A/N: Sorry for the long wait! This chapter turned out somewhat longer than the rest, mostly because I had a certain stopping point in mind and it involved more things happening to get there than I expected. Another cliffhanger (buahaha) but for those of you more interested in character development than action, I promise that things will settle down for a bit in chapter six.
I also feel obligated to warn you that I wrote the last several hundred words in a hurry, so there might be some technical errors, but I'll go back and look at it and make corrections as soon as I have time.
Chapter Five: Survival
The suckers did not seem as if they were in any particular hurry to wake up after years of lying dormant, but Charlie didn't doubt for a second that they'd change their minds once they realized they had been delivered breakfast in bed. The grub-white bodies continued to stir, creating the illusion that the ground itself was shifting, undulating with the painful writhing slowness of a worm impaled on a fishing hook. One sucker hissed. It was followed by a second and then a third; the sound was horrible, like grease spattering as it hit a too-hot frying pan.
"You first," Bear said, roughly shoving Charlie toward the rope.
The big mercenary cut her off by slamming his faceplate down. His familiar features, still recognizable even in the chasm's gloom, disappeared beneath the welding mask's flat, neutral façade. "Now."
"Come on, you know you're the fastest," Aaron said. She almost jumped; his low, urgent voice was so close to her ear that she could feel the syllables buzz against her skin.
"I'm not fucking leaving him!" Charlie protested, but it wasn't much use. Aaron made short work of towing her slight body toward the rope, and once there she had no choice but to comply with Bear's orders. Looking over her shoulder, she saw him draw his chain gun and heft its weight in his hands. She knew by experience that it weighed almost as much as she did, but Bear made it look like a toy. "Bear, what the hell are you doing?"
He jerked his head toward the rope without turning to look at her. It was a curt gesture. Get moving.
She and Aaron exchanged a glance, and she realized that he looked just as stricken as she felt. The prospect of leaving Bear behind was unthinkable. And that was what they were doing, Charlie knew it; something in his stance, a certain grimness, a suggestion of finality, spoke of self-sacrifice in the primal language of instinct. She shook her head at Aaron, tight-lipped, and began to climb. The rope's tension assured her that he had decided to follow.
Halfway up she heard the roar of gunfire and she paused to look down, squinting past Aaron, who was doing the same. Bear's position was more recognizable by the pile of carnage surrounding it than even his own bulky presence at the epicenter. He had backed himself against the wall and there proceeded make his stand. Sucker bodies accumulated in a wide semicircle swath around him, collapsing under a hail of bullets, but still more crawled over the corpses of their own fallen. As she watched, several looked up at her as if they had sensed her gaze; their black eyes were blank, almost curious.
They fell, holes blossoming in their pale flesh.
A pile of gleaming, discarded shells had already gathered at Bear's feet. How much ammunition did he have left? Regardless, the suckers would eventually overwhelm him with their sheer numbers…
"Christ, M40!" Joseph, who didn't yet factor into the group equation, had slipped from her mind entirely. She spotted him by chance out of the periphery of her vision: a dark shadow slinking back against the wall to cover Bear, still sighting through his rifle. She saw him pick off one, then two, then three revenants in quick succession, as if they presented no more difficulty than cans lined up on a fence rail. One slipped past Bear's guard and skittered up the wall like a hairless squirrel, and Joseph turned around and dispatched it before it could drop down on them from above.
Aaron glanced up at her, and she was surprised to see a faint grin spreading across his face. The hope was infectious—maybe Bear stood a chance after all. "Guy's crazy," he said, with a certain degree of awe. "Completely batshit."
"He was right about his aim, though, I'll give him that," Charlie gritted out, resuming the climb with fresh determination. The pulse of gunfire drove her on, even when she felt her scabs split under the strain and a trickle of fresh blood ooze down her back.
It wasn't long before she reached the top. The timing couldn't have been better; she felt like her veins were pumping antifreeze, and she could feel her heartbeat in her sweaty palms. She hooked one arm over the ridge and began to worm the rest of her body over it on her stomach, kicking for purchase, but Aaron interrupted her with a shout. By the time she realized he was yelling at her to go faster, it was almost too late.
