Excerpt for End of Knighthood Part I: The Chess Pieces by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


To all those who believed in the Reverence series, with a special thanks to my editors Don Sloan and Carol Thompson. Here’s to more to come.



Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Service

Chapter 2: Condolences

Chapter 3: Reflection

Chapter 4: Impartiality

Chapter 5: The Cherries

Chapter 6: Bad Habits

Chapter 7: At Your Request

Chapter 8: An Invitation

Chapter 9: Forsake Return

Chapter 10: Never Again

Chapter 11: Retrieval

Chapter 12: Acceptance and Secrets

Chapter 13: See You at the Gates

Chapter 14: Mercy

Chapter 15: Eyes of the World

Chapter 16: Weak Links

Chapter 17: All of Us

Chapter 18: Honor

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Preview:



Reverence Volume 1

In the last installment, super soldier Will Marconi faced a choice between loyalty and preserving his way of life, or throwing everything to the wind to search for the truth. Will ultimately chose the latter, but at great cost. Now he is prepared to make Chancellor Venloran pay for all he’s done. The journey to take him down is full of adversaries, both old and new…



PART I: THE CHESS PIECES





Chapter 1 - Service

August 26, 2050 - Des Moines, Iowa

The tall oaks were marked with the blemishes of age, and yet they still stood twice as tall as the cement walls surrounding them. Fiery-colored leaves littered the neat courtyard as far as one could see. The courtyard was filled with enormous trees, along with a few elegant, smooth-stone benches that sat atop makeshift hills. The greenery of the space, despite the fading of autumn into winter, was quite scenic and attracted a pair of delicate birds. They hopped along through the branches of a tree as if it were a massive playground, finally settling near the upper canopy. They were soon joined by many others, their chirping forming a chorus. Swirling winds cradled the dry leaves in midair, offering even the departed souls a measure of solace, a final dance.

Under the swaying, crumpled plumes of the autumn trees, two rows of men and women appeared. One row trudged through the grass sluggishly. The other marched through it with purpose. The groups were nearly even in number. The marching group wore all-black crisp uniforms and boots to match. Each also carried in their arms M4 carbine rifles as their beloved children. One child unto each parent, and though the M4s all looked the same, each one had a name and a human face. One person, the gunnery sergeant, marched out in front of this group as its respective head.

The other group wore orange jumpsuits, their wrists bound by metal shackles. Their ankles were secured as well, limiting the amount of movement between each footstep. Whereas the faces of the uniformed group remained steady and staring straight ahead, the shackled group kept their faces downward, toward the grass. Likewise, their shoulders sagged. Tagging along behind them was another sergeant, his Janice pointed into their backs. For the most part undisturbed, the birds watched as the two rows began to split away from each other, quite like watching a giant Y form along the ground. The formation quickly turned into a V before the parallel lines came face-to-face, the shackled men and women standing with their backs against the smooth concrete wall, the other group with their backs against the wind, standing at attention.

The sergeant walked between the lines, a fair amount of breathing room for his wide shoulders. He did not give the unarmed vermin his attention at all, but glared down at his own men and women with an icy stare they’d come to expect. Each plebe’s face was that of chiseled stone, and with their weapons rested upon their shoulders honorably, they appeared as perfect reflections of one another. All of them were incredibly young, without a single scar of battle upon their smooth faces, but the sergeant was pragmatic enough. He was sure they were all good and ready. As he turned to march past them again, he prepared to give them the essentials of what was about to happen.

“Every few months, we get a payload of scumbags from our prisons,” he announced, one arm behind his back, “and as upcoming graduates, it is your task today to rid the country of this ration of filth. Do not weep for these men and women. They have all been convicted of murder, every last one of them. Some of them accidentally shot one person while trying to kill another. Others are here for the cold-blooded slaughter of their spouses or children, sometimes both. We even have, according to my roster, a few serial killers in this lineup. Sorry, folks, pleas of insanity are no good here, not in this damned good country.”

He smiled briefly, not to the prisoners, not to his soldiers, but to himself.

“Crime cannot and will not be tolerated at any cost. Their names are not important. The security of our great nation is the vital factor at the end of the day. Now raise your rifles!”

The trainees responded in unison, among them Jacob and Neal. Alongside them were a few fellow cadets Jacob knew closely, Angela, Victor and Miles. He’d just met them all here, aside from Neal, but they’d become a close-knit family. At this moment, though, they said not one word to one another, but took aim in the silence, focusing on their individual targets. All could hear the chirping of the birds above them. A cool breeze snaked its way between Jacob’s fingers. He found it all quite calming.

“Fire!”

The synchronized shots rang out. The heads bounced back a little before the bodies tumbled over. The birds took flight. The dead leaves continued to dance in the morning sun.

“Good! Excellent! Now everyone gather your martyr and head for the trucks. Move!”

The soldiers instantly began to work, a pair for each corpse, with one gripping the body by its legs, the other by its wrists, before heading off to their destination in a single-file line of excellence. The next trainee platoon was arriving with the next batch of target practice. Captain Halsey spotted Jacob Neeson, and though he eyed the man with little subtlety, his subject paid him no mind. When Jacob was training, he never broke his focus.

“Hurry up, boys and girls. Remember, you still got your laps to complete. Let’s double-time!!”

***

Jacob laid motionless on the white sheets and blanket of his bunk. For what it was worth, the alcohol kept up his body temperature in the chilly room. He was engaged with the large mural that was on the wall closest to him, near the exit door. He studied the epic from top-to-bottom and back again. Ever since arriving all those years ago, he’d stared at it every night.

Neal walked into the bathroom, spotting a passed-out Victor lying next to a urinal. His snoring was only matched in its uncouthness by the drool dangling from his lip. Hayes was three urinals down finishing up and pulling up his zipper. He trudged past the downed Victor and eyed the half-full bottle of Jose Cuervo lying in his lap. In his own hand was an empty bottle of the same brand of liquor, to which he found himself smiling. It was a simple matter of ethics.

