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"Good luck and have a pleasant apocalypse."
The level cadence of the robotic voice clicked off, leaving Olympia alone with her thoughts in the sterile white pod as she awaited launch. A click and her safety harness tightened. Knowing the thrust that would soon follow would crush her against the seat, she closed her eyes and braced for its punch. A rumbled roar came next, and the anti-gravity rush rocketed her stomach into her throat. No matter how frequent her flights, Olympia couldn't relax and fill her lungs with a calming breath until the pod touched down in a silky smooth landing. The pod's lid slid open with a hiss, and she squinted up at the glare of the unknown.
Adjusting her grip on her power fusion rifle, which she'd dubbed Icebreaker, Olympia did a mental ten count before hurling herself from the safety of the pod. Falling into a defensive crouch, she leveled the gun in a quick sweep of her drop point.
No sounds of animals or wildlife, which meant the land was either well-hunted or contaminated. The steady shush of waves drifted in from the distance. They were close to a coast. Possible tsunami situation.
No more than fifteen feet away, a rusted-out army Jeep sat barricaded by a cage of vines and foliage. If any life still rumbled from the automotive heap, it would give her team a rare advantage. Shifting Icebreaker to her left hand, Olympia used the right to activate the tracker on her shoulder. Four pings sounded in her earpiece as the signal was sent out. The response was instantaneous — four mimicking alerts accompanied a rustle in the brush to the south of her. Moving as a silent shadow, Olympia leveled Icebreaker's sight on whoever or whatever was approaching.
They broke through in a tight formation, shoulders together with weapons poised. Nodding to three of her teammates, Olympia's gun wielding arm drooped. Wordlessly they shifted to a diamond position. Backs together, attention on alert.
Tipping her chin in Salem's direction, Olympia's pinkie finger brushed the back of his hand. It was the only small show of affection she could allow in the face of war. "Any sign of the newbie?"
A lock of onyx hair fell across Salem's forehead, clinging to his sweat dampened skin. His ice blue stare flicked down, lingering over the shape of her lips. "Not yet, but I did hear some grunts and heaves to the north."
"I take it no one warned him about the effects of the first launch?" Olympia asked, a hint of a smile threatening.
"Where would be the fun in that?" Her jaw locked, Raleigh broke formation and jogged to the Jeep with her pulse rifle held in a firm, two-handed grip. The team moved to cover her, granting her a moment to slam the hood shut and swing herself into the cab in hopes of hot-wiring the iron beast.
Flipping the thick rope of her braid over her shoulder, Tallahassee checked her wrist for the Atmospheric Readings and Environmental Assessment, or A.R.E.A., display. "No one warned any of us. Seems a shame to ruin tradition."
"What say you, wise barometer?" Olympia sidestepped that conversational landmine by ignoring it. Nodding to Tally's predictive gauge, she refocused her team's attention on the mission. "Is our battle today against Mother Nature, or something a little less natural?"
Before Tallahassee could respond, leaves rustled, and the tree line spat out their newest member. Poor Houston's pallor matched that of the greenery around him. The others may have laughed at his expense, had it not been for the ruckus he kicked up plowing through the undergrowth. Raising the barrels of their weapons of choice, the team left Raleigh momentarily exposed as they broke into a sprint to surround the rookie. Boots skimmed over sticks, leaves, and rock in well-trained, muted steps. Closing around him in a huddle, they froze ... and listened.
"Orion's Belt!" Salem hissed after a beat, relaxing a fraction of a degree. "Are they training the new recruits at all? Or, did they just go ahead and downgrade us to disposable instruments?"
Houston's face morphed from sickly green to humiliated red, the hue seeping up to the tips of his earlobes. Blinking away the hot rush of embarrassment, he palmed his elemental submachine gun. It managed to look awkward in his gangly hands. "I'm trained." His argument lacked the sting of conviction. "My sharp-shooting skills are the highest the academy has ever seen."
"That is a very good thing," Tallahassee grumbled, her attention directed to the digital read out on the gauge on her wrist, "because we have no weather abnormalities, kids. There are no storms, visible fires, or outward signs of contamination in the plant life. The sun is too bright for this to be a burn-out simulation, and no meteor strikes are detected. If this was a civil war, or alien invasion, we would be —"
"In a populated area," Olympia finished for her, pulling a second weapon — a fierce looking AA-12 — from the holster at her hip. Squaring her shoulders, she possessed the sleek and deadly beauty of a goddess of war. "That means we're looking at hostiles of some sort. Mother Moon, these are the worst." Tapping the link to her comm, she reported back to their busy mechanic, "Raleigh, we need that Jeep running. We are too open and exposed here."
"Don't wait for me!" Raleigh barked back. Hands on the roll-bar, she heaved herself out of the driver's seat to wrench open the hood. "Fall into formation! Whatever beasties they plan to throw at us will come in hot from all sides."
