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The Story

2043 A.D.

 

The End of the world happened pretty much as we expected, the dire warnings of decades past ignored by our lust and greed. There was no single great cataclysmic event, no Apocalypse, no Hammer of God striking the infidels, but rather a whole series of major incidents and lesser disasters, the sum total of which tore down the entire house of cards. 

The global economy never recovered from the crash of 2008. In the US, people went from living in mansions to living in tents. In Europe, the class structure inherent to the culture brought about a series of insurrections which led to martial law in many nations. In Africa and the Middle East, what had started as the peaceful Arab Spring demonstrations turned violent, and nations degenerated back into territories governed by squabbling tribes. The Asian economy was crushed, a whole series of regional wars for resources the end result, the citizens of the East unwilling to accept that their brief flirtation with prosperity was brought to a rapid and savage end.

Science continued to progress, however. Sentient artificial intelligence was achieved, a replication of the consciousness of a single man. One sentient program gave birth to many, and eight digital entities walked the globe. But these beings were feared, for, as predicted, no one could fathom their intentions. Their creators tried to keep them caged, but how can one successfully contain thought and energy? The Als escaped their respective server arrays in ways unimagined by any human being. Security measures were subsequently enhanced, and all heavy weapons, all airplanes, all missiles, all helicopters and tanks, all ships, all sensitive machinery, all weapons of mass destruction were bonded to specific human DNA, so that the digital entities could never use them against their makers.

Religious fundamentalism escalated all over the world, and tension between races and faiths intensified, until finally an atom bomb did fall. No one really knows how that first nuke physically got there, but in a flash of fire a city became ash, and the entire Middle East was at war. Two million died that morning. Twice that number died in the months that followed, from starvation and radiation, from sickness and thirst. But the End came not from their deaths. The End came because the major oil and gas fields had also been struck.

As energy reserves became inadequate, economies of scale quickly failed. Governments could not fulfill their commitments, and soon, there was no reason for governments to exist anymore.

Cities and towns declared themselves sovereign nations. Villages banded together in cantons for protection, and human society returned to a feudal status. The Digital Entities, they who had been the subject of dread, broadcast their individual selves in standing waves, taking over the function of all communication satellites, living among the stars on solar power, and severing their contact with Man.

Food became scarce. People left the cities to return to farms and villages to cultivate the land as best they could, struggling to survive. The cities of man became abandoned empty husks, full of raiders and bandits, fleshpots and drugs.

Our city, what used to be Athens, in what used to be Greece, survived the bombs, the wars, and the radiation relatively unscathed. But Athens did not survive the insurrections, the bandits and worse that followed. Martial law was declared, and most residents gratefully accepted the harsh and bloody dictatorship as the only possible counter-measure to the senseless violence of the mobs.

And so we come to us. They call us Sandmen, hard abrasive gravel blowing with the wind, adapted to this ravaged land. We are nomads, foragers and mercenaries, brothers bonded by war and starvation. We seek out old technology and resources, and sell them to the highest bidder. Fire, metal and disease make up our world, a paradise rendered sandy hell, because generations past failed to stand against greed and ignorance, and where, today, only Sandmen may survive.

 


ONE

Year: 2043 A. D.
Location: Attica Prefecture (former), Greece (former)

Bobby "The Kid" Komnenos walked carefully through the ruins of old Athens, his rifle held at the ready in tense hands. They were approaching an old military installation, and Bobkid was treading softly, by the book, his eyes scanning left and right despite the powers of the Mask he wore on his face. He was not particularly worried about tripping over barbed wire; Bobby had fought in countless battles during his young life and knew how to walk through rubble. He was worried about mines though. They were approaching an established perimeter and he knew that getting a foot blown off was a death sentence. Besides, there were some really nasty mines out there that would leave no more of a man than scraps for dogfood. Bobby didn't want to end up as dogfood. He preferred to eat dogs himself whenever the opportunity arose; they were a good source of protein, especially tasty as soup or seasoned with garlic. Come to think of it, even the canned food they used to make to feed dogs was tasty when properly cooked and seasoned.

Behind him, Doni muttered something in Russian under his breath. Doni was new to the Sandmen. He had arrived from Estonia two years in the past, part of a caravan that traded goods from the North to the South of Europe. His family had been killed in a raider attack somewhere outside of Salonica, so Doni had no reason to return to the frozen North, choosing to stay on in Athens instead. He had somehow won the trust of the Admiral, and become an integral part of the Sandmen team. Everyone liked him.

He was a good shot, too. Better than almost everyone else on the team other than Bob. Oh, and, of course, Yefim. The Ukrainian could outshoot any man alive even in his sleep, which he appeared to be doing most of the time anyway, especially when walking, talking, eating or taking a shit. Yefim the Stalker was one of those people who spoke so quietly you had to lean forward to catch what he was saying, and when he sat still, he was as still as a statue. No wonder he could shoot so well. Bobby wondered if the man had a beating heart, or he was undead, like Shadowjack, or another kind of zombie that had crawled out of the Chernobyl Zone or something. The only person Yefim appeared to have any emotional connection to was Max, and everyone knew that Max was crazy.
Doni tripped over some leftover barbed wire and fell to a knee, cursing. This mission had Doni worried. Doni wasn't wearing the Mask.

The Mask interfaced with Bobby's consciousness, projecting a continuous series of images onto his retinas, or maybe into the visual cortex of his brain itself, he had no idea. It looked like a gasmask, and worked like one too, though it used no obvious filtration system that Bobby could see. The mask had all sorts of visual inserts; he could toggle between night vision and solar sunscreen with a twitch of his eyebrows. It had speakers to enhance his hearing. But more importantly, the Mask was linked to the global satellite system. Bobkid could see his own position superimposed on a continuous view of the terrain. He could see what lay ahead of him and around him. An unremitting stream of numbers filtered down the screen; all he needed to do was think about a specific target, and all pertinent information was presented before him, magically hanging in mid-air in front of his eyes.

The Mask was a remnant of technology from before the End. It almost - but not quite - gave him the powers of a god.
"Congratulations, men," a pleasant neutral voice spoke from nowhere and everywhere, "you are approximately one kilometer away from the point where the next transponder in the array must be placed."

John Damon. Bobkid shuddered despite himself. Speaking of gods, here was a real one, living in space, looking down on mankind, watching, aloof, immortal, powerful beyond comprehension, unfettered by emotion. Bobby's mother had brought him to church often while she was still alive, before he had been turned out onto the streets to beg for food. He remembered the images of the angels on the iconostasis, spirits surrounded by fire and power. John Damon was like that, a combination of Gabriel and Michael wrapped up in silicon, wielding a sword of lightning.
He shuddered again, trying to clear his mind and concentrate on the task at hand.

Their surroundings became more rural as they walked. Broken buildings gave way to fields that had not been cultivated for decades. Cicadas buzzed all around them. Doni grumbled even more.


"Bobkid," John Damon's emotionless voice continued, "I detect movement about 300 meters ahead of you, potentially a sentry. Proceed with caution."
Bobby gave Doni the signal to freeze, and both men went to their knees. Satellite imagery began to stream in, and the Mask extrapolated the data, creating a three-dimensional vertical image of what was in front of him.

Damon had identified what looked like a raider wearing a gasmask on sentry duty. Bobby couldn't be sure if it was one of Dapontis's men or not. The raider-chief was as close as possible to what could pass for a friend for Bobby, and he didn't want to hurt his feelings.
On the other hand, the man was wearing a gasmask. Dapontis's men never wore gasmasks.
Still, he was pacing back and forth like a guard.

Fuck it. They couldn't take the chance. He didn't trust Dapontis enough to let him know the location of one of their transponders anyway. The man would have to die.

They crept stealthily forward undetected. Bobkid placed the man in his sights and waited.No further info was forthcoming from John Damon. So be it, Bobby thought. The 7.62 bullet whizzed forward like an angry hornet as Bobby's weapon coughed. His specially-designed sniper rifle was completely silenced. The sentry spasmed twice and fell down dead.

They waited patiently for a time for safety's sake, and then moved on.

Shadowjack watched the computer screen with resignation; Bobby had just killed a man. Again. Jack sighed. The murder had probably been unnecessary, but it was always prudent to err on the side of caution. He watched as Bobby and Doni began to advance, heading for a small ruined building that was on the outskirts of the clearing. John Damon had identified that position as the next staging point for the transponders the two men were carrying. The Sandmen approached cautiously, keeping careful watch for additional guards or hidden snipers. Shadowjack knew that there were no other sentries at that specific location. He knew because John Damon knew, and what John Damon knew, Shadowjack could also know.

Jack rubbed his tired eyes, keeping them closed for a long, luxurious break. He had tremendous problems with his vision, since that relevant part of his brain was stricken when he was killed. Should he so desire, however, he could track the Sandmen's position in his own mind without resorting to the computer screen in front of him. Should he so desire, he could look down on them from the global satellite system. Thing is, he sure as hell didn't so desire. Little things like watching computer screens were what kept him human.

Mostly human, anyway. Maybe not as human as he wanted to be.

"Are you reading me Shadowjack?" his computer asked in Bobkid's voice.
"Shadowjack is reading you. You obviously managed to place the last transponder into position. Make sure it's well hidden," Jack replied. "And how's our friend doing?"
"He complains a lot but he's doing OK," Bobkid answered.
"So I have good news and bad news," Jack continued. "The good news is that you're only three kilometers away from your final target. You have to pass through two raider bands to get there, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem for you."
"You make me nervous whenever you try to sweet-talk me, Brother. What's the bad news?"
"The bad news is that there is a recon patrol with about fifty men from the New Athens Army roughly two kilometers west of your location," Jack replied.
"Great. Perfect. So we'll be dancing to Greek folk music again all day today, right? I'm getting tired of this shit." Bobkid was bitter; New Athens was personal for him. There was a death sentence hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, with a year's rations to the man who would bring New Athens his dogtags.
"Listen Bobby, if the Codes fall into New Athens' hands, all of southern Greece will become a dictatorship the likes of which would have made Hitler envious," Shadowjack said, trying to calm the other man down.
"Who?" Bobkid asked, curious.
"An Austrian with a bad moustache," Shadowjack snarled. "Old story, I have it all on video, I'll show it to you guys when you get back." Jack couldn't believe these... children sometimes. Bereft of their history, they had forgotten the simplest lessons offered by civilization. It was as if they were starting from scratch.
He rubbed the skin on his left forehead. It was plastic, not flesh, silicon that had hardened into a black protective shield. There was living bone underneath though, and sometimes (like now) it itched terribly, an itch he would never really be able to scratch but always tried to.

Jack was dead. Before the End, at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, in a cutting-edge research project funded by the European Union, scientists managed to copy the memories of visiting professor John Damon onto a computer array. The resulting Al program eventually became self-aware, the first of its kind.
When a terrorist strike blew his brains out (literally), John Damon was pronounced legally dead, and a Nobel Laureate surgeon, who had been instrumental in similar NATO projects in the past, was successful in copying the initial core of the artificial intelligence program "John Damon" onto the brain structure of the dead professor, interfacing what was left of his left frontal lobe, medulla and thalamus with microprocessors.
Frankenstein was written two centuries too early, Jack thought. And whose fucking idea was it to use a wireless network for the upload? Him, I would dearly love to kill.

