by T. Mike McCurley
My jacket was smoking. That last shot had come a little too close for comfort. I ducked to the left and rolled across the street, coming up with my back against an alley wall. The wall opposite my position glowed for a second and I jumped and ran down the alley before it could explode. One day I was going to find the Hunter that invented those damned rifles and put my size twelve in his ass.
What have you got?
The voice in my ear made me jump for a second, even as used to it as I had become over the past few months. There’s just something about a quiet voice whispering into your ear while you’re dodging some kind of high-energy discharge weapon that makes you jump.
“Two up, one down. They’ve got phasers.”
It was not the most original name for a weapon, but once the rifles showed up, the name hit the press and in the span of a couple of days it had become common. Of course, with the press now mostly a thing of the past, it was a moot point as to who got the blame for it. On the lucky side, it was pretty rare to run into the things any more. We could put them to good use… if I could get away.
“Running like hell down an alley,” I muttered in reply, vaulting over a trash can that was long-since picked clean.
Specifically. It was not a friendly request.
“Northbound from Figueroa somewhere, back behind the old Arby’s, I think.”
Intercept inbound. Link to them on Seventh.
“About time,” I said, skirting around a Dumpster. There was a guy curled up on the other side of it, wrapped in his old fatigue jacket. I cursed aloud as I skidded to a stop. I didn’t have time for this, but I certainly wasn’t abandoning him to the tender mercies of the monsters behind me.
“Come on, pal,” I urged, reaching a hand down to him. “Hunters coming, and they ain’t particular.”
“I got nowhere to go,” he said, looking up at me through glassy eyes. His beard was filthy and unkempt, and he spoke the words with a sense of conviction I had never heard from someone saying they were homeless. I wondered briefly how he had wound up here, in Hunter turf, without being taken. I pushed the question aside and grasped his arm anyway, hoisting him to unsteady feet. He smelled like cheap wine. A lot of it.
“Then you come with me for now. We’ll find you a cookie or something.”
Veil chose that moment to arrive, in his usual manner, erupting into existence from within a lavender-scented cloud of grey smoke. He was side by side with Athena, his head about even with her muscular upper arms. Athena smiled in that dazzling way of hers as she saw me.
“Find yourself a friend, Bait?” she asked. The smile may have been incredible, but there was no emotion at all in the way she termed me ‘Bait’. It was how she saw me.
Who am I kidding? It was who I was. I was of little to no use in a stand-up power fight. I’ve only got the regen to speak of. No strength, no speed, no power blasts, no flight. No offensive capability on a level with any of the known Defenders. I can shoot, though, and Hunters die just like anyone else, if you put enough bullets in them. Cyber had tried to hook me up with some prototype plasma gun or some such right after I started working with the group. At two hundred yards, it hit like a double-barreled shotgun at close range. Looked good at first glance, ‘til you realized it took thirty seconds to recharge and made some God-awful whine while it did so. I figured in thirty seconds I could put one hell of a lot of lead downrange, and I have found the sound of firearms to be psychologically much more comforting than a computerized voice saying, ‘ten seconds to recharge’.
I didn’t bother with a response. I didn’t have to. The two Hunters had entered the alley, and they had the phasers up against their shoulders. Veil gestured and a wall of smoke flared into the space between us and the Hunters. Beams crackled and hissed as they struck the barrier. Luckily, the weapons tend to liberate all their energy on the first thing they hit. Good if you’re behind a smoke wall. Bad if you’re in a crowd of people.
“It won’t last,” Veil said. His voice was calm, but then it always was, when he bothered to speak at all.
“It won’t have to,” Athena said, gripping the Dumpster. She braced herself and heaved, lifting the huge metal box over her head. With a grunt of effort, she threw it over the smoke wall. It crashed to the pavement a second later, accompanied by a yelp of pain.
“That’s got ‘em,” she said happily, bounding past me and my semi-conscious burden. She ran headlong into the now dissipating smoke, passing through it like a swimmer entering water. A scream of horror sounded for a second, then ended abruptly in a choking gurgle. As the smoke cleared, we saw her standing over the downed Hunters. Her foot pinned one to the ground by its furry throat, and she was squeezing the life from the second in a terrifyingly powerful bear hug.
“Three down. Complete,” Veil announced. I knew without looking that he was not speaking to me.
Recall is authorized. Bring any captured weaponry.
“Yeah, ‘cause we figured we’d leave it all laying in the street,” I murmured.
That would be unwise.
“It’s sarcasm, you moron.”
“Bite me, Mister Personality.”
“Come on, Evan. Drop it,” Athena ordered, returning to stand near us. She was spattered with blood from the Hunters.
“You can bite me too, Sky Queen,” I said.
