Atriya walked into his apartment, tracking in dirt. He was still wearing his ruck.
Various pieces of training equipment were scattered throughout his flat, showing different stages of wear. Most of it was old and needed replacing.
His weights—presently littered across his living room floor—sported a solid coat of rust that had started as a light creep but had long since settled into a brown, unattractive layer of armor. His gloves and pads that he used to sharpen his striking skills were frayed and uneven; protective stuffing was bursting from their skins. Small piles of overused gear dotted the apartment, infusing his housing unit with a stale, stagnant odor.
Atriya shucked his pack and threw it down.
Holy shit, that feels good.
Rucking replaced his thoughts with anger and aggression. Only after he was done, after that pervasive weight was off, did he feel relief. During training runs, he would forget that pain and irritation weren’t universal constants.
Ironically, halfway through each run, he forgot that he was even carrying the ruck.
Fuck yeah. Time for him to fuel up, rest, and get ready for more training. He marched over to his fridge, opened it, and poked around.
The food inside was basic: fruits, vegetables, meat, coarse grains, nutrient shakes…flavor wasn’t a concern. The stuff didn’t taste great, but he’d gotten used to it.
He rooted through the bottom level, where he kept the fruit. On the same shelf was a mix of performance-enhancing injectables. He didn’t enjoy using them, but he recognized he needed them in order to perform.
Almost half the Enforcer Corps was on some kind of hormone enhancement, although the day-to-day duties of being an Enforcer weren’t strenuous enough to warrant it. By contrast, every member of the Crew was using. If you were in the Crew, you had to juice up in order to recover from the horrendous grind inflicted on your body.
The vast majority of shooters went way overboard, obsessively seeking the next generation of strength or endurance enhancements. The cycle of injectables that Atriya used was relatively mild in comparison to his jacked up teammates’. The bulk of them seemed to inhale a never-ending supply of uppers and juice. Crew doctors, despite the fact that their primary function was to administer battlefield medicine, spent an inordinate amount of time making sure that operators’ organs were still functioning. The running joke was that it had become the medical staff’s unofficial mandate; instead of bullet wounds, they treated needle marks.
Atriya pushed the drugs aside, looking through his options.
As he shuffled through the food, he noticed a plastic container of rotten pomegranates. They were spoiled in a big way—each fruit was nearly engulfed by large, whitish patches of mold. The Crusader had no idea how long they’d been there.
Fucking disgusting, he thought, his face wrinkling in revulsion. He picked the container up, intending to throw it away. As he turned from the fridge, the container tumbled from his grasp.
The lid was loose and it flew off in mid-air. Bloated pomegranates landed on the floor with hideous splats. The flesh had decayed to the point where the berries couldn’t hold themselves together, and a sickening mess spread across the kitchen tile. Nausea-inducing odor exploded from the wreckage, inundating the entire apartment with the smell of blight.
He gagged hard, and a flush of heat curled up his neck—his body’s instinctive protest to the foul odor. His eyes watered it was so fucking bad. He realized he’d turned away without consciously intending it. After he collected himself, he got a plastic bag and picked up the ruined chunks of fruit, disciplining himself to breathe through his mouth.
He chucked the bag into a garbage can and scrubbed the hell out of the tile, using copious amounts of cleanser. He did this for a good half hour. The defiled fruit was nasty shit, and he didn’t want his apartment to be permanently marked by the stench. It already smelled bad enough from his old training equipment.
After washing his hands, he tied off the trash bag and took it out to the communal dumpster. The atrocious odor somehow spilled from the plastic.
How the fuck can it smell so bad through the goddamned bag?
He threw it out, then went back to his flat. He opened the fridge again, downed a shake, then picked out an apple and some strawberries. Both fruits were extremely ripe. He started eating, his thoughts drifting back to the scene on the mountain. Nothing arose from his reflection but annoyance and confusion.
Trying to forget his frustrations, he jumped in the shower and fiddled with the dials. Half the time, the temperature on his shower was wonky. Today was no exception as he struggled to find the right mix of hot and cold.
Motherfucker. Nothing was going his way. He scrubbed off and cut the water, which, after five minutes, had achieved a kind of tepid warmth that barely qualified as lukewarm. He snatched a towel from the rack and dried off.
After changing into shorts and an old t-shirt, he almost smacked himself on the forehead. He was definitely off-kilter; he had forgotten to check his weapons, something he instinctively did whenever he came home.
He didn’t mind if the rest of his stuff fell apart—other pieces of gear pertained to his hobbies, and had no bearing on his job—but weapons readiness was something he took seriously. It was woven into his identity as a Crew guy. Concerning anything work-related, he considered even a momentary lapse of attention as inexcusable.
He crossed his living room and opened a large cabinet where he kept his gear. In contrast to the disorganized mess that enveloped the rest of his house, the items inside the cabinet were neatly arrayed. Inside the container was his linkup rig, a couple of different holsters, cleaning tools, miscellaneous equipment, and his own personal armaments.
If he was off duty, the only weapons he carried with him were a short, collapsible baton and a snub-nosed, five-shot revolver. They would have looked right at home on Old Earth. On Echo, however, they were quaint curiosities.
