Atriya stood up from the sofa, intent on leaving the confines of his apartment. It was the first moment of the day where he felt right—where he felt sure about his actions.
He stretched, raising both arms towards the ceiling and expanding his form. The balls of his feet were his only connection to the ground as calves and thighs tensed, lengthening his body and lifting him up. Holding the pose, he took a small moment to savor the feel. His arms dropped, and a light rush went to his head. Both his body and spirit felt agreeable from the aftermath of hard training, but more importantly from the promise of potential escape—if not resolution—from the issues monkeying around in his mind.
As if for the first time, he saw the piles of used training equipment scattered throughout his living area. The rust-covered weights. The cushioning leaking out from his sparring gear. All of his personal training gear was old and smelly. Some of it was showing the beginnings of mold. He couldn’t deny it: he needed to replace his equipment. All of it.
That deeply buried part, the part 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 decaying equipment. Like most of the notions that came from his more intelligent side, the thought came and went.
He began getting dressed for a foray into the cityscape. The ranges of ’scape that surrounded his apartment were dangerous, and the clothes he wore were tacit recognition of that. He pulled on an innocuously colored pair of jeans, selected for the mobility they offered; they didn’t restrict his stride or pull at his hips. He changed out of his t-shirt and into a gray, collared short-sleeve. Then he slipped on a pair of comfortable dress shoes that had been designed to accommodate his feet if he needed to run.
The muted, forgettable dress allowed him to travel with a lesser chance of being harassed by Echo’s healthy population of predators. The secondary reason for it was that he liked to look somewhat presentable for Verus. She commanded mild deference from Atriya. Not just through her storied reputation, but more also through her conduct and carriage.
The next part was essential: Weapons. Everyone armed themselves before walking the streets. Whether it was a cheap blade or a high-end custom sidearm, it was common sense to carry protection. Threat of physical danger was woven into the air itself. The entire world was unsafe.
As he started towards the cabinet where he kept his armaments, his line of sight crossed paths with a mirror, visible through the open door of his bathroom. It threw his image back at him. For an instant he was given pause, jolted by the commanding clarity of it.
As if on cue, the deeper part of his psyche tapped at his brain, annoying and bird-like in its insistency. Without caring for whether or not he wished to address it, that contrary part of him inconsiderately dragged an observation to the fore: This one about clothing.
It struck him that it had been over a millennia since Echo had been colonized, yet fashion remained by and large the same as that of 21st century Old Earth. There had been a few minor tweaks over time, but lack of change was status quo when it came to Echo wardrobe. That was pretty much how it was in most fields, when he paused and thought about it. Progress was the exception, stagnancy the standard. He knew from his readings 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 area. It wasn’t that these facts were obscure or hidden; everyone knew about them. But it was like knowing that computers could run programs and do calculations. Atriya’s ruminating was the equivalent of asking how a computer actually worked. As long as it performed, nobody cared. Nobody even thought about it.
If asked however, he might have cared, given the way his mind had taken to probing at things.
He felt compelled to turn his musings over, mentally gazing at them from different angles. Studying them with the full absorption of a jeweler scrutinizing a precious gem. Unable to shake the feeling that there was something exotic and wondrous at their core.
Irritated at being drawn into a reverie, he shook his head, willing tension back into himself. His contemplations had the unpleasant effect of letting a dazed relaxedness take hold of him. He redirected his focus back to what he’d been doing and opened his weapons cabinet.
Prominently displayed in the center was the hallmark of his job: The coveted Neural Linkup Enhancement, though teammates simply referred to it as a rig, linkup, or L-rig. The cybertech linkup was used by shooters in the Crew and no one else.
Looking at it, his mind began bubbling over, gibbering with extraneous commentary. Unable to help himself, he paused to look at it. 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 against the shooter’s back was almost flat, gently curved to better mold against the skin. Needle-thin “legs” protruded from the sides of the segments; these would insert into the wearer’s back and allow the rig to interact with the user’s spinal nerves and brainstem. The opposing side of the vertebrae bulged away from the body. The segments were built with an invisible, high-frequency LED centered on the outward-facing surface that let enhanced optics assess whether that particular piece was functioning correctly. Green was good, yellow was caution, red was inactive. To avoid compromising light discipline, the LEDs were rendered imperceptible 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 supplied targeting information that imposed transparent information onto a Crew member’s field of vision.
