Periodic explosions provided sufficient light to see the silhouettes of the Mercies. The light got muddier as the smoke, dust, and gas spread around the perimeter.
“Don’t be crazy!” Jessie called out. “We’re friendlies! Academy uniforms!”
The Mercies made their approach, and I saw the blades. Several were drawing their weapons. I didn’t see any putting weapons away in light of Jessie’s statement.
“I think that card is played out,” I said.
“That would be my fault,” Berger said. “I spread the word about your little ruse twice, after I brought Sylvester to them and when we went looking for Florence and Charles.”
One of the Mercies whooped, as if he was amping himself up, working up the courage to come after us.
“As soon as the smoke clears, we’ll make a break for the gap,” I said. I wanted to provide a kind of direction. I’d been on the opposite side of too many squadrons and armies, sowing discord. In war and in simple skirmishes, it was too easy for the seeds of doubt to find root. The counter was simple instructions, clear goals, and trust. “We deal with the Mercies in the short term, by fighting if we have to, but with running and maneuvering as the better options.”
“Stick together,” Jessie said. “For what it’s worth, the ones with more skin and more deformed facial features are slower.”
“Are they?” I asked.
“It seems to be the case, going by what I’ve seen. I don’t think anyone but you and me really have the ability or experience to properly leverage that, but knowing might make the difference for someone else. I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” I said. I watched the silhouettes approaching. They ranged from children to thirty or so, but the odd folds and wrinkles made some look older. “They’re strong, so try not to fight them. You have to be able to tear off your own skin.”
“They tear off their own skin?” Shirley asked, behind me.
Maybe it was a mistake to bring that up, giving our side more reason to be afraid.
“I’ll tear off your skin!” one of the Mercies called out. It was a man, tall, and I could only see glimpses of him when the flares in the background provided light. His skull or his skin were misshapen, leading to a too-pronounced brow, cheekbones, and chin. He was close enough to hear us and be heard.
“We’ve gotten good at it!” another man jumped in. His voice had a tremulous note to it. Unhinged. Something about his tone of voice was almost childish. “We’re really, really good at tearing skin!”
Others picked up the calls. I could hear one woman apologizing in the group.
The unrest of my friends, allies, and Berger was very apparent. They were retreating a bit, now.
I lowered my voice, aware that I was almost being drowned out by the taunting and shouts of the Mercies, “If you have any experience in a fight or spat, move up to the front of the group. If it comes down to it, go down. Drop to the ground. Let the people behind you step in or take a shot. People behind? Your reaction to fear and surprise should be to pull the damn trigger, swing whatever you’re holding. Conventional instincts do not apply, except for the part where you’re not supposed to shoot friendlies.”
“Maybe not the best advice, Sy,” Jessie said.
“It’s great advice,” I said. “The worst thing that can happen at this point is one of us panicking and things spiraling out of control, or a moment of hesitation becoming a minute of hesitation or outright nonaction. If you can’t stand firm, fall, and then get right back up again. If you have someone else’s back, protect that back.”
“Can I just say that I don’t think the worst thing that happen is panic?” Gordon Two said. “I feel like getting my skin torn off by those guys might be the worst thing.”
There were a couple of murmurs of agreement.
“Then don’t wimp out when it counts. Panic, wimp out, and that skin thing might happen. Otis, Archie, back me up? And, assuming you can see my hand, Rudy…
I gestured. Simple gestures, ending in me pointing at Berger.
Rudy didn’t hesitate, reaching out and seizing Berger by the upper arm.
“What’s this?” Berger asked.
Jessie was already bringing out the chain. Berger only resisted a little as she slapped the shackle onto his wrist. After a moment of hesitation, she affixed the other end of the shackle onto Shirley’s offered wrist.
“I’m not good in a fight, so it might as well be me,” Shirley said.
“That’s good thinking,” I said, my eyes not leaving the Mercies that were drawing nearer. I gestured for Rudy to come, and made room for him at the front of the group.
The smoke was still so thick. We’d told our junior rebels to fire only a few rounds and then be sure to let the smoke clear. The problem was that they were taking their time between rounds, and the smoke was taking its time in dispersing, too.
We had some guns, and it looked like the Mercies only had cutting tools; mostly knives. There were a few swords in the mix, and one or two axes.
