Excerpt for Birthright: The Evolved Series (Volume 3) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Birthright

The Evolved Series

Volume 3

S.G. Woods


Copyright © 2018 S.G. Woods

Published by S.G. Woods at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Freeze Time Media

Cover illustration by Tom Meyer, FX Design


Dedication

I dedicate Birthright, the final book in the Evolved series, to a wonderful woman, Gliela Woods. Not only for the help you gave me in editing the book but also for all the times you picked me up and bandaged me as a young boy. Thank you, Mom, I love you.

I would also like to thank my many readers for all their support. It’s because of you that I do what I do.


Contents

Spilled Blood

Homeless

Wild Horses

Oh Deer!

Birthright

Kynlee

A.I.

Evolved

All About The Benjamin

Cat and Mouse

Hard Labor

I Hate Clowns

A Good Place To Die

Unwanted Guests

Turn 2

The Standoff

An Old Friend

Can You Hear Me Now?

Steve

Modern Soldiers

Goodbye My Love





Chapter 1 

Spilled Blood

My own words echoed in my head, “Kill Him!” It was as if someone had thrown a switch and anger was the only emotion I could feel. Hell, it was more than just anger — it was rage. 

Josh had been with us from day one. He had even faced death with some of the others as the first of the attacks began. I didn’t see him as a soldier betraying his comrades; I saw him as a brother betraying his family.

That was until I looked at the monitor. At that moment, I no longer saw him as family. In fact, I didn’t even see him as human. All I could see was Robert spilling his blood. 

Like a flash, Scott shot past me and grabbed hold of Robert’s arm. 

“Stop! You can’t just shoot him.” 

“What the hell are you doing, Scott?” I demanded. “This piece of shit has killed everyone at home that we love.”  

“Josh is one of us. We can’t just go around killing people when they make a mistake. If we don’t show compassion, we are no better than those that started this.” 

“If it wasn’t for people like him, I would still have my family!” I yelled. “We all would.” 

As I spoke, my own words sank in. I wasn’t just blaming Josh for these men attacking our home; I was blaming him for the entire apocalypse. Something about me was changing, and the compassion I once felt for others was diminishing. Not just for Josh but for all of mankind. I no longer saw the people around me as my equals. They were beneath me; their lives held no more value than that of a common housefly. 

Even though I knew what I was feeling was wrong, I couldn’t seem to contain it. My feelings, as well as my actions, were no longer my own. 

Staring into my eyes, Scott could see the emptiness that was consuming me. Suddenly he realized he too was in danger. In an act of desperation, he pulled back his right hand and let it fly. The sound of his open hand impacting against the side of my face echoed throughout the room, but to no avail. I was consumed by my own feeling of superiority. Again, he struck, and again no response. On the third strike, he screamed at me. 

“Damn it, Steve. Look at me!” 

He could have gone on hitting me all day with virtually no response. It seems the nanites intercepted the pain I should have felt with each slap and replaced it with a sense of nothing — and I mean nothing. Not only did they keep me from feeling the pain physically, but they also kept me from feeling it emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard Scott’s voice that something was triggered. 

I stumbled backwards and fell against the table holding the monitors. As quickly as my rage had begun it was gone. Glancing around the room, I took note of the others. Scott was coming at me with his hand raised in the air. As he did, Ben and Cornelius stood back, watching everything that was going on with little emotion. Ray had Robert in a half nelson trying to keep him from killing Josh, who at that very moment kept yelling something over and over.

“I gave them a warning, I gave them a warning.” 

It was odd. Since I first awoke after receiving the nanites,  I had been gradually gaining perfect clarity — almost like seeing the world in slow motion. That was no longer the case. As I watched and listened to the others, it was as if I were seeing everything through a kaleidoscope. Sounds and images were colliding in my head. I was in a dream and nothing was real. I couldn’t have made a clear thought to save my life. 

“Do you hear me?!” Scott yelled, ready to land another blow. 

Doing my best to look composed, I peered into his eyes and smiled. 

“Of course, I hear you,” I replied calmly. “Why is everyone so uptight?” 

“We’re uptight because you can’t just go around killing our friends!” he shot back. “Especially since we don’t have all the facts.” 

With the tension de-escalating, Robert quit trying to break free from Ray to kill Josh. Feeling him start to relax, Ray released his grip on him. 

Of everyone in that room, Robert knew me the best. At times, it was almost as if he could feel what I was feeling. No sooner had Ray let him go than he raced over and helped me off the table. 

“Are you okay?” he asked, placing me gently in one of the chairs. 

I was truly taken aback by the sincerity in his voice. 

“Yah, Rob, I’ll be fine. I’m just a little woozy for some reason.” 

As I sat there collecting myself, Ray and Scott took Josh to the far side of the room. He acted timid as they escorted him through the labyrinth of dead bodies. 

“Scary, isn’t it?” I stated coldly as I watched him. “I hope you’re contemplating the fate you’ve chosen for yourself.” 

“I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done if our roles were reversed!” he snapped back.

Feeling some of the rage I had earlier, I jumped to my feet. 

“Why, you little piece of…” 

I was cut short as Robert slammed me back into the chair. 

“Damn it, Steve! You need to control yourself. Scott is right; we don’t know for sure just why Josh did what he did.” 

If anyone else would have sat me back like that, there probably would have been a fight. Luckily for him I had begun getting my senses back. 

“So, what are you saying, Rob?” 

“I just think maybe we should get all the facts first and then kill him.” 

“That’s not fair either!” Scott called out. 

I took a good long look at Scott, trying to read him before saying anything else. 

