From New York Times bestselling author Jason M. Hough, Gears of War: Ascendance continues the story from the conclusion of Gears of War 4 and brings the reader to the beginning of Gears 5. Kait Diaz ends one chapter of her life after the death of her mother, Reyna Diaz, but there is no time to lose. The Swarm is returning to New Ephyra and the Coalition of Ordered Governments must be warned.
Read or listen to the first chapter now! The Gears of War: Ascendance audio book is narrated by Nan McNamara – the voice of Anya Stroud in Gears of War.
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First Chapter Reveal
1: AN INVITATION
The rock in her hand wasn’t much more than a pebble, yet it felt like it carried the weight of the world.
Kait Diaz held the stone in her palm, felt its grit and pores. It had been cleaved in half at some point—when or where was anyone’s guess. Maybe in yesterday’s battle, maybe a million years ago when a boulder rolled loose down this forsaken hillside. Whatever. It had once been part of something larger, but now it was a separate thing.
“Alone. Like me.”
Kait whispered the words so the others wouldn’t hear.
She glanced up and studied the pile of rocks that blocked the cave mouth. Even with help it had taken her the better part of a day, building it up, sealing what would soon be her mother’s tomb. Just one small opening left. A little window into the darkness. Once she put the rock in place, that would be that. Reyna Diaz would be gone. No light would ever shine on her again.
At the edges of Kait’s mind swam memories of her childhood, but for now at least she kept them firmly in that blurred periphery. Later, perhaps, she’d be ready. But not now.
She lifted the small stone and forced it into the gap. Her hand lingered, covering the spot.
It’s over, she thought, but she knew that wasn’t really true. Reyna would always be a part of her, and she might have found a lifetime of wisdom and comfort in that, if not for the amulet around her neck. The heirloom, the one last thing Mom had given her…
That had really muddied the goddamn waters.
JD and Del approached. They stood on either side of her and each rested a palm on the barrier wall, mimicking her stance.
“She’ll be missed,” JD said.
“Hell yeah, she will,” Del added. “Her and Oscar both. Everyone else those creatures took—”
“Just… stop,” Kait said. She let her hand fall from the rocks and turned her back on the burial site. “I can’t… this is all I can do for now, okay? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The two soldiers looked at each other, then nodded in unison. She moved and they parted a little to give her some space.
Seated just a short distance away were JD’s father Marcus Fenix, Damon Baird, Sam Byrne, and Augustus Cole. Not one of them had ever met Reyna, but now that Kait moved away from the wall—a wall they’d spent all night helping her build—each of them took their turn to place a hand on the surface and say a silent goodbye.
Kait left them to it. Anyone else and she might have doubted their sincerity, but not this group. Friends of Reyna or not, they’d all fought at Kait’s side against the Swarm, and helped her get here in time to say goodbye. She had that at least, and these people had made it possible. For that she would owe them, always.
Some silent agreement passed through the group then—the sort that existed between people who had fought together as they had. Sam kicked dirt over the ashes of their small campfire. Gear was checked and packed. The few extra clips of ammo they carried were divided up and a canteen passed around. They didn’t have much left. No one had expected to be stuck out here.
Cole looked to Marcus. “Where to?”
“I’m not in charge,” Marcus replied.
Cole shrugged. “You’re always in charge. Even when you’re outranked.”
The old soldier shook his head. “We did what we came here to do. Thought I might head home.”
Del couldn’t help himself. “Your home’s a smoldering ruin.”
“Maybe so, but it’s still home,” Marcus growled.
“If there’s even one wall left standing, I’d be shocked.”
Marcus eyed the young man. “And whose fault is that?”
“Whoa, whoa. Relax.” JD stepped in between them. “No need to get into whose fault it was.”
“Easy for you to say,” Del replied, “since it was really your fault.”
Marcus grunted. For a moment he regarded Del and his son, then turned back to the larger group.
“Let Baird decide.”
“Me?” Baird asked. “That’d be like the blind leading the sighted. I don’t know this area at all. Look, we need to find a working comms tower. Do that, and I can get a bird to come pick us up.”
At this Kait decided to speak up.
“I might know a place.”
They all turned to her.
“It’s a bit of a hike, and I’m not sure about comms, but there’s supplies. Food maybe.”
