Archive for Mark McEachran

Jim Doorsman

Jim set out to save the world over a year ago. When he discovered that he could pull the thickness out of the air he had a grand vision of doing it at massive scale. Hundreds, thousands even, of his laser contraption dotted all over the world would do it. Like everything Jim ever did, he started with one. One laser, and then see how that goes. He understood that, the idea of prototyping a thing to make sure it works before he went on and made more of them.

What he didn’t understand was the cost and benefits of making this one thing work. It seemed so simple at the time: build a laser, pull water and carbon out of the air, spit oxygen back, try not to burn yourself. Kill six men, destroy a train, hangar, helicopter, and maybe a young girl’s sanity, these things were not in his plan. They were expensive, almost as expensive as a run to the grocery store for provisions, leaving your family behind.

Six men died, Jim killed them. It’s a high price to pay, even if they were intent on doing him harm. In a more civil society they would have been arrested, tried, put in prison, and maybe even reformed. In a more powerful society – they could have been saved. The world Jim grew up with, the one where he started a family, it had that power. It had its problems as well, but they were the kind of things that could be worked out over time. In a time before the desert, before the cauldron, there was peace, mostly.

Jim wasn’t a soldier, he was an old man, a scientist. Killing, even in self defense, wasn’t in his nature.

Inventing, that’s what he was put on earth to do: solve problems. He built a train out of spare parts and solar panels. It ran a might bit better than the production models as it required no external electrify. He even stripped off the power pad against the third rail. His heart still stung a little at the thought of one of his other inventions cutting a slice clean across his locomotive baby. Then it cut a hole in the ceiling of Angel’s hanger, all for a good cause, of course. What a destructive little device he made, and now it could be more destructive attached to its new home.

Jim helped Angel mount it to his new bird. It’s on a turret that the either the pilot or copilot controlled. So clever was Jim, he helped his friend build a gun ship. Not since the war has there been a weaponize vehicle in the sky, or anywhere else so far as Jim knew. The little helicopter that could is how he liked to think of it, dammit. His desire to create change led to this, but perhaps the laser-bird was not the most dangerous thing to come out of it.

Hope, poor Hope, what happened to her. What did the whole ordeal bring out of her. Jim wasn’t sure when the seeds of her murderous inclinations were sown, but he remembered the look on her face when she shot that laser through the door, punching a tiny, fatal hole into two of the men on the other side. She almost laughed when she heard them scream, such a big smile she had. He would dedicate a good portion of the rest of his life on the wish to help her. Much of the rest of what he had done since their victory over The Dragon was for her, and for Angel and Cindy too. A stronger, more stable society can reform her, and give them all a better life.

Jim was an old man, who at the end of the day just wished for his family to return. In his effort to save the world, he got a little bit of them back in these three friends. After all they had been through, he thought of them as his family now. They’d never replace those the family that he lost, they could, however, start a new one. He truly wished they would.

Angel and Hope started to get along. He was as surprised as anyone that things didn’t get romantic after the traumatic events that they shared. But they did team up, and they seemed to have some sort of unspoken language between each other, an understanding. Jim wasn’t sure if their like-mindedness was a blessing or something to be feared. Certainly any dangerous people should probably keep their distance from the two. That pair was as dangerous as any two Dragon any day of the week.

Angel, the most eligible bachelor, probably, on the planet, surrounded by tens of women, remains a bachelor. Jim wondered if he couldn’t get past his own mannerisms to connect with a woman, or if the ladies were just afraid of Hope. Perhaps it was the wisdom of the women who kept themselves at bay in the presence of his lethal sister. Maybe, Jim wondered, if one of them decided to pursue the man Hope would come to her senses and find some semblance of peace in a romantic relationship. If only Jim could hit those two birds with a single stone, but then again, that’s Hope’s specialty.

Finally Cindy, she ended, perhaps, where she began: as a director of a medical facility. Now on the sixth floor and a might bit better protected than her last one. Jim loved, loved, loved that she was doing what she loved and that it was making a difference in the world. It was the greatest complement to his efforts. His mind was set on fixing the planet, while her’s was set on saving the people who will inhabit it.

He was too old to get romantic with her, but his heart was willing on more than one occasion. She felt it, but knew better. She became his caretaker, setting his fingers straight, helping his liver, and keeping him from laughing against his ribs. She stopped short of taking his whisky away completely, that would probably break the deal. She did her best to keep him in check and he appreciated every minute of it.

During the trial, or parole board, or whatever their panel of 12 angry judges was to be remembered as, he sided with her, against the 10 others. She couldn’t sentence them to death. He could have bore another four bodies on his soul, but couldn’t see convincing her to do it. So he sided with her, and argued for their exile, not their execution. It was enough. The rules of the panel were set up like a jury. For a death sentence they all had to agree. Anything else was a mistrial or a life sentence or exile, so they decided. The rules of the old world were fuzzy, but they managed to come to a consensus that without a unanimous decision they couldn’t kill the last Dragon they had in their captivity.

After the hearing he watched them fly off in Angel’s new bird, with Hope there to make sure they didn’t get away with anything. He knew there was a risk with those two executing their sentence. His heart knew, and he was okay with it. So long as Cindy didn’t know that their sentence was death, that would be okay. And Jim trusted that Angel and Hope would never speak of it. They didn’t speak much as it was. Certainly Hope would avoid the topic altogether, she was ashamed of her enjoyment in carrying it out.

It is better that they are dead, he thought. We’re safer. He was right, of course. He was glad he didn’t know Cindy better, because anyone who knew Jim well would be able to tell that he knew the truth of the matter.

The day came when their sentence was carried out, and the ladies threw a party once they were gone. Some of them had endured quite a lot of suffering at the hands of the four men, and they represented a mountain of abuse from The Dragon. Having them gone was a bittersweet ending to their refugee status. Even though they didn’t agree with Jim and Cindy’s refusal to call for an execution, they still honored them with a graceful party in Jim’s bar.

He started to see them as his extended family, a boatload of daughters. As he emerged from the undented elevator they all cheered. He was Jim Doorsman, after all, the world’s savior. They were living in his land of promise, and they were in his bar: The Last Bar in America.

The Four Prisoners

Clip recognized the sound of the whipping blades. Without his vision he was struggling to walk in the sand and tripped up frequently. Hands on his upper arms kept him upright and moving forward, but other than that there was no courtesy in the assistance. Often times he felt dragged when his feet couldn’t quite keep up with their intentions. Wheezing through his nose and pushing air around the gag was as close as he could come to breathing which was already made difficult by the thin air.

This air had a little bit of moisture in it, not like the rest of the desert, more like the cell, or whatever prision he was being kept in. The windows had been replaced by thick boards. He remembered it not being up very high when they put him in there because the elevator wasn’t moving for very long, but the garbled announcement from the little box didn’t offer him any more clues. Moist air wasn’t an immediate benefit, it was a few weeks before things started to change.

First it was the air, it changed from one day to the next, desert dry for weeks, and then one morning it was damp like it was in the garden before he burned it. Then water in wasteful amounts. It was another four weeks or so, Clip struggled to keep track of the days of their imprisonment so he couldn’t be sure. It came out of the faucet, like when he was a child, and went down the drain as if they didn’t need the rest. Someone had to show them how to use the toilet, which was even more wasteful. Why would you put your shit and piss in a bowl of water? Clip thought at the time. They aren’t thirsty.

