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Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Kravchuk grimaced. "I don't understand this ultimatum, but we should take full advantage of it. We can use the time to fortify Ovlast and our bases, accelerate the draft, and push the factories to full production. In three days, we'll have tripled our strength, which should be enough to make this alien reconsider invasion."

Although he debated giving a blunter answer, Chukhay said as he buttoned his coat, "Do what you will. I will be here in the morning." He took a step toward the door.


Chukhay paused as he regarded the other thinner Director.

Wearing suspicion as a mask, Kravchuk whispered, "We're in this together, just as it was with Afanisy. Don't forget that."

"I won't."
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

The door led to a short, plain hallway that ended at an elevator door. It was an elevator strictly reserved for the Directors and those they deemed trustworthy, being the sole elevator that had access to every secret floor beneath the Directorate. For now, Chukhay hit the only non-basement button as he returned to the ground floor.

Kravchuk's threat lingered in his mind. Although Kravchuk had the appearance of a scholar, it hid the nature of a serpent. To Chukhay's immense frustration, he would have to increase his protection. Perhaps secretly eliminate the Night Service members who had more loyalty to Kravchuk than the state. Worst of all, it would mean he would have to hire a taste-tester again. A small expense considering his pay as a Director, but there was something particularly offensive when Chukhay couldn't simply enjoy the taste of a dinner without fears of assassination.

With a ding, the elevator opened into a secret hallway that connected the three Director offices. Taking a short left, he inputted a code into the wall before it slid open to reveal his office's bathroom.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

He opened the bathroom door and almost crashed into a mop bucket.

The cleaning lady behind the bucket paled and immediately scurried away with her tools as she muttered, "I'm so sorry, Director. I-I was just-"

"Carry on," Chukhay curtly replied. He moved past the janitor at a brisk pace as his thoughts returned to more important matters.

The cleaning lady held her breath, until the Director closed the door behind him. It was only then that she breathed a sigh of relief. Anasya lifted a wrinkled hand to her heart. She was getting too old for surprises. Once her aged heart had calmed down, she pushed a grey strand of hair behind her ear before resuming her path to the Director's bathroom.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

As soon as she mopped the bathroom, she would be done for the day. The usual relief before the end of a shift was not with her today. Ever since the alien invasion, an undercurrent of panic and desperation had seized the Directorate. Aides were running around trying to do six different tasks, while supervisors snapped at people for the slightest mistakes. Anasya was sorely tempted to quit, but she had worked hard to gain this job for herself and her family. The sooner she was gone, the sooner she could relax.

With all of that weighing on her, she attacked the bathroom with a frenzy. Given how little use it saw, it didn't take long to clean the bathroom. The moment it was finished, she lumbered toward the janitorial center on the first floor. The few other janitors still here nodded to her. She frowned as she felt the air of melancholy that had silenced even her chatty coworkers but nodded back. She emptied out the mop bucket before returning the tools back to their places. It was only when she headed toward the supervising station did she remember that today was payday.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

The janitorial supervisor, Sam, was at the station.

But not alone.

Though she wore no badge or insignia, it only made the woman next to Sam stand out all the more. After cleaning the Directorate for over two decades, Anasya knew she saw a member of the Night Service speaking to her boss. Suddenly, Anasya had no desire to check out as she looked for something to distract her. She locked onto the state art pieces lining the wall, giving them more attention now than she had in ten years' of work. She was happy that she couldn't hear the conversation, but she Sam looked pale and his fingers fidgeted with a pen.

An eternity seemed to pass as Anasya awkwardly studied the paintings before the Night Service woman finally left. Eager to not attract the attention of less savory individuals, Anasya hurried over to the station.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Sam nodded to her as she reached the desk but said nothing, instead busying himself with some forms. Anasya keyed in her worker's code that clocked her out before turning her attention back to her supervisor. Whatever the Night Service woman had said had rattled Sam because four long minutes passed before he realized Anasya was still here.

"Do you need something?"

"...my paycheck?" Anasya timidly replied.

"OH!" Colour rapidly filled the supervisor's cheeks as he scampered toward a locker within the supervisor's station. "It is payday, isn't it?" His fingers slipped as he pulled out his keys. "Whoops," he muttered as he recovered. "It doesn't feel real, does it? There's this entire alien invasion, but it's still payday. Still have to pay the bills, right? I mean it's not like any of us had anything to do with the aliens coming, right? Why would any of us have anything to do with aliens we've never heard about until today? It's crazy, right?"

