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-sure about his actions.
He stretched, raising both arms towards the ceiling, expanding his form. The balls of his feet were his only connection to the ground as calves and thighs tensed, 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 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 partially enveloping his weights. The cushioning leaking out from his sparring gear. It struck him that all of it needed replacement.
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. The thought came and went.
He began getting dressed to leave. The ranges of city that surrounded his apartment were dangerous, and his attire was recognition of it. He pulled on an innocuously colored pair of jeans, consciously selected for the mobility they offered; they didn’t restrict his stride or pull at his hips. He changed his t-shirt into a gray, collared short-sleeve that was unfrayed. Slipped on some comfortable dress shoes that were designed to accommodate running.
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 significantly through her conduct and carriage.
The next part was essential: Weapons. Everybody armed themselves before walking the streets. Whether it be a cheap blade or a high-end custom sidearm, it was common sense to carry protection. The 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 the bathroom mirror, visible through an open door. 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 annoyingly at his brain, bird-like in its insistency. Without caring for whether or not he wished to address it, that contrary part of his character 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 were a few minor tweaks over time, but lack of change was status quo when it came to wardrobe. Pretty much how it was in most fields, come to think of it. Progress was the exception, stagnancy the standard.
He knew from his reading that within the same length of time 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; everybody knew. 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 or thought about it.
If asked however, he might have cared-given the way his mind kept probing things.
He felt compelled to turn the 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 slightly, willing tension back into himself. His contemplations had the unpleasant effect of letting a dazed relaxedness take hold. He redirected his focus back to what he’d been doing and opened the 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. Exclusively used by shooters in the Crew.
Seeing it, his mind started bubbling over again, gibbering with extraneous commentary. Unable to help himself, he paused to look at it. Really look at it.
It somewhat resembled a spinal column. Each “vertebrae” was smooth and black. Deadly looking. Slightly smaller than 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. Each segment had needle-thin “legs” that inserted into the wearer’s back and allowed the rig to directly interact with 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 and operating information that transparently imposed on 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 them in allowed operators to greatly enhance their accuracy via neural link with targeting computers built into the weapons themselves. Not that operators could 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, holding a pistol one-handed.
The linkup was also capable of altering the brain’s electrical activity as well as dishing out an artificial influx of hormones and chemicals. Both processes were mingled to deliver a temporary enhancement in speed and strength by the individually keyed voice command, “Boost me.” The rig was sensitive enough to detect a shooter simply mouthing the words in case noise discipline was a concern.
Every Crew guy except Atriya donned their linkup when they went into town. Most never took it off, leaving it on even while sleeping. It wasn’t mandatory to wear outside of work, but operators wore it because it was an easily recognized symbol of elite status.
Despite Crusaders ostensibly being humble and discreet, the truth was more along the lines of them being a pack of wild animals that loved-no needed-attention. Aside from Atriya and maybe a handful of others, all of them required their self-image to constantly be reinforced.
They would move shark-like through the populace to do the smallest things, such as eating or shopping, all the while preening at civilians’ expressions of fear and awe. Reveling in knowing that they exuded a quiet menace that was unspoken but deafening.
As well as enjoying 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. Crew medical techs devoted a substantial amount of effort into counteracting the damage that guys did to themselves through hormones and other enhancement substances. 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 the 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. Just go with it. 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 he’d forced to leave the world at the ends 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 indulging a complete immersion into Crew identity.
He was uncomfortably aware that this made him stick out, and tried to make up for it by working harder than any other operator in the Squadrons. 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 could detect a sense of quiet, desperate melodrama surrounding his predicament. It was imperceptible to him except in the vaguest and faintest of ways.
His eyes lingered on the 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. He toiled just to keep up while they barely tried.
In his unreasoning desire to be a top performer, he mercilessly punished himself in his free time. When he rucked, he pushed himself so hard that his legs quivered like they were having miniature seizures. Without fail, he would regularly visit Verus, drilling hand to hand techniques or discussing the soldier’s mind state. At home, he would study old books that she had recommended.
All of it in a flailing attempt to grasp the prized knowledge that was privy to exalted warriors of times past. Atriya strove 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 history.
Yet time and again, he saw the best operators in the Crew breeze past him. They partied every night, or wasted time in a hormone induced stupor; not showing an iota of his dedication. But come time to hit a target, they’d cruise in and take it down effortlessly. Not a sweat broken, not a fuck given. Unstrained by the slightest concern, they blithely wrote gory poetry with their guns and linkups.
The dawning realization that his efforts weren’t yielding results fostered a tired resignation in his soul. Lately, 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. Checked his revolver. Holstered it under his left arm. 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 on his gun side. Just in case he had to run like hell and needed a head start. Shrugged on a black, easy-to-move-in leather jacket over everything. He 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 his apartment was located.
Light pollution and smog rendered the stars nothing more than barely visible pinpricks. The only illumination coming from above was due to Ascension and four white dwarf clusters. Their radiance seemed to crawl down to Echo and greedily 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; it gave their skin a chalk-white appearance with a faint accent of bioluminescence.