“Tell you what, I will not make a decision on whether Josh lives or dies until two things are done. First, he has a chance to tell us his side of the story. Second, we determine our loved ones are safe and secure. Regardless of the outcome, Josh is no longer a part of us. Does this work for all of you?” 

One by one, everyone gave approval, including Josh. It wasn’t until it came to Scott that I received any objections. 

“I don’t agree with that,” he said thoughtfully. “I don’t totally disagree, but I’m still uncertain about something. If you don’t like his reason for what he did, but nobody got hurt, are you still going to kill him?” 

I took a deep breath to keep from wanting to strangle Scott. 

“Tell you what, unless he tells me he wanted everyone dead and then jumps up and says Heil Hitler, I will not condemn him. I will however hold him personally responsible for the lives of those back home. Are those terms acceptable to you?” 

Scott gave me a dirty look and then smiled. “Agreed.” 

It wasn’t the most favorable place to hold a hearing. Blood was spattered against the walls and furniture. Pools of fresh blood were under the bodies on the floor. The mere setting alone was enough to make it impossible for Josh to remember everything he wanted to say. Luckily for him, Scott had taken this part out of the equation. It was little more than a chance for Josh to clear his conscious. 

“Go ahead, Josh,” I said, turning my attention to him. “Let’s see if you have what it takes to convince us.” 

I wouldn’t say I wanted Josh dead, but my tone made it clear to everyone which way I was leaning. Still, Josh stood tall as he turned to face me. 

“I just want to start by saying that no matter what the outcome, I want all of you to know I won’t hold your decisions against you. I am a good person and getting someone hurt was never my intention. It’s true, when they found me I was scared for my life. Hell, any of us would have been. That’s not the reason I agreed to help them. They told me if I would supply them with minimal information on everyone, they would return my wife and son to me.” 

“Oh, come on!” Robert yelled out. “That’s bullshit and you know it. There is no way they could bring anyone back from the dead.” 

“Really, Rob!” Josh shot back, giving him a dirty look. “After everything you have seen these last couple of months, you can honestly say without a doubt something like that would be totally impossible?” 

Robert thought for a moment. “No, I guess not.” 

“Trust me,” he continued, “I’m nobody’s fool. At first, I was just as skeptical as Robert. That changed, however, when they started talking about nanites. We have all seen so many of the amazing things they can do.”  

Cornelius had been listening intently, hanging on Josh’s every word. Like the rest of us, he was curious about just what it takes to make a person betray his friends. He had no intentions of adding his two cents, at least not until Josh mentioned nanites. Those were his babies, and other than his great-grandson, nobody knew them as well. 

“You know they were lying to you?” he said, interrupting Josh’s confession. 

From his tone, I couldn’t tell if he was questioning Josh or questioning his own understanding of just what nanites could do. 

Josh had been more or less addressing me instead of the whole group when he began. Upon hearing Cornelius, he realized what he was doing and broke eye contact with me.

“Well, Cornelius, from what you have told us about the nanites, it makes sense that these guys were lying. The problem didn’t come from what you taught us; it came from what I have seen with my own eyes. Not to mention the hope I had of seeing my wife and son again. I was all alone when they found me and very vulnerable emotionally. To be honest, I was giving serious thought to taking my own life.”

He paused for a moment as tears began to fill his eyes. Lowering his head, he wiped the tears away and laughed. Not a happy laugh, but one that seemed riddled with pain. Without making eye contact with anyone he began again.

“You see, I wasn’t scared that they might kill me. I was scared of letting go of my family.”

 In my mind, I knew what he said made sense; a man would do most anything for his family. Still, one thing continued to bug me.

“Why didn’t you tell us about what was going on?” I asked. “We could have figured something out as a team. You didn’t need to go behind our backs.”

“Actually, I did. I wasn’t the first person in our group they had spoken with; Hayley was. She was the one who gave them my old address. She gave them information on all of us.”

“Bullshit!” Robert yelled. “You’re just trying to save your own ass by pushing the blame on her.” 

“I have to agree with Rob,” I said bluntly. “Why would they need you to get them information if they already had Hayley?”

“She wasn’t close enough to you. They wanted confirmation from somebody who was with you all the time. The fact that she was there and you weren’t made her unreliable.”

“What proof do you have?” Robert asked, sounding as if he were about to blow his cork.

I couldn’t blame Rob for being so upset. It was hard enough to have one friend betray you, but two? That was just more than he could fathom.

“He’s telling the truth,” Ben called out.

“What do you mean? I asked.

“Take a look at the computer screen. The date where it shows the address was put in while we were still on our way to Coos Bay. That was over a week before we even got to Redding.”

“Are you telling us you don’t think Josh is guilty of putting our families in danger?” I asked.

Ben stood there and thought for a moment. “I think maybe he’s right. Under the circumstances, would any of us have chosen a different path?”

“I don’t agree!” Robert yelled. “Josh needs to die. He may not have been directly responsible for giving them the information they needed for the attack, but he didn’t warn us either.”

“Yes, I did! Well, not you directly. I handed Michelle a note before we left. It told her exactly what was going to happen and when. She knew it wouldn’t happen until I contacted Simon. I also told her not to trust Hayley.”

“Who is this Simon?” I asked. 

Josh pointed to one of the men on the floor. It was the one who had met him at the helicopter. I stood up and walked over to Simon’s body. He was lying face down, still clutching a small handgun. I rolled him over with my foot. He couldn’t have been much older than Ben, young, clean-cut, and about twenty-five. At first, I figured nanites had kept him young, but then quickly ruled that out. He hadn’t died by a gunshot to the head. No, he had died by a lone bullet penetrating his heart.