Neal watched as Hayes, with little stealth, switched the bottles, so sloppy in his work the empty bottle slid slightly from Victor’s hand and hit the tiled floor.

To both their delight, despite the loud clank, there was no shatter.

“I thought you were supposed to be watching Murano,” Neal said rather matter-of-factly. “Joe said he’d get us the liquor but from there it’s on us.”

“Come on,” Hayes slurred. “He’s fine. Besides this is a fight he had to do himself. I rate his performance... poor.”

With a laugh, he knelt to look at his peer. Despite a light slap to both cheeks, the man only briefly twitched. Hayes laughed before saluting the soldier.

“It’s not my fault he’s going to miss this rare opportunity, but at least he’ll have a legitimate excuse why he didn’t get any.”

Hayes let him be, but Neal felt a certain responsibility was in order. After a swift leave and quick return, now Neal himself sat next to the dozing fool. With a black marker, he drew the longest eyelashes he could, making sure to give them a certain feminine curve. On Victor’s light skin, the marker made for excellent eye shadow and, of course, the boy needed a mole to the left of his nose. His task complete, Neal stood and placed the blanket from the troop’s bunk over him neatly.

“Sleep tight, cadet.”

Neal reentered the main rest area and acknowledged that, indeed, Vic would miss out. Usually the barracks were a place of absolute silence at this hour, but tonight was a night of celebration. A banner hung from the ceiling, a simple bed-sheet with words painted sloppily across it. At the very least, it was pinned up horizontally. On it read, “Pre-Ceremonial Party.”

As a token of the trainees’ progress, the officers had deemed it fair that the cadets get to throw their own little bash, including a rare mixing of the male and female students. As long as there were no fights, they’d been promised they would be free of supervision. What the party lacked in good music it made up for in sheer noise.

Neal got a beer out of the ice chest on the floor. It couldn’t have been a party without the drinks, and their faithful Joe Halsey had delivered just as he’d promised. Despite the risk of the upper brass checking up on them and discovering the alcohol, Neal, like everyone else, cared little. Tonight was the night. The best part was that there was still much left to drink. Despite everyone being dressed fairly the same, with muscle shirts or white T-shirts and wearing the jet-black slacks, the many beautiful women had dolled themselves up considerably. The young men were their usual animal-like selves, but a few tried harder than others.

The blood-red floor of the room they called home was shrouded in darkness besides the would-be multi-colored disco ball positioned in the middle of the room. At the expense of effort, it was where else but on the floor. The UNR flags hanging from each bed found themselves drenched in an odd array of colors.

Neal spotted two people heading his way through the crowds: one a welcome sight and the other he would tolerate.

“Hey, Sergeant Neal!” called the caramel-skinned woman, a beer in one hand. Noting her curly hair and toned body, Neal maintained his poise.

“Hey, Angie, but I’m not there quite yet,” he said as he gave her a hug.

“Aw, don’t bullshit me! Sometimes you make us look bad, squad leader,” she laughed.

“Well, not intentionally, but it happens,” he said playfully.

Following behind was Miles, in his arms a whiskey bottle. Unlike Angela, he sported no feminine sex appeal for special pardon, making his voyage through the tightly-packed crowd no easy task. He felt cold beer splash his neck along with a few melted-down ice cubes.

“Hey, fuckin’ Miles, bring that bottle this way, asshole!” someone yelled.

“In a minute, you little dipshit!” he shouted.

“Make it quick, you scrawny cheesedick!”

Neal could see it was Hayes and a few of his friends, always ready for another round. At long last, Miles reached them, roughly setting down the Jack.

“Don’t spill that, asshole. Just because we’re in my dorm doesn’t mean I want a whole shitload to clean up in the morning.”

“Don’t trip, man. I got it, I got it. Besides, just because you’re one of Sarge Huntman’s favorites doesn’t make it your dormitory.”

“Soon will be by my standards.”

Miles seemed amiss at that for a second, especially at Angela’s smile, but he laughed.

“Never mind all that bull,” he said. “Where’s Halsey at? He should be here as my wingman.”

“I don’t think he’d want to soil his reputation.”

“See,” he said with a drinker’s confidence, “I think he just wanted us to throw some of our hard-earned money into his pocket.”

“Hey, be glad he was even willing. We could have none at all.”

“You weren’t gonna make a move either way,” Angie teased.

“The ladies here just aren’t my type, man. I need a girl with a little academic aspiration.”

“Like Jacob’s sister,” Angela laughed. “She transferred out of here last quarter to the R&D Studies Center in Iowa City. If you had plans of going there, you know you’re really late.”

“She’s some kind of damned prodigy, I swear.”

“She takes after her father,” Neal chimed in, “but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find someone. Better act quickly, though, or else you’ll be going lefty tonight. That oughta shake things up.” He laughed.

“You just gotta shit on me, huh, man?”

“I’m just messin’ with you, relax.”

“Come to think of it, where’s the other star pupil?” Miles asked.

They all looked around, quickly spotting Jacob in his bunk several beds down and away from the commotion. With one arm folded behind his head on the pillow, the other hand on a bottle, he looked rather still.

“I don’t get it,” Angela said, still looking in that direction. “Why didn’t he transfer like she did?”

“You kidding? He doesn’t even come close to her academic averages, plus all the extracurricular programs she constantly buried herself in,” Miles said. “He wants to sweat it out with us.”

Neal’s military pride broke through on the festive night:

“Jacob gives it his all here. It’s his path, just like it’s ours. He’s not scared of a little combat.”

“Well, you’re his butt buddy. Of course, you’d exaggerate it like that.”

He said this as he stared off in Jacob’s direction. Neal, however, now turned his gaze Miles’ way.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

There was a sharp sense of his anger in his voice. Quickly, though, he realized that the soldier was more intoxicated than he let on. He could see it as Miles focused on him with a goofy smile only a drunkard could give. The following words were not worth his time, but it was too late now to end the argument that was to take place.

“Look at him over there. Sure, he can run team-ops, first on the track every damn time, and, yes, no one can deny he’s a great fucking shot. But with this gig you have to be a killer, and my argument is that a killer he is not.”