Threats from the woman were needed to get them to use the toilet instead of their bucket. Their keepers grew tired of dumping the bucket, he imagined. He told them they could simply let him go outside to do his business and they wouldn’t have any bucket issues, but they, rightfully, didn’t trust him. Clip wouldn’t have trusted himself either. He would have made a run for it at his first opportunity.

Into the little pond then for his poop and pee, and the others as well, flushing after every poop so they don’t clog the toilet. With this much water, water to waste on such things as feces, these people must be the richest in the world. They could buy anything with it, anything that was left anyway. This old Bob must be swimming in it, and all the riches it comes with.

Clip made sure that the others, Badger, Weed and Zeb, didn’t get drunk on water. They were weak minded and could be seduced by it. Not like Clip, he was strong because he had to be, because he was now the leader of the team. He didn’t like it, he wished Jacko was still around. What has his tenure in the role been like? Jacko is killed fighting with that girl, and then Clip is suddenly in charge. Right away he and his men are taken prisoner, and there they were day after day, just prisoners. How much leading can a man do from prison? he thought.

“Don’t get drunk on water,” he would say. “Only take what you need. Stay thirsty. Thirst makes us strong.”

They were fed once a day. At first it was just enough to keep them alive, but then the meals became more elaborate, more varied. By the end of their tenure they would have been able to feast, if Clip had let them. “Just enough,” he said. “No more than you need to sustain yourself.”

He was a true soldier of The Dragon. Now he was being shuttled off somewhere with the rest of his team. They said “released,” as if he were in some sort of prison from the before-world. He continued to trip in the sand. The canvas hood over his head blocked out the view, only letting the light in through tiny pinholes. In the darkness of the hood the light was blinding when his eyes caught it. At least the hood kept the sand out of his face as it was blown up from the downdraft of the helicopter. He was right up on it, so the sound told him. The engine noise grew distinct from the whipping blades and, sure enough, he heard a door open.

The helping hands that gripped him now pulled his head down and pushed his body up into the flying machine. He had never been up in a flying machine before. As he sat, as his legs were being bound and his body bound to the chair, he wondered what it would feel like to be up in the air. Without seeing it, would he know if he was up or not? He hoped they would take off his hood, but they didn’t. They bound him to the chair and then moved on to the next man. All four of them were bound. Clip could hear his commrades grumble as they were being shoved up into the machine and strapped in. Had they ever been up in the air in one of these machines, or a plane, or anything that flew?

The noise made all other sounds like whispers in the wind. He could hear that there were people talking in front of him, perhaps in the piloting area of the machine, but he couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying. He imagined it was talk of where they were going, how fast to go there, how high to fly. He had fooled them, he thought. They were going to set he and his men free. They thought they’d broken them, or convinced them to keep their mouths shut in exchange for their lives, and their freedom.

It was around the seventh or eigth week of captivity that they started asking Clip what should be done with he and his men. He remembered the doctor woman asking first. She was so gullible. Clip told Badger, Weed and Zeb to agree with them, to agree to keep their mouths shut and never go back east to tell the rest of The Dragon about any of it. Sure enough, the doctor lady brought up others to talk to Clip and his men. They all stuck to the same story, they all agreed to never tell anyone about the city, the building, the water, the women, none of it.

Eventually things got formal. They, the survivors, set up a new room on the floor with a row of chairs on one side, and a single chair on the other. Clip was escorted in by the dangerous lady, the one who killed Jacko. He wanted to hurt her so bad, and he sensed that she wanted to do the same to him. She was rough with him. She didn’t need to be, he wasn’t putting up any fight, but she seemed to need to be mean to him. Nothing was said as they moved into the makeshift parole board. She simply pushed him down in the little chair opposite the panel of people.

“What’s your name?” the old man asked. He was at the center of the panel, along with the doctor lady.

The rest of the panel was all women, of whome Clip recognized two or three, one he had bedded, at least from his perspective that’s what happened. There were twelve of them up there. Absenst was the fierce fighter and the pilot.

He gave his name, and answered all their questions truthfully. It didn’t matter to him that he was giving up the details of The Dragon, where they are, where they might be going, which he didn’t know. His goal was to convince them that he wasn’t a threat, that he would be just fine if they let him out along with his team. If it’s just one lie among many truthes he thought they might buy it.

Clip might have believed his lie, even made it a truth had he be given other options. He couldn’t grasp such a thing. It would have required him to have been given an opportunity to be a part of some other type of community, a group not bent on the completion of Nature’s mission, some survivors, perhaps. Such a scenario couldn’t have occured to him, he simply had no experience that he could recall that wasn’t something like The Dragon, some group that shit on the little guy in order to raise itself up. Even with Tynon’s seemingly altruistic mission, it still put The Dragon above others, above all those who are trying to survive. They were worthless bags of water and meat. Clip’s only experience with survivors who were just trying to live turned them into prey. He couldn’t and wouldn’t want that for himself. To him, even the panel of 11 women and the old man still looked as though they should be hunted.

Burying those feelings was all he had to do, and convince them otherwise. “I’d like a chance to start over, somewhere else, somewhere where they don’t know me, where I can blend in and just live out a normal life,” he said. His words hung in the air between his lonely chair and the 12 judges. Dripping with filth, each letter of it, he could hardly read the whole phrase without choking on it.

They tucked him in a little room afterward. He was joined, one by one, by each of his men. Then they were finally shuffled back to their original prison with the running water in the sink and the toilet that bathed their poop before wasting a gallon of water to send it to the wherever.

His words, their words worked because now they were being loaded into the helicopter to be whooshed away to a new home, at least until they’re out of view. Then they’ll burn it to the ground, kill everyone in sight, and work their way back to Toronto.

It was a week after their grilling that the doctor lady came to tell them the good news. “You’ll be sent to an outpost far away. It’s a place Angel visits on his trading routes. They have enough supplies to keep you fed. You’ll have to work, and work out what else you can do for them. Eventually you’ll be able to head out on your own if you like. We don’t have any formal agreement with them. We just know they need some help.”

Clip and his men all nodded eagerly, but not too eagerly. The plan was working perfectly. These dopes bought the lies.

She went on with some of the details and why they might have to wait. The helicopter was not quite ready, they hadn’t contacted the outpost yet and so on. But it wouldn’t be too long, just a few weeks, she said.

* * *

Up, up went the flying machine, shoving Clip’s heart into his stomach and pinching his throat. For a brief moment he felt like he had to pee. It was very smooth, and not windy. Even with the doors closed Clip thought it would be a little windy, but the air inside was just air, like that on the ground.

He closed his eyes, feeling the motion of the machine floating through the air. Clip wasn’t nervous at all, even though he had seen the machine, or one just like it, crash out of the sky. He was flying, it was amazing. And he and his team were about to be free again. After all they did, they were still going to be free.

Justice wasn’t going to find him, not that he knew what justice was. It was just another word from the before world. It meant nothing to him.

He could hear the pilots chattering again, but still couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Soon the machine went forward instead of up. He could tell because he got light for a second, and then heavy toward his back, and the sound of the blades changed and the whole machine tilted forward.

