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Land of the Blind – Prologue

April 25, 2142

It took eight of the most grueling months of detective and intelligence work, but they finally found him. Trailed him from the heart of the Congo in central Africa all the way to Dallas/Fort Worth International Air & Space Port. Trailed him by wireless surveillance to the port’s rental terminal. Followed his old-fashioned hydrogen-powered rental car all the way to Fort Worth.

Straight ahead, the rental car passed through an intersection full of pedestrians, causing a few to jump back and shake their fists at him in anger. Seizing the opportunity to make what the pedestrians would see as a traffic stop, two specially-equipped and heavily armored black vans sped up, got in front of the rental car and hit the brakes. The fusion-powered vans had dropped wheels hidden within their chassis to the street to help keep the vehicles solidly in place for the blockade.

Inside the rental car, a dark-skinned, very muscular man had to hit his brakes to avoid slamming into them broadside, leaving long black skid marks on the once pristine pavement. Before he could get his wits about him, three black vans appeared seemingly out of nowhere and flanked him on either side, pulling up alongside the curbs. Behind him, four black fusion-powered sedans lowered themselves gently to the pavement, blocking him completely.

Doors opened and dozens of men and women dressed in the latest flexible black armor suits poured out of the vehicles. The suits were form-fitting outfits composed of the latest generation of Kevlar interwoven with titanium mesh and synthetic cotton that wicked away sweat and held in body heat. The armor, when coupled with flak vests and plating, could stop any projectile up to a 25-millimeter shell. They also contained computer interfaces that even allowed those with cybernetic augmentation to enhance their abilities even further.

The men and women carried the XM-17, the newest laser-guided submachine gun, which fired the deadly new slantium-depleted bullets, capable of scoring all but the toughest body armor with ease. They took up firing positions behind the cars and vans in classic police style. They hooked the guns to the power pack attached to their suits, to make sure their laser guidance didn’t run out of power.

“This is a Praetorian Guard operation!” a message blared out from one of the vans towards the crowds of onlookers who had gathered behind the established police cordons at each end of the intersection. “Please stay behind the city police cordons! Anyone straying beyond the cordons will be subject to arrest!”

Anna Velasquez crouched behind one of the fusion cars, close enough to feel the dull heat from the fusion core beneath the hood. She wore captain’s insignia on her collar. On an operation this large and considering the quarry, she would normally have only been second-in-command. But, Anna Velasquez was no ordinary member of the Praetorian Guard, which was the premier security apparatus of the North American Federation. As head of the Praetorians’ elite forces, she was their best officer, consumed with a drive to succeed that stretched beyond officers with far more years on the force. That drive had been born more than a quarter of a century earlier in a camp in her native Mexico, but it was just as bright now as it had been back then.

Anna felt that she was the best, but then again, considering her quarry, she needed to be the best. Inside that rental car sat Devereaux Marshall Fox, dubbed by the media as “The Adventurer” for his worldwide exploits. She knew him to be the most wanted man in the world. The man who, 25 years earlier, had massacred her entire village in Mexico when she was but eight years old. She didn’t know why he’d left her alive, but she fully intended to make him pay for his crimes.

“This is the Praetorian Guard!” she said into her battle suit radio, which had been prompted mentally to set to its loudspeaker mode via the subcutaneous implant beneath her right ear. “Driver, put your hands up where we can see them, slowly open the driver’s side door and exit the vehicle! Do it now!”

“Sensors reveal no weapons in the vehicle,” the command van reported back.

Anna cocked an eyebrow in surprise. Had she really caught Fox unprepared, with none of his weapons? Still, as she looked at his frightened face through the rental car windshield, she could not feel any sympathy for him. Whatever his situation, all she knew at this moment was that he had made no move whatsoever to obey her original command.

“This is your last warning!” she stated quite firmly. “Put your hands where we can see them, slowly open the door and exit the vehicle!”

There was still no movement from inside the vehicle. Anna frowned, flipping the selector switch on her gun from “single” to “automatic.” She knew she had to follow procedure, but she was so sure that she was going to finally get her revenge that she could barely contain her giddiness. Alas, she forced himself to be more professional; giddiness was not standard protocol for a Praetorian.

She motioned to her aide, Lt. Freda Von Sturm, to pass the word. Sturm, on loan from the German DSG-9 Special Forces, flipped her gun to automatic. Anna noticed that Sturm’s visage remained rather stony, belying little about whatever emotions might have flowing through her mind.

“He’s trying to make some kind of communication,” Von Sturm called out.

Anna cursed under her breath and then smiled at the opening Fox had given her.

“Let him have it!” she shouted.

Instantly, dozens of machine guns, rifles and pistols opened up on the rental car. The slantium-depleted bullets punctured the metal of the entire car. The car had been made of reinforced new grade steel, which, although lighter than old 21st century vehicles, could handle the most current hydrogen engines or fusion reactors and anything up to a major head-on collision with a speeding semi-tractor trailer rig. But against the Praetorian bullets, it was like stopping a knife with a piece of paper.

