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Fall of Zona Nox (excerpt)

By Nicholas Woode-Smith All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Ch 1. Galis

 “If I was to pay one compliment to humanity, that would be its persistence to not stay down even after being shot, crippled and beaten.” – Martyr Grexus of Xerl, Imperial General, 3550 T. C

A stray bullet ricocheted off the concrete tiling of a nearby shop as the boy narrowly dodged the projectile. The guard was in pursuit and gaining speed by the second, firing as he ran. The boy was faster than the guard but that made little difference against bullets. Luckily, the guard was too incompetent to stop and aim. He skidded into an alleyway, knocking over dustbins, trying to hinder his pursuer. He had done this hundreds of times without a problem, but today he felt that it might be his last.

Loose concrete and red sand fell as he grappled onto the roof of a low lying shanty, the guard still in hot pursuit. The roofing was what it had always been - gray, damaged and flat. He had grown up in this city and this loathsome sight was normal and even of some relief to him. It was a strange feeling, gaining pleasure from the sight of grit and general unpleasantness. The boy had come to accept this, and had become better for it.

The guard lifted himself onto the roof, being weighed down only slightly by his cumbersome armour. Before he could grab the boy, he leapt across a small opening to another roof, once again escaping capture. The boy needed to get to the poor district to have the slightest chance of escape.

He sped across the gray surface, darting away from incoming fire. This route had already been set up by multiple thieves as an escape route and the boy only had to jump a gap occasionally. This was, in fact, a hindrance as he did not typically mind jumping gaps while the make-shift bridges allowed the heavily armoured pursuer an easier route.

He had thought that stealing an X51 Battery to sell on the black market would be easy, but it looked as if he had been wrong, and he was now regretting it. The victim of his crime was a rich merchant that had special connections to gain him new technology.

The X51 Battery had enough energy to power a house for three months and was only the size of a portable communicator. It apparently utilized a new substance from Nova Zarxa, a hybrid fuel made from crystal and chemical.

He had heard rumours of the battery and decided it would be a profitable trinket to steal. A little bit of credit in the right pocket and he found out that the merchant was meeting his client in the southern Merchant District to conduct the trade. All information had stated that the merchant was without private protection and was utilizing the easily bribed guards of the local taverns.

The reports had been wrong. The merchant had, in fact, replaced many of the tavern staff with his own personal retinue of hired gunslingers.

Luckily, the boy had instinctively used his skill in stealth, and had managed to pilfer the battery without attracting too much attention. The alarm had sounded after he had reached the end of the street and was the signal for a band of eight heavily armed mercenaries to give chase after the person who had plundered goods from their client. It seemed they were not used to Galis, and as they drew their guns, they were met with others from jumpier mercenaries; a fire fight of instinct ensued and left only one guard to pursue the boy.

They had been running for about half an hour and the boy had been able to replace much of his need for stamina with adrenaline. He had the advantage of speed and a near-inhuman stamina, but the guard had a gun, so that evened the odds somewhat. He needed only a steady hand and good aim; thankfully for the boy, that was what he lacked. However, he was possessed of a commendable diligence, and never gave up the chase.

The boy was gaining a little bit of speed across the rooftops. The combined feeling of danger and the wind buffeting against him while he ran was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. He jumped up to catch another ledge, he felt the impact of his hands upon the edge of the higher roof and was about to pull himself up when the guard caught hold of his ankle. Only the boy’s tight grip on the edge of the roofing stood between him and punishment, but the guard was strong and the boy would not be able to hold on much longer.

He kicked the guard in the jaw but then realised that he was wearing a mask, like most guards who worked for the corporations in Galis.

He struggled to squirm free.

His grip on the ledge was all that was between a robber’s execution and freedom. He lowered himself an inch feeling the guard relax, thinking that the boy was giving up. Then the boy hooked his foot under the bottom of the guard’s mask and flipped it up. Before he could react, the boy kicked him in the jaw again. This time, it connected with a satisfying thump. The stunned guard loosened his grip on the boy’s ankle for just a moment, but that was all it took.

He climbed onto the ledge while the guard recovered and the chase resumed. Roof top by roof top, the boy leapt and dashed. Neither of them had gained anything but a few bruises and a lot of fatigue. Then he noticed that he had crossed the invisible border between the Poor District and Corporate District. This border had nothing to signify it, and only reputation allowed people to know where it was. He turned to notice that the guard had lost sight of him. He wouldn’t pass up this chance. Hastily lowering himself through a sky light, he landed on the top floor of a building he knew to be a saloon. The saloon was called the Rusty Trooper, a popular hangout for gangsters and ruffians. The owner was a friend, family of sorts, and secretly, a fence for the Galis Black Market.

