Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,
beatæ Mariæ semper Virgini,
beato Michæli Archangelo,
beato Ioanni Baptistæ,
sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo,
omnibus Sanctis, et vobis, fratres (et tibi pater),
nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere:
mea maxima culpa.
He was wounded, dying, but not fast enough if they caught him now. It was a miracle he'd made it this far. He was not a fighter. He took it as a sign that this final act of his was meant to happen. There had been so many things he'd had to overcome to get to this point, so many things working against him, and he'd done it.
But they were still coming. And he knew he wasn't walking out of here.
"Jack? Can you hear me?"
"Hi, hon." He wasn't too tired so smile at his wife's image on the screen. She was holding the baby up so he could see them both. Little Brian was leaning forward in his mother's arms, staring with fascination at the fuzzy image of his father.
Ana laughed. "Already raring to explore, just like his father."
He reached forward and laid a finger on the screen. Ana did the same, her face softening into that quiet smile that was just for him. "I miss you."
He felt an ache in his chest. "I miss you too."
"I wish you hadn't had to go so soon. He's growing up so fast, Jack."
Another ache to add to many. "I know, sweetheart. I won't be gone for much longer. Once this job is done, I'm back on planet and I don't care if I have to move us all out to the rural spots and pick up farming, I'm not leaving again for a long while."
She still looked sad but she managed to keep her smile light.
"How is Peg?"
For the first time, a trace of worry showed in her eyes. She cradled Brian close as the baby seemed about to drift off to sleep. "She came home from school yesterday saying there'd been another fight. I mean a real one, Jack, six or seven kids all at once. She says they tore the hallway apart."
"Is she all right?"
"She wasn't caught up in the fight or anything but Jack…I'm not so sure about this place. I know we didn't have a lot of options but I worry about Peg. And raising Brian surrounded by so much fighting."
He remembered the hints Dr. Caron had dropped about helping the fighting stop but decided not to mention it yet, he wasn't sure what she had in mind. "It's just a stopover for us, sweetheart. Once we get a leg up we'll be off Miranda, and if the docs here come through on that job, we might even have a chance to get on one of the Core planets."
All these years of ups and downs and she still believed in him completely. Her smile was radiant. "I love you."
He touched a finger to his lips and then touched the tip to the screen. "I love you too."
The sounds they made as they came on were horrible. Snarling and primal howls, garbling shrieks and behind them….the sounds of screaming. Their victims. He had to keep chanting to himself there was nothing he could do to help them, nothing, nothing….
It was hard to believe they'd ever been human, that he may have known some of these people, talked to them on the street, treated them and their children for minor sicknesses or injuries.
Or tried to help them make their home more peaceful.
And he couldn't think that. Couldn't think like that, not if he was going to make it this final leg of the journey.
"Jack, the fact you know these people is the reason we asked for your insight on this."
He stared down at the table and didn't look up.
Dr. Weaver's voice was cajoling. "We've released the Pax into three separate towns already and so far the aggression levels have lowered considerably. This stuff works, Jack, and there have been no side effects!"
"So far…" His voice didn't have the same conviction it had held in the past conversations they'd had about the G-23 experiments.
"No signs of any." Dr. Weaver sounded irritated now. "You want me to list how many deaths there were planetwide in the last month alone? How many of them were murders? How many of them were innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of someone's fight?"
"I know them all, Dr. Weaver." Jack finally lifted his eyes and glared at the other man.
"Then don't you want to make it safer?" Weaver's voice was quieter now. "You know Dr. Caron wouldn't approve of it going world wide if she wasn't sure no one would be hurt."
Jack was silent but his body language told Weaver he was weakening.
"All we need is your support; they know you on most of the boards we need to agree. You can help us convince them to put them in all the air processors."
Jack was silent for a long moment. He thought of how long it would take to really get off Miranda. How much he wanted a good place, like the Core Planets he'd been on, for Brian and for Peg and Ana. How much he wanted his family safe.
No registered side effects…
He finally looked up. "I'll see what I can do."
The monster dropped to the ground, choking on its own blood. He'd been hoping to avoid a fight. To run. He didn't know how many bullets he had left. He couldn't afford to stop and check. He did a mental count and thought he might have at least one left. Prayed he did. Prayed it was all he needed.
All he could do now was pray…and keep going.
Jack's smile faded as he saw Peg on the screen. She'd been almost fully recovered with no permanent damage from the gunshot wound last time he'd seen her. It had been healed, so it couldn't be infection that made her skin so hot and her eyes so bright, could it. "How are you feeling, baby?"
She wiped her forehead and tried to smile at him. "I don't know, I think I'm sick. I yelled at Mom yesterday, I don't know why…she's just so tired all the time…"
A coil of ice started to twist through his heart. "Tired?"