I wonder what the ground looks like from up here, he thought. Everything must be so tiny, I could probably crush it beneath my foot. He smiled under his hood, but no one could see it. He decided to close his eyes and let his other senses feel the motion of the machin through the air. Little pockets would bump into the blades and give the machine a slight jostle, or lift it up briefly on one side, or drop it altogether by a few inches. It was so smooth in recovering, he had never felt anything like it, or at least that he can remember.

This is what babies feel, he thought. Their mothers carry them around and they are blind to the world, just like me. Then one day they emerge, and open their eyes, and they’re free, just like I will be.

They flew for hours. Clip didn’t know how fast helicopters could fly, but he imagined they must be more than a hundred miles away from old Bob’s outpost. He didn’t care how long it took. He was loving the feeling of floating through the air. It was calming in a way that nothing else was. He even dozed off a coupld of times, abruptly awakened by a jostle and dip.

Finally he felt the machine dropping from the sky. His stomach climbed into his throat to let him know. More chatter came from the front as the machine finally landed on solid ground. The jostling, the bumps and dips and all the other air feelings stopped. Engine sounds started to taper and someone opened the door. A dragging sound, like a pair of feet on metal, slipped behind his seat. He rightfully guess that one of his men was being taken out of the machine. Then the door closed again and he could hear nothing but his own breathing through the gag.

Excitement overwhelmed him, his freedom was at hand. He started to plot his way back to Toronto, how he’d be careful to avoid Chicago, giving it a wide berth. They would train and practice fighting each day before they set off toward their city. They’d find outposts and not even ask them any questions before killing them. They’d eat more than just the people, they’d find any kinds of fruits or canned food as well, like the stuff they got in prison.

The door opened again, interupting his dream. Another man was scuffled off and the door closed. He wondered why they were being taken one at a time. Maybe they have to untie us carefully, he thought. They don’t want us showing up looking like prisoners, or dangerous people. The Bob at the outpost might not like that we’re being dropped off. That’s probably it. Oh, Bob, you don’t know what’s about to hit you. You poor wasted bastard, I can’t wait to kill you.

The door opened again, another man off. I’m next, he thought. In a few moments I’m going to be free and we’ll go back to Toronto and we’ll tell Tynon about Chicago and old Bob and the crazy girl and the doctor and the flying man. He’ll send us back with the whole army and we’ll take Bob’s output and blow up the garden again and break the toilets and the sinks and the train and the helicopter again. We’ll tear it all down so that no one can use it again. Not even old Bob could rebuild it, especially because he’ll be dead.

The door opened one last time and hands untied Clip from the helicopter seat. His hands and feet were still bound and his hood and gag were left strapped to his head. The hands dragged him off. The engine had shut down completely and the only sounds he could hear were his dragging feet in the sand and the footsteps that accompanied them. The wind was still, and the sun instantly warmed the moist air within the hood. Clip was sweating an excited sweat. He was about to be free.

His two captors stood him upright on his monopoded feet, making sure that he could balance on his own before they let go of him. One of them pulled the hood up in the back, just enough to untie the gag and pull it away from his head. Then all at one the hood was removed.

The sun blined him for a few seconds, it was so bright. He had to squint and everything was blurry. Looking around, at first he could only see a person in front of him and one behind him. He blinked the tears out of his eye and they started to adjust to the brightness. The big machine was nearby, not making a sound or a move. Around him on the ground were piles of clothes, no men in clothes. Mostly men, anyway, some of them didn’t look human, more like burned wood. He looked carefully at the few that were nearby. It was Badger, Weed, Zeb and Jacko, all of them dead or dying.

“We were supposed to be free,” he said.

Hands behind him grabbed his head and held it tight. He couldn’t turn around to see who it was, but he knew it was the pilot, the man they called Angel. His hands were strong, they gripped the controls of the machine that could fly, they should be strong.

Clip wondered if he should scream. There was no one worth screaming too in this place. He recognized it, this was their first stop. This was where they killed Bob and Janice and Kevin. He really liked that day. This was Buffalo. There was no one in Buffalo worth screaming to. The outpost keeper, Bob, wouldn’t help them anyway, even if he was alive.

“You are free to die,” she said.

It was her, the crazy killer woman who killed Jacko. Before he could consider what was about to happen to him, it happened. The hands on his head force him to look down at his belly and it was already bleeding. She had punched it full of holes with a knife. Once his eyes were fully locked on the horror she cut a slice across it, letting the guts spill out toward his feet.

Still standing, still breathing, he looked at her, a fellow killer, and the hands on his head let him nod to her. He accepted his fate and he wanted her to know it, and she did. She ended him quickly afterward with a slice across his throat. As his brain lost its life sustaining bloodflow his mind wandered back to the helicopter, back to the peace of the flight, back to the womb.

* * *

Angel and Hope finished dragging Clip’s body into place before heading back to the helicopter to wash their hands. Such wasteful exhuberance with water wouldn’t have been possible before, and they’d have been left to fly home covererd with drying blood and sand. No one wanted to see them come home like that. They were heroes who got rid of the prisoners, they needed to look the part.

After they got into the air they circled the area. It had taken days to collect all the bodies and get them to Buffalo without anyone really asking questions. All that slow, plodding work had finally paid off in what they were looking at from above.

Like the skywriters of old, Hope asked Angel to send a message to The Dragon, should they ever venture down to Buffalo again. She didn’t want to make it a threat, anymore than 21 dead bodies is a threat. It was more of a request written in the fallen soldiers they sent out to find her, like a truce or peace accord. She wasn’t even sure they’d be able to read it from the ground very well. Propping the bodies up didn’t seem practical as they’d probably fall over in the course of time, so on the ground would have to do.

They considered leaving one of them alive to give the warning. It wasn’t practical either as the survivor would have full knowledge of where they were and all manner of tactical details about the building, and the train, and the helicopter and all the things that were keeping them alive, and all the other people that would be put at risk. These men all had to die.

A simple message in the sand would have to suffice, a request. Something that said, nicely, to please not send any killers after us anymore. Leave us be, and we’ll leave you be. Hope didn’t really embrace that last part, but the message was simple enough that it didn’t make any promises like that.

Circling above Buffalo they felt a little pride in their creation, on the ground written in 21 dead and dying men were the words, “NO MORE.” They were oriented south to north so that The Dragon would be able to read it from their approach from the north.

Angel and Hope didn’t know if they’d ever actually get the message. Maybe they’d just give up on their vengence and stay in Toronto, or move on to New York or some eastern city. Even if they did venture south again, the sand might just as well have the bodies all covered up by the time they arrive. Or worse, just the first word would be covered and the message’s intention would be completely misrepresented.

It didn’t matter, really, if they got the message. Hope and Angel both knew that they would do what they wanted to do. They’d spread, and conquer, and kill and try to bring an end to it all. That’s what The Dragon do.

The message was, perhaps, more for them, the two in the helicopter and those back at the bar. They weren’t going to be bullied by The Dragon, or anyone else. They were done being conquered. They were learning to fight back. The next band of evil that makes it way into their presence will meet the same fate as the 21 corpses on the ground. They’d be wise to steer clear of Jim’s bar, and of Angel’s helicopter and especially of Hope.

Act 2 – Feedback

How did you like the finalé of the second act? Was the build up appropriate? Did you like the payoff of these two characters facing off? Let me know your thoughts.

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Thank you for your feedback and your readership. Look for the final act kicking off this Thursday!