In addition to the visor, the linkup housed two armored, smart-fiber cables that could plug directly into 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 the 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 chemicals upon request. Both processes mingled together to 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 concern. Every Crew guy except Atriya donned their linkup when they went into town. Most never took it off, and left it on even while sleeping. It wasn’t mandatory to wear outside of work, but men wore it because it was a recognizable symbol of elite status.
Despite the popular image that the Department tried to peddle (Crusaders were ostensibly humble and discreet) the truth was that they shared were more aptly described as a pack of wild animals that loved—no needed—attention. Aside from Atriya and perhaps a handful of others, all of them required their self-image to be constantly reinforced.
While they were off-duty, they 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 unspoken, but in a very real sense, still deafening.
As well as riding the ego boost born from civilian deference, the majority of operators also paid for cheap pleasure hacks, configuring their linkups to deliver an on-command rush of feel good compounds. The effect was far more potent than conventional methods of oral or injectable drugs. It wasn’t the safest thing. Not in regs, either. Medical techs that were assigned to the Crew devoted a substantial amount of effort into counteracting the damage that shooters did to themselves through the cornucopia of enhancements they used. Ultimately, it didn’t change the fact that everything had a shelf life. In the rare occasion that a shooter lived to old age, he or she was pretty much a cripple from all the wear and tear to their musculoskeletal structure and nervous system.
When it came to Crew habits like wearing the linkup off duty, Atriya was torn. A big part of him desperately wanted to fade away and merge with the pack. Leave the rig on. Don’t stow it. None of the other guys do. Drink in that fear from average people. 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 impressive tally of Dissidents whose lives had ended on the wrong side of his guns.
There was another piece of him that prevented him from walking down that road. It was the annoyingly inquisitive part. That part had enough sway to keep Atriya from shamelessly immersing himself in the collective identity that hovered over the Crew.
He was uncomfortably aware that this made him stick out, and tried to make up for it by working harder than any other operator. During off hours he either trained his ass off or studied how to be better at his job. If there was anybody in the community whose conduct fit that of the consummate warrior, it was him.
When his mind became hushed—which was almost never—he felt a quiet desperation surrounding his predicament. It was imperceptible to him except in the vaguest and faintest of ways.
His eyes lingered on his L-rig, feeling the emphatic desire to put it on and never take it off. Despite laboring way more than his coworkers, he’d become painfully aware that guys with greater talent left him in the dust on a regular basis. He toiled just to keep up while they barely tried.
In his unreasoning desire to be a top performer, he punished himself in his free time. When he rucked, he pushed himself so hard that his legs would quiver as if they were having miniature seizures. He would visit Verus without fail, drilling hand to hand techniques or discussing the soldier’s optimal mind state. At home, he would study old books that she had recommended in a determined effort to find refine his mind and his skills so that he wouldn’t just blend in, but rise above.
All of it was a flailing attempt to grasp the prized knowledge that was privy to exalted warriors of times past. Atriya was well ware that he was striving to acquire a rarified awareness that granted mastery in multiple disciplines—disciplines which the truly exceptional had been required to weave into their profession all throughout the history of man.
Yet time and again, he saw the best operators in the Crew breeze past him. They partied every night, or wasted their time in a hormone-induced stupor, not bothering to demonstrate an iota of his dedication. It made it all the more infuriating that when it came time to hit a target, those same guys would cruise in and do their job effortlessly. Not a sweat broken, not a fuck given. Unstrained by the slightest concern, Atriya’s teammates wrote blithe, gory poetry with their guns and linkups.
The dawning realization that his efforts weren’t yielding results fostered a tired resignation in his soul. Of late, the futility was beginning to feel bone-deep. Inescapable. One of these days he would just leave the linkup on and let his dreams fade in a wash of pleasure hacks.