“Food, huh?” Cole eyed her. “I like the sound of that. Is it on a desolate hillside surrounded by nasty murderous baddies?”
“Good enough for the Cole Train, then,” he said. “Lead the way.”
Each step she took brought a little relief. Distance had a way of doing that, she supposed.
She’d barely slept. Last night a nightmare full of teeth and claws and tentacles, ending with a glowing mouth and that Speaker’s voice, had sent her bolt upright and drenched in sweat. Kait had set to work right then and there on the rock wall that would entomb her mother, and the noise of her efforts had woken the others. Within minutes they were all pitching in to help, not a word passing between them, and they’d kept on until the job was done.
By midday they were out of the hills and on to a wide grassy plain, the sun pounding down on their necks. The air vibrated with the sounds of wildlife—buzzing, chirping, and the occasional rustle as something hightailed it out of their path. The tall grass, up to Kait’s shoulders, felt like a thousand caressing fingers trying to pull her down into the earth to sleep. Kait found it harder and harder to focus, her vision blurring from exhaustion.
She glanced around, willing the fog from her mind. JD and Del had come up beside her. It was Del who had spoken, but their faces bore the same expression. Concern. Worry.
“You really want me to answer that?” she asked, instantly regretting her tone, and having pushed them away earlier. They meant well, she knew.
Her friend grimaced and looked away. “I guess not. Just… look, we’re here for you, alright?”
“Anything you need,” JD added.
Kait couldn’t keep the smile from her face, but it was only half formed, struggling to break through the grief just like she was. “Thanks, guys. I mean it. Right now I just need some time. Can you give me that?”
The two men nodded and fell back again. A few steps at first, then farther as the march went on.
When the swamp came into view it was almost a relief.
“Uh, we’re going in there?” Cole said. “I take back my comment about desolate hillsides.”
“Scared, Cole?” Marcus asked.
“Naw, man, just, you know, hoping for a little R&R after the recent unpleasantness. That… don’t look too relaxing.”
“The man’s got a point,” Samantha put in.
All at once the field around them went dead quiet, leaving only the wind that sent waves through the tall grass. Birds, insects… it all just stopped. Kait felt a cool tingle run up her spine and down her arms.
From somewhere behind them came a high-pitched yelp.
Then another, then more.
“Something tells me R&R isn’t in our future,” JD muttered. They all turned around, and instinctively started to spread apart and form a defensive line.
Alert again, Kait watched the horizon, glancing down only to verify the ammo reading on her Lancer. It was a customized model, pilfered from Marcus Fenix’s estate as the walls literally fell in around them. The sixty-round clip was less than half full. When her gaze returned to the undulating field she saw movement at the edges.
The grass was parting, as if invisible objects raced toward them across the surface. Then something gray and mottled bobbed above the grass and, for one ugly instant, seemed to make eye contact with her before dropping back below. Those eyes were white and seemed sightless.
“Juvies!” she shouted. “From the left!”
“And the right!” JD added, already moving in that direction. Del followed him and Kait felt a strong pull to stick with them. Fighting beside them felt natural somehow, like an instinct rather than a conscious choice. As Del once put it, they were simply on the same wavelength.
But she was on the wrong side, nearer to Cole and Marcus. The two veterans moved off left, keeping low in the grass. With no cover here, fanning out was the only option. Kait suddenly found herself in a position to either flank left, or stay in the middle where Baird and his “special lady-friend” Sam stood like wind ranchers preparing to defend their last mill. Sam had a beat-up old Gnasher shotgun resting on her forearm. Baird’s weapon was larger, held low. Kait knew that everyone was perilously low on ammo.
Baird braced the weapon against his hip, and Kait recognized it as the aptly named Buzzkill.
“Been looking for an excuse to try this thing,” he said to no one in particular. “Time to level the playing field.”
“Quit yapping and do it,” Sam said.
Kait moved back a few steps, a grin curling at the corner of her mouth as Damon Baird let loose.
There came a whirring whoosh as the blade flew out and scythed through the tall grass, which fell in a line straight out from Baird, cut almost exactly in half. Somewhere off in the distance a Juvie yelped. The bow-shock “V” it made came to an abrupt end.
