Like Shifting Sands

Dalton Bancroft approached the security checkpoint with his usual morning demeanor, a projection of positive, authoritative energy that infused all of his department’s subordinates with optimism but was lost on the two armed guards standing at attention. He greeted them with a friendly nod and a smile, opening the door to casual conversation they swiftly rejected, as they did every morning, with a stiff military salute, addressing him by his official title.

“GAPD Thirty-Four Bancroft, confirmed.” They weren’t even allowed to wish the administrator of the Global Asset Procurement Department a good morning, let alone make eye contact or inquire as to how his day was going. To them he was just another citizen with a number in his title higher than theirs.

Dalton shook his head and continued smiling as he laid his satchel on the scanning table and walked through the sensor arch, which thoroughly checked him for weapons, explosives, toxins, and cybernetics, all of which were outlawed for non-military personnel in Commonwealth Prime. Despite their rigid attitudes and postures, he said the same thing he did every day: “Morning, gentlemen.” After all the years he had worked for the GAPD, he was well aware that they wouldn’t respond, so he retrieved his bag and continued down the hallway to the elevator.

The building was arranged like so many others in the gigantic city, decorated with a sort of near opulence that gave the illusion of affluence with its fake marble floors, bronze trim, strategically-placed foliage, and sleek, angular arches supporting a ceiling well beyond a practical height. Soaring over two hundred stories into the sky over the North African coast, the GAPD headquarters was modest in comparison to some of the other government buildings arrayed around the bay, near the heart of a metropolis that spread out from there for tens of kilometers to the south.

He pressed the call button for one of the elevators spread around a wide lobby and waited patiently for its arrival among a scattered gathering of other first shift employees. Stepping up beside him from behind, a young man probably no more than twenty assumed a position as though he was waiting for the same lift. “Good morning, Bancroft.” His voice was quiet enough not to attract the attention of anyone else in the room, which is why he was able to avoid regurgitating the older man’s entire, official name.

Glancing down, Dalton grinned more out of bemused surprise than recognition. He wondered how the young man always managed to sneak up on him unnoticed. “And to you, Markov. How are you today?” Being that their departments shared several responsibilities on a worldwide scale, it wasn’t at all strange to see Markov in the building; it was common practice for newer employees to act as liaisons between divisions, especially between his and the Global Diplomatic Negotiation Department, which handled the governmental logistics of the Commonwealth’s annexed territories.

“I’m doing quite well in fact. Only yesterday I was promoted to twelve.” Leaning forward on his toes for a moment, he looked up and grinned.

Reaching out to shake the young man’s hand, Dalton consciously tried to restrain his extroversion. “Congratulations are in order then, GDND Twelve Markov.”

“Thank you, sir. Your recognition is an honor.”

The light above the doorway lit up as the panels swooshed open. Dalton gestured for Markov to precede him before entering himself. After the first surge of inertia passed and the elevator had settled into a constant speed, he asked, “You’re coming along with us on this little outing, aren’t you?”

Markov leaned against the back wall and crossed his arms. “That’s correct, I’ll be the GDND representative. They’re expecting some contact with indigenous groups of savages.” With his official response out of the way, he continued, “Just between you and me, though, I’m always eager to get out of the city and see the rest of the world, even if it’s only out of morbid curiosity.”

Dalton chuckled and leaned on the horizontal railing along the side of the lift. When he noticed the puzzled look on Markov’s face, he inhaled sharply and elaborated. “That’ll pass with age, my friend. When I was a young man I was afflicted by the same wanderlust. I think it has something to do with how standardized life is here in the city, but you’ll get used to it, especially after you see enough of what’s left out there in the rest of the world.”

“I can’t say it’ll happen anytime soon, sir. If I’m not careful, my superiors might begin to take notice of how often I volunteer for remote assignments when I should be concentrating on studying doctrine and interdepartmental procedures.” He stood back up straight and adjusted his uniform as the elevator reached his floor, opening out into another monotonous corridor that looked almost exactly like the one from which they had embarked.

“Trust me,” Dalton called out as the young man stepped out and turned to listen while the doors were closing, “if nothing else, you’ll grow weary of the constant inoculations.”

* * *

Despite having read all of the reports, studied the environmental data, and prepared the appropriate clothing for the climate of the Sonoran Desert, Dalton found himself startled by the blast of hot, dry air that almost pushed him backwards into the dropship as the gangplank lowered into the sand. Raising a hand to shield himself from the blistering heat, searing light, and stinging sand, he immediately decided that whatever his superiors had decided they wanted to extract from the desolate, intolerable region was certainly not worth the effort.

As he wrapped the mask portion of his self-contained environmental suit over his face, he scanned the immediate area for movement even though the ship’s scanners hadn’t detected anything on the surface. Two armored Commonwealth soldiers flanked him with their weapons at the ready, waiting for his orders. “Secure the area and bring out the uplink.”

The last syllable had barely left his lips as all twenty of the soldiers in the dropship had poured out into a perfectly spaced circle with about ten meters between each of them. Immediately following them were five technicians carrying an assortment of different sized cargo crates, which they brought to the bottom of the ramp and begin unloading, the contents of which were assembled into a communications array topped by a spinning satellite dish. When it was complete, the technicians stood by and waited for Dalton to approach and inspect the result.