Years ago, there had been no organised black market and people would have to sell their stolen goods on the streets, which was obviously highly risky as the victim of the crime could see it and report the culprit. Black market fences would purchase your stolen goods and make sure that no one knew who stole them; they also put bounties on certain items, like the battery that the boy had stolen.

He lowered himself into a corner, holding his breath slightly, and waited. Minutes later he could hear the guard run right past the sky light. The heavy footsteps banged loudly on the concrete and tin roof, making the guard’s identity unmistakable.

The boy had escaped and kept his prize.

Skulking out of the shadows, the boy revealed his features. He was of the typical city dweller variety; dark brown, almost black hair, pale skin and green eyes. He was slightly taller than most, but not enough to brag about. Overall, James was an average looking Galisian teenager.

Assured of his safety, James descended the stairway. Like most buildings in Galis it was crafted of concrete and metal; only the corporation housing could afford alternatives. As he climbed quietly down the steps, he could hear sounds of merry-making and smell the scent of fresh meat and vegetables mixed in with the acrid smell of low-shelf booze and unwashed men.

The Rusty Trooper was a good bar for both food and drink, but no saloon could expect respectable clientele in such a location.

The saloon floor was covered with metal tables, seating a number of ruffians who looked to be gambling or drinking. Very few ate at this time, but the owner would have already started cooking for the evening meals by now.

The person of James’ interest and the owner of the establishment was Billy Roman, who was currently shining mugs behind the old metal counter of the saloon. James walked casually to the counter where he took a seat. If he was anyone else, no one would have suspected him of returning from a heist. Alas, his fame went before him, and he was known throughout the bar. Luckily for him, no one cared where he got his money. Hell, they had worse sources for their incomes.

‘James, I didn't see you come in,’ Billy greeted without lifting his head, as if this was a common occurrence, as it was.

 ‘I used the scenic entrance,’ James replied snidely, as he always did.

 ‘You know that X51 Battery that the Board wanted?’ James continued.

 ‘What about it?’ Billy asked, still not looking up from his oh-so-important shining of the glass mug.

 James took the battery out of his jacket, ‘That will be five hundred Credits,’ he said proudly.

Billy finally looked up and gawked at the battery. ‘By the Imperial Council, you’re the best damn thief in Galis! I heard reports that that merchant was packing his own private army.’

‘At one time, I thought that this would be my last theft for that very reason. It wasn’t that hard though, now that I think about it. Corporates got spooked quite early on and started shooting each other; only got marked by one.’

Billy looked impressed, and so he should be. James, at an early age, had been the breadwinner of the household, even if Billy was the one who had given him a family. It was James’ skill which had kept them alive for so long.

 Taking out his wallet, Billy handed James five hundred Credits in the form of the notes common to the north. The note was a Galisian Dollar, crafted of paper fibre which by itself was worth an arm and a leg. Paper was hard to come by in the north.

‘Regardless, you still managed to jump a Titan tech trader. That’s no mean feat.’ He raised his mug in toast, ‘To the best damn thief in Galis.’

Some people cheered quietly while the others raised their mugs in toast. Billy served him a mug of beer and continued serving the other customers, evidently bored of his pointless scrubbing of the single glass mug.

The Rusty Trooper was quite a bland tavern actually; gray walls, tin or metal tables and wooden counter, but it was still quite popular in this part of town, and was known for its iconic neon sign of a drunken Trooper wielding an assault rifle.

James, personally, admired the practicality. The Rusty Trooper was a front and a drinking-hole for career gangsters; it didn’t need to be flashy.

As he sat down, finally easing the strain on his legs, the door opened and two strange figures entered. The glare of light hid their features but James could see that they were definitely not human. One was tall and thin, with bulbous shoulders. The other was short and hunched.

The door closed and, as James’ vision adjusted to the light, the figures revealed themselves to be aliens – a short Exanoid and a Gray. As people realized what they were, everyone turned to stare at the new entrants to the tavern. There was no law segregating different races, but normally, this saloon was only used by humans, and James tensed up, ready to act if necessary.