The Battle of Hope

Hope stepped forward into the arena. Trembles shivered down her arms and legs making her fingers and toes tingle. She was nervous. Unlike her previous kills, this man before her was aware of her intentions. More importantly, he was aware of the threat she posed to his life. It’s one thing to want to kill a man, plenty of Jacko’s prey had wanted to kill him, but none were capable of doing it. He lived with the confidence that he was the best killer in the afterworld.

Seeing Hope stand before him at the other end of the light, without a scratch on her, gave him a sense of excitement, anxiety, and respect. This woman, small as she was, had killed his two guards without so much as a sound, and had the strength to send one of them down the stairs. He wondered if she had killed the others, and he honestly wished she had. What more perfect opponent would there be, how much more could he relish this kill. If it had been her all along, and he was growing more confident that it was, he could end his quest in this moment, in this arena of sand and flame and moonlight, with his four best men behind him.

The dim, isolated light was refracting off the lens of the goggles and became a handicap. Jacko cast them off and slipped his Friday patch over his eye. He took another step forward; he was ready to fight, club back in his hands and spinning once more.

She stepped in toward him, now more lit by the burning clubs that flanked them. Dry, chapped lips trembled a little and she clenched her teeth to bring them under control. The borrowed club slid from her back and she pulled the strap off the large end, keeping it tethered to the hilt.

They both thought they were ready for the first swing, but neither conciously was aware of it. It was Jacko who made the first move, swinging his mallot high above his head to come crashing down on Hope. His move was predictable and she had her weapon up to block his intention. The crack of club on club bounced between the buildings giving the impression that this battle was playing out repeatedly across the city.

Jacko drew back with an arrogant strut. He was smiling. He was in love. Not with Hope, and not with himself, but with the moment. All of his self doubt, his questioning of himself, his failures, and every other fault he ever knew was being washed away. With this battle, against his adversary, the only one that mattered, he was fulfilling his own convuluted prophecy. His club rose up again and came down on top of Hope’s. The crack echoed once more.

Vibrations shook down the length of Hope’s club, into her hands, arms, torsoe, all throughout her body. It numbed her fingertips. He drew back again and circled around. She got up from her defensive posture and swung wildly at his body. His posture suggested that he wasn’t taking the battle seriously, she thought it a miracle that she missed. But she did miss as he had nimbly avoided her swing. In that moment she left herself vulnerable, but Jacko didn’t want to strike. It would have ended too quickly, he wanted to have this moment for quite a bit longer.

His club came down again, and she blocked it again. The numbness was getting worse, and her body was tired and thirsty. She was wearing down.

He danced around again before making another downward strike. Hope made another, more desperate counter swing. His strategy was very straight forward. She realized that he was just going to wear her down with repeated blows. She could block them, but only for so long. Eventually her grip on the club would succumb to the numbness in her hands. It would fall out and that would be the end. Her counterswings would never land. He was too quick, too well rested, too well hydrated. This evil man was going to beat her. The fire in her heart grew impatient and angry. She wanted so badly to kill this man.

Down came the club, but this time she tried something else. His repeated blows were now obvious and she knew he had ample opportunity to quickly strike again and end the fight, but he didn’t. She could see that he was playing with his prey, like a cat with an injured, stunned mouse. It was insulting. Finally, he was going to pay for the insult. Instead of throwing all her energy into blocking his swing, she shifted her body to the side. It meant that his strike would glance off her shoulder and bruise her quite badly, but her upward energy could be redirected. She popped him in the face with the small end of the club. It wasn’t enough to break his nose, but it did make him bleed.

Stumbling back, Jacko wiped the blood from his face to see what it looked like. Hope stayed in a defensive posture, not wanting to be overaggressive and vulnerable.

After the startle wore off, Jacko went back to enjoying the fight. It was better now that she was surprising him.

* * *

Angel’s eyes had finally cleared up enough that he could see what was going on without squinting. From his vantagepoint on the ground the upward cast shadows showed him two darkened giants battling on the face of the building beyond. They moved around each other, dancing as the flames flickered back and forth. The cracks of the clubs pounded his eardrums.

He looked over at Jim, whose eyes were fixed on Hope. His lips were talking but he wasn’t speaking. They said, “Don’t die.” The old man was crying. Bound and powerless to do anything to stop what was going on before him, Jim felt a familiar desperation. “Don’t die,” his lips motioned again. It was the only thing he could do, a sort of prayer to some non-existent god of the afterworld. Still, rocking back and forth to give himself some comfort, he sent it off into the universe for consideration, “Don’t die.”

* * *

The Battle of HopeRage, with growing intensity, filled Hope as she leveraged her cleverness and agility to counter more of Jacko’s overhead strikes. She was doing so well that his tactics changed. The direct swings became less frequent, he was aiming for legs and arms unpredictably. Hope was tired, but with the variety of attacks she was able to block without causing additional numbness in her hands. As she learned his moves, she was able to eventually develop counter moves. It almost always cost her a bruise, or a cut, but she was returning the favor.

He started to get tired. It almost felt to him as though this wirey little woman was starting to toy with him. Had she turned the tables? He was still dancing around after every swing, but the dancing was curtailed and the swings had less strength. The club was still moving with deadly velocity, and he was confident that he could still kill her at any moment. It would come at the cost of ending his enjoyment, he would have to take the battle more seriously when it came time to end it. Jacko realized that if he tried to enjoy it too long, she might get in a lucky blow. How close to the edge could he take it?

* * *

Badger, Clip, Zeb and <soandso> stared on at the battle. Their Jacko was obviously getting tired, but they stood their ground. Much like that moment where he plucked his own eye from his skull, he was fighting this fight for himself and his men. Though they all held the slight feeling that he would carry on without them, and without much remorse for their passing. Still, they felt a reverence to him for his leadership, which they never questioned. They knew he had doubts about himself and his abilities. Those feelings were unwarranted in their minds. Jacko was a great leader, and their leader. He had the larger burden. It meant that he had to know when to sacrifice, and who to sacrific, for the sake of the mission. They watched the battle, Jacko’s sacrifice for the mission, without even considering an intervention. It would go on to the end, whatever the ending might be.

* * *

His moves became more predictable and he returned to mostly overhead swings. He was too tired to bring more variety to the fight. This meant that Hopes hands hands grew more and more numb until finally she started to lose her grip on the large end of the club. For three blows she had to drop that side of the club when he came down. They both knew that the fight was almost over, and how it was going to end. Finally on the fourth strike, she dropped the club completely. Her hands were riddled with hairline fractures, they ached as if they’d been bathing in icewater for hours. She shakingly lifted the club up again to defend herself. Her rage-filled heart was going to carry on the fight. Her battered, broken body was giving up.

Jacko swung is club upward from the ground, knocking her weapon clear. She collapsed to her knees, still wanting to kill him, but unable to do it with the strength she had left. He kicked her squarely in the chest, knocking her onto her back.

She lay there in the sand, looking up at the sky. The moon had centered itself between the buildings. She could see a scattering of stars on either side, not too many, but a few. The slight wind howled against the hallow of the buildings and bits of sand tapped her on the face, interrupting its journey across the desert to give her little, gritty kisses.

