Of course, that vision had been long ago. Over three years, if her estimation was correct. Since then, the vision had come to her in nightmares and flashes in her mind, and each time it seemed more blurred, more… unsure.
The vision was always the same—an alien armada unlike anything the world had ever seen. Not the invasion that had already taken over the world and held it in a state of martial law. No, this invasion would put their current overlords to shame. The Syndicate would fight and, in the end, be crushed.
It didn’t help that others called her crazy.
It also didn’t help that she was certain she would have a hand in saving the world, because that meant it could only end badly. Either she would be proven right, and an alien invasion greater than any they had ever known would destroy their world, or she would fulfill her destiny, but her so-called friends would go on thinking she was insane.
The latter would do, she decided as she stared out of her foxhole, waiting for the Syndicate drone to fly by. They always did at this time of day—a patrol, one of many set up to ensure everyone was in by curfew. If the drone was lucky, it would find members of the resistance, the Last Remaining Resistance, or LRR, as its members liked to refer to it.
There had once been a world with governments and their separate militaries, a Space Corps of Marines—and a resistance. That resistance had sometimes partnered with the Space Corps and other militaries, sometimes went out on their own, and sometimes even fought against the militaries. But not anymore. Now it was simply the LRR, a rag-tag group of survivors that had joined together when the Syndicate had won.
It all started with the day Samantha’s mom, Quinn, went missing. But Samantha preferred not to think about that, especially not when such thoughts could distract her and ruin her chance of hitting her target.
Their goal today was simple—knock out the drones within a one-block radius, then hit the local patrol mech.
Ever since the Syndicate had won, cities were scoured by drones looking for trouble. If they found it, patrol mechs would come through to collect prisoners… or leave bodies.
Samantha’s faction of the LRR had formulated a plan to secure a block, set up anti-air missiles and a defense against Syndicate air strikes, and then, if possible, take over one of the mechs. With Dan’s hacking skills, Samantha almost believed it could be possible.
She smiled at the thought of Dan, with his piercing blue eyes like ice. Not the kind of ice that would freeze your heart, but the kind that stopped you dead in your tracks. Too bad he was six years her senior, a fact he didn’t know, but bothered her.
A whirring sound came from nearby, and Samantha checked the display on her armband. It showed incoming blips that she took for at least three drones. More than she had expected, but not unmanageable.
She wrapped her arm in the sling of her rifle for stability, then sat cross-legged and formed a triangle with her arms, right finger on the trigger. Breathing in, she watched the sights rise slightly above the zone where she had spotted the drone pass the last three days in a row. Breathing out, the sights lined up perfectly.
The whirring grew louder. Her mind wandered to Dan again, imagining him down there, preparing his gear to make a move on the mech when it showed up. He was so diligent when he worked, so focused on the task and on achieving the goal. She smiled, remembering how they had met, him guarding her when she was imprisoned by a group of raiders and resistance.
How funny that now they were working together.
“Go time!” one of the women in the team, Ashley, whispered through the earpiece, pulling Sam back to the present.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She had squeezed the trigger, the bullet had hit its target, and down went the first drone.
Checking her screen, Samantha didn’t see the other two. In fact, she saw nothing. This could mean the others weren’t there at all, or it could mean their signals were being scrambled.
“Shit,” she said into her earpiece. “Anyone there?”
No response. They were definitely being scrambled. That was bad.
Without hesitation, Samantha stood, turned back to the fire escape she had been camped out on, and ran up to the roof, ducking between the brick stairwell exit and a series of fans.
It was dangerous being out in the open, but she had to see what they were up against. She spotted Ashley on the next building over, under a tarp spray painted gray so it acted as camouflage from anyone above. The woman saw her too, gesturing for her to get back down.
Ashley held her hand to her ear and said something, but nothing came through. Ashley’s face scrunched up, and she repeated herself. It was a look she wore too often—a look that seemed to say “Why are you so stupid?” A look that Samantha had more than once wanted to smack off that pretty face.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Ashley and Dan had been rumored to have feelings for each other, though there hadn’t been any proof on the matter.
