Eight Enforcer platoons were standing by in dropships, waiting to hear that the warehouse was prepped. Until they were given permission, the ships would remain above cloud cover so they could stay out of sight. The one exception was the react team that had been chopped over to Retrieval—their craft trailed the assaulters’ and landed on an adjacent rooftop.
The react Enforcers stepped out of their ship and began setting up. Rolling in with them were two large hover platforms—floating discs bristling with armaments—equipped with midgrade light matrices (switched off to remain unobtrusive), dual repeating grenade launchers, and a pair of heavy machine guns. Five troops were on each vehicle. Four manned the weapons, one served as a pilot.
The platforms drifted to the center and settled in. The rest of react—roughly thirty grunts—established a perimeter that ringed the rooftop’s edge.
If the call came, the grunts could mount up and head to a requested location, offering on-the-spot mobility and an enhanced base of fire. Until then they would strongpoint their building, in case the strike team of Retrieval Specialists and Crusaders (colloquially referred to as “assaulters”) needed a place to fall back or rally up.
One roof over, Retrieval commandos formed a circle and took a knee, providing 360 degree security as their ship lifted off. The craft assumed a stationary hover, providing the assaulters with additional protection via the ship’s side-mounted cannons, as well as the option of a quick extract if things went awry.
The Crusaders walked the edge of their roof, inspecting their surroundings. So far, so good.
Atriya waved his arms at the ships, letting them know they were allowed to depart. They silently ascended and disappeared from view. Per procedure, the dropships would punch above cloud cover and assume an anchored drift above the warehouse, ready to descend and assist the strike team with supporting fire.
Until the Crusaders initiated breach, the assaulters’ mandate was stealth. To avoid early detection, the men had dropped a good distance away from their target; they had a little over two miles to cover before making the hit. The dropships had used the curvature of Echo (the horizon), as well as the buildings’ skylines to remain unnoticed. To further ensure they maintained a low profile, the team had inserted into a long-defunct industrial zone.
Their route would take them through a decaying piece of city that led directly up to the warehouse. Forsaken areas like this were fairly common on Echo, and were collectively referred to as the Wastes. These badlands were a magnetic draw for substance addicts but also for a variety of less-than-savory types—anyone who was falling apart.
Aside from a core population of junkies, the Wastes’ residents included cannibals, rape gangs, and roving bands of marauders. Due to the inherent danger, Department personnel routinely avoided “going Waste-side” unless they were packing overwhelming firepower. Dissidents would steer clear as well.
On a typical approach, Crew teams would blend in with Echo citizenry and make their way across the cityscape proper. Two Crusaders in civilian clothing wouldn’t look out of place in a regular stretch of cityscape, but now that they were working with Retrieval and Linke, the strike team was undeniably conspicuous. In order to mitigate their increased visibility (as well as serve the mission’s underlying purpose of killing Atriya), they were going to travel directly through the Wastes. This had been passed down by the Retrieval squad leader, who Colonel Jenkins had designated as on-site commander.
Getting ambushed wasn’t a concern—not only were the assaulters shadowed by orbital fire platforms, but the unspoken threat implied by their gear (from the exoskeletons and linkups, potential attackers could see that each man was packing the equivalent lethality of multiple Enforcer platoons) served as sufficient deterrent. The team’s hardened presence was enough to discourage the majority of predators, which meant that an approach through the Wastes was an acceptable risk.
After ascertaining there were no immediate threats, Atriya assessed the building he was on. Four stories high. Gray and forbidding. Boxy. Close to the center of the roof, there was a stairwell entrance in the form of a squared-off hut. Like most Waste-side structures, it was in dire need of maintenance.
Atriya signaled to Clement. The two of them walked to the stairwell and took a knee—the cue for the rest of the team to start moving.
Retrieval treaded over with their guns up, scanning for threats. When the team leader was within arm’s length, he put a gloved hand on Atriya’s shoulder: Ready to enter.
Atriya opened the door and walked in.
