Chapter One

Torn strode into the ridiculously huge palace as if he owned the place, and the city around it. However, he didn't own it—in fact, Haven City was ruled by the most iron-fisted (some said it was just ambition) sovereign the metropolis had ever known: Baron Praxis.

The palace was decorated in hanging tapestries of bright reds and blues, festooned by exquisite silver and gold, hand-stitched crests. The crests, as it happened, also belonged to Praxis; and despite the words of the honest, hard-working, citizens who followed the Baron's orders without question—they belonged to him too.

Torn waved at a group of guards as he stepped off the elevator. When he arrived, a petite, large-breasted, red-haired woman signaled back to him and approached him from within the group. The other guards went back to chatting amongst themselves.

"Sir," she said firmly.

"Ashelin," he replied with a gesture to the throne room. "Is the Baron alone?"

"Yes, sir." At Ashelin's words, Torn set off at a brisk pace. The guards watched her as she trotted to catch Torn's retreating back, but she waved them off and touched his shoulder.

"Sir, what's happened? You look like hell."

"Been through hell," Torn replied as he and Ashelin reached the throne room's absurdly tall doors. Sometimes Torn wondered if Praxis was compensating for something—Of course, he'd never actually ask. He didn't want to be fired.

Ashelin grabbed Torn around the elbow and dragged him away from the doors, pinning him against the wall. Torn, being completely caught off guard, reacted by pressing himself against the wall and down in an attempt to slide away; but she managed to block him successfully by dropping to the floor with him, and then snare him with her elbows pressing his knees against his chest. Torn smirked at her agility. He wouldn't try to move; One, because he was trapped; And two, some strange, primal instinct inside of him was enjoying it.

"What the hell happened out there?" Ashelin was so close he could feel her chest pressing against his shins.

"That's information for the higher-ups."

"I'll hear it from him anyway." She gestured to the throne room. " So, you should just . . . tell me now."

"Not likely." Torn grunted and pushed her off, sprung off the wall, and spinning off to his right, she to the left.

"I'm authorized to use force when information belonging to the Haven City Guard is withheld from the authorities." She was smirking along with him now. Her footwork was amazingly careful, in sync with his. They were dancing, Torn noted, and he raised his fists in a neutral stance.

"I don't think you're authorized to attack a Commanding Officer."

"Who said you were on duty?" Ashelin quipped, and she too adopted his stance. Their eyes were locked.

"So, it's a sparring match?" Torn unclipped the rifle from his belt and tossed it to the side. The dagger on his back went too.

"No weapons?" Ashelin threw her rifle away as well. "Hand-to-hand?"

"Hand to hand." Torn agreed. Then he lunged, elbow raised. Before he could even try to attack Ashelin was on one knee, where she made a quick, precise sweep with her leg. Torn fell backward, the force knocking his breath away as Ashelin brought down a short, right elbow toward his stomach. Torn saw it coming, rolled away to the left, and bounced up onto his feet, pushing up from the floor with his back. Again, they were facing off.

"You've gotten faster," she confessed, "how'd you manage?"

"A few extra hours in the V-R unit." Torn resumed his own footwork and carefully, but quickly twisted his hips to lock his stance. It was an arrogant gesture, one Ashelin found slightly insulting, but took with a grain of salt.

She lunged at him again. Her knees bent, and her body went down until she was flat on the floor, sliding so quick that Torn barely had time to act.

He switched his feet from their lock and brought his body down on top of her legs, pinning her. Torn looked down at her flushed, sweating features and the smile that was playing her lips.

"V-R unit, huh?" she said, breathless. Then, their little audience of guards exploded in a fit of laughter that broke the euphoric moment between them. Torn slid off of her in a hurry.

"What's going on?" Baron Praxis's grating voice boomed out and made Torn flinch. He turned, rigid on his heel, to face the ruler. Ashelin rose from the floor and brushed herself off, gathered her rifle, and stalked back to her men. She ordered them to shut up, which made Torn smirk a little.

"Commander Torn," the Baron slapped him hard on the shoulder, "I am pleased to see you here."

"Thank you, sir." Torn saluted as the Baron turned and began back into the all glass throne room.

"Come and report, commander."

Torn followed him quickly, but only after stooped for a moment to gather his things.

Inside the throne room, things looked bleak. Outside, the sheets of plexi and beams of steel were being pelted by the fat drops of a cold, windy storm. Baron Praxis had taken up a place by in the far, right corner with his hands behind his back. Torn approached him slowly as a grumble of thunder rippled the clouds and sent bolt of lightning tearing across the sky.

Torn stood looking out of the window as well. When the Baron spoke, his voice was a quiet rasp.

