Kill an insect, it’s pesticide.
Kill a beast, it’s heroism.
Kill another man, it’s murder.
* * *
The M90 sniper rifle rested against David Lancaster’s knee as he gazed over what remained of Pittsburgh. Downtown, once a beautiful skyline, had been to a ravaged mess of scrap metal. The bridges connecting it to the rest of the city were demolish as well, save for two—Fort Duquesne and Veterans.
The only structure still standing was not part of the city’s original design. A dark, towering spire like an obelisk, cone-shaped as it pierced the ground within a mile-wide crater. The spire was a fortress, a fortress to the new king and supposed God of the city and all humanity that lived within it.
The Ail-Mecha they called Red.
Four years have passed since it, and the thousands of other spires that rained across the rest of the planet, crashed into their city. The initial impact left Pittsburgh, and other cities across the world, in their ravaged states. If that had been the end of it, then maybe humanity could have come back from it. Then the spires opened, and those machines stepped out. Massive and ornate with appearances like those old mecha anime that David’s sister enjoyed watching, they started attacking everything in sight, crushing any residence humanity could make.
No one knew where these aliens came for or why. There was no declaration, only fire from the sky and then destruction. Though one thing seemed consistent, each spire only held one of these machines, but one was more than enough to bring down a city. Many people David knew had even begun worshipping the machines as gods come to punish an indulgent humanity. One thing was certain though, an Ail-Mecha couldn’t be killed by mere men. Their technology was too great and their armor seemed impenetrable.
But that wasn’t going to stop David from trying.
His earpiece buzzed, alerting him to Johnny’s incoming voice on the comm. “The fight’s done, need I say who won?”
David ducked prone, lining the M90 in the direction of the ambush spot. His position along the three-story building on the Northside gave him a perfect view of the Veteran’s Bridge. In addition, should Red attack back, David could scurry to the fire escape quickly enough and disappear into town.
“How far from Alpha point?” Commander Gid said, his deep authoritative voice coming through the mic.
“Just passed the old church, probably five minutes? Vanessa and I are on its tail now.”
David sighed. Vanessa was a dingy, old Jeep that Johnny cleaned on an obsessive basis. “Just because it’s the apocalypse doesn’t excuse poor hygiene,” he’d say. If only he’d apply the same energy to bringing down to Red as he did shining his hood, they may have discovered this potential weak point sooner.
“I have visual,” The new girl, Emily’s, voice came over the line. She’d been positioned on the other end of The Parkway, giving her a clear sight range around the curve of the hills. While he couldn’t see it yet, David could hear the raspy and crunching as Red’s claws tore up the old road.
“Hold fire,” Gid said, “We only have one shot before he transforms.”
A glint of maroon emerged from around the hill. David took in a breath to keep his finger from twitching. The bulbous form of Red strode across the road, crushing all beneath it with four claws which, at this moment, served as its legs. The legs themselves connected two something like a pelvis, which extended and retracted whenever Red saw fit. There were eight claws in all, each attached to a lime-green tracks that ran around the spherical body. It was the strange mix of spider and centaur with its head having eight similar green eyes with a single long, protruding horn sprouting off its head.
“Assuming we even have that,” Emily’s voice came through again. “Assuming this kid isn’t just making stuff up for this last shot.”
David put his hand to the mic. “Red’s armor is near impenetrable. Even the highest volume of penetrating rounds can’t puncture that shell. Yet, it still blocks our gun fire with its arms. Why bother blocking if your armor does it for you?”
David continued to eye the tracks. His theory relied on that the machine didn’t have interior armor within the tracks. Or, rather, it couldn’t have armor as thick as the outer shell—not with that many moving parts working within it. If David could get a clean shot, hit the track or whatever device allowed the claws to run along the body, he could render it immobile. From there, the Hornets could find a way to eventually break it down. The problem was Red’s reflexes were intense, any shot made against it was reflected even from the back side. And even then, Red’s offensive capabilities—the high-powered lasers within each of the claws themselves—would incinerate any foe that attempted before they could get a second shot.
Emily wanted them to leave. To have the Hornet’s leave Pittsburgh for good and join the fight with the Militia in the north. But that wouldn’t change anything, they’d just be running away. If David left, who’d be left to avenge his sister?
