Clark had kicked up the hornets’ nest. They weren’t going to stick around to see what came swarming out.
The Clark family lived in the suburbs at the northwestern edge of Saint Lucile. Here the architects had envisioned a slice of the pre-Cataclysm world, a homage to long-lost Americana, coupled with adaptations to modern living. Rows of modified double-width camelback shotgun homes dominated the street, each of them obeying the same design aesthetics, yet subtly different in their own ways.
The Clarks enjoyed the nicest house in the neighborhood. Fresh white paint, tinted blue windows, wrought iron gates tall as a man, tipped with blunted spikes. The attached two-car garage was at least as wide as the house itself. Blooming bushes lent splashes of red and pink and violet to the neatly-trimmed lawn.
It was almost a shame they had to leave. Forever.
Nine people lived in the Clark home. The elder Mr. and Mrs. Clarks, Janet and her brother Ed, Ed’s wife and their four children. Examining the house, Kayla had no idea how the hell they managed to fit so many people in such a small space. But, she remembered, the house looked narrow from the front, but it was deceptively long.
Before departing the ferry terminal, Janet had sent marching orders to her family. Pack up their clothing and valuables, keep an eye on the street, get ready to move out to somewhere safe. Civilians being civilians, though, Kayla was certain their preparations were nowhere near complete. If nothing else, four children, all of them under the age of eight, would make rapid stowing and movement a vain dream.
James parked Janet’s vehicle down the street. Rifle slung over his shoulder, he escorted her to the front door. That left Kayla on the driver’s seat watching the road.
She didn’t like her position. The Hatchet Crew knew what Janet’s car looked like. If they saw the vehicle here, away from the house, they’d suspect something. And they had to rely on their eyeshields for comms. Which could be tracked.
She didn’t have a choice. The car rental agency at the ferry terminal timed its opening hours with the ferry services. In the long hours between the morning and evening ferries, the agency shuttered its doors. There was no time to secure another car en route to the bar, even less time during the rush here. No time to secure alternative comms channels either, beyond firing up a secure comms app on the eyeshields and bringing everyone into the conference call.
She just had to make this work.
Which was why she’d rested her borrowed RM-77 on her lap, just out of casual sight.
She fell into sniper mode. It came naturally to her, after a childhood spent hunting in forests and fields, rivers and streams. It was the gift of stillness, a stillness close to death, the illusion of perfect immobility broken only her breath and the slow beating of her heart.
Her gaze swept through a wide arc, covering the Clarks’ home, the neighbors, the road, the rear and side view mirrors, the feed from the license plate cameras. Janet had calibrated the mirrors and cameras well, giving the driver as close to three-sixty degree situational awareness as possible.
In the absence of concealment and mobility, visibility and firepower would have to do.
She just hoped the civilians wouldn’t take too long.
The house was chaos personified.
Two boys tussled in the living room, rolling all around the floor. The Grandma Clark held a screaming baby to her bosom, cooing soothingly at it, while Grandpa Clark manhandled a huge pair of suitcases down the steps. Ed and his wife Naomi shouted at each other across the house, checking off items and posting constant reminders and updates. A sullen girl, the oldest daughter, pouted on a couch, sitting on her hands, kicking her legs back and forth.
When the door opened, only the daughter noticed. She frowned at Janet. Then looked at James. At his rifle. And her eyes popped.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Janet smiled at her niece and patted her head. “Just a precaution.”
Grandma Clark looked up and startled.
“Janey, honey, we got your message,” Grandma said. “What’s happening? Who’s he?”
“This is James, my bodyguard,” Janet said. “I don’t have time to explain yet. Are we ready to go?”
Grandpa rolled the suitcases over.
“Nan and I are ready. But Ed…”
“Did you pack the diapers?” Ed called, somewhere in the back.
“Diapers? I told you to pack them!” his wife shouted from upstairs.
“Ed will need more time,” Grandpa finished.
Janet breathed in. Out. And nodded.
“I’ll help. Could you stay here and watch over the kids?”