The aliens walked in, the Exanoid looking relaxed and the Gray, watchful. Before they could reach the bar counter, a man by the name of Ryan blocked their path. James turned in his seat, ready to intervene if necessary. He normally didn’t particularly care what happened to aliens, or other people for that matter, but didn’t want trouble in Billy’s saloon. Additionally, if a fight was to break out, it could attract unwanted attention to the saloon, attention which James sorely wished to keep away.

He had never really spoken to Ryan, but knew him to be an enforcer in the Marzio family, a gang in which James was a member. Ryan was notorious due to his stature and strength. James had to admit to being a bit threatened by the large muscular man. He didn’t only perform well; he looked the part - shaved head, beard and all.

‘This bar’s for humans only, alien,’ Ryan slurred, obviously drunk. He tilted from side to side occasionally; his eyes seemed to be hazy. Evidently, he was not past the point of incapacitation, however – unfortunately.

Oh great, James frowned, a brute and a drunk to boot; just my luck. James carefully changed his seating position. If a fight was going to break out, he wanted to be able to move fast.

‘There is no sign stating we can’t drink here,’ replied the Exanoid calmly, ‘we only wish for bed and drink.’

 ‘Leave them alone, Ryan,’ Billy called coolly, betraying his sentiments through tensing up. He had stopped his shining of the glass mug and his one hand had disappeared below the counter top. James knew what Billy was touching, and he hoped that Billy would not have to use it.

The man shouted back, spitting at the same time, ‘This pig face and Gray skin don’t deserve your hospitality, Billy.’

 The Exanoid countered. ‘We have money, no need for trouble.’

Ryan spat at the alien again. ‘I don’t bloody care if you have money! You aliens are always trouble. You kill our families and take our land. The Troopers do nothin’ because they’re in your pocket, the whole bloody lotta ‘em! Someone is gonna have to take care of all you off-worlders. Better it be me!’

Before anyone could react, Ryan launched his fist at the Exanoid. James and a few others jumped up to intervene, but just before impact, the Gray caught the brute’s arm and twisted it.

‘Now, can we have a drink?’ asked the Gray in heavily accented English.

The man began to sob, his arm twisted at an odd angle and his mouth blabbering out an apology. The Gray released his grip and allowed Ryan to fall limply to the floor as he clutched the damaged appendage in silence.

Bar fights happened often but a strong Gray was a rare sight and James could see a lot of people were as startled as he was. The Exanoid and Gray strolled up to Billy and asked for two beers. Seeing that no more violence would erupt that night, James once again took his seat and drank his beverage in silence, only just concealing his discomfort at the presence of the Exanoid and Gray beside him.

Billy normally allowed James to sleep at the saloon free of charge since his parents had died, but tonight, James felt that he could do without suckling off Billy. He refused to lodge for free and instead rented his own room. The Gray and Exanoid took a room next to James. Luckily, James had managed to suppress most of his discomfort and managed to sleep reasonably well. He was still thinking about the Gray.

What he had heard of Grays was that they were a weak race, normally captured as slaves by all other races. He had seen groups of them congregating around corporate ships at the starport and had surmised that their enslavement was most probably due to their anatomy. They were not built to fight. A weak physique, pale skin and skeletal arms; It was a wonder why they were even used in physical labour at all.

Any aliens at all were a rare thing to see in Galis, to be honest. Galis, as well as all of Zona Nox, was human-owned. Aliens were seen occasionally at the starport or in the civic district, but overall, they were a rarity. Even though the aliens downstairs had obviously been peaceful, James could understand Ryan’s racism. Many people’s relatives and friends had been killed by aliens. The Empire of Xank were those aliens, and had been attacking every month now.

The Trooper outposts could handle them most of the time, but every once in a while, a Xank Attack Force would get through. Just the other day, a Zangorian Assault Squad was rampaging through the Poor District. Ninety people had died, including five Troopers.

James had walked past the scene on his way to a gang meeting and could still not get over his revulsion. The bodies had not yet rotted and the blood was everywhere. James had since numbed himself to that. In a world of violence, one could not afford to give up due to a desire for peace. James had learnt this the hard way, learnt that life was hard.

The aliens in the bar were not of the Xank Empire, James knew that much at least. Exanoids and Grays were regarded as Free Races, but that did not stop a lot of people’s hatred towards them. People would always find a target for their frustration. If something varied from the norm, the ignorant tended to attack it, and these aliens were definitely not of the norm.