This was his last chance. Red needed to go down. He lined the sight, aiming it toward a particular track along the back side. Red hadn’t acknowledge their presence yet. He took several breaths to calm his breathing. He focused on the track, it was all that mattered. One chance to hit it. One chance to prove his theory.
He needed to hit it before Red entered its Ball form.
“Fire!” Gid yelled.
From beneath the site, several pellets shot up from beneath the bridge, spewing smoke just beneath Red’s vision. From there, a barrage of bullets shot at him, ricocheting off the lower
armor and scattering in all directions. Red took a step back and raised a claw toward the smoke. Red light emanated within the claw’s palm before shooting out a crimson beam down through the cloud. It shot blind, so the Hornets should have been able to move out of the way, David hoped.
But David couldn’t think about that now. He concentrated on the track and fired.
The recoil shoved against his shoulder. Around him, several other snipers did the same, each aiming to damage one of the tracks. David didn’t wait to confirm the hit. He yanked the bolt back and fired again. Then a third. He didn’t dare a fourth. David threw the rifle over his shoulder and sped toward the fire escape and shimmied down.
He heard the screech as Red entered his Ball form, followed by a loud chirping. He didn’t need see what was happening, the image was ingrained in his mind. Claws swirling around Red’s body, brightening up until they extended out into long, massive beams, cutting up everything around the circumference like a sword through watermelon.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he threw himself over the fire escape. A bright, scarlet beam shot right over his head. He shimmied down the latter, hitting ground just as another beam chopped through his building and the one beside it. He took off, clearing away before the building caved in on him.
David sped out of the alleyway and, squatting down, he pressed his back against the wall. He took in three, heavy breaths before Gid’s voice chimed in his ear piece.
“Hornets, report in.”
David put his hand to his earpiece. “Lancaster, alive and uninjured.”
“Holland here,” Johnny’s voice followed. “Not dead.”
“Scranton,” came Emily’s next, “Alive… but I think I sprained my ankle.”
David fell back against a building and took in a breath. In order, the remaining Hornet members reported in. Seven, however, were unaccounted for.
“Did we get ‘im” Johnny asked.
David adjusted his position, readying to start running to the next point.
“Negative…” Gid said, “All claws are still functional. Every get to ground, we’ll regroup at position—”
A loud bang drowned out Gid’s voice. David spun on the crumbling building a block away. A crimson horn protruded through the cloud of falling dust followed by a head attached to a spherical torso. All eight of Red’s lime-green eyes centered on David. A scarlet light began to shone through the dust as well with the shadow of a raised claw looming behind it.
David took off down the alley. The beam collided with the ground behind him, incinerating everything around it. The beam shifted and started sliding in his direction. He dove for the ground, belly skidding against the rough pavement.
The beam arced just over his back. The building beside him began to crumble, and David kicked off in a run to avoid the falling rubble. As he broke past the alleyway, he started running down the street. Red pushed through another set of houses and raised three of its claws at him.
“Lancaster, what’s happening?” Gid called in, “Report!”
He dove to the side as a beam shot at him and turned into an alleyway. He made a sharp left on the road then another left and took cover behind a house.
He stopped, trying to catch his breath. He heard the clang outside, and worked to keep his breath steady. He should have lost it. Red shouldn’t have—
The chirping sounded and he dove. A beam shot through the building—right where he had been resting. He took off again, hurrying out of the alleyway, into Red’s gaze.
The lasers shot at him, and by instinct more than cunning he ran towards Red, ducking underneath the line of the two beams to avoid being blasted. Once the beams made contact behind him, he turned right into another alleyway, but did not stop.
How had Red found him, and knew where he was going to go? He glanced upward, noticing for the first time the pill shaped object hovering in the sky above him. Lime green light shot from its sides, keeping it airborne.
Drones. It was using the drones to keep a visual on him. It wasn’t just one; several circled the air around the North side.
He couldn’t hide, and he could only run for so long. Chances were, after Red finally wore him down, he was going to die.
