Johnson had a fleet of four biodiesel-powered trucks. Clean and cool and quiet. Impossible to find outside the big cities and major polities. He had stocked his vehicles with fuel cans, leaving precious little space for cargo. Or people.
The men spread themselves into two teams. Freeman and Sharpe in the lead vehicle with Johnson, Knight and Bates in the chase truck. It was a tight fit; every spare square inch inside the cabs was filled with goods of some kind or other.
Freeman wondered how Johnson made a profit. His drivers weren’t anywhere near as chatty as he was, and Johnson himself wouldn’t discuss business. Pre-Fall long-haul trucks had disappeared with the advent of flying demons, and most traders went with cheaper horse or mule-powered wagons. The ones fortunate enough to have motor vehicles relied on high-profit low-volume transactions to survive. Food was not included in those. Johnson had to be carrying highly valuable medicine indeed.
The road out of town was rough and bumpy, the highway long dissolved into well-worn dirt. Freeman scanned the world outside the windows, his M891 close to hand.
Black dots danced in the sky. Birds or flying demons, he couldn’t tell. This far away from polities with functional air defences, it was best to steer clear.
The road led to an ancient abandoned settlement. It looked like a horde of giants had thundered through the place, smashing aside everything in their path. Out the corner of his eye, Freeman saw things skittering between piles of rubble. Johnson sped through the ruins, unwilling to stop.
Past the town, patches of Bloom marched across the land. Crystalline vines suffocated hollowed-out buildings. Here it came in multi-coloured hues ‒ grey, black, red, green ‒ showing the world what they had consumed.
“I heard demons make their nests in the Bloom,” Johnson said.
“You heard right,” Sharpe said. “We should burn the Bloom down the first chance we get.”
“That’s mighty wasteful, if you ask me.”
“Wasteful? The demons are making our world more like Hell with each passing day. We have to stop them.”
“The Bloom’s been here since who knows when. No point tryin’ to root it out. It’ll just grow back. Always does. Better we harvest it instead. Nothin’ we have on us woulda been possible without it.”
“What about the demons who use it?” Freeman asked.
“They’re intelligent creatures. Instead of tryin’ ta slaughter each other for all time, we oughta talk to them, see if we can reach an accommodation.”
Freeman shook his head sharply. “No. They want only one thing: the final downfall of man. You can not negotiate with demons. I say we kill ‘em all.”
“Amen,” Sharpe agreed. “Fire and steel, that’s the way to go.”
“You got that from your Good Book?”
Freeman nodded. “Church records show that demons don’t usually talk to humans. Those who do seek only corruption and conquest.”
Johnson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’re the experts in this sorta thing.”
“You got that right,” Bates said.
Metro City was a living city built into the bowels of a dead one. When the Fall hit this part of the world, humanity took shelter underground and stayed there ever since.
Bloom had overrun much of the cityscape. Grey and brown growths sprouted from gutters, shops, skyscrapers. Now and then the convoy had to bypass roads choked off with Bloom.
After an hour of wending and winding through the streets, they saw the first sign of human civilisation: a bazaar.
Formerly a city square, makeshift stalls of wood and cloth now lined the sidewalks. Merchants hawked goods fashioned from the bones of a dead civilisation, and traders led horse wagons through the market and haggled for the best prices.
A pair of guards stood watch at every entrance to the bazaar. They were bedecked in Old World arms and armour: exosuits and full plate, gloves and masks, M891s and fusion goggles. It was the same gear Freeman and his team had, but newer and cleaner.
Johnson exchanged some banter with the guards, and slowly drove through the bazaar. The crowds made way for them, gawking at the battered vehicles.
At the heart of the square a squad stood watch behind a ring of sandbags. A pair of tripod-mounted machine guns rested close to hand. Nearby, officials and machines awaited in booths to inspect and admit travellers.
Past the checkpoint was a stairway that led down into the depths of the hollowed city. The sign above the entrance had long ago been painted over, bearing the words ‘METRO CITY’ now.
Johnson and his crew stepped out of their vehicles. The four drivers clustered around the man, utterly disinterested in everything around them.
Freeman and his team mounted their assault packs on their massive rucksacks, shouldered their bags and spread out, watching the crowds and watching the guards watching them. He made sure to keep his finger off the trigger and his rifle pointed safely at the ground.
“Passports, please,” the guard commander said.
Johnson patted down his pockets. “Hey, what the… damn it. Must have left mine back in the truck.” He cracked a smile. “Sorry, gettin’ old. I’ll just pop out, get it, an’ come right back, okay?”
The guard sighed. “Fine. Next please.”
As Johnson sauntered away with his drivers, Freeman and his team lined up, their passports ready. The guard inspected Freeman’s little blue book and lifted his eyebrows.
“New Rome, eh?” the guard asked. “You Crusaders?”
The secular authorities of New Rome had allowed the former Crusaders to retain their passports. The guard flipped through the passport and compared Freeman’s face to the photo. “Completed your terms?”
“Thanks for your service. Please line up for inspection.”
Dogs sniffed Freeman for contraband drugs while millimetre wave scanners peeked into his packs. After that, a technician swabbed the inside of his cheeks and fed the sample into a DNA tester. No matter how hard they tried, demons could not hide the Bloom that permeated their bodies, right down to the molecular level.
When he was finally cleared, he retrieved his kit and presented his passport to the customs officer. She sat at a table just outside the entrance, a computer at the ready. It was pre-Fall tech, a slate-like device propped up at an angle on the table, wired to a thumbprint reader and a passport scanner.
As Freeman handed her his passport, she asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Holstead,” Freeman said.
“That’s to the southeast, isn’t it? Have you heard of the Eater?”
