Benson’s flushed, ruddy face broke out in a jowly, repugnant smile. He called out, “Kishchan!”
Atriya hated being called by his first name. He hated it so much that he habitually told people it was Christian instead of Kishchan, Christian being the older, root form of it. Benson had always called him Kishchan.
He knew that Benson somehow understood that it pissed him off, and made a deliberate effort to call him by it. Benson was possessor of that inexplicably powerful magic that all bullies had. The one that allowed them to unerringly hone in on what was irritating and disrespectful and-without being blatant or overt about it-patiently prod away until there arose a slow burning, soul rattling fury.
As Atriya made his way toward his old boss the skin around his eyes stretched with the effort of holding a fake grin. It was physically uncomfortable.
Three heads that had previously been directed towards Benson turned to face Atriya, curious. Looked like Benson’s new crop of goons. The man had always been able to utilize the charisma that occasionally flared brightly in petty tyrants. He was perpetually surrounded by an entourage of thuggish fucking numbskulls.
Benson gestured grandly with a glass of something alcoholic. “I was just talking about you man. The good old days. You were green as hell and I was assigned to mentor your clueless ass. You remember that shit? Clearing city and wasting Dissidents like you read about.”
Benson’s lackeys leaned closer, interest growing. Atriya saw that they all had drinks in their hands. Their skin was flushed but their bodies-and more importantly their eyes-looked steady. Coiled and mean. Not in the mood for this. The pained quality of Atriya’s false smile went up a notch. Boozy war stories and chest thumping was not his thing. He decided it was time to make a quick exit.
“Well, Sergeant, it was great seeing you, but I got someplace-“ Atriya shifted his body, taking a purposeful step back towards the street, but one of Benson’s hands rudely jammed itself into his chest. It was clutching a bottle.
“What the fuck, Kishchan? Don’t be a pussy. Stay and chat a bit. Here’s a drink.” Benson’s smile gleamed huge and unattractive. His face tilted in, and Atriya’s eyes were hit by the unappetizing sight of bloated pimples; his nose assaulted by breath that was stained with dip and drink. He glued his smile in place so it didn’t become a snarl. His fingers felt wooden as they grasped the bottle.
“Thanks Sergeant.” In the careful and measured tone he might use to guide somebody frozen on a mine through a set of avoidance measures so as to avoid getting blown to shit.
“I was just telling the boys about when we were drop-shipped to ‘Scape 31. Think it was five years back.” Benson turned to face his flunkies. “Clearing city on that op was painful. Dissidents dug in like fucking ticks. Me and Kishchan here-” He slapped a smelly hand on Atriya’s shoulder. Atriya saw what he thought was old snot on the index finger. “-were entering probably what was our fiftieth fucking room that day. We were both down to pistols. My rifle had taken a hit in the receiver. Useless. Some Dissident sniper. Guy had taken out half our squad and burnt our heavier guns with well-placed rounds. Damn good shot. Had some kind of ranged energy weapon-you guys know how accurate those are on account of them having so little recoil. We had no working suppressive guns and our rifle ammo was starting to run low.” Dramatic pause. Benson let the peril build up in his audience’s imagination.
“Anyways, our remaining guys were providing cover fire for another squad that was in trouble and trying to shift to a better position. Suddenly we hear over the net that there’s an officer pinned down in a building and to send our guys in, but seeing as how we’re close to being completely fucked over ourselves, all we can spare is me and Kishchan-we need our leftover guys to cover our approach. Think we were down to eight from sixteen.” Benson paused, taking a swig. His audience of three rookies huddled closer, eagerly drinking in the ambience of guts and glory.
Atriya gripped his drink tighter, knuckles whitening. His anger built as he listened to Benson twist events so that he looked like a hero and not some bumbling piece of shit that got men needlessly killed and crippled.
“Me and Kishchan break from the building we’re holed up in and sprint like fuck across the street. Our guys lay down a mag to give us a little protection. We’d left our spare rifle ammo with them so they had enough rounds to give us and the other squad a little breathing room. That should tell you how bad off we were. Quick stack on the door-no need to worry about kicking or blasting it ‘cause it’s blown to fuck-and I hook in right while Kishchan crosses left. Then holy fucking Judge’s Day, I got six hostiles on my half, all with guns shouldered. Without even thinking, I get to work.” Another swig.
“Boys, I was on fucking fire that day. I drop five with five shots. I’m closing in on my last one when he grazes my helmet with a round. Throws me off. I’m dazed. My last three shots go wild and my gun’s dry. So I yell ‘check’ to let Kishchan know that I’m taking a knee to reload.”
Benson took another swallow, straightening up and pausing while his eyes calculatingly assessed his audience. They were enraptured. Their eyes were wide and gleaming-almost mesmerized. Streetlight reflected off their pupils, amplifying the effect. Not so with Atriya. Atriya was barely holding himself back from smashing Benson’s fat, lying face.
Benson edged closer inwards, taking on a no-nonsense, you guys know what I’m talking about manner. The kind of conspiratorial air that manipulative con men took on to silently imply that anybody disagreeing with them was not just in error, but a ridiculous jackass. While his three drunken followers leaned in with him, Atriya recoiled slightly. God, Benson’s breath stank.