A group of revenants had broken past Bear and Joseph and were flooding up the wall toward them. The perspective was disorienting—the speed with which the suckers moved suggested they were tumbling down an incline, rather than up one, and she and Aaron were about to be overwhelmed by a living avalanche—but another pressing concern soon presented itself. The cathedral's structural integrity had already been compromised in the past, and the chasm's walls could not bear the increased weight.
Chunks of stone and masonry cleaved off beneath the suckers as they climbed, but this did not deter their advancement. More leaped into the fray, dividing around the threat of Bear's chain gun like water rushing to either side of a stone in a river, and poured up the wall behind him. Charlie threw a leg over the edge, struggling to get free of the wall before it caved—before the suckers reached them. The torn skin on her back was a stretched canvas of hot white pain.
They can smell it from hundreds of feet away. You'll lure them straight to us.
She shook Joseph's words from her mind and finally toppled onto the marble floor with Aaron pushing her up from underneath. She rolled over and grabbed his wrist. Sunlight was still sifting in through the cathedral's windows, but it wouldn't last for much longer. Gangrenous black-green clouds were already boiling across the sky outside. Alice's first rainfall was twenty minutes away, tops, and they had to take advantage of the light while they still could. Charlie had never seen a sucker willingly creep into the sun.
"Come on," she hissed, pulling Aaron as hard as she could, conscious of the revenants scrabbling up the wall at his heels. He got one arm over the edge before his progress abruptly halted. His face contorted with pain.
Charlie swore and heaved herself forward on her stomach, drawing only one of her pistols; she couldn't spare the other hand. A sucker was clinging to Aaron's legs. As she watched it seized a fistful of Aaron's coat and crawled further up his back, using him like a human ladder, ignoring the way he thrashed in an attempt to shake it off. It didn't want him. It was trying to get to Charlie.
"That's right, motherfucker," Charlie said, emptying a round into its face.
The sucker shuddered and choked out a garbled string of sounds that sounded unsettlingly like it was trying to remember how to form words. She shot it again. It curled in on itself, lost its grip, and died before it hit the ground.
A few more enterprising revenants had begun to reach for Aaron's feet. Charlie fended them off as best she could, helped in part by the cathedral's increasing instability. The wall looked as if it was melting like butter. Fine sand and debris trickled down its surface in rivulets, dislodging larger chunks of stone, and she could hear louder, more ominous sounds echoing up from below beneath the shrieking and hissing of revenants and the continuous roar of Bear's gun. She could no longer see into the depths, but that particular noise reassured her; Bear was still going strong.
"Help me here, will you?" she asked, giving Aaron a pointed look as she tugged on his hand. He still appeared to be shaking off the trauma of having a sucker ride him like a rocking horse. To her considerable irritation, he just leaned down and tugged up one of his pantslegs to examine his ankle.
Blinding white light striated through the room, throwing the dark geometric tangles of tramline above them into sharp relief.
It was not the subsequent crash of thunder that caused Charlie to look down, however—it was a sound, a low, faint, miserable moan. Aaron.
Blood welled up from a series of neat puncture wounds in his shin and dripped down in rivulets to pool behind the lip of his shoe, and Charlie couldn't mistake it for anything but what it was. He'd been bitten. He was already as good as dead.
"Aw, Aaron," she groaned, and her voice came out as a weird, pleading whine. Why the fuck do I sound like that? she thought, even as she heard herself repeat the phrase, the words straining through her numb lips without her consent. "Aaron, don't you fucking do this to us, you hear me? Damnit, are you listening to me?"
Another strobe of lightning. Aaron didn't look up; he was still staring at his leg in silent horror. The next boom of thunder shook the cathedral's very foundations, and in doing so it finally convinced the wall to give. Charlie felt the floor tremble beneath her. She made one last desperate effort to yank Aaron out of harm's way, but he only lifted his face and gave her an ill-looking smile before he let go of her hand.
