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Title Page and Table of Contents

Macavity116

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“Mark it in the history books. This is the end of an era for mankind. Even after we've defeated the remaining aliens, what then? Have we sacrificed our own humanity for a taste of their technology? And if we manage to exploit this power further, do we risk being consumed by it... presumably, just as they were? Will we see a line in the sand and refuse to cross it? Or will we move forward, willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of total victory? I have to believe that is not our future. Provided, of course, that the aliens' technology remains in the right hands.”

Doctor Raymond Shen, XCOM Chief Engineer, 2015


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The Stormbreaker Universe
The Last Heroes - A Stellaris Story
Table of Contents
New Chapters will be linked here as they are posted







Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
 
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Nikolai

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He's at it again! (And I'm still way behind :p )
 
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Macavity116

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Prologue: A Parting of the Ways

Macavity116

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Prologue: A Parting of the Ways

November 9, 2085
Bannack, Montana



A foreboding chill settled over the mountains of western Montana. It was early morning, and the sun wasn’t going to rise for a few more hours. The only movement was in the sky, where a shiny point of light grew brighter as it approached. With a roar of engines, the flying object arrived on the scene.

The supermodern spaceplane throttled down its engines and began to fly in lower and lower circles above a valley where Grasshopper Creek wound its way between two hills. There was no sign of civilization below, save for a simple dirt road that wound and twisted in an effort to follow the water. Much like the rest of the region, the surrounding hills were devoid of forest. Patchy groves and thickets of trees presented themselves here or there, but none were in a place that could have impeded a landing.

Two sets of vertical landing thrusters brought the spaceplane down to a pinpoint landing atop one of these bald hills. The boarding ramp barely finished lowering into place before a blonde-haired man raced away from the ship.

The man charged down the hill and came into Bannack, a ghost town that had gone without inhabitants for over a hundred years by this point. While many of the structures were crumbled into ruin, a single building remained in what could be passed off as “decent shape.” It was the entrance to one of the many mines that were bored into the hills surrounding the town.

But this was not one of the gold mines Bannack was founded for. The structure was newer, made from reinforced concrete, and the heavy steel door was painted with a round insignia that depicted a white five-pointed star rising above the continental United States. Underneath the insignia were the faded words:


“WARNING: RESTRICTED AREA
US ARMY INSTALLATION
DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM
THE DIRECTOR, BUREAU OF STRATEGIC EMERGENCY COMMAND
Posted by Executive Order of John Kennedy, President of the United States, October 3, 1962”

The man pushed the door open. Inside, he found a well-lit and well-maintained corridor that led deeper into the mine. Along the walls were more warning signs, these even more foreboding than the first.

“Danger! Element 115 is highly unstable.” One sign read. “Radiation protection required beyond this point.”

Ignoring all of these, the man pressed on, moving quickly down the corridor until he came to a reinforced steel door. He slid a keycard into a slot, where a green light illuminated before the door opened on its own. A computerized voice said:

“Welcome back, Emanuel Espinosa.”

Professor Espinosa stepped into the next chamber. It was an underground research facility, fully staffed with dozens of workers and furnished with the latest in modern technology. The facility itself was carved right into the walls of what had once been an Elerium mine. A researcher waved in greeting to the Professor and asked why he was making an unexpected appearance.

“Where’s my wife?” Professor Espinosa spoke in a way that suggested he was not here to show his spouse any affection.

Sensing the rising anger in the Professor’s voice, the researcher replied:

“She’s in surgery room number fifteen. You should know-”

But the professor didn’t wait. He took off at a run towards a hallway on his left. Soon, he was in the “Experimental Surgery” section of the facility. Doctors and scientists, dressed up in medical scrubs, moved from one operating theatre to the next, while other researchers sequestered themselves in decontamination chambers. Someone tried to stop Professor Espinosa and make him put on gloves and a mask, but he shoved them aside and shouted:

“Scarlett! You need to stop this, right now!”

He found the door labelled with the number “15” and forced it open, causing the people inside to cry out in surprise. A surgeon pointed to one of his assistants and barked an order:

“Sedate her, quickly!”

In the middle of the operating theatre a small child, dressed in a hospital gown, she was sitting upright in a chair, surrounded by complex devices and machinery. A sterile sheet was draped over the back of her head, while thick leather straps were bound around the little girl’s chest, arms and legs, keeping her immobile. On the surgeon’s command, another man injected the girl’s arm with a syringe. The child took a deep breath and closed her eyes before passing out.

Seeing this caused Emanuel a lot of distress. He balled up his fists and stepped into the operating theatre, where he was immediately confronted by a nurse.

“Sir! Sir, you can’t come in here! You’re not clean!”

“Good!” Emanuel replied. “This procedure needs to be stopped!”

The professor shoved the nurse out of the way and began to menacingly approach the lead surgeon, who raised his hands and said:

“Wait, Professor! We haven’t started yet!”

“Then release her, now!”

At the same time, an alarm was raised. Two security guards entered the room behind the professor, armed with stun batons. Moving quickly, Emanuel reached into his coat, drew a gauss pistol and took aim at the guards, who withdrew a few paces.

“Back up!” Emanuel shouted. “This atrocity will not continue, and I’ll wipe out anyone who tries to stop me!”

Behind him, the alarmed medical staff quickly undid the straps and pulled the unconscious girl out of the chair. Her long black hair fell down to her waist like a cape. With one hand the Professor grabbed the unconscious girl and pulled her up until she was draped over his shoulders. Keeping his pistol-hand raised, Emanuel started to depart the same way he came in, but he didn’t get very far. Behind him, a doorway on the far side of the operating theatre swung open and three people stormed into the room:

Rafi Bakir, an Arab man, wore a military uniform and was brandishing a laser rifle.

David Sepulveda, a Mexican American, wore a crisp black suit and tie with matching sunglasses.

Finally, following them into the room was Scarlett Freeman herself. The professor’s wife was also dressed in business attire. But unlike her comrades, she was unarmed. Scarlett took one look around the scene before locking eyes with her husband. Like the girl draped over his shoulders, Scarlett also had long black hair.

“What the hell is the meaning of all this?” She demanded. “What are you doing? Put her down!”

“No.” Emanuel spoke in a voice full of contempt. “You’ve tormented this child and others like her for far too long. I’m putting an end to all of this!”

The Professor kept his weapon aimed towards Rafi Bakir, but his gaze never left Scarlett’s face. Her expression softened and she tried to put on a forgiving tone of voice.

“My love, maybe you don’t fully understand the work we’re doing here, perhaps-"

“Oh, shut up!” The Professor spat at his wife. “Don’t you get it!? I’m doing this because I do understand! You’re going to finish what the old regime started fifty years ago, and I’m going to spare Humanity the anguish of reliving a nightmare that should have been forgotten!”

Emanuel turned to aim his pistol directly at Scarlett’s heart. Rafi and David both raised their weapons but Scarlett waved them off. She returned her husband’s cold stare and deftly replied:

“Shoot me and you’ll set Humanity back fifty years, but you won’t stop it. Put down the gun, my love, all will be forgiven.”

Emanuel cocked the hammer.

“You lost the right to call me “love" a long time ago, monster.”

The Gauss pistol went off with the sound of a cannon! The metal slug crossed the distance between husband and wife with hypersonic speed, and then it raced back the way it came with equal power. Before he could even comprehend what happened, Professor Espinosa was shot with his own bullet! He collapsed to the floor, dropping both his weapon and the girl, while blood dripped from a wound in his lower abdomen.

Wracked in pain and agony, Emanuel was barely aware of two sets of hands grabbing him and lifting him into the air. After a painful but short journey, the Professor was literally thrown out the laboratory entrance and back into the Montana wilderness. Coming to rest on his face, the professor rose to his knees and looked up at the trio who had just ejected him. Scarlett, Rafi, and David all gave him looks of genuine disdain. Clutching his wound, Emanuel spit at them.

“You won’t get away with this.” He seethed.

“Oh, please.” Scarlett scoffed. “I already have. You’ve seen it for yourself, the government, and the military. Everyone’s in my corner now.”

“I don’t mean them!” Emanuel raged. “Mortal men can judge you however they want… but when She learns what you’ve done…”

Emanuel rose to his feet, he had found new strength as he prepared to invoke the name of the savior. It was like her power gave Emanuel the last ounce of willpower he needed to see this through. He pointed to his wife with one bloody hand and cried out for all of the dark world to hear:

“THE HAND OF JERICHO WILL BE HEAVY UPON YOU!! SHE WILL RISE UP AND SMITE YOU!”

“Then I’ll start the smiting!” Scarlett shrieked.

She grabbed for the weapon in Rafi's hand, and at the same moment, Emanuel turned and fled. Behind him, the chatter of machinegun fire was accompanied by the frightening thuds, pops, and snaps of bullets sailing over his head! Clutching his bloody wound, Emanuel staggered away from the scene and into the darkness.

With a great roar of engines, the spaceplane he arrived on flew low over the ground, raking the landscape with its floodlights and opening its boarding ramp. Both of Scarlett’s companions gestured to the spacecraft, but she shook her head.

“Don’t worry about him. Let him go.” She said. “Before too long, he’ll be beneath us. They’re all going to be beneath us…”




<=== The Stormbreakers - A Stellaris Story

 
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Chapter 1: Inez Espinosa

Macavity116

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Chapter 1
Inez Espinosa


March 1, 2086


100 years ago, there were two grand cities on the Detroit River. The metropolis was a center of trade and commerce, a nexus of movement for cars, aircraft, and cargo ships. Detroit was a manufacturing powerhouse, filled with factories that belched smoke into the air, while Windsor became a center of culture and tourism. A bridge linked the two cities over the river, a tunnel beneath it, and a small fleet of ferries crossed the water.

As the 20th Century went on, Detroit and Windsor’s time of glory ended. The hard times started in 2015, when the Second Hyperspace War began. A battle was fought in both cities; it was short and destructive. The factories were ruined, the bridge destroyed, the people driven from their homes. Finally, Earth surrendered to the invaders and was occupied. Over the following two decades, the ADVENT Coalition systematically dismantled both Detroit and Windsor, reducing each city to scrap metal. Once the towns were demolished, Detroit and Windsor were rebuilt into Megacities, identical to the ones built by ADVENT all over the world.

For two decades, there was peace. Then the Battle for Earth happened. Humankind rose up in rebellion against their alien oppressors and once again, there was fighting in the streets. ADVENT fell, and the twin cities found themselves in a state of anarchy. Many people were murdered by the tyrannical ADVENT regime, while many more were killed in the desperate battle for freedom. Then once the occupation fell apart, starvation and disease swept through the Megacities without restraint.

Now it has been fifty years since the war ended. Detroit and Windsor are slowly crumbling away; the people who remain here live an existence and not much else. Communal farms filled lots where buildings once stood while trees and shrubs overran buildings that lay abandoned for half a century. Roads were pockmarked and broken, while factories that once brought power and wealth to the cities long ago fell silent.

And as for the people who still eked out a living in this place? There weren’t many opportunities left to earn money. Some went fishing in the nearby lakes of Erie and St. Clair. Others worked in sweatshops or on the farms. The luckiest found employment at a nearby military base where the blue and white flag of the United Nations waved proudly.

But for many young men and women of Detroit, there was one employer who held the most sway over the city, not because they somehow improved the town, but because their intense need for young people meant that new hires would be paid a fair and competitive wage.

Binary Fusion was headquartered in the Rivertown warehouse district and could be found, predictably, in a warehouse. From the outside of the building, the only feature of note was the massive collection of antennas and satellite dishes on the roof, suggesting the presence of a sophisticated operation. Aside from that, the outside of the building was quite unremarkable, but inside was another story.

It was a high-tech facility. The Binary Fusion warehouse was divided into sections. In one corner of the building, there was row upon row of holoconference rooms. Each room was filled with holographic emitters connected to a central computer, allowing the occupants to fully immerse themselves in a customizable hologram. In another corner, technicians performed regular maintenance on a large Hyperwave Relay, a spherical computer that connected the holochambers to the antennas and dishes outside. With this device, the occupants of the holochambers could communicate in real time with someone on a completely different planet, or on a space station, or on some distant stellar outpost.

There was also a corner of the building given over to living space. Dozens of small rooms contained beds and bathrooms, but no other amenities. To say the quarters were spartan is a gross overstatement. Finally, the building’s main entrance led into an office area, where men and women in expensive clothes stressed themselves over numbers and figures and business-related things.

As for what kind of business was Binary Fusion is… it was the single biggest employer of young people in Detroit and Windsor, and that was solely because there was nowhere else to find employment. Two years ago, all non-Humans were expelled from Earth, leaving many businesses and homes empty. The downtown quarter of Detroit was filled with vacant storefronts where alien-run shops and stalls now lay abandoned. Most of the local Humans who worked in these places were now either an employee or a client of Binary Fusion: a super-modern version of one of the oldest workplaces in Human culture.

Binary Fusion was a brothel.

A cyber-brothel.

Using a combination of Holographic emitters and faster-than-light communication systems, Binary Fusion peddled its “carnal services” to lonely adults all over the Earth as well as most of the surrounding planets and space stations. All these customers needed was their own holochamber, so that both the client and their hired partner could share a virtual environment. Their most frequent customers were the rich and powerful, with soldiers from the United Nations Army being a close second. Young people would spend ten to twelve hours each day inside of their assigned holochambers, “entertaining” one holographic guest after another in highly realistic virtual-reality encounters. And of course, soundproof bedrooms could be found in the building for those who craved the real physical experience.

Of course, this is how a normal day would have gone. Today was not going to be a normal day at Binary Fusion.

