A first chapter excerpt from the Young Adult novel, Resistance Rising.
PRISONERS OF WAR
“Falcon to ICORE Base,” Reman chanted into the mech’s empty cockpit. “Dropship is nearing the target area.”
“Copy Falcon. You’re coming in nice and clear,” replied the calm, disembodied voice of Ensign Sterling. “Retrieve anything you can regarding the whereabouts of the Oniyum. You are to report anything you find.”
“Copy that. Preparing to dispatch.”
“The last known coordinates are in that western mountain range; you’re to concentrate your search on the valley.”
“The blast site. Got it.” Reman reached past the words of International Corps of Regulated Enforcement embedded in the dash to adjust the holographic screens and signaled the docking bay doors to open below.
“Detaching,” the mech’s A.I. cooed.
The pod trembled as the massive metal clamps beneath clanged and disengaged. Sunlight flooded the pod bay as the doors swung open below. Reman maneuvered the pod up, hovering just slightly, then forward, through the bay, and out, into the sky.
A shocking amount of green spread out below. How so many civilizations thrived on this side of the world, he still didn’t comprehend, given how wild so much of it still was. He drifted along the valley, following it around the corner of the biggest mountain and descending further into the valley.
The mech maneuvered like a dream. Reman knew he shouldn’t feel special, but he’d expected to wait years before getting his own vessel, let alone the very latest in the SENTRI Air-Walked hybrid line. Barely five hours ago, he’d been out on the barrack’s training grounds for a his usual morning run before assembling for duty with the rest of his squad. And now, he soared over rural Fantasaria.
His first solo mission.
He’d been rounding his sixth lap when Ensign Sterling had flagged him down and shoved a battle report at him.
Southwest Fantasaria. Fourteen Mercs confirmed dead. No survivors.
“Whole thing ended with the detonation of a Brimstone missile,” Sterling had said.
“What brought them to that?” Reman had asked.
“That’s what they’re sending you to find out.”
She’d shrugged. “Above my pay grade.” Like him, she’d advanced quickly through the ranks, given the state of global war, growing only more dense and costly with each passing year. The Mech Republic was managing to hold their land, thanks to ICORE, but the Oniyum was still missing, the Fantasarians still refused to stand down — along with every other tribe on Kabathan — and, above all, casualty rates rose daily with no end in sight.
As the mech drifted above the valley, waves of anxiety sloshed in Reman’s stomach. The battle had already happened, so the conditions were low-risk. He probably wouldn’t have to do any close combat — let alone kill anyone — but he’d never participated in a battle beyond the hull of a heavily armored vehicle. What if he had to engage with Fantasarians…up close?
The mech’s computer stuttered out a fresh sequence of beeps.
“Detecting traces of sulfur and Magic use,” the A.I. recited.
“This is definitely the place,” Reman muttered to the Ensign, shaking away his nerves. Readings collected on the dash, specifying an area ten miles due west. He checked the coordinates. It was off his main course; straight up the mountain, almost at its peak, not remotely matching the specs from the blast site.
He maintained course and dipped the mech further into the valley, searching for a proper place to land. “Analyzing battle data.”
The screens blinked as the pod’s computer provided him with detailed close-range specs of the previous day’s explosion.
“Battle results indicate two tribes were involved; Mercs and Fantasarians,” Reman read off the monitors.
“Proceed carefully; there may be more still lurking around,” Sterling warned him.
Reman shook his head, even though Sterling couldn’t see him. “No one could have survived that blast. It wiped out the entire area. Looks like whatever this battle was for, neither side got what they wanted.”
He gritted his teeth. Another battle, another dozen lives…obliterated.
“On my way here, the computer detected a hotspot. I’m gonna go check it out.”
Abandoning the search for a landing spot, he altered the mech’s trajectory and ascended the nearest mountain. Climbing into the upper altitude, the surrounding landscape abruptly shifted. The grass dissipated under fast-expanding blankets of snow, while the trees grew bare, bent, and spindly, also splattered with snow and ice.
Over the mountain’s peak, snow lay even thicker and the A.I. confirmed icy temperature readings outside the hull. Reman spied a break between the clusters of thin trees and lowered the mech to the ground with a distinct crunch of metal on snow.
“ICORE, you seeing this?” Reman asked as he activated the walking controls. The vehicle rose up on its legs and marched forward, through what should have been underbrush.
“Affirmative,” Sterling said.
A high-pitched beeping sequence erupted from the dash. Then another. Reman scanned the landscape. No life forms had appeared, not even regional wildlife, and no other activity had changed. What was tripping the sensors? There couldn’t be a glitch in a ship this new, right?
Movement caught Reman’s eye on one of the smaller scanners — a quick blip on the dash, once, twice, then nothing. Something was kicking up dust. Or, rather, snow.
“I’m getting strange readings from a clearing up ahead,” he informed Sterling, “but only in fragments. Probably interference from all the Magic in the area.”
He altered course again and, as he moved forward, the readings continued to flicker sporadically, the screens lodged with assaults of visual static. He squinted through the windshield, but couldn’t see anything except a barren wilderness.