“Okay, so I know you three haven’t gotten any real trigger time yet but you know that when you’re reloading, you’re on a knee and you call ‘good’ when you’re ready, so your shooting buddy knows to hoist you up. You don’t just stand up by yourself because that’s a fucking safety hazard; your team needs to know if you’re going to pop up so you don’t do something stupid like flagging somebody. Flagging is when a friendly muzzle points at a teammate. You also don’t want to accidentally smack into a shooter behind you and put everybody at risk.” Benson’s stooges were nodding along, as if this were the sagest information to ever fall from human lips.
Atriya watched them, fascinated and disgusted. Everybody knew what flagging meant, it was one of the most basic things drilled into every Enforcer, but when Benson explained it his three charges were acting as if they were hearing it for the first fucking time.
He was obviously explaining these concepts to make himself feel more knowledgeable. That was something Atriya could distastefully accept and understand. What pissed him off to no end was the way Benson’s subordinates were all pretending as if what he was talking about was something new and innovative-like they all didn’t know what flagging was, or for that matter, how to do reloads in a hot room. Everybody knew.
As Benson droned on with more lies about how brave and on point he was, Atriya was reminded of why he’d applied for Crew selection. To get away from men like this asshole. The Enforcer platoons seemed to have no shortage of these grandstanding shit-talkers.
Like every good bully, Benson was a showman. He wanted to accentuate his words with a visual. “Here, hold my drink Smith,” He stopped blowing hot air for a second and handed his glass off, carelessly sloshing liquid into Smith’s chest. Smith didn’t seem to mind. Actually looked a little privileged and grateful. Brown-nosing little cocksucker, Atriya thought.
“James, get over here and pretend you’re me while I’m doing a reload. Get on your knee.” The one answering to the name obediently trotted over and got down. Benson looked around, checking to see if he still had everybody’s attention.
Benson was not about to make an exception to the typical behavior ingrained in all blowhards. He liked to accentuate what he was saying with completely needless demonstrations and reenactments. Everybody knew what a reload drill looked like, but Benson wanted to play the part of wise teacher. Complete lack of originality on his part dictated that he only express the obvious.
“So I’m Kishchan. James is me. James just finished his reload and he calls out.” Benson, obnoxiousness in full form, gave James an unnecessarily forceful nudge with his knee. “Call out, James.”
James pitched forward and almost lost his balance from the inappropriately hard push. He looked up, a little surprised. “Good!” He called out.
Benson looked around again, making sure he was still the star of the show. His neck dipped and his face took on the cast of somebody who knew he was describing the painfully apparent, but nobly holding back the full brunt of his exasperation, “Now, we all know that when your shooting buddy gives the callout you take your off-hand and hoist him up. Just like-“ Benson’s left hand aggressively bunched on the folds of James’ jacket and roughly jerked upwards. It was too abrupt for James to get his feet under him in time, and the jacket material absorbed the excess pulling. A slight tearing sound came from the fabric. As James stood he canted his head towards it, slight dismay on his face at the damaged clothing. Benson ignored it. Couldn’t interrupt the great and wise Benson. Not when he was on a roll. That would be tantamount to a capital crime.
“-like that. We do this for safety. You all know what this is supposed to look like. Well Kishchan here-” Benson shot a vulgar nod toward Atriya. Atriya felt a burning desire to ruin Benson’s face.
“He pulls me into him, knocking us both over. Like-” Benson needlessly pulled hard on James, yanking him off his feet and making him stumble backwards on to his butt, forcing him to break the fall by crouching and catching himself on his hands. “Just like that.”
Benson was still standing, though. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules of his own production.
“So I’m on my fucking back, Kishchan is doing God knows what, and there’s two hostiles closing on us from a door that was opposite our entry, maybe 20, 30 feet away. I’ve also sprained my off-hand so badly it’s shaking, courtesy of Captain Goddamn Graceful here-” He looked towards Atriya, and the four of them did that mob mentality thing where a unified chuckle came from multiple people. It was something that Atriya detested.
“Well I can’t grip the damn pistol with both hands, and I’m ass over tea kettle, so I make do. Fucking one handing it like a goddamn Crew guy-except for I don’t have no fancy cybertech linkup to aim for me-and I blow those two Dissident fuckers off the face of Echo. Probably the best shooting you’ll ever hear about.” James, Smith, and the other guy were hypnotized, mouths slightly agape.
“Well that was it. We deadcheck the bodies. You guys know, make sure they’re down by putting one in their head-and push into the next room. It was drama free after that. The net wasn’t acting up for once and we were able to make comms with the officer. He had two other Enforcers with him. That was all that was left. There was originally a whole platoon of ‘em, like forty something guys, that had gotten bogged down in this building. They’d all gotten zeroed-just a bad fucking day for ‘em, I guess. Anyways, we get the remaining guys out, call for dropship, and head home. And that’s how I got this beauty.”
