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Authors: Rie Warren

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BOOK: Under His Guard
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“I don't, not really. Just feelings. Wanting you and you turning me away. I feel it here.” He thumped his chest. “I don' know why you wouldn't have me, Darke.” His eyes met mine, brimming with tears.

“Whatever I said, whatever I did before, it doesn't matter. Everything's changed, Leon.”


Non
. The only thing dat's changed is me. If you just want me now 'cause I'm gonna die, none of dis is true.” He clenched his fists at his sides. “It does matter, Darke.”

The door slammed behind him.

I
didn't blame Liz and Linc for their rush to get hitched. I didn't blame any of my comrades for getting involved in the fight for Leon's life. I admired their guts. Each one of them was stubborn, difficult, and too goddamn brave. Made up of warrior material, all of them.

That was all well and good in theory. The reality was much more gut-wrenching. I really started wishing they'd decided to fall back when it came time to depart Chitamauga. Early on the morning of July 27, we left the commune for what might be our last time. The good-byes were excruciating to witness.

Heavily pregnant, waddling, and wiping her eyes, Jonquil was the first in line to give her blessings for a safe journey. “Oh, these damn hormones. The baby's makin' a mess of me, and I haven't even had it yet.” She sighed, cradling the globe of her belly. She kissed Nathaniel and Cannon full on the lips before they could protest, the rest of us on both cheeks. “There'll be a new little runt waitin' for you to return, so y'all make sure to get back here quick as you can—you hear me?” Breaking out in a fresh bout of weeping, she waved us away.

Hills stood in front of the circle of villagers. His strong stance belied his advanced years, his proud bearing reminiscent of the day he busted up the dirty fistfight between Cannon and our homegrown traitor, Kale.

“I remember telling you, Caspar Cannon, you had to earn your worth with these folks. You've done that, son, many times over.”

Cannon went to bump fists with him, but our leader pulled him into a hug. Afterward, Hills turned to me. He looked me in the eye, measuring my mettle. I returned his stare, lifting my chin and straightening my shoulders.

“You give 'em hell, Darke.”

Shouts went up around us and fists punched the air. Hills grinned at me, the old rabble-rouser, before he clasped my hand. “You bring 'em all home to us.”

“You have my vow.”

Eden pushed her way to us, giving everyone hugs, asking if we had our first-aid kits with her special poultices. She kept nattering nervously until Nathaniel brought her into his embrace. She broke down in his arms. Her family had grown so much in less than a year, her two sons finding their way home, her son-in-law, Cannon, and now Liz as the newest members of the Rice clan.

She patted Nathaniel's cheeks. “Oh, let me go already. I'm fine. I'll be right as rain.” She stepped back only to be embraced by Linc. “Oh, you boys. Why aren't you always this sweet? Just wanna see your ma spring the waterworks? Lemme go, I tell ya.” Her laugh was colored by sadness, but Linc released her. “You take care of each other. You're all family in one way or the other.”

“Yes'm,” the eight of us replied in unison.

Seeing Evangeline give her send-off to Leon was the most difficult. She kept a flowery handkerchief continuously pressed to her cheeks even while she laid into him.

“You got da gumbo, boy, but don' be thinkin' 'bout givin' dat
Monsieur
Darke a hard time.”

Leon glanced at me, unable to mask his pain. “Try not to.”

She grabbed him in a tight hug as her long, loose hair flew around them both.
“Je t'aime, mon fils.”
She clasped his face. “Come back. Be safe.”

In front of me, Evangeline shook her finger. “And you, you no cause
la misère
anymore, yes?”

“I'll try not to.”

Leon chuckled. His momma glared at me. She relented long enough to draw me against her, letting me go with a hearty slap to my ass. My face reddened.

“You play up over there in Omega and there's more of dat when you get back.”

Old Tommy was last. Too bad he wasn't too late. “Got you a bunch of hens peckin' at ya when what you need is a rooster, eh?” I rolled my eyes while my compadres laughed. He squinted around the group. “Well, I ain't gonna miss ya. 'Cept there won't be hardly nothin' to gossip 'bout now with all you randy youngsters headin' out.”

Cannon and Nathaniel started down the densely wooded lane. Linc and Liz trailed them. Bas, Farrow, and Leon walked three abreast after them. I started to follow, but Tommy grabbed my arm.

“You remember what I said to you. No more hidin' in the dark.”

Catching up to the group, I sent one last look behind me. The sentry pine forest surrounding our commune, the one road to and from, the meadow and the fields flush with flowers and summer crops…The deep lake reflected the sun. A crowd of people stood behind us, calling out good-byes and well-wishes, waving. Chitamauga had been my home my entire life. Now it was off to the unknown.