Pleased, Baird kept firing. In front of him a pattern began to form like a fan—lines in the grass the width of the circular Buzzkill blades, spreading in an arc extending perhaps a hundred yards out. Two more Juvies fell from the salvo, but that wasn’t the point, Kait now realized. Baird had created pockets of low grass the Juvies had to run through, revealing themselves in small, naked glimpses that made targeting far easier.
She braced herself and opened fire. Short bursts, the weapon rattling against her armpit each time. One of the scrawny creatures went ass-over-teakettle, limbs flailing. The other just dove lifelessly forward, vanishing into the grass.
From right and left came the bark and thrum of gunfire. Everyone took advantage of Baird’s cleared lines to sight from a distance. A few of the creatures managed to get close, only to taste the wrath of Sam’s Gnasher. Turning, Kait shielded her eyes to see how JD and Del were faring. Her friends were side by side, their expressions calm and focused.
“More incoming!” Marcus shouted. “Following the paths, disguising their numbers!”
And he was right. It was more intelligence than the little monsters had shown before, but then Kait had never faced them in such a wide, empty space as this. A second wave came rushing forward, not far behind the first, staying low and using the already-trampled grass to their advantage.
The Buzzkill made a sound that told her it was empty. Baird threw it to the ground and drew a Boltok pistol, wielding it with two hands.
“We don’t have the ammo for this,” Sam said to her man. “Plan B?”
“Melee?” Baird offered. “Sticks and fucking stones?”
Off to Kait’s left, Cole grunted a laugh. He slung his Lancer and drew a long hunting knife.
“Trading a chainsaw for a knife, huh?” Kait said.
“Close combat, multiple enemies. Speed is better,” Cole replied. “They wanna dance, I’ll dance, unless someone’s got a better idea. Outta ammo here.”
Kait had five rounds left.
For each Juvie she took down, three more seemed to stream in behind it. Fatigue started to grip her again. Where she’d been sweating before, now she was drenched.
“Guys? There’s a lot of them,” JD said.
“The swamp,” Kait shouted. “Now!”
Part of her expected them to scoff at this idea. Not JD and Del, but maybe Cole or Baird, whom she barely knew. Retreat, even of the temporary variety, wasn’t part of a soldier’s vocabulary—at least not in her experience. This group, though, was seasoned. Practical. The “win by any means” variety that reminded her of Mom.
So instead of arguing they began to move. First a backward walk by those who still had ammo, then a full-on sprint by the whole party as their guns neared empty.
Kait reached the trees first. They were decrepit things, branches drooping and leafless, covered in gray fungus. The smooth grass plain gave way to undulating ground, stagnant water filling every low spot. White reeds poked up from the deeper pools, like bony fingers reaching out from so many graves. No grass to hide the Juvies here, though, and the trees provided solid cover. Kait positioned herself behind the first one with a thick trunk, turned, and aimed.
JD and Del were close behind. For a second they appeared to be in a footrace, which if true would not have surprised her. They bolted past and found their own trunks to hunker behind.
Ten paces behind them came Sam, a faster sprinter than Baird, whose pace seemed to be flagging. Still, he made it. The couple moved even farther into the trees, splashing as they went. Neither, it seemed, had a bullet left to fire.
Kait turned back and squinted, waiting for Marcus and Cole. Neither emerged from the grass, though. Another sound began.
“Dad, c’mon!” JD shouted.
Kait held up a hand for quiet. She strained, hearing yelping Juvies and, there, just below the chorus, the dueling growl of two chainsaws.
Marcus emerged from the grass first, still facing back toward the enemy. He swung his Lancer hard to one side just as a Juvie pounced at him. It was a grotesque, naked parody of the human who had died to create it. Blood and gore sprayed in an arc as the motorized saw cut through the scrawny creature. It fell in two neat halves to either side of Marcus. He stepped back and just had time to heave the weapon back the other way as another Juvie hurled itself toward him.
This one lost an arm and half its head for the effort.
The swing had Marcus twisted to one side. He never saw the third Juvie emerge from the grass. Instead of leaping toward his head, this one went low, diving to its shoulder and rolling into Marcus’s calves. The veteran went down, splashing in the blood of his first kill.
