Melissa Nelson was bored.
For anyone else, such a state might have been a luxury. Survival in a post-apocalyptic world was a never-ending struggle of blood, sweat, and tears in copious amounts. The chance to rest, to not be hunting one’s next meal or on guard to keep from becoming a meal, was near unheard of.
For Missy, it was akin to torture. Where was the excitement to be found in sitting on one’s ass collecting dust? Where was the fun? Life was only worth living if it was fun. It was her guiding principle, and the promise of action and adventure was what drove her to becoming a Peacekeeper in the first place. It was also the reason she was considered by many to be the second-most dangerous individual to be left without a task for too long, because idle hands were the devil’s workshop and the devil himself would have been proud of some of the shenanigans she’d come up with over the years to entertain herself.
The gold prize in that category, however, belonged to the other young woman in the room, and for wildly different reasons. Kaari had been almost alien from the day she’d arrived in Monroe, with her at-odds combination of tribal mannerisms and esoteric medical knowledge, and she had only grown more-so since. Nothing illustrated that point so poignantly as the mutated creatures sprouting from her skin, an element of body horror she had accepted as naturally as a change in the weather. Missy was still in the dark as to why the snakes existed. Perhaps a failed experiment. Or, more disturbingly, perhaps a successful one. Kaari balanced precariously on that oh-so-dangerous line of having enough skill, knowledge, and willingness to help others while simultaneously lacking the experience, wisdom, and sense to temper her actions. She was a well-meaning disaster waiting to happen.
Missy loved it. When Gerald had asked for a volunteer bodyguard to protect his ward (adorable, really, how that man fussed over her), Missy had jumped at the opportunity. For the most part, she had not been disappointed. The chaos Kaari could generate just by being Kaari was unparalleled. The fun she could cause almost brought a tear to Missy’s eye. But every rose has its thorns, and this assignment had its share of stretches where nothing happened. Well, not exactly nothing. Science was clearly happening, as Kaari and her terrifying snakebaby assistants skittered about her lab with odd vials and beakers, poking and prodding at test subjects both living and dead, and making thoughtful handwritten notes in a pidgin mix of a half-dozen different languages. But Missy had no idea what any of it was, despite Kaari’s many attempts at explaining herself, and it was all just so, so, so dreadfully dull.
“Hey,” Missy said from her chair by the door, leaning back in the worn blue-plastic seat until it came dangerously close to tipping over. “Hey. Hey, Kaari.”
“Mm?” The not-doctor responded. She didn’t look up from her microscope, but one of her freakish children twisted to look at Missy with its glowing yellow eyes.
“What do you call a fish with no eyes?” Missy asked, grinning back at the snake. The elongated body with its spines and scales reminded her of any number of movies, but she resisted the urge to quote Smaug.
“Amblyopsis,” Kaari murmured in a distracted tone, fiddling with the magnification. “Is a cave fish. They have sensory papillae instead of eyes, like is grown on the tongue for taste, but for to navigate in the dark.” She paused thoughtfully, then scratched an illegible note onto her pad of paper. “ .. it is the interesting adaptation. Maybe I can modify papilla for sense the Oculorubrus instead.” She turns her attention to Missy, the look in her eyes reminding the Peacekeeper of any number of Jaws references. “Why do you ask, do you want me to make you grow taste buds but for sensing the virus?”
After a drawn out pause, Missy finally blurts out, “A fsh.”
Her reward is a blank look, uncomprehending. “A fish with no eyes,” Missy tries again, unable to keep the smile from her face. “A fsh. Eh? Ehhhh?”
“Oh,” Kaari says, the simple syllable conveying so much emotion. Kaari never tended to laugh at her jokes, but that was exactly what Missy was looking for. The look on the girl’s face as she tried to puzzle out why someone would be so callous as to purposefully misspell a word for no apparent reason was like a fine wine to Missy; full-bodied confusion, with a bouquet of bafflement, followed by earthy aftertones of disappointment. “So .. you do not want the virus taste buds.”
“I mean, that sounds cool,” Missy chortles, “but I’d prob’ly get in trouble if I started randomly licking people.”
“ .. Mm.” Kaari’s response may have been barely a noise in the back of her throat, but Missy had been getting better at decrypting the meaning. That had not been an ‘mm’ of agreement, but the sound the tribal girl made every time she encountered something she hadn’t known before and was making a note of it somewhere in the recesses of that fascinating mind.
Missy had also started to recognize the pseudoscientist’s body language, and the sudden stiffening of her limbs - the momentary glazed look in her eyes - meant that fun was about to happen. These long stretches of quiet time were merely a calm before the storm, and the self-proclaimed bride of the ocean had so many storms to share. Her snake children hissed at each other, doubtlessly catching on to the change in their host, but Kaari came out of her trance before their concern could mount.
