The boy named Jake woke. Slowly…and painfully. The sun had turned the broken skyline purple as it set. He thought that was strange. But stranger yet was the throbbing in his head and the stabbing pain that filled him like a fire.
All around him was quiet except for a sharp crackling like crushed eggshells. He tried to move, rolling to his side with a groan. He lay on a pitted slab of concrete sprinkled with beads of broken glass and shards that glimmered like black jewels in the dying light. He could taste the warm salty tang of blood in is his mouth. And then he remembered.
He had been scouting for his father's salvage team. He raised his head to look up despite the jets of pain that raced from his head and neck into his back. Until a short while ago the jagged framework above him had been a solid sheet of glass and the shattered beams another story above that had been the perch he had fallen from.
He was trying to get up above the ruins. Someplace where he could see the most promising spots for salvage. He had found the perfect spot in the third story of a fire gutted and long abandoned warehouse. Climbing to the third floor landing, he cautiously stepped out onto a beam extending to the edge of the building. It had held his weight at first but without warning it snapped like a brittle twig and he was falling amid the shattered beams and through a glass ceiling so filthy he hadn’t even known it was glass till he crashed through it. And then blackness.
The memories all came back to him in a flood that forced him to squeeze his eyes shut against the pain. Ironically the glass had probably slowed his fall enough to keep him from breaking his neck. Other than some cuts and scrapes, the gnawing pain that was probably an ankle sprain and some fractured ribs he was unhurt. Lucky indeed.
He sat upright. Glass crunched underneath him and he stared out into the ruined city backlit by the setting sun. How long had he been out? Sunset. Something had been nagging at the edge of his mind since waking and in an instant his thoughts became razor sharp and turned to mind numbing dread. Panic gripped him at the thought of being in the ruins after dark. He could remember the salvage team being a short distance away but which direction. He could not remember which way the sun was facing when he entered the warehouse. Jake knew the edge of the ruin lay to the west but how far he could not be sure. He would have to make a run for it. He climbed to his feet with the help of some exposed copper pipe jutting from the fractured wall and took a tentative step.
Pain lanced through him and he would have cried out for fear of alerting someone or something to his presence. He dropped back to the ground, sweat beading in his face and slicking his palms despite the temperature that dropped along with the sun. Maybe he would be safe where he was. He listened for a few moments. Maybe his companions were out looking for him, calling his name. But he knew that to be foolish. Even with the boss’s son missing he could not imagine any of them within a mile of the ruins after nightfall.
Since the earliest days of the settlements there had been stories told to frighten children about the things that prowl in the darkness. Goblins, Ogres, Vampires, demons and other nightmares inhabit many a mother’s story meant to keep her children out of the ruins and close to home. As a salvager, Jake had heard them all. He knew most to be mere fairy tales but some of the monsters in these fairy tales he had seen proof of. More then once while scouting the ruins he had seen the remains of men or animals torn to shreds or gnawed to the bone as if by a terrible beast of pack of rabid dogs. Others had claimed to seen the bodies of men or beast drained of every ounce of fluid and their bodies left as brittle husks.
Some claimed animals did these things but Jake had seen the prints. Clearly humanoid footprints were often left at the scene, barefoot in blood or imprinted in the layers of dust and grime the settles in the abandoned spaces over centuries of neglect.
As evening turned to night he began to panic. The cool breezes that drifted through the broken places in his hiding spot did little to ease the fear that raged inside him. He wiped at the sweat stinging his eyes and succeeded only in smearing the nearly dried blood in great streaks across his face. He could almost smell his terror amid thereek of sweat and blood. Once again he tried to rise. Braving the burning bolts of pain that brought tears to his eyes he managed to stand, weakly with only the slightest pressure on his injured leg.
He appeared to be in some sort of shaft. Surrounded on three sides by concrete walls while the open space in front of him disappeared into nothingness. His only escape would be to drop over the side into a shadowy stairwell packed with hundreds of years worth of junk and debris.