Kait raised her rifle and took aim, but the fight became a tangle of limbs. She tossed the weapon to the ground and raced forward, drawing Reyna’s broken-tipped machete as she went. Three long strides and she was there. Marcus saw her from the corner of his eye and kicked upward with both legs, sending the Juvie flying off and up into the air. Kait leaned into a slide, raised the knife, and sliced through the creature’s gut as it twisted around above her. Hot blood sprayed across her face. She gagged as she turned her slide into a clumsy roll.
Wiping one arm across her face, she pushed herself upward and stood at the ready. Marcus rolled out from under the Juvie she’d just eviscerated. Yelping sounds came from all around.
Then Cole was in front of her, chainsaw revving. He coiled and rammed it toward her face. Kait flinched, heard the growl of Cole’s Lancer as it passed by her cheek and struck a leaping Juvie just behind her. Its yapping cry ended in a crunch of bone and teeth.
Together the three of them ran for the trees. Ahead, JD and Del unleashed a deafening salvo on the now completely exposed enemy. As the bullets streamed past her, Kait didn’t look back. Judging from their high-pitched cries, just audible over the sudden burst of gunfire, she knew they’d come in overwhelming numbers. Outrunning them wasn’t going to happen.
Spotting a dirt trail, she led them to it. Somewhere ahead was the hideout she’d suggested, but she couldn’t quite remember exactly how far they had to go through the swamp. Her only visit had been months ago, with Oscar, and she’d spent most of that journey helping her uncle guide his horse Chuzz through the—
“Chuzz,” she muttered.
“What?” JD called out, not far behind her.
“I have an idea!” Kait glanced ahead, looking for a familiar tree or bend in the trail that wove through the swamp.
“Whatever it is,” Del shouted, “now would be good.”
There! Kait recognized a curved branch, and at its midpoint hung a length of rope. She angled toward it and pushed herself into a full sprint. Turning her head she shouted to the others, “Follow my path exactly!”
Just before the drooping tree she turned and made a wide curving path around a dark area on the ground, choked with those bony white reeds. She returned to her original course once the branch with the rope was behind her. Then she came to a stop on a small rise.
The others followed her route with determined precision. Their expressions changed, though, when they realized she’d come to a halt.
Behind, the pack of Juvies poured toward them.
“Last stand?” Marcus asked as he reached her. “Is that your strategy?”
Kait shook her head. “Not exactly.” Her gaze remained fixed on the Swarm, almost insect-like in the way they crawled over everything—even one another—to get to their prey.
Just before the tree, they met the same fate Chuzz had.
The first to hit the deep pool just vanished into the reeds as if it had fallen off a cliff, which wasn’t far from the truth. Kait heard the splash but didn’t see it over the vegetation. It was only when the others followed that splashes of muddy stagnant filth began to spray from the concealed pond. Some of the Juvies seemed to recognize the problem before falling in, only to be bowled over or shoved forward by those behind them.
“I hope they can’t swim,” Baird said.
Kait allowed herself a satisfied grin. “Let’s not stick around to find out.”
For an hour they ran, jogged, and waded through the rapidly darkening swamp, with only Kait’s memory of the landscape to guide them around the occasional obstacle. By the time the ranch house came into view, they were all bruised, soaked, and exhausted.
At least the Juvies gave up, Kait thought. Sometime after the second water trap their sounds had faded, then vanished altogether. Either they couldn’t swim and had all succumbed to the swamp, or the little fuckers were smarter than they seemed and had given up.
“That the place?” Marcus asked. He’d come up beside her, his armor still dripping brown water from the last gully. Somehow he’d managed to keep clean the black skullcap he wore over his head. Clean-ish, anyway.
“Yeah,” she said.
“What’s it doing in the middle of a swamp?”
Kait raised her voice a little for the benefit of the group. “Used to be a horse ranch, until Windflares emptied a nearby lake, dropping all the water in this lowland. The place never recovered. My uncle knew the owners, traded with them now and then.”
“Is this where he got Ugly?” JD asked.
“He was always ugly,” Del noted.
“The horse, you idiot.”