Neal could hardly take the suddenly haughty tone Miles had taken on, but questioning his friend’s mettle was something he could not stand even more.

“We’ll see how your bullshit holds up in the field.”

“The field? If he makes it that far. The exercise today already has him shaken up.”

Angela stood in silence. Neal too was quiet for a moment. His witticism and decisiveness were shaken by the bold claim.

“In fact, I’ll call him on it right now just to prove my point.”

Neal was ready to thrust himself back into the skirmish at that, but Miles put up a hand of reassurance.

“No, no, don’t worry. I’ll do it with courtesy,” he laughed before heading off in Neeson’s direction. Neal let him go, not blind to the fire he’d started. Sometimes, though, the only way to kill a fire was to let it burn itself out.



The lone soldier was atop a hill, a superlative orange sun behind her. Neeson had always been in awe of the fact that the soldier was no sergeant, lieutenant, or captain. She was what the impertinent would dub none other than a “grunt.” Her neck-length black hair blowing in the wind, her smudged auburn skin glistening in the twilight, the battle won, she held her helmet in one arm and her gun in the air. Despite the bandaged wound on her arm, stained with the price of conquest, it did not appear to cause her any strain at all. Though the soldier was not depicted with an overzealous smile, the pride was in the eyes.

His moment of solitude, however, was interrupted by Miles, who blocked the view of the victorious soldier. Jacob eyed him with unabridged detest.

“You holdin’ up, man? Looks to me like you can’t hack it.”

Jacob lay there, a stoic look on his face accompanied by silence. The fool failed to notice the bulging vein that had begun to creep across the man’s forehead. For the sake of all that was dimwitted, Miles decided to go for a more sincere approach. He was hell-bent on a response.

“Dude, I’m serious. I mean I’m just looking out for you—”

Jacob suddenly sat up as if to strike the dupe, who flinched as if a beast had lunged at him. The man was standing now, not an inch from the mongrel’s face.

“Miles, shut the FUCK UP!”

The man stood there for a moment, the loud conversations all around the room seemingly mellowed for those few seconds. Miles took his humiliation with him and let Neeson be. With his head down and defeated, and Jacob returning to his pillow, the party picked up momentum again.

***

“Oh, it is a blessed Friday morning, boys and girls!” the drill sergeant announced in the early morning chill. “Today, many of you will be able to return home for the weekend to visit your mommies and daddies. Those of you who retain that privilege, anyway. Today, we will be running a training exercise similar to the one we did two days ago but with a different ball. Rules stay the same.”

Sgt. Huntman once more walked between the two lines. Though he faced neither directly, instead looking up at the trees all around them, he knew both were listening closely to what he said. Jacob absorbed every word, but his eyes were locked onto the scared little man in front of him.

He was definitely much older than himself, exemplified by his receding white hair and sagging eyes, his teeth a pale yellow. Neeson could not gander at his eyes, for the man had them sealed shut, his lips moving as if he were speaking to Jacob. But he heard no voice. The pathetic bastard is calling out to his deity in a caprice, he realized. Perhaps he’s begging that a white dove be sent down from the clouded sky glowing with a golden aura to our amazement.

That row of men and women, varying of age, sex and ethnicity just as much as their own line, had that unsightly orange uniform on, if one could call it a uniform. With them on, none of them looked different from the other. Jacob noted all of this.

“Before we proceed, it is important for you all to know that these piles of shit standing before you now are filth of a different brand. They are rapists, child molesters, hopeless dope-heads, and the mentally unstable. Hell, what’s the difference?” The response to Huntman’s supposed joke was a customary calm. If a joke at all, he was merely relaying facts. “Also here are would-be gang members, harbingers of traitors, and even a few deluxe homeless. These people are the social waste of our society. You have been taught this since you were enrolled in the Academy in your training pants and knew this day would come. These people forsake everything you and I hold sacred! That is not tolerable! Now raise your rifles!!”

With machine efficiency and timing they did so in a millisecond.

“Fire!!”

The soldiers did as commanded, and once more bullets raced through skull and brain matter. The old man did not give Jacob the satisfaction of opening his eyes for the executioner, leaving the man admittedly disenchanted. Coward.

However, one prisoner still stood, and immediately everyone turned their eyes not to the scumbag but to the soldier parallel to the target. The sergeant was on him so fast the others couldn’t rightly say they’d seen him move.

“What the flying fuck are you doing?! Is your weapon jammed?!” he yelled into the trainee’s face. Miles trembled like a young tree in a fierce wind.

“No, sir, weapon is fully functional. The private must report that he cannot do it.”

“You can’t? What do you mean you can’t?!”

Huntman delivered a hard forehand across the trainee’s cheek, turning his pale skin crimson. The thwack resonated through the air like ripples in a pond.

“I, I can’t sir. I’ve been—I just can’t, sir.”

The other soldiers looked on with not so much as a twitch in their expressions.

“Well, that’s lovely. That’s fan-fucking-tastic, in fact. We’re gonna have to revoke your mail privileges. Congratulations, son.” Huntman ripped the weapon out of his hands. “You just bought yourself a ticket to the Des Moines Corrective Center. Empty your locker, leave the gear. Sergeant Lee!”

The man usually in charge of prisoner detail stepped forward immediately.

“Yes, sir!”

“See to it that this pathetic piece of shit doesn’t get lost on the way back to his bunk.”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

The two were off now with Miles jogging toward the dormitory with Lee following alongside and yelling into his ear at point-blank range. Huntman instantly looked at the leftover prisoner as if it were deli meat that had failed to sell.

“Damn it all, that lousy chicken shit is gonna ruin my perfect monthly report, damn it! Private Neeson!”

Only then did Jacob turn in the direction of the ruckus.

“Yes, sir?”

“Would you please demonstrate proper weapons firing?”

Jacob, without a second’s pause, walked over to Miles’ place in the line and raised his M4. The target was a fragile-looking preteen, a girl with brunette hair and wondrous blue eyes. Her young face was rounded, her skin riddled with sores, though there was limited healing since the apparent incarceration. These, however, were brief observations.

