Copyright Battle Ready 2015
VARRICK BOOK 2
BY ZACHARIAH BARRY
BY ZACHARIAH BARRY
“If only the world wasn’t in complete chaos. I would be able to enjoy hunting just for what it is.” A noise made Daniel turn to his right. It was a pheasant. Daniel knocked an arrow to his bow and crept forward, eyes never leaving his target. It was a male, and looked to be claiming it’s breeding grounds; and it was big.
“I can’t miss,” Daniel thought, drawing back on his bowstring. The pheasant suddenly flapped its wings, rising upward, but it didn’t get far before Daniel’s arrow struck.
Daniel grinned, watching the bird’s flight continue downward until it landed dead on the ground, thirty yards from him. The young man broke cover and jogged over to his kill, impressed with the size of the bird. The bigger it was, the better it helped feed the colony.
He scooped up the pheasant and removed the arrow, then turned and headed in the direction of his camp where his friend, Joe, already was, getting food ready. Ben Varrick, Daniel’s uncle, had sent them out on a two-day hunting trip, which was turning out well, this being the evening of the last day of the expedition. After a scant meal they would head back to the colony.
Daniel cleared a hill and saw Joe in the distance, shielding a small fire. As he got closer Joe turned and hailed him.
“Ah, it’s Dan and his triumphant return. And he actually got something. Pheasants a good meal.”
Daniel grinned. “You’re not done drying that meat yet. Ya know, I think you’ve caught the least out of all of us this entire trip.”
“What? Me? No, I’m the best colony hunter around.”
Daniel laughed setting his kill down next to Joe. “You haven’t seen Max yet?”
“Nope. He’s been gone longer than you.”
“Well, yesterday he did come back with the most food.”
“Do you trust him yet?”
Joe shrugged. “It’s not like I don’t; I guess I just wouldn’t stake my life on most of what he says or does.”
Daniel nodded. “Same here.”
“Sometimes I wonder if his sister trusts all of what he says,” Joe said quietly.
Daniel shook his head. “Lidia trusts him. And she should. He would never break his word with her. It’s just everyone else I wonder about.” He grabbed their bucket. “I’m gonna get some water.”
The brook wasn’t far away, and in a few minutes Daniel was crouched by it, filling his bucket. Without thinking he reached up and felt the scar at his hairline; the wound which had changed his life. And his life had only continued to change after that. Max, Lidia, the Secrets. His uncle, Ben Varrick, Dr. Griffin, McDuff, Ross.
“Getting shot,” he whispered. It had only been a couple weeks since he’d been back on his feet from his wound. It would give him an uncomfortable twinge every once and a while, but for the most part it felt normal.
Something came to his attention. He wasn’t sure what; maybe a noise. Daniel got low, his eyes sweeping the trees around him. Nothing. He rose and headed swiftly back to camp, his body tense. He saw Joe; then Max.
“What’s going on?”
They both looked at him as he joined them by the fire. Max pointed.
There was a thick plume of smoke rising up into the evening sky from the south.
Daniel felt his heart skip a beat. “That’s not the colony.”
“You’re right, it’s not ours,” Max said quietly. “It’s someone else’s. They were probably attacked by the Reds.”
“We’re out of their Circle, I didn’t know there were colonies this far north. It could be government Federals. They’re starting to pop up everywhere now. We have to tell Ben,” Joe said. “Let’s pack up and get outta here.”
“Wait,” Max held up a hand. “I think we should check it out before we leave.”
Daniel looked at Joe, who narrowed his eyes. “I don’t. We need to warn the colony.”
“But we won’t know what to warn them about. What if it’s not dangerous?”
“Everything is dangerous, Max. You just said it could be Reds attacking a colony.”
“Maybe,” Daniel cut in. “I have an idea. Joe, you head back. I’ll go with Max and see what it is.”
Joe paused for a second. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t worry about us unless we’re gone for more than two hours.”
Joe sighed. “Okay.”
Daniel nodded to Max. “Let’s go.”
The snow had begun to melt over the last few weeks, the weather slowly getting warmer as the season turned to spring. Daniel and Max jogged through the wet forest, the moisture now cold since the sun was going down. Daniel held in a shiver as they both came to an abrupt halt.
There was a wide ditch in front of them, a stagnate puddle at its base. The smoke was still billowing upward, showing no signs of stopping.
“If the Reds didn’t do that, they’ll come to see what did, and things will get ugly, quick.”
Daniel and Max listened, both tightly gripping their hunting bows, their only weapons besides a knife.
Daniel thought he heard the distant roar of flames, and the dim sky was lit up in the distance with light. He glanced at Max. “If the Reds aren’t there already they will be soon.”
Max nodded, and they both kept going, leaving the ditch behind them and getting closer and closer to the blaze. They started to see a haze of smoke in the trees as they moved; like a foreboding fog that they had just plunged into. They couldn’t see very far ahead of them, and they moved slowly, the smoke glowing in front of them where the fire was.
They stopped again, hearing voices, shouts, crying. Daniel wiped his burning eyes and covered his mouth with his jacket, taking a deep breath, trying to prepare himself for what he might see in mere minutes.
“It’s coming down!” The shriek cut through the rest of the voices. There was a loud groaning of wood, then a crash.
Daniel and Max moved in, and started to see figures running around in the smoke. No one seemed to notice them, people shouting and screaming all around, a sense of panic filling the air.
A man ran past, and Daniel grabbed his arm. “What happened? We’re here to help,” he shouted over the noise.
“They’re burning it all down.” The man’s eyes were bloodshot, his face smoke stained. “Everything we built! We shouldn’t have helped them!” The man broke free and was lost in the smoke.
Daniel and Max kept moving, more and more people running past them, fear on their faces, some bleeding from wounds. There was shouting up ahead, and they went towards it, two figures coming out of the smoke. One of the men there saw them and raised a rifle.
“Who are you?” he shouted.
Daniel and Max set their bows down and raised their hands. “We’re here to help,” Daniel said. "We’re from another colony further back, and saw the smoke.”
The two men glared at them, one still pointing the rifle, the other gripping a hatchet.
The one with the rifle turned at the shout from behind.
