As the H-Wagon climbed into the air, the current strategic situation was relayed directly to them via hololink. Brushfire lawlessness was still endemic throughout the Sector, and had spread to nearby Sectors despite the Department’s best efforts. Dredd himself remained on hand, going wherever was needed to stem the flow of unrest. Hart couldn’t resist reviewing Dredd’s arrest record since coming on-scene; even for a young Judge, his arrest record and kill-tally was impressive. For one of his years...Hart again felt the pressure of the need to achieve more keenly than ever and swore he’d do whatever was necessary to live up to Dredd’s legacy, even if it killed him.
Wily and Muller were entirely focussed on the data streaming to their display. The reported HQ of the Church of Death was now the centre of a huge crowd of perps, juves and otherwise uninvolved citizens who’d been drawn in by the spectacle unfolding around them. The HQ was in a large warehouse complex in District One, just to the north of KK Block and near to the northern Rad-Zone. Spycam footage showed the blocky building surrounded by hordes of citizens, many wearing Church of Death t-shirts and suspiciously cultist-like costumes, but there were also many ordinary citizens who’d just followed the herd to see what this latest craze was all about. In the distance could be seen blossoming explosions and crackling gunfire from the ongoing Block-War between Kimi Kardashian Block and Peach Trees; it was this that was taking up a good deal of Judge-hours to pacify. For this reason, Anderson had attached herself to the teams tasked with maintaining a cordon around the CoD HQ. The Department couldn’t risk a riot there until the judicial resources locked down in the ongoing Block War were released, as they simply wouldn’t be able to prevent it from spinning out of control. As with so many things in Mega-City One, this was the lesser of two evils from which the Judges were forced to choose.
Kowalski stood back from the holo-display with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Although Martins was now out of commission, the chaos he’d created across the Sector and beyond remained in full swing. Although she and her fellow Judges had performed a minor miracle at Nixon Pen, the fact remained that Fear and Death were still on the loose in her city, no doubt revelling in the chaos and, well, death. From time spent with Anderson and from reviewing Department records, she knew that the undead monsters were subtle and clever, and would never do what was expected of them. The next step would be for them to take new bodies, recently dead but carefully prepared with ‘death juices’, whatever they were. This was their dilemma; the Judges couldn’t be everywhere, and the psychic turmoil caused by the rampant law-breaking and the nodes of thanaton energy caused by zombie outbreaks meant that it was almost impossible to track the Dark Judges. So they had to wait and watch for them to make the first move and hope they could stop them in time. But even this could be a cover for a yet deeper plan, so Dredd was keeping himself in reserve to account for their machinations; if he deployed against a suspected Dark Judge incursion, that would be the last throw of the dice for the Judges. And if that happened; well, Grud be with them all...
Within minutes, the H Wagon touched down at the mobile command post for the cordon around the Church of Death HQ. The adapted H-Wagon was filled with Tek-Judges monitoring bank after bank of green displays, data and lines of text reflecting from the impersonal visors of their helmets. Seeing Anderson’s helmetless head amongst a group of senior Judges, Wily pushed through the cramped interior to stand before her. He saw immediately that she was exhausted, no time for the flippant humour that was her trademark. ‘Wily, glad you’re here. We’re keeping a lid on things for the moment, turning back any new arrivals and sending them on their way. But there are still several thousand people in the area ‘, indicating a wide circle on the tac-grid. ‘We’ve declared this an illegal assembly, so they’re all perps now. The epicentre seems to be this large warehouse’ again indicating a point on the screen ‘but we can’t risk setting them off until we can be sure of containing it and we don’t have eyes inside’. Seeing Hart’s critical glance, Anderson continued with a sigh: ‘Yes, Hart, we’ve cut the power as per procedure, but they’ve obviously got their own generator in there’. At this, Muller spoke up: ‘Roof. We go in by air, land on the roof and then improvise from there’. Quickly, this was agreed as the plan and they headed back to their H-Wagon. As they went, the team grabbed ammo, stim-tabs (and tranqs in Kowalski’s case) and anything else they might need. Finally, as the H-Wagon shot straight up into the city sky, the team pulled on their grav-harnesses.
Within what seemed like moments, the H-Wagon hovered high above the target location. Hart merely jumped out of the vehicle without a word, activating his grav-harness at the last minute. Muller, Kowalski and Wily gave each other a nod before they followed suit; over the past months, they’d bonded as a team, their various personalities and differing skill sets allowing the whole to be greater than the sum. They were as ready as any team of Judges could be.