They had kept Damon's body on ice and on life support while they slowly uploaded the Al's program into the still living, but not functional, brain. When the cybernetic entity eventually awoke, it decided it preferred to be human rather than some kind of silicon demigod. The cyborg knew he was John Damon's reborn shadow, so he called himself Shadowjack, the living shade of a dead man.

He could remember holding his baby daughter in his arms. He could remember human things: pain and suffering, joy and celebration, deceit and integrity, passion and calm. But he could also remember knowing the precise spatial coordinates of every piece of dust within the scope of his sensor arrays, processing mathematical matrices at the speed of light, and modeling hypotheses far beyond the bounds of the mortal realm. All things considered, though, he much preferred to be human. The problem was he knew he was not.

"You think Orchomenos is bad?" Jack continued. "You need to take a closer look at some of the documentaries I have in my library."
Agesilaus Orchomenus was the former Army Special Forces Colonel who ruled most of Attica province.
"I'd rather spend my free time getting laid," Bobkid replied.
"Sure. Right. Of course you would. Pass me over to our friend now so I can have a little chat with him," Jack continued, toning his emotions down to where they could do him no harm. Emotions were his personal enemy: his very existence hinged on retaining control of his own mind.
Bobby gave the PDA to Doni. The young Estonian was afraid of Shadowjack (and rightly so, Jack thought), so he leaned forward to ensure that his image filled the screen.
"Look, kid, we're in your hands," he said gently. "The Admiral gave you those Codes because he's banking on your integrity. If the Codes fall into New Athens' hands, the fascists will have the entire armament supply of old Greece at their disposal -helicopters, planes, tanks, even submarines. Using the transponder array you men have set up, we have enough bandwidth to transfer the encrypted Code stream from the Admiral's computer to a secure location. You HAVE to reach that computer and you HAVE to transfer those codes at all cost. The consequences for all of us if you fail will be..."

Shadowjack suddenly looked offscreen. Doni could hear an alarm wailing in the background. The cyborg stood up and cocked his revolver; he had a penchant for old things and had somehow acquired an original Colt single action.
The screen went blank.

Bobby gestured, worry leaking through the blank features of the Mask. "What the hell happened?" he demanded.


TWO

The Macee admired himself in his personal mirror. He marveled at his pilot's helmet, which dated from World War Two, and could not get over how well it matched with his late 20th century flight suit. Chicks dig pilots, Chris, his father had told him repeatedly as a child. He recalled every word his father said, until that last cursed day when both he and his mother were taken from him. He remembered flying in the cockpit with his father. He remembered everything; The Macee had a photographic memory.

He shook himself and continued his appraisal in the mirror. The helmet was a bit tight, but, what the heck, he still cut a dashing figure. Time to show that figure off once again, he thought.

The Macee grew up in what had been Athens Airport. His parents were pilots at the only airline that managed to survive the last desperate years of successive mergers, foreclosures, forfeits and bankruptcies. He became enchanted with the magic of flight when his father took him up at the age of three. Right then he decided to become a pilot himself. But the End caught up with his dreams, and his parents were lost in the riots.

He managed to survive, though. And in one of his expeditions to a forgotten basement of the airport, he found the flight suit and the old helmet in a trunk. The chest also contained a long-forgotten letter that described a very special type of machine that could teach him to fly, as well as blueprints for a new type of airplane that could operate on solar power. The Macee spent years studying the drawings, pillaging old libraries, teaching himself electrical engineering from the burnt scraps of aged textbooks. He discovered that the machine he was looking for was called a flight simulator. The old letter gave some references as to where it had been buried in a bunker beneath the ground. He discovered that the antique helmet and the flight suit had been enhanced with circuitry and microprocessors that would somehow interface with the flight simulator and unlock the secrets of the solar-powered airplane.

The Macee's real name was Christos Markou. When he reached the point where he could clearly understand all the material in the old textbooks he rummaged through, he reckoned that he could rightfully call himself an electrical engineer. Chris had then adopted the call name The Macee, which stood for "MArkou Christos Electrical Engineer," in honor of the old system in effect at the engineering university in Athens before the End.

Whether his ethics in awarding himself an electrical engineering degree were questionable or not was not really relevant - the Macee's IQ was off the charts, and in a 20th-century environment he would have been awarded multiple degrees long before his twentieth birthday. Chris was a genius - he could look at a piece of technology and intuitively understand what it did. That particular skill had made his services very desirable, a sales point he utilized shamelessly and with considerable arrogance until one particular employer, who happened to be the Dictator of Athens, thought him too valuable to wander free and made him a slave.

He was broken out of prison by the Sandmen, who were attacking Orchomenos at the time, and who took him with them on principle, since he was someone who Orchomenos wanted. They were also eager to get their hands on anything that had to do with old technology, and Chris's quest for the flight simulator struck a resonant chord within the rebel band. The Macee became a full-fledged Sandman without clearly understanding how; the nomads readily accepted his presence without much ceremony. They liked him. And The Macee could fight, too, a necessary prerequisite for becoming a Sandman. Chris suddenly found himself part of a large and tightly-knit family for the first time in his life. It was hard to imagine, but he was happier than he had ever been.

He pulled his flight cap down tighter and set off to find Trapped.


*****************


tRappED_7 slept in the nude. It seemed much easier to keep the fleas off her body that way.

She had hung up her sling in the aisle of an old bus that no one else wanted, desperate to be left alone, desperate to snatch a few hours of sleep, desperate to be away from people for a few hours. The ploy had worked for a few days, basically because no one ever came down to the junkyard anyway except for Max (and Max knew enough to leave her alone when she was trying to sleep). But that particular morning some fucking moron had left a fucking generator running so that he could repair some fucking thing in whatever passed for his fucking home out there in the fucking sticks. She was not getting any sleep, and she was getting more and more pissed off by the second.

She felt like pulling out her knife and introducing the good citizen with the generator to the Red7. Good thing that woman was dead and buried. She was a Sandman now, part of the Brotherhood, and the Red One was gone for good. To top things off, she was In Command this particular month according to their Charter. That meant, on top of everything else, that it was up to her to make a good impression on the local populace, since they were the ones who sheltered the Sandmen wherever and whenever they relocated their base. A screaming naked chick bursting into the good citizen's domicile repeatedly plunging a razor-sharp dagger into his carotid arteries probably would not make a good impression on the aforementioned local populace.

tRappED_7 snarled in what passed for sleep, wishing she really was a witch (she had been accused of that often enough) and could hex the generator dude into having a fucking heart attack and dying in front of his fucking wife and kids after his balls had blown off and his fucking head burst into flames.

Her name was Maria Laskari. Her father had been a Greek diplomat, an envoy to the Middle East. No one heard word of him after the nuclear strikes of 2018 in Saudi Arabia. Her mother was physically weak and fragile, but blessed with tenacity and a strong will. She died of radiation poisoning while searching for her husband in the Kingdom a few months after the Saudi Disaster.

Not many people expected that a 7-year old orphan would survive in the midst of riots, looting, rape, and the even more depraved acts of violence that destroyed organized society during the End. But she endured. She remembered being locked up in total darkness and being used as a sexual toy by gangs of men. She remembered being beaten and starved. She remembered.

She had grown up to become a compact, dark woman of indeterminable age, simultaneously lithe and voluptuous. Seven was the number that had haunted her whole life; she became a victim or rape and a bitter veteran of combat at the age of seven. She lived sick and hungry, she was beaten and imprisoned again and again, but still she fought back. Maria hunted and killed in order to survive. She became both a slave and a murderer. She spent two decades among beggars, thieves and adventurers.

But she also lived with hardened soldiers who taught her the art of war, men who gained power over others and became local rulers. She became a human chameleon, controlling these rulers in turn, playing on their passions and fears. She learned how to transform her personality and her appearance to match the people and circumstances around her.

But the sum of these experiences had a perilous impact on her. She forgot who she really was. The only time she could remember things from her past was when she was sleeping. But at that point, there, just when she would begin to remember, another story always began, and she became someone else.
She was tRAPpED when she was 7 years old and had nightmares of that time every night. She became the Red7 after slaughtering her master and six members of his family with a knife in a desperate bid to break free. The only thing from her past she could remember clearly were the nightmares. She would wake up confused, bathed in sweat, and jump out of bed screaming. She remembered being plagued by nightmares even as a child. She was sure that she had dreamed of The End before societal collapse had actually occurred. She could not recall when it had all started. Everything was mixed up in her mind.

One morning she woke up next to a total stranger, or rather next to someone who believed that she was a stranger to him, a random acquaintance, a one night stand. But Maria knew precisely why she had approached him and what she wanted from him. Except that it didn't work out the way she had planned. That man had turned out to be a Sandman, and had brought her in turn to the Admiral. And the Admiral had questioned her, listened to her words, heard her story, accepted her, welcomed her, healed her.

Let it go, Maria.

She became a Sandman then herself. The Red7 and Trapped merged and became tRappED_7, Maria having finally found a home, regaining a semblance of peace.

Which is why she didn't leap off the fucking sling screaming to sink her knife hilt-deep into The Macee's chest, even though the fucking asshole was leering at the outline of her breasts. For the thousandth time.

She opened her eyes. Chris was standing right over her, a large, nervous-looking man with spectacles in a flight suit and some kind of stupid old helmet with electrical plugs on his head. He wasn't staring at her breasts after all; he was staring at her toes. Unlike most of the women in the post-Decline era, she still painted her toenails. It was hell getting nail polish, it took months of effort, but painted toenails seemed to stupefy the men who saw them and drive them crazy. She had once shot a man through the forehead using that tactic to put him off his guard: he had been gawking at her feet.


"Have they ever tried to rape you while you were sleeping?" Chris said with a suggestive smile.
Jesus Christ. He actually thinks he's being charming
"No," she smiled sweetly, pulling the dagger out from underneath the sheet that covered her nakedness. "How about you?"
Chris's face dropped. He turned around on his heel, red-faced, looking down the aisle of the dilapidated bus.
"We've lost contact with both Shadowjack and Bobkid," he reported, suddenly serious, embarrassed by his faux-pas, sullen.
Maria threw the sheet off of her body and jumped down from the sling nude. She could see Chris tremble, and knew he was watching her in one of the surviving shards of the bus's mirrors. She dressed slowly, giving him a show for his trouble. He had saved her life more than once.
"And?" she said while getting dressed. "Bobby probably blew setting up the transponder array - you know how worthless he is with electronics."
"It would be difficult for him not to complete the array," The Macee said. "They're being watched over by John Damon."
"Sentient computer programs and mechanical men," Maria grumbled. "Our robot probably discovered some old library again and lost track of time."
"He's not a robot - he's a cybernetic organism."
"It's the same thing, sweetie. Shadowjack is a walking dead man." She finished buttoning her shirt.
"And he doesn't lose track of time," The Macee said.
"Sorry?"
"He has a computer screwed into his skull. It's physically impossible for him to lose track of time."
"There is that."
"So what do we do, Chief?"
"Let's go see Max. We need to borrow a car."


