Monday, April 1st 2069 – 16:42
“O’Reily, the new wetware still giving you trouble?”
Relaxing my white-knuckled grip on my crucifix, I opened my eyes to regard my CO. He was big. His triple-XL, SWAT uniform stretched tight over the brick wall that was his chest. “No, Captain Anders, I’m fine.” I gave him a slow shake of my head, thinking, My body accepted the modifications without complications. Out loud I said, “I was playing racquetball the next day.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Anders held the handrail that ran the length of the armored personnel carrier, the heavy steel bar looking tiny in his thick-fingered hand. Corded muscles danced under the ebon skin of his forearm, correcting his balance each time the APC bounced over minor imperfections in the highway. A hint of silver dusted his close-cropped hair, offering the only clue that he was closer to sixty than to fifty.
My eyes took in the squad, and I couldn’t help but imagine how my kinky-curly, shoulder-length red hair made me stand out among all the former military men. My short pony-tail sets me apart even more than my boobs, I mused.
“Yeah!” said Lieutenant Sanchez. Meeting my eyes, he held his right hand palm down. After only a second, it started to shake with an almost imperceptible tremor. “It took me almost a month to adapt to my expanded nervous system.”
Marks shoved Sanchez, the baby-faced, former Marine nearly knocking the lieutenant off the bench seat. “From what my wife says, he still hasn’t adapted.” Marks turned to me and said, with an exaggerated bob of his brows, “Two-second wonder.”
A lascivious grin turned up the lieutenant’s lips. “Your wife would know, Marks.”
“Yeah,” Marks said, meeting Sanchez’s grin with a smug smile of his own. “But I got nothing to fear from the Premature Ejaculator, or at least, that’s what your wife said last night!” he added, giving Sanchez a friendly punch in the shoulder that would have knocked me from my feet.
An unladylike snort of laughter shot from me, and I slapped my hand over my mouth. None of the squad noticed though, and tensions dropped as the APC filled with laughter.
As the laughter wound down, I held my hand out to the captain, palm down, without the slightest hint of a tremor. “I guess things have changed since you went under the knife, Lieutenant. Cause I’m good.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Anders’ eyes dropped to the crucifix clutched in my left hand to punctuate his question.
“Oh.” I opened my hand, releasing the ever-present symbol of my faith and occasional worry stone. “I have a bad feeling, that’s all.”
“She’s just got first deployment butterflies, Captain,” said Marks, giving me a wink.
I lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Maybe.”
“Don’t worry about it, Tee.” Sanchez smiled, his brilliant white teeth a dazzling contrast to his rich, bronze complexion. “The pucker factor is high for everyone.”
I wasn’t reassured.
The world bounced and rattled, as air brakes locked in an effort to bring eight metric tons of armored personnel carrier to a rapid halt. The sudden deceleration forced me to grip my seat and the side railing to keep from sliding to the front. Captain Anders, like the boulder he resembled, hardly moved, the swelling of his left biceps and forearm giving the only indication that he was even subject to Newton’s Laws. The shriek of protesting rubber fell silent, and the APC rocked back and forth, taking the entire squad for a ride, as it came to a complete halt.
The captain tapped his ear-piece, snapping his visor down over his eyes with a barely audible click. Soft, sapphire light highlighted his features as his heads-up-display activated. The rest of the squad followed his example, while I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer, God, guide and protect us.
“Put on your rubbers, people,” Anders said, slapping a magazine into his FN P93. The wirelessly linked weapon automatically chambered a round. “Marks, Sanchez, grab your boards. We go in ten.”
“You toads heard the captain!” barked Sanchez. “We’re dealing with civvies, so keep it non-lethal!”
I tapped my own earpiece. The visor blocked my vision for the split-second it took the device to link with my personal combat systems, and then my world filled with color. The IFF system painted a blue line around each of my squadmates, floating their names and statuses above their heads. Inserting a magazine into my own weapon added an ammunition counter, which I slid to the top lefthand corner of my HUD with a gesture. A thought chambered the first round and released the safety.
Captain Anders held up his left hand, keeping the right securely on his assault rifle, holding up three fingers, then two, then one, before dropping his hand like an open blade toward the rear of the personnel carrier. The doors opened with a loud clang of heavy steel locks and a hiss of hydraulics. A cacophony of sound assaulted me before my Selective Sound System muted the chaos, as a sea of humanity crashed against the police barricade, threatening to overwhelm the makeshift fortifications.
In a blink, Marks and Sanchez were through the opening. Moving with speed and precision that impressed me, despite my own augmentations, they helped to shore up the police lines, pushing back the tide of rioters with ballistic shields. Captain Anders leaped into the opening and the rest of the squad followed. My boots were the last to hit the pavement.
“Get their attention,” Anders barked.
With a thought, I switched my weapon to burst fire, lifting it to my shoulder, and yellow crosshairs sprang to life. The large, boisterous rioter I targeted was highlighted with a matching shade. I let my breath out and squeezed the trigger, and my weapon barked three times in quick succession, the sound kept to a manageable roar by my augments. Rubber rounds struck the overweight man in the chest and pushed him back several steps, ricocheting through the crowd.
The front few-dozen people flinched back and covered their heads, shrinking in on themselves in an attempt to avoid another hail of painfully bouncing bullets. In the sudden silence Captain Anders spoke, his voice amplified by the APC’s PA system, “Return to your homes!”
“It’s not safe!” an anonymous voice called from the writhing mass.