Only offering them a nod to acknowledge their work, he instead stepped out onto the sand and peered up at the one feature that dominated the valley in which they had landed. Rising up out of the desert in stark contrast to the rest of the natural terrain was a perfect hemisphere, a rusted dome of triangular panels arranged on a steel framework. Dalton knew it was an ancient water pumping station, bringing sea water in through massive underground pipes and desalinating it for agricultural use. In the wavering heat of midday, though, it took on almost mythical proportions; it was something ominous and mysterious to Dalton, as though the sphere was a world with its own gravity.

“GAPD Thirty-Four,” Markov began, striding down the ramp and standing next to Dalton. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes.” His voice was muted from behind his mask, but everyone heard him clearly over their communication earpieces.

It took the better part of an hour to circumvent the dome and find the access hatch that led inside. By then, Dalton and Markov were both exhausted and drenched in sweat, but their escorts had not tired or uttered a word of complaint. A few point-blank rounds from one of their assault rifles obliterated the locked chain threaded between the door’s handles and a swift kick threw them open. Following the solders into the darkness beyond, Dalton was immediately aware of movement somewhere inside, but after tracking the source of the flickering shadows to several fans slowly turning in the wind near the apex of the dome, he shook off the feeling he was being watched.

Though it was mostly hollow, the dome was easily half a kilometer in diameter at its base, a concrete floor that was cool to the touch in the shade. What interested Dalton the most was the pillar of machinery rising up at its center, an old but complicated labyrinth of pipes, filters, and pumps that reached almost all the way to the top of the dome. Long ago the facility was probably capable of producing millions of liters of fresh water every day, something that was extremely valuable to the parched wasteland of the North American southwest. In the wake of World War Three, however, such technology had become invaluable on a global scale, especially to the government.

Walking slowly into the wide open space, Dalton’s footsteps echoed in the eerily cool and still air in stark contrast to the unforgiving environment immediately behind him. As the soldiers spread out in all directions, he stood motionless, quietly observing the machinery. Markov was talking to one of the technicians, who was scanning the area for anything out of the ordinary, which gave Dalton a moment’s respite to think. He already knew what they were going to tell him.

“Sir,” one of the soldiers said as he walked up and saluted both men. “We’ve discovered evidence that humans have been living inside the dome.” Out of the corner of his eye, Dalton caught Markov almost respond before him, but the younger man caught his tongue and turned to the ranking government representative to await his answer.

“Yes, of course,” Dalton agreed, “considering the circumstances, it seems only logical for anyone in the area to seek refuge here.”

The soldier waited several seconds for Dalton to continue and, when it seemed that he was much more interested in the machinery than the threat of unknown locals, he deferred to Markov with a glance.

“Find out how many there are, their tactical capabilities, and total population, Lieutenant.” Markov returned the soldier’s salute to send him away, then walked closer to Dalton to whisper for only him to hear. “Bancroft, we should take the technicians and withdraw until the area is properly secured, don’t you think?”

Frowning, Dalton resented being spoken to like a fumbling old man, but he knew Markov was technically correct, as far as Commonwealth regulations were concerned. He was the higher ranking official on the mission and didn’t need to explain his actions, but he did anyway. “If people really are living all the way out here, weapons are the least of their priorities. We’ve seen no evidence of arms, vehicles, or even any sort of early warning system, so I doubt they mean us any harm.”

“I understand,” Markov serenaded, “but fear can motivate people to extraordinary lengths.”

For the first time since they had disembarked, Dalton turned to look at Markov with a curious scowl, “What do they have to fear, I wonder?”

Immediately erupting in a meek, charming smile, Markov backpedaled, “Well, I’m not saying they have anything to fear, but you know, a ship lands outside your home and a platoon of armed soldiers start poking around. I’m just saying we should let the troops make sure it’s safe before we-“

Unwilling to listen any longer, Dalton walked away abruptly. “GDND Twelve Markov,” he stated, reverting to regulation titles as he raised his voice, “we’re only here to figure out if this thing still functions and, if so, how. The locals are not my concern.” He turned and gestured to the entire area with his arms. “Besides, one would think you would be excited to interact directly with outsiders,” he said, and after noticing the blood drain from the young man’s face, added, “as a diplomat of the Commonwealth.”

Markov was about to stutter something in response when a creaking noise reverberated through the emptiness, the unmistakable sound of another rusty hatch opening up somewhere in the darkness. Dalton peered into the shadows and tried to discern its origin as Markov instantly retrieved a pistol from a concealed back holster. With four or five soldiers in the immediate vicinity raising their rifles, prepared to open fire at the slightest provocation, Dalton recognized the impending threat and motioned for them to lower their weapons.

A single set of footsteps approached, still unseen, which had the unnerving effect of sounding like an invisible man walking up to the group. When Dalton was finally able to pick out a humanoid shape from the dusty haze, he realized at once that there was no threat. Shuffling up to stand several meters away was a wrinkled, weathered old woman, easily beyond eighty years old, dressed in tattered rags, cracked leather, and a few pieces of scrap metal. She seemed to recognize Dalton’s authority right away, for she looked directly at him as she spoke.

“There is nothing here for you, government man.” Dalton found her voice difficult to listen to, it was so dry and gravely.

“Pardon me,” he said, his hands held out to his sides in an attempt to keep everyone calm. “We’re only here to inspect this machine.”

“It’s broken. It makes no water.”

Sighing and turning to look at Markov, who still had his gun at the ready, Dalton declared, “We’re going to look around for a while and, if that’s the case, we’ll be on our way.”

