Tabitha did not know where she was, and she was very, very scared. The way home had never been this dark before, or this big. Everywhere she looked were unfamiliar buildings that rose up so high she couldn’t see the sky. Mommy had told her to come straight home, and she was a good girl, so she had, but somehow straight had become crooked and home had become something else.
The sidewalk was cold, like winter, but there was no snow on the ground, and though she could hear all the city people like they were right around the corner, whenever she ran towards them she found only another empty street.
All of the doors were locked, and there were no signs anywhere. She knew that if she could just find where she’d gotten lost that she could get back home and be safe as houses. Tabitha couldn’t find where she’d gotten lost, though. She couldn’t remember what she had done wrong at all, but she must have done something wrong because this was not where she was supposed to be.
After a very long while, Tabitha sat down on a bench on another empty street and began to cry. The tears were warm on her cheeks, and that made her cry even more. Her fingers were beginning to grow red with the cold, and she could see her breath in front of her face
Then, while she cried and called out for mommy to come find her, the voice began to speak to her. “Why does the little one make such noises?” the voice asked her. It was so shocking that Tabitha stopped crying immediately and looked around to see who had spoken. Even though she could hear the whole city all around her, it all sounded so very far away, but the voice seemed right up close.
There was no one under the bench, or in any of the doors or windows of the tall buildings. There was no one in her backpack either, only her school books and the drawing she made for mommy. When she got home she was going to show it to mommy, and then mommy would put it up on the refrigerator so everyone who came over could see. “Are you talking to me?” she asked the drawing.
“Of course it is not,” said the voice, and it laughed like snow falling on bare skin. It gave Tabitha the chills. “Unless the little one is full of more magic than she seems her drawings are not talking.”
“Then who is talking to me?”
“I wonder,” said the voice, and this time it felt like it was whispering in her ear. Tabitha jumped off of the bench and turned around, but there was only the empty sidewalk behind her, and the coarse red bricks of the building beyond. It was funny, but that building didn’t have a door, though Tabitha was quite sure it had used to. There were no windows either.
“Mommy said I am not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, and she held onto her backpack very tightly.
“What is mommy?” the voice asked, slipping along the wind and whisking through her hair.
“Mommy is my mommy. She takes care of me and takes me to school. She tucks me in at night and tells me stories.” This seemed like a very strange question to Tabitha. Everyone knew what a mommy was.
“Stories? What stories?” She felt the voice that time, tickling her neck, and she swatted at it like she did mosquitos when it got hot during the summer and they buzzed all around, but when she looked at her hand there was no red splotch of blood like when she squished mosquitos. There was nothing at all.
“Good stories,” she said. “She tells me the good stories like Sleeping Beauty. Do you know Sleeping Beauty?”
“No,” said the voice, tickling her again. “What is a Sleeping Beauty?”
Tabitha knew that she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but she was very scared and the voice was the only thing she had to talk to. Talking made her feel safer. “Sleeping Beauty was a princess who was cursed by an evil witch. Then she was raised by fairies.”
“Fairies. The little one knows fairies? Fairies who raise little ones like Sleeping Beauty?”
Tabitha nodded. “Yes, I know them. Mommy tells me stories about fairies. She told me Sleeping Beauty touched a bad needle, and she fell asleep. And then the fairies helped a prince to come rescue her, and he kissed her and broke the spell.”
“Is the little one a prince?”
At this Tabitha giggled, though it sounded very much not like her. “No, silly. I’m a girl. Mommy says I’m her princess, but I’m not really. Mommy is a nurse. Princesses have queens for mommies.”
“I am not silly!” This time the voice was so very cold that it burned, and Tabitha shouted in surprise. She grabbed her neck and her fingers came back all covered in frost. She was frightened again.
“Excuse me, but do you know where my house is? I want to go home, please.”
The voice hissed, and the street became ice. Tabitha stepped away from the curb and bumped into the bench, falling over. Her backpack fell from her hands, and her books and pencils scattered all over. She began to pick them up as quick as she could.
“Silly? The little one thinks I am silly. The little one knows nothing!” The ice began to crawl across the road towards the sidewalk like an ooze. Great heaps of it lifted from the ground and crashed back down again. Tabitha quickly picked up her books and her pencils and her picture for mommy, put them back into her backpack and began to run away from the icy voice.
