My name is Robert Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” a soldier next to me, an Indian man with bright blue eyes, muttered to himself. In the cramped confines of the troop transport, it was hard not to overhear. “Supposed to be an easy paycheck…”
I remained silent. Scared as I was, this was exactly what I had signed on for. It was literally the reason I had been born. No time for complaining now. The boats would be nearing the shore at any moment.
“Ten seconds until landfall,” a calm voice sounded over the radio.
The Indian man next to me started praying in German. Most of the other soldiers tensed up as well, expecting the worst. We were packed into the metal can like sardines, which didn’t help.
Not me. I was going to die. If not today, in a week. That gives a certain clarity of purpose.
The hull scraped against something solid. Light flowed in as the gangplank opened, slamming down onto something.
We rushed out with the haste and surety of training, and quickly found ourselves on a long concrete dock, outside the walls of the city proper. There was no one else here, but there did seem to be barbecues, of all things, set into the concrete itself.
Our squad leader barked an order, and we all moved down the dock, towards the wall, guns up and ready.
The wall itself was huge. It felt like a hundred feet tall, but that couldn’t be right. The gate, a giant metal monstrosity that looked like it was designed to stop nukes, was firmly shut.
“Anybody see a doorbell?” someone muttered. Laughter rippled through the group.
Our sergeant smiled, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the joke. “Breachers, forward!”
A dozen soldiers with large, bulky backpacks pushed through the ranks and started slapping small discs onto the metal door. They even tossed a few up higher, where they clamped on magnetically.
“Back up!” the sergeant cried, and we all obeyed in a wave. “Three… two… one… breach!”
I was expecting an explosion. Instead, gears inside the massive door whined, and it began to creak open.
I was among the first to slip through the widening crack between the doors. I scanned the city with my gun held ready, establishing a beachhead. The first thing I noticed was that it was dark. Somehow, despite it being mid-morning, the sun just didn’t penetrate here. Midnight would have been less dark. At least there would have been stars.
The light from the gate illuminated some, but not much. Wide, empty streets and tall buildings without any lights on. There seemed to be a shopping center or open-air food court of some type. There were tables and chairs scattered around in a wide open pattern. Looking up, I thought I saw the edge of some sort of tarp far above, strung between the buildings to provide shade. How odd.
We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us. It was just echoing through the streets like the ghost of a battle. I almost thought that was the sound of the other gates, but that didn’t make sense. Even if they had already engaged, we wouldn’t be able to hear them from here. There must be a gang fight deeper in the city.
“Put on your lamps,” the sergeant grunted. He already had his on, and I hastened to obey. “No flashlights.”
We had been issued light amplification goggles—lamps—ahead of time. No one had explained exactly what they were for. I guess this was it.
I slipped mine on and hit the switch, then winced. The dark streets were suddenly as bright as day—and the gate behind us as bright as the sun.
“We’re leaving the gate open!” the sergeant said before anyone could ask. “Need a line of retreat. Just don’t look at it.”
In a few moments, we had about a hundred men through the gate, all wearing lamps and ready for anything. More would be coming, but this was more than enough to advance, maybe set up a base camp a few streets up.
We marched forward in tight formation, guns up as we traversed the dark streets. But there was nothing. We didn’t encounter so much as a single person, though at one point I did see a pair of dogs eating from a dumpster. They ran off before we got too close.
“This is creepy,” the Indian man next to me muttered, looking back the way we had come. We had taken a few turns at this point, so the bright light of the gate was out of sight. “Maybe we should start knocking on doors.”
The sergeant heard him. “Orders are not to disturb the civilians more than we have to. We’re here to save this city, not conquer it.”
“Hold.” The sergeant stopped us as we began to turn a corner. I was near the front, and could see what had stopped him. There was someone in the middle of the street up ahead, a naked man with skin as white as chalk. “You three. Forward. Everyone else, eyes sharp. This could be a trap.”
The three soldiers he had indicated walked forward slowly, guns steady. The man wasn’t too far away, maybe ten or twenty yards.
“Sir?” one of them said as they got close. “You all right? We’re from America, sir. We’re here to help you.”
The man stood. Our soldiers took a few visible steps back, nervous. The man was easily six feet tall, and had muscles like a linebacker. He was also completely naked, revealing a smooth crotch like a Ken doll.