Just a few hours after lunch, the CEO, a short and angry-looking man, came bursting out of a nearby restaurant with a cell phone gripped tightly in one hand. He started running full-tilt towards the Binary Fusion building, shouting into the phone:

“What did the security guy tell you the last time this happened!?”

A panicked voice replied from the phone:

“He promised it wouldn’t happen again, sir!”

“Then how the hell do you explain this!?”

The CEO gesticulated furiously at the sight before him. Emergency vehicles were forming a perimeter around the Binary Fusion warehouse. Police cars flashed their lights and blared their sirens to drive people away. Meanwhile, six military vehicles were parked outside the main doors. The armored personnel carriers were painted white and had the words “UN Reclamation Agency” painted in black on the sides. Soldiers wearing body armor and carrying weapons tried to stop the CEO from forcing his way into the building.

“Sir, you need to stay outside! There’s an ongoing hostage situation and, hey! Come back here!”

Pushing and shoving at the Reclamation Agents, the CEO forced his way into the warehouse where he found a frightening scene. A security guard was hunched over the receptionist’s desk, bleeding from a wound on the side of his neck. Two of the working girls were dabbing at his injury with a cloth.

“He’s got a knife!” One of them cried out. “He went in one of the holobooths!”

The CEO raced down the corridor, following the sounds of voices coming from the far corner of the building. As he drew near, the CEO noticed what they were saying:

“Steph, I won’t ask you again!” a man yelled. “Come over here right now!”

“No!” Cried the voice of another working girl. “Get away from me!”

“Shut up! I’m your boyfriend and you’ll do as I say!”

“No you’re not!” the girl screamed. “You’re just some customer!”

The CEO followed the voices to their source and pushed open the door of a holochamber. The name on the door said: “Stephanie Bentz”. Inside, he found three people: two working girls and a strange man who clearly did not belong here. Stephanie herself was cowering behind her co-worker: Lynn Potter, who was a slightly older blonde with vivid blue eyes. The intruder was a big guy armed with a kitchen knife.

As soon as the CEO forced the door open, the intruder looked away from the two cornered girls and shouted at him:

“Back off, man! Steph’s coming with me!”

But the intruder never got to finish his sentence. He tried to reach out and grab the younger girl, but this was a mistake with immediate consequences. Lynn Potter, the blonde, lashed out violently.

“Don’t touch my friend!” she screamed.

Before the CEO could do anything, Lynn shoved her attacker all the way to the ground and knocked the knife out of his hand. Stephanie panicked and tried to escape, making her way past the CEO and into the hall, where four Reclamation Agents parted to let her pass before pressing on.

Meanwhile, the attacker and the blonde girl were brawling. The man scrambled to his feet, grabbed Lynn by the front of her shirt, and threw her into a corner. Sparks flew and there was a loud crashing sound as the holographic emitters were smashed to pieces. The intruder tried to turn around and force his way past the CEO, but before he could take two steps, Lynn tackled him from behind. This time, the man whirled around and punched her in the head, sending her reeling backwards. She hit the computer console on the wall and smashed most of the delicate machinery before slumping over.

The CEO was so frightened he jumped back, clearing a path for the attacker to escape. However, the man was stopped from fleeing again. Blood dripping from her nose, Lynn wrapped her hands around his ankle and sent him toppling to the floor. The intruder roared with fury and tried to kick her. His next blow would have gotten her face, but that was when Reclamation Agents breached the room.

Two powerful sets of hands seized the intruder and pulled him away, sparing Lynn from any further blows. With much shouting and cursing, the man was dragged away by his captors. Another agent produced a Nanomedikit and sprayed down the girl’s injuries. A cloud of microscopic robots coated the girl’s cuts and bruises, then they started to repair the damage. The agent said:

“You’re pretty brave, lady. Nicely done.”

The CEO staggered into the room. As he surveyed the damage, his expression turned from fear to a completely new stage of anger.

“The computer, the emitters! Oh, no! This’ll cost thousands to fix!”

One of the Reclamation Agents rolled his eyes and mumbled in a low voice:

“Not to mention the medical bills for your employee over here.”

“What!?” the CEO snapped.

“This girl just saved her colleague’s life.” The agent replied. “I think it would only make sense to pay for fixing her face. You know, as a thank you.”

The CEO looked down at his battered and bloodied employee. Then he pointed to the damaged computer and hologram emitters.

“Here’s your thanks, Potter!” He spat. “You did all this, so I’m taking the cost of the damage out of your salary! Every damn Credit!”

The CEO, infuriated, checked the time on his smartphone.

“And clean the blood off your face, Potter. There’s a high-value client coming for you in ten minutes.”



Despite the events of the day, Stephanie and Lynn were expected to work the remainder of their shifts. Finally, about four hours after the sun went down, the two girls left the building. Each one carried a travel bag with a change of clothes inside. Lynn was carrying a large black case strapped to her back. As soon as they got clear of the Binary Fusion building, both girls pulled off their credentials and stuffed them in their pockets. Lynn and Stephanie walked for about half an hour, following a walkway that ran along the riverbank. The lights from Windsor reflected in the black water like an extra constellation of stars, only to be broken up as a large cargo ship steamed southwest on its way to Ohio.

Lynn and Stephanie came to a halt below a large bronze statue. Fifteen feet tall, the statue depicted the war hero Blake Robinson shaking hands with Thomas Hutch, one of the leading members of the old ADVENT regime. The plaque at the base said this:


“At this spot on 25 July 2035

Captain Blake Robinson of XCOM accepted the unconditional surrender of ADVENT Regional Administrator Thomas Hutch, an event that is generally regarded as the final collapse of the ADVENT Coalition and the official moment of the LIBERATION OF EARTH.”

The two girls collapsed onto a bench and sighed. Lynn undid the straps on her case and opened it. While she unpacked the contents, Stephanie looked at her watch and said:

“My dad’s already on the way, and he’s so angry. Are you going to be okay alone?”

Lynn shrugged and stood up.

“You saw how I handled that creep, didn’t you? I’ll be fine. You make sure you’re taking care of yourself, okay, Opal? I’m worried about you.”

Due to their line of work, these two girls almost never used their real names. So when Lynn called her friend Opal instead of Stephanie, the younger girl understood her friend was being serious. Opal gave her friend a hug and replied.

“Thanks, Nezzie. I appreciate it.”

Inez Espinosa (who called herself Lynn Potter at work) giggled and withdrew an object from her large black case.

“Don’t call me Nezzie. C’mon. Might as well jam while we wait.”

Inez sat down on the park bench with an acoustic guitar across her lap. She tuned the instrument for a moment and then started strumming a melody and tested her voice with a short tune:

“My gal-pal’s friend punched me in the face, and then my paycheck vanished without a trace.”

Opal giggled.

“Seriously, Nezzie. Are you going to be okay? I know you don’t have any family out here and…”

“Don’t call me that.” Inez groaned. “And I’ve got family… I just… haven’t heard from them in a while. A long while. You know?”

Inez started to strum the guitar in a way that signaled the end of the conversation. Opal sighed and set the open guitar case on the ground in front of herself. Then, she and Inez started performing together. This late at night, only a few people were left in the park. But the harmonizing of Inez’ guitar and Opal’s voice lured people to them like moths to a flame. One by one, Detroiters and Windsorites stopped what they were doing to take in the sweet sounds of music.

Opal went first, singing a melancholic tune about the Old World. A few Credits landed in the open case as people enjoyed the show. After that, Inez sang a love ballad, pointing directly at some of the men in park and giving them seductive stares. For maximum effect, Inez threw back her wavy blonde hair and struck an alluring pose. Coins were gathering in the guitar case like snow. Then the two girls performed a duet. After about fifteen minutes, some two dozen people were enjoying the musical performance. But like all good things, the show came to an end.

An electric car pulled up to the parking lot and Opal’s father, who looked way too old to be defending his daughter from creeps, hobbled across the park. Opal waved a sorrowful goodbye to Inez and promised to talk to her later. While her friend departed, Inez packed up her guitar.

“Sorry guys, show’s over.”

With a guitar on her back and a change of clothes in the bag under her arm, Inez started walking home alone.



It was a twenty minute walk from the riverfront to Inez’s apartment. Even though it was close to midnight, the city was very much still active. Hundreds of people filled the streets as they moved from place to place. Electric vehicles hummed quietly on the roads, and up above, Inez could hear the deep rumble of a starship coming in to land at the spaceport.

Inez was about five minutes away from her apartment, having just walked past a street sign that said she was entering Elmwood Park, when some people who knew Inez spotted her.

A pair of young men, both older than Inez, approached her seemingly out of the shadows.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Potter, the wannabe cage-fighter.” Said the first man, a musclebound figure named Nathan. Inez tensed up. She knew Nathan. He was a Binary Fusion client; and he paid good money to spend the night with both Inez and Opal on several occasions. Inez dreaded those weekends when she found Nathan waiting for her in one of the private rooms at Binary. He was a creep and he was known for treating women badly.

Nathan’s friend, a man called Alan, laughed aloud.

“Fighter?” Alan quipped. “No way. She’s skinnier than a Sectoid.”

The two guys continued harassing Inez, comparing her to different alien species, as she tried to maneuver around them and get to her apartment complex.

“That probably explains why she messed up Jed’s face today.” Alan said.

“Jed?” Inez snarked. “That guy who broke into Binary today was a friend of yours?”

“Roommate.” Alan growled. “We had to bail him outta jail, he told us you brainwashed Steph into running away from him.”

“What’s your problem, freak?” Nathan said. “Why you gotta come between a guy and his girl like that?”

Inez could see her apartment building now. Just a few more meters.

“You mean between a stalker and his victim?” She snarked. “I’d have thought that was a no-brainer.”

Less than ten meters from the entrance to her apartment complex, Inez felt a hand clasp around her shoulder. Nathan’s voice barked in her ear:

“I think it’s high time we taught you a lesson, Potter!”



About five minutes later, Inez was inside the building and outside her apartment door. She was panting and her knuckles were covered in blood that wasn’t her own, but otherwise she wasn’t any worse for wear. As she fumbled with the keycard, a door opened behind her.

“Evening, Nezzie.” Said a man’s voice. “Your mail showed up in my box again today.”

Looking around behind her, Inez spotted the man who lived in the apartment. Lawrence Ridge was a rugged-looking black man. Twenty-nine years old, he was heavyset with a square face that made him look younger than his actual age. His eyes were framed by a set of rectangular smart glasses, a digital heads-up display just barely visible in the lenses. He waved a single envelope over his head to get her attention. When Inez took the letter, Lawrence looked at her knuckles and raised an eyebrow.

“Do I want to know?” he asked.

“Do you really want me to tell you?” she replied.

“No, I don’t.”

“No, you don’t.”

The two stared at one another for a moment.

“Are you going to be okay?” Lawrence asked.

Inez wiped the blood on her jeans.

“Eh. Most likely.”

Lawrence raised his eyebrow.

“Do you want some company? Come on, Nezzie. You might be fine later, but you’re not fine now. How about someone to just vent at?”

“Do. Not. Call. Me. Nezzie.” Inez groaned. Then with a long, drawn-out sigh, she added: “Yeah, actually, I do need to blow off some steam… if you don’t mind losing some sleep.”

Lawrence closed his apartment door behind him.

“Sure.” He said. “Why not?”

Once they were both inside of her apartment, Inez dropped her purse and the letter, unopened, on the kitchen counter and then moved to join Lawrence. She felt as though the weight of the world lifted from her shoulders just a little bit. Both she and Lawrence kicked off their shoes and collapsed on the couch in her living room. She vented to her neighbor about today’s crisis at Binary Fusion, and he listened attentively. When she re-told the story of the confrontation with Nathan and Alan, Lawrence did not overreact with oaths of vengeful violence, as she expected him to. Instead, he asked a question.

“So, did you use those lessons I taught you? The ones about self-defense?”

“Sure did.” Inez replied. “Alan’s gonna be breathing through his mouth tonight, and Nathan’ll be eating with his left hand for weeks. Between the three of them, Jed, Nathan, and Alan, a lot fewer girls at Binary are gonna be harassed.”

“Mm-hm! Preach!” Lawrence snapped his fingers with satisfaction. “Nezzie, keep this up and you’ll be a real vigilante.”

Inez threw back her head and laughed.

“Don’t call me Nezzie.” She said. “Besides, I’m not gonna be the next Jericho or Blake Robinson or Mami Tamihana or anything like that. I just hate control freaks. That’s all. I just wanna have good times with good people. Is that too much to ask?”

Lawrence let out a big belly laugh.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but you’re damn lucky it’s not too much to ask for in this neck of the woods.”

Inez and Lawrence both sighed and looked at one another.

“You have to work in the morning, huh?” Lawrence asked.

“Yeah. Another twelve-hour shift.” She replied. “It’s really gonna suck having to put up with an angry boss all day.”

Lawrence put his arm around Inez’ shoulders and asked:

“Wanna forget about all that? At least for a few hours?”

Feeling relaxed, Inez nodded.

“Gimme some good times?” She asked.

“Yeah.” Lawrence agreed. “Good times.”

Inez sprang off her couch and started to retrieve several bottles of beer from the kitchen. Behind her, Lawrence used a remote control to activate the entertainment system. At once, every light in the apartment dimmed, plunging the living room into semidarkness. The only illumination came from the city lights outside.

It took Lawrence a couple of minutes to adjust his eyes to the darkness. In that short interval, Inez disappeared into her bedroom and re-emerged just two minutes later. She had changed into a new outfit, one meant for parties. It was a two-piece luminescent costume. Thanks to fiber optics woven into the materiel, the tube top and miniskirt both glowed with a gentle blue light, just soft enough that Lawrence could see through her clothing as though it wasn’t there. Interestingly, her vivid blue eyes could just barely be seen in the darkness, almost as though they too were glowing, but with far less intensity than her outfit.

