It was a bloodbath, nothing less. Less than ten percent of our forces had survived the bombing run intact, barely enough to contain the disoriented (but mostly alive) screamers. Laura was organizing the recovery as best she could, and actually doing a fairly good job of it. Especially considering she had to coordinate the ‘sarian medical team at the same time.
Ling was still MIA, but Derek and Akane were sorting through the rubble, directing the medics to survivors they could save. A lot of the ones they brought in were horrifically injured, but that didn’t mean they were quite beyond help. The toy maker really was a miracle.
My job was simple enough. I was stationed at the perimeter of the med station with the retinue, in charge of shooting anything that tried to get close without authorizing. Not just screamers, either. The mind-controlled sleeper agents were proving dangerous, though luckily they didn’t seem to retain very much intellect in that state. It was a pretty simple job, which was good, since I was technically still recovering from that steel-plated gargant.
“Stay sharp, Anders,” Kelly instructed halfheartedly. She scratched the device on her left arm. “Not time for dozing off.”
I shot one of the skins that started running towards us, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. That was one good thing about these ones: We didn’t have to aim for the knees to have any chance of capturing them alive, since they could survive most of what we could throw at them anyway. A team clad in hazmat suits ran over to capture him.
“The fight is over, vampire,” I grumbled. We were all still sore and covered in dirt from Laura’s little carpet bombing, so tensions were high. Not to mention that rumors of the sleepers were sapping morale. Nobody wanted to wake up from a trance to find that they had started a war.
The sleeper agents who had survived were mostly contained as far away from anything sensitive as possible. They were in control of themselves again, but unfortunately didn’t remember anything from their time under. Hardly helpful.
“Over?” Alex said with a laugh. The androgynous angel was sitting on a sandbag, paring her nails with a mirrored knife that looked like it was built very specifically to disembowel people. “The political shitstorm from this is going to cripple us. And that’s assuming there aren’t any more sleepers.” She smiled grimly. “I think we can all agree that’s hardly likely.”
George let out another barrage from his minigun. “They probably got all the ones who were here,” he mused. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not guaranteed,” Kelly noted. “The Composer could have programmed them to act only under a different set of circumstances, in case there were survivors who could talk.”
“Five percent turned,” Flynn muttered. He couldn’t do much, since he didn’t use guns, but he was proving to be a pretty good spotter. “Exactly five percent. There’s no way that’s a coincidence.”
The pyro leader, Guilliman or whatever, spat out the rest of his cigar and ground it under his heel. “By my boiling blood, you’ve got that right. One of my best friends tried to kill me today. Your Ice Queen had better come up with a solution, fast.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What kind of solution? You think she can just magically tell who’s a sleeper and who’s not?”
He shrugged. “Better than I can, I’m sure.”
Flynn tried to change the subject. “You called your boss yet?”
The vampire nodded, the fuel tank on his back clanking. “He said to stay put and cooperate with the ‘sarians. They’re our only chance of getting out of this.”
Jarasax shot another screamer, and another hazmat team ran out. “I think the Composer was just trying to scare us. He has to be more limited than it seems. Otherwise, none of this makes sense.”
I let off a few more shots, though I didn’t hit anything outside of the small horde, still too large to take on at once. Hopefully I’d attract only a few; they weren’t quite smart enough to rush us all at once, thankfully. “What do you mean, doesn’t make sense? We’re fighting superpowered zombies.”
The Middle-Easterner shook his head. “Think about it. As far as we know, he could have hooked a singer up to some speakers, or hypnotized his way into NHQ. So why hasn’t he?” He shrugged. “The only reason I can think of is that he can’t.”
Flynn frowned. “You’re a changeling. You should know better than anyone that sometimes the enemies’ goals just do not make sense.”
Jarasax narrowed his eyes. Flynn was on dangerous ground here. “What do you mean?”
“If he doesn’t want to infect the city, his goals start to make more sense,” the swordsman said. “Maybe he’s trying to…I don’t know, harden us. Make us stronger.” He pointed off towards the horde. “Two o’clock.”