"My men are losing this war . . ." he paused for a length, and then, "the metal head troops are getting stronger every day, and . . . I am growing weak."

After a moment, Torn drew his eyes away form the windows and peered sideways at Praxis. The older man looked frazzled and weary as another bolt of lightning exploded and lit his features. He didn't flinch—not even when Torn spoke did he move.

"Sir . . . they've attacked the slums, ten M.I.A.'s were reported yesterday. We . . ." he hesitated but continued, "lost twenty men, several of which were vaporized by—"

"Torn," rarely did the Baron address him by his first name alone. "You are my finest commander. Times are . . . rough . . . but," he swallowed and turned his eyes toward the steely clouds. "My people are scared. Some have rallied to run me out of office." Praxis suddenly punched the glass in front of him hard enough to rattle the steel beams.

"I will not lose this war!" His fist went out again and collided hard with the glass. The beams vibrated once more, but remained reliably sturdy. Then, he spoke in a quivering voice, barely a whisper. "I won't give up . . ."

"Baron Praxis, Sir!"

Torn craned his neck to see a young, recently tattooed man standing in the ridiculously high doorway. His gun was drawn, but shouldered, and his bright red hair was pulled back in a loose braid. Although well-muscled and large he appeared frightened and shaky.

"What is it?" The Baron growled and stomped across the room. The young man continued to speak.

"M-metal heads are a-a-attacking the western guard tower! T-they've broken through the city wall! W-we don't have enough men in that quadrant!"

"Well get men down there!" Baron Praxis stamped out of the throne room and called behind him. "Commander Torn! Get a tactical unit to the guard tower! Now!"

Torn ran from the room, pushed past the young warrior. When he got to the elevator, he was already broadcasting over his wrist-com, to all air and ground units, to get to the guard tower. He commanded them to set up a blockade, then began punching the DOWN button on the lift. When it wouldn't open he checked its status. It was locked by the security system.

"DAMN!" Torn shrieked, then, a hand was resting on his shoulder. He winched his neck around and saw Ashelin.

"Torn? My unit's ready . . . there are men waiting in the launch bay for you."

"Ashelin," Torn turned to her, grabbed her by her tiny shoulders, and looked her in the eye. "Be careful out there."

"Ditto," she said with a smile. Torn returned it, but only for a moment before he sprinted off to the launch bay.

"They've gained control of some of the western eco-grid, but only the localized area of the guard tower."

In the box-shaped, silver and red K.G. transporter, Torn had a map spread out in front of them. In red, he had circled the perimeter of the western grid, and was pointing out where the barricade was being made.

"I want a line of men in the front to lay down cover fire while a back rank hangs behind, near the blockade. We have to keep the metal heads out of the rest of the city.

"I want the rest of my men to spread out and attack the metal head ranks. We're here to fight and win," Torn gave them all a stern look, "I don't care what you have to use. Guns, knives, your own two hands . . . just kill as many of those monsters as you can. And stay alive."

There was a resounding "Yes Sir!" around the transport. Torn smiled behind his helmet. These were good men with families and lives. They were willing to sacrifice all of that, just to defend their city. It astonished him sometimes.

"Sir!" The pilot called in his high-pitched tone. "We are closing in on the western guard tower!"

The transporter swooped to a halt, its engines were a whisper of hot gasses. The first rank's twenty-five men rolled out of the back hatch, guns blazing, and laid down their cover fire. Soon after, the back rank also poured out and joined the barricade to shoot down and kill the creatures that were trying to infiltrate the city.

Torn and the rest of his men tumbled out onto the soggy ground, rain drenched their armor. The men fanned out in different directions, seeking the enemy. Save one.

It was the tall, muscled new-kid that had informed Torn of the attack. He could tell it was him by the vivid, red braid that trailed out the back of his helmet. His body was shaking and Torn could see he was frightened out of his mind.

"Why are you just standing there?" Torn called to the new kid. He nearly jumped out of his armor. Then, seeing Torn, he rushed over and dived down on the ground. It was a clumsy attempt at being stealthy. When Torn joined him on the ground, he spoke softly.

"I-I-I don't really know—I have no idea—I don't know what to do."

"Kill." Torn answered simply. The shaky kid gestured to the metal heads.

"K-kill t-those things? T-those . . . those horrible, t-things."

"Yeah," Torn admitted with a growl. He crouched down lower on the ground. "Just. . . use your gun and take 'em out."

"But I—I've never done that b-before. H-how do I do that?"

Torn gave a hopeless sigh. "Listen, Kid, if you can't handle this . . . go home. We don't need a bed wetter." The kid seemed to mull over the words in his head with something similar to shock on his features.

"W-well I, I joined for m-my Dad." He sounded so serious it was sad. Torn heaved a breath.

