The city is piling up at her feet and she's laughing.
A hefty matron in shredded summer dress and a black-pearl noose of a necklace folds at the waist, empties green-grey intestines across the rotting remains of toes. Disemboweled, the edge of the fireman's axe flipping in a grotesque thumbs-up. She shoulder-checks the ravager aside and down. Adds to the collection oozing in twenty-four inches of broken bones and burst tumours.
Empties clatter, wind chimes fit for a firing range.
A slick-haired pizza boy shambles neurotically, slips alongside the blood-encrusted pedestrian bridge. Bony fingers grasp for handholds. An index finger is missing. The rest are worked to the bone, through it. She swings, a textbook decapitation. Steel-toed boots grip the gratings underfoot as a still-snarling head flies a dozen feet out and fifty down to an artificial current, still tugging trash and starvation victims along. The turbines died eleven months ago.
The city is piling up at her feet and she's holding.
She stares down Elysium. A public park atop an urban island, ringed by an artificial river system in downtown Hades. The names only ever clicked in February. Or when bleak winter accented the droves of ravager-dead trampling designer gardens and memorial benches to feed on the warm proles from uptown.
Oh, the irony.
Gibbering, the wrecked remains of a riot cop drags itself along thirty yards of dripping bridge. Uniform pants are violently hemmed at the knees. Hacked carcasses draped around the suspension couplings provide purchase. It shuddered and slurped at the carnage and her ankles. She takes her time. Two kicks; one to splinter the nose and wrench the neck, another to drive her heel through the brainstem and end the ravager's spree.
The city is piling up at her feet and the grind isn't enough.
"No," she snaps to the overweight sharpshooter Samaritan with 'Hades Defense Force' stenciled across his jacket. Beady eyes squint over a badly-gripped Bernelli shotgun, fingers throttling a hair trigger. Pieter. Idiotic enough to pay her nine clanking blade brutes as muscle. Didn't understand the points system, the mentality, the guns they'd all refuse. Or didn't care. Bottling out came up for all the wrong reasons.
Sounds wrong, anyways. Bottling in is more accurate for the Paragons.
The AK-47's dead. Pieter's twelve-year old son tears out a spent mag and hollers for more.
A grey-toned construction foreman hefting a wrench and killer halitosis gets a hit in. Smashes her shield up and aside, pain sinking teeth along multiple lines of bruising. At least two fractures. She howls, lashes a backhand into a knot of raised veins along the collar. Bites deep, centres the hexagonal fused-sign shield as blood and worse splatters in a seven-foot cone to fade in among chipped red paint and the occasional white block letter.
It stumbled, caught itself on the dead tide surging forward. Mangled comrades draped and rolled over the edge. Lineups formed on the opposite shore as the ravagers locked rotting limbs and leering teeth, setting. The infectious skeletal pile-driver stubs out her adrenaline crash, doubles her vision as she hefts her ax and makes--
--contact. A rotting fist snaps out, disintegrates under a sledgehammer swung from overhead. A growl erupts from the ravager's throat: frustration, not agony. The stump slumps in a peculiar pause they all understand. One, two--
--impact. A final swing compresses a chipped skull into a crumbling neck. Violently. The dead fill the breach and the living oblige. A pair of Bowie knives to her left disassembles a groping hand from fingertips to elbow, biting a path up biceps twitching in rigor animatus. Combat boots with toes like mirrors sweep-kick the ravager aside, lends momentum. Shiva; muscle shorts, tank top, an androgynous welterweight.
Gauntleted hands grab under her arms as the almighty sledgehammer splinters a Wal-Mart store manager's shoulder like concrete. She nearly tears them off their sockets. He'd stopped to drag her out; slather hot blood across a dozen superficial cuts they'd both gathered over the last eighteen hours.
Her standing is third overall, second to Shiva in stand-up kills. She doesn't use drugs, doesn't plan to. She'd owe him assists.