I took his direction and popped another screamer. “How does that make any sense? People are dying, not getting stronger.”
“It’s Domina City. People die every day.” He shrugged noncommittally. “Besides, it’s just a theory. And I didn’t say he was right, just that its the only way I can think of his actions making sense.”
Guland—that was his name, Guland—lit another cigar with the igniter for his flamethrower. “Or he’s crazy as the fey. Maybe he thinks this is fun.”
George gestured out at the devastated landscape, shattered buildings, and bustling medics trying to save what few they could. “This is fun?” he demanded in disgust.
“We’re not the ones who set up the game,” Guland pointed out, as he let loose a burst from his flamer on a cluster of skins. “We’re just more pawns.”
“Speaking of pawns,” I muttered. There was someone, a giant it looked like, running across the ruined street away from the camp, dodging the skins. “Who’s that?”
“Poor idiot,” Flynn agreed. “What does he think he’s doing?”
Guland shrugged. “Someone probably convinced him we needed a scout. Which we don’t.” He let loose another blast. “Burn the earth in front of you and sift through the ash later, that’s how you scout.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Alex said slowly, tracking the man with a monocular she had pulled from somewhere. “He’s got something on his back. A bag of something.”
“Maybe he’s planting explosives,” I suggested. “You know, bottle these guys up and make them easier to handle.”
George didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe…but we’ve got dozens of Canians around. They’d know explosives better.”
Kelly snapped her phone shut. “I’ve got the answer. That was a text from MC. The jackoff stole a bundle of stimpacks.”
I frowned. “That’s the accelerated healing stuff, right? Why would he steal those?”
“Fungible material,” the vampire explained. When she realized I didn’t know what that meant, she elaborated. “They’re easy to turn into money. In high demand, but not expensive enough that everyone’s going to be looking for them. He can turn a decent profit off those.”
“Scum,” Flynn muttered, spitting on the ground. “Stealing medical supplies from a warzone? Men and monsters, at least the zombies attack you from the front.”
That’s when I had a really stupid idea.
“I’ll go get them,” I promised cheerfully. I vaulted over our improvised barricade, and gave a quick half-salute to Kelly. “Tell Derek I’ll be back soon.” I started running.
“Anders! Get back here! Blood and shadow—no, don’t follow him! Just cover him!”
I barreled forward, dodging past the skins. There were a lot of them, and I would have been quickly overcome, but the retinue and the others followed Kelly’s instructions, sniping zombies that got too close or seemed about to box me in. With their help, and a few well-placed blasts from my shotgun, I made it safely through the horde in minutes.
It didn’t take long to spot the alley the thief had dodged down. It had a few trucks blocking the entrance, which would be enough to keep the zombies from getting through.
Thankfully, as a thinking creature, I was able to climb up on top of one of the boxy trailers pretty easily, where I had a good view of the alley ahead. I didn’t see anyone, which was odd. It was a dead-end alley. There were a couple dumpsters he could hide behind, but he was a giant. You’d think I’d be able to spot him.
Well, no other way to tell than to just jump right in. I pulled out my St. George and swapped the buckshot rounds I had been using for one of the Teflon-coated armor piercing slugs I had bought from Turgay about two weeks back.
Never hurts to be prepared.
I dropped down into the alley, eyes in front, ready for anything…
And immediately felt the barrel of a gun pressed again the back of my skull.
The bastard had been hiding in the shadow of the truck. Or maybe in the truck. God dammit…
“Drop the gun,” he ordered.
“I was just worried you’d get overwhelmed by the skins,” I said calmly. “No need to get upset.”
“Drop the gun, ‘sarian.”
“Technically I’m sort of a Necessarian auxiliary, not officially part of—”
“Do you know what this is?” he asked, tapping the back of my head with the barrel of his gun meaningfully. “This is a MD92/14.5 Hand Cannon. One of the first guns made by the McDowells.”
I blinked. “Wait, as in Senator—”
“His brother, yes. It’s a fourteen-point-five millimeter pistol. That’s bigger than most sniper rifles. It’s insane. Ridiculous. No one needs a gun this big. You’d snap your wrists on the first shot if you tried to use it.”
