if Yates was dead or simply wounded. But he didn’t have enough interest in the man’s condition to check. All that mattered was the mission he shared with Driscoll. It was their job to do everything in their power to prevent the United Protectorate from capturing the cylinders aboard this Brelac ship. And in order to accomplish that aim Colin was well prepared to use every power at his disposal.

A trooper standing near Yates raised his weapon. Colin moved faster, firing two laser bolts into the man’s chest, and the trooper dropped to the ground. Someone pounced on Colin from behind, wrapping a strong arm around his neck in a strangling hold.

Colin’s entire body rapidly warmed. A powerful surge of energy erupted from him, and he and his assailant were bathed in a flash of light and an explosion of sparks. Blue fire licked at the screaming man on Colin’s back, and Colin shrugged himself free of the burden he carried. He turned briefly to glimpse his handiwork. An acrid smoke stung his nostrils, the flames on the body already being extinguished by the heavy rain. All that remained were fragments of charred flesh and globs of melted plastic clinging to a blackened skeleton. Idiot! was Colin's thought. His contempt of the man that foolishly sought to challenge him was brief. Colin would forget about him the moment that he turned his back on the remains so that he could deal with the man's comrades.

Sealman fired his laser rifle at Driscoll. Driscoll staggered back as three bolts burned into his chest, and raised his rifle at Sealman. His wounds slowed his movement, giving Sealman ample time to dive behind the collection of cylinders. Driscoll fired off a volley of laser bolts that burned easily through several cylinders but failed to hit Sealman. Two troopers outside the shuttle opened fire at Driscoll. Driscoll thrashed about as several bolts hit him squarely. He let out a defiant shout and feebly raised his weapon, and then stumbled and fell forward. His riddled body lay halfway out of the ship, his blood soaked armor pelted by the gray downpour. 

Colin glanced down at Driscoll, and doubted the man could have survived such an assault, but knew there was no time to mourn. Colin looked around at the multiple hostile targets surrounding him. He moved to act, but was suddenly attacked from behind. Colin felt a sharp and powerful impact jar the back of his head. He collapsed face down onto a mound of mud.

Colin turned his head to face his new assailant. A baby-faced trooper stared wide-eyed down at him. His rifle shook rapidly in his nervous hands, the barrel never leaving Colin’s face. Colin grinned, knowing the frightened young man posed a small threat to him. He knew he

could kill this trooper as easily as he did the first.

Colin pushed himself to his knees and lifted his hands to attack when four blue laser streaks hit the trooper in the neck and head. The last shot easily split the top of the trooper’s helmet and the head underneath. The man fell to the ground, blood and brain matter mingling with the rainwater and wet soil.

Colin twisted his head to look toward the shuttle. The shuttle’s two Brelac pilots were barreling through the open hole in the side of the ship, baring their teeth as they surveyed the troopers outside.

The dark, scaly reptilian creatures stood nearly six feet tall. Their large, lizard-like heads grinned with mouths full of long sharp teeth, and thick plates of scales covered the sides of their heads where eyes should have been. They had thick, broad chested bodies covered in boney plates. Rows of long, sharp spikes ran along the sides of their torsos. They stood on muscular, reverse jointed legs similar to those of a canine, with feet ending in three short toes and long curved talons that clicked sharply against the ship’s metallic floor. Their clawed hands clutched the typical Brelac field weapon. Long barreled plasma rifles. Weapons far more powerful than Protectorate lasers. The plasma rifles were notorious for their ability to kill targets from a longer range and could burn through heavy armor easier than lasers. Weapons belts strapped around their waists carried holstered pistols, cylinder shaped grenades and bayonets with long gleaming blades.

The two Brelac thrashed their long tails and immediately opened fire at any trooper that moved, and screaming troopers scattered as they returned fire. The Brelac managed to gun down three troopers before a trooper skillfully sent a laser bolt into one Brelac’s head. The wounded Brelac stumbled backward as his body absorbed the firepower from other Trooper’s

rifles.

The Brelac’s partner shot and killed a trooper standing just behind Colin. As the man’s body

fell to the ground Colin saw that the Brelac was now training that plasma rifle in his direction. Colin knew that in the midst of a group of hostile armed humans the Brelac was not taking the time to distinguish between enemy and ally. Colin pointed his hand toward the Brelac. A blue flash and a stream of energy flew from Colin’s hand. It created a spray of sparks the moment it struck the Brelac. Colin’s firepower was joined by dozens of laser bolts as the troopers concentrated their fire to bring the Brelac down.

Colin tried to stand up but was knocked down by the butt of a rifle crushing down across his neck. Colin looked up and was surprised to see that Yates had survived his wounds. The lieutenant stood over Colin, slamming the butt of his rifle into Colin’s face.

“I’m gonna bash your damn face in, freak!” 

Yates used the butt of his rifle to rain down a series of quick blows to Colin’s face. He held the rifle over his head and pulled his leg back to send his boot slamming into Colin’s stomach.

“Son of a bitch!” Yates screamed. “I’ll kill you!”

Colin’s face burned with pain as the lieutenant continued to beat him with the rifle butt. Each painful blow felt as if fragments of his face were being torn away from the inside. Blood and rainwater soaked his eyes. His vision began to blur and he lost sight of his enraged attacker. 

Then everything went black.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Doctor Howard Fenlow walked hastily through the busy corridors of the highly restricted military base of Cerulean, concerned whether his black pants and slightly wrinkled grey shirt beneath his white lab coat would be suitable enough for the briefing he was about to give. He ran a hand through his shoulder length blond hair, frowning. He’d slept in and was running twenty minutes late. He had no time to make a better selection from his wardrobe.

Fenlow’s apartment was located in Navarone, the capital city on the planet Maseklos Prime, less than two miles from Cerulean. The planet was the center of the United Protectorate, named after the famed scientist and explorer, Leon Maseklos. A convenient location, in Fenlow’s opinion. One of the reasons why Fenlow chose to reside in Navarone. 

It also makes last minute commutes on mornings such as this possible.

Fenlow approached the entrance to his laboratory, the door flanked by two armed troopers in grey fatigues, their trousers tucked neatly into black, knee-high boots. They stood silent, holding their laser rifles to their shoulders.

“I suppose everyone is inside waiting for me,” Fenlow said, running another hand through

his hair.

“President Drennen was about to send us to find you,” A guard replied, his voice monotone.

The door to the lab slid open with a hiss to a large room with a row of four long, dark counters. Fenlow grinned slightly, admiring his workspace, and briefly glanced at the dozens of glass beakers and small metal racks holding test tubes, each containing liquid and crystallized substances in reds, blues and yellows. The fourth counter held seven jars lined up in a neat row, lumps of pale colored of flesh, dissected brains, and small tube shaped organs clearly visible through the polished glass. At the end of the counter was a large, shiny metal sink and faucet. Along the left wall were three grey metal cabinets with more shelves holding jars of chemicals, glassware, and surgical instruments; shiny metal forceps, scalpels, and surgical saws. All sterilized and neatly arranged on black plastic trays. Fenlow looked toward the end of the room to two tall, gleaming white cylinders.

There were several persons waiting for him. A middle-aged woman instantly caught Fenlow’s eye. She wore black shoes, pants, and a pink shirt under her black blazer. With short brown hair and green eyes, President Sandra Drennen of the Central Commission and Commander of the United Protectorate military forces did not appear pleased with having to wait.

Fenlow silently admired Drennen for her accomplishments. She’d been elected president at the age of thirty-nine, and now while serving a second four-year term she was cursed with the monumental task of holding the Protectorate together during this war. Fenlow knew Drennen to be a highly intelligent and articulate person. Her personality was quiet and sensitive, yet strong enough to bear the torment of her people on her shoulders without losing her sanity. She was holding her own for the present time, but Fenlow knew that the Brelac were too powerful, and that the Protectorate would eventually lose.

At her right stood Secretary of Defense, John Crane, a thin black man in a dark grey suit. He impatiently ran his fingers through his thinning hair. There were also a three members of the Central Commission present, part of the legislative body that helped Drennen govern the Protectorate. Joining them were four generals, among them Major General Verne Larkin, dressed in his dark blue uniform with the band of medals on his left lapel, a dark blue cap with the gold eagle emblem worn proudly on his head.

Fenlow maintained a relationship with Larkin that could best be described as tolerance. Months ago, a commissioner had informed Fenlow that Larkin considered him to be too arrogant and demanding for a person sitting out the war in the safety of a lab. Though Fenlow personally felt that a lot of Larkin’s disdain stemmed from the general’s distrust because of Fenlow’s long employment with Carp Technologies.

Carp was a large corporation that owned laboratories and factories on seven planets throughout the Protectorate, and the leading producer of advanced electronics, biotechnology, and hardware for military use. Their motto being they are committed to holding the lead in the race for human advancement.

Seven years ago, a movement had evolved on several colony worlds to break away from the central government on Maseklos Prime. Many citizens did not agree with this quest for independence. But under the support of a new political group called Vendetta, the movement had been able to gain thousands of supporters. After growing weary of spouting demands to Maseklos Prime that would go unheeded, Vendetta took a drastic step and directed the rebel planets to declare their independence. A civil war then erupted within the Protectorate. For two years, vicious battles were fought in space and across each rebel planet. The cost was the loss of thousands of lives and massive property damage. The growing market for weapons lead to Carp being charged with reputedly selling arms to both sides. But the end result was the eventual defeat of Vendetta’s forces, and order was quickly restored throughout the Protectorate.

After the war, Vendetta’s activities became more covert. The more fanatical members of the group waged a war of terror against the Protectorate. Their tactics included bombing vital government installations and assassinating key political and military figures. Their activities were gradually curtailed by the Protectorate’s military intelligence internal security operations. Most of Vendetta’s major resistance cells were eliminated. Their higher-ranking leaders retreated into seclusion, taking with them any hard evidence that may have linked Carp Technologies to Vendetta’s activities during and after the war.

