File 000: Prologue
The Village of Aden,
May 30, 2041
The Village of Aden was no more, its remains shrouded by a mass of thick, dark smoke billowing into a black, featureless sky. The flames, however, raged on like a sea of yellow-orange surfs, reducing everything in its path into nothing but smoldering embers and charred remnants of what once was. The mission was only partially complete. She looked on at the devastation around her in satisfaction, a ghost of a smug smile playing on thin, bright red lips. The ground was littered with burning piles of wood that had once been homes to many, among stones and bricks that lay scattered about, stained and soaked in sand, mud and fresh blood. She watched on in silence as her forces swarmed about, clad in their standard navy-on-black uniforms, shouting back and forth as they searched for any survivors or valuables.
Leave nothing behind. Leave no one alive. All must be destroyed.
Commander Aona Darter understood the order loud and clear. For she knew better than to fail him. The traitor wouldn’t get away from them this time. With a determined sigh, she trudged forward, shoulders back and her deep, dark brown eyes fixed solely on the destination before her. The ground crunched loudly beneath her boots and the air wafting a scent the commander was all too familiar with: strong, acrid and sickly sweet as it made its way into her nostrils and cruelly attacked the back of her throat.
The putrid stench of burning human flesh.
“Hunnington!” she barked as she approached a tall, looming figure on the far side of the flaming village. “Report!”
The uniformed soldier stopped short and turned sharply on the ball of his heel. He straightened and saluted his superior before answering. “The mission is a failure, Commander Darter. The target is not in sight. He has evaded our efforts of capture and containment, ma’am.”
The commander went still. How is this possible? She had made sure that they were not detected. Sealing off any possible exits within a two mile perimeter in advance, placing snipers in the highest points in the area surrounding the village, moving on foot to avoid being detected through sound, even attacking the middle of the night to catch them all off guard. So how did he manage to escape without so much as leaving a footprint behind? Her eyes narrowed in anger behind the glass shield of her helmet. Cadet Hunnington squirmed uneasily beneath the heat of her glare, but remained silent.
There’s no way he could’ve ran during the commotion without being seen by someone. I made sure every single cadet on this unit memorized every possible physical characteristic of the target so avoid mixing him up with the other lowlifes. She balled her hands into fists at her sides, her anger simmering at her tip of her tongue. I was careful. Sure that this plan would not fail. There are snipers for when he decides to fly! My men on foot for when he decides to run! This whole area is swarming with military personnel! So how? How did he escape? We would have seen him! Unless…
Her eyes suddenly dropped down to the blood-soaked sand beneath her feet.
“Spread out!” she snarled. “All of you! I want every each of the area searched immediately! We are searching for any underground tunnels, holes, or anything of the sort!”
“Yes ma’am!” The troops shouted in unison.
They scattered like cockroaches, hastily pulling on pairs of black, silver-rimmed goggles. They all drew their weapons and headed out into the night.
Commander Darter drew her own laser rifle. This time, Igor Harmaajarvi would not escape.
The gravel crunched noisily under their boots as the eight survivors stumbled through the last of the underground tunnel. The silence was tense, but the horrors they all left behind were much worse. Igor was livid: he remembered hearing the gunshots first, sudden and sharp like knives cutting through air, followed by the horrified screams of the villagers. The soldiers stormed the community then, kicking down their doors, hastily searching their homes while destroying the few belongings the inhabitants owned, before setting each home alight. With the shrieking families still inside. He’d turned and given his gaping wife a knowing look then. They had finally found them.
Caprice, his wife, slid her hand in his. He squeezed it reassuringly. It wouldn’t be long before they realized that he has escaped. They didn’t have a lot of time.
“Igor,” Lauren Piper whispered. “Who are those people? What are they looking for?”
Igor said nothing. Caprice shot her a warning glare. “Keep quiet!” she hissed. “Do you want them to hear us?”
“We’re underground Caprice,” Lauren retorted, returning the menacing glare. “I doubt that they even noticed that we’re gone.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” Igor argued, his voice laced with his native European accent. “Those people… I recognize their uniforms. They work with the military.”
Lauren blinked in surprise. “The military!” she gasped. “What could the military possibly want with a small village like Aden?”
“Quiet Lauren!” Peyton Piper snapped. “All will be explained later! Don’t you see you’re scaring the children?”
