Read Resistance Online

Authors: John Birmingham

Resistance (page 6)

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The three daemonum approached the edge of the largest pit, a great open-throated maw, large enough for a circular staircase to have been carved out of the walls of the volcanic flume. The rough-hewn steps were not quite wide enough for the two Grymm to walk down abreast of each other, but more than adequate for the Grymm lord to descend with Thresh at his side while the captain led the way. A guard with leashed Fangr waited a few strides from the bottom. He roared acknowledgement of their approach, smashing his mailed fist into an iron breastplate as he stood aside to allow them access to the prisoner.

It was a pitiable thing, and not for the first time did Lord Guyuk question whether he actually stood here or whether he’d wandered through some strangely coherent delirium brought on by sucking addled Drakon eggs. This was a human as he had learned of them from the old scrolls. Thin and stringy prey, so undone by the terror of proximity to even daemon minorae such as the Thresh that it was crippled by deep body tremors, basted in its own pastes and juices and unable to communicate in anything other than garbled babbling, shuddering moans and the occasional scream. Again, Lord Guyuk had to struggle against his appetites as the rank, delicious odour of the calfling reached his nostrils. It was particularly strong down here. Strong enough that the lord commander wondered if the Captain Inquisitor of the Night had seen to the feeding of the guards before they came on duty. It would be a powerful temptation, even to a Grymm, to take just a little bite.

He noted with some satisfaction that the Thresh, although likewise affected, was making an obvious effort to restrain itself. In its weakened state it must have been a terrible provocation, having prey so near and so helpless. Perhaps there was something more to this minor daemon than the dumb luck of having been one of the first through the breach in the capstone. It turned to him now, all eyestalks and anticipation. When it spoke it did so in a noticeably stronger voice, undoubtedly revived by the bloodwine, and perhaps by some empathetic nourishment taken from the calfling, which had tried to back itself into a corner to get away from them.

Stupid calflings. There are no corners in circular cells.

Guyuk grunted in fatigue and exasperation. He had not rested since receiving first word of the breach into the Above. Had not been able to rest because of the way the Hunn had turned what should have been a triumph into a septic wound. As was their way.

‘What would you have me do, my Lord?’ asked the Thresh.

‘I would know its thinkings, Thresh,’ replied Guyuk, holding up a claw to forestall any objection or demurral. ‘I understand it is not within your ken to know such things in the particular. And I do not need an empath to tell me that this animal is terrified and confused to the point of disorder. What I would know are its most intimate thinkings, Thresh, and these, my Scolari Grymm imagine, are to be found in the creature’s tiny head. In the sweetmeats contained therein.’

Both the Thresh and the Captain Inquisitor of the Night could not contain their surprise.

The captain bared his canines involuntarily, before quickly snapping closed his jaw and fixing the prisoner with a blank stare. Lord Guyuk was bemused and even encouraged to see the little Thresh, on the other claw, give free rein to its surprise. This was what the Grymm lord needed. Allies, or at the very least vassals, who could see a threat for what it was and not some arcane blasphemy.

‘But my Lord, it is only. . .as you say. . .an animal. . .’

Guyuk leaned down until his maw was so close to the empath that the little daemon was forced to retract its eyestalks.

‘These animals,’ he growled, ‘destroyed two Talon of the Horde. Their champion, the Dave, not only challenged a BattleMaster of the Legion but put down two of my Lieutenants Grymm. You have confessed yourself to the unexpected extent of the human village you entered and to the unanticipated depth of craft displayed by their smiths and armourers. These would be surprise enough for anyone, but surprise me one last time, Thresh, and tell me of this creature’s thinkings.’

The creature itself seemed to understand it was the object of their exchange, but unlike the Dave, which had not just spoken in the Olde Tongue but done so with the distinctive nasal drone of a Hunn superior raised from hatching within the nest of the Fourth Legion, their captive was all but deaf and mute. Save for its miserable whining, naturally. Also obvious was the confusion and indecisiveness of the Thresh as to how it might proceed. Guyuk was not asking it to merely listen to and amplify the waves ofzhihumming off the human cow; he was asking what had always been assumed to be impossible: to read and express the very thinkings of a creature without such things. Cows did not think. They felt, but they did not think.

The captain and the pit guard were doubtless as nonplussed as the inferior daemon, and both had retreated into stone-faced silence to mask their curiosity. And probably their outrage. For what the Grymm lord suggested, whether on the advice of the Scolari or not, was the very definition of an outrage.

‘The sweetmeats?’ asked the Thresh.

Guyuk squatted down on his haunches so that he merely towered over the empath by a measure of twice its height.

‘In the skull. The Scolari Grymm are not settled on this question, but a consensus has emerged that it is a question worth asking. They entertain a presumption that should the creature be possessed of thinkings, and should these thinkings be contained within the soft grey meat housed within the bowl of the skull, that a suitable empath daemon might consume the lot, sweetmeat and the thinkings within, were it able to ingest both within a reasonable period.’