Not today, though.
He pushed the incessant thoughts from his mind. His eyes darted away from the rig and found his shoulder holster. Threw it on. He checked his revolver and holstered it under his left arm. He stuck his baton in a drop-sheath under his right, grabbed an egg-sized stun sphere, and put it in a velcro pouch that was sewn onto his holster’s gun side, just in case he had to run like hell and needed a head start. He shrugged on a black, easy-to-move-in leather jacket, and then went out the door.
It was nighttime in Cityscape 42, one of hundreds of vast stretches of urban buildup that covered a little over half the planet. 42 was where Atriya’s apartment was located.
Light pollution and smog rendered the stars into nothing more than faintly visible pinpricks. The only illumination coming from above was due to Ascension and four white dwarf clusters. Their radiance seemed to crawl down to the ’scapes of Echo and slather the streets with a sterile, deadened cast.
The moon-city of Ascension was home to the Regent and the rest of society’s elite. In addition to needing special authorization to live there, it was an unspoken law that every Ascension resident undergo mind-blowingly expensive genetic surgery. The procedure gave their skin a chalk-white appearance, with a moderate touch of bioluminescence. The light that shone off their skin was proportional to their status in society; like in most things, the more money and reputation you had, the brighter you shined. It just happened that for Ascensioners, that was a literal and not figurative statement.
Ascension was the heart of the Regime, the organized authority that kept things running. Maybe when Echo was first populated, people would 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 formed the Regime within the first century of settling Echo, or so Verus had told him.
To Atriya, the light from the night 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 information to the same fate that he did to all the other observations that nettled him. To the back of his mind it went.
Recently, he’d started seeing a pattern in his vexations: He’d notice something that felt ajar, it would bug him…but he would be unable to pinpoint the reason for it. More than half of his irritation came from the simple fact that he was unable to articulate why these random perceptions would gnaw at him. After fruitless investigation, he’d bury the information as deep as possible in his psyche, vainly hoping that it would just disappear.
Determinedly ignoring the offense he felt from the moonlight, he moved through the gray dust of the streets. His attention was still divided, but now part of it was focused on his surroundings. The lizard-brain piece of him (an incredibly dominant piece, he thought off-handedly) was busy assessing every person he saw. He paid particular attention to their hands—just in case they were holding a weapon or reaching for one. A small, paranoid voice in his mind nagged at him: Hands. Hands. Hands. It was automatic.
The other half of his attention looked on 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’d been similar periods on Old Earth: eras when culture and progress had nearly ground to a stop. He remembered that he’d nodded politely, but had quickly lost interest and switched the subject.
That was months ago. Things were different now. He was becoming painfully aware of a growing inability to bury things in his mind and forget they were ever there. More and more, he found himself unable to do what he’d been mechanically doing for years; it gave birth to a sense of anxiety that haunted him. He might not have always been conscious of it, but it weighed on his spirit as if it were the psychic equivalent of a loaded ruck.
He knew he was wondering about things that were outside his paygrade. Bigger picture things. 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.
The few times he’d tried to talk with coworkers about anything that wasn’t job related, he’d noted that they’d respond in a negative manner. Sometimes it was casual dismissal, sometimes he’d be treated to scoffs. 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. 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 what other people felt about Old Earth—or anything else for that matter—but he could guess. Watching the faces streaming past him as he wended through byways and avenues, he got the disquieting impression that they were cut from the same cloth as his teammates. Echo citizens were oblivious about the bigger picture. Not caring, not wanting to. Rats in a maze. Automatons.
His feet made muffled thumps as he walked, the blocks passing by. The streets were filled with harvesters just getting off their shift. Every one of them was committed to one of two activities: going home or getting a drink.
Over half of Echo’s residents were harvesters. Everyone else’s job 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 Echo itself.
Atriya wasn’t sure how the power got dispersed, but he suspected that Ascension and the Department of Enforcement were allotted a disproportionately huge share. The rest of it just kept the harvesters harvesting. His role in the show was to smooth out problems with Dissidents, so that workers could stay undisturbed in their drudgery.