She watched him disappear in an avalanche of rocks. A moment later he started screaming. She had always made fun of his scream, she remembered, as she backed away across the floor, watching the chasm's margins disintegrate inward. Aaron had the girliest scream she'd ever heard. Now she wished he would stop.
Eventually, he did.
It wasn't long before the first pale head rose up from the wreckage. More followed, and after a questing pause the suckers began to creep over the edge, carefully avoiding the wide swaths of amber light laid across the floor. Charlie watched them. She had taken a seat at the foot of the statue of St. Mary, reloaded, and rested her guns across her knees. The revenants coughed and spat and eyed her steadily from the other side of the room. She wondered if her eyes looked as dead as theirs. It didn't occur to her to try to escape. She figured she would take as many of the fuckers out as she could before they dragged her down and died with her. The ones with blood on their mouths would go first.
Charlie no longer entertained any thoughts of rescuing Bear; she hadn't heard him firing since the wall's collapse. Joseph was a casualty by association. The loss of her teammates was a strange thing, a duller blow than she had expected. She felt nothing that she could readily identify as grief, and she had no urge to cry, but her hands shook on the hilts of her pistols as if she'd been inflicted with a sudden palsy. Weird, the way they did that.
The sunlight vanished from the marble tiles like fleeing beads of mercury as clouds eclipsed the spire. It returned just as quickly, but the suckers had seized the opportunity to advance and drew back, shrieking, when the light seared their ultrasensitive retinas.
Charlie relaxed, settling against the cold pedestal at her back. She could wait.
She almost didn't react when a dark shape staggered drunkenly out of the rubble and into the light, slipping on debris. Then, tentatively: "M40?"
"Joseph," he corrected, brushing dust from his worn jacket. It didn't seem to make much of a difference. "Watch out behind you."
Charlie stared at Joseph's goggled face, now turned impassively toward her, with brief incomprehension before something heavy struck her in the chest. The impact cracked her skull against the pedestal. Dizzy and gasping for breath, she scrabbled for her guns, but they were out of reach—
She heard a dull thud. The weight rolled off of her, and she caught a smeary glimpse of Joseph leaning down, holding his rifle like a battering ram, its butt gleaming red. She let her head tip over; she wasn't sure if the movement was voluntary. A sucker lay on the ground next to her with a gory mess where its face used to be.
"Did you just pistol-whip that sucker in the face?" she asked. It was Joseph's turn to stare at her, because her words came out as nothing more than an unintelligible slur.
"It was on the statue," Joseph said after a careful pause, misinterpreting Charlie's question. "The light's going to go soon. We have to get moving." Another pause. "Can you stand up?"
"Uh," Charlie said, experimentally shifting her body. "I think so. Fuck."
"You hit your head pretty hard. It's probably a concussion."
She squinted up at Joseph in irritation, unreasonably vexed by his vague, helpful presence. Couldn't he lay off saving her life for a while? The anonymity of his face beneath its layers of protection—the scarf was pulled back over his mouth and nose again—made him look both curious about and unconcerned with the situation at large, and she suspected that although the former was a false impression, the latter was quite true. Joseph hadn't demonstrated a hint of anxiousness since the start of their mission. Even Bear wasn't that insouciant in the presence of suckers; it was almost unnatural.
Still, when he held out his hand, she took it anyway and let him pull her upright. Her vision swam with the change in altitude. Something had suddenly occurred to her.
"Bear?" she asked, hope sneaking into her voice despite her best efforts to keep it out.
Joseph shook his head. "Sorry."
"The wall collapsed on top of him. I got out of the way in time, but he wasn't fast enough… look, we can talk about it later." He didn't need to gesture at the revenants across the room behind him, lingering hungrily on the margins of the sunlight, to make his point clear.