“I bite you, you ain’t getting up. You or your new boyfriend.”
I made a cutting motion in the air with my hand. “You may be seven feet tall and blond – which, let’s face it, years ago I would have killed for – but I’m telling you, you keep pushing me and I’ll walk. You can go find your own Hunters. See how that works out for you.”
“We did just fine before you came along,” she defended, sneering down at me. I shrugged with my one unencumbered shoulder and made a show of yawning.
“Yeah? How often can you die, sweetcheeks?” I asked, deliberately turning my back and walking away.
“Thas a weird question,” the old vet I was carrying slurred. “Nobody gets ta die more ‘n once.”
It would have been an odd question back in the day, even for me. Back when life was relatively peaceful, it was probable that nobody would have come up with it. Even back when Doctor Shaitan and his zombie army invaded, there was little actual loss of life (what with the good Doctor being disposed more toward enslaving folks than eating them). Once the Hunters landed, though, all bets were off – as was the whole ‘not eating folks’ arrangement. And God help you if you were one of the ‘powered’ set. I knew Big Blondie wasn’t going to answer me. Even as good as she is at fighting them, she couldn’t play the bait the same way I can.
“Yeah, pal, I know,” I said as Veil created another smoke portal. We stepped in, Athena and Veil coming with us, and the world changed to a kaleidoscope. Everything swirled and twisted, and reality seemed to roll over on itself. I hope someday we’ll run into someone other than Veil that can transport us, but for now, we’re stuck with some kind of dimensional shift that makes you feel like you’re Alice going down the rabbit hole after dropping some acid. Naturally, Ronnie the Rummy barfed down my left sleeve. Woo hoo. Now the jacket’s burned and a drunk puked on it. Oh, yeah. That’ll bring the girls a-running come party time.
Cyber was waiting when we got back to the safehouse. As usual, he was halfway tied into a chair, with drool running out of his mouth like a faucet. His eyes looked vacant, but I guess mine would too if I was mentally linked up with half the surviving computer systems in the city. It was kind of disconcerting when I first met him, but now I expect to see him that way. On the few occasions you get to see him kicked back on a couch or some such, not linked in, that’s when it gets to feel weird. Standing guard over him was the slab of muscle everyone called Block. Not much upstairs, but able to bench-press a truck without breaking a sweat. Playing bodyguard to a super genius tied to a chair was about his speed.
You have a civilian.
Not only does the voice run through your head when you are in the house, but it comes from the speakers that are hidden all over the place. Hidden in every wall, every bookcase full of remote-controlled cars and helicopters and submarines and robots. Where Cyber doesn’t have speakers, he has cameras. Or computers. Or satellite links. Anything that he can join with. If there was still someone sending out electric bills, I would hate to see the one that came with this place.
“Good guess,” I shot back, dragging the old man over to a couch.
I fail to see how bringing him here is wise. The potential for release of information to unspecified parties –
“I don’t care,” I growled. “I’m not leaving him out there for the Hunters.”
His presence constitutes a danger.
“And how safe is the life we live, anyway?”
“We are trying to protect people, Cyber,” Athena added. “I was doing this back before the Hunters arrived, and it wasn’t safe then, either.”
I turned and looked at her over my shoulder, arching an eyebrow. She shrugged and hit me with that smile again.
“I’ll take care of him,” I volunteered. He had already marked my jacket, so why not?
He will be a drain on our resources, you understand. It was a statement, not a question. I turned a baleful eye toward the chair in which he was strapped.
“Yeah, I get it. You don’t want him here. I’ll take him to my place. Just give me a minute.”
“I don’t need nobody to help me,” the man said, his voice slurring.
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, my eyes flicking across the ‘Screaming Eagle’ patch on his shoulder. It was stained with mud and grime, as was the man himself, but I knew what kind of man it took to earn the patch. “Still, I’m taking you there. Get you a hot bath, some decent food, maybe?”
He looked up at me, eyes focusing just long enough for me to see the loss that was in them. I knew that look. I had seen it more than a few times in the past few years. Every now and then, I even saw it when I wasn’t looking in a mirror. It was the vacant, distant expression of a man who has lost everything he held dear.
I wiped the filth from my sleeve in Cyber’s bathroom, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle at the image of the much-maligned rubber duck that was perched on the soap tray of the bathtub. Whether it belonged to Block or Cyber I neither knew nor wanted to, but it was one of those old touches of home you don’t get much these days. Whichever one of them owned it, chances are it was something they brought with them to the safe house. When we scavenge, we’re usually after more practical items. Food, weapons, clothes, those sorts of things. I checked my wires and the Kevlar plates. Everything was good, or at least as good as it gets.
“Let’s go, buddy,” I said as I stepped back into the living room. I helped him back to his feet and we headed for the door.