On the other hand, they outnumbered us three to one, they were fitter, and they weren’t nearly so bothered about the growths of plague here and there on the street and nearby houses.
“I’m terribly sorry about what’s about to happen,” one of the lady Mercies said, her voice easy to pick out amid other hollers and taunts because of the melancholy tone. “If we got to you sooner, then you wouldn’t have to suffer now.”
“You’re gonna suffer,” another Mercy said, her voice barely holding anything back.
“They’re acting weird,” I said, my voice low.
“That would be the combat drugs,” Berger said. “It’s hard to get even a half day of work out of the Mercies without giving them something. High click rate, for those of you who’ve done work with chimeras and genesis projects.”
“Metabolism, for lack of a better word,” Gordon Two supplied. “They eat fast, heal fast, get tired fast.”
“See, he gets it. Easy explanation. Are you trying to sound pretentious, doc?” Otis asked.
“Professor,” Berger said. “I’m not going to expect much, but call me by the title I earned.”
“Will do, doc,” Otis said.
A few of Otis’ thugs snorted in amusement and laughed.
A fresh set of explosions hit. Not the same place. It looked like most of what was going on was off to the side. Our people were drawing them off to a point, which made the perimeter here a little thinner.
The problem was wind direction. Tinted smoke was blowing across our escape route.
“I see that Sylvester surrounds himself with top quality hires,” Berger said, unimpressed.
“A little less bickering?” Jessie asked. “Focus.”
“I like bickering,” I said. “Bickering means we’re aware the rest of the group exists. You don’t focus on the enemy, break ranks, or lose sight of where your allies are when you’re busy calling those allies fatheads.”
“You seem determined to be contrary tonight,” Jessie said. “What happened to you and I being on the same page?”
“That’s the bickering spirit I was talking about,” I said.
“Just wait a second, Sy,” Jessie said. “I need to change position so I can shoot by instinct and ‘accidentally’ put a bullet in your ass.”
“Now you’re just being lewd,” I said. “And you’re not changing position, either. You’re lacking in follow-through.”
“How can you guys joke around in a situation like this?” Fang asked.
“I’m not so sure I’m joking,” Jessie said.
“Back up,” I said. “Back up a bit. They’re grouping up.”
“We want to get closer to the perimeter,” Otis said.
“There’s an alley,” Jessie said. “Fifteen paces back. If we can get back there, we can potentially cut around and maybe come out behind them. There’s a chance it’s blocked, and there’s a chance it’s blocked with plague in particular, but with wind direction, the trends of the plague…”
“You’re doing that a lot,” I said. “Extrapolating.”
“I’m trying,” Jessie said. “Let’s not comment too much on it and we can just hope I’m right.”
“Right,” I said. “Alley then.”
We backed up rather than turn around and do anything. I kept my revolver trained on the largest collections of Mercies to give them reason to hang back, while holding a knife in my other hand.
“Gonna put my hands under your skin!” one of the Mercies crooned, drawing out the words. “Reach all the way inside you!”
“I used to hang out with someone who talked like that over tea!” I called back. “It’s not that creepy!”
“It’s a lot creepy,” Gordon Two said.
“Shh,” I said.
“Appearing strong is key here,” Jessie said, her voice quiet. “Confidence. I’m going to be generous and say that was probably what Sy had in mind when he played up the banter.”
“Sure,” I said. “We can go with that.”
Shirley and Berger led the way into the alleyway, with the offensive front line leading the way. Jessie and I were closer to the leftmost and rightmost flanks of the more offensive group of Otis, Archie, Fang, Rudy and a number of Otis and Archie’s thugs, while other thugs, Bea, and Gordon Two formed a kind of protective semi circle around Berger and Shirley. As we filtered in, Jessie and I were closer to the front.
What followed looked, sounded, and felt like a half-ton of bricks falling on the central group. Being closer to the front, Jessie, Otis and I weren’t in the line of fire. Everyone else, it seemed, was caught in the collapse.
I couldn’t be sure what had actually happened, but I heard Mercies jeering and calling out from the rooftop, I was aware that people that had been standing behind me were amid a mess of wood, stone, and trash in an unrecognizable, shadowy heap, and with the trap sprung and our group reduced to a fifth of what it should be, the Mercies in front of us now felt brave enough to attack.
