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Excerpt for Ferals (The Ultras Saga Book 2) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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The Ultras Saga

Book 2

FERALS





By Travis Lefelhoc







Copyright

Travis Lefelhoc

2019



1 Nata

2 Snow

3 Swelter

4 Ronaldo

5 Jathen

6 Swelter

7 Snow

8 Othello

9 Snow

10 Jathen

11 Swelter

12 Raiden

13 Othello

14 Snow

15 Ronaldo

16 Jathen

17 Swelter

18 Ronaldo

19 Mlock

20 Jathen

21 Ronaldo

22 Snow

23 Raiden

24 Swelter

25 Snow

26 Mlock

27 Nata

28 Jathen

29 Raiden

30 Nata

31 Jathen

32 Raiden

33 Swelter

34 Mlock

35 Ronaldo

36 Snow

37 Ronaldo

38 Othello

39 Swelter

40 Jathen

41 Raiden

42 Jathen

43 Raiden

44 Nata

45 Ronaldo

46 Snow

47 Swelter

48 Othello

49 Swelter

50 Snow

51 Jathen

52 Nata

53 Mlock

54 Ronaldo

55 Zella

56 Swelter

57 Snow

58 Raiden

59 Othello

60 Swelter

61 Ronaldo

62 Nata

63 Zella

64 Jathen

65 Nata

66 Jathen



1 Nata



Nata looked over the expanse of land that stretched out in front of her. The forest spread in all directions, blanketing the old, derelict buildings and streets from a time forgotten. Mother nature had taken back her land. What had once been a town square with stores and streets was now mostly overgrown. Vines and vegetation grew on the sides of crumbling brick walls and trees grew in places where roofs had once been.

A vivid collage of green and yellow foliage stretched as far as her eye could see. The tops of trees rose and fell in the distance with the lay of the land. Nata’s favorite time of year was fast approaching and she could almost feel the cool, refreshing breeze on her cheeks as she stood on the rock overlooking the area. She loved Autumn and the refreshing temperatures that the season brought with it. Currently, the air was still warm and muggy and made her skin feel sticky.

Birds circled overhead as the morning sun had risen to a respectable height, still leaving the forest in a manageable temperature and leaving enough time for Nata to make her rounds before the mid-day heat set in.

The morning dew had not burned off just yet and it left a vague fragrance on the wind as Nata inhaled deeply. This was her kingdom, a land that had been given back. It was a playground for her to explore. She had grown up here and knew every secret the land had to offer.

She wiped her hand across her forehead, pulling her dark bangs to the side. She slid the long ponytail back over her shoulder as she surveyed the area carefully making sure she didn’t notice anything out of place. She had to be careful not to get caught by the monsters that sometimes prowled through the countryside.

As she searched the land with her eyes, she reached out with her mind, searching for her friend Highsight. Where is he? I don’t have all day.

She concentrated for several minutes and when no response came, she reached out in another direction and established the link with Grayone. It was hard to explain how she communicated with her friends. She used images and feelings to convey her messages. It wasn’t like talking to her grandfather with words, but more primal in nature.

She could feel him running through the forest with his pack of twelve following behind. The hunt had taken them further than usual, but that mattered not to Nata. She made an image of the ones called the Ferals in her mind and pushed it out to the gray wolf as a question. He responded quickly, telling her the land was safe today and to leave him to his prey.

She closed the link and made one more quick glance over the land before she proceeded. It was somewhat risky without Highsight circling above, but she decided to take the chance.

She was surprised to be able to contact Grayone so far away. She noticed that her gift had grown stronger in the past few months. Not only that, but the Feral activity seemed to have heightened as well. Something had changed and she wondered what it was.

She shifted the bow that stretched across her back into a more stable position, and then sprung down from the rock. She sprinted toward the grove of fruit trees as fast as her legs would carry her. It was a moderate distance from her perch, but she knew the forest so well that the journey was quick. As she reached her destination she plucked a ripe, red apple from the tree and greedily bit into it. The sweet flavor filled her mouth and she let herself enjoy the experience, another benefit from this time of year.

She pulled as many of the ripe apples from the limbs of the tree as she could fit in her bag and headed for her next stop. After another short sprint, a crumbling building served as a good spot to duck down and hide herself from anything that could be watching. She again paused to look and listen.

She never truly let her guard down while she was out of the compound. But she felt so good today and the weather was so nice, that she allowed herself a moment to relax. She noticed many small animals scampering about on the forest floor and in the trees. Squirrels and Chipmunks shuffled around and birds chirped by overhead.

Nata rarely touched the wild animals with her mind. It seemed like more work than it was worth. Occasionally she would reach out with her mind, but if the animal refused the connection, she could not speak to it. Most wild animals did not seem to take the invasion so kindly.

As she sat in the remains of the old building, with the rays of the sun hitting her face, she finished the apple and decided to reach out to one of the chipmunks that scurried around nearby. She showed him a picture of the sun and the blue sky with her mind, basically saying hello and what a nice day it was. To her surprise he responded with a picture of acorns gleaming in the bright sun.

Nata placed the apple core on the crumbled stone wall next to her. She offered it to the little creature through her mind and he quickly jumped up beside her. She watched him pick it up with his tiny paws and begin to eat quickly. She stroked his head softly with her finger and the two sat together for several minutes enjoying the day.