Dragging my eyes away, I walked beside Leon. We didn't touch. No one spoke.

Leaves, pinecones, twigs snapped beneath eight pairs of feet, making our silence even louder. Tension crackled between us.

Liz pushed a low-hanging tree branch out of her way and almost let it slap back to hit Linc. He rushed her with a growl, lifting her in his arms. Just like that, the mood snapped.

“You know, Darke, you can stop guilt-tripping about taking us away from our home and duties now,” Liz called back.

“Oh, I can, can I?”

Linc placed her on the ground, prodding her forward.

“Yep.” She grabbed a leaf and flicked it at Farrow. “
Ah reckon
Vance, Moxie, and Ginger Johnson can't do much more damage to Beta than has already been done.”

We all laughed, falling in step together.

*  *  *

A day and a half later we arrived at our meeting point. Our flight captain, arranged by none other than Farrow, was to convene with us at the edge of the forest overlooking Alpha-Beta Route One, which was to be our airstrip. During the intervening thirty-six hours, while we'd hiked and camped, what had gone down between me and Leon? Absolutely fucking nothing. We were at a stalemate just like this goddamn never-ending war.

As we waited for our escort to show, we rechecked our supplies. Cammos and ammo, that was how Cannon, Linc, and Liz—former elite Corps soldiers—prepped for battle, and since we were headed into a hotbed of insurgency amid a swarm of Corps, the rest of us followed suit.

Our ears suddenly perked up at the sound of a branch cracking. When the curtain of greenery parted, the woman who appeared found eight guns aimed at her.

“Well, that's a fine how-de-do,” she said. “Mind standing down?” As soon as we safetied our weapons, she approached us.

“Flight Captain Darwin,” the woman said. I realized she was in a jumpsuit, her helmet stowed under her arm. She was Corps through and through. Reformed Corps.

When the introductions were done, Darwin led us in the direction of our transport. We broke through the trees to get our first visual of the Alpha-Beta airfield, and I missed a step on the grassy slope. I almost skidded down on my ass. Directly below, sitting fair and square in the middle of the tarmac, was a massive unmarked air vessel. It looked just like the Corps planes that had almost razed Beta Territory to the ground.

“That's a Predator…” I felt queasy. I'd never been in an air vessel, and these particular motherfuckers took off from a standstill, rising vertically before the wings expanded and—
zoom
—they were gone.

Darwin raced down the hill to her machine. “How'd you think we were gonna get to Omega, swim the Pan Atlantic?”

We approached the Predator. It eclipsed the road and made me feel like an ant beside its big black hull.

“Hey, Leon. You might need to take your man's mind off the flight,” Cannon quipped.

“Not my man.” Leon walked me up the back ramp like I was a doddering old fool.

Christ, I'm not even a man at all at this point.

I continued to grumble as we made our way into the giant belly of the aeroplane. Leon's lips twitched, and his eyes sparkled. I'd make goddamn good and sure he saw me as virile warrior…later, after I upchucked my guts onto the iron-gridded floor. As I harnessed myself into a seat in the cavernous cargo area at the rear of the Predator, I felt dizzy from the nausea.

“Feelin' green around the gills?” Leon belted himself in beside me.

“Huh?” I felt like puking up the contents of my stomach. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I imagined us hurtling through the air with nothing above us and nothing below us.

Cannon snorted. “Fish out of water…”

“Seasick!” Sebastian joined the fray at my expense.

“Airsick.” Nathaniel punched my thigh, a move that would've meant a broken wrist if I hadn't been ready to hurl.

Assholes.

Each of their ha-ha comments made me more ornery. “See how much y'all are laughing when I vomit all over the place.”

My strained grip threatened to break my seat right off the floor. Leon placed a hand over mine. He slid it up my arm to my neck. “Relax,
beb
. It's an adventure.”

Okay, yeah. Death sentence, adventure, same thing.

Darwin had watched the whole debacle with no amusement on her face. “Forgot to mention,” she said. “I'm down one copilot.”

Death trap it is.

Then she proceeded to walk down the aisle, stopping in front of each of us. She sized up Linc. “Too stern.”

“Way too many weapons to be allowed near my control panels,” Darwin said as she passed by Liz.

In front of Cannon, she wrinkled her nose. “Too bulky.”

“Smiley,” was her comment about Nathaniel.

Darwin leaned over to peer at me. “Oh dear. Do you need a sick bag?”

Before I could answer in the affirmative, she moved on to Farrow with one shake of her head.

Sebastian raised his hand.

She gave him a cursory glance. “Too young. And cute. I bet you're gay, too. The good ones always are.”

He blushed.

“And bashful. I don't do bashful.”