Wait a minute, Samantha realized. If Ashley didn’t know the comms weren’t working, maybe hers still were? And if only Samantha’s weren’t, that meant at least one of the drones was on her side of the building.
She threw caution to the wind and ran to the edge of the roof, staying low as best she could until she reached the ledge. She ducked and took a deep breath, then lifted her rifle and spun, aiming down, searching.
She spotted one.
It fell, only to be replaced by another a moment later. This one had spotted Samantha immediately, and a red light flickered on at the drone’s metallic nose.
“Shit shit shit!” Samantha said. Then, to her surprise, a click sounded in her earpiece.
“What’d you do, girl?” Ashley demanded, and Samantha realized taking out the one drone had canceled the interference.
BAM! She shot, and missed. Blasts flew out from the drone, sending bits of the concrete barrier into the air as Sam ducked, pulling herself across the rooftop and back to cover.
The whirring grew louder, and she turned to see the drone rise over the ledge. It aimed in at her, and then—
BAM! Ashley had fired, clipping the drone’s wing and causing its shot to barely miss Samantha.
The mech turned, did a quick scan of the area, and then retreated.
“It’s pulling back until reinforcements arrive!” Samantha shouted, leaping to her feet and giving chase. “DAMMIT!”
She reached the ledge, put one foot on it to use her knee to stabilize her rifle, then fired. The shot made contact, causing the drone to veer to its left and then crash into the building.
But it was too late. The signal had been sent out and, when she looked at her screen, there were five or six more incoming. And something large.
“Guys, that mech is coming back, but it ain’t alone.”
“We see that,” Ashley’s voice responded, the electronics not failing to hide the irritation.
“Just stay sharp,” Dan said. “I’m coming up.”
“We need you down there,” Ashley said. “That mech won’t be ours if you don’t do your job.”
“And if you two die, we’re in trouble.”
Sam knew he was right. He would need all hands covering his ass while he hacked into the mech. And since the LRR had sent a team of only five, losing two would be a big loss.
“I got this,” she said, this time standing and deliberately walking back toward the edge of the roof.
“No!” Ashley called out. “Not this again! Come on, someone get this whacko under control!”
“I can do it, I swear.” The words caused her mouth to go dry. She had done it before, this magic. More than once, as a matter of fact. She’d had a teacher back then, a man who had shown her how to manipulate matter. To do magic, if you wanted to call it that. He didn’t, though. He said it was simply science, learning how to connect with matter and change it to your will.
But she had been younger then, barely a teen. The memories were fading, and lately she had even started to wonder if the others were right, if it had all been a dream and she was a nut-job.
The man who called himself Gunny—nothing more, just Gunny—insisted in his insensitive way that she had “Gone ape-shit” the day her mom went missing. Others, including Dan, had heard about her exploits even before then, and speculated that she had gone crazy years before her mom’s disappearance.
None of their accusations mattered to Sam, though. Sometimes at night she would wake up, feeling the power course through her. She would imagine that day her mom had left, as Dan had said it happened. She had likely believed Samantha to be dead, a thought that haunted those dreams more than any other.
Samantha had survived the explosion. She had saved her mom’s life.
Wherever she fell on the spectrum between normal and bat-shit crazy, she was sure of those two things.
And right now she was going to put her powers to the test.
Feet planted firmly apart, she focused on her breathing. Deep breath in, slowly letting it out. Focus.
The whirring drew closer, nearly upon her. Ashley’s cursing grew louder in her ear, until finally Samantha tore out the earpiece.
Again she focused on her breathing, but as the whirring grew louder she knew her heart was beating too fast, her palms were too clammy—it wasn’t happening.
“Dammit, girl!” Dan shouted, appearing next to her with his plasma blaster at the ready.
