The Cold Inside (a serial novel) Chapter Forty-two part two
The Cold Inside
By AL BRUNO III
Thursday January 26, 1995
Zeth surveyed the area through the scope of his M21. He had picked out four Drones waiting in concealment, their bodies mannequin still, their expressions empty. He observed with grudging amazement as Jason Magwier skirted and skulked around them, finding his way unnoticed into the Imperial Hotel.
It was at moments like this Zeth almost believed that they could push the Monarchs back, that the Cause was something more than a final defiant gesture.
His eyes adjusted as the last of the day’s light faded and he waited for the Monarchs’ Avatars to arrive. He didn’t have to wait long, an expensive sedan pulled in to the abandoned hotel’s parking lot. Under ordinary circumstances a car like that in this neighborhood would be noticed but Zeth knew no one would. Humanity had been trained for a generation to look away whenever the Monarchs were concerned.
The Avatars got out; sleek and pretty, wearing high priced suits and programmed expressions. They left the engine running. Zeth recognized them from Magwier’s files, their real names were Persuasion, and Enlightenment but they had other more mundane names for when they interacted with the ignorant masses. Silly anagrams that always made Zeth wonder if the Monarchs weren’t having them all on in some strange eldritch practical joke.
Zeth’s finger tightened instinctively on the trigger at the sight of them but Magwier had told him to wait, to let them have their parley with this latest antichrist. Zeth watched them enter the building. He had to wonder how much time - in his current life and in his old life working for the military- he had spent waiting. Could it be years? Years spent waiting for one target or another.
Gotta remember that, Zeth thought, It might make a nice poem, a real mood piece.
Prose poems and stream of consciousness works were Zeth’s passion, while Magwier obsessed over complex rhyme and beat schemes. Not that it mattered anyway, neither of them had ever had a work published or ever had a successful open mike night in their lives.
At least I get polite applause sometimes, Magwier gets chairs thrown at him.
That was how they had met, at a poetry slam in Graystone Bay. They had booth been booed offstage and Magwier –
-except he wasn’t calling himself Jason Magwier then was he? He was Noah in those days.
‘Noah’ had offered to buy him a conciliatory brandy. Zeth had let him, if for no other reason than to find out how this stranger knew that he preferred brandy.
Over the next few hours of conversation Noah revealed little or nothing about himself but demonstrated that he knew a disturbing amount about Zeth’s. When he had gotten upset and confrontational Noah had just smiled calmly and said, “We’re old friends. You just haven’t met me yet.”
That had been enough to make Zeth wonder if he might have to commit another murder to cover his tracks, but before he could make that decision men had charged into the bar firing into the crowd of would-be poets. In the firefight that followed Noah had saved Zeth’s life but perhaps that was only fair because he would later learn the whole thing was all his new/old friend’s fault anyway.
For a while it had just been the two of them traveling the back roads of America and harrying the Monarchs whenever they could. Then they’d met Rio; she’d fallen head over heels in love with Noah and invited herself along with them.
Zeth grinned a little at the memory, the three of them trying to save the world. That was the thing he hated about clichés, every one of them had a grain of truth at its heart. As the 1980’s drew to a close it had all started to fall apart. Rio realized that Noah had never really loved her, that he stayed with her out of obligation and loneliness. Zeth also began to suspect Noah was losing his mind; he was becoming more and more withdrawn, prone to outbursts and secretive behaviors.
After Barstow they went their separate ways but Zeth ended up meeting up with Noah again years later but by then he had taken to calling himself Jason Magwier. Zeth began to understand that this had been the latest in a series of rebirths for his friend.
Noah, Clive Bastable, August Zabladowski, Percy Kent-Smith. How many lives? How many names? Zeth wondered. How long have you lived?
Enlightenment and Persuasion walked back out of the building, it looked to Zeth like they might be arguing.
He drew a bead on Persuasion and fired. Zeth took a moment to watch the Avatar’s head collapse into a ruin of copper, faux skin and alloyed ceramics. Then he did the same thing to Enlightenment.
Drones spilled from their hiding places. The brickwork around Zeth exploded with bullet impacts. He ignored them, picking off the Drones as best he could- a headshot here, a shattered knee there. There were too many of them, more than he and Magwier had anticipated.
Zeth let his scope dart back to Enlightenment and Persuasion again. “Come on.” He said, “Show yourselves.” Eighteen shots had been fired, that left two in the M21’s magazine. He didn’t want to risk reloading. Not yet, not now.
A muffled explosion shook the ledge he was propped up on. One of the Drones had made its way to the door of the decrepit office building and found it booby-trapped.
Damn you Magwier. Zeth thought, Damn you and your little surprises.
The twitching bodies of Enlightenment and Persuasion began to change, their torsos folding outwards, opening like the petals of a flower. Something shifted bonelessly, slithering free of its confinement and into the crosshairs of Zeth’s scope.
The door to the rooftop flew open. A damaged Drone staggered forward, firing wildly. Zeth rolled onto his back, feeling bullets cut the air on either side of him. A third bullet grazed the M21’s stock. The impact jarred Zeth.
He fired back, catching the Drone in the torso with two armor piercing rounds. Chemical glop spilled from its face and body as it staggered forward and fell.
Dazed, Zeth got to his feet. Bullets pelted the ledge on all sides. He retreated to the center of the roof. More Drones would be storming up the stairs now, he couldn’t risk getting cornered.
The wood stock of the M21 had been cracked and gouged by the bullet’s impact. Zeth dropped it and pulled the two 9mm handguns from his holsters. He grimaced at the ache in his side.
Just a graze. He forced himself not to look at or touch the wound.
Two more Drones stormed onto the roof. Zeth fired, clipping them in the head and throat. Not mortally wounded but blinded they stumbled into one another. A second set of Drones stepped over them, guns blazing. Another set were right behind them. Zeth returned fire then dove off the rooftop.
Impact with the fire escape turned the stitch in Zeth’s side to a bolt of agony. He choked on his breath, his grip on his weapons loosened.
More Drones were moving up the fire escape, bullets thudded uselessly on the walls of the building and ricocheted off the metal lattice.
Another Drone peered down from the ledge. Zeth shot it square in the face before kicking his way through the boarded window.
A bullet caught him in the right arm. The pistol it held clattered down the metal steps and bounced onto the street.
Zeth retreated into the office building, seeking cover in the shadows and debris. Icy numbness was working its way down his shoulder.
The Drones were right outside the window. Zeth fired a few random shots in their direction and pulled back to the corner of the room furthest from the stairwell and the window.
There was a door, he opened it and found himself in a supply room. Zeth barricaded himself inside. The supplies were long gone but he toppled the empty shelves in front of the door and took shelter behind a broken desk.
Bullets impacted the door and surrounding walls. Zeth forced his numbed right hand to reach for the spare clips he kept in shoulder holster. Every movement was punctuated with a sliver of agony. His jacket was bloody and clung to his skin. Zeth reloaded and then pulled the revolver from his ankle holster and made sure it was within easy reach.
The Drones had given up shooting at the door, now they were throwing themselves against it. Cracks appeared in the wood. Desperate, Zeth rummaged through the drawers of the broken desk, each one was empty save for cobwebs and faded annuity reports, except for the last one. In the last drawer there was a first aid kit and a micro UZI.
Zeth blinked, certain he was seeing things but the first aid kit and the UZI were still there.
The door began to give way. Zeth picked up the UZI, it was practically new and fully loaded. At the bottom of the drawer there was a Tarot card; the Hanged Man.
Bless you Magwier. Zeth took aim and readied himself for the door to give away, Bless you and your little surprises.