As soon as Inez re-entered the living room, the entertainment system started to play a preprogrammed laser and hologram show, synchronized to high-tempo synthetic music. Beams of red, blue, and green light crisscrossed the room while intense beats and rhythms shook the windows. Inez let her hair down in a cascade of wavy blonde curls, and then she grabbed Lawrence off the couch and pulled him into the center of the room. They started dancing their hearts out, drinking beer and thundering their feet on the floor to the tempo while holographic Galaxies spun into existence around them. Nebulae filled the room while Supernovas popped and crackled around them like a fireworks display.

With beers in hand, Lawrence and Inez carried on their two-person dance party for nearly an hour. They jumped and moved to the beat, sang as off-key as they could, drank until their vision started blurring, and they forgot why they were drinking in the first place. At some point Inez, too inebriated to stand up straight let alone walk, tripped over her own feet and fell. Lawrence grabbed Inez and held her steady. The two laughed long and hard, slumping back onto the couch. Inez gave Lawrence an imprecise and very drunk kiss.

Around midnight, the hologram and laser display ended. The only source of light was Inez’ outfit, but her glowing clothes failed to illuminate anything other than her own body, and Lawrence was drawn to Inez as though she were magnetic. He wanted to touch every inch of her, and she was eager for him to start.

Lawrence pulled Inez to him and they kissed intensely, locking themselves together by the lips without so much as coming up for air. Acting mostly on instinct, Inez fumbled blindly at Lawrence’s clothes while he did the same to her.

Somehow, in full defiance of their drunkenness and the darkness, Inez and Lawrence stumbled their way to the bedroom, leaving a trail of discarded clothing behind. As the couple completely lost themselves in the moment, Inez’s luminous clothes hung off the nightstand, shimmering and glittering as though two pieces of the night sky had fallen to earth.



 
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Chapter 2: The Girl From Montana

Macavity116

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  • Stellaris
  • Stellaris: Nemesis
  • Stellaris: Necroids
  • Crusader Kings III
  • Stellaris: Federations
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  • Stellaris: Apocalypse
  • Stellaris: Distant Stars
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Thank you very much for the update. Where does this fit in the Stormbreaker chronology? May your and your family's holidays be full of peace and joy with 2022 having many blessings to follow in 2022.

You're welcome and merry Christmas to you and yours!

The Last Heroes is the last, final, and ultimate installment in the series. This story is dead last in the Stormbreaker chronology and is a direct sequel to The Stormbreakers - A Stellaris Story.

The Last Heroes is set 50 years after the cataclysmic Second Hyperspace War, and follows the adventures of Inez Espinosa after she is contacted by her mother, the illusive spymaster Scarlett Freeman.

Scattered throughout this tale, you can spot some heroes from other installments of the series, plus their children and grandchildren. For instance: Does anyone remember Sophie Ackermann and Sophia Kuznetsova? Two Stormbreakers who got married after the war? Their kid is going to appear in Chapter 4: The Chase. Blake Robinson's children and grandchildren will appear in this story as well.
 
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Chapter 2: The Girl From Montana

Macavity116

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  • Stellaris
  • Stellaris: Nemesis
  • Stellaris: Necroids
  • Crusader Kings III
  • Stellaris: Federations
  • Stellaris - Path to Destruction bundle
  • Stellaris: Apocalypse
  • Stellaris: Distant Stars
  • Stellaris: Megacorp
  • Stellaris: Lithoids
  • Stellaris: Leviathans Story Pack
  • Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn
  • Stellaris: Humanoids Species Pack
  • Stellaris: Ancient Relics
  • Stellaris: Digital Anniversary Edition

Chapter 2
The Girl from Montana

March 2, 2086
Detroit, Michigan



Inez was very upset when her boss followed through on his threat the following day. To cover the cost of the computer and hologram emitter smashed during yesterday’s fight, Inez was made to forfeit her next paycheck in its entirety. She had half a mind to just quit her job on the spot and walk out of Binary Fusion, but reality quickly sank in. There just weren’t many jobs left in Detroit, and unemployed people quickly became homeless. After that, it was all downhill from there.

Sure, there were other ways to make money, but Inez strongly preferred the relative security of Binary Fusion to the rest of the city. Entertaining clients via hologram was as safe as can be, and if someone wanted a physical encounter with Inez, bringing them into the Binary warehouse was far safer than going with the client to some unknown location, where anything could go wrong.

So she stayed and spent the daylight hours working the holobooth, entertaining men and women from as far away as the Barnard's Star and Polaris. Normally, clients would only come to the building for physical encounters during the evening or night hours. While there were some exceptions to this rule, there were none today. Without pay, Inez was being used as slave labor for a week, but that didn’t mean she was going to be miserable the whole time. She still enjoyed her work, and simply decided to put more effort into having fun with her clients rather than trying to separate them from their money. Around noon, Inez slipped out of her holochamber for lunch and caught her friend Opal, who was walking across the street to get food from a restaurant.

Brothels, be they holographic or peddling the real physical deal, are the subject of very intense attention. So for their own safety, Inez and Opal referred to one another by their aliases.

“Steph! Wait up!” Inez caught the door just before it closed behind Opal.

“Hey Lynn. Are you doing alright?” Opal hugged Inez and pulled her into line behind the deli counter. “Did the boss really dock your pay?”

“Yeah, he did.” Inez admitted. “So I’m gonna be getting smaller lunches for a week or so.”

Opal shook her head.

“Nuh-uh. I’m buying for you.”

The two women started to haggle over whether Inez was going to pay for her own food and only stopped when the chef behind the counter presented two sandwiches before them, wrapped in to-go bags. On the front of the packaging, the insignia of the old ADVENT Burger store was poorly covered up with white tape.

“So Lynn, I’m being serious now.” Opal said in a lower voice. “How are you going to pay rent and buy food? Do you need help? ‘Cause I owe you after yesterday.”

Inez tried to scoff and wave off Opal’s offer of assistance, but her friend persisted. Out of the restaurant, across the street, and through Binary Fusion’s lobby Opal persisted. Finally, Inez relented.

“Ugh… Fine! You can pay my rent.” She grumbled. “But I get to do something for you in return, okay? How about I cook dinner for you and your dad or something?”

“Come over to my place.” Opal suggested. “I’ve told my dad a little about you before, but since yesterday, he’s really wanted to meet you. And say thanks.”



The rest of the afternoon went by in a very pleasant blur. Inez was looking forward to visiting Opal’s home, and she threw herself into her work… quite literally. One holographic client after another materialized inside of Inez’ holochamber to find a very gracious and energetic host waiting for them.

The vast majority of Inez’ clients were UN Army soldiers, far from home and looking for companionship. Today, anybody who contracted services from Inez would be left very satisfied. The soldiers kind of melted into each other, but a few clients did stand out.

A high-ranking official completely forgot he was married once Inez was finished with him. She left him in a daze and he forgot to disconnect the Hyperline. Inez smirked at him before cutting the connection.

A wealthy businessman on Alpha Centauri nearly collapsed from overexertion and paid Inez a bonus for wearing him out.

Two soldiers (who purchased an hour of three-way action with Inez) cleaned out their bank accounts desperately trying to purchase extra half-hour with her.

Then, around sunset, a military officer entered the warehouse and paid for the privilege of spending half an hour alone with Inez in a private room. Somehow, when she finished, Inez was even more energized than before. She was ready to clock out and get on with what promised to be a good evening.

Finally, around seven o’clock in the evening, about an hour before her shift ended, Inez finally tired herself out. Doing this sort of thing for twelve hours a day takes a toll on the body. The instant her latest client faded away, she slumped into a corner and took a deep breath. Inez nearly fell asleep then and there, not really caring that she still had an hour left on her shift.

Hell, she wasn’t being paid this week anyway, so she didn’t really give a damn if the boss caught her slacking off with less than an hour left on the clock. She was just going to close her eyes for a few minutes and catch her breath...

Beep beep beep.

The Hyperline was ringing.

Inez groaned. It must be a client.

Reluctantly, she clambered back to her feet, feeling much heavier and groggier than any other point today. Inez put on the best smile she could and tapped the touchscreen.

“Good evening, my name’s Lynn Potter!” She introduced herself with her fake name and a cheerful tone. “Looks like you’ve bought half an hour with me. So what do you wanna do?”

With a flickering of lights, a Humanoid shape took form in front of Inez. At the same time, the holochamber reconfigured her surroundings according to what the client wanted. Instinctively, Inez struck a seductive pose, making sure the plunging neckline of her shirt was in plain view. A second later, however, she felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she recognized the sight coming together in front of her.

She was standing in the center of a large cathedral with a very high vaulted ceiling. In front of her, she saw a massive stained-glass window that stood nearly four stories tall. On the glass was an image of Jericho, the girl who became a god, dressed in robes of white and gold. The blue star known as Altair was visible through the stained glass. At the altar, the yellow cross of XCOM had been repurposed into a religious symbol that adorned not just the altar, but also the pews, the flags, and even the insignia above Jericho’s head in the stained-glass window.

And then there was the man in front her, He was dressed in green and black robes, with a thick black hood and a heavy black blindfold that covered the upper half of his face, right down to the tip of his nose.

Inez instantly recognized both the place and the man. She was warned about this… everybody at Binary had been warned about these people.

This place was the Cathedral of Jericho, and this man was one of Her Acolytes.

Before Inez could even open her mouth to speak, the Acolyte launched into a pre-prepared speech.

“To sell yourself is an affront to Jericho! Save yourself now, here in her grand cathedral where-”

The Acolyte never finished his speech. Inez disconnected the call and quickly blacklisted the cultist Hyperline address, punching the button so hard she hurt her finger.

Inez hated being shamed or judged for her line of work, and unfortunately that seemed to happen a lot. She’d long ago lost count of how many times random strangers had raised hell about Inez being a sex worker. Lots of folks told Inez she was being exploited, and that she “needed to be saved". She hated that message in particular.

But Inez wasn’t stupid. She knew that many of the young men and women who worked at Binary were genuinely at a low point in their lives and probably were being taken advantage of. But Inez didn’t count herself among their number, because she liked her job. Inez thoroughly enjoyed sex and everything to do with it. She did what she loved and loved getting paid to do it.

Not like there was anywhere else to work in Detroit anyway.

Angry and frustrated, Inez shut down her Hyperwave terminal. She was so done for the night.



A few hours after sundown, Inez and Opal clocked out and made their way to the parking lot, where Opal’s father was waiting in an electric car. Once the two women got in the car, Opal’s father turned to greet Inez. He was so old that Inez wondered if he had any memories of the Old World. His age was confirmed by the yellow words on his baseball cap, which said:


“Combat Veteran

Battle for Earth – July 20, 2035”

Opal’s father introduced himself while he powered the car and started to drive.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Espinosa. My name is Montri Anward, and I guess I owe you quite a lot for sticking up for my Opal.”

Both Inez and Opal blushed.

As it turns out, Opal’s family lived in Novi, a small town on the outskirts of Detroit. Since it took some time to get there, Opal filled the time by explaining her own family to Inez, with a little help from Montri. Opal’s father was almost fifty years older than her, yet he was married to a woman less than half his age. Opal was the youngest child of six, and all of her siblings were only half-relations, as the only thing she had in common with them was Montri. Each of Opal’s brothers and sisters had come from a different mother, with Montri being the common father to all. Only two of the Anward mothers were still alive, and they lived with Montri and his children in Novi.

The oldest member of the Anward family was Montri’s father, who was Opal’s grandfather. At just over one-hundred-ten years old, the elder Anward spent most of his days wondering just how he had managed to live so long. Before Inez could ask for more details about Opal’s grandfather, they arrived at the Anward home.

Throughout the car ride, Opal had failed to mention was the fact that her family was very poor. Not that Inez needed the reminder.

The entire Anward family lived in a tiny run-down house with only three bedrooms, all of which were too small for the family of ten. Trash piled up in the yard while paint peeled from the walls and vines grew unimpeded up the walls. At least one of the upstairs windows was broken.

Every member of Opal’s family was employed, except for her supercentenarian grandfather; and the money each person brought home was (when added together) just barely sufficient to keep the lights on and food in the kitchen. The Anward family was surviving and not doing much else.

When Opal, Montri, and Inez arrived, two of Opal’s siblings ran out of the front door to greet them. They too had just come home from work. Opal’s brother Flint worked in the docks on the riverbank; which meant he was dirty, musty and every tired out. Even so, Inez couldn’t help but notice that Flint was suddenly aroused by the sight of her. He took every opportunity he could to look at Inez’s body, with emphasis on gazing at her torso and legs. Inez felt flattered. Try as he might, Flint couldn’t hide the fact that he was strongly attracted to her.

Opal’s sister Ruby was also a prostitute. However, she did not work for Binary Fusion. Instead, Ruby physically met with real clients and did the real deed. Ruby looked dangerously exhausted, but she still had the energy to grab Inez in a tight hug and say her thanks over and over again. Ruby took an instant liking to Inez.

Inside, one of Opal’s mothers was making dinner and already set a place at the table for Inez. When she saw how small the serving sizes were, Inez realized that her own presence meant everybody else would be eating less tonight.

“Oh, no. I can’t.” Inez tried to say. “I can’t ask you to-”

“Nonsense, it’s alright.” Replied Mrs. Anward. “We wanted to give you more, especially after Opal told us about you losing your pay. But she talked us down… more like shouted us down, I guess. If I had my way, you would have moved in and been part of the family. Seems right after you saved my dear daughter.”

Opal’s other mother doted on Inez, offering her refreshments and a pampering.

