Holy cow! Last week’s holiday messed my days up and I am still trying to figure it all out. My apologies for almost missing this momentous day! Ready? Here we go….
Snake Eyes dropped his helmet and rubbed the sweat from his hair. The day was just beginning, and it already had more twists than he cared for. He and his men had gone in with the understanding that there was going to be a firefight, but none of them could have guessed the outcome. He had a bad feeling about where all of this was leading. Calmly lighting a native cigarette, Snake Eyes watched the lieutenant make his way over to the Slayer. He had to laugh. The man was as green as an Idorian, and he was hoping to take on one of Helscape’s self-designated defenders. “Good luck to him,” Snake Eyes muttered through a stream of smoke coming out of his nostrils.
“We have a few questions for you, sir,” the lieutenant announced.
He was standing solidly over the Slayer, hands on his hips in a gesture of authority. Kane looked up, forced to squint through the glare of the twin suns, at a man less than half his age. He wondered why it was that such young men often felt it necessary to try and impose their authority over others when they showed no clear signs of understanding their surroundings.
Kane rose to his full height and stared the man down. The rest of the patrol moved around them, intent on the grim business of cleaning up the bodies.
“I don’t think so,” Kane said and turned his back on the soldier.
Snake Eyes fought back a smirk despite himself. He didn’t really care for his officer, but seven of his men were dead, along with another he wasn’t expecting. Hells, command wasn’t even aware that Scoops had come along. If the old man ever found out about this one…. Relinquishing his rocky seat, Snake Eyes made his way over to kneel down next to the Slayer. Together, they watched the rise and fall of the stranger’s chest, each hoping that the stranger wasn’t the next casualty in a meaningless war.
“Where do you think he came from?” Snake Eyes asked. “People just don’t appear like that.”
Kane could only shake his head. “Tis an evil form of magic, I deem. These are desperate times grown fell by these new deeds.”
“So the Berserkers have expanded their sphere of influence to another world? How are we supposed to combat that? It’s hard enough trying to fight them like this.” Snake Eyes lowered his head. He wanted to go home and forget about this war. It was a moot point, though. No matter how hard he tried to push them out, he knew the nightmares would never leave. “Does he need any medical attention?”
“I don’t know,” confessed the Slayer.
“Lal-owk, bring that aid bag over here.”
First came the swirling dissolution of darkness, followed closely by a pain so thick it was maddening.
“…do you think he came from?”
“Don’t know…seen someone dressed like this…”
Nathan Bourne finally groaned awake and wished he hadn’t. His head was pounding as if his brain were trying to break out. His stomach felt like it was trying to rip itself free, and God only knew if he had the strength to stand. Whatever that green light had been, it sure left a hell of a hangover.
Reaching his weary hand up to soothe his temples, Nathan tried to flush the memories away. He saw his wife and two kids walk out the door for the last time, saw his partner slain at the hands of that monster, and was left wondering what purpose Steve’s death served. He saw himself struggling with the monster again. And then unconsciousness overwhelmed him again.
He had no way to know how much time had passed since he’d last seen the light of day but he vaguely remembered seeing the two suns. Now, he was awake again and feeling dehydrated and hungry. The difference in temperature was noticeable, lending him cause to guess the suns were setting. Now that the grogginess was wearing off, he could feel the stares of a dozen or more strangers locked on him in the twilight. Moving as best he could, Nathan forced himself through the struggle of sitting up so he could face this new challenge.
He did his best to control his shock, but it soon proved almost unbearable. The gray-skinned man sat directly before him with three blinking red eyes. A double-barreled rifle resting comfortably in his lap had the look of much use. The silver armor he wore was now scored from battle. Beside him sat a furry, primate-looking man with a medic bag slung over his shoulder and a smile on his face.
Most of the rest were human in guise, though he did notice the huge male in the back with yellow fur and spotted like a leopard. Most of them paid him little mind. They had their own problems to worry about. He was just another survivor in the war. The faint odor of death drifted his way, making him turn towards the line of body bags off to side. At first, he thought this was nothing more than a bad dream, but the realization that this was as real as his own experiences in combat brought his world crashing down.
“You okay?” asked a man in uniform.
He turned back around to confront the two men before him. They were as different from each other as night and day. One was young and dressed in a battle-worn uniform, and the other looked like a vagrant gunslinger whose story was readable from his style of dress and the attitude with which he carried himself. He knew from personal experience that each was lethal in his own regard. Nathan could remember seeing men like this before, during his time in the Gulf. He’d been a liaison to the French Foreign Legion and saw firsthand how effective they were when the ground war started. There was no doubt that these two were just as effective.
Nathan nodded. “Feels like I’ve been run over by a tank, though. Where am I?”
The dialects were strained and hard to understand at times, but Nathan picked up the foundations of basic English mixed in. How had they learned how to speak English, he asked himself as an afterthought.
Kane looked to Snake Eyes before answering. “In a land of nightmares. Do you remember how you got here?”
Nathan shook his head. “Everything’s a blur. I remember being on a stake out. Then the deli exploded, and we watched that thing come out of the fires. It was like a scene right from a horror movie, only this was real. I watched it kill my friend, my partner. I guess old instincts took over and I reacted.”
Snake Eyes elbowed Xill with an approving nod, recognizing a fellow soldier.