“Jules, the storages are on fire!”
Horror masked the men’s faces as they ran toward the voice. Daniel and Max followed. “Let us help you,” Max said. “Just tell us what to do.”
A burning log cabin loomed in front of them, figures swarming all around it, running out with whatever food and supplies they could grab.
“Save the food!” Jules yelled back at Max as he plunged into the building.
A crash sounding inside, and the doorway belched smoke and sparks. Daniel lost sight of Max as he ran forward; he felt like his skin was melting. He covered his face with his arms and ran inside. He could barely breathe, his eyes watering. Somebody stuck a large, smoldering, canvas sack in his arms, and he stumbled from the cabin, crumpling in a heap outside.
Daniel gasped in the relatively clean air, then staggered back to the burned out door, taking more bags of food, which he tossed clear of the blaze. He didn’t know how many times he went back and forth, but he kept at it, racing the flames as well as the actual colony members.
Suddenly an agonized scream cut through the roar of the flames. Daniel knew what it was before he even saw it. He moved fast, grabbing a food sack and dumping its contents on the ground. The man burst from the cabin, clothes on fire, beating at himself helplessly.
Daniel dove on him with the sack, adrenaline pumping, beating out the flames as fast as he could.
“That’s enough! Get back, it’s gonna come down soon!” It was Jules, his face blackened by the smoke, parts of his clothes smoking.
A couple men came by and helped the man Daniel had just saved, taking him further back from the blaze. Daniel’s chest heaved as he looked around and saw Max a little ways off, standing with some others around a second burning cabin. Daniel turned the other way and saw two more flaming buildings.
“They’ve lost everything. But who are they? Who did I risk my life for?”
“Who are these men?” The voice rang out over the flames.
Daniel turned around, Max walking over, and saw an older man with wild, grey hair and a beard. He was pointing to Daniel and Max, looking at the man called Jules.
Jules looked at them, his face questioning. “I don’t know.”
“We’re from another colony. My friend and I were out hunting when we saw the smoke.”
More colony members seemed to gather, all staring at Daniel after what he’d said. The older man with the wild hair stepped up to him.
“Well as leader of this colony I want to thank you and your friend for risking your lives for our cause.” The man’s brows lowered. “But we don’t know if we can trust you!” He swept a hand around at the flaming building’s. “You can’t blame me for my caution.” He turned to walk away, and four men grabbed Daniel and Max.
Daniel didn’t struggle. “I understand, but please talk to us so we can work this out.”
The grey man didn’t turn, but spoke. “Jules. Take care of it.”
They were sitting on the ground; they’re backs to one of the only cabins that wasn’t in flames. They had been searched, and anything deemed harmful had been stripped from them. Darkness of night was coming fast.
“At least I’ll have an interesting story to tell Lidia when I get back.” He was pretty sure he’d get back. This colony didn’t seem violent at all. He liked having good stories for Lidia. Daniel had no idea why the new colony hadn’t moved off a long time ago. “Just because we’re out of the Red Circles territory doesn’t mean they still won’t come see why there’s all this smoke,” he hissed to Max.
“I know. These guys are too new at this thing. No wonder why they’re in this mess.”
“We’ve been gone for more than 2 hours,” Daniel said quietly.
“Ben will send out guys to find us. I don’t think we have to worry about this colony hurting us. We should just wait it out till our guys get here.”
“What about the Reds? I mean, we have no idea what’s this far out. The Feds could even be out here. The cities are hidden; we have no way of knowing if we’re close to one."
Max made a good point. “The Federal cities are still completely unknown to us. Maybe this was a Fed attack, not the Reds.” Daniel turned and watched as Jules approached them. His face was worn and still smoke stained, his body language screaming exhaustion.
“Gonna let us go now?” Max said boldly.
Jules didn’t smile, but didn’t look angry either. He seemed too tired for any of that. The man sat down on a log close by and sighed, wincing as he did. “I know you boys aren’t happy; I wouldn’t be either, but, if you’re both really part of another colony, then you can’t blame us.”
“We don’t,” Daniel said. “We just wish your leader would’ve heard us out before taking us like prisoners.”
Jules nodded. “Makes sense. Now, I’m ready to hear you out. So, who’s doin’ the talkin’?” He looked from Daniel to Max.
Daniel spoke first. “How do we know we can trust you? I mean, enough to tell you about our colony? What can you say to prove you’re not just a group of bounty hunters?” Daniel knew he was stretching it, but he needed to be cautious.
Jules laughed, a throaty, smoke choked laugh. “You’re a smart one. That’s good. The colonies have to get smarter, the Reds and government Feds are picking us apart.”
“They’ll keep picking you apart if you don’t move out of his location,” Max cut in. “They’ll investigate the smoke.”
Jules glanced at him. “We’ve been organized as a colony for about a year now. We’ve learned a lot.”
“Sir, my friend is right," Daniel said. "You need to leave now. The Reds or Federals could be here any minute.”
“Call me Jules.”
“Okay, Jules. Your colony is in danger.”
Jules shrugged. “It’s not my colony. Beau calls all the shots.”
“The old guy?” Max asked. “Then have him tell you to pack up and move off in the next thirty seconds.”
Jules shook his head. “He won’t budge. He likes this location.”
Daniels mouth dropped. "What? He would sacrifice survival for a location?”
“He says we can defend it.”
Max was angry now. “Doesn’t he see what just happened to his colony? You got burnt to a crisp!”
“We were fooled. We helped a small group of Runners, and they betrayed us.”
“Runners?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, ya know, the ones who got out of the Fed’s City on a stroke of luck.”
Danial and Max looked at each other
“The Fed city. Is close to here?” Daniel feared the answer, his eyes wide, his disbelief reflecting his Max’s face.
“A few day’s journey.”
“Time to go,” Max said quietly.
“Are you serious?!” Daniel stood up. “There’s a Fed city a few days from here and they haven’t destroyed you yet? I thought the closer you got to one the more Reds and government soldiers there were?”
Jules didn’t appear to concerned. “Usually there are.”
“So… Why is your colony still here?”
Jules stood up and stretched. “That’s too much information for me to be givin’ you right now. For all I know you could still be spies for the Feds.”