"What's your name, Kid?"

"Toni," he stiffened, "I mean, Recruit number 2301-7—"

"Shut up, Toni," Torn ordered, and the kid did just that. "Tell the men at the barricade that I told you to leave. I'm Commander Torn, if they w—" Toni intercepted him.

"NO!" he rose and stood firm. "I'm not—I'm not gonna r-run away."

Torn had to give the kid credit. He did have balls. "Alright," he said, giving in. "Go join the blockade and hold back the metal heads."

"Yes, SIR!" Toni's wet footsteps grew fainter as he neared the barricade.

Torn jumped up from the ground and unsheathed the knife from his back. He closed in behind the front ranks of the K.G., slipped around to the right, following what was left of the ruined guard tower. Torn crept to the corner of a wall and crouched there, waiting.

Meanwhile, Ashelin was on her back with rain washing over her as she carved a jagged hole in the belly of a metal head. IT shrieked as she kicked it off, and its body exploded in a shower of purple sparks. She rolled away fast until she was flat against a mound of rubble, which she used as weight to get back up on her feet.

She looked back at the barricade and saw some of Torn's unit was back there with pulse-rifles blazing at the creatures rushing them. Behind the troop a group of technicians were busy setting up something in the pouring rain. Ashelin squinted, but couldn't make out what it was through the storm, so she rushed over. The men standing at the barricade nearly shot her as she ran up, but realizing who she was made them lower their guns.

"Halt!" Ashelin called with a raised hand. "What's going on here?"

"Baron Praxis has ordered the immediate installation of a force-shield barrier!" A crack of lightning shook the skies, but the storm was now the least of Ashelin's worries.

"Why?" She asked, glaring. "Isn't he going to have us retreat?"

"I don't know," the tech replied, "but he's going to drop a bomb."

Torn's wrist-com buzzed on his arm. HE cocked his head to look at the small VID-screen and saw Ashelin's anger fraught face.

"TORN! YOU HAVE TO GET YOURT ASS OUT OF HERE!"

Torn, taken aback, finished wrenching the jaw form a metal head before it exploded.

"Ashelin, what's going on?"

"My father's gone crazy!"
"What? Why?"

"He's got a tech crew down here putting up a force-shield. He's gonna trap us down here with the metal heads and drop a BOMB!"

Torn wasn't quite sure he's heard right. It'd been a long time since he's cleaned out his ears, but not that long.

"A bomb?" Torn brought his dagger into the cranium of another metal head, and smashed the skull gem that had been there. He kicked the carcass away, and like all the others it too burst into a spray of purple embers. "What in the hell is he thinking? You're his daughter! We're his men! Is he insane?"

"Apparently," Ashelin huffed. "Anyway, get your men out. I don't think we have much time."

It was then, as though some cruel joke had been made, that the city's defensive alarm went off.

Torn scrambled through mud and muck when the sirens began screaming. Their high-pitched wailing meant that whatever was going on was not good, and that if your ass was outside—in the open—you'd better move it somewhere safer. Torn seemed to decide that the safer somewhere was the K.G. transport that had flown his men in. The huge red and silver machine was parked at its natural hover near the barricade. The pilot, a scoundrel by the name of Jinx, was leaning against the K.G. transport.

He was shorter than Torn but stout with a heavy jaw and slick, blonde hair that was pulled back in a tight ponytail. He wore an army-green, long-sleeved shirt with criss-crossing gun-belts on his shoulders. His pants were the same material, and he donned scuffed black boots that matched the belt at his waist. A cigar dangled from the corner of his mouth as he picked at the dirt under his fingernails with a fairly large pocket knife.

Torn crept up next to the pilot, looked around cautiously, then said: "Hey . . ."

Jinx looked up from the apparently interesting dirt of his fingernails. A smile stretched his mouth, and a puff of gray smoke exploded from the corner of his lips.

"Hey, commando," his high-pitched tone always caught Torn off guard. "What's up? You look like you got a knot in your panties." He guffawed loudly, but Torn did not. He found the accusation of wearing panties insulting.

Torn got in his face. "I need you to get this puppy started." He pointed at the transport. Jinx blinked his green eyes, then laughed brashly like he had about the panty wearing.

"Yeah, that's a real funny joke, soldier-boy." His brow was furrowed now and he gestured, with his stumpy cigar, at the vehicle. "Ain't no way this baby's gonna fly with the turbines overheated." He went back to picking his fingernails.

"Overheated," Torn repeated the word quietly, "we didn't even—we only flew out from the palace!"

"Only?" Jinx pointed his knife in Torn's face. The commander resisted the urge to break his fingers. "This puppy only does zero to six-fifty R.P.K.'s in a minute. We were pushin' seven-eighty in two." His voice was forceful now. "The turbines are overheated, so you're gonna hafta wait, chief."