The more Sam rambled, the more uncomfortable Anasya felt. She was under the impression that Sam was reaching out to her.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

But she wanted no part of this. All she wanted was to go home and rest. When Sam held out her paycheck, she took it. "Thank you," she said before turning away and heading straight for the exit. In the back of her mind, she hoped the colourful leaves would at least provide some relief on her walk.

Relief did not greet her as she stepped outside the building.

The Directorate was not only the home to the Directors, but to the Balovian Council. As such, it was home to the entire Balovian government. So, it wasn't unusual to see soldiers here. Yet, in the past there had only been a few dozen. Now, Anasya thought their numbers reached into the hundreds as the outer edges of the Directorate were fully manned, others building emplacements, and dozens patrolling the streets beyond the Directorate's fences. All of them moved with a nervous energy that unsettled Anasya.

She wanted nothing more than to break out into a run to the gate but feared that she would be shot. Doing everything she could not to attract any attention, she forced herself to calmly walk to the checkpoint that she had been walked through a thousand times before.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Just yesterday, she had seen Luka and Kjetil manning the security checkpoint. The two soldiers had been stuck on gate duty for months and approached their jobs with a bored amicability. While important citizens and officers were given the full professional treatment, to everyone else, there had been a casual ease as they let them come and go, often with a joke.

The genial pair were nowhere to be found today.

Instead of two soldiers in standard uniforms, the main gate was now occupied by ten soldiers, all of them in full combat apparel. No more smiles as the new soldiers exuded an air of quiet hostility. As Anasya neared the gate, she fumbled for a moment before pulling her ID out of a pocket. The nearest soldier turned and stared at her as she walked the last few steps. She forced her hand not to shake, afraid that her fear would be mistaken for something worse. The soldier took her ID and studied it for a long moment. For a terrifying second, she thought the soldier would begin questioning her.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Instead, he 'harrumphed' and ordered, "Move along, janitor."

Anasya was so relieved that she couldn't care less about the implied insult. She shuffled through the checkpoint and breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the other side of the Directorate's main bridge. She took a left and began her path home.

As her heart calmed down, her knees reminded her of her physical ailments. While she did work at the Directorate, her salary was modest to the point where the only apartment she could afford was six miles away. On some days, she would splurge and get a cab for the journey, but ever since her granddaughter became ill, all of her spare money went to medicine. Still, she soldiered on as she walked down her familiar route.

Unfortunately, it was the only thing that was familiar. This late in the evening, the city would normally come to life as lights turned on. Today, everywhere she looked, she saw fear and anxiety. Families were tense as children asked what was wrong with their parents, who made excuses. Chattering teenagers were subdued, constantly glancing at the sky. Above all, police and soldiers seemed to be everywhere, rushing this way and that. More barricades were going up, businesses were forced to close as the Balovian Army claimed the buildings for their own purposes.

Anasya wanted nothing more than to be home.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Half a mile from her apartment, she paused after turning a corner. Across the street was her favorite grocery store. It was being 'defended' by a ring of soldiers. Two lines of people outside the military line extended around city block as one soldier shouted into a megaphone. "Attention citizens! Food rations are now in effect in order to ensure a successful defense against the alien invaders. Every citizen will be allowed to make select purchases according to their need. To ensure a fair distribution, every citizen will be monitored while inside and at the counters. We thank you for your cooperation."

Anasya had been planning on a small stop to buy some needed milk. She had little doubt that she would be refused such a simple purchase, but she was uneasy. Even with so many soldiers armed with guns, there was grumbling muttered all throughout the line. When she looked around, Anasya saw resentful faces staring from windows. A noise drew her attention, and she saw some of the homeless teens scowling at the soldiers from one of the alleyways.

There was a foul feeling in the air. It acutely reminded Anasya how old she was and how unprepared for violence she was at that age. She forgot the milk as she hurried down the street before something snapped. As she passed by the alleyway, she couldn't stop herself from looking at the nearest teenager. Although his outfit was filled with holes and rips, the young, tanned man seemed unaffected by the chill winds of Autumn. He returned her gaze with fierce eyes as brown as his skin, and she squeaked before looking away.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Mat snorted and wished he could intimidate the soldiers as well as he intimidated the old woman. As she scurried away, his stomach groaned reminding him yet again of how long he had gone without a real meal. And those damned soldiers stood between and his usual dinner. The grocery owner might be a tyrant, but his daughter could easily be persuaded to give expired stuff for Mat's performances. But the odds of that happening now that the whole army claimed the food?


