Prisoner two thousand nine hundred sixty-three woke with a jolting throb in the side of his head and eyes that itched and stung something worse than pepper spray. He turned on the rusted cot bolted to the static masonry of his cell—which now evaporated under the sun’s shrieking light. He glanced over to see his roommate, but he was surprised to find that he couldn’t see anything at all. A thick, cindery smog blanketed everything farther than one meter in misty gray and white, and it made his lungs ache because he really wasn’t sucking down much healthy, clean air in the thickness of the cloud.
He grasped the edge of the bed as if he could reach out and pick a handful of fresh air and snort it into his body.
“Get yo ass up! Hey, help me get his ass up. He ain’t know what the fuck he doin.” Hands were grabbing him, many hands, hoisting him from the floor. Now that he thought about it, when he reached to the edge of the bed, he had to reach up, not down. How did he get onto the ground in the first place? Hadn’t he just been on his cot?
“They landin’ everwhere. The hell we gon’ go?”
“Woods. Three hundred meters south. Come on, ain’t got much time.”
The prisoner’s ears rang horribly, but he could hear those two voices exchanging coherent speech through muffled pillows. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake the sleep from his head nor the scent of busted rubble each time he inhaled. He squinted as he rode on the shoulders of two men that carried him into the burnished column of fog draped over the sun. All was quiet for several seconds, the crunching rubble and flakes of ground cinder blocks popping against the soles of shoes.
His ears still rang, but not as badly. Jagged chunks of rebar and melted aluminum wall panels started to stick out of the consuming fog. The sun mercilessly probed his itching eyes while the fog continued to tag-team his guts, although the air was much cleaner now.
When the ringing in his ears at last ceased, he found that a background noise—maybe the rushing of a great wind—so loud that the voices seemed more muffled than before. They were screaming, “this way,” and “watch out for that,” and “duck!”
The blaze of sound behind him was drowning everything out at an increasing rate. Was this the wind of the chariot of God coming straight toward them?
No, it was something more like a fire. A really big goddamned fire.
The sun burnt down on his forehead, causing him to sweat as if he were sitting in a sauna. But there was a heat coming from behind, flaying his shirt and, he felt certain, flaying his back. This heat couldn’t have been coming from the sun.
“What the hell?” he tried to stammer out, but he couldn’t. The words wouldn’t form on his lips. He tried to pick up his hands, but he couldn’t. His arms rested thoroughly on the shoulders of the two men carrying him.
“Fuck, man, here they come. Throw him down behind that retaining wall. Wait; get yo ass out of sight!”
The prisoner was flung down somewhat cruelly onto a soft swath of St. Augustine. By now, it was coming to him that perhaps someone had actually succeeded in getting him out of the old POW detention center now being used as a high-security prison. But two men could never have dreamed of accomplishing a rescue alone. In fact, he doubted that even a professional military could have succeeded, unless they hit it directly with a nuclear warhead in an air burst.
Which, while being a certain method of opening up the prison and silencing all the guards, wouldn’t have done them any good if they were trying not to kill a particular prisoner in the compound.
That’s when he heard the rattles of automatic old-earth gunfire from one direction and the pinging whoosh of acid-propelled modern bullets of being returned.
Jesus Christ. It was happening.
It was really happening.
His eyes still watered and itched, but less so now, and he could get a couple of glimpses of the things beyond his own eyelids. On either side of him, the two figures who had rescued him from the prison hunkered down behind a concrete retaining wall which separated a raised septic system from the rest of the field of grass. Someone came back and drug him to where they were—a third person, unknown. On either side of them was a retention pond; behind was the prison, and head was the mangled remains of a fence.
“Eber! Where your ass been at?”
“Pin down at the nort’eas corner of cellblock D.”
“Where’s Aaron, Smith, Camel? Where the hell’s Ruben?”
“Don’ know, man. I turns around, they’s gone. Every goddamn thing on fire.”
Szen Tao popped up to peek through the holographic scope of his AR-97, a relatively new model of the acid-powered rifle that utilized high-density coils to immunize recoil and barreled for 7.62mm rounds delivered via box mags holding about one hundred six consecutive shots before requiring a reload.
Acid-gas-powered weapons eliminated the need for gunpowder and casings in individual rounds of ammunition, so only the bullet portion of the ammunition was required. Old models used gas simply to aid in the reloading cycle, but modern war science had taken this idea to the next level, allowing gas to do a lot more.