The sight of those eyes staring at her would’ve made her weak in the knees, if not for the mix of ferocity and disappointment in them.
“I can do it,” she insisted, knowing she was trying to convince herself as much as him.
He just shook his head, a compassion coming over his eyes that bordered on pity, and then turned to lift his blaster and fire.
Ashley appeared a moment later, blowing her cover to join in the defense of their rooftop, and soon it was clear their scanners had been dead wrong. There weren’t just a few extra drones, there were at least a dozen.
Dan pulled Samantha back by the collar into the protection of the stairwell, then shouted for her to snap out of it.
She stared at the drones, hearing them fire and watching as bullets and lasers tore apart the roof nearby, and gathered her will. Shouldering her rifle, Samantha took aim and connected with the red dot of a drone just as it swerved to get them in its sights.
It exploded, taking down two next to it.
“That’s why the hell we keep you around,” Dan whooped in victory. “Thanks for the reminder.”
He ducked around the corner and let out a series of shots, then flung himself back and out of the way of more fire.
“Dammit, Dan!” Ashley’s voice sounded through Dan’s earpiece and from the other roof at the same time, reminding Samantha that she hadn’t put her own earpiece back in yet.
She did so just in time to nearly go deaf as Ashley shouted, “Get off that roof!”
“She’s right,” Samantha said. “Go!”
He shook his head and was about to argue, when his eyes went wide and he aimed his blaster over Samantha’s shoulder. She felt the vibration through his arm as it came to rest against her, and then he was pulling her toward the stairs.
“You go, I’ll hold them off.”
“No, Dan—” She was cut off by an intense whirring as five drones appeared behind him, the red circles at their noses already lit, ready to fire.
Without time to think, without the slightest bit of hesitation, Samantha aimed in, focused on the farthest drone. She took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger as an intense warmth flooded through her muscles. But her weapon never went off. Instead she sat there, staring, as the drone she had focused on shook, rattling, and everything froze in place except for the mechanized beast.
Samantha stared, amazed and confused.
Time moved again as the drone shook harder, turned red-hot, and then exploded, taking down the rest of them with it. The blast sent Samantha and Dan tumbling down the stairs, and he landed on top of her with an “Oompth” as her head smacked the floor.
At first she saw stars, blue stars, then realized they were his eyes, inches from her. Close enough to kiss her. She cocked her head, and as out of place as the thought was… she hoped he would.
But no, he was shouting something, his lips moving. And then he had her, pulling her up.
“Are you okay?” The words came like a distant whisper, accompanied by a dull ringing that grew louder and then suddenly popped, allowing his voice to come in clear this time. “Sam, are you with me?”
She nodded, eyes wide. Holy cajoles, she thought. What had happened? Had she had something to do with that?
“Must’ve been a malfunction,” Dan said, wrapping an arm around her and leading her down the stairs as fast as they could go. He holstered his blaster and pressed his earpiece back in. “Ashley, you up there? We’re making our way back.”
“Copy that,” Ashley said through their earpieces, her voice shaky. “They’re all down… I don’t know what the hell happened, but they’re all down.”
“Malfunction,” Dan repeated, but for the slightest second his eyes flittered over to Samantha. There was awe there. Terror-filled awe, but definitely awe.
He had seen her do it!
With a smile at the fact that she no longer doubted herself, and that he had looked at her like that, she said into her earpiece, “Gunny, you out there?”
“Yeah, girl,” Gunny’s raspy voice replied. “What you got for me?”
“We’re coming out, me and Danny boy. Get everyone in place, we’re taking over this mech.”
“Cheer-E-Os!” Gunny called back in his gung-ho way.
“Just… get everyone ready, you corny S.O.B.,” Dan said into his earpiece, then paused at the second-to-last stairwell down, hands on Samantha’s shoulders as he stared into her eyes.
“Checking for a concussion,” he said, then nodded and released her. “You ready for this?”
She nodded back.
“And whatever that was… up there. Think you can do it again, if needed?”
