Chapter 26 TRIGGER FINGER
Haides walked down yet another dusty street. It was well into the afternoon. The sun was halfway between its zenith and the horizon. In the ruined city, it was hot as a baker’s oven, unusual this late in the year. There were only a few people out and about, but Haides could feel many more pairs of eyes staring at him from behind barred doors and closed windows. It made the boy uncomfortable. This was not his way. The way of Haides was the unseen way, the way of stealth. But it had to be done. Honor demanded it. He set his teeth and kept walking.
The gun was in Haides’s right hand, a heavy weight straining against the muscles of his lean body. The boy loved the feel of it. He didn’t attempt to hide it; the gunmetal was plain to see for anyone with a mind to look. It was sort of the point, for his fellow Akakians to see the crazy whoreson coming into town, waving his gun around, looking for trouble. High above, the brace of surveillance drones hovered, tiny dots unseen and unheard by the ground-dwellers. Hidden down Haides’s pants, the locator-coin hummed out its invisible signals. And somewhere behind—hopefully not too far—four GIs were coming, armed and ready for trouble. They were taking an awful risk by helping the boy—it was only fair he share in the danger.
Nik roamed to the right, going across what had once been a local green. Haides had a vague memory of having had a picnic there, but it could have been another place like it. Now the little park was a charnel pit, the ground churned to pieces by metal tracks, the trees burned when the ammunition supplies aboard a tank had exploded and set everything in the vicinity ablaze. The wreck was still there. Nik took the opportunity to piss on the scorched and rusted metal before moving on. Bits and pieces of charred bone protruded from the dried mud. Coalition or Akakian soldiers? It was impossible to tell. Nor did it matter. In death, all humans were equal.
On the south-eastern corner of the green stood a mansion that seemed to belong out in the hill country but had been misplaced in the middle of the city. Without a lock and access to the Grid, Haides had no way of knowing who had lived there. It didn’t matter. The building had been shelled repeatedly and riddled with small-arms fire. Whoever had owned the place was long gone by the looks of it. A low wall of bricks with a spiked wrought-iron fence framed the compound. The burned-out tank—or maybe another like it—had run through the wall on the north side and exited where the front gate used to sit, facing the green.
Nik had led them true. This was the place where they had taken Mother. Below the walled compound, there was a reinforced shelter, complete with hidden escape tunnels, built long ago to protect the mansion’s owners. A ruin atop a secret bunker. An excellent location to set up a hidden base.
Standing near the ruined gate were two men. They looked like ordinary civilians, save they were better fed and carried Akakian issue autoguns. One had a scavenged combat vest, the other made do with a belt with some ammo pouches attached. They seemed bored, talking in low tones and sharing a smoke between them, not caring too much about their guard duties. Haides recognized them both. They had been there.
Insurgents. Terrorists. Militia. Freedom fighters. Guerrillas. Any of those terms might be applied to these men. They were also simple rapists and murderers. Neither had played a very active role in Mother’s undignified end, but they had both been present at her ‘trial,’ and when the ‘sentence’ had been carried out, which made them, at the very least, guilty by association. In Haides’s mind, there could be only one verdict: death.
The distance must have been around sixty paces when the boy brought the gun up. Father had owned two shotguns and an antique hunting rifle. In his younger days, he’d hunted fowl and some game, but when Haides grew up, the guns sat idle in the gun locker. There was his militia rifle, of course, but before the war, he’d never brought it home. His actual shooting experience was limited to the occasional bout at fairs and such. Haides had never actually fired the autopistol. Needless to say, he’d never fired a weapon at another living person.
Sixty paces with an autopistol was a challenge for a competitive shooter using a target pistol. For Haides, it was easy. He stopped and brought the gun up with both hands. The two men loomed like giants in the gunsight. He couldn’t possibly miss. Haides pulled the trigger without hesitation. He’d heard that shooting at another person was hard, especially the first time. The boy felt nothing of the kind. Not that first time, nor at any later time. He did have the heart of a sniper after all.
A burst of small-caliber, high-velocity bullets sped out from the barrel of the little gun, crossed sixty paces of air in a fraction of a second, and hit the older of the two men, the one with the makeshift utility belt. He must have been wearing a flak vest underneath his dirty militia jacket because Haides didn’t see any blood where the rounds struck. The body armor didn’t provide protection against the two projectiles that made minced meat of his left arm, however. Nor did it protect his neck from the bullet that ripped open his jugular vein. He went down, gurgling and coughing, as his life flowed red onto the dusty ground.
