Atriya stood up from the sofa, intent on leaving the confines of his flat. It was the first moment of the day when he felt right—when he felt sure about his actions.
He stretched, raising both arms towards the ceiling. Calves and thighs tensed, lengthening his body and lifting him up. Holding the pose, he took a small moment to savor the feel of his expanded form. His arms dropped, and a light rush went to his head.
As if for the first time, he saw the piles of gear scattered across his living area. The rust-covered weights. The stuffing leaking from his pads and gloves. All of his equipment was old and smelly. Some of it was showing the beginnings of mold.
He couldn’t deny it: he needed to replace his shit.
That deeply buried part, the one that enjoyed observing the connections of the world, came to the fore. It whispered that this was the first instance where he’d even so much as entertained the notion of replacing his stuff. Like most thoughts voiced by that hidden side of him, the idea came and went.
He started getting dressed. The cityscape surrounding his apartment was dangerous, and the clothing he wore was tacit recognition of this. He stepped into an innocuous pair of jeans, ones chosen for their mobility: the elasticized fabric didn’t restrict his stride or pull at his hips. He changed out of his t-shirt and slid into a gray collared short-sleeve. He slipped on some dress shoes that gave him the same ease of movement as a pair of sneakers. Easy to run in. Easy to fight in.
The muted dress decreased his chances of encountering trouble. Planet-wide, every cityscape harbored healthy populations of thugs and predators. The other reason for it was that he wanted to look somewhat presentable; Verus commanded mild deference from Atriya—not just through her storied reputation, but also through her conduct and bearing.
The next part was essential: weapons. Every citizen bore armaments. Whether it was a cheap blade or a custom sidearm, it was common sense to carry protection. The threat of physical danger was woven into the air itself; the entire world was unsafe.
As he started towards his weapons cabinet, his line of sight crossed paths with a mirror, visible through the open door of his bathroom. He halted in place, mentally jolted by the clarity of his reflection.
As if on cue, the deeper part of his psyche tapped at his brain, bird-like in its insistency. That contrary piece of him dragged an observation to the fore: this one about clothing.
It had been over a millennia since Echo had been colonized, yet the fashion of today was indistinguishable from that of 21st century Old Earth. Sure, there had been a few tweaks here and there, but lack of change was status quo when it came to wardrobe. Pretty much how it was in most fields, now that he thought about it. Progress was the exception, stagnation the standard. He knew from his reading that within the same length of time that Echo had been settled—almost 1200 years—Old Earth had made enormous strides not just in fashion, but in every arena.
It wasn’t as if this knowledge was hidden or obscure; everyone knew. But it was the same as knowing that computers could run programs and do calculations. Atriya’s ruminations were the equivalent of asking how a computer actually worked. As long as it performed, nobody thought about it. Nobody cared.
If someone had said that right then, he would have disagreed; he cared, and damn what others thought. His psyche had taken to probing at every flaw, every ambiguity, and showed no signs of stopping.
He felt compelled to turn his musings over in his mind and gaze at them from different angles. Study them with the full absorption of a jeweler scrutinizing a precious gem. He was unable to shake the feeling that there was something exotic and wondrous at the core of his thoughts. If he could just see clearly enough, then maybe he’d be able to…
He shook his head, tensing his mind and quashing his reverie. His contemplations had the unpleasant effect of letting a dazed relaxation take hold. He redirected his focus back to what he’d been doing and opened his weapons cabinet.
Displayed prominently in the center was the hallmark of his job: the coveted Neural Linkup Enhancement. Teammates simply referred to it as a rig, linkup, or L-rig. The cybertech linkup was exclusively used by shooters in the Crew.
His mind began bubbling over with extraneous commentary. Unable to help himself, he paused to look at the linkup. Really look at it.
It resembled a spinal column. The “vertebrae” were smooth, black, and deadly-looking. Each section was roughly the same size as a fist. The side of the segment that lay on the shooter’s back was almost flat, curved and plasticized so it would fit comfortably against the skin. Needle-thin “legs” protruded from the sides of the segments; these tines inserted into the wearer’s flesh and allowed the rig to interact with the user’s spinal nerves.
The outboard side of the vertebrae bulged away from the body. High-frequency LEDs were embedded in their centers. The LEDs allowed someone with enhanced optics to assess whether that particular section was working correctly. Green was good, yellow was damaged but functional, and red was inoperable. To avoid compromising light discipline, the LEDs were rendered invisible to the naked eye.
The top segment was different from the others in that it was slightly bulkier. It contained a collapsible visor that expanded up and around an operator’s eyes, giving him or her the ability to see nonvisible frequencies of light. The visor also contained a heads-up display that imposed transparent information onto a shooter’s field of vision.