He made a sharp left out of the alley, avoiding a beam as it swept through. He leapt over a car and sprinted for Allegheny General Hospital, a fallen structure where the building collapsed on itself, leaving plenty of places to hide in an emergency.
He took shelter beneath the rubble. He heard the loud clang of Red approaching, followed by the whirling cry of the drones as they started making their way into the courtyard. David was tempted to shoot one down, but that’d give away his position.
“Lancaster, respond!” Gid said, probably for the fourteenth time.
David raised his hand to his ear piece. “I’m here, I’m not dead.”
He heard an audible sigh of relief from the other end. “Where are you now? Where’s Red?”
“With me. I’m in Allegheny General. Red’s circling around the building.
“Johnny’s coming for you now. Can you get to the intersection of East Ohio and Cedar?”
David grabbed a piece of glass, searching around the corner. The drone was still there waiting. The entrance to Cedar stood on the other side of East North Avenue, the road just in front of the hospital and that intersection was four blocks from there. He could try, but it’d take him time.
Something still bugged David. As he searched for an exit, he could hear Red’s clanging steps outside the hospital. Why was Red this insistent? At best, their attack was a mild annoyance. They hadn’t even damaged it.
Unless… It hadn’t just been a mild annoyance.
He had to know. He had to make sure. He reached an exit on the south side of the hospital and pressed against the wall. The clanging told him Red patrolled up and down East North Avenue.
He glanced around the corner. Red had its back turned to him, but three of its massive claws were raised. Ready, the moment the drones found him, to smite him down. But one claw hung limp at its side, along the track on its right side.
Along the track David had shot.
Gid was wrong. The track had been damaged. Red somehow must had figured out David was the one responsible for the attack and now wanted him dead. This means David’s plan could work, there was Hope. Red can die. David will see to it.
He heard the whirl of an approaching drone. He unslung his rifle and aimed down the building to the other corner. He tapped his ear piece. “Gid, get everyone uninjured to the other end of Fort Duquesne Bridge.”
“What?” Gid asked.
Green light glimmered around the corner. David fired the second the rest of the drone poked out and sent a bullet right through it. While not penetrating, it caused the thing to stumble back, and David took off in a run across the street.
Red fired a beam in the direction where the drone was hit. Gods seem to play more by reflex. David hurried into the Allegheny Commons Park. Red turned on him, but it didn’t have enough time to aim before David took cover beneath the trees.
He re-slung his rifle and tapped the ear piece again. “The attack didn’t fail. One of Red’s claws are limp. We need to reorganize and try again.”
“Congrats” Johnny’s voice came over the line. “David earns the achievement ‘Piss off God’, worth 20 points.”
“If we try again,” David continued “I know we can do it. Red is on my tail and I can’t lose him, I can lead him into a trap. Tell me sir, when will we get another chance like this?”
David skidded to a stop just before a beam struck the ground in front of him. He made a hard right and jumped onto Union Avenue. He kept running, until the mic chimed again. “Alright, one chance Lancaster. Johnny’s coming for you now. You two will need to distract it long enough so we can get into position.”
The beam hit the ground in front of him and started to trail along it. David ran back into the park, under the arc of the beam. Red stood in the parkway, looming a good twenty feet away. Two more claws raised to begin shooting beams.
Johnny’s Jeep came out onto Cedar and sped right behind Red, making its way toward the intersection. The right turn signal flashed on its rear bumper, and David got the message.
He sprinted to the right. Red turned and gave chase after him. Johnny turned off Cedar and parked on the road in front of David’s path. “Need a ride?” he called out.
David leapt into the back seat, just before a beam crashed down behind him. He was thrown off balance as Johnny accelerated, throwing the Jeep forward right out of the arc of the beam.
Red stepped onto the road and gave chase, matching speed with the Jeep.
“How long will ya’ need?” Johnny asked from the front seat as David started mounting the M90.
“Half an hour, at least. The longer the better.”
“Half an hour, with a god right on our tails to pass righteous judgement on us.” Johnny said, “Sure, why not.”
David targeted one of the tracks, pulled the bolt back, and fired. As expected, one of Red’s claws swung around the front, swiping the bullet out of the air before it got close. David pulled back the bolt again and fired. It did it again and again.