Arachnids were bunched together on the stairwell’s ceiling, watching silently as the men descended. Atriya felt clusters of eyes crawling across him, empty of nothing but appetite. To keep a clear line of sight, he brushed away thick tangles of webs. In a matter of seconds, his arms were completely enveloped by feathery spider-silk.
Find something smaller to eat, he thought. I’m spoken for.
As he continued downward, resignation arose in his mind. It flowed through him like a moonless tide, weighing his soul with listless apathy.
Is there any other way this can end? He considered the possibilities.
If you survive…then what? Grow old? Mumble into watery beer at a service members’ lounge and talk the ears off bored strangers? The thought was followed by a pang of disgust.
Death was better.
So what, then? Run? Kill the team? He instantly dismissed both ideas. Not only were the Specialists too formidable, they undoubtedly had orbital fire ready to gun him down. Traps set by a localized Specter—or teams of Waste-side mercenaries—were another possibility.
Face it: you’re already dead. The realization fell on him like an executioner’s sword.
When it comes time, take as many with you as you can.
They reached the bottom level and filtered out, passing into the gray quiet of the streets. Retrieval was split into three 3-man teams: two mirrored each other on opposing sides of the path, while one lagged behind on the left edge of the column. The trailing element was in charge of rear security.
Due to their unorthodox tactics, both operators were positioned a dozen yards fore and aft of the patrol. Atriya in front, Clement in back. If they were attacked, the extra space would allow the two Crusaders to fire and maneuver without having to worry about shooting one of the Retrieval Specialists. The arrangement also bestowed an additional protective punch onto either end of their formation.
Atriya assessed his environment, noting the low level of ambient light. Cloud cover was good and the stars weren’t a concern—they never appeared as more than dim flickers anyway. It was the illumination from Ascension and its white dwarf clusters that sometimes required a tactical work-around. And though the moon-city was waxing glaringly full, it was cloaked by a heavy overcast; the assaulters were gifted with ample darkness.
He mouthed: “Linkup: Infrared highlighting.” The command caused his visor to display visual outlines based on temperature, which would in turn reveal whether enemy fighters were hiding behind walls. The overlay only showed heat signatures within a limited distance. This was by design; displaying long-range imagery would result in a jumble of signatures bleeding together. Unreadable to the eye, incomprehensible to the brain.
Atriya scanned his surroundings and saw slumped, reddened silhouettes behind concrete exteriors. Substance addicts. Either dying of overdose or deep in the throes of chemical gluttony.
He felt an odd kinship with them. It was a strange feeling, considering that all throughout his life, he’d regarded addicts with scorn and derision.
Maybe it’s because I’m on the way out as well.
That was probably it. His personal affinities didn’t carry the same importance—or seemed just plain meaningless—given his current predicament.
He trod further down the road, his boots squelching out dry, rubbing creaks against the asphalt. He could only hear them because his senses had been boosted by his linkup.
The intensified perception was capable of cutting both ways—his temporarily enhanced faculties could be overwhelmed by gunfire, explosions, or drastic changes in light. In order to compensate, the circuitry threaded into his wetsuit-style hood downshifted sound above a certain decibel range. His visual overlays incorporated a similar feature; they modulated light so that whatever he saw was neither too dim, nor too bright. The auto-regulating machinery was essential in the Wastes (or any trek into hostile territory) as it evened out his perception. In the chaos of battle, it made the difference between living and dying.
Two buildings ahead, a cluster of figures was staring intently at the team from a second-story window. Four of them were immediately visible. Atriya stared back at them, and saw the curves of heads between their shoulders.
They were being watched by dozens of sentries.
The men by the window were equipped with rifles and dressed in threadbare clothing. Rust-speckled knives hung from simple, reinforced loops affixed to their waists. Frayed tactical vests dangled off their frames, two of them covered by cross-slung bandoliers. Assortments of war trophies—strung-together ears, fingers, noses—were bound into necklaces that drooped across their chests. One of them (by the look of him, Atriya thought he might be their leader) was adorned with what appeared to be a baby’s head. It looked old and withered, eyes squinched tight in silent misery. Its mouth gaped open in a frozen cry.
