Scene 289 – Portam Bestarium

PORTAM BESTIARIUM

JEFFERIES

My name is Curtis 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.

My group was on the north side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty, and found ourselves in a narrow square. There were lots of shops and little restaurants, with a dozen small streets spinning off like spokes from a wheel. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We heard distant gunfire long before we encountered the enemy, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

Things went well, for the most part. The enemy fought back harder than expected, but our echoes pushed through them. Even though they had these giant bear and wolf things, we made steady progress through the district. It was slow going, and we took heavy losses, but we were doing better than the others. At least going by what I overhead from the lieutenant’s radio. She had the volume turned up too high. When the shield popped up and shells started slamming into it, some people freaked out, but it had nothing to do with us.

Then the base camp exploded.

I was maybe a hundred yards away, down one of those little side streets, when it happened. The blast wave blew a cloud of choking dust through the alley. My entire squad stumbled, trying to keep our feet.

Behind me, I heard the dull whoosh of a fire igniting.

I had heard that sound too much today.

I spun around, gun up, to see one of the beast-men grinning at me. He was a furry dog-thing, and his hand enveloped in white flame. I shot at him, but he dodged to the side faster than I would have thought possible. He tossed a fireball at us before anyone else had a chance to react.

One of my squadmates screamed as she took the full brunt of the attack. On the plus side, her sacrifice meant the rest of us weren’t even singed. We opened fire, cutting down the monster in a hail of bullets, then moved as fast as we could to try and put our friend out.

We had far too much experience with this.

She died fast enough, leaving nothing but a crispy, smoky corpse. It was for the best, since without the base camp there were no medics around to patch her up or even just keep her alive. We’d have needed real doctors instead of field medics, and those hadn’t shipped out with us. Something had delayed them at the last minute.

I took a deep breath through my mouth, trying to avoid smelling anything. These things had… weird powers and abilities. Fur and fangs were one thing. But fire and electricity and shapeshifting? The toy maker didn’t give these people these abilities. We were missing something important here.

“Lieutenant,” I said. “Orders?”

She looked up from the corpse at her feet. She shouldn’t even be here, with us. She should have been at the base camp, giving orders to the sergeants leading squads like ours. But the captain had wanted her to check something out, so she had gone out with three squads.

The triple squad was now half the size of a normal squad. The lieutenant was likely the highest-ranked officer on the battlefield.

“Your orders, lieutenant,” I prompted again.

She blinked, then nodded. “Collect her dog tags, then we move deeper into the city. Defensive formation.”

One of the other squad members looked up. “Sir? Not back to the gate?”

She shook her head. “That’s what they’ll be expecting. Anyone headed that way is going to walk into an ambush. We need to get to safety, then we can get the new lay of the land and strike from a position of surprise.” She clicked her radio off. “Full radio silence. Just to be safe.”

Everyone nodded and turned their radios off. I reached down to the charred corpse at our feet. I winced as I touched her crispy skin, and yanked the dog tags off her neck. The lieutenant took them with a nod of thanks and pocketed them, and then waved to our point man.

He led the way south, down the winding streets and away from the gate we had entered the city through.

There were six of us. We couldn’t fight the entire city by ourselves. But we could make life difficult for the enemy. That was all that was left to us at this point.

We stumbled onto a patrol of the cat-men, but we caught them by surprise. We were able to cut them down before they even got a shot off. One started healing rapidly even as we watched, so I shot her a few times in the head to make sure she stayed down.

This crazy city…

“Somebody might have heard that,” the lieutenant said. “Police their weapons, and let’s get moving.”

It took us a second to realize what she meant, but she was right. We put our own guns in our backpacks and collected the weapons and ammo of our enemies. We didn’t have much ammo left for our military-issue guns anyway.

Most of them had sleek, futuristic-looking rifles with digital ammo counters on top. Etched onto the side was the legend St. Euphemia. Underneath that were stats which didn’t make sense, except for the caliber. They were 4.5 mm, which seemed common here.

I flicked the safety off, and noticed that a little red symbol appeared on the ammo counter. It looked like an unlocked padlock. Oh, it told you when the safety was off. That was clever. But the gun didn’t make any annoying chirps or beeps, so that was nice.

Although we didn’t have time to actually test fire the guns, we were all confident with them. We moved on to securing a location for a new base camp.