Jake sat on the edge of the drop and caught his breath. He had no idea where the debris choked stairwell led. Taking a deep breath he pushed himself over the edge and dropped several feet into the inky shaft. He landed with a grunt in a tangle of debris and toppled to the side, his leg trapped firmly under a mass of exposed rebar. His barely stifled groan echoed down the stairwell. After climbing to his feet in the gathering gloom, he surveyed his surroundings. Since climbing back to the perch above was out of the question his only option would be to continue down the stairwell. From below he could sense or just barely hear a dull hum, like a long unused generator had kicked on a few floors below. With little choice he made his way down the stairwell, working as best he could against wreckage threatening to tumble him headfirst down the stairs.
After a mercifully short distance and a few turns he arrived at a partially blocked door leading out of the stairwell, which continued on into the blackness below. The door had a large faded 1B stenciled on it and some long illegible letters beneath. He paused for a moment in what seemed like the relative safety of the stairwell when he heard the noise again. The humming had grown to a dull throb that seemed to emanate from the walls around him like he was hearing the buildings own heartbeat. Or maybe the ruins themselves. After a brief rest that dulled the pain in his leg he began clearing the doorway. After freeing it, and despite centuries of neglect the door swung easily on it hinges and Jake stepped through.
He appeared to be in a basement or sub basement that stretched out before him and disappeared into darkness to his left. The wall ahead of him had long ago collapsed bringing down several stories into a massive pile of rubble. Jake could make out stars flickering through the wreckage ahead of him. Like the stairwell this room had accumulated centuries of debris and long abandoned waste of the civilization that had destroyed it. He had discovered a way out….and the source of the throbbing.
In one particularly cluttered corner of the room was a dull red glow so dim that Jake thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him. But from that glow clearly came the source of the pulsing that he had sensed above. With each continued pulse it would grow just a bit to where Jake could almost feel it moving against his skin. Jake was mesmerized and terrified. Completely forgetting the pain in his leg he took an instinctive step toward the glow. And then another, crouching behind a twisted pile of shelving.
Whatever the red light was it was clearly getting bigger. The pulses continued to get sharper and more intense while the glow brightened as if something was rising from the depths below. Soon the room was bathed in a dull red glow as if washed with blood.
And then it stood. As if rising from the primordial chaos the beast rose scattering machinery and wreckage as it clawed for space of its own. Nearly ten feet tall, hairless and rippling with muscle it moved slowly at first, stretching its graceless limbs as if for the first time. Short hisses and then deeper breaths came from the things twisted face. Dead fishlike eyes set deep in their sockets stared out white and pupil less. Its mouth and nose both seemed much to small for its head and mangled half formed ears sat high on its head.
Whatever it was, vampire , demon or devil Jake knew it did not come from anyplace he had ever imagined and then it looked right at him. Even behind his sparse cover he could feel the things primeval glare. Its white sightless eyes narrowed while its mouth twisted into what Jake could only imagine was a horrible smile. Grey green spittle dripped from its barred needle like fangs. Jake and the demon began moving at the same time. Ignoring the pain in is leg Jake limped in a panic toward the caved in half of the room. If he was going to die it would not be in the reeking confines of the basement he thought as he struggled across the debris littered space.
Like a creature wading from the depths the demon with the white eyes moved forward flinging rubble from its path. It moved slow and unsteady as if a new born toddler taking its first steps. A hiss like escaping steam filled the room and Jake turned to see the beast closing on him. The pulses that he had first heard he now felt like hammers to his head.
The pain in his leg finally overcame his fear as he stumbled into a tangle of rubble. Sweat dripped from him like rainwater. Pulling himself to his feet he staggered into a darkened alcove several yards from the collapsed end of the room. For a second he thought he could hide there until the beast passed him by but he knew that what hunted him tracked by scent and not sight. He had hoped to at least die under the stars.
The hand that grabbed him in a grip of iron clamped firmly over his mouth. He tasted dirt and sweat. Not sure what new attacker had him he jerked violently against the vice like embrace.
“Stop moving kid or we’re both dead,” hissed a voice in his ear. He relaxed just a bit. The sound of another human gave him a flickering sense of hope. He could hear other voices coming from far off when he realized he was hearing the mans com-link. “I have the boy,” growled his captor.
“Roger that Sir. One hostile. Twenty yards. No make that two. 100 yards and closing.” came a second voice.
“Copy that. Can you run?” he asked Jake.
“I don’t think so.” Jake felt a hot stab in his shoulder and was instantly flooded with a warm liquid feeling. His pain seemed to fade and then disappear all together.
