Post by Charlie on May 8, 2018 10:04:36 GMT -5
HEX: MISSING TIME
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by James Dufrense
Edited by Charlie Wilkins
* In memory of Michael Fleisher: author, scholar, and Jonah’s truest friend. *
"The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time."
--attributed to Abraham Lincoln
"Whut's a fella got tuh do tuh get some whiskey 'round here?" Jonah Hex glared at the bartender, who scampered over with a bottle in one hand and shot glass in the other. "Leave the bottle," Jonah told him, laying a five-dollar gold piece on the bartop. "Got a lot of traildust tuh wash outta muh throat." The bartender did so, then returned to his previous task as Jonah threw back his first shot of whiskey, relishing the warmth as it slid down his gullet. He'd damn-sure earned that drink: three weeks of ridin' and trackin', topped off with a shootout at the crack of dawn at a cabin up in the mountains, all to bag a half-dozen owlhoots worth eight hundred apiece. Thank the Lord that the reward poster stated dead or alive, 'cause the dynamite Jonah had ended up dropping down the cabin's chimney sorta eliminated the latter option.
After tossing the bodies over the outlaws' own horses, Jonah had ridden to the nearest town to collect his money. Red Dog wasn't much to look at, but it had a sheriff, a telegraph office, a bank, and a saloon that advertised rooms to rent, so it suited Jonah's needs just fine. He planned on sticking around for a couple of days, then it was back to work, same as always. After nearly a decade of bounty-hunting, he'd established a solid routine: pick a target, go out, acquire said target, collect his fee, rest up and spend some of that fee, then start all over again with some new target in mind. There were some minor variations, of course, such as the time he tried settling down (three years between here and there, yet the briefest thought of Mei Ling and the boy could still make his throat feel tight), but overall, the routine changed very little, and that was fine by him. Jonah wasn't fond of surprises, as they tended to complicate his job. He liked for things to be simple, clear-cut, and had neither the time nor patience to deal with anything or anyone that ran contrary to those desires.
As the bounty hunter proceeded to drain the whiskey bottle one shot glass at a time, other patrons came into the Red Dog Saloon, and pretty soon, the place was filled with the sound of drunken laughter and piano music. It was getting a mite loud for Hex's taste, and he was considering talking with the bartender about the aforementioned rooms when he noticed the tone of the voices behind him had suddenly shifted from boisterous to alarmed. He reckoned maybe someone had gotten a bit too drunk and was waving a gun or knife around, so he turned to see exactly what the commotion was about and got an eyeful of more than he bargained for.
In the middle of the saloon was massive sphere of red light, which soon faded away to reveal five people clad in bronze armor, complete with face-concealing helmets. A mishmash of weaponry hung from their belts-- knives, swords, strangely-shaped pistols-- and Jonah spotted many other random things attached to their armor, like bits of jewelry and small boxy items that appeared to be lit from within somehow. Many of the saloon patrons were running for the exit in an effort to get away from the intruders, who soon drew their pistols and began shooting. Instead of a clap of exploding gunpowder and bullets issuing forth, though, the pistols appeared to shoot out darts, and whomever was hit with them dropped like a stone within seconds.
Jonah had no clue what was going on, but a passel of heavily-armed strangers didn't strike him as the sort of fellas he'd want to be friendly with, especially since they were attacking innocent bystanders. Pulling out the Dragoon tucked underneath his gunbelt, he let out five quick shots, aiming for the intruders' exposed necks. Four of the bullets struck true, spraying deep-red blood everywhere, while the fifth intruder lucked out as the bullet bounced off his shoulder armor. As his now-dead companions fell to the floor, the remaining intruder exclaimed something in an unrecognizable tongue, to which Hex replied, "Ah'm givin' yuh 'til the count of three tuh drop thet fancy-dan gun... an' Ah'd best warn yuh, Ah count fast."
The intruder was quick with his reply: he leveled his pistol and the bounty hunter and opened fire. Jonah dove to the left, flipping a nearby table on its side as he did so to provide cover. All the other patrons who were capable had already cleared out of the saloon, so the intruder could focus his full attention on Hex, which wasn't exactly to his liking. He wanted to make a break for the saloon doors twelve feet away and fetch the Springfield from the scabbard alongside his saddle-- he hoped a rifle bullet could penetrate that armor better than his Dragoons-- but the moment he poked his head out, another dart zipped by, narrowly missing him when he jerked back behind the table. Going by the glassy eyes and shallow breathing of one of the patrons laying on the floor close by, Jonah reckoned the darts contained some kind of poison.
All the more reason not tuh get stuck with one, he thought as he reloaded his Dragoon, so Ah'd best distract him a little.
He took aim at a lit kerosene lantern hanging just above the intruder's head, then fired, breaking the chain that suspended it from the ceiling. The lantern broke open when it hit the intruder's helmet, covering him with flaming kerosene.
As Jonah jumped up to run for the door, he glanced at the intruder, who was ripping off his helmet to escape the flames. The sight of what lay underneath made Jonah hesitate: the intruder looked like a man for the most part, but his eyes were the size and shape of hen's eggs, with irises that weren't much larger than pinpricks. There also wasn't so much as one wisp of hair on his entire head-- the fella didn't even have eyebrows or lashes-- and his sallow skin made him look like he was in the throes of consumption. Jonah had seen odder-looking people in his life (himself included), but something about this particular one unnerved him so much that he didn't see the intruder point the dart-pistol directly at him.
The dart hit Jonah about five inches below his armpit, piercing his Confederate-gray coat, along with the shirt and long-underwear beneath, before finally driving its tip into his flesh. With a curse, Jonah took hold of the dart and yanked it out, but the drug it carried was already taking effect. He could see the intruder approaching him, as if coming down a long tunnel, so Jonah raised his Dragoon and fired until he'd emptied the cylinder. A scream echoed down the tunnel, followed by something --presumably a fist-- striking him upside the head. He staggered on unfeeling legs, swinging his gun back and forth like a blunt instrument, hoping to land a blow of his own, but he couldn't focus his eyes well enough to see his target.
Jonah was struck again, this time across the back, and he fell to the floor-- something gray and circular flew out before him, and it took his brain a moment to recognize it as his hat. A hand closed around his throat, and the intruder's face, now spattered with blood, suddenly loomed large before him, so Jonah swung his Dragoon up and whacked the bug-eyed freak in the side of the head. In return, the intruder slammed the back of Jonah's head against the floor, then twisted the Dragoon out of his hand. A sound like the chirping of crickets reached Jonah's ears, followed by the intruder uttering what could've possibly been profanities. The chirping increased until it became a blur of sound, and Jonah suddenly felt a bizarre tickling sensation over his entire body.
Reckon this ain't good, he thought.
The sheriff of Red Dog and his deputy arrived at the saloon entrance just in time to see Jonah Hex and all five of the armored intruders vanish in a flash of red light, leaving behind nothing but a dozen groggy patrons and countless unanswered questions.
* * * * * *
Jonah had fallen from great heights on more than one occasion, so he was familiar with the odd feeling of weightlessness in the pit of his stomach, though it typically vanished as gravity began to yank one's body back to Earth. But there was neither Earth nor gravity in this place, just an endless blaze of red light. Then the red was gone, and Jonah could hear voices speaking gibberish similar to what the intruder had been babbling earlier. Between the drug he'd been injected with and the blows to the head, he was having a hard time focusing on his surroundings: though he couldn't swear by it, it felt like the floor beneath him was now made of metal as opposed to wood, and going by the sounds around him, he got the impression the room he was in had become much larger.
Not possible, Jonah thought, then he remembered the strange events in Puerta Del Sol three years prior. Thet colored gal... Conjura... she could cut holes in the air thet led tuh other places.
Considering that bug-eyed quintet's sudden appearance in the saloon, Jonah reckoned they could do something similar.
Lord, how Ah do hate magic, he thought as he tried to sit up, only to be shoved back down again, presumably by the intruder he'd been tussling with. More gibberish was spoken, with an obvious edge of anger to it this time, then someone yanked the collar of his coat open, followed by a thick band of metal being placed around his neck. A peculiar buzzing began to reverberate through Jonah's head, blotting out the gibberish for a moment, then the buzzing receded to a low hum near the base of his skull, and to Jonah's surprise, he heard a voice speaking English:
"... had not activated the return sequence, I would have had time to place all of our quarry within the transmat perimeter."
"You know the schedule, Hunter Krin," another voice said. "The connection begins to deteriorate after three ticks, so unless you enjoy the idea of being stranded on another world... "
The first voice shouted, "You should have risked it! Even with the other Hunters eliminated, I could have brought back our full quota in one trip!"
"But you did not, so it will carry over to your next session... after you acquire a new team, of course. Now, do you wish to claim trophies before you take your quarry to Processing?"
"Indeed." The intruder-- Hunter Krin, they'd called him-- bent over and removed Jonah's gunbelt, saying, "This ugly beast removed part of my ear with these things. It is my right to take the weapons that drew my blood."
"Your trophy is noted." That strange chirping sound filled the air, and the second voice said, "Clear your quarry from the transmat area. The next team of Hunters is due to arrive."
Hunter Krin buckled the gunbelt around his own waist, then roughly pulled Jonah to his feet and steered him down a slight incline. Jonah's tunnel-vision was finally starting to clear up, and what he saw was most certainly not the Red Dog Saloon. Every inch of the oblong, dimly-lit room was sheathed in metal, with the end he was on dominated by a circular platform and something that resembled a church organ minus the pipes. Four bug-eyed folk were removing the dead intruders off the platform, while another fiddled with the organ, which cast odd patterns of light across his pallid face. "Initiating return sequence!" the organ-player called out as the crickets chirped louder, then Jonah saw that red light appear over the platform. Seconds later, five more of those armored intruders were standing on the platform, along with a half-dozen people with blue skin and pointed ears. Like himself, the blue-skins had obviously been drugged, and didn't put up any resistance when they were marched off the platform to have metal bands affixed around their necks. The organ-player talked more about quotas and such as Hunter Krin began to hustle Jonah towards the other end of the room, where more bug-eyes were shoving people of all shapes and sizes and hues into metal boxes the size of railroad cars. While the majority of what he'd witnessed so far didn't make a lick of sense, the sight of folks being treated like cattle could only be interpreted one way.
"Y'all know they abolished slavery, right?" he quipped to Hunter Krin, who didn't respond. "Yeah, thet's whut Ah thought." Jonah abruptly stopped, bringing up his elbow and slamming it into Krin's nose. As Krin bellowed, Jonah reached beneath the collar of his coat. If the bug-eyes who'd snapped that metal band around his neck had looked a little closer, they would've seen the knife hidden there, which Jonah now pulled out, intent on cutting Krin's throat open and taking back his Dragoons. But before he could do so, Jonah found himself howling in pain as a massive electrical charge emanated from the band and ripped through his skull. He fell to the floor, convulsing like a epileptic until the charge subsided, after which he saw one of the bug-eyes standing nearby-- this one looked female, though she was just as hairless as the others-- with a pistol-shaped device pointed in his direction.
"I warned Controller Weth about this one," Krin said, kicking the knife out of Jonah's limp hand. "Perhaps we should just destroy him."
"Do not tell me you are afraid of a Terran," the female replied. "They are such soft things, I wonder sometimes why the Prophet insists we send Hunters to their world."
"Ah'll show yuh soft, yuh bald-headed bi--iiiaaaaggghhhhh!" Jonah howled again as the female gave him another dose of electricity.
"Understand, Terran: that shock-collar is capable of killing you if we so choose." She kept the device pointed at Jonah as Krin searched Jonah's clothing for any more weapons. "It takes nearly a full tick, and you would be conscious the entire time... not a very pleasant way to die, I assure you." Once Krin was certain Jonah was unarmed, he and the female grabbed Jonah by the armpits and hauled him over to one of the boxes, tossing him inside with the other prisoners, many of whom were weeping or intoning prayers to various deities. "Send it to the foundry," she told the bug-eye standing near a bank of levers. "They always need new workers."
As a great metal door slid into place, the weeping and prayers quickly turned to screams. Jonah Hex, however, didn't make a sound as he focused his hate-filled gaze upon his captors, right up until the door blocked them from view.
* * * * * *
There was no way to escape the noise. The thrum of machines, the cracking of whips, the grunts and groans of sentients pushed to their physical limit... it filled every inch of the complex. The heat wasn't much better, nor was the smell of burning fuel, both of which were caused by the flames constantly stoked in the massive furnaces that dotted the main work area. Many of those trapped in this place called it Hell, for there was simply no other word that suited it better.
