( Do you wish to proceed? )

("Yes, Cartonius. Open the goddamn database.")

(You may not like what you find, young master.)

("That's not your call. I said open the database.")

(Very well. Your security clearance, of course, is accepted. How do you wish to proceed?)

("Bring up records pertaining to the General. Everything under OMEGA directive.")

(Oh dear, that's one of our muddier records. So much is hearsay and second guessed— )

("I know what I'm getting myself into, Cartonius. I don't need to remind you what's at stake. I have to trace this thing back—as far back as the records will permit.")

(As you command, young master. If I might suggest, these files should hold some interest. Make sure to check the date-stamp.)

("…Oh my, these are old. All the way back to…my God. The First Time War. Copy everything into my terminal. At least everything we were ever able to gather.")

(A pity. So much is missing from these times…)


The Raw Forge

James shivered, the bitter wind howling through the steel door into the cement room.

"Do you have a name, kid?"

"J— James, sir."

The soldier standing over him didn't look old enough for the large machine gun held in his hands. He may have been only five years James' senior, but it was impossible to know. The thick beard and hard gaze bespoke someone of age and experience. James supposed those were the only ones left alive in this fallen world. The only ones who could have survived the demons that slayed his family.

"You look like shit, kid," said the soldier. He unfastened his winter parka, handing it to James. "Put this on."

James took it reluctantly. "Wh— what about you?"

"I can find myself another. Let's focus on you right now. Do you know how to use a gun?"

James draped the parka around himself. It stank pretty badly, but it kept him warm enough. "Yes sir," he said. "I went hunting with my Dad—"

"Ever used anything on full-auto?"

"No…no sir."

The soldier exhaled. "All right…we've got some handguns and a few semi-auto rifles. Probably closer to what you're familiar with. How good a shot are you?"

James shivered. This wasn't turning out how he had expected.

But what exactly had he expected? His family had tried preparing for days like these. He still remembered the reports on TV about the nuclear strikes. All over the world. But that was nothing to them, Dad had said. They lived five hundred miles from the nearest interstate. Their neighbor lived two miles up a dirt road. Nobody was going to bother them out here.

Until two days later, when the demons had come in flashes of green light. James had never imagined demons dressed in black Spec Ops suits, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and advanced tech. He had watched the whole affair from the hilltop up field from their house. It was simple chance he had been out there.

Where he watched the demons butcher his whole family.

"Hey kid! James!"

James blinked, focusing in on the soldier in front of him. The man exhaled, not looking the least bit cold without his heavy coat.

"How long were you by yourself out there?"

James shrugged, feeling numb and cold and like nothing had changed. "Nine months? Ten?"

The soldier swore quietly, rubbing his chin. He was starting to shiver now. "Look…we all went through something pretty horrific. We all have a story. But I can't help you. Maybe some of these kids calling the shots can, but not me. I'm just on armory detail. My job is to put a gun in your hand that you can reasonably use to fight these bastards when they come. And believe me—they will come.

"So I don't care if you need to focus on revenge, or something noble, or hell, even something suicidal, but you have to pull yourself together. Because every gun counts right now."

James looked down at his hands. Maybe this was a mistake.

The scouting group scouring the countryside for survivors had taken him to a refuge zone. There were dozens of them—survivors and refugees. James wasn't sure why that had surprised him at the time. But all of those people huddled in a high school gym lit by candle light…the thought that the bigger world wasn't ended.

There were recruiters there. People like the soldier in front of him. They didn't mince words; the old world was gone, destroyed by young conquerors that had gotten their hands on mysterious tech. With no nations or states left to stand against a new global empire, these people gathering survivors were building a resistance.

And they were looking for volunteers.

"So what'll be, James?" said the soldier. "What can I arm you with?"

James exhaled, long and slowly. This was a mistake. He was no soldier—he was just a survivor. There was nothing for him here at this frozen base. Hopefully these people would understand that.

"Sir, I need—"

A loud whine of stereo feedback screeched, making James wince. He hadn't even noticed the intercom up on the wall.

"Hey everyone," the voice in the wall growled, "Commander Neeman just showed up. She wants everyone gathered on the staging area south of the silo. Let's move it."

The electrical whine died out, and the soldier in front of James grunted. "Well that just figures. Commander comes to see us today. C'mon, kid. Might as well meet the boss lady over all of us."

Gunfire boomed outside the door.

The soldier stiffened, instinctively reaching for his sidearm. Men and women cried out, shouting and barking orders. The gunfire intensified.

"Damn it!" the soldier growled. "Not now! How did they know?!"