“Ground control to Major Tom, you awake in there?” Missy asked as she leaned forward in her chair.
“Mm. Aa’tiami speaks,” Kaari murmurs, her gaze still distant. It took her a moment to focus in on her bodyguard’s cheshire-cat grin, her voice heavy with an almost mystic quality to it. “He wants you.”
The woods outside of Monroe were a downright haunting sight in the evening hours. Heavy foliage devoured what little light the moon provided, and a thick fog filled in the gaps between the blackened timber with ghostly shapes real or imagined moving within swirling mist. It was unnervingly silent as the grave, lacking even the chirping of insects or any other night life that might be expected. And yet, there was an ever-present rustling of an unseen something lurking just out of sight. The few who dared to stray off the worn roads reported a feeling of being watched, an uneasiness that settled in their bones and added an urgency to their steps. They were not welcome here.
Missy plowed through the underbrush like a corporate bulldozer to the Amazon rainforest, the unwelcoming nature ignored as thoroughly as the unwelcoming expressions of her audiences to many a tortured pun. She was blazing a trail toward adventure and that was all that mattered. Behind her followed the lithe and graceful not-doctor, weaving her way through the greenery somehow without the bare skin of her arms and legs coming into contact with so much as an errant twig in sharp contrast to the destructive path of the Peacekeeper. Missy envied that. Not so much the weird leopard-like stalking through the forest, but the ability to rock a pair of short shorts. She just didn’t have the thighs for it, herself.
“So, hey, how come you call him Timmy again?” Missy asked, partly to break the silence and partly to hear herself speak.
“Aa’tiami,” Kaari replied, the foreign word having an almost musical quality. She continued in her heavily accented English. “It is a saying from my people. The meaning is for the thin blade to be the most sharp.”
“Yeah, well, he don’t look like a Timmy to me,” Missy grunted as she tore her way into a clearing. “You know, we got a word for a magical dog, too. It’s-”
The punchline was explosively knocked out of her, along with the wind from her lungs as she was bodily tackled from the side. She hit the ground leaving a furrow in the grass, but before she could recover a massive weight pressed into her back, pushing her face into the dirt. Something latched onto her backpack, wrenching her from side to side as easily as if she were a stuffed toy. Missy grabbed at the release to her backpack and slid free from the straps, rolling to her knees and pulling her sidearm from its hip holster with one swift motion. Her assailant was a humanoid, or a rough approximation of one. A hairless body of cartilage and gristle that looked as if a person had been flayed and then physically stretched on a rack until its elongated limbs, fingers, and even its face were warped and twisted. A human skull in canine proportions stared back at her, with eyeless sockets and a muzzle made of glistening mandibles.
It slapped her pistol away before she managed to draw a bead on it and she fell back from its sweeping claws, using her combat knife to awkwardly parry what would have been a fatal blow. “Are you planning to help?!” Missy shot a quick look and question at her ward. At some point during the brief struggle, Kaari had made her way up a tree and was now staring down from a branch at Missy like a cat watching a mouse die.
“Mm,” Kaari hummed thoughtfully from her perch. “No.”
The skin dog chose that moment when the Peacekeeper’s attention was split to leap upon her once more, uneven teeth snapping together and inching closer to her neck. She caught its bite with her blade, using her other hand to wrench the mandibles back in a desperate grip. A long strand of drool oozed from the ravenous jaws of the beast down the edge of her knife. For a moment, woman and monster were locked in an impasse, but Missy could feel herself slipping inch by inch. She could feel its fetid breath against her skin. And then-
-then, she was elsewhere. Another time, another place. Memories of pain. Memories of fear. Memories of faces. Those she thought she knew. Those who thought they knew her. Screaming. Begging. Weeping. And she-
-laughed, a giddy exhilaration that broke its psychic attack against her mind. She kicked out with one boot while jerking her weight backward, knocking the beast off-balance. They hit the dirt together and she twisted around it like a prize cage fighter, locking her legs around its emaciated torso and her arms around its leathery neck. She raised her fist and brought it down on the monster’s skull.
“Runty!” Missy shouted gleefully as she ground her knuckles against the skin dog’s skull in a truly vicious noogie. The dogman struggled futilely in her grip, but the Peacekeeper’s hold was relentless. It finally gave up, going boneless in her arms.
“Kaaaaariiiiii,” it whined with a nasally voice, looking up forlornly at its master in her tree. There was no pity to be found from the not-doctor.
“I said I do not help,” Kaari said bluntly before dropping down from the branch. “You make your sandwich and now you lie in it.”
“Aww,” Missy said consolingly, having yet to relinquish her bear hug on the beast. “You almost got me! Getting my gun away was good stuff, you always wanna disarm an opponent first. But I had the better footing there. You need to go for the legs like they’re Kentucky Fried!”