Nata loved and respected all the creatures of the forest, even when some of them did not treat her particularly nicely. She even had respect for the monstrous Ferals with their sharp teeth and long claws—their viciousness and aggressive nature demanded it. One thing she had learned was to never try to establish the link with the Ferals. One time, several years ago, she got up enough courage to try it. She saw one alone and decided to cautiously stretch her thoughts in the direction of the creature. As she entered its thoughts she felt nothing but rage inside as it searched through the forest. It must have felt her presence, because it immediately attacked her thoughts. It used her link to try and reverse the flow and find her hiding spot. She quickly disconnected the link and waited in horror for the creature to come after her, but it never found her. She never tried to touch them again.

After her small break and her chat with the chipmunk, she decided it was best to get moving. As she reached her second destination she quickly grabbed the first ripe bushel of grapes and shoved them into her bag.

She proceeded along the line of grapevines picking and choosing what looked good, when suddenly an alarm rang out in her head—a silent sound of a hawk’s scream reverberated through her thoughts—a warning from Highsight.

She could feel her heart skip a beat and she knew she had made a mistake by not waiting for him. At least he was here now and had given her a chance. She had to make a quick decision. Where are they and how many? she asked Highsight with her thoughts.

The eagle responded with an image of three Ferals running in her direction from the east. Nata recognized the landmarks in the image and she knew she didn’t have much time.

Should she run or hide? She couldn’t hesitate. She quickly decided and took off toward her home as fast as her legs would carry her. As she ran, she pulled the bow over her head. The feeling of the weapon in her hand gave her strength to run even faster. She ran up and over an old rusted vehicle and skipped the remains of a rusty railing as she plunged into the forest towards home.

She called out to all of her friends hoping one of the animals would respond. Highsight answered with another image, and the Ferals had already closed the gap. Did she make the wrong move? How did they know where she was?

Her heart skipped a beat again as she came to a realization. She knew that Ferals were attracted to blood and she remembered that it was her time of the month. Could they actually detect her that far away? She pushed the thought from her mind and tried to focus on moving faster.

She weaved in and out of the trees and hopped over a decaying log.

She could hear the crinkle of the leaves as she stomped through the forest. Stealth was out of the question and speed was all that mattered.

She felt a falling leaf brush her face as she sped through the trees and undergrowth. Her home wasn’t much farther.

Highsight let out a scream from above, and Nata knew they were close. The compound was a good quarter mile away, and she didn’t know if she would make it.

She frantically looked for a place to hide, but there was nothing but trees and age-old hunks of forgotten transportation vehicles.

She dared to look over her shoulder, and she saw the dark figures sprinting toward her. She squeezed the bow in her hand and thought to reach for an arrow.

Suddenly, Grayone and his pack of wolves emerged from the South. They intercepted the Ferals in a cloud of dirt and leaves, teeth and claws.

Nata only had time to watch a few seconds of the fight as the twelve wolves attacked the Ferals. They had given her a few seconds to escape. She didn’t waste it and turned back toward home with renewed energy.

As she reached the last stretch before the tunnel to safety, she realized that one of the Ferals had gotten past the wolves and it was right on her heels. She could feel the small, black eyes buried in the amphibian shaped head locked on to her. She knew its teeth had rolled forward like that of a shark’s, and its wide mouth spread open and ready to strike.

She didn’t know if she would make it as she jumped halfway down the slope and hit the tunnel running. The sight of the murky water through the thick glass tunnel walls gave her a glimmer of hope.

She sprinted down the tunnel and hit the deck at the last moment, sliding past the large, heavy shadow that rumbled past her toward the charging Feral.

She turned to see the giant white rhino smash into the smaller monster and crush the creature into the side of the wall.

The Feral slumped to the ground and lay still.

“Thank you, Brutus,” she said to her large friend as she put her head down and tried to catch her breath.

The next morning Nata got up very early and set out to begin preparing for the coming months. Winter would be here soon and it was especially important for Nata and her family to make sure that there was enough food stored up to make it through the long cold months.

Nata lived in what was once the Detroit zoo. Many of her animal friends were descendants from animals that had lived in the zoo. Much had changed since the olden days, with only a few landmarks still being recognizable. Brutus the large white rhino now guarded the tunnel that served as the entrance into the compound. It had once been an underwater observatory to watch polar bears play. Now it was the main entrance into Nata’s home. The buildings around the area had crumbled inward and formed a natural barrier to the front entrance.

Natta was herself a descendant of a North American Indian woman who had been an animal caretaker at the zoo. Nata was proud to say that the Indian blood still ran in her veins.

Times had grown difficult for Nata and her small family in the last year. Her grandfather had recently fallen ill and some of the equipment that they used to survive was on its last leg. The power generator still chugged along, but the air heaters were in bad shape. Nata wasn’t sure what to do. She lifted the jar of tomatoes and screwed the top on. She twisted until it felt tight enough and placed it into the wheezing freezer next to the other jars.

She had spent the morning gathering and preparing vegetables from her gardens. She needed to go off site and get some extras fruit later in the afternoon, but right now she could do her work from the comfort of her hidden home.

Where is that brother of mine, she thought. He should have been back by now. He was probably off throwing the ball to himself in the air. She knew he didn’t take the responsibility of their chores as seriously as she did. He still liked to be a kid.

