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A note from pwtucker

Thank you rel7891 for the review!

(And apologies, published Chapter 47 there for a hot second, but took it right down.)

14 Days till Nemesis 3 Released

84 Days till Pits Open

 

James stared at the text which floated before his eyes as he walked south to the Marriott with Jessica and Serenity. Had it been only a week since he was attacked in the subway by the Nemesis 1?

It felt like a year ago.

Jessica was on the phone continuously and working her tablet as she went. For the most part she seemed to be accepting documents, getting new clearance levels, and being introduced to a wide array of military officers who would be interfacing with Blue Light and transitioning them into the JSOC command structure.

James tuned her out, considered the glowing green text, and sighed. “Third wave is today. We get an estimate on how many Nemesis 2’s that should involve?”

“Hundreds of thousands, wasn’t it?” Serenity was scraping dried black ichor off her bullpup.

“Say it’s a two hundred. Divide that by the thirty-four symbols, and we’re looking at around ten thousand more reinforcements to each dead zone.”

“Just means they’ll take a little longer to kill.”

“And we’ve fourteen days till Nemesis 3. Plus the Fourth Wave tomorrow, which’ll add another million Nemesis 2’s to the mix. Fuck.” James ground the base of his palm into his eye. “What’s a million divided by 36?”

“Around 28,000,” said Jessica from behind them, her tone absent as she tapped on her tablet.

“Jessica, can we get accurate numbers of how many people have seen Nemesis screens thus far? You think the military’s got that information?”

“Yes. Actually. And I now know who to call. Hold on.”

They walked along while Jessica placed some calls and reached the street before the Marriott when she hung up. “The estimate is half the population in the greater NYC area saw a Nemesis screen, with the rest becoming Fabricators after the Fourth Wave.”

“Four million Nemesis 2’s,” said James. “What’s that divided by thirty-four?”

“That’s over a hundred thousand each,” said Jessica quietly.

Serenity frowned. “I guess you could just stand there all day.”

“Shit.” James rubbed at the back of his neck. “That’s crazy. If I killed one Nemesis 2 every five seconds, it’d still take me… Jessica?”

She tapped on her tablet. “Four million times five divided by 3600, divided by 24… 231 days to kill them all.”

“We have fourteen.” James put his hands on his hips and hung his head. “And this is the situation across the country.”

“Caveat,” said Jessica. “Many of the people who summoned a Nemesis 1 didn’t survive the ordeal, meaning the actual number of Nemesis 2’s should be quite lower. Maybe even by a third.”

Serenity stared at her. “You saying a third of four million people are dead?”

“About that, yes,” said Jessica quietly. “Though it’s probably more, as Fabricators can now see and be seen by the demons. Our immunity ended with the assignment of our class. The military is putting local casualties at just over a million in the city.”

“An eighth,” said James. “That’s… how is the city even still functioning?”

“Due to the military, mostly. National Guard, and the fact that Fort Hamilton housed the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion. That and our ability to produce Manna. Without that food, we’d be in an entirely different situation. Oh - wait.” Her tone had sharpened. She read something, then her eyes widened. “Oh shit.”

James stepped closer. “Jessica?”

“The mayor.” She lowered her phone and stared blankly at them both. “He’s dead.”

“Oh shit,” said Serenity. “Nemesis?”

“They’re saying its suicide.” Jessica placed her hand against her brow and turned away, staring off into the middle distance. “And they can’t find the Public Advocate. Which means the Comptroller will be promoted to mayor, and he’s…” She shook her head, eyes darting from side to side as if tracking an invisible pinball as it made its way through a machine. “With his incompetency, that’ll mean paralysis. And… the deputy mayor can’t take control, but if the governor appoints…”

James recalled Mayor Liu. His erratic smile, his febrile energy, his broken laugh. Dead.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

Jessica dropped her hand and turned to stare at them both. “We got out just in time. The DRC would have been… yes. As Blue Light, we can continue to… I’ve got to make some phone calls.”

“Are you going to be all right?” asked James, reaching out to touch Jessica’s upper arm.

“What?” She blinked at him. “Me? How I am doesn’t matter. But I have to act now, before people have an opportunity to make mistakes. Go ahead. Richard is at the ballroom, and I’ve called Cindy to return. They’ll help you out. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Sure,” said Serenity. “Call us if you need help, hon.” And then she stepped in and gave the surprised Jessica a quick squeeze.