Confused, I turned back towards Cornelius. “Why hadn’t any of these men been injected with the nanites?” I asked, slightly bewildered. “Wouldn’t they want to live forever.”

“Like I told everyone before, there are still some issues with them. Because of that, they are used to prevent death, not extend life.”

We had all gotten used to Cornelius talking in riddles, and thus never questioned him when he did. The fact that he wasn’t concerned about it was good enough for us.

Turning back around, I walked past the bodies on the floor, straight towards Josh. Standing face-to-face with him, I moved to where our noses were almost touching. 

“So, tell me,” I said, eyeing him suspiciously, “if they already had the coordinates from Hayley, just what were they supposed to get from you?”

“A sense of well-being,” he replied matter-of-factly.

I laughed out loud. “Oh really! And just how could you give them that?”

“According to Simon, there has been over one hundred and twenty-seven sightings of you or your armies. Most of the information had come from guards at the prison camps. Every now and then, however, they would come across a group or individual that claimed to work for you. He told me nearly all of them were quickly discredited. A few had merit, yet none of them panned out. He told me it felt like they were chasing a ghost. That was at least until Hayley contacted them.”

Robert suddenly shot forward and wrapped his right hand around Josh’s throat. Nobody, not even Scott, made any attempt to stop him. We could tell he wasn’t attempting to kill Josh. The amount of force he seemed to be exerting was more for effect. 

“You’d better hope to God you can prove what you are saying,” Rob said coldly. “If not, I’m going to kill you just for spite.”

“That should be easy enough to confirm,” Cornelius said, taking a seat in front of the computer. 

Thankfully, the firefight that had gone on earlier hadn’t compromised either the computer nor the power going to it.

The room fell silent as he plugged away at the keyboard. Josh watched on in eager anticipation. The story he told us had overwhelmingly helped his case. Still, until we had confirmation, Robert wasn’t loosening his grip on Josh’s neck.

“Let him go, Rob,” Cornelius called out. “He’s telling the truth. According to the history on the computer, Simon and Hayley have been communicating for quite some time. And yes, she made first contact.”

Reluctantly, Robert let go of Josh. For a moment he just stood there, staring at him. Finally, he turned and walked slowly over to the computer, positioning himself behind Cornelius. Line by line, he read the correspondence between the two. For what seemed like an eternity, he didn’t say a word. Suddenly, he let out a bloodcurdling scream.

“WHY!... You son of a bitch, they were all I had!” 

Grabbing hold of the monitor, he pulled it away from the desk, ripping all the wires free. Then turning towards Josh, he hurled it, narrowly missing him.

I was torn between stopping Rob or letting him kill Josh. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make that decision. Giving in to the pain, Robert fell to the ground and began to bawl. 

What happened next threw me for a loop. Hell, it through us all for a loop. Josh moved forward and knelt to the floor next to Robert. As if they were best friends, he leaned in and wrapped his arms around him. Soon, they were both crying.

“She’s alive, Robert. I swear she is,” Josh sobbed.

“And if she isn’t?” Robert asked, without pulling away.

“If she isn’t, I will take my own life,” Josh responded remorsefully. Even with everything that had happened, including Hayley’s heinous betrayal, Robert believed him. It wasn’t easy, but he had to. Hope was all he had.

“Well, boys,” he said, getting back to his feet and wiping his eyes. “I think my job here is done. I want to go home.”

I turned towards Ray and Scott. “Gentlemen, I believe it’s time for us to once again part ways. I’ll reunite you with your men, so you can secure this area. After that, I need you to head south. We may have stopped the drones, but the battle is far from over. We must continue to liberate those that are still being held. 

“You’ve got it, Steve,” Ray said proudly. “Just do me a favor and give us a place to come home to.”

At first, we considered using the yacht to get home. We could cruise up the coastline to one of the ports in Southern Oregon, probably Coos Bay. From there, it was less than two hours by car back to home base. The plan seemed feasible, but too risky. Not one of us had any real experience maneuvering a boat out in the ocean. If something went wrong, we might never make it home. 

After several minutes of what seemed to be a useless discussion, always ending back at using the yacht, Josh spoke up.

“I know where they keep the helicopter. I’m just wondering who the hell is going to fly it?”

All eyes turned to Ben. Staring at us, he didn’t say yes or  no. He just grinned deviously and slowly closed his eyes.

“Okay, you little shit, just what are you thinking?” I demanded.

Ben opened his eyes, still grinning from ear to ear. “After that deer incident, I never believed anyone would ever let me fly again. I would love to.”

“The honor is all yours,” I stated. 

In a flash, Ben ran past everyone and raced up the stairs to the deck. We went chasing after him, but it was no use. That kid was like a gazelle on steroids. By the time I made it to the deck, Ben was already on the dock, but that’s where he stopped.

“Where are you going, son?” I called out to him.

He turned to face me, his face beet red with embarrassment. “Honestly, I haven’t got a clue.”

I smiled understandingly. I could remember the days of my youth when my own excitement frequently overrode my common sense.

“Come on back aboard,” I said reassuringly. “We all saw the helicopter fly towards the other side of the bay. I think we may want to head there. If you feel up to it, I will let you command the ship.”

He nodded enthusiastically without saying a word.

“Good. Just take Josh up to the bridge so he can give you directions. Ray and Scott will join you, just in case Josh gets any strange ideas. Rob and Cornelius will help me with the ropes.”

“You better make it quick!” Ray called out. “Look!” 

I turned towards the west to see what had startled him. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. With less than two hours until sunset, my view was somewhat impaired by the glare. Unfortunately, I wasn’t mistaken; a mob of a thousand plus was running straight for us, guns blazing. 