Jacob only focused on the eyes. Inside, his heart was filled with glee but his hands remained steady. Not today He comes, not ever. Not a second later her head kicked back, her rapid breathing halted, and she fell over dead.

“And Godspeed to that poor, poor soul” the sergeant announced loudly. “Someone like her, all these cretins, probably have the rationale they could do whatever they pleased and if they turned to their big man in the sky in their last few remaining hours all would be forgiven.

“Let me reiterate something: we have the right to take life as servants of the State. We are also preservers of this great land, and in so doing it must be kept clean. It doesn’t matter what you see in those eyes before it ends. They had their chance and disobeyed the laws we all must abide by. If you confuse religion with morality, take them as one and the same, you’re about as concrete in your beliefs as that fucking fantasy book!”

“Sir, yes, sir!!”

The soldiers registered the dose of what they all understood to be the basics. Huntman eyed his line again, refusing to pause at the now empty slot.

“That was a clear-cut example of a do and a dammed don’t. We had the chicken shit, Miles, and we have the admirable Neeson, who in all likelihood will be able to make sergeant very quickly if he plays his cards right.”

“Thank you, sir!” Jacob acknowledged in a yell.

***

From afar, the Administrative Center was a structure resembling an eloquent, yet nostalgic, piece of Roman architecture. Compared to the greenery surrounding it, the pallid building seemed almost outlandish. Still, it rose above the trees in its wake. Watching through an office window was Dr. Robert Neeson. Seated on the corner of his desk eating an apple was Halsey. His face was apathetic.

“Your boy is impressive, Robert. The squad really looks up to him.”

“I know, I know,” the doctor said as his mind drifted elsewhere. He remained standing at the smear-free window overlooking the trees. It provided a strangely fantastic view. The next line of soldiers and prisoners were approaching what the cadets had affectionately dubbed the “Skid Row Alley Cleanser.” Today, Jacob would be visiting his father, but this was still his home.

“Soon, my son will be a full-fledged officer.”

“Look at it this way,” Halsey said as he threw what little was left of his lunchbreak into the receptacle, “at the very least he won’t take part in the war, this ‘Great Expansion’ as we’re calling it. Venloran boasts it’ll end before the New Year. From what we’ve seen on the news, I wouldn’t doubt it.”

Halsey’s service record assured that his return to his country would still be fairly lavish. He was one of the highest-ranking personnel at this training facility and yet he’d been here less than six months. Still, the man looked on it all rather passively.

“Thank you, my friend, but I’m afraid the way events are unfolding, what will it really matter if he goes to war or not?”

“Well, tipping the boat is a good way to get in the shitter. I consider myself lucky so far.”

“A man behind his desk naturally has no worries.”

Playing to the insult like a fish on a rod, Halsey planted his feet on the floor. Neeson faced him as the man finally stood.

“Well, aren’t you distinguished, Doctor?”

“My boy, I’ve seen my share of blood. Their mother, my wife, died working in the field.”

Halsey felt the need to pause, knowing when he’d crossed the line.

“Forgive me, Robert. Perhaps I am getting too comfortable here.”

“It’s all right, but I must let you know the day is drawing near. For me, the time of being idle is over, friend.”

Neeson placed one hand in his pocket, holding onto something he let no one see.

“Are you sure you want to go through with it?”

“My children need to see that all I told them about years ago is not dead. If I back out now, I won’t be disappointing just myself but others I’ve made an obligation to.”

“Destroying all you’ve built as well, Robert, remember that.” Halsey found a spirited smile on his face. “I’m behind you all the way.”

Neeson returned his gaze to the trees.

“Do you know how old Jacob is, Joseph?”

Joseph? Halsey dropped his smile. He knew something was amiss. The doctor almost always called upon him by his rank, occasionally by his last name. Playing the cliché mutineer, Halsey had pretty much always referred to Neeson by his first name. Good old Neeson was a sport about it, though.

“Sixteen, Neeson. Why?”

“Gabby turned fourteen only a month ago. But she’s changing so fast. Every time I see her she’s got a different book. One thing I still can’t grasp, though, is her affinity for Descartes. I keep asking her, ‘What is it you find so interesting about him?’ According to her, his concepts are ‘perplexing.’”

“She’s taken on religion, has she?”

“Her ideas are vague, but there are little bubbles. I think she gets it from Emma. There goes a mystery in itself, you see: why my wife pursued God. We’d taken classes together at Cambridge, but she held onto it till the end. How she would’ve loved to see Jacob and Gabriella now.”

“Some people use it for hope. It keeps them going.”

Neeson chuckled.

“Yes, I’ve heard that many times.”

“Doesn’t hurt to look, right?”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Two diminutive birds flew back to their perch on a tree branch, huddling close to each other. With the impending winter, Neeson surmised they would need all the warmth their tiny bodies could acquire.

“I beseech you because my success, even if I get that far, might be limited. I may be digging my own grave and humans have the tendency to easily forget. I myself once made a promise that I did not fulfill. It tortures me. That’s why I must do this. If things get really bad—”

“I’ll take care of them, on my honor. I’d cast every possession of mine and then some into the fire for the punks.”

Neeson stood there with uneasiness.

“I know I have no right to place such a burden on you.”

“Robert, without your bullshit I’d go insane. If you really do leave us, the next best thing will be your children.”

Chapter 2 - Condolences

October 6, 2065- Birmingham, Alabama

Nathaniel turned over in the large bed, its warm comforters and heavenly pillows now inadequate. He watched as Aliss sat up from his slumber, now sitting on the edge of their mattress. The lamp in the room slowly turned on, though it remained dim. Nathaniel marveled at the muscular physique of his beloved in the newfound light.

“You know you could still be sleeping,” Aliss said as he ran a hand through his blond hair.

“I know, Aliss, I know. I have to get up in two hours anyway for work, so don’t worry about me.”

“In that case, I should make you some coffee. Hazelnut or Vanilla?”

“Hazelnut.”