James glanced both ways out of habit before crossing the street, then strode to the Marriott’s entrance.

The cars and bellboys were gone. They entered the lobby. Some of the lights along the left half were dimmed, and a single man stood behind the broad counter, typing furiously at the computer hidden behind the desk, his face wan and exhausted.

James waved at him, pointed toward the ballroom, and the man nodded and resumed his work.

There was no assistant outside the double doors this time, and when James entered the scene resembled a refugee camp more than a convention. Chairs had been moved aside, and several hundred people had staked out areas of the carpeting on which to snooze or sit in circles, talking quietly as they cleaned guns, ate Manna bread, or scrolled their phones.

“Hey, it’s James!” shouted someone, and the crowd looked up, relief and sharp curiosity on their faces.

James raised a hand, forestalling the need to answer as more questions were called his way, and crossed to the stage.

The back corner of the ballroom was now dominated by a jury-rigged command center, with tables fitted against the corner walls on which huge monitors stood. Flat screens had been hung on the walls, and while half of them were dead, the rest showed maps, news stations, and other data.

Richard was drinking a can of Monster, his eyes ringed by dark shadows, but his grin was wide, and he stepped away from where he was consulting with three military technicians to greet James.

“Yo, major, what’s up? Captain Star Boy reporting for duty.”

“You’ve heard, then.”

“Jessica gave me the head’s up. I’ve not breathed a word. What’s your plan? Most of the folks headed home for the night, and we’ve another hundred sleeping upstairs. Everyone here hung out on the off chance you were going to lead another raid tonight.”

“See if you can get those upstairs to come down here. I’m going to break the changes to them.”

“And did you hear about Liu?” Richard rubbed the sparse stubble on his scalp. “Now that’s wild. Talk about the wrong guy for the job.”

“Nice,” said Serenity. “Keep it classy, Star Boy.”

“Am I wrong? I’m not wrong. I’ve got plenty of updates for you, too, but let me get a call to the folks upstairs. One sec.”

People were standing, watching, waiting, so James grabbed the mike and climbed wearily up onto the stage. “Evening, everybody. We’re waiting for the folks upstairs to join us, so it’ll be maybe another five or ten minutes before I update you all. Thanks for your patience.”

The crowd grumbled and broke apart, most people moving to sit again, but the members of Crimson Hydra made their way toward the stage, and James felt a strong surge of relief at the sight of them.

Awareness hit him: these were his people. He didn’t know them, had only fought with them a couple of times, but in their faces he saw steadfast determination and something more - a rightness, a familiarity, a bond that they also seemed to see in him.

Was that the ka-tet bond? Had something come into existence between them that transcended normal friendships, normal bonds?

James didn’t know, but he felt clear relief at the sight of them.

Crimson Hydra was here.

He and Serenity weren’t alone.

“Hey,” he said, coming down off the stage. Richard was making one radio call after another in the background, his voice monotone. “Good to see you all.”

“And you,” said Joanna. “Didn’t feel right to take off for home till we heard from you.” Her smile was warm, genuine. “Though it’s been a slow few hours.”

“What’s the news?” asked Bjorn. “You look tense.”

“Big changes.” James rubbed at his chin. “I’d tell you now, but I don’t know if I can repeat myself right after to the whole crowd. You guys mind waiting a couple more minutes?”

“The mayor’s dead and the DRC’s joining the army,” said Serenity. “Not what we wanted, but in this big bad world, sometimes shit happens and you gotta roll with it.”

James rounded on her, eyes wide and she winked at him. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”

“You for real?” Yadriel ran his hand over his frizzy hair. “We going military?”

“I can’t,” said Jason, his expression conflicted. “My heart, remember?”

“I’m not joining no military,” said Sarah. “I’m out of here.”

“Hold up,” said Bjorn. “The man has to have a chance to make his case. I’m willing to bet he had very good reasons for this. And the mayor’s dead?”

“Yeah,” said James heavily. “Suicide, they think. But look. You’ve been really patient so far. All I’m asking is that you wait another ten minutes. Let me explain. You want to walk right after? I won’t stop you.”

Sarah’s face closed like a fist, but she crossed her arms and nodded reluctantly.

“Makes sense to me,” said Becca. “The way we’re operating, it doesn’t make sense for us to report to civilians who can’t understand what’s at stake on the street.”

