Alone in the Night
The hours flew by in a rush of activity. The Protectors dumped all their cargo and shoved as many women and children as they could into the Shepherds. The patients were quarantined to Leopard Two. Sam Yung left the dead Protector with the abandoned goods, making more room for the living. When the cargo bays were completely filled up, the Protectors jammed more people into the front cabs.
They could only hold seventy-three out of three hundred and fifty-two inhabitants.
The moment the convoy left, Wai Kit and Gam Fong sat down with Elder Che and Captain Che, leader of the town guard. Over a late lunch, they discussed the defense plans, the contingency plans, the plans for a final stand.
The town guards were not Protectors. They did not have the weapons, the equipment or even the training of the Protectors. They didn’t even have Seven Stars Three Fields suits. But their mission was not the same as the Protectors’. They simply needed enough to defend their homes and the surrounding region. Unlike the Protectors, however, they had an intimate knowledge of the landscape. Wai Kit and Gam Fong quizzed the captain intensely, building up a map of the land, reconciling it with the pre-Winter maps they had loaded into their suit computers.
Then came a delicate question.
“Why do you place skulls on stakes?” Wai Kit asked.
“To send a message to the Outsiders,” Captain Che said.
“What kind of message?”
“‘Come here and die’.”
“Did it work?”
Captain Che frowned. Elder Che sighed.
“It helps the young vent their frustrations,” the older man said. “Previously, they sent raiders here once every year or two. Recently they came once a month, sometimes once a week. Rarely do our guards survive the encounters unscathed, and often those who travel without protection disappear into the wilds.”
“Did four men disappear recently?”
“Yes. We sent out a hunting party three days ago. They never returned. Why do you ask?”
“We… found their remains on the way here,” Wai Kit said delicately.
Captain Che sighed. Elder Che buried his face in his hands, muttering under his breath.
“I told them it was too dangerous,” Elder Che said.
“This is why we placed the skulls. To frighten the Outsiders,” Captain Che affirmed.
“When did you put them up?”
“Two weeks ago, after their last raid. They killed two of ours, so we brought out the bones of all of theirs that we’ve killed since the beginning of the year.”
“And you say the Abomination appeared this morning.”
“Yes,” Elder Che said.
“Have you considered the possibility that the skulls merely signaled a willingness to escalate?”
“You’re saying we attracted the Abomination?” Captain Che demanded.
“We display their dead. They display our dead. Has it changed the dynamics between us?” Wai Kit asked.
Captain Che scowled. Elder Che shook his head.
“I told them not to do it. They went and did it anyway,” Elder Che said.
“You’re blaming us for that… that thing to the north?” Captain Che fumed.
“We’re not here to cast blame. We’re here to figure out what’s going on, so we can help defend your town,” Wai Kit said smoothly.
The Ces relaxed. Slightly.
“What’s your plan?” Captain Che asked.
“You already have a solid defensive position. All you have to do is man the walls and keep the Outsiders away.”
“What about you?”
Wai Kit smiled.
“We do what we do best.”
Torches burned along the rammed earth ramparts, a gesture of defiance against the cold and the dark—and because the town guard lacked night vision gear. The guards were out in force, manning the high battlements, their heichung charged and ready. A reserve troop waited in the center of town, ready to respond to emergencies. The menfolk of the town—and more than a few of the women—had grabbed what weapons they had on hand, and either barricaded themselves in their homes or positioned themselves by the gates.
The defenders numbered two hundred and seventy-nine.
The Outsiders were endless.
The Protectors might have superior equipment, training and hei capabilities, but there were only two of them. They wouldn’t make a significant difference on the walls. Thus, they did the only thing they could do.
They headed north.
Towards the Abomination.
Towards the armies that served it.
Swinging on silent hinges, the northern gates opened a crack. Just enough to admit a single human. Through that opening, a fresh flood of hatred and hunger poured into the town. Cold sank into Wai Kit’s bones, a cold that bit deeper than the Eternal Winter, a cold that his suit’s climate controls could not battle.
The guards flinched away, hiding behind the thick walls. The civilian volunteers huddled together, seeking a warmth they would never mind. Wai Kit, caught in the full blast of the diabolical emanation, stood firm.
Then peeked over his shoulder.
“Last chance to back out,” he said.
Gam Fong clenched his teeth and gripped his weapon to his chest.
“We are going.”
The Protectors slipped through the crack and slunk into the shadows. The gate shut behind them with a solid boom.
And then, they were alone in the night.
Crouching behind a bare tree, Wai Kit scanned the world before him, taking his bearings. The valley was steep and narrow, the White River a rushing, winding stream cutting through the earth. The forest had thinned significantly. Boulders dotted the landscape, their silhouettes softened by heavy coats of snow.