“You know, we really are grateful you saved our girl.” Said the other Mrs. Anward. “If we can’t get you to come and live with us, then perhaps you’d like to marry Opal instead? We could probably make that happen.”

Opal balled up her fists and stamped her feet.

“Mom! You’re embarrassing me!”

Inez stammered but was spared from answering by the arrival of a frail old man. Opal’s grandfather was so battered and worn out that he needed a wheelchair to move. Yet when he reprimanded Opal’s other mother, his voice suggested that he had plenty of strength left.

“Give the young lady some space, dear. She’s a guest, not the kitten you found off the street.”

Then Opal’s grandfather introduced himself.

“My name Garth. Garth Anward. And I owe you my deepest thanks. We all knew that Opal and Ruby were in a dangerous line of work, and if I could have my way, they would both have other jobs. But we need the money, and there’s nowhere else for them to earn cash. I am so grateful you were there for my darling granddaughter. Please, join us for dinner. We all want to know you better. I daresay even, that some of us hope you’ll extend your friendship to us as well.”

With a kind smile, Garth took Inez’ hand and gently guided her to the dining table, where all but one member of Opal’s family were slowly gathering for a meal. The only member of the Anward family who was absent was the oldest of Opal’s siblings, a man named Garnet. He was employed as a security guard at the nearby UN Army base and wouldn’t be home until after midnight.

Dinner itself was a small serving of hot Chryssalid soup, served with a glass of treated water purchased from the local Gene Therapy Clinic. Since the food went quickly, there was a lot of conversation. Everybody offered their thanks to Inez for saving Opal’s life, and Garth insisted on using what little money his family had to help pay for Inez’ rent until she started getting paychecks again. She tried to turn down the generous offer, but the entire Anward clan insisted until she relented.

“Think of it as my way of thanking you for looking out for Opal yesterday.” Montri said. “I’m sure once word gets back to them, your parents will be proud of you as well.”

Opal quickly waved her hands to get Montri's attention, but he didn’t realize he’d misspoke until Inez’ face fell. She looked down at the half-finished meal on the kitchen counter and mumbled some words of thanks. Montri noticed the change in Inez and turned to his daughter. Garth had also picked up on the sudden shift in Inez’ mood and was giving her a quizzical look.

“Something I said?” Montri asked.

Before Opal could reply, Inez spoke.

“It’s okay, really. There’s no way you could have known. I… I asked Opal not to talk about it.”

All of this was true. In that moment, Inez could have gotten very angry with Montri for bringing up a subject that was implicitly forbidden, but she didn’t. The fact that Montri didn’t know Inez’ past and had to be told was a sign that Opal was trustworthy. She had kept her friend's secret. Inez supposed there was no harm in sharing now… the Anward family had already offered to help, after all. With a deep breath, Inez started to explain:

“Opal already knows…” Inez began. “And I don’t like to talk about thus because it’s so embarrassing. But here goes: my parents… they, uh… they abandoned me here. About five years ago.”

The reaction from everyone in the room was uniform in nature. There was an outpouring of sympathy for Inez and a small amount of anger directed at her parents, wherever they were. One of Opal’s mothers refilled Inez’s bowl of soup and pushed it to her. The rest hung on Inez’s words with rapt attention.

“When I was younger, I lived with my parents in Bannack, it’s a ghost town in Montana, over a thousand miles from here. My dad’s a scientist. He works for the UN government… and my mom was a field agent for the ISO.”

Opal’s brother dropped his spoon.

“The Internal Security Office!” Flint gasped. “That’s the UN spy agency. Your mother was a spy?”

Inez nodded.

“The three of us lived at a UN Army base in Bannack. Dad was working on some secret project in a lab and Mom was working for the security team. Didn’t see her much. Almost never, really. Dad raised me.”

“What’s your father’s name?” Ruby interrupted.

“Emanuel.”

Montri raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve heard that name.” He replied. “Professor Emanuel Espinosa. He’s the leader of the whole Science Directorate now.”

Inez winced.

“Yeah.” Her voice was strained. “Before that, he’d take me into the lab every day. Got most of my education in there from the other scientists. Doctor Spark was basically, like, my tutor."

“Spark?” Montri repeated. “I don’t know that name.”

“Polly Spark?” Inez said. “You probably wouldn’t know her. She was new when I was there.”

“So, what happened?” Opal’s mother asked. “How come you live here… alone?”

Inez’ face darkened as she went on. Her voice cracked a few times from the effort to hold back tears.

“Well, I’m not too sure why it happened. It didn’t make sense.” She admitted. “Ever since I was young… I was… kinda different. My dad said I was special, and I believed him.”

“Special? How?” Montri pressed.

“Well, I could do things.” Inez replied. “There were other kids on the base and we were all in like, a sort of school together. And I remember that I always kinda knew how everyone else was feeling. Like, an intuition. I didn’t even have to look at someone’s face, I just knew what kind of mood they were in.”

“Empathy?” Garth said. “I know a few people…”

“Not that kind of empathy.” Inez stopped him. “I’m not reading minds. It’s not the Gift. It’s more like a strong gut feeling. Intuition.”

Opal nudged her father.

“She’s guessed what I was feeling loads of times.” Opal said. “You can’t hide anything from her. She probably dialed us in as soon as she came through the door.”

Opal was right. In fact, looking around the table, Inez quickly sized up everyone in the room:

Opal felt embarrassed by her family’s obsession with Inez and looking for a place to hide.

Ruby was desperate for some sleep; she was just putting up a front until dinner was over.

Flint was not paying attention to the story. He was busy fantasizing about sleeping with Inez.

Both of Opal’s mothers were worried about Inez’s mental health.

Montri was fascinated by Inez’s story, and his curiosity about her past was overriding his own physical attraction to her.

Garth was genuinely concerned for Inez, and she felt her own heart get warm and light when she realized that.

On hearing Opal’s comment, Flint’s eyes went wide. Then his cheeks flushed as he mumbled:

“Oh, I didn’t mean to…”

Inez waved her hands.

“No offense taken. You’re not the first person the react that way.”

She continued her story:

“I told my dad about my… well… I guess you can call it empathy. He said I would grow up to be something really special. He said that a lot as I got older, especially after my first fight.”

“Fight?” Montri asked.

“There were a lot of kids in the lab.” Inez sighed. “Kids fight a lot, especially when the adults aren’t looking. Thing is, nobody ever taught me how to defend myself, and I’ve never worked out before. Not once. But whenever someone comes at me… I can’t really explain it, I just kinda know what to do. I don’t think, I just do. That’s what happened with Opal yesterday. That guy should have killed me or at least put me in the hospital. He was bigger and stronger than me, but in the moment, I just knew what to do and I did it.”

Montri and Garth stared at Inez with open mouths. Before they could think of something to say, Inez pressed on.

“But there was one other thing that made me believe my dad. Made me believe he was right about being special. After I hit puberty, I started like… attracting people… romantically and… well, physically. I think I was ten years old the first time a guy older than my dad started hitting on me.”

Inez shuddered, reliving a very unpleasant memory. Flint looked like he’d just been pulled out of a daze.

“It got really bad really quickly. Men, women, boys, girls. Everybody suddenly wanted to be with me. Everyone called me the ‘most beautiful girl in Bannack' and started making up excuses to give me things and be with me. Even some of the bullies I beat up were trying to get in my pants. I couldn’t hang out with teenagers at all. They couldn’t control themselves… some of the adults were really bad too… everyone wanted me and it was all, so… awful. There was this one guy, a teen who liked to bully me. David Sepulveda. When he started to like me…”

Inez stopped talking, tears running down her face.

Opal gently took Inez’ hand and stared intently into her face, as of inviting Inez to read her emotions. Inez quickly picked up on her friend’s show of support, and began to tell the final part of her tale:

“It was right after my sixteenth birthday. Dad came back from the lab all excited and happy. He said that my mom got a promotion, she was moving up in the ISO.”

Montri grumbled.

“If your father is Professor Espinosa, then your mother is Scarlett Freeman. She’s the ISO leader now. Why the hell have they left you out here if they were doing so well for themselves?”

“I’m getting there.” Inez cut him off. “Just listen: After I turned sixteen, Mom asked me to follow her into a part of the lab I’d never seen before. It was a dark place with purple lights, and two cells, kinda like the cells in a prison, on the far wall. Mom took me into one of the cells and put a weird machine on me. She put something on my arm and on my head. Then she told me that I was going to take a test… like, a test of my brain, of my mind. She said that I needed to sit in the cell with this weird thing on me for a few hours. All I had to do was sit there and ‘have normal thoughts'. She smiled at me. I remember that, and she said she expected me to do just fine.”

Inez took a deep breath and shuddered. Reliving this memory seemed to be distressing her. Opal’s eyes were starting to fill with tears. She’d heard this story before and didn’t want to relive the ending. Inez pressed on while the Anwards watched with rapt attention:

“When it was over, Doctor Spark pulled the machine off me and said I could go. I looked for my Mom on the way out, and I saw her. Mom looked… she looked so… disappointed. I knew I failed… whatever that test was supposed to be; I failed it completely. She gave me this glare, like I’d broken her heart. And that was the last time I ever saw my mom. The next morning, Dad told me that I was moving away. He said it was time for me to learn how to live on my own. He brought me here… to Detroit, and my apartment. Then he arranged for my rent to be paid by his government agency. He… Dad…”

Inez sniffled. She was about to cry.

“He said he’d check up on me in a year… and just left. I had to fend for myself in a city I didn’t know anything about. I was so scared all the time, so I just kinda shut myself in my apartment and prayed for the day when my Dad would come back… but…”

Montri's mouth fell open. He was figuring out the rest of the story on his own.

“Sixteen? And you’re twenty-one now.” He said. “That means you’ve been in Detroit for five years. And... oh my goodness! You were here the last two times the city fell!”

Inez nodded.

“I was getting money every month from Mom and Dad to pay for the apartment and my food, but you know what happened. The warlords came, and they… you probably saw...”

Flint nodded.

“I was there. The Americans pillaged the banks.”

“The money stopped.” Inez confirmed. “I ran to the back and begged them to help, and all they could do was give me the Hyperline address for the Bannack base. I called and called and called, but no one ever answered. I called the UN Science Directorate, tried to get through to Dad, but nobody could help. They kept telling me that I had the wrong clearance, or that they couldn’t help me because I was outside the UN's territory. I, I got desperate. When winter came, I waited until the Detroit River froze and then I tried to walk across to Canada.”

Ruby gasped.

“But, how!? The city was locked down.” She said.

“Yup. I found out the hard way.” Inez scoffed. “Men on snowmobiles dragged me back to Detroit and arrested me for vagrancy. Judge told me to get a job and pay my rent or he’d throw me in prison.”

“That's how you met me.” Opal chimed in.

“We started working for Binary.” Inez said with a smile. “I won’t lie, I kinda liked it. I know I have an effect on men, and at least I was getting paid for using it. It was fun.”

Montri frowned.

“So, what did you do when the UN retook the city two years ago?”

“I nearly died!” Inez laughed. “I was out shopping when they started shelling the city. You know the food market on Jefferson Avenue, the one that used to be an ADVENT Burger? Me and a dozen others holed up in the meat locker until the fighting stopped. The store even got hit once. Something exploded in the parking lot and blew out all the windows. As soon as the Americans surrendered, I ran back to my apartment and stayed there until Binary Fusion sent someone to force me to go back to work.”

“I remember that.” Opal said. “The boss told ‘em to break down your door.”

Inez rolled her eyes.

“Anyway, once the UN took the city back. I started trying to call my dad again, and I got the same stupid runaround. ‘You’re not cleared for that communication.’ ‘We don’t have your data in our records.’ ‘Please respect the sensitive nature of the Directorate.’ All crap. In the end, I just gave up. My parents don’t wanna see me, they don’t even wanna talk to me. So screw’em! This is what they wanted anyway, right? I’m out here, making my own way now.”

Opal and Montri both raised their bowls and said:

“Damn right!”


 
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Macavity116

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So Scarlett's an abusive - or at least neglectful - parent. The test was for the Gift, right?

Looking forward to this.

Also, how much morality or values did Jericho's religion inherit from the religions we're familiar with?
 
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So Scarlett's an abusive - or at least neglectful - parent. The test was for the Gift, right?
Scarlett was willfully neglectful towards her daughter; and she definitely tested Inez for the Gift, which is strange since Psionic energy should not exist anymore. (Jericho destroyed the Gift during the War in Heaven)

Looking forward to this.

Also, how much morality or values did Jericho's religion inherit from the religions we're familiar with?
Same here. This tale has been a long time coming. Glad to have you along for the ride.

The Cult of Jericho and its militant branch, the Progeny, superseded was left of the nearly-defunct ADVENT religion. After the Second Hyperspace War, the Progeny co-opted ADVENT doctrine: veneration of the Gift and worship of its most powerful user. Therefore, the religion around Jericho, the most famous Human on Earth, is not native to either Humanity or the Earth.

The Core tenants of the Cult of Jericho remain Human Supremacy and Religious Authoritarianism. The Cult leaders (Sorceresses like Erin Hyatt) dictate what is morally right or wrong to the masses and cannot be contradicted. They claim to be getting these doctrines directly from Jericho herself, who will be appearing in this story in a later chapter.
 
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Chapter 3: Lost and Abandoned

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Happy New Year everyone! Here's to a better future than the past we leave behind!

Since this the final story in the Stormbreaker Universe, I intended to just have as much fun as possible. To that end, I'm announcing a second tie-in YouTube series.