Now, seven years later, General Larkin still remained suspicious and hostile toward Carp Technologies. And that meant Fenlow as well. Though the doctor paid little attention to Larkin’s resentful attitude. He considered the man to be a small component within a larger machine. And Fenlow’s rightful place was at the controls of this machine. Larkin would have to choke on the fact that he and his superiors needed the technologies and services that Fenlow and Carp provided.

There were two men in white lab coats standing at the rear the group. Fenlow frowned slightly at his assistant, Doctor Blair Van Doren, a young man with cropped blond hair and a muscular five foot, nine inch tall frame. Dressed in white sneakers, blue pants, and a grey sweatshirt beneath the starched lab coat, Blair was dressed more casual than Fenlow would have preferred for this occasion. Fenlow’s second assistant, Doctor Arnold Trevor, was an accomplished computer scientist whose work was regarded simply as ingenious. At the age of seventy his face was mapped by thick wrinkles, and thinning white hair hung past his shoulders. Dressed in black shoes and a grey suit and tie his white lab coat made him appear as an undead specter in search of a decent grave.

“I hope that we didn’t tear you away from anything more important than this little meeting,” Drennen said, breaking the silence, the sarcasm in her voice obvious.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” Fenlow said quietly. “I slept a bit too late this morning.” He expected to receive no more than a harsh scolding. Being the Protectorate’s top scientist in the fields of electronics, bio-chemical engineering and genetics did earn Fenlow a certain level of leniency.

“As long as you’re not too relaxed to sleep through the war,” Larkin said, his eyes narrowed.

“We didn’t come here to listen to any banter between you two.” Drennen held up a hand. “I assembled this group here to learn if Doctor Fenlow has made any progress with this new project I’ve heard so much about.”

“I’ve made great progress,” Fenlow proudly addressed the officials. “I’ll make this as brief and clear as possible. As you know, we’ve learned very little about the Brelac since the start of the war. But, as time moved on my research has revealed some startling facts about our mysterious enemies. Extensive examinations performed on several dead Brelac specimens have revealed that on a basic genetic level they are quite similar to humans. I’ve run genetic scans on twenty specimens and picked apart every segment of the Brelac genetic sequence. My scans revealed that each one was genetically identical to the other. This suggests that the Brelac could employ an advanced in-vitro organism replication technology to bolster their forces. In fact, their entire race could be comprised of what I call Reploids.”

“That makes sense.” Larkin nodded. ‘They do have us vastly outnumbered. They could artificially produce an army quicker than we can recruit and train our troops.”

“It gets worse,” Fenlow continued. “Since the Brelac have such advanced technology we can assume that they can use it to reproduce other forms of life to suit their purpose. I bring to your attention the recent wave of terrorist activities that have plagued us of late.”

“And it could not have happened at such a worse time,” Drennen said bitterly.“Military facilities being bombed, officers kidnapped or killed outright. Just last week there was a shooting on the street near the capital. Twelve dead, nine others wounded. And all these acts perpetrated by seemingly harmless citizens or military personnel. We think that Vendetta has picked this time to make a resurgence.”

Fenlow nodded. “That’s what I would have thought too. Until I received a report on an incident in the Hollander System. It seems a police officer took several hostages inside of his precinct, and then set off a bomb that destroyed the entire building. None of the hostages or the officer survived. Then I read two other reports of terrorist activities, where police managed to kill the perpetrators. The terrorists involved in these incidents perfectly matched the physical description of the police officer on Hollander Three. I took the liberty of examining two of their bodies. They were both identical, even down to the genetic level.”

“That’s unthinkable!” Drennen’s eyes widened. She turned to stare at the others in the room before looking back at Fenlow. “You mean to say that the Brelac are somehow able to replicate humans and use them against us? If that’s true then they could strike us anywhere.”

“There’s one more detail that could make the situation a whole lot worse,” Fenlow said slowly.

“I came here in hope of hearing some good news,” Larkin said. “Instead you’re giving us all bad.”

“It’s not entirely bad,” Fenlow assured him. “Follow me and I’ll explain.” 

He led the group over to the two white cylinders at the back of the room. “A week ago on the planet Meridan, a Brelac shuttle was shot down near Helios base. A squad of troopers investigated the shuttle and found a large group of cylinders just like these. They are incubation units containing human Reploids. During their investigation of the crash site, the troopers were attacked by two Reploids posing as members of the squad. It was reported that one Reploid killed a trooper by freezing him to death.”

“Froze the trooper to death?” Drennen asked.

“With a touch of his hand,” Fenlow said, wiggling his fingers. “His combat armor and flesh were rendered so brittle that they shattered like glass. The second Reploid somehow generated enough energy to nearly incinerate another trooper. That Reploid was captured. The first one killed. During the melee several of the other cylinders in the shuttle were severely damaged. The Reploids that they contained did not survive. Only these two remained intact.”

Fenlow turned and hurried over to a table on their left and returned with a small plastic dish. Inside the dish sat several tiny transparent envelopes. Fenlow picked up one of the envelopes with great care and held it up for the group to see. The envelope contained a small, silvery disk-shaped electronic component no bigger than a dime.

“This was one of the weapons that the Reploids used to kill the troopers. My assistant,

Doctor Blair Van Doren, aided me in performing the autopsy on the dead Reploid. I’ll allow Blair to explain our findings.”

Blair stepped forward, and nervously cleared his throat. He opened his mouth but no words came out. He steadied himself and tried again. “During…during our examination of every Brelac specimen we found components similar to these embedded deep within their brain’s frontal lobes and occipital bones.” He licked his lips. “Each Brelac had ten of these components embedded within its brain. As you know, the Brelac have no physical eyes. These components are a form of psionic implants. Apparently, they’re designed to increase and focus the brain’s level of psychic activity. This is how the Brelac are able to see. Psychic vision.”

“So they don’t need bifocals,” Larkin said, shaking his head. “What does this have to do with those Reploids? And how can we use this to our advantage?”

“These components were taken from the slain Reploid,” Blair explained. “They’re more advanced than the standard Brelac implants that we’ve examined. They’re designed to boost the brain’s level of psionic power to a much higher degree. It’s our theory that the Reploid’s freezing ability was psychic in nature. A mental ability that was some how created by these implants.”

“Imagine if every Reploid infiltrator had such a deadly psychic ability,” Fenlow added, “or every Brelac soldier. The power to read minds from a distance for vital information. As well as the power to kill in an unlimited number of paranormal ways.”

The distressed look on Drennen’s face made it clear she was not pleased with Fenlow’s report. “It would be impossible to fight against such a covert threat backed by this technology,” she said. “Is there any way that we can use these implants for our own troopers?”

“I’m afraid that these implants are useless to us,” Fenlow said, almost regretfully. “We’ve already tested them on chimpanzees. The sudden massive increase of psionic energy quickly burned out their entire nervous systems. But the Reploids apparently have a special cellular adaptation that allows them to completely regenerate damaged nervous tissue at a rapid pace. This would effectively counteract any injury inflicted by the psionic energy surge. We’re studying tissue samples taken from the live Reploid that’s in our custody, trying to isolate the gene that enables his neural regeneration. But,” Fenlow paused dramatically, eyes flicking to the faces of each listener, “in the meantime we can put him and these other two to work for us.”

“Put these creatures to work for us?” Larkin’s face, already a bright red, turned a shade darker. “Weren’t they created to fight against us? What do you plan to do, bribe them?”

“No, reprogram them.” Fenlow crossed his arms proudly. “We have discovered that the

Reploid’s brains also contain six implants that we call access memory chips. Apparently the Reploid’s programmed memories are stored in these chips and downloaded into their brains as they first awaken. Since these two arrived to us in an unconscious state, I believe that their programs have not been downloaded. This gives us the opportunity to program them to serve us instead of the Brelac.”

“And what about the captured Reploid that was already functioning?” Drennen asked.

“That Reploid is under heavy sedation,” Blair explained.  “I can surgically remove the memory chips from its brain. Doctor Trevor can then delete the chip’s current data and enter his own programs.”

With a stiff stride Trevor stepped forward. “It won’t be an easy job. In order for the Reploids to blend in as one of us the Brelac had to program them with every aspect of an intelligent human mind. They simulate emotions. They have different attitudes and memories of past experiences. Each Reploid is a unique individual. I believe that I can reproduce these highly intricate programs, imitating every aspect of a normal, mature, human mind.”

“We believe that the Brelac abduct human victims and replicate them,” Fenlow explained. “Somehow, they copy as much data as they can from the minds of the originals and program the data along with programmed instructions into the Reploids to act against us. The originals, having served their purpose, are probably destroyed.”

Silent up to this point, Secretary Crane cleared his throat. “Sounds dangerous. This whole idea of trying to use these walking weapons could blow up in our faces.”

“It can’t hurt to try,” Larkin said, slowly nodding. “We could certainly use anything to help turn the tide of this war. God knows that we’re sending everything we’ve got against the Brelac and we’re still on a crumbling defensive. But if these Reploids are going to be any good to us then we’ll definitely need more than just three. Is it possible that we can produce our own Reploids? As well as these psionic implants?”

“At the present Carp’s research into advanced cloning in limited,” Fenlow replied. “We can only produce cloned children through surrogate host mothers. These Reploid creatures are created through an advanced in-vitro process we have yet to understand. Inside these cylinders, the Reploids are immersed in a highly concentrated nutrient liquid and fed through an intravenous mechanism. It’s possible that the Brelac can produce these creatures full grown and fully developed in a matter of weeks. As for the psionic implants, we’re just beginning to understand how they work. It will be some time before we can reproduce this technology. The research section back at Carp’s main starbase has put our top people to work on both problems. I’m confident that a breakthrough will come in a few months.”

“And at what cost?” Larkin demanded. “I doubt that Carp is willing to sacrifice their corporate bottom line for the sake of the war.”