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. He added it to the growing number of things that bothered him. With a vacant sense of surrender, he resigned it to the same fate as the other observations that nettled him.
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. Over half the irritation came from being unable to articulate why random perceptions would gnaw at him. Unfailingly, after fruitless investigation, he’d bury the information as deep as possible in his psyche in the hopes that it would disappear.
Determinedly ignoring the unexplainable 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 part of him was busy assessing every person he saw. He paid particular attention to their hands in case they were holding a weapon or were reaching for one. A small, paranoid voice in his mind nagged him constantly: Hands. Hands. Hands. It was automatic.
The other half of his attention looked on a sea of tired, uncaring faces and wondered: Had people always been this aimless and 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’d nodded along politely, but quickly lost interest and switched the subject to something else.
That was months ago. It was different now. He was becoming painfully aware of a growing inability to bury things in his mind and forget about them. More frequently, he found himself unable to do what he’d been mechanically executing for years; it gave birth to a sense of anxiety that haunted him.
He knew that he was wondering about things outside his paygrade. Bigger picture things. It used to be that he was like everybody else. Along for the ride. Focused on doing what he was supposed to be doing. Not concerned with asking questions.
The few times he’d tried to talk with coworkers about anything that wasn’t directly job related, he’d noted that it marked him as strange. When he’d brought up Old Earth, or the greater significance behind the existence of the Crew, blank looks and puzzled stares were his feedback. I swear Atriya, if you didn’t work so hard we would beat your ass for asking stupid fucking questions. The meaning of being in 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 the byways and avenues, he got the disquieting impression that they were cut from the same cloth as his teammates. 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. They were either going home or getting a drink.
Over half of Echo’s residents were harvesters. Everybody 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 the workers could stay undisturbed in their drudgery.
Everybody in their place doing what they were supposed to be doing. 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. A good degree of predatory activity and abuse seemed to be tolerated on Echo.
There were times he wished he could stop thinking about all of it; stop observing, stop noticing. 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 without a doubt 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 glimmer of 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 bleeding wellsprings, construction would start on fresh streets and rails to shuttle workers to the most recently found source of energy. Old pathways would only be destroyed if they interfered with a commute to the latest find.
With the passing of time, layers of aged and obsolete city had piled up. The cityscapes were 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 long forgotten that lay wintery still and tomblike. Locations that existed with no purpose except to take up space. If Echo was a house, then it would be filled with mold and vermin, desperately needing the fresh start of a spring cleaning.
Atriya didn’t mind maneuvering through the city. When he was a kid, it had intimidated him, but that was decades ago. As an adult, he knew how to navigate through the skeins of urban accumulation so that he could almost entirely avoid danger. He didn’t dawdle when he went out; he was humble enough to realize that the mess of the cityscapes could draw pretty much anybody into a rat’s nest of befuddled wandering.
He pushed through a muddle of claustrophobically small streets, finally coming to an open square. In the center there was a public holo platform that was showing commercials. Atriya glanced over and saw an ad start up. Vacant eyes turned toward it. Like moths to a flame, people milled closer. The dumb light coming off the holo made their faces look empty and zombie-like.
Speakers came to life. They bled static and whined for a second, then resolved into a cloyingly enthusiastic voice which cackled and spat. The garbled speech was unintelligible. Something about new entertainment programming. No one paid attention to the poor sound quality. Everybody was used to it. Not uncommon for communications tech to be spotty.
While the spoken message was unclear, the picture was easy to understand. Images flashing in the air depicted a reality show where the contestants dressed up as Roman gladiators and fought each other. Their costumes and weapons dripped with ostentatious menace. They roared and pranced across the display, presumably screaming about how much ass they were going to beat.
More people had drawn closer 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.
Studying the commercial, he couldn’t see what was so fascinating. Idiots that were flexing their muscles and playing to a crowd of uglier and less fortunate idiots. Fucking stupid.
A small part of him, barely acknowledged, felt sadness. On the surface of his consciousness though, all he felt was an inexplicable anger. It flared up with frighteningly violent intensity. It was starkly out of place, especially considering he couldn’t say what the cause of it was.
Turning away in disgust, he continued deeper into the maze of the cityscape. He was three blocks away and had almost arrived at Verus’s chapel. He felt his mood lightening at the prospect of talking with her, but it quickly fell when he locked eyes with his old platoon sergeant from his days as an Enforcer, back before he had passed Crew selection.
Where Crew teams were specifically used for the purpose of rapid and lethal direct action, Enforcers by contrast were the all-purpose grunts of the Department. They did checkpoints, raids, searches, all of it. Enforcers were much more disposable, not as well-trained, and were treated accordingly. Rank and military bearing were taken seriously in the Enforcer platoons as opposed to the Crusader Squadrons, who tended to see such things with bland indifference.
Sergeant Benson, Atriya’s old boss, had endangered his life more times than he cared to count. He swore under his breath. He couldn’t turn away without being blatantly 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 many near misses he had suffered because of this fucking shitbag.
Want to see why I wrote what I did? Click here: Chapter 3 Author’s Notes