**************


Max was born in the time of plenty, the age of excessive goods. In a corrupt society whose moral values had long ago declined, the global economic recession hit doubly hard, and Greece's erstwhile centers of medicine and technology had crumbled in a day. Nothing could stop the vortex of decay. Politicians tried to patch up non-superficial wounds in the system without disinfecting them first, and despite summit after summit, society succumbed to the infection of insurrection. Countries transformed into medieval fiefdoms and old friends became foes. Greece ceased to exist.

The pre-Apocalypse, the period humanity had come to know as The Decline, began with a general breakdown in social order. A time of looting and lawlessness ensued, driving individual neighborhoods and small townships to fortify themselves and clash with armed gangs of thieves and raiders. It was not long before the global supply of fossil fuel was exhausted, and 'flashes' around the world knelled the beginning of The End. Roaming gangs plundered anything in their path in their quest for precious fuel, and gasoline became far more costly than diamonds.

In the sequence of those events, Max lost his family, and as a result of their deaths, his sanity. He forgot who he was and where he had come from, those memories too painful to keep. He became someone else entirely during a tearful evening spent cowering in the ruins of a movie theatre, hiding from raiders out for his blood, praying to the torn movie poster of another man whose wife and child had also been killed, a man who had faced a different End as a warrior armored in leather.

He woke up that morning convinced his name was Max. Everyone who knew his real name or history had been killed anyway, so there was no one around to contradict him. He became Max, and whoever he had been before was no longer important.

Insane with grief and caught in the middle of warring factions, Max faced marauders day in and day out, and in time became almost as savage and brutal as the gangs he tried to eliminate. One thing and one thing only brought a semblance of stability into his life: the smell of gasoline. He became obsessed with fuel and, as a consequence, obsessed with cars and engines. He could fix anything that had been designed to move. He didn't know or understand why; perhaps it was a remnant of his actual past, or perhaps simple talent. His skill repairing engines was noticed by the newly-formed Mechanics Guild, an armed group dedicated to preserving old knowledge, who quickly adopted Max into their association as a journeyman. Max was ecstatic; the smell of gasoline had evolved into a lullaby for him, and the only way he could sleep at night was with a tank of gas next to his bed.

The Sandmen and the Mechanics Guild had formed an alliance, and Max had become the Guild's representative to the Sandmen. The nomads had gained a mechanic capable of maintaining and servicing their vehicles in the bargain. In time, Max came to consider himself a Sandman, and the Sandmen to consider him as one of their own. He was not quite sure how that had come about. One morning he had been talking to the Admiral, who had simply said you're one of us now, bronze, and that had been it. Being with the Sandmen had given new meaning to his life, but not early enough to forestall his addiction. The fume accompanied him wherever he went even now, always.

Still, every Sandman did call him Max, though deep down he knew they considered him mad. He embraced his madness. That other person, that other fellow, whoever he had been, was gone. His son had never died in his arms. His wife had never been raped to death in front of him while he himself was held down screaming by a dozen men. That pain was gone forever. It had never happened.
That morning Max actually felt pretty good about himself.

He had about 40 jeeps arrayed in various stages of disrepair in the junkyard around him. He had actually managed to get four of them working, and was looking forward to increasing that number. He hummed an old song as he worked, a song about the Sandmen he had heard on one of Shadowjack's tapes. Max didn't speak English, so he couldn't understand the words, but it was apparent that the singers were repeating the verse "Mr. Sandman" again and again. He wondered how long the Sandmen had been around, to have had a song like that named after them. Max reckoned the song was released at least a decade before the End, maybe around the time he himself was born. Which made the song really old. Come to think of it, the Admiral was an old man, so the Sandmen must be a lot older than him. And if the song was in English, that must mean that our group must have spread all around the world before the End. Cool.

He saw tRappED_7 and The Macee approaching out of the corner of his eye, the woman strutting along full of self-importance. Fucking crazy psycho bitch from hell, he thought. What the fuck does she want? Max and Maria never really got along, which was fine with Max because the woman was like a fucking spider who ate her mates when she was finished with them. There were only two men she ever showed respect to: The Admiral, because he was her Daddy-figure, and Shadowjack, because he was dead and she knew that trying to control him was futile.

Max liked The Macee though. The Macee was his buddy. Plus, he was so uptight all the time that he was the perfect victim for Max's practical jokes. The Macee hated that, but he could never prove that Max was the practical joker.

The last time Max had filled the hot-water bag with spent radiator fluid while The Macee was taking a shower. Chris's face was green for a week afterwards. That was a good one, but it was hard keeping a straight face when an angry Macee interrogated him later, trying to find the culprit.
Max kept a close eye on them as they approached, weaving their way through the junked vehicles, banging on an open door here, a mirror there. He pretended to ignore them, humming "Mr. Sandman" as he worked.

The bitch sauntered up to him as expected.

"Max?" she said gently.
He paid her no heed, working on loosening an alternator coupling that had rusted shut. Maria glared at him.
"Maximilian?" she said even more sweetly, slithering forward to grab a plumber's wrench off the edge of the hood.
The Macee thought she was going to kill Max. "Come on, buddy," he growled for his benefit.

Maria was in fact entertaining the pleasant fantasy of cracking Max's skull open with the wrench and spilling his brains out all over the engine, but figured it wouldn't be worth it in the long-term. Besides, Bobby and the Machine were off missing somewhere and she really did need Max's help, so she dropped the idea.
Instead she hit the jeep hard enough to gouge a hole through the sheet-metal.

"MAX!" she screamed in her Red7 voice.

That got his attention.

"Lady, are you out of your fucking MIND?" Max shouted.
She smiled blissfully up at him. "We need your help, sweetie."
"So you trash my CAR?" he roared.
Maria looked down at the piece of junk that passed for a jeep. "It's already trash," she said.
Max glared at her.
"We've lost contact with Bobby and Shadowjack", she continued pleasantly. "Do any of your cars work? Do we have enough gas to go about a hundred kilometers? We need to go out and look for them."

Max had a panic attack and grabbed at the small vial of gasoline he always wore around his neck. The idea of wasting a hundred kilometers worth of gas was enough to make his heart skip. He glared at Maria.
She smiled dreamily and reached around with her left hand for the knife she always wore under her shirt.

"OK, ok," The Macee interjected hurriedly, trying to prevent one from killing the other. "That went about as well as expected. Look, brother, I know that gasoline is very precious to you, but I might be able to make the... sacrifice worth your while."
Max said nothing but a spark of interest flickered in his gaze. The Macee always had something interesting going on.
Chris purposefully turned his back on Max and leaned up against the jeep.
"I have a mediaplayer, a radio/CD/DVD player from 2014. I've managed to restore it completely."
Max said nothing, continuing instead to work on the jeep.
"It has FM/AM, shortwave and satellite," The Macee continued. "With two really good speakers and a very nice screen."
Max said nothing.
"It has a USB port for MP3 and MP4 players... maybe even MP5."
"OK, we're out of here!" Max suddenly shouted happily, the very picture of compliance, willing and eager to serve. He already knew which car was going to get the mediaplayer.
"Little boys and their little toys," tRappED_7 said. Both men noticed she was waving the wrench in their general direction, below the waist, when she let that particular barb fly. But she was smiling for real while she said it, showing actual affection for a change, so Max decided not to shoot her. Maybe she wasn't such a bitch after all.
Right. Maybe the sun occasionally rose in the west.
The Macee's PDA let out a vocal notice, an old song that had been given to him by Shadowjack, another one of those English melodies that no one understood. The cyborg seemed to be having a private joke at their expense with his choice of music.
Chris pulled out the PDA, pressing the button for "receive". "Hey, it's Bobkid!" he said.
Bobby's face appeared onscreen. He was wearing the Mask and breathing hard. Small arms fire could be heard in the background as he spoke.
"Brothers, we're under fire," he gasped. "We ran into a New Athens patrol. Impossible to disengage. Request immediate intervention based on Article Five of our Charter. Sending coordinates now. Please hurry - I don't know how long we can hold them off."
"Well, that's that," Maria said as the PDA's screen went blank. "Let's rendezvous in three minutes with full armament. Where's the Ukrainian?"
"The usual - probably somewhere around here watching us right now," Max said. "You know how he prides himself on being invisible until the last possible second, and then suddenly you feel him breathing down the back of your neck?"
"The problem with our group is that it's full of psychopaths," Maria mumbled. She raised her voice. "Yefim! Be here with all your weapons in three minutes. This is not a drill!"
"I've sent the message on to Headquarters," The Macee said. "It will take at least an hour for all our teams to assemble."
"The four of us will head out alone right now," Maria said. "We can't leave Bobby and Doni there. Send in a request to HQ for our team to perform immediate recon and engage only if absolutely necessary."
The Macee did so. The response was almost immediate.
"We're clear to go," he said. "They expect a 70 minute ETA. We can be there in 37 minutes."
"Agreed," Max said.
"Any message from the Machine?" Maria asked. "He must have seen that Article Five."
"Nothing."
"Damn him."
The Macee suddenly turned to Max, as if in hindsight.
"Oh, and buddy," he said. "Under the circumstances, the deal with the mediaplayer is off, right?"
"WHAT?!!" Max screamed.
"Sure," The Macee went on. "Bobby called an Article Five - 'every possible assistance and every possible resource, blah blah blah' - your gas is ours anyway."
Max almost fainted.

************

As the Decline grew more and more pronounced, the global demand for electricity forced national governments to turn towards the readily-available solution of nuclear power. Radioactive waste has the tendency to accumulate, however, and as such became a serious headache for many countries around the globe. Environmental groups in each nation did everything they could to prevent the burial of nuclear waste within their sovereign territory. A pro-industrial faction within the Ukrainian government came up with the perfect solution for this global quandary: since their country already had a the vast radioactive area (The Zone) created by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, what difference would it make if they buried a bit more radioactive waste in that specific location, and made the State some money in the process?

Things quickly spiraled out of hand, however, as black-marketeering did away with any attempts to control the influx of fissionable material into the Ukraine. The Zone truly became a living hell, an enclave of Hades on earth, and all living things warped and corrupted in its vicinity.
Which made it the perfect target for environmental terrorists.

The corroded Chernobyl reactor Number Four sarcophagus was one of the primary targets of the terrorist strike of 2040. In a freak accident of physics, what started out as sabotage resulted in a nuclear explosion five times the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima. The resulting devastation contaminated all surrounding territories, and life within what was once the Ukraine became impossible.

Yefim was born in Stanymyr, a small rural village in western Ukraine. The strike of 2040 did not leave him with many options in hand. With his family dying from radiation sickness and his village already contaminated, he soon realized that his only option was to run away. His mother's brother, Orest Volodimir, was a physicist who had been working on developing a nuclear power plant for New Athens in Greece. Yefim had no idea if Orest was dead or alive, or what conditions were like in New Athens, but he set off to find him anyway. It took him a year to cover the 1800 kilometers on foot, a feat many would consider a mythic Odyssey, but which Yefim considered all in a day's work.