A blare like the roar of some huge beast filled the air, alerting those who were working this particular section that their shift was over, and they could now go rest for a short period, though very few managed to actually "rest". Still, the workers put down their tools and shuffled away from their stations as their replacements approached with the same lack of hurry. Out of the thousands of sentients imprisoned throughout the vast complex, only a hundred or so still held onto the hope of seeing the sun or breathing fresh air ever again. Out of those hundred-odd, only one was willing to act upon those hopes.
"Don't do it, Hex," Taxy'k said. "They'll fry your brain."
"They didn't last time. Didn't do it the time afore, neither." Jonah kept his gaze on the floor as he whispered, not looking over at the violet-hued alien walking next to him as they left the slave quarters. It had taken Jonah a little time to get used to the sight of the bizarre creatures that mingled about with humans like himself: at first, he thought of them as just talking animals, then he realized that was the same way some white folks thought about coloreds, which was a notion he didn't agree with at all, so Jonah reckoned it was best to judge 'em by their actions and not their looks, same as he did any other human being. Besides, their captors certainly weren't playing favorites with anyone, though why in blazes these bug-eyed freaks had kidnapped them all in the first place was still a mystery. None of the prisoners could tell Jonah the purpose behind the machine parts they were constantly churning out, or even the true name of their captors (who were alternately referred to as "wardens", "demons" or-- as Jonah preferred-- "bug-eyes"). Despite the lack of answers in those areas, other queries had proved more fruitful, like a rough idea of how the complex was laid out. From what he could gather, the entire place was the size of a small city, complete with mines from which both the raw ore and fuel came, as well as plush living quarters where the bug-eyes spent their off-hours, far from the noise and filth. The "transmat" thing that brought them all here was supposedly located somewhere in the center of the complex, and while Jonah had no way of knowing if that was true, he'd just about had his fill of this place, and figured now was as good a time as any to find out.
Jonah slipped a finger beneath the waistband of his trousers, saying to Taxy'k, "Yuh don't want tuh come with, then Ah advise yuh find cover once Ah get started."
Taxy'k's violet complexion turned pink with fear. "Of all the Terrans I have met here, you are easily the most insane."
"An' yo're the only fella Ah've ever met who talks outta a hole in his throat instead of a proper mouth." Jonah lifted his eyes as they entered the work area and began counting the bug-eyes, memorizing their locations and his relative distance from each of them. Their controllers for the shock-collars didn't have a great range, meaning the ones on the far side of the work area weren't much to worry about at the beginning. As for the ones close by, they'd be wiped out right quick once he eliminated the biggest obstacle in front of him.
"Faster, slaves!" the bug-eye herding them along shouted. He brandished his whip at them, saying, "Ten lashes for the next one I see dragging their feet!" The moment those words left his lips, he saw one of the Terrans near the back stumble and fall to the ground. "The rest of you, keep moving!" he ordered, then advanced on the downed man. He'd given this red-haired Terran multiple lashings since his arrival, reducing the gray tunic he wore to tatters, and would happily continue to do so until the Terran learned to accept his position in the universe.
As the bug-eye readied to bring the whip down on his victim's back, Jonah brought up his own arm and threw the razor-sharp metal shank he'd been concealing straight into the bug-eye's windpipe. As the bug-eye's hands scrabbled at the shank, Jonah leapt up, took hold of the shank, and twisted it violently to the side, ripping his throat wide open-- the bug-eye quickly bled out, and Jonah checked him off his mental list. All around him, the other prisoners were either gasping in shock or cheering him on, but he ignored it, concentrating instead on how many seconds had passed since the initial attack-- time was precious, and he knew the wardens would soon be within range, so he had to act fast. He yanked the controller off of the bug-eye's belt, gave the buttons upon it a cursory glance, then stuck the butt of the controller against the hinge on the shock-collar around his neck. He'd seen the bug-eyes remove collars from dead workers on more than one occasion, and believed he'd memorized the proper sequence.
Lord, please let me be right 'bout this, Jonah thought, then started pressing buttons. He was greeted with a buzzing noise, followed by a click as the collar unlocked. He ripped it off of his neck just as the bug-eyes running towards him raised their own controllers, causing the workers around Hex to cry out in pain. "Sorry, boys, Ah done slipped muh leash," he told the bug-eyes with a grin, then held up the bloody shank. "Who wants tuh be the first tuh try an' put it back on me?"
The bug-eyes barely had time to comprehend what was happening before Jonah was upon them, slashing throats and stabbing eyes. The majority of them weren't even wearing their helmets or full armor: they'd occasionally been attacked by other prisoners, of course, but thanks to the shock-collars, they could quell such uprisings with the flick of a switch, so they didn't see the need for protection. Only now, as they went hand-to-hand with a trained killer, did they realize their error. Eight bug-eyes had fallen victim to his savagery by the time two of the guards managed to pin Jonah's back to the ground. Unfortunately, one of them made the mistake of leaning down too far, thereby giving Jonah the opportunity to lunge upward and bite the bug-eye's nose off, then spit said nose into the horrified face of the other bug-eye. Needless to say, Jonah pulled himself out of their clutches not soon after.
The longer Jonah's rampage went on, the louder the cheers from the other prisoners grew, and some even tried to help him out, confronting the next wave of bug-eyes to join the fight. Jonah hadn't dared to hope such a thing would happen, but he was glad to take advantage of it, running across the work area as fast as his legs could carry him. A large, arched opening soon came into sight, reportedly the first he'd have to pass through on his way to freedom. Lord knew what he'd be facing on the other side, but he didn't let the thought of unknown dangers deter him as the distance between himself and the doorway grew shorter.
When Jonah was within fifty feet of his goal, he began to see something just beyond the opening moving towards him. Moments later, four armored men in winged helmets flew into the foundry, gouts of flame spewing out of tanks strapped to their backs. Jonah stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of it, mouthing "Holy Hannah" as the quartet took up positions in the air above him. When he spotted the rifle-like contraptions in their hands, though, Jonah got his nerve back, and sprung out of the way just as they opened fire. An ear-splitting BOOM accompanied the searing light that erupted from the rifles, and chunks of floor soon rained down upon the both the bounty hunter and the prisoners.
Looks like yuh riled these bastards up good, Jonah boy, he thought as he resumed his mad dash towards the opening. Best hope yuh kin stay ahead of them guns, or else there won't be enough left of y'all tuh fill a snuffbox.
Screams uttered in both human and alien tongues resounded all around him as the flying riflemen fired one blast after another. Jonah miraculously managed to dodge each of them by inches, but then one of the blasts impacted directly in front of him, resulting in an explosion of debris that knocked Jonah right off his feet. His head smacked against the floor on the way down, hard enough to make him see stars-- by the time his vision cleared, three of the riflemen had their weapons shoved directly in Jonah's face, while the fourth shackled Jonah's hands behind his back. Despite this, the bounty hunter still struggled against his bonds and spat epithets at the riflemen-- better to die fighting for his freedom than to live in chains.
He was moments away from having his head blown clean off when a shout resounded across the foundry, causing the riflemen to snap to attention. Though his hands were bound, Jonah stood up and gave the man approaching him a once-over, trying to discern what sort of threat he was and (more importantly) if Jonah could take him down. The man was clad in azure and gold, from the featureless blue mask over his face to the metallic boots that never seemed to touch the floor, all topped off with a gold hooded cloak. These trappings gave him an air of royalty, and stood out in stark contrast to Hex's gore-streaked appearance. The newcomer stopped just a few feet in front of the bounty hunter, obviously giving Jonah a once-over of his own, then conversed briefly with one of the riflemen. Without the aid of the translator embedded in the shock-collar, however, Jonah couldn't understand what was being said. "Yuh got anything tuh say 'bout me," Jonah growled at them, "say it in proper English, not thet bug-eye gibberish."
The newcomer fixed his gaze upon Jonah, who noticed that the eyes looking at him through the twin holes in the mask appeared to be human, as opposed to the pinprick-like irises sported by all the other "demons" he'd seen. Jonah barely had time to be surprised by this little fact before the newcomer's gaze flicked up and over Jonah's shoulder, followed by something hard clubbing him across the back of the head, sending Jonah spiraling into unconsciousness.
* * * * * *
The words acted like a slap across the face for Jonah: he let out a startled gasp as his eyes flew open, revealing a dimly-lit, circular room containing nothing more than himself. He presumed that he'd been tossed into a cell, but the floor and curved walls appeared to made of polished black marble... far too fancy a material to make a cell out of. After a moment, he realized his hands were no longer bound behind his back, and on a more unsettling note, he was stark naked. "The Hell's goin' on?" he said as he climbed to his feet.
"My attendants cleansed you before they brought you to me," the unseen speaker informed him, with a voice like a cold wind rustling through dead autumn leaves. "Your wounds were tended to as well."
Indeed, a quick probe of his face and ribs confirmed that what little damage Jonah had sustained at the hands of the bug-eyes was long gone-- he didn't even have a sore spot on his skull from getting clubbed. "Much obliged. Now show me where the damn door is an' let me outta here." His request was greeted with laughter, which just riled Jonah up even more than he already was. "Where are yuh, dammit?" he yelled, but the source of the voice was just as indistinct as the light. "Better yet, who are yuh? Thet fella in the fancy-dan gold cape?"
"I am what lays beyond the shadow of the universe. I am the thread that weaves together the fabric of creation. I am all that ever was and shall be. But above all else... I AM." Those last two words slammed into Jonah with enough force to make him stagger.
"So... yo're God, then?" Jonah scoffed once he'd recovered. "If'n thet's the case, Ah've like tuh lodge 'bout a thousand complaints with yuh, startin' with how yo're treatin' them folks yuh kidnapped." More laughter came at him from all sides, and it suddenly occurred to Jonah that he wasn't hearing the voice with his ears... it was inside his own head. "The Hell's goin' on?" he said again, this time with a note of trepidation.
"Libra was right to bring you to me," the voice said. "I can sense the staggering amount of willpower contained within that scarred frame. Using you as a mere laborer was a waste of resources. The others they bring me run dry so quickly, but you... with proper handling, I believe you can sustain me until I am able to claim what is mine."
"Yuh ain't makin' a lick of sense."
"In time, you will understand my ways, and then you shall be proud to serve me."
"If'n yuh think Ah'm willin' tuh serve anybody who enslaves an' tortures people, yo're sadly mistaken!" Jonah clenched his hands into fists, saying, "Y'all should've killed me when yuh had the chance, 'cause if'n yuh ever get the nerve tuh show yer face tuh me, Ah'm gonna... " Jonah's threat was cut short by an immense pain in his chest, as if his heart was being squeezed in a vice. He fell to his knees, mouth agape and eyes wide as he tried to draw breath, but his lungs had begun to constrict as well. Then he felt something warm rising up his windpipe, and soon a pale green mist wafted out of his mouth and drifted away into the shadows. The pain dissipated along with the mist, and Jonah collapsed on the floor in a heap, his entire body shuddering as he gulped down air. He didn't know what had just occurred, but he felt... diminished. Like some small piece of himself had been carved off.
"Yes," the voice sighed, "this is what I need. Such a great fount of emotion within you... such life! Oh, I feel giddy at the prospect of what you can do for me!"
Jonah slowly propped himself up on his hands and knees, still gasping for air. He needed to get out of this room, to get away from this thing that kept prattling on in his mind. He lifted his head and began to search for the door, but it was too dim in there to spot it. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Jonah saw a figure emerge from the shadows... or rather the shadows became a figure. It was small, five feet high at best, and wrapped in a tattered gray shroud-- he knew the moment he laid eyes on it that this withered thing was the source of the voice. Suddenly, the pain in his chest returned with a vengeance, squeezing and squeezing until he choked out another wisp of green mist. Jonah watched as the mist was drawn towards the shrouded figure, vanishing into the darkness beneath the hood it wore.
Another sigh, followed by the voice telling Jonah, "I know I shouldn't overindulge, but I can't help myself. You are a banquet compared to the scraps my attendants have previously brought." A pair of skeletal hands rose up from beneath the shroud and reached out for him. "I wonder what other delicacies you contain?"