Normally, this series is a three-way crossover between Stellaris, Homeworld, and XCOM. However, I saw an opportunity to add a fourth game into the mix recently and I seized it. Later on in this story, you will see some elements of the award-winning adventure game Life is Strange have been added to the Stormbreaker Universe. If you are not familiar with this game, don't worry, I've got you covered. I've started uploading a no-commentary Let's Play series of Life is Strange on my YouTube channel, for anyone who wants to know more about that game... or if you just want to guess which elements have been brought to The Last Heroes.

With that said, let's carry on and start 2022 with my favorite pasttime: Storytelling!



Chapter 3
Lost and Abandoned


March 2, 2086
Detroit, Michigan



While Inez was sharing her life story with the Anward family, a passenger ship came in to land at the starport. Hundreds of travelers from around the solar system disembarked and parted ways in the terminal. People from low-gravity worlds like Mars or Luna stumbled as they were hit with the full weight of Earth’s gravity. Nobody here was from the distant colonies of Alpha Centauri, Sirius, or Altair. Interstellar travel was heavily restricted these days, and the reason why was listed on every electronic board in the terminal.

“Warning!” proclaimed one such sign. “A dangerous space storm is affecting the Orion Arm. The storm is known to contain radiolytic isotopes, which are lethal to carbon-based life. All interstellar travel is strongly discouraged!”

Amidst the crowd of travelers, there were two of interest: a man and a girl. The man, dressed in a heavy winter coat over a formal business suit, looked to be fifty-one or fifty-two years old. His wavy blonde hair was fading to grey, while unkempt stubble adorned his chin. The man regularly looked down at his companion with kind hazel eyes. The girl next to him was just ten years old, she wore a winter jacket overtop a school uniform and carried a small white purse. She had snow-white skin and long black hair tied up in braided pigtails; but her most noticeable feature was her eyes. This girl had beautiful green eyes, like glittering emeralds.

As the pair walked along, the little girl held onto her chaperone’s hand. Both of them were looking around nervously, and for good reason. About two minutes after they disembarked from the passenger ship, two men also disembarked. They were wearing dark suits and sunglasses. The bigger of the two men straightened his necktie while his companion slowly looked around.

Near the end of the terminal, the young girl and her companion pushed the big glass doors and found themselves in downtown Detroit. The older man looked down at her.

“We are very close now.” He said. “Do you remember what we discussed?”

The little girl nodded. She was frightened.

“Trust yourself.” He said. “Your intuition is right. Now take this.”

The man passed a sealed envelope into the girl’s palm. There was no return address, only the name of the recipient was written on the backside. She slipped the envelope into her purse. Finally, the two travelers looked at one another for a moment, their breaths hanging like clouds in the cold winter air. The little girl wiped tears from her eyes and sniffed.

“Please.” She breathed. “I don’t wanna be alone.”

“You are not alone.” The man replied. “She’s out there, somewhere in the city. You’ll find her. I know you can.”

The man knelt down and hugged the girl, whispering in her ear:

“It’s only for a little while. I’ll see both of you very soon.”

Then he straightened up and put one hand on the girl’s shoulder. With a gentle push, he sent her on her way. The grey-haired man watched until the girl walked all the way down the street and vanished into a crowd of people. She briefly re-appeared as she crossed the street, but then she was lost in the dense crowd and was gone, swallowed up by the utterly massive population of Detroit.

The man sighed contentedly. He did not want her to witness what came next.

From behind him, a voice said:

“Professor Emanuel Espinosa? I’m from the Reclamation Agency. You need to come with us.”

A man wearing a law enforcement uniform stepped forward and grabbed the Professor’s shoulder. At once, a powerful electric shock ran up the agent’s hand, knocking him back. The Reclamation Agent screamed in pain while Professor Espinosa broke into a run, bolting down the street, moving in the opposite direction the little girl had gone.

As he ran, the Professor tore off his winter coat and left it behind, revealing the technologically sophisticated vest he was wearing overtop of his suit. As he ran, the Professor reached towards a small dial on the front of his vest, labelled “Scorch Circuits” and turned the setting up to its maximum.



Meanwhile, the little girl was slowly starting to panic. She was walking aimlessly through Grand Circus Park, but she had no idea it was called that. She didn’t know where she was, nor did she know where she was going. All she knew was that she was searching for a woman called Inez and that she had no idea where Inez could be found.

She was lost.

Deep inside her, panic was rising like the tide. The little girl looked around so frantically that her pigtails slapped her face.

I’m lost. She told herself. I’m lost!

A stranger spotted the girl and asked if she needed help. The girl tried to focus on the stranger’s voice, but this only made things worse. Suddenly, she could hear other voices as well. Hundreds of people were talking all around her… all about her!

That kid doesn’t have anyone with her.

She’s all alone, it’s so sad.

Was she abandoned like the other kids at the docks?

Poor girl’s gonna get kidnapped, not like I can do anything about it.

I’m so glad I’m not that girl over there.

I bet I could get her into my car.


In that moment, the girl’s fears got the best of her. She screamed and started to run. In what direction? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was she got away from this crowded place and found somewhere quiet, where there would be no voices. The little girl fled the park, stopping only when she ran into an alleyway between two high-rise buildings. There was nobody here save for a homeless woman, wrapped up in many blankets and eating a fast food burger.

The girl leaned against the wall, still clutching her envelope, panting. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the world.

You are safe here, little one. Take your time.

The homeless woman’s voice flowed into the girl’s mind as though it had always been there. The girl opened her eyes and looked at the vagrant opposite her. The homeless woman didn’t even look up. She was still attacking the hamburger. Now that her breathing slowed, the lost girl got a better look at the woman on the ground. The homeless woman was vaguely Asian-American in appearance, with wavy black hair and vibrant purple eyes. And… the girl couldn’t be sure… but there was some unspeakable quality about this strange woman.

Somehow, and she would never be able to explain why, the girl knew that this woman was good, and that she would do nothing to harm the small child opposite her. It was like the homeless woman had an invisible aura… one that felt warm and welcoming.

The homeless woman looked up at the lost girl.

“Your instincts are right.” She said. “Just put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get where you need to go.”

The lost girl wanted to say something, to reply. But instinctively, before she opened her mouth to speak, she blinked.

The homeless woman was gone. As were the blankets and food. Nothing remained to suggest that anyone had ever been there.

The lost girl wanted to call for help, to cry out, to do anything that would bring this kind soul back, but she seemed to know that nothing she did would achieve that result. She had no choice but to press on.

The girl resumed her journey, walking down the alleyway and back into the city. She was lost; she knew it. So, at each and every street corner, she took a wild guess, turning and changing her path arbitrarily. As she went on, she felt more and more miserable. Only one thought went through her mind, over and over again:

I’m lost… I’m lost… I’m lost.





The same moment

Novi, Michigan




Inez was feeling anxious.

She didn’t know why. She was still enjoying dinner with the Anward family and everyone was being so kind to her. Flint was entertaining everyone with a funny story about his job as a dockworker. She found his story hilarious, but for some reason, Inez found her urge to laugh was being suppressed. She just felt wrong. Meanwhile Flint carried on with his tale and delivered the punchline:

“And that was when I saw the wind was blowing sixty knots right up my rear end!”

Everyone laughed except for Inez. She was sweating now, and her breathing was getting fast and shallow. She had absolutely no idea why, but she could feel a sense of panic starting to rise up within her. Why? Nobody was going to hurt her. She was safe here.

Garth put a hand on her shoulder.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “You seem tense.”

Inez quickly stood up. Her hands were shaking now.

“Uh… I have to go to the bathroom.” She mumbled. “Female trouble.”

Inez raced to the bathroom, locked the door behind her, and then sank to the floor as she broke down completely. She burst into tears.

“I’m lost!” Inez cried aloud. “I don’t know where I am. I’m lost... I’m lost… I’m lost!”

Inez blinked her eyes. And suddenly, she wasn’t in the Anward’s house anymore. Now she was wandering through the streets of a great big city she’d never seen before. The sun had set and lights were coming on, bright enough to dazzle and blind her. She was in the middle of nowhere, she was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and the cold was getting to her. The paper envelope clutched in her hand felt heavier with each passing moment. On the sidewalks, in the storefronts and in the restaurants, people looked at her, no doubt wondering why a ten-year-old girl was all by herself in the big city in the middle of the night.

She looked down at the sidewalk and watched her own feet. One foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. Inez focused on how she needed to find the person she was looking for… how she needed to ignore the countless strangers around her and just keep pressing on. Slowly, the sense of panic died down. Inez caught her breath and blinked twice.



She was back in the bathroom of the Anward house. Someone was pounding on the door.

Inez wiped cold sweat from her brow and called out in a quaking voice:

“Who’s there?”

“Just a concerned old man.” Replied the voice of Garth.

The door opened from the outside. Garth, Opal, Ruby, Montri, and both of Opal’s mothers were standing in the hallway, looking very alarmed. Clearly, Inez had not been silent while she was going through… whatever that was. Her face flushed with embarrassment, and she started to apologize for causing a scene when Garth interrupted:

“Forgive me for eavesdropping, Miss Espinosa, I think I understand what’s happening to you. I might be able to help.”



The Anwards didn’t really have a family room in their house. It was more like a multipurpose room that served as a space for watching television, reading books, and sleeping. Both of the couches folded out into beds, and at Garth’s request, Opal pushed one of these beds back into its couch configuration so that her grandfather could reach the bookshelf. He leaned over, withdrew a large volume, and then settled back into his wheelchair. He invited Inez to sit down on the couch next to him.

“I know I look as young and fit as a track star.” The old man joked, “But I was born in the Old World. In the year 1995, I attended college at Antioch University in Seattle, where I studied Psychology. I don’t mean to make you feel foolish, but I believe I have a better understanding of the Human mind than anyone else in this room.”

Inez shook her head.

“You’ve gotta try harder than that to offend me.” She said, then a flash of impatience ran through her like an electric shock. “Look, sir. Do you know what just happened to me or not? ‘Cause I’m kinda scared right now.”

“I do.” Garth responded with confidence. “And first, you should know that there’s nothing wrong with feeling scared. In your situation, it makes sense for you to feel that way.”

Opal looked from Garth to Inez and back again.

“What situation?” she asked. “I don’t get it.”

Garth held up a hand and Opal fell silent.

“First of all, Inez, can I call you that?” He started. Inez nodded and he went on: “Thank you for telling us about your childhood earlier. Those details are what helped me solve the puzzle. Tell me, do you believe your parents really abandoned you?”

Inez balled up her fists and nodded.

“They’ve had five years.” She answered. “They knew where I was the whole time, too. If mom and dad haven’t come for me in all that time, then they really don’t care. Like I said; screw ‘em.”

Garth nodded and opened the book he’d selected. On the cover was a painting of a honey badger clutching a breadknife in its forepaws. Above it were the words “Psychology in Seattle by Doctor Kirk Honda.”

“And before then,” Garth went on. “You mentioned that you were being bullied and harassed by other children. Did your parents do anything to stop this?”

When Inez shook her head, she noticed a dawning look of comprehension starting to appear on the faces of the other Anward family members. Opal’s jaw dropped while one of her mothers went pale and started fanning herself.

Garth looked Inez in the eyes.

“I think, and I must emphasize that I have no proof of this… but I think you may have suffered some kind of traumatic event in your childhood. One that you have subconsciously repressed. I believe that something my family said or did at dinner tonight triggered those repressed memories and caused your distress. And for that, I apologize on behalf of my son, his wives, and my grandchildren.”

Of course, Inez accepted the apology and forgave the Anwards, but as the evening went on and the conversation moved to other less serious matters, Inez felt a nagging feeling in the back of her mind. She was worried. She knew that Garth was right.

But he was also wrong.

True to what he claimed, Inez had suffered traumatic events when she was younger… but she could remember them clearly. Inez would never forget the strange examination in the cell, the one where her mother had looked at her with such disappointment. But there were two other events that left scars on Inez’s mind, and the more she thought about them, the more she realized they did not account for the strange episode she had in the bathroom.

The first incident happed when she was just nine years old, Inez was playing outside of the lab, wandering around the ghost town of Bannack. She’d been meandering along the Grasshopper Creek when David Sepulveda spotted her. Back then, he was a bully. Inez was small and weak, an easy target for the restless teenager. He started throwing rocks at little Inez, causing her to scream and run for cover behind the abandoned post office. David was only about fifty yards away, and he called out to Inez, promising not to throw any more rocks if she came out. She stepped out from the protection of the wall, and a moment later, David threw another stone. It hit Inez squarely in the left eye, knocking her to the ground. She would have a black eye for days and all these years later, Inez still had occasional nightmares about the rock-throwing incident.

Sure, it was traumatic, but Inez knew that this moment wasn’t responsible for her newfound distress. And neither was the second traumatic incident:

It happened a few weeks after Inez turned sixteen. This time, the population of the Bannack Base was getting together for a Victory Day party. One of the cafeterias was cleared out and turned into a dance floor, and nearly the entire population of the Bannack Base showed up. Inez made herself into the life of the party that night, dancing with dozens of partners, from adults to younger children. Late into the night, most of the older adults and younger kids were done for the night, and Inez tried to leave with them, but David Sepulveda caught her by the arm and forced her to stay. For nearly a full hour, David (who was twenty-one at the time) showered Inez with completely unwanted compliments about her beauty and attractiveness. When she tried to leave, he tightened his grip and told Inez:

“You can’t go anywhere until you give me a kiss.”

There was a fight. It ended with Inez having the first kiss of her life stolen by David, one of his hands on her neck and the other grabbing her by the hair. Inez left the scene with a sprained wrist, David left with a bloody and broken nose. Thankfully, this was the last time Inez ever saw David. Her parents abandoned her in Detroit just a few weeks later.