“The cost for this project will be determined when Secretary Crane negotiates with our board of directors.” Fenlow frowned. “Our costs for manpower and materials for our research and development demand that we be fairly compensated. Even so, Carp is fully committed to the United Protectorate’s war effort.”

Crane stepped in quickly, seemingly to defuse the tension. “We don’t doubt your company’s commitment to our cause, Doctor Fenlow. And General Larking would have to admit that Carp has made several significant discoveries that have placed us on better ground with the Brelac.”

“Perhaps Carp has been useful in reproducing captured Brelac technology for our own use,” Larkin admitted, looking away. “Some of which I’m still getting used to. Like the hyperspace technology you introduced a few months ago. But I’d still like to see Carp try to be a little charitable during these tough times.”

“We’ll have time to bicker when things improve,” Drennen said. “Right now I have to decide on whether to approve this project. And I honestly like what I’ve been hearing. Are there any objections?”

“I’m still leery of the idea of experimenting with enemy Reploids armed with dangerous abilities,” Crane replied. “Especially here on our home world. Something could go wrong. Perhaps it would be safer to transport them to Starbase Lodestar until all tests are complete.

Located out in deep space it’s the ideal facility to develop this project.” Drennen nodded. “Any objections to the idea, Doctor?”

“I can live with it,” Fenlow said.

 “Then it’s settled,” Drennen declared. “I just hope that this will be worth all the time and effort involved.”

Larkin took a final glance at the two cylinders. “If there’s nothing else then I’d like to get back to the war.”

“Have the Reploids transported to Lodestar as soon as possible, Doctor,” Drennen ordered. “Keep me posted about their development.”

She turned to the door. Larkin was already rushing out of the room, the other generals and commissioners behind him.

 

 

Fenlow returned to his apartment building late that evening. He approached the door and entered his personal identification number on a small glowing keypad at the right of the jam. The door slid open with a faint hiss. He slipped in and the door closed and quietly sealed behind him. He reached for a small, two-button panel mounted on the right wall. He pressed the top button and four long, white bars mounted six feet apart on the ceiling emitted a glow that illuminated the entire room. The living room was small with modest furnishings, the lights reflecting off the back of his dark brown, leather sofa and reclining chair, both items perfectly matching the brown carpeting. The chair faced a large flat screen television mounted on the wall. At the right of the chair sat a small, round glass top coffee table standing on four wide metal legs.

The far left corner of the room merged into Fenlow’s small kitchen, the floor covered by white tile. The black counter top with a sink in the middle partially obscured the view of the gleaming, stainless steel stove and the refrigerator at its right. Past the refrigerator sat the open door to his bedroom.

On the right side of the living room was a sturdy worktable. The wooden desktop held several beakers and test tubes filled with various chemical solutions, and a computer next to a small stack of jumbled papers. A chorus of loud beeps constantly emitted from the computer. It had recorded a subspace message received through its uplink modem. Fenlow looked longingly in the direction of the bathroom, the open door at the left of his worktable. But he decided to take a moment to watch the message, hoping that it would be short. He sat in the high-backed leather chair in front of the computer’s black monitor and pressed a key.

The image of a blond middle-aged man in a dark suit appeared on the monitor, sitting behind a desk with his hands folded in front of him. Fenlow frowned. It was Walter Carnaby, the Chief Executive Officer of Carp Technologies—and Fenlow’s immediate boss.

Under Carnaby’s leadership, Carp Technologies had become the largest corporation in the United Protectorate. He had initiated several successful takeovers of smaller rival companies, absorbing their key personnel to strengthen Carp’s position as a corporate leader. Still, Fenlow often wondered if the man was indeed worth the eighty million dollars in salary and stock options the company paid him. 

But Fenlow was a scientist, devoting little time in boardroom moving and shaking, and focused on research and development. As long as Carnaby continued to foot the bill.

“Howard,” Carnaby greeted buoyantly. “I was trying to contact you earlier, but I guess you were out. I just met with the board of directors. We’re concerned about the Brelac stepping up their aggression. Protectorate forces are falling back on several fronts. This means that we’re forced to advance with our own plans. I’m making the preparations for Operation Broadaxe. I need you to step up your efforts in the field so that the plan can go through. I’ll be expecting a report from you soon. Perhaps we can trade good news.”

The monitor went black at the end of the message. Fenlow gave a tired sigh. 

Advance operation Broadaxe so soon? Is Carnaby insane? Perhaps the Brelac are starting to worry

Carnaby and the other stiff suits back at Carp’s starbase headquarters. 

Whatever the reason, it was Fenlow’s job to help insure that Operation Broadaxe was a huge success. But advancing the plan now would force him to take some extremely drastic measures.

But not now. At the moment Fenlow was concerned about going to the bathroom, then eating the slice of lemon pound cake in the refrigerator. Fenlow headed for the bathroom door.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Fenlow was not enjoying his stay in the desert region of the planet Talos. He’d expected it to be hot, but actually having to endure the smoldering heat exceeded his expectations. His hot weather attire of a thin, blue short sleeve shirt, denim shorts and sandals provided him with little comfort. The heat seemed to penetrate every pore of his skin, and he used one hand to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow, knowing that he would repeat the process within minutes. 

He peered through the heavy long-ranged binoculars hanging around his neck. He made a quick visual scan of the north and saw nothing of importance. Just a bleak scene bathed in the red glare of the sun. Nothing but miles of sand, rocks and hills. The east revealed the same image. Looking to the south, he saw moving figures in the distance, nearly a mile away from his position. A small group composed of humans and Brelac.

Fenlow turned and walked toward his all terrain motorcycle. He sat down on the black leather seat, uncomfortably hard and hot, as he turned over the small fusion engine. He held a tight grip onto the handlebars as the engine revved. This was the first time that he had ever driven such a vehicle, and losing his balance and falling over was his greatest fear. The motorcycle performed quietly, but its enlarged wheels with thick, cube shaped treads provided a bumpy ride. He gunned his motorcycle forward at top speed, churning up huge clouds of dust in his wake.

Drawing rapidly closer to the target area, Fenlow saw the group more clearly without the aid of his binoculars. Two troopers stood near what appeared to be a small transport shuttle. The troopers had rifles trained on five Brelac soldiers kneeling on the ground with their clawed hands folded behind their heads. A third trooper lay against the shuttle with a bleeding abdominal wound. His vest had been removed to expose a blood soaked shirt tied crudely around his torso, and his face was soaked by water dripping from a rolled up wet rag placed across his brow. Fenlow could only imagine how they were sweltering under those grey, bulky armored vests and grey camouflage fatigues tucked into those knee high boots. Their sweat soaked faces turned to him as he approached.

Fenlow stopped his cycle a few feet from the group. He waved his hands in the air to try to fan away the dust cloud that his motorcycle had produced. As expected, one trooper aimed his rifle defensively toward him. Fenlow smiled cheerfully.

“Good afternoon. My name is Howard Fenlow. I’m a doctor from the Ninth Medical Corps out from Starbase Horizon, stationed over Planet Keldorn. What happened here?”

The young trooper aiming his rifle squinted as beads of sweat rolled down his face. He seemed to be in a jumpy state. “Our squad set up an ambush in the hills for a gang of these bastards. We killed three of them before the group scattered and ran off. Fortunately we were able to capture these five. The other members of our squad are out trying to take down the rest of them.”

“You say you’re a doctor?” another trooper asked. “Baker there could use your help.”

Fenlow quickly dismounted and walked over to the injured man. Baker was unconscious.

Fenlow examined his wound. 

“This is serious,” he said. “Your friend needs surgery as soon as possible if he’s to survive.

In the meantime I’ve got some medical supplies in my cycle’s storage compartment. I can try to stop his bleeding and keep him stable until we get him to a proper medical facility.”

“Do what you can for him, Doc.”

Fenlow strolled to the back of his motorcycle and opened the storage compartment. The trooper pointing the rifle kept his gaze locked on Fenlow. His lips were pulled tight, almost in a sneer. 

“Just what are you doing out here, Doc?”

“I was part of a medical team just arriving to this planet,” Fenlow replied without looking up. “We were being transferred to Norcross Base in Sector Eight when our ship was forced down by Brelac fighters. We survived the crash and had to scatter when Brelac troops chased us. They’re relentless monsters, you know. I was damn lucky to shake them off. I hope your squad returns soon. If the Brelac should pick up my trail then we’ll definitely need some extra firepower. Which way did they go?”

The trooper turned his head to a group of hills on the horizon. He motioned toward them with his chin. “Over that way, about two hours. It shouldn’t take them long to track down the rest of the Brelac.”

It only took a second for Fenlow to take the laser pistol hidden in the cycle’s storage compartment and squeeze off a shot at the back of the trooper’s head. The laser bolt burned a large hole through the top portion of the man’s skull, killing him instantly. The second trooper looked on in shocked disbelief as the body dropped limply to the ground, the dead trooper’s head smoking. Fenlow quickly fired four laser bolts into the second trooper’s chest. The man stumbled back and fell. Fenlow glanced at the wounded man lying against the shuttle, half-turned away, and then sent a bolt through the pale forehead.

Fenlow turned and approached the five Brelac prisoners, listening to their heavy, hoarse breathing. He held his pistol out in front of him. He casually let the weapon slide out of his fingers and drop to the ground in a small plume of dust. He brushed his hands together and put on a sly grin

“Let me introduce myself again. I’m Doctor Howard Fenlow. I was wondering if you could help me make a house call.”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

“I’ll kill you!”

Lieutenant Yates’ voice echoed, repeating those harsh words over and over. Torrents of rain drenched both their bodies as the lieutenant sadistically pounded him with the butt of that laser rifle. Colin saw his own crimson blood streaming from his nose and quickly mixing with the rainwater soaking his face. But under the impact of the lieutenant’s every blow Colin felt no pain. He did not feel the rainwater that drenched his body. He could not hear the blasts of firepower around him. He heard nothing but the words.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

Yates’ rifle butt delivered a crushing blow to Colin’s nose. Colin saw his own body convulse under the impact.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

       

The deafening sound of an explosion filled Colin’s ears, and a powerful force shoved his body forward. A second later a sharp pain spread along his back and through his ribcage. Then everything went still.