Jonah tried to scramble away, but the shadows emanating from the figure inexplicably shot forward and solidified around the bounty hunter, pinning him in place. Then the figure's hands clamped onto the sides Jonah's head with surprising strength, drawing him close enough to see what dwelled under the hood. The screams that leapt out of Jonah's throat at the sight of it thrilled his captor, who supped joyously on the thick yellow mist that billowed forth.
* * * * * *
Rhythmic thrum fading away. Liquid drained. Cold air on bare flesh. Wires stripped. Tubes extracted. Straps attached. Lifted into the cold air, then lowered down onto a colder surface. The song resounded throughout. A hymnal in praise of the sacrifice. Him. He was the sacrifice. Endless suffering. Maggots feasting on his soul. Consuming him from the inside out. Not dead. Not alive. A husk that could breathe and think. No, no more thoughts. No more pain. No more.
"No more... no more... " Jonah Hex moaned, his shivering body curling up on the hovo-pallet as the numbing effects of the medical pod wore off. Two male attendants took hold of him and straightened out his limbs, the gentle song they sung never changing tempo, even as Jonah tried to fight his way out of their grip, his moans turning into inarticulate cries as he did so. A female attendant jabbed an injector gun against Jonah's neck, and his cries soon subsided as the mild sedative took effect-- he wouldn't go back to sleep, but he would be docile, and that was enough. He'd fought hard in the beginning, and had killed a couple of attendants without hesitation, hence why one now always stood ready with an injector the second they brought him out of the medical pod. They knew that they couldn't let down their guard, not if they wanted to continue breathing. As the attendants continued their work, Jonah stared up at them with a glassy-eyed, slack-jawed expression, the old scars on his face and body the only outward sign of his fearsome past. Inside, he was still crying out, still trying to escape the clutches of the nightmarish creature that was slowly killing him.
Jonah called it the Crone... not its proper name, but the closest to it that his tortured mind could fathom. It was nearly as old as the universe, devoid of true substance but immensely powerful, and filled with an insatiable hunger for anything living. To the bug-eyes, having one's life-force consumed by the Crone was considered an honor, hence the pomp and circumstance as the attendants prepared Jonah for another feeding session. This knowledge had been forced into Jonah's mind by the Crone itself, in an effort to convince Jonah that the process would be much less painful if he stopped fighting and embraced the Crone's divinity as the bug-eyes had. But Jonah refused to give in, even as the Crone dug deeper into his brain, dredging up memories that Jonah preferred to keep buried so as to invoke an ever-greater emotional response from him. Love and fear and hope and rage... the Crone fed on all that and more, draining almost every drop of life possible from Jonah until his heart came close to bursting from the strain, then it would withdraw and let the attendants drag Jonah's nearly-dead body away to the medical pod, where he'd float in a dreamless stupor while his body recovered, after which they'd drag him out of that glass coffin and serve him up to the Crone all over again. An endless cycle of agony and oblivion... that was Jonah's whole world now, and he was powerless to do anything about it.
The attendants draped a narrow, silk-like sheet over Jonah's middle, giving him back some of his dignity as he lay naked on the hovo-pallet. They guided it out into the hallway, two on either side of him, and one by his head-- the song was over, but the robed attendants still walked with a solemn air, and any bug-eyes that passed would stop and bow their heads. All the while, Jonah's eyes remained fixed on the ceiling, horrifyingly aware that every corner they turned, every light panel they passed under, brought him closer to the Crone. As they approached one familiar junction, however, Jonah became aware of something new: gunfire. Thanks to many years of living with a gun in his hand, the sound of it made his body tense reflexively, and his fingers began to twitch, groping for pistols that were no longer there. The female attendant saw this and readied the injector, while one of the male attendants spoke in that gibberish tongue. The gunfire grew louder, and soon he could hear shouting, some of which might have been in English. The hovo-pallet lurched as the attendants tried to push it along faster, presumably to get away from whatever was causing that commotion. From out of the corner of his eye, Jonah could see people running towards him, followed by a searing light and an ear-splitting BOOM.
The world spun as the hovo-pallet suddenly flipped over: the body of one of the attendants had hit it at just the right angle to disrupt to gyros, spilling Jonah onto the floor. The shouts were right on top of him now, in English and that bug-eye tongue and maybe a couple of others, along with more gunfire and the BOOM of those alien rifles, then one more tremendous explosion before the world fell into relative silence. Smoke drifted through the hallway, making it hard for Jonah to get a good look at the figures milling about, save for one that walked right up to him. He was human, and wore mottled-green clothes, a pair of muddy boots, and a round helmet wrapped in netting. A rifle of some kind was in his hands, and as he knelt down, Jonah saw that he appeared to be about eighteen at best. "Oh my God," the young man said, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "Captain, did you see this guy?"
Someone else in green-- a colored man-- knelt down, saying, "Looks like these Martians or whatever they are haven't heard of the Geneva convention. Most of these scars seem pretty old... must've been working on him for a long time."
"Great," a third man in green muttered, "we checked into an outer-space Hanoi Hilton."
The young man pressed his fingers to Jonah's throat and said, "There's a pulse... a lousy one, but it's there. My God, how can somebody that looks like this still be alive?" He leaned close to Jonah's face. "Can you hear me, buddy? Can you talk?"
Jonah managed to open his mouth, but no words came out, only a rasp of air. He could feel the adrenaline in his system diluting the sedatives, but it would be a while before he was in the clear. They propped him into a sitting position, though Jonah could hardly stand them touching him-- the feel of their hands upon his naked flesh reminded him too much of his recent tortures-- then the colored man produced an olive-drab canteen and offered it to Jonah, who jerked his head to the side. It wasn't water he needed, just time. The colored man said to him, "I'm Captain Harris, and this is Corporal Berkowitz." He nodded towards the young man. "We're U.S. Marines. It's obvious you've been through Hell, but I need some intel from you right now. Do you know how to get off this ship? Is that transporter the only way?"
Jonah gaped at him. Ship? He had no idea how anybody could mistake this crazy place for a sailing vessel, and tried to tell Harris that, but the words still wouldn't come out. Berkowitz saw how hard Jonah was struggling and said to the captain, "I think he's been drugged, like what they did to us when we got jumped. My head's still kinda foggy from it." Berkowitz then told Jonah, "Don't you worry, buddy, the Marines never leave a man behind."
With Harris and Berkowitz on either side of him, Jonah was dragged to his feet. The smoke in the hallway was dissipating, allowing him to see the destruction that had been wrought. The passageway Harris and the others had come down was blocked by debris, due to part of the ceiling collapsing in that area. A few bug-eyes lay unmoving near the rubble, and Jonah saw that all three of the attendants that had been taking him to the Crone were dead as well. In addition to the three men in green, there was an Oriental in a tan uniform, plus five orange aliens with fins on their heads and beaked mouths. Jonah had met ones like that before down in the pits-- if he recalled correctly, they were from someplace called Xudar. Two of the Xudarians had shock-collars around their necks, and were leaning heavily on their compatriots as they trilled to each other in high-pitched tones.
Harris an' these other folk must've just arrived, Jonah realized. They all ran off afore the bug-eyes could get the collars on. He knew of course that their captors wouldn't give up so easily, and it was only a matter of time before all of them were in shackles.
The same thing was on the mind of Harris, who pointed down one of the unobstructed hallways and asked Jonah, "Do you have any idea what's down there?"
Jonah began to shudder: it was the hallway that led to the Crone. He could barely bring himself to glance in that direction. "N-n-n-no... no... " he choked out, fear finally loosening his tongue. Harris then asked about the hallway Jonah had come from, but Jonah just said "no" again. As far as he was concerned, every path around them led to pain and death.
"The guy's got shell shock. We're not gonna get a thing outta him," the third soldier said.
"You got any better leads, Winslow, now's the time," Harris snapped at him.
The Oriental called out in his native tongue, and they turned to see him standing by a hole the size of a dinner plate that had been blown in one of the walls. Berkowitz went over, saying a few words in what was presumably the Oriental's language, then said to the group in English, "This isn't a spaceship, it's a building! These aliens hauled us off to another planet!" They all gathered around the hole, even the Xudarians, and for the first time since he'd arrived there, Jonah Hex got a look at what lay outside those metal walls. As he'd heard, the city appeared to stretch on for miles, and was made up of buildings (including the one they currently occupied) taller than any Jonah had ever seen in his life. Countless stars were scattered across the night sky in unrecognizable patterns-- if any of them needed concrete evidence that they were far from home, this was it.
Harris examined the warped and melted metal around the edge of the hole, saying, "What did this? One of those big alien guns?" Before anyone could answer, he ordered, "Winslow, take the new guy and get him ready to travel. Berkowitz, you and I and the rest are going to scrounge up as many of those guns as we can and blast this hole a little wider. If we can find someplace to hide in that city, it'll give us time to figure out what's going on around here."
The captain passed Jonah off the Winslow, who said, "Okay, pal, first thing we're gonna do is find you some pants." He hauled Jonah over to where some of the dead bug-eyes lay so he could strip the clothes off of one of them. To Winslow, they all looked alike, but Jonah saw one body in particular that was painfully familiar, and pointed towards it as best he could. Winslow set him down next to it, and Jonah clumsily flipped up the visor on the bug-eye's helmet to reveal Hunter Krin's bloody face. A lucky shot had evaded the visor and caught Krin just beneath the chin, exploding out the back of his head. Ever since he'd first gotten to this godawful place, Jonah had fantasized about all the ways he would torture Krin should he ever come face-to-face with the bastard again, and though he was happy Krin was dead, the fact that Jonah didn't get to do the deed stuck in his craw.
At least Ah got muh Dragoons back, Jonah thought, looking at his old gunbelt around Krin's waist. The Dragoon Jonah normally kept tucked under his belt was now holstered on a second gunbelt made of shiny leather and metal-- presumably stripped off of someone else abducted by Hunter Krin-- so Jonah decided to take that one as well.
Harris, Berkowitz, and the others made fast work on their improvised escape route, needing only a couple of minutes to blast it wide open with the alien weaponry. As they neared completion, it became obvious that the bug-eyes on the other side of the blocked hallway had gotten a similar notion: rivulets of molten metal were trickling down the wall of debris, and soon white-hot blaster fire began to rip through the openings. Winslow had been helping Jonah slip on the boots he'd pried off of Hunter Krin, and the two men hit the floor the second they realized what was happening. "We need some cover fire, cap'n!" Winslow called out.
"You got it!" Harris called back, taking aim with a blaster-rifle and giving the bug-eyes a taste of their own medicine. Then seven-armed bug-eyes appeared in the hallway Jonah had come from, but they didn't even get a shot off before two of the Xudarians cut them down. The constant BOOM from the rifles was deafening, to the point where Jonah couldn't even hear what Winslow was saying right next to him, but he could read the man's lips well enough: Get moving! So Jonah did, crawling forward on his hands and knees to stay below the gunfire-- aside from the gunbelts, he'd only had enough time to put on Krin's armored boots and black leather-like trousers, leaving his belly and forearms exposed to all the debris scattered on the floor, but a few more scars were the least of his worries at the moment.
When he got to the hole in the wall, Berkowitz leaned close to his ear and yelled, "You're gonna have to jump!" Jonah peered out of the hole and saw the Oriental and two other Xudarians standing on a flat roof two stories below, with a six-foot gap between the buildings and a dizzying drop to the ground should he miss. Dear Lord, he was having difficulty just standing on his own, how was he supposed to clear that distance? Then he felt a hand fall on his shoulder, and turned to see one of the Xudarians pointing towards the hole while chittering something incomprehensible. Berkowitz seemed to have an idea what it was about, though, telling him, "Don't worry, I saw that other one do it for their injured buddy." Before Jonah could ask, the Xudarian yanked open the sides of the billowy shirt he wore, revealing translucent flaps of skin beneath his arms, then gestured for Jonah to put his arms around the Xudarian's neck. Jonah gave Berkowitz a puzzled look, but the young man insisted that this was going to work.
Certainly not a way Ah ever pictured muhself dyin', Jonah thought, but he wrapped his arms as tight as he could around the spindly neck of the alien, who stepped up to the hole, spread his arm-flaps wide, and jumped. Jonah immediately felt the pull of gravity on his lower body, but he managed to hold on as the Xudarian glided through the air and landed them safely on the roof below. After he let go, Jonah gazed back up in time to see the last pair of Xudarians gliding down, the sight reminding him of a flying squirrel. Then his eyes kept going up, trying in vain to take in the entirety of the enormous golden tower he'd just escaped from. It seemed to have no end, the thorny spire atop it reaching ever higher into that star-studded expanse. Though Jonah had never seen it from the outside before, he recognized the tower from the visions that the Crone had forced upon him, and he knew that, deep within that shining monument, the Crone was waiting for him, it would always be waiting for him, a living shadow eager to engulf his body and consume him until there was nothing left but a hollowed-out corpse...