Atriya didn’t know what they were. Cannibals, a rape gang, scavengers…probably a little bit of each. There was no doubt in his mind that if they were given the chance, they would strip the team of everything: humanity, gear, flesh…all of it.
Every so often, underequipped Enforcers would chase Dissidents into the Wastes. Most of the time, personnel and enemy would simply vanish and never be heard from again. Occasionally though, gory remains of Enforcers or Dissidents would show up a few days later.
Here in the Wastes, death wasn’t feared—it was a welcome relief.
Hollow, expressionless eyes tracked the assaulters. The gaunt-faced shades showed no signs of aggression; they knew these men weren’t easy prey. Despite that, Atriya could sense their appetite.
Wait and see, their faces said. Wait until you’re hurt, or stop paying attention and slip. We’ll come for you.
Atriya almost welcomed the idea. He’d undergone similar scrutiny during other Waste-side ops, but he wasn’t afraid this time. He only felt savage, reactionary anger.
Fucking come for me then. There’s nothing you’ll get but a hole through your skull. Or your feet ringed with your guts.
As he walked by, he gave them a flat, blank stare. The deadly, lackluster, I’m-done-giving-a-fuck look that marked the truly dangerous. He thought he saw the leader smile in response. His suspicions were confirmed when the man gave him a slow, meaningful nod—a salute from the closest thing to the embodiment of chaos that he’d ever laid eyes on.
It threw him. For a surreal moment, he fought the absurd desire to nod back.
Weirdest bonding moment ever, he thought.
The leader turned and disappeared from view. Another man replaced him and kept steady track of the team.
Atriya thought back to when he’d seen other Waste-siders behave in a likewise manner. It always made him feel like he’d passed some sort of nameless test. His best guess was that the assaulters’ presence was being reported to whatever passed for a higher authority around here.
The Crusader recalled that no unit that had perished in the Wastes had ever mentioned anything about scouts or sentries. It led him to believe he was being warned: We see that you’re tough and that earns you a pass. This time. Never before though, had he received outward recognition from one of the watchers.
He dismissed the nod, as he didn’t know what to make of it.
Everything happens for a reason.
Without intending to, he pictured the desiccated baby-head, dangling below a leathery neck, and put an addendum onto his last thought:
Everything happens for a reason—I hope.
Fog rolled in, blanketing the air with heavy gloom. He spotted a figure a dozen yards ahead, stumbling drunkenly across the misty street.
Atriya called a halt by lifting his right hand up. The others stopped. The patrol bristled with alert eyes and shouldered weapons as each man dialed in on his respective area of responsibility.
A whisper in his earpiece: “Problem?” The team leader.
The man to their front staggered toward a building, bracing against it with a bent arm. He pitched his head into the crook of his elbow and fumbled with his fly. A steady spatter became audible.
Atriya keyed his comms and whispered back, “Just an addict taking a piss. All good.” He signaled for the others to keep moving. There was a quiet rustle as the team started forward.
As they walked closer to the addict, more details came into focus. Dirty, unkempt beard. Wild, tangled hair. Streaks of dirt marking his face and his fingers. Nail beds crusted with thick blackness and old scabs. The clothes he wore were layered on, one stained piece atop the other. His mouth hung agape as a stream of urine left his body and flowed noisily down the wall.
Atriya couldn’t help but be impressed. Lucky old man. The addict might not have been old in the chronological sense, but the layers of filth and tatter that had accumulated on his body were the perverse equivalent of rings on a tree. The man had obviously weathered a longer and harder stretch than most junkies—most junkies died before becoming this broken down.
Atriya began carving a respectful berth around him, intent on leaving him be. The rest of the team curved their route and followed in the Crusader’s footsteps. Per procedure, Atriya was supposed to periodically check in all directions to make sure that security was tight and his teammates were good. Subsequently, he executed a slow, cautionary spin as he walked forward.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of motion. His hand snapped up, calling another halt. His guns twitched skyward. His visor displayed a targeting rectangle that zoomed briskly onto an outline, glowing brightly to confirm a lock.