Both items were plain and simple. The revolver had a spectroscopically enhanced genetic scanner that designated him as its sole user. The baton had a similar system that kept it from expanding in the hands of a stranger. But aside from the security measures, they could have easily passed for Old Earth weapons. No hard light or plasma edges. No hyper-compacted, chain-programmably explosive bullets. No Slave Intelligence interfaces.
His preferences were in direct contrast to his teammates’. Other operators had an obsessive relationship with gear and tech. Nearly to a man, they blew huge chunks of their paychecks on outer accoutrements that—in one fashion or another—supposedly upped their lethality. Crew guys turned into excited children when discussing the newest armor mods, wrist guns, plasma-edged knives…it never stopped. Being a “gear queer” was part and parcel of being in the Crew.
Atriya was different. He eschewed the fancy stuff and stuck to the basics. Gizmos and toys were pretty to look at, but they weren’t the steak, just the potatoes.
He looked over his baton and revolver, checking for rust or irregularities. He expanded the baton, then collapsed it. Its springs and lock responded smoothly. Good. He snapped the revolver open, emptied the ammo, then spun the wheel. Flicked it shut and pulled the trigger, testing the action. Good. He reloaded it, put it back in its place, then closed the cabinet.
With the essentials taken care of, he wandered over to his sofa. After plunking down, he squirmed a bit to settle in and picked up his holo screen: an empty rectangle that was roughly a foot-by-foot square. Its silvery edges were made of chrome-silver smart-fibers. When it was switched on, the middle filled with a tactile-responsive, holographic layout.
He pressed a pressure nub on the side, activating the device. It radiated an eye-catching light. The control display popped up: a brightly colored desktop of items, any one of which would open to his touch. His finger selected a shimmering icon of a book titled Snapshots Of Old Earth Wisdom. The tech sounded with a pleasant voop as the icon enlarged and the display shifted. A soft-light image of a book appeared before him.
The text had been recommended to him by Chaplain Verus, a good friend of his who seemed completely uninterested in projecting airs. Everyone he’d met (including friends, family, and coworkers) was concerned with how he saw them—whatever light that happened to be in—and tried to pander to him accordingly. He enjoyed being around Verus because she never indulged in any of that bullshit.
Not only did he enjoy talking with her, but she was also an expert in hand-to-hand combatives, so he trained with her as well. Atriya’s interest lay heavily in the direction of empty hand techniques. He found that he could easily lose himself in the hands-on stuff, even though Crew guys never really used it.
It made him a slight oddity. Crusaders were taught basic, easy-to-learn strikes and grapples. Their curriculum emphasized using the gear they carried to disorient or incapacitate via a gross-motor strike or break, then get back to shooting. Every movement they learned was specifically designed to put ranged weapons or lethal tech back into play.
Despite being unable to verbalize why he liked unarmed combat, Atriya felt there was something to it…he just couldn’t say what. It was a big reason why he hung out with Verus; he sensed that she was privy to some sort of key knowledge that was integral to his progress.
The book she had recommended was an incomplete gathering of Old Earth stories—snippets here and there. She had cautioned that much of the stories’ context was lost due to their partiality, and to explore what personal meaning the anecdotes held for him. She was the only one that seemed to know about the book; everybody else he’d asked had never heard of it. Couldn’t give a shit either. Whenever he’d mentioned it, even in casual conversation, the response was predictable: A disinterested glaze would bloom on the face of whomever he was talking to, and if they graced him with a reply, it would be something along the lines of: Huh. Old Earth? Pretty cool, bro. He’d learned to stop bringing it up; he knew that his oddball interests made him look weird at best, and crazy at worst.
He flicked at the display, opened a chapter, and began reading. He couldn’t focus though; he kept thinking about what had happened to the stragglers. And then afterwards: that nasty, shitty fruit. When it burst open it had looked voracious and ill, as if there were a deformed monster trying to spring from its guts.
The passage he had selected was about a monk named Takuan. Takuan was instructing an unnamed student on the similarities between combat and personal interaction. It described the student as having such a fearsome aura—
Aura? What kind of hokey bullshit is this?
—that men fled from him. The implication of the lesson seemed to be that too much aggression was counterproductive. It might scare off enemies, but it would also repel friends. Reading the passage only served to irritate Atriya.
Who the fuck wouldn’t want their enemies scared of them? That’s worth losing some friends.
Fed up, he shut off the holo and leaned back on his sofa, closing his eyes and trying to stop his thoughts.
No use. He sat there for an hour, trying in vain to push away the memory of the savage beating he’d seen on the mountain, as well as the memory of the putrid fruit that had burst open on his kitchen floor. He couldn’t help thinking that it had looked alive—and not in a good way.
Over and over, he saw the beleaguered candidates failing to keep up.
Over and over, he saw the bloated pomegranates plopping onto the tile.
In his mind he could hear the fruit groaning and sighing. A noise that might come from a dull-witted mutant, one that garnered pity but still warranted strict caution due to its hulking strength. The noxious gas consumed his imagination; he kept seeing it expand into a repulsive miasma.
Over and over.
Fuck this. He opened his eyes. Time to see Verus.
Want to know why I specifically wrote in certain actions/objects? Here’s the link to the author’s notes for chapter 2: Chapter 2 Author’s Notes