“Be quick,” she growled and slowly pivoted on her good leg to leave, but Markov called out to stop her.

“How many of you are there?” He lowered his pistol, but kept it at the ready as he moved forward.

The ancient woman sneered at Markov like he was something to avoid stepping in.  “Not many,” she said, then looked down at his sidearm and added, “we have no guns.”

“Excellent,” Markov replied with a tinge of excitement in his voice. He barked over his shoulder to the soldiers nearby, setting them in motion with what was clearly a prearranged command. “Lieutenant, you may begin your sweep.” Before Dalton could intervene or say anything in protest, Markov raised his pistol and shot the old woman in the back with practiced, workmanlike accuracy. The bullet tore through her frail form almost unimpeded and sent her tumbling forward into the darkness.

Dalton stared at Markov aghast for the brief moment of silence that followed the gunshot until the crescendo of weapons fire erupted from everywhere else in the dome. He realized that the soldiers had already determined where the rest of the locals were hiding and began to mercilessly eradicate them.

“Cease fire!” His impassioned shrieks went unheeded and his waving arms went unnoticed by the highly-trained, ruthlessly efficient Commonwealth shock troopers. He quickly came to the conclusion that they really only listened to Markov, who stood silently, smoking pistol at his side, observing him with a cold, emotionless gaze. “What are you doing?”

“I apologize for what must feel like a betrayal of your trust, GAPD Thirty-Four Bancroft. Please understand that I’m just executing orders.” Gone was his eager, boyish exuberance at exploring the world beyond the city; it was replaced with an obedient, almost robotic tone.

Taking a step forward and stopping immediately as Markov began tapping the gun against his thigh, Dalton balked, “Why would the diplomatic core want to-“ he began, but stopped abruptly. He grinded his teeth in anger before going on with his train of thought aloud. “You’re not with the negotiation department.”


Nodding slowly as the situation began to make sense, Dalton understood at once that his resource appraisal mission had simply been a cover to get the council to agree to send a Global Counter Espionage Department strike team to destroy a group it perceived as a threat. Though he still outranked Markov, Dalton was very aware that his authority in the situation had come to an end. He conjured up his most professional posture and said, “I understand.”

Not wanting to stay inside and listen to the raging gunfight and helpless screams of the dome’s occupants, Dalton walked back out into the sweltering heat and stood, motionless, watching the precious few clouds roll by over the desert.

* * *

Finding it difficult to concentrate on the meeting taking place in a sunlit room atop a Commonwealth skyscraper, Dalton’s mind was wandering back to the desert even as the director of his department went over statistics and action items that were immediately relevant to his next project. They were discussing something about gathering minerals from under the Antarctic ice, but all he could hear was the desperate screams of outsiders living under the dome as the soldiers gunned them down. It was all because they were congregating near a piece of equipment the government had deemed illegal for use outside of its strict control, a machine that simply purified water.

The director’s voice trailed off into obscurity as he replayed the images over and over again in his head, though he knew there was nothing he could have done to avoid it. Every time he went back to that moment, the blur of images always flipped through as though in a slide show until it inevitably stopped on the stone wall of Markov’s face, a man he had known for years as someone else entirely.

“Thirty-Four Bancroft,” the director began, looking down the lengthy table at Dalton, who was lost in his own memories, “do you have any input on the current topic?” He asked again as Dalton was unable to tear himself away from the image of Markov’s face, standing there in the dome with the pistol in his hand.

“No, sir.” When he finally managed to put the words together, he realized he was already a few seconds of uncomfortable silence too late. “I apologize, but I am still recovering from the time difference of my visit to North America.”

The director let him off the hook with a nod and went on with the meeting, which faded back into a mumbling background noise to Dalton, who mimed reading the documents before him. Internally, however, he struggled with the inevitable course of action that recent events had set in motion. Nearing middle age, he had been confronted with a crisis of faith in the Commonwealth, which until a few days before, he had regarded as the greatest achievement of humanity. Not only had it successfully ended the nightmarish Third World War, but it had prevented any such conflicts since its creation. Everyone was fed, everyone was healthy, and everyone was employed.

To its citizens, the Commonwealth was a utopia, a perfect living situation that provided for all of their needs even as it challenged them to achieve greater success, rising among the ranks of numerous logistical, scientific, or security divisions. However, the choice of living beyond the protective envelope of the world government was apparently not an option, even for people who had been born and raised outside of its mega cities. That little fact flew in the face of everything Dalton believed the Commonwealth to be. To him, it revealed it to be an unforgiving, imperialistic regime, not an enlightened society arranged to save the world from imminent destruction and deliver it into progress and prosperity.

Hours later, after a quiet dinner and peaceful evening reading the latest news developments on the computer terminal in his spacious apartment, Dalton stared at the ceiling over his bed. He shifted his weight once more to try and achieve a comfortable position, sighing at yet another failed attempt.

When it became obvious he was still awake, his wife rolled over and put her hand on his forehead. He stiffened a bit, but relaxed as she spoke. “You were resigned at dinner tonight and looked pale.” Her next stop was on his neck, where she prodded gently for more clues as to his condition.

“Maria, it’s nothing. I’m not ill.” He took her hand in his to stop her medical examination. Normally, when he wanted to avoid her poking and inspecting him for ailments, he called her by her formal title, CMED Twenty-One Mendez, in such a way as to mock her. The Commonwealth Medical Emergency Department was responsible for rapid response treatments and transportation in the capital city; she was a sector manager, which meant she administrated a local hospital, but the desk job hadn’t cured her of always wanting to roll up her sleeves and get back to her roots as a doctor. That particular night, however, he refrained from joking around with her in hopes of having a better chance of making a convincing argument.

