Benson’s ruddy face broke out in a jowly, repugnant smile. He called out, “Kishchan!”
Atriya hated being called by his first name. He hated it enough to where he would tell people it was Christian instead of Kishchan (and why not, he reasoned; Christian was the older, root form of it). Benson, always happy to nettle a subordinate, had never called him anything but Kishchan.
The sergeant had somehow intuited that it pissed Atriya off. Benson was in possession of that powerful magic that all bullies were endowed with: the one that allowed them to hone in on what was irritating and disrespectful and—without being blatant or overt about it—prod patiently away until there arose a slow burning, soul rattling fury.
Atriya made his way toward his old boss, the skin around his eyes aching with the effort of locking in a fake grin. It didn’t just feel false; the act of smiling was physically uncomfortable.
Three pairs of eyes—previously directed towards Benson—slid toward Atriya, curious.
Looks like he’s got himself a new crop of goons.
Atriya wasn’t surprised by the entourage; Benson exuded the ugly, trademark charisma that radiated off tyrants. As a result, he was perpetually surrounded by a clique of thuggish numbskulls.
Benson gestured grandly with a glass of something alcoholic. “I was just talking about you man. The good old days. You were green as hell and I was assigned to mentor your ass. You remember that shit? Clearing city like motherfuckers read about.”
Benson’s lackeys leaned closer, their interest growing. Atriya saw that they were all clutching drinks. Their skin was flushed, but their bodies—and more importantly their eyes—looked steady. Coiled and mean.
Not in the mood for this.
The pained quality of Atriya’s smile ticked up a notch. Boozy war stories were not his thing. Time to make a quick exit.
“Well, Sergeant, it was great seeing you, but I’ve got someplace—” Atriya shifted his body, taking a purposeful step towards the street, but Benson’s arm thumped against his chest. Not with enough force to be egregious…but still. Atriya looked down and saw that the sergeant’s hand was wrapped around a bottle.
“What the fuck, Kishchan? Don’t be a pussy. Stay and chat. Here—have yourself a drink.” Benson’s obnoxious smile widened into an unattractive rictus. His face tilted in, and Atriya’s eyes were hit by the unappetizing sight of bloated pimples. The Crusader’s sense of smell was assaulted by Bensons’s breath, a stinking waft that was muggy from dip and drink. Atriya glued his smile in place so it didn’t become a snarl. His fingers felt wooden as they grasped the bottle.
“Thank you Sergeant.” He said this in the same measured tone used to guide someone that had frozen on a mine through a set of avoidance measures.
“I was just telling the boys about when we drop-shipped into Scape 31. You and me, right?” Benson’s eyes flicked skyward, and his caveman face took on a musing expression. “Damn, those were the good old days, weren’t they? Think it was five years back.” The sergeant turned to his flunkies. “Clearing city that day was a pain in the ass. Dissidents dug in like fucking ticks. Me and Kishchan here—” He slapped a smelly hand on Atriya’s shoulder. The Crusader saw what he thought was old snot on the index finger. “—were entering probably what I’d say was our…mmm…fiftieth room that day. We were both down to pistols. A step up from holding your dick in your hand, you know? My rifle had taken a hit in the receiver, courtesy of some Dissident sniper, so it was pretty much useless. Guy had taken out half our squad and burnt our heavier guns with some well-placed rounds. Damn good shot, I’m telling you.” Benson shook his head with grudging respect. His stooges nodded respectfully along. “He had some kind of ranged energy weapon—you guys know how accurate those are due to their lack of recoil. We didn’t have suppressive guns—none that worked anyway—and our rifle ammo was running low.” Dramatic pause.
“Anyways, our remaining guys were providing cover for another squad so they could try and shift to a better position. The net sparks up and we hear there’s an officer pinned down in the building directly across from us. We get orders to send our guys in and save this idiot, but seeing as how we’re close to being completely fucked ourselves, all we can spare is me and Kishchan. We need our leftover guys to cover our approach. Think at that point we were down to eight. We’d started with sixteen.” Benson paused, taking another slurp from his glass. His three-rookie audience huddled closer, drinking in the ambience of guts and glory.