“Ek-ki-ki-ki-ki!” The dogman cackled in its kind’s signature style, like a hyena as played by Mark Hamill’s Joker. This is what Missy loved most about Kaari’s grotesque pet. So many people failed to appreciate her jokes, but this little molerat-on-steroids could always be counted on to laugh.
She released the hound and rolled to her feet. “You wanted to see me, Runty?”
The dogman hopped around the clearing, nodding its head so fast that waves of spittle went flying. Missy resisted the urge to make a Gollum quote. “Yes! Yes! See Miss-eeheeheeheeehee!”
Missy gasped, clapping her hands together. “Is it time .. to play?!”
The horrendous monstrosity could not have been more excited, and Missy was only stoking the flames. “Play! Yes! Eeeheee! Found them! I did!”
“Good boy!” Missy crowed. “Who’s a good boy? It’s you, Runty! You are the best!” She patted it on the head as if it were a particularly mangy dog and not a mutated crime against nature. Without lips, its teeth were bared in an eternal snarl, slick with saliva, but Missy could sense it was smiling at her. She mirrored the smile with one of her own, one that promised just as much death and destruction. “Let’s play fetch.”
For weeks now, Gerald had been complaining to her about increased reports of banditry on the roads. The traders were being hit almost as badly now as they had when the Millers had free reign of the countryside. Caravans were being looted, goods stolen. Something had to be done.
Not by Missy, of course. She had her duties guarding the Head of Medicine against Brighton spies or whatever latest threat the inscrutable scientist had managed to piss off that week. But, if by chance her charge were to harmlessly walking her dog in the woods and just so happen to accidentally wander into a bandit camp ... well. It was her duty to protect Kaari from any trouble she might have gotten into. Especially trouble that Missy may have surreptitiously instigated.
This particular camp had not been an impressive specimen. Only a handful of men that had been easily brought down. Then again, they likely had not been expecting to be assaulted by mental visions of terror, half-tamed monsters, venomous snakes that were extremely protective of their mother, and one bored and highly trained soldier looking to blow off some steam.
Missy strode through the remnants of the camp, some of the patched burlap tents already burning from the campfire that had gotten out of hand, and took a deep breath. Somewhere just out of sight, there was a crunch of bone and screams that were not quite loud enough to drown out the laughter of Runty taking her advice and crippling his targets first. Nearby, Kaari was intensely focused taking notes on a bloated body with multiple puncture marks, the man’s skin turning blue and foam burbling out of his mouth. Her snakes were sprouting from her back, wrapped protectively around her body and hissing incessantly. And a single bandit with a blood stain spreading out across the back of his shirt was crawling through the dirt toward a fallen single-shot Winchester that looked older than Gerald. Missy wouldn’t have pressed the trigger herself on the off-chance the barrel exploded in her hands. Still, it wasn’t wise to take the chance.
The man screamed as a knife sunk into his outstretched hand, pinning it to the dirt. He writhed in pain in the dirt and blood. “The enemy can not push a button if you disable his hand!”
“W-what? Wh-” The bandit, a dirty thin-framed man dressed in rags with pasty skin (likely from the blood loss) and greasy hair, made a pained noise as his question was cut off by Missy choosing his back as a convenient seat.
“Starship Troopers,” Missy said amicably. “You probly haven’t seen it. Not enough time for movies with all the robbing people. Gotta set up on the roads, ambush the traders, carry off the loot .. just work, work, work. You know what they say about all work and no play, right?” The gleam of the spreading campfire reflected in Missy’s white teeth. Not that the bandit could see her smile with his face in the dirt.
“Who a-are you?” The man sobbed. Missy was actually impressed he was still talking. She knew an arterial shot when she saw one. Perhaps the only reason he’d yet to bleed out was her ass on his back keeping the pressure on. She giggled and made a note to suggest a life-saving butt pressure procedure as part of medical triage to Kaari later.
“Oh, just your standard vigilante anti-hero,” Missy said as she retrieved her knife from the man’s hand - with another agonized sound from his throat to accompany the action. “Stopping the bad guys whatever the cost, but the head of the department goes, ‘You’re a loose cannon! One more incident and I’ll have your badge!’ But the streets got to be clean from filth like you, right?” The man didn’t answer, so Missy shrugged. “Y’know, I’ve been thinking of using the name the Punisher. Cause of the puns. Get it?”
“We jus- .. just,” the man wheezed as he struggled with his last breaths. “ .. just needed .. to feed .. fam- families.”
Missy paused, her entire body frozen. She took one breath. Another. The Peacekeeper glared down at the dying man with a dangerous look in her eye. “ … There’s more of you?”