“Toss me a mag!” David called down.
Johnny did so. “I don’t think that’s working.”
“It’s not firing, is it?”
“Fair ‘nough.” Johnny made a hard right again, turning onto Federal Street and heading deeper into The Northside. Red gave pursuit. It raised its other two claws over its head and fired down on them. Johnny swerved back and forth, making sharp turns into streets when the beams cut them off.
David had to adjust his aim for this, but he kept Red on the defense. He wasn’t sure if Red could predict trajectory, so he made sure to keep his aim on the tracks.
They kept this up. Shooting, dodging, shooting, and dodging. They soon rounded about and noticed the long line of rubble left behind Red as it continued to give pursuit. David dropped his fourth mag to the ground. He was running low on ammo.
“Think that’s been about a half hour?” Johnny said, avoiding yet another beam.
David kept his eye through the scope as he fired. “Actually, it’s been more like twenty six minutes and twenty nine seconds.”
“Close ‘nough.” Johnny jerked the wheel, making a sharp turn into an alleyway. He wound through a series of roadways until coming out on 279. The Fort Duquesne Bridge came into view, only a couple miles away.
Red stepped out onto the highway as well, collapsing three buildings in the process. The drones let up, no longer necessary with us out in the open. It raised its claws as it gave pursuit.
One beam clipped the side of the Jeep, causing David to jump. Johnny fought to keep the vehicle steady, and he got control back in time before driving around another beam that hit the ground in front of them.
Johnny pulled over onto the ramp, taking it up to the bridge while dodging around abandoned, rundown cars.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, David.”
Red halted at the bridge end. David detached his rifle and held onto it. A glint of lime light shown from its prickly eyes as the pelvis region retracted back into the torso. It hung in the air, a literal ball with eight claws spinning around it in a tempest.
“It’s entering Ball form,” David said, dismounting his rifle.
“What?” Johnny cried.
“Just get across the bridge. This is part of the plan.”
“Part of… the plan was to have eight lasers shooting at us at once.”
“Focus on the road,” David said, putting a hand on the rack above Johnny’s head. “And seven lasers actually. One’s still out of commission.”
“If we survive this David, I swear I’m going to kill you.”
Light began to shine from the claws. They stopped along the track, palms opened, aimed directly at them. The beams launched out, slicing through the bridge and chopping it to pieces.
Johnny slammed the throttle. The Jeep shot forward. He swerved between cars, crumbling rubble, and the laser beams.
“Almost there, bit faster.”
“Trying to focus here,” Johnny said.
He jerked the car around, avoiding falling off with a part of the bridge, and sped up. The ramp was within sights. Almost there, just another push.
A beam hit the front side. Johnny swerved in time to avoid impact. Smoke bellowed from the engine and it swerved. One of the front tires went out too.
“Jump!” Johnny yelled.
David gripped his sling and leapt. The second he did, a beam trailed just above their head and slashed through the Jeep. The concussion threw David back, slamming him against the concrete.
With a groan, David pushed himself up. His head throbbed and a loud ringing resonated in his ear. His vision blurred, he searched the area, trying to find Johnny. Only the charred remains of the Jeep laid around him. He forced himself to his feet and reached for his ear piece.
“Holland, report,” he said.
Still nothing. He felt a surge of panic rise up in his chest. “Damn it, Johnny. Stop joking around and an…”
A hand fell from what remained of a Jeep and a lump formed in David’s throat, and it took everything he could to keep himself from falling to his knees and crying.
A loud clang resonated behind him as Red landed on the ramp. David faced him, glaring up into its eight eyes. He could imagine the vile creature inside it smiling in triumph. It raised a claw upward, the red light shined from within the palm. David remained completely still.
His mother, dead. His sister dead. Friends, bullies, teachers, family, all dead. Killed, in one way or another, by the hulking monstrosity standing before him. Now, it claimed Johnny, the only friend he had left from his old life, and it was now about to do the same to him. Just squash another, pathetic insect in its path.
But this bug still had one last sting.
One of Red’s legs gave out, causing it to lose balance. The light dissolved as the giant’s head spun about trying to find what caused its injury. David kept watching it, a smirk crossing his face.