Peg fidgeted, not because she was nervous, he saw, but because she seemed unable to keep still. "Yea, she's…what's the word…lethargic. Like she doesn't have the energy to do anything. And she won't go to the doctor because she keeps saying she feels fine…" Her face contorted so suddenly Jack actually recoiled from the screen, shocked by the sheer level of rage that suddenly crossed her face. "She's so stupid. She won't even take care of Brian and he cries all the time."
Jesus God, this was not his daughter. The young woman snarling at the screen was a stranger to him. That wasn't his sweet, cheerful Peggy.
Just as soon as it had come, the rage passed, leaving her looking shaken and even sicker than before, her face pale. "Daddy…Daddy, I'm sorry! I'm sorry…I didn't mean that…"
Jack swallowed, tears stinging his eyes at the confusion and fear on her face. What the hell was going on? He tried to ignore the suspicion growing in the back of his mind, making his stomach clench. "It's okay, baby…"
"I don't know what's happening to me!" Peg was weeping now. Quiet, hopeless tears. "Mom won't talk to me. I don't know what to do…"
They must have found his scent or something, because there was a whole group of them coming. He could hear them shrieking, gleeful, caught up in the thrill of the hunt.
Two hunts going on. Theirs and his. It was a matter of which one of them made it to their prey first.
He burst into the house in a blind panic while the others tried to revive the people they'd found. They were everywhere, just laying there. On the streets, on benches, leaning against walls.
Peg's words about her mother's sickness were echoed through his head like a damning curse.
In his heart he knew what he would find. Subconsciously he'd been building himself up for the sight of those still, peaceful bodies.
Which didn't prepare him in the slightest.
Ana was sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. Far from peaceful, her face was fixed in a mask of pain, eyes wide with horror…but a dazed kind. As if she'd had to struggle to feel even that much emotion, it made it even more horrible.
Numb, he dropped down beside his wife's corpse, taking in the scratches, the bites, the gaping hole torn into her throat.
No other thought could have drawn him to his feet. Nothing but the love for his children could have forced him to go up the stairs, praying that whatever had gotten Ana had somehow passed his children by…
Denying the dread creeping through him. Because if he let his thoughts wander down that path, let it fix on the odd behavior of his daughter, he would go mad.
Peg's room was a wreck, torn apart. The mirror above her dresser had been shattered; a patch of blood in the very center of the break had dried to a crust. He could smell it, blood and decay, all through the house. From Ana downstairs. From the blood patches here and there in Peg's room. Not enough blood there to account for the heavy scent of it in the air upstairs.
The walk to Brian's room stretched out in front of him. A few steps down the hall to the half open door, and it felt like it took him years.
When he saw the blood that had pooled around the crib and the little hand stretched between the bars, the heavy patches of blood that spattered the walls around it, his numbness finally shattered. His screams were so loud that at first he drowned out the screams that seemed to answer him from the rest of the team outside. And the inhuman shrieks that joined them as the creatures that had once been his neighbors started to kill.
One bullet left.
He stopped, swaying in place, and looked around frantically. His crazed mind started to latch onto the fact he didn't want to believe. She wasn't here.
He stood for a moment, weighted down with despair, turning blindly in a circle.
And saw her.
He froze, staring at her. She was frozen, staring at him.
Her hair hung in filthy clumps around her face. Rusty spikes had been driven through her cheeks and nose, delicate folds of skin peeled back from her forehead and shoulders. Her nails were long and torn and caked with blood and filth. Long chunks of hair and scalp decorated what little clothing hung of her emaciated frame. There were bones too small to be an adult's hanging around her neck, a grotesque talisman. Blood and scraps of flesh were hanging from her mouth, torn from the still twitching corpse beneath her.
He swallowed hard, tears stinging his eyes. "Peg…"
She snarled at him and lunged, fingers hooked into claws as she sprang forward.
He let her take him down, gripping the gun, closing his eyes as her nails tore into his face and neck, her teeth snapped at him. He ignored the pain through sheer will. Enough to press the muzzle of the gun to her belly. Enough to pull the trigger.
It was enough.
felt her jerk, opened his eyes to see the spray of blood that went up
over them both as the bullet tore through her and came out her back. He
saw her eyes go wide with shock, stared into them as she died, hoping,
searching for some hint behind the savagery, some hint of the soul
behind those crazed eyes. For an instant before she slumped down on top
of him, he thought he saw it, thought he saw his daughter again. Please.
Then she was gone.
Jack stared up without seeing anything, reaching up and running his fingers through her matted hair, cradling her head on his shoulder. He felt wetness all over his shoulder. Peg's claws had torn a gash through his neck and his life's blood was pouring out over the floor beneath him. His lips almost curled into a smile even as Peg was torn off him and rough hands dragged him up, teeth and nails ripping into his flesh.
He didn't mind dying. He'd found some measure of redemption. In his mind it was more than he deserved.
The Reavers dragged him away eagerly, and then suddenly started to let out cheated howls as they realized they wouldn't be able to play with their prize.
He was already dead by the time they started to tear him apart.
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