“Marco shivered. It reminded him of some ruined city from an old fantasy novel, perhaps once beautiful, now full of ghosts and demons lurking in the depths. As they drew closer, movement caught his eye, and he saw a shadow rising from the city, fluttering against the red sky, rising higher and higher until it was but a speck, barely perceptible against the gurgling tapestry of Indrani. It must have just been a scrap of cloth on the wind, yet Marco couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a bird, a black vulture that was watching them, waiting to feed upon them.
After an hour of walking, the company reached a concrete wall that encircled the city. The wall rose several times the height of a man, topped with barbed wire and guard towers. Marco saw no guards, and when he pointed his flashlight, he saw graffiti sprayed across the concrete: Welcome to Hell.
He shuddered. "Not the friendliest greeting I’ve seen," he muttered to Addy.
She pointed her flashlight at another section of the wall. "I like that one better. Look! It’s Kilroy!"
This second graffiti showed a cartoon figure, bald and long-nosed, peering over a wall. Words appeared beneath the figure: Kilroy died here.
"Adorable," Marco said.
The company advanced until they reached the gates of the city. Two deserted guard towers rose here. Metal bars rose between them, forming a corridor like a cage. Three barred revolving doors filled the tunnel. The company paused outside the gates, weapons raised. At a silent signal from Captain Petty, they inched closer, then froze, staring.
For a long moment they stared, and the only sound came from the wind. It moaned through the city like a living thing, creaking the revolving doors. Another scrap of cloth fluttered high above, and a caw sounded, the hoarse sound of a bird or perhaps bending metal in the wind.
Captain Petty was staring at him, Marco realized. Her voice crackled to life inside his earbud.
"Private Emery, enter the gateway. Walk through the revolving doors into the city."
Marco cringed. So he would be the canary in the coal mine. He wanted to refuse, but he had a feeling that disobeying Captain Petty meant a swift court-martial. He decided to take his chances with the gateway. He nodded and spoke into the microphone that protruded from his helmet. "Yes, ma’am."
"Go kick their asses!" Addy whispered to him, giving him an encouraging pat on the backside.
Marco groaned. "Addy, I told you, it’s thoraxes."
Leaving his squad behind, he walked toward the gates, raising his assault rifle. A magazine was already loaded, and he kept one hand on the charging hammer, ready to load a bullet into the chamber. He walked between the guard towers. Their turrets gazed down at him like eyes, like two sphinxes under the sanguine sky, judging him, condemning him, welcoming him into their domain. Welcome to Hell, the graffiti had said. They’re dying to get in.
The cage-like tunnel stretched before him, the metallic gullet of a beast, filled with the revolving doors. Marco took a deep breath, then pushed one revolving door. It gave a horrible shriek, so loud that he froze halfway through and winced. Slowly, he pushed his way through, the door creaking, the sound almost organic, almost demonic. Marco walked onward down the tunnel. Metal bars rose alongside and above him, as if he were walking through one of those cages divers used when swimming with sharks. Concrete pillboxes rose at his sides, full of slits for guns, but still Marco saw no guards.
It was a clever configuration. Should any scum land outside the city and try to enter, they’d have to pass through this gauntlet, soldiers firing from both sides. Except Marco saw no soldiers here now. The city was undefended.
He made his way past the second revolving door when he heard the caw again. He raised his eyes, and there! He saw it above! A black vulture, huge, the size of a man, and it had a human face. A red face with black eyes. But then he looked again, and it was only another scrap of cloth, rising in the wind and falling somewhere in the distance. Marco shuddered. His mind was playing tricks on him.”