Benson’s ruddy face broke out in a jowly, repugnant smile. He called out, “Kishchan!”
Atriya hated being called by his first name. He hated it to the point that he made a habit of telling people it was Christian instead of Kishchan (And why not, he reasoned. Christian was the older, root form of it). Benson, always happy to nettle his inferiors, had never called him anything but Kishchan.
Atriya knew that Benson somehow understood that it pissed him off (even though the two of them had never explicitly addressed the topic), and made a deliberate effort to call Atriya by his hated name. The sergeant was in possession of that powerful magic that all bullies had: the one that allowed them to hone in on what was irritating and disrespectful and—without being blatant or overt about it—prod away until there arose a slow burning, soul rattling fury within their prey.
Atriya made his way toward his old boss, the skin around his eyes stretched with the effort of locking in his fake grin. It didn’t just feel false; the act of smiling caused him physical discomfort.
Three heads—previously directed towards Benson—now turned to face Atriya, curious at their subject of their boss’s atttention. Looks like he’s got himself a new crop of goons. Atriya wasn’t surprised by the entourage; Benson had always been skilled at utilizing the charisma that occasionally flared up in petty tyrants. He always made sure to attract a clique of thuggish 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 ass. You remember that shit? Clearing city and wasting Dissidents…just like you read about.”
Benson’s lackeys leaned closer, their 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 smile went up a notch. Boozy war stories and chest thumping were 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 towards the street, but one of Benson’s hands thumped against the Crusader’s chest. Not with enough force to be considered egregious…but still. Atriya looked down and saw that the hand was clutching a bottle.
“What the fuck, Kishchan? Don’t be a pussy. Stay and chat a bit. Here—have yourself a drink.” Benson’s teeth gleamed, and his already obnoxious smile grew another inch, transforming into a huge and unattractive rictus. His face tilted in, and Atriya’s eyes were hit by the unappetizing sight of bloated pimples. The Crusader’s senses were simultaneously assaulted by breath that was muggy 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.
“Thank you Sergeant.” He said this in the careful and measured tone that one might use to guide somebody frozen on a mine through a set of avoidance measures.
“I was just telling the boys about when we were drop-shipped into ‘Scape 31. You and me, right?” Benson flicked his eyes skyward. His caveman face took on a musing expression. “Damn, those were the good old days. Think it was five years back.” The sergeant turned to face his flunkies. “Clearing city on that op was painful. Dissidents had dug in to the ’scape 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 I’d say was our…mmm…fiftieth room that day. We were both down to pistols. One step up from holding your dick in your hand, you know? My rifle had taken a hit in the receiver, so it was pretty much useless. That was courtesy of some Dissident sniper. Guy had taken out half our squad and burnt our heavier guns with some well-placed rounds. Damn good shot, I’m telling you.” Benson shook his head and his stooges nodded respectfully along. “He had some kind of ranged energy weapon—you guys know how accurate those are on account of them having almost no recoil. We didn’t have any suppressive guns—none that worked anyway—and our rifle ammo was running low.” Dramatic pause. Benson let the peril build up in his audience’s imagination.
“Anyways, our remaining guys were providing cover for another squad that was in trouble so they could try and shift to a better position. That’s when the net sparks up and we hear that there’s an officer pinned down in a building. Now we’re being ordered to send our guys in and save this idiot, 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 at that point we were down to eight. We’d started with sixteen.” Benson paused, taking another slurp from his glass. His audience of three rookies huddled closer, eagerly drinking in the ambience of guts and glory.
Atriya gripped his drink tighter, his knuckles whitening. His anger built as he listened to Benson run his mouth, twisting events so that he looked like a hero and not some bumbling piece of shit that got men killed and crippled.
“Me and Kishchan break from the building we’re holed up in and we 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 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 slurp.
“Lemme tell you 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, don’t know if my brains are still in place, but what the fuck ever, right? Don’t join the Department if you aren’t ready to man up. Anyways, my last three shots go wild and my gun runs 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 he assessed his audience with a calculating gaze. Atriya saw that they were enraptured. Each one’s eyes were wide and gleaming—almost mesmerized. Streetlight reflected off their pupils, amplifying the effect and causing them to look completely spellbound. This wasn’t the case with Atriya.
Atriya was barely holding himself back from smashing Benson’s fat, lying face.