Sloan leaps overhead, machete clipping the ear off a plastic surgery patient, still bound in hospital gown and facial gauze. Slips, tumbles face-first into a mass of torn stomachs still steaming in the winter winds. He doesn't try to stop the heels of the mob's first rank stomping down, down, splintering vertebrae and another one of the originals.
Ninth, tenth? They've never kept track.
He kept dragging her, past a swearing Angle propped up against the rail, clutching a soaked rag to her wrist. A decapitated punk with liberty spikes the colour of Kool-Aid lay in the way. Not long enough for her to see the rag's red beginning to purple. Green splotches dotted the edges.
"Guiding you, sister. Didn't notice your knee, did you?"
Achilles stepped overhead and parried a hacksaw, Excalibur hand-and-a-half sword turning slow glistening circles. Oilcan fires backlit the blade, caught the point and enormous pupils as it cleaved a schoolteacher in two. A wrist-guard lashes out, close-lines a sprinting ravager in blue tracksuit.
"It's fractured, I know. Get back to your score."
Oilcan fires backlight the blade, catch the point and enormous pupils as it cleaved a marauding schoolteacher in two. A wrist-guard lashes into the throat of a sprinting armless ravager in tracksuit and a Nike sweater. Sidelined, meat for Shiva's heel. The Captain misses a high block, loses a wrist to the blade section of a paper guillotine. An office assistant snarls, dreadlocks flapping. Horsetail banners, stained an unforgiving red.
"Fractured? Try seriously fucked, dear, unless you've got any talent for contortionism."
True. Her knee scrapes along soaked concrete, a kink under a shin-greave she wish she hadn't seen. Adrenaline highs crash as hard as morphine, and there's nothing to blame but adrenal glands and the code they'd all sworn to.
Almost out. The sweeping, organic curves of the observation deck's railings coiled into the gloom on all sides. Double-sided park benches cradled the screaming and the dispatched.
"Couldn't forgive myself if I let a drop of hot blood seep through that lovely face o' yours."
She opened a dry mouth as--
--her eardrums explode. Over, and over, and over. The dull cracks of M14 rifles, the snaps of M9s, the throaty booms of Remington over-under hunting shotguns. Twangs from high-tension crossbows. A ragged chorus of munitions ascending to the heights of tinnitus as the hordes shuddered and slipped and fell apart. A line chef lost his stomach to buckshot. A nurse had both knees and one elbow cracked. A teenager hefting a scooter like a Scottish hammer took a round that snapped his head back, and off.
"---fire! Cease fire!"
Six of the self-declared Hades Defense Force are left; the old, the sick, the tired. Rusty shells in fumbling hands, slipping through bones clothed by MRE's and canned peaches. Pieter lowers his Bernelli, forgets to flick the safety.
Ten yards past the entrance. Casings and nine-millimetre lobotomy victims line the concrete lip of the shore. Dozens draped across the bridge; maws open, limbs splayed and ajar. Oilcans smouldered. A barricade flickered a hundred meters away, piled cars tied off with electrical wire. The last exit. East onto Styx West, out to the highway and the inherent safety in speed--until the needle tapped 'EMPTY' and the maws closed in on a dark, lonely turnpike.
The city is piling up at her feet and she's alive.
A solitary rifle cracks, denting concrete two hundred metres across the water. No hits. Several thousand of the dead milled to trample the results of their condo fees. Ethanol engines grumble across the observation platform, figures throwing blankets and backpacks and the leavings even the vultures refuse to snatch.
"Is this endgame?"
Death is a disappointment to Loco.
"He wants us for the highway ride. So, yes."
"Needs. You think they'll survive the ride out?"
The bridge is silent. The dead are dragging and heaving their weary hungry thousands into a proper rush, a semi-organized flying column known to outlast bands of survivors lucky enough to receive UN Containment airdrops of assault rifles and M3 light machine guns.
Shiva snorts, sheathes a knife and kneels beside Angle.
"Checked their ammo count a few hours ago. Only Han and Chi-Minh have anything more than a box mag. Can't shoot straight standing up with no cross-breeze."
They leaves the rest unsaid. Flips Angle's body over, letting the other knife slip across a still and silent throat. Quick and quiet.