Doing his best to shrug off his failures, Houston added himself to the cluster. The weight of his weapon, cradled between his hands, made his narrow shoulders sag. Not that he would tell the others, but only yesterday he was firing at images on a screen with a plastic replica gun, not training in the field. Somehow, scores on a virtual video game landed him a spot on the most elite crew in the galaxy. Swallowing hard and fighting the urge to swab the sweat from his brow, he forced himself to find that calm place in his mind where the gun became an extension of his arm. Pressing its butt to his shoulder, he trained the sight on the trees and said a silent prayer that he not fail his team.
Raleigh eased the hood of the Jeep shut and wiped her hands on the legs of her black lycra jumpsuit. Lifting her shoulder, she pressed her comm with her chin. "The Jeep is a no go. I know basic mechanics. What we need is an automotive necromancer to bring this thing back from the dead. Whatever is coming, we fight —"
Her sentence was abruptly cut off when a careening dart stabbed into the side of her neck. Falling to the ground, Raleigh jerked in spastic convulsions.
"Get down!" Olympia screamed. Dropping to her belly, she army crawled to Raleigh's side as quick as she could. She caught the shoulder of her teammate and rolled Raleigh onto her back to find foam bubbling from her bluing lips.
A beat later, the rest of the team caught up.
Holding Raleigh steady with a hand on her shoulder, Olympia plucked out the dart and sniffed the tip. "It's poison. It has to be. But I can't identify the odor."
Salem snatched it from her fingers and took a whiff. "It's a blend. I wouldn't begin to know how to counter it."
"Roll her! She's choking!" Tears welled in Tallahassee's red-rimmed eyes as she scooted onto her knees and forced Raleigh's convulsing body onto its side. Their stares locked just as the merciful wand of peace softened Raleigh's features, and she drew her last breath.
A spray of arrows rained down on Tallahassee's hiccupped sob, not allowing even a moment of mourning. Foliage snapped and shook, announcing an incoming attack.
Falling onto his back, Salem double-fisted fusion rifles and opened fire with a rage-filled battle cry tearing from his lungs. Houston flinched at the thunderous crack of each shot, but he adjusted the position of the rifle digging into his collarbone. Staring at the shaking trees without blinking, he held his breath and waited for a target.
Terror stormed the clearing as monsters, borrowing the form of man, swarmed from the brush. Their features were contorted into sharp, deformed angles. Leathery, gray skin stretched taut over humanoid skeletons. Thick rope veins bulged from their flesh, mechanical gears feeding blood to gnarled extremities. Despite the barbaric science keeping them alive, their weapons were far more primitive. Handstrung bows and arrows, along with whittled spears, waved over their heads as they ran.
"Hold your fire!" Olympia ordered. Laying Icebreaker in the dirt, she raised her hands in momentary treaty. "Do you speak English?" When her question earned no response from the cluster surrounding them, she tried again. "Parlez-vous français? Hablas español?"
The cybernetic creatures moved into a stifling huddle. Stalking in a listing side-step, their heads tilted, hungrily drinking the team in.
With a spear held in an over-hand grip, one beast snorted. "Wanasema nini?"
"Ni jambo gani? Kutokana na nafasi watatuua," another responded, jaws snapping.
Her face a mask of calm neutrality, Olympia fought to keep her tone steady. "You can communicate. That's a very good thing. It means we can try to find a diplomatic approach, if we can get past the language barrier."
Still on her knees, Tallahassee's fingers crept toward Raleigh's fallen weapon. She looped her pinkie finger in the trigger guard, and slid it back inch by painstaking inch. Her stealthy efforts were thwarted by the boot of a humanoid stomping down on her hand. An anguished scream tore from her lips, as Tallahassee's bones were crushed under the weight of the creature's grinding heel.
"Huyu anafikirir sisi kipofu," the humanoid barked down at her.
"I don't understand the language." Gritting her teeth, Olympia's face flushed in frustration. "I speak twelve bloody dialects and can't pick out one word."
Tallahassee leaned into the beast's spear until its point dimpled the flesh of her throat. Her face crumbled into a hateful sneer. "They knew. The language. The Jeep. The poison. They set up the simulation and sent us here knowing we didn't have a chance. We never really did. The second we became the Apocalypse Five ... we were already dead."
Another among the angry horde boomed, shaking his stone-carved dagger, "Kuacha kuzungumza kwake!"
The spear wielding humanoid pulled back in hesitation. The haunting orbs of its black eyes fluttered in a series of rapid blinks. Something that resembled sorrow softened its jarring features.
Closing her eyes in acceptance, a lone tear betrayed Tallahassee as it streaked down her cheek.
"Samahani." The word left the creature's decaying lips on a breath that dripped of regret.
With a purposeful lunge, it drove the spear through Tallahassee's throat. Eyes bulging, her hands grappled with the gushing wound. Blood dripped from her chin, and she slumped to the side until her head settled to the earth alongside Raleigh's. The two fallen members of Olympia's team stared unblinking into each other's lifeless eyes, seeing truths of the unknown the living could never comprehend.