James stood where he was, in between the door and a window, rifle slung at the low ready. He wished he had more manpower for this job, at least one protector per principal. But if wishes were fishes…
The boys picked themselves up. Slowly, reverentially, they approached him, wonder in their wide eyes.
“Mister, is that a gun?” the older one said.
“That’s right,” James said.
“What is it?”
“Is it like… like the gun the Army uses?” the younger asked.
“Close. This version is for civilians.”
“What’s a civilian?”
“Someone… ordinary. Not a soldier or a cop.”
And he was a civilian too.
A shockwave rolled through him. He’d been in law enforcement most of his life, an operator of some kind or other. Even after the STS had disbanded, he’d merely assumed a new mission. He’d never thought of himself as a civilian. Not until now.
“Can I touch it?” the older one asked.
James shook his head.
“I’m sorry. I’m working now. Can’t let anyone touch it.”
“You’re bothering the nice man,” Grandma said.
“Naw, I’m good,” James said.
“What kind of work do you do? Are you a bodyguard?” the younger boy asked.
“Close protection agent.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“It’s… more complicated than being just a bodyguard.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You have a lot of questions, don’t you?”
“Well? What’s the difference?”
“I could explain later, but right now I’m working.”
“But you’re just standing there!”
“Not just standing. Watching.”
As he spoke, he scanned the house. The spacious great room, combining the living room, dining table and kitchen, fed into a narrow corridor. Doors spaced along the walls opened into bedrooms, bathrooms, storage. A steep staircase on the left headed to the second—technically, one-and-a-half-floor. By the foot of the stairs, a door opened into the garage. At the far end, a door opened out into the back porch. From where he stood, James had a straight shot to the rear door.
“What are you watching for? Bad guys?”
“That’s right. You can go back to playing. I need to keep watching.”
But not here, he realized. He had to check out the rest of the house. Just in case.
Ed emerged from a room, hauling a pair of large bags. Behind him, Janet hoisted two more. A woman headed down the stairs, cradling an enormous piece of luggage to her chest.
“Oh, hello,” Ed said, blinking through his enormously thick smartglasses.
James nodded. “Good day, sir.”
He’d have to hold off checking out the house until they cleared the narrow hallway.
“Are you the bodyguard?” his wife asked.
“Is the gun really necessary?”
The venomous disapproval in her voice cut deep.
Men tried to kill your sister-in-law this morning. They might make another run soon. But, sure, we don’t need any guns.
“I hope it’s not,” James said.
“Come help us.”
The woman snarled, setting down the bag.
“What do you mean, ‘no’? That’s what you’re paid to do, isn’t it?”
“My job is to protect everyone. I can’t do that if I’m hauling around luggage.”
“You’re just going to stand there and do nothing?”
“Naomi, leave it,” Janet interjected. “Let him do his job.”
“But he’s not doing anything!”
James opened his mouth and—
Full-throated engines roared down the street.
Kayla’s voice cut into his earbuds.
“Heads up! Swarm of bikers incoming!”
Six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen of them, roaring down the street in their hogs. Some had covered their license plates with cardboard, others had stuck on poorly-aligned stickers. Dressed in dark riding leathers and full-face helmets, they were completely anonymous. No patches, no flags, a squad of ghost riders on the prowl.
Many of them had messenger bags slung over their shoulders. Some bikes sported top and side cases. They weren’t openly carrying heavy firepower, but Kayla knew the kind of hardware that could fit in the innocent-looking cases.
“One-five bikers approaching from the west,” Kayla said. “They are past my position and headed your way.”
“Roger. Are they hostile?”
“Unknown. Stand by.”
Six of them peeled off from the formation, pulling up across the street from the Clarks’. The others drove on, disappearing around a bend.
“They’ve split into two groups. One group of six parked on the other side of the road from the white side. All of them have messenger bags. The others are moving on. Looks like they’re trying to circle around the block.”
“I’m going to gather the principals in the great room. Keep an eye on them.”
Arraying themselves in a skirmish line, the bikers swung their bags around and reached in. Out came short-barreled shotguns and bulky machine pistols.