She stepped out of the cave-like area that she lived in and headed back toward the south garden. She climbed out over the rickety bridge that straddled the barrier—at one time the deep channel had been used to keep animals held captive there. The large pit itself had been mostly overgrown with vines and underbrush, but it was still not a place you wanted to fall into. She made a mental note to fix that bridge before either her or her younger brother fell into the pit.

The south garden’s most recent harvest had mostly been picked clean, but Nata needed to make sure her little brother hadn’t missed anything.

“Hakan?” she called out, as loud as she dared. “Hakan, where are you?”

Nata waited for his reply, but only silence followed. She wasn’t worried… she knew he wouldn’t leave their small compound.

She felt the cool autumn air on her skin and the sun’s rays warming the back of her neck. Sunlight was one of the most important factors in the life of Nata and her family. It gave life to the crops and powered the solar grid which provided energy for her home and put a small electrical charge on the barrier fence.

She looked around and still didn’t see her brother. She saw his old worn ball that he liked to throw into the air for hours at a time laying on the ground, but the boy himself was not at the garden.

Nata didn’t have time to look for the boy, if he was playing one of his games… She closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. She made the connection with her friend Highsight and the eagle immediately flashed her a picture of Hakan sitting in a tree above the zoo grounds.

Nata severed the link with Highsight and made her way to the lookout tree. It was the tallest tree in the area and reached out over the crumbled old buildings that had been covered in vegetation. A combination of concrete, rocks and piled up metal husks formed the barrier to their little sanctuary.

When she reached the top, she sat down on the piece of board that formed a bench near the top of the tree next to her brother. She brushed her long dark hair back behind her shoulder.

Hakan sat alone looking out into the forest from the high vantage point. He was eleven years old, with black hair and brown eyes that matched Nata’s. Both Nata and her brother were of slight builds. Hakan had always been more of a dreamer, while Nata was the responsible one.

“Whatcha doin’ up here?” she asked him.

“Nothin’. Just watching out for any trouble.”

“Highsight hasn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. Can you come down and help me finish the garden?”

The boy ignored her question. “Grandpa is sick, isn’t he?

Nata didn’t want to think about it herself.

Hakan continued. “That’s why he can’t help you and me. He’s too weak. Is he going to die like mom and dad?”

Nata sighed. “I don’t know, kid. I wish I had some answers for you. I wish mom and dad were still here and they could give us some answers, but they’re not.” She put her arm around the boy. “Grandpa isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if he does, we know how to take care of each other, right?”

He looked out at the horizon. After a few seconds he shrugged his shoulders. “I guess.” He drew in a deep breath. “I’m just scared that we are going to have to leave.”

She conceded, “Me too…”

They both sat in silence for a minute.

After what seemed like a long time, Hakan spoke again. “So… you’re scared too?”

Nata laughed lightly. “Of course I am. But, that’s not going to stop me, or you. We’ll do what we have to. And I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

He hugged her as they sat together.

After spending the rest of the day preparing food for winter, Nata and Hakan returned to the man-made cave to check on their grandfather.

They found him waiting for them sitting in his old worn out chair. He rose on his shaky legs to stand before them. Nata rushed to his side seeing him sway to the side, but he brushed her off.

“There is something we must do.” He said to them both. He handed Nata a bag. “Do not open it. Just follow me to the fire pit.”

The two grandchildren walked closely behind their slow-moving grandfather as he made his way outside. They continued toward the middle of the compound where the centerpiece of the old zoo had once been. A floral arrangement had graced the center of the zoo once upon a time, but now a stone pit used for building fire sat in its place. The family used the fire ring sparingly for fear of luring the Ferals into their area, but Nata knew tonight was going to be an exception.

She watched her grandfather light the pile of wood that had been assembled in the pit. She thought to warn him about the danger of the Ferals, especially after her encounter yesterday, but she figured the old man knew what he was doing.

He let the flames build higher into the sky. He added more wood than she had seen before and the flames reached up into the air higher than she had ever seen.

The sun had mostly gone down and the cool evening air was upon them. Hakan had moved closer to the fire to keep warm as he watched and waited for his grandfather, who rummaged through the worn, leather bag he had brought with them.

The old man pulled out a makeshift Indian headdress and placed it on his head. Many feathers rose up and back around his face, first a row of smaller black feathers, and then a row of longer white ones. He tied the bans behind his head and straightened the front that fell down around his shoulders.

“My grandchildren…” he began, “I believe my time here on this Earth has nearly come to an end. This old body simply doesn’t have much strength left.” He paused and shifted his headpiece. “I have given you all the knowledge that you need to survive in this world. I have no doubt that you will both live long, healthy lives. I have seen this in my dreams.”

The old man stared into the flames as if he drew power from them. In the light of the flames, Nata could see the strong resemblance to the Indian heritage that her grandfather had descended from in the folds of his face.

He started to speak again, but a coughing fit came on. He struggled to draw breath in between each violent cough. Nata began to move to his side, but he lifted his hand and stopped her as he steadied himself.

“As the two of you know,” he continued with a somewhat rougher voice, “I am partial to the spiritual world that our ancestors worshiped. This world has gone to a dark place for us humans, but the life of the planet has grown much stronger. I beg that you embrace the world as it is and respect all life… even those that seek to destroy us.”

The Indian man motioned for Hakan to add another piece of wood to the fire. He waited, as the flames grew larger again and crackled in the night air.

“My dreams have told me that you will leave this place. That you will find life beyond our small home.” He paused and coughed again, but less violently. “Do not be afraid, you will have your friends to help guide you.” He motioned with his arms toward the forest. “Use what you have learned and make the best of your life.”