Aliss stood up now, getting ready to head for the shower. Upon turning back to face Nathaniel, he was met with sad eyes. Damn it to hell. Aliss looked away, heading toward the elegant bathroom. As the tall blond man searched the drawer for toothpaste and his toothbrush, he still felt those eyes glaring at him.

“What is it, Nate?”

Aliss had known this was coming. He’d been hoping to avoid this by leaving slightly early, but it hadn’t worked. Nathaniel peered down at the velvet blanket, his dark curly hair hiding his eyes. The thin man was far less sculpted than Aliss and he spoke with a soft voice.

“Still no word on when you’ll be back?”

The tall man relented. He walked back over to the bed, sitting close to his husband. Their hands touched, and their eyes met once more.

“I think we both know I’ll be on duty till that coward shows his face. The second I put him down, I’ll be on the first flight back to Birmingham.”

Aliss saw that smile he cherished, and the two shared a kiss.

“You’d better, Head Commander,” Nathaniel said. He used his thin fingers to move some of Aliss’ hair into the comb-over he loved so much.

On the wall next to their bed was a picture of Aliss, but fully donned in his military uniform. He was posing with a peace sign in the famous Cretins Corners from the Museum of Revolution in Cuba. Behind him was the Reagan of yesteryear, but the painting had him depicted as a comical sheriff.

Silently as possible, the door to Andrew’s room was opened. The pair gazed at the sleeping boy as if he were a dream. With cautious footsteps, Aliss treaded over to him before kneeling at his bedside. Nathaniel stayed in the doorway in his robe, teary-eyed. Aliss planted a kiss on the child’s forehead. Though he stirred for a moment, he did not wake. The soldier felt his own eyes water now.

“So long, Andy.”

***

Chicago, Illinois

“All right, see you tomorrow. Thanks again,” said the young woman as she gathered up her purse and dinner, preparing to exit the car.

“No problem. You just get some rest,” advised the driver.

“I will. I promise,” she replied as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. “You have a good one.”

She shut the door, but the passenger window was still open. The driver took a sip of her coffee.

“Don’t give me that. You were kind of sloppy today.”

The woman merely nodded in response, the other driving off. She was at her apartment building at long last. She was still in her scrubs, exhausted, and holding a large bag of warm food. It would probably be her food for the next day or two. Recently, she hadn’t been in the cooking mood, not for a while. You’re just tired, that’s what she always blamed it on.

The cold air was enough to wake her even with her jacket on. Even with her modestly thin form and youth, the darkness under her eyes seemed to add on age. At the entry door, she fumbled for her keys before dropping them. The woman could only sigh just as a voice broke the night air.

“Need assistance, ma’am?”

She felt herself quiver at the sudden break of silence rather than the man’s entrance itself. She turned to see a decorated serviceman who tipped his military cap to her. Her eyes drifted down the street to see a black Chrysler under a tree, tinted windows and all. Down the steps of the stairs, on the sidewalk, two fully armed UNR soldiers stood at attention. The young man seemed gentle enough, though he did have a pistol holstered.

“It looks like a decent load,” he said warmly.

“Uh. Yes, thank you. You’re with the PSID?”

“Captain Howarth, Head Director of the Public Services and Inquiries Division at your service, ma’am.”

Howarth saw the confounded look on her face. Dawn was breaking, and the first peeks of sunlight struck her face. Despite her clear fatigue and troubled eyes, for a split second the captain was caught up in ogling at her. Go on, fool…

“Ms. Viramontes, you scheduled to meet with me at 6:30 a.m. today. I called you yesterday to confirm this.”

With that, the woman’s face changed from confusion to embarrassment.

“Shit, that’s right! I’m so sorry I had to stay a little longer than I expected.”

Howarth only put up a hand.

“No need to apologize. Working late nights is a job in itself.”

“You get used to it, though I sometimes make a poor showing.”

“Takes me three cups of coffee to make this miracle happen.”

The two of them laughed before she made way for him to pick up the keys. As they entered, the soldiers remained statues, staying posted on their exact spot on the sidewalk. Their ride up to the fourth floor was a pleasant one, chatting as they walked down the hall toward 4-10.

“The odd thing about getting home from work when everyone else is waking up is, sometimes you can’t even sleep,” Howarth said.

“I usually find a cold one helps with that,” she replied.

“Not a bad remedy, Ms. Viramontes.”

“Please, call me Alyssa.”

“Will do, ma’am.”

They entered her room, the captain setting the food down on her table without taking a seat and removing his black leather gloves, which revealed smooth hands that matched his caramel-toned face. He also removed his hat, under which was a taper fade haircut, but he did not remove his long black trench coat.

Alyssa began to unwrap what she supposed was her breakfast, an enormous steak-and-egg burrito. Howarth made his way around the small living room, noting the small knickknacks. On a slim table against a wall close to the door he spotted a few family photos, most noticeable one with a woman in the arms of a man. Interesting, but it can wait.

She saw the young man stop his stroll, having taken notice of Cassie. The little pyramid shaped object sat on the coffee table in front of her beaten couch. He knelt like a child inspecting a wounded bug.

“Is this the series seven P.E.C.?”

Alyssa sighed slightly.

“Sure is, but Cassie here is a piece of shit. Stupid virus knocked her out a week ago.”

“Something I hear quite often about the recent update, but I’m pretty sure it’s a problem with the software itself. May I take a look?”

“Would save me a trip to the blood suckers.”

Howarth’s hands were already at work on the toy-sized ruby-red device’s control panel.

“Care for the password?”

“No, no, it’s more fun this way.”

She stopped her chowing and walked up to the edge of her couch, gawking at his work. The machine glowed a bright maroon upon activation, but the light softened after a few seconds. As he fiddled with it, a holographic beam shot into the air and expanded so that the image became a simple square, looking like a cutout of a meadow floating in the middle of the room. In the center of it was a tiny display box awaiting the password. However, with more clicking, somehow the request was bypassed and he was at the starting menu. Still, a warning popped up.