"Wake up, buddy!" someone said, and Jonah whipped his head around to find Berkowitz standing next to him. The other two soldiers were on the rooftop as well: they'd made the jump, and even though Jonah had been looking right at the building, his mind had been too overwhelmed by memories of the Crone to notice. A shiver ran though Jonah's body, and not just because of the cold wind blowing outside.
Harris led the way towards another rooftop a hundred yards ahead of them. Jonah followed as best he could, but between the drugs, the torture, and God-knew-how-much-time in captivity, he was having difficulty keeping up with the others as they jumped from one rooftop to another, always working their way lower to the ground. Thankfully, the gaps between buildings were more forgiving, though in Jonah's opinion, he tended to land with all the grace of a ruptured duck. About four minutes into their escape, Jonah's clumsiness became the least of his problems: the bug-eyes had wised up to their unconventional route and sent out a squadron of those flying riflemen, who opened fire the moment they came into range. One of the blasts caused part of the rooftop they were on to crumble beneath their feet, and the escapees were soon falling through a mass of thick electrical cables. By sheer dumb luck, Jonah got a hold on one of the cables and stopped his descent, as did the other humans in their group-- the Xudarians, by virtue of their "wings", managed to glide all the way down to the floor twenty feet below. Unlike the foundry Jonah had labored in, this area was an assembly plant of some kind, though the workers present didn't appear to be any better off than the ones he'd met previously. "What the Hell is going on here?" Harris said, gazing down at the scores of human and alien faces, who looked up at them with equal interest. "Looks like the Ford plant back home."
"Incoming!" Winslow shouted as the riflemen above began to take pot-shots at them. Jonah and the others maneuvered over to a nearby catwalk, dropping down just as a half-dozen guards came rushing up, unaware that the five humans in front of them were heavily armed-- the fight was very noisy and very short. Moments later, Harris was leading them down to the ground floor, where the Xudarians hadn't fared as well: the two bound in shock-collars were at the mercy of the guards, though the other three were doing their damnedest to take out any that came near, with one of the Xudarians swinging a sword acquired from a Hunter earlier. Once Jonah and the soldiers got within range with their guns, the remaining guards were quickly cut down.
The riflemen above were making a racket, but due to their bulky flight-packs, their progress through the network of cables hanging from the ceiling was slow. Still, Jonah knew the pursuit would begin again soon enough.
Need a distraction, he thought, and searched one of the dead guards until he found a shock-collar controller, holding it up so the workers around him could see it. "Pay attention," Jonah rasped, then pressed the butt of the controller against the collar worn by one of the shackled Xudarians and activated the unlocking sequence. The alien tensed as the collar buzzed, but soon realized it was falling of her neck, not shocking her. Jonah repeated this with the other Xudarian, then a couple of the workers, until those watching caught on and began swarming over dead guards in search of more controllers. Within seconds, the room was a cacophony of buzzing, clattering, and shouts of triumph in multiple alien tongues, but the celebration was short-lived as the riflemen flew down to the ground floor. The workers weren't eager to relinquish their newfound freedom, however, and attacked the riflemen with whatever implements they could get their hands on.
In the midst of this chaos, Jonah and the others began to search for a way out of the assembly plant. Nearly two dozen of the freed workers joined them, including a young blonde-haired woman wearing low-cut jeans and a t-shirt that showed off her midriff. Jonah couldn't help but stare at the woman as she ran ahead of the group, shouting in English for the others to follow. She led them into another large room containing three... well, frankly, Jonah couldn't figure out what they were. Each of the objects was about thirty feet long and nearly as wide, made of metal, and shaped sort of like a crescent moon laying on its side, but with a bulge in the center. Berkowitz, upon seeing them, said, "This whole place is like one big Star Trek episode," which did nothing to help Jonah figure out what he was looking at. The woman ran towards one of the things, which was emitting a strange blue glow from a pair of oblong pods on either side of the central bulge. As she approached, a bug-eye ran down the ramp sticking out from the open end of the bulge and tried to grab her, but Harris shot the bug-eye before he could lay a hand on her. "Please tell me you know how to fly this thing," Harris said to her.
"Not exactly," she replied. "I've watched them go through the preflight, though, so let's hope that's enough." She led Harris and Winslow up the ramp, while Berkowitz, the Oriental, and the Xudarians did their best to herd the workers towards it. Meanwhile, Jonah's gaze kept going from the strange contraption to the massive opening in the far wall until the truth of it sunk in.
Oh, Hell no, Jonah thought. Flyin' men is hard enough tuh swallow, but this... no way in Hell this kin work.
Despite his doubts, he climbed aboard with the rest of the fools. The interior was cramped due to the number of bodies forced inside, along with some metal boxes which presumably contained whatever was being assembled in the plant. Berkowitz and Jonah squeezed through until they reached the front, where the woman and Winslow were seated before a panel full of lights and switches, discussing how to get this contraption in the air.
Harris was standing nearby as the two men approached. "Did you seal up the hatch?"
Berkowitz shook his head, saying, "We pulled the ramp up, but nobody can figure out how to lock it shut. Nguyen... the NVA... he's still working on it."
"Still not sure it was a good idea to let him tag along. He was shooting at us less than an hour ago."
"We're a long way from 'Nam, captain, and he knows it. Kind of stupid to keep fighting the war on another planet."
All this talk about a war befuddled Jonah, and he started to ask what they meant when the whole contraption lurched. The view beyond the clear canopy tilted as the woman pulled back on a joystick jutting up from the center panel, and soon they were flying out of the building as easy as you please. Winslow let out a whoop and said, "Girly, I think I'm in love with you!"
"The name's Stella Borsten, not 'Girly'," she said harshly, then gave him a sly grin. "And don't you think you should buy me a drink first before you start professing your love for me?"
"We make it out of this, I'll buy a round for everybody," Harris said. He leaned forward to get a better look at the city they were flying through. "We need a place to hide... any ideas?"
"Dunno. This is the furthest I've been outside since I got here," Stella said.
"What about you... " Harris began to say to Jonah, then fumbled. "Huh... we've been dragging you all over this place, I never even thought to ask your name."
"Jonah Hex," he drawled, his voice having finally regained its usual strength, "an' Ah ain't seen much of it neither. These fellas ain't fond of givin' furloughs."
Harris visibly flinched when Jonah spoke, though the bounty hunter couldn't imagine why. Just then, an explosion on the outside hull shook the contraption from stem to stern. The back hatch flew open, taking some of the passengers with it, while the rest grabbed onto whatever they could in an effort to stay onboard-- Harris, Berkowitz, and Jonah took hold of the pilot seats while Winslow tried to help Stella control the joystick. Another explosion knocked the contraption sideways, causing it to veer dangerously close to a building, but by some miracle, they missed. Jonah dared to turn his head and look out the open hatch, where he saw two smaller flying machines with twin cannons mounted beneath their wings closing in on them.
Harris saw their pursuers as well, and shouted at Stella, "We've got two bogeys on our tail! Does this craft have any weapons on it?"
"I think this is just a cargo ship, but you're welcome to start smacking buttons!" Stella replied. "We're too busy keeping this thing in the air!"
Her words were ill-timed: a third explosion damaged one of the wings bad enough to cause them to lose altitude. Their flight path had taken them past the outskirts of the city, where the buildings had degenerated from shining towers to twisted, burned-out husks, and soon even those gave way to nondescript piles of metal and stone. It was in the midst of this foreboding landscape that the contraption finally came crashing down, skidding along on its belly until its nose smashed into a thick metal plate that might've once been part of a wall-- the canopy shattered on impact, and Winslow got thrown out and hit the wall as well. Harris and Berkowitz scrambled across the nose to check on him, while Jonah took a look at Stella, who was slumped face-down on the control panel. Gently, he slipped a hand under her head to lift it, and she responded with a groan, "Are we still alive?"
"So far," he told her, then helped the young woman to her feet. There was a bloody gash on her forehead, and she complained of a sharp pain in her side (most likely a busted rib), but she could walk, so Jonah led her out of the contraption and back onto solid ground. Many of the workers had already exited, some leading injured folk like Jonah was, while others milled about in a daze. Jonah glanced up at the night sky and saw the two flying machines circling back to their position-- it was a sure bet those bug-eyes weren't gonna be any friendlier now that they were out in the open. He yelled for everyone to take cover, then made a beeline with Stella towards an oddly-rectangular hole in the earth, shoving her down there first before diving in himself. It turned out to be the remains of a stairwell, leading down to a debris-strewn area about ten feet below the surface. Two of the Xudarians and the Oriental soon followed, along with Harris and Berkowitz, who were herding seven of the freed workers ahead of them.
Moments later, the world above shook like mad as the flyers bombarded the crash site. Screams echoed throughout the confined space as dirt and debris began falling from the ceiling, with a few large chunks filling the stairwell and blocking out what little starlight filtered down there. Jonah himself cried out as someone in the darkness wrapped their arms tightly around his torso-- panicking, he tried to push them off, then realized by the feel of her skimpy t-shirt that it was Stella. He still couldn't stand being touched, but instinct overrode his discomfort, and he put his arms around her as they cowered in the dark with the others.
The air became thick with dust, causing those confined below to gasp for breath. Thoughts of being smothered weighed upon all their minds as the bombardment went on and on aboveground. Then, after nearly a hour of non-stop noise, silence fell, and Berkowitz finally dared to turn on the flashlight that had been hanging from his belt. When no bug-eyes leapt out of the darkness to kill them, everyone who was able began to clear away the rubble blocking the stairwell. It took hours and numerous bloodied appendages, but eventually they unearthed themselves from their premature tomb and stood amidst the numerous craters that now pockmarked the already-pitiful landscape. The flying machine they'd stolen had become a distorted mass of melted slag, and a few charred bits of bone were all that remained of those who couldn't get underground in time. Some began to weep, both for the sheer volume of devastation they were faced with and for those who had died because of it. Even Jonah Hex, who'd borne witness to the horrors of war as well as the brutality of man in general on multiple occasions, closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at it anymore.
All the while, the night sky and its myriad alien stars hung uncaring over their heads.
* * * * * *
Pasdo was at it again. This time, he'd used his superior bulk to overpower Rethajag and take a handful of beetle-like insects from the smaller sentient's three-fingered grasp. For God's sake, they were fighting over the chance to eat bugs! How much worse could it get? Jonah dared not to contemplate that yet, and instead came up behind Pasdo and clubbed him across the back with the butt of his Dragoon. Pasdo hollered something in his native tongue, then turned to glare at Jonah, who was reminded again of how much the lower half of Pasdo's face resembled a certain part of human female anatomy. "Yuh know the rules," Jonah said, not giving a damn that Pasdo was a foot taller than him. "Anything we find, we split up fair an' square."
Unfortunately, the alien didn't speak a lick of English, but the message Pasdo sent when he crammed the beetles into the folds of his mouth was clear enough. Jonah reckoned his reply should be just as clear, so he grabbed onto one of the mouth-folds, yanked down, then used his Dragoon to bash Pasdo between the eyes until he'd driven the alien to the ground. Drops of purplish blood were oozing down Pasdo's face, but Jonah knew no amount of punishment would ever deter him from stealing food from someone else's mouth. He'd done it four times already and, according to Stella, he used to do it back in the slave quarters as well. "No more second chances," Jonah said, then pointed his Dragoon at Pasdo and thumbed back the hammer.
"Drop the gun, Hex!" Harris shouted. When Jonah didn't comply, Harris brought his rifle up to a firing position. "I said drop it, you crazy-ass cracker!"
"Soon as Ah take care of this problem." Jonah kept his gaze fixed on Pasdo.
"Enough of us have died already. No way am I gonna let you add another to the list."
"Yet yuh ain't got no qualms 'bout shootin' me. Don't hardly seem fair."
"I figure it'd be payback for you putting my ancestors in chains."