Thinking back on both of these events, Inez found herself feeling confused. Garth hit the nail on the head. She was traumatized in her youth. Twice, in fact; but neither of these events involved her saying or thinking the words “I’m lost.”

Inez was vaguely aware of the conversation going on around her. Opal, Garth, and the rest were now debating the diagnosis.

Shaking his head, Montri concluded:

“For what it’s worth, Inez. You couldn’t have been left in a better city, with a better friend.”

He nodded approvingly at Opal.

Inez got the strong feeling that Opal was about to say something, probably a compliment, but she was intercepted by a loud knock at the front door. Everyone stopped talking at once. Montri looked at his children.

“Were any of you expecting other guests?”

Opal, Flint, and Ruby all shook their heads. Montri moved to the door and called out:

“Hello? Is someone there?”

The high-pitched voice of a young girl spoke through the door.

“Um, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m looking for Inez Espinosa.”

Looking at Inez with a puzzled expression, Montri opened the door.

There was so much to take in that Inez was frozen in place for just a second. Standing in the doorway was a girl dressed in heavy winter clothing. She had long black hair that seemed to just spill out from underneath her wool cap and dark green eyes that caught Inez’ gaze and held it there. At first glance, the girl looked to be about ten years old, but those sorts of details sailed over Inez’ head. The expression on the girl’s face is what was most important.

She was afraid.

Inez had seen fear before. She’d been afraid plenty of times. Heck, she was scared yesterday when that guy cornered Opal in her booth. But this strange girl was going through a different kind of fear. She looked over her shoulders and kept her head on a swivel. Her hands stayed close to her chest, and her body was hunched as though preparing to stage an escape.

This girl was terrified of a pursuer. Maybe they were hidden or perhaps she shook them off, but Inez could plainly see it in the strange girl’s face and movements. Somebody dangerous was following this girl.

Inez had only about a second to think. On the one hand, this girl was clearly in some serious trouble. That was etched into her face. Inez felt a powerful urge to run into another room, slam the door, and forget about the girl, but she just couldn’t ignore the fact that she had used Inez's name. That alone had many implications. No, ignoring her wasn’t an option. Inez waved her hand at Montri, signaling him to allow the girl in.

“Who is this?” Opal asked.

The green-eyed girl was still twitchy, looking from side to side as if she expected an ambush. Montri looked concerned. Flint was alarmed. Ruby was filling another soup bowl for the visitor. The newcomer looked around at the group and asked:

“I’m supposed to find Inez Espinosa. Which one of you is Inez Espinosa?”

Slowly, Inez raised her hand. The young girl unzipped her winter coat and pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket.

“My name’s Cassandra.” Said the girl. “They said I had to find you and give you this."

Inez, Opal, and Montri all looked down at the paper in Cassandra’s hand. It was an envelope, the type used in the Old World to send messages written on paper. Handwritten words adorned the front of the envelope. They said:


From: Professor Emanuel Luis Espinosa Peres
Bannack, Montana


To: Maria Madelina Inez Freeman Espinosa
Detroit, Michigan




 
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Chapter Four
The Chase



To my beloved daughter, Maria Madelina


There is no doubt in my mind that you will feel some great anger at my willful neglect towards you. You are owed a heartfelt apology and a detailed explanation about my absence. Unfortunately, time is against us. Please know that I regret my actions, deeply and wholly. I have done wrong by you and have now lost my chance to seek or earn your forgiveness.

A disaster is unfolding around me, and soon it will envelop you as well. I realize that you probably feel no compulsion to do anything I request, but I must make said request nonetheless. I ask you to read this letter in its entirety before deciding what to do.

The girl who delivered this letter to you is named Cassandra. She was at the very center of the disaster I’ve mentioned, she witnessed terrible things and terrible things have been done to her. She needs to be kept safe, and until recently, I was providing for her safety.

However, this is no longer possible. Enemies are coming for me; they seek to take Cassandra. Inez, my daughter, I’m begging you… please take charge of Cassandra. Keep her safe until I can retrieve her. By the time this letter reaches you, I will already be on my way, so you will not have to wait long.

DO NOT ask her about what happened.

DO NOT do anything to frighten her.

Most importantly of all: DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES allow anyone to take Cassandra from you, ESPECIALLY IF THEY ARE FROM THE UNITED NATIONS GOVERNMENT.

While there are many people who could be a danger, you can trust a select few. Should you ever feel in danger, seek out a group of people in the Detroit area called the Wolverines. They are friends and allies of mine and they will keep you safe.

I beg you to do this, and I swear I will give you a full explanation of my transgressions against you when I return. You do not need to forgive me; I know I have done nothing to earn it.

But please, do not vent your fury at me upon the child. Cassandra is innocent and a victim. Help me save her, please.

Always your father,
Professor Emanuel Luis Espinosa Peres
Chief Director, UN Science Directorate, Physics Division



Inez looked up from the letter at Cassandra. The young girl cast her eyes down, unwilling to meet Inez’ gaze. Opal and her family had fallen silent while the letter was read aloud, but now they were slowly starting to stir. Like Inez, the Anwards wanted to ask a million questions, but she spoke first.

“You know my dad?” Inez started to say. “Why did-"

But she never finished her question. She was interrupted by a second knock on the door. This time, Opal moved first, maneuvering around her father and brother, and opened the front door again. It was dark outside, but there were two silhouettes visible on the porch.

“Hello?” Opal asked as she opened the door. “I’m so sorry, but this is a bad time.”

“This won’t take long.” Replied a man's voice. “My name is Yassen Ackermann. And my comrade here is Malachi. We’re from the UN Human Rights Council in Berlin.”

Opal squeaked in fear. Both men pushed their way past her and forced their way into the apartment. Inez looked up from the letter to see that Yassen was a tall and skinny guy with outrageous sideburns descending from a mop of brown hair. His face, sharp and angled, looked naturally sinister. Malachi, a brown-skinned man with dark eyes, was dressed very differently from Yassen. Instead of a business suit, Malachi wore a green cloak and hood overtop of a simple shirt and slacks. Inez instantly recognized Malachi as an Acolyte of the Cult of Jericho.

Montri attempted to stand between these men and the girls, reprimanding them for barging into the house without permission.

“This place belongs to me, and I did not invite you in!” He snarled.

Yassen looked around the room and spotted Cassandra. His eyes narrowed at her and she looked at the floor, hiding her face with her hands. In a voice so low one could mistake it for a growl, Yassen said:

“This is true, yet two of the people we are looking for are standing in your living room.”

Yassen crossed the room in two great strides and came face to face with Inez.

“So, you are Maria Madelenia.” He said. “Would her father happen to be here at the moment?”

Inez was struck dumb, and judging from their silence, so was the Anward family. The question made no sense to them whatsoever. Montri tried to say as much but Yassen gave a hand signal to Malachi, who moved away from the group. Malachi walked further into the house, opening all of the doors in the hallway. Even though he was out of sight, everyone could hear Malachi loudly searching each room, sifting through closets and bedsheets with meticulous energy.

“You must have made some kind of mistake, sir.” Montri spoke while he continued shielding Inez and Cassandra. “Miss Espinosa here hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her father for over half a decade.”

With unexpected force, Yassen put one hand on Montri’s shoulder and shoved him aside, addressing his words to Inez.

“So you are the professor's daughter.” Yassen growled. “I must say, you do take after your mother. Your eyes are just like hers. I feel like you could be staring into my soul right now.”

Inez took a step back and raised her right arm to one side, corralling little Cassandra until she was hidden behind her. She was feeling very frightened, something about this guy was setting off every mental alarm. Something was about to go horribly wrong, she knew it.

“Is it true?” she asked. “You’re both from the UN?”

Yassen nodded.

“Quite right.” He confirmed. “The Human Rights Council sent us here, on the orders of your parents. That girl behind you, Cassandra, is under our jurisdiction. We’ve come to take her someplace where she will be safe.”

Inez made up her mind in an instant. She didn’t know if it was the right decision or the wrong one, but she was committed. She puffed out her chest and mustered up the most defiant voice she could.

“Bullshit. You need to get out.”

Yassen's faint half-smile vanished. Montri and Opal looked at Inez, shocked.

“What? Why?” Yassen asked. He hadn’t seen the note.

“My dad gave this girl a note.” Inez quickly explained. “Said to guard her until he comes for her.”

Thinking on his feet, Yassen changed tactics. He took a step back and made a friendly hand gesture.

“Of course, this girl needs to be protected. Quote right, Inez. But you can’t keep her safe… that’s why Professor Espinosa sent us. Understand?”

Inez stood her ground and quoted her father’s letter:

“Do not allow anyone to take her from you, especially if they are from the United Nations.”

Montri now stood by Inez, helping her block Cassandra from the UN official.

“Sir, I think you need to explain yourself in full before we call the police.”

Yassen tried to be accommodating, but he was clearly about to lose his temper.

“There is… a simple explanation for all this.”

A voice yelled out from the front door.

“YOUR DAMNED RIGHT THERE IS.”

Everyone spun around to look. Standing in the threshold was a man with greyish blonde hair and hazel eyes. He was dressed in a business suit stained and dirtied from a long period of travel. Even though she had not seen him for over five years, Inez needed only three seconds to recognize who this person was.

“D-Dad!” she gasped. “Is that really you!?”

Professor Emanuel Espinosa looked rugged, as though he’d been on the road for weeks. His face was gaunt and his eyes wide. And as Emanuel raised one hand to point at his daughter, it trembled and shook.

“Nezzie! Don’t let those men anywhere near Cassandra!”

Yassen’s reply sounded combative:

“She’s under UN jurisdiction, Professor Espinosa. We have the right to take her!”

“Are you out of your mind?” Emanuel shouted. “After I showed you what happened to Scarlett, you’re still going to do her dirtywork!?”

At the mention of her mother’s name, Inez’ breath caught in her throat. She took a staggering step towards her father.

“Wait, what happened to mom?” she blurted out.

Emanuel and Yassen both looked at her. Yassen opened his mouth to speak but the Professor beat him to it.

She’s dead! Scarlett is gone, and this is the truth about her!”

Emanuel reached into his coat and pulled out a tattered old newspaper. Inez briefly saw the words Chicago Tribune, but before she could take a longer look at the newspaper, Yassen grabbed Emanuel's shoulder and hollered:

“Malachi! He’s here! Espinosa’s here!”

A fight broke out. Inez screamed as her father slugged Yassen in the face. Opal fell backwards as Malachi shoved past her into the fray. Montri collapsed to the floor as he tried to get clear. Cassandra squealed and grabbed the back of Inez’ shirt. Both UN officials dogpiled onto Emanuel, who shouted:

“Inez! RUN! Take the girl and get her to Varian Robinson!”

Screaming, Cassandra bolted for the door. Behind them, Montri and Flint sprang into action. Opal’s father jumped on top of the two UN officials and started beating them with his fists. Flint intercepted Inez while she was trying to grab the newspaper, which fell to the floor amongst the battling bodies, Flint tugged on her hand while Emanuel shouted:

“Don’t let them take Cassandra to Florida! She CANNOT go to Florida!”

Flint, Opal, Cassandra, and Inez crashed out the front door. The little girl tried to run for the road, but Flint caught her around the middle and started pulling both Cassandra and Inez towards the garage. Opal pulled a rope to open the door, yelling:

“Over here! Over here!”

Inside the house, Inez could hear more shouting:

“Hold him down, Malachi!”

“Opal, call for help!”

“Romeo two calling Juliet one! We need backup! Send backup!”

Meanwhile, Opal wrenched the garage door open and she grabbed some kind of machine. With all her strength, Opal pulled a contraption out of the garage and into the driveway.

“What’s that thing?” Cassandra asked.

It was a bicycle, the biggest, bulkiest thing she’d ever seen. Inez had never seen a bicycle like this one. It had a silver and grey engine mounted between the wheels with big metal pipes sticking out near the back. Flint kicked a small lever by the motor and the whole thing made a loud booming noise! The giant bike rattled and shook and thundered like a storm. After a moment, Inez realized she was looking at an Old-World motorcycle.

“Do you know how to ride?” Flint asked Inez.

“Wait a minute!” she gasped, “Wait a minute, doesn’t this thing run on gasoline!? Please tell me it doesn’t run on gas! Gas explodes, you know!”

But before Flint could reply, the loud whine of an electric engine filled the night. A vehicle, boxy in shape and rolling on six heavy wheels, came roaring around the corner! Its headlights filling the driveway and yard, the vehicle was painted white and had the words “UNITED NATIONS RECLAMATION AGENCY” painted in black on each side. This was an armored personnel carrier, the same type UN soldiers used to move around the city, but Inez had never seen one moving so fast before.

The APC drove into the yard at full speed, digging deep ruts into the grass. It overshot Inez and her friends before smashing into Opal’s house with a horrific crash! Glass windows shattered and roof tiles fell to the ground, fluffy pink insulation blew away in the wind as half of the building collapsed. From inside, there were screams of terror, followed up by the appearance of Malachi. The big UN agent pulled himself out of the splintered remains of what had once been the porch and then waved at the APC. A hatch on the turret opened up and a man wearing a blue UN Army helmet appeared. Malachi pointed towards Inez and hollered:

“There she is! Over there! That woman’s taking Subject Two!”

Flint grabbed Inez and forced her to straddle the gigantic metal bike. The vibrating chassis and loud engine frightened her far more than the armored vehicle. A moment later, Cassandra found herself on the back of the seat, her arms wrapped tightly around Inez’s waist.

“Do you know how to ride!?” Flint asked one more time.

“I ride the normal bikes!” Inez cried out. “You know, electric ones!”

“It’s the same principle!” Opal yelled over the painfully loud motorcycle engine. “Just run away! Get away from here, quick!”