Peculiar or not, though, he had a job to do.
“ICORE, I’m leaving the mech to proceed on foot for further investigation. I will report my findings at 0800 hours.” He slowed the mech to a halt and switched off the walking controls. The mech’s legs compressed, lowering the pod to the ground. “Switching to mobile link.”
“Copy that. Mobile link established and locked,” Sterling replied as he slipped on the ear comm.
“System powering down,” the computer informed him.
“Be careful, Reman.”
Reman stopped. To use real names broke protocol. Such human moments, expressions of friendship, had become so rare. Not even his own sister had said as much in the past year.
Had ICORE even informed her of his mission here?
Would she even care?
He shoved those thoughts away. “I will.”
The buzz of connection dissipated in his ear. Reman took a deep breath, picked up his rifle, and opened the hatch.
The wide, stark landscape rolled out before him. Icy air pinched his lungs as he stepped out of the pod. His boots crunched into hard-packed snow and his steps echoed through the empty clearing. Nothing else moved. No wind shook the bare branches. No forest animals scurried through the frozen vegetation.
The air seemed to tighten around Reman, making him reluctant to breathe. This kind of silence may have been common in Fantasaria, but no matter how far one traveled from a central metropolis, noise permeated every moment of every day. Ships overhead, transit vehicles, radios, phone signals, and public alerts…all gone. Without them, Reman felt physically incomplete. Perhaps such stillness was what was causing the faulty alarms?
Somehow, Reman didn’t think he would be that lucky.
He clutched the rifle tighter. His leather gloves creaked against the grip. He’d wanted to avoid close combat — wanted to avoid Fantasarians altogether — but standing in the hushed clearing, however, those concerns vanished.
Be careful what you wish for.
Even so, the stillness itself felt like some other, sentient presence, watching him.
Gritting his teeth, Reman punched the activation code into the portable scanner on his wrist without looking at it. No alarm. He was still alone.
He adjusted the laser settings on the rifle and started forward at a cautious, but steady pace.
In ten steps, his toes were frozen. His teeth rattled and he itched for his snow boots, stashed safely under his bunk, back at Base.
After he’d received his mission, he’d shuffled off the track and ran from one place to another in preparation. He’d received a hasty haircut and a brand-new grey Aviator uniform, battle armor and premium grade weapons, including the laser-powered rifle and pistol. His mech pod, per standard, stored a mandatory medical kit, emergency food packs, a second jumpsuit, backup sensors, and batteries…but no fleece-lined jacket. His new attire might have looked official, but they lacked warmth.
He caught a glimpse of the other mountains in the distance. They too, were capped with ice and shone, silver-white, in the fading light. The sun drooped towards the horizon, sending streaks of orange across the sky. Reman wished he could see it fully, without all the trees blocking his view. Politics and warfare aside, he had to admit it was beautiful here.
Since joining ICORE, Reman and his squad had accepted missions almost everywhere on Kabathan. Though Reman had never set foot on foreign territory, the landscapes he’d witnessed from the air would haunt him forever. Leveled fields, destroyed homes and dust as far as the eye could see. For that, Reman despised the wars. He despised the Fantasarians for causing them in the first place and despised himself for partaking.
And yet, he could not bring himself to return to civilian life. To withdraw was to do nothing and he wanted to see the wars end. As many of ICORE’s recruitment ads declared: Protect, search and defend. The people, the land, the Oniyum. Whatever the cost.
What possessed the Fantasarians to take it, though? Had they expected the other tribes to wipe each other out in the quest to retrieve it, leaving almighty Fantasaria in charge? Reman snorted. Every gun on the planet — real and figurative — had been aimed at the Fantasarians for five, long years. They’d taken major hits, but Reman couldn’t feel sorry for them. They’d maintained their defenses and the Oniyum’s absence endured. Soldiers in Reman’s squad believed that there was no rhyme or reason to any of it; a mindset shared by ICORE itself, apparently, based on their battle strategies. Recover the Oniyum first and we’ll sort the mess out afterwards.
After what Reman experienced and lost in those five years, he didn’t believe in coincidence anymore, especially when it came to the Oniyum’s disappearance. But he’d kept that to himself. He just wanted the wars to cease, whether through his normal day-to-day orders with the rest of his squad, or successfully fulfilling a solo mission. The fighting would end. Everything would go back to normal. Nothing could revive those already lost and he could only guess how it would affect his sister, Jenda — would she leave ICORE? Doubtful — but everything would be set right. That would be enough.
A twig snapped behind him.
He spun, crouched, and raised the rifle.
After a few long, tense seconds, a bird took flight some feet away. Reman lowered the gun and straightened back to his full height, trying to view the animal properly, but it was already out of sight and he was alone again. Except…if a bird had been out there this whole time, other things could be hiding too, watching him. He pivoted on the spot and scanned the area one more time — and spotted movement to his left. His stomach clenched. Two tall, slender figures wove through the trees. Pale and graceful, wrapped in silver cloaks and furs, their long, pointed ears arched sharply through their golden hair.
