The heart had been ripped out of Chicago, that much was obvious. Jack Hudson walked the rain-slicked streets of the city, straight up the Magnificent Mile. Between the drizzle and the moonlight, the city almost looked normal. Not like a husk, not like he was one of the many rats scurrying around the bones. Old instincts screamed at him to watch his back.
The city was like a diorama to him, like a museum exhibit. For as long as Jack could remember, everything in his life had sat behind this sense of illusory glass, a strange distance between him and the outside world. One of his many survival mechanisms, he figured. But what was he supposed to feel when he walked these streets and gazed upon the devastation? He had been here for a week and he still didn’t know. This was a city that had been murdered by a demigod’s glance, and it meant nothing to him.
He should have felt something, anything. But he didn’t.
Jack glanced to the woman walking at his side, his only friend. “You seen anything like this before?”
Samantha Holley carried herself with the distinctive gait of someone used to carrying the weight of a heavy rifle, with the uneasy sense that she missed it. “Nope.”
“Not even Guatemala City? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about that, Sam.”
Sam’s gaze settled somewhere on the mid-distance.
“How about we focus on the mission,” she said, her voice a smoky rasp. “We walk our beat, do our rounds, then we go home.”
Something was eating away at Sam, and Jack had no idea how to broach the topic. Whatever it was, it had already corroded away her lackadaisical sense of humor. Over the four years that he had known her, Jack had grown accustomed to the constant levity in her smoke-and-whiskey rasp. Whether she was relaxing or killing, it was with an unsettling smile and a wry quip.
She didn’t bite people’s heads off. That was his job. He was the grim one, the taciturn one. That was how they worked. That was their chemistry. They were the last two members of a band that, perhaps, neither of them had truly belonged to.
That drew with it another thought: you don’t belong here, either.
Jack led the way left at the next intersection, heading for the cathedral where some of the survivors of The Surveyor’s attack had gathered. It was a beacon of light in the dark city and shapes of people moved there. Next to him, Sam huffed at her blonde-brown bangs and, when they remained wetly uncooperative, settled for swiping at them.
Sometimes, in the little moments like that, Jack could see the woman she might have been in another life. Like the rich sort who spent their time baking cookies and obsessing over the right shade of color in the curtains of her expensive townhouse.
But that was another life. In this one, she was the most dangerous person he had ever known, and the only friend he’d ever really had.
“You okay?” Jack asked.
“I’m fine. Let’s just get this over and done with.”
As they approached the cathedral, Jack settled for looking about the rainy streets, instincts like an old knife: a decade of experience making up for a year’s dull edge. Cast his eyes over windows and alleys, saw nothing. The rain was slowing, thankfully, just enough for him to be sure that he didn’t hear anything either.
Here you just saw a city in the grip of a rainy day. Here, you didn’t see the wrath of The Surveyor. You didn’t see the missing city blocks, unmade from the outside in. You didn’t see the roads that had been sheared away. You didn’t see the parts of the city that had been scourged down one-hundred feet to the bedrock, the great scar of a chasm that stretched west into the suburbs.
Some of those he had seen, and not one of those sights kindled anything in him.
What should have he felt we he looked upon the devastation? Fear? Horror? Anger? Awe? The first three of those were a safe bet. Whenever anyone asked him about it, those were the ones that constituted his default reply. But it always felt like a lie.
Knowing what to feel was a difficult issue. Knowing what to do, however, was not. You are because these people are, Sabra said in his head, so, stop wasting time. He’d leave the feelings for later. For now, the only thing that mattered was doing the right thing, doing what he could to help the people of Chicago.
Helping people was the only thing that mattered, and there was a grim irony in that thought. For a long time, he and Sam had not been in the business of helping anyone but themselves.
Which was why they had taken this job, with its gaudy uniforms and sickeningly gallant leader. To do something else and, perhaps, to be someone else.
Jack led the way up the steps of the cathedral proper. Inside, men, women, and children hid away from the rain and the sights that meant nothing to Jack. By the door, a police officer in riot armor nodded to them.
“Hey there, Peacekeepers.”
Peacekeepers. Even six months with the little heroic band, such a greeting still took Jack by surprise, like he hadn’t stepped into the blue and gold uniform just two hours earlier. He nodded to the officer. “That’s us, Sergeant. The name’s Paladin. Everything okay here?”
This was what they were reduced to. The Surveyor’s gaze had cut through subterranean fiber-optics, annihilated a broadcast hub, and lingering background noise played hell on wireless signals. For the time being, just about everyone in Chicago resorted to envoys, messengers, and the wonders of the human eyeball.
The Sergeant shrugged. “As okay as it can be, all things considered. But we’re good for food, water, blankets, and medicines.”
Jack glanced through the doors. It certainly looked that way inside. Everyone looked happy enough, clustered in little groups on emergency beds. Somehow, being on the outside looking in on such a warm display was more comfortable to him than actually being amongst it.
“From who?” Jack asked. “Last I heard, the government was having trouble getting enough relief supplies into the city.”
“Turns out those Neo-Americans can be decent people. They started bringing in supplies by dropship yesterday.”
Sam spat to the side.
“Ma’am,” the Sergeant said, “I’m going to ask you not to do that.”
“Their support has strings,” Sam replied. “Easy to say no to the stormtroopers when they’ve got guns in their hands, but blankets and food? But, hey, at least the guns and weapons are fucking honest.”
“She has a point,” Jack cut in. “Aren’t the US and the Empire still technically at war?”
The Sergeant shrugged. “Beats me. I’m a policewoman, not a soldier. Until they break a law, I don’t give a shit.”
Sam smiled, the expression maudlin. “Then I guess that’s why they took half our country.”