They’d attacked from the roof. Dropped something on us. It might have been a chimney, tipped over. That didn’t explain the trash I smelled.
“Focus!” Jessie urged me.
I focused. One was already running straight at me with scissors in each hand. I aimed and fired.
My first instinct was that they were being smart about this. Three of them were approaching Otis at once. They used teamwork, they were wary of the guns, and they wanted to catch us off guard. Lying in wait on the rooftop was the sort of thing the Lambs liked to do.
Standing at the entrance to the alleyway, I turned, aiming at an attacker I hadn’t yet heard or seen. She approached with her right arm brushing the wall, ducking low, to present a small profile, and she carried a knife so large it might as well have been a sword.
As I saw her, she lunged, closing the rest of the distance at a sprint. It was smart, in a way. She had nowhere to go if she ran off to the side or away from me. I would have had a clear shot. As it was, I shot, the report of my gun enough to break my focus, and she stumbled but kept running at me. I shot twice more, and she staggered into me, both hands on the knife, which she held overhead. She tried to bring the knife down on my neck or shoulder as she collapsed against me.
I swung the knife, driving it into the side of her neck, while my gun-arm went up, blocking her forearms as I struggled to keep the knife from coming down.
The weight of her collapsing against me made me fall. The entirety of my focus went into keeping my arm out, firmly bent, and keeping that knife from hitting anything vital. Her skin was loose, making the sensation of her pressing against me disorienting, my sense of her body and where she was badly distorted in the chaos of the moment.
She had the wherewithal to bite my chest where her face had smushed up against it, teeth digging past sweater and shirt. Had I zipped up my jacket to the chin, I might have been safe, but I hadn’t.
I had a muddy or slushy puddle under me, and a loose-skinned woman above me. She had been shot three times and stabbed in the neck, but drugs gave her zeal. She was badly injured, couldn’t weigh much more than I did, and she was still slowly winning the struggle to bring that knife down and into my face.
Two more silhouettes were briefly lit up by explosions elsewhere.
In the moment, a train of thought went to the gap we needed to break for, the hope that our allies weren’t shooting there again, making us have to endure for even longer before we found our way through.
At a glimpse of Gordon, golden haired and dressed in black jacket and slacks, looking very grim, I returned my focus to the death-and-death struggle of the woman that was on top of me, and the man with the wood axe who was approaching the two of us, drawing his weapon back with clear intent to bring it down on my head with both hands.
Otis stepped in to rescue me, kicking the woman hard where her neck met the shoulder. Whether by accident or design, it drove her further into the knife that was embedded in the other side of her neck. I lost my grip on my weapon as she rolled off of me.
Otis swung his club as the axe man brought his weapon down toward me. The club met the axeman’s forearms as they were brought down. The wood axe came free of the man’s hands, and I had a momentary visualization of the weapon flying free, end over end, to embed itself in me.
It bounced off of the wall above me and the blunt part of the weapon’s head punched me in the stomach, the thing landing practically in my hands, albeit the wrong end.
Otis outright turned his back on the man he’d just disarmed to help Jessie. It was a scene of me on the ground, the Mercy hunched there hollering as he held his arms almost straight out in front of him, in clear agony at what might have been two fractured forearms, and one more Mercy making his approach, somewhat more warily than the axeman Mercy had.
“Get up!” Gordon shouted.
I was already getting up as Otis echoed Gordon, “Up, you fool!”
I scrambled to my feet, shifting my grip so I had a one-handed hold on the axe. It really needed two hands, and I would’ve preferred using my right hand if I had to use any one hand, but I had reasons. I’d trained my brain to use my left hand almost as well as my right, and if I was going to use my right hand for anything, I liked using it to shoot.
As I aimed my gun, the wary Mercy turned skittish, eyes widening as he changed direction.
I missed with my first shot, and caught him with the second. I aimed at the axeman with the fractured arms, and he stepped back, stumbled, and fell on his ass. Going by instinct or pure reaction, he put his arms back to catch himself as he fell. His face contorted in what looked like it should have been a scream, but only a strangled screech came out of his mouth, his back arching and one leg kicking.