Atriya tightened his grip on his drink. His anger built as he realized that Benson was twisting events so that he looked like a hero and not some bumbling piece of shit.
“Me and Kishchan break from cover. We sprint like fuck across the street. Our squad lays down a mag. We’d left our spare rifle ammo with our guys so they had enough rounds to give us some breathing room; that should tell you how bad off we were. Quick stack on the door—no need to worry about kicking or blasting it ‘cause it’s blown to fuck—and I hook right while Kishchan crosses left. And then—holy fucking Judge’s Day—I got six hostiles on my half, all with weapons shouldered. Without thinking, I get to work.” Another slurp.
“Lemme tell you: that day, I was on fucking fire. I drop five with five shots. I’m closing in on the sixth when he grazes my helmet with a round. Throws me off. I’m dazed—don’t know if my brains are in my head or splattered across the floor…but fucking whatever, right? Don’t join the Department if you aren’t ready to man the fuck up. Anyways, my next three shots go wild and my gun goes dry. I yell ‘check’ to let Kishchan know I’m taking a knee to reload.”
Benson took another swallow. He ran a calculating gaze across his audience. They were enraptured. Streetlight reflected off their pupils, making them look completely spellbound. This wasn’t the case with Atriya.
Atriya was barely holding back from turning Benson’s fat, lying face into a pulpy mess.
Benson leaned in, taking on a no-nonsense, you guys know what I’m talking about air. It was the same mannerism that con men used to imply that anybody disagreeing with them was not just in error, but a ridiculous jackass. His three followers leaned in with him.
God, the man’s breath stank. Atriya didn’t know how the human body could emit a stench as bad as shit from any place other than one’s asshole, but miracle upon miracles, Benson had apparently figured out how to pull it off.
“Okay, so you three haven’t gotten trigger time, but you know that when you’re reloading, you’re on a knee and you call out good when you’re ready, right? So your shooting buddy knows to hoist you up. You don’t just stand up by yourself because that’s a fucking safety hazard; your team needs to know if you’re going to pop up so you don’t accidentally flag your guys. Flagging is when a friendly muzzle points at a teammate. You also don’t want to smack into the shooter behind you—that puts everyone at risk.” Benson’s stooges were nodding along, as if this were the sagest information to ever fall from human lips.
Atriya watched them, simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Everybody knew what flagging meant; it was one of the first things you learned as an Enforcer: Don’t flag your buddies. When Benson explained it to his three charges, however, they all acted as if they were hearing it for the first fucking time.
Obviously, Benson wanted to be the hero, the go-to guy—that was something Atriya could accept and understand (he found it distasteful, but he could still accept it; he wanted the same thing, only in a different context). What pissed him off to no end was the way Benson’s subordinates—to a fucking man—were pretending that what Benson was talking about was new and innovative. Like they all didn’t know what flagging was, or how to do reloads in a hot room. Everyone knew.
As Benson droned on, spewing lie after lie detailing how brave and on point he was, Atriya was reminded of why he’d applied for Crew selection. He’d done it to get away from men like this. The Enforcer platoons seemed to have no shortage of these grandstanding shit-talkers.
Like every good bully, Benson was a showman. And now, it appeared that he wanted to accentuate his story with a visual demonstration. “Here, hold my drink Smith.” He stopped blowing hot air and handed his glass off, carelessly sloshing liquid onto Smith’s chest. Smith didn’t seem to mind; he actually looked kind of grateful.
Brown-nosing little cocksucker.
“James, pretend you’re me while I’m doing a reload. Get on a knee.” The Enforcer named James trotted obediently over and sunk down. Benson looked around, checking to see that he still had everyone’s attention.
“So I’m Kishchan. James is me. James does the reload and calls out his status.” Benson gave James an unnecessarily forceful nudge with his knee. “Call it out, James.”
James pitched forward, nearly losing his balance. He looked up, a little surprised, and called out, “Good!”
