Atriya walked into his apartment, tracking dirt. He was still wearing his ruck.
Various pieces of training equipment were scattered haphazardly throughout the flat, showing different stages of wear. Most of it was old and needed replacing.
His weights—presently littered across the 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 out from their skins. Small piles of overused gear dotted the apartment and gave his housing unit a stale, stagnant air. It all smelled rank.
Atriya shucked his pack and threw it carelessly on one of the gear piles. Holy shit, that feels good. Wearing the ruck for extended periods of time made suffering an inescapable part of the background. It blotted all of his thoughts with anger and aggression, which then transformed into his natural state. Only after he was done, after that pervasive weight was off, did he feel relief. During training runs, he always forgot that an unrelenting press of pain and irritation wasn’t the universal constant. When he dropped the pack, the intensity of his reprieve never failed to surprise him.
Ironically, halfway through each training session, he forgot that he was even carrying it.
Fuck yeah. It was 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 fruits and vegetables, meat, coarse grains, and some nutrient shakes. All basic and unrefined. Flavor wasn’t a concern. The stuff didn’t taste great, but he’d gotten used to it. Forgot to notice it after awhile.
He rooted through the bottom level, where he kept the fruit. On the same shelf was a mix of steroids and other performance-enhancing injectables. He didn’t like using them, but he recognized that they were needed in order to do the job.
Almost half the Enforcer Corps was on some kind of hormone enhancement, although being an Enforcer wasn’t really strenuous enough to warrant it. By contrast, every member of the Crew was using, and if you were in the Crew, you did need it. You had to juice up just to recover from the horrendous grind that your body went through.
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 comparatively mild next 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 battlefield medicine, found themselves spending an inordinate amount of time making sure that Crew members’ organs were still functioning. The running joke was that it had become their unofficial mandate; that they treated needle marks, not bullet wounds.
Atriya pushed the drugs aside, sorting through a pile of fruit and looking through his options.
As he shuffled through the food, he noticed a 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, plastic box in hand, his fingers slipped and the package tumbled from his grasp.
For some reason, the lid was loose and came flying off in mid-air. Bloated globules of pomegranate landed with a hideous splat. The flesh had decayed so much that the large berries couldn’t hold themselves together; a sickening mess spread instantly across the kitchen floor. Horrible, nausea-inducing odor exploded outwards from the filthy wreckage, inundating the entire house with the smell of blight.
He gagged hard as he felt a maddening flush of heat rise up his neck—an instinctive sign of protest from his body. What the hell? He thought he had smelled the worst the world had to offer, but this took the cake by far. His eyes watered it was so fucking bad. A hand flew up to protect his face, and he found that he’d turned away without thinking. Goddammit.
After pausing a few seconds to collect himself, he got a plastic bag and picked up the ruined chunks of fruit, disciplining himself to breathe without using his nose. It didn’t matter—the stench crawled into his mouth and nostrils and writhed in them like a fistful of squirming maggots.
He chucked the bag into a garbage can and scrubbed the hell out of the tile, using copious amounts of cleaning solution. He did this for a good half hour. The defiled fruit was nasty shit; he didn’t want his apartment permanently stinking. It already smelled bad enough from his old training equipment. But as bad as his gear stunk, the smell from the pomegranate was in another league.
After cleaning his hands (this took a good fifteen minutes of him scrubbing away at his skin until he was certain that his fingers would start bleeding if he kept at it), he tied off the trash bag and took the refuse out to his apartment’s communal dumpster. Even though the rancid fruit was still cold from refrigeration, its atrocious odor spilled viperously out from the plastic.
How the fuck can it smell so bad through the goddamned bag?
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 to the troubling scene on the mountain. He turned it over in his mind as he absentmindedly downed bites of genetically calibrated sweetness. Nothing arose from his reflection but frustration and confusion.
Trying to forget the whole thing, 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 irritably and cut the water, which after ten minutes, had achieved some kind of tepid warmth that might be described as lukewarm at best. He snatched a towel off the rack and dried off.
After changing into shorts and an old t shirt, he almost smacked himself on the side of the head. He was definitely off-kilter today; 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 considered a matter of professional pride. It was woven into his identity as a Crew guy. With anything regarding his work, 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, his weapons case was neatly arrayed. Inside it were a couple of different holsters, cleaning tools, equipment for work, and his own personally purchased armaments.
If he was off duty, the only items he carried into the cityscapes 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.