Hakan began to object, but the old man stopped him by raising his hand again. The boy fell silent before he began, obviously showing the respect he had for his failing grandfather.

The old man spoke softer, “I know how you feel, young Hakan, and it is OK to have doubt about leaving, but my dreams have shown me the way and I hope that you will honor my advice. In the times ahead you will be tested beyond anything you have faced in life so far. Be strong and always remember to help those that are in need. Even when you think it best to move on. Life is precious and all must be cherished.”

He opened the bag again and pulled out several pieces of jewelry. Nata had never seen these items before. She wondered how her grandfather had kept them a secret for so long.

“These pieces have been in our family for generations. I now pass them on to the two of you. Wear them with honor and pride, for they will give you strength in the coming months and years.”

He rose to his feet rather slowly and dropped the first piece of jewelry over Hakan’s head. It was a necklace of sliver, adorned with turquoise stones and seven long bear claws dangling in the front.

Next, he handed a matching pair of arm bracelets to Nata. She slipped them on both arms and felt the soft leather around her wrists. She admired the craft of the silvery metal and intricate etchings on the side, but the large turquoise stones that fell in the center of each bracelet drew her eye the most. Each large stone was unique and beautiful.

“I have not shown these to you before, because I wanted the impact of the moment to be felt. I want you to remember where and who you come from. I want you to make all that have come before us proud. I love you both very much and you have already made me proud to be your grandfather. We have precious little time left with each other, and I plan to enjoy every second that I have left. But, when I have passed, I ask that you stay strong and trust in what you know, and take the next step in your lives by going forth. You will know when the time comes.”

Nata was silent as was her brother. She wiped several tears from her cheek and sat up straight. She looked into her grandfather’s wrinkled eyes and nodded her agreement. “We will do as you ask, Grandfather.”

She knew more tears would be shed when the old man finally joined their ancestors, but she felt somehow, oddly more at peace than she had been before. The old man was good at giving her hope and she was proud to be his kin.

For some time, she had expected that she would soon need to leave this place and find her way in life. She was both nervous and afraid of the unknown. She had spent many sleepless nights thinking about the inevitable. But with her grandfather’s words and the gifts he had given them, she felt the acceptance of what was to come and it was a relief.

Soon her journey would begin.





2 Snow



Snow sat alone just outside the large defensive wall that encircled the town of Columbus. Her back pressed against the rough concrete and steel structure as the wind lightly ruffled her spiky black hair. She peered out over the barren landscape that stretched between Columbus and Cleveland, noticing the lifeless wasteland with nothing but dirt and sky as far as the eye could see. But something had changed; she looked down at the ground and noticed several tiny green sprouts already beginning to poke their way up through the hard earth. The land had already begun to revitalize and soon it would return to its former green glory.

The first rainstorm in ages had recently passed by signaling that the Dead Zone would soon come to an end. Snow guessed that if she walked into the distance she would see more signs of life throughout the stark landscape. Even the people within the town of Columbus seemed to be recovering nicely. She could hear them moving and working on the other side of the wall. They were all lucky to be alive after the horde of Ferals that had attacked just recently.

Only yesterday they had been in battle when the white light had appeared. Snow thought back to how close they had come to defeat. The Ferals had pushed inward and nearly broken the defense when the white light engulfed them, feeding renewed energy and strength to the men and women that fought to protect the town. They pushed the Ferals back and won the battle, but Snow knew that the war had only just begun.

She pulled her legs in toward her chest and wrapped her arms around them, sitting in a tight ball staring into the distance. Her mind raced, pulling her thoughts in many different directions. She didn’t even notice the man that approached her.

“Is this seat taken?” said a familiar voice to her left.

She looked up at Jathen Fields standing over her like a male Adonis, his handsome features enhanced by the angle of the sun’s light. Standing casually with one hand on his hip wearing loose red shorts and a grey faded tank top, he looked almost perfect. And then…

“Hello… Earth to Snow?” said Jathen in his sarcastic manner.

She slightly scowled and shifted her gaze back into the distance. “I don’t see anyone sitting there.”

“You were hoping I was going to come over here and sit down, right?” he said as he squatted and landed on the ground with a thump.

“I can think of nothing better.” she responded sarcastically herself.

“No, seriously… Are you out here stressing about the AOCC?”

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk about it with him, but he already knew the whole story. “Yeah, I guess I am. It’s going to be tough for me to go back inside and act the same way I did before. I’m trying to decide how I should react.”

Jathen picked up a small pebble and threw it into the distance. The stone bounced through the shadows of the old Horseshoe stadium that stretched off into the distance away from the town. “I understand that you have a trust thing going on with your upper management, but I say let it go.”

She turned to face him. “That’s easy for you to say. You have no connection to all of this. I’m directly involved. They sent me after the core to the Sky Canopy Generator knowing full well that it was causing many problems. They wanted to keep all their own butts safe from the Ferals. They didn’t care what else they were messing up.”

“I hear you… I do. I just think it’s water over the bridge… or under it or whatever. I just think you should move on.”

“I’m not you, Jathen. I can’t just move on… I spent my whole life fighting to keep Sky Canopy safe, just to find out that it was causing the Dead Zone. They used us. They used me and my teammates to do their dirty work.” She turned her head and looked off into the vast open landscape.