Jonah bristled. Harris's attitude had changed drastically the moment he found out Jonah was a Southerner... and even worse, a Southerner from 1875. Back when he'd been laboring in the pits, Jonah had heard some of the human workers claim they were from other points in time, but he never believed it. Imagine his surprise when it turned out to be true: Harris and the other soldiers were plucked out of a warzone in some foreign land over a century after the War Between the States, and Stella had been kidnapped from Seattle in the mid-2000s. While she and Berkowitz cut Jonah a little slack in regards to his 19th-Century upbringing, Harris automatically assumed he was a bigot without giving him a chance to prove otherwise. The fact that Winslow had died in the crash while Jonah survived it probably added to the colored man's animosity towards him, and Jonah doubted there was anything he could do to lessen it.
"I'm giving you until the count of three," Harris said. "You still have your gun out then, I blow your head off. One... two... "
Without a word, Jonah flipped his Dragoon back into its holster and walked away, returning to his own scavenging through the ruins they'd come across. There was no point in wasting any more energy over this argument, much less dying over it. This planet was doing a damn fine job of killing them already: of the fourteen individuals that had survived the bug-eyes' bombardment just over a week before, three of them had died due to a combination of injuries they’d sustained in the crash and the harsh conditions that lay beyond the city. Very little plant life grew in the cold and rocky wasteland, and animal life was just as scarce, so hunger soon became a constant companion for all of them. They also had to ration the water in the canteens carried by the soldiers, as the only freestanding water they'd come across was a layer of frost that formed on the ground at odd hours of the day... not that the term "day" really meant anything, as the planet had no sun or moon, nor did the stars move through the sky in any discernible pattern. If it weren't for Harris' wristwatch, they'd have no way of knowing just how long the group had been trudging across the desolate skin of this world, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the bug-eyes as possible.
Jonah walked through the rubble-strewn area, his eyes focused downward in the hope that he might spot some more of those beetles, or perhaps a good length of wire to make a snare with-- he didn't want to waste any more ammunition hunting the vermin that occasionally popped out of hiding-- but there was very little of note. It seemed like every inch of this cursed world had been stripped of resources, save for what remained within the city they'd escaped from. Jonah did his best not to think about the place, as the memories of what he'd endured there were too much to take, but he found himself now turning towards that sparkling speck upon the horizon, as if the Crone was silently beckoning him to return. He could imagine it welcoming him back into its shadowy chamber, where his body and mind would be wracked with pain once more, but afterward the attendants would slip him into the medical pod filled with pleasantly-warm liquid, and the feeding tube down his throat would alleviate his hunger, and then he would sleep, a deep sleep free of nightmares, until the Crone called him to its chamber again so it could feed...
An inarticulate cry leapt out of Jonah's throat as he tried to banish the hallucination from his mind. Trembling, he squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his arms across his bare chest. He wanted to collapse, to curl up on the ground and sob like a child, but Stella and a few other members of their group stood nearby, so he forced himself to stay silent and on his feet. It was bad enough that his hands would shake uncontrollably sometimes, and that he couldn't sleep for more than twenty minutes before nightmares would begin to claw at his brain-- no matter what sort of anguish he was in, he refused to show any more signs of weakness than he already had
Thankfully, a distraction arrived in the form of Nguyen and the two surviving Xudarians, Ebrom-Ke and Koii. They'd gone scouting ahead, and judging by their excitable chatter as they ran towards the group, the trip must've paid off. Since Berkowitz was the best-versed in Vietnamese, he met Nguyen halfway to ask what they'd found. Seconds later, Berkowitz shouted, "Water! They found a pond or something, just past that ridge!" He pointed to a spot of land about a quarter-mile away.
The non-English speakers in the group didn't grasp the significance at first, but some pantomime with a bone-dry canteen cleared things up, and soon they were all moving across the landscape at a brisk pace. When they got to the top of the ridge-- which was actually the lip of a crater-- a few members of the group audibly gasped upon seeing the thirty-foot-wide body of water at the bottom. Pasdo, with his usual decorum, shoved his way forward so he could run down to the edge of the water, where he stuck his head right in and began to gulp down one mouthful after another. "Somebody pull him out of there," Harris said as the rest of them came down to the sandy patch of land beside the water. "We don't know if this is safe to drink."
"If'n yo're thinkin' of boilin' it first, we'll need tuh find something tuh make a fire with... which we ain't seen much of out here," Jonah told him, then knelt down about four feet from the water's edge and scooped up a few handfuls of sand. "In the meantime, this'll get rid of most of the junk thet might be in it." Harris started to ask what Jonah was doing when water slowly began seeping through the sand and into the hole he'd made. "The frost we've been scrapin' off'n the ground ain't made us sick yet, so Ah reckon this'll be at least as safe at thet," Jonah continued as he cupped his hand and brought some of the water to his lips to sample it. "A mite alkali, but all things considered, Ah kin live with it."
Harris regarded the growing amount of sand-filtered water, then went over to Berkowitz to discuss other ways to ensure the water's potability. As Jonah kept working on the hole, Stella came over and plunked down beside him. He wasn't comfortable with anyone sitting that close, but he tended to make exceptions for the young woman. Maybe it was because she was one of the few folks he could have a conversation with, or maybe because she was rather easy on the eyes, but he enjoyed her company. She had an odd sense of humor, though, or at least Jonah couldn't always comprehend the jokes she was making, probably due to the fact that they were born nearly two centuries apart. He got the gist of what she meant this time around when she said to him, "What're you doing, digging a hole to China?"
"Ah may as well be." He threw a glare in Harris's direction. "Every time Ah make a suggestion, he second-guesses it. Gettin' damn sick of it."
"I know, but try not to take it personal. It's not you, it's... you know... "
"Where Ah'm from. When Ah'm from. Yuh ask me, thet's a crock of shit." Jonah stopped digging and pointed at Nguyen, who'd joined the conversation between Harris and Berkowitz. "Two weeks ago, they was all fightin' on opposite sides of thet jungle war, and now Harris is more likely tuh listen tuh Nguyen than me. Where's the sense in thet?"
Stella rubbed her forehead, saying, "I dunno, it's just the way it is. Some people just don't click." She looked at the others in the group, many of whom were wading into the water to clean off the dirt that clung to their skin and clothes-- one of them had found a plant growing just below the water's surface and was showing it around. "Considering what a weird mix of people we have here, I think it's a miracle that we're not at each other's throats every day."
"Guess yuh didn't see me an' Pasdo goin' at it earlier." Jonah was about to describe the tussle when he noticed a ripple forming the sand and moving towards them. The majority of wildlife they'd run into so far was of the burrowing variety, so the idea that something had taken up residence near a water source wasn't surprising, but what emerged from the sand was unlike anything else he'd come across in this world. Jonah thought at first that the gray, cylindrical creature was some kind of snake, but the head was just a barb-lined opening that looked big enough to shove a grapefruit down. Jonah leapt up, pulling Stella with him as it struck at where they'd been sitting. It probed the hole Jonah had made in the sand, then darted towards Jonah's foot when he shifted position, the barbs scraping harmlessly against the boot's armored exterior.
How long is this damn thing? he thought, noting that about four feet of it was now exposed, yet the end of it was still beneath the sand. He brought his bootheel down upon the creature's head, then grabbed hold of the body and tried to pull it out, but to no avail.
A scream ripped through the air. Jonah and Stella turned and saw that another creature had popped out of the sand and latched onto the ankle of Dreysa, a blue-skinned female standing near the water's edge-- unlike Jonah, Dreysa's feet were wrapped in multiple layers of cloth, easily pierced by the barbs. Two more were emerging near the soldiers, who backpedaled the moment they saw the creatures. "Get everybody off the sand!" Jonah yelled at Stella, then drew his pistol and picked off the creatures before they could get a hold of anyone else. As the bullets collided with their targets, the ground beneath their feet started to shake, and a dark-gray mound rose from beneath the sand. The creature pinned under Jonah's heel knocked him over as it reared up, and the others were doing the same, with Dreysa getting dragged along by the ankle. The ends of them all led to the five-foot-tall mound, which Jonah shockingly realized was the body of some monstrous beast, and the cylindrical creatures were part of a tangled mess of "mouths" radiating from the top of it. Ten spiky, segmented legs hoisted the beast from its hiding place, though whether it was intent on attacking the group or just frightening them away with its presence was unclear. Either way, they weren't about to give up their first decent source of water without a fight: Hex reloaded so he could let the beast have it with both Dragoons, the soldiers opened fire with their rifles, and Ebrom-Ke blew a couple of good-sized holes in the beast's hide with the group's last functioning blaster. It took nearly all the ammunition they had left, but soon the beast collapsed on the sand, it legs twitching as it died.
Harris ran over to Dreysa, who was still screaming in pain. The beast's barbed "mouth" had engulfed her foot and most of her calf prior to dying, and God knew how much damage had been done to her leg when the beast had been dragging her around. "Somebody hold her down," Harris ordered, then took out his knife and began to cut through the thick gray skin. Jonah pinned Dreysa's shoulders to the ground, while Ebrom-Ke took up position opposite Harris to hold onto the female's legs. Slowly, Harris peeled back the beast's flesh, working out each of the barbs by hand until he'd exposed the bloody, shredded mass of meat and bone that Dreysa's lower leg had become. "Christ... I don't know if we can salvage this." Harris told Berkowitz, "Get a fire going and start boiling water. This is gonna be complicated enough without having to add infection to the list."
As Berkowitz and Nguyen took off to find anything that could burn, Stella and a few others gathered around, repulsed by the sight of Dreysa's wounds but too concerned about her to turn away. Jonah motioned for Stella to come closer, saying, "Hold her still an' talk tuh her. Don't matter whut about since she cain't understand yuh, just keep yer voice as calm as possible."
"'Cause if'n Harris is gonna do whut Ah think, it'll be better fer the gal tuh be lookin' at a friendly face when it happens instead of muh mule-ugly one." He got up and moved next to Harris, who'd taken off his belt to use as a tourniquet. "Yuh ever done this afore?" Jonah asked.
"Nope." Then, to Jonah's surprise, Harris said to him, "How about you?"
"Couple of times. Bone's the worst part. Nguyen's machete would be best fer the job, an' if'n we kin talk Pasdo into it, Ah reckon he's strong enough tuh cut through in one blow." Jonah gingerly touched Dreysa's leg. "We'll need tuh peel back the skin here first, so's we kin pull it over the stump later an' sew it shut."
"And I suppose you have a needle and thread stashed somewhere?"
"Sure, right up muh dimpled ass." Nodding towards the dead beast behind them, Jonah said, "Give me time tuh root through thet carcass fer some sinew, an' one of these barbs should do fine fer makin' holes tuh pull it through."
Stella's face wrinkled up in disgust. "Eww... is that even sanitary?"
"Ah'll clean 'em off real good first." Jonah then realized that his hands were starting to shake once more. "Might be best if'n somebody else does the sewin', though."
* * * * * *
The bubbly sound of laughter caused Jonah to look up from where he sat. Kiffa had been supporting Dreysa as she walked across the gravelly clearing not far from the cave, trying to get the hang of the crude leg prosthesis the two gals had managed to cobble together. It looked like Dreysa had taken a tumble and pulled Kiffa down with her, but instead of cursing or crying about it, they were having a good chuckle over the matter. A month ago, laughter amongst the group was a rare thing, but since they'd discovered the pond, things had begun to gradually improve. With the pond providing a steady source of water and food-- thanks to the plants growing below the surface, as well as the tiny crustaceans that burrowed into the pond's muddy bottom-- hunger became less of a concern. The problem of shelter took a little longer to solve, but while searching the foothills a mile away, they found a cave half-hidden by boulders that was big enough to live in... and indeed, the possibility of living in this blasted-out world, as opposed to merely surviving in it, began to look like a real thing. The desire to return to their proper homes remained, of course, but they all knew that trying to break into the tower which housed the transmat device-- much less going back to the city-- would be tantamount to suicide. Better to concentrate on the here-and-now as opposed to what had once been.
For Jonah Hex, home was never far from his thoughts, as he found himself falling back more and more upon the skills he'd learned during his years with the Apache. Of all the members of the group, Jonah's background was the most "primitive", and while Harris still didn't fully trust him, the Marine soon conceded there were tricks Jonah knew that weren't covered in boot camp, like how to cure a hide or preserve meat, both of which came in handy after they carved up the beast that had attacked Dreysa. The meat was sour but edible, and the multiple pieces of tough gray hide were put to good use in many ways, with Jonah fashioning a crude shirt for himself out of the most supple pieces. Once that was done, he continued to craft other items that helped to make their life in the wild a little easier, like flint knives and axe heads (both furnished with bone handles), as well as hide slings for hurling rocks at prey when hunting. Focusing on such tasks also helped to occupy Jonah's mind, allowing him longer respites from both the tremors and the nightmares, at least during his waking hours.