A shout suddenly cut through the air. “We’ve got incoming! All fighters to the south!”
Jules was gone in an instant. Daniel and Max looked at each other, then swiftly moved behind the cabin behind them, looking around, waiting.
“It’s either Feds, or our guys comin’ to save us,” Max said. “Regardless, we don’t have any weapons.”
“So don’t do anything dumb,” Daniel said, eyes on the colony fighters running to meet whatever threat was coming. “Look at them. They look like they’ve never been in a firefight before. Practically all their guns are hunting rifles.”
“Hold your fire!” The shout sounded like it came from the colony leader, Beau. Daniel strained his ears as the man kept talking, but he was too far away to pick anything else out.
“It’s our colony,” Daniel said, stepping out of cover. “They would’ve started shooting by know. The scouts must have checked out the situation and thought this colony was harmless.”
“They are. If Runners, or, whatever Jules said they were, could burn them down, they’re pretty pathetic.” Max said it disgustedly, and followed Daniel, who walked boldly through the remains of the scorched colony
It was almost completely black now, the sun under the horizon, but Daniel could still make out the stance of McDuff and Ben Varrick as he got close, and a feeling of relief came over him.
“Everything’s fine,” he said, “We’re not harmed.” He and Max made it to their fellow colony members and turned and faced Beau, who was right next to Jules. Ben Varrick gave them both a pat on the shoulder, but didn’t say anything at first. Both colonies sized the other up, silence ruling for a minute.
“Does your colony require any medical help?” Ben asked Beau. “We are willing to give any aid which is necessary.”
Beau’s face was hidden in the darkness, and Daniel started to have doubts on the man’s former lack of aggression. Then the older man stepped forward.
“We’ll accept any help you can give us.” Beau turned to his men. “Let them help. But watch them close.”
Ben bowed his head. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Flash lights and lamps went on, and Daniel watched as his fellow colonists streamed past him to assist the Beau’s. Daniel’s head hurt. Max had gone with McDuff; so now he was alone. He needed to tell his uncle what was going on here. “I should’ve just followed him.” He ran a hand through his hair and started looking around.
“Daniel!” He turned and saw Joe, holding a light, walking towards him. “What happened?”
“A lot. Max and I showed up to a fire burning through this colony’s food supply, so we helped them save what they could. Then they took us prisoners. They’re leader, Beau, wanted to question us.”
Joe rubbed his eyes, but rolled with the new information well. “Makes sense.”
“Kinda.” Daniel rubbed his own smoky eyes. “They don’t think they’re in any danger. They don’t they the fire giving away they’re position is a big deal. I have to tell Ben what’s going on.”
They followed their colony soldiers, Ben being somewhere in the front. Joe looked around curiously. “Ben was saying he wanted to help with any bad injuries, then help these people pack up and get outta here.”
“Apparently this Beau guy won’t like that.”
“Ben!” The shout ripped through the darkness, and a figure sprinted by Daniel and Joe.
“That’s Jon!” Joe hissed.
“Federals! Coming in fast, we gotta move now,” the man yelled.
"They're not Reds?" Ben's voice snapped through the dark.
"No. Feds for sure."
"Well that should buy us a little more time."
Ben Varrick’s colony went into action, but Beau’s froze up, like they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know what to do! Daniel and Joe instantly started helping the wounded, but they kept running into men, woman and children who were panicking.
“Move! Follow us!” Daniel kept yelling over the shouts and screams that were gripping the night. “We’re all gonna get slaughtered if we don’t move!” He could hear Ben’s voice, along with McDuff’s, somewhere behind him, both of the men urging the colonists to run.
Daniel placed the wounded teen he was supporting into another’s care, then ran back to where he heard his uncle. “We’ll need some rearguard action if we’re gonna get outta here alive!”
“Get on it than!” Ben said, his voice strained in the dark as he tried to organize two colonies before they were wiped out. He tossed Daniel a rifle and magazines full of ammunition. “My fighters, split up. Half help me, the rest of you follow Dan!”
Daniel’s heart skipped a beat, but he slammed a mag into the rifle, looking to Jon in the darkness. “Where they comin’ from?”
“Let’s go!” Daniel yelled, running off into the trees, the sound of his own heart in his ears, the feeling of his boots slamming into the dead vegetation on the ground. The trees loomed dark and foreboding all around him, and he almost tripped over a fallen tree branch. His fighters were right behind him, and they ran for a minute, then abruptly stopped, listening.
The forest was silent, nothing stirring.
“Oh, Lidia. I didn’t think I’d be doing this when I left the colony on a hunting trip. If I die I’m sorry.” A stick broke somewhere, and Daniel couldn’t tell if it was from his own men or the Feds. Then there was nothing. He patted the shoulders of the two men closest to him twice, which was the colony's universal signal for: find cover now.
The fighters peeled off and all hid, and suddenly it appeared as if the forest was once again empty.
“Who do I have with me? Is Joe or McDuff here?” Daniel’s head hurt. Why did things always have to happen so fast? He had been hunting less that ten hours ago! He hated it.
There were still no sounds in the trees. Just the thick acrid smell of smoke, and the damp loam coming through Daniel’s pants as he lay there. A chill ran through him, but not from cold. He was scared. He’d been in dozens of firefights before, either with the colony, or when he’d worked for Clay Larzin and the New order, but he could never shake the feeling of fear before each engagement. It was just normal for him.
But this time something was very different. Daniel could feel it in the air. It was like a dark, sinister presence. He felt like he was going to die; he needed to move. Now.
Daniel patted the two guys next to him and moved back, the two men doing the same after patting the two guys next to them, and soon all the fighters were slowly moving away from their position.
There was a strange noise, then silent thuds as small objects hit the earth where Daniel’s fighters had just been.
“Grenade launchers!” Someone hissed.
Daniel threw himself flat covering his head with his arms, feeling the shock waves and heat thrown from the blasts which ripped through the silence of the forest.
The shooting started.
Daniel spun around from his position and started firing. He didn’t even know at what. He could make out muzzle flash from the guns of the enemy and shot there, hoping for the best, not even knowing how many of the enemy there were. “We could be outflanked in a second! We can’t see a thing!”