“Something inside me snapped. I drew up my pistol and began firing. It ran. I chased it. There was only one, but that just doesn’t seem right. I know in my heart there are more. We made it to a clearing outside of town. The son of a bitch attacked and ducked through some kind of light.”
“I do not like the idea that the Berserkers are capable of travelling to other worlds,” Xill whispered. Several soldiers stiffened.
Kane and the Viper, who now showed mild interest, exchanged cautious looks.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, but I followed it. And here I am.” He fell silent and began to take in his surroundings. Burnt orange sand mixed with rock and stone. There was little vegetation, reminding him of another desert on a different world.
Tossing what was left of his smoke aside, Snake Eyes leaned closer and asked, “But where did you come from?”
“Guess that all depends on where I am. Name’s Nathan Bourne, detective for the Binghamton police department.”
“Well, Nathan Bourne,” Snake said with a smile, “welcome to the Seven Hells.”
Kane stepped in when he saw the look of confusion on the alien’s face. “There will be time enough for explanation on the way out of the Wastes.”
The Viper jerked upright, pushing the tip of his hat up to stare down the three. “What’s this? I still have a contract to fulfill, and it didn’t say anything about hauling around baggage from another world. Come on, Kane. Let these soldiers handle this one. We’re supposed to be partners.”
“I think our partnership is done,” Kane said. “I’ve seen more than I cared to over the past few days. Go back to your employers and tell them. Let us hope the Northlanders won’t be able to break through. I am going to Minion.”
“To do what?” The assassin snorted. “You’re going to join this fool crusade, aren’t you? Do you honestly think it’s going to work? Look what they’ve done so far.”
Kane ignored him, turning to face the dwindling daylight. This time of day, the suns turned the dunes into a sea of shimmering gold. A poor man’s treasure.
“Perhaps you’re not as smart as I assumed. Happy hunting, Slayer.”
A part of him wanted to stop the Viper, but his was a wayward soul commanded by only his instincts. The assassin was far better off doing what he did alone. Still, a nagging feeling remained, telling Kane that they would meet again. They watched him mount up and head off into the open desert. He offered them a stern look, one that told them he knew what was about to happen. The Viper offered Kane one final nod and headed back in the direction of Furnace Island.
“Okay, let’s get this show on the road!” Snake Eyes shouted, and the massive, fifty-ton armored personnel carrier gunned its engines. He was already mad that command had recalled the air support, leaving them with this crawling death on a track. His one hope was in the Berserkers retreating far enough they wouldn’t notice his own retreat.
Kane, sitting atop his horse, was already moving. Most of the troopers — at least the ones not manning the interior guns — were riding on top for better comfort. Partially hidden behind the pile of body bags, Kane made out Nathan’s sleeping form. A cloud of argots circled overhead, hoping for one of the bodies to fall off unnoticed so they might eat. Snake Eyes mouthed his commands through the intercom, and the vehicle lurched to life. It was half a night’s ride to the pick-up site and another hour or two flight time back to Minion and Fort Evans. They could only hope that there weren’t any more surprises awaiting them along the way.
Leggis Fint closed his thermal imaging binoculars and smiled. “Well, he didn’t get killed.”
Lounging in the driver’s side of the hover jeep, Kreegin Faul scoffed, “Yeah, but you might when he gets a hold of you. That was a pretty nasty fight. Could’ve gone either way.”
The mercenaries had been on Kane’s trail long enough to know when a good fight was about to occur. True to form, he didn’t disappoint.
“I agree, but it didn’t. Besides, I told you that Slayer was good.”
“Do you think they know we’ve been following them?”
Fint shrugged. “Don’t see how. We’ve been tracking them for almost a year now, and they haven’t caught on. Though I must admit, I thought they had us that one night.”
“You can thank that giant for saving us then,” Kreegin agreed. “The one with the red eyes knew we were out there. And I recall someone telling me once that I should never take things for granted cause the surprise always comes right when you get settled in.”
Fint smiled. “Yes, that does sound vaguely familiar, but it’s all moot now.”
“So who do we follow now?”
Leggis Fint looked down again at the tiny APC moving across the desert. It was no more than a dark spot.
“My guess is the assassin isn’t going to be doing anything important for a while. We go back to Minion. I have a feeling things are happening much quicker than our good General has let on.”
Kreegin cocked his head. “How do you mean?”
“Kelg’s been sending me reports of secret flights of only one chopper heading off into the western deserts,” Fint replied.
“Standard Imperium procedures say no less than two, three in combat,” Kreegin thought out loud. “Do you think he’s working against us?”
Fint nodded. “It’s not impossible. If he’s willing to go behind Imperium channels, what are three mercenaries to him? We need to get back to Minion.”
Kreegin grinned, “Good. I’m tired of this damned desert. We’ve only been here for a month, and I already feel like I’ve lost most of my hair and about a hundred pounds. I’m ready to move on to another job.”
“You look good, though,” Fint laughed. “I think the desert has built character in you.”
“Squaffa! Shouldn’t we be heading out before something decides to interrupt us?”
“I suppose you’re right. We need to make contact with Kelg. At least he survived this one. I was worried for a minute. The fleet should have already left Amicir. It won’t be long now before we can find a better job.”
Kreegin gunned the jeep and said, “Couldn’t have said it better myself, boss. You’re buying the first round when we get back.”