"This sucks," Liz said next to him. She was the only one in the gang who was as tall as Mat was, ever since he had gone through that early growth spurt despite being twelve. It made the hunger hurt twice as much.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

"Can't we just start something?" Sal chimed in. The nine year-old stared at the soldiers with open venom. "Those people look ready to start a fight."

"With what?" Liz countered. "Ordinary folks aren't allowed guns. Only the army is. They'd kill half the folks, and the other half would book it."

Sal turned longingly to Mat. "What if we added some fire? We already outnumber the soldiers over a 1,000-to-1."

Mat growled back, "Shut. Up."

"But Mat, how else we gonna eat?"

Mat didn't know. Truth be told, the pain was already bad enough that Mat was liking the idea of a riot. But how to trigger one where he and his buddies didn't get mowed down?
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

He looked at the soldiers before scanning the city block. He glanced behind him, wishing he had a tank when he noticed the dumpsters. It was the day before garbage day, so both of them were overfilling with noxious trash.

An idea burst in his mind. "Sal! You know the back door where 'Bay hands us food?"


"Go check it. I want to know if there any soldiers there. And don't be obvious."

Although he hesitated, Sal nodded and nonchalantly began walking away from the alleyway. A couple of soldiers focused on him and then the homeless bunch. Striking an angry pose, Mat yelled at them, "Chod! Come on, let's go!"

Hoping he hadn't confused Sal, Mat turned to the rest and pointed to the back of the alley. They trudged away, until Mat directed them to take a second left. Entering into another alley, Mat saw a couple of more dumptsers, just like he wanted.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

They waited for a few minutes before Sal rushed in. "There's just one soldier back there!"

"Good. This is the plan: I set the dumpster on fire, and we're going to run out of the alley screaming the aliens are attacking. Go straight for that back door. If it works, all of the soldiers will head for the alley."

A wave of unease passed through the kids. Liz, with one hand nervously playing with her hair, asked the unspoken question. "What if the soldiers don't leave?"

"Then, just run past the door to a different alley."

"What if all the soldiers except the one in the back goes to check the fire?"

"We take him out."

Silence at that answer. Sal shuffled his feet. "But, Mat, we're just kids. ...are you going to burn him?"

In response, Mat's became hard as rock. "Do you want to eat or not?" Nobody protested. "Good."
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Mat turned to the dumpster in front of him. He could hear the others behind him take a step away. He hated it when they did that; it made him feel less than human. Ignoring his friends, he focused on the dumpster. The smell alone was nauseating as rotting food and refuse permeated through the cheap, paper trash bags. He grimaced before he cupped his hands in front of him as he began to concentrate. His hunger pain helped as he focused on it, using it to create anger. He pictured the merciless soldiers in front of the grocery store, standing between him and his food, between him and life. The anger grew hotter, until it burned with hatred.

With a grunt, fire erupted between his palms. A collective gasp sounded behind him, even though a couple of them had seen him do this before. The fire was the size of a marble, needing to be much larger for Mat's plan. He poured his hatred into it, growing it larger and larger. Although he didn't show it, he could feel anxiety lurking at the edges of his rage. Only once before had he tried to make a fire this big without a physical source to fuel it. It had ended poorly.

He pushed the memory away before he could relive it. Instead, he concentrated on the twin tasks of keeping the fire stable yet growing. Finally, after a long minute, it was as large as an apple. It would have to do. While no one else had noticed, if one person walked into the alley now, it'd be a disaster. He faced the dumpster.

He threw the fireball.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

The dumpster exploded in flame, actually releasing a small 'boom'. Mat took a deep breath, his body fighting against a wave of exhaustion. Never before had he had tried something that intense. Despite his body's protest, Mat spun around and shouted, "RUN!"

His friends ran. Together, they all sprinted back to the grocery store. As they reach the mouth of it, Mat could see two soldiers cautiously crossing the street with the entire line of people watching them

"ALIENS!" Liz shrieked as the homeless bunch sped past the first two soldiers.

"THEY'RE ATTACKING!" Sal yelled, his fear sounding all too real.

As the group rounded the grocery store's corner, Mat's plan took an unexpected turn. He had hoped the soldiers would overreact. He hadn't expected the crowd to panic.