One of his men gasped next to him, and blood splattered against the side of Daniel’s face. He felt the man’s pulse; there was nothing. Daniel got angry.
He broke cover and ran, pulling seven fighters with him. “If they can outflank us any second, then we can outflank them now!” They ran away from the battle, then cut upward, stopping roughly fifty yards from where Daniel thought the enemy was. Then the muzzle flashes confirmed it.
“Give ‘em hell, boys!” Daniel snapped, firing his weapon. Their attack was devastating, or that’s what it looked like. One of the fighters with Daniel happened to have two grenades, which he hurled at the enemy. The flashes of fire and heat lit up the battle ground for a couple seconds, and Daniel saw bodies being flung through the air.
He felt no satisfaction. “We’ve bought enough time. Enough lives have been ended.” A lull in the shooting was all Daniel needed. “Pull back!” he hissed to his men. “We’re getting outta here.”
They met up with the main force, and retreated as silently as they’d come.
“Dan! How far are behind you?”
“Not very, and it was too dark to see how many there were.”
Ben ran with Daniel and the fighters, no other colonists in sight. “Everyone’s cleared outta here. It’s just us.”
Daniel didn’t ask any questions, even though his head swirled with them. He just nodded and followed his uncle through the trees.
They ran fast, the cool air feeling good against Daniel’s sweat covered face, the moon a thin sliver in the sky, keeping the night dark, which was perfect for the colonists. No sounds of pursuit reached Daniel’s ears, and he tried to listen for any over the sounds of his own breathing, but still heard nothing
“How many men did you lose?” The question hit him hard, and he almost tripped. “Were there any wounded you left behind?” Guilt racked him. But there had been no way to make sure everyone had been accounted for. “We have to go back to make sure we get all our men. Even if they’re dead, we’ll still give them a decent burial. I’m coming back though, Lidia.” He felt a flicker of guilt that he’d been one to survive, when he had been the one to tell Ben they needed to cover the colony’s escape. He pushed the thought away and focused on running, the ditch he and Max had crossed hours earlier looming in front of him.
“Halt!” Ben hissed. The colony fighters all slid into the ditch and crouched in the freezing water that was collected at its base, everyone listening for sounds of pursuit.
Daniel winced, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder, and he immediately brought a hand to it. It felt warm and wet. He was bleeding. “My adrenaline’s gone. Now I’ll see how bad I am. I didn’t get shot, I would have noticed.” He kept feeling around and held in a gasp when he felt a piece of shrapnel embedded in his skin.
“Keep moving!” Ben whispered. The fighters climbed out of the ditch, feet and legs numbed over by the water.
Daniel bit his lip as he had to use his bad shoulder to climb up, and he could feel the blood running down his arm. “It must have been from the grenade launchers those Feds hit us with. What else could it have been?”
They were getting closer and closer to where the colony had set up their new home, and Daniel was almost oblivious to it when a few colony rearguards questioned who was approaching. The pain in his shoulder was getting worse.
“Are you okay?” It was Max. Daniel hadn’t even known he was in the fighter group.
“I have shrapnel in my shoulder from those launchers.”
“Is it bad?”
“Bad enough. It hurts pretty bad whenever I use it.” They were moving again, and Daniel tried to breath deep as each step jarred his wound. “I didn’t notice it until we were in the ditch.” It was strange, months ago, a situation like this would have had a different effect on him, but after everything that happened with Clay Larzin and the New Order, it didn’t seem as big a deal. “Well it’s not like I’m invincible now, but, I’m not scared, that’s for sure. Lidia won’t be happy with me. I’ve been wounded again.”
Daniel felt his face turn red, and if Max would have been able to see it he would have rather died. He was grateful for the dark. Lidia worried about him a lot. He didn’t like to make her worry, but sometimes it was impossible when he went out on dangerous tasks. Daniel didn’t have much time to think about it though, because they’d arrived back at the colony, and lamps, flashlights, and voices were everywhere.
“I need to tell Ben there could be wounded back where we fought,” he said to Max.
“Whoa, wait a sec. I’ll do that. Your bleeding all over yourself.” Without another word Max left.
Daniel took a deep breath and walked over to where the wounded were being looked at and sat down in the grass, leaning up against a tree, closing his eyes. “How many men did I lose?” He wanted to know, but he was also afraid to know.
“Dan, getting into trouble already, even after being on your feet for only two weeks since your last incident.”
Daniel smiled at the sound of Dr. Griffin’s voice. “Didn’t get shot this time, Doc. Just shrapnel. The Feds had grenade launchers.”
He opened his eyes and clenched his teeth as Dr. Griffin started to look over the wound, tearing his shirt even more to get a good look at the two bloody slashes.
“Doesn’t look too bad. Just one larger piece of debris. I’ve worked on way worse.”
Griffin snorted, smiling. “Yeah, that is a good thing. Well, our other medics are taking care of the rest of ‘em, so that means I’m stuck with you again.” He got to work, opening a bag beside him. “This’ll sting, so brace up.”
Daniel nodded, taking a deep breath and tensing. He closed his eyes and waited for the pain to intensify, but at the last moment he heard rushed footsteps.
“I’m okay, Lidia.” He opened his eye and saw her standing by Griffin. In the lamplight the concern in her face was evident.
“No you’re not. There’s blood all over your shoulder.”
“I’m okay. It’s just some cuts.”
Lidia didn’t look convinced. “Dr. Griffin?”
“I’m not gonna lie. It’s shrapnel. One piece still lodged, but not horrible. I’m cleaning the area, then I’m gonna remove it. It’ll hurt, Dan.”
He took a deep breath. “Just try to do it quick.”
Griffin nodded and stood up. “I need another med tool. Don’t move, I’ll be back.”
Lidia crouched by Daniel and took his hand. “Something for you to squeeze on when it starts. Just don’t break it,” she added with a smile.
“I’ll try not to.”
“Was it bad out there?”
Daniel tried to hide the guilt on his face, but Lidia saw it. She knew him too well.
“Daniel,” she said quietly. “Are you okay?”