“Chuzz was his real name, and yeah, this is the place,” she said to JD. For a moment she became lost in memories of Oscar. If only I could have buried him like I did Reyna. She wondered what had become of him after the Snatcher took him. If one of those Juvies they’d just fought could have been him. Probably gave the thing serious indigestion before the end. Knowing him, probably made the monster a little drunk, too. “The owners left a couple years ago,” she continued, “moved south to higher ground. We’ve been using it ever since as a supply cache and Windflare shelter.”
“What sort of supplies?” Marcus asked. “You mentioned comms.”
Kait shrugged, glanced down. “Just… you know… stuff we sorta stole from the COG.”
To her surprise Marcus laughed. “How much stuff?” There was a flash of admiration in his perpetual glare.
“Let’s find out.”
She entered first. The house, once grand, felt like an empty shell now. It had been a warm place full of rustic charm and surrounded by picturesque rolling grasslands. All that had gone, though, and the color had bled away, leaving dim gray walls with peeling paint. Dusty floors with patches where thick rugs used to lie. The huge central fireplace was just an ugly black mouth, wind howling somewhere deep inside.
Her shoes crunched on broken glass as she crossed into the great room. The rest followed her in silently, keeping their thoughts to themselves.
“Over here,” Kait said, and her voice echoed. She walked to an open doorway at the back corner, leading to a small room full of wood shelving.
“Nice,” Del said. “A lifetime supply of dust and cobwebs.”
Kait frowned at him. “Not that. Here.” She pointed at a discolored square on the floor at the back, three feet to a side, with a recessed handle on one edge. Kait knelt and heaved at the metal pull. “Little help?”
JD stepped up. Together they managed to get the rusty hinges to cooperate, and soon enough the hatch swung upward with a squeal and thudded against the wall in a thick puff of dust. Beneath it was a square of darkness and a wooden ladder of which only the top three rungs were visible.
Leading the way down, Kait felt around for the light switch. By the time she switched it on, Marcus and JD were already on the stone cellar floor, waiting. The single bare bulb cast a wan yellow glow over the area, barely reaching the distant corners.
Marcus rubbed at his chin, nodding slightly. “This’ll do,” he said.
Once it had been a wine cellar, but most of the old bottle racks had been pushed to the sides or dismantled altogether, creating a vast empty space. Across this, row after row of semi-organized COG gear had been piled, leaving paths in between for easier access.
Kait walked down one aisle, passing ammo crates and several hard cases labeled with bold warnings of explosives. None of this mattered to her right now. It was at the end of the row that she found what she wanted.
“Rations,” Kait said. “Ready to eat.”
“Enough for an army,” Del said. He and JD were just steps behind her, and when Kait moved aside each grabbed an armful of the COG-labeled packages and headed back for the ladder. Del, she saw, had tucked a dusty old bottle of wine under his arm, too.
She grabbed a protein bar and tore the wrapper away, chewing rapidly and consuming the whole thing in three big bites.
“Over here,” Marcus said from somewhere off to her left. “Field comms.”
“Ulh gih Ber,” she replied through her mouthful.
Kait swallowed with an effort. “I’ll get Baird.”
“Nah. Just grab the other handle, we’ll move it upstairs where there’s some light. And look for power cells, will you?”
Brushing crumbs from her hands, Kait started scanning the aisles. Didn’t take long to find a whole pile of the devices. She stuffed a few into pouches at her belt. Only then did it register that she still wore Anya Stroud’s armor. Marcus’s wife, who died a long time ago. He’d given the armor to Kait in a moment of necessity, as they hunkered down inside his estate while Jinn and her DeeBees shot the place to hell all around them. Over the last few days it had become like a second skin, but standing here now she wondered if it might bother him to see her wearing it. The piece had history, if not serious sentimental value.
Kait looked at Marcus. His back was to her as he wrangled the large comms crate out from under some thermal blankets. All business, all calm professionalism. Would it gnaw at him? Memories dredged up every time he glanced in Kait’s direction?
She’d ask about it, Kait decided. Later, when there was no imminent threat. Such a time felt far in the future.
Twenty minutes later the portable comm was set up on the floor in the middle of the great room. While Baird and Sam tinkered with it, Kait sat with Del and JD.
Del picked up an extra mug and poured wine into it from the old bottle. “Try some. It’s damn good.”
