Universe W-2020: Apex MERCs 9
August 14th, 2021
The Lone Wolf
A Life-Changing Opportunity
“Mercenaries?” they ask in unison before hitting one another with a look of cut that shit out.
Mister Hymarc takes another drag of his ciggaboge, relishing in the allegedly natural taste. “You’ll be the sixth and seventh members of a specially trained team of ‘em. You’ll both go through a training process, of course, and you’ll be heartily compensated for your time both during and after. The contracts last ten years each, but you’re more than welcome to reenlist when the time comes; ah, look at me, getting ahead of myself.” He crushes the cigarette on the wall and lets the butt drop. “It’s far wiser to cross bridges upon the approach.”
The boys watch Hymarc take out his pack of Souls and mentally debate between the two remaining smokes. He selects the cigarette that stands butt-up and sparks.
“What’s the training involve?” Wolf asks, if only to humor Ray.
“We call it Mercenary Enhanced Reflex Conditioning, or MERC for short. It’s a fairly rigorous training regimen that involves some minor injections, but like I said, we already have a team of five outstanding soldiers of both the masculine and feminine variety, and they all made it through without strife. For a couple of strapping gentlemen like yourselves? Well, it should be a cakewalk.”
Wolf holds a slightly open mouth and an almost surprised stare at Hymarc. He switches to Ray, who seems to be standing an inch taller.
“A’ight. Once the training is done, what would we be doing?”
Hymarc shrugs. “Anything you want, really. You’ll be moved to New Manhattan and you’ll be staying in the Apex tower with the rest of the team. You’ll not be called on often, but when you are, I can guarantee your task will be unlike anything you’ve ever done. It won’t be anything that you can’t handle, especially after the MERC training, but each mission is guaranteed to be a new experience for you.”
“Can I uh, can I discuss this with my brother a bit? Like, over there,” pointing his head to a nearby alley.
Hymarc chains a few drags. The boys take this as a yes.
“So… I can tell you’re considering this,” Wolf says cautiously.
“And you’re not?” Ray returns jubilantly. He hasn’t looked this enthusiastic in a long time.
“I don’t know man, I’ve always been more of a lone wolf. I don’t think I’d be very good on a team, and you heard the dude. We’d be soldiers. Soldiering’s not really my thing.”
Ray looks abysmally disgusted. “How do you not see this as a miracle, dude? We’re street rats, we don’t have a future. We barely have lives, and I only get hungrier with every day that passes.”
‘Street rats with a dramatic flair, Christ,’ Wolf thinks.
“This could be a life-changing opportunity, we have to take it.” A contemplative pause brings weight to the air. “I have to do this. I don’t know if you’re going to, Hunter, but I have to.”
Wolf sighs. “You better be fuckin’ right, Owens.”
Down The Dark Hallway
Wolf sighs. “I guess you were fuckin’ right, Owens.”
Wolf stands in the hazy shadow of the second house on the left from the Skunksville Dam. Tire tracks were carved into the lawn by giants with hand hoes and a few windows are broken, but the front door’s closed shut. No looters, then; a respectful break-in, perhaps, but no looters. A relief; the first in a long time.
A cold spring swell blows across the still surface of Skunksville and breaks on the little hill crowned by the power pylon. The breeze regroups and takes across Quarryville road for the forest, blowing Wolf’s hair up like he was a peacock fanning his feathers. His mane is still long, thankfully – faded gray from a one splendidly tarnished platinum, and his spikes have broken and faded to curls, but the hair is still long, and his beard’s still partitioned, much like the legs of a scarecrow, only that scarecrow’s lost some stuffing and the legs dangle, weighed down by the knotted feet. His cheeks are hollow, though his eyes are full.
The wind stops. The rustling in the forest does not.
Wolf takes across the front yard. At first his feet sink into the lawn, as if the meadow was a bog in disguise, a bog that maliciously went a year without cutting its hair, but he finds solid ground. The grass grows green and sprouts in dense tufts shaped like shoe prints tracked in footpaths running back and forth across the lawn. As the front door creaks open, greeting its guest with a rusty serenade, the air, no, the strings, they begin to tremble, as if plucked from afar by deft, callused hands. He ignores it and closes the door behind him.
Wolfs summits the half staircase in two bounds and feels no strain in his legs. The living area – if human beings truly once lived here – is stripped bare. Large, saturated squares mark the carpet and the wall where luxurious electronics kept the pigments from fading over time, and every cupboard was left dangling open in the kitchen. The windows on the other side of the house are smashed out, as is the sliding glass door in the dining room, and Wolf’s tour through the kitchen is cut short by the puddle of wine chilled with shredded cubes of pale jade glass. The breeze returns from the forest, carrying with it less than it had brought.
Down the dark hallway Wolf finds more of the same – broken windows, pillaged cabinets, dressers with the drawers left open. A few burn marks in the carpet, but not in the bedroom or the guest room; only out in the hallway and, oddly enough, in the mat next to the sink in the bathroom. There’ve been squatters here, that’s without question – their kind usually comes with a town-wide evacuation, especially one without a refill plan – but the place seems empty now.
Unless there’s something hiding in the attic, the latch of which screams as it falls in synchronization with Wolf concluding that he’s alone in the house. He reaches back to draw a gun and chuckles at his emptyhandedness – old habits die hard.
The attic is as empty as he expected. No vagrants getting high off dusty joints rolled in spiderwebs, no hermits from the hillier parts of the town, no nothing, except for the smell of Cannabis on the air. ‘A high bastard used to live here,’ Wolf thinks to himself, looking at the writing desk squeezed into the little dormer with the plywood floor. The rest of the room is carpeted, scorched with plenty’s worth of burn marks, but the dormer is plywood, scuffed up and gouged as much as the surface of the desk. The drawer is on the floor, blank papers are scattered everywhere, and a cup of pens lays fallen over, but not spilled. ‘He was definitely high, whoever he was – I’d bet that desk was never used for writing.’
