23rd day of December in the year 2140
I fucked up, Clint. I fucked up big time.
We did everything as we had planned. Things were going really well… But we forgot one crucial detail.
These aren’t any other humans–these are bandits. Scavengers, monsters…
20 km outside of Charlotte, NC – 1:56
Lizzie gazed up at the night sky in wonder. She’d seen it plenty of times throughout her nineteen years, but as she stood just beyond the limits of the bandit market, she found herself struck with the realization that she never took the time to take in her surroundings anymore. Her days were ruled by the Sun; she woke just before it did, scouted the border until it began to descend toward the western horizon, and after all that activity she was too exhausted to do anything other than eat, check on her tenants, and steal a moment with Monty before drifting off to sleep. Lizzie rose and set with the distant star, and was so accustomed to its presence that she forgot what the world looked like in its brief absence.
The sky above was the deepest, darkest black. Not like the tendrils of evil she had seen snaking and slithering off of her deceased father and troublesome uncle; instead, the expanse of space reminded her of the wings of a raven. A smooth shade of black that shimmered with other colors, similar to the hundreds of thousands of stars that bespeckled the night.
She couldn’t recall ever seeing so many stars before… And yet, as she reminded herself, she couldn’t remember taking the time to simply look up and enjoy the peace.
The stillness of the night. The calm before the first gust of a hurricane.
Matteo, who she had last seen conversing with Lori, Vince, and Remiel, stepped into her peripheral, his green eyes glancing up before locking onto their target.
“Nice night for sabotage, isn’t it?” he quipped in his usual gruff tone.
To the layman, the senior angel may have sounded grumpy or annoyed. Lizzie knew better; his usual vermilion energy was giving way to amber stripes, indicative of his secret playful nature slipping through. “Yeah, right. With our luck, it’d probably snow.”
The older man let out a snort. “Now that’d be something.”
They settled into a comfortable silence as Lizzie continued with her stargazing. She caught sight of the moon out of the corner of her eye and turned partway to stare off toward the southwest, taking care not to step on the tail of the fox that slept by her feet. The celestial body was full, reflecting far-off sunlight onto their secret activities.
Gabby was seated in the passenger side of one of their jeeps, her head leaning back and her eyes shut as she focused on her ability. Koji and Ricky stood by her open door; the boys had their weapons in hand and their eyes peeled as they guarded the psychic. Chris was seated cross-legged on the hood of another jeep, smoking a blunt and chatting on the phone with Alexa. Cassidy and Vince were gleefully following along as Remiel led them through stretches in an effort to lift their spirits.
Lori was in the middle of directing the thirty scouts that had joined their squad–she and Lizzie had sort of become scout commanders over the past week–when one of the scouts pulled Lori aside for a private conversation. Lizzie recognized him as Finley, the scout that the angels nicknamed “Lori’s lieutenant.”
The two shared simpering gazes and quiet words as Lizzie watched, her eyebrows arching. They look like they’re getting close.
Matteo followed her eyes and glimpsed at the two scouts before returning his attention in the direction of Charlotte. “Fin’s a good kid. Strong fighter, reliable. Comes from a nice family.”
Lizzie smirked as she turned back around, allowing Lori and her new friend their privacy. “Yeah. Thanks.”
His curt nod was his only response for a moment before he remarked: “You come from a good family, too.”
She scoffed. “I know it’s late, but I think you’re confusing me for someone else. I’m the ex-bandit, remember? My daddy was the worst of the worst.”
Lizzie glanced in Matteo’s direction, intending only to analyze his aura when she was caught in his eyes. The older angel had been staring at her face, studying her expression as she spoke candidly about her heritage. His expression was stern, but his eyes were filled with genuine warmth as he deliberated over her statement. In the dim light of the full moon, his olive green irises appeared even darker.
“Yeah, your dad was real bad,” he admitted in a low tone. “Your uncle, too. My family’s been at war with the Peters clan for longer than any of you’ve been alive… But your brother rescued you, your mother, and your siblings. That makes him pretty good.”
She shrugged and nodded, but he continued before she could offer any rebuttal. “Your mother and siblings have only been with us a few months, and they’re all contributing to our colony. They’re good people, too.”
Then Matteo turned to face her, and all she could see was his energy. The red in his vermilion shifted to a pretty magenta shade, and his amber stripes were accompanied by teal streaks. It was the most diverse aura she had seen on anyone besides Monty.