I immediately turned and focused on the others. Jessie and Otis were overwhelmed, Jessie with blood running down one arm and off of her elbow. Two of them and three Mercies.
I aimed and fired at the only available target – the one Otis was fighting. The Mercy had a sword, and the sword was biting into and through Otis’ club- a sports bat for a sport I’d never seen, or a long, heavy truncheon.
The bullet gave Otis the chance to win the struggle. He forced his opponent to the ground and snatched up the sword and summarily held it like someone who had never used a sword before. It was a cavalry saber, and he held it like it was a heavier weapon. He swung it like it was a heavier weapon, too. I could see the blade turn up on impact – not a straight cut.
“Focus!” Gordon barked.
I focused. I scanned the Mercies nearest us, and I shot twice, targeting the ones that struck me as most dangerous, going only off instinct.
The summary reaction suggested my instincts were right, because making one of the two collapse and making the other stop in his tracks seemed to give the rest pause.
If I’d had breath and if I wasn’t worried it would distract Jessie in the moment, I would have used that moment to crow about how I’d been right about the importance of trusting instinct. But nooo, she’d been so bent on the notion of friendly fire.
“How in the goddamn hell do you not know how to fight?” Otis asked. Veins were standing out in his forehead, and his teeth were bared as he panted, eyes wide. “You killed people for a living!”
“I do fine,” I said. “If they don’t see me coming.”
“Figure out how to do it when they see you and figure it fast!” Otis said.
“I keep figuring,” I said. “And I keep forgetting.”
“Fucking hell,” Otis said.
We closed ranks, weapons at the ready. I glanced at Jessie at the same time she glanced at me. She was struggling to reload with one hand not cooperating as well as it should. It didn’t help that she wore the quarantine suit, with its thick fabric gloves. Blood still trickled in a steady stream out of the elbow of the suit.
I wished I could have seen her face and body language, to get a better sense. I was dancing in the dark here, when it came to her.
I should have reloaded, but the gun I held wasn’t one I’d brought with me, the pants I wore weren’t the ones I’d worn into the quarantine zone, so I didn’t even have ammunition, and I didn’t want to give up my grip on the wood axe. The threat of the gun would have to do.
Looking back at the rest of the group, I could see some movement. It was agonizingly slow, and it involved pushing debris off of them. I wasn’t sure that everyone involved was moving.
“Otis,” I said. “Quick, give me the sword.”
It took him half a second to snap to what I wanted, but he did, taking the wood axe while he passed the saber to me, handle-first.
“You know how to use that?” he asked. “That’s something at least.”
I didn’t, but I knew enough about things to know that he’d break the saber or get himself killed if he kept using it the way he had been. The wood axe seemed more his style.
I wasn’t sure if I was seeing better in the dark or if my imagination was filling in blanks. I imagined I could see the faint reflections of fires in the eyes of the Mercies closest to me.
I imagined I recognized one of them.
“Hello again,” I said.
“Hello,” the Small Mercy said, from the darkness. The runt of her litter.
“I don’t suppose we can all go our separate ways?” I suggested. “You’ve done what you’re supposed to. You tried to stop us. The dead and wounded will speak to that.”
I saw her head move. The imagining of her eyes and that glimmer of light didn’t quite match the movement. She was looking at the ones who had already fallen.
“They give us drugs,” she said.
“I know all about the drugs,” I replied.
“The drugs make us… eager. Angry. Hungry. I want to eat you as much as I’ve ever wanted anything.”
“But you don’t want a bullet in your head,” I said. I cocked the hammer of my little revolver with my thumb.
She didn’t reply to that.
“You have better, safer chances of a meal if you run off to that battlefield over there and go looking for the dead, or ask politely for your dinner. You know they’ll have something prepared.”
“When I shuck off my skin, I get a release. There’s pain, but there’s a rush…”
“Sure,” I said.
“Satisfaction, as sure as anything.”
“I believe it,” I said. I barely knew what I was saying. I was only speaking because I worried that if I didn’t keep this up as an interplay, me and her, she would monologue and convince herself to attack.
“When I go after someone else, when I hurt other people, I get a rush like that. The drugs make me so restless. Maybe if I take your skin off, with my teeth and my fingernails, it’ll be that kind of satisfying. I won’t feel so restless anymore, I think.”
