Rain. It sounds like rain.
The patter of rounds against his armor struck up a symphony. It was thick and unrelenting—a torrential downpour crashing onto a roof. As he sailed through the air, Atriya thought of a snippet from a book that Verus had recommended, one detailing the life of the ultimate warrior:
“The rain on my chest is a baptism—I’m born again…”
His right leg reached out, and his toe caught the lip of a catwalk. Soothing vestiges of dream surf fell away as his sped-up brain returned to its normal, linkup-enhanced pace. He landed in a crouch—body compressed, right knee on the ground.
A second later he was being drenched in ordnance. Not just a storm anymore—a monsoon. One of his plates was hit at an unlucky angle. It protested with a harsh crack as it fractured and split. The punishment he was taking was nothing short of insane.
He had to end this quickly.
Atriya took an instant to let his weight settle…then pushed off and started running. He punched both guns out and fired instinctively, his enhanced senses working to track and zero targets. He wasn’t just taking fire from topside positions; muzzle flashes were sputtering at him from the deck below.
Everyone was shooting at him.
Atriya sprinted harder, his legs churning forcefully against steel planking, his guns beating out a frenetic drumbeat of thunder. Each bullet that struck him created a spiky glitter of light. The volume of fire was so thick that it looked like he was being doused in sparks.
An explosion shook the ground floor. It was followed by the rocky sound of crumbling debris, then a gust of oven-hot wind. Clement had just breached the lower level.
This is too many guns, Atriya thought. Way more resistance than what we saw from outside.
A ray of green came screaming toward him. Beam round. The bolt shone with dazzling brilliance as it struck his matrix. It transformed into gorgeous, mother-of-pearl waves that flowed outward from the point of impact. As the energy rippled along the radiation-weave, it made Atriya’s shielding fully visible—a projection that punched roughly a foot out from his body and followed the contours of his form.
Thank you, light matrix.
The Crusader kept running and replied with a hail of bullets. His weapons blurred in his hands as he tried to match shot for shot.
A volley of beam rounds seared and hissed as they hit his matrix, once again coating him in blazing iridescence. From his peripherals, he saw his shield’s outline bend ominously inward from the cluster of well-placed bolts.
Matrix won’t hold out if this keeps up.
He clenched his teeth and ran faster.
A crash shook the walls and a bullet smashed through from outside the warehouse. Down on the ground, he saw a Dissident collapse with a jerky twist. His head exploded in a splatter of blood. For a brief moment, fragile red mist hung in the air.
Retrieval’s marksmen were getting in the game.
The Specialists’ sniper rifles could blow through a variety of obstacles, and came equipped with a quartet of options: explosive shot, beam rounds, smoke, or a regular bullet that could go long range—more than four miles if conditions were right. Their scopes also had nonvisible overlays that allowed them to engage targets that were hidden behind cover.
Even though he’d been fretting over how to kill the sharpshooters less than an hour ago, Atriya was grateful for their presence as he darted down the walkway, swathed in a glitter of hostile fire.
The catwalk was maybe a couple of hundred yards—the warehouse was enormous. It would take him less than half a minute to traverse the walkway, but despite the short crossing time, the amount of ordnance and light battering his armor made it seem like each nanosecond—each rise and fall of his feet—was taking forever.
As he ran on the planking, his boots drummed out rattling clinks. His hands moved constantly, dancing between different angles and positions. Every now and then his eyes would register the results of his work: a body would collapse, or a head would snap back as one of his rounds tore the life from someone. It wasn’t something he dwelled on; he was too busy looking for fresh targets.
At the far end of the building, mounted on elevated platforms, he glimpsed the silhouettes of unmanned autocannons—lethal bulwarks that tracked threats through an array of sensors. They had the same arachnoid outline that a giant spider might have: a ponderous, spherical body supported by eight lumbering legs. A score of barrels extended outward from their main thorax. The barrels were mounted on mechanized limbs, and due to their design (each one’s base was connected to a robotic ball joint) rotated and fired in short, efficient snaps.
The guns were blazing away at Atriya, saturating his environs with hot bursts of angry metal. He hunched lower as slugs screamed by and sheared the air.