The rage had quieted as it had accepted her fate. Her breathing eased, her body relaxed. No more killing, she thought. Well, if I could kill this guy, I still would. But I guess I don’t have to. He’ll meet his end by someone else’s hand, no doubt. You win, one-eyed maniac. “You win.”

She repeated it again and again, slowly. Jacko crouched down onto his knees, stradling her chest. He left her arms outstreatched. He could hear her whispers. The battle was over.

His face took the place of the moon. With the light eclipsed she could see more stars. She liked the stars, but was still offended by the bloody, one-eye monster that was staring down at her. “You win,” she whispered again, but this time with disgust. “You win.”

The club replaced his face. He was holding it with both hands, raising it up with the intent of bringing it down like a stake, only with the blunt end down instead of the sharp end. She imagined her face being flattened by the moon malot of the one-eyed monster. He would pound her repeatedly until there was nothing left but a crater of blood, bone and brain.

With his arms fully extended on the back swing, he was just about to start his first strike when an angry, crowd of voices ordered him to stop. “Stop!” “Don’t you do it!” “Wait!” “You’re a dead man!” and so on went the voices. They were all around him. He glanced up to see where they were coming from, but saw nothing but shadow. He was at the center of the light and couldn’t see beyond the arena and his men. He decided that the voices were in his head and restarted his backswing, aiming to pulverize the face in the sand.

“Stop!” Don’t do it!” “We’ll kill you for it!” the voices said again.

“Don’t you dare!”

If the voices were in his head, why were they telling him to stop? Jacko was frozen in the backswing, holding his club straight up over his head. The tension in his arms was locked with the latch of his elbows and shoulders. Eventually he dismissed the voices once again and stared down at his victim, taking aim.

His downward glance was met with an upward thrust of a short blade. With his arms raised high overhead, he could not block the strike. Still, he tried. The plunge-ready malot left his hands as he brought them down to deflect the approaching daggar. He was too late. The knife stuck into his throat, not deeply, but deep enough. He was so slow in his response that the knife made another hallow on the other side of his neck.

Blood poured out of the eyeslits that flanked his Adam’s apple. Instead of grabbing for the weapon, his priorities shifted in an attempt to stop his life from flowing out of his body.

Hope’s bloody hands, re-energized by the kill, shoved the maniac off of her. She mounted him as he did to her, stradling his chest and leaving his hands to frantically stem the tide of blood slipping away. Her whole body tingled at the sight of the defeated cyclops and she wanted more. With her hands on either side of his head, she leaned in to see, perhaps to capture his dying thoughts. The panic in his eye cooled her heart, and lit up her body. It was all she could do not to kiss him, or bite him, or shove the short blade into his other eye. How would he squirm, what else would he feel, how much longer can she make it last?

He glurged on his own spit as his lungs struggled against her weight. She lightened herself to let him breath, anything she could do to prolong his dying and her ectasy. Squeezing his ribs from the side, and the thrusting down on him, she imagined she was helping him to breath.

“Don’t die,” she whispered. “Not yet. You’ve got a little more.”

One of his hands left his neck and found the daggar that killed him. He swung it up at her. She caught his arm mid-flight and held it there between them. His eye opened wide at the sight of the blade, the one that took his eye, the one that started his journey and was now sealing his fate.

The scrambling, desperate strike against her was exactly what she wanted. Slamming his arm to the ground overhead, she leaned down onto him one last time and arched up, giving her one last grind on his dying flesh. His was the perfect kill. She pulled the knife from his hand, leaned back, and thrust it deep, as deep as it would go, into the center of his throat where it stayed. His body was finished, and hers was finished with him.

* * *

In much the same way she was not able to hear the helicopter go down, she was unaware of anything around her during the last moments of her duel with Jacko. She started to come out of her trance when two sets of hands pulled her off of the still bleeding corpse. At first she thought it was the men from The Dragon who were standing guard and she panicked for a second and tried to squirm out of it. But it wasn’t The Dragon, and it wasn’t Angel and Jim either. The hands belonged to women, one set to her mother, and another set to an old friend from the medical camp.

Relief washed over her. She wasn’t about to die after all. There were more than a dozen of them gathered around the arena. They had already subdued The Dragon and were attending to Angel and Jim. The day was over and it ended in survival.

Everything Goes Wrong / Killing Spree

Angel’s head was once again in agony. It was like the concussion had revisited the worst pain upon him. His head was cloudy, vision blurry and he couldn’t move. Breaths were difficult and painful to take, ribs had been broken. He started to move a little, but couldn’t pull his arms out in front of him. Something had then bound behind his back. Through his blurry vision he could make out shapes, maybe people, in front of him, but it was dark. What light there was flickered and moved around. It was torches. The floor was cold and damp, his face pressed down against it. Legs were stretched out before him, bound to one another. Dry air scratched down his throat with every breath, and pressed out against his ribs. He kept is breaths shallow. His nose was clogged, full of blood and snot and possibly broken. Angel couldn’t be sure, his mind was not all there.

Visions of what had happened started to form inside his head. He remembered taking off from the Tevatron. He retraced his path from the Hanger in reverse, dangling the hunk of metal and rare-earth elements below. The expectation was that The Dragon would be spotted somewhere along the way. They had damaged the helicopter, after all, which left it spewing a smoke trail. It should have been easy to track.

There was no sign of them: no footprints, no burned out buildings, nothing. Even as they hovered over the hanger they could see nothing that suggested that The Dragon were even there. The dead were gone. The smattering of tracks around the hangar, nonexistent. Only a helicopter-sized hole in the top of the hangar showed them evidence that what they had experience over the last three days was real.

Three passengers in the helicopter left the scene baffled, and terrified. Their plan was to head back to Jim’s building, drop off the magnet, get it connected to the cooling system, and fire up the laser. It was predicated on the idea that their would-be assassins would be in the middle of the desert between the city and the Tevatron. They should have followed.

“They should have followed,” Jim said into his headset.

“They didn’t follow,” Angel replied. “Why didn’t they follow, Jim?”

“Maybe they gave up.”

“They walked all the way from the outskirts of Toronto to get here, Jim. They had us surrounded. They should be ravenous, not deterred.”

Jim grumbled something into the mic that stuck out like a twig from the hard-shelled audio ear-muffs and shook his head.

Angel passed over the rail yard to see the earlier battlefield. The demolished train car was there, as was Jim’s working train, parked right where they left it. None of it made any sense. The Dragon had a train. They had a really good vector on where the helicopter was going. They had options, and it looked as if they took none of them. It was as if they had vanished from the Earth.

“What now?” Angel said.

“We carry on. We don’t have enough information to do anything else.”

Up they soared ever so gently, Angel was still suffering quite a bit. The blades chirped away from the outside, overwhelmed by the engine noise on the inside. They were heading straight to Jim’s building.

* * *

“Angel, Hope?” Jim was regaining conciousness as well. His body faired better than Angel’s. A head-bleed that had already clotted, a broken arm, and a slight puncture wound in his abdomin that left a stain of dried blood on his plaid shirt.

“Hey Jim,” Angel said, still laying on the floor. “I think we have company.”

“Yeah. They were waiting for us.”

“I still think this is a terrible plan.”

“Lookin’ that way, bud.”