“Wow, it’s supposed to be voice-activated. You don’t happen to be a tech whiz? Any second now it’s gonna lock you out.”

“I’m not done yet…”

The simple square became a complex 3-D polygon of light, a soft blue in hue. Each face of the polygon was a different menu, one Internet access, another full of games along with many more applications. He strolled through the many options by sliding through the holographic menus with but his pointer; left, right, up, down, even diagonally.

“There, the code I’ve added should deter any malfunctions in the software, both foreign and homegrown.”

“Captain, I’m grateful. I could use a refresher course on programming.”

“I’d be glad to teach you. Perhaps over coffee sometime.”

Alyssa found an excuse to look back at her burrito, hoping to God she wasn’t blushing. She gathered herself, but in those few moments Howarth was standing once more and looking at something else. It was behind the polygon on the wall in front of them both, next to the window. It was a gorgeous painting of Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. From the piercing eyes down to the gleam of the revolver in his hand and cigarette in his mouth, Howarth was in sheer awe.

“Wow, that’s… stunning.”

“It’s a hobby of mine. My dad would have loved it.”

“I’m sure he would’ve. You put my own work to shame. I’m afraid I’m terrible at portraying people of all things.”

“Captain Howarth, I hate to be blunt but this is about my father, isn’t it?”

The assertion finally tore the Head Director’s gaze away from the painting.

“Yes, this does go back to him.”

He walked over to her small rounded kitchen table, pulling out her chair for her. Only after she was comfortable did he seat himself.

“Don’t tell me I’m under investigation,” she said

“No, that’d be insulting. I just thought it’d be proper to pay you a visit considering all that’s happened. Sorry to say this, but one of my other specialties is playing shrink.”

“Are you going to take notes about me as well?”

“Sure, I suppose I’ll stick to the essentials.”

Alyssa put her beer down, now feeling her stomach gurgle. Work had been able to take away the ordeals of life, even though only with more work, but it was comforting. Now it was bubbling back to the surface. Until the captain, she’d been considering taking down that painting. Now Alyssa saw how much she needed it to stay where it was. She wanted to burst into tears, rest her head on the man’s shoulder, and just sob on and on till there was nothing left. She refused.

“What can I really say? I mean I hadn’t seen my father in years,” she trailed off, “since I was a kid, in fact. The news of his death hit me, and I honestly I didn’t know how to react.”

She found herself unable to look him directly into those stabbing dark brown eyes. The eyes seemed to pierce right through her ruse. She needed a different channel to flow down on.

“I guess when it all comes down to it, it’s my mother I think about the most. She’s taken it so hard.”

“Amy Viramontes,” the man shifted in his seat, “she had been doing so well prior. The doctors do say she should make a full recovery, though.”

“I imagine she’ll stay off the booze after an experience like that,” Alyssa muttered. “Thing that strikes me the most is how much she cried for him despite all these years of telling me she hated him.”

“Times like this a person’s real emotions come pouring out, often without warning. Has anyone been in contact with you during this ordeal? Anyone at all?”

“A few relatives made phone calls, but nothing of real significance, I’d say.”

She felt a warm hand on her own. Alyssa looked down at it, as if confused, before looking back at the somber face of the man. He leaned forward slightly.

“I know it may not seem like it, but there will be justice for you.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“I’ll get out of your hair now, Alyssa. I’m sure you’re dying to get some shuteye.”

He got out of his chair at the table, heading for the door. Alyssa understood despite the lack of words. She walked the captain to the door, opening it for him.

“I wouldn’t be offended if you had a plate or two,” she offered.

“I’d love to, ma’am, but I’ve got to keep busy if I ever want to make corporal,” he said as he tipped his hat with a smile. Apparently, he could read faces and reached in his pocket, producing a small card.

“If you ever need to reach me, this is my personal number. Don’t hesitate to ask.”

Alyssa felt herself smile deeply, exposing her dimples.

“Bye, Captain. Remember, you promised me coffee.”

“I know just the place,” he said sincerely. “Be seeing you.”

***

UNR Headquarters

The Honors Hall was normally unoccupied even before everything had become undone. It was meant to be a room where heroes were to be revered for all eternity. It was never to be a battleground, but the scars were impossible to miss. Kearney walked past the golden-brown pillars, several of them having bullet holes and some blown apart by explosions.

Those scarlet walls won’t do anymore he thought objectively. The color had symbolized the blood of their enemies, but now all it reminded anyone of was the horror that had taken place there. The short but beautiful Dr. Hamilton was beside him. She had always been timid, but it showed now more than ever.

She went out of her way to avoid even the smallest of cracks on the marble floor. Her eyes darted about incessantly as well. Is she afraid ghosts still wander the place, or is she worried because she thinks an enemy soldier is hiding behind one of those pillars? Kearney could see her believing either of the two, and so he took no chances and addressed it.

“Please refrain from staring every which way once we meet with him” Kearney advised.

Dr. Hamilton suddenly realized what she was doing and instead began to follow Kearney’s lead: keeping her eyes forward at all times. Right on time as well, for up ahead was their Chancellor. He was standing before the remains of the cyborg statue. Though it had fallen, it was still mostly intact. The statue of Venloran himself still stood, and the UNR symbol on the wall behind it was unscathed as well.

“Dr. Hamilton, Kearney, good morning to you both” he greeted as they neared.

“Morning, Chancellor” Kearney replied.

“Morning, honorable sir” Hamilton said, “I wanted to reassure you that Dr. Thorton has gotten your request, but he hasn’t had time to thoroughly look it over. He sends his apologies.”

“Training new interns can wait. I did, after all, stress just how important this matter was.”

“It’s not that. It concerns the latest patient you’ve sent us. His recovery has met some…troubling roadblocks.”

“Has something happened to him?” Venloran asked with worry. The trepidation in his voice confounded Hamilton. She’d never heard it before.

“He’s in the best of care, sir, but there appears to be some confusion” she made sure she said the next part with extreme delicacy, “regarding the orders for his surgery. Surely just a slip-up on our end.”

“My orders were clear” Venloran stated.