The Thresh turned its eyestalks on the prisoner, back to the Lord Grymm Commander, and then to the calfling again.

‘Do the Scolari Grymm entertain conjecture of how. . .’

‘With all dispatch,’ Guyuk said softly, with one great armoured limb around the tiny daemon as though it were his own nestling. ‘They advise that we puncture the bowl of the skull front and rear at exactly the same moment and draw the soft contents out as swiftly as prudence allows.’

‘Suck them out? All at once?’

‘Indeed.’

The Thresh, which had recovered much of its composure, if not its shredded hide, took one last look at the cowering human.

‘It shall be done, my Lord.’

Lord Guyuk ur Grymm had not even climbed back to his full height before the Thresh had sped across the width of the cell, caught the prisoner’s head in its talons and punched two neat holes fore and aft through the thin mantle of bone which was somehow supposed to protect the animal’s sentience. The captive creature had but a fraction of a moment to react. It stiffened in shock and drew in barely half a breath before two solid wet crunching sounds signalled the penetration of its skull. Guyuk heard a slight sucking sound and a large pop. The Thresh stood quite still for so long that the pit guard took one step down in anticipation of trouble.

Thresh shuddered violently. The tremors passed quickly enough but when the empath daemon turned around it was observably changed. Not in appearance, but in attitude, in posture, in the way its eyestalks moved about the cell examining every surface, every detail before settling back on the figures of the guard, his captain, and their Lord Grymm Commander.

‘Whoa, dude,’ said the Thresh in a most unusual intonation to carry the most unusual of words. ‘This totally sucks ass.’

08

They tried to get rid of Boylan. Heath in particular tried very hard, which surprised Dave. He’d have thought Compton might take the lead on that.

‘Dave, I have no idea what we’re flying into,’ Heath said as they hurried out of the lounge, where the background mutter of conversation was growing louder and getting a jagged edge to it. ‘But it is going to be a gigantic shit show compared with New Orleans. I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be taking your damned attorney.’

‘Hunter S. Thompson would disagree,’ said Dave, refusing to take the issue seriously. Because if he did, he might have to concede they had a point, and he was kinda digging having Boylan in his corner.

‘And Dr Thompson would be right, God rest his soul,’ said the lawyer, hurrying to keep up with the small group, his little legs taking two strides for every one the crippled Heath required.

‘Dave,’ said Heath, practising his Very Patient Voice, ‘I’m sure Professor Boylan would best be able to advance your interests if he remained here at the hotel, or even at his own office, where, presumably, Brad Pitt and Michael Bay andAmerica’s Next Top Modelknow to find him.’

Boylan, unsurprisingly, was not to be bumped off the A-List so easily.

‘Oh fear not, Captain,’ he said. ‘I am the cavalry, sir. I do not sit idly by and wait for opportunity to seek me out. Rather, sir, I seek it, which is to say I hunt it, without relent or remorse. Wherever my client goes, so do I, even if that means following him into the Gates of Hell.’

He turned slightly and took Dave by the elbow as they continued toward the elevators, led by Chief Allen and Igor.

‘Dave, I hope you realise,’ Boylan said in a stage whisper, ‘that by the Gates of Hell I’m speaking metaphorically, implying that I will accompany you into quite difficult situations, up to and including the mildly hazardous, but I’m afraid I will not literally be able to follow you through the Gates of Hell, should they have opened in Omaha. I’m a lawyer, Dave, and it’s probably best I don’t get anywhere near the Gates of Hell.’

The elevator doors hummed open and Emmeline stepped in, holding a hand up to hold them off.

‘Somebody has to go down and let the hotel know that show-and-tell is over. Hooper will be needing his mighty hammer of smashening. Igor?’

Her unusually expressive cocked eyebrow was enough to let the giant SEAL know she’d be wanting an escort. Dave wondered if she practised in the mirror when nobody was watching.

‘On it,’ said Igor. He followed her out.

Compton finally spoke up when the door shushed closed on them.

‘I flatly refuse to countenance him travelling anywhere with us,’ he said.

‘Oh my. How rude,’ said Boylan. ‘I’m standing right here you know.’

‘S’cool,’ Dave shrugged. ‘You can stay if you want. Compton, X is coming with me.’

‘The protocols simply don’t allow for it,’ said Compton, stabbing at the button to summon another elevator car.

But Dave wasn’t having any of that shit.