The Dragon were waiting for them at the building. As the helicopter hovered over the top floor, it gently set the magnet down. Hope slipped out to cut the cargo loose with her blade. It wasn’t the best way to drop the load, but without someone on the ground it was the only way they could do it. She clung to the landing rail and swung her nimble body so that she could reach the loosened cargo strap and cut through it. Just as the tether feathered its way toward the top of the building a beam of light slid across the bottom of the bird, carving a surface scar into the metal. It reached a spot within the radius of the propeller and stabilized on the blades as they spun about. They were sheared by a third, flinging the outer edges toward another nearby tower. The projectile metal swords stabbed into the building in a cluster, as if thrown by a dart champion.

Without the tips of its wings, the machine lost most of its loft. At first it fell slowly. Angel and Jim gasped for air while hope clung for dear life to the bottom of the machine. With the little control Angel had he tried to get to the edge of the building as not to land the whole machine on top of Hope. She managed to let go and drop onto the roof of the building as the machine slid through the air, down below the top floor. It was practically flying sideways, Angel was trying to save what little he had left of the blades and get some distance between the machine and the building before attempting to correct the flight profile.

Chirping blade sounds were replaced with an engine that was overrevving and a high-pitched whine caused by the uneven edges cutting through the air. With a little luck the machine moved away from the building and Angel leveled it out, but could do nothing to prevent the eventual meeting with the ground. He held the stick far over to one side to slow the increasing rotation speed of the machine. Without the full torque of the blades, the counter-rotation gearing to the rear rotor could only compensate so much.

There was no time to talk to Jim about how to crash in a helicopter, no time to regret not having parachutes, not that there was time to put them on. They only had time to fall, and for Angel to do his best to control the machine and coax whatever loft he could out of their shortened blades. Angel hoped that the sand was still soft, that it would absorb some of the force that was about to drop down on it. The storm wasn’t but a few days prior. The sand doesn’t completely settle. It’ll be alright, he thought.

* * *

The moving, flickering light was emitting some murmurs and whispers now. One of the whispers was a word Angel could just barely make out, “Hope.” He tried to look over at Jim, he tried to pull himself up. He could do neither. Every part of his body hurt, and what parts didn’t hurt very much were just numb from him laying on them.

“How long, Jim?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Could have been awhile. I’ve got dried blood on me already.”

“We crashed.”

“Wasn’t your fault. Or maybe it was. I blame you for my survival,” Jim joked, because what else could he do. He was bound on the floor just like Angel. They tied his hands in front of him to account for his broken arm, but they tethered them to his legs to prevent him from trying to hop away like an idiot. Joking was the only pleasure he had, and he needed some with all the pain he was in. His old body was bruised and sore.

Angel’s head was clearing and his eyesight grew sharper. He could make out figures of men with torches, and singed bar, half-burned curtains in front of a dented metal door. It was Jim’s bar. This was poetic for Angel, in a way. Hope and Cindy were sitting at the bar just as things started to go sideways. Maybe it wasn’t their fault, he thought. Of course it wasn’t their fault. They’re not maurading maniacs bent on destroying what’s left of humanity. Those two are just a couple of girls who fell in with the wrong crowd. He had heard the real history of how they got tangled up with The Dragon, but liked his shorthand version to be more playful.

He was beginning to understand how Hope initially worked her way into the good graces of The Dragon. She can be gentle when she wants to be, and probably when she has to be. Cindy’s involvement was obvious, why would you ever cast off a doctor. Medical care had gone way downhill since the fall of society.

Not that any of this understanding would likely matter. Angel was ready to accept his fate. This one-eyed Dragon was going to clobber him in the head again and put an end to his life. He’ll leave the face intact so that he can bring my severed head back to Tynon and show him how he killed the betrayer. Fair enough. I wonder if I’d be enough. Maybe if I tell him that I killed those men in Buffalo, and I shot the laser through the two at the hangar, would that be enough, would he leave Hope and Cindy and Jim alone? Or at the very least just kill me and Jim and call it a day?

Angel had nothing to lose. He was bound, bloodied and broken, fated to die under almost any circumstance. Perhaps going out in some noble fashion would help the world a little bit, help Hope and help Cindy and the women at the Tevatron. Put that out of your head, Angel. Don’t give up anything about the Tevatron and what’s going on there.

“Derrrrng!” the elevator shattered the quiet and mumbling in the bar. The doors did not open.

After a minute the slow, uneven grind of the doors on the tracks revealed that it was more than just a glitch. “Blerrasshhhhhhhhhhhhhhck!” said the garbled, deteriorated voice that matched the condition of its owner.

“Remind me to disconnect that,” Jim said. “She used to have such a lovely voice, but now she’s just some kind of mutant hiding in the speakerbox.”

Shuffling feet emerged from the elevator box. It was not the sharp clicking that one would expect to accompany evil, it was quiet, measured, and slow. Once the feet came to a halt the clicking actually did start up. It was not footstep, though. It was the sound of a skilled killer tapping on the ground. Not the man, but his club. It had seen blood, and bone, and muscle, and brain. It was a devious device put to devious purposes, weilded by a one-eyed maniac who was getting better and better at weilding it.

The torches and the mumbling in the background were silenced by the entry of this new person. They gathered close to Angel and Jim on the ground putting more light into the area allowing Angel to see clearly their adversary, the one-eyed man who bashed him on the head at the hangar.

“That’s the one, Jim. That’s the guy that got me,” Angel said.

“Ah, yeah. He’s only got the one eye, unless he’s just trying to be a pirate.”

Angel laughed, and whinced in pain from his ribs.

Neither Jim nor Angel had been tortured before. They didn’t know what kind of pain the one-eyed Dragon was thinking about inflicting upon them. The laughter they were experiencing would likely be the last bit of pleasure they would extract from the situation. As the room brightened with the torchlight, their chances of survival dimmed. This man was like no adversary they had ever even heard of. Their experience with The Dragon had been relatively benign compared to what was about to happen. They rightfully did not expect a sadist to be standing before them, so they joked.

They joked.

* * *

Hope watched it go down. She managed to swing from the bottom of the propellered machine and land on the roof of the building. It was one of those things that she had imagined she might be able to do in a dream, if she repeated the dream over and over again until she got it right. She hadn’t dreamed about this. She didn’t even think about this. Pure instict drove her to escape the falling machine even if it meant a mid-air swing hundreds of feet in the air. With subconcious confidence in her own body’s ability her instincts pushed her, like a father pushing a daughter in a swing. There was no choice, her body just did it.

Landing on the roof hurt. She was fortunate to be left with only scrapes and bruises given the awkward way she hit. It knocked the wind out of her lungs, leaving her gasping as she moved to the edge. She had to see the machine go down, to know if they made it.

It was all in slow motion. Tragedies often unfold at what seems like half-speed. She knew the machine would hit the ground; she was expecting it. As she watched Angel’s fantastic maneuvers that righted the bird during its descent, she didn’t realize that she couldn’t hear it, or anything. She was watching in silent as her mind shut out everything else except the vision of the helicopter falling out of the sky. A gasp of air, a dropped jaw, eyes welling up with tears, she lay there on the roof, head peeking over the side.

With a puff of sand and scattered metal, it hit the ground. What was left of the propeller continued to spin, but at an odd angle, as if it had become dislodged from the rest of the machine somehow. The tail was touching the ground and the booms were sticking up at odd angles.