I need to take out those autos.
His armor was taking an unprecedented beating. Dents and nicks were visible where bullets and beam rounds had ripped the fabric off his plates. To make matters worse, the walkway flooring was starting to deteriorate from the sheer volume of fire. A few yards ahead, a ten-foot chunk of catwalk emitted a raspy groan and fell away. The rest of it was disappearing in bits and spurts; a blizzard of rounds was consuming everything around him.
I can’t keep running on this thing. Not on the main part, anyway—gotta get on the handrails. He lowered his guns to his hips, dipping his torso and compressing his legs. The movement coiled his body and prepared him to jump.
The footing underneath disappeared in a cluster of sparks. He pushed off and hurtled through the air, his body unfolding as his back straightened. His arms and legs partially unbent, allowing him to stay upright as he soared through space.
Both feet found purchase on the left-side handrail—a slim, silvery pipe no more than an inch in diameter. He looked like the world’s deadliest tightrope walker as he sprinted down the rail, guns out and blazing. A flash of gratitude hit him: he’d have been long dead if not for the enhanced balance imparted by his cybertech linkup.
As he pumped his legs and pulled his triggers, he saw there were two catwalks paralleling the one he was on—walkways to either side of him. Each one was filled with Dissidents—flitting shadows hunched behind makeshift barriers.
The changes in light were incredibly erratic. As a result, his visual modulators were having difficulty compensating. Detailed features were being erased from sight; enemy fighters appeared as nothing more than indistinct shadows. He only glimpsed faces when the spark of a muzzle flash or the glow of a beam round lit someone’s features.
The Crusader put down handfuls of Dissidents, working his guns fast enough to make them sound fully automatic. But for every fighter he shot, he ran past one or two that he couldn’t get.
Retrieval’s going to have their hands full mopping up behind me.
Dozens of yards to his front, he saw a stack of graphene shipping containers arranged in a rough horseshoe, resting on top of a reinforced landing.
If I can make it over there I can grab some cover—get my bearings.
He heard someone cry, “Crusaders! Lay down some airburst!” The Dissidents had realized that they weren’t just fighting regular Enforcers—that they needed harder ammo. Atriya ground his teeth as his feet tapped along the railing.
Airburst rounds were especially dangerous to Crusaders; the specialized munitions took advantage of the fact that operators depended on their heightened agility and high-grade armor. The rounds had rudimentary sensors built into their noses, allowing them to position themselves at an optimal distance and blow out shrapnel. It wasn’t the shrapnel that could injure him (actually, if Atriya’s plates took enough abuse it could—a strong possibility at the moment), but the explosive effect: that was what was deadly. The concussives could stun him and make him easy prey to scoop up.
Here they come.
He caught sight of the snub-nosed rounds as they streaked toward him. He knew the detonations were too much for his noise filters, so he put his gun-clutching hands over his ears. At the same time, he opened his mouth so he could reduce the eruptive fallout on his equilibrium.
Poom poom poom. Airburst exploded around him. Swarms of kiwi-sized ordnance blasted open, transforming into white puffs of smoke. The Crusader jerked from one side to the other, his balance on the railing challenged by each wave of pressure. They looked like bleary warps of air that rolled across his body.
He stopped firing, concerned solely with staying on the rail and maintaining his speed.
Hot fragments clattered against him. His armor was definitely getting compromised; fresh cuts were stinging his joints—rounds that had zipped across the weaker points on his plating and gotten through.
Only a matter of time before my plates start failing, or they use something heavier.
And on the heels of that: Hell, the plating’s probably cracked all to shit as it is.
His lips curled back in a snarl and he tightened his crouch, making himself as small as possible. There was nothing he could do aside from keep running.
Airburst exploded in front of him, and he was carried by his sprint into a mass of pale smoke. He leaned into it to prevent himself from being shoved backward. The fabric covering his nose and mouth functioned as a filter, but Atriya still caught the whiff of burnt metal. The sharp tang of explosives invaded his nostrils, coating the back of his throat as he darted through the fog.