‘You got your protocols, and I got mine, buddy,’ he said as the next car arrived and they stepped in. ‘And I say X comes with us. Not sure if you noticed, but your pal Trinder isn’t the only asshole wants a piece of old Dave here, and I don’t see you doing much to help on that score. Sure, you’ll fend off guys like Trinder because they’re pissing on your turf. But guys like Trinder aren’t my problem, they’re yours. My problem is a soon-to-be ex-wife and her vengeful fucking lawyer. My problem is a bunch of carnivorous fucking credit card companies and their debt collectors and their vengeful lawyers.Myproblem is the Internal Goddamned Revenue Serviceandtheirvengeful fucking lawyers, and I know for a stone fact you’re not going to do diddly fucking squat about them, because any pressure they can put on me is going to make it easier for you to pressure me as well.Ooh Dave just come with us to our secret underground military base and we’ll put in a good word for you.So I’m taking my lawyer with me. I will protect him from the Horde and he will protect me from you, and Trinder and Annie and anybody who wants to get between me and my lunch with Brad Pitt. And Angelina,’ he added, muttering to Boylan, ‘Angelina’s going to be there, right?’

Boylan looked doubtful for the first time that morning.

‘I would never lie to you, Dave.’ He frowned. ‘Never. That’s why I told you, quite honestly, I cannot possibly follow you to the Gates of Hell. Because I cannot tell a lie, Dave. Not about this.’ He took a deep breath, as though to pronounce a death sentence. ‘No, I don’t think Angelina will be there. I’m pretty sure she’s gone shopping for more orphans in Africa. But if you like, we can get somebody else along. Anybody, really. Except Jennifer Aniston.’

The lawyer seemed impervious to the ugly glare he was still getting from Compton.

‘That’s too bad,’ said Dave. ‘Jennifer Aniston’s hot.’

‘And she’s not dating at the moment either,’ declared Boylan, brightening up. ‘Would you like me to set something up while we’re in LA?’

Dave would very much have liked that, but Compton cut them off with a single word, loud enough to make everyone jump.

‘No!’

The elevator stopped at that moment, the doors hummed open and they poured out onto the little balcony which led to the suspended bridge to the Chairman’s Suite. Dave and Boylan stepped out, and for a second the others remained behind, as if refusing to follow them.

‘You are not going to LA,’ Compton said again.

‘Whatever,’ said Dave.

And he punched on the warp drive, leaving the others behind him.

He stopped. Everything had stopped, of course.

But that was the first time he recalled flicking the switch on his personal warp core just because he felt like it, and not because of some imminent danger.

Did that mean something?

Meh.

Dave shrugged and got moving. Until he got his Nobel Prize in monster physics, he’d never know.

For now, he figured he’d pick up his stuff, and sure, he’d get on the damn plane for Omaha. But because of Heath, not Compton. Heath could be a pain – the way that a four foot rod of hardened tungsten could be a pain if it was jammed up your ass – but he hadn’t done Dave wrong yet. He had to admit that. So he’d go to Omaha, kick some ass for Heath. But then, by God, he was having lunch in LA with Brad Pitt.

First though, he knew he had to give a little something with these guys, even Compton. Not because Heath could stop him doing anything, of course, not if Davereallywanted to do it. But because fuck knows where he’d be a week from now if he threw in his lot with some asshole like Trinder. Not having lunch with Brad Pitt and trying his luck with Jennifer Aniston, that’s for sure. He’d probably end up strapped on a gurney in some Gitmo dungeon with dozens of tubes stuck in his ass. He’d been in the shit with the one-legged spec ops guy since the start of this thing, and he just had a feeling he could probably get away with a bit more if he stuck with him. After all, unlike his wife, Heath seemed to understand Dave was a man who needed his freedom.

All these thoughts Dave had in the microseconds it took him to cover the distance between the elevator and his suite. He used the key card to gain entrance to the penthouse, closing the door behind him but staying in warp, so he didn’t have to put up with anyone’s shit. Cleaners had been through in the short time he’d been away. A whole team of them, judging by the immaculate state of the apartment. The broken beds and the busted dining table had been replaced.

Obviously not their first rodeo, Dave thought.

All of the clothes he and girls had tossed on the floor, over the furniture, hanging from light fittings, had been neatly folded and stowed away. Somewhere. That was okay. He was cool with the outfit Armando had chosen for him. Looked kind of boss in it, actually, now that he had Captain America’s body. He headed straight for the larger of the two bathrooms, stripping as he went. What he wanted most in the world right now was a quick hot shower and somebody to make his problems go away so he could enjoy being a superhero, which, on the evidence so far, mostly consisted of living in hotels for free and getting lots of pussy.

Problem number one was Annie’s lawyer.

Annie’s lawyer would definitely interfere with Dave having nice things and getting lots of pussy. In that way he was the perfect expression of Annie’s will. If dealing with them meant taking on this guy Boylan, then so be it. He’d never had a decent lawyer before, and this guy seemed to know his stuff. Or at least he knew enough to be persistent, which was more than Dave could say for the useless softcock he’d hired to shepherd him through the separation and on into the promised land of divorce. That ass-clown had basically taken a huge fee for separating Dave from way more than half of everything he owned and earned, before passing it on to Annie wrapped up in a big red bow.