Each weapon was a basic, stripped down model. The revolver had a spectroscopically enhanced genetic scanner that identified and enabled him as the only one who could fire it. The baton had a similar system that kept it from expanding if a stranger touched it. Aside from that, they could have easily passed for Old Earth weapons. No hard light or plasma edges. No hyper-compacted, chain-programmably explosive bullets. No AI interfaces.
His preferences were in direct contrast to his teammates’. Other operators had an obsessive-compulsive relationship with gear and tech. Nearly to a man, they blew huge chunks of their paychecks on outer accouterments 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 Crew culture.
Atriya was different. He kept it bare bones and plain. By and large 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 and collapsed the baton a few times. It felt fine. He snapped the revolver open, emptied the ammo, and spun the wheel. Flicked it shut and pulled the trigger, so he could test the feel. Also fine. He reloaded it, put it back, then closed the cabinet.
With the essentials taken care of, he wandered over to his sofa. After plunking down, he squirmed a bit on his rear to settle in and picked up his holo screen: an empty rectangle that was roughly a foot-by-foot square that possessed silvery edges composed from smart-fibers. When it was switched on, the middle filled with a luminescent, touch-sensitive holographic layout.
He pressed a pressure nub on the side, activating it. It radiated an eye-catching, excited light. The control display popped up: a brightly colored desktop of items, any one of which he could choose to open. 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 in front of his face, automatically set to adjust its distance from his eyes so as to maximize his reading experience.
The book was recommended to him by Chaplain Verus, a good friend of his that seemed completely uninterested in projecting airs, unlike everyone else he knew. Although he couldn’t articulate it, deep down he suspected that everyone he’d met (including friends, family, coworkers) was concerned about how he saw them—whatever respective light that happened to be in—and tried to pander to him in one way or another. Tried to ensure that he perceived them in the light that they desired. It was tolerable for short periods of time, but he enjoyed hanging out with Verus because she was the only one that made him clean. She was the only one that made him feel light.
Not only did he enjoy talking with her, but she also happened to be an expert in hand to hand combatives, so he went to her for training 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 in the pack. Crusaders were taught basic and easy-to-learn strikes and grapples. But their curriculum emphasized using the gear they carried to disorient or incapacitate via quick strike or break, then get back to shooting. Training was calibrated towards solutions that used outer armaments. Every movement they learned was specifically designed to put ranged weapons or lethal tech back into play.
Despite being unable to articulate exactly why he liked training in unarmed combat, he felt there was something to it, he just couldn’t say what. It was a big reason why he spent so much time with Verus. Deep down, he sensed that she held some key knowledge that was integral to his progress.
The book she had recommended to him was an incomplete gathering of Old Earth stories—snippets here and there. She had cautioned him that much of the stories’ context was lost due to their partiality, and to explore what personal meaning the anecdotes had for him. She was the only one that seemed to read or 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 inevitably occupy the expression of whomever he was talking with, and if they graced him with a verbal reply, it would be something along the lines of: Huh. Old Earth? Pretty cool, bro. He quickly learned to stop bringing it up; he knew that his oddball interests only served to make him look weird at best, crazy at worst.
He flicked at the display, opened a chapter, and started reading. He couldn’t focus though; he kept thinking about that thing with the stragglers. And then afterwards: That nasty, shitty fruit. When it had burst open, it had looked voracious and ill. As if there were some perverted monster that was going to spring from its glistening guts.
He tried to brush it off and concentrate on the book. The passage he’d arrived at was about a monk named Takuan teaching an unnamed student. It described the student as having such a fearsome aura—
Aura? What kind of hokey-ass nonsense was that?
—that men fled from him. The whole point of the lesson seemed to be that it was a mistake to be too aggressive. Reading it only compounded Atriya’s annoyance.
Who the fuck wouldn’t want their enemies scared of them?
The excerpt was frustrating and nonsensical. Fed up, he closed the holo screen and leaned back, closing his eyes and trying to stop his thoughts.
No use. He sat for a good fifteen minutes, trying in vain to push away the memory of the stragglers falling behind and getting beaten, as well as the more recent sight of the putrid, fucked up fruit. 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 sickly onto the kitchen tile; they were so rotten that you could almost see the gas built up inside them pushing its way out.
In his mind he could hear the fumes from the fruit groaning and sighing, like some kind of retarded mutant, garnering pity from the pain it was in but still warranting strict caution due to its dumb, hulking strength. The noxious gas consumed his attention; in his mind’s eye, it kept expanding into a repulsive, corrupted miasma.
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