For awhile there was no movement, nothing from the bird, nothing from the area around it. The sound of the quiet wind slowly emerged from the background and filled Hope’s ears once again. Then the voices came, not from the roof, but from the ground. The Dragon came, some from across the bridge and others from the building below. She waited and watched. Short of jumping from the building and having enough luck to land on one of them, she could do nothing for Angel and Jim at the moment, so she watched.

They dragged two limp bodies out of the machine and laid them on the sand. One of them purched over each body, examining them. She couldn’t make out any words, just the noises of men’s voices. As they dragged the bodies toward the building she had no idea if they were dead or alive, but in that moment she decided that she was going to find out.

A familiar rage awoke in Hope. It was the same feeling she felt when she killed the two Dragon in the helicopter so many weeks ago, rooted in her anguish from when they raided the medical camp, killing so many, but it was more complicated than that. She was angry at them, and angry at herself. She became the lover of the man who ordered the raid, the man who ordered her own capture. Her heart was burning with fire on both sides. The flames her chest and burned across her body, extending all the way to her fingertips. On her right she held the despise of the wicked men who have caused so much pain, on the left the grief and self loathing that accompanied the powerlessness of her situation, and how she found enough power in selfishness and self preservation that ultimately resulted in the betrayal of all those around her.

She was disgusted, angry, resentful, despised, rotten inside, and the rot was now burning out the puss and stink of her soul. Arms shaking, palms sweaty, she was ready. The fire in her heart energized her body. She had the strength of two men running through her, and the cunning of the finest killer The Dragon could bring forth. A rampage was coming like these killers had never seen.

Her mind filled with visions of killing them one by one. She imagined sneaking up on one from behind and stabbing him in the throat, holding his limbs until his brain drained of blood. An impaled skull awaited the next one, and the one after that would take a few kicks to the groin before she dispatched him by twisting his head around. Hope had all sorts of colorful ways to kill these men, and she was going to try each one.

Kills 1 & 2

Two Dragon stared out the blown out window of the garden, keeping watch over the activity by the helicopter. If they spotted anything unusual it was one man’s job to call the elevator and deliver the message to Jacko. The other man stayed behind to keep watch and relay the information to the messenger upon his return, and repeat the process. Jacko’s plan appeared to be working to that point, so there was for the men to do except watch.

They didn’t hear Hope slip through the stairwell door. The howling wind across the open windows kept them from hearing her tie off the cargo strap to the drain pipe behind them. Enamored by the vision of the shattered flying machine below, they didn’t notice her sneaking up behind them.

It wasn’t until the first man was noosed and kicked out the window that they noticed her at all. He fell 30 feet before the tether was taught and the noose tightened around his neck. It wasn’t as satisfying a kill as she had hoped. She didn’t hear the neck snap or any screams from him, just a grunt when she kicked him in the back and some scuffling of his feet on the ground when he tried to regain his balance. She enjoyed imagining his last thoughts, his terror and panic at the thought of the ground rising up to meet him, and the sadness at the sound of his own snapping neck. Would he know he was dead, or would it all just go dark? This idea gave her some pleasure, some relief from the burning in her heart. His death, however, was but a drop of water, a splash onto the fire. It reignited quickly.

The second man gave her a close kill. He saw his friend fly out the window followed by a slack, yellow cargo strap that chased him from behind. His eyes traced the strap’s route backward and met the vision of a woman with her leg slowly retracted from its forceful kick. He felt fear, and Hope could see it on his face, and he could see the rage on hers. She was not tall, but in that momen she was taller than he. His body grew small and week in the face of her impending slaughter. There was no fight in this man, he was paralyzed.

Hope imagined another version of herself taking pity on this man. He would see her softening and soften himself, dropping his club, dropping his guard. She would bind him to the drain pipe with the cargo strap and come back for him later. He would become her prisoner and, after awhile, she would free him after she felt he had served his sentence. They would go on living, never becoming friends, but not staying enemies either. He would live.

Someday she wondered if that version of her would ever replace the killer. Years from now, when the world begins to right itself, maybe, but not today. This Hope gave him no mercy. His throat was slashed before the noose tightened around the other man’s neck. The gasping of air, the choking on blood, these sounds gave her more satisfaction. Her fire cooled for a moment. She closed her eyes to feel it and inhaled deeply, growing strong in the process.

As the heat returned she clenched her fists and tightened her jaw. She had more work to do before this fire would go out. It might not even be completely extinguished when she finished. She would be satisfied to leave it smoldering, even if only for awhile.

Kill 3

“Dinnnnnnnnnnnck,” went the bell on the 35th floor. The door opened on the opposite side of the elevator shaft. Whoever was on it couldn’t see how Hope had desecrated the two scouts. He would not suspect.

She slinked up to the rear of the elevator’s column and listened. The man called out to his friends, but recieved no answer. He walked around one side, she moved to the corner and waited. He called out again, still no answer. The fool, he arrived at the corner of the shaft where she was waiting, and he looked away. This fool of a man was looking the other way, unlike any other normal human. It was as if he didn’t want to see her. A fleeting sensation of dismay brushed across Hope’s mind as he finally turned his idiot head the other way and saw her, arms outstretched grabbing for his head.

The idiot would be looking the other way for the rest of his short life as she twisted his skull around to make it so. Cracking neck bones and the snapping spine gave her the sick sensation of pleasure for much longer this time. Her body cooled with the beading sweat that was developing across her skin, and the dousing of the flame from this kill. This poor, dumb man who had managed to survive in a killing community, how could he be so bad at staying alive?

Kills 4 & 5

She knew better than to take the elevator, there was no telling what she might encounter when the doors opened, if they opened. For all she knew the machine would finally give up and leave her stranded in the metal box to burn from the inside out.

The dangling man inched his way up the side of the building, Hope thought she might need the cargo strap again and she didn’t see any point in announcing her presence to the rest of The Dragon just yet. She also grabbed one of their clubs. The malet felt heavy in her hands, not just in weight but in what it had done and what it represented. It was their chosen killing machine, and this one had the weight of one that had taken a lot of lives. Stained brown with dried blood and heavily dented, she wondered how many souls this filthy beast had freed from the earth. How many skulls shattered, bones broken, muscles destroyed along with their owners had been left in its wake?

Her eyes shifted focus from the club to the man she had pulled it from and whatever pity she had for any of them evaporated, leaving her like a possesing spirit giving up on its host. Like Jim, she saw only one way for this to end, and she wanted to bring it about. They all have to die, all of The Dragon. They will kill and maime and destroy until there’s nothing left of humanity, and if that means that Hope had to give up her own, she would make that sacrifice. She would become a killer, just as they are. No more flourishes of pity, or remorse would ever make their way into her heart for any other Dragon’s death. Her hardened heart could burn forever so long as she was putting an end to them.

Floor by floor she made her way down from the 35th using the stairwell near the elevator shaft at the center of the building. Most levels had some desks, a lot of wheeled chairs, and the higher ones still had many windows intact. For all the damage the structure had endured, it was in surprisingly good shape looking at it form the inside. Hope wasn’t there for a tour, though. She painstakingly stalked through each and every floor looking for an opportunity to sneak up behind another Dragon bastard and gut him.

34 – nothing. 33 – nothing. 32 – nothing. She spent 10 minutes on each floor, and that was too much time. She had seen them dragging Angel and Jim into the building. She didn’t know which floor they were on, but she knew where they weren’t. Alive or dead, she was committed to finding them and and creating a trail of bloody bodies along the way, but which would it be: alive, or dead?