He stood from his seat, now towering over her. “I assure you, I can handle this machine and probably two more at the same time if you give me ten minutes alone with the manual.”

Darwin blinked in surprise; then she grinned. “So you're brash as well. I do brash. Come with me.”

They strode to the front of the Predator, leaving me sweating bullets and the others watching with their mouths agape. All but Farrow.

“What just happened here?” Linc asked.

“We got told,” Cannon grumbled.

“Sebastian can fly?” I asked Farrow.

She rolled her eyes. “The brat can commandeer anything mechanical.”

“Let me rephrase: Does Sebastian know how to fly a Predator airplane?”

“Ah guess we'll find out.”

Thanks for the reassurance.

Darwin's voice came over the headsets:

“Buckle up, y'all! We'll be traveling at, oh, supersonic speed. Wouldn't want you to get thrown around back there.”

I groaned. The others laughed. Good fucking thing Tommy the town crier wasn't here to record my humiliating moment.
The great warrior Darke turned into a pussy. Afraid of falling in love, not to mention a fear of flying.

The rockets roared. My knees locked, and my feet braced on the floor. The thrusters engaged. Suddenly we were airborne, but before I could quail, Leon slid his lips across mine, easing his tongue inside. Every ounce of my focus aimed on him, I grabbed his head, massaging his lips with mine.

His cheeks pink and eyes soft, Leon drew back.

“Feel better?” he asked.

Hell yeah.

T
welve hours later, the Predator took a downward dive that had my gullet defying gravity. I gripped the armrests in terror.

Leon stared at me. “Is dis another ploy to get me to kiss you, big guy?”

The harness was too tight around my chest. I forced shallow breaths in and out. “Just tell me we're landing soon.”

“See for yourself.” He pointed to the small window across from us.

Through the square of glass, I watched a speck of land approach at Mach speed. Darwin leveled out before we nosedived into the ground, circling several times around an airfield. Flight towers and hangars lined the runway, all bearing the CO symbol.

Fucking hell. Darwin's landing us in a Corps-sanctioned airbase.

Our boosters powered down as we went vertical and then softly plopped horizontal on the ground.

Over the comms, Sebastian drawled, “This is your flight crew speakin'. Please wait until the passenger in front of you has disembarked. We hope you had a—”

Static fuzz filled the intercom and then Sebastian squawked, “Ow! I always wanted to say that.”

Darwin appeared from the hatch between the cockpit and the cargo area. “Keep your flight suits zipped over that ragamuffin commune attire you call clothing and keep those helmets on.” She walked up and down our rank and file like a sergeant at a drill line, ignoring at least two higher-ups in her presence. “This is the sorriest motley crew I've ever had to manage. Most of you couldn't pass for bred-to-the-bone Territorians even if you were in uniform. Piercings”—she flicked Nathaniel's ear—“tats, and unruly hair.” She paused in front of Leon, who skimmed the soft wavy locks off his face. “You look almost as freaky as the First People Freelanders we're supposed to meet, which ain't gonna happen unless we get off base undetected.”

I'd never seen Cannon's eyebrows shoot so high. “Is there some reason you decided to put down in the middle of a Corps base?”

“Are you questioning my tactics,
former
Elite Tactical Commander Cannon?”

Cannon marched up to Darwin. “You bet I am.”

“You've got balls, sir. I approve.” Her fierce glare relaxed into her first grin. “I have transport lined up, and this was the quickest way in. It's not like we can just touch down in a CO Predator in Omega undetected. Eyes and ears everywhere. So be sure to keep those balls on straight.” She looked him up and down, adding, “So to speak.”

Sebastian ducked out after Drill Sergeant Darwin, and she spun on him. “And Bassy boy, zip that flight suit back up. We can see your nipple piercings straight through your T-shirt.” With a stiff salute, she pivoted back. “Welcome to the hot zone,
y'all
.”

“Ah reckon she's got the biggest balls of all. Ah like her.” Farrow settled her helmet back on her head.

“I think I found my long-lost twin.” Liz grinned, buckling her chin strap.

Linc rumbled, “Why am I not surprised?”

I hadn't hurled yet, and I wasn't about to start. Not walking down the gangplank and straight into enemy territory. We held formation, striding across the landing strip toward the base. Three officers approached as we got near the depot on the far side of the airfield.

“Shit,” I muttered.

“Stay frosty, people,” Darwin said. “Standard debriefing.”

She met the officers while we hung back. The sun was broiling, sending a trickle of sweat down my spine. I watched Darwin as she kept cool answering their questions.

“Care to explain the extra self-loading cargo?” A rough-looking soldier wearing an eye patch pointed at us.

