Recap: In Land of Blind (Prologue), Anna Velasquez and her elite Praetorian Guard killed Devereaux Marshall Fox, the world's most wanted man and also the one who single-handedly massacred Anna's entire family when she was a child. Now, Anna and her people return to their main base for a well-deserved rest.
Content advisory: Contains violence.
A few hours later, the emotionally spent but triumphant Praetorians walked into the underground parking garage of their headquarters at the Fort Worth Naval Air Station. General Amicus Dyre, acting commander for the Praetorian Guard, waited on the fourth sublevel, at the bottom of a long well-lit staircase, to meet them.
The success of the mission meant he could go back into the retirement he so desperately wanted. His recently graying hair now belied his 112 years. He’d already served the North American Federation for six decades.
"The world owes your people a big thanks," he said to Anna as he guided her people down a long gray hallway.
Dyre arrived at another set of stairs where two guards snapped to attention. He used his eyes and left hand on the electronic reader. The thick steel security door opened and the general stepped onto a motion sensor-activated escalator. At the bottom of the escalator, he walked down a brightly lit hallway and identified himself to the electronic biometric scanner at the end. Stepping aside, he let a very tentative Anna step through to the main operations room first.
Unlike the well-preserved mansion on the surface camouflaging the Praetorians’ operations center, the lower levels were the most modern and high-tech money could buy. Computers or work stations took up almost every inch of wall space and most of the floor. Military and civilian workers occupied about two-thirds of the stations. Upon Anna’s entrance, the workers stood, clapping and cheering in an almost deafening din. Anna turned beet red in embarrassment.
The Praetorians took one look at the remaining unoccupied work stations and were taken aback at all the natural foods and beverages laid out for them. But, they quickly realized they shouldn’t have been. Amicus Dyre rewarded good work. He got the best out of them and gave the best in return. They would dine on real food and not the nutrient rich DNA-enriched RDA shakes that provided sustenance to most of the civilized world.
"I know this may seem like overkill, but you deserve it," Dyre said as he entered the room and joined in the wild applause. "Our resident security expert, Major Paulius, and Staff Sergeant Red Horse put it all together, so don't forget to thank them. Tomorrow, it's back to RDA shakes."
Leonard Paulius, a short, squat man who obviously worked out, stood near the largest food table and beamed. Next to him, Maria Red Horse also blushed with pride.
“Attention ladies and gentlemen!” Dyre called out. “I don’t mean to interrupt the festivities, but since all is peaceful and tranquil above, I don’t want all this celebration to make the guards on duty jealous.”
He smiled broadly, a glass of champagne in one hand and his eyes scanning the 200 or so Praetorian elite Special Operations and support personnel on the floor or up on the mezzanine level on the far side of the room. Though small in number, they represented the best the Federation and its allies had. To Dyre, they were like family.
“I want to toast our success,” Dyre said once he had everyone’s attention. “This was, perhaps, our finest moment today. The man we’ve hunted for so long is finally dead. For many of us, he’s been a demon haunting our every action for a decade. For some, it’s been even longer.”
Anna barely managed to keep her emotions in check at the mention.
“I’ve never been one for flowery speeches,” Dyre continued. “So, let’s cut to the chase. Here’s to the Praetorian Guard and its fine collection of men and women. May we live forever.”
“May we live forever,” the crowd repeated in unison with champagne glasses raised high.
As Anna held her glass high, joining the toast, the elevator door on the mini-mezzanine level opened. Anna looked up but the elevator was empty. Must be a malfunction within the elevator system, she thought. She started to turn back around but stopped when she caught sight of her general staring up at the mezzanine. Looking back, she gasped. Upon the upper level now stood a tall, slender black man wearing a form-fitting black pullover, black boots and old-fashioned battle dress uniform trousers. Anna gawked; how had the man appeared seemingly out of thin air?
Anna recognized neither his face nor his uniform. He turned to face her. His right eye glowed bright blue and suddenly Anna knew.
Something had gone horribly wrong. The Praetorian Guard’s moment of shining glory had become a tragedy of mistaken identity. She had killed the wrong man, for the man with the glowing blue eye up on the mini-mezzanine was the same man she’d cowered before in her village 25 years earlier. He’d only been a shadow to her then, but there was no mistaking that eye.
Devereaux Marshall Fox!
Her mind refused to believe what her eyes saw, even as the man drew something from behind his back. Now, her feet declined to cooperate and all moisture sapped from her throat as her brain recognized, with abject horror, that the something was an old-fashioned M-134 mini-gun, one of the deadliest personal weapons ever created. How Fox had gotten the weapon – or himself for that matter – past the building’s intense security apparatus was a moot point.
"Gun!" Anna cried out. "Get down!"
Fox opened fire like a lawn mower scything down blades of grass. Bodies fell left and right, collapsing to the floor or on top of computer consoles and food-stocked tables. Screams filled the air as fear and emotion replaced skilled training. The targets had no way to fight back, cut down before they could even contemplate activating cybernetic defenses.
Paulius revealed his true colors by using Red Horse as a human shield. Fox shot her down and then, after she slumped to the floor, made sure DNA would be the only way to identify Paulius.
Anna threw her body in front of Dyre’s. The attempt was futile. Bullets punched right through her and struck Dyre in the heart.
Fox flipped the now empty gun over the railing and stormed out of the room.
“…and the horse you rode in on!” he screamed as he walked away.
The gun clattered to the floor, its barrel warping from overheating. A small stream of blood hit the weapon and sizzled, throwing up an acrid wisp of smoke and an awful stench to anyone still alive to smell it.
Down below, a small moan rose up from the pile of bodies. With grim determination, Anna Velasquez moved her hand. Driven by some urgent, invisible need to survive, she grimaced as unimaginable pain seared through her body. She managed to pull herself along the floor, using control consoles slick with blood to help her ravaged limbs. Finally, with one last burst of energy, she reached up and hit a red button. As she collapsed, alarms began sounding. She curled up into the fetal position and whimpered, much like that awful day back in Mexico.
To be continued Nov. 14, 2011. For more exciting tales, check out the latest issues of Digital Digest at Amazon.
Gregory Marshall Smith
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror author
Copyright © 2011 Gregory Marshall SmithAll rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.