A loud revving told Inez the APC was about to spring into movement again. She gripped the handlebars, got low in the seat, and told Cassandra to hold on as tight as she could. Then Inez opened up the throttle, sending the motorcycle roaring away into the night. Behind the escaping girls, Flint and Opal scattered just in time. The APC disentangled itself from Opal’s house and rocketed forward, accelerating down the street after Inez and Cassandra.



This motorcycle was nothing like the electric bikes Inez rode before. Each time she opened the throttle, Inez felt as though she was going to lose her hearing. The noise of it was overpowering, the point where she couldn’t hear Cassandra’s voice, and the little girl was holding onto her for dear life. The bike was fast, but it couldn’t turn corners like the electric bikes. It was too heavy, too bulky. Instead, Inez found a straight road and started to accelerate.

She had no plan. She just wanted to escape from the Army vehicle behind her. The APC was very quiet in comparison to this bike, but she knew it was still there. Its headlights flashed in the motorcycle’s rear-view mirrors. Inez spotted the main road and found herself roaring into downtown Novi, on the outskirts of Detroit. Now the street was full of cars! Sleek and silent, hypermodern electric cars moved up and down the lanes as people went about their business.

Inez leaned hard on the bike, weaving through the lanes of traffic and avoiding cars. About half a mile ahead, Inez spotted an electric bicycle doing the same thing. Copying its movements, Inez soon managed to place about a hundred yards and some twenty cars between herself and the pursuing APC. Suddenly, Cassandra gripped Inez so hard that her fingernails dug into Inez’s belly. Panicking, Inez looked over her shoulder.

The APC was going straight through traffic! Moving at top speed, the military vehicle was ramming and pushing its way through one car after another. Terrified motorists pulled to the sides of the road, desperate to avoid the oncoming behemoth. A mother, with two children in her van, screamed in terror as the APC rammed into the back of her van. She lost control and spun off the street entirely before the van with its family of three crashed headlong into the city bank.

Ignoring the fiery car crash behind it, the APC pressed on, closing the distance between itself and the motorcycle. Inez pinned the throttle and drove the bike through an intersection, missing a group of people by inches. Cassandra looked at them and shrieked:

“Look out you guys!”

In unison, the entire crowd of pedestrians leapt back as the APC soared through as well, not braking for even an instant. Inez wasn’t thinking anymore. Acting on instinct, she ducked and wove and threaded her bike through the city streets, which seemed to be getting more and more crowded. Partygoers were pouring out of bars, theaters, clubs, and arenas to watch the chase, which was shaping up to be more entertaining than whatever nightlife Novi had to offer.

The APC was so close now that Inez and Cassandra could feel the heat of its headlamps. They weren’t going to get away by sheer speed, and Inez knew it. She needed another option, a new escape route.

Then a flickering display of lights caught her attention. Inez, Cassandra, and their pursuers were passing by the train station.

Of course!

Fifty years ago, the ADVENT government constructed a vast network of rail lines all over the planet. Even though the alien overlords had been overthrown half a century ago, their high-speed transport system remained. Keeping the railroad tracks in her peripheral vision, Inez threaded her motorcycle down an alleyway and out onto a sidestreet. She could see the railroad tracks, but they were separated from the road by a heavy chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire. All she needed was some kind of break or gate. Behind her, Cassandra screamed as the APC reappeared, having detoured down another street. The top hatch was open again and a UN Soldier was visible, talking into a radio as he observed the chase.

“There!” Inez shouted.

Her heart rose as she spotted a bend in the road. There was going to be a crossing, an opportunity to cross the train tracks. Only Inez had no intention crossing the tracks.

She was betting the APC was far less capable than her motorcycle.

Inez banked hard and felt Cassandra seize up in terror as she turned sharply again. With a great many thuds and thumps, the motorcycle was roaring down the dirt track in between two sets of railroad lines! The northbound rail was on Inez’s right and the southbound lane on her left. Inez accelerated hard and cheered. There was no way for the UN to follow her through here, right?

Wrong.

The APC turned hard and mounted the rail line. Its tires thudded loudly as it bore down the railroad towards the fleeing motorcycle at near-top speed. In just a few seconds, the APC was dangerously close once again. To make matters even worse, Inez was starting to feel a searing pain in her thighs. Looking down, she realized the motorcycle engine itself was starting to get hot, so hot in fact, that the metal was burning Inez’s legs. Somewhere in that engine was gasoline. All Inez knew about the stuff was that it was highly flammable and could explode at any moment. It was time to get off the bike.

Realizing this idea wasn’t going to work, Inez started looking for an opportunity to get off the railroad and back onto a street. Cassandra leaned forward and screamed in her ear:

“There’s a train in front of you!”

In the pitch darkness of the night, Inez almost failed to see it. The rearmost carriage of a northbound passenger train loomed large in the darkness. The lights from the carriage interior were like a pair of eyes that loomed out of the darkness before suddenly getting much bigger. The whole train was moving, but Inez’s motorcycle was moving much faster. She made a split-second decision.

Wrenching on the handlebars, Inez jumped the tracks on the left side and pulled alongside the final carriage. The passenger car had two sliding doors on the side. Keeping the bike straight with one hand, Inez pressed her right hand, trying to open the rearmost door. Cassandra did her best to help as well, but the door wasn’t budging. It was locked! Men and women were crowding the back of the carriage to look out the window and see what the commotion was.

The APC had also jumped the tracks and was now on the southbound railroad tracks. It pulled up level with the motorcycle and then started closing the distance. Inez and Cassandra were sandwiched between the train and the APC! The door to the passenger compartment wasn’t opening, they were trapped!



Inside the passenger compartment, two people saw the scene unfolding outside and sprang into action.

The first was a Caucasian man in his middle ages; he wore workers’ clothes and looked generally exhausted. A mop of messy brown hair and stubble showed how little thought he gave to his appearance. He started pushing past the crowd of onlookers towards the same door Inez was banging her fist against.

“What the hell are you doing!?” An irate passenger yelled.

“Those girls need help!” He cried out in reply.

At the same time, a Caucasian woman with vivid red hair fought her way to the front of the carriage. She seized the Emergency Stop lever in one hand but hesitated.

“Ready!” She called to her companion.

The workman finally reached the door and with one herculean effort, he pulled it open, blasting everybody in the carriage with cold night air. Inez throttled up the motorcycle and pulled forward, shouting:

“The girl! Take the girl!”

The grizzled man leaned down and seized Cassandra around the middle. He pulled her up and into the carriage just before the APC closed in for the kill. The heavy armored vehicle finally made contact with the motorcycle, pushing the bike into the side of the train. Inez screamed as her thigh was pinned against the hot metal of the engine, but a moment later, a pair of hands grabbed her under each arm and started to pull. Looking up, she saw the workman starting to pull her into the train, and would have given a cry of thanks, if not for a sudden vice-like feeling on her ankle.

A UN soldier had clambered all the way out of the turret and had grabbed Inez by the leg! His bright blue helmet shone in the glittering light of the city and the train and the moonlight.

With one hand, he gripped the railing of the turret and with the other, he started pulling Inez back towards himself, but it was only for a moment. The workman looked over his shoulder and yelled:

“DO IT NOW!”

The red-haired woman threw the Emergency Stop lever.

For one short moment, all three vehicles: the train, the APC, and the motorcycle, were all travelling at the same speed in the same direction. Then the train abruptly started to slow down. Inez was pulled free of the motorcycle and it instantly lost control, swerving and flailing about before somehow ending up underneath the APC’s wheels. The armored vehicle swerved and hit the passenger car with its nose before rebounding, jumping the tracks, and leaving the railroad entirely. The APC sailed on for another few yards or so before crashing headlong into a house and coming to a complete stop.

Inez collapsed into the arms of her rescuer, and once she was sure the imminent danger was over, she became fully aware of just how much pain she was experiencing. Inez sank to the floor of the passenger car, panting. As she lay sprawled on the floor, curious people gathered around asking questions. Some were even standing on the seats for a better view. In the midst of it all, the red-haired woman draped a jacket around Cassandra’s shoulders. The scruffy man took an interest in Inez. She felt his hands rifling through her pockets, but in the moment she didn’t have the strength to stop him. The adrenaline was wearing off.

The workman found the letter in Inez’s pocket and took it from her. She reached up and grabbed his hand to get his attention.

“That girl’s in trouble.” Inez told him. “UN’s after her, and I need to find a group of people. They call themselves ‘Wolverines.’”

Quickly, the man lowered his face to Inez’s level. For a moment, Inez wondered if he was going to kiss her, but instead, he whispered in her ear.

“Not so loud.” He whispered. “Relax. You’ve found two of us.”

On those words, Inez found the strength to sit up again. The scruffy man and his red-haired companion gave her a concerned look. The surrounding crowd was waiting with baited breath.

“My name’s Lansing.” The man introduced himself. “Jay Lansing. The coppertop over there is Cera Roberts. What are your names?”

Inez tapped herself and said:

“Inez Espinosa. And she is…”

“Cassandra.” Said the little girl. “Just Cassandra.”


 
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Macavity116

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If the underground movement is Wolverines, are UN supporters Buckeyes or Spartans?
As a lifelong Michigander, I'll say that it's going to be a cold day in Hell when Wolverines and Spartans call the Buckeyes their ally.*

Also, you get kudos for correctly guessing the naming scheme I used for the Michigan Resistance groups. Cells fighting the UN besides the Wolverines include
  • The Spartans, operating out of Grand Crater Lake, the place where the City of Lansing used to be.
  • The Eagles, fighting in the urban outskirts of Detroit.
  • The Broncos, based primarily out of Kalamazoo Fortress.
  • The Chippewas, who control most of the northern half of the Lower Peninsula.
  • The Wildcats, headquartered in Marquette, hold the Upper Peninsula on behalf of an American Warlord.
Bonus points if you can match each faction to the Michigan-based university they're supposed to represent.



*By a neat coincidence, I can confirm that at this very moment, there is about an inch of snow on the ground in Hell Township right now.
 
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Midnite Duke

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For non-fans of American college sports, these are nicknames/mascots of Michigan universities:

Wolverines - U. of Michigan
Spartans - Michigan State U.
Eagles - Eastern Michigan U.
Chippewas - Central Michigan U.
Broncos - Western Michigan U.
Wildcats - Northern Michigan U. (This is the one that I had to look up. Does Southern Michigan U. exist?)

The collaborators/mercenaries from the southeast are known as the Buckeyes of Ohio State U. (To clarify they are helping the UN not the resistance.)

I love the second sentence in the Wikipedia article on Hell, Michigan. "Hell has no defined boundaries or population statistics".
 
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Does Southern Michigan U. exist?
No, I think the closest you'll get to anything like that is Wayne State University. They're located in Downtown Detroit and curiously enough, they've already been mentioned once in the Stormbreaker Universe. Blake Robinson's father worked at WSU as a Professor of Social Science before being elected President of the United States. (My Father's War: Chapter 1)
 
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Chapter 5: The Wolverines

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Chapter Five
The Wolverines



March 2, 2086
Wixom, Michigan



The passenger train, damaged but still functional, pulled into the station at the next town and people began to disembark. Inez found herself unwilling to step onto the platform.

“What if there are UN guys waiting for us?” She asked.

Cera Roberts and Jay Lansing both shook their heads.

“We’re outside UN territory now.” Cera told her. “No blueheads for miles.”

She was right. Inez and Cassandra stepped onto an uncontrolled platform. There were no guards, soldiers, or even police here. Just people getting on and off the train before it pulled away. The individuals who had claimed to be Wolverines signaled Inez and Cassandra to follow them. The foursome moved toward a pair of benches at the far end of the train station and sat down together. After a moment, the train departed with a rumble, leaving Inez and her rescuers free to talk.

“First of all, I need to know how the hell you know about us.” Jay began. “We’ve been… what’s the word? Retired, yeah, that’s it. Retired for about two years now.”

Inez shook her head.

“All I know is the name.” She replied. “This strange girl showed up with a letter from my dad, who I haven’t seen in five years, and then the UN smashes down my friend’s house and chases us right into you.”

She quickly re-told the evening’s events to Jay and Cera. When she finished, Cera’s eyebrows seemed to shoot up into her fiery red hair.

“Okay,” she said. “This is serious. Jay, we need to get the band back together.”

“You’d better mention Espinosa’s name.” Jay said. “Otherwise those two will shoot us. Then they’ll shoot each other.”

Cera stood up and pulled out a cell phone. She dialed a number and started pacing up and down the station, talking urgently to whoever answered the call. Meanwhile, Jay leaned forward and looked at Cassandra. The little girl quailed and hid her face in Inez’s side.

“I know you’ve gone through some scary things tonight, little one.” Jay spoke in a soft voice. “But I need you to tell me your story, or else we might not be able to help you.”

Cassandra, out of nerves, stuffed her hand into her coat pocket and withdrew her little white purse. Instead of opening it, she started scratching the fabric with her fingernails while she talked:

“My name’s Cassandra. I’m from Bannack, that’s in Montana.”

Inez jumped with surprise.

“Hey! So am I!”

Cassandra gave her a weak smile and a little giggle.

“Were you one of the lab kids, too?” She asked.

Inez nodded. This revelation seemed to alarm Jay, who sat up and said:

“Wait a minute, how many kids are in this Bannack lab?”

“There were twenty in my day.” Inez replied. Cassandra shook her head and laughed for the first time.

“No way. There’s totally, like, a hundred of us now.” Cassandra seemed almost happy to tell Inez she was wrong, and maybe a little happier that someone wanted to hear her story. “See, mister. The people in the lab get kids like me and make us do all kinda weird tests.”