“Subjects are armed. Shotguns and machine pistols. They’re approaching the house.”
“I’ll come out and say hello.”
The door opened.
James leaned out, exposing only half his face.
And his suppressed rifle.
“FREEZE!” he screamed.
The bikers hesitated.
“Drop your weapons and leave now!”
“Who the fuck are you?!” someone shouted.
“None of your business. Go away now!”
“We’ve got business with Janet Smith. Bring her out!”
“I can’t do that. Leave!”
“Farmer, they’re buying time to surround the house,” Kayla warned.
“You leave, nigger!”
A biker stepped forward. His brothers followed, closing the gap.
“STOP! Stop right there!”
Kayla softly opened the door and eased her way out. She knelt by the hood, placing the mass of the engine block and the wheel between her and the bikers, and brought up her weapon. At such close range, the LVPO and its 6x zoom was overkill. She canted the weapon instead, aiming down the offset red dot sight.
“Bring out the pig, or we’ll burn you out!” the biker yelled.
It took guts to threaten a man aiming a rifle at you. Or maybe just stupidity.
“Sights are hot,” Kayla said.
“Roger,” James whispered. Out loud, he said, “One last chance! Get lost or—”
A biker swung up his shotgun and—
The biker spiraled down to the asphalt, arms flinging wide open, blood spraying across the ground. The others scattered, cursing and hollering, retreating to their bikes, extending their guns at him.
James fired again. A second biker went down. A third shot. A third hit. And the others opened fire, a hellstorm of full-auto firepower and semiauto blasts.
Windows shattered. Sparks flew. Metal whanged crazily. James pulled back from the door. Emboldened, the bikers advanced, still blazing away—
And, as one, ran dry.
Two of them fumbled a reload. The third man reached into his bag and pulled out a thick cylinder.
He drew a lighter. Fired it up. Touched the flame to the fuse. Lifted the bomb to his ear—
“IED! Engaging targets!” Kayla warned.
And shot him in the chest.
The supersonic ballistic-tipped round blossomed on impact, the polymer nose cap driving backwards to force rapid and lethal expansion. The mushroomed bullet carved a path of obliteration through his chest cavity, shedding fragments as it passed, snapping his spine, destroying his heart, ripping his lungs as collateral damage, and blew right out.
And the pipe bomb dropped from nerveless hands.
The bikers froze.
“What the fuck was that?” a biker shouted.
“Behind us!” the other survivor yelled.
The biker spun around on a heel, racking the bolt of his machine pistol, hunting for—
The round shattered his sternum and kept on going. Wonder of wonders, he remained on his feet. She rode the recoil, saw the red dot over his upper torso, fired again. The bullet tore out his neck and knocked him down.
The last one finally snapped out his shock. He turned around and—
The pipe bomb exploded.
A muted flash. A thunderous shockwave. Windows across the street trembled and shattered in their frames. Heavy shrapnel cut the last biker down. Kayla trained her red dot on his prone form, broken and bleeding on the asphalt. Wonder of wonders, he was still holding on to his gun in a death grip.
“Stay down! Don’t move!” she shouted.
He pushed himself off the road.
And he went still.
And a storm of gunfire erupted inside the house.
Bullets screamed. The kids screamed. The adults screamed. Everybody screamed.
“STAY DOWN! STAY DOWN!” James screamed.
Janet took up the cry, but their voices were lost in the madness.
Rounds blasted through the windows and walls, sending shards and shrapnel scything through the living room. Thick clouds of choking dust billowed about. Grandma curled around the wailing baby, holding her close to her chest. Grandpa wrapped himself around them both. His granddaughter huddled up against him. Janet pulled the boys close to her, shielding them with her bodies. Ed and Naomi flattened themselves against the floor. James kissed the concrete, his brain tracking the sheer firepower coming their way.
You’re gonna run out of ammo sometime. And when you do—
The shooting stopped.
He pushed himself up to a crouch, pulled his carbine into the pocket of his shoulder—
“IED! Engaging threats!” Kayla said.
A suppressed shot diffused through the street.