Grays were thin and skeletal creatures, called Grays because of their skin colour. They typically didn’t carry that much muscle and were only effective in labour if accompanied by large groups of their kind. Their eyes were generally quite large, and they possessed only two slits as a substitute for a nose.

James remembered hearing somewhere about what people thought they were like thousands of years ago. People back then had thought that the Grays were a race capable of advanced technology and mind powers. This couldn’t have been any farther from the truth. Grays were, in fact, a tribal race until the Imperial Council, Humanity, and many other races found them and enslaved or civilised them.

Exanoids were renowned managers and overseers. Their skin was brown with lighter brown stripes; their noses were long and had a pig snout cast to them. One of the remarkable physical traits of the Exanoid was its permanently curved spine. Its spine bent forward so that its legs were always uneven to its body. James had to admit to not knowing much about them, besides that, the Troopers tended to get along fine with them. James didn’t have long to ponder those thoughts, as his exertions finally caught up with him and allowed him a well-deserved rest.

James stayed around the Rusty Trooper for a short while after that, using up his money from the X51 battery as a substitute to going out and earning more. He was also keeping his head down, since news had been put out about the stolen battery. Soon after hearing the news, he realized that no one seemed to care.

 The Gray and the Exanoid left that morning, to the relief of Racist Ryan. The Exanoid thanked Billy for the hospitality and then left, hiring a taxi to take them to the Merchant District. James didn’t know why, but he hoped that they didn’t run into trouble. The Exanoid seemed likeable and even a bit naïve, which was a rare pleasantry on Zona Nox.

Originally, there had been some word around the saloon that guards were patrolling the districts and streets more than usual. James was not worried about the heightened security, and knew the reason to not be crime prevention, but rather that if the rumours were true, the Empire of Xank were once again amassing a force to attack Galis. This was a common occurrence, but the Trooper guards would not allow their vigilance to falter just because of repetition. James had even got some glimpses of Reapers, large walking vehicles used by the Zona Nox Military. The Governor had to have been worried about the city to pay for the protection of Reapers, which shells were notorious for being able to take down even concrete structures.

Galis City was mainly controlled by corporations and gangs, but somewhere in history, the Troopers had placed a governor to administrate the city. First, they tried to actually take over the city, but when they got to know the populace more, they settled with just running the bureaucracy and making sure the city was not torn apart. This suited the local’s tastes just fine. Galis was the capital of the Northern section of Zona Nox, apparently controlled by the Troopers. It was located on the eastern flank of a large expanse of desert called Red Sand, right on the shores of one of the only large bodies of water on the planet, Galis Lake.

James had lived in Galis most of his life. He recalled living in some other city when he was younger, but had since purposefully rid himself of those memories. Life did not go on if you were stuck in the past, especially a past which was dead. He knew the streets as well as any of his age. James had lived here for most of his life and had spent much of his younger days traversing the streets and roofs, finding nooks and crannies to hoard food.

James had lived in the Poor District with Billy and his son, Andrew. Billy’s wife had been killed nine years ago in a Xank invasion, along with James’ parents. James remembered Billy mourning for a long time and still sometimes these days but he had recovered on the whole. His saloon was profitable and his fence job, even more so.

Galis was, for lack of a better word, a crap place to live, but it was James’ home and was much a part of him as his own body and soul. He knew there must be something better out there, but he would not ruin himself looking for it. He was content just to survive. The Poor District was an appropriate name, if a general one. It wasn’t all poor, but did play home to large expanses of shacks and tenements. It was a breeding ground for crime and lawlessness, a place of chaos if not for the gangs.

 The only thing keeping the little sanity left in the district and the whole city, for matter of fact, were the gangs. The gangs maintained order while destroying it at the same time. If a business wanted to last longer than a day it needed security and protection. The gangs provided that. Petty violent crime caused people to lose money, and if they couldn’t afford to frequent gang businesses, then the gangs would be worse off. The gangs were criminals, but they were the lesser evil in some ways.

Many smaller groups that called themselves gangs existed, but they were just opportunistic street kids trying to gain a reputation. The real gangs were the power holders of the Districts, the people who decided who lived or died. They were the true lords of Galis. There were many gangs, but the only ones that really mattered were the Marzios, the Zenites and the Purgers. They controlled most of Galis and made sure the city did not try to tear itself apart while the Troopers were stopping the Empire of Xank from tearing everything else apart.

James looked at the streets around the Rusty Trooper while taking a drag from his cigarette, assessing his surroundings as if he had not seen them for weeks.