His latest project was a bow to compliment the arrows he'd already crafted out of some lightweight, skinny metal pipes he'd found on a scavenging run. It'd been years since he'd had any need to make arrows, much less shoot a bow, but since he only had two bullets left for his Dragoons, he reckoned now was a good time to take it up again. So after some trial and error in regards to the fletching-- some pieces of a thin-yet-durable material Stella called "plastic" worked best-- he managed to turn four of the shorter pipes into arrows, and now, as he sat on a rock next to the cave entrance, Jonah was stringing the bow he'd made out of the longer lengths of pipe. The muscles in his arms were aching like mad as he bent the bow inch by inch-- he still hadn't recovered his full physical strength since escaping the Crone's clutches-- but he soon as able to slip the braided sinew string into place. Panting but smiling, Jonah plucked the bowstring and was satisfied with the twang it made.
With bow in hand and the arrows tucked under his belt, Jonah began to head up further into the foothills, but didn't get far before he heard someone call his name. He turned to see Stella running up to him. "Where you going?" she asked.
"Gonna test these out, maybe take down a couple of critters fer supper."
"By yourself? And without telling anybody?"
"Ah'm tellin' yuh right now, ain't Ah?"
"Hold on a minute." She called out to Rethajag, who was working on a project of his own next to the firepit, then made a few quick gestures with her hands. Since nearly everyone in the group spoke different languages, they'd worked out a series of hand-signs to help bridge the communications gap, some based on the ones Jonah learned when dealing with various Indian tribes back home. Rethajag repeated the gestures back to be certain he understood, and with a grin, gave her a thumbs-up. Stella turned back to Jonah and said, "Okay, cowboy, let's go."
The two of them moved single-file up the steep, rocky path, careful of where they placed their feet, until they reached a plateau filled with gnarled, leafless trees. Jonah nocked one of the arrows as they walked among the trees as quietly as possible, keeping their eyes upon the blackened trunks. After about ten minutes or so, Stella pointed at one of the trees: a badger-like creature with three-inch-long claws was tearing away layers of dead bark so it could get at the still-viable plant matter beneath. Jonah took aim, fired, then cursed as the arrow struck the tree instead of the animal, which squealed as it ran away-- the second arrow Jonah fired at its fleeing rump missed as well.
Stella shrugged and gave him a lopsided smile. "Well, at least you know it works now."
"They don't fly as straight as Ah hoped," Jonah muttered, collecting up the arrows. There was also the fact that he was way out of practice, but he wasn't about to admit it out loud. "Need tuh play with 'em fer a bit." He pulled out a flint knife from the sheath he'd sewn beneath the collar of his hide shirt (old habits die hard) and used it to carve an X into the tree he stood next to. He then measured out twenty paces and took aim once more, this time at his impromptu target. Stella took a seat on a fallen tree trunk as Jonah methodically fired each arrow multiple times, getting a feel for how they dipped or curved while in flight.
"Can I try it out?" Stella asked after a while.
"Yuh ever shoot a bow afore?"
"Not in real life. Lots of times in video games, though. My Craft of Warworld character, Stiletta, is like a total badass. I boosted her weapons proficiency through the roof."
Jonah had no clue what any of that meant. "Get over here." He held out the bow and one of the arrows as she approached. "When yuh use a bow, yuh gotta put yer whole body into it: feet set right, arms steady, and yer eye locked on yer target." He stood behind Stella, appraising her stance. "Move yer legs apart a bit... thet's better. Now straighten yer elbow out."
"This is a lot fuggin' harder than it looks." She had the bowstring pulled back as far as she could, and the tension was making her arms tremble.
"Doin' fine so far, darlin'." He stepped behind her, saying, "This arrow's a mite top-heavy, so aim just above the target... thet's it... when yo're ready, just let it fly."
"Yeowch! Dammit!" The arrow shaft scraped the side of Stella's hand as it took flight, causing her to drop the bow. She jumped around, clutching her hand and cursing a blue streak.
Jonah took hold of her injured hand. "Yuh'll live. It didn't even break the skin."
"No worse than a rope burn. Might bruise, but thet's it." He continued to hold her hand, running the callused pads of his fingers over her smooth skin. Not for the first time, Jonah reflected upon how pretty Stella was, the one true spot of beauty in this whole desolate world. With all the problems they'd had trying to survive-- not to mention the problems rattling around inside Jonah's own head-- the notion of sidling up to a gal for a bit of intimacy wasn't exactly high on his list of priorities, but now that things had begun to improve for them, perhaps those priorities could shift around a little. He brought Stella's hand to his lips and kissed the red marks forming on it. He then glanced at her and asked, "Thet feel better?"
"A little. Maybe if you... y'know... did a little more... " She gave him a coy smile.
Jonah did as she suggested, kissing her knuckles, then the heel of her hand, then pushed back the sleeve of her patchwork hide jacket so he could kiss the inside of her wrist. "Want me tuh keep goin'?"
"How about we switch it up?" She kissed the left side of Jonah's bearded face, then began to work her away over to the right. "Is it okay if I... " She traced the tip of her finger along the ridge of scar tissue where his right cheek had once been.
"Don't bother me none," he replied. The sensation of her lips brushing over the ruined flesh was faint, but the gesture was appreciated. "Ah'll be honest," he told her once she'd made her way down to his neck, "Ah reckoned yuh were gonna slap me when Ah started this."
Stella laughed, her breath tickling his neck. "If I didn't like what you were doing, I would've done worse than slap you." Her hand caressed Jonah's belly before sliding down to his crotch. "I'm not one of your prim-and-proper Victorian ladies."
"Thet much Ah gathered, an' it suits me fine. Don't go bitin' me, though. Ah knew a gal... Tallulah... she liked tuh bite. Everything else she did felt great, but Ah hated gettin' bit."
"No problem. I'll even let you pick out a safe word if you want."
"Whut's a... " Jonah started to ask, but stopped when a pair of gunshots echoed across the foothills. They both froze, their amorous pursuits forgotten: considering how few bullets the group still possessed, something dire must've been transpiring back at camp for them to use any. Jonah gathered up the bow and arrows, then the two of them ran to the edge of the plateau and peered down at the campsite. Between the distance and the dim starlight, it was difficult to see exactly what was happening, but it appeared that there were some newcomers to their camp, and at least one of them had been felled by the gunfire. Shouts could be heard, but the words were indistinguishable, and soon the rest of the newcomers were dropping to their knees-- it appeared that Harris and the others had the situation under control, but Jonah still held his bow at the ready as they carefully made their way back down the rocky path. "The Hell's goin' on?" Jonah called out when they got within earshot.
"They waltzed right into camp." Harris was pacing in front of the four bug-eyes kneeling on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs. A fifth bug-eye lay next to the firepit, with Kiffa and Berkowitz tending the wound in the alien's side. "Nguyen shot that one as soon as he spotted them, and the rest dropped. They're not even armed, save for a couple of small knives."
"Yo're joshin' me." Hex clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to ward off the tremors that he could feel creeping into his limbs at the sight of the bug-eyes. "Y'all checkin' the area?"
"Nguyen went out with Koii, Ebrom-Ke, and Pasdo. They took our last loaded rifle along... if they find anything, they'll let off a shot."
Stella stared at the bug-eyes for a minute, then asked, "Anybody notice that they don't look right? I mean, the way they're dressed and everything."
Jonah took a second look and realized she was right: these newcomers were wearing garments made of leather and rough-weaved cloth, not the fancy artificial materials the bug-eyes back in the city wore. "Reckon they might be hidin' out like us," Jonah said.
"Hiding from who? Their own people?" Harris replied. "That doesn't make sense."
"Why not? Yuh think human beings are the only ones stupid enough tuh fight among themselves?" Jonah propped his bow and arrows by the cave entrance, then went over to the pile of items they'd confiscated from the newcomers. In addition to the knives, there were blankets, small containers of food and water, and a leather bag containing six wafer-thin devices about three inches long and an inch wide. One of the female bug-eyes spoke excitedly in an alien tongue when Jonah held one out to Stella, saying to her, "Looks familiar, but Ah cain't think of where from."
Stella turned the device over in her hands, looking at the tiny sensors on its curved surface. "I think they might be translators, like what they put in the shock-collars. I remember the back of my head felt weird when I wore mine." She patted a spot near the base of her skull. "Some of the wardens wore these things in about the same place."
"One way tuh find out." Pulling two more devices out of the bag, Jonah walked over to the female and knelt down-- she immediately bent forward, exposing the back of her neck so Jonah could put the device in place. "Nod yer head if'n yuh kin understand me now," he said, to which the female responded with a vigorous nod and a string of words that made no sense to him. "Save yer breath, Ah ain't put mine on yet." Jonah slipped the device beneath his shoulder-length hair: seconds after he settled it into place, the peculiar buzzing he recalled from months earlier reverberated through his head, followed by a low hum. "Okay... how 'bout we start with who in blazes y'all are, an' whut yo're doin' out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"These are questions we planned on asking you, as well," the female answered, following a split-second pause as the translator did its work. "I am Lieutenant Jedess, member of the Army of True Qward under Commander Vezali. She sent us bearing gifts for your people." Jedess nodded towards the confiscated items. "Our scouts have been observing you from afar for eight cycles. We were uncertain at first if we should reveal ourselves, as some thought you might be allies of those who follow the False God, but the commander believes you can be trusted."
"Hope y'all still believe thet, even after we went an' shot one of yuh," Jonah said, jerking a thumb towards the wounded bug-eye. "Not the best way tuh treat the welcome wagon, Ah'll admit, but we weren't expectin' company tuh drop by."
"What do you mean by 'false god'?" Harris asked. He and Stella had slipped on translators as well.
"Reckon she means the Crone," Jonah said, his voice strained, "the thing thet damn-near killed me back in thet big gold tower."
Jedess looked upon Hex with awe. "You entered the chamber of the False God and lived? I have never met anyone who did so." The other bug-eyes, who could understand Jedess's end of the conversation perfectly fine, began to chatter amongst themselves in hushed tones. "Is it true the False God has a body like smoke?" she asked. "And it can see everything hidden in your soul simply by turning its gaze upon you?"
The bounty hunter didn't say a word, but his pallid expression and shaking, clenched fists spoke volumes. Jedess appeared to be blind to his discomfort and continued to prattle on about the Crone, not stopping until Jonah suddenly climbed to his feet. He staggered towards the cave, ripping the translator off of his neck as he silently passed by Harris and Stella. Once he was inside, he kept going, stumbling through the dark until he reached the craggy back wall, where he finally stopped fighting against the horrific memories that Jedess's queries had accidentally dredged up in his mind. Jonah fell to the ground and hugged his knees to his chest, his breath coming in short gasps as he relived all the times the Crone's ravenous form had enveloped him... consumed him... violated him...
A hand touched his shuddering body, and Jonah let out a cry of terror as he swung at the figure that had joined him in the dark. "Quit it, Hex... quit it!" Stella shouted, fending off his blows until she'd grabbed onto his wrists-- Jonah continued to struggle, but she refused to let go. "It's okay, you don't need to freak out, you hear me? Just calm down... that's it... calm down, everything's fine." She could barely see him in the darkness of the cave, but she could hear his breathing return to normal, and the muscles in his arms became less rigid. "I don't know exactly what that Crone thing did to you," she told him, "but I know it screwed you up pretty bad. You've gotta understand, though: you're not alone in this. I have nightmares too. So do just about all of us. Maybe if you talk about what happened instead of holding it all in like you've been doing, it'll be easier to deal with."
Jonah didn't answer. He had never told anyone the full details of how he'd suffered at the hands of the Crone, and there was certainly no desire to tell anyone now. After a moment, Stella reached out to brush her fingertips over the scar on the right side of Jonah's face, just as she'd done earlier, but this time he jerked away, saying, "Don't touch me."
"You didn't mind so much before."
"Ah was deludin' muhself. Thought Ah could start livin' like a man again instead of a half-crazed, wounded animal." He looked at Stella, whose face was silhouetted by the firepit at the mouth of the cave. "Yuh deserve better."