In addition to the visor, the linkup housed a pair of armored smart-fiber cables that could plug directly into a pair of specially modded pistols. Plugging these in allowed operators to greatly enhance their accuracy via neural link—the connection united the shooter’s senses with targeting computers that were built directly into his weapons. Operators couldn’t shoot with sniper-caliber precision, but they could fire as well as a decent rifleman on a knee, only they could do it at a dead run, and holding a pistol with one hand.
The linkup could also alter the electrical activity in a shooter’s brain, and was capable of dishing out an artificial influx of hormones and stimulants. When triggered, the process would deliver a temporary enhancement in speed and strength via the individually keyed voice command, “Boost me.” The rig was sensitive enough to detect a shooter simply mouthing the words, in the event that noise discipline was a tactical concern.
Every Crew guy aside from Atriya would don their linkup when they went into town. Most never took it off, and left it on even while they slept. It wasn’t mandatory to wear outside of work; shooters wore it because it was a recognizable symbol of their elite status.
Despite the popular image that the Department tried to peddle (Crusaders were ostensibly humble and discreet) the truth was that they were more like wild animals that loved—no needed—attention.
When they were off-duty, operators would move shark-like through the populace to do the smallest things—eating, shopping, running errands—all the while basking in the lowly civilians’ fear and awe. Crusaders reveled in knowing that they exuded a quiet menace, one that was rarely verbalized, but still deafening.
The majority of them also paid for cheap pleasure hacks, and configured their linkups to deliver an on-command rush of feel-good compounds. As far as substances went, getting high on a linkup was far more potent than any other delivery method.
It wasn’t the safest thing, and it wasn’t in regs either. These considerations were blithely ignored by operators and administrators alike. Medical techs that were assigned to the Crew would devote much of their time to repairing substance-driven damage. They wouldn’t say a thing about it, despite knowing that their patients were addicts.
Ultimately, it didn’t change the fact that shooters had a shelf life. On the rare occasion that an operator lived to old age, the wear and tear on their nervous system—not to mention their musculoskeletal tissues—was a guarantee that he or she would end up a cripple.
When it came to traditions like wearing his linkup off duty, Atriya was torn. A big part of him wanted to merge with the pack. Leave it on. Don’t stow it. None of the others do. Drink in the awe from the plodders (a derisive nickname for Enforcers, who, unlike Crew operators, lacked the ability to engage in acrobatic combat), and fear from the graymeats (condescending slang for civilians, who were always coated in a film of dust and fragments from living and working in decaying cityscapes). Enjoy the pleasure hacks. Why not? He sure as hell had earned it—just by virtue of Crew training being insanely hard, never mind the hundreds of Dissidents whose lives he’d cut short.
A part of him kept him from walking that path. It was the annoyingly inquisitive part. That part had enough sway to keep Atriya from immersing himself in the cocky, self-destructive identity that permeated the Crew.
He was uncomfortably aware that this made him stick out, and tried to make up for it by working harder than any of his fellow operators. During his free time he would either train his ass off or spend hours poring through military philosophy and history.
When his mind became hushed—which was almost never—he felt a quiet desperation. It was imperceptible to him except in the vaguest and faintest of ways.
His eyes lingered on the L-rig. He felt the emphatic desire to put it on, fire it up, and never take it off. Despite working ten times harder than any of his coworkers, he’d become painfully aware that he lacked talent; the best shooters would leave him in the dust on a regular basis.
In his unreasoning desire to be a top performer, he would punish himself without mercy. When he rucked, he ran hard enough to make his legs quiver as if they were having seizures. Most evenings, he would visit Verus and drill hand-to-hand techniques with her, or have lengthy discussions about how to be better at his job. At home, he would study books that she recommended in an effort to improve his critical thinking. Blending in wasn’t good enough; he wanted to rise above.
He thirsted after the exclusive knowledge that seemed to define every warrior immortalized into legend. On some level, Atriya knew he was striving for an awareness that would grant him mastery over a handful of key disciplines—disciplines attributed to the truly exceptional.
Yet time and again, he saw the best Crusaders breeze past him. They partied every night, or wasted their time in a hormone-induced stupor. They didn’t bother to demonstrate an iota of his dedication. When it was time for a raid, these same men would outperform him without effort. Not a sweat broken, not a fuck given. Unstrained by the slightest concern, Atriya’s teammates wrote gory poetry with their guns and their linkups.
Lately, the futility was beginning to feel bone-deep. Inescapable. One of these days he would leave the linkup on and let his dreams fade away in a wash of pleasure hacks.
Not today, though.