To his left was a drug den. James watched as a wasted junky staggered out of the door to be mugged by a group of small children. The children beat the junky to the ground and ran away with his spare change and hopefully a morsel of bread. The junky was left lying on the ground battered and thrashing to try and get up. No one spared him a glance; much less James who knew that letting your guard down in Galis was suicide.

Not being able to look any longer at the shameful writhing figure, James turned the other way. To his right was a gun store. A gangster had bought James his first pistol there, an Aegis 9mm. He had fought his first fire fight with that pistol and killed his first man. Its trigger had allowed James entry into what saved his family, even if it forsook his soul. Opposite the saloon was a brothel. These were common all over Galis and as a merchant once told James, all over the galaxy. Scantily clad woman and men could be seen advertising themselves on the pavement near the brothel. Once a customer picked a product, they would enter the brothel. Sometimes a prostitute would exit the brothel with a bruised eye or worse. Sometimes the prostitute never left. Some of the prostitutes looked content with their profession while others looked like they would be happier dead.

James knew the industry was necessary, but he also felt that he wished the local gangs would defend their employees a bit more. He would be the last to tell that to the Don, though. He wasn’t that ready to risk his neck for some prostitutes.

He sighed and shook his head. From this viewpoint, life was anything but pleasant, but he was still thankful for what he had, especially seeing that he had earned it all himself. At the end of the day, that was the truth of life: you earn what you have and try to get on living.

Cluttering the street were crowds of people, some wearing gang uniforms, but many just wearing whatever they could find. Despite their obvious misfortune, the people still looked lively. They didn’t brood, they just got on living. It was that practicality that James admired about Galisians, his kindred.

Through the noisy mash of chatter, shouts and music, James heard his name being called. Turning, he spotted his friend and practically brother, Andrew. His childhood friend had black hair and dwarfed James in height. He was much darker skinned than James which even if any of them liked to think that they were family, proved otherwise. Compared to Andrew, James was a pale runt.

While James was light skinned, thin and fast, Andrew was muscular and strong. Andrew was an enforcer by trade but, what few people knew was, he would never hurt a fly, only try to intimidate them, unless they got him really angry. Luckily for them, the only thing that would get him angry was the harming of those he felt shouldn’t be harmed. James had argued with Andrew on occasion for his soft attitude. For a long while, James had to undertake all of the violent jobs, leaving Andrew his innocence. As much as he liked his childhood friend, he would never forgive him for that.

Finally fighting through the crowd, Andrew smiled that joyful grin. James couldn’t help but smile back. Andrew had always been his more cheerful half, his only grip on a sense of almost forgotten innocence.

‘What do you think is going to happen?’ Andrew asked, taking a spot on the wall next to James.

‘The usual - Zangorians break in, kill people, and then get mowed down by the Troopers.’

Andrew sighed and accepted James offer of a cigarette. After watching the crowd in relative silence, Andrew continued.

‘Are you looking for some extra credits?’

‘Not really. I have five thousand Credits from my last job, but I will probably go along whatever you want just for the fun of it.’

‘Well, as you may have realised, we’re behind on tribute to the Don.’

‘So what?’ James replied coolly, trying to sound as if he didn’t care. Acting condescending was one of his few ways of making sure that he owned himself and no gang lord could change that.

‘So what? You do know that Don Marzio practically owns a third of the city, right?’

 ‘Yeah, yeah,’ James replied, knowing full well that he wouldn’t really oppose the Don, but would continue to act insubordinate. I’m no slave.

‘So you’re in?’ Andrew asked, already knowing the answer.

‘Meh, I have nothing better to do.’

‘We’re going to be hitting up Pete’s Store in the lower merchant district. Meet at Point Wench. He’s not been paying any protection to the Marzios so will make pretty pickings.’

James nodded half-heartedly and then continued to stare at the atrocity of a city he called home.

Andrew and James arrived at the meeting place at the agreed time. Two other Marzio associates were already there and had brought the necessary equipment to enact the job: a sack, a bat and a drill.

 ‘Point Wench’ was a warehouse located just outside of the merchant district. It was under the control of the Marzios and would act as a drop off point for stolen items. From there they would move to Pete’s Store. The plan was simple, as many of Andrew’s plans normally were: pick the lock, pocket the credits, sack the stock and break the place apart.