“Should be,” Kait said, taking the wine. “Oscar stocked this place.” She sipped, aware that Del and JD were watching her. The mention of her uncle had put them on edge. Neither seemed to know what to say, and for her part Kait didn’t really want them to say anything. She met their eyes, raised her mug, and drank.
They joined her in the silent toast.
“You’re right about the wine,” Kait said. “It’s very good.” After a few more swallows a slight haze settled over her thoughts, pushing away lingering images from last night’s dream.
Across the room Cole moved from window to window, constantly scanning the swamp for any sign of the Swarm.
“Do you have to keep pacing like that?” Baird asked without looking away from the comm display. “What are you so worried about?”
“The Cole Train ain’t worried, baby,” he replied without pausing. “Hoping those little bastards come back for a rematch!” Leaning out of one of the broken windows he shouted, “We’re in here, bitches! Come and get some!”
Samantha chuckled. “You really need to get out more, Augustus. So much pent-up energy.”
“This is like a vacation for me.” The big man sighed. “Hardly ever get outside the walls anymore, you know? I miss it. A little.”
The comm made a long series of beeps and pings.
“Here we go,” Baird said, holding his hands away from it as if his touch might fry the thing. When the beeping settled down, he leaned back in and tapped away at the controls. Entering an ID code, Kait assumed. Baird shrugged. “Could be a while before the system recognizes my credentials and allocates a bird—”
A crackle of static, then a familiar voice.
“Damon, is that you? Where the hell are you? Report.”
It was First Minister Jinn. Kait almost laughed.
Sam did laugh. “What the hell, has she been waiting by the console? That’s a bit needy, even for her.”
Her boyfriend sat back, chin in his hand. “She’s probably already got us triangulated,” he said, index finger tapping at the corner of his mouth. “Should we talk to her now?”
JD stood. “Better that than when her Command Bot gets here with a fully armed escort. Last time she didn’t use words so much as… what was it? Oh yeah. Missiles.”
“Agreed.” Marcus Fenix nodded. “I’m curious to hear what she has to say for herself.” When no one argued otherwise, Baird leaned forward again and picked up the handset. As he did, he activated the video feed, and her face appeared on the screen, looking off to one side.
“First Minister!” he said. “Uh… Lovely to hear from you.”
“Cut the bullshit, Damon, and give me a status report.” Her voice had a slight nasal quality that made Kait reflexively clench her fists hard enough for her nails to bite into her palms.
Baird glanced at his companions as they gathered around him, then launched into his summary, starting with the events around Tollen Dam. He talked of the creatures they had dubbed the Swarm, that were emerging from the old Locust burial site there. Before he could go into detail, Jinn cut him off. She’d been looking off screen the entire time, but now her gaze finally fixed on Baird.
“Has the threat been neutralized?”
“Not from what we’ve seen,” he replied. “If anything, it’s getting worse.”
Jinn’s mouth tightened and her brow furrowed. She leaned in, squinting.
“Looks like you’ve got an interesting group with you. Hello again, Fenix.”
“Hello—” JD said.
“It’s been—” Marcus said at the same time.
They exchanged a silent glance, then Marcus spoke. “Jinn,” he said. “It’s a goddamn mess out here, and the time you wasted blaming things on the Outsiders and on us didn’t exactly help, not to mention what you did to my farm.”
It was all Kait could do to suppress her smile. A silence stretched, and Jinn seemed to be looking straight into her eyes—just an illusion of the screen, Kait decided. Probably. She waited, tense nonetheless.
“An error in judgment on our part,” Jinn replied, forcing a contrite smile, “but understandable given the intelligence we had.”
Kait stepped forward. “Understanda—”
A hand on her arm stopped her. Del shook his head, his eyes seeming to say, “Just wait.” Kait swallowed her anger, something she was getting awfully tired of doing.
“I’ve already dispatched a large DeeBee force to investigate what happened at Tollen Dam,” Jinn said. “In the meantime… I once again request that all of you come to New Ephyra so we can discuss this in person. As is often the case in these situations, lack of communication, of cooperation, has led to operational inefficiencies—”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” Kait whispered through clenched teeth.
“Relax,” JD said. “Relax.”
If Jinn heard, she gave no indication, and never stopped talking. “—work together to solve this, whatever ‘this’ is.”
“We just told you what ‘this’ is,” Marcus said.