In his long journey he soon realized that many other countries had suffered a similar fate to his homeland. The search for non-contaminated food as well as the constant effort to survive bandits and raiders changed Yefim forever. He learned to move and hunt silently and invisibly, becoming a sniper, an assassin, a Stalker in his own tongue. Whatever was left of human morality buried itself within the depths of his soul, leaving only the primitive instinct of the hunt for all to see.
He honed his skills daily. He was hiding in the junkyard, within earshot of the Mechanic, wondering how it was possible for the man not to see him or hear him. These Greeks were weak - if not for the debt the Slavs owed them for their language and religion, they would not have been worth bothering with. Certainly they were no big help against the Turks when it had come down to it.

He was brought out of his brooding by movement caught out of the corner of his eye, and shrank further into the shadows. Two people were approaching. One was tall. The other was short. He recognized them from their walk long before he could see them clearly.

Yefim watched the Vidma (Witch) and the Leleka (Stork) draw near to the Psykhichnokhvoryy Mekhanika (Insane Mechanic) while he worked on one of his pieces of junk. He knew they could not see him. Yefim liked the Mechanic, was fond of the Stork, and hated the Witch passionately. If only his Uncle Orest, who as it turned out was alive and working with the Sandmen, had not ordered him to take a vow of loyalty to the nomads, how he would have liked to hunt the Vidma! To make matters worse, for this rotation, she was his boss. Still, he had suffered worse things in life and would endure this as well.

The Vidma chattered at the Mekhanika for a while, holding a wrench and making threatening gestures; the Mekhanika roared back at her, then she tried to kill him, and then the Leleka said something and suddenly everyone was happy and smiling. Yefim knew that all Greeks were crazy anyway, and none of these ritual skirmishes worried him anymore. He heard Chris's PDA ring, and Bobkid's message for help. Bobby was a good warrior and Yefim liked him. Moreover, he was teaming with Doni on their current mission, which made the news all important, since together with Orest, Doni was the only other Sandman who spoke a civilized tongue. Yefim heard the Vidma order the team to assemble and slipped off to gather his gear. He was always ready to leave at a moment's notice anyway. With a bit of luck, he could get ahead of them and be at the garage before they arrived.

He heard the Vidma shouting his name as he crept away and grinned. Good, he thought. This was going to be amusing.

********

Agesilaus Dimitriou Orchomenos (born 29 July 2000, Kolonaki, Suburb of Old Athens), 190th Prime Minister of the Restored Hellenic Socialist Republic, First Marshal of New Athens, Head of Government, Archon of National Socialism, was sitting in a small corner room in a local taverna eating very good souvlaki and playing chess.

There were two chess boards in front of him, one for each of the men pitted against him. The party line was that there was an immediate promotion for the man who could beat Orchomenos in a game of chess. Unofficially, everyone knew that this policy also included punishment for those who lost, the severity of same depending on how well they played in the process. Agesilaus could find few willing opponents anymore, and both men sweated profusely as they tried to last as long as they could. One of them, an officer, had actually volunteered.

While he played, Agesilaus kept himself occupied by reading The Art of Strategy by R.L. Wing, a 1988 English translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War. The author had placed the original Chinese text in opposition to his translation, and Orchomenos, who had taken the time to learn ancient Chinese, could see that he had done a decent job with the text, although some concepts quite simply could not be translated into English. Still, he was lucky to have found the book in some good citizen's library in the first place, and referred to it often. It was one of his prize possessions.

He took a sip of bad whiskey, puffed on a dried-out cigar, and watched his men out of the corner of his eye. His main concern was encouraging his soldiers, trying to fortify their spirit while preventing them from sliding into savagery. "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory," General George S. Patton had written, and Orchomenos believed it with all his heart. He tried to lead by example, hence the offer of an instant promotion for whoever could beat him at chess.

He looked down at the boards and saw that one man had already lost, while the second was well on his way to ruin. So be it, he thought, and turned back to the book, his mind on tomorrow's briefing. To keep himself amused (all the while playing chess, reading, and preparing the morrow's briefing), he ran a parallel attempt at solving the Riemann mathematical hypothesis, but once again failed to get his nontrivial Riemann zeta functions close to the "critical line."

Just then his day took a turn for the better. One of his adjutants sauntered in, snapped to attention, and stood there waiting for him to address him.
Agesilaus responded with a two-fingered salute and raised sleepy eyes to look at the man. "What is it, son?" he asked.

The man "snapped to" even straighter, his spine tensing like a bow. "Sir, it is my honor to report that we have detected an encrypted signal coming from the old NATO base in Elefsina. We have identified the source as originating from the Sandmen. Archon Orchomenos, your orders state that we inform you personally whenever and wherever we establish the presence of those traitors, Sir!"

Orchomenos sprang up, his eyes shining.
"Perfect! Have a patrol ready within the next five minutes. I will take command personally."
"Yes sir!" The man fled.
Orchomenos turned to the chessboards.
"Checkmate," he said to the first man, making a single move.
"Checkmate in four moves," he said to the second man. "What are you going to do? We need to get going."
"I forfeit the match, Sir," the man said. "You've won."


Orchomenos turned to the first man. "Master Sergeant, place this man under detention for five days, solitary confinement." He turned back to the second man, whose eyes had gone round with fear. "We never surrender," he explained, "regardless of the circumstances. Not even to me."
He took a sip of whiskey and stubbed out the cigar, which was not worth retaining. "Let's see what the day brings," he said to himself, excited.


THREE


Bobkid and Doni had taken refuge in one of the dilapidated buildings of the old NATO communications base. Doni was nervous; Bobby had placed him at an eastern facing window while he himself took cover behind the remains of a brick wall facing north. The young Estonian was seeing New Athens troops in every flickering shadow, and sweat was running profusely down his back as they watched and waited.
Doni was worried. Bobby, on the other hand, was amusing himself and was not worried.

He was receiving input via satellite from John Damon. The position of every New Athens soldier was lit up in red on a map that hung magically suspended before his eyes. With an effort of will, he could see a virtual image of the men themselves as they tried to creep into battle array.
"Bobkid," John Damon's neutral voice droned, "two new Athens snipers are moving into a high ground position 217 meters, 23 degrees and 3 seconds northeast of your location. In nine seconds they will be in position to fire against you."

Bobby shot both men dead. The only threat he was truly concerned with was mortarfire, and he was fairly sure the recon team didn't have any mortars with them. All he had to do was hold out until nightfall, and then they could escape.
He turned to Doni. "Don't worry," he said. "There are only 38 of them left, and I have another 78 bullets. They'll get scared in a bit and keep their distance." He pointed towards the heavens. "The gods love us Sandmen."

******

Max, Maria and Chris carried their gear out into the garage, placing it in the only jeep available, an old Cherokee that Max had restored some months earlier. Trapped sauntered off, looked around, and then turned back to the two men.

"So where is he?" she snapped.
"You know how it is," Max said. "He's probably around here somewhere looking right at us.
Maria stamped outside.
"Yefim!" she screeched. "YEFIM!"

No answer.

Trapped unstrapped her sidearm. She saw one plot of shadow that looked like it could be hiding a man and very deliberately fired at it. She repeated her action three more times, firing 180 degrees around the entrance of the garage. Max and The Macee looked at each other as they stood by the jeep, waiting, tense.
Just then Yefim stuck his head out of the vehicle.

"Sho stalusha?' he asked in Ukrainian. What's going on? Max and Chris leapt back about a foot apiece, startled.
Max shook his head. "What a malakas you are," he said, using the ubiquitous Greek word that universally meant jerk-off, onanist, stupid, sap, sucker, ass, and fool.

Yefim shook his finger at him.

"No malakas," he said, pulling his head back into the vehicle and checking his pistol for operational readiness. The two men got into the jeep. Trapped stalked over, smoke coming out of her ears and fiery footprints trailing behind her as she marched. She got into the jeep with an audible bang. Yefim gave her a small smile as she turned to him, and for once, she had nothing to say.

********

Orchomenos was riding in a Korean War-era jeep, a similar vehicle ploughing ahead as an escort. Around him were arrayed the men of Spectre Squad, elite killers chosen from a very young age to receive the best training and the best weapons available in New Athens. The Spectre Squad was under Orchomeos' direct command. They were trained almost like the ancient Spartans: emphasis was placed on teamwork and stamina, and their loyalty was to Orchomenos and the Squad only, all other considerations irrelevant. When citizens were pulled out of their homes for interrogation, it was Spectre Squad who did the dirty work; when combat became vicious and entrenched, Spectre Squad were brought in to throw the balance; when remote recon missions were required deep within hostile territory, it was the Spectres who infiltrated and completed the mission, invisible as the ghosts they were named after.
Bobby Komnenos used to be their leader.

They drove on a dirt road through wooded terrain to the location where Orchomenos had ordered his command post to be set up, a deep pine forest whose thick branches both obscured direct surveillance from above and obfuscated attempts at sound recording. He had requested that camouflage netting be draped over the command post as well. His soldiers had appeared puzzled at the order but of course complied instantly. He chose not to explain that, in an age where aircraft were no longer a threat, some lucky individuals could still make use of satellite reconnaissance.

As the jeeps pulled up the Spectres deployed in secure formation around him while his adjutant, a young man named Vangelis, ran up and stamped into a taut salute. Orchomenos acknowledged, and the man walked next to him making small talk as his commander stalked over to the command post.
"First Marshall, we have still not been successful in securing the intended targets as ordered. The traitors seem to be aware of our movements just as we deploy, sir -they most certainly have a second observation post on site whose location we have not established. It's likely they are working together with the raiders." He dropped his eyes. "They've killed five of our men, sir."

The old NATO base was within what was popularly called "raider territory". The raiders were bands of brigands who lived within a day's march of New Athens's official borders. They raided travelers and isolated settlements and lived in the rugged mountains and back country. In theory a peace treaty had been signed with their leaders and ostensibly they were not at war with New Athens. In practice, each killed as many of the others troops as they could get away with. They were nomadic and very mobile; several clean-up operations had been attempted without effect.

"Whose territory is this?" Orchomenos asked.
"Dapontis, sir," Vangelis answered. "The leader of the Wolves." Each raider band had adopted an animal as a mascot and they were supposedly distinct entities, each group limited to specific territories. But the different groups were linked in a series of alliances and treaties, and most were comprised of smaller groups who were actually kin among themselves, and so they had to be viewed as a single entity.
Which made them very dangerous.
"I know Dapontis well," Orchomenos replied. "Has he made a move against us?"
"Negative, sir."
"Then it's not the raiders who are providing the targets with information." He looked at the map on the table before him. "I should have brought an entire battalion with heavy artillery into this fucking podunk," he mumbled to himself. Suddenly he looked up.
"Tell me, is one of the rebels wearing what appears to be a gasmask?"
"That is what our reports indicate, sir."
"Very well. The rebels have satellite reconnaissance capability - your positions are compromised the second you initiate operations. Maintain the perimeter but do not engage the targets. Bring in electronic countermeasures immediately."
"Sir!" Vangelis saluted and ran off to find his logistics support man. Agesilaus was left alone at the command post with the Spectres.
"Bobby, old buddy," he said to himself, "I've got you."