He still had ten or fifteen seconds of hard sprinting before he could reach the containers and grab some cover.
A dozen steps ahead, the railing was torn to shreds. Everything was being deluged by slugs and pellets.
Everything was breaking apart.
I need to jump to the other handrail.
There was no other choice. Clement and the others were depending on him to spearhead the assault and soften the upper level, which meant that he had to stay on the higher floor. If he stopped moving or fell, he would become easier to target. It would be the end of him.
Possibly the end of all of them.
He dashed toward the looming void and pushed off the rail with his left foot. For a brief moment in time he was suspended in the air—left leg straightened, right leg cocked to his chest, body leaning right—as he launched himself upward and sideways toward the right hand railing.
He brought his knees up, cannonballing his body. The angle he’d pushed off of caused him to gyrate; midway through his leap his back faced the floor while his chest faced the ceiling. He looked like a gun-slinging street gymnast as he tucked his legs and punched his arms out, firing at Dissidents on either side of him.
Quick pictures flitted across his vision as he worked his guns from within his sideways somersault. Brains sprayed out from the back of a head. A face blew apart in a mess of bone shards. Another Dissident dropped her weapon, clutching at her neck as two of his shots burrowed through her throat.
The Crusader saw the fruits of his work and felt an intense, savage satisfaction.
Come and get me. All of you.
I’ll kill every fucking one of you.
He completed torqueing in the air, stretched out with his right leg, and straightened it while keeping his left knee close to his chest. Once his right toe touched the railing, the rest of his foot settled onto it and he resumed his run—as fast as if he were on solid ground rather than a length of one inch piping.
Five yards ahead, a section of rail was hit by a beam round, causing it glow cherry red. A spatter of bullets followed, tearing the weakened piping away from its mounts. It clinked and clattered as it fell downward, bouncing off hunks of machinery and sharp-angled struts. As it fell, it briefly resembled smoldering incense.
The other railing—the left-hand one—was destroyed. So was the walkway. Now he was running towards a giant gap.
So jump it.
He pattered his steps to gain momentum, then sprang off his right foot. Instead of jumping sideways this time, he went up and forward. His right leg straightened and he whipped his torso sharply down, arms out so he could keep firing. The torque of his violent bow made him execute a front flip. When he landed, his left knee untucked and he began running across the vanishing length of rail.
Five seconds, he thought, eyeing the remaining distance. Five seconds until I can grab some cover and call in react.
The railing swayed and jerked. Heavy fire made it twitch one way, then the other. Atriya swayed with it, not even registering the results of his shots.
Just make it, he told himself.
To stabilize his weight, he huddled forward and crossed his arms, pointing his right gun left and vice versa. The posture allowed him to hunch lower and continue firing.
Almost there. As he rushed forward, the piping beneath moaned in protest. He jumped off it and hurdled toward the shipping containers, bicycling his legs so he could max out his distance.
An instant later, beam rounds lit up the rail behind him, making it glow a baleful crimson. A volley of airburst followed, knocking the metal cylinder off its moorings. It spun furiously out into nowhere.
Atriya’s boots made weighted clunk clunk clunk sounds as he ran towards the containers. He dashed into the horseshoe and put his back against its central length, gasping for air.
Fuck. Thirty to forty guys? Try a thousand.
He keyed his comms. “Team leader.”
“You’re on the net. Send it, Crusader.”
“Call in react. We’ve grossly underestimated enemy size and strength.”
There was a staticky buzz as the team leader responded. “They’ve—” His next words were inaudible—lost in a haze of gunfire and shouting. The comms went silent, then fritzed back up. “They’ve just arrived.” More gunfire, and a yell of “Fucking waste his ass!”
The commander spoke stiltedly, trying to keep his voice level. “All other platoons are pinned down. Orbital fire is working at full capacity.”
A dreadlocked, rifle-toting Dissident rushed around the corner and Atriya shot him in the head, stopping him in his tracks. The fighter stood in place for a long moment…then collapsed, looking puzzled and dumb as his tongue lolled from his mouth.
“Understood. Team leader, I recommend that we pull out and block up. Call in orbital and toast this place. Forget the intel.”