Many more bullets could fit into a mag than ever before. The only downside was reloading the acid gas whenever it was depleted; getting a new tank hooked in and sealed took a good couple of seconds. It might take a while to be depleted of acid gas, though, with which the typical one-liter tank could fire off several hundred bullets, if you set the insertion ratio low enough. But that took away from the stopping power and effective range, although running out of both acid gas and ammunition meant a good ten to fifteen seconds of reloading—very bad if you were on your own defending a position against multiple attackers.
Szen was determined to break the virginity of his particular gun against the shadows running around the smog-filled battleground in front of them. It didn’t matter if they were Xenos or humans; everyone was the enemy of the bladegunners today.
Supa jerked him down before he could take his first shot. “We ain’t even know who the hell’s over there. You and Eber just chill n’ let the police take ‘em, cause, if it is the police and they find us, we gonna’ have a hard time.”
“Shit, man. What we gon’ do?”
As the whirlwind sound of the swirling fire engulfing the prisoner’s old wing of the massive prison complex, other sounds became very distinct. The wind was fizzing out, letting the fire rush straight up instead of all over the battlefield.
Up ahead, on the far side of the retaining wall behind the mangled fence and the fog, there came a clip clip and a clop clop, only a thousand times louder. The eardrum shattering police-issued hand cannons of the state-owned prison garrison met the advancement of the bulb-headed gray and pink aliens who were assaulting with weapons of unknown build some two meters long. They released an explosive wet noise and “sloshed” across the no man’s land at supersonic speeds. Every direct hit from the long alien carbines erupted the targets into chunks of high-velocity melting flesh.
“What in God’s—oh, fuck.” Szen wasn’t watching the aliens tear through the garrison’s ranks because there was a stampede thumping along the ground behind them. “Supa, Supa! We got bad shit comin’!”
Several reactive-acid-propelled 7.62mm tungsten rounds popped from Szen’s gun with deafening sound waves from the automatic PrideStar-make rifle. Supa turned to see the fast moving infantry of the Xenos warlords closing in on them from behind. Two or three of the shadows dropped dead almost instantly.
Eber was reloading the acid gas canister on an AR-95. By the time he was done, the first wave of Xenos were bleeding out on the grass. Still, he fumbled and dropped the thing before he could get the tube snapped into place.
“You still had that bitch on safety? The fuck, man? Is that why everyone with you died—‘cause you didn’t wanna take the damn gun off safety?”
“Hey,” said Supa, interrupting the potential fight, “why you think they didn’t fire back?”
The Xenos, the prisoner recalled, were rumored to have had pets, hyena-like creatures called Zara which wore plated armor and bore factory-sharpened fang implants. The Xenos “hyenas” were raised by the hundreds. On the battlefields, the Zara used “mind web” technology, where the creatures exchanged perception stimulus and acted as if each were physically part of the clan as a whole. This adaptive strategy constantly changed the methods of the Zara’s attacks.
Well, he hadn’t believed any of that bullshit until today, but when the smog cleared away from the prison’s shadowed walls and the little hills and craters all around were stuffed full of the critters, well, goddamn it. They were real.
They were coming.
Szen’s rifle felled a handful more as they approached the point where the fog was far clearer. Eber took aim and popped many shots downrange, wasting most of his ammo, “spray and pray,” but hitting a few Zara in the process. After an unknown amount of rounds, they both had to reload, and in the pause the adaptive battle hyenas escaped their hiding places and gained significant ground, taking cover the second Eber and Szen’s weapons were ripping up into the air in threatening death.
Goddamn. There must have been a couple hundred of them; there were way more of them than two guys with guns could pick away at—not at this close of a range, anyway. Not with the way the kept hiding behind every freaking rock and trough in the grass, every chunk of concrete, every old tree stump, even the dead bodies of their kin.
One creature raised its head, but Szen immediately caught it and sent three concurrent shots that blew the creatures face apart like a popping zit filled with pressurized ochre paint.
No other Zara dared to move; they were in a stalemate.
Supa got a better look at the creature than he wanted to. It was just like a goddamned hyena in every way, complete with patchy gray and black fur and teeth which should’ve only been in a shark’s mouth. Now that they were closer, he could hear the bat-shit nutty cackle which, had it come from any other creature, he would have thought it was in its death throes—and was finding it very funny.
They had paws the size of human hands and ragged leather for skin beneath the fur patches. The frame of the animal should have been anatomically frail for its size, but every bit of its skin was packed with muscularity. These creatures should have been on a Syndicate-owned horror movie franchise, if not for any other reason than the fact of their hot decomp smell.
Supa grimaced. He didn’t have a gun. He didn’t need one, but he sure would have loved to had one. The prisoner didn’t have to be in Supa’s mind to know about that because the prisoner had been with Supa a long time. Guns were just way easier to kill things with.