Then another voice began to laugh. This one was like cinders from the fireplace landing on Tabitha’s skin, and she shrieks and swatted at the painful spots, but the fire voice only kept laughing. “Silly! It is silly, isn’t it? The little one knows more than stories, it does!”
The fire voice made the ice voice even madder, and it whispered, “Off and away! You know nothing of little ones and stories, you!”
The ice from the street was up on the sidewalk now, and began to come after Tabitha with a sound like breaking glass each time it moved, but the fire voice laughed again, and the ice turned to water at the edges and splashed away. “I know of silly, and that it is,” it said. “It asks the little one questions of mommies and princes. It knows not the name of the little one.”
“Girl, it is!” The icy voice swept over her back, and her hair froze to her face. “Girl it names itself, and is, and was. You are not welcome! Away!”
The fire voice laughed again, and it felt like opening an oven. Her hair melted away and fell against her neck in wet slops. Tabitha kept running. “Welcome I am,” the fire voice said. “Welcome it is not. See how the little one runs. Away from silliness, as it names you.”
“Enough!” The ice voice filled the street with a wind colder than anything Tabitha had ever felt. In a moment the tall buildings and the empty sidewalks were all covered in snow and ice. Tabitha’s shoes slipped on it, and she fell to the ground and heard something go pop. Her leg hurt so very bad all at once, and she began to cry again. her tears were no longer warm against her cheeks, but froze in her eyes, blinding her.
The fire voice did not reply, and the ice did not melt away. Tabitha cried for her mommy to come get her. She apologized for becoming so very lost, and she promised to be a good girl from now on. The ice voice whispered to her, a cool breath in her ear. it said, “The little one is loud. I do not like loud. The little one will stop now.”
And then she was cold. So terribly, awfully cold that she couldn’t breathe, or cry or even think anymore. She saw something then, a woman above her, but it was so hard to see through the frozen tears and with everything becoming so dark. For a moment she thought it was mommy, but mommy had never had so many teeth. So many many teeth.
You know why I don’t off myself? Why I don’t just put the barrel down my throat and eat a lead lunch? It’d be so easy. I mean, I been hurt; bad. I’ve seen things and been places that’d make a normal person just wanna check out early, thanks for visiting, have a nice trip. My best days are behind me, and they have been for a while. I mean, I wouldn’t even have to do much. Slow down on the throttle a little when the autocannons line up. Boom. Say goodnight. It’s not hard. Hell, living’s harder. But you know why I don’t just sit back and let the reaper take me? Why I make the cloak and the scythe wait one more day?
It’s the little things. I know it sounds dumb, but when the big stuff’s gone, well… That’s all you got left, and man, those things are sweet. I wanna know who’s gonna win the championships next year, and if they’re ever gonna catch Monaghan on The Bounty Hunters. Those things keep me going. Call it curiosity, or adventure, whatever. It’s what keeps me going. The smell of fresh snow in the morning before anyone’s walked on it. The rhythm of a stripper’s hips. Watching a new guy’s face light up when he sees his ‘Mech all lit up and grand for the first time. Knowing that the last sound Diane Haussman ever heard was her baby crying in the other room before I caved her skull in with a toilet seat. The little things. Read the rest of this entry
The Commando crashed through the trees at a dead sprint. Branches and trunks shattered with sharp cracks as the 25 ton war machine rushed through the forest at nearly 100 kilometers per hour. Inside the Battlemech’s cockpit, Kay was boiling in her own sweat. Humidity fogged up the screens on her instruments and moisture collected on the inside of her cockpit canopy, dripping down in long, thin rivulets that streaked the armored glass.
She’d been pushing the machine to its limits for three hours now, and the fusion engine below the cockpit was straining with excess heat, far more than the Commando’s heat sinks could possibly handle on their own. A warning light flashed on one of the consoles, and for the fifth time in as many minutes Kay slapped the override for the machine’s automatic safety shutdown. Down below her, in the torso of the humanoid machine, a half ton of short range missiles cooked in the heat. At any moment something could give, and the Commando would be ripped apart in a cacophony of explosions as its own ammunition cooked off, the force doubly destructive as it was trapped in the armor plating of the machine. Kay tried not to think about it.
