[Reaper, give your fix,] Staff Sergeant Winston ‘Hatchet’ Speh subvocalized. [I’m heading down Hall Eighteen Bravo. No grims in sight.]
His eyes darted around. Emergency lighting from a flood light on his six bathed the wide hall in a faint jaundice yellow glow. Concrete rubble littered the ground, with bullet holes taking the concrete’s former place in the walls. Water sussuring from a broken pipe somewhere in the vast hallway had soaked the ceiling to the point it was raining. The air was rank with putridness like he had just stepped into a wastewater sewer, and a civilian slumped against a wall, ten feet down on the right side. Almost like the guy was sleeping with a mess of yarn on his lap; but yarn wasn’t rubbery, bloody, and filled with literal shit and undigested lunch. The chap had been split open from pelvis to sternum.
“Shit. Ain’t no one around,” Winston whispered.
No one. Not Reaper. Queen. Javelin. Ghost. Cleaver. All of them fuck knows where. Civilians were scattered, panicked, terrified. Pushed to the irrational and fucking killing each other like rats frantically trying to escape a goddamn sinking ship. Power was sporadic with dwindling oxygen and climbing CO2. Half the cesspit wanted to legit murder him and his five fellow Black Dragons. And a there were bunch of wow I’ve finally snapped and have gone full insane things that were as brutal as the Grim Reaper itself; hence the name.
“Suppose things could be worse,” he muttered and then glanced at the eight-inch black blade he held. Aside from his appendages it was the only weapon he had. While the grims were doing a bang up job at excising the wicked from the arcology like a doctor expelling puss from a pimple, there were still a few hundred humans who wanted the six ARIES Team 2 “Black Dragons” to vacate the premises. “Not sure how though.”
Overhead hallway lighting abruptly turned on. Winston blinked rapidly against the sudden light blindness and then let out a long breath. Red painted every surface in sight like a hundred cans of spray paint had exploded at once. Holy mother of all that is holy that isn’t just concrete, it’s, it’s, Jesus it looks like a family was put through a ricer. His eyes narrowed, gaze focusing on an oddity down the hall. Anything to keep from actively dwelling on what he was walking through. Black Dragons had seen some shit, been involved in some seriously grievous trash, but there was a breaking point to the human mind.
His grip shifted on his knife handle, which he realized now was coated, like himself, not in water but blood. Fuck, how many people would have to be opened up to make it rain with their fluid? The oddity that had been hidden in shadow before kept his gaze though. It looked like a weathered canvas painting, fraying at the edges and stapled to the wall. Stepping lightly, he found it a bit amusing how the mind automatically responded to new information.
“What in the motherfuck?” The words leapt from his lips without thought as it all came into view and clicked at once. Skin. Human skin slapped to the wall so hard that it stuck.
A boom. A scream. Winston spun on a heel, arm flashing out and sending the knife arrowing into the chest of a naked screaming man before the crazy had made it all of three steps into the hall. While gravity hastened the man to the ground, Winston bounded over to the corpse. He snatched the blade free on his way past and into the apartment home.
The layout was identical to every other apartment in Olympus Mons Arcology. An eleven hundred square foot floorplan he and his team had committed to memory before leaving Earth for Mars. A dual-purpose living/dining room upon immediate entry. A kitchen lay through an entryway on the right near the back-right corner. A hallway eleven feet from the main entry that cut left leading to a room on the right, a full bath on the left and a bedroom just beyond the full bath. A half bath attached to that last bedroom. Inside eleven seconds he had each room cleared and then began work on searching for the palmlet that came with every apartment in the arcology.
The bedroom with attached bath was sad by any measure. A twin-sized air mattress was pushed against a corner. Cardboard boxes, six of them, all filled with clothing, had taken up space in the closet. They were now strewn about the room as Winston made a quick peek into the half-bath. Three shampoo bottles, a bar of soap, and a pink trash can. He snagged the trash can and felt his way through the contents on his way to other bedroom, which he found empty as if no one lived in the apartment.
At the edge of the hall leading into the dual-purpose room, Winston halted. Every part of his being told him to run. Hide. Cower. Find safety. Preserve the self. Sweat suddenly beaded from his palms. His heart began beating so hard it vibrated his entire torso. Horripilation rose and fell across his body. His pupils shrank to pinpoints and it felt like trying to breathe with a pillow over the face. The only thing that kept the knife gripped with nonsensical fingers and his knees from giving out was an innate arrogance that he, Staff Sergeant Winston “Hatchet” Speh was the baddest motherfucker in any given room at any given time.
Lifting a foot that felt as if it were encased in solid lead, Winston stepped fully into the dual-purpose room. Slowly he turned his head to the left, his gaze resting on the grim framing the entryway to the kitchen. Roads were black. Charcoal was black. This was less black and more the absence of light. A night terror given flesh. Wrongness solidified. The primal part of Winston’s brain screamed at him to look away. A fuck all attitude against weakness kept his eyes fixed on the thing and still it was nigh impossible to form an accurate description in his head. It stood on two legs or four or perhaps floated on a twitching tail. Maybe it had a head like a person. Maybe it didn’t. The visual largely would not stay fixed in memory, though one thing he did perceive was the unnatural sharpness of it. Like looking at even the most advanced android out there and getting that sense it was not natural, so to did this grim give off. It was that gut feeling that allowed higher order thinking to take control, once again.
The powered exoskeleton that was epoxied to his skin and also held by magnets attached to bones, and was also now hanging in places by makeshift straps, surged. Winston threw himself across the room and out the door like he was shot out of a cannon. If anything, the grim was faster. Something hard clipped his back just as he passed the threshold and threw him hard against the far wall. Pain ripped from the right clavicle as the magnet on the bone forcibly disengaged from the exoskeleton and then snapped back into place.
Taking advantage of momentum, Winston twisted like a cat and then rolled shoulder over shoulder across the wall. Concrete erupted like a volcano exploding with the grim passing through three inches of block and into an apartment home. A brief scream from an unlucky civilian followed the explosion of wall. Winston pushed off his wall with a foot, bounded several steps down the hall and then fell into a fighting stance.
He arched an eyebrow when the grim did not immediately reappear in the hallway. Weird. His eyes flicked to the macabre canvas stuck to the hallway wall some ways away and his eyes widened at the realization. Holy fuck that’s fucked. He then broke into a jog and glanced at hands that now held nothing but air. I need a gun and a palmlet…and my team.
[Black Dragons,] he subvocalized. [Where the fuck are you?]