“Negative. Higher wants the warehouse cleared and secured. Hold tight while—” Atriya heard the chatter of rifles, then somebody on Retrieval’s end yelling, “Zero that cocksucker!”
“Hold fucking tight.” The team leader lost his cool and swore over the net, where it was imperative that communication be clear and concise; swearing only made things more confusing. His words were followed by explosions and gunfire.
The Crusader could clearly hear the Specialist’s spiked breathing, interspersed with a deliberate mix of forced exhales and short breath holds. He was struggling to regulate his pulse, struggling to keep things on an even keel.
Atriya’s earpiece buzzed again. “Atriya—Atriya, are you there?”
“Still here. Send it.” Two fighters raced around the corner. He blew their throats out and they dropped in place, making gagging noises as the insides of their necks lay scattered and glistening.
The team leader tried again: “Atriya—”
“Send it, Retrieval.”
“You and Clement hold tight until we catch up to you. React and their hover plats are on site. Once we push to your position, we’ll provide a base of fire so you two can reestablish momentum. Failing that, we’ll take the warehouse by inches. Understood?”
“Understood. Holding now.”
“Team leader out.”
“Lead gunner out.”
Atriya keyed the Crew’s frequency. “Clement, you there?”
He heard a fritz, then a series of thundering gunshots. “I’m—” The comms cut, then fritzed again. “Just fucking barely! What the fuck is this bullshit? Our overlays—” Clement was shouting and swearing, letting his comms etiquette slip.
Atriya cut him off: “Following. Gunner. Calm down. Stop cursing. Are you secure?”
Atriya heard a series of shots and hisses. His comms cut off and he waited tensely, eyes twitching from side to side.
His comms keyed back up.
“Yeah, I’m—” Off again.
“Clement? Clement? You there?”
“Yeah I’m here.” Clement’s voice was steady; the sound of gunfire and airburst had momentarily abated. “I’m secure.” Deep breath. “For now.”
“Okay—hold tight. Did you catch Retrieval’s orders?”
“No I was too busy—” Atriya heard a quick exchange of shots and his partner yelling, “Fuck you!” Clement continued: “I was busy ventilating these graymeat motherfuckers!” Another barrage.
Clement’s use of the derogatory term graymeat described the working class of Echo. They were often called that by Ascensioners due to the constant coating of dust and grime that covered their skin, a result of toiling in and occupying deteriorating cityscapes. Department personnel, even though they were technically “graymeat” themselves, would toss the word around to separate themselves from the average citizen.
Atriya: “Okay. Calm down.” He took a breath. “React is on site. They’re going to back Retrieval as they head a push to our loc.” Atriya’s use of the shorthand term for location was pronounced so that it sounded identical to the word lock. “Once they get here, they’re going to establish some weight of fire, and we’ll start moving again. If all goes well, we can keep at it on a gun run. If not, we’ll take it slow and—”
“Fuck that. Get orbital to cook this place; it’s not worth it.”
Atriya chuckled. “Already suggested that. It’s a no-go.”
He saw a Dissident spot him from a hundred yards away and get on a knee, bringing her rifle up and stilling her body. He fired four times. Three shots caught the fighter in the chest, and the fourth turned her left eye into a leaking red pit.
Clement: “Fucking Higher. Fuck them. Fucking pieces of shit. Playing with their assholes while we’re eating bullets and airburst. Fuckers.” More shots.
Atriya laughed. “Yeah, fuck them.” He swore openly, ignoring his comms etiquette as he thought, what’s the point? “Did you get all that? Once Retrieval gets here, we restart the run. Or we take it by the square foot. How copy?”
“Yeah yeah. Solid copy. Got it.”
“Lead gunner out.”
“Following gunner out.”
Atriya stood against the graphene containers, utilizing the momentary calm to take a breather. The lack of motion and intensity was strangely unsettling.
The Crusader looked towards the warehouse entrance, where Department personnel were slugging it out with Dissidents in a storm of metal and light. He rested his back against the containers.
Then he smiled.
All things considered?
Not a bad way to go.
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