She shuffled closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. “Then what is it?”

He chose his words carefully. “Do you like it here?”

“I suppose. This building is probably about halfway between both of our departments, so it’s a nice compromise.”

“No, no, no, that’s not what I mean.” He struggled for the right words that wouldn’t cause her undue worry, then realized that what he was about to propose would turn her entire life upside down anyway, so he shrugged off any remaining illusions and just came right out with it. “I don’t think the Commonwealth is what we think it is.”

Maria was silent for several agonizing seconds before she sat up and touched one of the lights adjacent to their bed, bringing a soft illumination into the modest room and revealing the concern stretched across her face. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“My trip to the desert had nothing to do with restoring an old water purification facility. I was only brought along for some public façade, a distraction for the development council. When we arrived, someone from the GCED took over and slaughtered dozens of innocent outsiders.” Upon recalling the incident, Dalton’s eyes shut as he replayed the sounds and images unconsciously.

Maria wrapped herself in the bed sheets as she tried to grasp what he was telling her. “If the outsiders were a threat-“

“There wasn’t any threat, that’s what I’m saying. I was right there and saw everything. Of course I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but I can’t hold it in any longer.” Sliding up and sitting against the headboard to face her, he searched her eyes for some sign that she was still on his side. “Maria, if what happened that day is going on all over the world, I don’t want to be any part of it.”

“What are you suggesting we do about it?”

Thumping his head back against the wall a few times, Dalton growled as he confronted the immensity of the problem they faced. “Nothing I can do is going to change anything they do. Even if I could convince high ranking officers in every major department, it wouldn’t matter. Commonwealth is what it is and most people think it’s perfect.” He was waist deep in it now; there was no turning back.

As she often did, Maria surprised him with how fast she was able to piece together complicated situations. “When do we leave?”

“Really?” He stuttered as he wrung his hands in eager anticipation. “You’d really come with me?” He was suddenly reminded of the day he had asked her to marry him, his stomach filled with the same nervous tension that was completely alleviated by her reassuring smile.

“Of course.”

As the excitement of the course ahead of them overwhelmed him, Dalton leaned forward and launched into the plot he had been arranging since the long, uncomfortable flight back to the city from the desert. She stopped him halfway through his dissertation, crawling over to kiss him.

“I have a feeling that this is going to be one of our last few nights in a comfortable bed. Let’s make the most of it, shall we?”

* * *

“Sir,” the pilot shouted over the droning wind noise that seemed to come from all directions inside the cramped navigation control room aboard the cargo dropship. “We’re about to accelerate to cruising speed and break into low orbit. You and the others should strap in!”

Bracing himself against the back of the pilot’s chair, Dalton gazed out of the canopy with him, admiring the clear blue sky over the Sahara desert for a moment. “GCTD Five,” he began, then recanted and started over in a more familiar tone, “Edward, isn’t it?

Taken aback but still able to concentrate on his duties, the younger man replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Is everything alright up here so far?”

“All systems are functioning normally, sir. No problems up here.” His emphasis on his last statement caused Dalton to scrutinize his demeanor.

“Up here?”

Grinning, Edward clarified, “Pardon me for saying, but I think you might be taking some liberties with the department’s policy on personal effects. They might not have anticipated what you brought when they limited passengers on official flights to fifty kilograms of luggage.”

Dalton laughed out loud and clapped the pilot on the shoulder in the midst of his mirth. “You’re probably right, but she has the week off and insisted on coming along. I’d never have heard the end of it if I ran off to explore Antarctica without my wife!”

“Don’t worry about it, sir. When I submit my manifest, she’s just fifty kilograms of the mission coordinator’s belongings.”

“I’d appreciate it. You know, I’ve been itching to get my hands on the controls of one of these things ever since I completed my annual reorientation.” When the pilot looked up at him in bewilderment, he explained. “I’ve kept up on my studies. You see, Edward, I started in cargo transportation as well, back when I was your age.”

“Sir, the L-615 requires a two-year training certificate.” Unsure as to how to respond to a superior wanting to take the helm, the pilot’s intonation rapidly switched back and forth from authority to subservience.

Waving him off and taking a seat in the co-pilot’s chair, Dalton clipped the harness into place and began touching buttons on the instrument panel. “I’ll bet it’s not all that different from the old L-500 series.” When the console came to life with blue light, he grinned and presented his success to the pilot. “There, you see?”

“Sir, I don’t-“

“Edward, I insist.” When his penultimate request didn’t seem to shake the resolve in the young man’s eyes, Dalton added, “Listen, just let me steer for a couple of minutes. You’ll be right here if anything goes wrong.”

Sensing that he was caught in a hard place between strict protocols and a superior’s personal request, the pilot released his grip on the steering yoke and leaned back. “It’s all yours, sir.”

Taking a moment to reassure himself that he knew what he was doing, Dalton moved the yoke around slightly to get a feel for how the massive cargo dropship handled. When he was certain he wouldn’t send it spiraling into the desert below, he called out to the pilot again, “I’m going to take it up to cruising altitude. Could you make sure everyone is secure for me?”

