Hammer's Reach

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A Long Road

They made it two blocks without incident. Luke had all three backpacks slung over a shoulder, leaving Rin free to support Nia's weight. She was small, but her body armor almost doubled her weight. Rin had taken a full course of GenQue muscle enhancers back at the academy, enough that he could literally roll a truck with his bare hands, but carrying two hundred pounds, plus his own armor, for twelve miles...

Up ahead, Luke stopped abruptly.“Hold up, I hear something.”

Rin lowered himself to one knee as quietly as he could manage, scanning the streets for signs of life. Ancient automobiles dotted the road, left to rust apart where their owners had abandoned them. Buildings crumbled onto the sidewalks, sinkholes dug great gaping ditches into the pavement. The dead city loomed around them, cold and still in the cloudy gray daylight.

They waited there a full two minutes, silent, watching, waiting.

Luke finally gave up, adjusting the packs on his arm. “A brick must've fallen or something. Coulda sworn I-”

A thunderous crash sent them both to the ground. Rin rolled Nia off his back, wincing slightly as her helmet cracked against the street. No time to be gentle. Gun up, safety off in the same motion. Eyes. He needed to see the eyes. The gun was useless if the Synch couldn't lock on, and to Synch he had to see...

He saw the face, and froze in horror.

It was Eran.

Or rather, it was Eran's face. Rin had heard about this before; Freakers wearing human skin like clothing, stripping it from the dead or the very, very unlucky living. This one had taken Eran's face and wrapped over its own, a ghastly mask set in a frozen expression of utter terror.

The Freaker's cold gaze rolled slowly over the prone soldiers, its pale eyes changing from circles to slits, then back again. Black cloth fluttered in strands from its spindly limbs, the uniform it had once worn now nothing but tatters from constant abuse.

Moving as little as possible, Rin reached to the back pouch on his belt, tugging free a flash grenade. Freakers could adapt to anything, but it took time. If he could blind it, get in close, and...

“YOU SON OF A..!”

Luke had shed the carry-bags, and now stood tall with FireLight's standard-issue semi-automatic rifle balanced against his shoulder. The first few shots went wide; the rest were deftly dodged, the Freaker twisting and bending out of the way faster than Rin's enhanced vision could follow.

“Luke, get down! It's gonna...”

The Freaker had already moved. In the blink of an eye, it was face-to-face with the soldier, one steel-gray arm driven through Luke's ribcage like a lance. The older man's face contorted in pain, but he didn't cry out. His arms moved, reaching up to grip the Freaker's head with both hands.

“Not yours... that's not your face, dammit... give... it... back!”

Black needles erupted from the Freaker's head, stabbing through Luke's fingers. The soldier was beyond pain now, visibly weakening. His eyes met Rin's, and he forced a grim smile.

“Get out of here, Rin. Get Nia back. Get her back safe. Live. Live for me.”

Then he turned away from his comrade, glaring into the monster's ever-shifting eyes.

“Eat this, pig,” he spat out through bloodied lips, and with the flip of a mental switch, he drove the full force of his Synch into the Freaker's brain.

The Freakers were perfect war machines, indestructible, adaptable, built as the pinnacle of human evolution. They did not breathe, they did not eat, they did not sleep. They had no need for emotions or intelligence. Designed flawless, they seemed unbeatable, and for so many years, they had remained so.

Synch changed that; a device that granted its user the ability to scramble minds through eye contact. It wasn't simple to use; it was a surgeon's tool, to be used with precision. Luke had no interest in using precision, hammering the deepest recesses of the Freaker's mind with a single command, over and over and over: “Burn. Burn in hell.”

The Freaker began to steam, then smoke, its brain doing its best to interpret the commands it was receiving. Its eyes popped, steamed, regrew, only to bulge and burst again. The gray armor coating its skin carbonized, cracked, and fell to ash.

Luke wasn't faring much better. Blood was running from his nose and ears, his eyes shining brilliant green from the Synch. “Overclock” was the term the trainees had for it. Two brains working as one, with one struggling to remain separate as it dictated orders to both. No one could overclock without snapping, and Luke was hardly an exception.

“Rin... kill... it...”

Rin jerked into action, unfolding his own rifle. Stupid, stupid. He should have already had it out. One man breaks the Freaker with Synch, the other man kills it. Simple... but when they trained, only the target ended up dead.

There were no tears as Rin lined up the shot.

“Goodbye, friend.”

Luke's face twitched, almost a smile.

“Bye.”

Rin fired, and kept on shooting until the last bullet hissed from the barrel and the trigger clicked on empty air.

The Freaker was dead. Really dead, no longer able to regenerate. In an attempt at self-preservation, its Evo chip had forced its way out of the overheating shell its host had become, exposing itself to Rin's withering fusillade. It had shattered in the first three shots. The Freaker itself was now nothing more than a blackened collection of bullet holes.

Luke was dead, too. He was hardly recognizable, his face a mask of burns; half from the close proximity to the superheating Freaker, half from the injuries his own Synch had inflicted.

Rin felt the loss gripping his heart with unbearable force, and pushed it away. Time to mourn later. If there was one of the creatures, there would be more soon.

He picked up Luke's gun. It was still half-full, about ten shots left. That would have to be enough. He folded it into its carry state, clipping it onto his belt where his had previously rested. He hoisted Nia onto his back, returning to the mission at hand.

A battered sign dangling over the road read “JFK International, 2 miles”.


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