Jathen was silent. They sat together looking off into the distance as several minutes crept by. The air was still warm as the end of summer was fast approaching and the mid-day sun had made the temperature soar. They sat in the shadows of the defensive wall that surrounded Columbus—the largest of the border towns that surrounded the mega-city of Cleveland.

Jathen rubbed the heel of his foot in the dry ground breathing softly and waiting for Snow to speak. Even though he was a sarcastic, big mouth, he knew when to stay quiet.

The subject of Sky Canopy was a sore one with Snow, but she felt calm at the moment and her thoughts became more rational. “You know… you’re right. I do need to let it go. I’m going to go back and see what they have to say for themselves. And you know what?” She turned to look at Jathen.

He peered back at her and lifted his eyebrows as if to say continue.

“We ultimately have bigger problems.” She placed her hand on his shoulder and used him for support to stand back up. “I haven’t seen it for myself, but I’m guessing that Dr. Mirren and Vander succeeded in doing whatever it was they set out to do. Actually, I know so. The folks back at E-Squad Headquarters have confirmed to me that Sky Canopy is no longer operational. Which, apparently, is a good thing.” She laughed thinking how crazy that sounded. “Unfortunately, without Sky Canopy there to defend us, we’re going to need a plan to stop the Ferals.”

Jathen nodded. “That’s a fact.” He stood back up himself. “That’s the ironic part about it. I get to be a citizen of Cleveland—the city of hope—but a good portion of that hope is gone. Sky Canopy no longer protects the city. Part of the reason I came out here, is to get away from the Ferals. I wanted to experience the grandeur and safety that Cleveland was supposed to provide. For someone like me—who grew up on the outside—Cleveland was the promise-land. The only safe place left from all the monsters. This huge technologically advanced city, standing alone in the face of a ruthless threat to humanity.” He chuckled. “Now that I finally get in, it’s all fading away. Cleveland is vulnerable. I’m right back where I started. Still fighting the threat of the Ferals.”

Snow started walking back toward the entrance gate of Columbus. “I guess we never truly get away from who we are.”

Jathen followed. “Yeah, I guess fighting and killing Ferals is who I am.” He sighed. “So, what happens now—with me that is? Do I just follow you into the city and go to your E-Squad headquarters or something?”

Snow thought about the question for a second. “Well, yes. I’ll bring you in and get you started. You’ll have to go through training. Which should be a shortened version, considering our predicament with Sky Canopy gone.” She absentmindedly looked down at her wrist Vir-comm and checked the time. “I will personally give my recommendations and that should be enough to speed up the process. I have already spoken to my superiors and they are anxious to meet you. Basically, you are already a part of E-Squad. You just need to go through the formal stuff.”

Jathen closed his eyes with a look of relief on his face. “That’s awesome. I’m finally getting what I came out here for.” He clinched his fist. “I will be a permanent part of that city now. A true citizen.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “Thanks, Snow. Seriously.”

She smiled. “Well, you earned it. And we’re going to need the help.”

The two walked toward the south side of the wall. The cleanup of the dead Feral bodies was still in progress.

“I guess you won’t have to fight on the mound anymore.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“You’re a member of E-Squad now. You’ll have other responsibilities.”

Jathen looked over at her. “Just because I’m part of E-Squad doesn’t mean that I have to give up all my interests. I like fighting on the mound… and I made a commitment to them. I don’t like going back on my word. If I say I’m going to do something… I do it. Plus, I wouldn’t want to disappoint my fans. They count on me you know. I give them entertainment and something to look forward to. They get to watch the greatest warrior this world has ever seen.”

Snow rolled her eyes. “OK, whatever. Good luck finding time.”

“What I need to find is a place to live. What’s supposed to happen on that front? What about the others that are coming inside with us?”

“You mean the other Border Patrol guys, Samms and Wilcox? You will all be put up in a temporary living quarters. I have been told that their families are coming inside as well. The men that we lost, Tan and Ashton, their families are invited to live inside as well.”

“Yeah, I spoke to Stanley a few hours ago. He and his wife and my little friend Jassette are packing up now. They are coming inside when we go back.”

“That’s good,” she paused. “I’ll miss Tan. He was a good man. I hear they plan to pay respects to the men that lost their lives last night.” She looked down at the ground where a dead Feral body had decomposed into a black puddle of sludge. “You know, I bet they end up doing something with the whole town.” She reached down and touched the edge of the black puddle. With a simple thought her touch froze the puddle into a rock-hard solid object.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t think the borders are holding. I bet they bring all of Columbus into Cleveland.” She stomped on the black object and it shattered.

“I thought there was no room for that?” asked Jathen.

Snow lifted her eyebrows. “There really isn’t, but what are they going to do, just let the Ferals slaughter them all? I bet they figure something out. At least I hope they do. But, what do I know. They fooled me for years.”

Jathen unholstered a pistol-like weapon. He stepped toward another black pool of decomposed Feral and squeezed the trigger. A flare hit the pool and it burst into flames. He looked out at several other Border Patrolmen doing the same thing. “These guys better make sure they don’t miss any of these nasty black puddles. Did they tell you what happens to Ferals when they decompose?”

Snow reached down and froze another puddle. “Of course I know what happens. It’s how they reproduce.”

Jathen moved on to the next glob of black goo. “Look at this one. It’s begun the second phase.” He pointed down to a small black plant that was growing out of the sludge.