“Yes, sir.” The pilot unhitched his harness and maneuvered around his chair to approach the door. Leaning his weight into it as it opened, he was unprepared for Maria stepping out from behind it and burying a hypodermic injector into the side of his neck. After a brief grunt and startled shout, his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed in an unconscious heap.

Dalton looked back to see her standing in the doorway, the pilot asleep at her feet and the ship’s only other officer similarly out cold in a chair at the back of the crew compartment. She gave him a nervous smile as she began pulling her most recent victim away to strap him in as well.

Turning back around to focus on the controls, Dalton slowly banked the weighty craft to the west in a wide arc. In a few short hours, the pristine dunes of the Sahara would be replaced with the rocky crags and black hills of the North American desert.

* * *

When Edward awoke, he was still strapped into a chair in the crew compartment, but the ship wasn’t moving. These realizations came to mind shortly before the most obvious, that the mission coordinator, Dalton Bancroft, was standing over him with a pistol aimed at his head. Just behind him, his wife stood by with a spent injector in her hands, having just administered a dose of stimulants.

“What the-“

“Take it easy, Edward. Don’t try to move yet. Give that stuff a moment to neutralize the sedative.” Despite the gun in his hand, Dalton’s voice was calm and reassuring.

Taking his advice and settling back into the chair, Edward blinked his eyes a few times before asking, “What are you doing?”

Dalton nodded to Maria, who walked back down the gangplank and around the side of the dropship, busying herself by inspecting all of the equipment that had already been unloaded. When the two men were alone, he replied, “I regret having to involve you like this, but I promise you’ll be on your way back to the city in a few minutes.”

His head rapidly clearing of the drugs he had been given, the pilot began to realize what was happening. He noticed that Bancroft and his wife had removed anything that identified them as Commonwealth citizens, dressing only in unmarked desert survival gear. “They won’t let you go, Bancroft. They don’t let anyone leave.”

“Well then,” he began with a knowing smile, “that’s where your report comes in.” Gesturing to the chair on Edward’s right, he brought his attention to two data pads stacked on the seat. “I’ve taken the liberty of authoring two field reports on your behalf. I leave it up to you which one you choose to submit. The pad on top outlines a story in which your incompetence leads to the loss of two high-ranking officials and a cargo hold full of valuable Commonwealth technology.” He let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “The one on the bottom spins a much more flattering tale of how you killed both of us in a dramatic gunfight and managed to escape with the dropship and your crew intact.”

Frowning, Edward interjected, “Why wouldn’t I just write my own report about what really happened?”

“That is, of course, also one of your options. Before you make your choice, though, I feel I should remind you that, either way, we are not coming back with you and neither is the cargo. You, however, may return with either a promotion or a reprimand on your permanent record.”

The pilot looked down at the two data pads and sighed. Reaching down and pushing the top one away, he picked up the other, holding it in his lap as he waited for Bancroft’s next move. “Fine.”

“A wise decision, Edward. Now, if I could trouble you to cover your ears for a moment.” Closing his eyes and cupping his hands against the sides of his head, the pilot winced with each gunshot as Dalton fired the pistol several times against the door leading into the control chamber and the bulkhead beside it. Without further delay, he got up and walked slowly towards the ramp leading out the back of the dropship. “Your co-pilot will wake up in another hour or so. Have a safe trip, Edward.”

Pressing the activation switch as he began down the ramp, Dalton stepped onto the sand and turned to carefully watch it close. Seconds before it sealed entirely shut, he tossed the pistol inside and casually walked over to the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle they had unloaded earlier. Checking to ensure that the cargo was strapped down, he climbed into the passenger seat and Maria engaged the solar-powered electric engine, causing the buggy to lurch forward and race away down what remained of an abandoned desert road.

* * *

“Mister Bancroft,” the teenage boy’s request began, “there’s something wrong with the intake valve.” Standing awkwardly in the doorway of the room Dalton had claimed as his office several months before, the boy had waited patiently for him to finish reading the day’s status reports.

“Is that a fact, Sam?” Pushing his chair back as he rose, Dalton retrieved the small satchel of tools from beside his desk and walked out with him. They had spent the previous few days trying to get the valve working properly as it was one of the essential pieces of the massive pump that provided fresh water to all the residents of Dome City. They called it a city, but it was little more than a rusty old hemisphere rising up out of the desert that provided much needed shade to its several hundred citizens.

All of that was changing, however, for Dalton and Maria had brought with them enough equipment to begin construction on a much more efficient and comfortable habitat. Their nanite-based machines were capable of assembling concrete structures, electronic gear, and security androids from basic raw materials available anywhere in the world, even the middle of the desert. Their progress was already impressive, especially to the locals, most of whom had never seen such technology.

“Yes, sir.” Trotting along beside Dalton, Sam carried his own bag of tools, having come to the early conclusion that he wanted to be taught how everything in the dome worked, from the robots and security systems to the main water pump itself. Dalton himself was constantly amazed at how someone who had grown up in a survivalist tribe in the middle of the desert could learn how the world’s most advanced technology worked with the briefest of instructions. “I think it might have a bad circuit, at least that’s how it’s acting.”

As they made their way out of the office and along one of the many catwalks that crisscrossed the bustling floor below, Dalton could see that everyone was hard at work. Some were moving raw material crates from the cargo entrance to the reconstitution machine, others were erecting scaffolds that would eventually be filled with quick-dry concrete, and still more were ascending up through holes in the dome with buckets of transparent, radio-absorbing paint. It was going to take a lot more hard work, but eventually they would have a small city that would exist completely off the grid, safe from any influence or attack from the Commonwealth.