Regardless of his protests, she began to reach out for him again, but was interrupted by Harris calling out, "Everything all right back there?"
"Yeah, we're awesome," Stella replied flatly. "How about you?"
"Our new friends want us to accompany them back to their hideout to meet this commander of theirs." Harris answered as he stepped further into the cave. "They've got a vehicle stashed in a tunnel not far from here. Said we can get to their place within half a cycle, however long that is."
"You think it's safe?" Stella asked.
"I told them we'd only do it if some of their people stayed here with our people. Figure if we don't come back within a few days... " The Marine flicked a thumb across his throat. "I'm also not going to force any of us to go with them. This trip is strictly voluntary... with one exception: They insist that Hex come along."
"Why?" Jonah growled.
"Because those freaks think you're some kind of damn hero. After you took off, all they wanted to talk about was how you managed to survive coming face-to-face with their 'false god'. I told them you were just a stupid white boy, nothing special at all, but they wouldn't listen."
"An' whut if'n Ah tell 'em tuh go take a flyin' leap?"
Stella reached over and touched Jonah on the knee-- to her relief, he stayed still. "Can't you just humor them for a while? We've been doing okay recently, but it seems to me that we shouldn't intentionally piss off the neighbors, especially when they've been living out here longer than us." She leaned a little closer. "I'll stick with you the whole time. You feel a freak-out coming on, you let me know, and I'll make sure everybody gives you some space. Deal?"
Jonah let out a heavy sigh. "Fine. If'n it'll help us out, Ah'll do it. Y'all just leave me be fer a while, Ah'll come on out when Ah'm good an' ready."
They did as he asked, leaving Jonah to sit in the dark. He felt ashamed of his weakness: had his father been there, the old man would've boxed Jonah's ears and scolded him for actin' like a yellowbellied coward, and Jonah would've agreed with every blow and insult. A long time ago, in another life, he was able to endure things that would've killed a lesser man, but that was before the Crone split him open and sucked all the marrow out of his spine. Sometimes he wondered if he could ever obtain that level of endurance again, or was it gone for good?
Ain't gonna know fer sure less'n yuh test it now an' again, he thought, sighing once more, then got up and walked back to the mouth of the cave.
* * * * * *
"It began over twenty-three spans ago, after the ages-long feud between Weaponers and Thunderers had reached its deadliest point," Commander Vezali told the three humans and two Xudarians seated before her in her private quarters, which was nestled deep within a network of underground caverns. Unlike most of the other Qwardians under her charge, Vezali wore armor similar to that worn by the bug-eyes in the city, but hers was dulled by numerous scorch marks and abrasions. "The two factions' mutual disrespect had grown into full-blown hatred, then genocide as each side tried to utterly destroy the other. The weapons we once focused on our enemies off-world now served to wipe out our own kind, with millions perishing cycle after cycle in waves of qwa-fire. Nearly every city on Qward was reduced to rubble, and yet we did not stop... not until Libra came."
"That's the one they call a prophet, right?" Harris said. "He acts as a mouthpiece for the Crone, your 'false god'."
Vezali nodded. "In times long past, it was a rare thing for a Qwardian to consider an off-worlder equal to them, much less obey an off-worlder's command, but something about his voice persuaded us to listen. All who heard Libra speak would lay down their weapons, their hatred for each other forgotten. He told us of a being of infinite power, one who would lead us to a paradise beyond all imagining. But before we could go there, we had to build our new Lord a temple, a great shining spire that would honor our Lord's glorious spirit. We obeyed Libra's commands without question, and soon the spire began to take shape, as did the new city surrounding it, all built from the remains of our demolished world. All of our energies were focused on pleasing our new Lord, whom many of us had never seen. Only those chosen by Libra could enter the chamber our Lord dwelled in, and those who survived the experience were never the same. We were told that the souls of the ones who died had been judged worthy of paradise, and that we should all aspire to be called to our Lord's chamber and face judgment."
Jonah began to shudder as Vezali spoke, and Stella reached over and squeezed his hand until he managed to get it under control.
"Over time, the number of those chosen to enter our Lord's chamber increased, and the number of those who came out alive dwindled to nothing," Vezali continued. "Then Libra had the transmat built, and started bringing in off-worlders as slave labor to speed up work on the spire. After we discovered that some of these slaves were being sent to our Lord's chamber just as often as Qwardians, myself and a handful of others began to question the true purpose of all of this. Questions led to dissent, which led to rebellion against the prophet Libra and his False God. Hundreds of us rose up to face the thousands still loyal, clashing in battle after battle, gaining ground and soldiers only to lose them again. Ten spans ago, our army was nearly wiped out, and those of us who survived retreated out here to the wilds." A look of weariness came over the commander's face. "We sometimes sneak back into the city, both for supplies and to try and recruit others to our cause, but most of the Qwardians living there now are too young to know anything but the rule of the False God. In truth, I am the only one left in our army who is old enough to remember the time prior to Libra's arrival, who remembers when our people did not grace an off-worlder with the title of 'Lord'."
"Is that why you invited us here? To try and recruit us?" Stella asked. "Considering how you talk about 'off-worlders', I'm surprised you would even consider it."
Vezali said, "I will admit, it was something I had to ponder for more than a few cycles. But then I recalled how, in the time long past, some of the planets we tried to conquer would temporarily band together to drive us out of their star systems. If it worked for them, perhaps it will also work for us."
"'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'," Harris said, glancing over at Jonah. "I'd say we're more than familiar with the concept."
"I don't see how adding us to your army can help," Koii said. After a month-and-a-half of hearing the Xudarians speak only in trilling voices, Jonah found it strange to perceive them as speaking English thanks to the translator. "There are only eleven of us... that doesn't sound like it would make much of a difference."
Stella's eyes widened with realization. "It's not just us you're interested in, is it? It's all the other people that're enslaved back in the city. You want us to help create an uprising." The commander nodded her assent, and Stella scoffed, "Well, not too much pressure."
"If'n we help yuh with this, yuh have tuh promise me two things." Jonah had barely said a word during their time down in the caverns, so when he spoke now, all eyes fixed upon him. "Firstly, when this is all said an' done, y'all use thet 'transmat' dingus tuh send everybody home. An' Ah don't mean just us, Ah mean everybody, even the slaves thet don't pitch in. Nobody stays in this hellhole thet don't want tuh stay."
"Sending thousands of sentients back to their homeworlds would be a serious undertaking," Vezali told him, "but when the time comes, I will see what can be done."
"Good enough... now fer the second thing. Yuh said some of yer folks are called 'Weaponers'. Does thet mean they make weapons or are just real good at usin' 'em?"
"Like all Qwardians, those born in the Weaponers clan are skilled warriors, but their main purpose in life is to act as builders for Qward: architects, engineers, craftsmen. It was once said that the Weaponers are the mind of Qward, and the Thunderers are the fist."
"Y'all got any Weaponers in yer little army here?"
"Forty-five, including myself." Vezali looked at Jonah askance, saying, "Why do you wish to know this?"
"'Cause Ah need y'all tuh fix up something special fer me." Jonah pulled one of his Dragoons from its holster and held it up. "Most of the weapons Ah've seen yer folks use are too damn loud. If'n we're gonna be sneakin' around, Ah'd rather use something thet don't sound like Ah'm settin' off a cannon every time Ah pull the trigger. Yuh make me some bullets thet kin pierce the armor them bug-eyes back in the city wear, an' Ah'll be as happy as a pig in mud."
Vezali took the Dragoon from him and turned it over in her hands, frowning. "You want to rely on this... this crude contraption?"
"Ah killed the first four bug-eyes Ah ever saw with thet 'crude contraption', an' Ah'd like tuh kill a whole lot more with it."
"Put me down for some bullets as well," Harris added. "Hex has got a point about using a firearm that's not as loud as those blasters. Besides, our handguns will be easier to conceal if we need to blend in with the other people they've kidnapped."
"Screw you guys, I want one of those big loud guns," Stella said. "Presuming the kickback doesn't knock me on my ass."
Ebrom-Ke held up a hand. "Before you arm yourselves any further, you might want to ask the others back at camp if they want to be part of this. My sister and I are willing, not only to ensure that we can return home, but also to avenge the deaths of the rest of our family."
"Of course. Anybody that wants to opt out should be allowed to. Agreed?" Harris looked at Commander Vezali.
"Agreed... though that is the last request I will honor for your people, at least until I see how you perform in battle."
Jonah growled, "We'll try not tuh disappoint."
* * * * * *
Things had not gone as smoothly as they'd hoped. While the chemical plant had been easy to penetrate, due to its location on the outskirts of the city's southern quadrant, stray blaster fire from one of the guards had struck a holding tank. The resulting explosion had set off a chain reaction all the way down the plant's pipeline, causing fires to spring up throughout the area. Scores of workers and a few of Commander Vezali's people had been caught in the blaze, as well as Pasdo, who still managed to plow the hovo-loader he'd commandeered straight into a knot of very surprised guards before dying from his burns. Despite his previous feelings about Pasdo, Jonah admired him for that, as well as the fact that the big fella had spent the last couple of weeks getting whipped and shocked just as badly as he'd been before he escaped. Luckily, it hadn't been for nothing: thanks to him, Nguyen, and Kiffa, word was now spreading amongst the workers that there was help coming, and if they did their part, they would soon be free. Tonight was supposed to be the first big breakout, but now it was looking like Jonah and the rest of the Army of True Qward might not make it out themselves.
"Everybody, keep movin'!" Jonah shoved one worker after another in the direction of the exit, where a transport was waiting. Many of them still wore their collars, but just about all the guards in that section had been taken out, so there was little risk of them getting shocked. Still, the random explosions and billows of smoke caused more than a few frightened workers to freeze in their tracks, making Jonah's task somewhat difficult. "Ah need some help back here!" he yelled, then Kiffa and Nguyen came running out of the smoke. "Make sure none of these folks stop 'til they're in the transports." He then yelled at the workers, "C'mon, everybody, follow them! Thet's it... fast as yuh kin!"
Another of the large holding tanks blew just after the majority of the workers had been loaded up. Thankfully, no one was next to it at the time, but the shrapnel flying away from the blast injured some of their people. "We are done here!" Lieutenant Jedess called out. "I want everyone at the transports within five ticks!"
Jonah was glad to hear that. Wiping sweat from his brow, he started to head for the exit himself, but stopped when he saw Berkowitz standing with his face to the wall. "Yuh picked a Hell of a time tuh pass water," Jonah said, coming up behind the soldier. Then he noticed that Berkowitz was using his knife to carve KILROY WAS HERE onto the wall's metal surface. "Ah thought yer first name was Marty?"
"It's an old joke... well, I guess it's not that old if you don't know it," Berkowitz replied as he carved the final E. "They say there was this soldier named Kilroy who'd put his name in really weird places to let everybody know he'd been there first. I don't know if there ever really was a Kilroy, but other soldiers do it now when they go somewhere, y'know, to keep the story going." He grinned and said, "I've been tempted to do this ever since we ended up on this planet, but I didn't want to accidentally tip off the little buggers that we were still alive. Can't exactly hide our presence now, though, huh?"
"Reckon not." Jonah's gaze went from the graffiti to the lifeless body of one of the guards laying not far from the exit. He'd shot that bug-eye himself using the bullets specially crafted by Vezali and her fellow Weaponers. Looking back at Berkowitz, Jonah asked, "Would yuh mind helpin' me with a message of muh own, son?"
Ten minutes later, the next wave of bug-eyes loyal to the Crone finally arrived at the blazing chemical plant. The Army of True Qward was gone, but they'd left a memento hanging from the front gate: a dead guard with the words JONAH HEX WAS HERE written across the guard's breastplate in blood.
* * * * * *
Cheers and joyful shouts rang throughout the caverns as Qwardian and off-worlder alike celebrated their victory. Thanks to the raid, the Army of True Qward had nearly doubled in size, and now stood at over three hundred strong-- the Crone's forces still vastly outnumbered them, but it was a start. It would take time to assess the skills of their newest members, but such things could wait until tomorrow. That night, the former slaves were enjoying their newfound freedom, and the war-weary soldiers had found an excuse to relax for the first time in recent memory. Libations were passed around, songs were sung in numerous languages, and recollections about the breakout were already being spun into epic tales.