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” I yelled, running for the first of two ropes. 

Everyone had been listening to my discussion with Ben, so they knew exactly what to do. While I took care of the first rope, Robert grabbed the other. 

Running past me, Ben called out, “Yell to me when the ropes are untied.”

“Don’t wait for me. Just get us out of here!” I shot back. 

Telling that to Ben was nearly a costly mistake. I had taken it for granted that the three of us would be quicker than we were. Unfortunately, whoever tied the knots in the ropes hadn’t done so with a cleat hitch. Some asshole had tied regular old knots in them. Between that and the moisture in the air, they were impossible to get undone. 

Hearing the motors fire up, Robert turned to me. 

“Now what?” he asked eagerly.

Unsure, I jumped back to my feet and took a quick look around. Off to the starboard side on the pier, I spotted a fireplug and a shed with a glass-enclosed fire ax.

“I’ve got it!” I yelled back.

Jumping from the yacht, I ran over to the pole and shoved my hand through the glass. I wasn’t fast enough. Just as he was told, Ben didn’t wait. With a loud crack, the boat moved forward, pulling the ropes tightly between it and the dock. The cracking sound I had heard came from a few of the older boards giving way, but still the ropes held steady. Under a barrage of bullets, I jumped back on board and headed for the first rope. Raising the ax high in the air, I gave a mighty swing. “BOOM!”

It never even connected. Just as the ax started downward, the weary dock finally gave way. With a loud explosion, pieces of old and rotted wood went flying in all directions. The three of us went flying as well. With its restraints suddenly removed, the yacht instantly shot forward. Everything that wasn’t nailed down suddenly found itself resting against the back railing.

Gaining my bearing, I raised up to a sitting position.

“You guys okay?” I asked, visibly shaken.

“I think so,” Robert said, pulling a chair off his legs.

“I’m good too,” Cornelius replied.

We all sat there with our heads below the railings until we were out of range of the bullets. At least we thought we were out of range. As we were getting back to our feet, Robert started making his way to the others. That’s when a lone bullet dropped him to the deck. Seeing him go down, Cornelius and I rushed to his aid. 

After falling, he had rolled over onto his back, concealing his injury. Reaching behind him, he felt for the wound and then pulled out his bloody hand.

“I’ve been shot!” he yelled.

In a panic, I rolled him over. That’s when we saw it, a small tear in his jeans where the bullet had slightly grazed him. There was some blood, but I think Robert had removed most of it when he rubbed it with his hand. I did my best not to laugh, but to no avail. Between the look on Rob’s face and what he said next, I just couldn’t hold it.

“You guys need to help me,” he said, his eyes full of fear. “I think I may need some nanites.”

“Sorry, Rob, not a chance,” Cornelius said, holding back his own laughter. “I’ve been waiting for this moment far too long. With you out of the picture, Katherine will finally be mine.”

“You assholes! This is serious. I could bleed to death.”

I wanted to mess with him some more, but we were already over halfway to the other shore.

“Man up, Rob!” I said forcefully. “It’s just a small nick. Hell, I don’t even think it’s bleeding anymore.”

“Screw you, Steve!” he lashed out. “Screw both of you! You may have forgotten what pain feels like, but I haven’t; this thing fucking hurts.”

Robert was right; I had forgotten what pain really felt like. I could still feel pressure or discomfort, but true pain was no longer an issue. That may have been the reason I didn’t comfort him like I should have.

“I apologize, Rob. I’m sure that must hurt something awful.”

“You’re damn right it does.”

“If you want, I will get you something for the pain. I know Ray keeps a stash of medical supplies.”

Knowing Rob wasn’t seriously hurt and that all he needed was an aspirin, you would think the incident would be dropped. Unfortunately, Cornelius was having too much fun.

“Is everything okay down there?” Ben called out from an open window on the bridge.

“No!” Cornelius yelled. “Rob’s been shot! We need to get him to the shore for medical attention.”

It was like somebody threw a switch, and once again Ben’s common sense went right out the window. Scanning the terrain, he spotted Ray’s team. They were reconvening in a small park not far from the shoreline. With his eyes fixed on the target, Ben steered the craft straight for them; and when I say straight for them, that is exactly what I mean. The fact that they were a good thirty yards from the water made little difference to Ben. Robert needed help, and that was all that mattered. Nearing the shore, it dawned on the rest of us — not only were we not slowing down, but we were also somehow gaining speed. 

Seeing what was about to happen, everyone dove for cover and grabbed the nearest fixed object they could find. Everyone, that was, except for Ben. I couldn’t tell if it was bravery due to the nanites or sheer stupidity. Either way, he stood steadfast at the controls. 

I could only imagine the thought going through his mind was, “I’m going to get Rob to safety, or die trying.” What probably wasn’t going through his mind was the fact that he would be the one to live through this, not Robert.

We crested the shore at a good sixty miles an hour. For a second, everything seemed fine. We were sliding gracefully over the dirt and sand, straight towards the group of scared and confused soldiers. Then all hell broke loose.

Colliding with a bench near the edge of the park, the hull of the boat split wide open. With the contents of the room below us flailing wildly in our wake, the men scattered. I couldn’t blame them; the carnage from the incident looked and smelled much worse than it really was.

Several bodies were mixed in with the contents from the room, and there was a stench from one of the holding tanks that contained raw sewage. 

Amazingly, that was the only damage done. Nothing else had been destroyed and nobody was killed. That’s not to say we all didn’t give serious thought about putting a bullet in Ben’s head. I think the only thing that saved him was the swiftness of Ray’s men to surround us.