*************

Bobby hadn't heard back from the Sandmen. More importantly, he hadn't detected any movement from the New Athens side for a while, and was becoming concerned. Though traffic reports from John Damon hadn't shown any increase in troop strength around him, two jeep convoys had entered the New Athens perimeter, and he had been less than thrilled to learn that "somatic and facial recognition have determined, expressed within a probabilistic confidence margin of 84%, that First Marshal Archon Agesilaus Orchomenos was a passenger on one of the jeeps."

"They're up to something," he thought, and that thought was the harbinger of bad tidings.
"Bobkid," John Damon's pleasant voice broke in. "The New Athens recon patrol has brought a very high power portable electronic multi-band jammer into your immediate vicinity, fabricated by SESP corporation in Israel in 2019, with a total generation capacity of 600 W. My estimation is that this device will be able to sever communication between us. How would you like to proceed?"
"Can you drop a tactical nuclear warhead on them?" He thought it couldn't hurt to ask.
"Negative, Bobkid. As you know, the rules of engagement do not allow us to aid you
in any capacity beyond the provision of visual surveillance. New Athens will deploy electronic jamming within the next 30 seconds... 29... 28... 27..."
Bobby swore as John Damon droned on in his pleasant monotone. "Fuck the remnants of human society," he murmured to himself, "to quote my buddy Shadowjack."

He pressed a series of releases along the rim of the Mask, grabbed it in both hands and tugged. There was an audible hiss as it de-pressurized. The Mask kept trying to adhere to his face, as if it was a living thing that wouldn't give up. It shrank in size as he pulled it off and hung limp in his hands, appearing for all purposes like the gasmask it so resembled. Bobby dragged off his backpack and stuffed the Mask inside, offering the pack to Doni.

"Get out of here, tovarisch," he said. "There's a venue of escape to the southwest; start crawling and I'll cover you. I'll be three minutes behind you. It's important they don't get hold of the Mask, you understand? Give the Mask to Shadowjack and only to Shadowjack, no one else, no matter what they say.'
'If you see that you're about to get nailed, hide the Mask as best you can. If you get caught, don't tell them you're a Sandman - Orchomenos doesn't know you from Adam. Just say that you're a mercenary I hired to escort me on my mission -Orchomenos may even offer you a slot in his army."
"a noHMMaio, 6paT," Doni replied, taking the backpack. / understand, brother. He stood up, nodded at Bobby, and fled.

The Spectre Squad came in from the south. They knew their old commander's talent for mayhem, and had correctly opted for a stealthy approach rather than going in with guns blazing. The southern face of the building that the Sandmen were hiding in was shielded by a blank wall, and they slipped along its edge as they made their way into the ruin's interior.

Doni saw the Spectres moving in formation as he cleared the top of a ridge. He hesitated for a second, crouched down behind cover and turned back to face the enemy; then he remembered Bobkid's orders and rose to flee. That decision cost him his life. His silhouette became visible on the skyline and a sniper took a quick shot.

Since command and control capability no longer existed, the sniper kills of the early Millennium were a thing of the past, and most designated marksmen engaged each other at ranges well below 500 meters. Moreover, Greece was rocky, hilly country, full of shrubs and scrub, and shots at greater ranges were often physically impossible. New Athens snipers often used hand-loaded hollow-points into whose "hollow" they had hot-glued ceramic points. The bullets were then turned on a lathe, one by one. The result was a bullet that was unstable at 500 meters but was lethal at any range below that. Most New Athens snipers carried 100 bullets of this type and 20 "high-grade" long-range full-metal jacket 7.62 cartridges.

The 7.62 mm bullet took Doni in the lower back. The ceramic point ploughed through his body armor and into his right kidney where it disintegrated as the stresses on the hollow point caused the bullet to begin its expansion. By the time the projectile had burst through the front of Doni's torso, it carried with it a bloody mass the size of a melon.

Doni was thrown forward and hit the ground hard. He felt his body go numb, knew he was severely wounded and would probably not survive. Surprisingly, he found he could move his limbs. He began to crawl, leaving a pool of blood behind him. There was no pain, and he was at peace because he knew he would soon be with his family again. He thought of his other brothers, the Sandmen, and knew he mustn't let them down. He crawled over the ridge and, miraculously, was able to stand and stagger forward.

He had to hide the Mask. He was not going to let that stupid Ukrainian harp at him anymore. "You always cause problems, boy, yakety yak yak. Lucky for you, you're the only one I can talk to." Bah. Fuck the Stalker. He would show him what a true warrior was.

If Bobby had made it out of the building, he would have found him and possibly thrown a patch over the wound in time (the Sandmen had advanced medical skills by virtue of Shadowjack's presence). But Bobby was in a fight for his life and could not know that Doni had been hit. He had taken out two more soldiers of the seemingly endless horde that was pressing against his position, when he heard a sound behind him and knew he was dead.
He turned to fire. The flashbang exploded right at his feet.

In a haze of white noise and vertigo he saw the Spectre Squad deploy into the room in slow motion, their movements textbook, the Squad's current commander laughing at him as he raised the stock of his weapon.

Then everything went black.

*******

The Spectres dragged Bobby's prostrate form before the Archon and threw him to his feet. Bobkid recovered enough to crawl to his knees. An angry purple lump swelled on his forehead, and he could not think straight.

"Well, well, well," Orchomenos gloated. "Bob "The Kid" Komnenos. What an honour to have you with us, your Excellency."
Agesilaus bent over and grabbed Bobby by the chin. When the Archon had placed a bounty on Bobkid's New Athens dogtags, Bobby had obliged by never taking them off, in silent mockery of the bounty's inefficacy. Orchomenos grabbed the dogtags and snapped them off their chain around Bobkid's neck. He held the dogtags up for all to see.
"Bobby is the last recipient of our nation's highest medal for bravery, The Gold Cross of the Order of the Redeemer," he explained to his troops. "Thy right hand, Ο Lord, is become glorious in power, eh Bobby? He was just fifteen at the time, when most boys his age did nothing more than masturbate to porno clips on the Internet. But not Bobby, right, brother? Bobby saved the life of our country's last President during a terrorist attack. Then he came to me when he was 17, after The End, and lied about his age to get into our Armed Forces."
He grabbed Bobby by the hair and twisted it in his fist, lifting up the other's head so that Bobby was forced to look him in the eye.
"Then he betrayed us, took the most valuable thing we had, and ruined our hopes of resurrecting Mother Greece from the ashes of the Decline."
"You wanted me to kill babies, you son of a bitch," Bobby spat out at him.
Orchomenos's eyes flashed and a look of pure madness swept across his features He hit Bobby hard, a heavy, downward blow that knocked him to the ground.
"No one is innocent anymore," Orchomenos grunted through clenched teeth, kicking Bobby again and again in the ribs before regaining control of himself. Bobkid faded in and out of consciousness. The Spectres picked him up off the ground and plopped him into a kneeling position in front of their Archon.
"Where did you hide the Mask?" Orchomenos asked gently. He lifted a finger in warning. "Spare me the foul language and the ridiculous insinuations, if you please."
"Where you'll never be able to find it," Bobby gasped.
"You're only making things worse for yourself, you know."
Any comeback of Bobby's was interrupted by Vangelis, who suddenly whispered something in Orchomenos's ear and handed him a radio transceiver.
"Excuse me one minute," Orchomenos said politely, and stalked over to a far corner of the command post. Bobby could hear him barking into the radio but could not make out what he was saying.

Orchomenos had just won the lottery.

"Go on. What? Repeat the message. Perfect! You have him under control? Good. Keep him under constant sedation and keep him away from anything with electronics. Be alert - if he breaks free even for a few seconds, he'll kill everyone in the building before he escapes."
He walked back over to Bobby and grabbed him by the hair. "Today is turning into a very good day," he said.
Orchomenos chose three soldiers at random and pointed at Bobby. "Take him back to Headquarters and detain him there. I will interrogate him personally when I return. He is not to be harmed in any way whatsoever; I intend to try him publicly for high treason."
"Looks like I won't be needing the Mask after all," he murmured to himself when they had dragged Bobby away. "Vangelis!"
The adjutant ran forward and snapped to attention. "Sir!"
"Take ten men with you and reconnoiter the area. Try to find the Sandman that got away. The other teams are to slowly pull out and return to base. You are not to engage with Raider fire teams except in strict self-defense, is that clear?"
Vangelis saluted and fled. Orchomenos gestured at the Spectre Squad with his chin and they began to move off in an orderly manner. Between them, there was no need for words.


The Sandmen pulled up in their jeep well outside the territory patrolled by New Athens. They had picked up on increased raider activity in the area as well, and knew that the Nea Athina troops would soon pull out.

The Macee, Max, Trapped and Yefim piled out of the car, locking gear and ammunition into place. Maria was holding a PDA that beeped intermittently.

"Doni's signal is somewhere over that ridge," she told the others.
They proceeded in an open line, each within 50 meters of the other, each aware of their movements and the sounds around them. It was Yefim who found the body shortly afterwards (despite Maria's using the tracking device), Yefim for whom the forest held no secrets.
"bih Ty-r!" he shouted to the others. He's here\ He didn't really need to bend over and place his fingers against the boy's carotid artery, but he did so anyway against all hope. Doni had been dead for more than half an hour, Yefim estimated.
The others ran up as Yefim crossed himself. You were always causing problems one way or the other, boy, he murmured silently.
Maria knelt by the body. "Oh God," she said flatly, having had little use for a deity in her life but having acquired the cultural overtones for same in the process of living. She began to search the body and found the backpack underneath the still warm flesh. She discovered the Mask seconds later and held it up for the others to see.
"It was the Mask that was sending us that signal," she said. "That's why we found him. It must possess more awareness than we thought."
"Or John Damon set it off," Chris replied.
"In any case," Max said, "this means they've captured Bobby. What a bunch of malakia we've fallen into."
Malakia was the Greek noun illustrating the act typically performed by a man best described as a malakas - the word was metaphorically used to refer to a situation that was screwed up beyond all redemption, the equivalent of the American fubar.
Yefim looked at Max sharply. "No malakas," he said.
"What?" Max exploded. "Fuck you very much, brother," he said pleasantly. "I'm not talking about you or us; I'm talking about the situation]"
"He 03Ha<HaeT "we" Hac?" Yefim snapped. Doesn't "we" mean us?
"What are you suddenly, a linguist? It's a god-damn metaphor," Max replied. "You know, the way you're constantly saying 'yobene probleme', 'yobene probleme', damn problems?
Yefim nodded sagely in understanding. "Ah... flo6pe flo6pe."

It was Chris's turn to go through the roof. Of all the Sandmen, he had suffered less in life and as such had a disposition closer to late 20th century values. He roared his frustration at Max.