“I was in the rearguard. Ben put me in charge of the fighters. I lost men, Lidia, and I don’t know how many, or how many wounded I left behind when I called the retreat.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she gave his hand a squeeze. “What else could you have done? Nothing. You did your best.”
“Now I’m wondering if that’s even true.”
“That I did my best. I could have done things different, and might not have lost as many.”
“You don’t know that.” Lidia gave a slight smile. “And even if you don’t know it, I know you did the best you could.”
Griffin came back, another small bag in his hand. “Okay, are you ready, Dan?”
“Alright. Lidia, make sure his arm doesn’t get in my way.”
Griffin gripped his tool, which to Daniel too closely resembled a regular pair of plyers, and knelt over his shoulder. “Here we go. Make sure you keep breathing Dan, no holding your breath.”
Daniel started to nod, but then the pain felt like fire on his skin. He gripped Lidia’s hand tightly, eyes closed, nausea washing over him. He could feel the shrapnel slide against his flesh as it started to ease out. The pain lessened a bit, and he gasped; then Griffin finished the job with a swift jerk of his hand.
Daniel gulped in air, sweat running down his face as Griffin quickly wiped away the fresh blood and sanitized the wound.
“Well done, Daniel. I’d say your always my best patient,” the Dr. said. “Keep hurtin’ yourself and you’ll be my only one.”
Even though Daniel’s shoulder burned like crazy, he still couldn’t help but grin at the joke.
There had been one wounded man. Ben had sent McDuff and a team to sweep the area for any survivors, after it was clear that the Feds weren’t pursuing them. It eased Daniel’s conscience a little, but he still felt bad.
Daniels arm was feeling good, his shoulder still sore, but getting better. It had been almost a week since the day they’d saved Beau’s colony, and he was still acting like all Ben had done was ruin his life. Daniel didn’t understand the man.
A twinge made him wince as he helped lift a log off the ground. He had been assigned to helping the older men and women build shelters, because of his shoulder, since the cabins would take time to construct. He was fine with it. It gave him more time to talk to Lidia.
“Hey, Daniel,” Jules said, who was also helping with the shelters, like all the rest of Beau’s colony. “Think you could ask Ben Varrick why we’re focusing on shelters instead of defenses?”
Daniel held back his reply. Ben wanted to keep the actions of his colony private at the moment, until they knew they could trust Beau’s. Because Ben’s colony fighters were building defenses. Around the perimeter of the colony territory. “I’m sure he has a plan or something. He’s been doing this for a long time.”
Jules seemed satisfied, and kept working for a minute. Then he looked up again. “How long has this colony been around?”
Daniel kept his face neutral, when inside he just wanted Jules to stop talking. “Awhile. I haven’t been here too long, so I couldn’t really give any details.”
Jules nodded, looked interested, then kept working. Daniel turned to a boy who was separating netting and rope. He looked about a year younger than himself. “When you have that done, bring the rope first, we’ll need it to lash together posts.”
“You said your name’s Shen, right?” The boy was from Beau’s colony.
“Yeah, that’s me. Your Daniel, right?”
He nodded. “Time to ask some questions of my own.” Daniel wiped sweat from his forehead. It was warm today. Daniel glanced over and saw Jules was being asked to help with something further away. “Perfect.” He tried to appear casual. “How long have you been with Beau’s colony?”
“About five years.”
“Really? How long has this colony been around?”
“Since the Collapse.” Shen’s answers were short and to the point, but he didn’t seem cold or distant.
Daniel knew he couldn’t trust completely what Shen was saying, if any of it, but he kept talking in hopes the boy would open up. “Has Beau always been your leader?”
“No. He’s only been in charge for about a year.”
“That explains a few things.” Daniel held up a post and started lashing it to another one. “What about Jules?”
Shen helped Daniel. “What about him?”
“He seems like he’d make a better leader. Just my first impression.”
Shen shrugged. “Makes no difference to me.”
The post was lashed, and Daniel turned to get more and saw Lidia approaching with water. His heart beat increased. “Hi there, water girl.” He flashed a smile. “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
She let out a peal of laughter, and Daniel’s heart soared. “Are you thirsty, Dan? Here.” She held out a cup of water.
Daniel took it. “Thanks.” He downed it quickly, sighing in relief. “Ah, well, that really hit the mark.”
“How’s your shoulder?”
“It’s feeling pretty good. Not perfect, but a lot better than before.”
The laughter faded from her eyes and was replaced with concern. “Are you sure? Don’t lie to me now.”
Daniel gave a faint smile. “I wouldn’t never do that to you. I’m fine. Seriously.”
“Good. You’re gonna give me grey hairs soon, Daniel. You need to stop hurting yourself.”
“Top of my to do list.”
“It better be,” she said, the humorous glint back in her eyes. She poured him more water, glancing at Shen, then gesturing with her head for him to step further away. “Have you heard? Ross and some of his guys are supposed to show up today to talk with Ben.”
“How’d you hear that?”
Lidia smiled. “McDuff talks a lot when he’s happy and gulping his water.”
Daniel thought for a second. “Well, I mean, we haven’t heard from him in a while I guess. But he’s pretty busy. I don’t think waging a war on the Federals and Reds is an easy job.”
“That’s why it surprised me. McDuff said he’d be arriving soon, actually.”
“Something might be up. I wonder if they’ll let me hear what he has to say?”
“I think they should,” Lidia flashed him a grin. “But I might be biased.”
Daniel laughed. “Well thanks anyway. I’ll try to hear it so I can let you know what’s goin’ on. Your job must be nice, walking around giving people water, everyone liking you.”
“It’s not exciting,” Lidia chuckled, “But at least I get to talk to people. It beats building shelters,” she added with a grin.
“You’re right there. It definitely does. Hey, could we switch jobs?”
“Nope, sorry, it takes too long to explain how to do my job,” she teased, starting to walk away. “I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later, Daniel.”
He waved. “Ok, thanks for the water. See you then.” He turned and saw Shen looking after Lidia, his eyes narrowed, almost like he was angry. Really angry. “What’s your problem?” Daniel snapped.
Shen looked startled. “Nothing.”