“You, on the boat. You have ten seconds to come forward with your hands in the air. If you don’t, we will open fire.”

Peering over the railing, I made eye contact with the man calling out the orders. It was Jack. He and his brother were standing alongside the others, their weapons aimed directly at me. Before I could utter a word, Ben stormed away from the bridge.

“Hurry, we need help. Robert’s been shot!”

I quickly turned towards Robert, hoping to catch his expression. Ben had almost killed every one of us, just to get him medical help, and now it was time for the whole world to see just how badly he was hurt.

With Ray’s men boarding the yacht, Ben and the others made their way down to Robert. They stopped a few feet short as he got to his feet.

“What the heck?” Ben questioned. “Did Cornelius save Robert?”

Laughing, Cornelius stood up and dusted himself off. “Yes, yes I did.”

“You’re an asshole,” Robert murmured as he pushed past everyone and climbed off the boat, a small patch of blood visible on the back of his pants. 

I was laughing so hard at that point that I was nearly doubled over. I had to hold the railing to keep from falling. Everyone stared at me totally confused, including Ben.

“Did I miss something, Steve?” he asked.

“Yes, Ben. Once again, you slightly jumped the gun. You may have heard what Cornelius had said, but you paid no attention to his tone.”

“So, I take it he wasn’t hurt, and Cornelius didn’t give him any nanites.”

Trying to hold back my laughter, I nodded. “Oh, he got shot all right, but he only got grazed. Cornelius only told you to make fun of the way Rob was acting. We never dreamed you would have reacted as you did.” 

Realizing what was going on, Ben grinned. “I just do what I do.”

With that, we all made our way to the ground where Ray gathered his men together and explained everything that had taken place. While he did that, Scott located their medical supplies and gave me a little something to alleviate Rob’s pain.

“I’m glad everyone got a good laugh at my expense,” Robert said bitterly as I approached him.

“We did, thank you,” I said happily as I handed him the painkillers. 

He gave me a serious look. “Now can we get home to our families?”

I could feel the sense of urgency in his voice. He needed to get back and confirm what Josh had told us. He needed to know Katherine was safe. 

Normally, I would have been feeling just as anxious about Michelle’s safety. The odd thing was that nothing seemed normal any more. Little by little, I was beginning to lose that spark of humanity that makes us who we are. I was still Steve, but love and friendship were practically foreign to me.

“You’re right, Rob,” I said, doing my best to sound concerned. “You grab Ben and Josh, and I’ll get Cornelius and meet you at the helicopter.”

Before they left, I had Josh give Cornelius the directions. While he was doing that, I made my way back to Ray and his men.

“What’s the game plan?” Ray asked, seeing me coming towards him. 

“I’m going to take my team home and take care of anything I need to do there,” I replied. “I need you and your men to find out just who the hell those people are that shot Rob. After that, you can continue south. I’m hoping there may still be some survivors in the larger cities.”

“How do I contact you?” he asked quietly. “I haven’t told the men about Josh. I figured it’s best they don’t know everything right now. Still, I don’t think using the code Josh created is such a good idea.”

“That’s a good point. What did you have in mind?” 

Ray handed me a piece of paper. “Take this. It’s the frequency my men and I use in case of an emergency. It was kind of a backup, in case we forgot Josh’s code.”

I stuck the paper in my pocket and gave him an understanding nod.

“Good luck,” I said. Then I turned and walked away.

“Can I ask what he gave you?” Cornelius enquired, motioning to my pocket.

“You can, and someday I may tell you.”

Knowing better than to push the issue, he just smiled. “Come on, let’s get this show on the road.”

The directions Josh had given Cornelius were spot on. It was a straight shot from the bridge to the BART tunnel opening. The helicopter was in an abandoned shipping yard almost exactly halfway between the two.

Walking over there, I suddenly had an unpleasant thought. We never took the pilot into consideration. This could have been Josh’s plan. If that was the case, Robert and Ben could be walking into a trap. Cornelius and I picked up the pace, expecting the worst. We had barely reached the edge of the yard when we heard Ben yell. In a panic, we took off running. Suddenly there were three quick gunshots — followed by silence. 



Chapter 2

Homeless

I had done my best to give Josh the benefit of the doubt. Even with his betrayal, he had done what he could to keep us out of harm’s way. At least that was my thinking until the sound of gunfire made me realize my mistake. Man was still an animal, and animals do whatever it takes for survival. From then on, nobody was to be trusted. 

Without slowing my pace, I raced into the open yard, Cornelius hot on my tail. I could see the rotors from the helicopter not more than fifty paces away. An old rusted-out cargo container was the only thing between it and us. Slowing my pace, Cornelius came up next to me, his handgun drawn.

“Don’t forget, Steve,” he said angrily, “Josh knows our weaknesses, so keep your head down. The last thing I want is to die at the hands of that little shit.”

I had to agree with Cornelius; Josh did have us over a barrel with this one. He was one of the few people that knew Cornelius and I had been injected with nanites. Still, I was caught off guard by the contempt Cornelius seemed to have for him.

“Don’t worry, Cornelius,” I said reassuringly. “I don’t think he could hit the broad side of a barn, especially under pressure.”

“Are you willing to risk your life on it?” he asked. 

Reaching the container, we slowed our pace a bit, stopping at the corner. Turning back towards Cornelius, I gave him a wink.

“Damn right,” I said with a smile and then stepped out.

Instantly, the sounds of gunfire filled the air. For a second, I thought I might have been a little too cocky. Then it dawned on me. The bullets weren’t being directed towards Cornelius and me; they were being fired straight in the air.

