Hammer's Reach

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Last Stop

The airport was barren and empty, debris and trash littering the long pathways and airstrips. The massive building was in the process of slow implosion, with little remaining of the massive compound.

The radio tower stood watch over the ruin, glaring down at the tiny figures below through spiderwebbed eyes of glass. It had been abandoned in the mad rush to escape the looming menace bearing down on the fleeing population. The Freakers had been programmed to kill, and kill they did. Every man, woman, child, animal, and insect, mowed down by the very thing that was to have driven them to the pinnacle of scientific greatness. Perfect evolution, weaponized and set loose on its own masters.

The country had been sterilized in four days; the continent in seven days.

Freakers couldn't cross the ocean. That was all that protected the rest of the world from similar annihilation. Whether by choice or because they truly could not swim, the Freakers remained in the Quarantine Zone, formerly known as North and South America. Many of the evacuees, like Rin, had escaped to Europe or Britain. Many had gone to other parts of the world, returning to their respective homelands.

Most had just died.

Rin let Nia slump to the ground, his breath coming in ragged bursts. He could see her face through the translucent helmet visor, her expression peaceful in slumber. Tiny scars around her eyes marred her otherwise unnaturally beautiful face, the result of her failure to Synch. It wasn't her fault, really. They had expected the commander to do all the Synch work, leave the shooting to the cadets. Hollis had been the first to go. The Freaker had literally torn his head off. In the bloodbath that followed, only the four of them had escaped.

Now there were two.

The tunnel leading to the radio tower was partially blocked by the gutted wreck of a massive airplane. From the damage, it seemed the plane had dropped more or less straight down on top of the building, crushing everything below and presumably killing everyone on board. A withered skeleton dangled from one window, a passenger attempting to escape the plane when death overtook them. Rin barely spared it a glance. Nothing useful about an old corpse.

It took him seven minutes to clear enough of an opening for both him and Nia to pass through. The concrete stairs within the tower were crumbling with age, but Rin climbed them anyway, Nia resting in his arms. The tower had stood this long, it was unlikely it would fall now.

The door at the top was jammed shut. It took two kicks to loosen it; the third broke the latch, slamming the door open. Rin, off-balance from carrying Nia, stumbled through into the tower.

Sitting in the corner, staring at him with eyes that shone faintly in the darkness, was a Freaker.

Rin almost laughed out loud. There was no reason for it to be there. None at all. It just was, and that in itself was infuriating. All that way, all that they had gone through, and this was how it ended. A bloodstain in an airport tower no one would ever visit, a tower in a dead land filled with monsters.

The Freaker before him was smaller than the rest. It seemed thinner, too, almost emaciated. Its black uniform was torn but still resembled clothing, a memory it wore from habit, not necessity. Its skinless head resembled a jack-o-lantern, its leering mouth drawn taught against flat, triangular teeth. A demon with a pumpkin for a head, its rags like a cape, its claws scrabbling for a soul to drag down to the abyss.

Rin knew appearances meant nothing; they changed to adapt, to evolve. Shape was easy to manipulate with an Evo chip stuck in your spine, and terror was in their nature. Psychological warfare, even if they no longer knew what that meant.

For some reason, though, he wasn't scared. Death was literally staring him in the face, and he didn't care. Nothing mattered any more. Either he died, or the Freaker did, simple as that. The thought gave him courage, and he spoke, his words rattling harshly in the silence.

“Well? You've killed everything that matters to me. You took my family, my home, my whole damn country. So come get me! Don't chicken out now, you freak! Kill me! KILL ME!”

The Freaker moved. Whether it moved to attack, or was just changing position, Rin would never know. His brain had already clicked over into a state beyond thought as his Synch chip whirred to life.

Calculations. Millions of neurons firing in tandem.

One mind running two bodies. Breathing through two sets of lungs, one pair strong, one which hadn't done its job in twenty years. Two hearts, beating to different rhythms. Which was his? Another mind, the remains of the Freaker's human origins, pushing feebly at the invader. Circulation, involuntary motions, nerves, subconscious thought...

He was in too deep. Trying to control too much would overclock the Synch. The Freaker was trying to move; he stopped the signals. It was attempting to grow another arm, he halted that too. Expand, explode, compress, eject the brain; all attempts to fight him, all expected and frozen before the Freaker even realized it had created the thought.

A rogue command slipped through: Grow tougher. Attack incoming.

If Rin had had control of his face, he would have smiled. You want armor? Sure. More armor.

The Evo chip read the incoming instructions and reacted, hardening the Freaker's surface, pouring all available mass into armor. Internal organs, muscles, bones, everything liquified, turned to indestructible plating. The heart was the last to go, and when it went, the brain was without a source of power. Thoughts became mush, synapses died, and the last thing Rin felt was a signal from the Evo chip. A sort of electronic wave goodbye as the bit of technology evacuated its host.

The Synch severed properly; Rin was back in his own body. His eyes burned from the strain, and tears were streaming down his face. Through the blur, he saw the glint of green that was the Evo chip, sitting serenely atop the carbon-armor statue that had once been a Freaker.

A single projectile traced a supersonic line from man to monster, and the green light went out forever.

Rin's head was pounding, the world was beginning to slip away. Somehow, his hands found the tower's radio system, obsolete but still functional. His suit interfaced with it automatically, splicing his power box into the radio's wire system.

“Lieutenant Rinver Ireon to anyone that hears this. I am with an injured soldier, coordinates 40.6397 degrees north, 73.7789 degrees west. If you are foreign, we offer advanced weapons in return for evacuation from the Quarantine Zone. If you are Homeland... operation 'Hammer's Reach' has failed. FireLight has taken extreme casualties. Requesting immediate evacuation. Over.”

For the longest time, there was no answer. Rin's eyes closed several times, only to blink open a short while later. Time seemed to freeze, seemed to drag, seemed to race, as the radio hummed in flat monotone.

Then, a burst of static, and a voice like that of an angel.

“Rinver Ireon, this is FireLight overwatch, we read your signal. Stay put, we're coming to get you.”

In the darkness by the door, Nia's head turned, her eyelids fluttering slightly in a more natural sleep. Rin was too tired to feel any joy, bracing himself against the massive switchboard to see out the main viewport. The sun was struggling to shine through the clouds, dancing in disorganized rays across the endless wasteland of stone and steel. In the distance, an entire skyscraper gave way, thundering to bits with a muffled roar. Rin watched the cloud of dust settle, remembering what the city had once been. Remembering what the Freakers had stolen from the world.

“Someday... Someday I'll be back. You just watch yourselves. Rin's coming to get you, and when I'm done, this land will belong to mankind again. You just wait, you damn Freakers. You. Just. Wait.”


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