Daniel’s blood was up, and he glared for a second. “That’s not what it looked like. You looked pretty upset to me.”
Shen looked like he didn’t know what to say, and he suddenly walked off, fast, like he was trying not to run.
Daniel looked after him, resisting the urge to pound the boy into the ground. “What’s his deal?” He was uncomfortable. He would have to tell Lidia something might be up. Daniel took a deep breath and kept working on the shelter, trying to ignore the feeling which had filled him. And suddenly too. It was like he knew something bad was going to happen, and Lidia could be involved.
“Lidia has never met Shen before in her life, has she? Why would he even have a cause to be angry at her?” Something pricked the back of Daniel’s memory, something he’d buried, hoping he’d never have to worry about again. The Secrets. “This can’t be about them. It can’t be. There’s no way.” It was a horrible feeling.
“Yeah, okay, forget this.” He dropped his rope and left to find Lidia. He didn’t know why, but he needed to tell her Shen was weird. For her safety. “I’ll be watchin’ that guy," he whispered vehemently.
He couldn’t find her; it was like she’d disappeared. Daniel went from a walk to a jog, eyes scouring everyone he saw. He didn’t like the new colony now. It seemed like everyone was giving him dirty looks, and he now doubted the intentions of every one of them. “I’m jumping to conclusions. But I don’t care.” Lidia had already almost died once, and Daniel wasn’t taking any chances.
“Griffin,” he said, intercepting the doctor. “Have you seen Lidia anywhere?”
“A little while ago. She was taking water to our guys,” his voice dropped. “The ones working out of camp.”
Daniel got it. “okay.”
“You alright? Shoulder buggin’ you?”
“No, not that. I just wanted to tell Lidia something, but I guess it can wait.” He let Griffin go, looking around, seeing if he could spot Shen anywhere. No. The young man was gone. Daniel didn’t like that. He hadn’t seen him since he’d walked away after Daniel had confronted him. “What is your deal, Shen? Am I right? Why do I feel like this is over the Secrets? I mean, how crazy does that sound, and should I tell Ben?”
He decided to go back to the shelter he’d been working on to see if Shen was back. He wasn’t.
“I’m probably freaking out for no reason.” But in the back of his head, Daniel knew he wasn’t. Somehow. He’d been through too much with the Reds, New Order, and Clay to ignore his intuition on these matters. Something was going on, and he need to find out what. “But first warn Lidia… Of… I don’t even know.”
He heard it, but didn’t want to respond, trying to act like he didn’t hear. He didn’t have time to talk to Jules right now.
“Daniel! We have a situation. We need your help. That guy McDuff asked me to get you.”
Daniel came to a halt and turned, Jules catching up with him. “What’s wrong?”
“Some of Beau’s closest guys have gone on strike, they’re demanding your colony gives them food and weapons so they can leave.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes.
“Hey, I’m on your side now. I never agreed with Beau. His ideas were terrible and almost got us all killed.”
“Weren’t you one of his closest guys?”
“I only was so I could try to hold him in check.”
Daniel sighed, running a hand through his hair. Jules seemed too much like a people pleaser, and it got on Daniel’s nerves. It was like the man was putting on a tough front back when he was questioning Daniel and Max, but now his true colors were showing. “McDuff! Bad timing!” He nodded to Jules. “Okay, lead me to it.”
They navigated through the colonists who were going about various jobs, and Daniel kept his eye out for Lidia or Shen as he walked, but didn’t see either of them. He didn’t like that at all.
“What if Shen’s following Lidia right now, and all I’m doing is going to soothe an argument… Daniel! Are you over reacting to all of this?!” This train of thought was abruptly cut off when Jules pointed.
“McDuff’s over there, and so is Ben Varrick now.” A group of people seemed to be milling around the area, some faces looking scared, others angry.
Daniel didn’t pay any attention to them, but was staring at Shen, who was at the edge of the crowd. “There you are,” he whispered.
“Nothing.” Daniel walked away from Jules and went up to Ben and McDuff, shooting Shen a look as he passed by.
“Dan, how’s the shoulder?” Ben asked.
“Good. Okay, well we got fifteen men and two women who want to leave. They want free food and guns and ammo.”
“We can’t do that,” McDuff said. “We’re not a stocking station for people to get stuff and move on. Plus, now they know our location, and we don’t know if we can trust ‘em.”
Ben nodded. “Yeah. This was the risk we took when we offered to give them help. I knew it could get messy, but…”
“We understand, Ben,” Daniel said. “More people would have died if we hadn’t helped right away.”
“But we were the ones who dragged them outta there, so we have the right to tell them they can’t leave when it’s so dangerous, plus put our colony at risk in the process.” McDuff didn’t look very happy.
“Where’s Griffin,” Daniel asked.
“He’s helping out with the defenses.”
“Well if Lidia’s by him she’s safe for now. Does Shen want to leave too? Why else would he be with this group?” Daniel glanced at him and saw him talking with another man. They both looked suspicious. “Okay, Daniel, now you’re overreacting.”
“Hey! Varrick!” A man stepped up from the crowd. “You gonna give us what we want or what? We’re not playing games here.”
“Wow,” Daniel heard McDuff mutter. He held in a grin. He thought the same thing. This guy was way to bold. He was in way over his head to be demanding things like he was.
Ben gave the man a look that instantly deflated him, making another, older man come up. “Look, we appreciate what you’ve done for us, but we feel the need to move on. We don’t belong here.”
Jules, who’d been standing to the side, came up to Ben, talking so the colonists who wanted to leave couldn’t hear. “All these guys are Runners. Well, they were. Beau let them join up with us not too long ago.”
Daniel looked at Shen, who was staring at the ground. “He lied to me. I thought he might’ve. He hasn’t been with Beau’s colony for that long.” Daniel realized no one was talking and he looked back.
Ben’s eyes were lit up, and he glanced at McDuff. “Time to learn a few things, huh?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
Ben pointed to the two men who’d spoken up. “Follow me. Let’s talk.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Can I come too?”
McDuff grinned and nodded, walking after Ben. Daniel glanced at Shen one more time, then followed.
“Okay,” Ben said, facing the two men. “What Fed city did you bust out of?”