He pushed the incessant thoughts out of his mind. He threw on his shoulder holster. Checked his revolver and strapped it in. Stuck his baton in a drop-sheath under his right arm, grabbed an egg-sized stun sphere, and put it in a velcro pouch that was sewn onto the holster’s gun-side, just in case he had to run like hell and needed a head start. He shrugged on an easy-to-move-in leather jacket and went out the door.
It was nighttime in Cityscape 42. Cityscapes covered over half the planet, blanketing Echo with vast stretches of urban buildup. Scape 42 was where Atriya’s apartment was located.
Light pollution had rendered the stars into faint pinpricks. The only illumination coming down from the sky was courtesy of Ascension and its four white dwarf clusters. Their radiance slathered the streets with a sterile, deadened cast.
The moon-city of Ascension was home to the Regent, as well as the rest of society’s elite. Special authorization was needed to live there. Every one of its residents, by law, was required to undergo mind-blowingly expensive genetic surgery. The procedure imbued their skin with a chalk-white color, and also a touch of bioluminescence. The light coming off an Ascensioner was proportional to his or her status; the more money and reputation they possessed, the brighter they shone, both literally and figuratively.
Ascension was the heart of the Regime, the organized authority that kept things running. When Echo was first populated, people might have used words like “government,” or “mega-corp,” to try and describe it, but those were terms of antiquity. Governments and corporations had merged and become the Regime within the first century of Echo’s settlement.
To Atriya, the light from the sky seemed overly harsh. Lurid. He couldn’t say why, though, and added it to the growing number of things that bothered him. With a vacant sense of surrender, he resigned this observation to the back of his mind.
Recently, he’d noticed a pattern: he’d see something amiss, it would bug him…but he wouldn’t be able to say why. Most of his irritation came from the fact that he was unable to articulate the why. After fruitless investigation, he’d bury the observation as deeply as he could, stuffing it into the far recesses of his psyche, and hope that it would just disappear.
He ignored the inexplicable offense he felt from the moonlight, and moved through the dusty gray streets. His attention was still divided, but now part of it was focused on his surroundings. The lizard-brain part of him was busy assessing every person he saw. He paid particular attention to their hands, making sure they weren’t armed. A small, paranoid voice in his mind nagged at him: Hands. Hands. Hands. It was automatic.
The other half of his attention scanned a sea of tired, uncaring faces and wondered: Have people always been this aimless? This run down? A while back he had asked Verus that same question and she’d responded that it was cyclical. Times of stagnation came and went. There had been similar periods on Old Earth: eras when culture and progress had nearly ground to a halt. He’d nodded politely, but had lost interest and switched subjects.
That was months ago. Things were different now; he was becoming aware of a growing inability to bury his observations, to forget they existed. It gave birth to a haunting sense of anxiety. He might not always have been conscious of it, but it weighed on his spirit like the psychic equivalent of a loaded ruck.
He knew he was reflecting on things that were above his paygrade. It used to be that he was like everybody else—along for the ride. He used to be focused on doing what he was supposed to be doing, and not concerned with asking so many goddamned questions.
If he tried to talk with his coworkers about anything that wasn’t job related, he would inevitably garner a negative response. Sometimes it was casual dismissal, other times a scoff or an insult. When he brought up the topic of Old Earth or any why pertaining to the existence of the Crew, he was treated to blank looks and puzzled stares. Occasionally, he’d get a response along the lines of: I swear Atriya, if you didn’t work so hard, we would beat your ass for asking these stupid fucking questions. The meaning behind the Crew? Killing a shitload of Dissidents and partying as hard as possible. There’s your fucking meaning. End of discussion.
Outside of teammates and Verus, he didn’t socialize. He had no idea how other people felt about Old Earth—or anything else for that matter—but he could guess. Watching the faces streaming past him, he got the impression that they were cut from the same cloth as his teammates. Echo’s citizenry was happily oblivious when it came to the bigger picture. They didn’t care, and didn’t want to.
His feet made muffled thumps as the blocks passed by. The streets were filled with harvesters that had gotten off their shift. They were all committed to one of two activities: going home or getting drunk.
Over half of Echo’s citizens were harvesters. Everyone else supported them in one form or another. Depending on the assignment, a harvester might end up off world, collecting energy from the bodies of stellar corpses, or be stationed planet-side, working in plants that greedily inhaled power from the planet’s geothermic core.
Atriya wasn’t sure how the power got dispersed, but he suspected that Ascension and the Department were allotted a disproportionately huge share. The rest of it kept the harvesters harvesting. His job was to smooth out problems with Dissidents, so that workers could stay undisturbed in their drudgery.
Everyone knew their role, and for the most part, everyone knew their place. That’s how it had been for over a thousand years. Aside from Dissidents, people didn’t ask questions and didn’t cause trouble. Not for the Regime, anyway. On the streets of Echo, predatory activity was accepted as the norm.