“Sure you want to do this?” Athena asked, stepping halfway into my path. I grinned a bit.
“Why? You don’t think he deserves it?”
“Oh, I’m sure he does,” she replied, eyes narrowing at my implication. “I just want to make sure that you’re up for the walk.”
“I can deal,” I told her. “Thanks, though.”
“Welcome. I’ll walk you.”
Great. Yet another statement masquerading as a suggestion.
Exercise caution. Recent video pickups show a marked increase in the probability of Hunter encounters.
“I know,” I said with a nod as I opened the front door. “I’m the one they keep eating, remember?”
Athena tagged along with us as we walked. We must have made a fine sight. A seven foot blonde Amazon, a stumbling filthy drunk, and yours truly (still wearing the stinky burned jacket that kept slapping against the backs of my knees now that we had the wind behind us).
“Where we goin’?” the man asked, his voice pitched low. We had walked until sun had dipped below the horizon and shadows lengthened on the walls of the buildings that surrounded us. Sound seemed amplified, and the sense of it penetrated even the thoughts of the drunken man.
“Safe place. Quiet. No Hunters,” I said, shifting beneath his weight.
“They’re everywhere,” he replied.
“Not at my house.”
“Good. I hate ’em.”
“No arguments here,” Athena butted in. Her head was in constant motion, scanning our surroundings as we moved. I knew the route better than she did, but she was better at spotting them than I was. Finding their ambushes the hard way was more my job. Watching for them in advance? Definitely not my style.
“We had ’em in Hollywood,” the man continued. “Had ’em held. Then they broke through the lines up in Colo – ”
“I know,” I said in a voice scarcely more than a whisper. “I remember.”
“Not my fault,” he mumbled.
“Not at all,” I agreed. Athena looked at me, arching an eyebrow. I shook my head to keep her quiet. My own memories screaming in my head were enough noise at this point. I had finally figured out why the old man seemed so familiar, and it was dredging up images I thought were long since behind me. Hollywood. God, what a nightmare.
I heard a can skitter across the stone of a street. We all fell silent. Athena pointed to herself, then ahead and to my left. I nodded and indicated the right.
“Leave me here,” the man whispered. The look in his eyes had gone from hopelessness and loss to grim determination. I still chuckled a bit.
“I’m the bait, pal. Not you,” I said as Athena took off in a jog. Her feet made so little sound on the pavement that it was hard to believe she was not levitating.
“You got something to live for,” the soldier countered. “I don’t.”
“Two things. One, I’m not worried. I know what’s coming for me. Two, I’m counting on you and men just like you to teach the new generation. Back in the day, we were called heroes. Now, we’re just guerrillas in a war we didn’t want. You and yours, the ones that are left? You can teach us.”
“I can’t teach nobody nothing,” he said.
I leaned in close, holding him against me so that he could not evade. I could smell the stench of him now, see the dirt clogging his pores, taste the layers of sweat and grime that coated his flesh. I breathed my next words into his ear.
“I know who you are, Liberator.”
There was silence for a moment, followed by a voice filled with sorrow.
“Not any more.”
“Every day,” I countered.
“No!” he said, his voice a whip-crack of anger.
“You want to run away from life? Fine by me. But, like I said, I know who you are, and who you were. You were a Captain once. An Airborne Captain. Maybe sometimes, you should remember that you didn’t just fight mutants. You used to teach people to fight, too. You can do it again. Teach us. Teach them. Help us fight these bastards back. We’re cutting their numbers, but it’s never enough. They get one of us for every ten of their own, and that means they will still win. I don’t care how many people you’ve lost, you don’t get the luxury of coming out here to die.”
“I didn’t -” he began, but was cut off by an animalistic squeal of surprise and agony from ahead and left of us.
“Contact,” I said, lowering him to the ground. I slipped a pistol from the rig under my jacket and extended it toward him. He shook his head, gesturing toward his eyes. I laughed aloud and nodded as I turned and sprinted away. Before the Hunters came, there was no lack of video coverage of Liberator in action. In the war, he was a rallying point. Anyone who had ever seen him in action remembered those sapphire-hued energy beams, and would forever.
I rounded a corner to see Athena going toe-to-toe with a pair of Hunters. She hits with a fist like a freight train, but sometimes it’s difficult to hit a Hunter. They move like weasels on crank, and some folks have been known to say Athena’s punches are a little slow. Of course, it seems no one says that to her. Not after I did, of course, which is how I know how hard she hits. At the moment, though, she seemed to be holding her own with no problems. It was the other three Hunters closing in from above, their slinky forms crawling down the walls of what used to be a Post Office, that left me concerned for her welfare. Happily, none of them had phasers this time. Just claws and a lot of teeth. I grinned maniacally, raising the pistol in my right hand as I drew one with my left. Both of them cracked, three-shot bursts ripping fur and sending a pair of the new arrivals tumbling to the street.