He cocked the gun with a loud click.
“Unless, of course, you’re a giant. Now drop the gun, Anders. I won’t ask again.”
He knew my name. How the hell did he know my name?
Something to worry about later. I did as he ordered, tossing the shotgun a few feet to my left.
“The others, too.”
Damn. I peeled off my Sica and my Caedes and tossed them to my right. I unbuckled the clasps locking my Athena in place, and tossed it in the pile too, then raised my empty hands over my head.
“On your knees.”
“Hey, if you think I’m going to just let me execute me—”
He shoved me hard in the back, forcing me to stumble forward a few feet.
“All right, all right,” I muttered. “I get the message.” I knelt down on the dirty alley floor, grateful for my jeans. “Actually, would you mind if I sit down? More comfortable that way.”
I switched to a cross-legged position that was easier on me, but also harder to stand up quickly from.
It appeared to lull the giant into a sense of security, because he walked around until he was in front of me. He still kept the gun leveled at my head, though.
And dear God, he was right about it being big. Even in his massive hand, it looked huge.
The man himself was eight feet tall and built like a body builder, with biceps literally the size of my head. He was wearing a white t-shirt, which showed off his muscles a little more than I was comfortable with, and had a leather bag slung over his left shoulder.
“I know you,” the giant said slowly. “Been hearing rumblings about you.”
I narrowed my eyes. Had he heard I was working with the Paladins? “Really.”
“Yeah. Huntsman gets a new monster slayer buddy, it’s a bit of news in certain circles. And then he let you fight a gargant without him?” He whistled appreciatively. “You must have some serious skills, to merit that treatment. Huntsman fusses over the men under him like a mother hen. I’ve never heard of him letting a hunt go down without him.”
Okay, as long as he didn’t know about the Paladins, it was fine. “What’s your point?”
“I did some research on you. Not much, but enough. I know you’re from New York, but that’s about it. Maybe you’re a military brat, maybe you’re just another street thug. Whatever, I don’t care.”
He brought his face close to mine, while keeping the barrel of his gun pressed firmly against my forehead. His hand didn’t waver a centimeter.
“But you’re not in America anymore, brat. This is Domina. You’ve been under Huntsman’s wing, so you’ve been protected. You don’t know what this place is like.”
I gave him my best death glare. He didn’t seem impressed.
“As you are aware,” I said evenly. “I killed a gargant. Mostly by myself.”
He didn’t seem to care. “I started out as a demon. A hellion, actually.” He chuckled. “Then I got an offer from the Thors, decided to become a giant. Simple enough. Thing is, my Devil didn’t want me to go. So I had to kill him and a dozen of my friends.”
I didn’t say anything.
“The Culture Wars are part of Domina and the toy maker, more than Butler and Clarke will ever admit. They think it’s just kids playing dress-up, but it’s war.” He looked down at me with a grin. “That’s my problem with you. You think the same as they do, but you don’t have an army to back you up.”
“I’m beginning to wish you’d just shoot me.”
“You sheltered little brat. You’re still acting like this is a game. Like nothing that happens matters. This isn’t your country. If I shoot you, I don’t have to worry about cops or jail time. I just have to survive long enough to make coming after me no longer worth the trouble.” He grinned. “Butler likes to pretend he can protect people, but he can’t.”
“Maybe I don’t need protecting. You know nothing about me,” I said evenly. “You admitted as much yourself.”
“And you haven’t been listening,” he replied chidingly. “There are no laws here, other than ‘don’t cause too much trouble.’ And you? Hardly any trouble at all.”
“The Big Boss doesn’t like people breaking his soldiers. Besides, maybe I’m more than you think—”
“I know you’re a clay.” He grinned wickedly. “You seem to think that makes you unique. And you’re right, it does. But mostly? It just makes you weak.” He drew a line on my cheek with his claw. “Fragile.”
