Under the Gun
(the ‘Bullets Backed With Bitches’ Remix)
Copyright July 2013
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This story is a remix, done for Round 1 of buffy-remix, of “Dried Apples and Ammo”, by slashmarks, and also serves as my entry in the 2013 round of summer_of_giles.
The streets appeared to be empty: strewn with litter, punctuated here and there by the seemingly obligatory abandoned or burned automobile, but no sign of life. (Not even bodies; the survivors, however far gone they might be in other ways, weren’t much given to leaving corpses lying about for long periods of time.) In the far background, he could hear the barking or yipping of sporadic dogs … and probably some coyotes as well, they seemed to be making a large-scale comeback. None were in sight, however, nor sounding close enough to be cause for alarm, and in any case were highly unlikely to be the source of more danger than humans could pose.
Satisfied by this most recent survey, which he repeated at every city block or as often as seemed necessary, he readied his rifle and continued the steady advance he had been maintaining for months now, following the beacon that had been instilled into his awareness.
In his education and training with the Council of Watchers, Rupert Giles had been made keenly aware that it was entirely possible that he might see the end of the world during his lifetime. That it had come about — not THE end, but the current circumstances certainly qualified as an apocalypse — was thus no surprise; what was unexpected was that the cause appeared to have no supernatural origins whatsoever. The plague had appeared quietly, grown in ways that did not immediately advertise its nature, and reached crisis proportions before it was even suspected that this was, in fact, a viral agent at work … and, apparently, deliberately engineered rather than having appeared spontaneously in nature.
And, it further appeared, everyone — everyone — was infected.
Some manifested no symptoms: practical immunity, even if none had escaped the infection itself. Even that, however, could not be relied upon, for many of those who showed no initial effects began to exhibit the same telltale signs with the passage of time … and, given the nature of the plague itself, it couldn’t even be known for certain whether this was a further expression of the virus, or an understandable reaction to a changed reality.
For the plague was of madness. More specifically, paranoia: slowly growing, but relentless in those within whom it took root. Killing none directly … but the carnage they wrought upon those around them, and upon one another, was even more deadly. Standard infections, even weaponized, could be avoided by use of the proper techniques and equipment, but those stricken by this plague would actively seek new victims, their physical vigor and their basic intelligence undiminished by the insanity gripping them.
Surrounded by a world gone mad, by madness in all around them, was it any surprise that paranoia might arise even in those who had a genuine immunity?
Perhaps one in ten were exempted from the madness. The 90 per cent who were not, were more than sufficient to bring civilization to a grinding halt within weeks, all over the globe. The only real surprise was that, somehow, the carefully-instituted safeguards (and the remaining sane personnel) had somehow prevented the deployment of nuclear weapons.
At least, Giles believed that no nukes had been launched, and hoped the absence of news to the contrary indicated confirmation. He didn’t know, couldn’t know. With the loss of worldwide communications, there was no way to be sure. Or, for that matter, to have much confidence that the Watchers, themselves, still existed in any kind of effective form.
No matter. They might be gone, but he was still a Watcher, and he still carried his mission.
At length, the mission had brought him to Los Angeles.
He had followed this call clear across the continent, from the East Coast to the West. Since, according to the ceaselessly annoying Whistler (who did not inspire great confidence, but had been the only resource available), the Potential-detection spell drew him to the nearest strong target, that meant the target itself had been moving. No surprise that the still-unnamed girl had chosen to depart from the slaughterhouse that greater Boston had turned into; that she would elect to travel 3,000 miles for new refuge, however, was unexplained. It was likewise a minor puzzle that he hadn’t been drawn to any other Potentials during his journey, for the greatest concentrations were in North America and eastern Europe (with South America beginning to close the gap), but either he hadn’t chanced within awareness-range of any such, or they had failed to survive the chaos that had sprung up around them.
It didn’t actually matter. He had a target, and was very close now. She might continue to travel, but could go no farther west; the barrier of an ocean, and the relatively mild weather here, might have moved her to decide that here at least she could try to build a haven for herself. If so, he would bring an end to any such illusions. The mission demanded it.