She indicated the reader with one hand and patted her slate with the other.
“Right thumb on the reader and eyes on the camera, please.”
“Thank you,” she said. “The Eater. An Elder Demon. Word is, he’s a demon in the shape of a man, or maybe a man turned into a demon. He rolls into town, all polite-like, and when he’s settled in he opens a Hellgate and gobbles up everyone. He’s been making his way northwest, eating every town along the way.”
A light turned green. Freeman removed his thumb from the reader. “What’s this Eater look like?”
“He keeps changing his human form. Only consistent description is that he keeps smiling a lot. And when he turns into a demon, he becomes this huge, fleshy…thing with eyes and mouths and—”
Gunfire ripped through the air.
The men dropped everything and fanned out.
“What was that?” Freeman asked.
“M891s,” Sharpe said.
High-pitched chattering filled the world. Men and women and children screamed. Sirens blared.
The guard commander sprinted over. “Demons are attacking! Get underground now!”
The bureaucrat blinked. “But their passports—”
“No time, dammit! Go!”
Freeman hefted his M891. “Sir, we have weapons. How can we help?”
The soldier gave him a once-over. Nodding, he pointed at the sandbags.
“Take up position over there. Cover the civilians. Don’t let any demons through.”
“Got it. Gentlemen, let’s go.”
At the checkpoint, guards manned the machine guns and urged the civilians through. Freeman and Knight positioned themselves to the left of the entrance, Sharpe and Bates to the right. More gunfire split the air. In the distance, demons ululated.
“No sign of targets,” Knight said.
“Set up for a static defence,” Freeman said.
The men set their rucksacks by their feet, donned their helmets, and dug out their spare magazines, placing the mags by the sandbags.
Freeman had six spares in his pack, three on his armour carrier, one in his rifle. A thousand rounds in all. He set the last mag down and saw Johnson and his men hustling past the checkpoint. They were hauling massive boxes and bags. Without a word, they disappeared downstairs.
“What the hell?” Knight said. “Their cargo worth dying for?”
“CONTACT FRONT!” a guard yelled.
Pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the bazaar. Civilians scattered before them. Freeman turned on his goggles and peered through the smoke. No go; the smoke was too thick and hot for his thermal vision to penetrate. Through the haze the demons fired indiscriminately. People screamed and died, but Freeman saw nothing.
“Anybody see anything?” Sharpe asked.
“Nothing,” Freeman said. “Be ready. They’re going to—”
They came. Through gaps in the crowd and in between the stores, demons streamed towards the checkpoint. Like the ones at the Anderson farm, these superficially resembled men, but their bodies were covered in jet-black carapace, and their four eyes blazed red. Their left hands ended in wicked claws, and their right arms were machine guns grown from their flesh.
They advanced in bounds, shooting at every human they saw. Freeman aimed, but there were still too many civilians in the way.
“GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Freeman yelled.
The demons fired. The machine guns answered.
Blood sprays and body parts flew. The surviving civilians screamed, diving to the ground and crawling away from the guns. The smoke began to disperse.
Through the chaos, Freeman saw a cluster of demons. Freeman patted Knight’s shoulder and pointed.
“Demons! One o’clock, two fifty metres, by the store!”
Knight fired short bursts of six. Two demons went down. The rest scattered. One of them ducked behind a nearby wooden cart. Freeman walked fire left to right, right to left. Shredded cabbages and tubers and wood went flying. The demon slumped over, falling out of cover. Freeman placed three more rounds into it.
A high-pitched CRACK rose above the gunfire.
Next to Knight, a Metro City trooper fell from his machine gun, a massive hole in his head.
“Man down! Man down!” a soldier yelled.
That trooper dragged the body aside and took up the gun—only to have his face explode before he could fire a shot.
“SNIPER!” Freeman shouted.
Knight ducked and scooted away. The other mounted machine gunner stepped off, and a heavy shard blew through his chest.
“The sniper’s targeting the machine guns!” Knight yelled.
Freeman turned on his thermal vision and poked his head up.
The sniper had to be on the move. That was fine. All he needed was a glimpse—
—a flash of red—
Freeman pumped out rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. With his left hand, he pulsed his weapon laser.
“Engage my target!”
A red crosshair appeared on his display, and everybody else’s. They opened fire ‒ Bates with single shots, Knight with disciplined bursts. Sharpe fired his forty. The window exploded in fire.
“Got ‘im,” Sharpe said.
A loud ripping noise.
Sharpe toppled over, shards embedded in his helmet, his face, his throat.
“Man down!” Bates yelled, pumping fire downrange. “Contact, ten o’clock!”
The demons advanced like a tidal wave, pouring out from behind cover. Their arm-guns pointed at the sandbags, firing with every step as they steadily advanced. Most of the shots went wild. Freeman ignored them, flicking to full auto.
“FPF!” Freeman called.
Final Protective Fire. The men unleashed storms of full-auto fire, punishing the enemy wherever they concentrated. The demons scattered, hiding behind barrels, stores, carts, and corpses. Freeman fired through them all, his high-velocity flechettes tearing apart everything in their path.
The magazine went dry. He grabbed a fresh one and scanned.
The Metro City troopers had rallied. They were back on the machine guns, taking over where Freeman’s team had left off. Freeman slapped in the drum, hit the bolt release, and saw more troops bearing heavy weapons charge out the stairwell.
They crammed themselves next to the living defenders and loosed an impenetrable wall of firepower. Freeman joined in, dialling down to single shot and firing at everything that remotely resembled a demon. Aim, fire, aim fire, aim—
“Cease fire! Cease fire!”
Freeman released the trigger.
It was over.
For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.