Snow joined Jathen and looked down at the wiry, black vegetation. “Gross. These things grow really quick, right? I’ve never actually seen one in person.”

“Yeah, they grow real quick. In a twenty-four hour period, this thing will be like twelve feet tall with several large pods attached. When they hatch, the Ferals are full grown, all teeth and claws.”

Snow made a face as if she smelled something bad. “Nasty. We can get this round cleaned up, but I fear that this is only the beginning. With Sky Canopy gone, the Ferals are going to come full force. The borders won’t be able to hold. We need to get inside and formulate a plan.”

Jathen smiled. “Not we, Snow. That’s up to your superiors. I’ll help them fight as always, but I’m not a strategist. I’m guessing neither are you. But, you’re right, they had better have a plan… because the monsters will be coming.”



3 Swelter



Swelter and what was left of his team had escaped Hadley. The Feral infested outpost was supposed to have been a midway point on their journey to Meadville. It was far from it.

The team suffered many casualties, and would have met a bitter end if it had not been for the white light that powered up Swelter’s suit to give them a fighting chance.

Faced with a decision to go back home or continue on to Meadville, Swelter picked the latter. He didn’t want to be considered a failure. His team was depleted, but they could at least investigate the town. They wouldn’t be caught off guard this time. Even with their numbers down, they could still make an effort to reach their destination.

“I don’t know, Sarge. I don’t know if this was the right decision. I’ll probably end up getting us all killed.”

The sergeant took a puff from his stubby cigar. “We made it out of Hadley. May as well go for it. You’re the one making the decisions, but I would have made the same call. We’ll be a little more cautious at Meadville.”

Swelter shook his head. He still didn’t feel comfortable being a leader and he was unsure of his choice to go ahead and continue onward.

He looked out at the barren landscape in an attempt to clear his mind. He had been so busy contemplating his decision that he hadn’t noticed the storm clouds that were moving in behind them. It was a majestic sight to see the front coming in over the wide-open expanse. This was the second storm in two days. Something had changed.

The white light that appeared the other night during the battle had saved them. Somehow, it charged Swelter’s battle suit and allowed him to fight off the Ferals. But, the white light had also begun to replenish the land in some way. He couldn’t feel the sapping effect that the Dead Zone gave off. He was full of energy. The rain only confirmed his suspicions. He hadn’t been outside of Cleveland in a long time, but he knew there had been a long drought. That appeared to be over.

The little solar powered transport rolled to a stop and Swelter jumped down to stretch his legs. He could see the walls of Meadville just up ahead. “Alright, guys. We’ll split up into two groups and sweep the town. We know there might be Ferals, so stay sharp and be ready for anything.”

A gust of wind blew through his jet-black hair. The storm was close. He could smell the soft zing of ozone in the air. A treasure he had forgotten by living inside for so long. He inhaled deeply and let the smell calm his nerves. “I’m not sure if the storm will help us, or make this more difficult, but one thing’s for sure, amigos… We’re about to get wet.”

“Keep focused on the mission, boys,” yelled the sergeant. “Doesn’t matter if it’s rain, shit, snow or sunshine. We’re not going to repeat what happened in Hadley.”

Swelter smiled. He didn’t have a mastery over words like the sergeant did.

As the rain hit, the daylight receded. Drops of rain fell on the dusty earth, slow at first, but gradually growing into a steady flow. The storm seemed to come with a sense of foreboding as Meadville appeared silent and alone. The wind howled around them, spraying the rain into their faces.

A gray wall surrounding the town with ghostly, unmanned gun turrets encircled the outpost. The gate was closed tightly shut. The outpost was the furthest from the city and it had been reported to be overrun. Swelter was sure of it. Hadley had been the same way. This was just a matter of formality. Maybe someone was still alive inside.

“Doesn’t look like we’re going through the gate,” said Swelter over the steady rhythm of rain. “Looks like we’re going over.”

One of the men pulled out a length of climbing rope, attached a grappling hook, and tossed it up and over. With a tug he pulled the rope taught on the first try.

Swelter reached for the rope. “I’ll go up first. Get two more ropes over and be ready to follow on my command.” He didn’t want to lose any more men. This was his mission and he was by far the most equipped. The power suit that he wore provided the best weapon against the Ferals.

Before he began the ascent, he switched his Vir-comm to motion detection mode. It would warn him of any motion above on the wall. He gripped the rope and began to climb. The footing on the wall was already getting slick from the rain, but he managed to make it to the top in short time. He hopped over the edge and quickly surveyed his surroundings.

The town was mostly composed of simple buildings. These homes were far from fancy and served a simple purpose. They looked more like ancient homes from an old western film than anything from the modern age. The rain bounced off the shingled roofs and onto the dirt ground. The roads in between the buildings were all dirt with small weeds beginning to sprout. It had obviously been some time since there was any human activity in this place.

The rain was coming down harder now. The motion detection flashed in the corner of his visor. It was trying to recalibrate to allow for the movement of the rain. Swelter looked around and saw a dark, deserted town. He waited a few moments to see if anything moved or looked out of place, but all he saw was the rain falling on the seemingly vacant buildings.

He signaled for his team to come up. As he waited for the men to join him on the top of the wall, he continued to survey the town. He saw nothing, but something didn’t feel right. Maybe it was simply the spooky atmosphere of the empty town with the storm overhead.