"That's commander to you," Torn corrected in an irate voice. Jinx flipped the knife closed, slipped it into his pocket, and put the gloves back on his hands.

"I'm a hired pilot, not one of your men. So don't go wavin' that fancy-ass title in my face, CHEIF."

"TORN!" Ashelin was running up from behind Jinx, who turned to see her bouncing toward him. He appraised her silently, but absolutely obvious. Torn shot him a severe glare, but the pilot-for-hire paid no heed to it.

Praxis's daughter trotted up to Torn, too fraught to notice Jinx's eyes boring holes through her uniform. Torn was ready to kill him.

"The barricade is weakening. Our ammo's almost gone." Ashelin was catching her breath slowly; she was a real mess. "Torn, we have to move our men out before that bomb is launched."

Jinx snapped abruptly from his man-trance.

"Bomb?"

"Yeah," Torn glowered, "That's why we need the transport to work."

"No time." Ashelin answered forcefully. "If we wait to prep the vehicle it'll be too late. We have to warn the soldiers some how."

Jinx, seeing a golden opportunity at getting Ashelin to notice him, jumped into their discussion with: "The transport has a speaker. You can make the announcement from there."

Ashelin grabbed Torn by the arm and addressed Jinx in a hurry, "Get on the speaker and tell the soldiers to fall back into the city! Orders from the commander. We'll take care of the rest. GO!" She then ran in the direction of the barricade, with Torn at her heels, to give the men their orders. The barricade would stay put until the other men in the battlement were out. Ashelin was hoping they had enough time.

Meanwhile, Jinx had clambered into the transport and was pulling the lever to the battery to start up the speaker. Once the machine was on it whirred and clicked, and soon an electrical buzz filled the pilot's station. Jinx pulled the speaker radio up and brought it to his mouth, static crackled vacantly.

"Yo, Jinxy here . . ." he cleared his throat, "orders from on-high. All soldiers are authorized to hall their asses back into the city. I repeat. Get your ASSES outta here!"

At the mouth of the battlement, Ashelin rolled her eyes at Jinx's announcement. Torn came running behind her with his gun shouldered. The barricade had made a stronger line with the weaker and more vulnerable soldiers (the ammo deficit ones) in the back and the fresh men in the frontal guard.

Torn and Ashelin were behind the barricade ranks. The scatter of soldiers in the battlefield were slowly making their way toward the blockade. It was then that Torn realized how depleted their numbers had become. At his side, Ashelin was ordering the tech-team to stall with the force-shield; but they seemed not to hear.

A little ways away Jinx was hurrying toward the barricade. Earlier, when he was climbing from the transport he barely made it past a metal head that had decided to block the entrance. He'd used the doorway as leverage, swinging from it, and landing a double-footed lunge in the thing's skull. He finished it with a hard, sideways slash across the creature's belly.

And now there he was, nearly to the barricade with the rain beating down on him, which made him very, very cold. His feet were getting stuck every few steps and the other men were passing him quickly, even though they were covered in armor. It was then that it crossed Jinx's mind that maybe he should quit smoking.

Torn was looking for the new kid, Toni, when Jinx finally cleared the blockade. About thirty to forty men were also standing behind the barricade when it happened.

The force-shield shimmered to life.

The men on the other side, even the ones in the barricade, were being repelled in their attempts to get past the electric barrier. A familiar face, whose helmet had fallen off, ran shrieking into the force-shield and bounced back. He fell with a thud and a sizzle.

"O-ow . . ." the kid moaned. Torn got as close as he could to the barrier to see Toni on the ground, spread eagled and on his back. His cheek was clearly burned from where he'd hit the shield head on. It would leave a scar, but Torn knew the kid wouldn't be around much longer to care. Not with the bomb on its way.

"Hey kid," Torn said gently. Toni stumbled to his feet, but also kept a good distance between him and the shield.

"C-c-commander . . . I-I . . . why's this thing—what's this? I-I-I don't . . . what's goin' on?"

"They've closed this sector off." Torn answered calmly. He watched the horror spread the kid's features. "The Baron's given orders to bomb the western grid."

Toni looked ready to cry. Actually, his eyes were wet. Very wet, and his chest was heaving: But he wasn't crying.

"A-am I . . . am I g-gonna die?"

Torn turned away. He couldn't bear to answer that. He couldn't do anything but walk away. And so he did. Ashelin rushed after him, plotting in her mind what words would fly when she saw her father. Jinx took only one glance back at the crowded, blocked battlefield before following the others away.

And Toni, minutes after they had deparedt, died almost instantly in the white-light blast of the bomb.