Misha Kennedy was standing on a ledge several stories above hostile ground. Strapped to her back was a military-grade sniper rifle and she had a Jericho 941 9mm handgun in her palm. There was no movement below her and she began to sidestep alongside the outer ledge of the building. Somewhere in this land, a soldier was trapped and she was the only one who could save her.
It was astonishing how quickly she had gotten herself into this bind.
Not over half an hour ago, she had been sitting in her office, filing a report on her last mission when her colleague and fiancé, Aaron Levy, had entered the room and informed her that he had been seeing another woman.
Misha had blinked in reaction, but there hadn’t been much time to think; no time to assess or evaluate the situation. She barely had time to register the words before a young soldier named Skylar came bolting into her office.
“The Nashua team is trapped,” he had told breathlessly. Both Aaron and Misha stood immediately. “They were supposed to be returning to the gate, but we lost contact. Infrared says they are still in the forest, but they aren’t moving.”
Misha started running first. Skylar caught up quickly and she could hear Aaron behind them.
“Nashua?” she repeated as she turned a corner. The code was in full force in the hallway. Lights were flashing in the corridor and an alarm was blaring, Misha had to yell to be heard. “They weren’t combat units,” she continued. “They were exploratory.”
Misha saw the exit ahead. “There is a unit over there without firearms?”
He nodded again.
Misha swore and ran faster. The exit door was sliding down, in response to the code, and it was getting closer and closer to the ground. She spotted a uniformed guard to her left and yanked his sniper rifle out of his grip, then dropped to the floor and slid on her shoulder underneath the shutting exit door.
“Kennedy!” Aaron shouted after her.
She heard footsteps running towards the door but it clamped shut before any more could be said. There was a protocol to situations like this and the exit doors would not be able to open until the next morning.
It was silent on the outer city street. Misha stood, gingerly touching her scraped shoulder and reaching for the handgun on her hip. She slung the sniper rifle over her back and looked forward. The Nivah Gate stood before her.
The Gate was tall and iron, with a large lock in the center. An iron-rod fence ran to both sides, capped with posts that looked dangerous to touch. There was a narrow road that ran between the Gate and its fence and the long metal wall that protected the city. That wall followed the fence as far as could be seen, an eyesore that looked out of place next to the serene forest on the other side of the Gate.
This street hadn’t been used in years. The metal wall had been built to protect the city and people like Misha were hired to patrol it. She had walked that wall more times than she could count and had found herself on this side of it more times than she cared to remember.
But never alone.
The Gate rose before her, daring to be entered. Knowing she had no other choice, except remain where she stood until morning and let lost team be killed, she turned the metal handle of the lock and cringed at the squeak. She hadn’t bothered to ask where the Nashua team had last been seen, or grabbed any communications equipment – she would be flying blind and solo in the Black Forest.
Closing the Gate behind her, she walked forward, trying to ignore the fateful clang of the iron behind her. It was as silent as the street amongst the trees. Nothing snapped or rustled and it made Misha all the more anxious. An exploratory group would have been sent to get the lay of the land, but they wouldn’t have been sent far. There may have made a slight truce, but the war wasn’t over. The Nashua team had no business foregoing protection – a point Misha and several other officers had tried to make before the team had been sent unarmed anyway.
Of course, even exploratory groups were trained in camouflage, and with the cover of night helping them, Misha wasn’t likely to see anyone who didn’t want to be found. And they had no way of knowing her footsteps were friendly.
There was a popular song within the city, written long ago, by a famous composer. She hummed the first notes. No response. She walked further and tried again. No response. It took three more tries before she was able to make out a weak reply from a bush to her left. She hummed louder and pushed back a few branches, coming face to face with a member of the exploratory team.
His name was Camden and Misha had never been formally introduced. She was in a combat battalion and Camden was exploratory; they never trained together.
“You need to get out of here, soldier,” she said. Camden didn’t reply. Misha looked behind him at faces she had seen around the base. She retraced her glance and came up with seven. The exploratory teams always traveled with even numbers. She flitted through the roster of the Nashua team.
“Where’s Solider Collins?” she asked.
Camden didn’t reply.
“Soldier, if you don’t —”
“We don’t know,” he interrupted. “That’s why we are holding our position. We didn’t hear or see anything, she was just gone.”
Misha looked to the forest behind them. She took a step away from the bush and held a branch back so Camden and the others could climb out. She pointed in the direction she had come. “Head south a mile or two,” she said. “You’ve got everyone on lock down, so no one is likely to break the barrier. Get through the Gate and you’ll have to wait for morning.”
“Where are you going?”
Misha had already taken several steps in the opposite directions. “To get Collins.”
“You can’t go alone!”
“Taking you wouldn’t do me any good.” She adjusted the gun on her back and waved the one in her hand. “But if you can get yourselves back safely, it will be one less thing for me to worry about.”
She turned away from the team and started in the direction of the Stone City.