He opened his eyes. He was not on the rainy planet of Meridan, being mercilessly beaten by Lieutenant Yates. Instead, he was shocked to find himself in a dark place, lying on his back. A steady stream of air rushed into his face and through his black, short cropped bushy hair. He raised his hands and tried to reach out. His hands pressed against what felt like a hard plastic surface. Colin twisted and turned his body around, trying to feel his surroundings. His probing hands revealed that he was confined in a small, round container, his body on a cushion with a soft vinyl surface.

Colin panicked. Thoughts flashed through his mind. The lieutenant could have stopped the beating, took aim with his rifle, and fired. Colin feared that this confinement was the aftermath of his death. Or worse, being mistaken for dead. For all he knew he could be in a coffin, either already buried or awaiting burial, or even possibly awaiting cremation. Either scenario brought

Colin to the same conclusion. He had to find his way out.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Somebody! Help!”

Colin was surprised his voice seemed to carry beyond the interior of this small, dark coffin. He took a deep breath and focused on the flow of air he felt on his face. His fingers felt along the inside edges of his coffin, jerking his hands back from the touch of a broken plastic edge sharp enough to cut his skin. He continued feeling around the opening and pushed forward. A large section of the plastic in front of him moved. He looked about and noticed a dim red light far above his face. It barely provided him with enough glow to make out the inside of a small dark room.

He attempted to climb out of the coffin, though his numb legs made it difficult. Halfway out of the coffin he felt a sharp pain in his left arm. He looked down to find a plastic, transparent tube inserted into his left arm. The other end of the tube led back to a small grey box mounted on the inside wall of the coffin. The box had a small digital display and a keypad with six buttons. Colin examined the screen closer but the blank face gave him no answers. He yanked the tube out of his arm and was rewarded with a brief sting. A small pool of blood bubbled up from the hole on his arm, and he was amazed that he did not feel any greater pain when he examined the long, thick needle on the end of the tubing.

He stepped out, stood up and stretched, and then paused to glance down at himself. He found himself dressed in his green camouflage field uniform. His short-sleeved shirt exposed his arms to a chilly draft. The legs of his trousers jammed tightly into his green boots. He was grateful for not wearing that cumbersome armored vest that he hated. Lying on the floor close to the wall in front of him were two other dark colored cylinders, not coffins, he realized. Next to the one he’d emerged from. 

Each cylinder rested on a thin metal platform, a thick black strap wrapped across the top and bottom of each. A sturdy metal hook at the end on each strap was connected to a clasp at the side of the platform. On the left side of the cylinder the straps protruded from small, motorized wenches, holding the cylinders securely in place.

Colin looked around and examined the room. The metal-paneled wall close to the three cylinders was buckled and torn, and two large twisted metal beams protruded through from the other side. Along the wall, from floor to ceiling, were large splinters of twisted metal jutting outward, one emerging from the floor at the right side of Colin’s cylinder, the surrounding floor littered by metal shards. Colin figured that it explained the damage, as well as the impact he’d felt. He rubbed his side, thankful that the fragment had not penetrated a few more inches to the

left.

Colin suspected what the other two cylinders might contain. He knelt down near the one in the middle and ran his hands across the smooth, cold surface. His fingers met a small metal bar on the right side. He spied a piece of metal, two feet long and roughly triangular in shape, lying on the floor. He picked up the hunk of scrap, being careful of grabbing its sharp edges with his hands. The metal was fairly heavy but Colin was able to lug it over to the cylinder and bring one of its pointed edges smashing down against the small bar. The bar held firm. Colin raised the crude tool again and brought it down onto the bar again twice until the bar snapped off, bouncing against the floor with two faint clinks. Colin put his tool aside and slowly opened the cylinder’s lid.

A tall unconscious woman lay inside. Black hair obscured her face and hung down past her shoulders. She wore a green camouflage uniform and boots similar to Colin’s, and also had a plastic tube inserted into her arm. Whatever the tube’s purpose, Colin imagined that she would be grateful if he removed it. He gently pulled the tube out of her arm, and then shook her, but she remained unconscious. Frowning, he shook his head and turned to the next cylinder. 

Colin used the scrap metal to break the lock off of the second cylinder. Inside was a young man with short-cropped blond hair. He had a youthful face, appearing to be in his late teens or early twenties, and looked short. Colin estimated him to be no more than a few inches over five feet. Colin removed the tube in his arm and tried to rouse the youth. Like the woman, the young man remained in a deep, oblivious slumber.

Well, I tried. But I want to know what the hell’s going on, and I’m not about to wait around for answers. I need to get out of here.

Colin crossed the room and approached the half open door. Apparently, whatever force had damaged this room also affected the door. Outside the room rang a loud wailing noise.

An alarm of some sort.

Colin heard the sounds of panicked shouting and running footsteps. He stepped through the doorway and entered a small corridor filled with an acrid smoke and the strong odor of burning rubber. The column of dim lights running along both walls provided little aid for his vision through the thick smoke. A single inhale of the smoky air caused him to cough instantly, and his eyes started to water. He stopped and wiped his tearing eyes with the back of his hands. His head swiveled left then right, then decided to head to the right toward the sounds of shouting, hoping he would have a better chance of finding someone by heading into the heart of whatever chaos he was in.

A man suddenly rushed up to him through the smoke, dressed in a pilot’s uniform of a dark blue shirt under a matching jacket. There were small gold insignias of a pair of wings over captain’s bars on his shoulders and a gun belt strapped to his waist.

The man halted. “Who the hell are you?”

Colin hesitated. Then he started back the way he came.

“This ship is restricted to authorized personnel only!” the man snapped. He reached for the weapon holstered at his right side.

Without thinking Colin swiftly hurled his fist into the man’s face. The man staggered back into the wall. Colin chose not to follow up on his attack. Instead, he darted past the man and down the corridor. 

“Intruder alert!” Colin heard the man’s voice cry out. “Intruder on board!”

At least I know I’m on a ship. But what am I doing here? And why were the three of us shut away inside of those cylinders?

Colin came to a large open ramp and realized the ship was still on the ground. That came as a relief, because now his escape could be easier, depending on what was waiting for him at the bottom of the ramp. Taking a quick glimpse of his new surroundings, Colin saw that he was in a large air bay, appearing to be located underground. Rows of blinding white lights were mounted high along the rock walls. Dozens of triangular shaped fighter craft were parked on both sides of the painted white runway. Dozens of men and women wearing blue coveralls, with tools in hands, ran back and forth between the fighters. Colin glanced behind him at the wedge-shaped vessel he had emerged from and saw a huge mass of flaming wreckage imbedded in the side of the ship’s hull. Two men carrying red fire extinguishers each shot streams of white chemical foam trying to put out the fires.

Someone suddenly grabbed Colin from behind, and a heavy weight forced him down. The attacker wrapped his arm tightly around Colin’s neck, cutting off his air. Colin desperately tried to wrestle free but he was helpless against the man’s strength. He managed to throw himself to the side, rolling down the ramp with his attacker clinging to his back. The man’s added weight smashed Colin’s face painfully against the hard metal surface of the ramp.

Several troopers scrambled left and right, getting out of the way. A few stopped to watch the struggle. Three troopers broke away from the crowd and rushed over to the ramp. They grabbed Colin’s arms and jerked him upright and then dragged him toward the stone wall of the air bay, slamming his face against.

“Who are you?” a loud voice shouted into Colin’s ear.

Colin did not respond. The men pulled him back and slammed him into the wall a second time, pressing his face against the hard rock. Colin felt something wet slide down his lip. His tongue absorbed the bitter taste of his own blood. His nose, already aching, was now bleeding.

“Who are you?” the bellowing voice demanded. “How did you get into this base?”

“I’m Sergeant Colin McKenzie. Assigned to platoon Three, Six, Seven. Fourteenth Combat Division.”

“I’m not impressed, Sergeant!” the voice snarled back. “I’d be more impressed if you tell me how you got aboard a ship that’s restricted to authorized personnel only!”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Colin replied desperately. “I just woke up there.”

The men pulled Colin back and slammed him into the wall a third time. The pain in Colin’s face instantly overshadowed all other sensations throughout his body. His legs buckled and for a moment he was glad the troopers held him up. 

“Stop!” yelled a young but commanding voice.

Colin managed to turn toward a young, blond haired man dressed in casual blue denim jeans, a red sweater and white sneakers, accompanied by an older, white haired man dressed in a pressed grey suit. His face was mapped by thick wrinkles.

“Let him go,” the man commanded.

“Let him go?” One of the troopers protested. “This man’s under arrest for trespassing aboard a high security vessel.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the old man said. “He’s with us. He’s part of our cargo. I can personally vouch for him.”

The troopers hesitated for a moment, then released Colin and stepped back.

Colin rubbed his nose, and his fingers came away red.

The young man approached Colin. “Who are you again?” 

Colin wiped more blood away from his nose.“I already told you. I’m Sergeant Colin McKenzie. Platoon three, six, seven. Fourteenth Combat Division. Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Doctor Blair Van Doren,” the young man answered. “My associate here is Doctor Arnold Trevor. He’s a computer specialist. Are you alright?”

Colin’s patience was wearing thinner with each second. “I’m not ok,” he groused. “I just had my face imprinted against a damn wall.”

“I apologize for that,” Trevor replied humbly. “This ship is under a high security restriction. I’m afraid that Captain Gains here overreacted to your unexpected presence. It would help if you could tell us how you arrived here.”

“I just woke up inside this cylinder. I was having this dream, and then I felt something hit me. That’s when I woke up. The cylinder was pretty badly damaged.”

Trevor nodded. “Sounds logical. Earlier there was an accident here. A heavily damaged ship crashed into ours. The impact must have damaged your containment cylinder and awakened you.”