Whether the man heard her or not, she couldn’t be sure. His voice was getting weaker. “Fled .. city. I tried .. protect.” A blood-flecked cough cut his words off. Missy grabbed the man and roughly turned him over, her fist gripping his soiled collar as she pulled his limp body upward to meet his eyes.
“Tell me. Tell me where they are,” she said, her voice low. When no answer was forthcoming, she added, “Listen, bud. You’re done. Dying. Nobody can stop that. All we can control is how fast it happens.” She let her knife flash in the firelight. “This doesn’t have to hurt. Just tell me what I need to know.”
To call the structure a shack would be insulting to shacks. The thin walls were made of rotting wooden planks with gaps large enough to fit a hand through, the tin sheet roof leaked like a colander, and the only difference between its floor and the cold dirt outside was some scattered straw for flea-ridden bedding. There was no light, so the wretched souls within huddled in the dark like chickens in a coop, silent save the occasional cry of a hungry child.
The door splintered as a boot impacted it, rusted hinges giving way. The gathered people wailed in terror at the darkened figure at their door, drawing away to the farthest edges of their ramshackle abode. Missy stood in the doorway, the light on her rifle sweeping across the small crowd of emaciated women and children, who shied away from the light as if it burned them.
After a moment, the barrel of the gun rose and Missy took a step to the side. Kaari slipped inside, her snakes hidden beneath her cloak.
“Who are you?” Came a tired matronly voice, though in the dark it was difficult to tell who had spoken. Another, younger and full of fear, added, “We don’t have anything to take!”
“My name is Kaari’n̥ai,” she said, flanked by her Peacekeeper bodyguard. “I am the Head of Medicine for the town of Monroe.” There were some confused murmurs, but she continued on. “We met some of your group on our patrol.”
Several voices all overlapped, concern and fear in equal amounts. The message was essentially the same. Where are our people? Where are our husbands? Our fathers? Our sons? Kaari opened her mouth to speak, but Missy cut her off.
“They’re dead,” she said bluntly. A horrified silence was swiftly broken by the keening of the now-widows and orphans, but Missy continued on, raising her voice over the din. “We found their camp. It was attacked. It looked like .. monsters.”
While some continued to openly weep, the majority merely stood silently. Broken. The original voice, the older woman who sounded older still, stepped forward into the light of Missy’s flashlight. If she’d been pretty once, those years were long ago. “We are refugees from Pittsford. Once the fighting hit the streets, any who could do so fled outside the walls. All we have is on our backs. We’ve nothing left.”
Kaari nodded. “We can offer safe travel to Monroe to find a place for rest, food for eat, care for the sick.”
A little girl who didn’t look older than eight, but malnutrition always takes a few years off, stepped forward with a defiance that was almost shocking to find in one so beaten and downtrodden. “How do we trust you?!” It was an accusation, but at the same time it was almost a plea. As if she were begging for a reason.
Missy slung her rifle and kneeled in the muck to be at eye-level with the girl. “Hey. It’s okay. Look, see?” She unbuttoned her sleeve and pulled the urban camo back to reveal a set of faded tattoos on her arm, holding them against a matching set on the stick-thin arms of the girl. “I’m a Liberty brat, too. We probly played on the same streets. Swiped snacks from the same shops. Pissed in the same alleyways, heh. Slumdogs gotta stick together, right?”
The girl froze, hesitant. The old woman wrapped one arm around her shoulders as she addressed Kaari and Missy. “ .. we will go with you. For now. Until we can make our own way again.”
The next few minutes saw the refugee families readying themselves for travel, wrapping scavenged and soiled clothing around their shoulders for warmth and carrying the children too weak to walk. As they stumbled out of the chill of the ‘indoors’ and into the slightly chillier air of the open night, Kaari turned to Missy in the now-empty shack. “You said it was a monster that killed their men. Why did you lie?”
It was the same confusion she had whenever she was puzzling out a joke. The same bafflement that had always served to make Missy laugh. Kaari had no idea what was wrong. Not even an inkling of guilt. Whatever weird tribal logic she followed had zero goddamn problems with what they’d just done to these people. And Missy?
“Wasn’t lying,” she said, swallowing. She hadn’t stared into a little girl’s eyes tonight. She’d stared into a mirror. “But we will be. Nobody .. nobody can know it was us. Right, Kaari? You can’t tell anyone. They might … um. Be mad at Runty.”
“Oh.” Kaari blinked, then nodded. “Yes. That is a thing Terry does a lot.” Her head tilted slightly to the side. “I do not know why.”
She pushed down that queasy feeling in her stomach that came with the images of the bandits they’d slain for what amounted to cans of beans. Locked it away, as deep as possible. This night wasn’t fun anymore, and life wasn’t worth living if it wasn’t fun. “ … hey, Kaari. What do you call a magical dog? A labracadabrador.”
Kaari didn’t get it. Missy laughed until the tears came.
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