Supa would want to break the stalemate. Supa would run out into the field and start attacking the Zara—melee only. The Zara would have to come out of their hiding places to defend themselves, and Szen could pop their heads off of their shoulders, tear holes in their torsos, etc while Supa kept pulling them out.
And maybe, maybe, Eber wouldn’t shoot Supa with his spray and pray strategy. No, he would probably run out of bullets before then.
Years of martial discipline had toned Supa’s muscles and mind as a whetstone on a legendary blacksmith’s prized sword. Trained by hard professionals and veteran of innumerable street fights, Supa came to life in a martial fury, not fearing the pressure of bone-on-bone attacks as his hands turned to iron, his stance to the root of a mountain and his swiftness to a reptile’s snap. His personally-created fighting style was a combination of beautiful and ancient kung fu and straight, ungraceful-of-form street kickboxing.
Giant fists slammed into the noses and throats of hyenas as they closed in on him. Elbows met any creature which dared to aim for the back of his head. Kicks would wrack brains when not intertwined with the beautiful simplicity of Southern Praying Mantas style, an old earth style with an old earth name which had never quite lost its charm even after thousands of years. Nothing that came within one meter of him left in the unmarred condition of its arrival.
That same Southern Praying Mantis style would incapacitate about half his attackers with swift, insectoid slaps, simultaneous misdirection of teeth aimed at his legs with bone-fracturing x directed at the Zara aiming for his neck. Bits and pieces of the bouncing, rhythmic and wide-arching kicks let the creatures know that he wasn’t incapable of inflicting damage only from above his hips. Elbows would wreak destruction on any bones they met along their unforgiving paths coming behind him, and the creatures learned, perhaps to their chagrin, that they couldn’t actually gain any strategical advantage over him. But he had a huge strategic advantage over them, and when they stopped charging to reassess their options, Supa retaliated, forcing their hand.
The precision of Supa’s kicks rivaled that of Szen’s tungsten rounds, which were being fired off with a strict care for the conservation of ammo. They had fought many battles on many different landscapes together, Supa and Szen; they were professionals, knowing when “unloading a clip,” the art of making a point of showing their own firepower, was a necessary tactic of subterfuge.
But sometimes, as was included in this tactic, strict adhering to the ancient mantis style failed to solve the problem. Kicking as much ass as possible didn’t require looking pretty; it just required ruthlessness and accuracy and a flaying off of the gristle of martial beauty.
Today was that kind of day: they just had one goal today, and that was to get prisoner two thousand nine hundred sixty-three out of the city alive before the aliens took control of the land, preferably with the all the bladegunners still alive afterword and preferably while inhaling the crispy oozing evaporation of the flayed enemies of the Mordacai Movement who were, the bladegunners would all hope, experiencing the prison as their personal crematory.
The prisoner couldn’t take waiting and watching. He wanted to get in on the action, wanted to run Eber’s head into the concrete retaining wall for wasting the ammo that would have to see the group through the terrors of whatever awaited them in the forest. How the hell were they going to take down a Xenos scout squad if they didn’t have any bullets?
He got up and ran to Eber. As soon as the kid’s box mag clicked empty, he snatched the acid rifle away and looked down the stock sights.
“The hell are you doing, idiot? Give me that.” He pulled the fifth and final box mag from Eber’s sash, installing it on the underside of the action and pulled the bolt catch. He pointed to the small heap of magazines, shell casings and two empty acid canisters. “Pick this shit up and put it in your pack. You can reload it for me later. Where’s the laser sight?”
“Did’n get no laser sight.”
The prisoner looked up. Supa engaged the Zara, running them out of hiding spots like a bird dog in the hunt. Szen took advantage of every opportunity and hardly wasted any ammo at all. Every pow from his rifle stole the soul from another Zara body that would crash into the ground like a lumberjack’s lifeless tree.
About sixty of the creatures’ bodies lay scattered about, some still struggling to get up but being denied by broken bones or busted wind pipes, or by unconscious twitching from gunshot wounds which a professional field surgeon had no hope of closing up.
About one hundred meters chasmed Supa and the gunners. The wind was blowing the smoke the other way now, so the battlefield’s curtain was pulled back on either side. Everything directly in front of them looked dead except for Supa chasing the critters out of hiding beyond.
The prisoner motioned for Eber, who held a forest-green rucksack full of brass bullet casings, empty canisters of acid gas and box mags tinking against one another every lunge. Szen popped this way and that, aiming and pulling his trigger on anything he could find. They walked the ten or twelve meters to him. He heard his box mag empty and glanced at their advance over his shoulder, not getting wide-eyed or losing his serious frown until he realized who it was that was walking to him.
“Give me a sitrep. And a cigarette.”