Jinn raised an eyebrow. “Surely you understand that I cannot base military policy on a single report, no matter how trustworthy the source.” She spread her hands. “Look, I’ll ask nicely if I must. Please would you all join me here in New Ephyra for a debriefing and consultation.”
“A few days ago you were trying to kill us,” Kait said. She couldn’t help herself.
“Trying to capture you,” Jinn corrected, “until I had no choice but to escalate matters.”
Baird shifted. “Putting lethal weapons into the hands of security robots was a monumentally bad idea, Jinn.”
Jinn held up her hands. “We all made mistakes. I admit it. Perhaps we can put that behind us and focus on the real problem—this ‘Swarm’—instead of pointing fingers? I promise immunity while you’re here.”
“Is she for real?” Kait asked Del.
Kait smirked. “Wow.”
Jinn continued with her pitch, but Kait stopped listening. While the others continued to talk, she walked to the window and looked out over the landscape. It took a force of will not to remove the pendant from where it lay concealed under her armor. That last parting gift, given with no explanation.
What the hell did it mean?
Then Kait caught Baird’s final words.
“We’ll think about it.”
“Think quickly, please. Transportation will be arriving before first light.”
The link ended, and the screen went dark. There was a moment of silence.
“Well, what do we think?” Baird asked, not addressing anyone in particular.
“I think it smells,” Marcus said, “but then this is Jinn we’re talking about. Taking her at her word would be a mistake.”
Del shook his head. “Even so, we can’t leave this Swarm for her to deal with, can we? I mean, that’s not an option. Not in my book.”
“He’s right,” JD said. “We have to try. Get her to understand what we’re up against here, if nothing else. Assuming she doesn’t arrest us the moment we’re through the city gate.”
Sam gave a small shrug. “Damon and I have learned to work with her. And we have leverage. She relies heavily on DBi. As long as you’re with us, I think you’ll be okay.”
“Kait?” JD asked her. “You haven’t said anything. What do you want to do?”
She glanced at him, then the others. They were all looking at her, waiting. Kait took a deep breath to gather her thoughts. She wondered what Reyna would do. Kick Jinn in the face, probably. Then thank the others for their help, return to the village, and start rebuilding.
But Reyna was gone now. Time to come to grips with that, or at least try.
“I want to make sure what happened to my mother, my entire village, doesn’t happen to anyone else. Their deaths should mean something.”
Before any of them could respond she nodded toward JD’s father. “I agree with Marcus. We can’t trust her. And every Outsider bone in my body says going to New Ephyra is moving away from the problem.” JD started to reply, but she held up a hand to quiet him. “But you and Del are right, too. She’d make this into an even bigger mess if left to handle it on her own.” Now she turned to Baird and Sam. “Jinn can’t be trusted, but I feel like you two can. If you say you can force Jinn to keep her word, I believe you.”
Cole stepped forward. “So it’s settled then. Marcus?”
The veteran glanced at Kait. After a moment he nodded, slowly. “It’s settled.”
With the impromptu meeting over, everyone turned their attention to getting some sleep, Cole taking first watch. Kait lay in the dark, watching him as he stood silently by the front window. The old house creaked, settled. Wind moaned deep inside the chimney.
She knew what was to come. Fought it as long as she could, but finally her body gave in.
…Crusted webbing held her arms and legs, veins coiled around ancient rock pressed into her back. She writhed, tried to cry out. Her mouth would not work, jaw hanging slack, unhinged, blood trickling from her mouth, nose, ears.
Kait heaved against the binding tentacles. No use. No point.
She turned, looked for anything, had to get out, had to run, had to find—
Oscar. He sat a dozen feet away, his back to her. He held a fish in his hands, ran a knife along its length and let the innards spill out. There was a laugh.
She couldn’t call to him. He was already gone. The fish fell to the ground, flopped around, whole again but gasping. Not its place. Not its time.
A glow. Warmth on her cheek. Salvation. She turned to it, basked, saw two figures running toward her. Fleeing something hidden in the shadows.
She knew them. Gabe and Reyna.
They ran. Ran to her. Ran at her. Not fleeing. Charging. Taloned hands splayed for—
From somewhere deep inside herself, Kait heard laughter.
Booming, awful laughter.