Charlie wanted to press the issue, but some part of her subconscious realized that the urge to do so only stemmed from denial. Bear was dead. Really, seriously dead. So was Aaron. The sooner she accepted that, the sooner she'd be able to move on…
She found herself doubled over, retching. There wasn't anything in her stomach—all that came out was a string of viscous saliva, but the motion only made her dizzier and more nauseated until she felt someone's hand on her shoulder. Joseph's.
"There isn't time," he said, but only his touch convinced her of his urgency. He still sounded as drowsy and unhurried as ever.
Charlie wasn't sure when they started running instead of walking. St. Mary's Station was well behind them; the suckers had started hissing and spitting with a vengeance as they made their exit, aware that their meal was escaping, but none of them tried to follow. Looking back, Charlie saw that the building's spire seemed to be listing at an angle. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was just her.
Alice covered almost half of the sky and continued spreading like a great black aerial carcinoma, its underbelly flickering with fronds of lightning. Charlie's head pounded with each step she took. She felt like her skull was hitting the pavement instead of her feet. The light disoriented her, streaming down from the cloudless portion of the sky, and the wind rushing at her heels and tangling her clothing smelled strongly of ozone. Things seemed to sparkle and erupt with bursts of color: a weed sprouting greenly between a pile of old tires, the yellow varnish freckling the carapace of a decaying car. She held back the urge to vomit again.
It was brighter than bright, but every tongue of lightning made the windows flash the color of molten silver.
"Jesus Christ, now I know why suckers hate the sun," she panted, following Joseph through an alley. The brief, cool shadow eased the ache in her temples, and she wished it were more than a temporary respite.
The sniper looked over his shoulder at her, but he didn't waste the energy to speak and something in his silent gaze suggested that Charlie should do the same.
Was it bad that she was running? Hold still, Bear would have said, and she would have winced at the foghorn loudness of his voice. You shouldn't move like that with a concussion. You hit your head hard, Charlie. You're bleeding.
Charlie looked at Joseph, startled. They had stopped in an open plaza; scraps of paper and empty plastic bottles were rolling across the cracked flagstones like tumbleweed. She touched a hand to her hair, where it was sticky and matted, and looked at her fingertips, which had come away gleaming with blood. "Yeah, I can see that," she said sourly. "I've been doing it a lot lately, if you haven't noticed."
Joseph just made a noncommittal sound and glanced around at the empty storefronts. At least, she thought he was, but it turned out he was looking for his hovercycle—the machine was stowed beneath the awning of an old diner, hidden behind a skeletal tangle of white plastic chairs. It would have been stupid to leave such a valuable piece of salvage out in the open.
It was in surprisingly good condition, too, she observed, after he had powered it up (a sharp ping followed by a quiet, ascending whine) and backed it out of concealment. It was caked with dirt and showed numerous signs of repairs, but that was always a given when dealing with oldworld technology. She knew mercenaries who would kill—literally—for an intact skimmer like this one.
She wouldn't be surprised if that was how Joseph came by it in the first place.
He was obviously waiting for her to get on, so she skirted around the back, where a cloud of dust boiled beneath its sleek generator, glowing faintly from within. Charlie wasn't sure how the thing worked—skimmers were exponentially more rare than ground vehicles; they were one of the last smart-fuel transports developed in the handful of years preceding the catastrophe—but she figured she would get plenty of time to ask him later.
"I see you didn't come here just for the cells," she said, clambering up onto the seat behind him.
Joseph hesitated before speaking. Charlie got the feeling that her arms around his waist bothered him, and that offended her. She wasn't a buxom goddess, but she wasn't ugly, either, and she couldn't smell any worse than he did after sweating and shooting suckers all day. Well, fuck him. He could stick his lone wolf complex up his ass.
"It was a good run," he said finally, surprising her with the mildness of his voice. "There are some painkillers back there if you need them later."
She twisted around to look at the packs slung over the skimmer's improvised storage rack with a muttered "I could use them now," but at that same moment Joseph accelerated, and she was forced to abandon her efforts in order to keep her seat.
