Broken glass cracked under his boot heel, and sunlight reflected off more of it into his eyes. His visor blocked the worst of it, but it was hard not to squint. The sun was brighter these days, and everything seemed sharper under its light; he was almost certain he could cut himself on the shadows. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something about the scene in front of him wasn't right. It irked him.
It was identical to all the other mid-sized cities in what used to be America - dry, dusty streets surrounded by grasslands that had turned into swirling clouds of dust; deserted storefronts, broken windows and empty interiors making them look like a gap toothed hobo's smile; and the silence of abandonment, an eerie sound that settled in when everyone either stops caring or stops being able to.
"Home sweet home," he whispered to himself, instantly wishing he hadn't.
He took another step on the glistening carpet, smelling the tar from the cracked asphalt. The heat rising off its black surface was an almost physical presence, a burning chemical film that slapped like a fist at the armor he wore. What was it today, 110? 120? Dammit, what was he missing?
From his hip came a slight buzz. Keeping his weapon trained on the parking lot in front of him - especially at those stores - he tapped a button with his left glove.
"Kowalski here, ma'am," he said in a low voice.
"Anything?" came the voice on the other end. It was female and authoritarian. He'd respected the steel in that voice when he'd first heard it, the way her confidence had given him something to rebuild his life around. They all had. Now, it felt like a prison.
"Nothing to report, ma'am. But something's not right."
"Is there going to be a problem?"
All his muscles tensed, and he fought to keep his voice calm.
"No. Just a feeling, ma'am."
"Keep you eyes open, then. Observe and report. Things get hot, call and get out."
He thumbed the device on his belt to a passive position and returned to edging his way down the outlying suburbs of the city. Scouting. That's all he was here to do. If they saw him first, the weapon in his hands would buy him about five minutes in a direct firefight, ten if he was lucky.
Less, if he was unlucky. In Toledo, he had come very close to being unlucky. It was only a feeling that had kept him alive, a feeling a lot like the one he had now; it wasn't the same magnitude, but definitely in the same family.
He walked quietly, stepping over the sun bleached litter from a bygone era. He was in a shopping center shaped like an L that had been anchored by one of those mega-markets, the type of place where you could have bought a recliner and a dozen eggs at the same time. What the other shops might have been he couldn't have guessed at, although he thought he recognized a GameStop.
Across the street from the shopping center was a gas station, and what could only be the charred remains of a Waffle House. The boxy yellow rightness of it made him smile. He almost expected to see a short order cook in a paper hat dropping three scrambled and scattered behind the counter, the last free man in America.
From his vantage point, he could see some residential areas nearby. They looked to be mostly apartments and condos, although there were some single family houses a little farther away. These had taken the worst of it. At the apartment complex, someone had tied a sheet to one of the second floor balconies. For what purpose, he didn't know. It might have been red once, but it was an exhausted shade of pink now, and hung limp in the lack of a breeze.
Kowalski had grown up in an area like this, back before. His hometown was farther north, but it had the same chains everybody else did, the same one stop strips. When they were kids, him and his brother had taken turns going down to the gas station for soda and tubes of Pringles during video game marathons. He missed his brother; he missed everything, actually.
He'd made it down one length of the strip mall, and looked down at his boots to see if he could recognize any of the trash. That's when he heard it – a crunch, like a footstep.
He crouched behind the railing that had long ago been put up to discourage skateboarders, keeping his body behind the corner. There were some newspaper bins at a diagonal to him, providing some cover. He knew they wouldn't stand up in a fight, but they'd keep him from being seen.
One of them walked into the open then. It was big, eight feet at least, and its knobby looking skin was a viridian green that gleamed in the harsh light of the sun. The head was like a snake by way of a mandrill, liquid black eyes recessed into two slits. The lower left arm had been replaced in a seamless graft with a sleek gun that wouldn't leave enough of him to bury.
It was an Atrinarch. He thought the uneasy feeling in his chest might have been from a Grunt or two lurking in this sleepy subdivision, but not this. An Atrinarch was a walking weapons platforms, and they had earned the nickname “skinners” for what they could do to a man who got too close. The time he'd last in a fight dropped from five minutes to somewhere in the ten second range.