“What the fuck, Steve!” Robert called out. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Never just rush out into the open.”

“If I had known my best friend was going to try and kill me, I wouldn’t have.”

“Yeah, right. You and I both know I’m a crack shot. That was just a little warning for whoever those footsteps belonged to.”

I could tell he knew it was Cornelius and me. He just wanted to give us a little payback for messing with him.

“Well, I do appreciate the warning shots,” I said, grinning. “Sometimes those bullets can be a real pain in the butt.”

“Keep it up, asshole,” Rob said, lowering his rifle towards me. 

“Is that the gun we heard a few seconds ago?” Cornelius asked, peering out from behind the container. 

He was afraid Robert was more upset with him than he had been with me. If that was the case, he knew Rob was likely to shoot him just for fun. As long as he didn’t hit him in the head, it would be no deadlier than getting hit with a paintball. Not overly painful, but still not extremely pleasant. Regardless, it was something Cornelius wanted to avoid.

“Yes, this is the gun,” he replied, motioning to a body some twenty yards to the north. “I took it off the pilot after he jumped us. It’s too bad though; I was kind of hoping he would switch to our side. He could have flown us back home. I’m not overly keen on putting my life back in Crash’s hands.”

Ben leaned out from the cockpit. 

“Oh, come on, Rob,” he laughed. “If it wasn’t for me, you two would have such boring lives. Besides, it’s not the flying I have issues with; it’s those damn landings.” 

Giving Ben a dirty look, I made my way over to the helicopter and glanced inside. It wasn’t one of those little two or four seaters. That thing was large enough for ten men, and their gear. It was still just a single rotor, but man, was it massive.

“So, were you surprised to find the pilot still lurking around?” I asked, giving Josh the eye.

“Actually, we weren’t surprised at all,” Robert replied. “Josh gave us the heads-up on our way over. He told us the pilot had mentioned that whoever was on duty had to sleep with it.”

“I owe you one, Josh,” I said reluctantly. “For some reason, I’ve been failing as a leader lately. That was one of those things I should have warned you guys about.”

“It’s all good, Steve,” Robert said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I’m beginning to get used to your screw-ups.” 

I knew he was only trying to be funny, but he was right. Ever since the incident with the dogs, I just wasn’t as focused. Without saying a word, I took hold of Josh and climbed aboard. Cornelius and Rob took one last look around before joining us. 

With everyone safely inside, Ben did a quick pre-trip inspection of the controls and then finished strapping himself in. Turning back, he gave us a serious look. “Let’s go home, boys.”

Robert kept to himself nearly the whole flight. Other than a brief comment or two about something one of us pointed out, he didn’t say a word. At first glance, I assumed he was deep in thought about his beloved Katherine. A closer look, and his eyes told an entirely different story. Glued to Josh, it wasn’t love, but hate that was brewing in there. He was a time bomb just waiting to explode.

I did my best not to pay heed to him. I was much more interested in the world around me. Since the attacks, I had only been able to see what was directly in front of me, but from ten thousand feet, the view was far more gruesome. The cleanup hadn’t been completed as I had presumed. Only the major thoroughfares had been cleared. Most of the towns, and roadways, were still littered with the dead. 

Nearing the shelter, you would think my attention would have been on our home, but it wasn’t. I was lost in awe at the vast devastation littering the landscape. We must have passed nearly a hundred or so downed aircraft. There were many smaller, personal planes, but a large number of them were full sized commercial airliners.

For the first time since it all began, I was truly in awe at just how many people had died that day. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands; it was billions. I was trying to picture what a billion of anything would look like, when Robert suddenly went berserk. Without warning, he sprang to his feet.  

“You’re a dead man!” he screamed, pulling Josh from his seat. 

Instantly, the mood went from quiet and serene to completely chaotic. The two of them were flailing all about the cabin, breaking most everything in their path. Cornelius and I were so focused on keeping them away from Ben that getting them apart was basically an afterthought. It wasn’t until Josh had broken free that we realized just how crazed Robert had become. 

I had just forced myself between the two of them when a disturbing view below us caught my eye. Momentarily forgetting all about what was going on around me, I pulled open one of the sliding doors and leaned out. Almost directly beneath us were the burnt-out remains of my once peaceful home.

It wasn’t the loving sanctuary we had left only a few hours earlier. What remained was quite literally a veritable wasteland. The blast zone had cleared every bit of vegetation for a good half mile. Everything that hadn’t been completely blown away was either burning or left unrecognizable. In fact, there were only two features left that showed man had ever been there. 

One was the jagged remains of the main interior wall. Once believed to be impenetrable, it proved to do nothing more than to give its owner a false sense of security. The other, Justin’s makeshift memorial, had been much more vulnerable. Oddly, it somehow managed to survive without so much as a scratch. Even the photo he had placed in the center appeared undisturbed.  

Seeing what was left, a little voice inside me called out to let Robert finish the job. Paying it no mind, I set out to contain him, forcefully if need be. 

“Get your asses back to your seats, now!” I demanded sternly. 

Josh climbed back into his seat, but Robert blew me off as if I didn’t even exist. I knew I only had a few seconds to act. If I didn’t, it was only a matter of time before Robert remembered he was carrying a sidearm.

“I said take a seat.”

This time, as I spoke, I took hold of his shirt and forced him to sit.

“What the hell are you doing, Steve?” he questioned. “Michelle is just as dead down there as Katherine is. What more proof do you need before you let me kill this bastard?”

“Believe me, Rob, I want to, but I can’t. I made a promise to Scott that I wouldn’t kill Josh without proof.”

