Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TICKS, Terminal Action Part II

Being the remainder of Chapter Four of TICKS.

By James Robert Smith

He had always wondered how he would react if he should ever be a father, to have the chance to have a child of his own. The Agent still did not quite know the answer to that possibility, but he suspected that it was close to what he imagined. They were all precious to him, the people. He knew that it was part of his nature, and he realized that this greater love he felt for them as a group was probably one of the reasons that none of his previous wives had been able to form an emotional bond with him.

How does a woman love a man who loves everyone as much as he loves his wife?

For this reason he never felt anything other than sadness when they had each ended their relationship. A part of him knew that normal men would have felt some kind of anger, even if it was misplaced. But Agents were no normal men. They were something better in some ways, and just apart from men in others.

Erica, though—she had been different right from the beginning. From the day they had been introduced to one another there had been something about her that he thought was special; that was different from any other woman he had met.

And now, she would be the mother of his child. There was an upwelling of emotion that he had never quite felt. It seemed to be composed of equal parts joy and dread. The Agent wondered if there was a word to define this feeling, but if there was he could not name it. Perhaps he would discuss it with Loraine Gaskins when next they spoke.

This was what he was thinking of just before he opened the door of his sedan and stepped onto the street.

The wind was blowing, roughly from north to south. It was cold, but not uncomfortable. He was wearing one of his battle uniforms, but not the one from the previous day. He paused very briefly to don a close fitting helmet composed of the same dark Kevlar. It covered his ears and even the sides of his face and jawline. There was an optional clear-tech faceplate, but he had decided to leave it behind. It had a tendency to fog on one side and to become coated in blood and gore on the other. He generally ended up tearing the guard off and flinging it aside. The good folk in research and development were trying to develop something more effective, but he wished they wouldn’t bother.

“You’re better than a cruise missile,” one of the techies had told him once.

“Excuse me?” he’d asked.

“Well, you know we can thread a cruise missile up a terrorist’s ass from a thousand miles away. Perfect as pink. But it makes a mess and tends to create all kinds of collateral damage, both human and property.”

Agent 67 had shivered at that casual mention of human death and injury. One thing he couldn’t grasp was why he was so attuned to the glory of human life, while they seemed able to dismiss one another’s mortality with disturbing ease.

“But you…” the technician had then stood from the chair where he’d been sitting, tinkering with some gadget the Service was developing for his use. “You’re a thousand times better than a carefully placed explosive. You arrive at the target just like a rocket, but then you carefully choose the smallest of areas and go from point A to point B wreaking bloody vengeance on the bad guys. If a missile could go toe to toe with insurgents and room to room…” The man shook his head. “But we don’t need that, as long as we have Agents.”

Agent 67 had nodded, understanding.

“But of course we can only use you guys against the Mutations, the Ticks, those sorts.”
And it went without saying that he had not responded to that. Killing humans…that was something reserved only for other humans. His job was to protect.

He was aware of eyes on him. Not just those of his backups and the men tasked with ensuring that none of his targets escaped the building. There were cameras and listening and recording devices of every type aimed at him this moment as there always were. There was even an almost microscopic camera hovering above a magnetic disk on his right shoulder, transmitting everything visible from that point.

“Polly is working fine.” It was the voice of Director Mills who was obviously looking through the electronic eye that the little construct offered him. Turning the world into digits and sending it through the beam to his flexible tablet. The Agent reached up and tapped the speaker at his right ear. “Copy that,” he said.

As he walked toward the apartment building he looked around the area. There was very little traffic, and he knew the Service had already erected road blocks and sent patrolmen to set up detours around this block. But there was no way, really, to warn every local civilian what was about to happen. That would have alerted the targets and they would probably have flown the coop at the first hint of danger.

Mutations were monsters, but they were not stupid. Agent 67 wondered if any of them were looking down at him as he walked to the door. He already knew that there were many in this place. He’d been told to expect at least two, and now that he was there and could sense them, could smell them, he figured that the estimate was off—there were four in the building.

Thinking of Erica, of the unborn child, of the citizens everywhere who were at risk, he broke into a run and entered the building. To the human eye, he would have appeared as a dark and fleeting smudge on the face of reality.

Three floors up and on the other side of the street, the Director gasped “Fuck,” Mills whispered. “I never get used to seeing him do that.” He turned his eyes to Tanger whose gaze was drawn not to the street, but to the table that was stretched on the desk before them. “I’ve seen him punch holes in concrete walls. Once he got really pissed off at this one Tick…and he picked up a car and smashed the thing with it. And not just any car. One of those old gas cars that guzzled fuel. One the soldiers used to drive.” He snapped his fingers, trying to come up with the brand. “A Hummer! Damned if he didn’t pick a freaking Hummer over his head and hit that freaking Tick with it.”