If they’re dead, they were already dead, she thought. And if they wanted them dead they would have killed them right in the helicopter. They wouldn’t have bothered dragging them around. If they were already dead, then they’re already dead. She wasn’t sure if her logic was sound, but it gave her comfort to think that Angel and Jim were still alive. It gave her rage a noble purpose, and this made her feel better. Her bloodlust was in-line with what she thought was the higher objective of saving them. With so many floors to clear, she had quit a lot of time to reconcile her feelings on the matter.

More than three hours had passed since she started down the stairs. When she go to the tenth floor she noted that, while the desks and scattered cubical walls still provided a maze of hiding places for potential assassins, most of the chairs were missing. Nine, eight, seven, none of them had chairs at all. Another hour had ticked by when she arrived at the fifth floor where the mystery was solved.

Jim had thrown all the chairs down the stairwell. Nine office building floors worth of wheeled chairs were clogging up the stairs below the fifth floor, like hair in a shower drain. There was no climbing over, or around, or through he mesh of five-pointed star legs, hydrolic pressure plungers, cushioned and mesh seats and backs, and adjustable arms. If it went all the way down to the ground level, Hope imagined that it would take her several days to clear them all. Burning them would be simpler, if they would burn. In all likelihood the materials would melt into a solid brick of stair-well molded plastic blocking the first and second floors.

Like the floors between 35 and six, floor five offered no satisfying kills. The Sun was getting low in the sky now, and Hope was feeling the fatigue of her long day. Her muscles ached. She walked to one side of the office and propped herself up on a desk. Closing her eyes for a moment, she enjoyed the sound of the wind across the hollow of the window panes. Breathing became slow and heavy. While her body rested, her mind was still imagining more killing. Three was not enough, she wanted more. More, she whispered to herself, and she thought she heard something whisper in return. Her head cocked sideways instinctively to give her ear a better angle on the sound. More whispers, she heard, but they weren’t whispers, just a faint conversation.

Down below her were two Dragon standing on the train platform. They didn’t see her, they weren’t looking for someone from up above. These two men were standing guard at the train platform in case Jim’s train showed up looking for trouble.

Hope’s body re-energized with a new rush of adrenaline and her mind assigned each of the men a specific way to die. She was eager to kill, and her brain was on automatic as it sorted out how to get down to them. Over on a side of the building, just out of view of her prey, she tied off the cargo strap to a heavy desk and lowered it down. These men were on the third floor and after she used a little bit of the strap to fashion a sling for the club, she had just enough to get down to them.

She had never repelled before, so her descent was awkward. Wisely she chose to do this out of view of the two men, as they would have surely noticed her lack of stealth on the way down if she tried to drop in directly behind them. She found her way in to the building and set up the kill.

Her luck continued as they were assigned to look out for a train, not look behind them for someone sneaking up. Excitement filled her as she was about to inflict some new damage with the club. A smile spread across her face as she approached the two men standing at the edge of the platform.

The first man would have to wait his turn. A little push was all he needed to fall down onto the tracks. It was an odd landing for him, hitting his head on one of the rails. By the time he pulled himself up it would be too late for his partner.

Swinging low and wildly with her new weapon, she struck the second Dragon on the front of the knee, buckling his leg in the opposite direction of its normal operation. He screamed at the sight of his retreating shin and thigh and fell to the ground grabbing at the demolished joint. Hope was swift and more precise with her next swing. The man stopped screaming when the club came down on his head. She was beginning to understand the appeal of these bloody mallots. Cracking sounds of bone and tendon were very satisfying.

As she wound up for her third swing, which she wasn’t entirely sure was necessary, but was going to take anyway, a pair of hands wrapped around her ankles and yanked them out from under her. The man down on the tracks had recovered a little more quickly than she expected. Her body came down with a heavy thud and the man started to drag her down onto the tracks.

Hope was nimble, and her mind was sharp. She had lost her club, but not her wits. Using her arms, she popped her body up off the platform, putting all her mass into the air, and shoving herself right into the chest of the man below. He crashed down on the tracks once more, dropping his club, as Hope had dropped hers just seconds before. Her landing was soft, and had the added benefit of pressing all the air out of her adversary’s lungs. When a man can’t breath, his first priority is to breath. This gave Hope the advantage becasue her priority was still to kill the man. As he struggled to push her off, now quite disoriented from two falls on the train tracks, she grabbed his club and started to bash him in the face with the narrow end. This was an interesting experience for her. To this point she had snuck up on all of her victims and dispatched them before they really understood what was happening. This man that she was sitting on was fully aware of her, and that he was about to die. His armed flailed about as he tried to block the club’s hilt between each blow. Blood flowed into his eyes giving him no chance at any meaningful counter move.

With panicked lungs, no vision and a face that had been turned into a ball of beaten meat, he started to choke on the blood that was running from his nose down his throat. He gasped and flailed more slowly as she continued to bash his face. As his efforts became more futile and weak, Hope smiled again. More than any of the others, she enjoyed killing this man. His suffering doused the flame in her heart for a good while.

Kills 6 & 7

Hope worried that the scream of the first man might have alerted others to her presence, but after several minutes no one came to the third floor looking for trouble. She lurked around the third floor, wiping her bloody hands on the walls, desks and any other thing she felt like. Outside of the bloody trail, she scouted the floor just like the others, but it was just a habit at this point. She was just going though the motions. If she really wanted to complete the job she would have gone up to the fourth floor and checked it out. She was no longer interested in clearing the building so much as she was interested in finding another Dragon to kill.

Jim had done a great job of blocking off the main stairwell with chairs, and that would do well to keep people below the fifth floor, but there were a set of escalators that went between the third and ground floors. They were well beyond functional as time had broken almost everything, but a broken escalator is not really broken, it just becomes stairs. With her favorite club and two holstered blades, she crept slowly down the escalator stairs. Stealth had been her best ally so far, and she wasn’t about to give it up by clumsily swooping down to the ground floor.

The ground floor was not at all like the ones above. It was an open, spacious lobby with decorative marble and massive desks. In the dim light of the setting sun it reminded her of the old bank she used to hide out in before those bastards took it from her, before the beat her to within an inch of her life. That brutal memory lodged in her head as she skulked around each corner of the lobby, looking for Dragon. She was binding it with her time as Gannon’s concubine, with the attack at the medical camp, the death of her friends, her betrayal of the rest, the killing of the men in the helicopter, at the hangar, and all those she killed at Jim’s building. All of the pain she inflicted, and that was visited upon her hardened into a lump in her chest at the center of her burning heart. It invigorated her.

When she spotted the two Dragon standing guard at the top of the stairs to the bar, she didn’t bother with stealth. It was casual, the way she walked up to them with her club. One of them had set his on fire to cast light in the area, the fool. He was so close to the flame that he could barely see how she bashed his friend to the ground. He thought he was good at killing, and maybe he was, but he wasn’t ready to kill in that moment. This little woman walking up and crushing his friends skull like an egg was not what he expected. Nor did he foresee her smashing his hand with her club, breaking his fingers and knocking his torch away.

The fire flickered in the darkened city, half buried in the sand. Protected from the wind, and with no rain to douse it, the fire would keep burning into the night, until the weapon was consumed by it.