His mind struggled to process one of the strangest things he’d ever seen: an Ascensioner in the middle of the Wastes, crawling out from a second story window.
The richly dressed man paused, then leapt lightly from the ledge and dropped toward the junkie.
He stayed hunched as he fell. In his right hand, he held a curved knife in an icepick grip. His descent was smooth and languid. The Ascensioner seemed to be moving in a controlled float—like a spider rappelling towards its prey. But rather than using a silk strand to break his fall, he appeared intent on using the addict for that instead.
The well-dressed predator crashed onto his victim’s back, wrapping the bum’s waist with his legs and snaking his arm across a bearded throat. Staggered by the impact, the drifter lurched forward and straightened his back, keeping both of them upright. Rheumy eyes flew open as the bum clawed desperately at the arm around his neck. A sliver of moonlight broke through the clouds and glanced off the blade, making its silhouette briefly resemble a scorpion’s tail. For a single, unnerving instant, Atriya could have sworn he was looking at a cartoon he remembered seeing as a child—one that depicted a harried man trying to buck off a crazed monkey.
The knife came down precisely—almost politely—into the addict’s eyes. Two unobtrusive sounds—they were halfway between a gentle suck and a wet pop—passed faintly through the air as the sharpened blade slipped in and out of eye jelly.
The addict tried to scream. Silence prevailed as the clean-cut thug clamped harder with his choke-arm, causing alabaster cloth to bunch at his elbow. The Ascensioner’s face and manner remained impersonal; he could just as easily have been watering the lawn, or emptying the trash.
The Crusader felt a wave of revulsion as the addict wobbled and staggered, eyes transformed into dribbling red pits. He continued to pull at the pricey fabric locked tight around his airway.
Just die already, Atriya thought.
He was impressed by the man’s resilience, but it was clearly a losing battle. The merciful thing for the junkie (and for Atriya, who was strangely disgusted—strange because he’d seen comparable carnage plenty of times before and been unaffected by it) was to let the struggle be done and over with.
By the look of things, the killer couldn’t care less. His casual demeanor suggested that this was routine business. Just another day at the office.
The Ascensioner unwrapped his legs and placed his feet on the ground, careful to keep his choke-arm in place. He reversed his knife so that he held it in a conventional grip, then took a couple of steps back, causing his quarry’s feet to sprawl frontward. The move created a gap between the addict’s back and the Ascensioner’s hips, and the killer took advantage of the space by matter-of-factly pumping the knife in and out of the bum’s kidneys. Atriya lost count of the number of thrusts.
The junkie’s head lolled forward. His arms slumped to his sides and dangled loosely in the air. Atriya suspected that it was the choke that killed him…although the loss of blood would have done it soon enough.
It hadn’t taken long, but the gruesome nature of the scene had made it seem eternal.
Most of the blood was absorbed by the vagrant’s dirty clothing. As a result, the Ascensioner’s eggshell-colored suit remained unnaturally clean. The gentleman-murderer carefully laid the body on its back, then pulled up layers of shirt, exposing his victim’s belly.
He pressed the edge of his knife into the addict’s midsection and proceeded to make long, even cuts. As he started slicing into organs, blood welled from the torso and drenched his hands.
Atriya’s earpiece buzzed. “Problem?” The Retrieval team leader.
The Crusader replied, “Possible cannibal. Zeroed an addict.”
“There’s something off about him; I think he’s an Ascension resident. His clothes—”
“He’s in the way. Kill his ass.” The curt reply left no room for interpretation. The team leader was obviously pissed, but he was too professional to allow more than a slight edge of anger into his voice. It wasn’t hard to imagine what he was thinking: There’s a potential obstacle/threat in our way. Fuck his clothes. Do your job and take him out.
“Atriya.” The team leader again.