“We explained that to him, but every attempt to get him to comply has resulted in him only demanding ‘more’. So far he’s turned down all surgery attempts.”

“I hate to be blunt, but can’t you just put him under and proceed from there?” Kearney asked her.

“I brought that up with Dr. Thorton, but he said denial of the general’s request could result in a psychotic break. We may need the assistance of the Head Commander if we’re to get anywhere. I-“

“That won’t be necessary.”

At the word of their Chancellor, both of them fell silent.

“There is a way to fulfill his request” said Venloran, both arms behind his back. There was no more uncertainty in his tone, “Weapon Project IV will be implemented immediately. His choice to be its first recruit is his own.”

“Understood. We will start preparations within the hour.”

“Sir” interrupted Kearney politely, “it’s almost time.”

Venloran nodded, “Alright, and Hamilton, tell Thorton that this conversation isn’t over. Once this matter has been seen to, I want him to start digging into those files I sent him. Project Spartan is of the utmost priority.”

Dr. Hamilton prepared to say something, second guessed herself, and instead said “I will inform him, Chancellor.”

“Good, and one more thing: All work for this project is only to be carried out here at UNR HQ. I’m giving your team a generous schedule as well. By the end of this month I require only a data report. By the next, you will have something of practical use for me. I expect great things, doctor.”

Though the doctor could not hide the sheer surprise on her face, she only nodded her compliance and bowed.

The Chancellor and his assistant departed for the elevator as Hamilton headed for the door to the roof. There waiting for them was Aliss Howard, fully donned in his overcoat and SSF armor. He clicked the button for them and stood aside to let them pass.

“Your car is ready and waiting, sir” the cyborg reported.

Aliss joined them inside and positioned himself in front of them both. As the doors began to close, he peered at the Honors Hall. All it is now is a desecrated crypt. The elevators doors shut and the machine lurched into motion as they moved downward. Our sight for commemoration and pride turned into the sight of our greatest betrayal and our greatest mistake. Unit 21, you will not be allowed to get away with this.





Chapter 3 - Reflections

October 6, 2065 - Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.

“It’s been six months of picking up the pieces since that horrid day. Even though much time has passed, we are all here because we refuse to forget. Chaos flew free for only a brief while, but, as all can see, the effects of that single moment were devastating. I owe it to every family out there to say that I am truly and deeply sorry. Our soldiers served admirably, and they shall rest eternal in the Elysian Fields.”

Venloran stood at a familiar podium in Rock Creek Park, behind him but a few seated in chairs while many thousands stood before him. The clouds above were a sickly gray, but pokes of the sun’s radiance managed to squeeze between the cracks. It was a pleasant enough day, even if the occasion was one Venloran wished did not have to take place. In his brief pause, he looked over the scarred faces of his audience. It wasn’t just his men who had suffered. It’d been his country, his people. The man felt anger and anguish all at once.

“Today, I gather us all here for S.S.C. Unit 23 in particular because people tend to forget things that can hardly be called minute details. This valiant soldier died keeping me safe. Valerie Iglesias was the single child of Erick and Sally Iglesias, who are deceased. She was buried alongside her parents, but her memory will not fade! Today is October sixth, the day The Expansion was brought to an end and we truly became the UNR! She and Luis Viramontes both helped bring this dream to fruition years ago and fought for the UNR endlessly. Even so, we have had incidents of people questioning the merit of the SSF.

“We never turn on our heroes just because we may be confused or even terrified! Now is the time for us to pull together! We all need to remember one thing above all: the cost of insurrection is always tragedy! It always has been thus. The remaining scum will be hunted down. Retribution will be delivered and justice will be dealt. We promise this to the republic, to the families, and our honorable service men and women will carry it out. These atrocities will not be allowed to continue!”

There was applause, but the Chancellor could only partly enjoy it. There were no howls of ecstatic pride, no cries of battle eagerness, only mere clapping. From his fever pitch, he now descended into something calmer.

“Today, I wish to commemorate our valiant as we will always continue to do so. Let it also be recounted that the quest for justice is perennial, Nitimur in Vetitum.”

Venloran stepped away from the podium as Major Johnson rose from his seat. When he spoke, his lips nearly pressed against the microphone.

“Attention!”

In front of the crowd, a rifle party readied themselves.

“Raise arms!”

They followed the order simultaneously.

“FIRE!”

The round of shots exploded to life. Each person amongst the crowd did not budge an inch, even though with that single shot each of their hearts had bounded quite wildly. This was true of everyone there, all except for the Chancellor. The following shots only caused his fist to curl.

Not too far away from the podium, on a field of grass where trees had been removed, a large circular wall stood. It was around seven feet tall and was composed of smooth gabbro. This monument had but one opening where the enormous number of citizens could enter. Once inside, mourners were surrounded by the reflective walls. As people paid their respects, flowers piled up immensely.

Civilians and decorated servicemen and women alike placed their gifts at the base of the wall. Each one of them stared into the face of the structure. Engraved in it were the names of all the soldiers who had died that day, but above all those names there was an inscription which was also larger: Nitimur in Vetitum. Every person there may not have known each and every last one of the names on the plaque, but it had been hammered into them the meaning of that phrase.

Venloran, Kearney, and the entire UNR Cabinet were all amassed at the site. They were the first to enter. Aliss Howard accompanied them. He stood by the entrance as they walked around, analyzing the wall. Of all those names he read, only two gave him pause: S.S.C. Unit 18 and S.S.C. Unit 23. You two, and your friend, you all have left a mark in your own way. Valerie, we never had a chance to catch up.

Major Johnson himself took a slow stroll. He knew these faces in a different way than anyone else did. Fellow soldiers viewed them as now gone brothers and sisters. To Johnson, it was as if he was looking upon the faces of his own beloved children. Children that had been snatched away. His chest lurched, as a feeling of helplessness set in deep.