The moment it had walked into the open, Kowalski had dialed up the priority alert of his footage. He'd been streaming from the suit mounted hi-def cameras the moment he'd started his reconnaissance earlier today, but this ensured someone would have it on their screen right now. They'd want to see this.
Stooping down, the Atrinarch examined the surrounding area. Kowalski silently shifted his upper body behind the corner. From a vest pocket, he removed a dull, scratched piece of reflective plastic. He edged that around the corner. He saw the Atrinarch walk over to a shopping cart, and using only one hand, crush it into a basketball sized lump. Then, the creature pulled a small bottle from a pouch, and poured a liquid on the metal spindle. A small blue fire started. Satisfied that the Atrinarch was preoccupied, he peered around the corner again.
A harsh gargling came from the mouth of it, and he was stunned to see another one of them emerge from the ruins of the shopping center. This one was smaller, and lighter in color. It was almost an olive green, except for its eyes; those were completely white. Instead of an immense gun arm, it possessed hands with too long fingers, from which dripped a continuous stream of black ichor.
Inside the helmet, sweat that had nothing to do with the heat had formed on Kowalski's forehead. One of these had surprised them back in Toledo; it had done no more than point, and half of Delta Company choked to death on their own blood. They had called it a Spooky Sam, in the aftermath.
There was no higher alert than the one he was now using. If this was anything like previous hot zones, they'd have an extraction team here as soon as they could. All he had to do was hold tight, and the Reapers would sweep in.
What? He leaned further away from the edge, and saw that a third one was dragging a girl out into the parking lot. This Atrinarch was kitted out like the first, only a little shorter. The girl was maybe fourteen, and her hair was so close cropped only the pitch of her screams let Kowalski know her sex.
Her clothes were dirty rags, her skin sunburned and stretched too tight over thin limbs. She had been somebody's kid sister once, somebody loved; now she was a ruins rat. The popular sentiment at base was that people like her, what few there were to be found, were trash; they carried disease, they stole, and they weren't right in the head. They were a drain and a blight on what was left of civilization.
There were harsh sounds that might have been laughter from the figures in front of him. The largest Atrinarch backhanded the girl with his non-gun arm, a small movement. Blood flew from her face. She stopped her screaming then, her jaw at an angle that told him it was broken. He could hear her whimpering. One of them pulled her closer to the blue flames.
Standard operating procedure was to observe and report, nothing more. In the time before, it'd be an act of cowardice to watch a child die. He'd have gotten a medal for trying to save her, even if they had to pin it to an empty uniform. Now, he'd probably die in the attempt, and even if he didn't, he doubt he'd survive the court martial that would inevitably result. Risking an expensive observation platform for vermin?
Kowalski used to have a younger sister; her name had been Janey, and she used to grab handfuls of the Pringles they'd bring back from the store. Barbecue had been her favorite, but she was never going to eat them again.
He raised his gun, ignoring the frantically buzzing comm on his belt. He switched the weapon to secondary fire mode, slammed it through the red zone, and fired on the Sam.
Every scout was issued a pistol, rather than a rifle. It was smaller, lighter, and with secondary maglev capability, more deadly. By sacrificing a portion of the charge that powered their observation package – and would be built up again by their movement, often miles during a standard observe and report – the weapon could act as a coil gun, a quieter version of a rail gun. On the green setting, it could drop a Grunt in a single transonic shot with less than a whisper.
However, by pushing his weapon into the red, the projectile hit the Sam like a thunderclap, traveling at well past Mach 5. The creature rocked backwards with a scream like radio static, but it didn't fall. He was sure he had hit one of the hands. He squeezed off two more shots at it with regular ammo while screaming, "Run, kid!" The girl didn't question where he'd come from – she scrambled to her feet and took off at a run away from both groups.
What he had done had drained his entire battery: GPS, comm, and cameras. Whatever happened next, headquarters was flying blind.
The Atrinarchs picked up his position immediately, and he barely had time to dive behind the corner before twin blasts of white hot plasma obliterated where he had been hiding. Chips of superheated concrete slashed through his armor, including one that sliced his forehead open through his visor. They screamed in their harsh, guttural language, and he sprinted for the rear of the shopping center.