“Now you can. GO!” he released Jake with a shove toward the collapsed wall and the starry night beyond. As he moved from the darkness he caught sight of the beast. Its head tracked him as he went. So much for sightless. The demon beast howled a shriek that shattered even his numbed senses.
From the concealment of the alcove stepped Jake’s savior , his heavy combat armor automatically shifting from the black of the alcove to a dull gray in the flickering light. The red glow that seemed to emanate from the creature danced in the mirrored faceplate of his helmet. He raised his right arm and pointed directly at the beast less than ten yards away. “Cannon,” Jake heard him say followed by a loud click as the weapons systems in his armored suit reconfigured itself. The bolt rifle built into his arm roared as it fired temporarily drowning the pulsing in the room. The large caliber slug hit the thing squarely in the chest knocking it back several steps in a spray of gore and scattered debris. The marine watched as it thrashed for a moment squealing a wail of rage and pain before climbing back to it feet.
“Mother of light,” he whispered. “You are a tough bastard.”
The demon rose to it's full height nearly a yard taller than its attacker. Blood and greenish ichor dripped from the gaping hole where the slug penetrated. With a long skeletal finger it probed the wound as if to fathom the extent of the damage. It turned itself away from the fleeing boy and faced the Imperial Marine.
“Flechette.” Another click of the weapon system and bolter fired a burst of toothpick sized metal shards that hit the beast like a metal fire hose again knocking it back a few steps. The steel shards flickered in the red glow as the demon thing clawed at its head and chest like a madman in a swarm of hornets.
“Flare.” he called again and the room exploded in a blinding burst of light. Jake could feel the heat of the bursting shell on his neck and arms as he scrambled up the rubble slope. The demon howled again and retreated away from the blinding light.
The exchange had taken only a few seconds and he had hit it with enough firepower to drop a war elephant of the southern tribes and still it appeared to only be crippled. Already the flare burst was fading replaced by the maddening red glow that surrounded the creature.
“Cap, you need to get out of there. I am now tracking six hostiles within two hundred yards,” came the disembodied voice over his com-link.
“Thanks Zeke,” he replied. “We’re moving again.”
“Roger that. I’ve got you both.”
Cap dragged him the last few feet up the rubble strew slope and they were outside before he knew it. The cool night breeze and star dotted sky above struck Jake as almost pleasant after the horror show behind them. They paused outside the building crouching low behind a fallen section of wall. Behind and below them Jake could still hear the demon howling in pain and rage. He wondered if it was calling for others.
“Ok, give me a line. We are out,” spoke the marine into his com-link. Jake noticed the mans breathing was calm his voice steady. It was all he could do to get air into his shuddering lungs.
“Straight ahead of you is an alley. Go down to the next block, turn right. Go down another block and I am on the roof catty corner from you,” came the disembodied voice of the marine named Zeke. “Looks like no new hostiles at the moment.”
“Cap, you will be in over watch once you are through the alley,” came a second mystery voice through the com.
“Roger that. We are moving.” He grabbed Jake by the back of the coverall and lifted him to his feet. “Come on Jake, We aren’t home yet.”
It caught him by surprise to hear the marine say his name. He tried to ask him how he knew his name between gasps of breath.
“Don’t talk. Just run.” he commanded.
The pair bolted across the alley, the marine nearly carrying Jake by the back of his coveralls and quickly they were in the shadow filled alley rising up on either side to blot out the stars. Cap stepped out front of Jake and proceeded cautiously. The shadow filled rubble strewn alley could have hidden an number of beasts or other nasty surprises. He motioned for Jake to follow close behind. They took their first few steps cautiously but soon they were moving over or around the bigger stuff and crunching right on through the rest. The marines power suit made short work of all but the biggest roadblocks. Jake could not help but think that much of the stuff they were moving through would be valuable. The metal alone would have paid their trip. Underneath a mound of rust colored powder were the remains of a small car. Few of the wires would still be usable and the engine with quite of bit of work could be made to run again but mainly the metals that had not turned to red dust could be recycled into other structures.
They passed for a moment what appeared to be a part of the building extending into the alley. Jake knew it was really a huge metal dumpster filled with the waste and debris of the last hundred years. He could only imagine what it would be worth if they could get it moved.