He’s seen enough – as he touches down on the main floor, Wolf slams the attic latch shut. As the weight touches down on the attic’s floor, Wolf softly closes the door at the bottom of the three quarters of a staircase.
He’s got two options now, and the clock’s running out. How did he miss the closets up there? The reek on the air must have messed with his brain… nah, pot’s not strong enough. Not anymore. He must just be slipping.
So door number one or door number two, Wolf?
The latch creaks open. The weight encroaches.
He rests his sweaty back against the cool surface of the door and whatever plastic piece of junk is hanging on it. As he slides down to the floor, Wolf hears a dragging sound and successfully ignores it. A few seconds later, when he’s gathered himself, Wolf stands and sees that he brought down and smudged up a dry erase board with commandments of some sort scrawled on it in nervous handwriting.
Four thuds approach from behind the closed door, then five more, then one last one, muffled, as if a foot struck the foundation of the house.
Wolf runs for the bed but his foot gets swallowed by a small area rug that was covering a gaping hole in the floor – ‘Who the fuck lived here?’ Dislodged, he scrambles the rest of the way, but lo, the bed is too small, he can’t hide under it, and the first knock has fallen unto the door.
Then a second.
Now a third.
Wolf sits in silence, waiting for the thing behind the door to break down the barrier and intrude like a proper looter.
The thing behind the door waits to be let in by the intruder in this house he watches, like a proper higher being.
When neither get their way, they both make a move. The door is pushed and pulled at the same time, then slammed shut once more.
“My apologies,” he shouts through the door from the hallway, his voice deep and powerful as the smoke of a sage plant. “I was not expecting any visitors today, may we have a chat?”
Wolf thinks, ‘Did that bigfoot just fucking talk to me?’ then answers himself by thinking, ‘I can do much more than talk.’
In the bigfoot’s voice.
Thinking back to The Prisoner, Wolf takes a breath and lets the bigfoot in. Tim-nah’tee ducks under the door jamb, mouth in a smile and eyes closed.
“So. Aliens and a bigfoot,” Wolf says, trying to break the ice. “I guess this is a pretty cool town.”
The bigfoot’s smile widens, as if he was appreciating a joke Wolf wasn’t aware he had told. “You’re late, Wolf. Look at wh–”
“How did you know my name?”
“Look at what’s happened during your absence. The town is deserted, looted, and the industrial park? Shambles, a cavernous ruin of what it once wanted to be but never could. A damned and deserted ghost town.” He hocks a mighty loog. “And now you return from your hiatus?”
Wolf takes a step back and lifts a hand to his waist – damnit. “What are you talking about, how do y–”
“Your name is Hunter,” as the bigfoot looks Wolf dead in the eyes, paralyzing the boy with his glare alone, “a name you chose for yourself at a very young age. An impressionable age. An age during which you read books to learn early of complex ideas like fear, loathing, and the hellscape that is Las Vegas. You consider yourself a nomad of sorts, a lone wolf who stalked New Jersey’s brick jungle and never howled at any moon, simply because you had no reason to howl. Then, you met John Owens. The last of the litter of a dead, demented veteran of the second world war, abandoned by his family just like you, except young Johnathan didn’t know how to read. Never learned how because he never went to school. Wolf, you’ve been howling ever since.”
Wolf steadies himself, dropping his hands, but not to his hips where holsters once hung. Only to his sides.
“I’ve seen you before, human, adrift in the Grove, voyaging by the hand of Mokka fruit. Do you know what year it is, child?”
“Two thousand twenty-one,” answered without hesitation. “I’m not that far gone. I came for the kid, and then I’m leaving. Since you seem to know so much about him, where the hell is he?”
The bigfoot shakes his head slowly. He crosses the room, taking care to step over the chasm, and sits on the bed. Wolf joins him, beckoned by a pat of the sheets.
“You come for him, Wolf, but not only for him. And you will do him as you will the others.”
The bigfoot turns on him, raising an arm and placing an open palm on Wolf’s forehead.
Then, he sees.
He sees the extraterrestrial invasion of Treering and the struggle for power over New Manhattan.
He sees the events that followed the snow’s falling on the rolling hills of Treering.
He sees the events of the first half of the year 2021.
Yes, he sees. He sees all there is to be seen.
When he opens his eyes, Tiny Tim is gone, and the house is chilled by the touch of night.
A full moon looms above. So the hunt begins.
The First Hour
The house across the street was locked up tighter than a bank vault, and judging from the lit candles, someone had been living here until quite recently.
That said, he broke into the garage easily enough – concrete walls, wooden door. Not even a fire hazard. Didn’t even need to get into the house; this Wolffe family – the name must be a sign from the higher power pulling the strings of this Universe – kept all the essentials out in the garage. They were smart, he could tell. Valued the meal more than the dessert.
The walk to the water’s edge was short, but his stay has grown long. He didn’t expect to catch anything after the first, nor the fifth, nor even the tenth cast, but then the first hour passed.
And then the second.
And then the sixth.
And now the twelfth.
The implications of this stream of consciousness flood his mind in torrents and he falls to his knees, hands grasping his temples. In this moment, Wolf realizes loud and clear exactly why it’s called fishing and not catching.
Still, his stomach growls ravenously. For the first time in a long time, he feels the urge to howl.
“Where the fuck are all the fish in this god forsaken reservoir?!”