My fingers flexed on impulse to reach for my weapons.

“Sir, you told me to recruit where I could. Found these troops in Alpha Territory and convinced them they were better off fighting over here than shoveling shit trying to rebuild over there.” She dropped her voice and leaned in. “Turns out I can be pretty convincing when I wanna be.”

The man clapped her on the shoulder with a laugh. “Damn good job, Darwin. Damn good. Put them through a full workup: health, background, ranks, and specialties. See that they report to me at seventeen hundred hours, and we'll decide if these drifters make the cut—or get their throats cut.”

“Affirmative, sir.” She waited until the three departed before returning to us. “We gotta hustle. The hangar on the left. Move out, now.”

Keeping a purposeful pace, we made it to the building without any further interference. Inside was a commissioned vehicle built specifically for Omega's desert terrain. It was sand colored with high, fat tires and small, heavily tinted windows.

“This thing bulletproof?” I asked, climbing inside after Leon.

“Depends on the artillery. It sure as hell isn't RPG proof.” Darwin hit a button and the engine revved.

*  *  *

We made it through the two checkpoints, our cover holding solid. Past the danger zone of the gun towers, we let out whoops and hollers, speeding to Omega city proper. Across the flat horizon shimmering in the sun-soaked heat, the city of bazaars rose up like a glittering gold oasis.

“We've gotta be at the meet point in Sector Five in forty minutes. Think we can make it, Darwin?” Linc pulled up the coordinates on his D-P and held it in front of her face.

The last comms we'd had from Denver instructed us to locate one of his insiders in Omega, a man who could set us on the path for the cure.

“Does a bull have two balls, Commander?”

Farrow laughed and turned to Sebastian. “Well, ain't our new sister a sweet talker?”

A glimmer appeared in Darwin's eyes through the rearview mirror. The read I got from her was steady, unwavering, and mission-oriented. She earned my immediate respect.

“Lose the threads, folks.” She unzipped her suit with one hand, wriggling out of the dark blue jumpsuit while keeping a foot on the gas.

We dressed down to our normal garb as Omega filled our sights. At the first and second gates into the city, Darwin simply had to flash her badge to get us through. The Territory opened her walls for us. Up close the buildings jumbled together in an ad hoc fashion so unlike the gridded streets of Beta and Alpha. The old-looking structures were gold instead of our bland silver and steel. The color reflected, making Leon's skin gleam more than ever.

Language was standardized in all the Territories, just like scrip. We could hear people haggling by the roadsides as we drove past. The discord in the area was evident from the graffiti on the sides of buildings and in the soldiers roaming the streets. The strong Corps presence stood out amid the flamboyant surrounds, injecting fear onto the faces of people hounded here and there at rifle point.

Poverty, affluence, and anarchy made the air electric.

I couldn't tell the Freelanders from the regulation Territorian stock—both factions inhabited this city side by side with the CO's consent. Yellow, black, tan-skinned, the citizens were a mishmash of heritage from different continents. I felt an aching kinship with these people, something unknown and unrecognized that pulled from deep inside me…until a bullet hit our tire, jarring me from my thoughts.

“We've got heat,” Darwin muttered.

There was another screaming whistle, and the second tire on our right side blew out. People who'd been hawking their wares alongside the road fell to the ground as if this was a drill common to their daily life.

Cannon drew his gun. “How the hell have we been made already?”

Darwin took a hard swerve to the left, clipping the corner of a building. “Oh, I don't know. Maybe because I've got a vehicle filled with the Company's most wanted?”

“The cameras can't possibly see inside,” I said, pulling out my guns. In every Territory, indestructible cameras were mounted right next to the huge public D-Ps on each street.

“Ever heard of spyware and a little something called zoom?” Darwin sped down the alley.

Sparks flew off the sides of the Rover, which was too big for the narrow breach between two tall buildings. The brakes squealed.

“We're ditching the vehicle!”

No shit, Darwin.

We raced on foot. I stayed beside Leon as we hurried away from the center of the city, worried he might be feeling the effects of the Plague injection. He kept pace with me, hurdling over the spreading squalor from a Territory under siege.

Omega was a maze, allowing us to lose our pursuers. Sectors One and Two fell away, and with them the harsh rebound of boots at our heels. We broke into S-5 at a full-out run. The area was blindingly bare, almost completely destroyed. Vacant bomb-riddled buildings had blank eyes instead of windows. The earth was charred to cinder.

“What happened here?” I asked.

“The CEO decided Omega citizens were getting too big for their britches. He blitzed the sector last week.” Darwin wiped her hand across her brow.

“What now?”

She grinned. “Now we find this guy Raine you've been told about.”

BOOK: Under His Guard
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