“Blondie ain’t the threat, Rover!” I shouted at the remaining Hunter on the wall. It jinked to the left as I fired, staying barely ahead of a trail of bullet holes. “I am!”
The hissing sound came as no surprise. You hunt enough of these things and you get to the point where you can smell them. I knew there were more of them. I wasn’t certain where they would come from, but I knew they would come. I always bring them out. You could hear that quiet hiss just before they attacked. It’s like an old teakettle just before it makes that loud squeal.
“Go get the old man!” I ordered Athena.
“Take him to Cyber! He can help!”
“Oh, God, Evan! Here they come,” Athena called. She could see behind me. I laughed, a low, demonic sound even to my own ears.
“You should see the look on your face!” I yelled to her as the first of the Hunters hit me from behind and above. Two more came in behind it, and a second later it was like it was raining fur. Claws raked lines through the armor and into my flesh as I screamed. The pistols chattered like angry squirrels, tearing and blasting holes in the furry mass that was landing on all sides of me now. I could smell their musk, its stench overpowering my own blood. I felt rows of teeth biting down and tearing back and forth as the beasts tore and shredded my body. There was nothing but pain now. I could not tell if the pistols were firing. I could not feel them in my grasp any longer. I was kicking and screaming. The taste of my blood was thick in my throat. This is the part of the job I really hate. I tried to gurgle out a command to Athena but only managed to cough up thick gobbets of blood. I didn’t need to speak. She could see them as easily as I could feel them. I gave up calling and fought to relax, to simply accept what was happening. My vision went dark and I welcomed death.
What felt like a thousand years of raw agony later, I saw a blurry image. Blond hair.
“You alive in there?” she asked. Her breath was horrible. Not that I could smell it, but the motion of the air against my mangled flesh brought fresh waves of pain. I tried to blink twice. I could hear my pulse in my ears; feel flesh slithering and knitting together to repair the horrendous damage. This pain is almost as bad as the original. I amend my earlier statement. This is the part I really hate. The coming back part.
Athena had been kind enough to clear my throat once it had shape again. I took in a torturous breath of air and coughed, shrieking at the new and unique ripping sensation that the cough created.
“What happened?” I heard. The voice was deep and raspy. Liberator had followed us, or simply gone toward the sound of the explosion.
“This is what Evan does,” Athena explained. “He dies for the cause. Every day. It’s why he’s good bait. Hunters are carrion-eaters, and they smell the stink of death on him. He’s wired into a heart monitor and strapped with explosives and shrapnel. When his pulse stops, the charges go off. After that, he comes back.”
“That’s horrible,” the old man said. Even with my ears only partially regenerated I could hear the wonder in his voice.
“It…it ain’t…pleasant,” I gasped out.
“Why do you do it? Keep doing it, I mean?”
“Why did you?” Athena countered.
“We need your help,” I croaked. My throat was almost back to normal. I knew I must still look horrible, but at least I could talk.
“I don’t know what I can do to help. I’m just…”
“The best. You’re the best that’s left. There are resistance teams scattered all over the world now,” Athena told him. “The ones of us who were just mutating when the war started. Those of us left after it was over. We need a leader. Someone who can crystallize the movement.”
“And you want a tired old drunk who’s seen too many of his friends die?” he said. The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable.
“We want you,” I said, forcing myself to a kneeling position on the pavement. It would be a few minutes before I was strong enough to stand. “The old you. Be Liberator, or be the Captain you were. Your choice.”
The street filled with the scent of lavender as Veil arrived. “Again?” he asked, looking at me. He had been nice enough to bring me a new jacket and some pants. I nodded, blinking away the minor ache the motion caused.
“You have a reason now, Captain,” I said, slipping the pants over limbs still prickly from the air. “Help us.”
He turned a frosty glare on me for a moment. I met his gaze without looking away. There’s not much left to frighten me with.
“I know you’re tired of seeing people die,” Athena said, her voice a purr. “Help us put an end to it.”
I grinned and he flinched a bit. Apparently my face wasn’t quite back to normal yet. “I’ll be there with you, Sir. I’ll be your bait.”
“Why…” he began, but words failed him.
“Hollywood,” I said simply, turning my body partially away from him. He was left staring at the tattoo on my upper left arm that rebuilds with me every time: A black shield with a white and yellow eagle’s head, and in stencil-style lettering above it, the single word, ‘AIRBORNE’.
“The first time I died.”
**** THE END ****
Copyright T. Mike McCurley 2015 www.tmikemccurley.com