Lauren and paused and peeked over her shoulder at the three, wide-eyed kids huddling in the back of the pack. They followed silently, keeping their small hands joined at their sides, their shoulders hunched forward in defeat and fatigue. A lump formed in Lauren’s throat. Seven years. Seven years since they all fled from the corruption of the cities to Aden and in the blink of an eye, they were thrown back into the very nightmare they locked away in the backs of their minds.
So many are dead, Lauren thought as tears bubbled at the rims of their eyes. People she had grown to love and cherish through those harsh times. Men, women, and children, all slain so mercilessly. But why? What does the military have to do with us? She felt the familiar warmth of her husband’s arm around her shoulders. But this time, the doubt did not leave her. The fear hardened into a cold, heavy knot in the pit of her stomach. Her mind spun with new worries, overwhelming anxieties. The frightening reality of their horrifying situation. She could take the silence no longer.
“I want answers!” she demanded, so suddenly that Igor nearly dropped the torch.
He stopped in his tracks and turned to glare at her. “I told you to keep your voice down, didn’t I?” he spat through gritted teeth. “We don’t know where they are or how many are on our trail so stop making such a damn ruckus!”
“Calm down everybody,” Peter injected. “No need for tempers to flair. We’re all on the same team here, alright? Let’s keep moving and—”
“How long?” Lauren riposted. “We’ve been walking for God knows how long! Why are we running away like hunted animals? We haven’t done anything wrong! I want to know why the military is after us!”
“Quiet Lauren!” Caprice shouted. “We can’t explain anything here! Don’t you ever listen when someone’s talking to you—”
“Oh, don’t you talk down to me Caprice!” Lauren countered. She viciously tucked a lock of curly, black hair behind an ear. “Not after what you’re guilty of!”
“Stop this!” Peter cried. “Stop this arguing! This isn’t helping anyone! We need to keep moving before they—”
“That is so like you,” Lauren sneered. “Always agreeing with the majority rather than standing up for yourself!”
Peter blinked. “Excuse me?” he asked incredulously. “Agreeing with what? What in the world are you even talking about?”
“Ignore her Pete,” Igor cut in, his sweaty face glowing in the light of the torch. “She’s just upset and with everything’s that’s happened, who can blame her?”
“Don’t write me off like that!” Lauren shrieked. “I bet it’s your fault that we’re even here in the first place! You have something to do with those soldiers don’t you?”
“Shut your mouth Lauren.” Caprice paused and readjusted her daughter’s weight in her arms. “This is the last time I’ll tell you this.”
“Or what?” Lauren challenge. She wrenched her husband’s arm away and stepped forward. “You’ll turn me into the army? Have me killed? Like the rest of the villagers?”
Caprice recoiled as she she’d slapped her. She said nothing. Peter shook his head in disappointment. “You’re scaring the children.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Lauren screeched. Igor nearly dropped the torch again. “They’re already scared! We were all there when they came! We they started shooting and killing people! When they started—”
Pfft. The single sound carried through the tunnel and echoed through the silent air.
No one moved. Igor motioned for the group to move forward and lifted the torch over his head. He squinted into the darkness.
The children eagerly followed after their mothers, desperately clinging to their skirts.
Igor retreated further into the darkness, the torch but a small glowing orb in the vast blackness. He turned his head and saw it: a single dart wedged into a crevice in the cave’s wall. Its body was rectangular and glass with a long, shiny needle at the front and a mysteriously clear liquid swooshing back and forth inside the glass. A tranquilizer.
He spun around. “Run!” he shouted and broke into a sprint.
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! The darts ricochet off the walls at mind-bending speed, colliding into one another and plunging into the hard-packed ground and solid walls. Screams and wails of surprise and fear echoed through the air, mingling in with the determined shouts and grunts of the pursuing soldiers not too far behind. Igor swore under his breath. The Extermination Legion on already on them, but the exit wasn’t for another mile or so. They glanced at the group sprinting away in front of him.
There was no way they would make out of this alive. Unless…
“Peter!” he cried and flung the torch through the air. Peter stopped and caught it in his bandaged hands.
“Take the others to the exit and take the somewhere safe. Far away.”
Caprice whirled around and gaped at her husband. Peter shook his head fiercely, sending his wavy black hair into his eyes. “You’re out of your damn mind if you think I’ll leave you behind!”