“Proof! You want proof?” he screamed. “Just take another look outside. What more fucking proof do you need?”

“All that proves it that those assholes really had located us,” I said bitterly. “I need to know if Josh warned our loved ones or not. Then, and only then, will we decide his fate.”

I could see the pain in Rob’s eyes. It was as if they were pleading with me to allow him to avenge his wife. 

“You just have to trust me,” I said quietly, the sound of my voice almost completely masked by the noise of the rotor.

Regardless of the outcome, I couldn’t just let Josh die, at least not yet. When he and I first came aboard, he shared a secret with me. It seems Simon had been close friends with our very own Cornelius.

“I agree with Steve,” Ben called out to us. “I think you would really hate yourself later if you did kill Josh.”

“What the hell makes you say that?” he demanded. “Don’t either of you feel anything for your loved ones anymore? Sometimes it seems like those damn nanites have erased them from your hearts.”

“You may be right,” he replied calmly. “However, for now I’m going off what I see, not what I feel.”

Ben turned the helicopter slightly until we were facing northeast.

“See for yourself,” he said happily. 

Robert moved past us and took a seat in the front next to Ben. Staring out the windshield, he did his best to see what he was talking about.

“What the hell are we looking at?” he asked, somewhat annoyed. 

“Right there,” Ben said, extending his arm and pointing. “Over in those trees.”

Robert may have been right about the nanites screwing with us emotionally, but man, what they did for our vision. The trees Ben had been pointing to were nearly a mile away. Out of all of us, Robert and Josh were the only ones who couldn’t see what Ben was showing us.

“It’s right there, Rob,” I said enthusiastically. “Right there at the tree line.”

Cornelius moved up next to me. “Hey, it’s Artemis.”

Robert strained hard to see what we were talking about. Pressing his face up against the glass, he scanned the area. Even as we got closer, he still couldn’t see him. There just wasn’t enough daylight left for him to really distinguish anything other than the trees.

Ben made a quick pass over the area. He wanted to make sure we weren’t heading into some sort of trap. Confirming everything was safe, he flew towards the nearest field large enough to land. Then, as we neared the clearing, Ben’s dog came bouncing out to greet us.

“It’s Artemis!” Robert yelled joyfully. “I see him! Can you guys see the others?”

I took my focus off the dog and slowly scanned the trees.

“There they are,” I said calmly. “About a hundred feet in, straight back from the closest tree.” 

Finally knowing exactly where to look, Robert strained his eyes for a glimpse.

“It’s them!” he yelled excitedly. “It’s them!”

Turning around quickly, he grabbed hold of the controller in Ben’s hand. 

“Quick, land this thing!” he yelled.

Since we had first boarded the helicopter, I just knew it was going to end badly. The funny thing was, I had always thought it would be Ben that caused the crash, not Robert. 

In an instant, we went from a nice calm landing to careening wildly out of control. First dropping nearly to the ground, and then a sudden climb, damn near turning us upside down. Thankfully, Ben was belted in, as the nose shot straight into the air and the four of us went crashing to the back of the chopper. We were a little banged up but unbroken. Finally, with one last spin, Ben regained control. 

“Damn it, Rob!” Ben yelled. “I would really like to land something without crashing.”

It wasn’t until I questioned him about it later that I found out he really hadn’t made a safe landing before. I had just assumed when he spoke of the deer incident that he was talking about the one they killed with the drone. It never occurred to me that he had actually hit one while landing an airplane.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Robert said, retaking his seat. “I just can’t believe they’re all actually down there.”

“Not everyone, I hope,” Josh said, almost under his breath, as he sat down. “I hope they left that bitch Hayley back in the bunker. There are a few people I wish would have been in there.”

“What’s that?” Cornelius asked, catching his glare.

“Oh nothing,” he replied. “I was just saying that we’re not with them.”

It was easy to see there had been some tension building between those two. There never seemed to be a problem with them until we spotted Josh with Simon. Ever since then, Cornelius had become more and more uneasy. As we touched down, I decided it was time to fill Robert in.

With the rotor still turning, I stood up from my seat, getting everyone’s attention. 

“Robert and I will be going in first. Everyone in there has been through enough, with the attack on their home. I’m sure having a helicopter flying around has only added to their anxiety. If we all go in at once, it may put them over the edge.”

The two of us were just about to step out when Artemis jumped in through the opened door. He never gave us a second look, just dove up front and buried his muzzle into Ben’s chest.

Laughing to ourselves, Robert and I climbed out and made our way over to the tree line. With the sound of the rotor still cutting through the air behind us, I decided it was safe to talk. 

“That thing about needing them to wait there while we went ahead was just bullshit,” I said to him without stopping.

“Then why did you say it?”

“I needed to talk to you away from Cornelius. According to Josh, Simon and Cornelius knew each other.”

“Are you saying they are cohorts?” he asked, turning his head towards me as we walked.

“I’m not saying anything like that,” I replied. “I’m just letting you know what Josh told me.”

Rob grinned and nodded his head before speaking. “I thought there was something odd about the way those two were looking at each other. What should we do about it?”

“Nothing for now,” I said as we were about to reach the others. “When the time is right, we will ask him about it.”

I had just finished talking when Robert suddenly spotted Katherine. Like a bullet, he shot past me and raced towards her. Seeing him, she did the same. Pushing through the crowd, they dove into each other’s arms. For nearly a full minute, they held tightly to one another, neither speaking a word. Then Robert released his grip and dropped to his knees, kissing her belly. 

“I love you too, son,” he said joyfully. 

My reunion with Michelle wasn’t as dramatic as theirs had been. 