Behind him, he could hear their footsteps coming closer. He knew they moved about twice as fast as a man. It only sounded like the two of them though, so maybe he had injured the Sam. He doubted he was making it out of this alive, but his only chance was if that thing was hurt. There was a loading dock with a half open door behind an abandoned box trailer. Kowalski ran for it.
He'd made it halfway around the trailer when they caught up to him. The Atrinarchs raised their weapons in near unison, and he hit the ground as the trailer was ripped apart by their weapons. Debris fell like burning snow as he desperately crawled for the stairs. He knew he'd be a dead man by now if their bioelectric weapons didn't take a moment to recharge.
Without aiming, he fired back at them with the pistol. That might have bought him a second. He clambered up the steps, praying he didn't trip. He was almost to the shining metal surface of the door when it rolled up the rest of the way. The Sam stood in front of him, one of its arms dangling uselessly; the other knocked Kowalski's pistol out of his hand in a blur he couldn't see, and he felt agony grip that side of his body.
He stumbled backwards, looking for a way out, but found both Atrinarchs had closed the distance. Their dark silhouettes were on him, and he remembered what he had thought earlier about being able to cut himself on a shadow; now it seemed like the shadows were going to cut him. Deprived of the child, these three would still have their playmate and afternoon snack. As the sun beat down on his helmet, viciously glaring through the slash, Kowalski stared into the white ghost eyes of the Sam. The black, dripping hand moved closer...
Abruptly, the creature's head exploded. Kowalski's mouth dropped open, and then he heard the meaty sounds of the Atrinarchs hitting the ground behind him. They now ended at a ragged stump that could only loosely be called a neck.
Stunned, he looked around. He saw the glint of light in the distance then, and he knew - the Reapers had come. His black clad angels of death had saved him, and just like the angels of old, they dealt death and punishment from on high. Each Reaper had a .50 cal rifle that had been modified to fire “Nimrod rounds”, each of which was said to be so expensive that buying God's tears would be cheaper.
The comm on his belt had enough of a charge to vibrate, and he answered it.
"Kowalski still here, thanks to you, ma'am."
"Do you know what part of your observing and reporting I have a problem with?"
"Ma'am, I couldn't watch her die," he said. “Again,” he silently added.
"It's the observing. Noticing isn't supposed to be so noisy,” she said, the last word a bitter hiss.
There was silence then, and Kowalski was aware in a different way that the Reapers were in position. Unlike him, they never questioned orders.
"I had hoped you learned your lesson," she continued, calm, though he could still hear the tension seething under the surface, "but it appears not. What was the name of that other man in your unit? Andrews?"
The sound of his hard swallow let her know she was right. That had been his name.
"If you had done your job right, there was a chance we could have had one of those Black Hands alive. Alive! But you let it know we were here, and who knows its effective range? Unlike you, the Reapers are not replaceable.”
That explained their almost unreal response time – they weren't swooping in to save him, they were coming to collect a rare specimen. Who knows what goodies they could have pulled out of a living Sam?
“Speaking of, you seem awfully keen on run and gun these days. Maybe the infantry would be a better fit for a man like you, especially if we're going to retake Denver. Everybody wins," she said, although it was clear from her tone that no one did.
"Ma'am..." he started, but the comm cut out.
Only then did the crash hit him, a desertion of the chemical high that had propelled him ever since the now headless body had first stepped out into the parking lot. He wobbled, put both hands on the loading dock, and threw up. Kowalski wondered if he had built up enough of a charge to begin streaming again. He barked a half crazed laugh at that.
Just like he thought, he hadn't survived the ordeal.
On paper, he was still alive. Infantry would fix that, though; Denver would fix it for sure. That place was a charnel house. He decided it didn't matter anymore. Nothing did. With shaky legs that betrayed him with each step, he started his march back to the electric motorcycle he'd parked on the edge of the city a lifetime ago.
Infantry. Denver. Spooky Sam. Andrews. Toledo. Janey.
Why did all this happen? And when did it all go wrong?