She needed to cool the machine down, to let it rest for a few minutes while the coolant systems bled off the excess heat, or maybe she could take a dip in a river, pop open the cockpit hatch and go for a swim herself. The cool water on her skin would drive away this fatigue instantly. She’d be better off for it, able to think clearly and react faster. Who was she kidding?
The nimble ‘Mech dodged around a gully, and that’s when the Drac hit. The Combine ‘Mech had been hidden in the shallow draw of a narrow stream, waiting for an unwary enemy to approach. Kay had stumbled right into its trap. It dove forward, out of the gully and slammed into the Commando with a shoulder tackle, sending both machines reeling to the ground. Kay’s Commando rolled across the ground, its momentum flinging it far to the right. It slammed up against an ancient tree, stopping it dead, and Kay heard the wrenching of metal and shattering of wood as the behemoth of technology crashed into the behemoth of nature. More warning lights flashed in her cockpit and Kay shouted in frustration and rage as she pulled the Commando back to its feet.
Her sensors finally got a good look at the Combine machine. The scarlet ‘Mech was humanoid, with long, thin legs and arms that ended in blunt, gaping tubes that housed the machine’s primary weapons, four plasma flamers. Kay’s blood went cold. She was facing a Firestarter. Normally, the damage the 35 ton Firestarter could do to other ‘Mechs was negligible, the hot flames pouring out from the machine’s weapons doing almost nothing to the heavy armor of a Battlemech, but they were notorious for overwhelming the cooling systems of their targets, roasting pilots alive inside their own machines. With Kay’s Commando as heat taxed as it already was, the machine was an even deadlier threat.
She quickly brought her Commando’s right arm up and let fly with her short range missiles. Immediately the heat in her cockpit skyrocketed, drawing out stifled moan of discomfort as her cooling vest tried to keep her core body temperature down by pumping coolant through tubes against her naked skin. It didn’t feel like it was doing any good. Six explosions detonated across the Firestarter, staggering it, and Kay broke away, darting into the forest, hoping to lose the Combine ‘Mech. The proposition wasn’t likely though. The Firestarter was just as fast as her Commando, and it mounted four jump jets, letting it clear the top of the forest canopy with physics defying leaps that would let it easily avoid obstacles the Commando would have to slow down to avoid. Kay was in a losing battle, and she knew it.
Just as she’d predicted, the Firestarter leaped up through the trees, and then fire rained down all around the Commando. Kay dodged right, avoiding the stream of fire easily. ‘Mech targeting systems, centuries old and patched together with refits and lost knowledge, were no longer adequate for firing weapons while the ‘Mech was thrust above battlefields on plumes of superheated air, making shots like the one the Firestarter was attempting virtually impossible, but it wasn’t aiming for the Commando. All around her, the forest was ablaze, and the Commando’s heat warning shrilled wildly, screaming for attention. Kay slapped the override again and prayed that the last of her missiles would remain quiet in their ammunition bin. She pushed the ‘Mech as hard as it could go, its footfalls rapid and sure through the blazing forest, trying to escape the fire. Then the Firestarter landed in front of her.
Kay lurched to the side, the whine of the Commando’s gyros whirring audibly as they compensated for the sudden shift, struggling to maintain the ‘Mech’s balance. Twin flashes of emerald energy lanced through the place where the Commando had been just moments before as the Firestarter fired its lasers. Kay responded with her own laser, and the beam scored a long line of superheated armor across the Firestarter’s chest. The heat in Kay’s cockpit climbed even higher, and stinging sweat fell into her eyes, blurring her vision. She was going to pass out any moment. Then her ‘Mech would be helpless, a lifeless husk with no brain to operate its limbs; paralyzed.
She shouted, defiant, and drove her Commando forward. The Firestarter outweighed her own machine by ten tons, nearly twice as big as her Commando, but it was caught flat footed, not expecting Kay’s sudden, desperate charge. The Commando hit the Firestarter low, and wrapped its arms around the other machine’s waist as it drove forward on pistoning, powerful legs. Kay heard the whine and rap of the Firestarter’s pair of machineguns, mounted on its chest, pouring point blank into the Commando. Even the small, anti-personnel rounds of the machineguns could take its toll on the Commando’s armor eventually, and it was only a matter of time before the ‘Mech’s armor was chewed away and the vulnerable internal workings were exposed. Luckily, wrapped as she was, with arms around the larger ‘Mech, it couldn’t bring its flamethrowers or lasers to bear.