Colin was satisfied with that explanation; it was one question among many that he needed answered.

“What about the others?” Blair asked. “Did you notice the other two?”

“They were both unconscious. I tried to wake them but they were too far out of it.”

Blair and Trevor both rushed past Colin and up the ramp into the ship. Colin hesitated. He looked back and forth between the retreating doctors and the milling troopers, and then quickly headed up the ramp.

Inside the storage room, Blair was examining the cylinder that contained the sleeping female. “The Cylinder’s lock is broken off,” he said. “Her intravenous tube has been removed.”

He held out the dangling tubing.

“I know,” Colin said casually. “I took it out.”

Blair examined the cylinder containing the young man. “Did you remove this one as well?” he asked, his face red.

“Yeah, just like I took out mine,” Colin admitted. “I wasn’t sure what they were for.”

“These tubes are part of a timed intravenous unit installed within these cylinders,” Blair explained with a tone of annoyance. “The units are supposed to pump a dosage of sedatives into their recipients every two hours.”

The woman emitted a faint moan. Her head swiveled left to right. The young man slowly lifted his arms.

“It’s a moot point now,” Trevor sighed. “They’re both waking up.”

“What was the purpose of keeping us sedated?” Colin asked.

“To ensure your safety during our trip to Lodestar,” Trevor answered. “Unfortunately, an increased Brelac presence in this sector forced us to seek refuge here in Scorpis, a small base on the Planet Voran. We’re only six hours from Lodestar, but it appears that even here we’re shadowed by the threat of the Brelac.”

The woman opened her eyes and looked about. Her eyes widened as she took in her surroundings. “What happened? Where am I?”

“You’re aboard a cargo cruiser presently resting within a small base on the planet Voran,”

Trevor repeated.

Blair helped the youth out of his cylinder while Doctor Trevor assisted the stiffly moving female. “How do you both feel?”

The woman answered first. “I’m ok. I just feel a little dizzy.”

“Me too,” the young man answered, rubbing his head. “How long have I been out?”

“Only a few days,” Blair said. “But we didn’t expect you three to be up so soon. Do any of you remember anything before you came here?”

“I remember being on duty at Helios,” the young man calmly explained, looking down at his hands, “at a communications outpost on Meridan when the Brelac attacked.”

“What was your job?” 

“Trooper Kelly Lytton, Technical Master first Class.” He held out his hand, and Blair took it. “I was repairing a computer terminal in the central command center. I must have been shot because I don’t remember anything beyond that.”

“Same here,” the woman said with surprise. “All I remember was that I was coming back from a mission. And that’s it.”

“What was the mission?”

She looked confused. “I…I don’t remember. All I know was that I was in a fight. I’m a pilot. Captain Diane Christy. Credited with two hundred and thirty confirmed enemy kills.”

“Quite an impressive score,” Trevor nodded. “I’m sorry that we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Doctor Arnold Trevor. I’m a computer-programming specialist. My young friend here is Doctor Blair Van Doren. The reason that you are all here is that you were seriously injured while on duty, each of you hanging close to death. Our only chance to save you was to conduct a series of experimental operations. These operations not only saved your lives, but also endowed you with certain paranormal abilities, each possessing a different power that we hope to use against the Brelac. Depending on how effective you are against the Brelac will determine if more of your kind will be created.”  

“What kind of paranormal abilities are you talking about?” Kelly asked. “And how do we use them? I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary.”

“You will when the proper time comes,” Trevor said.

Colin narrowed his eyes at Trevor. “Some of what you’re saying makes sense so far. But why take us all the way to Lodestar?”

“As a security measure,” Trevor said. “You three are part of a highly sensitive military project called Silencers Squad. Its success is all too important.”

Diane shook her head and rubbed her hands over her arms as if she was cold. “Only three of us? You’re not going to send us out on any suicide missions, are you?”

Captain Gains entered the room and quickly approached Blair and Trevor. He made a sideways glance at Colin, and then cleared his throat. 

“I’ve inspected the hull and used the ship’s sensors to run a full diagnostic. We were lucky. The crash only breached a small section of our hull, and we can easily seal this entire section off during our flight. Also, the flight controllers just told me that their scanners show the enemy traffic around the planet has abated. But that might not last very long.”

“Then we’d better leave now,” Trevor said.

Blair pointed to Colin, Diane, and Kelly. “What about them?”

“Our friends here are already awake so we have no choice but to have them sit up front with us,” Trevor sighed.

The group followed Gains out of the room through a corridor on the left and up a short flight of steps. On the next deck they assembled in the small passengers compartment. On both sides of the compartment were rows of four black seats with safety straps that dangled to the floor. 

The ceiling was too low for Colin’s comfort. When he entered he had to bend down to keep from bumping his head. Looking ahead he saw that Diane was forced to do the same thing. Colin wrinkled his nose at the odor of burning rubber from the smoke that had penetrated this section as well.  

Gains headed for the pilot’s section. He strapped himself into the single seat in front of a small instrument panel with a large, dark, square display screen below a large, panoramic forward window. The screen was flanked by rows of glowing buttons and switches. Protruding from the panel, in front of the display were two black control sticks with thick rubber handgrips.

Colin took the seat at the left behind Gains. The seat was soft and warm as it absorbed his weight. Diane sat at his right. Blair assisted Colin with the wide safety strap. The strap ran from the top left of the seat and pressed tightly across Colin’s chest. There was a loud, sharp click as

Blair inserted the strap’s latch into the buckle at Colin’s right hip. Blair then moved on to assist Diane and Kelly, who sat behind Colin. Blair took a seat behind Trevor and Diane and strapped himself in.

Gains reached over and pressed three buttons at the left of the display, and a faint yellow glow emanated from the screen. The loud whine of the ramp raising filled the ship’s interior. A loud hiss came from the back, and a light draft of air blew through the compartment as the hatch slid shut. Once the ship was sealed tightly, the whine was replaced by the powerful thrum and vibrations generated by the ship’s engines.

Gains pressed a button at the right of the display. “The wreckage is cleared away,” his voice announced over two round speakers in the ceiling. “Now sealing off the lower deck.”

Colin could clearly see into the cockpit and through the panoramic window as the ship slowly rose into the air. He quickly lost sight of the people working below amongst the triangular fighters at the left and right. The ship slowly headed for the white runway, then turned and faced the gaping exit to the subterranean base. There was a booming pop from behind them, and Colin was thrust back against his seat as the ship sped out of the air bay.

By Colin’s view the ship was flying less than a quarter mile from the rocky ground while Protectorate and Brelac fighters continued to battle overhead. Gains explained his plan to try to keep low and hopefully fly under the skirmish until the ship cleared the area. Then he would pilot the ship safely up into space.

Colin glanced out the window, and hoped that Gains tactic to escape the Brelac’s attention would work. After several minutes of uninterrupted flight, he stopped gripping the armrests and settled back into his seat. The ship traveled silently above the rocky hilltops and groves of tall green trees for five minutes without incident. Colin closed his eyes, finally feeling relieved and confident they would soon arrive safely at Lodestar.

A violent tremor suddenly rocked the ship, making it veer to the right.

“We’ve got trouble,” Gains reported. “We were hit by enemy fire. Shields are holding, and no internal damage reported. Scanners have picked up four Brelac fighters on our tail. I’ll try to outrun them.”

Diane released her safety belt and rushed into the cockpit. Gains didn’t acknowledge her.

“Maybe I’d better take over,” Diane said. “I can handle our friends outside.”

Switching pilots at such a crucial time did nothing to help Colin hold on to his feeling of security. “Sit down, lady!” He cried out angrily. “Let the man do his job.”

The ship made a sharp turn and headed into the sky. Gains thrust the ship into wild zigzagging maneuvers to avoid the enemy’s fire. Another tremor rocked the ship, more violent than the first.

“Engine trouble!” Gains cried out. “Hang on back there. This might be a little rough!”

Diane stumbled back to her seat as the ship descended rapidly. Colin watched, detached, as Gains jerked the twin control sticks back sharply but gained little response. The ship plowed into the ground and skidded for a short distance, and huge chunks of dirt and rocks hurled into the air as the ship’s bow split the earth. The ship’s momentum came to an abrupt halt when it crashed into the base of a large hill, and the loud wail of an alarm filled the compartment.

 

 

Colin’s body throbbed with pain. He groaned and opened his eyes, running a hand across his face to brush off the layer of dirt that had settled over his skin. He was fortunate that he’d been strapped in his seat instead of being bounced against the bulkhead. He was amazed that the ship had not exploded after enduring the massive impact of the crash. He coughed against the thick cloud of dust filling the compartment, and slowly turned to look over at Diane. She was slumped over against the thick safety strap.

He glanced into the cockpit. The forward window had shattered, and large splinters of plastiglass littered the cockpit. Small piles of dirt and smaller rocks covered the instrument panel. Gains leaned limply to the left, his left arm hanging down to the floor. A stream of blood ran out of his ear and down the side of his face. There was a large rock resting against his chest. 

Colin didn’t like that Gains wasn’t moving, and from where he sat couldn’t tell if the captain was even breathing.

Colin started to unbuckle his safety strap, then paused and glanced up at the sound of scuttling through the broken forward window and saw a mob of ragged figures rushing through. Men and women dressed in dirty robes and capes, a few clad only in short loincloths.

What the hell?

One man detached himself from the ground and headed toward Colin. Tall and muscular, his uncombed black hair grew far past his shoulders. He wore a pair of dirty ragged shorts and a hooded robe made from the scaly hide of some reptilian creature. His massive fist flew straight at Colin’s face.

Colin closed his eyes as intense pain flooded his head and blurred his vision. He did not register the sensation of falling back against his seat as everything went black.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

Two Brelac guards dragged Fenlow by his arms through the dark corridors of their base. After freeing the five Brelac prisoners back on Talos, they’d taken him prisoner and transported him here. Fenlow had not been informed as to which planet or base he was on, but names and locations were unimportant to him.