Denzel was frowning. “Like, the army? I thought about joining up a couple of years ago but couldn’t leave the family business. And now… huh. Funny world.”

“My heart,” protested Jason, his voice close to anguished.

“They’re handing out waivers and making exceptions. You’ll understand soon enough.” Their stares were too demanding, so James raised both palms. “Hang tight. I’ll explain soon enough.”

And he took the mike and stepped back up onto the stage.

Ten minutes later the sleepers from upstairs had straggled in, bringing the number present to three or four hundred of the original thousand. James stood patiently, microphone by his side, and finally deemed the moment right.

“Evening, everybody. I’m going to do my level best to explain what’s happened and why, but up front I want you to know there wasn’t much choice to any of this. Instead, some good people ran interference and damage control, and this is the best deal we could get.”

The crowd immediately stirred, troubled, and James cursed silently. Why didn’t they have some smooth-talking operator up here who could present it perfectly?

“Long story short, our success was not only making the military look bad, but it was starting a wave of defections. That’s right. Soldiers were going AWOL and trying to hook up with us. You can imagine how the generals took that. Yeah, not good. That, and it sounds like the CIA and some other people were mad at how effective we were being. It still doesn’t make sense to me, and I won’t try to explain it. But they were looking to shut us down, or install new leadership, or arrest us.”

James frowned as the audience stirred again, their voices raised in anger.

“See, as quickly as the world is changing, it’s not changing fast enough in all the ways that matter. We’ve all dealt with assholes more interested in conserving power than doing the right thing. They saw us as… a threat? A problem? Something that was making them look bad? So they put us in the crosshairs. But the thing is, there was also a small number of good people looking out for us, and they stepped in to help us out.”

Again James paused. He watched the crowd, tried to gauge how it was taking the news. They were still listening, at least.

“I explored the option of just disbanding but was informed that we’d probably be unofficially detained for our roles in what had taken place and the creation of an unsanctioned rogue militia. Yeah, exactly. So Major Hackworth stepped in, and long story short, we’re not going to be bothered. I’m staying in control, and we’re going to keep on killing demons as before. Only difference is, we’re no longer going to be considered the DRC. Instead, we’re now a special forces branch under Colonel Hackworth, who just got a promotion so he can help run this outfit.”

Silence followed. It looked like most the folks didn’t know what to make of this announcement, but a few clearly understood and a moment later they started shouting questions.

James raised both hands. “Listen up. I didn’t want this. Frankly, I didn’t want any of this, the apocalypse, the demons, being up here even in the first place. But damn.” He paused, searched for words. “If I have to do this, I might as well do it to the best of my limited abilities, and that means keeping us fighting and the assholes off our backs. Hackworth is good people. If continuing to kill demons, get ammo, and being left alone means joining the fucking military, so be it, because between you and me, I think the future of our species is standing in this room right now, and all the old ways of doing stuff is going to fall apart and disappear while you and me keep our heads down and keep on fighting.”

That assuaged some of the anger, but a decent sized chunk was still unsure.

“We’re not going to wearing fatigues. We’re not going to live on an army base. We’re not going to walking in lines and training to fire M4’s - though now that I think about it, getting our hands on some of those wouldn’t be bad. We’re not going to shave our heads; we’re not going to be bossed around by sergeants yelling in our faces. I’m a major now. Hell, a bunch of you will probably be made captains and lieutenants and who the hell knows what else. But first and foremost, you’re going to be Crimson Hydra, Ebon Mothman, whatever. You’re going to be exactly what you already are, and this just changes the framing. Nothing more.”

More nods, more hesitant acceptance.

“I asked about criminal records. Unless it’s a serious problem, people are going to get their records wiped clean and given waivers. Uncle Sam doesn’t care about what you did yesterday, within reason. He just wants you killing demons today and tomorrow. But if that’s a problem, I more than understand.” James paused and gazed out over the crowd. “If you want to head out and go at this alone, all I can say is thank you for the time you gave us. Thank you, and good luck out there.”

His final words echoed throughout the ballroom, and not by accident they had a chilling, bleak tone to them.

More scowls cleared, more people slowly nodded, and it was then that James was sure it was going to work.

They were going to lose folks, sure. But not as many as he’d feared.

Special operation force Blue Light was a go.

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A note from pwtucker

Enjoy!

(By the way, if you enjoyed my novel Bastion, some readers have started a subreddit dedicated to the Immortal Great Souls series. Hop on over to join the conversation!)


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