1. The End is the Beginning

So this is how it ends…

Dice Quaid was a big man with broad shoulders, and muscles everywhere. Yet he felt oh so very helpless.

He realized that all his strength, all his past experience in the Second Earth Military, and all of the skill he had been forced to learn as a survivor on the wasteland that was Earth, had not kept him from being tossed about by events like a drowning man in the surf.

And so this is it.

He had survived all the drop operations during all those years as a soldier and Armor Shrike pilot. He had survived in his isolated cabin in his own little corner of an Earth overrun by Blue. He had survived driving Yuji and Marlene across half of dead Russia.

All so that it could end—what—in a gas station?

How did it come to this?

Dice looked around to try and understand exactly what 'here' was.

He was in a small garage. It was empty, of course, like most of the buildings and places on post-Apocalyptic Earth. What the Blue hadn't smashed or eaten the scavengers and looters had carried off.

Still, this particular station had had exactly what he had needed. And after all he had gone through…the gun fights…the return trip to Second Earth…the Blue Nest…the blimp ride…blasted shuttles and Shrike fights…after all that he was going to die in a garage.

He tried to shake his head in disgust but he spotted movement from outside the window. Someone had darted between a big rock and an overturned, burned out truck. Probably someone trying to get a better sniping spot.

Dice felt like a caged rat.

Still, he was not alone in that cage.

Quaid glanced about the garage.

The kid—everyone was a kid to Dice—with the spiked blonde hair and the nose ring was trying to peak out one of the side windows. Probably wanted to get a handle on exactly what they were up against.

You don't want to know kid.

Then there was the red headed woman in the lab coat. She was alternating looks between the kid with the punk rock hair cut and the rear window.

More of 'em out there, too, honey.

Then there was Elena. She was the smartest of the bunch because she was crouched behind a desk.

Dice hoped that a bullet from one of the humans got her. She didn't deserve to be wrapped into a meat dumpling when the Blue got there. Hell, he didn't deserve that either.

Hope the damn things choke on me.

Still, Elena had been through so much. It was only—what?—less than a couple of weeks ago when she had thought Yuji was going to ride off into the sunset with her. In that time she had not only had her heart broken, she had been kidnapped and shot at and learned that her father was not exactly who he had always claimed to be.

The poor girl had had enough misery.

More movement from outside. Dice crouched down behind the window pane, steadied his rifle, and looked.

He breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't a sniper or a Blue. Just another one of them goats got loose. The bell around its neck jingled and jangled as it trotted across the soon-to-erupt battlefield.

Lamb chops…mmm…

Still, in between the mound of jagged red rock to the left, the overturned tanker truck in the middle and the scattered boulders in front there had to be a good dozen men.

On the other side by the fenced off motor pool area and junk yard there might have been another dozen.

Dice was not sure if they were going to start shooting at him first or each other. He know which he would prefer…but he figured they would—

BAM! BAM! BAM!

The first volley of bullets smashed windows, chipped away chunks of wall, and sent all of the occupants to the floor with their hands over their heads.

The rat-tat-tat of the machine gun continued for several seconds. The rounds whizzed overhead.

Elena screamed. Dice wasn't sure, but he thought he might have, too.

Man, I hope none of these ladies heard that.

Then came a very heavy thump. The bullet that caused that sound was no ordinary round. It was an explosive shell from an Armor Shrike.

That explosive shell did just that—exploded—against the rear of the building. The wall there shook and one of the cross beams holding the not-so-stable roof in place slipped to the floor. A cloud of dust billowed through the station.

Dice crawled to the rear. The bullets—from both sides and out front—stopped.

For the moment.

There was a rear door there. Dice managed to open it a hair, barely enough to look to the rear of the garage.

Back there was little more than wasteland and the rotting corpses of cars and trucks left over from the days when the garage had been part of a larger fuel depot.

There was, of course, an Armor Shrike back there. It was one of the new Heavy Duty types. It looked very lethal. The man in its cockpit was pretty much pissed off.

At Dice.

The Shrike had, of course, loudspeakers.

"Dice! Come out of there now! I owe you!"

Silence followed the voice from the Shrike. That silence was broken by more voices. Those voices came from the front.

"Dice! You come out here!"

And…

"No! He's ours! He double crossed us!"

Quaid crawled away from the back door and moved toward the front. As he did, a new sound broke the silence.

He recognized the sound.

Now what?

It was the sound, of course, of an air ship. A Second Earth Air Ship.

He heard the retro jets fire and then the soft crunch of springs as the landing gear touched ground. That, of course, was followed by the sound of a ramp opening then the gentle whir of the wheels of another Armor Shrike.

Dice dared a look through the front windows.

It was a kind of Armor Shrike he had never seen before. Two big appendages above its head, like razors. Or edges. Two of them.

You might even say it had double edges.

A voice boomed from that Armor Shrike as well.

"Attention groundlings. This is Amick Hendar of Second Earth. The criminal Dice Quaid is to be handed over to me this instant or I shall take him by force."

Dice placed a hand over his eyes.

"Who is that?" The 'kid' with the spiked hair asked.

"Who's that?" Dice repeated the question. "That, kid, is what it sounds like when your past catches up to you."

"W-wait a sec," the girl in the lab coat stuttered. "What are we going to do?"

Dice sighed. He hated being the bearer of bad news.

"Well, missy, I'm hoping we take a few bullets pretty soon."

Elena, from behind the desk, was aghast.

"Hoping we take bullets? Why would you hope that?"

"Um, hehe, uh, well you see, do you feel that little hint of a vibration in the floor? Listen real close and maybe you can feel it. I've been feeling it for a few minutes now."

The girl in the lab coat guessed: "The-the Blue are coming? Why? Why?"

"Oh now Missy, you're a real brainiac, aren't you? You gotta know the Blue just love an all-you-can-eat set up like this. Ahh well, I hope none of you were count'in on living forever cause the long and the short of it is that we've all had our last meals."

Dice carefully, cautiously slid to his feet in a corner near the front of the room while the rest of his trapped brethren sat with shocked faces. Sat and contemplated death from explosive shells, death from bullets, or death from Blue.

Take your pick, kiddies.

Dice ran a hand over his head. He was sweating. No big surprises there.

He glanced down to his feet and there it was, the centerpiece of all his problems; the focus of all his misery ever since he had dropped Yuji and Marlene at the forest rim not far from Baikonur.

It was a simple five gallon gas container.

The problem was that it was empty.

How did I get here again? Oh yeah, I remember now…