“I—uh—” The soldier who had been speaking glanced back at the sergeant.
The man spoke first.
“Your services to your country are to be commended,” he said with a friendly and fatherly voice. “I salute you.”
“Yeah, that’s… thanks, man. I just—”
“I am sorry.”
And then day broke.
Some instinct led me to rip off my goggles as he raised his arms, so the blinding radiance he suddenly emitted didn’t hit me as hard as everyone else. I heard screams, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground. Dead? Unconscious? I had no idea.
I might not have been hit as hard, but I was still completely blinded. It was like a second sun that had been born in the street in front of us. Shielding my face barely helped at all, and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. And someone was… singing?
Someone was singing in Hebrew. I didn’t recognize more than one word out of ten, but the tone of the song was low and sad, almost apologetic.
It was a death song. I knew that suddenly. Someone was singing us to our graves.
I scrambled back, away from the fight, and into an alley we had passed moments ago. I still couldn’t see, but my memory had always been good. I put my back to a dumpster and pointed my gun in front of me, blinking as fast as I could to try and clear my eyes.
Things started to get blurry, but that was an improvement on the shapeless mass of white my sight had been moments ago. There was someone in front of the alley—a soldier? The man from the street? No, neither. This man was smaller, and had something in each hands. Knives.
I made a decision, and fired.
Bullets cut through the air, and the thing at the front of the alley dropped. A moment later, someone else fired, and I thought they were shooting at me. They weren’t. Must be some of the others from my company, realizing that shooting was their best chance of survival.
The gunfire didn’t last long.
Within a minute or two, it faded, but so had my blindness. Of course, now I couldn’t see anything because it was still dark as night. I wasn’t planning on putting my lamp back on, but it was better than nothing. And the death song had faded as well, which was a good sign.
I crept up to the front of the alley and poked the corpse with a boot. It was… a person, but too androgynous to tell what, exactly. They had white tattoos that looked like Hebrew, but I couldn’t read them. The knives they had been carrying were buffed to a perfect reflective sheen. Like mirrors.
I turned around the corner again, gun up, to find maybe fifty of my fellow soldiers in a panicked huddle. They were surrounded by corpses. Some of the corpses were the naked people, but most of the bodies were American soldiers.
Including the sergeant.
I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, but…
“Everybody, form up!” I called. I stalked over to the sergeant and ripped off his radio. “Defensive positions, we don’t know when they’ll come back! Strip ammo off the bodies, then leave them!”
The men looked a little hesitant, but they obeyed. They were trained well, considering how horribly this had gone.
“Control, this is the forward company,” I said into the radio. “We’ve been ambushed. Half our men are dead, sergeant’s dead, and I don’t think we made a dent in the enemy. They’ve got some… light ability, don’t know what to call it. Don’t use the goggles. Just use flashlights.”
There was a brief pause, then the radio crackled. “Confirmed, forward company. We’re sending reinforcements. Infantry first, then the echoes. Stand by.”
I took a deep breath. Echoes. Good. With those, we’d be fine. We should have led with them. “Confirmed, command. We’ll hold. You have our position?”
“Loud and clear. GPS is solid.”
“Good. Over and out.”
I swallowed, trying not to let my nerves show to the men. I had no idea what the plan was here. But whatever the plan was, it had gone to hell in a hand basket. So I guess the sergeant wouldn’t be doing much better than me if he had lived.
Our eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, if barely. Still couldn’t see real detail, but at least we could see if someone was coming. The fact that they hadn’t yet had me worried. Whoever and whatever these people were, they clearly knew exactly what they were doing.
After several heart-pounding minutes, two more squads ran up the street. Their flashlights bounced around like rays from heaven.
“Echoes are about twenty minutes behind,” the man in front said. He was a sergeant, and I quickly fell into step behind him. “This will be our base camp! Drag those dumpsters over here, we need some more walls!”
Men moved to obey, and I pulled the sergeant aside to speak with him. “Did you see what these people could do?”
He shook his head. “Something about light?”
“I don’t know what to call it. I think we’re outmatched.”