Kayla could take care of the rest. He had to worry about the principals. He went down again, covering his head, opening his mouth.
“Down! Down! Everybody stay down!” James yelled.
More suppressed shots rang out. Then the improvised explosive device exploded.
The house shook on its foundations. The civilians screamed. The shockwave passed harmlessly over him, a high-speed caress over his back.
And suddenly the world went quiet.
“What the fuck was that?” Janet demanded.
“Bomb. Not a powerful one,” James said, rising from the floor. “Everyone listen up! We’re going out the back! Stay low and go! Follow me!”
Doubled over, he advanced to the dining table. More shots echoed outside. His heart urged him forward. His brain ordered him to look back.
Janet was with him. But the other civilians—
“Come on!” Janet screamed. “We’re getting out of here!”
“You’ve got a car in the garage?” James asked.
“Yes!” Ed replied.
“Get everyone inside and go! I’ll cover you!”
James moved up to the stairs. At the foot of the steps, he knelt and braced his carbine against a baluster. Behind him, the civilians hustled into the garage. They bumped up against him, against his shoulder and back, throwing off his aim. He canted his weapon, training it at the back door.
The car engine rumbled to life.
“Everyone’s in the garage,” Janet said.
“Alright. We fall back to the car. You first. I’ll—”
The back door blasted open.
In stepped a burly man, almost as wide as the frame. An epic white beard covered everything below his nose, leaving only his mouth exposed. Thick goggles covered his eyes. A steel helmet covered the rest of his upper head. His armored riding suit bulked out his mass further.
In each gloved hand, he held a black hatchet.
He threw his head back and howled. The hatchets flung up and outwards, pulling his hands along, buzzing and crackling. They glowed with an evil light, an anti-light, a darkness that sucked down all color that fell upon them. The black light poured into the biker, staining all of him in an all-consuming darkness, transforming him into a figure of living shadow.
John Sullivan. And the hatchets of the Hatchet Crew.
The hatchets flashed up, faster than a man should move, guarding his face. The round sparked off the thick metal heads, ricocheting crazily into and through a wall.
No fucking way!
Sullivan lurched forward, squeezing through the frame. James rested the red dot on his chest and fired. Sullivan’s arms blurred again, and the hatchets blocked the shot.
“What the fuck?!” Janet shouted.
“FIRE!” Sullivan shouted.
Janet fired, so close to his face the muzzle blast pounded his skin and forced his earbuds to mute the world. Sullivan’s left arm smeared, and now the hatchet guarded his head. Pistol rounds bounced uselessly off the infernal metal.
James blasted away, walking rounds down his chest, belly, groin. Sullivan’s hatchet blinked, his elbow and wrist contorting through impossible angles, catching every round.
It was no use. They needed a third gun. They needed Kayla.
As the thought flashed through his head, Sullivan entered the master bedroom.
And the hatchets split.
Pairs of ghost hatchets burst from the black weapons, a semi-translucent replica of the original. Two, four, now eight of them, hovering protectively around Sullivan.
We need Yuri.
Hatchets leading the way, he bulled down the narrow passageway. Janet shrieked, firing away. A ghost-hatchet caught her shots and burst into nothingness. James hammered Sullivan, working the trigger as fast as he could. A second ghost exploded, a third, a fourth, and now Sullivan whipped around, his back and right arm elongating, the black blade whooshing through the air to come crashing down on—
James leapt away. The hatchet hissed past his nose, missing him by a hair’s breadth. Sullivan windmilled again, bringing his other arm around. The blade parted the handrail and the baluster like water, as if it weren’t there, carving clean through them.
Janet yelped and clambered up the stairs. Bringing up his carbine, James backed up again—
His feet danced a hurried jitterbug, propelling him through the door and into the garage. He dropped his weight, killing his momentum. The doorway framed Sullivan, a miniature titan of pure darkness, hatchets in hand.
The black hatchets flashed. Zipping back and forth, they deflected a flurry of incoming rounds, from James and Janet, appearing a moment before impact, sending rounds bouncing off. A bullet whined past James’ ear. A second destroyed a pair of ghost hatchets.
