The hummer was wrecked, so Mancini radioed in and was told he needed to hoof it down to the NYCEM, a distance of about four miles.
“We can make that in an hour if we go carefully,” said Mancini, putting his radio away. “Nothing we’re not used to.”
“Let me guess,” said Serenity. “They want us to come in for more meetings?”
“A debrief, yes. What you saw the Nemesis 2’s doing…” Mancini trailed off, expression bleak.
Serenity laughed, the sound jagged. “It’s three in the morning, I’ve been sober for longer than I can remember, and now we need to go back for more meetings? I’m starting to understand what the real horror of this apocalypse is.”
“Decisions are going to be made,” said Mancini. “You’ll want to be there.”
“Decisions are never made,” said Serenity. “Other than to have more meetings to discuss making future decisions.”
James stepped up beside her. “Hey.”
She turned, stared at him, her expression a mixture of hostile, lost, furious, and devastated. He held her gaze, hand on her shoulder, and just took in what he was seeing.
He’d seen it before.
Far too many times.
Some people deteriorate on the street. It grinds them down. The endless litany of small indignities punctuated by sharp moments of violence or abuse. A gradual erosion of their sense of self, the implosion of their pride, the allure of temptation, of drugs or booze or theft or violence.
James had come to recognize a certain look. Folks would get it just before things got really dark, as if some instinctual part of them realized they were about to lose their bearings forever. Or, at least, that’s how it felt in the moment, because there were no forever’s on the street.
A look that warned that something fundamental about them was about to snap like a slender twig between their fingers. One more push and they’d go over the edge, accept the offered needle, shoplift stupidly, consider walking out into the night without any intention of coming back.
He saw it now in Serenity’s eyes. Her basic humanity had been wounded by what she’d seen. She was close to the edge. Needed to process, to vent, to get that evil out of her system. Dragging her to the NYCEM would be a catastrophe.
“James?” Her voice was somewhere between a plead and a whisper. “Let’s just go to Herman’s, yeah?”
“Yeah,” he said heavily, and her relief was like the rising sun, tears brimming immediately in her eyes as she fought to smile and not cry with relief. “We haven’t checked in on Herman in a few days.”
“That’s right.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist. “We haven’t. Can't forget our friends.”
Mancini stared at him, but the young man’s preternatural maturity and wisdom, earned no doubt in ways James couldn’t fathom in Afghanistan, led him to only nod his head in acceptance. “Let’s get moving, then. We’ll stay together for as long as possible.”
They jogged slowly along the sidewalk. They weren’t the only ones out. Here and there they saw groups or individuals out hunting. More than a few were cautiously aura trawling gremlins, wary of the Nemeses 2’s but determined to level. Others were moving in bands, some armed with machetes, others with baseball bats, a few with pistols.
All had the same hard-bitten look of determination.
Humanity on the rebound.
Mancini led them at a mile-eating jog, slow and steady along the sidewalk, and they’d greet other folks with a wave but rarely stop to talk.
A couple of miles later they reached Washington Ave, which Serenity indicated was where they’d split.
“We’ll be at the NYCEM,” said Mancini. “Keep your phone charged. I’ll text updates, will only call if it’s urgent.”
“I’ll spend an Aeviternum at dawn,” said James. “Probably drop by after that. I’ll need to coordinate with Jessica for the morning’s meet ‘n greet.”
“Sounds good.” Mancini forced a smile. “Enjoy the drinks.”
The fire team said their goodbyes and jogged off.
“Well,” said Serenity brightly. “Looks like we’re off duty. Shall we?”
They jogged south, another twenty minutes of Brooklyn blocks, some looking weirdly normal, untouched by the invasion, others looking more like war zones with crashed cars and shattered windows. Gremlins bounded out of the shadows to assault them, and occasionally they built up a real following, but then they’d simply stop and let the wave burn itself out, the gremlins hissing and spitting and clawing as they ashed six or seven feet away.
James watched them die. Hard to believe he’d been terrified of them once. Had run in abject fear of his first gremlin what felt like a lifetime ago. Hundreds upon hundreds emerged from the shadows to assault them, but neither of them gained a level.
“Guess we’ve graduated to bigger things,” said Serenity.
It was past four when they reached Herman’s. James had quietly wondered if the place would even be open, if Herman would feel enough attachment to the bar to keep it going when the rest of the world was falling apart, but Serenity was confident.
“He lives above the bar. It’s either open, or he’ll open it for us.”
It wasn’t open. The lights were out, the door closed. Serenity frowned, cupped her hands to her mouth, and yelled with brazen disregard for the hour: “Herm! Wake up!”
This was the kind of behavior that got you worked over by the cops.