“Is something wrong?” she asked, wrapping her arms around me.

“It’s those fucking nanites!” Robert exclaimed as he and Katherine came up behind us. “They’re trading his life for his soul.”

“Funny, Rob,” I said, giving him a dirty look. “I just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

“How about Ben?” a soft voice asked from the crowd. “Have the nanites made him forget about us as well?”

It was Amy. She was standing directly in front of me, with Calista asleep in her arms. She had a sad, scared look on her face.

“No, not at all,” Robert swiftly replied. “They don’t seem to have the same effect on him that they have on Steve. I think it’s because Ben isn’t as much of an asshole as Steve is.”

“Hey, screw you, Rob,” I laughed. “Don’t worry, Amy, Ben is just as much in love with you as ever. We had to leave him back at the helicopter to babysit Josh and Cornelius.”

“Why didn’t they come with you?” Michelle asked. “Are you planning on leaving again already?”

Hearing the pain in her voice, I turned to her and took her into my arms. “No, my love. We just thought it might scare all of you to see a large group of men coming towards you.”

“Tell you what,” Robert interjected. “Steve and I will go back and get them right now.”

Katherine wanted to go with us, yet Robert convinced her to stay with Michelle and the others. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her with us; he was just trying to protect her from the pain of shunning Josh. We all still cared for him, but keeping him with us was too much of a risk.

Making our way back to the helicopter, neither one of us spoke. I was busy planning our next move, while Robert was dealing with the guilt he was feeling. Trust was the one thing we all counted on to keep us alive. What Josh did may have seemed like betrayal, but if we would have just trusted him, we would have seen the truth. He knew those men would have killed him once the job was done, but they would have believed we were dead as well.

As we crested the tree line, Cornelius was the first to reach us. I could tell something was eating at him. Catching my eye, he was just about to speak when Ben ran up and cut him off.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” he said anxiously. “I need to go see Amy. I just can’t wait any longer.”

I gave him an understanding smile. “Go ahead, son, only take Cornelius with you.” 

Cornelius gave me a disheartened look. I could tell he had something he really wanted to say, but it was going to have to wait. Robert and I had something more pressing to deal with. 

Josh was still sitting in his seat as we reached the helicopter. His head was down as he wept softly. He knew the others were safe, yet he still had no idea what was to become of him. Would we walk up and kill him, or would we say our goodbyes first? He honestly didn’t think we would allow him to live. 

“I don’t want to die,” he said softly as we climbed up next to him.

“You won’t, my friend,” Robert said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We owe you a great deal of thanks, and I owe you more than that.”

Josh raised his head and gave Rob a quizzical look. 

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You saved my family,” Robert replied. “In fact, if Hayley would have had her way, none of us would be here. You and you alone stopped her.”

“So, do I get to come home with you?” he asked almost cheerfully.

“I’m afraid not, Josh,” I replied. “Even though you did what you thought to be right, it was insubordinate. We’re at war right now, and I can’t have that among my men.”

Josh lowered his head again and slowly got to his feet. He knew what I was saying made sense. We should have trusted that what he was doing was for us, but it was still more important for him to keep us in the loop. What he did was reckless, and if it had gone wrong, everyone we loved would have died.  

“Before you go,” I said, stopping him, “I need to know what Simon said about Cornelius.”

Josh gave me a gentle look and smiled. “He just told me that they had worked together and at one time he considered Cornelius a close friend.”

After hearing what he said, I felt a twinge of empathy for Cornelius. I could only image what it must have felt like for him to see someone that had once been close to him lying dead on the floor. It only lasted for a second, and then it was gone.

“Tell you what,” I said to Josh as we got outside. “When this thing is over, come find us.”

 “I’ll do that,” he said happily, giving me a big smile. Then he hugged me and walked away.

The sun had completely disappeared behind the horizon, and the only light to see by was that of the moon. It was a lot brighter than I had noticed in years past. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were just adjusting to not having as much man-made light, or if it was the nanites. Either way, it allowed me a clear view of the direction Josh had gone.

I turned back around to say something to Robert, when my body suddenly tensed up. Unable to keep my balance, I fell backwards, hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes. Lying there confused, I called for Robert to help me. No sooner had the words passed my lips, I tensed up again. This time it wasn’t just my muscles tightening that I felt; it was pain — real pain. In a panic, I tried to get to my feet again, but as I did my body stiffened and I blacked out.

I remember thinking I was lying in a field of clover, Michelle cuddled up in my arms. Turning my head, I looked deeply into her eyes. It was like seeing her for the first time, her soft, blue eyes looking into my very soul. I felt so in love, so at peace. I was just about to tell her how I felt when she started calling my name and shaking me. Confused, I tried to stop her, but it was no longer Michelle; it was a giant spider. I closed my eyes tightly and began swinging my arms wildly at the beast, hoping to knock it away. It seemed the more I fought, the stronger the spider became. Feeling completely helpless, I quit fighting and prepared to meet my fate — yet nothing happened.

Unsure about what was going on, I slowly opened my eyes. For a moment everything seemed blurry, then bit by bit, a vision of Robert came into view. Turning my head quickly from side to side, I looked not only for the spider but also for Michelle. 

“Where are they?” I asked, still somewhat confused.

“Where are who?” Robert replied, a somber look on his face. “Are you okay?”

I tried to get up, however my body didn’t want to respond. I could raise my arms, yet just barely. Scared, I closed my eyes and tried to let my muscles go completely limp. I could still picture both Michelle and the spider, although I was quickly realizing it was just a dream. The part that really got to me was that I couldn’t remember going to sleep.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)