Benson looked around again, making sure he was still the star of the show. His face took on the expression of a man who knew he was describing the painfully apparent, but nobly holding back the brunt of his exasperation. “Now we all know that when your shooting buddy calls that out, you hoist him up with your off-hand. Just like—” Benson’s left hand bunched on the folds of James’s jacket and jerked him up. The movement was too abrupt for James to get his feet under him in time, and the fabric of his jacket absorbed the excess pull. An audible rrrriiiiIIIIPPP sliced through the air. As James stood, he canted his head towards the damaged part of his jacket, dismay clearly visible upon his face. Benson ignored it. Couldn’t interrupt the great and wise Benson. Not when he was on a roll—that would be tantamount to a capital crime.
“—like that. We do this for safety. You all know how this goes, right? Well Kishchan here—” Benson shot a vulgar nod toward Atriya.
“He pulls me into him, knocking us both over. Like—” Benson pulled hard on James, yanking the younger Enforcer off his feet and causing him to stumble onto his butt. James was forced to break his fall by sinking to a crouch and catching the ground with his hands. “Just like that.”
Benson, of course, had remained standing. Not a surprise: The Great and Wise Benson was too great and wise to follow the rules of his own fucking production.
“So I’m on my back, Kishchan is doing God knows what, and there’s two hostiles closing in from a door that’s opposite our entry—maybe twenty, thirty feet away. I’ve also sprained my off-hand so badly it’s shaking. That’s courtesy of Captain Goddamn Graceful over here—” He looked towards Atriya, and the four of them did the mob mentality thing where a unified chuckle emerged from multiple people. It was something that Atriya detested, and it only served to fuel his anger.
“At this point I can’t grip my pistol with both hands, and I’m ass over tea kettle, so I make do with what I’ve got. I one-hand my weapon like a goddamn Crew guy—except that I ain’t got no fancy cybertech linkup to aim for me—and I blow those Dissident fuckers off the face of Echo.” Benson made a pistol with the fingers of his free hand and mimed the shots. “Probably the best shooting you’ll ever hear about,” he added smugly, running his gaze over his audience.
His followers were hypnotized; their eyes were wide, their mouths agape.
“Well that was it. We deadcheck the bodies—you guys know, make sure they’re down by putting one in their heads—and push into the next room. Drama free after that. The net wasn’t acting up—for once, Judge be praised—and we were able to make comms with the officer. He had two other Enforcers with him. Two guys—that was all that was left from his original unit. Before they’d started the op, there’d been a whole platoon of ‘em—like forty something grunts—that had gotten bogged down in that building. Pay attention to what the fuck you’re doing, ’cause that’s what can happen. Every one of those idiots got zeroed except for those three. Just a bad fucking day for ‘em, I guess.” Benson shook his head in a poor show of humility. “Anyways, we get the remaining shooters out, call for extract, and head home. And that’s how I got this beauty.”
Benson reached under his shirt and pulled out the Star of Valor, the Department of Enforcement’s highest decoration. Atriya found it hard to believe that his three cronies could have looked any more in rapture than they already did, but they somehow managed as their eyes fixated on the gaudy piece of medal poking out from Benson’s shirt.
Atriya couldn’t keep the disbelief from showing on his face. He couldn’t believe that Benson wore his medal out in town, or that he flashed it around like some kind of holy fucking artifact.
James smacked his other two cohorts on their shoulders. “Hey—you guys know the regs: ‘In garrison, any personnel awarded the Star of Valor shall be rendered a salute regardless of rank and/or setting.’” He rattled off the instruction with the solemnity of a true believer. The three of them carefully set their drinks on the ground, nodding and murmuring their agreement.
The three goons straightened, then snapped off parade ground-perfect salutes. Benson tried to look humble, but any idiot could see the smugness oozing from the glistening corners of his upturned lips. He returned the salute and nodded at his three subordinates, waving dismissively while making false noises of humble protest. Atriya felt his gorge rise.