We were surrounded by massive skyscrapers, but unfortunately that didn’t help at all. Not only did few of them have doors into this dirty little alley, but we had no way of knowing which ones were empty. If we picked the wrong one, we’d find ourselves outnumbered a hundred to one. And that was before they inevitably called for reinforcements.

The squad followed the point man silently, though we glanced at the lieutenant every few minutes to see if she had any ideas. That haunted look was gone from her face, at least, though she still looked confused and worried.

“Hold,” she said finally, right before we were about to round a corner.

Everyone stopped, ears straining.

Then we heard it too—barking laughter, as one of the beasts told a joke to his friends. Armed? Almost certain. We hadn’t run into a single civilian in our time here. The captain had said they should have all retreated into their homes.

That thought made me pause. These buildings surrounding us—were they businesses or homes?

The lieutenant signaled for us to pull back, and we retreated to a small grubby door in the side of the alley. One of my squadmates was working on the doorknob with a set of lockpicks. He was a private with a name like Smith or Jones or something else boring like that.

The beasts behind us said something else. All I heard was “And then he exploded!” and raucous laughter. They were entertained for now, but sooner or later, they’d come patrolling…

The lock popped open with a click, and we slipped inside as fast as possible. The lieutenant closed the door behind us and locked it again. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

It was too dark to see anything. Our point man turned on his flashlight and shone it around the room while the rest of us kept our guns level. There was nothing special about this place. It just looked like a normal lobby, with a small waiting area with couches. There was even a small room with a window space, presumably where the receptionist sat. It was currently empty. I could still hear distant gunfire, echoing through the streets. At least it was muffled by the walls.

There were no windows to the outside. There was something creepy about that.

The flashlight lingered on a cheerful poster proclaiming ‘Vampire-friendly environment! Nightlights and strong shades available throughout the complex!’

I closed my eyes. “Sir, this is an apartment building.”

The lieutenant looked like she was struggling with something.

“Shit,” someone muttered. “We’re not supposed to endanger civilians.”

“This is good,” the lieutenant insisted before anyone else could complain. “We just need to find an empty apartment and hunker down. Brown, check out that computer, see if you can find any information on which are vacant.”

The indicated soldier moved to the computer and started tapping away at the keyboard. “I’m in. Give me a few minutes to find some sort of directory or whatever.” He cursed under his breath. “Someone is using this as their personal computer. This is going to take a little while.”

While he did that, I started searching through drawers, hoping to find… something. Anything, really. A hard copy of the current residence list would be nice, but I was just doing it to kill time.

I frowned and pulled something out. “Who keeps grenades in a file cabinet?”

The lieutenant looked at the little cluster of explosives I was holding, and shook her head. “I hate this freaking city.”

“Enough here for everyone,” I said, pulling the grenades off like bananas off a bunch. I tossed one to everyone except for Brown, who was still busy with the computer. “Anyone else find anything?”

“Papers, files,” the lieutenant said with a sigh as she rifled through some drawers of her own. “Nothing else.”

“I found some ammo,” someone else said. He peered at a handful of bullets that he appeared to have collected from a candy bowl. “High-caliber rifle rounds. Won’t fit these guns, though.”

“Lieutenant Backstrom!” Brown said. “I got it!”

She smiled. “You found us an apartment?”

He nodded. “Third floor, room six. The ones on either side are empty, too. It’s perfect.”

“Good. Where are the keys?”

“They use keycards. One second…” He typed something else, and then a small device on the desk whirred, and spat out a small white card. “Here we go. I had to hack it to say we bought the room, but I backdated it a couple weeks and said we already paid. That should keep them off our backs for at least a day.”

The lieutenant had a thoughtful look on her face. “What name did you put it under?”

“Yours,” Brown said. “It’s common enough not to arouse suspicion.”

She nodded. “Yes, good.” She snatched up the keycard. “Everyone, advance to the stairs, but quietly.”

“What about our guns?” I asked.

She looked like she was struggling with something. “…leave them out for now.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

We moved forward in a standard fire formation. It was optimized for close quarters like these hallways. We didn’t encounter anyone, but we kept our guns raised. At the lieutenant’s urging, we moved into the stairwell as quickly and quietly as we could. Three floors up, we exited, still didn’t find anyone, and made it to room six without difficulty.