Past the area he had scouted, Giles found a new place of cover, and paused to take a long swallow from the canteen while he surveyed what lay ahead of him. He was hungry, as well, but he was down to two MREs and the canned goods he could carry, so food could wait. More was cached in the Land Rover he had used for the transcontinental trek, taking highways when he could but going off-road when needed or strategically advisable; the fact that his quarry had managed to stay ahead of him meant that she must have been traveling in a similar vehicle, until her arrival here. He hoped he had adequately concealed the Land Rover, for it contained other things that he would need once he had accomplished his task here.
That would be soon. He was close now. Very close. Newest scan completed, he continued on.
So close, he had never felt the call this strong before. Less than a mile, certainly, possibly within a few blocks. He stopped again, this time with a different purpose. After first ensuring that he wasn’t exposed to hostile view, Giles took a few moments to look inside himself, assess himself, seek any indication that the pervasive madness might have begun to grow inside him as well. He knew his purpose, he knew its reason, he knew that he was following the mission that had descended upon him with the present cataclysm. More than that, he knew himself, for introspection and self-monitoring had been a fundamental part of his nature since the disaster with Ethan and Eyghon. If the madness had seeded within him, if the imperative task before him had been compromised, he would know. As long as he kept looking.
No. He was clear, his purpose unadulterated and unaltered. Another inspection of his surroundings, in case anything had changed in the immediate environment while he was doing this self-check, and then he proceeded onward.
And, moving cautiously but unceasingly, he at last — finally — found his target.
Both of them.
What the sodding hell —?
Two young women, mid-teens, certainly no more than fifteen. One was dark-haired, rangy and lean, while the other was a tiny California blonde (a coloring just dark enough that only natural sun-bleaching kept it out of the ‘brunette’ range). Both carried weapons: a shotgun for each, and the dark one wore a handgun in a shoulder holster as well, while the blonde rounded out her armament with a sheathed machete. As well, both had knives stuck into their belts, though those looked to be kitchen implements rather than dedicated fighting utensils. Both were thin, as the gathering of food supplies was sufficiently hazardous that none had the opportunity for gluttony, but these two had fed adequately to avoid emaciation. They had seemingly just emerged from their chosen shelter and were arguing — mystifying, but it wasn’t important — about chili.
And, unmistakable to the perception that thrummed in his veins, both of them were Potential Slayers.
This could not be coincidence. Furthermore, it stretched the bounds of all probability that two unrealized Potentials would have had any subliminal awareness that would have led them to one another; instinctively moving together across a room, perhaps, but not over the breadth of a continent. Something else was at work here … and, given how quickly Giles’s original quarry had started moving as soon as he began tracking her, it was not at all improbable that Whistler had set them both into motion at the same time, to satisfy some deeper design of his own. Giles was not the only one with a mission …
… but his was at hand, and this was the time to fulfill it. The madness of the world would not prevent him from doing so; if anything, it demanded him to push the task to its completion. Duty would provide purpose where nothing else could, and his duty was clear. Unrealized Potentials constituted an imbalance, a waste: unacceptable, intolerable, and it was his responsibility to put an end to that.
The presence of the second girl complicated things, but only briefly. If there were two targets, that simply meant setting priorities, making a choice. Giles slung his rifle and drew the customized pistol. It wasn’t loaded, for the drug tended to degrade quickly once withdrawn; after using the hypodermic end of the dart to extract the 2.5ml that was (theoretically) the optimum dosage, he inserted the projectile into the pistol, closed the chamber, and primed the mechanism. The dark girl: not only taller, but carrying some indefinable air that made her seem more formidable, she was the natural choice. Better if he could place the dart into a large muscle mass — faster absorption there than through fatty tissue — but he couldn’t chance striking bone and blunting the needle, so he settled for the obvious site. The gluteus maximus was in fact the largest muscle in the human body, albeit amply padded, and bulky enough to prevent bone impact. The pistol had limited range, but the two girls were moving roughly in his direction; from his place of concealment, Giles steadied the weapon, waited until they had passed him — almost at the outer limit of the distance he was willing to risk, but only almost — and fired the dart directly into the dark girl’s left buttock.