James didn’t like these types of jobs, but he recognized their necessity. James was a sneak thief at heart, and the noise of ‘sending a message’ was always inconvenient. That was the Don’s wishes though. If a business refused to pay tribute, it was sacked and broken. James didn’t like it, but he would obey, he always did if that meant survival.

It was early dawn, three hours before opening time; just enough time to pocket the stock and smash the rest. James, as usual, would be put on watch and stealth duties; Andrew knew his inhibitions about making noise. They left the warehouse soon after Andrew went over the plan again and each associate understood. The night was still dark and most of the lights of shops and assorted enterprises had shut off their lights for the night. Only the occasional Trooper patrol light illuminated the street. As they walked quietly through the streets, James peered at the stars. He had never been one for astronomy, but he couldn’t help but learn many of the constellations and details of the galaxies. From their position he could clearly see the star of Extos II; neighbour to his system, near it he could see one of the neighbouring planets to Zona Nox, Glotos III. James found solitude in looking at the stars, a solitude he sorely needed in a world of blood and violence. At least the stars didn’t threaten to kill him on a daily basis.

James’ solitude was brought to an end as they finally arrived at the back door to Pete’s Store. This was where James came in, as even though this was an un-stealthy job, they had since learned to keep the noise to the end of the assignment. Drawing two pins from a secreted hole in his boot, James inserted them into the lock and began his work. Only seconds later his skill was rewarded with the satisfying sound of a click. He grinned slightly and withdrew his picks, backing away so Andrew could open the door. One by one each associate entered.

Upon entering the store, James noted that the shelves were filled with what he last remembered: junk. Pete was an exotic arts broker; he specialized in the supposed art forms of alien and tribal civilizations. In reality, he received all of his stock from street kids who melted scrap together using a blow torch. This little scam obviously didn’t work on native Galisians, but Pete had managed to stay afloat with the business of naïve travellers and even the occasional Trooper auxiliary from Nova Zarxa or out of the system.

The crew got to work immediately. Andrew was sorting through sales records, and the associates were doing what they did best, taking whatever they wanted. James was left to the cash register which he began to work at using the portable drill. His lock picks were useful, but they could not work on something as secure as a cash register. The drill, though, was excellently suited for the task as it bored and chewed through the mechanism of the lock entirely, allowing the credits to be easily attained with a minimum of frustration.

Placing the drill over the locking mechanism, James applied pressure to the trigger as the spiral-grooved shard of industrial carbide steel began to whirl into action. It was slow work, and by the time that the lock had been broken, the rest of the crew had already begun to break the place apart.

The sacks had been filled with their desired loot and after James finished it off with the credits, the vandalizing began. As planned, one associate was ordered to carry their loot back to Point Wench where they could retrieve it later. The associate left right before they began the dreadful art of impractical destruction.

Andrew utilized a bat to break the cash register and file cabinets while the other associate tore at the remaining stock and shelves, destroying them. James didn’t understand why he even tried to be delicate when this was what they ended up doing every hit.

Guards normally were scarce in Galis, but the Merchant District usually received some sort of guard patrol. As James began to become comfortable with the thought of an easy job, he heard a knock on the door. Thinking that it was probably his imagination, he ignored it at first. Then the knocks sounded again.

Thump – thump. The sound of an armoured knuckle as it came into contact with the metal door of the store.

Andrew and the associate heard it too, and they immediately ceased their battering of Pete’s store. Andrew signalled for James to check the source of the knocking failing to suppress a look of worry.

Pete’s store was without windows, as most Galis shops were, so James was forced to use the keyhole as his means of perception. Peering through, James spotted the perpetrator of the knock.

On the other side of the door were two Troopers each armed with a Titan AR Lancer, if he was not so far behind on the new models. These were not play guns, they were real military issue. The Troopers themselves were night watch, nothing special, but the guns were indeed intimidating.

The Trooper knocked on the door again. James crept as quietly as he could to his friend. ‘There are two strapped Troopers outside the store.’

Andrew showed an expression of mild irritation, almost covering genuine worry, and then replied back in a whisper, ‘sneak out and get to a cache. If I don’t show up by morning, go to the Saloon.’

James nodded and snuck towards the back door. The hammering on the door grew in volume and intensity as the door appeared to be growing dents. It seemed that the guards had become tired of waiting or had finally realized that something was amiss. James edged his way to the back door a little more quickly, the others did the same.

Then the door gave in and fell off its hinges under the weight of both the heavier built Troopers.