Flames began to sprout out from the rental car as the slantium reacted with the engine core. A few moments later, the engine blew up. The hydrogen started an intense, but brief fire. The rental car was ball of flame for about 30 seconds after which it petered out for lack of flammable material.

Anna ordered her people to stop firing. The rental car’s occupant was obviously dead. She asked the command van for a sensor sweep of the car to seek life signs, but she already knew the answer. The command van reported no life signs and she passed the information to her people, then to the city police. Almost instantly, hundreds of onlookers crowded forward against the cordons to get a ghoulish look at the blackened shell of the car.

“Good job, everyone,” Anna said into her radio. “Lt. Von Sturm, please radio for a wrecker and a morgue vehicle.”

The cleanup took longer than expected, as curious onlookers and media vultures had quickly descended onto the scene of Devereaux Marshall Fox’s demise. Anna herself watched all of this from the comfort of her command van. She wanted as many officers as possible between herself and the media.

Alone in the back of the van, away from prying eyes, she collapsed onto the floor and let loose the torrent of tears she’d been holding back. All her mind could see now was the faces of her mother, her father, her brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, all lying dead in a sea of mud, even as a scared eight-year old girl cowered before the shadow of the one man responsible, a man with a right eye that had mysteriously glowed bright blue. She hadn’t found out why he’d done it, but that wasn’t important now. The man responsible was dead. Anna finally had her revenge. Fox no longer mattered.

It took most of the night for the operation to finish up. But, by early morning, the streets had been cleared and the charred body removed to the morgue. Now, Fox was in the hands of the coroner and his plethora of AI-controlled machines, sharing the fate he’d doled out to dozens – some would say hundreds — of brave men and women around the world.

The entire ambush force packed up and drove back to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth. The Marines at the front guard saluted and let them pass. A quarter of a mile inside the base, the convoy of vans and sedans turned left down a little-used side road that was overgrown with weeds and had grass forcing its way up through the black top.

They reached a historic, 19th century mansion, following a mowed and edged driveway to the rear garages that were separated from the mansion by an overly large backyard with an immaculate lawn. Only a few people moved around the outside of the house and the only lights shone from a room downstairs and one upstairs on the third floor near the terrace leading up to the widow’s walk.

Inside the garages, the Praetorians filed out and made their way to doors that led below ground. Though the garages looked to be at least a century old, they were secretly wired with the most advanced security systems. As the Praetorians moved down a level, they dropped off their equipment – combat gear on the first sublevel, computer interfaces on the second and weapons on the third.

General Amicus Dyre, acting commander for the Praetorian Guard, was there in person on the fourth sublevel, at the bottom of a long, dimly lit staircase to meet Anna as she and her people arrived at Praetorian headquarters for the post-mission briefing. He was extremely glad for the success of the mission because he desperately wanted to go back into retirement. His hair had gone totally gray, belying his 112 years. He’d already served the North American Federation for six decades. Modern medicine may have extended life expectancy to 200, but he still felt too old to be doing the job of much younger men.

“The world owes your people a big thanks,” he said to Anna as he guided her people down a long blandly painted hallway.

He arrived at another set of stairs where two guards snapped to attention and allowed him to use 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. He then stepped aside to let a very tentative Anna step through to the main operations room first.

Unlike the well-preserved stately mansion on the surface that carefully camouflaged the Praetorians’ operations center, the lower levels were extremely modern and high-tech. Almost every inch of wall space and most of the floor were taken up by computers or work stations. About two-thirds of the work stations were occupied by military and civilian workers since the national and international affairs of the Federation did not take time out for celebratory parties. However, upon seeing Anna’s Praetorians enter, the men and women all stood to their feet, clapped and cheered loudly, making Anna turn beet red in embarrassment.

The Praetorians took one look at the remaining work stations that were unoccupied and were almost taken aback at all the natural foods and beverages that had been laid out for them. But, they quickly realized that 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 all 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 heavily,stood near the largest food table and beamed. He’d managed to put the party together and still control the Praetorian headquarters’ security systems. Next to him, Maria Red Horse also blushed with pride. She’d gotten over not receiving a combat slot with Anna’s force and had accepted her role with the logistics division with few qualms.

After chatting up several groups of Praetorians, Dyre slipped away and wrapped an arm around Anna’s shoulder. He took her aside from the hundred or so people sipping champagne and making revelry inside the command center. Anna had been trying to suppress her emotions since the operation, but couldn’t quite do it. She’d cried in the van and was now about to spill fresh tears. Dyre had seen it and taken her aside to offer support.

“Are you going to be okay, Captain?” he asked, with a firm, yet gentle command presence. “If the festivities are too much, why don’t you take some leave? You’ve piled up more than 90 days’ worth since you started tracking down Fox. We can handle things here, at least for a little while.”

Anna looked up at him and managed a thin smile. She thanked him for the offer and accepted. Even if she hadn’t wanted to, she knew she couldn’t refuse the offer. In her line of work, requests or offers from commanding officers were usually just politely-issued commands. She nodded in the affirmative. She then joined him as he made his way to the front of the room, standing next to him in front of a massive holographic screen that showed a Mercator map of the world in high definition.

“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 coolly 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 that the Federation and its allies had.