"Final score?"Loco asks.
"Nineteen hundred seventy five. That's including a bonus for the punk." Shiva is generous when they're impressed. Taylor shrugs and doesn't challenge. Same goes for Loco. The rest are catching ragged breaths and finishing off anything still feebly clawing at their boots.
She slips the shield off her arm, lets it fall into a puddle of half-melted snow swirling across the tarmac. Gazes at half-inch spiked black hair, muddled nose, torn cheek. Counts the dents along lacrosse-padding pauldrons , notes the hip-to-hip fingernail scratch across the bulletproof vest. Tallies of near misses, charts of adrenaline highs. The point of it all.
The city is piling up at her feet and she's haunted.
Pieter draws close. Wrinkles his nose, takes shallow breaths. Lets his shotgun droop to his angles, swinging from the trigger guard and shaking through several levels of adrenaline and PTSD.
"We leaving?" she asks.
Silence, gasping. A shrug from Loco.
"We're leaving," Pieter gasps.
Thousands drone across the water. Flooding dozens of skyscrapers, rampaging across board meetings and paper and empty glass apartments under empty skies above.
A look from Achilles. A downward glance from Shiva. Angle's dead eyes, critiquing from under a pile. The others, exhausted and sharp. Waiting for the cracks to prove the code is broken, easily and readily and often. Waiting to give the rough kind of release.
She wouldn't be the first.
"Yes," she says. Hefting the fire-ax, testing a frayed grip. Swings a loose circle, feels the stitches and braces and back-alley bone staples grind and hold as dozens pile into another column. Sections collapse
"That's the point," she murmurs, rolling her shoulders, limbering up for the next onslaught waddling across shattered limbs and a sea of broken teeth. Twenty on the arrowhead, a hundred fifty or more behind. Half clutch table legs ripped from Home Hardware, socket wrenches, the bludgeoning necessities of a dozen garage sales.
The city is piling up at her feet and she's bored.
"Wedge?" They approve, shuffle into the lethal triangle. Shiva, Mint and Cora in back. Falcon and Gawain in middle. Taylor on point, as always. Weapons clink and slam into palms greased with insecurities masked as nothing. Armour rattles. Bets hiss between the gasps of breath. Fists clink, necks crack.
A shotgun blasts. Pieter racks the slide. Drops the shotgun, sends it skittering across the tarmac fifteen feet to nudge against Taylor's boot. Spittle swings from a maw wrenched open by incredulity.
"Don't be insane! There's food, clean water, shelter, transport!"
A Pontiac van sunk under another thrown garbage bag of cans. Children's hands dangle out the side windows; five kids and two teenagers. All wailing, all sick, all hungry.
"I promised good--"
"Sport, survivor. That's all we ask for." Taylor's biting her lip as the familiar rush sinks deep hooks, grips her forebrain with barbs soaked in raw nihilism. Miles and lifetimes and countless improvised headstones hold steady in a skull dull with eighteen hours of holding actions, mad sprints, last stands. The thrills of diehard mentalities.
Pieter's hand drifts aside.
"Ask? You promised--"
Shiva whips out another as the Bowie knife stops vibrating. Pieter coughs. Twice, three times before blood seeps into his boots and drips off his vest like rapids. Screams carry across the tarmac. A bearded figure in an overcoat throws a boy into the back of the last overloaded F-150, swings out a Remington bolt-action--
--but they're already beginning the creep; the slow march that builds into a sweating swearing bleeding ram that never runs empty or gets repetitive. Arms lock in. Her world evaporates to left and right. PCP forces grating howls from several throats.
No shots. Why shoot the living dead--life traitors, nihilists-- and waste a decoy?
Eighty meters. Fifty. Thirty. Irises shudder and blink. Fists clutch rolling pins, ladles, meat knives draped with precise lines. The customer is always right.
The city is piling up at their feet and they're all addicted.
"First to a hundred," Taylor chokes. Score is low tonight. The drills are at her skull, and the whirring won't stop. She knows she isn't alone, but she knows only she'll worry.
This is it.