The rain started to fall just as the sun finished descending behind the mountains of Gallatia. Mac grunted and wiped the water from his camera’s lens. It had been a three-hour hike through some of the most humid and sweltering jungle that he could remember, followed by several hours of waiting for the sun to go down as he fought off fist-sized mosquitos. By then he’d grown considerably miserable, and the last thing he wanted was to get drenched by this planet’s relentless monsoon.
“You see anything yet, Mac?” Jay asked.
“Nothing yet,” Mac said, the drops of rain jockeying for space with the flock of freckles on his cheeks. “He sure is taking his sweet time today. I was hoping we’d get out of here before this storm hit.”
“He was probably waiting for it,” Jay replied. He shook the water from his bushy blonde beard, then spat out a gnarled wad of tobacco. “He’s hard enough to find in daylight. With the dark and rain, even we may not be able to see him.”
Mac shrugged and peered back through the camera’s telescopic lens. In the distance the woods fell away to a deep ravine about three hundred meters wide, and on the other side stood an immense Splinter complex. The rain had kicked up a light fog, obscuring much of the structure behind the high walls, but it was an impressive fortress nonetheless. Mac had never seen one so large, and certainly never in this sort of environment. It must have taken a lifetime to build, especially given the typically meager resources their enemies had.
He panned to the left and caught sight of Jackson sitting calmly on his perch about fifty meters forward of their position, his sniper’s rifle extending from a branch of a giant Gallatian redwood more than a hundred meters above the forest floor. These trees were more than twice as tall as those that once existed on Earth, which made them ideal for camouflaging man-made structures among Gallatia’s tumultuous terrain.
“Jacks looks bored,” Mac said.
“What are you looking at him for?” Jay asked. “We need to be able to see Kyle once he gets in position.”
“Just trying to get the zoom focused. I’ll have to switch on the night vision. This haze is coming in fast.”
Mac flipped a switch on his camera and the world suddenly lit up again. He peered over the outer walls of the complex, searching for the commander of their unit, Kyle Griffin. In truth, it was like looking for a ghost. Mac knew he’d only be seen if he wanted to be, and that’s why he was the one shifting through the complex alone while they languished in the rain. Their reconnaissance mission relied on establishing a remote uplink with the Splinter intelligence interface, which meant that someone had to enter the compound to access their database. Kyle had taken the task as his own.
The security waiting for him inside the perimeter was substantial. There were three distinct tiers to the complex with several artillery cannons along each level. Each one was fully automated and enabled with both motion detectors and infrared scanners—advanced tech for the typically archaic Splinter forces, and a strong indication that they had come to the right place. Their marks wouldn’t waste that kind of technology on just any installation. The intel they were looking for must be on site. The droves of guards wandering the grounds under the watch of three separate surveillance towers only added to that suspicion.
“There’s a shitload of guys with guns walking around down there,” Mac said. “I wish I knew how Kyle gets through security like that.”
“He might be the only person alive that can do it,” Jay said. “That’s why he’s in there and we’re out here getting drenched.”
Mac had almost forgotten about the rain, and the reminder made him scowl. It had turned into more of a mist in the last couple of minutes, but by then both of them had already been saturated by it. It made him wonder why these compounds were never built on the sand of a sunny beach.
But then, an anomaly suddenly caught his eye. The shadows seemed to flicker across one of the rooftops, though even with the night vision he couldn’t make it out completely. His gaze frantically darted around the roof until he settled on the form of a man tucked against the edge of the building. He was tall and muscular, and clothed entirely in black.
“I’ve got him,” Mac announced. “He’s on the roof already. Check his comm to make sure it’s working.”
“Kyle, this is Jay. Do you read?”
“I’ve got you, Jay,” Kyle’s voice answered over the radio. “Do me a favor and get Mac on the line so he can tell me where I’m going.”
“Can’t get along without me, huh?” Mac asked, raising a hand to the comm in his ear.
“Your knowledge overwhelms me, Mac,” Kyle replied. “Just tell me where I’ve got to be and I’ll get there.”
“Okay, there’s a transmission tower about twenty meters to your left,” Mac said. “All of their hardlines should be on the top floor.”
“That’s awfully close to one of those surveillance posts, Mac,” Kyle said. “We’ll need a back door.”
“I can see a ventilation grate opposite the surveillance tower,” Mac said. “Think you can squeeze your big ass through there?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Kyle said. “You guys just make sure you’re ready when I get the connection set up.”
“We’ll be ready.”
Mac watched Kyle survey his path for a moment. Then he blinked, and by the time he reopened his eyes, Kyle had disappeared. Mac’s gaze darted toward the tower, and he caught just a brief glimpse of their commander before he disappeared again into the vent.
