Tension eased in Lieutenant Brett DeMarco’s shoulders as he neared his base, Fort Tottenham. The lights from the city and surrounding businesses had faded away miles ago. Unlike his father’s base, Fort Landry, a Strategic Military Command base, the government required a ten-mile business and city free zone with a limited number of people allowed to live in all directions from any Tactical Command base or installation. Farmers were given permission to reside there so long as their property measured between five and two hundred and fifty acres. In exchange for inexpensive land and lower taxes, the owners agreed to abide by a curfew and lights out whenever the order came down from the base.
Light from the car’s headlights caught movement on the side of the narrow, two-lane road. Brett tapped the brakes, slowing the vehicle as a trio of deer stared at him. The way his week was going, hitting a deer would be the perfect way to end the one vacation he took each year.
His one full week of leave coincided with the anniversary of General Vanessa Landry’s accidence to the Presidency and the day celebrated as the date of rebirth of the country. He’d been spent it with his parents. The visit had started off with another fight with his father about who Brett should marry. He’d been reminded that the time to make his choices was coming up and they needed to be submitted in writing with his signature as approval. Brett had countered by stating he needed a sponsor but it didn’t have to be a parent. He could ask his boss or the base commander to sign off if he needed to. His father had threatened him and Brett had started to walk away until his mother had interceded.
The week had ended with his father trying to set him up with younger men he personally deemed appropriate. Brett did not. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. After years of yelling at him to marry a woman instead of a man, his father had conceded too easily. It made him suspicious, even as his father began suggesting younger men to him. Those his father found acceptable were all good-looking men with the manners and intellect found in the children of officers and high-level public administrators. They’d all seemed stiff and emotionless next to Brett’s memories of Orion Hellman, and none had the golden-brown eyes and uncommonly long brown hair.
A figure stumbled out into the middle of the road pulling him from his thoughts. Brett slammed on his brakes, yanked the wheel and prayed he’d miss the person. The car skidded to a halt several feet beyond where the man stood. Brett looked in his rearview mirror and saw him fall. Throwing the car into park, Brett jumped out and ran over to them.
“Are you okay?” Brett asked, kneeling. The red from his taillights cast an eerie glow over the scene. The man wasn’t someone he recognized. While they were closer to the medical clinic on the base than to other facilities, it was reserved for military personnel only. The civilian medical center was about fifteen miles away, close to the center of town. Blood coated the man’s face and hair, and bruises were starting to form. “I’m going to call for help. I’ll be right back.” Brett started to stand.
The man grabbed his arm and pulled, shaking his head.
“You need help,” Brett replied.
The man shook his head again.
Brett stared down at the man. If he did nothing, the man would die. He wasn’t even sure if the civilian medical center would send a response team this far out. The military emergency personnel travelled off base only for military personnel or their dependents. The man’s shirt was bloodied and torn, exposing more of his battered body.
Brett squeezed his eyes shut, trying to prevent the familiar images of his deceased fiancée from pressing forward. The similarities were too close to be discounted, but left him no closer to knowing who was responsible. “I-I need to take you to the base.”
The man tried to push himself up.
“Stop, you’re going to make everything worse. You don’t want me to take you to the base, right?”
“No base,” the man said, his voice soft and cracking.
“I suppose I can take you to the clinic instead. You’re a civilian?”
“All right, let’s get you into the car.” Brett helped the man up, trying not to dwell on the fact that he was probably breaking another rule or wonder why the man was so far from the residential areas. But the man needed help, and as a military officer, he was duty bound to help. More than that, he knew, was Taren’s influence. No one should suffer as his lover had.
The ride into the city’s center was quiet. Brett’s passenger refused to answer questions or talk until Brett tried to turn down the road leading to the medical center. The man adamantly refused to go to the large clinic, instead giving Brett directions to a different place, in an area of the city Brett had never been to. Nerves taut, he made his way through the winding streets until he came to an area of abandoned and crumbling buildings, most of which looked as if they might have been warehouses at one point. He stopped at the edge of an alley.
“Here?” Brett asked hesitantly, unable to hide his dismay.
The man nodded. “Thanks for the ride, but you should’ve left me where you found me.”
Brett turned and stared at the man, astounded at the first full sentence he’d said. “You need medical help, I can—”
“You’ve done enough. I don’t like medical centers.” It was eerily similar to what Orion had basically “told” him.
“End of the road. Turn left. Two miles turn left again. First working light, turn right. You can find your way from there.”
Brett nodded and watched the man pull himself out of the car then disappear into the shadows. Had he helped an enemy of the state get away? Noise from the other side of the street caught his attention, reminding him why he didn’t want to wait around. He carefully followed the other man’s directions until he was familiar with the area then made his way back to base. Parking in his assigned spot in front of his building, he turned off the car and grabbed his bags. His heart was heavy with another secret he couldn’t tell.