The baby screamed. The children screamed. The civilians screamed. James fired, and screamed.
A white crescent smile split Sullivan’s face.
And he burst up the stairs.
Leaving behind two ghost hatchets.
The ghostly weapons hurtled through the air, spinning towards him.
All thought fled James’ brain. He was completely in the moment, mind and body and spirit becoming one. All notions of danger and pending doom vanished. There were only targets and trajectories and the solution to destroy them both.
He fired twice, so fast the shots blended into each other, a single long reverberation filling the room.
The hatchets vanished.
The bolt clicked back on empty.
James blinked. Breathed.
Then ejected the magazine. Parted his jacket. Grabbed a fresh mag from his belt carrier and locked it in and worked the bolt.
A voice filled the world. Deep and low-pitched, sandpaper and gravel, the voice of a man blended with something else, a being that knew the tongues of man but did not have the lips to properly enunciate them.
“Wheeer arrrrre yuuuuuu?”
James rushed to the door.
From behind him, Ed called, “Where are you going?”
James ignored him and swung out to the stairs.
He climbed the stairs two at a time, keeping to the outer edge of the steps, turning clockwise to cover uncleared space.
Sullivan stood along at the landing, back to James. A door stood at either end of the room.
“Cuuuuuum ooooooout aaaaaaaan dieeeeeeeeee!”
Sullivan’s unnatural arms twisted around. His hatchets shielded his broad back. Bullets ricocheted into the floor and wall.
James kept on the fire, targeting the face, chest, groin, arms, legs, something, anything he could shoot. Sullivan continued laughing, languidly turning around to face him.
“Daaaat wuuuuuuuun wuuuuuuuuuurk, hoooooooomeee—”
White light washed over him.
Janet stepped out of the left-hand landing, pistol in both hands, weapon mounted light trained on Sullivan.
The round caught Sullivan in the side of his head. He stumbled, gasping in shock.
Janet fired and fired and fired, sending a stream of rounds downrange. Sullivan held out his hatchet, but it was slower now, not quite able to block everything. Rounds grazed against his arm, tore into his side, bit into his hip.
James clicked on his light. Five hundred lumens glared into Sullivan’s eyes. Darkness burned off at the edges his form, unable to withstand the light. James fired, fired, fired again. The light overwhelmed Sullivan, slowing him down. His second hatchet caught the first round. The second clipped off the edge and caromed into his heart. The third caught him square in the forehead.
Sullivan went down.
James fired him up, pouring bullets into him, keeping him in the light. Sullivan twitched and jerked and groaned, bleeding inky blackness. The unnatural blood soaked into the wood, dying it a rotting black. Janet jumped back, weapon still in her hands.
“Keep shooting!” James yelled.
“He’s not dead yet!”
She hesitated. And fired.
Gunshots thundered in the landing. Rounds light and heavy pounded the Elect. Sullivan gasped and groaned and grunted. His hands opened, releasing the hatchets.
All at once the black light gushed out of him, becoming a sticky, spreading pool. Colors and textures returned to his body, revealing a mutilated man lying on the floor, back torn up by enormous exit wounds, half his head blown away, arms and legs twisted and warped beyond recognition.
“Clear,” James reported.
“Clear,” Janet agreed.
“What the hell happened in there?” Kayla asked.
“Elect burst in through the back. Sullivan. We took him down.”
Strength fled from his body. His limbs became rubber. His breathing turned shallow and ragged. He willed himself to breathe, long and deep, recharging his body, staying clear of the darkness dripping onto the steps.
“Roger. I hear the bikers leaving. I think they’re giving up.”
Now he heard them, the roar of a half-dozen engines, slowly fading into the distance.
The hatchets pulsed angrily. But without a living hand to hold them, they could only glare impotently at him.
Janet slumped in a corner, pistol safely pointed at the floor between her knees, keeping a wary eye on the bodies.
“Is it over?”
Sirens screamed in the distance. Police, fire, ambulance, every emergency service on Moreno Island was rushing over. Too little and too late to do anything, as always.
“Not by a long shot,” James said.
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