There were times he wished he could stop thinking; stop observing, stop noticing, stop analyzing, just stop. Being ignorant made life simpler. Easier. On Echo, all you had to do was go to work, cling to any pleasures that might distract you from suffering, and die. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it sure as hell dulled the pain.
Atriya’s feet carried him down a snarled tangle of roads. The scapes seemed purposefully made to get lost in. Their sprawling construction wasn’t guided by any grand vision or burst of inspiration; it was all designed to direct harvesters to work sites.
As spectra-probes uncovered neutron stars, dying volcanoes, and other wellsprings that bled off energy, construction would start on fresh streets and rails to shuttle workers to the latest fuel source. Old streets would only be destroyed if they interfered with a harvester’s commute to the most recently discovered aquifer of power. With the passing of time, layers of aged and obsolete city had piled up like rotted wood. Every scape was littered with turns that cut at steep, nonsensical angles, or roads that lead nowhere.
Over the course of centuries, these defunct sprawls had become riddled with pockets of stagnancy—capsules of isolation that lay tomblike and still. These locations existed for no other purpose than to take up space. If Echo was a house, then it was one filled with mold and vermin, one that desperately needed a spring-cleaning.
Atriya didn’t care for the mess, but he didn’t mind it either. It had intimidated him when he was a boy, but that was decades ago. As an adult, he knew how to navigate through the dilapidation so as to maximize efficiency and minimize danger. He didn’t dawdle when he went out; he was humble enough to realize that the scapes could draw anybody into a rat’s nest of wandering.
He pushed through a muddle of claustrophobically small streets, and arrived at an open square. In the center of it there was a public holo platform that was showing commercials. An ad started up. His eyes flicked away from it and took in the dozens of vacant eyes that were fixed on the holo. Like moths to a flame, people milled closer. The light from the projection made their faces look empty. Zombie-like.
All across the square, speakers came to life. They bled static, whined, then resolved into an enthusiastic voice interspersed with bursts of feedback. The garbled speech was unintelligible—something about new entertainment programming. No one paid attention to the poor sound quality; everyone was used to it. It wasn’t uncommon for communication tech to be spotty, especially if it was designed for public use.
While the spoken message was incomprehensible, the images were clear. Pictures flashed through the air, depicting a reality show where the contestants dressed up as Roman gladiators and fought against each other. Their costumes and weapons dripped with ostentatious menace. They roared and pranced across the platform, screaming in distorted howls about how much ass they were going to beat.
More people were drawn to the holo. Watching them, Atriya felt deeply disturbed. Something about the way the shadows capered across their features.
He studied the commercial, and failed to understand why the crowd found it interesting. All he saw was an idiotic display where morons flexed their muscles and played to an audience of uglier and less fortunate morons.
A small part of him, one he barely acknowledged, felt a bone-deep sadness. But on the surface of his mind, all he felt was an inexplicable anger—a rage that flared up with violent intensity. He knew it was starkly out of place (especially considering the fact that he couldn’t pinpoint the cause for it), but he felt it nonetheless.
He turned away in disgust, and continued deeper into the concrete maze. At this point he was nearly at Verus’s chapel—roughly three blocks away. He felt his mood lightening at the prospect of talking with her, but it quickly darkened when he saw Benson, his old platoon sergeant, loitering outside a bar. Benson was a relic from Atriya’s time as an Enforcer—an unpleasant reminder of what he’d had to deal with before he’d passed Crew selection.
While Crew teams were designed specifically for raids, Enforcers’ duties were more generalized. Enforcer might find themselves manning checkpoints, engaging in offensives, executing searches…Enforcers did it all. They were Echo’s equivalent of low-level infantry, but were also expected to fulfill the function of police and sheriffs. Compared to the Crew, Enforcers were much more disposable, not as well-trained, and treated accordingly. Rank and military bearing were taken seriously in Enforcer battalions, whereas in the Crusader Squadrons, the opposite was true. Crew operators tended to see anything that had to do with formality as something to be ignored—or, depending on the mood they were in—vilified.
Sergeant Benson had endangered Atriya’s life more times than he could count. As the Crusader locked eyes with Benson, he swore under his breath. He couldn’t turn away without being rude; Benson had already seen him and was beckoning for him to come over.
Atriya plastered a fake smile on his face and surreptitiously pressed his arms against his sides. The movement allowed him to check the placement of his weapons. Reassured by their honest weight, he made his way towards Benson, remembering the misery he’d suffered because of this shitbag.
Want to see why I wrote what I did? Click here: Chapter 3 Author’s Notes