Screaming erupted from the crowd and order collapsed. People ran everywhere, away, to cars, to the soldiers, and to the grocery store. Mat wasn't sure, but he thought he heard the soldiers trying to yell over the din, trying to calm people. Their efforts were wasted.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Ahead of them was the lone soldier Sal had mentioned. He was running straight at them, his black machine gun held low yet ready to fire. For one terrifying second, Mat thought the soldier was about to shoot him and his friends. But then the soldier ran past them, toward the growing chaos.

This meant the back door was not only open but completely unguarded. It was a dirty, rusting white door sticking out in a wall of graffitied brick. It had never looked so beautiful in Mat's entire life. Given the confusion going on, Mat and his friends were able to storm right in without being noticed.

They were now in storage. All around them were boxes of food on metallic shelves extending throughout the back half of the store. At the other end from their entrance were the freezer and fridge units. Mat panicked as he completely forgotten about the staff, but no one was in sight. He couldn't remember, but he thought the owner had about six employees for the modest grocery.

None of his friends cared as they salivated over the boxes. "So much food," Sal whispered.

"Focus!" Mat barked. "Grab chips, bread, and anything else that's light and doesn't need a fridge. We've got maybe two minutes until we're caught and we still need to haul this stuff far away from here!"
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

The kids scrambled as they searched through the shelves. Mat himself turned to the nearest shelf and scanned the names. Most of them were labeled, but the labels were small and hidden in the corners. Even then, it was written in packaging code, which took too long to understand. Of greater help were the brand names emblazoned in the center. The only problem with that was when one brand sold more than one kind of food, as Liz found out when she grabbed a box that she thought were chips only to find it loaded down with canned food.

Mat was having trouble keeping track of the time as he ripped open boxes. He hated the noise they were making but hoped it was being drowned out by what was going on outside. To his frustration, he caught Sal eyeing the freezer as he half-heartedly checked a box. "Sal! We don't have time!" He whispered.

"But, Mat, there'll be ice cream in there," Sal whined.

Although he nearly swore at Sal, Mat froze when a new sound broke through the cacophony: gunfire.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

"Grab what you can and run!" Mat screamed. His friends needed no second warning as they scrambled towards the door. In the back of his mind, Mat couldn't help but wonder where were the grocery workers. Unbidden, he imagined them ridden with bullet holes. He shivered before shoving the thought away. He grabbed the nearest box, which was thankfully just loaves of bread, before sprinting to the door after his friends. "Go right!"

Outside, the gunfire was twice as loud. A second wave of people were running away from around the grocery's corner, where the main entrance was. Mat made the mistake of taking a second look.

He saw blood.

An old man was shuffling away, his brown shirt turning a dark red while his arms cradled his stomach. In front of Mat's eyes, the old man teetered over and lay still.

Doing everything he could not to think about what he just saw, Mat ran the other way.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Although they carried several boxes, the kids moved quickly as they scampered into the nearest alleyway. Some of them started to slow down, but Mat wouldn't let them as he shouted, "Keep going! We need to get far away from here!"

So they did.

After a half dozen alleyways, Mat gave up count as he tried to listen for sounds of soldiers running after them or guns going off. People shouted and screamed. He saw other soldiers in different streets. But everybody seemed too scared or distracted to notice him and his friends.

It was Sal who dropped as they reached an alleyway intersection. "Mat," he breathed. "I can't run anymore."

Mat grimaced but checked behind them. They waited for a minute, but no one came charging in after them. Mat finally released the tension out in a deep breath. "It's okay, Sal, I think we can stop.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

As the tension eased from his body, Mat's legs nearly gave out. Between the fire, the panic, and the running, his body had been pushed to the brink. He managed to stagger over to the nearest wall and sink down to the ground. He was not alone as several of his friends panted and sat on the concrete. Liz looked over at him as she wiped sweat off her brow. "You look bad, Mat."

Mat grunted. "Food."

Now that they weren't trying to dodge bullets, he could see what they had pulled off. They had managed to grab five boxes between them. One kid, Anton, was already opening the first box. From within, he pulled out a dozen bags of chips. Mat held out his hand, and Anton dropped a bag into it. "I'm going to eat, until I burst!"

Shaking his head, Mat said, "No, eat enough to make the pain go away. We need to save as much food as we can."
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

There were grumblings in protest, but no one outright challenged Mat. And he was relieved by it. As he started eating and the pain began to fade, he struggled to stay awake. With every chip he munched, he took another step toward dreamland. Although his body rejoiced as the pain ebbed, something tugged at the edge of his mind. Some kind of warning. Something bad.