Benson edged closer in, taking on a no-nonsense, you guys know what I’m talking about manner. It was the same conspiratorial air that con men took on to silently imply that anybody disagreeing with them was not just in error, but a ridiculous jackass. Atriya found himself recoiling as Benson’s three drunken followers leaned in with him. God, the man’s breath stank. Atriya didn’t know how the human body could emit a stench worse than shit from anywhere other than one’s asshole, but miracle upon miracles, Benson had apparently figured out how.
“Okay, so I know you three haven’t gotten any trigger time yet, but you know that when you’re reloading, you’re on a knee and you call ‘good’ when you’re ready, right? So your shooting buddy knows to hoist you up. You don’t just stand 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 flag your guys. 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, simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Everybody knew what flagging meant; it was one of the most basic things drilled into every Enforcer. When Benson explained it his three charges, however, they all acted as if they were hearing it for the first fucking time.
Obviously, Benson was explaining these concepts to make himself feel more knowledgeable. Everyone wanted to be the hero, the wise man, the go-to guy. That was something that Atriya could accept and understand (he found it distasteful, but he could still ignore the issue; after all, didn’t he want the same thing, only in a different sense?). What pissed him off to no end was the way Benson’s subordinates—to a fucking man—were pretending that what Benson 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. Everyone knew.
As Benson droned on, spewing out lie after lie detailing how brave and on point he was, Atriya was reminded of why he’d applied for Crew selection. He’d done it to get away from men like this. The Enforcer platoons seemed to have no shortage of these grandstanding shit-talkers.
Like every good bully, Benson was a showman. Now, apparently, 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 onto Smith’s chest. Smith didn’t seem to mind; he actually looked a little grateful. Brown-nosing little cocksucker.
“James, get over here and pretend you’re me while I’m doing a reload. Get on your knee.” The one named James obediently trotted over and sunk to a knee. Benson looked around, checking to see that 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 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 bloom, gave James an unnecessarily forceful nudge with his knee. “Call out, James.”
James pitched forward and almost lost his balance from the hard push. He looked up, a little surprised, and called out, “Good!”
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 a man who knew that 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 bunched on the folds of James’ jacket and jerked him up. The movement was too abrupt for James to get his feet under him in time, and the fabric of his jacked absorbed the excess pull, causing an audible rrrriiiiIIIIPPP to slice through the air. As James stood he canted his head towards the damaged part of his jacket. Dismay was clearly visible on his face. 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, right? Well Kishchan here—” Benson shot a vulgar nod toward Atriya. Atriya had to restrain himself from breaking Benson’s skull open.
“He pulls me into him, knocking us both over. Like—” Benson pulled hard on James, yanking the younger Enforcer off his feet and causing him to stumble backwards on to his butt. He was forced to break the fall by sinking to a crouch and catching the ground with his hands. “Just like that.”
Benson, of course, had remained standing. Not a surprise: The Great and Wise Benson was too great and wise to follow the rules of his own production.
“So I’m on my back, Kishchan is doing God knows what, and there’s two hostiles closing in on us from a door that’s opposite our entry. Maybe 20 or 30 feet away. I’ve also sprained my off-hand so badly it’s shaking. That’s courtesy of Captain Goddamn Graceful over here—” He looked towards Atriya, and the four of them did the mob mentality thing where a unified chuckle came from multiple people. It was something that Atriya detested, and only served to fuel his anger.
“Well I can’t grip the damn pistol with both hands, and I’m ass over tea kettle, so I make do with what I got. I start one handing my weapon like a goddamn Crew guy—except that I ain’t got no fancy cybertech linkup to aim for me—and I blow those two Dissident fuckers off the face of Echo.” Benson made a pistol with his free hand and mimed the shots. “Probably the best shooting you’ll ever hear about,” he added smugly, running his gaze over his audience. James, Smith, and the other guy were hypnotized, their eyes wide, their 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, Judge be praised—and we were able to make comms with the officer. He had two other Enforcers with him. Two guys—that was all that was left from his original unit. Before they’d started the op, there had been a whole platoon of ‘em—like forty something guys—that had gotten bogged down in this building. Take note and pay attention to what the fuck you’re doing, ’cause that’s what can happen. Every one of those fools had gotten zeroed except for those last three guys. Just a bad fucking day for ‘em, I guess.” Benson shook his head in a poor show of humility. “Anyways, we get the remaining guys out, call for a 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. Atriya found it hard to believe that the three cronies by his side could have looked any more in rapture, but they somehow managed it as their eyes fixated on the gaudy medal poking out from Benson’s shirt. Atriya thought that they were showing the same level of reverence that they might have displayed if the Judge himself had made the damn thing.