The lieutenant nodded to Corporal Kine, then put the keycard in and opened the door. Kine moved in, sweeping her gun left and right, searching for any hidden hostiles. After a moment, she lowered her weapon, then nodded to us.

We filed in as fast as possible, then closed the door behind us. The lieutenant flicked on the lights. They were just dull red lights, the kind you used when you were worried about preserving your nightvision. She frowned and played with some more switches, and got the real lights on.

The place was furnished, but only bare bones, with a couch pointed at an old tv sitting on a cabinet in the corner. The kitchen wasn’t quite a separate room, with only a half-wall separating it from the main room. There were two doors on the other wall that should lead to a bathroom and a bedroom.

“Thick shutters on the windows,” I noted. I didn’t lift the blinds, in case there were any snipers watching from outside. There was still gunfire echoing around out there, and I couldn’t tell how much of it was close by. “This place feels like a fortress.”

“Feels like a normal apartment in gang territory to me,” Corporal Horn said. “I grew up in a place like this.” She smirked. “Except for the weird lights.”

The lieutenant checked behind the doors. “We shouldn’t be here long, but keep those radios off for now. We don’t want to give up this location too easily. Set up a base camp. Brown, try and figure out a way to contact command without letting anyone trace us.”

“You think that’s what they were doing?” I asked as I put my gun down on the couch and started stripping off the rest of my gear. The others followed suit.

She shook her head. “Maybe? It’s the only thing that makes sense. None of our ambushes were working, and then we turned off our radios and it was like we were invisible.”

“We should be out there,” Hall said, holding his gun almost protectively. “Not hiding in here.”

The lieutenant sighed. “Private, with the base camp destroyed, our side of the invasion is done. We’re not soldiers any more, we’re insurgents. Saboteurs.”

“You said the ship was still intact! They could have rebuilt the forward base by now!”

“In which case we will be even more important,” she said. “As we are behind enemy lines, ready to provide support.” She nodded at Brown. “Help with the radio. I want to figure out exactly what’s going on out there.”

Hall looked annoyed, but did as ordered.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have any orders, so I just picked up the remote and turned on the tv. It immediately showed a scene I recognized, the North Gate of the city and our base camp burning in front of it.

“Casualty reports are still incoming,” a smooth female voice said. “But at current estimates, analysts are agreeing that the battle for North Gate is largely over—albeit at high cost. Early mistakes during the battle allowed American forces to gain a foothold into the city and spread throughout kemo territory, especially domains belonging to the fels and the murids, who are still recovering from the death of the Lady of the Plague.”

I glanced at the lieutenant. She was watching with her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed.

“The invaders’ base camp was destroyed when their explosive and ammunition stockpiles went up in a chain reaction. The exact cause of this is unclear, but sources inside Necessarius say that this was a planned counterattack, not a lucky accident.”

“Well, that explains one thing,” Horn muttered.

“Shush,” the lieutenant said, not taking her eyes off the tv.

“There are still enemy forces present in North Outer, so residents are advised to remain in their homes for the time being. Butler’s official statement is that the situation will be resolved within a few hours.”

I looked at the lieutenant. “You think he’s exaggerating to make himself look better?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Now quiet.”

“In related news, the battles at East, South, and West Gates have also ended in the city’s favor. Property damage is extreme in both the East and the West, but in the South the demons kept everything contained without too much difficulty. The Dagonites sunk the majority of the enemy fleet, and while the remaining ships are still shelling the city, the shield remains stable. Residents are still being advised to stay indoors, but the threat has largely passed.

“In other news, the Thors have attacked a mancal enclave—”

The lieutenant pressed the mute button. I hadn’t even seen her grab the remote.

“It can’t be over,” Hall said. “Right? It can’t be that easy!”

“We made a dent,” I said.

“We made a dent,” Horn said with a laugh. “A dent in a city we were supposed to be able to tear apart. And we were the best of the battles?” She shook her head. “What happens now? Do they just nuke the city?”

I paled. “The president wouldn’t do that.”

Hall glared. “Are you sure about that?”

“Enough,” the lieutenant said. “We stick to the plan. Lay low and fortify. Keep an ear out, and get that radio working so we can call out securely. One way or another, the higher-ups will come up with something. We just need to survive long enough to provide support.”

Behind the Scenes (289)

This one went to interesting places in the end, though not the way I planned it. I like it when that happens.

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