“You pigs can go f— yourselves!” Thanks to personalized Triple-S settings, I wasn’t assaulted by the offensive expletive, but I didn’t miss the two-handed, one-fingered salute that went with it. “It’s a plague!”
“Yeah!” One after another, people flashed yellow as I scanned the gathered people, looking for the anonymous speaker. “What the hell are you cops doing about it?”
A rock crashed into Mark’s shield, and I snapped up my assault rifle, targeting system following the stone’s trajectory back to the thrower. I squeezed the trigger in the same motion, and a three round burst of vinyl projectiles slammed into the man’s shoulder. Limb falling limp at his side, he staggered with the force of the impact.
A scream split the air, drawing my attention away from the rock thrower and toward the rear of the crowd. More people were entering the area from a side street. Something about their movements was off. They twitched and jerked, shambling forward as if they were barely ambulatory.
What the hell?
My focused attention drew an amber line around one of the newcomers, displaying, Range 103M. My targeting system zoomed in, drawing a 10X on my HUD and showing me details I couldn’t make out before. Beyond their herky-jerky movements, their skin was covered in black mold and their eyes were fogged over... glassy. Each individual was missing large chunks of flesh as if they’d been partially eaten.
“Ca… Captain.” The chill in the pit of my stomach spread out through my limbs, and a shiver crawled up my spine. Throat dry, I almost choked on the panicked scream trying to claw its way out of my throat. “Those others… the people just arriving… Are they dead?”
As if in answer to my question, the first walking corpse reached the outer edge of the crowd and fell upon the living, tearing at them with jagged nails, as their teeth sank into flesh anywhere they could find purchase.
The calm broke, the crowd’s panicked screams overwhelming my Triple-S. The civilians turned into terrified herd animals fleeing predators, not caring who or what they trampled in their effort to get away.
This can’t be real. It just can’t.
“Let the civvies through,” Captain Anders roared. “Switch to live munitions and cover them!”
“F— Up Beyond All Repair?” Marks cried, a hysterical laugh tickling the edge of his words. “Can you say, ‘Understatement?’”
“Put on your big boy panties, Marks.” Sanchez inserted another magazine into his assault rifle. “And follow orders!”
My own clip fell from my FN P93, and I’d slapped in the replacement, turning my targeting information from yellow to red. Before I’d even registered the action, crimson crosshairs lined up with a walking corpse’s head. I fired. It exploded like a melon, splattering terrified civilians and cops alike with a sticky, black goo. Gore sprayed across my left side, coating my face and neck. The sour reek of roadkill left too long in the sun filled my nose, causing my gorge to rise. A thought activated my internal oxygen tank, allowing me to ignore the nausea-inducing odor and line up another shot.
“We’re going to be overrun!” I yelled, my adrenal pump flooding my bloodstream with epinephrine, sharpening my focus to a razor’s edge and bringing my perception of time to a near standstill. “Too many civvies! I’m running out of safe targets!”
“That’s your problem, Tee!” Sanchez laughed. “You need to shoot the dan—“ The lieutenant went down, buried under a tidal wave of humanity.
A hand gripped my left arm. I spun, slamming the butt of my assault rifle into the person’s face. Blood sprayed from the broken nose of an elderly woman, and I stared in horror as she was trampled to death by the raging sea of humanity. The tide battered me back and forth, testing my balance, until pain erupted in my skull and the world spun. I stared at the sky, unsure if the stars were real. My HUD flashed red.
Strong hands grasped my shoulders, pulling me away from the writhing mass to the shelter of the APC. “That’s alright, Tee.” Marks looked down at me, a sarcastic smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth. “You catch up on sleep, I got this.”
A red exclamation point in the middle of a triangle continued to flash in the corner of my vision. I tried to focus on it as Marks propped me up against the personnel carrier and took up a defensive position in front of me. Link lost… Link Lost… Link Lost…
Confused, I muttered, “Where’s my weapon?”
A form stepped into view from my right, swinging a baseball bat at my squadmates head, and I cried, “Marks!”
His superconductor nervous system spun my squadmate around with his weapon shouldered and ready to fire as the heavy, wooden club smashed into his face. Fire exploded from the barrel of the assault rifle as Marks fell, bullets tearing through his attacker and filling the air with a sanguine mist.
Marks hit the ground. I lunged forward, staggering to my feet, but my head felt like it was sliding in two different directions. My adrenal pump forced more epinephrine into my system, keeping my synapses firing and not allowing me to pass out. Burning pain and the metallic taste of blood filled my mouth as my chin struck the pavement.
Catching movement out of the corner of my eyes, I rolled to my right, the motion threatening to bring my lunch back for a return engagement. As I stared in horror, the top half of a soccer mom crawled toward me. Lips and nose eaten away. Bare teeth snapped a staccato rhythm as the corpse scrambled forward on its hands, dragging what was left of its viscera behind it. I slammed the heel of my boot into the dead woman’s face. The blow snapping her head back with cervical shattering force. Her body went limp, but her teeth continued to clatter, glassy eyes rolling in their sockets to remain focused on me.
Fire erupted across my throat, ragged nails tearing at the exposed flesh and snapping the gold chain around my neck. Metal slid across my skin like water, pulled by the weight of my crucifix. I just stared, transfixed by the sight, even as a catcher’s-mitt-sized, ebon hand clamped around my attacker’s neck, pulling it away a blink before it could tear out my exposed jugular.
The world turned upside down. The wind forced from my lungs as Captain Anders tossed me across his broad shoulder in a fireman’s carry. I vomited, emptying my stomach of bile and butterflies, as everything went black. Somewhere, metal clanged like the sealing of a tomb.