Tanger’s gaze and attention, though, were not divided. He was intent on watching the images on the Director’s tablet.

Agent 67 pushed the glass door open and stepped inside. The stink of Mutation was everywhere. Humans were in the building, unaware of what was now sharing the shelter where they lived. But the foulness of the others could not be masked behind the scent of the people. They could run, but they couldn’t hide.

He was about to make sure that they couldn’t run, either.

The Agent came to a door that he knew was a stairwell. A voice was in his left ear. Female voice, from Team Alpha. “There,” she told him. “Stairwell number one. Take it and go up. Third floor. That’s where they are.”

Again, he was moving at a speed no one could match and few could even follow. He was taking the stairs four at a time; gravity was not the burden on him that it was for Normals. At the next landing he was picking up speed, but came to a sudden halt. At once he was still as death. The stairwell was quiet and dark. He could feel specks of dust settling upon him, drifting down from as high as the top floor six stories above.

“What’s wrong?” This time the voice was in his right ear. Director Mills.

“You were wrong,” the Agent told them. “There are four of them.”

Pushing the door open he exited the landing and found himself in a hallway flooded with light. The big, yellow sun illuminated the narrow space and lit up the dark brown carpet that lined the floor. He hesitated for just a second and headed to his left. Passing a door where he knew only humans were sleeping, he strode on, his black form moving him to the next door—rooms empty—and to the next—an elderly man watching television—and the next.

He was suddenly seeing red. A wet sheen of crimson had been pulled across his eyes. The world had gone quiet and lukewarm, holding nothing akin to pleasure; no pain, no heat, no cold. Nothing of sadness or joy. There was only a clear void that surrounded him as he grasped the handle of the door and snapped it off in his left hand, pushing the metal barrier open.

Bits of steel and little screws from the locking mechanism were in the air.

A few splinters from the door frame were frozen in flight, like little spears thrown by tiny little invisible savages.

The air inside the apartment had once been breathed by a person.

But was now poisoned by a Mutation, a drinker of blood, a living contagion.
The Agent had a welcome companion that would stand with him until the job was done.

He was now joined by pure, animal, drooling RAGE.

The Blood-drinker was dozing. It sat on the floor in the center of the room that had once been a den shared by the man who had once owned this home. Around it was a dried circlet of gore, the remains of its last meal. The thing had fed powerfully and nothing much remained of that feeding. Only a few strings of sinew, a hank of sticky hair, and the tough and chewy heart. The heart had a few tooth marks on it, but the Drinker had obviously decided to rest before finishing.

The Agent’s hands were already on the thing before it was fully aware of the situation. As fingers pressed down onto its shoulder and a fist was hurtling toward its skull, its eyes, cloudy with something like death sprang open and it snarled, baring teeth that were no longer human and no longer blunt and which glittered with saliva and blood and infection.

“Arh,” it said, like some demented pirate.

The Agent’s fist smashed into the thing’s face and kept going, passing through flesh and bone, jetting above an engorged tongue, speeding through the palate gummed with blood, shearing through the throat and the spine and taking the top of its head completely free of the body.
Its head came away, moving in a line roughly equivalent to the direction of the Agent’s fist. And with its mind just feeling confusion that was communicated briefly to its eyes, the remains of that skull and its braincase settled with a loud clack to the marble tile that the man he had once been had lovingly placed on the floor.

“Jesus Christ.” That voice had come from the ear reserved for the Director; it was not Mills, but someone with him. The Agent heard the voice and shelved it for further reference because he was far too busy now for trivialities.

Turning on his heel he was across the room and through the broken door. He knew that a dozen gun sights were now aimed on this building and that the Director’s men were surrounding the place. If anything not human tried to exit now, they would be targeted by hollow points and flechettes and high caliber rounds that were decidedly not steel-jacketed to minimize any tissue damage.

He could sense people suddenly stirring and feel panic. He hoped they would all hold their positions and refrain from getting in his way. Not once had he ever injured a person—not even accidentally—and he was bound by every fiber of his makeup not to let that happen. If there was a choice between a person’s safety and inaction, he would cease to move. Sometimes it made a fight more difficult and he wanted to avoid the situation from ever occurring.