He drew a breath. The air was thin, but not so much it would hamper his performance. Between his suit and his breathing techniques, he would be able to fight as well in the mountains as at sea level.
He took another breath, long and low and deep, listening now to the world around him. He heard the burbling of the waters, the susurration of a gentle and steady breeze, a sharp crack as a dry branch shattered under the weight of snow.
He heard no sounds of life.
One last breath.
And he looked up.
The night gazed down upon him. Fields of cold stars illuminated high mountains, remote and uncaring. To his eleven o’clock, between two peaks, there was a swathe of total blackness, a void that sucked in all light. Yet in that field of nothingness he thought he sensed countless billions of eyes, opening and closing, drawing in hei and shooting out hate. It was a pyramid of eyes, and he saw but only a tiny facet of it.
But it was larger than in the afternoon.
It was coming closer.
And it was hunting him.
“Suit: Phantom mode,” he whispered.
The capacitors discharged en masse. Ripples passed through the outermost layers of his suit. The active weave transformed, altering its surface properties. Light bent around the suit, the entire spectrum of light, infrared to ultraviolet and all the colors in between. Clad in a thin layer of active weave, his pouches, power cable and weapon transformed as well.
Cooling fins along his backpack partially retracted. His active glass visor tinted, matching the colors of the night. The inner display grabbed the feed from the helmet’s integral cameras and reproduced the world in true color night vision, with a thermal overlay, turning night to noon.
In the space of a heartbeat, Wai Kit was a ghost.
A full-fledged defensive operation required much equipment. Gun emplacements with interlocking fields of fire. Barbed wire. Foxholes. Trenches. Mines. Artillery. A full-fledged Barrier.
All the Protectors had was what little they had packed for what was supposed to be a resupply operation.
In the absence of a strong defense, their only recourse was an even more powerful offense.
Wai Kit waited until the capacitors completely recharged, helping the process along by breathing hei into his prism. Then, leading the way, Wai Kit faded into the night.
Discreet infrared patches on his backpack and the back of his arms and helmets helped Gam Fong track his position. The senior Protector chose his steps with care, keeping to rocky patches and areas of thin snow whenever he could. Every footfall was a deliberate exercise, capturing as much sound as possible while still retaining balance. He was a slow-moving smear, a suggestion of a silhouette, no more.
Phantom mode was passive. Once activated, it consumed no power to maintain. But it came at great cost. His artificial muscles were completely disabled. His suit would support its own weight, but the rest was on him. Most of the advanced features shut down—tracker beacon, sound tracker, early warning system—leaving him to fall back to a more primitive method of war.
Heat built up easily inside the suit. It had to be expelled to prevent heat stroke. Though Phantom mode rendered the suit nearly invisible, it could do nothing to hide heat plumes. The solution was to produce as little heat as possible, only enough to keep the water bladder and critical systems from freezing.
Phantom mode couldn’t hide tracks either. But there were ways around that. And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, under certain circumstances.
The Protectors headed down to the river and hopped in. The fast-flowing water came up to Wai Kit’s knees. It would erase his tracks completely, and the suit would keep him insulated.
Once again, he walked like a chicken, grounding his weight onto one foot, lifting the other high, and bringing it down. Gam Fong did his best to imitate him, but the lad lacked experience, and splashed about more than Wai Kit. That couldn’t be helped, but at least the sounds of the river helped to mask the sound.
Following the river, crouched over to reduce their profile, weapons held above the water, the men headed north.
Wai Kit extended his awareness. Beyond the senses of his suit and his body, his mind touched the world around him. It was like a field extending in all directions, with himself in the middle. Any living thing that entered the field, he sensed immediately. A living mind might dampen its hei, but could not completely erase it.
He knew without looking that Gam Fong was five paces behind him. His hei burned bright yellows and greens, though his suit attempted to mute it. Tiny insects drifted downstream, almost invisible to the naked eye, their bubble-like auras brushing up against his own. The trees around him had hei fields of their own, many of them huge and full, but they lacked the consciousness that elevated them into a true sentient being.
His mind emptied. His heart stilled. He was here now, in the present, completely and totally engaged in the moment. He released all thoughts and emotions as they formed, returning again and again to a state of primordial silence. What few conscious thoughts he allowed were all related to matters of tactics and movement. He was an empty vessel, allowing the universe to flow into and through and out of him.
A hei field appeared in his awareness.
Dark and sticky, a red crystal buried in a mound of tar, it was the hei of an Outsider. Its contours sprang into his awareness, and immediately he recognized the distinct profile of a warrior.
He halted and lifted his left fist.
Gam Fong halted.
Wai Kit held his hands up, mimed breaking a branch, then pointed to his left. Keeping low, he stepped out of the river and went prone along the river bank.