That strike crackled through the air, electrifying the mood from one of diplomacy to rage. Cries of fury ripping from their lungs, the remaining trio sprang into an attack. Olympia dove to reclaim Icebreaker, then led her team in opening fire. Together, they unleashed the full fury of hell. Backs pressed together, their casings showered the earth. Bullets slammed into storming humanoids. Inky black gore sprayed from their wounds and coated the grass with a slippery sheen.
"Direct your fire toward the tree line!" Olympia shouted. Releasing an emptied cartridge, she let it fall to the ground and slammed in another.
She and Salem fired into the descending horde, landing shots based more on luck than skill. Houston's method was far more sparing; he lined up each shot down his arm, and never missed. One after another, the bodies fell. Mowing their way through the throng, the three pressed on toward the mass of ivy Olympia's pod landed in. Limited on ammunition, retreating seemed the only option.
Ears ringing from the thunderous storm of gunfire, smoke and debris made each breath more painful than the last. Zinging in, an inbound arrow took a bite out of Olympia's shoulder. It slammed into her with enough force to spin her around, and knocked the gun from her grip. Ripping through tissue and tendons, it gouged the bone before jutting out the other side.
"Olympia!" Salem's head whipped around, acting not as a soldier, but a man in love. That second of vulnerability cost him ... everything.
The airborne cartridge of clear plastic and strobing wires that buzzed past Salem's ear seemed out of place in that primitive simulation. Not that any among them would have time to question it. While the detonation device missed him on its first pass, he failed to notice its boomerang back. It collided with his cheekbone in a fiery spray, sending him reeling. The world slowed to a crawl as he pivoted back to all that remained of his team. Half of his once handsome face sagged in a mutilated mess of drooping flesh and exposed bone. One eye swinging from his hollowed socket, Salem's knees buckled and he folded to the ground.
"Salem!" Clutching her wounded arm to her chest, Olympia holstered her weapon and dove to catch his charred head before it could slam to the earth. His name tumbled from her lips in a desperate plea. "Salem, stay with me. Salem!"
"Orion's Belt," Houston swore under his breath, the weight of their circumstance crushing in. Swinging his gun over her head, he provided cover for the grief-stricken team leader. "Olympia! You have to get up! We have to move!"
"No! I can't leave him!" Shoulders shaking with violent sobs, Olympia clung to his chest, listening to his heart still.
Out of options, and eager not to die, Houston strained to gather a thrashing Olympia in one arm while using the other to pick off the lumbering humanoids as they closed in.
Steady head, steady hand.
Unable to change the cartridges, the moment one gun was empty, he dropped it and grabbed the next. Even the one holstered at Olympia's hip found its way into his grasp. Pressing back, he made slow and steady progress despite the knot in his gut and fear pounding in his temples.
Only when he bumped the pod with his thigh, and felt the rush of hope building, did Houston realize his team leader's whimpers had stopped. Her limp form sagged over his arm. He twisted her to face him, and acidic bile scorched up the back of his throat. An arrow protruded from her eye. The life behind it snuffed out.
"I'm so sorry." Chin quivering, the boy — who couldn't have been more than fourteen — eased his fallen leader to the ground. While his soul longed to speak words of peace to usher her into oblivion, the teeming beasts rustling closer would allow no temporary reprieve. With the blood of those he fought alongside splattered all over him, Houston retreated into the pod.
As the lid hissed shut, the humanoids surged. Banging on the lid, they slapped and kicked at the sleek lines of the ship, ravenous in their hunger to claim its cargo. Fingers numb with shock, the rookie punched in the launch code with his knuckles. Suddenly pinned to his seat by the lurch of blastoff, Houston was powerless to do anything but watch through the pod's small window as the blaze of ignition melted the creatures' flesh to the bone. Squeezing his eyes shut, he waited for the sky to welcome him home.
* * *
The bunk hall was silent.
Tears zigzagged down the faces of many.
Cadet 1215 sat on her bunk with her legs curled under her, hair still damp from the shower. She, along with the others, stared at the wall-size monitor in shock as the traumatic end to the current A-5 team played out to their horror.
The door at the far end of the barracks slid open, granting entry to an Undertaker. The rest of the universe knew them as Handlers, who tended to the every need of the chosen five. It was the cadets that granted them the ghoulish nickname, since they only showed their faces there when a team member died.
Breath was sucked from the room in a collective intake. The Undertaker glided across the floor in silent steps. Its face was made to look like a human female, while the rest of it was a seamless machine of robotic mastery. Stopping in 1215's cluster, the expressionless android tapped a code into the display on its forearm. It paused for confirmation, then addressed the trainees with a preprogramed smile. "Cadet 1215?"
While exhaling relief at their own expense, the faces around her creased with empathy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Apocalypse Five"
Copyright © 2019 Stacey Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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