"This is one of the wildest parties I've ever been at," Stella said. She and Jonah were sitting on top of a flyer in a corner of the main hanger bay-- being the largest space in the entire hideout, it was where most of the revelry was taking place. Jonah had swiped a bottle of rather-pungent liquor from one of the Qwardians early on, and had managed to empty most of it on his own, with Stella taking sips here and there. "Reminds me of the time a couple of years back when my friend Leslie talked me into driving her to see her boyfriend at Wazzu."
Jonah frowned at her. "Whut in blazes is a Wazzu?"
"Washington State University. Anyhow, this guy, who was a total d-bag, by the way... "
"Whut's a d-bag?"
"You know, I'm never gonna be able to finish this story if you keep interrupting."
"Maybe Ah don't feel like listenin' tuh stories right now."
Stella cocked an eyebrow, saying, "Is that so? What do you feel like doing, cowboy?"
In response, Jonah put down the bottle, pulled her close, and kissed her on the lips for a good ten seconds. "Thet," he said when he finally came up for air, "is whut Ah feel like doin'."
"Is that you talking or the booze? Because I don't want you suddenly regretting things like the last time we started doing this."
"Listen, sugar, Ah'm in a good mood an' muh hands ain't shakin'. If'n yuh wait fer me tuh sober up afore we do this, one of them other things might slip away in the meantime. So, do yuh wanna do it up here on this flyin' machine where everybody kin watch us, or should we be civilized about it an' go find someplace a mite more private?"
They eventually agreed to the flyer's cargo hold.
* * * * * *
Watching himself fight from an outside perspective was a disorienting experience. The way the holographic image would occasionally change angles didn't help matters much, but Jonah kept his eyes fixed on it anyways. First he saw himself from three months back, blasting away at bug-eyes with a Dragoon in each hand. A split-second flicker, and it changed to nine days ago as he relieved a dead soldier of his sword and proceeded to clash with another sword-wielding bug-eye, which earned Jonah a severe gash across his forearm before he managed to jam the blade through his enemy's gut. Another flicker, and Jonah was suddenly viewing a version of himself still clad in a tattered Confederate coat, slashing through wave after wave of pit guards with a crude metal shank, his face and hands bathed in their blood. Dear God, how much time had passed since that day? At least six months, to be certain, perhaps more.
"As you can see by this security footage, a direct confrontation with Hex is not advised." Even as a mere recording, the sound of Libra's voice had a slight hypnotic quality. Jonah could recall hearing it sometimes as the attendants prepared him for another feeding session with the Crone, and there'd been a few occasions when Libra had joined him within the Crone's chamber, seeming to take just as much pleasure from the agony Jonah was in as the Crone itself did. The bounty hunter clenched his trembling hands into fists as Libra said, "If you encounter him, kill him from a distance. Do not bring him in alive, even if he surrenders. I repeat: Do not bring him in alive! Kill Hex by whatever means necessary, and bring back his head as proof."
The sound and image began to stutter badly, so Vezali turned off the holographic player on her desk. "That was all our technicians could salvage from the damaged data-pak your people found. It appears that scout flyer* was sent out specifically to find and execute you."
*See "Campfire Story" in Ten Years Later Prelude #1 for more on that!
"Reckon we got lucky then," Jonah said. "If'n Harris hadn't plugged thet thing with his rifle, they more'n likely would've flown right over the new hideout we're buildin'."
Vezali shook her head. "Not anymore. That is the closest any of their people have come to finding us in nearly six spans. We still need to alleviate the overcrowding situation, but I would rather not build in an area they already suspect us to be in. I sent out orders to destroy that site, then move on to our secondary choice." She turned the player back on and began browsing though the images, saying, "I must extend my congratulations, Hex. To my knowledge, only myself and a few other leaders of the Army of True Qward have received personal death warrants from Libra himself. I suspect your insistence on leaving this behind after every mission you undertake had something to do with it." She paused the player on the image of a stone slab with JONAH HEX WAS HERE carved into it like an oversized grave marker.
"Ain't just me. The slaves we got workin' fer us in the city, they put 'em up too."
"And why is that? I am in charge of this army, not you, yet many of the off-worlders we have rescued seem to think differently." She jabbed a finger in his direction. "We do not fight in your name. We fight to bring back the Qward of old, not to bring you glory."
"Ah don't give a tinker's cuss about Qward, or yer army, or any damn glory. Hell, most of the folks thet see them messages cain't even read the language!"
"Then why bother to leave them everywhere?"
"'Cause the messages ain't fer them," Jonah said evenly, "they're fer the Crone." He leaned across the desk, his body partially blocking the image coming from the player. "Thet bastard dug through every inch of muh brain, so not only does it understand English, it knows whut sort of nasty stuff Ah'm capable of. Now if'n the Crone digs into the brain of anybody who's seen one of them messages, thet means the Crone will see it too... an' Ah want the Crone tuh know thet Ah had a hand in all the destruction we've been causin' lately, an' Ah ain't gonna stop until thet damn spire it hides in is burned tuh the ground." Jonah narrowed his gaze, saying, "Yuh got a problem with thet, Ah'll pack up muh satchel an' be on muh merry way."
The commander silently regarded him, and Jonah wondered if she would truly let him leave over something as petty as who got proper credit for fighting this damnable war. Stuff like that made him glad he never rose above the rank of lieutenant during his days with the Confederate cavalry, because obviously your ego got bigger as you went up higher. He was just about to tell Vezali that when the communicator on her desk chimed, followed by a voice saying, "Commander, our sensors are picking up unusual energy readings in Sector 198."
Jonah recognized that designation immediately, as did Vezali, who replied, "Are they coming from the extraction facility?"
"Yes, commander, but they do not match anything Qwardian. In fact, the readings activated an old program embedded in our sensor code. Forgive us, but... no one here in the monitoring station can interpret it." Vezali asked to see it, and image on the holographic player was replaced by a series of graphs and symbols.
"Whut's all this gibberish mean?" Jonah asked.
"I am not entirely sure. It appears to be a warning system installed prior to our society's collapse." She pointed at a symbol flashing insistently in the center of it all. "I remember seeing this as a child in my learning crèche, but the exact meaning escapes me."
"Reckon whutever it is must be dangerous, though, if'n these fancy machines y'all got are tryin' tuh warn us." He turned to walk out of Vezali's quarters, saying, "Ah'll round up the rest of muh platoon an' go have a look-see."
"I have not dismissed you yet!" Vezali snapped.
"Ah'm sure yuh'll get around tuh it at some point," Jonah replied, then shut the door behind him.
* * * * * *
"They really have no clue what this might be?" Stella asked.
"Not a one. Thet's why we're out here." Jonah peered from behind a cluster of boulders at the remains of the extraction facility, which was located nearly a hundred miles away from the city's outskirts. Beneath Qward's crust lay pockets of high-temperature ionized plasma, the main component of qwa energy production, and therefore a very valuable resource. A week earlier, the Army of True Qward had raided this newly-built facility and made off with both the plasma storage tanks and the slaves being kept there, as well as destroying the extraction equipment. Long-range sensors at their base had been keeping tabs on the facility since then: if the Crone's troops attempted to rebuild it, they'd swoop back in and smash it to bits again. Jonah looked over his shoulder and said, "Thet dingus of yers sniffin' out anything, Kyu?"
"Indeed." Kyu, the young Qwardian male who served as the platoon's lead technician, gestured towards the facility with a handheld scanner. "The source is incredibly small yet powerful. It has left traces of residual energy all over the facility."
"Any people in there, or did they just drop off this whutever-it-is an' hightail it?"
Kyu tweaked the scanner. "Single lifesign on level four. That is also the highest concentration of the energy source."
"Reckon thet's convenient fer us," Jonah replied. "Less time traipsin' around the place." He turned to face the dozen other soldiers under his command, the majority of them former captives of the bug-eyes. Over the past few months, Hex, Harris, and the other surviving members of their original ragtag group had created one of the best platoons in the Army of True Qward. Harris had taken half of the platoon out on another mission the day before, leaving Jonah in charge of the other half until his return. Though a decade had passed since Jonah last led troops into battle, it was a role he slipped back into very easily. In the strongest voice he could muster, Jonah said, "Alright, folks, Ah want tuh keep this quick an' simple. Hyien, Gikker, Edwards, Tenzin, an' Olly... yo're on perimeter duty. If'n anybody we don't know approaches this place or comes out, shoot tuh wound so's we got prisoners tuh interrogate. Kill shots are last resort." Turning to the remaining soldiers, Jonah continued, "Target's on level four, so we're gonna come at 'em from both ends. Ebrom-Ke, Koii, D'will, an' Kyu are gonna follow Stella in through the west side, an' the rest of yuh come with me through the east. There's only one fella up there, but don't let down yer guard one bit, 'specially since we don't know whut he's got sittin' up there with 'im. Any questions?"
There were none, so Jonah gave the signal to move out. As the others began creeping across the landscape towards the facility, Stella took hold of Jonah's arm and said, "Aren't you forgetting something?" She then kissed him deeply. "Love you, cowboy."
"Love yuh too, darlin'," he replied, a hint of a smile on his face. "Ah'll show yuh just how much when we get back."
"I'm going to hold you to that." She moved away from him to join her group, which was already veering west. As Hex headed towards his group, one of them let out a shout and pointed northeast, the direction the city lay in. They all looked to see five flying machines heading their way, one of which was already disgorging a squadron of jetpack-wearing Thunderers.
It's a goddam trap, an' we waltzed right into it, Jonah thought, then yelled, "Hyien an' Kellesh, head back tuh the flyer an' blow these skunks outta the sky! The rest of yuh, take cover inside!" The platoon's pilots followed orders, but when they got within range of the flyer, a missile shrieked out of the sky and blew it to smithereens-- the duo died instantly as shrapnel ripped through them. More missiles were launched from the enemy flyers zooming past, tearing up the area around the facility as the rest of the platoon ran for the safety of the main building. Moments later, the Thunderers came with firing range, their qwa-powered rifles booming out. Jonah and his troops gladly returned fire, and soldiers soon fell on both sides.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jonah could see the flyers returning, and as he braced himself for the next wave of destruction, his vision was suddenly flooded with green light, as if a flare had been set off. After months of living on a world of constant twilight and dimly-lit chambers, Jonah's eyes couldn't handle such brightness. He staggered back from the doorway he'd been crouching in just as another missile shrieked overhead, followed by a deafening explosion. Jonah was soon knocked to the ground as the section of building he was in collapsed, entombing him in the rubble.
The world became nothing but darkness and silence and pain-- if the battle was still going on, Jonah had no way of knowing it. He tried to move, but debris held him fast on all sides. There was an intense pain ripping through his gut, and blood was slowly filling his mouth, making his struggle to breathe in such a confined space that much more difficult.
Lord... this is it, ain't it? Jonah thought in a manner that, for him, counted as a prayer. Ah ain't scrapin' muh way outta this one, am Ah? Reckon Ah should be mad 'bout it, but... Ah ain't mad. Ah went down fightin', an' thet's the best Ah could ever hope fer, considerin' the life Ah led. Folks like me don't die of old age.
Ah know Ah ain't goin' tuh Heaven. Ah faced up tuh thet truth a long time ago. But Ah ain't rightly sure Ah'm goin' tuh Hell, neither. Seein' as how Ah'm a hunnert-million miles away from home, Hell might be too far away fer muh soul tuh reach. If'n thet's the case, Lord, let me stay right here an' haunt these bug-eyed bastards fer all eternity. Ah want tuh scare 'em so bad they end up pissin' themselves every time they hear so much as a squeak or a rattle in them infernal machines of theirs. Ah want' em tuh remember muh name... let it be a curse upon 'em, Lord, just like them bug-eyes we killed the other night was sayin'. It's whut they deserve... after whut they did tuh me... tuh everyone... a curse on this whole... cold...
Jonah's thoughts began to fade away, along with the breath in his tortured lungs and the beating of his heart. After so many years of delivering others into Death's embrace, it had finally come for him, and he was not afraid of it. There was a great crashing sound all around him, which he imagined to be the sound of his soul tearing free of his body. And there was light... the same green light that had blinded him just before the building collapsed. It blinded him once more, searing his half-closed eyes until all he could see was the symbol burning at its center: a circle sandwiched between two horizontal lines, just like the symbol Commander Vezali had pointed out in her quarters. Somewhere beyond all that light, Jonah could hear Stella screaming his name.
"It's cold... " Jonah managed to choke out, then let himself slip into oblivion.
TO BE CONTINUED IN OMEGA CRISIS #7, COMING JULY 2018
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