He gave me a look. “We can handle a couple nightlights, private.”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant that this is not something we expected the toy maker to be capable of. We’re operating on flawed information here, in the enemy’s home. We’re sitting ducks.”
“…are you suggesting we retreat?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m suggesting we switch to defensive until we have more intel. Fortify this position and the gate, shoot or capture anyone who comes too close. Don’t overextend ourselves.”
He nodded slowly. “Good ideas. Very good. Did you try for officer corp?”
I cursed inwardly. Don’t draw attention…
“We’ll talk about that later. For now, organize some men, secure the perimeter. I’ll grab some grunts to move the bodies out of the way.”
“Good idea, sir.” I walked over to a small group of soldiers who didn’t seem to be busy.
Before I could get to them, the flashlights started flickering.
One of the soldiers frowned and started whacking it as if that would fix it. But the problem was with all the flashlights, not just his.
“We put in fresh batteries this morning,” he said. “I don’t know what would—”
He was interrupted by all the lights going out at once.
A few moments later, they returned, revealing him dead on the ground with his throat cut.
“GUNS UP!” the sergeant yelled. Everyone obeyed instantly. “You see something that’s not us, SHOOT IT! No questions asked!”
I backed up towards the sergeant, keeping my gun level and eyes scanning. “This is different from before.”
He nodded. “The first group makes us get rid of the lamps, then the second group comes in under the cover of darkness. Simple and effective.”
“How do you think they got our flashlights like that?”
“No idea. Some sort of electromagnetic distortion, like an EMP but weaker?”
The flashlights started flickering again.
“Everyone STAND READY!” the sergeant yelled. “No surprises!”
I had a thought as the flashlights kept flickering, and the men shook so hard I could hear their gear clicking. The light-people shouldn’t be directly involved in this ambush. So that meant if I put on the light amplification goggles…
I slipped them on just as the flashlights died. Just in time to see someone sneaking up behind another of the soldiers.
I didn’t hesitate. I fired, hitting him solid in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, turning towards me and hissing. I heard other soldiers shooting. Were they panic-firing, or shooting at friends of this one?
He had black eyes and massive fangs, in addition to the long, sharp claws on his hands. He rushed forward, almost faster than I could see. I fired again and again, finally piercing the Kevlar body armor he must have been wearing.
He fell to the ground, dead.
The flashlights came back on.
I cursed and ripped off my lamp, blinking away the brightness from my eyes.
The sergeant clapped me on the back. “Good shot.”
Before I could answer, rumbling laughter rolled through the city.
“You shouldn’t have done that, boy,” a deep, amused voice said. “They take it personally when you kill one of their own.”
I raised my gun, searching for the source of the voice, but didn’t respond.
The sergeant did, though. “Who are you? Show yourself!”
“I am called the Dragon.”
“These your men!?”
“No. These are men and women of Domina City, who do not wish to see their homes defiled.”
The sergeant swallowed and looked at me, at a loss for words.
Don’t stand out…
“We’re not here for your homes or your people!” I called. “We’re just here to get rid of the gangs!”
That same rumbling laugh as before. “The gangs are the homes and the people, little boy… no, no wait.” His tone changed, to something curious. “Glasya tells me you’re not a boy at all. You’re a homunculus.”
My blood froze in my veins.
That wasn’t what I was actually called. There was some long name that spelled out a meaningless acronym I hadn’t bothered to learn. AGBHC or something like that. But I had looked up some terms online, learned which ones applied to me.
Homunculus. A word the Greek alchemists used.
It meant false-man.
How had they known? How could they possibly have known? I was made from the toy maker, but that shouldn’t mean anything. American scientists were completely cut off from Dominite ones. Did they have some magic device that let them detect things made from the toy maker?
I took a deep breath. “I’m more of a man than you. Come down and show yourself!”
He chuckled. “Tempting, bruscar. More tempting than you know. But I did not reach my position by taking stupid risks.” The flashlights began to flicker again. “Our nightstalkers will handle you just fine.”
As before, when the lights went out, I slipped on my lamp. This time, most of the other soldiers followed my example.
It gave us just enough time to see almost a hundred of the black-eyed assassins dropping down from the sky.
Behind the Scenes (scene 278)
“AGBHC” stands for “Artificially Grown Biological Humanoid Construct,” by the way.