Behind her visor, the Sergeant’s expression darkened. She settled her hand on the stun baton at her waist, tilted her chin up to indicate the way down the steps.
“Move along,” she said. “This baton stings a hell of a lot more when you’re wet.”
“We’re moving,” Jack said and thumped Sam on the shoulder as he turned away. “Let’s go, Sam.”
The cathedral lights had faded behind them when Jack turned and asked. “Okay, Sam, let’s be serious here. What’s with you? Since when do you get so fired up about politics?”
“I’m not fired up.”
“You’re spoiling for a fight.”
“No more than usual.”
“That’s precisely my point.”
Jack continued on, unsure of what he was saying, not used to being the voice of reason. “Sam, I’m here to listen to you. God knows you’ve listened to me moan enough over the years, right? But you need to speak to me.”
Sam reached into her pockets for her pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She drew one out, lit it, set it between her lips and took a long drag and exhaled the smoke. Her eyes went past Jack then, and onto something behind him.
“Keep walking,” Sam growled, around her cigarette.
Jack turned. There, coming down the street, with an empty hoversled between them, came a trio of men clad in the red-and-grey uniforms of Neo-America. Like him and Sam, they had to be checking in on the civilians around the city.
He summed them up in a glance and saw them doing the same to him. No weapons, no body armor. Only a minor threat, if they were one at all.
The three paused. The leader, gold insignia on his shoulders painting him as some degree of officer, asked, “Is there a problem?”
“Might be,” Sam said. “You wanna stick around and find out how I solve it? I said: keep walking.”
One of the other Neo-Americans muttered something to his leader, and they spread out. Jack’s instincts screamed attack, strike first, don’t give up the initiative, don’t let them take the first shot.
He held his ground and spared a glance to Sam out of the corner of his eye. The edge to her voice was unfamiliar to Jack — coming from her, that was. Sam was a dangerous person, a professional killer. But it was always precise, always controlled. She was the hammer delivered at specific points to a foundation, she was the sniper’s bullet.
But right now, she was something set to explode.
“Sam,” Jack said, his voice a warning, but she was already among the three.
Sam drove her fist into the leader’s face, snapping his nose and jerking his head around. As he dropped to the puddled asphalt, she stepped to the right, leading with her elbow, and caught the second in the neck. Jack was a brawler, but Sam was a soldier. It took him a moment to realize that they were now in a fight.
He reached to his waist and had a distinct feeling of vertigo as his fingers swept through only air. Oh, yes, he thought. We don’t carry rifles anymore. Only a stun baton and he knew from experience that with enough exposure, you could learn to shrug the blows off.
Balling his fists, Jack waded into the fight to end it. A street melee like this could go bad in any number of ways, and it only took one knife or gun to turn a brawl into a murder. Adrenaline flooded him, as warm and comforting as a stiff drink or a friend’s smile, and he set his eyes on the man Sam had dropped with a punch, the man climbing to his feet.
Jack lashed out with a straight kick, catching his opponent on the shoulder and sending him sprawling across the ground. In two more steps, Jack had closed the gap and swung his boot in the man’s torso, and again and again, until he had curled around his gut.
Fighting was not new to Jack, and neither was killing, but this was not the time or place for either. He whirled, shouted for Sam, and something grabbed him by the ankle. The ground came up to meet him and found his head first. The officer rained down punches on him, split his lip, blackened his eye.
Jack roared and struck out, feeling the familiar haze descend. Something exploded in his torso, maybe a rib, but he got the officer onto his back, and Jack took him by the head, got on top of him, and broke his left arm in two places.
“Shoulda stayed down,” Jack hissed, and rose to his feet, looked for Sam.
She was on the other side of the street, kicking one of the last two men between the legs. The third had leaped onto her back, was trying to get his arm around her neck to strangle her. Sam launched herself backward, crushed the man against a parked car. They fell together, and it was all a ground game then.
Jack was halfway to the ground game when a gunshot rang out. Sam hurled the Neo-American off her, shot him once more, and then shot the other of the pair as he was still rolling on the ground, grabbing at the crushed organs in his groin.
Jack was just thinking where did she get the gun? when Sam brushed past him and found the Neo-American officer, kneeled down by him, and jammed her handgun underneath his jaw. She looked him in the eyes and smiled bright, revealing the disarming gap between her front teeth.
“So,” she said, “Got a message for ya. How about you tell your Emperor that Trigger says—”
She squeezed the trigger. The gunshot echoed out down the desolate streets. Sam stood up, chest heaving, fists balled, yet her expression was somehow more placid than it had been maybe a minute ago.
“I think he’ll understand the international code for ‘fuck you.'”
Jack stood there, seeing it all play out like a diorama. As usual, he felt nothing. It didn’t bother him that Sam had provoked a fight and got her wish. It didn’t bother him that there were three dead people on the street, their blood mixing with the rainwater. It didn’t bother them that he was bleeding, that his face hurt, that his eye throbbed. It’d been a long time since he had felt so good.
Sam looked to him and smiled. “Just like old times.”
Jack wiped at the blood on his lip, splattered it to the road with a flick of his wrist, and felt himself smile in a way he hadn’t for a very long time. “Didn’t even bruise my knuckles,” he said. “Feel alive again.”
He felt strong. He felt good. He felt. For a moment, Jack luxuriated in the understanding that he could feel, even if only in the aftermath glow of violence.
He gestured to the three corpses. “Let’s get rid of these. Grab their hoversled.”
“You’re the boss,” Sam said.
They dumped the bodies in the first sewer they found. The thing was, standing there, Jack knew that it didn’t matter how good he felt, how strong he felt. As the haze faded away, and he began to comprehend what had just happened, Jack frowned. The only thing that mattered was that he had taken this job to leave those violent old times behind.