The four Enforcers turned expectantly toward Atriya. The Crusader stood stock still, inwardly yearning to be anywhere else. Anywhere where he wouldn’t have to salute Benson.
The seconds ticked by. Anger and tension dripped and pooled. It was weighty and maddening—an itch that dug deeper and deeper. James was the first to speak up.
“Sergeant Benson says you’re a Crusader. Well Crusader or not, the regs still apply to you. So why aren’t you fucking saluting?” The younger Enforcer had lifted his shoulders up and back, forced his chest out, and craned his neck aggressively forward. Benson stood a few yards away, arms crossed, while the other two Enforcers fanned out to either side of James, forcing Atriya to use his peripherals to keep track of them.
This was not a good position to be in.
Slow breath in, forceful exhale out. Atriya bit back all the things that he desperately wanted to accuse Benson of being. Shitbag. Coward. Incompetent. The enemy. No, Benson was worse than the enemy, because the enemy was honest. The enemy tried to kill you and let you know it. Here was somebody you had to rely on to protect your flank but could never be sure about; a man you could never trust not to rationalize his craven backstabbing into a noble act.
And the worst part? The worst part was that Atriya suspected—it was just a hunch, but it was a strong—that Benson’s actually believed what he was saying, simply by virtue of the fact that he’d repeated it over and over; to others, and to himself as well. He’d brainwashed himself with his own lies. Or so Atriya believed.
But whether Benson’s behavior was due to the fact that he bought his own bullshit, or from a conscious decision to deceive others, or from some jackass mix of the two…the verdict was still the same:
Atriya’s eyes flicked back and forth, keeping track of potential threats and mulling his options. At last, he decided to try and go the civilized route. He had an appointment to keep, and wanted to look presentable. Getting in a fight wasn’t going to help him realize his goals.
The Crusader bent to the ground and gingerly set down the bottle he’d been holding.
Burning with rage, he straightened up, ready to salute. His heels clicked together, toes facing outboard at moderate angles, left hand straight and unyielding against the side of his thigh. His right hand snapped crisply up, knife-like, palm angled slightly inward, fingers near his temple. His face was a stony mask.
Atriya saluted Benson, and like so many others in the Department required to do the same, he paid homage to this inverted mockery. This caricature. Sergeant Benson was all the more offensive because nobody seemed to see him for what he truly was. They all believed the twisted, easy-to-swallow story that this parasite doled out to them.
Benson’s grin had grown to epic proportions. He let Atriya hold the salute for longer than was appropriate. Then, maintaining his loose and casual stance, Benson flicked his right hand up to his forehead and dismissively threw it towards Atriya. His index and middle fingers were somewhat straightened, but the motion clearly fell short of a real salute. Through his gesture, Benson adhered to the semblance of propriety while returning nothing but disrespect.
“Why don’t you take off Kishchan. Oh, and try not to get anyone else nearly killed.” Benson turned his back to the Crusader, a cloying smirk plastered across his fat, repellent face.
For a throbbing moment, Atriya stood fixed in place. There was no indication that he was on the brink of losing it. Not visibly. But he could feel a pair of tics under the skin of his cheeks, the muscles flitting as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. It was something that happened when his anger built up, when the energy in his psyche begged to be released in the form of destruction.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Slowly, ever so slowly (though it was only a few keen, sharp seconds), Atriya regained control. The tremor in his cheeks eased…then ceased. His chest loosened. While he wasn’t relaxed, he was no longer on the verge of killing Benson.
It wouldn’t be right to meet with Verus and be scuffed or hurt because I got in a fight.
Another breath, deep and steady.
Think of Verus.
He was already taking the first few steps towards his destination, trying to forget about Benson, when his mouth betrayed him. Atriya heard himself say: “You’re a fucking liar, Benson. I didn’t screw up; I didn’t get people killed.”
The sergeant, still smirking, turned slightly to the left so he could face the Crusader. Atriya turned around and threw a burning, hateful glare at his old boss.
“That was you—you piece of shit.”
Want to see the thinking behind the writing? Click here: Chapter 4 Author’s Notes