“Understood.” The commander didn’t want a gunshot to herald their presence—there were gangs in the Wastes whose MO was to kill others for weapons and gear. While the team’s outward lethality might serve as a deterrent, the scales would begin tipping if they started flaunting tech or equipment. Chances were that no Waste-sider would be stupid enough to move on them, but still…it paid to show etiquette.
Even though Atriya had a silencer, he wasn’t going to use it. Silencers didn’t truly silence a bullet—they only nullified its supersonic crack. Waste-side predators would instantly recognize subsonic ammunition.
Guns were out. So he was going to do this with a blade.
A dark flash of comedy surged through his mind. Death and dismemberment? Fine. Expensive gear? Keep it hidden.
The Crusader holstered his guns. He reached to the small of his back and drew a respectable-sized dagger from a magnetic sheath. He stepped forward in a crouch, holding it in a knife-fighter’s grip as he approached the murderer.
The Ascensioner confirmed Atriya’s suspicions when he started digging out finger-length strips of meat. He let them dangle over his lips before settling them onto a row of perfectly even teeth. The killer’s jaw worked in rhythmic bulges, making sure that each strip was assiduously chewed.
The Crusader was furious. Addict or not, he doesn’t deserve to be knifed while taking a piss. And he doesn’t deserve to be eaten by a rich, moon-side scumbag either. He had no doubt that the Ascensioner had been treated to the finest, most luxuriant foods known to man…yet he’d still decided to prey on the poor in the most disgusting manner conceivable. For no other reason than entertainment, apparently.
Atriya couldn’t help but feel that he was witnessing a mockery to some unseen, greater balance. Observing the cannibal was like watching a shitbag teenager spit and laugh in the face of a random passerby.
His grip tightened on his dagger. They were on a schedule, which meant he couldn’t take the time that he wanted to. Still—he was looking forward to turning this fucker into a leaking bag of skin.
Right as he was about to activate the dagger’s plasma edge, the killer bowed his neck, exposing pale skin from beneath frosty hair. The clouds shifted again and a bolt of moonlight lanced down, highlighting a wan, scabrous length of tissue that tendriled above the man’s collar.
The Crusader stopped short. Devouring Plague.
It came from eating tainted meat, but was also passed through contact with blood. Aside from vile, pus-filled patches that erupted across the body, the Plague had the same symptoms as someone in the second stage of Final Solidification: psychotic fits of rage along with boosted strength and speed. The Plague’s defining symptom, however, was ravenous hunger for freshly killed flesh. Combine that with the psychosis, and murderous cannibals were the predictable result.
Atriya deliberated for a bit, then bent his arm back and sheathed his blade. Despite the fact that Retrieval was going to kill him, he was still repulsed by the idea of contracting the Plague. Due to the possibility of infection through blood, he would use his hands instead of his knife. His natural ability, training, and linkup-augmented strength made it a viable alternative.
He strode forward, intending on snapping the man’s neck before he was aware of the Crusader’s presence. It was at that moment, still facing away from Atriya, that the cannibal spoke:
“My name is Leat. Leat Water. Whom do you serve?”
The man’s voice was surprisingly charming—upper-crust dignity seasoned with a touch of wryness. It sounded remarkably close to what Atriya remembered from holo-records as a Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent—a cultured mode of speech used by the American upper class before falling out of fashion during the latter half of Earth’s twentieth century.
Leat shuffled sideways, crab-like. He turned his body so he could converse with Atriya while cutting and chewing. Splashes of blood had gotten on his hands and face, but aside from a single scarlet blotch that lay across his heart, his expensive clothing remained unblemished.
“Serve?” Atriya blurted. He was thrown by the outlandish juxtaposition posed before him. The Ascensioner’s refined demeanor and tailored suit clashed bizarrely with what he so obviously was: a monster in human form, one that was scooping up handfuls of innards and wolfing them down.
Leat continued as if Atriya had replied with a firm statement instead of a bewildered question. “I serve the Crimson King. On Old Earth, he walked among us as a red elephant, taller than the highest skyscrapers. Did you know that back then, everyone served him?”