† † †
Kyle touched down silently inside a cluttered mechanical room. For a man so large, he still moved like a whisper. The vent near the ceiling was narrow, less than a meter in either direction, and barely wide enough to squeeze his stout limbs through. His shoulders billowed like a thunderhead as he rose to his feet, the heat of the electronics swelling up from the floor beneath him. Rows upon rows of tangled wiring and stacked servers lined the room, creating a maze of cables and metal. It was very old tech, probably predating even the development of stellar fusion reactors, and likely scavenged by Splinter junkers from an abandoned Dominion outpost. It made everything appear unfamiliar and overly complicated to his eyes, even after having ventured into many such arenas in the past. This time, however, he was searching for evidence of possible embedded Splinter agents within the Dominion infrastructure, a task beset to him personally by the ruler of the Dominion; the Lord Gentry - Aeron. And when the Gentry ordered a mission be done, there was no second guessing.
“All right, I’m in,” Kyle said. “What am I looking for?”
“This stuff is gonna be on a secure server,” Mac said. “Look for something with an encryption filter, or that doesn’t have an external port. They’re not gonna risk any transmission of this data.”
“Should have brought you in here with me, Mac,” Kyle said, starting into the labyrinth. “This place is a mess.”
“Just look for a heavy power source,” Mac suggested. “It might even have a dedicated generator.”
Kyle eyed the conduits overhead. There was a section nearly twice the size of the others that led to a unit against the back wall.
“I think we’ve got something here,” he said. “No outgoing lines, heavy duty encryption device.”
Kyle pulled a digital transmitter from his belt. He tapped it against the server, and a dozen cybernetic tentacles spewed out. They dug through the aluminum shell and into the components underneath. The outdated Splinter technology would be little match for devious piece of learning nanotech. It would infect the hardware like a parasite and sync it to Mac’s console outside. Then the skinny redhead would do the rest.
“Should be transmitting now,” Kyle said.
† † †
The system’s mainframe flashed onto Mac’s screen. There were several rudimentary firewalls built into the files, but they were little more than a speed bump.
“It’ll take me a few minutes to get through this encryption,” Mac said. “They’ve got a self-destruct safeguard on this data, but the nanotech has already deactivated it.”
“Just get it done,” Kyle said. “We’re moving out in five minutes.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Jay said. “It’s smooth sailing from here.”
Almost before the words faded, there was a sudden page through their radio. Jackson was trying to get their attention.
“Shit, maybe I spoke too soon,” Jay said, activating Jackson’s intercom. “What’s going on, Jacks?”
“We may have some issues,” Jackson said. “One hundred meters outside the east perimeter.”
“What’s he talking about?” Mac asked.
“Just copy the damn files,” Jay said. “I’ll check it out.”
Jay looked through the lens of Mac’s camera and scanned the forest. The haze hung like a veil above the thick canopy. He cursed, trying to find a line of sight between the trees. There. A half-dozen soldiers holding a position just to the east perimeter. The Royal Insignia of the Dominion was stitched onto their sleeves.
“It looks like another team,” Jay said. “Those are our guys.”
“What would another team be doing here?” Mac asked.
“I don’t know,” Jay said, “but they can’t be hidden too well if Jackson can see them.”
Jackson’s voice came back over the radio. “Can you see who’s in charge over there?”
Jay scanned through the soldiers until saw a familiar face among the crowd. “Oh shit, it’s Tact General Donovan,” Jay muttered. The stone-cut jaw and heavy brow were unmistakable. “I swear that asshole does this shit on purpose.”
“What’s going on out there, guys?” Kyle asked.
“Vaughn Donovan has another unit on site,” Jay answered. “What should we do?”
“We’re not gonna do anything,” Kyle said. “Whatever they’re up to, it has nothing to do with us. Let’s just get our job done and get out of here.”
Then the compound’s alarm began to wail. Jay saw the Splinter soldiers swarming out of the courtyard building. Spotlights swiftly cut swaths of illumination across the dark jungle. Within seconds the artillery cannons would be searching for targets.
“Kyle, the whole place is going ape-shit down there,” Jay said. “You’ve gotta get out.”
“I don’t think it’s us,” Jackson cut in. “I think they spotted Vaughn’s group.”
“Either way, they’re gonna lock down the whole compound,” Jay said. “Time to go, boss.”
“Is Mac finished?” Kyle asked.
“I’ve got the files open,” Mac answered. “You can pull the transmitter. I can finish without it.”
Gunfire started to chatter, and an explosion lit up the trees on the east side of the complex. Through Mac’s camera, Jay watched the other Dominion squadron scatter like a flock of birds. The turrets on the outer walls spun in their direction, and a barrage of shells tore through the canopy, sending up clouds of splinters as they ripped through the redwoods’ massive trunks. A squad of Splinter soldiers started passing through the perimeter and were closing quickly.