***

Cardinal Cove, Bowie, Maryland

The moonlight reflected magnificently off the flowing waters. Among the reeds and tall Wye Oaks, a structure stood, not having been born from nature’s gentle caress. Twenty-five hundred square feet and sporting a second-story deck overlooking the scenic Patuxent River, the shoreside lake house was also surrounded by trees, giving the manmade structure a very earthy tone. Unlike the dark forest, though, the house was lit up in a spectacular fashion.

Watching the house in the blackness were several men, weapons in hand and full-on camouflage, makeup donned. Shying away from the light, these soldiers listened closely, not to the music and laughter emanating from the house but instead to the ambiance of the woods. The chorus of crickets, the rustle of leaves and branches toyed around by passing wind and not a single footstep.

The pair were holding their position in the shadow of a large tree, the men puny in comparison. Surveying the house with a night vision optical that turned the area into bright shade of greens, the soldier put up his hand. His partner took out a pen-cap-sized flashlight, blinking it twice. Off in the gloom and quiet, who knows how far away, there was a return of two blinks.

With that a thud came from around the tree, the heavy thud accompanied by the snap of a twig. Both soldiers went into action immediately, approaching the target from opposite sides of the great oak. Their eyes were fixed on the man standing there in his overcoat, his face shrouded in the night and his breathing calm. It was the gunmen who for a moment thought they were dead.

“Good, just what I wanted to see,” said the figure, nodding his head. “Our boys staying frosty.”

Though one of the soldiers relaxed, the other stayed on edge. He put his gun down, but his chest did not rest.

“3-05, you dog,” said Jackson. “A lack of confidence in your fellow man?”

Even in the night’s shade, both could see a faint smile on that face.

“Don’t go turning me into an asshole. I’m just making my rounds. Report?”

“Sector Five, clear, not a soul.”

The man’s penetrating eyes drifted from the familiar friend to the presumed irregular. The soldier could feel its stare.

“Keep him shaky, Jackson, but keep his gun pointed at the potential hostiles.”

“Seniority is just another word for liability, so will do.”

“All right, carry on.”

The near-silhouette straightened its long tan coat before walking away, the sheen of his combed-back blond hair dazzling. It wasn’t long before he was gone.

“Cyborgs creep me the hell out.”

“He may be one of them, but believe me, Aliss Howard’s a real national hero.”

***

Kearney walked into the kitchen, every granite countertop covered with food being prepped by professional chefs. He looked at his watch for a second and then back to the workers before him. The room was heavy with spices and sauces, paprika and parmesan, a real variety for the temporal lobe. Dazzling as all the colors and smells were, Kearney’s focus was elsewhere. The head chef seemed to sense an observant eye upon his work and, upon seeing the well-dressed man, rushed over to him.

“I’m sorry we’re a tad behind, sir, but the ham took longer than expected.”

As much as it would please Kearney to sing an ear-shattering symphony into the man’s ear, he intended to preserve a calm image of himself. He wouldn’t let his own turbulence interfere with his work.

“It’s quite all right. Just get more champagne and wine out there, please.”

“Right away, sir, right way.”

At the snap of a finger, two servers carried out platters topped with fine glasses. Kearney allowed them to exit through the doorway before he, too, entered the living room. It was here the enormous number of guests were being entertained.

The wooden cathedral-like ceiling was as high as thirty feet in the middle of the large room with a stunning crystalline chandelier for all to gawk at. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed the stone fireplace and gave a view of the river close by. Kearney wandered through the crowd of chattering people, one arm behind his back. He met greetings with mere nods and possible conversations with simple excuses of preoccupation. He reached the fireplace and stood close to its golden warmth, staring into the fire.

“Kearney, I haven’t seen you since Carl and I arrived.”

The man turned to see Janet Venloran wearing an exuberant dress. The sight was seldom, usually seeing her in one of her businesslike suits, and it caused his processing some back log. Beside her was also another woman of similar age, pale in color but with marvelous blue eyes.

“Mrs. Venloran, Mrs. Johnson,” he said with a weak smile, “enjoying yourselves?”

“Well, aren’t we especially formal tonight?” Jessica commented.

“Jessica’s right. You’ve been running around all night.”

“Business is business,” he coolly responded.

“Nonsense, this is a much-needed lifting of spirits and you’re doing the same old thing.”

Kearney placed a hand in his pocket.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Then you won’t mind taking this,” Jessica offered. Kearney looked at her hand, barely noticing she held two glasses of wine.

“Go on, I know you,” Janet teased.

He gave in with little fight, and the moment he did both women raised their glasses.

“To having a long and prosperous life,” Jessica toasted.

The three each took a gulp of their drinks, the two ladies downing theirs in an impressive finish. Seeing the half-full glass, Janet laughed.

“You lost your touch?”

“Slow and steady, just this one time.”

“Speaking of which, when are we meeting this fiancé of yours?”

Kearney took another drink before answering, a nice slow one.

“He won’t be coming tonight.”

***

Oswald placed his drink on top of the canoe-shaped coffee table, right next to a vase of dried hydrangea. A mixture of blue-violet, they were a splendid sight. He placed one leg over the other as he sat back on the cinnamon-colored futon. Venloran devoured the last of his assorted crackers, also placing his plate on the table. In a matter of seconds, a server swooped by and picked it up.

“Would you like another helping, sir?”

“I’ve had more than enough, thank you.”

The server bowed before departing, leaving the two to themselves. Oswald’s eyes were still on the luscious bouquet, noting how the fragile treasures retained their beauty even in death.

“This really is a substantial get-together, Venloran,” he commented, “and a hell of a house.”

“Just a summer home, really. Housekeepers spend more time here than I do.”

“Still, I’m puzzled as to why you decided to throw this thing.”

“On the day of our memorial, yes, I’m aware.”

“There’ve been rumors circulating in the media pools.”

“Trust me, I already know. I myself vetoed the stories.”

Oswald knew whatever territory the conversation veered into, his Chancellor would be the one power. But he knew Venloran well enough to know the man never imposed a natural-born “sovereignty” in his arguments. Self-assured as he was, he was still by no means a claimer of omniscience.

“So, I can only assume that this renegade cyborg is still out there.”


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