A light lit up behind the blinds of a ground floor window, and then they rolled up to reveal a bleary-eyed Herman. The old man actually wore a night cap. “Jesus wept, Serenity. You know I need my sleep.”
“Been a hell of a night,” she said, her grin overly wide. “I can’t begin to tell you. Can we score a drink?”
He glowered at her.
Serenity clasped her hands together under her chin and looked up at him. “Please?”
Her voice quavered, and James heard her desperate need.
So did Herman, because he grudgingly relented. “Fine, fine. I’ll be right down. Jesus Christ.”
A moment later the bar door unlocked and Serenity rushed down the steps to hug the old man who protested and shoved her away. “Hey, this ain’t that kind of party. Now look. I’m going back to bed. Keep the front door locked, don’t let anyone else in, and leave the keys on the bar when you go. We clear?”
“Scouts honor,” said Serenity. “Promise.”
Herman looked James up and down. “You look better in real clothes.”
“Feel better, too. Thanks Herman.”
“Bah, it’s the end of the world. Fuck it.” The old wandered off into the back of the joint, unlocked another door, and disappeared upstairs.
“Ours!” Serenity threw her arms open wide and beamed at the dingy bar. “Finally, we have our queendom.”
James slid onto a barstool. “I used to have this funny dream. There’d be a siren, everybody rushing down the street, but only I knew it was a false alarm. I’d walk against the crowd and enter a bar, a big, beautiful joint, a thousand bottles stretching all the way to Heaven. I’d be the only one in there, had it all to myself.”
“Well,” said Serenity, ducking under the bar to pop up on the other side, “that makes this better than a dream ‘cause you got me here. Shots? Whiskey? I make a mean mojito."
“Whiskey,” said James. There weren’t that many bottles left on the shelves, but Serenity poked around and came up with a bottle of Monkey Shoulder. She poured him three fingers, poured herself the same, and slid his glass over.
“What shall we drink to?” Again with the false cheer. “Everything I can think of is nightmare fuel.”
“To good friends,” said James, clinking his glass against hers.
Serenity lifted her glass and kept drinking. Her throat bobbed and when she slammed the glass down it was empty. She uncorked the bottle and refilled it.
“God damn I was needing that.”
James sipped, watched, said nothing.
“And - thank you. For coming with. Fucking Arete’s making it hard for me to not completely forget the bigger picture, like how it was probably a bad idea for you to skip out on the meetings, but fuck, we’re not machines, you know?”
James nodded, sipped.
“I mean, maybe the military’s all desensitized to this shit, but a week ago all I was thinking about was how I was going to earn enough money for a new coat and to keep my drug habit chugging along. Now?” She laughed brokenly, studied her glass. “Now? It’s like, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Predator all day every day.”
“And I like guns, sometimes I even hoped something like gremlins would show up so I could just blast them to pieces, but this?” She raised an eyebrow at James. “This is… it doesn’t stop. And I’m not a machine. Even if I’m faster now, and like a sniper shot, and can leap out of crashing hummers like it’s some slow-motion ballet or Trinity from the Matrix.”
James nodded his agreement, sipped.
“I mean, I know we don’t have time to have a break down, but fuck, how am I supposed to see what… what I saw, and not get a drink?” She tossed her whiskey back, swallowed mightily, refilled her glass with grim deliberation.
“Because you know what I can’t stop thinking about? It’s, like, what if that guy wasn’t dead?” She stared at James, tears filling her eyes. “What if he was paralyzed? He didn’t look wounded. What if… I mean, what if that thing ate him while he was still alive, and he could feel it, sliding inside it, into its…to be…”
She bowed her head and her knuckles whitened around the glass.
“Yeah,” breathed James. “Been trying not to think about it.”
“And the thing is, this is happening everywhere, right? Wherever there’s one of those symbols? New York, Atlanta, LA, Chicago, Miami, in fucking, like…” She trailed off, trying to think. “In like, Kansas City? Or London, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, China, everywhere.” She blinked at him. “This is happening everywhere. People are being fed to Nemesis 2’s right now. This very second. And maybe they’re not dead. Maybe there are, like, a million people this very second screaming in absolute terror as they feel themselves… as they…”
James reached out and put his hand over her own.
“No!” She snatched her hand back. “I mean, I’m OK!” She glared at him, wild eyed. “I mean -”
“You don’t have to be anything.”
“Of course I do.” Her expression began to crumple. “I have to stop being the world’s biggest fuck-up and become, like, a super soldier in less than a week, and super chill about it all, just feeling nothing and shooting demons like I was born for this, like this was my destiny, and I don’t know…” Her eyes were wide, her pupils dilated, her face pale. “I don’t know if I can do this, James.”
That last came out a whisper.
James held her gaze, frowning, listening.