If the Ferals were still present, they must be lurking inside the homes and buildings. Swelter knew what they had to do, they just needed to be cautious.

A flash of lightning streaked through the air behind them and the sound of thunder soon followed. The storm was not going to make this easy.

Swelter split the team into two groups. The plan was to search and secure the entire town one building at a time. He led his team to the left to begin the sweep and planned to meet the sergeant’s team back in the middle.

The further they got into town, the creepier the whole experience felt. It was a ghost town with no sign of life. The former homes and buildings of the village created a rough silhouette against the dark sky as the soldiers moved through the empty streets. The dry streets were quickly forming large puddles of water as the team splashed on through.

Swelter approached the first home. His team crept quietly behind him. The door to the wood house had been nearly ripped from the hinges. The porch creaked softly as he entered through the doorway. With his night vision turned on, he could see that the room was in disarray. The coffee table and small couch had been overturned and dried blood streaked across the floor and wall.

Swelter’s team spread out around him and swept through the house with practiced efficiency. He stayed in the first room where most of the conflict appeared to have happened. Amongst the debris of the shambled living quarters, he found the remains of what had been a human. Most of the body had either been eaten or rotted away.

“Looks all clean, sir,” said Private Grinko. “I got another casualty upstairs. Looks like they got her in bed. At least I think it’s a her. Clothing looks feminine. God, it stinks in here.”

“Good job, guys. Let’s clear out and hit the next one.”

Swelter and his team rummaged through each of the homes and buildings on this half of the town. All they found were more rotting remains of humans.

“Looks like the Ferals came and took everyone out, had lunch, and high-tailed it out of here,” said Grinko.

“Looks like it, Grinko. Hopefully the Sarge can say the same thing. Let’s go find those guys,” Swelter replied.

They arrived at the rendezvous point, but the other team was nowhere to be found. Swelter motioned for his men to spread out. “Stay on guard, fellas. They’re not here yet. We’ll wait.”

The rain had slowed down, but thunder still rumbled overhead. Water drained from the tops of the buildings and splattered onto the ground. Even with the slowing rain, all sense of hearing was useless. The storm was not making this easy.

Swelter and his men waited uneasily. Each flash of lightning overhead signaled another couple minutes that went by without contact from the other team.

Swelter tried contacting the Sergeant through his Vir-comm, but the only response he received was static. “OK, guys. Something is up. They should have been here by now.” He swept his hand through the air and turned back on the motion detection in his visor. “Form up and let’s go find them. Be ready for anything.”

They searched the town hall and the small church, both were found empty. Two more homes revealed a similar result. Next, they approached the warehouse where the stockpile of extra food was kept: canned goods, grain and extra meat.

The warehouse was a large barn of sorts, built in a traditional fashion with faded red walls. Outside the front double doors was a security system that had been smashed and broken. A metal control panel lay in a puddle on the ground and the wires hung loosely on the side of the wooden door frame.

Swelter stood near the back of the group as one of the soldiers opened the right side of the double doors. The man froze in his tracks.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Swelter yelled to the soldier.

The man didn’t respond. Swelter waited a second, and then he remembered what had happened at the last town, how they had been ambushed by Ferals. Without hesitation he sprung toward the other door, grabbed the handle and yanked it wide open.

As he began to lift his arms to fire at any kind of threat, he noticed a shape in the gloom of the building. A female figure stood near the back of the large room. It was at that point that he realized that he had not raised his arms all the way to a ready position. They kind of hung at a halfway position. In fact, he couldn’t move at all.

He desperately tried to lift his arm or turn his head, but his muscles didn’t respond. He was frozen in place, like a statue.

All he could do was stare straight ahead at the shadowy female figure. Through his peripheral vision he could see the Sergeant and the other team held at gunpoint behind the woman.

She began to walk towards him, but before he could see her features, a dark shape flashed into his field of vision, it collided into his head and then darkness.















4 Ronaldo



Ronaldo Huff gripped the railing on his tiny balcony overlooking the Mega city of Cleveland. He lifted the cup of extra-strong coffee to his lips and took a sip. He had barely slept the night before as the thoughts of all the problems that faced him swirled in his mind.

Being the leader of the AOCC was a difficult job in itself, but the last month had been exceptionally stressful. It had been over six weeks and two days since the Sky Canopy generator had been sabotaged and stopped working. After many hours of trying to bring the system back to life, the decision had been made to end the project and open the city back to the world.

This eventuality caused the public to go into a state of panic, with good reason. The city was essentially left without protection. For the past twenty years Sky Canopy allowed them to live worry free of the terrors that lay outside the city.

When Sky Canopy was first built, the military program had been thrown aside to focus more on developing systems to sustain life within the city. Most people spent at least a portion of their lives within a virtual world where real threats didn’t exist. Calming environments of immersive ASMR and peaceful settings were as far away from actual reality as they could get.

The citizens were now terrified. They hadn’t experienced real fear in over twenty years. People had begun to hole up in their homes hoarding as much food and water as possible, riots broke out in the slums and crime began to rise. Ronaldo was at the top of this giant pile of shit and it was really beginning to stink.

The deconstruction was well on its way. The center of the former canopy frame had been removed and a little over half of the structure remained. Many of the systems that came with the technology were gone now as well. The citizen tracking system, the crime-data-management, small programs that kept the city in check… everything evaporated without the electromagnetic dome in place.