Benson reached under his shirt and pulled out the Star of Valor, the Department of Enforcement’s highest decoration. Benson’s three cronies were in rapture, staring wonderingly at the gaudy medal as if the Judge himself had made it.
Atriya looked on disbelievingly. He couldn’t believe Benson wore that thing out in town, or that he pulled it out like some kind of holy artifact. He thought he was going to be sick.
James smacked Smith and the one whose name Atriya hadn’t heard yet on their shoulders. “Hey guys, you know regs. ‘In garrison, all personnel awarded the Star of Valor must be rendered a salute regardless of rank and/or setting.’” He rattled off the instruction with the solemnity of a true believer. The three of them put down their drinks, nodding and murmuring in agreement.
They straightened and snapped off parade ground perfect salutes. Benson tried to look appropriately humble, but any idiot could see the smugness oozing out of the glistening corners of his upturned lips. He nodded at them, making false noises of humble protest. Atriya felt his gorge rise a bit.
The four Enforcers turned toward Atriya expectantly. He stood stock still, inwardly yearning to be anywhere else. Anywhere that he wouldn’t have to salute Benson.
Interminable seconds ticked by. Anger and tension inexorably dripped and pooled in all of their minds. It was weighty and maddening. An itch that dug deeper and deeper in its need to be scratched. James was the first to say something.
“Sergeant Benson says you’re a Crusader. Well that doesn’t mean the regs don’t apply to you. So why aren’t you fucking saluting?” He’d lifted his shoulders up and back, forced his chest out, craned his neck aggressively forward. Benson stood in the back, arms crossed, while the other two Enforcers fanned out to either side of James, forcing Atriya to use his peripherals to keep track of them. Fuck. This was not a good situation to be in.
Slow breath in, forceful exhale out. Atriya bit back all the things that he desperately wanted to call Benson. Shitbag. Coward. Incompetent. The enemy. He was worse than that, because the enemy was honest. The enemy tried to kill you and let you know it.
Here was somebody you had to rely on to protect your flank but could never be entirely sure about; you could never be certain that he wouldn’t twist and rationalize his backstabbing and incompetence into being a noble and righteous act.
The worst part of it? Atriya suspected that in Benson’s mind, the man actually believed what he was saying, simply by virtue of the fact that he had repeated it so many times to his own needy psyche. He’d brainwashed himself, or so Atriya believed.
But whether Benson’s behavior was a result of him actually buying his own bullshit, a consciously ulterior drive, or a mix of the two, it amounted to the same verdict: Inexcusable.
Atriya’s eyes flicked back and forth, keeping track of the potential threats, mulling his options. At last, he decided to go the more civilized route. He had an appointment to keep and wanted to look presentable. He bent to the ground, gingerly setting down the bottle he had been holding.
Inwardly burning with rage, he straightened up. Heels clicked together, toes facing outboard at moderate angles, left hand straight and unyielding against the side of his thigh. His right hand crisply snapped up, knifelike, palm angled slightly inward, to the outer edge of his forehead. His face was a stony mask.
Atriya saluted Benson, and like so many others in the Department required by regulations to do the same, he paid homage to this inverted mockery. This caricature. All the more offensive because nobody seemed to see him for what he was. They all believed the twisted, easy-to-swallow truth that Benson eagerly fed them.
Benson’s grin had grown to epic proportions. He ungracefully let Atriya hold the salute for longer than they all intuitively knew was an appropriate span of time. Then, holding the same loose and casual stance, Benson flicked his right hand up to his forehead and dismissively threw it in Atriya’s direction. His index and middle fingers were somewhat straightened, but the motion glaringly and obviously was not a real salute. Through his response, Benson gave the semblance of propriety, but returned nothing but disrespect in his gesture.
“Why don’t you take off Kishchan. Oh, and try not to get anybody else nearly killed.” Benson turned his back to him, cloying smirk plastered on his repellent face.
For a few throbbing moments, Atriya stood fixed in place. There was no indication that he was on the brink of losing control. Not visibly. But on his face he could feel a tic fluttering under the skin, the muscles in his right cheek moving like a hummingbird’s wings. It was something that happened when his anger became pent up and the energy begged to be released in the form of destruction.
Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out. Slowly, it seemed-ever so slowly-though it was only for a few high, sharp seconds, Atriya gained control of himself. The tremor in his cheek eased, then ceased. His chest loosened. While he wasn’t relaxed, he wasn’t imprisoned by the tension.
It wouldn’t be right to show up to Verus and be scuffed or hurt from fighting. Atriya kept this thought in his mind, resolving his intent. Think of Verus.
He was already taking the first few steps back towards his destination, willing himself to try and forget Benson, when his mouth betrayed his efforts at calmness. Coming as a complete surprise even to him, Atriya heard himself call out to Benson. “You’re a fucking liar. I didn’t screw up; I wasn’t the one getting people killed.”
Benson, still smirking, did a small turn to face him directly. Atriya couldn’t help but finish the thought.
“That was you-you piece of shit.”
Want to see the thinking behind the writing? Click here: Chapter 4 Author’s Notes