She blinked, focused on him. “I’m not this cool killer lady I’ve been pretending to be. I mean, I tricked myself too there for a while, actually thought to myself: hey, Serenity, you can be the funny chick, joking about shit and letting nothing touch you, but what the fuck? What the actual fuck? I’m so out of my depth it makes me want to scream.”
“We all are.”
“You’re not. You’re cool as a fucking cucumber, like you were born to play this role. And I’ve been trying, I’ve been trying so hard, but seeing that man… and, I mean, what’s going to happen next? We’re just getting started. How much worse is it going to get? 85 days till the Pits open, and we’re already at demons covering buildings in human paste?!”
“Yeah.” James stared down at his whiskey. “I hear you.”
“But it doesn’t faze you.” Her tone filled with wonder. “You’re just like an oak tree, solid and with roots that keep you grounded. That used to inspire me, but now it’s infuriating. Why the fuck aren’t you flipping out?”
James frowned, turned his glass around. “I don’t know.”
Her voice turned vicious. “Not good enough. We’ve been through too much shit in too little time for you to not square with me.”
James pursed his lips, nodded. “Maybe it’s because…” He trailed off, trying to put words to his emotions. Dug deep in the way he normally tried to avoid. “Maybe it’s because I lost everything that really mattered to me years ago.” His voice was soft, and Serenity stilled. “In all the ways that mattered, I died when I lost my family. It makes it… easier, I guess, to face these demons as a result.”
“Because you don’t have anything to live for?”
“No, I do. I’ve rediscovered that I care about people. I want to help. I want to kill these demons." He chuckled shakily. "I want all of that pretty badly. But…” Again he trailed off. It felt like trying to choke up a cinder block. He dry swallowed, then took a sip of the whiskey. “I guess I’m not too concerned about myself in this equation. What happens to me. Which makes it easier to face this darkness. I don’t have much to lose.”
The silence drew out. He could feel her staring at him. Felt uncomfortable for even saying that much.
“What happened?” she asked at last. “To your family?”
He’d been asked that question so many times. He felt his shoulders hunch, felt his heart begin to race. Normally this was where he deflected the question or got up and left. But he couldn’t. Not this time. He didn’t know what he and Serenity were becoming. Friends? War companions? Something more? But either he trusted her with his pain, or he didn’t, and that would determine everything that came after.
“A guy broke into our house while I was at work.” A wash of heat flooded through him, and his hands suddenly felt jittery, his chest tight. His throat cramped up, and it took a serious drink from the whiskey to loosen it up. “He killed my daughters, then raped and killed my wife.”
There. He’d said it. His heart had expanded to the size of a drum, was pounding, pounding, and his skin prickled all over. He’d said those words maybe a dozen times over the last seven years, and only twice when not absolutely hammered.
He’d regretted sharing his past every single time.
Serenity didn’t respond immediately. When she did, her tone was bleak. “I’m so sorry, James.”
“Yeah.” He sat up straight, took up the bottle of whiskey and refilled his glass. “Nothing seemed to make sense after that. My boss was great, but there’s only so many times I could not show up to work before he had to let me go. I stopped making mortgage payments, so eventually I was evicted. I don’t remember much of that first year on the street. I just kind of wandered around in a daze. Eventually I came back enough to cash out all my retirement plans and drank that away over the following six months, and then… there was nothing. No ties. Nothing.”
“Your friends? Extended family?”
“They learned to let me go.” An old sadness. Old pains. “I didn’t want their pity or to be saved. I just wanted to be left alone. They figured it out, eventually.”
“Oh James.” Now it was her turn to reach out and put her hand over his.
They remained thus for a long while, neither speaking, till at last James inhaled deeply and forced the pain away. And to his surprise it wasn’t as devastating as it had always been. It was bad, but it was growing old, or perhaps it was all the horror he’d seen this past week, standing like a misty glass wall between him and his old remorse. He’d seen so much death and horror that his own bereavement felt… familiar. Worn, like an old river stone.
He forced a grim smile at Serenity, who watched him with a complex expression of her own. “So that’s why I think I’ve hung in there so far. All I’ve got left is… I don’t know, like a steady and strong desire to help out while I can. And when my run comes to its end, then…” He shrugged. “Then so be it.”
Serenity nodded, then ducked under the bar and came around to where he sat. He turned to face her, and she hugged him, held him tight, chin on his shoulder.
“Thank you for telling me,” she whispered. “For trusting me. And for as long as you’re around, I’ll be there, too.”
His chest swelled as he heard the promise in her words, and he closed his eyes, held her tight. Gratitude welled up within him. A warm sensation of growing trust, the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d found a good person at long last with whom he could face the world.
“Thanks,” he said, voice rough. “Let’s face this shit together.”
Serenity pulled back, tears in her eyes, smile broken, lopsided, but real. “Yeah. Let’s.”