Thank You Very Much.
The sand tasted of dried blood and when it blew into my eyes and nose I knew I’d be hours getting rid of it. I turned away from the gust front, ducking my head behind the remains of the pharmacy and hocking up a sticky filth that soaked into the dirt of the street within seconds of my spitting it there. Cursing my own stupidity, I dragged the shemagh up and into place around the bottom half of my face, tying it as a makeshift filter. It was just dust. No need to use up the good resp-masks.
“Heavy dust clouds, folks. Filters and goggles up,” I mouthed into the radio. The others needed some warning. Abe was out there ahead of us somewhere, but his radio would be on emergency only. It’s not likely I could tell him anything he didn’t already know. Of us all he was the only one who had spent as much time in dusty environments as I had.
I dragged the visor-style goggles from the bottom of my ruck to cover my eyes, even though I hated them. It was the loss of wide-scope vision that bugged me. I have a real fondness for not missing out on peripheral attacks because I’m wearing a screen.
“Anything new, Twitch?” Karen asked over the net. Her voice had a quiet crackle behind it. Some kind of malfunction in her radio, but it made her sound curiously robotic.
“More of the same. Burned out buildings.”
I didn’t know what to tell her. That was all we had found since we came into this shithole. Once a thriving town of about twenty thousand, it was now just an empty shell that remained as a spot on a map. I didn’t care about the destroyed buildings. The lack of free-for-the-taking resources is what pissed me off. Granted it wasn’t why we were here, but upping the profit margin never hurts.
Hans clicked in on the radio, and you could almost see that easy smile of his as he spoke.
“I’ve got some kind of movement,” he said. “Eighth Street, between Flagler and Eagle Way. Something just cut into a grocery store. Well, what used to be a grocery store, at least.”
“Intercepting,” I said, heading due south through the alley behind the pharmacy. The wind picked up. All around me was swirling dust and the howl of directed wind. I could barely make out Karen when she spoke, and even the static on her end seemed to have increased. I picked up the pace, hoping as much to find some shelter from the sand as to find our target. With every step the dust grew thicker. It was gumming up on my face, sticking to the moisture from my breath. I could feel it insinuating itself into the folds of my clothes, trickling down my collar and rubbing my skin wherever it could reach. Visibility was getting short. When I stepped into the alley, I could see the end. Now it was hidden from view.
The radio clicked and chirped in my ear. There was no static at all. It was so crystal clear that for a moment I was convinced I couldn’t hear the wind any more. The voice that came across was juvenile in tone, and I felt a chill go down my spine.
“I am becalmed, lost to nothing,” said the voice. It was no one I recognized, but it was definitely on our commo net. As it spoke, the wind stopped. No warning, no slowing, it just stopped. Dust motes continued on their aerial crusade for a moment and then cascaded to the ground in a yellow-brown shower.
“Hans?” I heard Karen call. There was no response.
“Tac three Charlie.”
The voice was Abe’s, and he was a step ahead of me in insisting we switch frequencies. Whoever that was had gotten hold of Hans’ radio. What had gone from a simple Demonground hunt for a possible telepath was now a rescue. I took a breath, loosening the shemagh from around my face. My hand went to the radio at my belt then, and I flicked the dial three nets clockwise, and then three channels up.
“Twitch?” the big scout asked. I grinned. Between Abe and me we could make short shrift of whoever had snatched the doc, and Karen was passable backup. I pressed the mic but I was shut out of the channel by another broadcast.
“Left to die by two good friends. Tears of God flow as I bleed,” said the voice.
What the hell did that mean? We hadn’t abandoned anyone.
“Isn’t that a song?” Karen asked. She emerged from behind a dry cleaner.
“All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay,” intoned the unknown voice.
“The lady asked you a question,” I broadcast. I could see the sign for Weller’s Grocery ahead and to my left. I scanned slowly across the front of the place, looking for any hint of movement. The windstorm had scoured any tracks that I could see, and I would bet even Abe would be hard-pressed to find more.
As if on cue, I saw Abe. He had apparently spent time in the same dust bath I had. He was covered from head to toe in it, but in his case it helped him blend in as he crept along, duckwalking near the ground. Coming in from the eastern side of Weller’s, he ducked beneath a hole that used to be a window and kept moving forward toward the front of the building.
“Why are you following me?”
“Out of songs so soon?” I shot back.
I hefted the AR, leaning against the telephone pole I was beside. Moving like glacier ice, I lowered myself into a sitting position. I scanned the store back and forth through the holosight.
“Play some Skynyrd,” Abe said. I could see him trying not to laugh and I felt the corners of my mouth curl up into a smile.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“There’s a bounty on your head after what you did back in Phoenix,” I explained. “It’s considerably more if you’re alive, but if you did any damage to Hans…”
“He is alive, I assure you.”
There. The faintest flicker of motion beside and behind a tumbled shelf. I lowered the sight onto the spot and waited.
“What’s the deal with the songs?” Karen asked.
“I like them. They fit right now, too.”
I saw him then. He poked his head out from behind the barrier, trying to see Karen as she approached. When he finally did, he stared for a few seconds and she stumbled, falling face-down on the dirty parking lot she was crossing. She did not move.
“I’m more of a heavy metal guy myself,” I said. The face that filled my sight was pasty white with lack of exposure. It stood in sharp contrast to the dark shirt he wore, and right now the lower half of his face was bisected by the reticle of my sight.
“Karen’s down,” I added for Abe’s benefit.
“What did you do?” Abe demanded.
“She was going to take the one called Hans. I need him.”
“My people have injuries. He is a healer.”
“I am not the only one of my kind. We are spread across the face of the planet. You and your kind knew not of our arrival, but we have infiltrated your ranks for years.”
Abe leaned around the corner, sweeping the barrel of his rifle across the store interior as he did so. Pasty Boy saw the motion. I saw him tilt his head curiously, and I swear I heard the sigh as Abe went down.
“What the hell are you?” I demanded.
Pasty Buy started scanning for me. I kept the sights locked in; took up slack on the trigger. I could feel the break only a few ounces away.
His eyes locked with mine and in a second I saw it all. I knew who he was and everything was okay. I knew he was all right. My ears filled with a sultry bass beat and music that promised sex and decadence as much from its chords as from any words he might add.
“You should have told me,” I said, smiling as I was drawn deeply into his eyes.
He looked back at me, his white sequined jumpsuit flashing light from the rhinestones sewn to it. I knew the sideburns and the hip-shaking stance he took. I had seen him on the vid many times. Hell, who hasn’t? The grocery store had become a stage and he was up there, oozing charisma with every side-to-side sweep of his hips. The screams of women filed the air along with the driving beat that underscored everything.
“We will take your kind,” Elvis told me. His voice was a delightful, booming thing. “We will be triumphant. You and the rest of humanity will be our slaves.”
It didn’t sound too bad when he put it that way.
Eh, who am I kidding? I’d make a horrible slave, and the thought of being one, of submitting to anyone, snapped me out of the trance and he was just Pasty Boy again. Damned telepaths.
The rifle jumped against my shoulder and the back of his head vanished.
“TCB, baby,” I whispered.