Fenlow had a special purpose in mind.

Fenlow had expected to be subjected to some form of physical abuse the moment he arrived. He’d firmly stated his motives and suspected that the Brelac had gone as easy on him as they could during his interrogation. If repeated blows with electrically charged metal rods and being slammed against a stone wall could be considered soft treatment. He endured his punishment with dignity, reminding himself that if he survived and got what he wanted from the Brelac, then his suffering would be well worth it.

The guards taxied him through a set of twin swinging metal doors and into a cold and dark banquet hall. Fenlow’s nose immediately caught a strong, sweet odor in the air. As the guards dragged him forth that odor was replaced by a oily smell. There were other tables situated throughout the room with more Brelac eating and drinking heavily. Others stood around the dimly lit room holding conversations. 

Several Brelac were seated behind a long table, a large meal set out before them. Fenlow warily eyed the feasting creatures as he was dragged into the room. On large silver platters were sides of partially cooked reddish meat with rows of rib bones protruding. There were platters with stacks of long, pale serpentine flesh. Large shiny metal pots contained steaming, pink-bodied insects the size of lobsters, with rows of long red legs on the sides of their bodies. The diners were heartily eating and drinking their fill, gulping out of metal goblets filled with liquid topped with blue foam. All activity ceased upon their entrance. One of the Brelac seated behind the banquet table belched.

“What do we have here?” the Brelac growled in a deep guttural voice.. “Looks like an unexpected dinner guest.”

“My invitation was probably lost in the mail,” Fenlow replied. “Things are pretty hectic these days with the war going on.”

The guard on Fenlow’s left quickly slapped his face with a crack that was as painful as it was loud. The guard growled and jerked up on Fenlow’s arm, gaining a high-pitched whine from the doctor.

“The prisoner was aboard a Protectorate shuttle with five of our soldiers,” he reported in a slow, deep-toned voice. “They have all stated that they were being held prisoner on the planet Talos by Protectorate troopers. Then this man came onto the scene. He killed three of his own comrades and turned his weapon over to our soldiers. He insisted on being brought to see our superiors. Says his name is Doctor Howard Fenlow. Insists that you know him.”

The Brelac left his seat and sauntered over to give Fenlow a closer inspection, his long claws clicking against the stone flooring with each step. He stopped inches away from Fenlow and sniffed at him, his tail twitching sporadically. The long, wide nose worked its way up from Fenlow’s legs to his face. Fenlow turned his head away when the Brelac exhaled; the creature’s breath had a pungent odor resembling hot, dead fish.

“Are you sure he’s not wired to blow?” the Brelac growled deeply. “Or that he’s not rigged

up with some kind of transmitting device?”

“We’ve ruled out those possibilities, sir,” the guard said. “Once he arrived the prisoner was strip searched and examined with several different probes inside and out. We found no hidden devices of any kind.”

“I can vouch for that,” Fenlow added with a frown. “My back is still sore from bending over for so long.”

“You came here willingly?” the Brelac asked. “Even killed three of your own in the process?”  

“It was vital that I meet with someone of a rank higher than that of my two chaperones here,” Fenlow explained.

For a moment the Brelac standing before Fenlow remained silent. Fenlow’s skin twitched, apprehensive as to what would happen next. He had limited personal involvement with these creatures, but knew that they were as unpredictable as they were vicious. He eyed the rows of long teeth under the curled lips and suppressed a shudder.

The Brelac uttered a deep growl to slowly form a single name. “Fenlow. So, you’re the Great Doctor Fenlow. One of the first traitors in the brief history of this war. We finally meet.”

“I find the word traitor to be a little too malignant to suit my purpose,” Fenlow said quickly. “I’d like to think of myself as an entrepreneur.”

The Brelac growled again. Showing more of his sharp teeth. “Traitor, entrepreneur. It’s all the same to me. The point is that you’re here. The question is, why?”

“I’m here to speak to Bane Mariner. I have a proposition for him.”

“You are addressing Governor General Bane Mariner. Supreme Commander of the Brelac Empire. And I hope that your proposition is worth my time.”

“It is,” Fenlow assured him. “What I’m about to propose will greatly benefit both you and

my company.”

“Carp Technologies,” Mariner leaned back on his heels, his tail stretching out to counterbalance his shifting weight. “I admire your company. Playing both sides of the war for their own benefit. All the while maintaining the facade of a benevolent corporation serving your little corner of the universe. I wonder, what your people would say if they knew that you and your company were working with us to create the Reploid menace?”

“I’m…I’m afraid that the Reploid program has been discontinued for the present time. More especially the advanced Reploids. En-route to Helios on the planet Meridan one of your shuttles carrying several Reploid units was shot down by Protectorate forces. Three Reploids were captured by the military. Carp considered this to be a threat to company security and decided to halt the project.”

Fenlow withheld the fact that he himself had recommended halting the project. Aided by Carp’s resources, Fenlow produced the Reploids in a laboratory within a company research vessel stationed at a secret location in space. Fenlow notified his Brelac contact on a secured channel when each shipment of Reploids would be due for delivery, and would then meet a Brelac transport shuttle at a designated rendezvous point.

Curious about the Brelac’s vision without the use of physical eyes, Fenlow had asked to examine their psionic implants. After months of extensive research he’d been able to create a more advanced version of the implants, and promised to deliver dozens of Reploids armed with the implants to help the Brelac achieve a swifter victory. Highly treasonous acts that would certainly earn Fenlow and others within Carp Technologies a swift death sentence.

“Those Reploids in the hands of your military could pose a problem,” Mariner stated, cracking his knuckles.

“They’re no threat. There are only three of them. The military will make limited use of their abilities, and I’ve already taken steps to diminish their effectiveness,” Fenlow paused. “Carp’s board of directors has decided to move forward with Operation Broad Axe. I have to do what I can to insure that the plan is successful. This means that I have to begin some of the more advanced projects that I’ve been working on.”

“And you need my help to pull all this off,” Mariner added. He went silent, his eyeless face studying Fenlow. “Let him go,” he growled. 

Both guards raised their left hands to their heads in a familiar military salute and exited the hall with haste.

Fenlow thought that it was curious how the two Brelac saluted in such a fashion. As if they were mimicking human troopers. He suspected that he would learn a great deal about these creatures by working closely among them in the days ahead.

“Fix this man a seat next to mine,” Mariner blared out. “He’s my guest of honor.”

The attendants serving food and drink quickly provided a place at the table on Mariner’s right side, and Fenlow sat as instructed, his hands slightly shaking in his lap. Using a long, two-pronged fork an attendant quickly loaded his plate with three long sections of the pale snake-like meats and two of the centipedes, steam rising from their cooked flesh. 

Fenlow stared at his plate. The appearance of the food before him was nauseating enough, but it’s oily smell combined with a sour milk odor left him near paralyzed. Mariner silently faced him, and a thin stream of saliva dripped out of the right side of his mouth. Fenlow shuddered, slightly spooked in the close sight of Mariner’s scaled face and the long pointed teeth in the constant grin.

Fenlow nervously cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re not serving any salads.”

A faint, hoarse growl came from Mariner’s throat. “Nothing so elaborate here.”

“I see.”

Fenlow looked to the left and right side of his plate and saw no silverware. He quietly groaned in frustration. It was evident that the Brelac were eating with their hands, and Fenlow desired to blend in with his hosts. He gingerly picked up a centipede. It was warm and soft to the touch. He held it up to his face and managed not to flinch away. At least he was able to distinguish which item smelled like sour milk.

A deep grunt came from Mariner. “You look like you were just kissed by Pandora. Don’t worry, Doctor. It won’t bite you back.”

Kissed by Pandora. A strange terminology to use. Perhaps an example of their alien culture?

But the name, Pandora, stuck in Fenlow’s mind. There was something familiar about it. He thought that this would be the perfect time to get a little more background on his allies. He laid his centipede back down on his plate but kept his fingers on it.

“So, I’ve done a little research and found that you Brelac are Reploids yourselves,” he said.

“To a degree we are all the same,” Mariner sluggishly droned out, grabbing his own centipede and downing it in one loud gulp. “Our race needed a technological means to insure its continuation.”

“A technological means,” Fenlow repeated. “And what of your females? I noticed that through all the grunting and growling you all sound male.”

“As I have already explained, we are all the same,” Mariner said. “We have created the means of producing the perfect military force. Our soldiers originate from templates that are devoid of fear, unhindered by compassionate doubts, and minds that are not mired by the frivolous aberrations that obstruct you humans.”

“What about these original templates that you mentioned? I’m assuming that it’s some sort of original genetic stock.”

“Our original source is centuries old and continues to endure. But its history is not important.” He waved a clawed hand. “All that matters is that it serves us as we produce our numbers en-masse in order to achieve our objective.”

“And that objective would be?” Fenlow asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.

“Our objective is to spread ourselves across this universe and administer retribution to any and all opposition. Then we will become the only supreme power.  That is our mission passed down to us through generations. This is what we will achieve. And you, Doctor Fenlow, will help us.”

Fenlow pondered Mariner’s words, fingertips stroking the soft white flesh of the centipede on his plate.  He was still dreading the notion of being forced to eat this thing.

The Brelac mission of conquest and retribution. A chilling thought. 

But Fenlow’s job was to find a way to work Carp Technologies’ interests into the mission so that their own plans could materialize unscathed. And with the Brelac’s help his job would be much easier.

“I’ll help you,” Fenlow told him, nodding.

He took a long look at the centipede he was holding. He picked it up and slowly raised it to his face, holding his breath against the smell. He opened his mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

An explosion of glass hurled toward his face. Clouds of black smoke obscured his vision. A man with long, dark hair and frenzied eyes clad in a dirty pair of ragged shorts and robe charged through the smoke. The man raised his fist and sent it flying into Colin’s face…

Colin jerked awake, then groaned at his splitting headache. That was understandable, he thought to himself, considering I just survived a crash a few…a few… How long ago had the ship crashed?