He scampered over to the steel door, which still shook and creaked from the frigid wind outside. Pulling it open ajar, a cold burst of wintery hell flooded the room. It also helped punctuate the gunfire outside.

"All right, listen closely," the soldier said, not glancing away from the door; "I've got an M-4 and a P-99 in the crate right by your feet. The M-4 is set to semi-auto, so it should be fine for you. The P-99 will probably be easier to wield, but you'll know better than me what works best for you. So get to your feet, soldier!"

James snapped to. Head shooting around, he watched as the soldier directed his machine-gun out into the winter waste. The new barrage of gunfire deafened James.

And snapped him out of his daze.

Springing up, he threw open the crate, finding both the carbine and handgun. The M-4 had a strap, which he used to throw the weapon over his shoulder. The P-99 he checked the magazine and then brought it up to bear. The way he had practiced with his Dad and brothers over the years.

The soldier had darted outside of the room, letting harsh wind and snow blow inside. James quickly followed after him, pressing into a snowy world filled with gunfire and yelling. It wasn't hard to pick out enemies. They were all dressed in black, carrying heavy equipment and all bearing expressions of grim satisfaction. This wasn't an enemy attack; this was a slaughter fest.

Vengeance didn't enter into it—though James thought it might. Instead, the shock and pain and even the faces of his family drained from his mind. In an instance of transformation, James simply became a creature that did not want to die.

It was enough.

Moving through the snowy clearing, years of basic firearm experience kept him on target. The demon soldiers were trying to overwhelm the silo base by appearing at random. The flash of green was easy to pick out of the white washed weather. And the longer James fought, first exhausting his pistol and then moving to the carbine, the more he realized just how uncoordinated the enemy was.

They were just teenagers. Like half of the recruits gathered in this resistance.

Eventually, the cold and the fatigue wore him down. Coming to his higher senses, James realized he was just shambling through the snow. The attack seemed to be past, no new tale flashes of green light. He was still alive.

Through the snow storm, he could hear other resistance fighters gathering back near the silo. James followed in their wake, first sticking to their prints, then forming up in the large mass of bodies wearily marching forward. They looked about as exhausted as James felt.

Up ahead, a large overhang made of aluminum covered an open patio of sorts. Several dead soldiers in black had been cleared out, left to lie in the snow. James did not miss the fact that all of their gear had been policed. The resistance fighters around him were gathering under the overhang, where a girl was standing up on a raised platform.

She looked young—maybe sixteen or seventeen, with long brown hair that gathered below her shoulders. She wore a simple jacket, and compared to the men and women around James with their bulky gear, she looked like such a small thing. Yet she bore a wicked looking rifle of sorts slung over her shoulder, and her pose gazing out over the gathering crowd gave her the baring of a General before an army.

She remained silent, uncaring of the cold wind blowing through the open overhang. She watched with hard eyes as the resistance fighters continued to flow inside, as if gravitated by her presence. In truth, James felt a tug within himself—a feeling that guided him up to the edge of the platform, so that he stood just below her. And from this perspective, she didn't look like such a small girl anymore.

She looked like a leader.

With so many bodies packed inside, James soon forgot about the bitter winds carrying flakes of snow inside. That was all meaningless. And soon the sounds of rustled footsteps from people moving in quieted. The whole base was gathered here. Gathered beneath this girl with a hardened expression.

Her gaze dropped, zeroing in on James at the head of the crowd. Something seemed to soften in her face.

"What is your name, soldier?"

James gaped for a moment. "James, miss. But I'm no soldier."

"Right," she grunted. "And I'm no Commander. But guess what? Shit's going down. So we'll deal with it."

James swallowed, and the girl—the Commander—turned her gaze back up, looking out over the army assembled. She spoke loudly, her voice projecting through the enclosed area.

"My name is Jade Neeman and I am your Commander. I'm not going to try to motivate you with some god awful speech. So let's cut the crap and get to work."

Then she turned on her feet, walking away from the edge of the platform. Several other soldiers stood up near the back waiting for her. Two followed her out, but one remained, marching back up to the head of the platform. It was the soldier from the armory.

"You heard the lady! Everybody get your sorry asses downstairs! We've got work to do!"

James felt a fire surge within. Moving as one with the rest of the crowd, he felt the cold fade behind him as they marched towards the tunnels that led into the mountains and the silo base below.

In a way, he knew he was leaving a part of himself back up there in the cold and snow. But in truth, that part of him had died months ago when the world ended and his family was slaughtered. Nothing would ever change that or make things right again. But that old self was dead and irrelevant.

The new James marched with the collective purpose of his new brothers and sisters, deep into the heart of a forge that would turn them into a useful force in the coming war.

There would be war. James would make sure of it.