I ignored the burning sensation with difficulty. I wasn’t going to bleed out from a scratch on the cheek, but I was worried about poison. Giants didn’t usually have poison, but still. I needed to get out of this quickly.
“I may be weak,” I managed in a calm voice. “But your toys make you arrogant.”
The giant chuckled. “I can afford to be arrogant. I’m bulletproof.”
“You sure?” Then I pulled the trigger.
It had taken me a few minutes to maneuver my Saint George into position without him noticing. If I hadn’t stumbled over to it when he first shoved me, I wouldn’t have been able to at all. It was a big gun, difficult to keep out of sight, but I knew it was the only thing I had that would be able to do real damage to him.
So when the time was right, and I had the weapon carefully hidden between my legs, I brought up the barrel and fired straight into his chest.
It also bucked hard into my crotch, driving the wind out of my lungs and making me sick to my stomach. My condition didn’t improve when the damn giant collapsed on top of me, some three or four hundred pounds of muscle just bleeding on my chest.
I was already losing feeling in my legs, but I couldn’t even get my arms free to move him. I needed to…crap, what could I do? I couldn’t call for help from this position, and I couldn’t reach my phone. If I started yelling, I’d attract the screamers. And Necessarius wouldn’t be here for hours…
“Hold still,” a pleasant male voice instructed. “I’m going to roll him off you. Don’t want your hand getting caught.”
I turned to my left to see a thin young man with gray skin and a shaved head emerging from deeper in the alley. He, at least, was normal sized, so I guess it made sense that he had been hiding behind one of the dumpsters or something. But why hadn’t he come out before now?
Oh, right. The giant with the stupidly large gun. That might have something to do with it.
I at least managed to keep my mouth shut for the five or so minutes it took for him to roll the corpse off my legs. It was only when I started regaining feeling in my extremities that I felt it was the right time to start asking questions.
“Who are you?” Right, politeness. “I’m grateful for the help, but I’m a little surprised you just happened to be squatting in this alley.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a coincidence,” he said with a forced smile. “The giant was going to give the stimpacks to me.”
I did a double take. “Wait, what?”
“We planned to meet up here to baton-pass the medicine and throw off suspicion,” he clarified. “But then he decided to get cute and try and rant at you instead of just killing you. Or waiting for you to leave. Or dropping the medicine where I could find it and then running. Really, anything besides ranting at you for five minutes would have worked.” The man kicked the corpse. “Freaking Blackguards. Think they’re better than the rest of us.”
I tried to ready my gun without him noticing. “Are you going to kill me now?”
The man shrugged. “I don’t see a reason to. No orders to, though I suspect if we meet again, that will have changed. And as you pointed out earlier, killing you could cause problems. A couple thousand bucks of stimpacks is not worth the wrath of Necessarius.”
I thought about what he was saying, paired with the fact that he seemed more annoyed with the corpse of his compatriot than concerned with the bag he had been killed over.
“You can go,” I said finally. “I won’t stop you.”
He smiled, and tipped an imaginary hat to me. “Thank you, Mister Anders. I really do hate killing when I don’t have to.” He walked back into the alley, towards a fire escape. “When Huntsman debriefs you, try and jazz me up a bit. Give me a cape or something.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 69)
Here’s an explanation of “flamers” and such (meant to use it for Cutis, but I had other things to rant about):
There are three general types of “flamethrower” weapons in Domina, most of which are sold by the Canians.
Flamers are standard video-game style flamethrowers. They spray a cloud of flammable liquid or gas, which is then lit by an igniter located near the nozzle of the weapon. Their range is horrendous (twenty feet on a good day), but they are useful against swarms of small monsters, and anything else that requires close-up work.
Flamethrowers are military-spec weapons, and shoot a long stream of burning liquid. They are extremely dangerous and moderately long-range, but tend to burn everything between the weapon and the target. While they do have their uses, they typically cause more trouble than they’re worth.
Incinerators are the more popular long-range choice, although they are also more expensive. They fire globules of burning napalm which burst on impact. This gives them a much more limited area of effect, which is useful if you don’t want to set the entire street on fire.