“Jake. Jake, are you still with me.”
“Yes sir,” he replied instinctively.
“Good. Too early to start daydreaming.” After several more yards they emerged into the next street over. It looked much the same as the last one. Crumbling building and smashed in windows had nearly been retaken in spots by the clinging vines that hung like ropes from the empty casements. Larger bushes and an occasional sapling had forced its way through cracked and pitted pavement. Cap scanned the rooftops before them. He could not see the men of his squad in over watch but he knew they were up there somewhere.
“Cap. This is Mak. We have a visual on two. Count Two hostiles.”
“Roger two hostiles.” responded Zeke. “ I am tracking what looks like a dozen of these things at varying distances. They all seem to be converging on your location through. You need to get here quick boss. I don’t want to be the one writing the script for your funeral.”
Cap was moving cautiously down the street before Zeke had finished. The way ahead was relatively clear. Some of the larger surface streets had been pretty well cleared by salvage teams like his. For years they had been venturing into the ruined cities to bring back useful bits and pieces from their broken past.
“Roger that. No funeral.” Cap replied. Jake could detect just the hint of humor in his response.
Cap kicked aside a pile of rusted fencing as he moved into the center of the street. Jake, after being pushed, pulled and prodded to keep up dropped to his knees in exhaustion. The stimpak he had been given was beginning to wear off, the pain in his legs returned in waves.
“I see you Cap.” It was Mak’s voice again. “Keep heading the direction you are facing. At the end of the block, the magic carpet will be on the rooftop right across from you.
They started to move down the broken and rutted street again keeping as far away from the storefront as possible. Hundreds of years of decay had left them gray and lifeless shells where only the most savage of men and beast could survive. Some of the smaller cities and towns had survived the hellish years but the bigger cities and great metropolises had quickly succumbed to the chaos and lawlessness the followed the breakdown of civilization.
About halfway to the next intersection a burst of fire nearly caused Jake to loose his bowels. From the rooftop directly across from the alley the had just exited, two more bursts of heavy machine gun fire roared in the night. From the arcs of the tracers they could see that it was being concentrated on the alley opening. Jake wondered if the first demon was still on their tail.
“Zeke, Hostiles?” asked Cap over the com.
“Looks like Mak and Battle have your original bad boy pinned in the alley. He must really want a bite of you.” It didn’t strike either of them as funny. “I’m tracking six, no eight all closing on your position.”
“Keep going kid.” they had stopped in the middle of the road. “You’re not home yet.” Jake was beginning to wonder if he would ever see his home again. The night had grown still and silent except for the crunch of gravel under their boots. The pain in his leg was becoming unbearable like hot blades lancing into his ankles and knees with every step. He collapsed in a heap still almost a half block from escape.
Cap dropped to a knee beside him. “Jake we have to keep moving.”
“Its my leg,” he groaned nearly in tears. “I cant go any farther.” The stimpak hadn’t lasted as long as he had hoped. Another might kill the boy he thought.
The crackle of assault weapons split the night, coming from the rooftops behind them. Yellow tracers sped through the darkness directed at an unseen target somewhere behind them, sparks flying where the rounds connected with the pavement and neighboring buildings.
“Time to go.” Cap wrapped one arm around Jake and lifted him effortlessly to his feet. Taking most of the weight from his injured leg they started toward the end of the block, moving much slower then before.
“Cap we have your buddy from the cellar pinned in the alley…for now,” came a new voice over the com.
“Just keep him there Sgt, and don’t tie up my com.” He redoubled his efforts but even in powered armor the strain of carrying another person was beginning to take a toll. “Almost there son,” he wasn’t sure who he was trying to reassure. He could the see the faint blue glow of the magic carpet on the rooftop barely twenty yards ahead.
“Cap hold it. One's close. I cant get a good reading.”
“Where Zeke,” he paused scanning the street ahead. Even through the infra-red viewer he couldn’t make out any clear signals. “Talk to me….”
“He’s close,” came the panicked voice. “It should be right on top of you.”
With a howl of rage another demon, trailing the pale red glow , burst from a crumbling store front to their right. In one bound it leaped nearly ten yards to land on a decaying wreck that was barely recognizable as a vehicle beside them. It released a scream of triumph at finding its quarry. Cap released Jake, who dropped to the ground with a thud as he turned to face this new horror.