He turned on the faucet and frowned. After a few coughing spurts of warm water, nothing came out. For a second he was about to curse out the front desk, then he remembered he was in warp. The water would be moving very, very slowly through the pipe.

He popped back into real time for a few moments, just long enough to get wet and lather up.

He didn’t want Compton or Heath interrupting his shower.

The more he thought about Annie and the papers she served on him, the angrier he got. A couple of days ago, when he spoke to her on the phone after getting out of hospital, she’d at least pretended to be concerned about him, even if that concern manifested itself in Annie’s usual manner: judgmental sniping. It wasn’t fair, he thought, as he scrubbed away at his scalp under the steaming hot shower. He’d done the right thing in New Orleans. Been the guy everyone wanted him to be. And now she was going to make him pay for it? Literally?

He paused in his lathering. Was ‘literally’ right in that context? Yes, he decided, yes it was. She was literally going to fuck him for everything, and not in a good way. He dropped out of warp long enough to rinse off the shampoo, keeping his eyes squeezed tight, and then reached for the small bottle of conditioner before he stopped, suddenly aware of what he was doing. He hadn’t used conditioner in years. Hadn’t needed to. He didn’t have that much hair left. Its ‘condition’ was ‘gone’. But he’d been so pissed off about getting served by Vietch that he hadn’t really noticed while he was washing his hair that he was actuallywashing his goddamn hair, not just running fingertips across stubble.

‘Damn,’ he said to himself. ‘I got hair now.’

That had been another casualty of his marriage, of course. He’d gone from merely thinning out a little to full-blown chrome dome those last couple of years with Annie. And since the hair had retreated from his scalp of course it’d started growing like pubic kudzu everywhere else, including out of his ears.

Forgetting the conditioner, he finished rinsing off before stepping out of the marble and glass shower stall. He checked himself out in the bathroom mirror, using his towel to wipe away the steam. Hell, yes. He had a full head of hair on the top while his body hair faded off into nothing. Before long he’d look like one of those guys who were on the covers of the trashy romance novels Annie liked to read when the boys were asleep.

Dave grinned and knocked on the side of his head with a fist.

‘Hey. Urgon? You still in there, buddy? Thanks for the fucking do, man. Owe you a solid, orc brother.’

Urgon did not reply.

His thoughts slipped back to Annie, however, and the smile faded.

He wondered if he should call her. Try to calm her down. Or maybe just call the boys and ask them whether Mom had been acting kind of nutty the last couple of days. You know, like extra nutty. He hadn’t spoken to them since kickin’ ass in N’Orleans, a happy parental memory for once. Toby and Jack had climbed over each other to get to the phone when he’d called.

‘You’re all over the net, Dad,’ they’d cried, and for once he didn’t have to worry about whether that meant they’d found his hairy ass hanging out of some chick’s Facebook timeline.

Dave was a hero, a genuine hero, not just on the news but to his boys and that had been such an unusual and pleasing moment that afterward he had gone right out to a titty bar to celebrate. The Penthouse Club in the French Quarter. The whole bar had stood him drink after drink, the management threw him a complimentary lap dance and a couple of the girls got him up onto the actual forbidden zone of the runway to re-enact his showdown with Urspite, one of them donning a gorilla mask to play the role of the BattleMaster while her colleague worked the pole because. . .well, because it was there.

Of course, he hadn’t ridden Urspite like a mechanical bull, or playfully smacked his fine tattooed ass while hundreds of cheering drunks roared encouragement, but there had to be room for artistic licence.

The club had been relatively quiet when he’d arrived, but it was roaring when he finally left, escorted off the premises by an unamused Compton flanked by Zach and Igor.

‘Yeah, good times,’ he said in the mirror, his reflection obscured by the steam again. The lights flickered for a second as he was wiping the steam off the glass to get a better look at his new hairline, but they came back on and stayed on, so he could admire himself a little longer.

‘Hello Dave.’

‘Holy shit,’ he squawked, jumping at the unexpected voice. For the briefest moment he wondered what’d happened to his time warp. But he’d turned it off. The woman at the bathroom door was about thirty years old, blonde, good-looking and. . .

‘Samantha McIntosh.’ She smiled. ‘But my friends call me Smack.’

‘Oh. Hi, Smack,’ said Dave still off balance. She seemed to have snuck into the room under his radar. He had radar now. He didn’t think much about it, but when he did, he could close his eyes and tell where everybody in a room was standing. He didn’t know whether it was some weird monster skill he’d inherited from Urgon, or just the natural amplification of his own senses; in the same way that his strength and speed had been amplified, he supposed.