Igor scowled at him. “Someone has to slow them down! At this rate, they’ll catch us in a matter of minutes! We can’t hope to outrun them without a distraction!”
“There’s another way!” Caprice offered. “You can’t stay behind! You’re the one they want Igor!”
Igor smiled sheepishly. “Exactly.” He turned around and started towards the sounds of rifles shooting.
“Go Peter. Please. Do this for me as one last favor. Old friend.”
Peter suddenly felt sick. His stomach churned and his blood seemed to freeze over in his veins. He eyed Caprice, who regarded him with a small nod. Her eyes glistened with tears as she kissed the top of her daughter’s head and handed her over to him. Pater opened his mouth in protest, but Caprice held up a hand.
“Go,” she mouthed and pointed in the opposite direction.
“Don’t let me down Pete,” Igor whispered. He balled his hands into fists and closed his eyes shut. “Take care of them. Please, pal.”
“You better come back,” he whispered and offered a sad, lopsided smile. “I don’t know how I’ll tell Shuila and the boys if you don’t.”
Igor chuckled humorlessly. “You won’t have to. Get moving. Tell the kids that I love them all.”
With a final nod, Peter sped off into the darkness, the torch’s light fading away with him. Igor sighed and sucked in a breath of air.
“You too, Caprice,” he said. “I don’t want you to be around when they get here.”
“You know I’m not leaving you so save your breath.” She reached into the waistband of her skirt and pulled out a small semiautomatic revolver.
She sauntered forward and flicked the safety off. “Ready when you are.”
Igor frowned, but said nothing. He closed his eyes and waited. A familiar heat suddenly overtook him, its warmth quickly spreading through his veins like a jolt of electricity. The temperature intensified and gathered at the palms of his hands. With a sigh of satisfaction, Igor opened his eyes and beamed down at the flaming hands.
The shooting grew closer now and the shouts louder than ever. The soldiers finally came into view, the lights from their laser rifles bouncing along the cave walls in bright circles of light.
Igor’s body tensed. Caprice aimed the revolver at the approaching figure.
“Igor Harmaajarvi,” Commander Darter hissed, her nose wrinkling in disgust. “We finally meet again.”
“I can’t say that I’m happy about that,” Igor replied just as hostile. He narrowed his eyes at the invading soldiers.
They all aimed their laser rifles at him. Commander Darter smiled. Caprice scowled at her.
“I see you brought me yet another filthy villager to kill,” she said and held up her own rifle. “I assume that this is the woman he has been searching for? The one you decided to steal from him.”
Igor scowled. “I’m no thief!” he snapped. “And she is not an object to be stolen. You can go back and tell that to your master like the dog that you are!”
Commander Darter returned the scowl. “Dog?” she spat through clenched teeth. “The only animal I see here is you! On order of the Brillante City Extermination Regime, you will be killed right here tonight!”
Click. The safety switches clicked off the rifles. “Any final words?” Commander Darter hissed.
“The Atyeba Project has to be terminated, Darter. You and I both know what’ll happen if they are left to continue it,” Igor reasoned. “Countless people will die.”
Commander Darter snorted. “Those things—those like you—are no longer people, Harmaajarvi. They lost that privilege the moment the effects of Big Impact mutated them and turned them into the monster they are today. You are no one to stand in our way!”
“Monsters? Who are the real monsters here? Those of us who use our gifts to help those in need and make what’s left of this world a better place to live in? Or those of you who use their power and nonsensical ideals as excuses to murder others in cold blood? Look at you. Look at what you’re doing! Would Gregory have wanted you to join their cause and kill us all?”
Commander Darter let out a long shriek of rage. “He was killed because of you! Now, I will end your life and finally put an end to your pathetic resistance! We will not be denied!”
“Ready your weapons!” she yowled. The soldiers aimed their rifles. “Any last words, miserable swine?”
Igor glanced at Caprice. She nodded in response and slowly moved behind him. He turned back to the commander. “Just one.”
The flame suddenly burned brighter and hotter as they climbed his arms and spread out, quickly engulfing him and his wife in a protective, fiery shell. He placed a single against the cave’s wall, the flames biting into it.
“Kuolla.” The walls burst apart, flinging massive chunks of rock into the air towards the retreating enemy.
Commander Darter gaped in astonishment as the ceiling caved in and the tunnel exploded.