The older man glanced at his companion. “Alpha. And it wasn’t easy. We lost a lot of people.”
“How’d you pull it off?”
Daniel thought he saw a split second of hesitation, before the younger of the two shrugged. “We had to, there was no choice. Life there was a living hell. Not enough food, or medical, filthy living conditions. Anything bad you can think of. We had to get out.”
“That still doesn’t answer my uncle’s question.”
Ben didn’t respond for a moment. “How did you get out of Alpha?”
“The guards got lazy. A lot of ‘em are just recruited civilians who were bought out by the system. Some can be paid off, and others will turn you in right on the spot. It’s a risky business.”
“So according to what Beau told us, Alpha is the city not far from here. Have they always known about your colony?”
The older man shrugged at McDuff’s question. “Does it matter? They never acted like they did until they saw the smoke.”
“And Runners started that fire. Alpha must be pretty loose on security.”
Another look passed between the two men. Daniel felt uneasy.
“Yeah, they’re hurting. I think every Fed city is. The Reds are failing, the New Order is crushing ‘em.”
Now it was Ben and McDuff who looked at each other. Daniel knew why. They hadn’t heard from Ross in a while, and they must have been looking forward to Ross' visit soon to see how his war was going. Apparently really well.
“If we can trust what these guys are saying. I don’t really, but what could they gain by lying about that?”
“Is that the news in the streets? The Reds are losing?”
“Yeah. Bad. The New Order is smart, that’s what we were hearing. They don’t fight conventionally.”
“Ross is good.”
“How many people are in Alpha?”
“Not for long though.”
The older man shot a glance at the younger one, and he went quiet. Ben lowered his brows. “Not for long?”
Neither men spoke for moment, then the younger one took a step forward. “We have information you would really want. We can give it to you, but first give us what we need.”
McDuff lashed out and grabbed the man by his collar, holding him fast. “You’re in no position to be telling us what we can and can’t have. We’re the ones who saved your colony!”
Immediately the rest of the crowd grew restless seeing one of their men being handled roughly. Ben stepped in and made McDuff release the man. “My friend’s right. And you both know it.”
Daniel noticed something then. The older man’s eyes shot over and gave a knowing look to someone in the Runner crowd. Daniel glanced over and saw Shen leaving. “Nope. That’s not good.” Daniel slipped away and started following him, not sure why everything the young man did spooked him. “He can’t go near Lidia. He just can’t. If this is about the Secrets…” Shen suddenly disappeared behind a finished shelter.
Daniel didn’t hesitate, and went after him, seeing his query move quickly into the surrounding trees. A strange feeling hit him suddenly, and he felt like he was being watched. Shen jumped down into a ravine, out of sight, and Daniel stopped, reluctant to follow.
His survival mode had kicked in, something that had proved correct in the past.
“How has he not noticed me? Or am I just that good? I don’t know. Why do I always think of the dumbest things in bad situations?” He kept going, his concern that Shen was going for Lidia overcoming his caution. “I’m so sure he’s planning something. He knows who Lidia is, and what she has. He has to know about Max too. It’s just a gut feeling.” He never ignored those.
Daniel quietly slid into the ravine, his body coiled like a spring. That look Shen had received from the older man. There was no question they had some plan. That was the only thing it could have been.
Daniel thought he heard a noise and stopped, crouching down, listening with bated breath. Nothing happened, and whatever he’d heard had stopped. It had probably come from the colony camp. “Or not. It could have been Shen for all I know.” Daniel kept moving, picking up speed, afraid he would lose Shen if he didn’t hurry.
He didn’t see it until too late. He was on the ground in an instant, two men pinning him there, Shen standing back, a coy smile on his lips.
Daniel recovered from his surprise in an instant and fought back, freeing an arm and slamming it into the side of one of the men’s head. The man rolled away clutching at his split, bleeding ear. Daniel was thrown back by the other man. He tried to grab his knife, but the man locked arms with him and they wrestled in the dirt and foliage.
“Get up! Don’t just lay there, get back in there!” Daniel heard Shen snap. He felt the other man join the fight again, and panic threatened to overwhelm him. He grit his teeth and fought even harder, his muscles straining, sweat starting to stream down his face.
“I shouldn’t have come out here alone! Daniel, you idiot!” He punched the closest enemy full out in the face, but the other wrapped an arm around his neck from behind. Then suddenly Shen was right in front of him and he felt the traitor kick him in the middle. Hard.
Daniel collapsed to his knees, trying to suck in air, but the arm around his neck making it almost impossible. Shen went to kick again and Daniel did the only thing he could do, he pulled on the arm at his neck, and suddenly fell on the foot as it came, taking both the man behind him, and Shen to the ground. He would have been free, if it weren’t for the third man, who had grabbed a stick and crashed it into the side of Daniel’s head.
Daniel went down, pain lancing through his skull. He scrambled to his feet, but by then Shen’s two thugs were ready. They grabbed him and pinned him against the side of the ravine, grabbing his knife and throwing it away.
“Don’t move, Daniel Varrick,” Shen stooped and retrieved a small revolver off the ground. He’d obviously dropped it in the struggle.
“Sorry, did I make you drop that?” Daniel bit his tongue, knowing he’d just make things worse for himself.
Shen glared at him, pointing the weapon. “I’m sure you’ve caught on to me. So the only thing I can do is kill you.”
“Get him talking. Redirect his mind.” Daniel let out a laugh that sounded insane even to his ears. “What are you talking about? We have the same goal, Shen.” That made his enemies hesitate. “Okay good, so there’s a possibility I couldn’t be lying. Lucky shot on the first try.”
Regardless of how he was acting, Shen was still young, about Daniel’s age, and he suddenly didn’t have the confidence of someone who’d been in this situation before. “Shut-up. You’re lying!”
“Why would I? You don’t scare me. Wouldn’t I be calling for help if I thought I needed it?”
Shen stepped closer. “You’re trying too hard, Daniel. You’re just stalling. Well, you’re not gonna stop me from getting to that Lidia girl. We already have her brother.”