Crack! The shot echoed through the empty streets like an explosion. The beasts head jerked as if hit by a sledge. Blood and gore dripped from the gaping wound where its ear had once been. It took an unsteady step toward them as Cap raised his own weapon to fire.
The second shoot took it squarely in the face and dropped it in a spray of red. It tumbled out of sight behind the ruined auto. “Ok, its down.”
Cap scooped up Jake like a sack of flour and headed toward the building ahead that promised escape from the nightmare. “Nice shooting Vipe.”
“Sorry Cap,” It was Zeke this time. “Its moving again.” He could hear it behind them thrashing an scattering debris as it tried to regain its feet.
At a full sprint he raced across the intersection and into the building they had set up as their evacuation point. It was a sturdy brick two story that still had most of its ceilings and walls. Its windows and interior had long since been scavenged or rotted to dust. He could just make out the figure of Viper as they raced up the stairs, his long rifle still covering the street behind them. He emerged onto the rooftop, followed shortly by the sniper.
“I cant believe that thing took two in the head,” he was saying to no one in particular.
The rooftop was cluttered with debris and equipment. The dull blue glow of the carpet competed with the bright moonlight illuminating Zeke as he hurried to pack up their portable command and control equipment. “What about the flyer,” he asked Cap as he emerged onto the roof.
“No time to wait for it. We can come back tomorrow night to get it,” he chuckled laughing at his own joke.
“From a nearby rooftop came two more marines, both in blackened armor and carrying heavy assault rifles still steaming in the cool night air.
“Pack it up Zeke lets get the hell out.”
“Right,” he piled the two cases of equipment onto an eight foot square piece of fabric spread out on the rooftop. Their transport did resemble a carpet of sorts. The thick woven fabric was really a synthetic fiber that trapped energy within its weave and shifted it to another pre arranged location. Four metal poles anchoring each corner glowed with a dull blue light and hummed faintly.
Cap laid the semi conscious Jake to one side of the square while the rest of the marines piled into the remaining space. He twisted a socket on the chest plate of his armor and slapped a panel on his wrist. “Blast off.”
The section of space encompassed by the poles and carpet glowed in a brilliant instant of blue light and then disappeared leaving an empty space on the rooftop that crackled with residual energy for an instant and then vanished completely.
Jake woke for the second time that night with a ringing in his head. He could smell the acid tang of the smelters and taste the black grit that was a perpetual part of the salvage yard and knew that he was home, and safe. He could hear the marines moving about and talking in low voices just a short distance away.
He rose unsteady and limped to where the five marines had gathered. In the distance he could see the lights of the settlement on the other side of the workshops and storage yards. He could just make of the stone and brick building that was his fathers home. Lights burned in every window he could see.
“Glad to see you’re in one piece,” quipped on of the soldiers. Jake recognized the voice but could not remember which name went with it.
“Jake, how do you feel?” asked Cap.
“I’m good,” he stammered. “I mean I hurt…everywhere, but I’m home.” He paused to catch up with his thoughts. “How…how did you know I was there?” he asked still not sure that he wasn’t part of some strange dream.
“Your father sent for me the moment he got word that you were missing,” replied the big marine. He had removed his helmet and Jake could see his ruddy features. The mans face looked like it was carved from some dark hardwood and his thick mane of dirty blond hair cascaded onto the back of his armor. A long scar stretched from his left ear down to his jaw line.
He was confused. His father had sent for an officer of the Imperial Marine Corps. “But how…who,” he started. “How does my dad know a squad of Imperial marines?”
The marines face cracked into a big grin. “Jake your father is a great friend of the IMC. Many, many years ago, probably before you were born your father did us a service that if we had to rescue you every night for the rest of your life we could not repay.”
“But what…” he asked.
“I'll bet there is a lot you don’t know about your father. You should ask him about it some time.” He could see the rest of the marines had already begun assembling the carpet for another trip. “Now get back to the compound. I know he’ll be eager to hear all about your night.”
Jake tried to protest but he could see that the men were drifting away from him. He turned with a final glance at the men who had saved his life and headed for the entrance to the compound. Behind him he could hear the humming of the transport and the burst of blue light illuminated for an instant the long shadow that stretched before him.