“Counterpoint: You won’t feel restless anymore because you’ll have a bullet in your skull,” I said.
“I’ll have to break your arms and legs before I start,” she said, her head turning as she looked in the general direction of the one Otis had disarmed.
She wasn’t listening to me. She was convincing herself.
“Hey, Small Mercy,” I said. I clacked the end of my sword against the wall. “Hey! Hey, listen, listen. Pay attention.”
She turned her head back to me.
“Look at your dress,” I said. “Look down, look at it.”
“We helped you get that dress,” I said. “We-”
“Fucken’ die!” one of the other Mercies called out. “I’ll fucken’ eat your skin!”
“Shut up!” I called back, pointing my gun at him. I was glad that he listened. I turned back to the Small Mercy. “We got you that dress, didn’t we?”
“Doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” the Small Mercy said.
“But it’s something that happened, isn’t it?”
“It’s a part of your story. The story of you. You started off weak, runt of the litter, and that makes you special. You were left behind. That makes you special too. You need a story, or you’re just one face in the crowd. You don’t eat the characters in your stories.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” the Small Mercy said.
“Well you’ve got to do something different than you’re doing. Otherwise you’re going to get left behind again. You need to remember how you got there so you can’t let it happen again. You need to remember how you fixed it. We’re how you fixed it.”
“No,” she said.
“Yes we are,” I said.
“I’m saying I don’t care about that,” she said. She took a step closer to us, brandishing her knife. Others stirred, pacing. Some moved closer, others moved from left to right or right to left.
My heart sank. I’d failed. I’d hoped to find a crack and wriggle my way into it before tearing it open wider.
She went on, “If I go, you’re just going to get torn up by the others.”
I hadn’t failed.
“I’ll do worse than tear ’em up,” one of the woman Mercies taunted.
“You can walk away, or you can run at us and get a bullet in your skull for good measure. It probably won’t kill you right away. It’ll just hurt, and you’ll feel horribly, horribly restless while you die. This feeling you’re experiencing now? Like you’re supposed to do something? Imagine that feeling, larger than anything, yawning wide open inside you, as your life ends and you realize you had more to do.”
The Small Mercy shook her head.
Another edged closer. I moved my gun, aiming at him. He stopped.
The others were getting restless.
I’d found my crack. I knew the language they spoke, the sensations that dominated their lives. “That’s what it’s like. All the worst restlessness you’ve ever felt, with no ability to do anything about it. Haven’t you ever heard about your life flashing behind your eyes? It’s because the moment stretches out as the brain dies. Imagine that moment, imagine that horrible restlessness you feel right now, going on for a whole lifetime.”
She shook her head again.
Others were looking restless now.
“If you go, you can go eat. You can tear off your own skin and feel that rush, and you can do it many, many more times.”
“No,” she said.
She didn’t have the articulation or presence of mind to really argue against me. The range of emotions I’d seen from the others suggested that they tended toward hostility, but other emotions were present, and those other emotions were heightened too. I remembered the apologetic one.
“Which do you want? The horrible restless yearning for a whole lifetime, or do you want to go, eat, and live the rest of your life, with all the good feelings you’ve got waiting for you?”
She raised her head, looking up, probably glaring at me. I could only just barely make up her shoulders rising and falling.
I was dimly aware that the explosions in the background were less frequent than before.
I had no way of verifying the feeling, but somehow it felt like the rebels were pacing out the remainder of their shells and shots. I imagined them anxiously waiting, wondering why we hadn’t yet turned up.
The Small Mercy started toward me.
“You want that horrible restlessness?” I asked.
“No,” she said. This time it was an answer to my question, not a frustrated rejection of a negative thought process.
“No you don’t,” I said. “Go. There’s food waiting for you, safer prey.”
“If I go, the others will eat you.”
“If you go, others will follow you,” I said. I left out the ‘I hope’ at the tail end of that statement. “You’ll think about this a lot. You might even see me again, and you can try to eat me then.”
“It feels like such a long way to walk, back to the camp,” she said.
“If it starts to feel like too long a walk, then run,” I said. “But I’m going to tell you this. If you try to walk or run to me? You’re going to get a bullet in your head.”
“Might not,” another Tender Mercy called out.
Great. Disturbing my two-path process here.
