Exordium of Tears - Excerpt

The final gate proved seamless. Like the walls, it was made from lydium, and Joe knew they couldn’t force their way through. Fortunately, only a simple keypad and retinal scan security pod still barred their way.

Fonzy examined the setup and took out his box of tricks again. Andy and Stu shuffled to one side and completed a series of equipment and ammunition checks.

“The Architect downloaded several old ciphers into my database,” Fonzy murmured, “along with the ocular imprints of the previous command staff, so I should have this open in a jiffy.”

Joe turned back to cover the corridor and seized the unexpected opportunity to give himself a once-over as well. He didn’t have long. A prolonged buzz sounded, quickly followed by a loud clunk.

“Heads up!”

The huge door swung silently inward under its own weight. The blackness within seemed to leach out into the corridor.

Joe stepped across the threshold and scanned the interior.

The storeroom was a soldier’s nightmare. At over a hundred yards wide and more than twice that long, multiple aisles branched away from a main access corridor. Every one of them was stacked floor to ceiling with rack upon rack of packing cases and assorted boxes; a veritable maze of blind spots, and hidden nooks and crannies. Even the advanced photosensitive capabilities of Joe’s HUD failed to illuminate some of the darker corners.

“What do you think, Boss?” Andy enquired.

Joe considered his options.

Too many unknowns. Too many variables.

“Are there any residual energy readings?” he asked. “And if so, where?”

Fonzy stepped up and waved the radar gun backward and forward a few times. He studied the readout and jutted his chin toward the northeast quadrant.

“That way, a hundred and sixty, maybe a hundred and seventy feet. Levels are low, but indicative of depleted cells. If there are any mutants about, they’ll be congregated in that vicinity.”

“Why?” Andy chipped in. “Surely you’re not thinking we go in there?”

“Nooo . . . but I am thinking of going fishing.” Joe produced a thermos-type flask from his kidney pouch. He held it up. “I took the liberty of visiting the quartermaster before we set out. Remember, if any strays have been holed up in here, they’ve had to exist on low grade dross for nearly twelve months now. They’ll be famished. This contains a gram of pure berydium, a highly energetic, short-lived isotope. Once I crack the seal it’ll only last for ten to twelve seconds before it breaks down entirely, but that’ll be sufficient to flush our soul-sucking fiends out into the open. Of course, once they’re roused, we can expect a rather focused reaction . . .”

He let the thought sink in.

“Is everyone ready?”

Three affirmatives rang back.

“Right . . . Fonzy, you’re with me. When I deploy the bait, we will cover the hatch and ensure nothing escapes. Andy, Stu, you’ll be the main fire team. Take up position over there, behind those containers. Overlap your arcs. If the Horde are here, they’ll come fast and they’ll come hard. Take them out. If you experience any stoppages, don’t hang about. Use a micro-singularity grenade and get your ass back here. We will cover your retreat. If one of you has to withdraw, the other will follow immediately. No one gets left behind. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused.

“Right, you know the drill. Set active-cam and motion diffusers to maximum.”

Joe hunkered down by the doorway, watching through his HUD as the team got into place. They went still, blending into their surroundings as if they didn’t exist.

When he deemed everything ready, Joe entered a three digit code into the pad on the lid of the canister. As a digital readout started counting down from ten, he tossed it along the gangway, and fixed it in his sights.

Tsssssst!

The lid cracked open.

They waited . . .

And waited . . .

Is that bloody thing working? They assured me

Crash! Crash! Crash!

What the fuck?

Joe couldn’t prevent an electric jolt from surging through him. He peered into the far reaches of the chamber, alarmed to see several distant storage shelves toppling. Closely ranked, each tier smashed into the next in line, falling toward him like oversized dominoes.

“I’ve got movement!” Fonzy snapped. His announcement made Joe jump again. “Sixty yards out and converging on us from all sides. Signal’s clean.”

“No shit?” Joe glanced toward his fire team’s position. “Andy. Stu. You’re safe where you are, but it’s going to get a little loud. Don’t be surprised if one or two things bounce over your hea–”

“I’m not just talking about the metalwork,” Fonzy said. “They’re fifty yards out.”

“Contact!” Joe warned. “Coming straight at us. Hold your fire until they’ve swarmed the isotope. Fonzy? Give us an indication of numbers.”

“At least two dozen.”

Two dozen? Shit!

“Guys, change of plan. Too many to deal with all at once. Fall in on me and we’ll hit them with —”

Booom!

A colossal fireball erupted from the center of the warehouse. Joe threw himself to one side in an effort to avoid the wash of searing light and heat thundering his way, but he was caught by an invisible fist and smashed back against the wall.

Air exploded from his lungs, and the room about him shook. He saw stars, as overwhelming pressure threatened to rupture fragile capillaries.

“Report!” he yelled above the din.

Although his ears were ringing, Joe heard a guttural roaring from somewhere in front of him. It got louder and louder with each passing second.

Head spinning, he dragged himself into a sitting position and looked up. Only then did he notice the bottom of his coveralls were on fire.

How in the . . . ?

He beat at his legs with his free hand. Pain lanced through his shoulder with every movement. Ignoring it, he continued searching about in hope.

“Andy? Stu?”

The area where they had been concealed was now a pile of twisted metal and burning debris. Of his colleagues, there was no sign.

Fuck! What the hell happened?

“Report!” Joe yelled again in growing desperation. “Assault group, sound off!”

A smoking heap of clothes and charred flesh lay on the floor beside him.

Fonzy?

The background shrieking got louder.

Confused, Joe wiped his face and raised his weapon. His hand came away covered in blood. An odd feeling of detachment trickled over him as he blinked repeatedly, trying to make his eyes focus. Waves of dizziness consumed him. Mesmerized, he peered into the growing inferno.

Was it alive? It acted as if it had a mind of its own. In some places flames warped and contorted in on themselves before disappearing into shadow, but in others they flared into incandescent effigies, possessed of terrifying horns, talons, and fangs.

Horde!

Joe fumbled for his grenades and came up empty. The cruel inevitability of his situation struck home.

They must have been stripped from me in the blast . . .

. . . ah well.

The nearest ogres spotted him and howled. An angry skein of midnight-blue and orange passion skittered through the pack’s combined essence.

Somehow, Joe found the presence of mind not to panic, and set about methodically checking his surroundings. He was rewarded by the sight of Fonzy’s G40A, discarded on the floor next to the still-open door.

Oh no you don’t!

He came to an instant decision.

Grabbing the additional weapon, Joe leaped to his feet and staggered toward the hatch. For a moment, he considered simply running and shutting it behind him on the way out.

Leave no one behind . . . or nothing!

Instead, he put his back to it and heaved. With infuriating slowness, the door swung to and slammed shut. The reassuring sound of a vacuum seal engaging sighed above the ruckus.

Satisfied, Joe took a deep breath and turned to face his death. He flipped the switch on both guns to full automatic.

“What are you fuckers waiting for,” he teased, “an invitation?”

With a final howl of rage, the wall of monsters collapsed on him, and a blistering hail of bullets met their charge.