Now, of course, his prey was aware of him. When they died like that they always sent out a pulse of madness and fear. This was when they would either run, or wait for him to walk into their embrace. The Agent much preferred the latter outcome.

The stairs were nothing but two fantastic bounds, as if he were barely tethered to the gravity well of Mother Earth, tip-toeing across matter. Then he was peeling the door of the stairwell back like a flap of leather. Three were in the apartment directly to his right. The trio was doomed.


His knee came up, catching the bottom of the door and shearing it off of its hinges. Simultaneously he palmed the left side of it and shoved it so that the whole barrier came off and became a flying mass that met the first of the inhabitants of the room squarely, taking it back and down. That one was injured but not out. Putting his right arm up, he deflected the blow coming at him from that direction. Off to the left he could see something scrambling across the floor, spread out like a big smear of pale flesh, having shed all semblance of its humanity.

The Agent went for the gun on his left thigh. He didn’t particularly enjoy using a firearm—it was far more satisfying on a personal level to take them out with his hands—but he didn’t have the luxury of time.

As quick as his targets were, there was no time for them to react to this new tactic on his part. A red dot of light appeared in the center of the pink mass that was moving quickly to intercept him. A Tick that had made the full transformation. It took quite a few meals for that to happen and he made a mental note of it for debriefing. His finger tightened on the trigger.

There was a quick pop and suddenly the air was filled with a flurry of steel flechettes that hit their target, shearing through newly toughened dermis that could deflect most impacts, but not from this weapon. Ten metal slivers roughly two inches in length, shaped like knife blades, made the meat and plastic bone into liquid. The Tick yelled, quivered, and went still. It always surprised him when one in that state of transformation still used its voice—it was the only thing about them that remained human throughout the ordeal of man to monster.

Unable to avoid the inevitable, he stood his ground as the one at his feet shed the door that had brought it low. It sprang to its feet and without coming to a standing position it launched itself at the Agent’s gun-hand, pinning the weapon close to his leg and preventing it from firing at anything but the floor.

Simultaneous with that the other one hit him from the right, its fist crashing into the side of his face. He actually saw stars. He’d never encountered a Mutation who was even one fourth as strong as he was, but the power of their altered musculature was impressive. In fact, the blow was so intense that it cracked the receiver in his right ear and it ceased to operate.

With one mighty shrug, the Agent flexed his right arm and sent the thing away from him, its body moving through the air as if it had been only a pillow tossed by a playful kid. As it crashed through the wall on the other side of the space, he turned his attention to the thing that was doing its best to wrest the gun from his hand.

“You want it?” he asked.

With ease he peeled the creature from his hand and shoved it back with blurring kick. It raised its hands in a defensive posture as the gun popped once more and the stainless steel blades left its head in crimson tatters. That target slumped to the floor in a pond of steaming gore. The Agent sheathed the gun and turned toward the last of the things.

The Mutant had already pulled itself out of the tangle of furniture and plaster and studs that he’d created in the impact of its body with the wall. Surprisingly, it stood its ground and made no move to either attack or flee. This almost made the Agent hesitate, some germ of surprise or suspicion traveling through his mind. Later, he would have to admit to himself that he had hesitated for just an instant.

But then his instinct kicked in, his devotion to humanity came welling up. He was then an unstoppable mass moving with blinding speed across the room, his hands suddenly around the creature’s throat. It grimaced for just a second, its lips torn, its teeth stained not with the remains of a victim, but of its own blood. This was one who still looked human, as long as it did not grin too widely. These were the ones who could travel among the population and pass for human. It was this type who were the most dangerous and who were responsible for spawning the things the Service now called Ticks.

Gripping its throat tightly in his left hand, the Agent drew back his right fist.

“Goodbye,” the Agent said to it.

In reply, the thing that had once been a man said one word to him. One, single syllable, delivered with a sneer that showed nothing but contempt.

And this time the Agent did pause. His body actually locked for just the merest of split-seconds. Anyone could have noticed it. The thing did, and it grinned more widely still, revealing its new set of sharpened teeth, all glinting crimson.

The blow shattered that grin and reduced the skull to bits of goo and bone.

For a moment the room was silent. The Agent could hear nothing. Finally, he was aware of voices raised in alarm from other apartments. People were understandably frightened. He did not want to cause any of them further stress by suddenly appearing in their midst as a giant covered in alien blood and guts. So he stood his ground and spoke to his fellow Service members.

“All clear,” he said.

He waited for them to arrive.

He was now joined by pure, animal, drooling RAGE.

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