Parker-in-HallwayParker and I stood out in the hall. The air was cold but still. Our warm breath hung in the dead space between us. I leaned back against the entry door to the small safe room where the team had Marianne and Ghia stashed. My head ached and my temples throbbed like a bass drum. Moments earlier, Parker had to lift me up off the floor and physically drag me outside. My legs were weak but once we were alone I stood as tall as I could.

The aural attack that Marianne unleashed upon Ghia and me was not something I ever wanted to endure again. The kid was merely trying to put an end to the scuffle – I get that – but hammering sonic nails into our ears was overkill to say the least. Marianne clearly didn’t know the extent of her unique affliction.

Earlier, while we were rolling around on the floor, Ghia painted a bleak picture of life in Bellingshausen under LMO rule and I didn’t get the impression that her team was fit to hatch a plan to create any semblance of change. Fortunately for me, Ghia was inside still rolling around the floor. Pili was watching over her recovery and preventing her from getting loose and coming out here to finish kicking my ass. Parker and I needed to talk.

I had one shot at stepping in and pulling them together.

When the door was shut, I told Parker to give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts and he nodded in agreement. He stood before me – almost at attention – which I thought was strangely subordinate. He had his feet together and his hands behind his back. He still had his rifle slung over his shoulder and he looked every bit like the professional soldier. I wondered where he got his training. Surely there was never a human army in Bellingshausen.

I rubbed my ears with a rag that Parker had given me. It came away bloody. The ringing in my ears sounded like mad symphony of mistuned violins. “This isn’t working,” I said, still barely able to even hear the sound of my own voice.

Parker nodded ever so slightly and raised his eyebrows, urging me to continue.

“All this hiding and running and picking up the occasional skirmish with the LMOs is setting us up for a massive failure. We’re not seeing any progress and it’s eventually going to get us all killed.”

“Yeah,” Parker replied. “Right now, I don’t know who’s running a worse game. Clearly, our ability to capture and hold valuable assets is worth exactly shit – and your marksmanship is terrible.”

“And I fell into the hands of the enemy.”

Parker laughed. “Members of Central Ring Command and Control are not people you shack up with – even if they do look like maintenance men.”

“Evidently, I have a lot to learn.”

Parker smirked and nodded again. I got the impression that he was being as respectful as he could. I appreciated the gesture, given that it was Parker himself that threatened to kill me in their little interrogation room not too long ago. They didn’t know me then. And even though I’ve earned some of their trust, they still don’t know me now.

“But – there’s one thing that I have learned. Out of the four members of the team, you’re the disciplined one in the group, Parker. And you know as well as anyone here that Spegg, Robertson, and this Director guy are committing unjustifiable offenses against our entire species.”

Parker shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh. “You’ll have to remember that this place was last stop on the road to extinction for most people. They’ve never known anything other than life in Bellingshausen, rule by authority from the Central Ring, and LMO soldiers in the streets.”

I stared at Parker in silent disbelief. I couldn’t even begin to grasp that level of personal helplessness.

“With no place to go, they’ve learned to live in these conditions,” he added.

My jaw dropped. “What?” I asked.

“Life as we know it, Max.”

“That’s not good enough for me, Parker!” I shouted. The ringing in my ears escalated. Parker’s eyes widened. “Until I see it with my own eyes, I’ll never be convinced that Bellingshausen is the last human settlement on the planet. Pockets exist. People survive.”

“Maybe–” he started.

“And we’re going to find out soon enough.” I interrupted. “But first things first – I say that we have a job to do here. And I think you’re with me on that.”

“Okay. We can agree on that,” Parker replied quietly.

“And I’m tired of running blind and throwing stones at our captors. So, I need a strategic plan that will allow us to make significant gains against the local LMO forces. And I want to see if we can gather any available assets here in the outer ring – weapons, tech, people, whatever. On top of all that, we also need a separate strategy for taking the fight all the way to the center.”

Parker smiled. “Sounds like you’re hatching a crazy large-scale plan, Max.”