He looked up, and his eyes met the floor. He blinked, and realized he hung upside down from the high ceiling of a large room. He guessed he hung at least six feet from the floor. He turned his head and saw a grey brick wall behind him. And out of the corner of his eye saw Diane hanging next to him, still unconscious. Kelly, Blair, and Trevor were nowhere in sight. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth to try and cope with the throbbing pain in his head.

I need to turn right side up, or my blood is going to make my head explode.

The room itself was an enormous warehouse. A musty odor filled the air. Six feet away from where Colin and Diane hung were stacks of large, metal, cube-shaped containers, with long black handles on their sides. At the right was a group of round, blue plastic, gallon sized containers. Further into the warehouse sat a row of seven tables holding large displays of weapons. The first two tables held a collection of laser pistols and several guns Colin recognized as projectile firing weapons. The next two had dozens of long barreled laser rifles.

The last three had a large assortment of hand weapons; daggers, hunting knives, axes, hatchets, and swords. At the left and right of the tables were short walls of large cardboard boxes stacked four high. To the far end of the warehouse was a short flight of metal steps leading up to a huge metal door. 

And possibly to the outside.

Colin tried to move his arms, but they were tightly bound at the wrists by a thick leather strap. A much longer strap bound his legs at the ankles and connected to a length of rope. He twisted his neck and his eyes to followed the rope up through two metal hooks affixed to the ceiling, then down to the where it was firmly tied to another hook in the concrete floor. Near the hook were several cardboard boxes filled with scrap metal and rusting tools. Just a few feet away from the hook stood two scowling men.

One was a muscular man wearing a pair of shorts and a hooded cape both made from reptile skins. The other man was a seven-foot tall giant with a massive build and dressed in dark blue, tight fitting coveralls and black boots studded with metal spikes. A black leather mask lined with spikes hid the left side of his face, and large ashen pockmarks heavily scarred the exposed right side.

There was a moan to Colin’s right. Diane stirred as she regained consciousness.

“Where the hell are we?” she demanded.

The huge man in the coveralls looked over, appearing almost bored. “Glad to see that you’re finally awake,” his baritone voice boomed.

The man sounds friendly enough, Colin thought. “Is it possible for you to let us down from here?”

“I went through all the trouble of hanging you up there for a reason. It makes it easier for me if I have to kill you.”

Guess I was wrong.

Colin made a quick study of these men and their savage appearance. He remembered hearing of tribes of feral sociopaths on several outlying planets considered to be outlaws within the Protectorate, and who frowned at the notion of integrating back into society. It was possible that he and Diane were the prisoners of two such individuals, and if so, he didn’t think their intentions could be pleasant.

“Look, you’d better do yourself a big favor and cut us down from here right now.” Diane jerked at her restraints. “You’ll avoid a hell of a lot of trouble. We’re both very important members of the Protectorate military. And they’re bound to come looking for us.”

“Threats from the Protectorate don’t impress me,” the man snorted. “There wasn’t much salvage on your ship. But since you ladies are such important members of the high and mighty military, then I think I’ll see how much they’re willing to pay to get your asses back.”

“You’re holding us for ransom?” Colin shouted. “Our superiors will never go for that.”

“Damn right they won’t!” Diane snarled. “Listen up. I’m Captain Diane Christy. I’m a fighter pilot. The military is gonna want me back at any cost. And they’ll most likely use force to do it. Now unless you want to find yourself buried under all this junk I advise you to cut us down now.”

The two men laughed. The giant stepped menacingly closer to Diane. 

“Well, Captain Diane Christy. I’m Vic De Boer. I may be just a lowly merchant but my boys and I control this region. And I’ve got enough firepower stored here to hold off any army—even your precious Protectorate. But just keep in mind that if your pals want to pick a fight then you’ll both be the first ones to die.”

“What about our friends?” Colin cut in. “Are they still alive?”

“Don’t worry about them,” Vic said with the wave of a hand. “They’re already sold.”

“Sold?”

Vic did not answer. He turned away to his minion. “Harper, I’ve got some business to take care of. Finish cataloging the instruments that we pulled from their ship. Then get started on the scrap metal dumpsters. They’re both full so you’ll have to wheel them out and empty them.” He took a final look back at his two prisoners. “Take the girl to help you. She should be easy enough to manage. Just don’t be all day. We’ve got a lot of other things to do.”

Vic left, his hulking body disappearing behind a tall stack of boxes.

Harper pulled out a long dagger from a pocket in his shorts. With a single stroke the blade sliced through one of the straps. Diane screamed as she dropped to the floor. Her arms hit the concrete first, and then the rest of her weight painfully slammed her onto her back. Harper reached down and cut the straps from around her ankles and wrists. Harper slid the dagger back into his pocket. He scanned Diane from head to foot, giving an approving nod. 

“Scrap metal dumpsters are a big job. We got a lotta work ahead of us.”

“Look, I’m a fighter pilot,” she shot back. “Not a laborer, and I don’t plan on staying here. So why don’t you cut my friend down and show us the way out?”

Harper grabbed Diane by her hair and lifted her up off the floor. Colin was surprised at how easily Harper was able to wield Diane. His strength matched the beefy appearance of his thickly muscled arms.

“Let her go!” Colin protested, not really expecting Harper to comply.

Harper addressed Diane more forcefully, his voice raising an octave. “You’re gonna have to learn to show a little respect and remember who’s in charge. Vic’s my boss. I’m yours. When he barks you jump first. Now if you want to stay in one piece then you’ll behave yourself. You do want to behave yourself, don’t you?”

Diane simply cried out in pain, her face tight and eyes closed.

“I knew you’d see things my way,” Harper said gleefully. He released his hold on Diane’s hair and let her drop to the floor. He kneeled down and gently ran his fingers across her cheek.

“You be a good girl and maybe I won’t have to chain you. Not like they do at the slave market. That’s where you’re headed if we don’t get a ransom from the Protectorate. Of course, I’d like for us to spend a little time alone before that.”

Diane rubbed her scalp to soothe the pain. She leaned back against one of the boxes filled with small rusty hammers, screwdrivers, and wrenches. Harper looked down at her. He had a smug look on his face that Colin wanted to bash away with a heavy rock. 

“If you hurt her then consider yourself a marked man,” Colin said slowly. “There won’t be a planet within the Protectorate that you’ll be able to hide on.”

Harper twisted and delivered a solid fist into Colin’s chest. Colin’s body swung back and slammed into the wall behind him, the back of his head bouncing against the hard bricks. Colin coughed to regain his breath while his chest burned in agony. His body swung forward, spinning, then back and the left side of his body collided with the wall. Still spinning, he swung back a third time, but with less momentum.

Harper turned back to Diane, who now stood on unsteady feet. She held a long screwdriver in her right hand. Harper laughed and stepped toward her, just as Diane swung her arm around and thrust the tool at his head to stab into his ear. He let out a howl that reverberated throughout the warehouse and collapsed to his knees, clutching the wound.

“Quick,” Colin hissed through clenched teeth, still trying to breathe. “Get me down before he recovers.”

Diane hurried over and tried to loosen Colin’s strap from the hook. She growled at the intricate knot, her fingers working furiously.

Diane looked up. “This damn knot won’t come loose. I’m gonna find something to cut it off.”

“Sometime today would be nice,” Colin said, his vision starting to blur from the rush of blood to his head.

Diane reached into one of the boxes on the floor. She picked up a large pipe wrench nearly two feet long. Colin struggled against the wrist straps. 

“Are you going to beat it into submission? Get something to cut the strap. Something sharp. Hurry!”

An angry snarl came from behind Diane. They turned and saw Harper slowly rising to his feet. A look of rage radiated from his face. He grabbed the screwdriver and yanked it out of his ear. He pressed his hand against the left side of his head. Blood bubbled through his fingers. He pointed the screwdriver menacingly toward Diane.

“You are gonna die slow and painful!” Harper growled through clenched teeth.

“What the hell’s going on?” Vic’s blaring voice echoed from across the room. He darted from behind a stack of crates and came charging to investigate.

“Run!” Colin yelled. He knew the game of cat and mouse would become more complicated with the appearance of a second cat.

Diane turned and ran, managing to get twenty feet away before a third captor, an obese, six-foot man wearing a badly tattered, dark hooded robe, leaped out from behind a stack of cardboard boxes to bar her way.

Diane turned back to where Colin hung. Vic and Harper charged toward her. She spied a pile of rusted garden tools laying on the floor, among them an ax with a badly splintered wooden handle. She quickly grabbed the handle, but the blade slipped off when she lifted it and clattered to the concrete floor. She dodged around the third man to one of the tables displaying the collection of laser pistols and quickly grabbed one, her hands shaking.

Harper stopped in his tracks at the sight of Diane holding the gun. The obese man pulled his own laser pistol from within a fold in his robe. He took aim at Diane and fired just as she yipped and dove behind a wall of stacked boxes. 

Colin struggled desperately to get free of his straps. He had to get out to help Diane. His eyes followed her progress as he worked. She was still crouched down behind a wall of boxes. The obese man stood several feet away, taking wild shots to try to either hit Diane or flush her out into the open. Harper was crouched down behind a table at Diane’s left. Colin scanned the area to locate Vic, and finally caught sight of him stooped down behind a stack of metal containers a few feet away from Diane’s right, and was steadily creeping closer. Diane’s attention was focused on the obese man firing at her, and her back was turned to Vic.

“Diane!” Colin shouted. “Look out!” 

Vic bolted forward and pounced down on Diane. Diane tried to fire two shots at Vic but the shots went wild towards the ceiling. He grabbed her gun hand and threw a swift blow to her face. She dropped the gun and slumped back to the floor. Vic grabbed her by the neck in a tight grip and lifted her off the floor, then hurled her through the air. Diane landed on one of the tables holding knives and swords, the table collapsing beneath the impact. Diane did not move. If she was stunned, then Colin hoped that she would get back to her feet very quickly, as it seemed their enemies would give her no respite. 