She plowed through the forest, driving the off balance Firestarter before her and away from the forest fire as it tried to beat her off with its own blunt arms. Each hit from the heavier machine rocked Kay in her cockpit, and deformed armor from the already painfully vulnerable rear of the Commando. Roaring a battle cry, she finally managed to heave the Firestarter down to the ground in the middle of a sunlit clearing, the fifteen meter tall wrestlers dropping in a pile of mechanical limbs, the more vicious Commando on top.
From this position Kay pinned the Firestarter’s arms down to the ground, then triggered her chest mounted SRMs. Molten armor ricocheted from Kay’s cockpit canopy, but the Firestarter still struggled. She fired again, and again, each time bringing the terrified wails of her heat sirens blasting into her ears, but she didn’t stop. Her HUD flashed for a moment, then was gone, the delicate electronics fried by the heat. With one last terrible explosion, the Firestarter went still, gutted completely and nearly shorn in half at the waist from the barrage of the Commando’s missiles. Kay’s ammo bins were dry, which was an ironic comfort. She didn’t have to worry about those missiles exploding inside of her own ‘Mech anymore.
The Commando sat atop the broken Combine ‘Mech for several long seconds, its arms splayed out to the sides as Kay tried to offer the air as much surface area as possible, letting the ‘Mech cool just a little bit faster. In this position the Commando looked like a satisfied lover, spent and content, basking in the pure light of the morning sun, her partner exhausted beneath her. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Kay popped the hatch of her cockpit, and the cool autumn air rushed in, raising goosebumps across her bare arms and thighs.
There was a crackle and hiss of static before a voice broke through her miraculously still functional communications system. “Charlie Company, Ranger Actual. Drop ships are confirmed touched down, rendezvous thirty klicks North of last reported position. Charlie company, do you read?”
Kay stared wearily at the comms, then pressed the transmit button, “This is Kay. Charlie’s bought it. We got separated in the forest. Lieutenant’s down. Proceeding to rendezvous.”
The voice on the comms sounded unsteady as it said, “Roger Charlie. I’m… I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Kay said, shutting the Commando’s canopy and once again trapping herself in the stifling, draining heat of war. “Me too.”
I had no idea where the monkey got the sword, but I was sure as hell glad he knew how to use it.
I was standing in the middle of a room full of the dead and dying in my chain mail bikini, clutching my Smith and Wesson. On the surface I’m a pretty average looking guy. I’ve got a bit of a paunch around my middle, and I’ve got a growing bald patch in the back, but I like to think that I’m beautiful on the inside.
One of the Bar-Freaks came at me, and I put an old world .500 mag round through his face, popping his head nice and neat. This calmed the Bar-Freaks down pretty damn quick, and I waved my gun around to make a point. “Anybody else got a problem with me or the monkey?”
Jimbo wiped his sword clean on a corpse’s tattered vest, then sheathed it in a smooth, graceful motion. He was a Japanese Macaque, about twenty three pounds, and missing an eye. I assume he lost it in a duel, since, being a monkey, he didn’t really talk very much about that kind of thing. He wore that flowing samurai garb, complete with a family crest showing a bunch of bananas, which I’m pretty sure aren’t native to Japan.
You’d think, with a pair like us, people wouldn’t try to start anything, but for some reason every time we go anywhere trouble just seems to start up. “You,” I said, pointing my gun at the bartender’s face. “Did you put them up to this?”
“Aww no way, man,” the bartender said, his hands way up towards the rusty tin ceiling. “You know Bar-Freaks, man. There’s no controlling them! They just like, come in here, and they like, get their drink on, then whammo, ya know? It’s like herding piranha, man! You guys gonna clean this up?”
I looked to Jimbo, who casually looked around the room with his one good eye before crawling up my back to sit on my shoulder. “Nah,” I said. “I think that’s your job.”