Reman fought an instinctive rush of awe as well as panic and stayed put. He watched them glide over the icy ground, longbows and fully loaded quivers perched on their shoulders, sheathed knives fastened to their belts. They had not raised these weapons, though. In fact, they weren’t even looking in his direction. Somehow, they had not seen him.
A crooked, rotting tree trunk sat a few feet to his right.
The Elves continued to weave gracefully through the trees, still ignorant of his presence. Regardless, if his tech was inoperable, he would have to abort the mission or call for backup. In two, nearly-silent steps, he crouched by the stump and pressed a finger to his ear comm, leaning around the bark to make sure they hadn’t changed direction or disappeared.
“Falcon to ICORE Base.”
The line was fuzzy with static — and nothing else. He bit back a string of curses.
“Falcon to ICORE,” he said again. “Come in.”
The Elves stopped moving.
“ICORE, Sterling, do you copy?”
Still nothing. The Elves turned their heads in perfect sync and their gazes met his. He was compromised. His hand whipped away from his ear and back to the rifle. He clutched the trigger and raised the barrel, ready to fire, when a streak of silver winked in the corner of his eye. He hesitated just as the curved edge of steel eased into the space just below his jaw, the flat of a knife blade held cold and persuasive against his throat.
“For all that armor, you’re still terribly vulnerable.”
Her voice was stoic, but had the slightest mocking emphasis. He couldn’t really see this new, third party; just her shape crouched next to him. Reman tried to lift the gun but she gripped the shoulder of his armor and pressed the blade harder against his throat.
“Don’t be stupid.” There was no amusement in her voice that time. He eased his head sideways to get a better look at her. She allowed it. She didn’t attempt to stop him, anyway.
Small and slender, she peered at him through bright, green eyes and a tan, round face. Her dark hair, tied partially back, exposed semi-pointed ears. So, she was an Elf, too, but some obscure lineage he couldn’t identify. She wasn’t exuding the acrid stench most Magic-wielding Fantasarians carried around. Even after just a few whiffs of the scent off of returning soldiers who had engaged in firefights with the ’Sarians, Reman could never forget it; a potent, vile odor like sewage and burnt coffee. He was sure it served as a defense mechanism just by wafting in their enemies’ directions. This girl didn’t have it, but a sense of power still radiated off of her, despite her size.
Reman tightened his jaw and averted his eyes, glancing around. They still appeared to be alone, but he remembered Sterling’s warning, along with a catchphrase from back home: you can never trust what you see in Fantasarian country.
The Elf girl confiscated his rifle, snatched the comm from his ear and ordered him to remove the pistol from his leg holster, which she then took along with the knives from his belt. While she struggled to figure out how, exactly, to hold the rifle, he slid his fingers over his wrist and pressed against his sleeve, which had, miraculously, fallen over his wristband. He attempted to activate the pod’s remote unit, pressing a few buttons blindly and hoped that, back in the clearing, the pod would boot up. The girl shoved the barrel of his own gun against his back and hissed, “let’s go.” They marched forward. Reman thought hard, picturing the process, willing his commands to have been accurate; the dark screens suddenly flickering on, the radar map popping up and scanning the area, finding him —
The missile exploded ten feet away, throwing them both sideways, off their feet. Reman recovered quickly enough to scramble up, a bit lightheaded but unharmed. He spotted his rifle, fallen just out of the girl’s grasp. As he lunged for it, stepping past her, the girl’s hands sprung forward and seized his ankles. He slammed back onto the ground next to his gun. The world spun, and then spun again, but he managed to orient himself enough to flip over and tug back his sleeve. He aimed his device’s exposed sensor at the girl, who still clutched his boots. He activated the device and a blinding flash flew out at her. Blinded, her grip loosened and his foot slid free. She reached for him again, but he kicked, landing a blow against her face and she lurched backwards. He scrambled up, grabbed his gun, and ran for the clearing. He pressed his scanner again, mid-run, and glanced briefly over his shoulder in time to see the girl twist up into a crouch. She glowered straight at him, her face completely undamaged.
He ran faster.
When he skidded into the clearing, within eyesight of his mech, he scanned the surroundings. He found no sign of the girl or anyone else following him, but his mind still reeled. He’d have to remember this moment the next time he was on the barracks track: the speed of his pulse and the numbness in his fingers. After all, he wasn’t likely to be sent on another away mission anytime soon —
An arrow soared past his shoulder, barely missing him. He whipped around. On the far side of the clearing, just beyond the mech’s direct reach, the other two Elves reloaded their longbows around trees. As arrow points swung up in his direction, Reman pelted forward again and slid behind another tree for cover as more arrows whipped past him. He turned the rifle’s power up to its highest setting and waited until the volley of arrows stopped, but still didn’t move. Could he wait them out? Probably not. They were Elves, so he might not hear them…and they likely had more patience.
Reman jumped up, swung around the tree and fired. His shot missed both Elves, but before he could fire a second blast, a streak of flaming light shot towards him. Before he could move, blinding, pain blasted into his right shoulder where the arrow made vicious contact, compounded with a staggering, unnatural force that sent him straight back off his feet. His head collided with the icy ground and he knew no more.
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