“I got it!” Emily said over the line. “I really got it!”
“Don’t let up,” Gid said. “Take it down before it goes into Ball form!”
A cacophony of gunfire sounded around him. Below the ramp, above; from rubble buildings to the side. The bullets soaring around him were like a swarm of a thousand yellow jackets—stinging frantically to get through its armor.
Another leg gave out, then one of the claws along the torso. Despite being battered down by the volley, it didn’t transform. David was right. It couldn’t transform, not now.
The form was so powerful, why not stay in it all the time? Unless whatever allowed it to hover in the air like that needed time to recharge. That’s why it didn’t use it to give chase after David, and that’s why it didn’t use it now. It couldn’t. It wasted it getting across the bridge.
David ran to the side and lifted up his sniper rifle. Red was lumbering around, shooting lasers maddeningly around it at the bullets. Two lasers were still enough to cause damage. He’d need to take it down now.
He dropped to his knee to support his body from the recoil, then lined the sight up against Red’s necks. He sighted the series of cords that latched the neck to the body.
David fired. He pulled back the bolt, and fired again and again, firing till the rifle jammed. He tossed it aside and drew his pistol. He knew well the meager weapon wouldn’t do much, but he didn’t care. He kept firing until Red started to teeter. All its tracks had been hit, and now it could no longer support itself. It teetered, until it eventually collapsed back, falling through the bridge and crashing on the ground below.
No more shots were fired. No one spoke. David watched Red, waiting for a twitch or a sign of movement. But none came. The behemoth never moved again.
A collective cheer resonated in his ear piece as everyone cheered. “We did it!” another of the Hornet’s cried. “We killed Red, we killed Red!” Gid spoke into the chant, trying to calm everyone down. But even he couldn’t help but carry a lively tune in his speech.
David didn’t join in. Not until he was sure, without a shred of doubt, that Red was dead.
David slid down the side ramp, landing on the remaining part of the city to still grow grass, and approached the Ail-Mecha, pistol drawn. Smoke bellowed out of the tracks, and a gaping hole opened up on the back of its head. A figure stumbled out of it.
David raised his pistol. He’d gun down the alien or god or whatever it was as it came out.
But it wasn’t an alien at all. It was… a man. It had two arms and legs, complimented by a well-trimmed suit coat that matched the Ail-Mecha’s armor. It had a well-styled head of graying blond hair, and the wizened face of a middle-aged father.
He tripped, rolling down from his perch, and crashing a few feet in front of him. David jumped back in alarm.
The man groaned, blood smeared down the side of his face and he struggled to his feet. He looked around in dazed confusion. He turned back to his machine and fell again to his knees. “My divine body, how… how could it—”
“What the?” David said, his eyes wide.
The man turned on him, acknowledging David for the first time. His melancholy face turned, and his eyes seared with hatred. “How dare you… look what you’ve done to me, to my body?”
David stepped back in surprise. The man stumbled toward him, crumbling in the ground. He struggled to his feet again, and sob rising in his throat. David couldn’t believe what he was seeing. All the death, all the pain, all the suffering that had happened after all these years… was caused by a fellow human being?
“You damned Earth-crawler…” The man said, he shot upward, a pistol raised at him. “How dare you raise your hand too—”
Smoke bellowed from David’s pistol. A hole formed above the man’s brow. Blood, red blood, oozed out and spilled over him. He fell back, he collapsed on the ground as easily as any other man. David could not keep himself from panting.
“Lancaster what happened?” Gid’s voice came through. “Are you injured? Answer me!”
The gun slipped from his hands. David knelt down beside the man he’d just killed. No, not a man. A monster. A demon. No man could have massacred so easily as he had done. No one could turn such a weapon as the Ail-Mecha and kill innocents without mercy. No man could ever do that.
I’m not a murderer. I’m not a murderer.
It started soft, but eventually, David erupted into full out laughter.
He saved the city. Saved the despondent inhabitants. He proved to the world that mankind can fight, that the Ail-Mecha can be beaten. The world that had been plagued for eight years can finally see hope of a day when humanity can finally reclaim the earth.
And yet, why did David still cry?