Daniel felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He didn’t show it though, rolling with it. “Hah, you're wasting your time. She’s with colony fighters. You can’t get to her.” A flicker of doubt flashed across Shen’s face, but only for an instant. Daniel saw it. “He’s too new at this.”
“We’ll get to her. Don’t you worry, Daniel. I--”
Shen was cut off as three gunshots came from the colony camp. Daniel tried to make a break for it, but the two thugs didn’t back down. Shen leapt up and out of the ravine for a few seconds, then came back down.
“Idiots! Can they not stick to a plan?! They’ve blown our cover early!” Shen aimed his gun at Daniel. “Gotta get rid of you now, Daniel. It was nice to meet you, but I need to scrape together what’s left of the plan.”
“You won’t get to her now. There’s no way. Those gunshots just gave you all up.”
Shen’s face turned red with anger. “You don’t know anything.”
Daniel’s brain was racing. He knew he was running out of time. “You want the Secrets, that’s obvious.” He knew a way he could get Lidia out of this. “Take me instead. You’re out of time, and I know Lidia’s half!”
“No I’m not!”
There were more gunshots, and shouting and screaming ripped through the trees. Everything in Daniel urged him to get back there and help in any way he could, but the two men holding him didn’t loosen their grip at all.
“You don’t have a choice Shen! You either take me and forget Lidia, or you only get Max!”
Shouts told them people were coming their way. And they sounded like colony fighters. Daniel’s hopes were raised when he heard McDuff’s voice. If Shen didn’t make up his mind, then they would find Daniel soon.
“Shen,” one of the men holding Daniel said. “We should just get what we can, and get outta here.”
More gunshots. Much closer.
Shen’s gun hand started shaking, his eyes locked with Daniel’s, sweat beading up on his brow. Daniel didn’t back down, showing no fear, facing Shen bravely.
Shen brought the gun down. “If you’re lying, you’ll die slowly, got it?”
They reached the rendezvous point with no problems, and Daniel’s hope that colony fighters would find them vanished. They were too far away. Now Shen’s group was supposed to wait for the group that was supposed to bring Max.
Daniel’s hands were tied, and he sat on a log next to one of his captors, eyes on Shen as he paced around, fuming over the fact the other group was late. Daniel had no idea why Shen seemed to be in charge of the operation. “Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s just being a prideful jerk.”
Something crackled, and Shen pulled out a walkie-talkie. “This is Shen, I’m at the rendezvous.”
More static in response.
Shen walked further away. “This is Shen. Do you copy?”
This time someone responded, but Daniel was too far away to hear what the person said. He didn’t try to either. He wasn’t going to do anything stupid. He knew, as of now, he was too valuable to kill, so he had time to wait for the perfect moment. There was no need to rush things and get hurt unnecessarily.
“There almost here,” Shen walked back. “They ran into some problems, and lost a man. They haven’t heard from the rest.”
“That’s because they’re all dead,” the man to Daniel’s right said quietly. He had learned that his name was Dave, and the other’s was Jordy. They seemed like desperate men, probably fathers, who were doing what they thought they had to in order to keep their families alive. They lacked the spark that was in Shen’s eyes, the spark that told Daniel who really was a bad guy and who wasn’t.
“Why didn’t they stick to the plan?” Jordy said. “Why’d they start shooting?”
Shen didn’t pay them any attention, and turned as if he heard something. Then Daniel heard it too, and figures materialized out of the trees. Daniel saw Max, and the small hope that he’d been able to get away vanished.
It was the opposite reaction when Max saw him. He let out a deep breath and slumped over in relief, making one of his captors push him forward to make him hurry.
“She’s safe,” Daniel said, quietly, as soon as Max was shoved next to him.
“Looks like I owe you big time, Dan. How’d you get them to take you instead?”
“They ran outta time. Their plan was gone and I was the only option. Shen was gonna kill me, but I convinced him that taking me and forgetting Lidia was the safest idea.”
“Shen’s that guy?” Max gestured to where Shen and the leader of the other group were having a heated discussion.
“So now I know who to go after when I get the chance.”
“If I haven’t already go to him.” Daniel answered. Jordy and Dave didn’t stop them from talking, and they were glancing at each other at what Daniel and Max were saying. Daniel turned to Jordy. “Why are you takin’ orders from Shen?”
Jordy shrugged. “Don’t got a choice, Daniel.” He used the name as if he’d heard it multiple times before. “Things are rough. We gotta do what we can to save our families.”
Dave opened his mouth to speak, but then shut it. Daniel raised an eyebrow and glanced at Max, who looked like he was ready to start a war.
“Let’s go!” Shen suddenly snapped out, glaring at his now five followers, not counting Daniel and Max. “We’re not waiting for the others. We don’t have time.”
“What?” Jordy said. “You can’t make that call.”
“I can and I just did.” Shen held up his gun. “Any questions?”
Dave suddenly lurched forward and nailed the side of Shen’s face with a fist. He stood over the younger man, his face a mask of anger. “Yeah. My son’s in that group. We’re waiting!” None of the other men moved to protect Shen, and it was obvious none of them like his authority over them. Dave picked up the fallen gun and stuck it in his belt. “I’ll take one other man with me. We’ll see what’s going on back at that colony camp.”
A man volunteered, and the two of them disappeared in the trees. Shen didn’t get up until they’d left, his eyes still dazed as he gripped a tree for support. Daniel tried not to feel satisfaction that the impudent man had been put into place. “Dave seems a little saner. Maybe it’ll be easier for Max and I to get out of here.” It was obvious these men weren’t very well organized. They had to be employed. It was the only thing that came to Daniel’s mind. “Runners who became bounty hunters?” And not skilled bounty hunters. It just made the idea of escape that much more possible.
“Dan,” Max whispered.
Daniel didn’t turn his head, but saw out of the corner of his eye that Jordy had moved away and sat down. “Yeah.” He didn’t move his mouth when he replied.
“We’re bad at this.”
“I’m sick of being on the wrong end of things," Max breathed. "I’m sick of getting captured.”
“One of the reasons that’s happening is because you have a Secret. And you never even act like you do. If Lidia hadn’t told me, I might not even know.”
Hours passed, and Dave and his companion didn’t return.