Her reaction was, predictably, instant: she jumped, screaming, “Shit! What the fuck —!?!”, but she was already spinning to bring her shotgun to bear, and the blonde girl was moving just as quickly, reflexes honed by months of unrelenting peril. Giles ducked back down behind cover, he had brought a second dart as a spare, in case something happened to the first, but clearly there would be no time to prepare it just now, he unlimbered his rifle and readied himself to return fire as necessary. Fortunately, unable to see a target, the two girls wisely chose not to waste ammunition by blazing away at random, but began running for cover of their own, moving in a practiced relay that kept one of them sighted along their rear while the other moved ahead. Tough, determined, intelligent … yes, it was well that he had found these two, they definitely could not be allowed to continue running free.
Still, it would be some minutes before he could be sure the drug would have had time to exert its final effect, so further immediate action was required. Staying down to avoid revealing his position in advance, Giles aimed, steadied, and fired in the direction of the blonde girl. His aim was a hair off, she yelped as the bullet punched through the outer edge of one thigh, but after a momentary stagger she pushed ahead hard. Giles cursed to himself; he was a competent marksman, but apparently not as proficient as he needed to be for a moving target, and the rifle was bolt-action rather than automatic so it took him a few seconds to prepare for a follow-up shot. By then the girls had cleared the edge of the nearest building, and he had no choice but to bound in pursuit.
Danger, there. They were reasonably well-armed, and clearly had ample practice in dealing with hostile action. His rifle would have better range and accuracy than their shotguns, however, and though they might be blooded in combat, he had more experience in how to conduct a proper hunt … and this was, indeed, a hunt. He reached the corner, stuck one eye around and instantly back, just enough to be sure they weren’t waiting in ambush. They were still pressing ahead, though continuing to take turns covering their retreat. Giles eased the barrel of the rifle around the corner and loosed another shot, this one aimed to spatter against the asphalt ahead of them and alter their course, which it successfully did.
He had been attempting to steer them away from shelter, a place where they might be able to go to ground and effectively block his approach. In the midst of the nearly deserted city, it wasn’t truly possible to prevent such a tactic, but he could delay it and at least deter them from the most promising cover. (And so much easier if it had been only one of them, but reality was as it was, not as one might wish.) Even with the added complication, his aims were proceeding more or less on track …
Until a fresh complication inserted itself.
As the two girls dashed in the new direction to which Giles had diverted them, a group of shouting men ran out to intercept them. Nearly a dozen: some brandished pistols, firing wildly, but most carried clubs and at least two had swords, the kind of knock-off junk katanas peddled to ignoramuses all across North America. The unprovoked assault bore the earmarks of a para gang, and a dozen was roughly the maximum number that could congregate before turning on one another. They might have simply been intensely territorial survivors protecting their ‘turf’, but that likelihood dropped sharply when the two girls began discharging their shotguns into the rush and it didn’t falter. Giles took cover again, not wishing to draw unfriendly attention to himself. Though this interruption was unwelcome, he took the opportunity to prepare and insert the second dart into the air pistol; another chance might arise, and might do so without warning.
The entire process required less than a minute, but by the time he looked again, the confrontation had degenerated into more direct, desperate terms. The two girls had discarded the shotguns —the tubular magazines would hold only four shells each, he calculated, and might not have been fully loaded in the first place — and were now down to edged weapons. The first blasts seemed to have taken down those of their foes who carried pistols, but they still faced seven or eight blood-crazed attackers, madness making them all but impervious to pain. Odds of more than three to one, but now the girls didn’t even attempt to run.
No, Giles had been mistaken, the dark girl had pulled out her own pistol, and paused to place aimed shots into the group still before them. The blonde charged ahead with upraised machete, following a shallow circle to stay out of her comrade’s line of fire but exhibiting no other sign of caution. She struck, shrieking fury, just as the slide of the pistol locked back, and was hacking among the remainder even as her first victim fell and the taller girl dropped the empty pistol and leaped ahead with knives drawn.
Giles fired one shot, but the melee was too fast-moving and confused, the bullet took down a brute carrying a metal pipe with crude spikes lashed to it — not his intended target — and he reserved fire after that. His intervention would have made little difference, for the two girls ripped through their opposition with lethal totality of purpose, stabbing and slashing and tearing in an unstoppable buzz-saw of screams and blood and rent flesh and dying gurgles. More than fighters: deadly necessity had turned them into killers, and they were shockingly good at it.