The buildings bled together into an amorphous slab of gray; behind them, Alice continued to spread like the contents of an inkwell spilled on rice paper. Charlie closed her eyes gratefully. The skimmer's drone lulled her into a state of semi-consciousness, and she let the numbness engulf her, no longer needing to avoid the thought of Bear and Aaron.
"The horses," she remembered. "Hey, Joseph!" The wind carried away her voice, unraveling it and leaving it behind as weak and thin as a skein of thread tossed from its spool. She knocked on the sniper's shoulder instead, twice, like she would on a doorframe, to get his attention. It worked. He decelerated.
"Can we make a detour? Just a little bit west, out by the factories. My team and I hitched our horses there," Charlie said.
"It's not out of our way," Joseph replied, and she took that as a yes.
When the skimmer hummed to a stop behind a gutted warehouse, the horses were as she'd left them, their bridles looped around an old railing. She hopped off almost before Joseph's hovercycle had come to a full halt and jogged over, ignoring the way the motion made her head spin. Alice was a looming threat overhead, and Charlie could see a misty wall of rain approaching them across the city. Even Nepenthe seemed unsettled by the storm; she tossed up her head, the whites of her eyes showing, as Charlie approached.
"Settle down, guys," Charlie murmured, quickly stripping off the horses' tack. The best she could do was set them free to fend for themselves. Joseph had warned her on the way over that the animals couldn't come with them, and she'd understood. The skimmer traveled more than twice as fast as Red did at a full gallop.
Red swiveled his head around to nose her in an uncharacteristic display of affection, and for the first time she felt tears blur her eyes. "You'll have to run fast, you bastard," she said to him, tossing his saddle aside. Such cavalier treatment of good equipment almost made her wince, but she had no use for it now. "Keep ahead of the storm. The suckers will come out when it gets dark, so you'll have to watch out for them, too. I bet you'd taste like shit, but they won't care. Hey!"
The horse began to back up, his head held stiffly and his ears pinned against his skull. Charlie hadn't divested him of his bridle yet; she reached up to grab the dangling reins, but he danced nervously out of her grasp, eyeing something behind her in alarm.
She turned to look.
The only thing there was Joseph, leaning against the side of the skimmer. His hood had fallen back while they were riding to reveal a dark, curly mop of hair in dire need of cutting, but now that she looked at him more closely, she realized he looked horribly ill—his skin, where she could see it, was an unhealthy, too-pale shade of gray. She almost shuddered. The only people who had complexions like that were…
"Christ, Joseph, what's up?" she asked, stepping over the pile of tack on the ground.
He was in the process of lighting a cigarette when he looked at her, his posture noncommittal, as if he wasn't entirely sure that she was addressing him at all. Suddenly irritated by his imperturbable calm, Charlie stalked over and, before he could react, tore off his stupid goggles.
The eyes on the other side were as black as bullet holes.
Charlie was several feet away with one of her pistols drawn before she registered that she had even moved at all. Joseph stared at her, and she found that his expression was just as hard to read now as it had been before. And it was a hell of a lot creepier.
"Fuck!" she said finally, unable to manufacture anything more articulate. "Why didn't you tell me you were infected, you son of a bitch!"
"Because you would have lost it," he said, taking a drag on his cigarette. Then he clarified, helpfully, "Like that."
Charlie felt the world start to tilt sideways—first Aaron and Bear, now this. Her head pounded in the heat. She knew the way the infection progressed—she'd seen it happen herself—and as far gone as Joseph was now, she estimated that he couldn't possibly have more than a day left. Maybe less.
"What were you gonna do, just let me fall asleep while you turned the rest of the way into a sucker?" she shouted. Even to her own ears she sounded panicked, unreasonable, but who wouldn't? "You would have torn me apart!"
"It's not like that," he said. "Listen, you're shaken up—your head—"
Joseph swam in her field of vision; black spots blossomed on everything like mold cultures in fast-forward. Charlie knew she was about to pass out.
She shot him twice, and then toppled over, and let the world dissolve.