The younger man had lightning-quick reflexes, probably cyber-augmented. He threw himself back and to the right, seeking cover behind the ruined brick wall. Haides kept squeezing the trigger and walked his aim. There was no way for the enemy to dodge out of the way of so many bullets. He disappeared behind the wall, but Haides knew he’d hit the target multiple times. And this guy wasn’t wearing any vest, the red ruin that had been his chest testified to that.
Two men were dead by his hand, easy as that. The autopistol had run dry. The boy hadn’t brought any spare clips. The sudden silence hung heavy over the mansion and the ruined park. Haides knew it wouldn’t last. It was like the calm before the storm. Soon all hell would break loose, and he would be standing there with an empty gun in his hand.
Haides took a deep breath and tried to focus. The foray into rebel territory had gone better than expected. They had hit pay dirt on the first try. Now it was up to Luca and his brothers from another mother. All Haides had to do was lead the enemy to them. Shouldn’t be too hard.
Someone, more than one person, shouted from somewhere inside the building. The was a crack, like a gunshot, but Haides’s mind couldn’t understand what was happening. A strange, whistling sound as a bullet passed right by the boy’s ear. That brought Haides out of the daze. He dropped the empty gun, twisted around, and ran like he had the Great Serpent Apep, He-Who-Dwells-Below, snapping at his heels.
He ran flat out for a hundred meters, right across the ruined green, to the sound of thunderous gunfire. His luck held—not a single shot hit his scrawny back. Haides stopped briefly in the shadow of the tank wreck to catch his breath and chanced a glance towards the mansion. Another bullet twanged against the blackened metal. The ricochet went through his shirt, less than a centimeter from soft flesh.
He’d gotten their attention all right. At least a dozen, probably more, men and women were hauling ass across the old green. They were armed with a mix of civilian weapons, militia autoguns, and Coalition pulsers. It was enough firepower to kill a kid like Haides a thousand times over. The boy wasn’t too concerned, though. The dead tank provided the perfect cover. All he had to do was run towards the GIs. The Khinoes would run after him and into the trap. Game, set, and match.
The plan went straight into the Abyss. An all-terrain buggy burst out through the gap in the wall and started to loop around the flank. It was packed with a handful more men, and the heavy autogun mounted on the crash-bar was fully armed and operational.
“By Horus’s teats!” Haides cursed and got back on his feet. Then he ran as he had never run before in his life.
He made it all the way across the green and a bit down the street before the first shells zipped past. If the shooter had been a trained gunner, young Haides would have died right there. But the man didn’t know what he was doing. Instead of using the proximity fuse setting, he just kept hammering shots downrange like the cannon was an overgrown pea-shooter.
Haides dashed for a nearby corner and dove into a narrow side street. The move bought him a precious few seconds of life. He kept running until his breath came in ragged gulps, and he could feel the taste. Where the hell is Luca?
The buggy came around the corner the same instant Haides got out of the side street and onto a residential thoroughfare. That brought a few more seconds of life. He could run no further. He could barely keep from collapsing, so he threw himself behind a staircase of mortared red stones and prayed fervently to both Artemis and Loki to keep him hidden, to make the enemy drive past.
Whether or not the gods heard the prayer, he would never know, for the hiding place wasn’t put to the test. One moment the buggy came roaring down the road, cannon ready to spew death. Next, there was a whooshing sound, followed by an explosion as painfully loud as it was unexpected. The wreck of the buggy came tumbling down the street, shedding burning pieces of metal and broken people.
Haides turned his head and saw Mazzo standing there, less than a hundred meters down the street, half exposed, with a long tube over his shoulder. In less time than it took the boy to blink—that’s how it felt anyway—the gruff GI had discarded the spent missile launcher and was back into cover.
If Haides was going to keep playing with guns, he had better get these soldiers to show him how to do it properly. Because right then and there, he realized he was so totally out of his league it wasn’t even funny. He was like a dry leaf, totally at the mercy of the winds, possessing no means of choosing his own path. That had to change. If he lived through the day.