“Mr. Paulius,” Dyre said to his adjutant. “When you get a moment, start rotating the guards from above so they can get some food. I don’t want to kill their morale with jealousy at not getting something other than RDA shakes.”

“Yes, sir,” Paulius said, with a smile before motioning Red Horse to his side.

As Red Horse went to make a call to the surface, Dyre continued with the festivities. For those in attendance, the look on Dyre’s face would be something they’d remember the rest of their lives. It wasn’t the usual confident demeanor he sported. It was a smugness that only came from a feeling of supreme accomplishment. And it was infectious.

“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 had been a demon that haunted our every action for a decade.”

Von Sturm’s stony visage cracked a little, causing eyebrows around the room to rise in surprise. She remembered the day the bishop had come to her house in the German town of Heidelberg to tell her and her parents that her older brother Ludwig had been killed in battle with Fox in The Congo. That had decided her career path.

Next to her, identical twins Esau and Seth Magellan felt raw emotion at Dyre’s words. They’d each survived ambushes against Fox – Esau in the Patagonia region of Chile; Seth, on a country road just outside Sasebo, Japan. They’d had paid steep prices for that survival. Now, 90 percent of their bodies were bionic and cybernetic to replace limbs and organs shredded by Fox’s bullets.

“For some, it has been even longer,” Dyre continued, with a slight glance at Anna. “But it is all over. You can expect some big rewards. I must caution you, however, on speaking with the media. And be careful, as there will be many toadying parliamentarians and congressmen waiting to use you or, rather, your fame, for their own benefit.

“That said, 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.

At that moment, a door on the mini-mezzanine level opened. That level was normally used to walk to and from the emergency elevator leading to the house above. Anna and Dyre looked up and saw a tall, slender black man wearing a form-fitting black pullover, black boots and extremely old-fashioned battle dress uniform trousers walk purposely up to the railing and look down at the Praetorians.

Anna recognized neither his face nor his uniform. Was he one of the private security contractors the Navy base sometimes employed? If so, he had no authorization to be down on this level. In fact, Anna wondered how he’d gotten past all the security above to make it down this far.

If she wanted an answer to each question, Anna wasn’t going to get it. Instead, she got a single clue that answered them all. For the man’s glaring face turned slightly to show more of his right eye. It glowed bright blue and suddenly Anna knew.

Something had gone horribly wrong. The Praetorian Guard’s moment of shining glory had now 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.

She was staring at none other than Devereaux Marshall Fox!

He brought up something from behind his back and her eyes opened even wider in horror as she saw that his gloved hands held a heavy old-fashioned machine gun. It looked much too heavy for the slender man to lift, but lift it he did.

“Gun!” she cried out, though it was too little and much too late. “Get down!”

Fox opened fire and it was like a lawn mower cutting 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, for the targets had no way to fight back, cut down before they could even contemplate activating cybernetic parts.

Paulius revealed his true colors by grabbing Red Horse and throwing her in front of him as a human shield. Fox shot her and then, after waiting a second for her to slump, gave the major a full burst in his forehead, forcing forensics specialists to have to use DNA for proper identification. He then continued his deadly sweep of the room.

Anna threw her body in front of Dyre’s, her mind now thinking back to that horrible moment in Mexico when the shadowy figure named Fox, the man with the glowing blue eye, massacred her entire extended family. Maybe because she’d been so young, he’d seemed so much bigger, causing her to believe that the muscular man had to have been her true target earlier in downtown Fort Worth. Maybe it was the fact that none of those who survived his ambushes really ever saw him or those that did see him were all dead.

Whatever it was, it had been a disastrous mistake. All the surveillance, all the dossier investigations, all the electronic database searches had keyed onto the wrong man. How could she have made such a god-awful mistake?

It didn’t matter. Fox was here now and, just as it had been back in Mexico, nothing she did could stop him. Bullets punched right through her and, because of the position of her body, passed straight out of her back – just missing her spine – and struck Dyre in the heart. Her body landed on top of his corpse.

Men and women on the full mezzanine level on the other side of the room rushed for the door, but just like the guards in the house above discovered, it would not work. Fox turned his machine gun on them and they fell like wheat before a scythe. A few made it to the stairs or a nearby railing only to topple down the stairs or over the railing.

“…and the horse you rode in on!” Fox screamed out after he had flipped the now empty gun over the railing and stormed out of the room.

It clattered to the floor, its barrel beginning to warp from being overheated. A small stream of blood streaming out from a much larger pool hit it and sizzled, throwing up an acrid wisp of smoke. The stench would have been awful to anyone still alive to smell it.

Down below, however, a small moan rose up from the pile. Ever so slightly, Anna Velasquez moved her hand. Finally, after several minutes, she began to move her entire body. Driven by some urgent, invisible need to survive, she grimaced with unimaginable pain to pull herself along the floor, using control consoles slick with blood to pull her ravaged body. Finally, she reached one particular console and, with one last burst of energy, she reached up and hit a red button. As she collapsed, alarms finally began sounding, not just in the center but across the naval air station. She curled up into the fetal position and whimpered, much like that awful day back in Mexico.

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