Red elephants. Right. Atriya felt grounded again as he realized that Leat was insane. Deep in the throes of the Plague.
“Look: I bear his mark.” Leat’s eyes dropped toward his chest. He tapped the red blotch on his left pectoral with the tip of his knife.
Atriya looked. Sure enough, the stain resembled a red elephant.
The Ascensioner chewed reflectively, eyes searching the air. “I was alive back then. I had the same name…well, almost the same.” He looked expectantly at Atriya, fresh blood squishing from red-stained lips. The expression in his eyes was almost innocent.
For some inane reason, Atriya tried to respond with logic. “Apex is the only one from Old Earth that’s still alive.”
He knew this man was crazy. He knew. But something in Leat’s cultured voice demanded that he be treated as if he wasn’t. The amazing thing was that some deep part of Atriya was nodding agreeably along, as if what Leat was saying actually made sense.
He shook his head, reminding himself that Leat was a sick fuck that needed to be put down. But listening to the Ascensioner was like watching a magician creep across your peripherals, freezing every time you stared at them; you knew in your soul that they’d just been moving, but they’d done it so impeccably that they almost convinced you they’d been standing still.
Leat tilted his head back and looked at the sky, like he was registering something of great import. “Apex. Yes, he was alive back then as well. He’s been alive since the first prokaryotes. Alive since the first kill, as a matter of fact.”
As far as Atriya could tell, Leat was saying that Apex had been present when the first microbes were spawned into existence. The Crusader scoffed behind his face wrap. Crazy piece of shit.
Nevertheless, there was something to it. Leat’s nonsense was…
There was something entrancing about it.
Leat looked Atriya up and down, then went back to staring at his food. His elbows bent as he dug in and sawed away, cutting loose a handful of dark, seeping meat. He pulled it out—it made a horrendous tearing sound, as if canvas fibers were being stretched and ripped—and extended it towards Atriya, offering the Crusader a chunk of liver.
“You look strong. Come. Eat with me. This is the best bit. Those as strong as us need to band together so that we can better hunt the weak.”
“You’re insane,” Atriya spat. He was repulsed by the thought of even touching Leat, but it had to be done.
He took a breath. Steeled himself.
Leat gulped the piece down, then wagged his knife at the Crusader, a look of disgust blooming on his face. “Don’t do that. Don’t pretend—it makes us both look stupid. You and I…we’re the same.” A hint of a smile played across his face, then it dropped away, and he became serious again. “I know this, but more importantly: you know this. You have a choice.”
Leat paused, letting the words hang in the air and gather weight.
“A choice…” he repeated. “And the choice is simple. Be like me, or be like him.” As he said the word him Leat reared up and plunged his knife into the corpse’s eyesocket. A hideous splutch carried through the air as the blade slid in and out of the ruined hole.
Atriya fought to keep his gorge down.
The butcher rose from his squat, hands and mouth covered in gore. He squared up with Atriya, giving the Crusader his full attention.
“The right to eat the weak is ancient. Holy. And you—you’re one of the strong. As such, it’s your duty to kill them. But more important than that: it’s your duty to consume them. Don’t forfeit your right—I’m warning you.” He wagged his knife teasingly, his voice adopting the singsong cadence of a sadistic child play-threatening a schoolmate: You asked for it…
Leat bent down, cut out a large hunk of flesh, and offered it to Atriya. Beads of red dripped off the meat, marring the concrete below with fat drops of blood.
Leat locked eyes with the Crusader and repeated: “Don’t forfeit your right.”
Atriya’s head was angled down and to the left. He was fighting back revulsion, anger, and an undercurrent of sadness.
To Leat, who could only see the hood and face wrap, it appeared as if the Crusader was deep in concentration.
After a long moment, Atriya lifted his chin and looked the Ascensioner in the eye. He kept a tight hold on his roiling fury.
Clearly and deliberately, he said, “You’ve forfeited a right of your own.”
Leat’s gaze was wide and curious. “Which one, pray tell?”
The Crusader’s words came out in a harsh, grating whisper:
“The right to live past today.”
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