Everybody 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. Amongst Echo citizenry, a good degree of predatory activity was accepted as the norm.
There were times he wished he could stop thinking about all of it; stop observing, stop noticing, stop analyzing. Just stop. Being ignorant made life simpler. Easier. On Echo, all you had to do was work, cling to any cheap pleasure that distracted you from suffering, and die. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it unequivocally dulled the pain.
Atriya’s feet carried him further down a snarled tangle of alleys and roads. The cityscapes seemed purposefully made to get lost in. Their sprawl of construction wasn’t guided by any grand vision or architectural inspiration. All of it was designed to direct harvesters to their respective 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 most recently found source of fuel. Old pathways and roads would only be destroyed if they interfered with a harvester’s commute to the latest source of power. With the passing of time, layers of aged and obsolete city had piled up like stacks of rotted cordwood. Each ’scape was littered with turns that cut at steep, nonsensical angles, or roads that lead nowhere.
Over the course of centuries, the defunct sprawl 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 that was filled with mold and vermin, one that desperately needed a spring cleaning.
Atriya didn’t mind the mess. It had intimidated him when he was a kid, but that was decades ago. As an adult, he knew how to navigate through the accumulated skeins of old construction in a way that minimized danger. He didn’t dawdle when he went out; he was humble enough to realize that the mess of the cityscapes could draw anybody into a rat’s nest of befuddled wandering.
He pushed through a muddle of claustrophobically small streets, and finally came to an open square. In the center of it there was a public holo platform that was showing commercials. Atriya glanced over and saw an ad start up. His eyes flicked away from the ad and took in the dozens of vacant eyes that honed in on the holo. Like moths to a flame, people milled closer. The dumb light coming off the projection cast their faces in an empty, zombie-like light.
All across the square, speakers came to life. For a second they bled static and whined, then resolved into a cloying, enthusiastic voice that was interspersed with cackling bursts of feedback. The garbled speech was unintelligible—something about new entertainment programming. No one paid attention to the poor sound quality; everybody was used to it. It wasn’t uncommon for communications tech to be spotty.
While the spoken message was unclear, the meaning behind the picture was clear enough. Images flashed in the air, depicting a reality show that required contestants to dress up as Roman gladiators and fight each other. Their costumes and weapons dripped with ostentatious menace. They roared and pranced across the display, screaming in distorted howls about how much ass they were going to beat.
More people were drawn to the holo, their expressions filled with dull, insensate avarice. Atriya felt deeply disturbed watching the crowd, but he couldn’t say why. Something about the way the shadows capered over their features.
As he studied the commercial, he couldn’t see what was so fascinating about it. It was a shallow, idiotic display of morons flexing their muscles, playing to a crowd of uglier and less fortunate morons. Fucking stupid.
A small part of him, one he barely acknowledged, felt a bone-deep sadness. On the surface of his mind however, all he felt was inexplicable anger, one that flared up with violent intensity. It was starkly out of place, especially considering the fact that he couldn’t say what the cause of it was.
Turning away in disgust, he 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 locked eyes with his old platoon sergeant: Benson. Benson was a relic from his days as an Enforcer, an unpleasant reminder of what he’d had to deal with before he’d passed Crew selection.
Where Crew teams were designed for direct action—raids, in other words—Enforcers were more generalized; they were the all-purpose grunts of the Department. As an Enforcer, one might find themselves manning checkpoints, engaged in offensives, executing searches…Enforcers did all of it. They were Echo’s equivalent of low-level infantry, but were also expected to fulfill the function of police and sheriffs. Enforcers were much more disposable, not as well-trained, and were treated accordingly. Rank and military bearing were taken seriously in their platoons, where in the Crusader Squadrons, the opposite was true. Crusaders 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, Atriya’s old boss, had endangered his life more times than he cared to count. As the Crusader locked eyes with his old boss, he swore under his breath. He couldn’t turn away without being rude; Benson had already recognized 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 and near misses he’d suffered because of this fucking shitbag.
Want to see why I wrote what I did? Click here: Chapter 3 Author’s Notes