“Vaughn and his guys are in deep shit,” Jay said. “They’ve got a unit in pursuit and are taking casualties. They’re not going to make it.”
“You and Mac get back to the ship right now,” Kyle ordered. “Get to the emergency extraction site. Have Jacks circle around and give those men some cover. Maybe he can buy them some time.”
“What about you?” Jay asked.
“I’m going to get them out of there.”
† † †
The trees rushed by as Vaughn Donovan and his men hurtled through the woods. Branches snapped and bullets whistled by as they ran, spurring them like the scythe of the reaper. He could hear his soldiers yelling behind him, in front of him, and all around. It was bedlam, and they were suddenly caught right in the middle of it.
Vaughn saw his lieutenant suddenly drop as he ran alongside him. A burst of red blood popped into the hovering fog, announcing the bullet’s exit wound like a flash of confetti. He fell into a tangle of leaves and moss with a thud. Vaughn glanced over his shoulder as it happened, even though he knew it would slow him down. The Splinter men were right on top of them, and it wouldn’t take long for them to be overrun, not while running through this thicket.
But then, as if out of nowhere, several of their pursuers dropped as though they had been hit by a sniper. The shots came quickly and silently, seven of them total, and each one was precise and deadly. He had no idea where the cover had come from, and he didn’t care. All that mattered was that the number of men chasing them had suddenly been cut in half.
He pivoted to break into a sprint, but a well-placed round punched through the flesh in the back of his thigh. Paralyzed by the shock, his leg collapsed as his weight came down on it, and he fell face-first into a puddle of muddy water.
Vaughn could feel his throat tighten as he rolled onto his back. His legs flailed wildly trying scurry away, but it was too late. The remaining Splinter soldiers were already on top of him, thrusting their weapons into his face.
He didn’t waste any time hoping for mercy. Instead, he kicked hard with his uninjured leg, knocking the rifle from the first soldier’s hands. He brought up his own sidearm swiftly, getting off one round before having it swatted from his grasp. The shot struck the first soldier in the throat, toppling him backward in another puff of crimson. Vaughn and the second soldier tumbled sideways as the Splinter man lunged for his weapon, A second soldier lunged for his handgun, and the two of the tumbled sideways through the mud, sending a flare of searing agony through the wound in Vaughn’s thigh. He managed to roll on top and pull a blade from the side of his boot, then bury it into the soldier’s side between two of his ribs.
The world flashed white as the butt of a rifle cracked against the back of his head. His face hit the ground again, but a kick to the ribs quickly somersaulted him onto his back. The canopy above him was blurred by both the blow and the rain, yet he could still see the remaining soldiers surrounding him, their sights trained squarely on his chest.
“Don’t move!” a voice shouted. “You’ve got nowhere to go.”
“Whatever you do … to me,” Vaughn stammered, “you’ll get ten times worse.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” the soldier said, moving forward. “What are you doing here?”
Vaughn snarled but didn’t answer. He lay with his back in the mud, awaiting the end.
“If you speak up, you just might live a little longer,” the soldier said.
Still, Vaughn was silent. The muzzle of the man’s rifle reached down and pressed against the skin of his forehead.
Vaughn spit at the soldier’s feet, inviting the killing blow. But it didn’t come fast enough. The forest opened up behind the rebels, and a sudden sweeping blur rushed toward them. The first two soldiers were fortunate enough never to see Kyle come out of the trees. With a flash of his right foot, he dropped them both. The next man turned as the others fell, only to be greeted by the back of Kyle’s heel crushing the right side of his face. By then, the rest of the squadron had spun toward him, opening fire in Kyle’s direction. But Kyle was too quick. He sprung into the air over the shower of gunfire, coming down with the bottom of his boot in another soldier’s chest. He whipped around again, catching the gun of the last soldier standing and ripping it from his grasp. His fist struck the man hard in the chest, throwing him backward as if hit by a cannon.
For just a moment, Kyle looked around to make sure his quarry was down. The whole thing happened in just a few seconds, and it was over definitively. He moved so quickly that the Splinter men seemed as though they were swimming in slow motion.
Finally, he looked over to Vaughn, taking a deep breath of the rain-soaked air. He glared at the wound on the general’s leg and suddenly his ice-blue eyes burst into a fiery blaze. The wound seemed to catch fire in Kyle’s Celestial gaze, and immediately Vaughn seized in pain. The iridescence chased away the darkness for a moment as the gash sewed itself back together, leaving no trace of the injury once the light had faded.
“Get up,” Kyle ordered. “We’ve got to move before another squadron gets here.”
Vaughn could only nod. His leg no longer crippled, he followed as Kyle’s massive shoulders brushed past him. Moments later they had disappeared into the trees, the darkness and rain shrouding their escape.