When they arrived at the hatch that would lead them down into the bowels of the dome, Dalton allowed Sam to descend the ladder first, following shortly after. They arrived a few minutes later into a small, dark room lit only by portable lights brought down from the surface. All around them was a labyrinth of pipes running all over the walls and ceiling; it was the heart of the massive pump that dominated the center of the dome, providing fresh water to its occupants. The pump was the main reason Dome City was even a possibility, so keeping it operational was one of Dalton’s highest priorities.

They spent the better part of the day down in the hole, testing each segment of pipe until they tracked down where the problem was. Indeed, Sam had been correct in asserting that a bad circuit was the issue and, after an obedient robot brought them a replacement part, they went to work installing it. About halfway through the project, a voice shouted from above. “Bancroft, one of our patrols has reported a Commonwealth dropship touching down about ten kilometers east of here!”

Immediately handing the tool he was using to secure the metal plate that fit over the intake valve, Dalton was halfway back up the ladder when he called back down to Sam. “Finish without me. You know what to do.”

Waiting for him on the surface was the weathered face of Juan, one of the city’s most capable outdoorsman and keenest scouts. He was still dressed in his traveling gear, which was comprised mainly of ragged leather scraps sewn together with different colored lengths of electrical wire. It wasn’t designed for comfort or any kind of armor value, rather to avoid the ravages of the harsh environment beyond the dome, which extended hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Indeed, the only thing a satellite image or reconnaissance flyover would find in the entire region was endless desert and leftover nuclear desolation, punctuated only occasionally by rusty domes similar to the one in which they lived. It was the perfect camouflage, simultaneously off the grid, lost in a crowd, and tucked away in a forlorn corner of the world that no one cared about anymore.

That last assumption was largely based on the fact that, on his only previous visit to the area, he was certain that the Commonwealth expedition has come to the conclusion that the water pump was inoperable and that the local population wasn’t a relevant threat. He knew that, once the patrol returned with that data, the higher-ranking members of each department would immediately discontinue their efforts in the region, citing the cost-benefit ratio of resettling the desert. By the time he reached the top of the ladder and Juan began explaining what he had seen, Dalton was already stricken with worry.

“We were out three domes to the east a few days ago collecting refugees, remember?” Juan stood nearly at attention, as though he was holding something back with nervous restraint.

“Yes, yes, I remember. Just tell me what happened.” Trying to maintain the firm aura of authority he thought the indigenous people respected and, on some deeper level, desired, Dalton wiped his hands clean on the sides of his pants.

Juan was doing his best to avoid eye contact. “Well, there was this old man that refused to leave because his back hurt. He was in so much pain that he refused any attempt to bring him here.”

A burning sensation washed over Dalton’s face. Before the scout could finish, he knew exactly what was happening. Pushing past him, Dalton exploded into a sprint towards the cargo hangar door, where the city’s ground vehicles were parked while not in use.

Juan reached out but couldn’t get a hold of the older man before he left. “We can’t go! They’ll track us back to this place if we go!”

Dalton knew he couldn’t risk any of the city’s precious few inhabitants for what he needed to do, so he ignored everyone in his path as he rushed down the rickety staircase into the cargo hangar. Leaping into a solar-powered buggy, he punched the ignition and raced out of the garage amid a sea of questioning faces. They watched the dust cloud the vehicle kicked up until it vanished around the corner of a rocky outcropping, turning to see Juan standing at the top of the stairs only after it was gone.

One of the technicians asked, “He’s going to help Maria?”

Juan shook his head slowly and lowered his gaze. “The Commonwealth found the patrol we sent out this morning to get the old man. Maria went out with them because they thought he needed a doctor.”

The hangar was silent for several minutes before the technician mumbled quietly to himself as though he was finishing the story for Juan. “He’s going to die with her.”

* * *

It was just before sunset when Dalton pried the warped steel door of the bullet-ridden dome, which was a much smaller variant of the larger structure they were converting into a city. Dropping the crowbar as he stormed inside, he was presented with a ghastly but all too familiar scene. Bodies were littered all around the entrance, some in the iconic powered armor of a Commonwealth shock trooper, but far more in the simple garb of the desert dwellers. All showed signs of bullet wounds or the telltale black burn lines of laser weapons.

In his mind, he already knew she was dead, but Dalton searched every corpse anyway until, as he looked up while crouching over the body of another of his people, he spotted her sitting against a stack of long abandoned wooden crates. There, in the stillness of the shade, it looked like she was only sleeping. He didn’t want to approach her, but he knew he had to.

At ten steps from her body, he could immediately determine what had happened to her by the dark crimson stain in the lower left side of her chest. The blood on her right hand indicated that it had taken some time for her to finally succumb to the wound, attempting in vain to keep pressure on it. At five steps away, he could see the dried tears on her cheeks, which confused him. He knew Maria was, above all other things, a professional. She had been a surgeon for most of her adult life, so it was unlikely that the sight of her own blood would have had that effect on her. At one step away, he could barely see her anymore through the tears streaming down his own face.

He knelt there next to her, reaching out to hold one of her cold hands in his, for several minutes before Markov decided it was time to break the silence. “I wish I could say it was good to see you again, Bancroft.”