Haides was brought back to reality by Sarge, dropping into a crouch next to the stairs. He looked dead serious as he put a finger to his lips in the age-old signal for ‘shut up, you stupid piece of shit, or I’ll kill you myself, now get out of my fucking way.’ He readied his assault weapon and then signaled back towards Mazzo.
Mazzo sprang up and rushed forward a dozen meters. Rovo appeared from nowhere and dashed—as fast as his gun rig would allow—down the road, taking up position across the street. No sooner was he in place before Mazzo moved again. Luca was nowhere to be seen, but Haides knew he would be nearby, probably up high and watching through the Eye.
Next thing, insurgents on foot were piling into the street. The men were somewhat agitated by the fact that someone—obviously not a little kid—had blown up their precious buggy and killed their comrades.
Haides couldn’t see very well from his position, wedged in between Sarge and the building. He felt oddly touched that the Coalition sergeant would use his own body as a shield. The boy would not have done the same for him—or anyone else. Haides knew he should keep his head down—but had another, stronger urge to see what went down, so peered over the edge to look.
The GIs waited until most of the insurgents had come into the open, but not as long as to give them time to reorganize and take up defensive positions. Luca opened the show with a shot to the head. If the rebel squad had a leader, he just died. That was the cue for general mayhem to commence. Sarge leaned over the edge of the stone stairs and let rip with his assault weapon at two insurgents. Both died quickly, torn to shreds by an angry swarm of anti-personnel and high-explosive flechettes. The big noncom switched to suppressive fire, spraying the street with lethal metal. The range wasn’t ideal terrain for a scatter-type weapon, but flechette ammo gives better accuracy than your average buckshot.
A rifle grenade came sailing through the air around the same time. It hit the surface of the road, smack in the middle of the biggest group of insurgents, bounced up about a meter, and then exploded in a cloud of shrapnel. There was smoke and flame and blood and screaming. Mazzo really was something with that grenade launcher.
Rovo let rip with the pulse cannon. Short, controlled bursts of energy lashed out at the enemy. Haides had seen pulse fire before, but never this close and intense. It looked exactly like the little lightning bolts Luca had described. A whole storm of them, sheets of lighting coming down the street, tearing into the ranks of the Khiones. There was so much fire going downrange from those triple rotating barrels that Haides hardly noticed Mazzo adding his rifle to the barrage, nor Luca meticulously picking off targets from his elevated position. Haides vowed never to get caught in the open like that.
The boy was mesmerized. Such unbridled violence. So much death. It was terrifying—and strangely beautiful at the same time.
Sarge’s voice cut through the din of battle. “Move boy, we’re falling back.” When Haides looked around, confused as hell, he shoved the boy none too gently in the right direction. “Back to Rovo’s position. Fast as you can. I’ll cover you,” he shouted into Haides’s dirty face.
So he did. Slap, slap, slap his little feet went against the pavement. The enemy’s return fire didn’t touch him. Neither did fear. Haides was high as a cyber-kite on adrenaline and felt invincible.
The rest of the squad followed. Soon Haides and his companions were hustling down deserted streets filled with nothing but rubble and lined with ruined buildings. The enemy didn’t seem inclined to pursue.
Vengeance had been delivered in full. Perhaps Mother’s troubled soul would find the rest in death it had never found in life. Surely Hades would welcome her gladly, now that he had been paid handsomely in bloody coin.
They rendezvoused with Luca at a predesignated location—an abandoned building that wasn’t completely ruined, a distance north-east of the Forbidden Zone.
“That, boy,” Luca said, “was one of the most reckless things I’ve seen in my life.”
He wasn’t angry, not for real. Haides could tell by the tone in his voice.
“Those shots...how did you manage? The range was over forty meters, well over forty meters. I saw it on the drone display. Even an expert pistol shooter would be hard-pressed to do that. Under optimal conditions.”
Haides’s body was shaking from exhaustion and the aftereffects of repeated adrenaline surges. He didn’t have to put on too much of an act. “I...I can’t explain it. I just knew they were guilty, so I did what seemed best at the time...I just brought up the pistol and fired...kept firing until it was empty. Then I ran.”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Luca patted Haides on the shoulder. “Don’t do that again, kid. It was a miracle that you hit them both, a miracle that you didn’t get killed, and a miracle you ran straight into our arms.”
Haides didn’t know about miracles. Put a gun in my hand, and I’ll do it again.