Ronaldo looked up at the morning sun and wrapped the robe tighter around his waist. The air was as cold as he had ever remembered it. Winter was coming and the absence of the Sky Canopy dome allowed the seasonal temperatures into the city also. Great, another problem I get to deal with, he thought. He felt his eyelid begin to twitch, something that he had developed over the last few months as his stress rose higher and higher.

“Fuck, it’s cold out here,” he said out loud. The elements were a problem in itself, but the inevitable threat of the Ferals was the real problem. How the hell are they going to defend themselves once the monsters figure out that they are without Sky Canopy? They had no real military and the citizens were all incapable of defending themselves.

He heard the sound of the door behind him. He turned and watched it slide open as a pair of wide eyes looked up at him. “Hey, Daddy. What ya’ doing out here?”

Ronaldo put his hand on the messed-up mop of hair on his son’s head and pulled him forward. “I’m just looking over the city. Trying to decide how we can make it better.”

“I like seeing the real sky. I never got to see it before. Momma said we might get to see snow… real snow.”

He wanted to stay positive when speaking to his son, but all that went through his mind was how many layers of problems faced him. He kept his voice calm. “Yeah, we just might.” He moved behind and wrapped his arms around the small boy, trying not to let him notice the slight shaking of his hands. “We need to make sure you are dressed properly to go outside. We’ll need to get you a coat.”

“I already picked one out. It’s blue with a digital fire breathing dragon!”

“Sounds pretty cool. You’ll have to show it to me as soon as you get it.”

They stood together quietly for a moment looking at the morning sky.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah, Tyse?”

“Everything is going to be different now, isn’t it?”

Ranoldo took a deep breath. “Yeah, buddy. It is different. We can see the real sky now.”

“What about the monsters. Will they come and get us now?”

Ronaldo swallowed hard. He knew that they would eventually come and that the city would need to fight for survival, but he didn’t want his son to worry. “No, no. They have better things to do than come after our little city,” he lied.

“Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Like hunting animals or something.”

“I like animals, they won’t hurt them, will they?”

“I’m sure the animals will be fine. Come on… let’s go back in. I need to get ready for work and you need to get ready for school. Looks like you need to fix that crazy hair you’ve got going.” He opened the door and ushered the boy back in.

God, I can’t lie anymore right now, I have to get out of here. He entered back into his penthouse at the top of the capital building. As the president of the AOCC, Ronaldo and his family lived in a space much larger than ninety-nine percent of the population. He walked across the modest sized living room with the cartoon playing on the back digital wall. He touched a spot on the wall and a panel opened to reveal a coat closet. He grabbed a thin box on the shelf and headed for the door. He pressed his palm against the main control panel for the lightvator as his digital assistant greeted him.

“Good morning, President Ronaldo,” said a soft feminine voice.

He turned back toward Tyse. “Have a good day at school, buddy. Tell mommy that daddy had to run off to work. Don’t watch too many cartoons.” He stepped into the lightvator as the recognition software noticed his presence. Seconds later he was at his office.

His day at the office consisted of more of the same problems, more dread and despair: the energy shortage without Sky Canopy, the Ferals had overrun another border town, the criminal that sabotaged Sky Canopy still at large, missing members of E-Squad and the radical religious group the Apocalyptics causing even more problems. All eyes were on him to fix these problems. The citizens, the council, his wife, his son, everyone expected him to lift them out of the abyss; to save the city with some magic wand. But that wasn’t going to happen, he couldn’t save them, and neither could anybody else.

He sat in his plush office rubbing the back of his neck. His head felt like it was going to explode. He didn’t want to hear another thing. He reached into his drawer and pulled out a bottle of scotch, poured a healthy portion into the glass on his desk and downed the whole thing in one gulp. That’s not going to do it, he thought.

Ronaldo knew he should head back up to his penthouse, but he needed to relax. He had to get out of there.

Living in the same building that he worked at had its advantages, but it also made it difficult to sneak away. The AOCC headquarters provided him with one of the best places to live in the city, but it was also crawling with people he was trying to avoid.

He quickly passed the upper level security desk, “Good afternoon, good afternoon…” he said as he passed by, trying to act casual.

“Hello, sir. Will you need a car? How about your body guards?” he heard the desk clerk ask.

“No, no. No guards today. Just ring for the car please.”

He opened the door to the roof parking garage and found his driver Lisa waiting in the long, formal, black limo vehicle. He approached the side window of the long, egg shaped car and tapped on the glass. “Can we take the smaller car?” He asked Lisa, giving her a wink.

She paused for a moment, but then responded with a flat smile. “Of course, sir. Let me change vehicles and we will get right underway.”

The woman knew exactly where he wanted to go and pulled out of the garage and onto the skyway. The blue, unmarked vehicle clung to the magnetic hubs and sped out into the open air. The hubs anchored to the building kept the egg-shaped vehicle afloat as it banked around the turn and pulled Ronaldo toward the south side of town. It was beginning to become a habit of his. Something he knew he shouldn’t be doing, but he didn’t care. The world was going to shit fast and he couldn’t solve all the problems, he needed another break.

He looked out the window at the heavy traffic that flowed along the skyway. The city felt as congested as ever as the egg-shaped vehicles sped through the magnetically powered road in the sky. The buildings on either side reflected the bright sun of the autumn day, something Ronaldo had trouble getting used to. The digital projection of Sky Canopy—that he had grown accustomed to—did not cause the blinding reflections of the true sun.


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