“Screw you, man!” The bartender started to reach for something under the bar, and Jimbo’s sword clicked as he loosened it in the sheathe. the bartender seemed to think better of messing with me and the monkey, then. “What am I supposed to do, man? I don’t got any help, dudes. It’ll take me all day to clean this shit up!”
I looked around. There were a good dozen Bar-Freaks lying scattered across the bar, the alcohol addicts and the drug addicts all mixed in together in one big bloody pile. A couple were still breathing, holding the stumps of severed limbs or trying to push their guts back in, but they were being pretty quiet about it, so Jimbo and I left them to it. The rest of them, the ones who’d been too smart or too slow to get in on the action from the get go, were huddled round in corners, rubbing themselves awkwardly and trying to look like normal customers, but it was a waste. I could spot a Bar-Freak from a mile away. It’s the sunken in eyes that are the dead giveaway. A lot of people tend to rely on the fact that most Bar-Freaks have got a few extra arms or noses, but some of them would sneak around, trying to act like normal, upstanding, moral citizens.
I stuck my revolver into my bikini bottom, then took a seat at the bar. “Listen bartender, what’s your name?”
“Man, I ain’t got no name. You know we ain’t got no names. Bartenders are strictly neutral, man. We ain’t nobody, and we like it that way.”
“Well I’m Offer,” I said, pulling a cigarette from my bikini top. “And I’m a registered sex offender. You know what that means, bartender?”
He looked between my and Jimbo, “It means you and the monkey are an item?”
“You’re goddamn right it does,” I said. “And if anybody’s got a problem with it they can say it to our faces, got it?” Jimbo nodded as solemnly as a Macaque can, and the bartender swallowed hard.
“So, uhh… What can I help you guys with?”
“I heard Barbie Black’s in town, is that true?”
“Aww holy shit, man, Barbie Black? You’re after Barbie Black? Man, people gotta live in this town! There ain’t no excuse for this kinda shit. We got lives, man! We got livings to make!”
Jimbo screeched, and I leaned over the bar to grab the bartender by his filthy mop of hair. “Listen to me, you no name asshole, I don’t care who has to what in this armpit of a town, but I’ll let you know one goddamn thing for sure. If you don’t tell me where Barbie Black is then I’m gonna burn this whole mother down, and nobody’s walking away clean from that mess, you hear me?”
“Yeah man, shit, okay! Just like, try to keep it away from my bar, dude! I got big enough problems without a couple of head hunters trying to erase the Black, ya know?”
“We aren’t headhunters,” I said, letting go of the weasly little snake and turning to leave. “Barbie Black done Jimbo wrong, and I aim to show that bitch that nobody messes with my monkey.”
It’s the screaming that I’ll never forget. The Imperial Guard were not prepared for this kind of mission, and The Hammer of the Emperor, blessed be their mission, failed in their duty before we had even landed on that cursed rock the Cult Mechanicus had named Ulric. The guardsmen in the drop-ship were shouting blasphemies the second we breached the atmosphere, and despite the shaking and sudden lurches in all directions that the ship was taking, the platoon’s priest and commissar were making the rounds with prayers and laspistol, attending to the lost.
This was my very first mission. I was still a novice in the order and had never fired my bolter in anger before. I can imagine how I must have looked then, too thin neck sticking out of my power armor, trembling as I watched each gibbering soldier cut down, reciting my prayers with a stammering voice as Sister Superior Halquin led us in benediction against the foul creatures we were about to face. I think I might have pissed myself, I’m not completely sure.
We’d been briefed by Inquisitor Argus Fane, may the Emperor keep his soul, on what we faced upon this blighted world. Apparently the Mechanicus had been running a research facility here and performed some heresy or other in one of their experiments. Within a week the facility had gone rogue, corrupted by the warp energies they had released, and within a month there was a full-blown daemon incursion on the world. To this day I don’t know why Fane didn’t simply call exterminatus on the world and whatever reasons he had for mounting this assault died with him on Ulric. He’d called upon every resource he could muster to attack Ulric, and they were considerable. Three companies of Imperial Guard, the fourth and first companies of the Harbingers Astartes chapter and our own Cleansing Fire commandery landed on Ulric, and directly into hell.
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