“Tests?” Jay repeated with concern. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there was this one where I had to guess a playing card the man was hiding behind his back.” Cassandra recited. “Then sometimes they’d blindfold me and I’d have to guess which person was behind me or in front of me or stuff like that.”

“Did they ever make you sit in a quiet room with a weird thing on your head?” Inez butted in.

“Yes!” Cassandra gasped, looking at Inez as though she’d made a new friend. “Totally yes!”

Inez felt like she was warming up to this little girl.

“We must have been in the same lab, just at different times.” She told Cassandra.

Now Inez noticed that Cassandra seemed to be warming up to her as well. The little girl snaked her hand around Inez’s middle and squeezed her in a one-armed hug.

“So we’re like, lab buddies!” Cassandra insisted.

Remembering what her father’s letter said about upsetting her, Inez decided to humor Cassandra.

“Sure, we are.”

Cassandra looked up at Inez and followed up:

“And did they make you take those weird pills too?”

Pause. Inez recoiled just a little; some of the color went out of Jay’s face.

“Pills?” Inez asked. “What pills?”

Cassandra reached down and opened her purse. She withdrew a small plastic bottle with a white label on it. Moving as though she’d done this a thousand times before, Cassandra unscrewed the cap and deposited a single pill into her palm. It was a red capsule, the type meant to be swallowed with water. Inez shook her head.

“No. Never seen those before. Why are they making you take them?”

Cassandra put the pill back in its bottle and screwed the cap on.

“I’m sick.” She said. “Professor Espinosa says I have to take one pill every morning, or else I start feeling bad again.”

Inez had a thousand questions, and judging from the way he was shifting in his seat, so did Jay. But one query in particular held her attention fast.

“How do you know my dad?” Inez said. “Professor Espinosa, I mean.”

“He was in charge of my case.” Cassandra said. “As long as I can remember he was always there.”

Inez frowned. If Cassandra had always been at Bannack, then Inez should have remembered seeing her somewhere. She cast about her memory, searching all of her recollections for a pale, green-eyed girl with long black hair. But there wasn’t one. As far as she could remember, Inez had never met Cassandra during her early years at Bannack. Yet they were both in that underground lab at roughly the same time.

Inez wanted to press Cassandra some more, but that was when Cera came back and put her phone in Jay’s hand.

“Talk to her.” Cera’s voice was full of anger.

Jay raised the phone to his ear and said:

“This is Jay.”

At once, he held the phone away from his head as an angry woman’s voice shrieked:

“FUCK YOU LANSING! I HOPE YOU DIE IN A FILTY DITCH! I HOPE MAGGOTS EAT YOUR FACE!”

“Piper!” Jay raised his voice. “This is for Espinosa! His daughter is right here.”

The angry woman on the other end of the line fell silent. She was thinking.

“Is Ridge gonna be there?” she asked.

Inez startled. She knew that name!

“Well, yes.” Jay said. “He’s lived here his whole life. He knows the forests and the wetlands better than any of us, and we’ll need him to get to Aeneas.”

There was another pause. Finally, the woman on the other end relented.

“I’ll come. But if Ridge says one word to me I’ll slit his throat. Same for Roberts.”

Jay hung up the phone. Then he looked back at Inez and Cassandra.

“Well, ladies, I’m not sure if you’ve figured it out yet, but you’ve both been dragged into something a lot bigger than yourselves.”

“You don’t say.” Inez folded her arms and grumbled. “Think I figured that out when the UN smashed up my friend’s house and almost killed me.”

Jay shook his head and smiled weakly.

“Holy Jericho, you even talk like Espinosa. Okay, here’s the deal, we’ll get you to Aeneas and the others. They’re the ones you need to talk to about getting some justice. We won’t let the blueheads get away with this.”

Justice. Inez liked the sound of that. She desperately hoped all of Opal’s family escaped unharmed from today’s encounter, but if any of the Anwards had gotten hurt, Inez would find one of those UN soldiers and beat him over the head with his own blue helmet. Cera, Jay, Cassandra and Inez gathered themselves up to leave the station when Inez remembered something and asked:

“Hold up, Lansing! How do you know my dad?”

Jay gave Inez a knowing smile.

“He’s on our side. Has been for about a year.”

“Our side of what?”

“Of the war.”



Jay steered everyone out of the train station and into downtown Wixom, a run-down city that had never recovered from the devastation of the Second Hyperspace War. The streets were cratered and holed while several buildings were either vacant or burned out. In the dim light of the Moon, Inez was certain that she also saw battle damage on some of the storefronts: bullet holes and plasma burns marred the surroundings.

She definitely wasn’t in Detroit anymore.

Turning a corner into a residential neighborhood, Jay started counting the numbers on the houses.

“Are we looking for your house?” Cassandra asked.

“No, I live in Novi.” Jay replied casually. “We’re looking for one of the safehouses. We had a lot of them back in the day.”

“What day?” Inez said. “Why would you need a safehouse at all?”

Jay put his finger to his lips as if to say “not here” and kept walking. They pressed on for another few minutes until Jay suddenly raised his hand again. This time he pointed to a simple one-story bungalow at the end of the street and said:

“There it is.”

The safehouse had an electronic lock on the door. A digital screen and a keypad lit up when the group drew near. Jay looked around to make sure the street was deserted before he typed out the passcode:

07041776

The door swung open and the group moved inside.

Lights clicked on, and Inez had to admit, the interior of the safehouse was far more impressive.

There were three comfortable-looking bedrooms, a fully stocked kitchen, and two walk-in closets with hundreds of different outfits in varying sizes and colors. A computer desk in the living room had seven drawers, each filled items of myriad values and purposes. One drawer was filled with neat stacks of money, hundreds of thousands of UN Credits and US Dollars in neat rows. Another drawer contained everything Inez would need to create a fake UN passport, which might be helpful since her own was left behind in her Detroit apartment. Sitting on the coffee table in the living room was a ruggedized laptop, the kind used by soldiers and space explorers.

Inez let out a low whistle. Cassandra giggled and ran into one of the bedrooms, where she started bouncing up and down on a mattress.7

“What is all this?” Inez asked. “And I guess I should ask: who are you people?”

Cera rolled her eyes.

“It’s not that impressive, really. We’re the Wolverine Cell, or just two members of it, anyway.”

“Cell?” Inez repeated. “So you’re, like, terrorists or guerillas then?”

“We prefer to be called operatives, if you don’t mind.” Jay said. “And to answer your question, this is who we are.”

Jay reached into one of the desk drawers and withdrew a folder. He passed it to Inez and she looked down to see a circular insignia on the front: a five-point star rising above the American continent, encircled by the words Vigilo Confido. Inez opened the folder and read the cover page:


UNITED STATES of AMERICA

Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command (est. 1962)

“We’re part of a highly specialized branch of the United States military.” Jay explained. “It’s our job to fight back whenever someone comes into our country. It’s standard procedure to break us up into cells, keep things decentralized. Anyway, you wanted the Wolverines, you found us. So, what’s next?”

Inez paused to think.

“Well, my dad said we needed to take Cassandra to see someone called Aeneas. But I don’t know who that is. Do you?”

Cera started to reply, but she was interrupted by a noise from the bedroom. With a very loud yawn, Cassandra ran out of energy and collapsed into the bed. Facedown, she fell asleep, her head and arms lolling over the side, her long hair draped all the way down to the floor. Looking at the sleeping girl, Inez also yawned. The exertions of the day were finally catching up to her.

Jay and Cera both stood up and opened the door to another bedroom.

“We can deal with this after everyone is rested and gets something to eat.” Jay said. “Why don’t you take this room here and we’ll let you get some sleep.”

Inez gratefully accepted the offer, and as she stepped through the doorway, she instinctively reached for the lock, only to discover there wasn’t one. Groggily, Inez asked about where the two operatives were going to sleep. As tired as she was, Inez would strongly prefer to share her bed with someone.

“I uh, I really hate sleeping alone.” She confessed.

Jay tapped the fingers on his left hand, where a gold wedding ring glittered in the light.

“I’m a married man, so I can’t help you there.” He said.

Cera also shook her head.

“I have to go on watch. Someone’s got to open the door for our friends when they get here.”

Reluctantly, Inez closed the door and collapsed into the twin-sized bed without taking off her clothes or shoes. Just before she passed out, Inez let out a giggle. As far as she could remember, that was the first time in her life where a man had turned down the opportunity to sleep with her.

Too bad. She thought Jay was hot.



The next morning, Inez was awoken by shouting. Four voices, full of fury and rage, seeped under the door. A loud slamming of metal on wood caused Inez to leap out of bed and wrench the bedroom door open, launching herself into a chaotic scene in the living room.

Two more people had entered the safehouse and were now arguing with Jay and Cera. Inez felt her heart drop into her stomach as she recognized one of them.

“Lawrence!? What are you doing here?”

It was her neighbor, Lawrence Ridge. He was dressed for travel today, wearing a black leather coat over a red shirt and a ballcap that shaded his eyes. When Inez called his name, Lawrence looked around at her, and the angry words died in his throat.

“Nezzie?” He said. “I didn’t think you were really here.”

“Don’t call me-” Inez started to say, but a sudden explosion of noise from behind Lawrence cut her off.

The second newcomer was still looking to pick a fight with Jay and Cera. She was a tall Asian woman with a chubby face and almond-shaped eyes; and she was furious. As she yelled at Jay, she brandished a metal pipe as though she was planning to bash Jay’s head with it:

“What’s gotten into you, Lansing? You fucking numbskull! Don’t you know who you’ve just let into our safehouse!? That woman is Freeman’s daughter! Did it ever cross your dense mind that she was being watched!?”

“If anyone’s being watched, its you!” Cera snapped. “I’m surprised the ISO let you off your leash.”

There was contempt in everyone’s voices. Lawrence turned away from Inez and pointed at the Asian woman. He spoke to Jay:

“I’m not going anywhere or doing anything as long as Russell’s here, Lansing. If it wasn’t for that kid over there, I would have blown her brains out already!”

The woman named Russell turned her fury against Lawrence again.

“You wouldn’t even get close to me, bastard!”

Meanwhile, Cassandra spotted Inez and ran over to her, wrapping her hands around Inez and buried her face in Inez’s stomach.

“I don’t know what’s going on!” Cassandra cried. “I’m really scared!”

Inez only had eyes for Lawrence. She reached forward and grabbed his shoulder.

“Dude, what are you doing here? Are you a Wolverine too?”

Lawrence threw up his hands in frustration and anger.

“Well what do we do know?”

“Inez told us that she needs to see Aeneas.” Jay said. “We have to take her and the girl to Alpena.”

This caused yet another round of arguing. Russell and Lawrence both vetoed the idea instantly, shouting loudly overtop of Cera’s argument in favor of it. Cassandra seemed to just shrink into Inez, trying to remove herself from the whole situation, but the Wolverine called Russell had other ideas.

She put down her metal bar and approached Inez and Cassandra. Instinctively, both of them took a step back. Russell acknowledged their retreat.

“Oh, lemme guess. You’re scared of the scary chink who looks like the Paradox. Get over it!”

The woman named Russell pushed her way past Inez and grabbed Cassandra’s arm. The little girl screamed and resisted as she was dragged into the center of the room.

“What’s so special about this girl?” Russell demanded. “If the UN wants her so bad, let’s just put a bullet in her skull and save ourselves the trouble.”

At this, everyone started shouting and screaming. Cera and Inez both grabbed for Cassandra while Lawrence tried to punch Russell in the head. Everybody was cursing and insulting one another. In the middle of it all, Inez noticed that Cassandra was getting hot. In fact, Cassandra’s skin was so hot that grabbing onto her was actually painful. Raising her voice, Inez cried out for everyone to just shut up and back up!

Somehow, it worked. And good thing, too. Once everybody let go of each other and took a step back did they notice what was going on.

Cassandra feel to her knees, sobbing. She put her hands to her face as though trying to hide, and smoke rose up from her body. The collar of her blouse and waistband of her skirt turned brown and started to emit black smoke. Cassandra’s whole body was emitting heat now, as though she had just been pulled out of an oven! Sweating, Jay fanned his face and gasped:

“What’s happening? What’s she doing?”

“I don’t know!” Cassandra sobbed. “I don’t know what’s happening! Please, make it stop!”

The little girl was weeping now; her tears sizzled and vaporized as they ran down her red-hot cheeks. At any moment, it seemed as though Cassandra’s clothing would spontaneously combust. Her shoes and belt were already melting from the intense heat.

Inez, like Cassandra, was frightened beyond all reason. Desperate, and totally unsure how to handle the situation, she knelt down beside Cassandra. She couldn’t get close enough to touch her, as the heat coming off the little girl was now so intense that Inez’s eyebrows were being singed from a few feet away.

“I don’t know what’s going on...” Inez said. “But I promise you’re going to be just fine, okay? I’m right here. I’m not leaving you. You’re going to be okay. It’s going to be all right. Okay?”

Cassandra sniffed. Then she stopped crying.

The effect was instantaneous. As soon as Cassandra started to calm down, the temperature in the room fell. Smoke curled around the ceiling, but no more smoke came from Cassandra herself. The searing pain in Inez’s skin ebbed away as she wasn’t being burned anymore. About a minute later, everyone breathed a sigh of relief as Inez gingerly put one arm over Cassandra’s shoulder.

The danger, unexplained as it was, was now over.

The four Wolverines looked around at one another, then down at Cassandra and Inez. Finally, the woman called Russell sat down on the couch and said:

“Okay, I’ve changed my mind. That girl needs to see Aeneas right now. I’ll help however I can.”

“Yeah.” Lawrence agreed. “Me too.”



 
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