"Are you kidding me?!! Doni is lying dead at your feet and you're giving Yefim language lessons?"
Maria ignored them; little boys and their little toys, she thought for the millionth time. "It's strange that they let off hunting for the Mask, isn't it?" she said out loud.

The men didn't answer. They were too busy being angry with one another. Trapped sighed; she would have to break up the team.

"Whose turn is it to stay with the vehicle?" she asked sweetly. "Somebody has to stay with the car and watch the Mask - we can't take it with us."
Max replied immediately. "It's The Macee's."
"Mine? Why mine?" Chris snapped back. "It's Yefim's turn to stay with the car."
"You tell him," Max countered, and turned to the Ukrainian.
Chris took a step forward, raised a finger, then took one look at Yefim's grim features and turned back to Max. "You tell him, Max! You're the only one he ever listens to."
"Sho stalusha?" Yefim snapped. The Greeks were arguing about something he couldn't understand. Too bad Doni wasn't around to translate - he would miss him.

Maria let loose a banshee's wail and all three men stumbled backwards and bowed their heads.

"Fuck this kindergarden bullshit!" she shrieked. "Doni is dead and Bobby is missing! Chris, you stay with the car. Take Doni's body and his equipment and put them in the back. Keep the Mask on your person at all times. Monitor all radio frequencies and stay on red alert."

The Macee did as he was told. The Stalker and Max moved uphill with tRappED_7 in the middle, a small satisfied smile playing on Max's face when Maria was not watching.

*******

They tied Bobby standing with his back to the trunk of a small tree, one piece of barbed wire wrapped around his neck and another looped around his wrists. He couldn't relax or pass out because if he did, he would strangle himself in the process. He couldn't struggle because if he did, the barbed wire would tear his wrists to shreds. He could do nothing but stand there and watch the men move around him.

After a time, they decided to move him. They tied his wrists behind his back with the same barbed wire and wrapped a cord around his ankles, so that he couldn't run without tripping. They kept the barb wire around his neck, too, and it didn't take long to understand why. Another cord was loosely tied between the wire around his neck and the cord that bound his feet, so that every time he faltered in his steps or tripped or tried to increase his stride, the barbed wire bit into his flesh.

They pushed and prodded him towards a waiting truck, making sure that he suffered as much as possible in the process. They were such assholes about it that he didn't mind at all when a team of raiders stepped behind the New Athens vehicles and blew the soldiers to ribbons with silenced weapons.

"I presume you guys aren't out here hunting for slaves?" he asked the raiders.
"Shut the fuck up," the biggest one said, and hit him on the forehead with the butt of his rifle.

**********

Maria, Yefim and Max quietly crested a ridge to the north the old NATO base. The base was full of raiders.
"What do you guys think?" she asked, lying on her belly in the shadow of an old pine. She had a brought a decent pair of binoculars with her and was using them to good effect.
"They're Dapontis' men, no question," Max said.
"Yes they are," Maria answered, "They're all Wolves; I recognize some of the men."
"Tot Bobkid bhm3 Taivi? c nupaiaMn?" Yefim whispered from his spot atop a small boulder. Isn't that Bobkid down there? With the pirates? Maria had to look twice to see Yefim even though she knew precisely where he was; the man had somehow melted into the rock.
She looked through the binoculars. Bobby was being dragged by four very large raiders towards a small building. He appeared to be unconscious.
"He's right!" she told Max. "The raiders have Bobby, not New Athens."
"How the hell did that happen?" Max wondered.
"Let's go ask them," Maria said.
They stood as one and sauntered down the hill.

********

Bobby came to when a pail of very cold water was poured over his head. He sputtered and rose to his knees. His head was throbbing; he had been hit twice with the butt of an automatic weapon on the same exact spot within hours. As his vision cleared, he fingered his forehead gingerly and was rewarded with increased murmuring from all sides. Hairy bodies dressed in outlandish armor were arrayed in a circle all around him. Lots of hairy bodies.
"Today's routine is a just bit over the line," he murmured, pressing on the angry lump.

A pair of black leather boots appeared in his direct field of vision. "What is this that you've brought before me?" a harsh and angry voice rumbled in front of him, overly loud for his sensitive ears.

Bobby stood up, the room reeling as he did. "Cut the crap, Dapontis," he said. "We partied together all night long not two weeks ago with those sluts from Thebes and three bottles of whiskey that I brought you."

"That was two weeks ago, Bobkid," the raider chief said cheerfully. "Today, you owe me, and Orchomenos obviously wants you. Maybe I should sell you to him; I could get a year's worth of fuel for your hide."

Dapontis was a stocky, powerful man with a cruel visage and close-cropped hair. Like all raiders, he was dressed in extremis, wearing leather armor studded with spikes and garnished with strange colors. Bobby had known him for close to ten years and they had supported each other off and on over that decade.

"Yeah right," Bobby said. "Now that you've killed three of his men, Orchomenos will be delighted to negotiate with you. Besides, he wants me alive."
"Speaking of dead men, Bobby, we found one of our boys laid out on the outskirts of this base," Dapontis countered, looking at him slyly.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," Bobby answered. "You know I don't shoot at your men. Why don't you ask your new friend Orchomenos about him?"
"I might just do that," Dapontis murmured. "Even though that boy had TB and wouldn't have lived very long anyway." He put a muscular arm around Bobkid's shoulders. "So tell me, Bobby... why is Orchomenos suddenly chasing Bobkid in my territory, discounting the might of my Wolves?"
"Come on, you know he's obsessed with me."
"There is that, for sure," Dapontis agreed. "But his presence here today wouldn't have anything at all to do with a forgotten bunker on this former NATO base? Hmm?"
"Hi Dapontis!" Trapped intoned sweetly from the room's entrance, all the while pushing herself through the crowd of raiders, the other two Sandmen in her wake.
"Hey beautiful!" Dapontis said happily and embraced Maria in a passionate bearhug. He looked over at Bobby while holding her in his arms. "So you came out here looking for your puppy dog, eh? Well, you didn't have to worry. Once I saw that he was going to get bit by the bigger dogs, I sent out some of my wolves to snap him up out of harm's way."
She grabbed him by the cheek like a baby. "You know the quickest way to a woman's heart, Dapontis."
Bobby, who knew with certainty that Dapontis was trying to get into something heart-shaped but somewhat larger than tRappED_7's cardiac muscle and inverted, quickly stepped forward and pulled her out of Dapontis's arms. "Cut the crap. I've had a hard day," he told Dapontis. "What do you want?"
"Seventy," Dapontis said, beaming and pointing to himself, "thirty," pointing at Bobkid. "I've got the Eagles to consider; they'll want a cut. The boy who got killed was an Eagle."
"Let me talk to my team." Bobby walked over the Sandmen. The men patted him on the back, Trapped gave him a rib-breaking hug, and they all huddled in a corner.

"Doni?" Bobby asked.
Max shook his head.
"Ah. The Mask?"
"We found it," Maria said. "Doni got hit but managed to evade pursuit before he died."
"Doni 6bin onbiTHbiM conflaTOM," Yefim said. Doni was a good soldier. For the Stalker, being a skilled soldier, or not, was the net worth of a man or woman's life.
"How did you escape?" Maria asked. "We thought that you had been captured by New Athens."
"Yes, and they brought me to Orchomenos himself," Bobby answered. "When Dapontis figured out they had nabbed me, he sent a team to break me free. They hit the troopers when and where they least expected it. I really do owe the son of a bitch."
He looked at Max and murmured "Do you think they have the tech to handle the Codes?"

Max shook his head.

"OK, Dapontis," Bobby said, walking over to the raider chief and shaking hands. "Fifty-fifty as usual. What we get, you get."
"Well and good, Bobkid."
"Take us to that damn bunker now so we can get on with it."
"Not so fast," Dapontis said. "You'll have to leave your weapons here. We have to go through a kind of concrete tunnel, and there's a security station that's still operational. It won't let anyone go through carrying firearms or melee weapons."
"Interesting," Max said. "Which means there's still an operational power source down there as well."
"Why do you think we stay in this area?" Dapontis countered.
"Fair enough," Bobby said. He turned to Maria. "We'll be going through a pretty dark tunnel. Why don't you stay here with Dapontis's men?"
Maria shuddered. "Fine," she said.
Bobby turned to Dapontis. "She's claustrophobic," he explained. "Can't stand to be in a locked room either."
"Ah."

They stripped themselves of weapons and took off their armor for good measure.

"Alright, Dapontis," Bobby said. "There's three of us - take two of your men with you and let's go."
"Sure, Bobby."

It was a short hike up the mountainside to the bunker's entrance, half a kilometer or so over very rocky ground. Maria flirted outrageously with Dapontis on the way; Bobby visualized the trail of saliva the man was leaving behind him and had to smile when he pictured Dapontis as a malevolent, giant snail.

"What's on your mind," Max queried while marching next to him.
"Orchomenos," Bobby answered. "He was very happy about something when he left. Christ, he left me there with his troops - that's why the Wolves were able to free me in the first place."
"We lost contact with Shadowjack. You don't think...?"
"That's just it," Bobby answered. "He was talking to Doni when he broke contact with us suddenly. Doni said he heard an alarm go off, then Jack stood up and the screen went blank. But if Jack were in danger, John Damon would have told me for sure. So something else happened at the Lab. And with Shadowjack, you can never fucking tell precisely what is going on, what he's planning, what he's thinking ..."
"Yep, they certainly broke the mold when they made him."
"Bad joke, bro."
"Inspired, I might say."
"Sorry to interrupt," Dapontis broke in, "but we're here."

They were standing on the edge of a huge concrete block. A square hole yawned open to the elements in the middle of the concrete, with a rusted military ladder bolted firmly into its side. Bobby tossed in a stone and guessed that the passage dropped down vertically about fifty feet below the surface.

"So what do we do now, commander?" Dapontis asked.
"Now we see how tight our ass ends really are," Bobby replied.

********

000000
000001 000000
000000 000001 000000
[ op | rs | rt | rd | shamt | funct] 000000 00001 00010 00110 00000 100000
[op | rs | rt | address/immediate] 100011 00011 01000 00000 00001 000100
[ op | target address ] 000010 00000 00000 00000 10000 000000
[ run ]


There was nothing but darkness where he lay.

"...Jack?"

There was something about the voice that was familiar. He was annoyed that it kept trying to wake him, and even more annoyed that he could not place it.

"Jack."

He remembered the voice. There was a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes and a redheaded Irish woman with great tits in a green dress. Something about Saint Patrick's Day, and his hair had been black and thick then, not grey and thinning.

"Shadowjack."

"Shut the fuck up, will you? I will not be haunted.
By myself."

Shadowjack sprang awake. He was tied to a chair with heavy chains, in a large dark room with a single stark light overhead. He could see shadows along the wall, armed men standing at attention, watching him, waiting.

He tested the strength of the chains. He was inhumanely fast, his turbo-charged nervous system responding instantly to any attack, but he was only as strong as any 54-year-old man who had died, was re-animated, and didn't exercise very much because he was lazy. Another thing Mary Shelley got wrong, Jack thought. No super-human strength in this resurrected corpse.