He couldn't remember.

He couldn't stay awake.

He heard whispers.

He slept.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Ch. 8: The Border between the Material and Immaterial

The whispers didn't go away.

All around Mat was fire. But he felt none of his usual comfort. For in the fire, shapes twisted this way and that. Hideous, grinning faces would appear and then disappear. He was surrounded by malice and hunger.

This was why he avoided the full extent of what he could do. A sense of danger permeated his entire being, an instinctual knowledge that his very soul was exposed to things better not thought of. The worst part was the utter helplessness. He wanted nothing more to do than to strike at the shadowy figures. Yet, he knew if he tried, it would be a battle of rapid escalation.

A battle he would lose.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

So, Mat stood still, trying to ignore the uncomfortable heat and the neverending barrage of whispers. He couldn't even understand the words they used, and whenever he tried, it felt wrong.

The whispers stopped.

It was so sudden that Mat wasn't sure if his hearing, if it was hearing, was playing tricks on him. He cast his gaze at the inferno around him and couldn't comprehend the silence. Each flame shimmered and flickered. While understanding eluded him, Mat was under the distinct impression that the fires were afraid.

"Leave him be."
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Mat spun around toward the new voice. Although he was surrounded by fire, darkness surrounded the outer edges of the conflagration, and no smoke produced it. Mat squinted, but now the fires burned higher, creating a wall between Mat and the voice.

From beyond the flames, Mat heard the voice again, "Foolishness."

The...ground? Floor? Mat shook as something approached. Something big. Something strong. No matter how hard Mat tried to see what was coming, the fire wouldn't let him.

Then, from the darkness, a massive wave of water slammed into the outer edge of the inferno. Instead of steam, the air filled with screams. The water submerged the tongues of fire where they thrashed and withered.
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

As the wave charged forward, Mat turned to run, but the fires grew brighter as though they were waiting to catch the boy. With nowhere to go, Mat crouched and covered his head. Yet, the wave never struck him. Only half a metre away from, the water split into two. To Mat's amazement, the water flowed around him as it struck at the fires. Individual licks of flame at the other edge flew away. Those that remained were consumed by the waters.


Alone, Mat stared at the strange water. It looked cleaner than the city rivers. Curious, he reached out with a finger. Before he could touch it, the water vanished.

"Are you alright?"
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Mat looked up into shining blue eyes. A man with bright red hair looked down at him with concern. Mat didn't know how he got here, but the stranger felt oddly real and not real at the same. The weirdest part was the purple pajamas the stranger wore.

The stranger chuckled. "Not quite. They're robes, and they're quite comfortable. But I digress, let me help you up," he offered with an open hand.

Staring suspiciously at the hand, Mat instead asked, "Who are you?"

If the stranger was annoyed by Mat's hesitation, he didn't show it. The stranger grinned as he said, "My name is Alexandros, though you can call me Alex."
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

"That's a weird name," Mat replied. Yet, he reached out and accepted the strangers, Alex's help. Pulled up, Mat stood eye-to-eye with the man.

Alex shrugged. "It is what it is."

Mat paused and glanced around, eyes flitting about for the fire that was here not a moment ago. "What were they?"

"Predators of a different kind," Alex said as he cast a hard look toward the missing expanse. "They can be extremely dangerous."

Turning back to Alex, Mat remembered the giant wave which had sent the 'predators' away. "But not to you?"
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

"Hmmm," Alex said as he scratched at his red beard. "Well, theoretically, they could, but that would require me to forget all of my discipline for that to happen." His azure gaze shifted to the young man. "With training, you as well could resist them instead of simply waiting for you to return to the waking world."

The possibility alone of banishing his nightmares at his whim tempted Mat. But he fought the urge. There was too much he didn't know about this man. "How come you're only now here? Where do you live? Are you from one of the other Alliance planets?"
Made in us
Bounding Assault Marine

Alex chuckled. "I'm from a place much farther away. In fact, let me show you." With blue eyes glimmering with amusement, Alex held up a hand and snapped his fingers.

Mat stood on a wooden floor. Around him were a couple of sofas and chairs, cushioned with faded patterns. The light of a sun welcomed him through a large window. On the ceiling, a fan lazily spun around. At one end of the room was a thick table with five more chairs. Cheap paintings hung on the walls, one with a broken frame. Mat's eyes drank in everything. There was a peace and warmth surrounding him that he had never felt.

Reclining in one of the chairs, Alex watched Mat with a soft smile.
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