‘GCTP, FREEZE!’

Everything seemed to freeze for a second as the Troopers levelled their weapons at the three Marzio gangsters. James knew that none of them had any intentions of being taken alive, and if the Troopers couldn’t accomplish that, they would surely resort to the other option. Even though he had been ordered to leave the building first, James was still the closest to the guards, he would have to be the one to act.

As time returned to normal, James acted. He charged head on and took the lead guard in the gut, winding him and knocking him to the ground.

‘Run!’ The associates hesitated, but Andrew nodded and did so. Andrew had grown up with James; he knew that when James did something, he always intended to come out alive. The momentum of the tackle had caused him to also barrel through the second Trooper, allowing him to get out of the building. The chase was on.

 The Troopers were out of the building soon after him. They didn’t delay their firing, but it was to no avail. Every bullet missed as James dodged and ran. Realizing that they would not be able to hit him, the hot headed Troopers gave chase.

The cache was just a block away from his position. If James got there he could hide or use the weapons hidden there to fight. Even if outgunned, James had always been a better shot than the average gangster or Trooper.

Closing his eyes, James ran, using his other senses to control his movement. The wind buffeted against him as the thrill of the chase nestled into his body, giving him the extra power needed to run. The wind direction suddenly changed, signifying a new opening. He turned up the street and opened his eyes. The Troopers had not caught up but would still be on his tail, he allowed this short time of peace for a breather but before he could achieve satisfactory rest, a bullet landed in a nearby wall. He turned and saw the culprits; three more Troopers had caught up to him and were firing as they ran. One stopped and fired again, an aimed shot that James only barely dodged. James sighed and continued his flight, evading projectiles as he ran.

He had always had a great, near-inhuman, stamina and was already pushing it to the limit. It didn’t matter though. He knew he was tired, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he survived. Then he could see it - the cache. It appeared to be a regular concrete hovel, but the cache was ingeniously hidden inside. Relief started to fill his mind, diluting the adrenaline and unintentionally allowing him to realize his fatigue.

Panting, James looked over his shoulder to see if the Troopers were behind him. The street behind him was lifeless. They were close, though, James knew that much. James did not delay opening the door and shutting it behind him.

Inside the small rundown building was a chair, a table and an empty book shelf. He walked to the book shelf and felt around for the secret switch that he knew was concealed there, as he was the one who set it up. Feeling around the empty bookshelf, he felt a flare of pain shoot up his left arm. He had triggered one of the traps that he had set. Luckily he had pulled it back in time so the needle wouldn’t be able to spread whatever poison he had dipped it in.

He sucked the finger that had been injured, and then tried again. A small beep signalled that he was successful this time as the ground behind him opened to reveal a trapdoor.

He mounted the ladder to descend into the blackness as the lid atop him closed automatically. He was in complete darkness, comforting darkness. A quiet thump signalled that he had finally reached the ground. He was blind to the room, but not for long.

Three – two – one, the lights switched on to reveal the room. Within the sparse room was a sleeping pallet, a mini fridge and a chest. In the chest he knew there to be a pistol which he kept and maintained in case of emergencies. This particular cache was only known to Andrew and himself, and he didn’t have to worry about others utilizing it. It was built decades ago when Galis was merely a ranch town and had acted as a safe house of sorts. After the rapid development after the fall of Dead Stone, the ranch had been abandoned and the existence of the bunker forgotten, until James and Andrew had stumbled upon it.

Panting from the chase, he staggered over to the mini fridge to retrieve some food and water. Chases made him a slight bit peckish and he would need to sustain himself. He ate the energy bar he had left there and drank some water from a plastic bottle. Slowly he started to feel his energy levels rising again thanks to the caffeine infused bar. Taking a seat on the pallet, he waited.

A few moments later he heard movement above him as the door to the hovel was slammed open.

 ‘Where could he have gone?’ a Trooper asked in a mystified fashion.

 ‘I’m sure I saw him run in here,’ another Trooper replied, ‘let’s move out; he might still be nearby.’

‘We better find him or the Corporal’s gonna be pissed.’

James heard the door close and then all was quiet.

He hoped Andrew got out ok, he really did. He didn’t concern himself over that for long, however. If he had learnt anything in Galis, it would be that if you watched out for yourself, everything would work out ok. Andrew knew this too. It was the philosophy which had kept them alive all these years, after all. With that thought, James drifted into a restful, but light sleep.


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