This time she grinned with a more enthusiastic nod.
“I’ve got some questions for you when this is all done,” he said. “Maybe an apology too, for ever doubting you. I’d say a drink, if you’re old enough?”
“We’ll figure something out.” The words slipped out, and she blushed at the sound of them.
His eyes went wide, apparently seeing right through her. She wanted to meld into the wall behind her, just become part of it and sink out of existence.
But then his smile returned and he shook his head with a chuckle. “Just… keep those bastards off of me if they return, got it?”
She nodded, wanting to thank him for ignoring her accidental flirtation.
With a wave of his hand, he was off, and she was forced back to thoughts on their present situation instead of teenage swooning. Probably for the best, she told herself. Right now she needed to stay focused.
They emerged from the dim stairwell into the blinding light of day. A vibration rumbled through the ground, and then another, quicker and quicker.
“Mech incoming!” Gunny shouted over the earpieces.
Dan took off at a sprint, only pausing long enough to turn back and say, “Hurry your ass!”
“Sam,” Gunny said, “get in position six!”
“And follow your damn orders this time,” Ashley chimed in.
“On it!” Samantha replied, breaking off from Dan to turn left past an old thrift store recently turned to rubble. She moved along the side streets of what had once been Cleveland. The smell of smoke and gunpowder hung in the chilly air, and sometimes the team would joke that it sure was cold for hell.
She darted past Gunny, gave a nod, and found her spot at an improvised bunker at the edge of their block where she could see the incoming mech.
Holy balls, she thought as she set the thing in her sights. It was huge, bounding forward with each step and given an extra boost from thrusters at its back. While most would think of mechs as smooth or angled like a tank, this one was clearly meant to be part kill-machine, part intimidation. Its back was ridged to give it an alien look, its face glowing red. Spikes rose from its arms above the cannon on one side and the blaster on the other.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
“Almost on us!” she shouted.
“I’m in place,” Dan’s smooth voice came back. “You tell me when.”
She waited, feeling each heartbeat send her blood coursing through her skull. A warm tingling went through her, and she wondered if it was an aftereffect of whatever she had done on the rooftop, or simply a rush from the thrill of the moment.
“NOW!” she shouted, and everything moved into double time. She was up, firing at the mech’s feet, and then retreating into the nearby building to distract it.
Its cannon took out a twelve-foot radius of the area where she had just been standing. Lucky for her, she moved fast. A rattling sounded as its shoulder gun readied, but she was hurrying past the next building already, preparing to loop back around.
More shots sounded, and she knew Ashley had taken her spot on the roof. More explosions, followed by shouting in the earpiece, and then Samantha was in her second position.
Where was that son of a bitch?
She glanced around, seeing only rubble and smoke. Beyond all that, more smoke rose in the distance—black, thick. Was that… it was!
“Gunny, we got smoke coming from the direction of home base!” she shouted into her earpiece.
“Dammit, Sam!” he replied. “Stay focused.”
“I KNOW! Ain’t nothing we can do about it right now but keep to the mission. We get this mech, we score a point against the Syndicate. Right now, we need a damn point.”
If the Syndicate is really our ultimate enemy, Sam thought, remembering her visions of the end of the world. Remembering what the man, or alien, whatever he was, had shown her. Hadrian… that was his name.
And if her power was real, then so was he.
The validation hit her like a punch to the throat, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. All her memories came flooding back to her.
Then, she saw him.
A quick glimpse—at first a tail of smoke, then a man in a robe. He was gone when she looked again, but it was enough to rattle her.
If he was back, why? Why now?
“Sam, you got eyes on the mech?” Dan asked.
FROM JUSTIN >>> The book is already out, but I realized I had never shared snippets of this one! So there you go 🙂 It’s the first section of chapter 1 – read on to find out more. You can grab it on Amazon.
Also, JR Handley interviewed me about being an author and about this book. If you’d like to see the interview, here is the link.