Gam Fong splashed his way out of the water, then tapped Wai Kit’s shoulder. Wai Kit crawled up the river bank and poked his head above a slope.
Fifty meters away, an Outsider warrior stood guard beside a tree. It stood stock-still, its head swiveling back and forth at regular intervals. It was like a living robot—and, for all Wai Kit knew, it was just that.
Wai Kit scanned again, with his eyes and with his awareness. Now confident that there were no other threats, he stabbed two fingers of his left hand at his eyes, pointed at the warrior, and brought his fist above his head, thumb pointed to the rear. Gam Fong acknowledged with a shoulder tap. Wai Kit then pointed to himself, then at the warrior, and mimed cutting his own throat.
Gam Fong tapped again.
A heichung bolt released a blast of light, sound, heat and hei. It would attract the attention of the Outsiders. Wai Kit had to deal with this one the hard way.
Pressed against the earth, Wai Kit made his approach, inching across the snow-covered earth. He moved aside twigs and stones if he could, avoided them when he couldn’t. He moved in a swooping arc, aiming for the woods behind the warrior.
A half-hour of deliberate crawling brought him to a thick tree. He rose to a knee, shouldered his weapon, and scanned. Still no signs of threats. Steeling himself, he peeked out of cover.
The warrior was thirty meters away, still focused forward. Keeping it in his peripheral vision, Wai Kit bounded from tree to tree, staying away from anything that could make a sound. Now it was three trees away. Two. One.
Rising to a deep crouch, he held his weapon behind his hip, keeping it from bumping into his leg or pack. He approached the warrior from the right, his eyes trained away from it, counting off the paces to the target. Ten. Five. Three.
Releasing his weapon, his right hand flew to his chest, dipping into his suit’s kangaroo pouch. His fingers closed around the curved handle of his combat knife. He drew it in a reverse grip, swiftly and silently, bringing it to his ear, and lunged.
In a single swift motion, his left hand seized the plate covering the back of its neck, his knife hooked its right elbow, and his left boot kicked the back of its right knee. As it yelped in surprise, he dropped to a knee, pulling it down towards him, yanking its arm clear of its body. He rammed his palm into the side of its head, pinning it against his knee and baring its throat, and sank the blade deep into its neck.
And cut out.
Hot blood gushed from the massive wound. The monster struggled, trying to bring its weapons to bear. Pinning it down with his bodyweight, Wai Kit stabbed it in the thighs, in the groin, in the gaps in its armor. The warrior cried out, a horrific liquid gurgling, rising to a keen pitch, and slowly fading out.
At last, it went silent.
Wai Kit raised his arm in Gam Fong’s direction, turned the reflective strip towards him, then waved vigorously. The junior Protector eventually got the message and rose to his feet. When Gam Fong was next to Wai Kit, the senior Protector went to work.
He thrust the knife into the monster’s soft flesh and cut away its carapace, then unzipped it from sternum to groin. In the dark, his adrenaline still pumping, his hand slipped and his blade punctured the viscera. The meat was irrevocably contaminated.
It didn’t matter. Let the Outsiders choke on it.
He scooped out the guts and fished out the core. That was all that mattered.
The heat gauge on Wai Kit’s screen flashed yellow. He was sweating. Not a good sign. He cleaned his blade, then returned to the river and fully extended the cooling fins. The water sizzled softly as the fins dipped into the river.
He continued wading upstream, heading north. Gam Fong followed.
The air grew thicker and colder. A nameless, all-consuming hatred billowed from the Abomination. It swamped Wai Kit, threatening to smash him into the chilly waters. There and then, he knew that it knew that he had ended its warrior’s life.
The Abomination’s baleful gaze swept the valley, a palpable force that pressed against the world, as invisible and as irresistible as gravity. An icy wind blew among the trees. The Protectors doubled over, keeping a low profile. Gam Fong slowed, his motions jerky and hesitant. Wai Kit held his weapon close, breathing slowly and rhythmically,
Still they continued, advancing on the Abomination.
An Abomination could not be slain. Countless numbers of brave and foolhardy souls had attempted to kill one, and every one of them had vanished forever. The closer one came to an Abomination, the greater its psychic field. Past an invisible threshold, one known only to the monster, a living soul instantly died.
Or went permanently insane.
They were close. Too close. He was a stalk of springy bamboo in a snowstorm. The closer he approached the Abomination, the fiercer the winds and the snow. He bent in the face of the blizzard, preserving his sanity and strength. But there was only so far he could bend before he would break.
More thoughts intruded into his mind. He was mad. He was going to die. The Outsiders would kill him, take him, drag him away into the dark, transform him into some unrecognizable horror. The Eternal Winter would claim him, body and soul, and he would never—
And hei fields intruded into his mind.
Two of them.
He called for a halt.
Then another hei field appeared.
The Abomination was sending forth its troops.
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