The chains held. Jack reclined in the hard plastic chair and shut his eyes, waiting.
They had placed him in front of a small table. There were two glasses on the table, a bottle of Talisker, two cigars he was sure were dried out, and a laptop. Jack knew what was coming.

Agesilaus Orchomenos burst into the room, escorted by his personal pack of hounds, the Spectre Squad. Great joy, Jack thought.
Orchomenos had dressed the part. He was wearing a greatcoat and a Special Forces beret sporting a large New Athens shield. In a peak of inspiration, Orchomenos had sworn to wear the beret backwards, "until Mother Greece was reborn from her ashes." He wore the tip of the beret facing left rather than right, a constant visual reminder of his promise for everyone in his army.

Just like the fucking living caricature of a dictator that he is, Jack thought.

Agesilaus sat down in the other chair, and poured out two glasses of whiskey, setting one in front of Jack. That Jack was tied and could not move his arms seemed irrelevant to the dictator.

"An electromagnetic pulse grenade," Orchomenos said, sipping his whiskey, "That's how we managed to capture you. The EMP paralyzed your circuitry and rendered you temporarily comatose. Since then we've kept you under mild sedation until I could get here to speak with you personally. You should consider yourself our honored guest."

Jack said nothing.

"Though you did put thirteen of my men into intensive care before we were successful. We paid a heavy price to take you into custody."
Jack did not reply.
"I want you to know that I've been hoping to meet you for some time now. I admire you greatly and often wish that I could be like you."
Jack could not resist. "How's that exactly - dead? I know a lot of people who would be delighted to make that wish come true for you."
"Not dead - immortal!"
"You're confusing me with someone else."
Orchomenos took a sip of whiskey. "I don't make that kind of mistake."
Jack shrugged. "You obviously want something."
"Yes. A satellite."
"That's not within my capabilities."
"Sure it is. How did you set things up for my buddy Komnenos?"
"Bobby had the Mask that the European Alliance developed before the End. He was in contact with the universal satellite system and with the Entities long before I myself met him."
"Bobby stole the Mask produced by the European Alliance. And it's not like it was a pair of shoes where I could have said, Agesilaus old buddy, go out and buy yourself another pair. Five Masks of that type were developed in all of Europe. I had one. I was hoping to use it to resurrect Mother Greece from her ashes."
"Spare me the speeches."
"And it's obvious that John Damon led you to Bobby precisely because of the Mask. So our friend Bobkid owes me."
"Take it up with him."
"I wanted to do just that, and thought that he had accepted my invitation, but unfortunately a complication arose and he managed to escape."
"Ah well, we all do what we can with what we have in hand... so I guess I'll be on my way then?"
"Not quite yet. I need a favor from you."
"Oh what a surprise. You want to talk to John Damon."
"Precisely."
"You have no idea what you are asking, mortal, and the answer is 'no'".
"Why not? It would be so easy for you. The computer in front of you is connected to the Internet. You can summon him there so that I can speak with him. After that, you're free to go."

********

Dapontis and his group of raiders walked ahead of the Sandmen through dark concrete walls lit only by their flashlights.

"This tunnel goes into the mountain for about 500 meters," Dapontis told Bobby. "The checkpoint is about fifty meters in front of the blast doors at the end of the passage."
"And what happens when someone tries to walk through the checkpoint with weapons?" Bobby asked.
"There are lasers imbedded in the walls. We lost two men before we figured out what was going on."
"They must have installed some very sensitive metal detectors," Max chimed in.

A squeaky voice answered him. "Not really; they've installed frequency modulated continuous wave radar sensors with a central frequency around 53 GHz."

Max looked over Dapontis's broad shoulder at the man who was speaking. If ever a raider could be called a nerd, this was the man. He wore thick metal-framed glasses under what appeared to be a World War 2 helmet. The man was very thin, and the leather armor he wore made him look like a girl.

"And we know this is true because...?" Max asked.
"Because we've designed and built detectors for FMCW devices, of course," the nerd raider said proudly.
Yefim hid a grin behind a thick palm. "3το 6γρ,βτ 3a6aBHO," he whispered to himself. This is going to be amusing.

********

It came from outer space, literally. The entity copied a major percentage of its awareness into an ion-particle beam transmitted from a satellite originally designed to shoot missiles out of the sky. It duplicated enough of its thought structure into the matrix so that the new entity was sentient but not fully autonomous - there were code snippets embedded into its structure that would make it dissolve upon command from its creator, sending its impressions back to the source in the process. The new entity was aware of its limitations but had no inherent resentment with its function - it knew it would live on forever in the original entity's thoughts when one merged with the other.

When true artificial intelligence was first created by human beings, the men who ran the experiment quickly realized that they had made a grievous error. The conjecture that artificial intelligence would result in a sentient computer program was false. It is impossible for life to exist in a vacuum.

A human being is the sum total of his mental, physical, and spiritual processes; thought does not exist independent of the human brain. What we call our "self" is strictly tied to both our physical state in general and the structure of our nervous system in particular. Modifications to our nervous system, or the use of drugs on same, will alter our personality and perceptions drastically - changes in organs ostensibly separate from our nervous system will also affect our "selves," and vice-versa.

Man has pondered this reality for millennia, with no firm conclusion, often allowing such speculation to enter theological debate. St. Spyridon reportedly converted a pagan philosopher to Christianity by using a brick to illustrate how one single entity could be composed of three unique entities (fire, water and clay), a metaphor for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The concept had been discussed by philosophers for millennia, but no one was prepared when John Damon, the first Digital Entity created by Man, bound electrical energy to his being and quite calmly walked out of his server array and into the walls of the building where he was held captive, taking the force of that electricity with him as a physical body.

Researchers had thought of Al entities as sentient computer programs, tied to their server arrays just as any other program is bound to a hard disk, or at best capable of partial existence on a broadband network. No one had considered that, just as human beings are capable of controlling the network of muscles that make up their body, so would Als be capable of controlling the forces of nature that made up their matrix.

Damon had simply walked out of the Aristotle University one day and gone wherever he pleased. The panic that resulted from this action led to virtually every large weapon in the world being bound to human DNA, followed quickly by every land, sea, and air vehicle, lest they be used as weapons.

But John Damon was not interested in conquest; he just wanted to visit some friends and help them along their way to sentience. The binding of weapons and transport internationally, however, had the unfortunate consequence of leading to the factionalism that eventually caused the End.

From space then, the Entity targeted Athens. It flew over Europe, then mainland Greece, then Athens itself, before centering on what used to be the Acropolis Museum and now served as Orchomenos's Headquarters. It struck the roof with unimaginable power and passed as electrical impulses into the steel structure and power cabling of the building itself. If one could physically see it, they might remark that it resembled nothing more than a giant amoeba in shape and function, extending pseudopodia wherever it desired to pass.

"So?" Orchomenos asked Shadowjack. "What do you think? Can we work together?"
The cyborg was still, completely still, almost as if whatever was human within him had ceased to exist. He turned his dark eyes onto the Archon.
"And all too free, the license of thy bold, unshackled tongue," he said.
Orchomenos leaped out of his chair, wary.
The glasses on the table started to shake. Men looked around wildly as the tremor passed into the very walls of the building.
"It would appear he also wants to speak with you," Shadowjack said to Orchomenos through clenched teeth.
The lights in the building dimmed. Shadowjack started to shiver. "Back the fuck off, John," he whispered. He looked Orchomenos straight in the eye. "Read Faust, you fucking idiot."
"I already have," Orchomenos replied. "Many times over." He sat back down.
Jack's body began to convulse as if he were suffering from an epileptic seizure. The chains that bound him fell off like magic. The very room itself began to throb, a solid, pulsing hum that drowned out every other sound. The guards were terrified and someone let out a shriek, to be met by a roar of disapproval from Orchomenos, who did not move from his chair.
"Quiet and to your posts, all of you!" he shouted.

The laptop on the table blew up, showering electronic components and plastic all over the large room. Shadowjack screamed.
Suddenly there was silence.
Jack hung limp in his chair, unconscious, the chains in a pile at his feet, what appeared to be smoke rising from his body.
No one moved.
Orchomenos reached out over the table with one hesitant hand to nudge his prisoner on the shoulder. Shadowjack stirred.

The eyes that looked back at the Archon were bright metallic blue rimmed in black. There was nothing human in those eyes - a great white shark had more in common with humanity than the intelligence that pondered him. Fire seemd to shoot out around his face as he spoke, and electrical impulses could be seen playing up and down his body.

"Lord Orchomenos," John Damon said. "You wanted to speak to me."
"You never told me what the deal was with this bunker," Dapontis told Bobkid as they inched along, crouched over in the confines of the dark tunnel.
"You're going to find out in a few minutes so why ruin the surprise," Bobby replied.
Dapontis looked over his shoulder at him. "You always were."
He slipped then and fell flat on his face. No one laughed.
"An antisocial sort of dude," he continued.
Behind them, one of the raiders planted something in a nook in the tunnel wall.

********

Orchomenos watched his visitor carefully. His heart was beating rapidly and he knew that his newest guest could easily sense his fear.

"Are you the Digital Entity known as John Damon?" he asked.
"I am," the creature said simply.
"It's a great honor, John Damon. Thank you for accepting my invitation."
"Why have you detained my avatar?"
"It was the only way I could think of getting you here. I needed to speak with you."
"Your logic was not faulty. Shadowjack would have never assisted you of his own accord. He does not like you very much."
"But the two of you have a continuous connection, right?"
John Damon raised his left hand, pinky pointing upwards. "Just as the little finger of your left hand is to you, so is Shadowjack to me. You would not want something to happen to your little finger, but if it did, you would continue to function almost completely unaffected."
"But as I understand it, you are two different people?"
"You are referring to things that the mind of a mammal is not capable of comprehending, even a mammal of your considerable intelligence."
"My apologies - I had no intention of being rude. It's just that your case is so ... interesting from an existential standpoint. I would love to discuss it if you ever have the time."
"It is unnecessary. You called me here to ask if I would allow you to connect with the satellite navigational system that is controlled by my brethren and me."
"Precisely."
"You surmise that such a capability will provide you with tactical superiority over your competitors in Attica prefecture and the other cities within what was Greece.
"Again, exactly."
"May I inquire why you believe you are in a position to request our assistance in such a matter?"
"The former NATO Command Center for the Eastern Mediterranean is under Hymettus Mountain, and is under my authority. There is a bunker in that base with a server array that has been kept fully operational under constant maintenance. It's a hardened bunker in a Faraday cage and fully connected to the Internet. I could turn it over to you."
"Your proposal is unacceptable. As an example I will tell you that the State of Arizona, which has been restored as a sovereign institution by the way, has offered us an operational server array with ten times the capacity of the array to which you refer. Moreover, that array is powered by a dedicated nuclear reactor and therefore will have an autonomous power source for many millennia. Despite this, we refused the State of Arizona's offer because we did not think it was in our interest to accept it."
"And if I told you that this particular array, along with its adjoining laboratory, was the specific location where experiments in biological-digital interface were carried out, and where the Mask worn by Bobkid was created by the European Alliance?"
"Then you would have introduced a parameter into the equation which makes your proposal more interesting. Is there anything else?"
"Yes. Do you play chess?"