It’s Maxim,” I replied quickly, tired of correcting them. “And I am hatching something big. We can pull this off, Parker. But I need everyone onboard.”

“I’m still listening.”

“Once we hammer out some strategies, I’m going to rely on your expertise and – hopefully – Ghia’s knowledge to develop tactics that will get our plans up and working.”

“I’m in for that,” Parker started. “Ghia is a tough nut to crack but she’s reliable. If you bring something significant to the table, I think she’ll see the wisdom in the plan.”

“I have a few things to say and a couple of questions for you. I want straight answers here and now – or we’re not going to get anywhere fast. Understood?”

Parker furrowed his brow, only for a second, as if he were momentarily conflicted by my tone. “Understood,” he replied.

“Your former leader, Quinn, is dead and your group is running about without any semblance of leadership. Isn’t that correct?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“No offense here, Parker. I’m just taking an inventory.”

None taken.”

“Good. Let’s move on. Prior to Quinn’s death, your team received intel and direction from somewhere higher up in this mess, didn’t you?”

Parker paused for quite some time before answering, instantly telling me that this was a guarded secret. He looked away briefly and his eyes shifted both left and right. I began to think that he knew something but he didn’t know it all.

“That is correct. We received intelligence updates, mission directives and some occasional tech gear from someone inside one of the central rings, but the link was severed when Quinn was killed.”

“What can you tell me?”

“Not much at all. I know that information comes from within one of the central rings – how high up is a mystery to me. I know that information is dropped or delivered with some regularity – but it’s not any given day or date. Quinn was the connection and that’s a secret he took to the grave.”

“What does Dada know about the inside contact?”

“Even less than me.”

“Okay. At some point I want to hear about anything and everything you can remember. But for right now, I understand that Quinn died dragging me from Sar’s LMO patrol vehicle. This was also the event that cut your ties to the inside source. It’s no wonder that Ghia is so pissed at me. She blames me for–”

“Ghia is a strange twist,” Parker said, jumping in. “She’s loyal as she can be to the team but she has her own personal agenda too. She’s fighting two battles each and every day. It takes its toll on her ability to reason sometimes.”

“No kidding.”

“It’s a long story – has to do with her family, her father and brother. Let’s save it for another day, okay?”

“Fine by me. Thank you for helping me out with all this.”

“It’s my job. Any time.”

I was glad to hear that. Parker was, above all things, a committed member of the team. Even though I came in late to the action, Parker, Dada, Pili, and Ghia ran a shifty operation. When merely moving from location to location, it was clear that lack of direction – married with bouts of infighting – lead the team to make hasty decisions. Any group works best under capable command. Quinn was the Alpha in this outfit. With Quinn dead, the team was loose and running ragged. For strategy and tactics, Parker was probably the go-to guy under Quinn. To get the team back in line, all I had to do was step in and put Parker in play. From my time with the Academy, I knew that guys like Parker loved their marching orders. I suspected that I could keep him on point, actively engaged, and off my back if I just laid out a plan that he could get behind. The rest of the insurgents would fall in behind Parker – and me.

I continued. “So, as I gather it, we’re in need of a series of strategic planning sessions, a dialogue on tactics, and a bit of reconnaissance to gather any available assistance from the immediate resources in the outer ring.”

Parker shifted his eyes back and forth. I could see the wheels turning.

I continued. “There has to be a few others that have some valuable skills and a natural dislike of the entire LMO program.”

“We’re in agreement there,” Parker replied. “Whether it works or not, it sounds like start.”

“I think so. And on top of all that, we need a new place to call home base – something with multiple entries and exits. I also think that we need to find a place that’s close to the action, a place the LMOs won’t think to search through on a routine sweep.”

“Keep our enemies close?”

“Exactly.” I smiled.

Parker rubbed his chin as he thought it through. “Ghia will know best there. This is her little circle of Hell.”

“Yeah, I heard,” I said with a huff. “You think we can count on her?”

“With Marianne in tow, I certainly believe so.”