“Fine. Let’s pretend you won’t get shot. What happens? You think all the others near here are just going to sit back and let you have your fun? They’ll tear into us too. You’ll get a morsel. You’ll feel more frustrated. More restless. You’ll be angry at each other. That’s no good.”
I could see heads turn. The Mercies considering one another.
“But if you go? Food waiting for you. They’ll be all ready to feed you. They have to be, if they’re using you as guards like this.”
“They are,” the Small Mercy said. “They said it when I got my shot.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” I asked, trying to sound as incredulous as possible. “That sounds great. A lot better than a bullet in the brain. If you go now, you might even be one of the first. More food.”
She shifted position, moving her feet, hesitant.
Then she strode off, looking over her shoulder at others.
Other Tender Mercies that had been listening moved in her direction. Not enough. Not enthusiastically enough. I felt as though the ones that were remaining still had more gravity than the Small Mercy did alone.
Jessie fired her gun at the closest Tender Mercy. It was, as far as I could tell, a perfectly placed bullet in the brain. As arguments went, it was a good complement to my own.
Others started to back off. The remainder tensed, as if waiting for Jessie to move again or fire a second shot. I suspected they would rush us en-masse.
I watched, breathing shallowly, waiting to see what might follow. They were a bloodthirsty kind of species, and the fear of death hadn’t been set all that deep in them. I’d tried to taint this seemingly easy meal with other fears and bad sentiments, but…
No. Too many weren’t budging, still. They had a kind of gravity.
“There’s no meal for you here,” I said. “The others are going to snatch up everything.”
“I’m big,” a heavyset, woman Mercy said. I could see the bright red of her coat in the gloom. “I’m strong. I’ll get enough.”
“You’ll get a bullet in your skull,” I said, driving the point home. “No matter how big or strong you are, you’re going to die. Slow. Even if it takes only a moment to die, you’ll live a restless lifetime in that moment.”
The Small Mercy watched from the fringes, clearly antsy, fidgeting.
The Matron Mercy didn’t budge. She hesitated, weighing her options, and it was clear that restlessness was winning.
Twin explosions sounded in the background, off in the distance.
“It’s not worth it,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
I desperately wanted the others behind me to pick themselves up and come to stand beside me, tall, intact, and proud. To make the odds look worse. It was why I was so desperately stalling. I needed something.
I hated the sinking-gut feeling that came with the others not stepping forward or adding their numbers to ours. It meant the others were hurt. Or, worse, they were dead.
“No,” the Matron Mercy said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
I could tell from her tone that she was planning to attack. She was planning on being nonsensical, letting hunger and restless, drug-induced bloodlust win over sense and rationality. I could tell from the fact that Jessie wasn’t shooting that Jessie was probably out of bullets, or the injury to Jessie’s arm was keeping her from aiming and firing again.
In the distance, a horn sounded. Collectively, the Mercies turned their heads. Light from burning wagons at the perimeter of the city caught a half-dozen faces, highlighting the imperfections, extra skin and thick skin at key places.
I stood a little straighter. I waited, holding my sword in one hand and the gun in the other, and I looked confident.
She turned, and she left. With her leading, the rest followed.
I remained where I was, looking confident, not turning my back, as the last stragglers followed. The one with the broken arms. One Jessie might have shot, who limped.
I waited and watched for the ones on the rooftop, and there was no sign of them. They might have dropped something on us and hurried to the ground for their meal. Maybe the Small Mercy had been one of them.
While I waited, checking to see that the coast was really clear, I asked.
“How’s your arm, Jessie?”
“You did good. You too, Otis.”
“You did terrible,” Otis said. “Up until you started talking. Then you did good.”
“It was stalling and shooting in the dark,” I said. “And a bit of knowing how experiments like them think.”
“Well alright then,” Otis said, in his rough voice. “You did terrible. Then you did mediocre.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Now free to check, I hurried to the sides of the others.
A few thugs, hurt, were working with the others. The debris had been a pair of crates loaded down with garbage. They’d shattered and scattered their contents in our midst as they’d landed.
A few had only been clipped by the crates, or by flying debris. One thug sat with his hand over his eyes, blood trickling down one cheek. Blinded or partially by something. Archie had an injured leg and a head wound, but he wasn’t complaining. Others demanded more attention.