Atriya couldn’t keep the disbelief from showing on his face. Furthermore, he couldn’t believe that Benson wore that thing out in town, or that he pulled it out like some kind of holy artifact. The Crusader felt sick to his stomach.
James smacked his other two cohorts on their shoulders. “Hey guys, you know the 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 carefully set their drinks on the ground, nodding and murmuring their agreement with James.
The three goons straightened and snapped off parade ground perfect salutes. Benson tried to look humble, but any idiot could see the smugness oozing from the glistening corners of his upturned lips. He nodded at his three subordinates, waving dismissively while making false noises of humble protest. Atriya felt his gorge rise.
The four Enforcers turned expectantly toward Atriya. The Crusader stood stock still, inwardly yearning to be anywhere else. Anywhere but here. Anywhere where he wouldn’t have to salute Benson.
The seconds ticked by. Anger and tension dripped and pooled in all of their minds. It was weighty and maddening. An itch that dug deeper and deeper, an itch that demanded to be scratched. James was the first to say something.
“Sergeant Benson says you’re a Crusader. Well Crusader or not, the regs still apply to you. So why aren’t you fucking saluting?” The younger Enforcer lifted his shoulders up and back, forced his chest out, and craned his neck aggressively forward. Benson stood a few yards 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 position to be in.
Slow breath in, forceful exhale out. Atriya bit back all the things that he desperately, desperately wanted to accuse Benson of being. Shitbag. Coward. Incompetent. The enemy. He was worse than that, because at least 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 sure about; someone you could never trust not to twist and rationalize his incompetent backstabbing into a noble and righteous act.
And the worst part of it? The worst part of it was that Atriya suspected—it was technically just a hunch, but it was strong; on the level of instinct to be precise—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 with his own lies. Or so Atriya believed.
But whether Benson’s behavior was a result of him buying his own bullshit; a conscious, ulterior drive; or some retarded mix of the two, in Atriya’s mind, the verdict was the same.
It was fucking inexcusable.
Atriya’s eyes flicked back and forth, keeping track of potential threats and mulling his options. At last, he decided to try and adopt the civilized route. He had an appointment to keep after all, and wanted to look presentable. He bent to the ground, and gingerly set down the bottle he’d been holding.
Even though he was burning with rage, he straightened up and prepared to salute. His heels clicked together, toes facing outboard at moderate angles, left hand straight and unyielding against the side of his thigh. His right hand snapped crisply 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. Sergeant Benson was all the more offensive because nobody seemed to see him for what he was. They all believed the twisted, easy-to-swallow truth that this parasite eagerly fed them.
Benson’s grin had now grown to epic proportions. He let Atriya hold the salute for longer than they all intuitively knew was appropriate. Then, holding the same loose and casual stance that he had been, Benson flicked his right hand up to his forehead and dismissively threw it at Atriya. His index and middle fingers were somewhat straightened, but the motion was obviously not a real salute. Through his response, Benson gave the semblance of propriety, but returned nothing but disrespect.
“Why don’t you take off Kishchan. Oh, and try not to get anyone else nearly killed.” Benson turned his back on the Crusader, a cloying smirk plastered on his fat, 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 he could feel a tic fluttering under the skin of his face, the muscles in his right cheek moving like a hummingbird’s wings. It was something that happened when his anger became pent up, when the energy in his psyche 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 keen, 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 because I got in a fight with this idiot. Atriya kept the thought in his mind, resolute on keeping the peace. Think of Verus.
He was already taking the first few steps 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 the sergeant, “You’re a fucking liar. I didn’t screw up; I wasn’t the one getting people killed.”
Benson, still smirking, turned slightly to the left so he could face with the Crusader. Atriya couldn’t help but finish his accusation.
“That was you—you piece of shit.”
Want to see the thinking behind the writing? Click here: Chapter 4 Author’s Notes