Yet not dedicated at the cost of greater considerations, Giles saw; as soon as none of their enemies were fit to oppose or follow them, they abandoned the struggle, ran to snatch up their dropped firearms, and resumed their original flight. Unexpected presence of mind, there, they had clearly never for a moment forgotten that they had another pursuer, and he reinforced that awareness with another shot. He’d not had time to aim carefully, but it kept them moving as he wished, and that was sufficient for now.
They ran into a derelict parking garage, and Giles followed.
Their ammunition exhausted for the moment, they no longer had the option of taking a protected position and waiting to fire on him as he advanced; instead, they had to continue their retreat, and Giles kept them doing so, loosing the occasional shot and replenishing his own ammunition on the run, one cartridge at a time, laboriously but regularly. They ran around the upward spiral, dodging around the support pillars to shield themselves from his aim but never being allowed the time to do any loading themselves. At last, inevitably, they reached the roof of the structure, from which no further progress was possible unless there were fire escapes; Giles didn’t recall seeing any on his hasty approach, and if he followed quickly enough he would be able to cover all the sides to prevent them taking any such avenue. He came out onto the roof at full speed, ready to take aim at the moment he emerged —
— but the dark girl was standing at the far edge, aiming one of the shotguns at him she must have had time to load at least one shell unless this was a bluff but he couldn’t take the chance, he snapped off a shot and chance or instinctive aim caught her in the shoulder, she spun with a cry and went over the edge and the blonde was on him from a space behind where he had emerged, chopping down with the machete as she howled with hate and horror.
She was fast and desperate and focused on his death, but Giles had a surfeit of recent hard experience of his own, he used the rifle to turn the blade with a hasty block and drove the stock into her belly. She took it, whoof!ing with pain, but cut at his ankles as she went down, he had to leap to avoid being hamstrung and he struck at her head as he dropped again. She rolled away from the blow, coming up with dismaying speed, and he backpedaled frantically, struggling to get distance while he worked the bolt of the rifle to insert a new cartridge. She recognized the equation as surely as he did, distance was death for her, and she charged him instantly, driving off the wounded leg with total disregard for the damage he had done earlier.
Very well, he couldn’t get enough space between them and close-quarters was death for him unless he could make it closer yet, so he reversed to go straight at her, getting inside her next swing and dropping the rifle to seize her wrist with one hand and her throat with the other. She didn’t even attempt to pull her arm away, instead slamming a knee into his crotch and snapping her head forward to tear at his cheek with her teeth. It was like wrestling a wildcat, a galvanic swirling mass of savagery and rage, even with his greater strength he was in acute danger of being overcome and killed by a ninety-five-pound teen-aged girl, and Giles struck at her jaw with his closed fist, as hard as he had ever hit anyone, be it man, woman, or — twice — demon.
She went down, momentarily stunned, and he took a step back, drawing the only weapon that remained to him, the air pistol. Already loaded, he needed only to charge the chamber, on seeing two girls he had accepted the likelihood that he would be able to get only one but now the second was defenseless before him, and he leveled the pistol —
She rolled to look up at him, and he checked: bad angle, the dart would be more likely to glance off her skull. He thought to step around for a better shot, but she might understand his intent and keep shifting her body to forestall him, so he simply waited. She had nowhere to go, couldn’t move without drawing a shot in response, and he was no longer in any hurry.
“Why?” she asked. Her voice was raspy, her eyes bright with pain and despair and grief, but there was no surrender in her, only defiance. Not unexpected — she was, of course, a Potential — but impressive all the same.
She was in no position to command a reply, but out of respect Giles gave her one. “It is my mission,” he told her. “There are forces in play beyond your understanding. Everything I have done was necessary for the greater good.”
She snarled at that, and actually spat. “Mission? Hunting us like animals, killing Faith, and all for …” She shook her head in disgust. “And which talking dog was it that told you about this ‘mission’? I should have known not to expect anything better, you’re just as bug-nuts as everybody else around here.”
“I am sane,” Giles insisted with icy control. “I am comprehensively, carefully sane. I have done what had to be done. She was part of that, as are you. Whether or not you believe me is irrelevant at this point.” She pushed herself up onto her knees, and then into a squat, moving slowly, not realizing that she had just lost her protected position. “What matters,” he finished, leveling the pistol, “is that I have you.” And, aiming at the front of her thigh, he squeezed the trigger.