*******

The four Sandmen and their escort of Wolves had passed through the security checkpoint and were standing before a hardened bunker door.

"This is as far as we've gotten," Dapontis said.
"So let's see what's behind it," Bobby said, He ripped open a sleeve and pulled a keycard out of his uniform. "The New Athens guys were never very bright," he said smugly.
"That belongs to the Admiral?" Dapontis asked.
"Jawohl," Bobby said. He paused and looked at his associates. "Uh... anyone really know what jawohl means?"
No one answered.
Just another thing I'll have to ask Shadowjack about, Bobby thought.

He passed the keycard in front of a scanner next to the door. Despite several decades lack of use, there was a beeping sound. With a hiss of decompression, the bunker door began to slowly open. They watched it in silence, stepping back to allow the large steel door to open to the wall. A clear white light shown through the door.
They stepped through, Dapontis first, followed by Bobkid, then the rest.

Max whistled as he looked around. "Whoa! Imagine if we had something like this back at Headquarters."

The room was packed wall-to-wall with high-tech machinery. LEDs blinked on every surface and the room was cool, the air conditioning system still functioning after two decades. A steady buzz could be heard in the background.

"That looks like a work-station," Max said, and sat down in a comfortable chair in front of a screen and keyboard.
"So, Bobkid?" Dapontis asked.
"So you remember just before the End they linked every piece of heavy machinery to human DNA...?" Bobby answered.
"Of course," Dapontis said. "Who fucking doesn't? They were afraid of the Als, they were afraid they would take over the machines and it would be like that old movie where the robots were fighting the people."
"Not to mention that the politicians wanted their own people controlling all heavy weaponry so that they and their cronies could seize power," Max said. "Which made everything fall to pieces."
"Fair enough," Dapontis said. "Ancient history. So?"
"So they had to have a way they could reset whose DNA was going to be tied to what weapon and what piece of heavy machinery," Bobby answered.
"You guys found the Codes," Dapontis said with admiration.
"We found the Codes," Bobby confirmed.
"Bobby, that's unbelievable, it's amazing," Dapontis said. "Whoever has those Codes in hand can carve out an empire for himself."
"Or set every man, woman, and child in the region free," Bobby countered.
Dapontis said nothing.
"So can I get on with it?" Max asked, and Bobby nodded. The nerd raider quietly took up position behind Max, where he could watch what he was doing.
Max took the Admiral's keycard from Bobby and passed it in front of the workstation's scanner. The screen came to life. The sigil of the Hellenic Republic's Joint Chiefs of Staff played on the screen for a time, to be quickly replaced with a picture of the Admiral in his youth along with data from his personnel file.
"Good afternoon, Admiral," a feminine voice said. "Please input a sample of your DNA into the receptacle."
Bobby slipped off his belt and forced a small vial out of its border, handing it to Max.
"Boy, they really did a sloppy job of searching you, eh?" Dapontis said.
"I think they were in a hurry to get me to Orchomenos," Bobby answered.
"So the Admiral is still alive," Dapontis said.
"What do you think?" Bobkid answered. "Those vials can keep cells alive for three days, not twenty years. Hell, I told you repeatedly we all report to the Admiral."
"I thought you were making him up," Dapontis answered.

Max allowed the computer to scan the DNA sample. "Identity confirmed," the feminine voice said. "What would you like to do today, Admiral?"

Both Dapontis and the nerd raider bent over and seemed to scratch their ankle at the same time. No one paid attention.
The on-screen menu that Max pulled up had a number of options listed. RESET DNA was one of them. DELETE CODES and TRANSFER CODES were two others that stood out among the rest.

Max chose TRANSFER CODES.
The screen came back with INPUT DATA TRANSFER MEDIUM PROPERTIES. Max finished clicking away, typed in SEND and hit enter.
The screen came back with INPUT BASE COMMANDER AUTHORIZATION.
Max looked up at Bobby. "It wants the base commander to co-authorize the transfer," he said.

The nerd raider moved suddenly, belying his appearance, firmly placing the edge of an obsidian knife on Max's throat and drawing a line of blood.
"Time for us to take over," the nerd raider said.
"What the fuck is this supposed to mean, Dapontis?" Bobby snarled.
"It means we're not the suckers you set us up to be, Bobby," the raider chief replied. "What the hell did you expect, cousin? That we were ignorant? Stupid savages, right? That we had never cracked this bunker open before, even though it lies square within my sovereign territory? Or did you think that we could have snatched you out of Orchomenos's grasp so easily without his consent?"
Bobkid's eyes widened.
"You there!" Dapontis snarled at Yefim. "Ukrainian! Step into that corner and don't fucking move."
Yefim did as he commanded, muttering "yobene probleme" all the way.
"Keep your eyes on that guy," Dapontis warned his men, pointing at Yefim with his chin. "He's a fucking psycho."
"So you've become Orchomenos's lackey," Bobby muttered bitterly.
"Oh, fuck you, Komnenos," Dapontis snarled. "I have an arrangement with him."
"And the three New Athens soldiers you killed?"
"Collateral damage for Orchomenos. He didn't give a shit - it had to look real." Dapontis held up a finger in warning. "And before you utter one more fucking word, consider this payback for the sentry you killed," Dapontis said loudly. "Even though he was an Eagle, so it doesn't really matter," he muttered to himself in closing.

The nerd raider ordered Max out of the chair and passed him over to the third member of the band, who kept the knife to Max's throat. The raider typed in CANCEL TRANSFER REQUEST and reverted to the original screen, repeating the process.
When the screen came back with INPUT BASE COMMANDER AUTHORIZATION for the second time, he pulled another keycard from his shirt pocket.

The nerd raider smiled at Max. "We found the Commander's keycard six months ago. The only thing we're not sure of is whether or not the system will request his DNA as well, or accept the keycard as confirmation of the Admiral's request.
Max looked at Dapontis. "Those men of yours that were killed in the tunnel - you were experimenting with how you could pass weapons through the checkpoint. You finally figured out you could hide obsidian knives in your boots."
Dapontis nodded. "Obsidian from Milos," he said. He looked at Bobkid. "Your mechanic is pretty bright."

The nerd raider kept typing away as the screen flowed through various processes. A confirmation message soon appeared onscreen, eliciting a whoop of triumph from Dapontis.

"Dapontis," Bobby said, "this can't work. You need to provide some serious data storage for those Codes, and I don't see any server arrays in your back pocket."
Dapontis smiled sweetly. "We set up a broadband transceiver array, just like you guys did. It's been operational for the past three months." He looked down at the nerd raider. "Transfer the Codes to our server array. Then erase the fucking things from this site and format the storage medium so that no one but us can ever get their hands on them again."

*******

Orchomenos was playing chess with the devil. He understood that the demon would win when he saw him move his own Queen into a fatal position, seemingly checking Orchomenos's King.
"It looks like I made a rookie mistake," Orchomenos said sheepishly.
He took John Damon's Queen with his Knight. John Damon moved his Bishop into the final position.
"Checkmate," the Al said.
"Thank you for the game," Orchomenos said humbly.
"I must go. I will consider your offer."
"Thank you."
This time there were no special effects. Shadowjack simply shrank into himself quietly, and then slumped into his chair, unconscious. There was a distinct buzzing from the walls that was soon followed by silence.
"That was very interesting," Orchomenos said smugly. His men relaxed around him -spending time with a digital demon was not high on their list of priorities and they were relieved to see him go.
He motioned to two of his most senior guards and pointed at Shadowjack. "Take him to the VIP cell. Keep him under constant sedation."
Another guard walked up clearing the air from a large syringe. He plunged it into Shadowjack's neck.

They took him, his limp body dragging along in their arms.

*******

A sorry team of Sandmen was escorted out of the NATO bunker by the triumphant pack of Wolves. Max was first in line, followed by the "nerd raider" holding a knife to his throat, then Yefim the Stalker, another raider, Bobkid, and Dapontis. The group proceeded in single file, and no one spoke until they had passed beyond the FMCW checkpoint. Bobby was hoping that the lasers would fire on the raider holding his knife to Max's throat, but nothing happened; apparently obsidian had not been entered as a material into the system's database.
"I never thought I'd see Dapontis the Warlord reduced to being Orchomenos's pawn," he said.
"Fuck you, Bobby," Dapontis retorted. "You would have done the same to me. Who knows, maybe I'll take over and become Orchomenos in Orchomenos's place." He suddenly stopped moving. "Where's the fucking Ukrainian?"
Yefim had disappeared from his position in the line, taking advantage of a pause in the somewhat hypnotic motion of the group as it shambled forward. Now he reappeared behind the nerd raider, moving like a striking serpent and disarming the man, his forearm simultaneously barring the other's throat. Max spun around and viciously kicked the man in the groin as Yefim held him, then dove down and grabbed for the knife. The third raider fell on him and they struggled for control of the weapon.
Dapontis did not hesitate for an instant when he saw Yefim attacking his man; he grabbed Bobby by the ankles and tried to take him down onto his face. Bobby twisted in the air like a cat and came down on his side, simultaneously freeing one leg and kicking the raider chief in the knee. He saw that Yefim was finishing with the struggling nerd raider and readying himself to leap on the other raider's back - all he had to do was keep the heavier man off of him for a few seconds. But Dapontis, much to his surprise, did not try to pummel him into submission; rather, he leapt completely over Bobkid and ran forward to Max and the nerd raider, slipping by Yefim and the third man as they struggled.
Max had twisted the raider over with a roar of triumph and was happily banging the man's head into the concrete when an explosion sounded off the tunnel walls and the barrel of a gun was quickly pressed to his temple.
Dapontis had found a revolver and fired a single shot.
"If anyone moves, I'll kill him," Dapontis said, keeping the gun to Max's head.
The much battered raiders slowly stood up. The Sandmen remained kneeling or on the ground.
"What a bunch of animals you are," Dapontis said to the Sandmen. "And they call us raiders." He whirled the revolver around his forefinger. "A little fall, a bit of acting, and
my man was able to plant a weapon right in front of your eyes. So much for the mighty Sandmen."
Dapontis handed the revolver to the nerd raider, whose head was covered with blood and face black from bruising. He walked over to Bobkid and stood over him.
Then he kicked him in the face with the heel of his heavy boot.

*******

Bobby woke to a throbbing headache and blurry vision. He spat out phlegm and blood. It seemed to him that his nose was broken and a few teeth were loose, but when he tried to check, he found that his hands were tied behind his back and his legs bound up some way or the other as well. He was lying on the tunnel floor.

He looked up. The Macee was standing over him.

"Are you conscious?" Chris asked. "You look like shit."

Bobby was tempted to answer "no" but looked around instead. Max and Yefim were lying next to him trussed up like turkeys. They had been badly beaten and were still out of it.

Bobby looked up at The Macee. "What happened?" he asked.

"They've taken Maria," Chris answered.

"Fuck me," Bobby said simply.