By the time they touched down on the roof, Hart had already wrenched back an access panel so they could peer within. The whole structure shook with the ear-bleeding, thought-numbing assault of Black Spug being played at maximum volume. If not for the aural dampers within their helmets, the Judges would quickly have been rendered insensible by the sheer noise. Through the rusted access panel, they could see that the centre of the warehouse floor some 40 metres below was dominated by a circular stage. The stage was currently occupied by a group of black-clad juves who were entirely focused on wringing every erg of noise out of their various instruments. The stage was set up to appear like an altar or some sort of shrine, with a shrouded plinth set at each of the four cardinal points and some sort of column or monolith set at the centre. As Kowalski looked at the monolith, a sick feeling washed over her; even if it wasn’t for the glowing green occult symbols etched into its surface, it was clear that this was more than just set-dressing.
Around the circular stage a huge crowd surged, caught up with the sheer abandon of the noise being inflicted on them. Wily winced to think what would have happened to their hearing within moments of the music starting, but that wasn’t his problem. Feeling a hand on his arm, he looked towards where Muller was pointing out a sound desk and bank of generators in the far corner of the space; reading Muller’s intent, Wily nodded. As they formulated their plan to disrupt whatever was happening below, the music suddenly cut off to be replaced by a roar of human voices. Quickly, the roar resolved itself into a single word, chanted over and over again: ‘Rise! Rise! Rise!’. Looking below, the band had been replaced by four hulking figures in black robes and a smaller, similarly robed but more fragile-appearing figure. The larger figures took up position at the head of each of the shrouded plinths, and as one ripped back the covers to reveal a cadaverous body hooked up to an IV line carrying a green liquid into their dead flesh. As the slighter figure stood near the central monolith, the crowd roared and surged forward, clearly thinking this was part of the performance.
Things happened quickly from this point. Without hesitation, Hart flung himself through the opening in the roof, activating his grav-harness as he did so. Although it wasn’t intended for interior, low-level use he was banking on it slowing him enough to prevent serious injury. Cursing (in approved Department fashion, Wily hoped) Muller climbed through the access point and began to swing hand over hand through the support struts until he was directly above the bank of generators. As Kowalski took up position with her Lawgiver at the opening, a pile of Hi-Ex rounds beside her, Wily climbed through with a little more caution and began to unravel cabling from the lighting rigs in the ceiling.
As he careened down from above, despite his best efforts Hart clipped the tip of the stone monolith with his trailing leg and felt a sharp crack. As he landed on the stage, he bit down on the pain, and instead rose to his feet. As the four hulking figures turned towards him, he grimaced and drew his Lawgiver with a practiced ease: ‘Now it’s my turn to drop the beat, freaks’.
Seeing Hart in the thick of things as usual, Wily coiled his hand around the released cabling and launched himself into a wide spiralling arc, hoping to bleed some of the momentum out of his descent before he joined Hart on the stage. In the far corner, Muller had finished wrapping himself in the cabling attached to the ceiling. As Kowalski looked on disbelievingly, Muller executed a perfect swan-dive, curling and twisting elegantly as the cables unwound from his body until he gently placed his Judge-boot on the ground, all momentum halted by his stunning technique. The two uglies at the desk looked disbelievingly at the Judge that had appeared before them. Smiling coldly, Muller yelled ‘the only ‘DJs’ around here will be ‘Dead Juves’ if you don’t beat it!’ as he drew his Lawgiver. Terrified, the perps threw themselves backwards as one, just avoiding the explosion as Muller riddled the lighting desk and generator with bullets.
Seeing the cream of the Justice Department in their midst and suddenly being plunged into darkness was enough to send the crowd into a panicked stampede. As the sea of humanity swirled below him, Wily clearly saw Hart surrounded by what were clearly four vampires. Hart was taking a beating, although he’d had sufficient presence of mind to destroy one of the cadaver-bearing plinths with an incendiary round. As Wily finally swung towards the stage, he took the opportunity to apply Judge-boot to the back of a vampire’s head: ‘You’ve got no soul, so have some of mine creep!’. Pleased with his witty entrance to the fight, Wily rose to his feet and drew his Lawgiver. The smile died on his lips, however, when he saw the way the vamp to which he’d just applied his sole looked at him: the word ‘hungrily’ sprang to mind...
To an observer, the next minutes would be a staccato series of images lit up by the phosphorous glare from a stream of gunfire unleashed by the Judges. The proximity of Hart and Wily to the vampires made life difficult for Kowalski and Muller, as they couldn’t deploy their favoured tactic of ‘Hi-Ex to the face’ when faced with vampire perps. As a result, both of the Judges on the stage took heavy damage from the claws of the creatures, particularly as their focus was on the plinths containing the cadavers rather than the vampires’ slavering jaws. The whole team had quickly identified that these were the real threat, as they could be used by the Dark Judges as hosts. To prevent that, well; any casualties could be deemed acceptable, even fellow Judges.