And then she was on him, exploding from the crouch with terrifying speed, and as the dart left the barrel of the pistol she batted it away in mid-air with one hand, impossible, and drove straight through Giles with awful, irresistible strength. He had no hope of withstanding this assault, escape itself was beyond his reach now, he could only scramble pathetically for a few more moments of life. Her fists were stone hammers, he couldn’t evade the blows but he did everything he could to twist away from direct impact, and even so he could feel ribs crack and cartilage crunch and tear, she would rip him to pieces in seconds, he was a dead man, the mission, the mission —!
Somehow, through the haze of relentless agony, he heard the faint, quavering syllable: “… B …?”, and the pitiless onslaught ceased for a moment as the blonde girl turned toward the sound. The other girl, the dark one, clambering back up over the edge of the roof, the side of her face abraded and shoulder streaming blood. “Jesus, I like ta tore my fuckin’ arm off,” she gasped as she pulled herself over and lurched to her feet. “Caught hold’a somethin’, no idea what, I couldn’t’a hauled myself back up here with a hole through me, but …” She caught sight of Giles, and her face went hard. “You got him, huh? Good for you. Scrag the fucker and let’s tear ass outta here.”
“That —” Giles’ breath stopped as his throat seized up; he coughed, tried again. “That won’t be necessary. I pose no threat to you now … and, in fact, never did except by accident.” They watched him with impassive, unimpressed faces, but he was still alive so he went on. “I do have a mission, as I told your compatriot here, and now that mission is yours as well. I’ll be happy to explain, if you’ll allow it.”
“Forget it,” the blonde girl — ‘B’? — snapped, and turned to pick up her fallen machete. “You’ve got no credibility here. In fact, you may not have another thirty seconds to live. Right now your best bet is to keep your mouth shut while we walk away, and even that isn’t a sure thing.”
The other girl held up a restraining hand, however. “Um, B? That thing he shot me with … I figured it was a trank, or poison, but now I’m thinkin’, not. ’Fact, I’ve never been so amped-up in my life, not even the couple’a times I tried crank back in Southie. Le’s hear what he’s got to say, howzabout?”
“He used a regular bullet on you the second time,” B answered, still eyeing Giles as if trying to decide where to place the first cut. “I’m not looking to give him another chance.”
But she hadn’t killed him yet, and with the heat of battle fading, every moment decreased the likelihood that she would. It was clear that the priming serum, and the hyperadrenalized state he had forced upon her, had taken its effect on Faith … but the other girl had somehow attained that same status without the serum, something inside her blazing into overpowering dominance at the moment of direst need. Not unprecedented — in fact, in the past, it had been more or less the common mode of operation — but with the worldwide infection apparently suppressing the activation that had once come upon the most suitable Potential, this was now a stunning anomaly. Stunning … and, perhaps, encouraging. So long as he didn’t lose them now.
The mission still remained, but it could no longer be completed with serum-loaded darts and harrying bullets and a forced hunt. Now persuasion would be necessary, against two young girls that he had given a quite convincing impression of trying to kill. A daunting task indeed … but, fortunately, Giles had considerably more skill with words than with firearms, and he had not come so far to fail at the vital moment.
“The danger around you … has not diminished,” Giles wheezed. “In fact, you will find it to have increased as I show you the new reality you have entered. I think …” He coughed again (broken ribs piercing his lungs? he hoped not, that would be a deeply unwelcome inconvenience). “… I think you are both aware already, however, that you are far more capable of meeting any dangers than you were even a few minutes ago. I can tell you how that came about. I can tell you what it means. I can tell you of the tasks before you, and of why you will wish to embrace them once you understand their import. I have spent my life preparing to deliver such an explanation, and much of the past year finding suitable … candidates … to whom it could be delivered.
“To begin: the world is older than you know —”
That world had fallen into darkness, and it would require time and arduous labor for humanity to climb back up out of it. Still, humanity would endure, civilization would return, and it would continue to need the service of a Slayer … or, it would seem, more than one.
The mission continued, would never end … but now, at last, he would not be pursuing it alone.
And there you are. Don’t hesitate to offer commentary.