Something inside Dalton’s mind snapped just then, something that had been bent and stretched for decades under the weight of his experiences in the Commonwealth. The sound of Markov’s deadpan, emotionless voice drove him over the edge, beyond anything his wildest dreams had prepared him for. He stood up slowly, wiped his face on the back of his sleeve, and turned to see the younger man standing before him, gun once again in his hand, flanked by four armored soldiers.

“You had to have known that we would eventually find you.”

It took every ounce of his composure to keep himself from charging Markov in an attempt to strangle the life out of him before the inevitable hail of gunfire could cut him to pieces. “I knew.”

Brushing a bit of dust from his shoulder, Markov casually continued in his blasé drawl. “And yet you continued to try and help these savages. These aren’t your people, Bancroft, they’re filthy outsiders. They don’t deserve anything you brought them.”

“Yes,” Dalton replied, “I remember that lecture. That’s basically where our education of the outside world ended so I’m not surprised that you cling to the notion.”

“Look around you!” For the first time since Dalton had known him, Markov showed a crack in his composure. His free hand balled into a fist as he elaborated. “This is the very end of the world; it’s dirty and empty. These domes aren’t treasure troves of long-lost technology, as our superiors once believed.” His voice lowered as he uttered his conclusion. “They’re graves.”

Dalton glared right through Markov as he growled. “They are now.”

“Right,” the officer visibly softened as he looked down at Maria’s body, “I suppose we do owe you something of an apology. When we encountered these violent hostiles, we assumed they were just another band of wandering scavengers. It wasn’t until the fight had already ensued that we recognized former CMED Twenty-One Mendez among them.”

“Shut up.”

“Wait a minute, Bancroft. We tried to avoid involving her, but she became aggressive. She threw herself in front of the others and one of my men saw that she was armed.”

“Shut up!” Dalton felt his feeble attempt at conversational courtesy eroding.

“I’m truly sorry, I really am. Once these soldiers see a weapon, however, their training takes over. You know that as well as I do.” He paused, then solemnly added, “She must have known that, too.”

“She never carried a gun, you son of a bitch. She was a doctor.” His breathing was labored as he struggled to keep his voice from elevating into a shout.

Blinking a few times and beginning to tap his pistol against his thigh, Markov shrugged. “Alright, have it your way. I’ve tried to put you at ease, but if you insist on pursuing this absurd course of action, so be it.” He snapped his fingers and two of the soldiers stepped forward at his command. “We’re taking you back to the city to stand for your crimes.”

“I’m not going.” He looked back down at Maria as he spoke, consciously intent on dying with her face as the last thing he would ever see.

Markov sighed. “I had a feeling you’d say that.”

There was a sharp crack, something heavy forced his head backwards, and Dalton Bancroft collapsed to the floor next to the body of his wife.

* * *

Juan reached the dome about an hour later, having arrived somewhat sooner but instructing the rest of his team to remain hidden behind the dunes until they saw the Commonwealth dropship rocket back into the sky, leaving a cloud of dust in the air below. They scrambled over the hill and pushed their way through the broken door, hanging loose on its hinges, spreading out into the shadowed chamber beyond.

As the rest of them began to respectfully gather up the bodies of their fallen companions and strip the Commonwealth soldiers down for any useful technology, Juan walked over to the pair of bodies near the crates at the side of the room. He shook his head slowly and rubbed his face in anguish. Just as he was about to turn to the others and announce what he had found, something moved at his feet.

With wide eyes, he looked down to see Dalton’s hand twitch, but when he followed the appendage up to find the man’s face, he almost gasped. How anyone could survive such an atrocious wound sent his mind reeling in horror and confusion. Collecting his wits, he screamed, “He’s alive! Bancroft is alive! Get over here!”

The first scout that ran up to offer his assistance had to cover his mouth to refrain from reflexively vomiting, while the others that approached could only stare and mumble in disbelief.

Juan motioned for them to bring a stretcher. “Move it! We have to get him back to the city. The machines he brought us can save him.” As the rest rushed back outside, he knelt down and held Dalton’s hand. Juan didn’t know if he could see or hear him, but he hoped the physical contact would reassure him enough to endure his wounds for a few more minutes.

* * *

Screaming through the desert canyon at speeds far beyond the operational capabilities of the vehicle and at an altitude far below the minimum safe distance for the uneven terrain, the aging dropship followed the twists and turns as through it had taken the route a thousand times before. The roaring of its vectored thrust engines caused the rocks along the sheer cliff walls to vibrate as it passed, whipping around each corner in such a way as to ensure that pursuit was unlikely and, since it was technically below ground level, that radar tracking was impossible.

As it emerged into an open space in the canyon, the ship leveled off and slowed down as it approached an odd feature on the horizon, a mottled, brown dome of steel beams nestled in the recession. Its jets swiveling to bring it from breakneck speeds to a calculated hover, the dropship approached the structure as though waiting for some signal that its arrival was recognized. Right on cue, a pair of jagged doors about halfway up on the side facing the canyon entrance came to life with a surprisingly silent motion despite the rust that covered the entire dome.

Floating effortlessly through the opening, the dropship delved down into the shadowed interior hangar, where other aircraft sat patiently awaiting their escape back out into the scorching desert. It barely wobbled as it descended on wavering pillars of superheated air, its landing gear extending only at the last possible moment to ensure a gentle touchdown on the cool concrete floor. After sitting there for a moment to allow the heat to dissipate, the dropship’s entire front section came apart in four sections, opening like the mouth of a giant insect and extending a ramp down to the ground.