Amidst the mayhem, no-one took much notice of the smaller robed figure as it moved to the crowd, snatched up a squealing perp wearing a ‘Death Lives!’ t-shirt and dragged him over to the central monolith. High up in the rafters, Kowalski looked on in horror as the robed figure opened the perp’s jugular, causing blood to arc towards the pillar. As soon as the blood touched the stone, Kowalski felt a dreadful pressure within her mind. Above the pillar, unseen by those below, she could almost taste the presence of Death as he and Fear coalesced in spirit form. Coiling like the greasy smoke from a funeral pyre, the Dark Judges began to move in a spiral down towards the monolith. In her mind, she heard the sibilant words forming even as her soul shrunk away in horror: ‘Yesss, give usss form! Let the sssinnerss be judged!’ Reeling in shock, she let out a scream of horror.
All that her fellow Judges heard was a high-pitched, warbling scream through their helmet comms, seeming to form the words ‘"Aim for the drokking slabs! He's almost heeere!’. At this, the slight, berobed figure looked up at Kowalski, and their minds briefly met. With a shock, Kowalski saw through the illusion that had cloaked the figure’s true form; not a frail human after all, but a huge, grossly mutated form that positively seemed to burn with the dark light of death. A tracery of green lines covered the figure’s immense, pulsing musculature, clearly related to the green retrovirus created by Martins at Everpet. But what was most disturbing was the perp’s face; atop this crime against nature was an all-too-human face. The face of a young girl with sad eyes, instantly recognisable from ID shots Kowalski had seen what seemed like an eternity ago; this was what remained of Jennifer Radley at the end of her dark road of discovery and it was both more and less than human.
It seemed that Kowalski’s realisation caused the illusion to fall away from all the Judges’ eyes. Summoning up the last reserves of his strength, Hart tried to leap atop the monolith, hoping to topple it over onto the Jennifer creature. Unfortunately, the effort proved too much for him and he fell back badly wounded, as the thing with a girl’s face came for him. But Wily was too quick; turning away from the burning remnants of the final plinth, he sprayed the creature with SE shells, turning its attention from Hart to himself. Seeing the hate and urge to kill burn in the thing’s eyes, Wily wondered whether he’d made the right decision.
With the destruction of the final plinth, Kowaski felt a wave of superhuman rage and frustration wash over her from where the spirits of the Dark Judges faded away into nothing. As they went, she felt a cold certainty that they were not defeated, merely delayed. Death was too canny a foe to be beaten so easily.
As Death and Fear disappeared into the aether, the vampires advancing towards Hart jerked as though they were vid-puppets with faulty code. Their grim purpose seemed to have fled along with the Dark Judges, and now their desire for blood took over. Unable to resist the lure of so much living flesh nearby, both threw themselves into the surging crowd, adding to the chaos. Badly wounded and bleeding profusely, Hart dragged himself to the side of the stage and propped himself up against a smouldering plinth, a small grimace of self-satisfaction twisting his lips before he blacked out.
Unlike the lesser vampires, Beast-Jennifer was less affected by the failure of the ritual. Although it was obviously shaken by the Judges’ intervention, it remained utterly focussed on taking revenge on the Department in the person of Wily before it. One exchange of blows convinced Wily that there was no way he’d defeat this thing on his own, so he threw himself backwards and crowd-surfed away from the beast, firing his Lawgiver until he finally disappeared from view. Enraged, the thing leaped after him but in its wounded state was unable to reach its tormentor. Instead, it was carried away by the flow of human detritus, lashing about itself and howling as it disappeared into the darkness.
Within minutes, the ceiling-height main warehouse doors began to open, the glare of the late afternoon light pouring in on a scene of devastation. The floor of the warehouse was covered with the forms of wounded and dead citizens and perps, and the Riot Squads began to expertly corral and process the remaining throng. The remaining feral vampires were quickly located and put down, and the mammoth task of sorting the living for med-tek support and the dead for Resyk began, meat wagons queueing along the slab. Wily pushed his way to the stage and began to administer first aid to Hart, yelling for a Med-Judge to assist. By the time the remainder of the Tac-Team joined him, Hart was safely entombed in a mobile SpeedHeal machine aboard a Med-Wagon. As they stood amongst the aftermath, a troubled-looking Anderson approached along with another couple of Psi-Div Judges. Nodding to Kowalski, she began: ‘A job well-done here, but this isn’t over yet. Death and his freaky friend won’t give up that easily, and whilst they’re still on the loose the City is at risk’. Nodding to her companions, she went on: ‘In the last 30 minutes, Precogs have been getting strong flashes of something about to happen in the Undercity, something bad. I’m going down there and you’re coming with me. Dredd is going to stay mobile topside in case this is just another dead-end’. Cracking a smile at her own unwitting pun, she turned to Wily. ‘Let’s go downtown and see what the nightlife’s like’.