Fang and Gordon Two were mostly alright. Bea was hurt but sitting off to one side. The Treasurer was coming to. Rudy was still out cold, if he wasn’t dead.
At the far end of the alley, Shirley and Berger stood beside two dead Mercies. Berger still held his improvised weapon – one of the fallen pieces of trash, it looked like, a curtain rod or pole with a ragged end. They’d been far enough down the alley that they hadn’t been hit by the debris.
I knelt beside Rudy.
“Mercies on the roof above us dropped it on us. Two came down, I don’t know what the rest did,” Bea said, from where she sat.
“Rudy?” I asked. Not asking Bea in particular.
“Fang said half of Rudy’s ribcage is shattered,” Bea said. “He’s not waking up.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we’ve got a lot of talented doctors,” I said. “We’ll improvise a stretcher. And we’ve got to hurry. The place we need to run through is going to close, if it isn’t already.”
“Sy,” Bea said. “It’s bad enough we should maybe leave him behind.”
“Improvise. Berger’s pole there will work for one half of the stretcher. We can use some jackets.”
“Sy, I like Rudy too, he’s a good fellow, he’s loyal to you, but-”
“Improvise!” I said, raising my voice.
“Improvise,” Jessie said. “We’re here because we don’t leave our own behind. It goes for Rudy too.”
“Okay,” Bea said.
I walked over to Berger, extending a hand for the pole.
He hesitated a moment, then handed it over.
“I’m surprised you didn’t take her hostage and run,” I said.
“Miss Shirley said she wouldn’t allow it,” Berger said.
In the meager light we had, I could only see the light and shadow of one side of Shirley’s face. I imagined her jaw was set firm.
“And,” Berger said, “I was concerned the Tender Mercies would have eaten me alive.”
“Of course,” I said, turning my back on him. I set to work helping with the stretcher.
It was a shoddy contraption, pieced together in two minutes. Simply holding it was a chore, given the size of the piece of wood we’d used for the one side. I was fortunate that I was deemed too tired and weak to do the heavy work.
Otis took one end. A thug took the other. We exited the alley, using the street now that it was clear, and we hurried toward the perimeter.
Already, the gap was closing. Soldiers were taking position, returning from conflicts elsewhere on the perimeter. Only a trickling, but it was a trickling of a score or so of soldiers with guns and defensive positions behind sandbags and atop wagons. They had stitched, they had a scattered few Tender Mercies with them, and they had warbeasts.
We weren’t moving all that fast, all considered, and our momentum fell even more as we realized the nature of the wall ahead of us.
The warbeasts started barking and howling, picking up.
I looked at Jessie, and I saw Jessie blowing on the rabbit whistle, hard. She took a deep breath, then blew again. The process repeated until I thought she would pass out.
The answer wasn’t immediate, but it did come.
The distant warbeasts barked and howled, and they nearly drowned out the distant punching sound of mortars firing.
The soldiers at the perimeter turned to answer the threat, preparing to scatter as explosions and gas erupted around them-
But there was no gas, there were no explosions. There was only gunfire and a concentrated attack as our people mounted an outright, direct attack on this isolated part of the perimeter.
We rushed the perimeter, moving into and through the enemy. We transitioned from gloom and darkness into lanterns and movement and the occasional person, in plain, detailed, clear view. It was dazzling and dreamlike and alarming.
This was the kind of fighting I could do. Springing the attack, attacking from the flanks and the rear.
We fought past what might have been eight or ten people, catching them from behind, stabbing, shooting only a couple of times, and claiming weapons as we went. Archie, I think it was, kicked over a lantern, setting a fire behind us.
The fighting was happening all the way to our left. All heads were turned, all attention elsewhere. Soldiers fired into the trees and innumerable gunshots sounded in return. I had no idea if our people were even aiming into enemy ranks, or if they were shooting just to draw attention.
We moved past the erected defense, six people working to move the stretcher with. From there, it was a nerve-wracking run across lantern-lit dirt road. Darkness was safer – and the cover of trees, a dozen paces away, was safer still. I lagged behind, making sure the group was managing. Too many of us were limping. We were hurt, tired, and frazzled.
I was the last one to disappear into the trees, home free.