Vic walked over and picked her up as though she were a limp rag and wrapped her body in his bulky arms, and slowly constricted his arms to crush her. Diane finally came to and struggled wildly against him, but Vic’s strength was unyielding.

“You’re too much trouble to keep around and wait for a ransom,” Vic grunted. “And you’re not gonna live to see the slave market.”

Colin squirmed harder than ever against the straps, hard enough that he felt his skin being torn by them. Colin yelled, not wanting to let a few small wounds stop him. He continued to struggle with added intensity. He doubted that he could do anything to help Diane, but his own life depended on him getting free. He poured every bit of strength that he could summon into the task of struggling out of these straps. After a minute of this, Colin’s head pounded with a nearly intolerable pain, but he tried to ignore it and continued his efforts to break free.

A strange tingling sensation suddenly washed over Colin’s entire body. It overwhelmed him so much that he had to stop struggling just to keep breathing. His stomach contracted, making him twitch sporadically, as a sudden blinding blue flash and a hail of sparks exploded about him. For a moment Colin felt weightless, then he cried out at the painful impact of his body slamming onto the floor.

Colin felt an intense pain on his wrists. He glanced down to see smoking fragments of the straps burning his skin. He quickly tore them off and was surprised when sparks flew out of his hands. He stared at his hands, and his eyes widened in amazement. Then he was blanched in

fear. 

What the hell is this? 

He knelt, shaking, afraid to move, unsure if he should sit still. He stared at his wrists, trying to see if his skin had burned away along with the straps. He frowned and inspected them closer.

Not even a single hair had been singed. His heartbeat gradually slowed.

I’m alright. But how in hell’s name is this possible? Isthis dangerous?

It suddenly occurred to him that this might be a manifestation of the power that Blair said he was supposed to possess. Evidently this power had generated a surge of energy that burned through the straps. Colin wondered if this power was dangerous enough to burn through his

frail flesh as well. 

Well, this could not have happened at a better time, he thought.

But the image of his skin bursting into blue flames made him bite his lip, and he wondered if he dared to try and use this power again. He blinked at the sudden silence. He glanced up open mouthed at the others, remembering where he was.

Vic and his two thugs were staring dumbfounded at him, so amazed that they were almost ignoring Diane’s weak attempt to break free of Vic’s hold.

Colin shakily rose to his feet. He swallowed. “Back off and let the lady go.” He said, his voice shaking. “Or…or I might have to get rough.” He received only confused stares from the three men. “I think it’s time to show you just how much trouble you’re getting into,” Colin said with a more confident swagger.

Colin raised his hands toward the obese man, his heart pounding. He smiled and tried to release enough energy to transform the man into charred bones.

“Burn in hell then,” he muttered, opening his hands wide.

A single blue spark jumped from Colin’s fingers, and then faded away as it sizzled on the floor. This paltry effect fell short of the deadly power that he had summoned seconds ago. Colin’s mouth moved twice, but no words came.

The obese man aimed his weapon at Colin. Colin dropped to the floor just dodging the shots as the man opened fire and swiftly crawled behind a crate for cover. He peered around the crate and saw Harper charging toward him, still wielding the bloody screwdriver. He glanced over to the tables holding laser guns, and knew it was too far away for him to reach safely. Colin jerked back behind his cover and closed his eyes.

“Dammit, what now?”

Harper leapt on top of Colin, easily wrestling him to the ground, then lifted Colin up by the neck and tossed him into the air. Colin yelled as he crashed into a stack of boxes, the cardboard collapsing and burying him under dusty electronic components.

Dazed and sore, Colin barely had a chance to stand before Harper was on him again. Harper roughly lifted Colin to his feet, and jerked Colin’s arm behind his back before shoving him back to the ground. As Colin’s head cleared, he found himself being shoved to the ground at Vic’s feet, the ominous form of the huge man towering over him. Colin raised his hands defensively.

“The military won’t be too happy if any harm comes to us.”

Vic scowled at Colin. “Throw him in the pit with the rejects! They aren’t worth this shit.”

In the pit with the rejects? 

Colin did not know whether that meant life or death, and was not looking forward to finding out on Vic’s terms. He scuttled away slowly. Nervously, he looked to his left and right to see that Vic’s two henchmen were closing in on him. Colin stared back at Vic’s enraged face. He raised his trembling hands. 

The obese man grabbed Colin’s arm to drag him away. A blue flash and a burst of sparks erupted upon contact, and the brute quickly recoiled. Harper dove on top of Colin and forced him to the floor. Colin was able to grab hold of Harper’s wrist before he was slashed across the face with the screwdriver. Colin cried out and a powerful surge of energy whipped out from his skin to course through Harper’s body. Harper’s cape suddenly became a shroud of fire. 

Colin screamed as fire surrounded him on both sides. He gagged under the sickening, sweet odor of burnt flesh. He pushed the man’s burning body aside and saw that the obese man was taking aim at him with the laser gun. Colin froze.

Vic stared at them wide-eyed. He still had Diane held securely in his embrace, but did not seem to be paying attention. Diane intensified her effort to free herself from his tight hug. She shrieked loudly and pried Vic’s arm open with an ease that belied her earlier struggles.

Still holding onto Vic’s arm, Diane used it to lift him off of his feet. She swung him around and sent him flying several feet across the warehouse and into a brick wall. Vic crashed face first into the wall with a loud, moist thud, the impact cracking the wall’s surface and leaving a splash of blood against the paint. Vic slumped to the floor and lay still. A pool of blood slowly expanded under his head.

Colin turned to see the last man turning to aim his pistol at Diane. “Look out!” he yelled.

Diane dove behind a dumpster holding chunks of scrap metal. Colin dove down behind a dark metal crate when he saw the man whirl about, the man’s gun spitting out a volley of bolts that bored through the crate, coming dangerously close to passing through Colin as well.

The man turned to see Diane take cover behind a large wall of metal and plastic containers. He opened fire and shot everything in that area. While the man’s back was turned Colin saw this chance to make a counterattack. 

I need to use this power as quickly as this guy pulls that trigger, Colin thought to himself. 

He took a deep breath, then sprang up from behind the crate and thrust his right hand out. He visualized himself releasing the power to strike the man down. Colin was startled at the bolt of energy that discharged from his hand. With a burst of white sparks the man was lifted off of his feet and swiftly hurled into a stack of boxes several feet away. Colin stood shaking as Diane ran over to him. She smiled. 

“We did it. We won!”

“So we did,” he whispered. His skin tingled. He glanced over at Vic’s unmoving body. “How the hell did you do that?”

Diane looked at her right hand. She clenched it tightly into a fist. Colin could tell by the broad smile on her face that she had a different reaction to this newly found power. 

At least she did not carry a power that could be potentially lethal to herself.

“I don’t know, really,” Diane said, still smiling. “I just needed to fight back. It was him or me, and it just sorta…happened. But never mind me. What about you? Firing the lightning bolts?”

“When I was trying to break free of those straps I felt this weird sensation. Then somehow I generated this energy surge that burned off the straps. At first I thought that I was going to get fried. I still don’t know much about this power, or if I should even keep using it. Who knows what effects this will have on me.”

Diane curled her lips and scrunched her nose. “What are you, insane? The only effect that I saw was that it saved your ass. Just like this weird strength saved my life. That Vic character was crushing me. Then all of a sudden I felt like something exploded inside me, like I had all this energy and nothing to do with it. That’s when I had the strength to pull his arm away.”

“I guess Blair was right about these abilities of ours,” Colin said. “We couldn’t have dealt with these clowns without them… Diane! We need to find the others.”

The obese man moaned. Tendrils of smoke rose from his body, but he was alive and slowly regaining consciousness. Diane displayed no compassion for the injured man. She grabbed him by the back of his neck and lifted him up over her head.

“We need him alive,” Colin said quickly, almost reaching for her. “He can lead us right to where the others are being held.”

Diane rolled her eyes and reluctantly complied. She allowed the man to drop roughly to his knees on the hard floor but kept a firm grip on his neck.

“Where are the other members of our group?” Colin demanded, his nerves settling slightly.

The man gave an animalistic grunt as he grabbed for Diane’s hand, and she yanked him to

his feet.

“Let’s try that again,” she said, her fingers tightened. 

“Over there,” he managed, pointing toward an area to the right.

Diane released her hold on the man and shoved him in the direction he had pointed. She and Colin followed him closely. He brought them to a wide metal plate mounted onto the floor with several small slits cut into the face and secured by a large rusty lock fastened to a metal latch firmly attached to the floor.

“Can you open it?” Colin asked Diane, pointing to the plate.

Diane grinned and hit the wounded man over the head and then shoved him aside before kneeling down to grab hold of the plate. The metal bent quickly under her grip. She ripped out the plate and threw it across the warehouse just as easily. They all stepped back as a gust of air reeking of oil and urine wafted up to them, then covered their noses and peered down into the darkness.

Four dirty and ragged troopers blinked awkwardly up at them from a deep square pit laying among heaps of animal bones, soiled rags, scrap paper and rusted metal debris. Strangers; with no sign of Blair, Trevor or Kelly. Colin wondered how long these men had been here. From what he could see they had not bathed in quite a while, and by the looks of their thin frames and pale sunken cheeks were probably not fed regularly either.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Colin said quickly. “We’re here to help you.”

Diane bent down and offered a hand, then pulled the troopers up from the pit one by one while Colin continued to explain.

“I’m Sergeant Colin McKenzie. This is Captain Diane Christy. We’re looking for our friends. Blair Van Doren, Doctor Arnold Trevor, and a real young guy, Kelly Lytton.”

One of the troopers, a tall and slim figured individual with his left eye swollen shut from an obvious beating, frowned. 

“No use worrying about your friends. If you’re here to rescue them then it’s too late. Too late for all of them.”