Strutting down the gangplank came three men and two women, dressed in armored bodysuits that had obviously seen recent combat, each with a large weapon or pack of gear slung over their shoulders. Despite returning from what had, by all evidence, been a violent and deadly confrontation, they all joked and chatted as though returning from a regular nine-to-five job. On their route from the dropship to the hangar’s interior door, where they hoped to get out of their gear and head into the city for some rest and relaxation, they were intercepted by a man in a work jumpsuit with an electronic clipboard.

“Well?” His inquiry was as dry as the look on his face.

Motioning for the rest of his companions to continue on without him, one of the mercenaries turned to face the man and removed his helmet, which came off with the hiss of an airtight seal. “No problem at all, just like he said.”

Nodding his approval, the administrator tapped the screen of his data pad a few times, then continued his questioning without looking up. “Your team made it to the control chamber of the factory, correct?”

“All the way,” the man began with pride in his voice, “we took care of that nasty robot sentry as well.” He frowned suddenly and added, “He was spot on about that thing, too. Now that I think about it, he seems to know the Commonwealth inside and out, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” the administrator replied, “he understands our enemy quite well.”

Shrugging the cryptic response off without a second thought, the mercenary hoisted his gear back onto his shoulder and turned to leave. “Just make sure my credits are in my account by the time I make it to the bar, alright?”

“Your payment will be there; don’t worry. The Allied Revolutionary Militia appreciates your efforts.” Recording the report on his clipboard, the administrator tucked it under his arm and walked over to a personnel lift enshrouded by a sparse scaffold. He pressed the activation button and rode it up several meters where it stopped at a catwalk leading around the entire hangar, which he followed halfway down until he reached a door leading into an interior corridor.

Passing several other civilians on his way, technicians and engineers that kept Dome City operational as one of the world’s few remaining settlements outside of Commonwealth control, he made his way to the end of the hallway where it ended in a closed door. After glancing around to make sure no one was directly observing him, he took a deep breath with his eyes closed and reached out for the doorknob tentatively.

In the darkened room beyond, decorated sparsely with a desk and a couple of chairs, the administrator stood and waited patiently after closing the door behind him. He kept his gaze locked on the floor as what could only be loosely described as a human voice echoed out from an opening into an antechamber in the back. Thick with a metallic, almost synthetic tone, the voice was grim and direct, speaking as though it already knew the answer to its question. “The factory was operational, wasn’t it?”

Swallowing his trepidation and announcing his reply to the open air, the administrator said, “You were right, sir.”

As if his fears were being broadcast and acted upon, he could hear labored footsteps approaching. He cringed but bit his tongue to avoid showing his discomfort in the presence of his employer. Conjuring up all of his willpower, he looked directly at him when Dalton Bancroft emerged from his living quarters at the back of his office.

He was dressed in ordinary desert clothing, several layers of brown and light tan held together with leather straps. Where his outfit different from most of the dome’s other residents, though, was the neck line, which was ringed with a thick mechanical device that attached to a weighty backpack by several tubes and wires. Above that, little of what had once been his head was recognizable.

The entire left side of his face was entirely mechanical, from the polished steel that held that side of his skull together to the gaping socket where his eye used to be, dominated instead by a wide camera lens that relayed visual data directly into his brain via a neural interface. Between intermittent patches of what remained of his human flesh on the right side of his face, including a synthetic patch over his right eye socket, several flexible tubes of viscous green liquid kept his traumatized brain functioning despite the horrible wound he had suffered. With most of his jaw replaced by a ceramic prosthetic that was exposed in several places, teeth were a luxury he had decided to go without, which wasn’t a significant drawback considering that all of his nourishment came in the form of gelatinized food supplements.

As Bancroft approached his desk, the administrator could hear the drone of the pumps in his backpack laboring to keep a constant flow of medications, anticoagulants, and antiseptic fluids coursing through the fragile remains of his head. The tubes and wires connecting him to his life-giving equipment curled around as he rotated his head in what the administrator could only imagine was unending agony.

“Cal, you realize that I’m not guessing here, right? These people talk to me like I’m some kind of tactical genius, but all I’m doing is regurgitating facts.”

Nodding, the administrator desperately formulated an excuse to look anywhere but directly at Bancroft. “You brought them hope and civilization, sir. Then you gave them the weapons to fight back against the Commonwealth and you’ve been correct in every strategic decision.” He glanced down at his data pad longer than he needed to. “I think it’s only natural that everyone in the A.R.M. thinks of you as a hero.”

A long, drawn out sigh escaped Bancroft’s throat through one of the side vents on his neck that replaced his trachea; it was a blood-curdling, hissing noise that sent shivers up the administrator’s spine. “I just hope they understand that Commonwealth technology is the only way to keep this place alive and that these missions aren’t my personal revenge.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, sir,” Cal interjected, “I don’t believe anyone would blame you for it. In fact, I think some of them see it as additional motivation.”

Bancroft took a few labored breaths, his dark camera surveying the room with a blank stare that left observers to wonder where his attention was focused. They stood there together in his office for several moments while he swam in his own thoughts until he broke the silence with a reverberating groan. “We’re going to need more agents.”

“I agree.”

“Send word to Agency Zero that we’ll take as many as they can find.” Not waiting to hear any response to his orders, Bancroft turned and withdrew back into his personal chamber, where the medical machinery waited to return him to blissful unconsciousness.