“You were only with us for a few years, and in that time you developed an understanding of the youth of our colony and sought to help those who were just like you: kids with bad parents. You made us all realize that the humans in our care weren’t as safe as we thought, and you not only gave our most vulnerable a home, but you stand on our border and defend our people–your people.”
She was stunned as he held his hand out between them. “We got off to a bad start, but a lot has happened in the years since. I’ve watched both of my kids flourish in your presence; Mona found a calling that suited her, and Monty stepped up and became the leader we needed. You’re a good person, Lizzie… And I’m glad that my son has you to ground him.”
Moved by the angel’s speech, the human shoved his hand aside and wrapped her arms around his torso, hugging him tightly. Though caught off guard, Matteo reciprocated her display of affection, and the two remained embraced for a brief, peaceful moment.
Is this what it’s like to have a father? She wondered as they pulled away from one another and fixed their eyes on the city at the end of the highway. Is it supposed to be this nice? Or does it just feel weird after the way Daddy treated me?
Leah jumped onto her feet and spun around, prompting Lizzie and Matteo to follow her example. The scouts stirred behind them, converging onto the group of stretching angels as Gabby ran out of her jeep and took Cassidy’s hand in hers. Koji and Ricky were right behind her, their expressions determined.
“Benji says, ‘The wolverines are about to rest’,” she reported, pocketing her smartphone in her jeans. “Our timer is about to start.”
Matteo nodded and turned to the elder angels. “Remiel, get ready. Keep it to one at a time.”
“Fin, I need you, Kali, Glen, and River to check on the hostages when they get here,” Lori ordered the scout still glued to her side. “Pass the injured off to Dom an’ have him send anyone well enough to Chris. Don’t let none of ‘em near Gabby or Cassie.”
“On it,” nodded Finley, already stepping into the crowd of scouts in search of Dominik, their squad’s head medic.
“Chris, stay with Dom,” Matteo tacked on, pointing from the teleporter to the medic. “When you have five or six hostages, port ‘em to Atlanta. Kids and the severely injured are top priority.”
“You got it,” said Chris as he flicked the cherry off his blunt and snubbed it out against his metal cigarette box.
“What should we do, Lizzie?” asked Koji, his voice cracking from the nerves. He cleared his throat and tried to put on a brave face, but she could tell that her friend was worried about their mission.
I don’t blame him, she admitted to herself. I’d give anything so that he and Gabby weren’t here–they’re too young to have to worry about this.
“Stay with Gabby,” I told him, my tone insistent. “We need her to alert the others and keep tabs on everything going on. If all else fails, I’m counting on you to get her home.”
The sixteen-year-old demon nodded absentmindedly before gesturing to a distant pickup truck. A tarp was covering its bed, hiding the caged creature they had caught the day before. “Good thing we thought to bring Whiskers, then.”
“I thought we named her ‘Mittens’,” Gabby pouted.
“Mittens is a stupid name. Who the hell hears ‘Mittens’ and thinks, ‘run for your life!’?”
“Who the hell thinks that when they hear Whiskers–?”
“Now is really not the time for this,” Lizzie cut in, shaking her head. “Just watch each other’s backs and keep your phones handy.”
“Cass, are we still hidden?” asked Matteo.
Cassidy nodded. “We’re good.”
“ ‘Kay–Ricky, you’re with Cass. Watch her back, and help the scouts keep hostiles in check.”
“What if we can’t contain the hostiles?” Ricky pointed out.
Matteo’s green eyes darkened. “We’re not containing any hostiles. Either they’re happy to be saved, or they attack–and if they do the latter, then you take them out. No questions.”
Ricky and Cassidy’s faces blanched; they were not aware that they were not taking prisoners. Chris looked just as unsure by Dom’s side, but he simply averted his eyes and scratched the back of his head. The older angels, young demons, and scouts, on the other hand, were not as surprised, as many of them had come face to face with those who wanted to kill them. The only young angel to not have an adverse reaction to this news was Vince, who remained unbothered as Matteo addressed him next.
“Vince, stand by until Gabby gives you the word. Then and only then are you allowed to let loose on the market, understand?”
The teenager nodded tenaciously.
“Good.” The elder turned back to Lizzie, who was double-checking the magazine in her pistol. “If all goes well, the rest of us should be moving in by twenty after. You ready?”
Lizzie slapped the mag into her handgun and holstered it with a nod. “Let’s do this.”