“We also need a way to re-establish our connection with the inside source that has been feeding you your intelligence and directives.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to accomplish that, as Quinn was–”

“I’ll wrap my head around that for the time,” I interrupted. “I may have an idea.”

Again with the furrowed brow. “Okay,” Parker replied. There was a hint of confusion in his tone.

“I also think that we need something that will give us a significant tactical advantage – something big. We’ll discuss this as a team as soon as we get safe.”

A faint thud came from inside the safe room, followed by a flurry of heated words in Spanish. Ghia was coming around and probably making some trouble for Pili. Parker shifted his gaze to the safe room door and back again. “Have you thought about what happens if we run into Makabe again?”

“Yes, I have. And if everything I’ve heard from Ghia and you has any truth to it, Makabe is best off giving me a lot of space for now. He won’t enjoy our next encounter.”

“That works for me,” Parker replied. “If you know what you’re doing, I’m looking forward to the next moves.”

I paused for a few moments and looked Parker over. Here and now, he wasn’t the stubbornly-unconvinced reactionary I knew from the interrogation room. He wasn’t pushing back against my every word or making wild assumptions about my nature and motivation. I wanted to know why.

“A few weeks ago, you would have dropped me to the floor in an instant – and left me for dead.”

“True,” he replied.

“What changed?” I asked.

Parker didn’t hesitate. “Oh, I’m still skeptical about your whole spaceman from the future back-story. But for the time being, you have my support. The main reason is that Marianne believes in you and I’ve come to see that she knows things before they happen. She tells us things we can’t even begin to understand. Sometimes she’s clear as can be and sometimes she babbles in riddles. She’s a highly-specialized, albeit weird and cryptic, little girl. But she knows something important is about to happen – and she says that it begins with you.”

I was puzzled but in no position to argue. “Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll take it.”

“And, from a more personal perspective, I saw your modifications to the sound wave rifle and the optics headgear. You’re a lousy shot but you’ve got some serious tech skills. We need that.”

“A hundred-plus years of technology experience gives me a bit of an edge, yeah.”

Parker screwed up his face into a wildly-confused twist. “How the hell old are you, by the way?”

I didn’t want to get into it. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“There’s a surprise.”

“Tell you all about that some other time,” I said.

“Yeah, please,” he replied.

“So, this is how it’s going to work from now on,” I started, getting Parker back on track. He straightened up, almost as if he was snapping to attention. “We’re out of this place – now. We’re going to grab Dada – wherever the hell he is – and get on the move.”

“Can do,” he said with enthusiasm.

“When we move, you’re on me and Pili is on you and Dada. I’ll keep one eye on Ghia. We’ll keep Ghia on Marianne. And as we go, Marianne never leaves our sight. We’re a tight circle. Everyone watches the man in front and guards the man in back. Got me?”

“Shoot, move, and communicate – I know the drill.”

“Exactly,” I replied. I was beginning to feel some relief. With Parker and the team, I no longer had enemies in front and in back of me.

“Where to?” Parker asked.

“Away from here. I expect that this place is going to be crawling with LMOs in no time.”

“That’s probably true. They can’t track Marianne normally but she makes a helluva signature when she goes off.”

“Okay then. I need you to go back inside, take control of that crew, and tell them that we’re on the move to some other safe location. Tell Ghia that she can lead us. Make her take point. Put Pili at her back and make sure that everyone knows that further personal squabbles will only get Marianne captured and the rest of us dead. You’re the authority here, Parker. They’ll take it best from you, especially if you sound personally convinced and committed. I’ll be behind you in a minute.”

Parker gave me a broad smile. “Yes, sir,” came the reply. He turned and went back through to door into the safe room.

Inside, I felt a warm twinge up and down my spine. It was the first time in months that I’d felt anything but cold and anxious. However, Parker said something that I couldn’t get out of my head. He told me that Marianne knew something important was about to happen – and she told him that it begins with me.

Who was this strange little girl? What else did she know?

[Communication Relay:  21OCT2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]