Rain. It sounds like rain.
The patter of rounds against his armor struck up a symphony. It was thick and unrelenting, like a torrential downpour crashing onto a roof. Sailing through the air, Atriya thought of a snippet from some Old Earth literature that Verus had recommended, one detailing the life of the ultimate warrior:
“The rain on my chest is a baptism-I’m born again…”
Stretching into space, his right leg reached out and his toe caught the metal lip of a catwalk. Final, soothing vestiges of dream surf fell away as his sped-up brain returned to its relatively normal, linkup-enhanced pace. His flight through the void came to an abrupt end as he landed in a crouch-body compressed, one knee on the ground.
Sounds of bullets hitting his armor intensified. Not just a storm anymore, but a monsoon. One of his plates was hit at an unlucky angle, protesting with a harsh crack as it fractured. It had done its job and protected him, but the abuse his armor was soaking up was insane; he had to end this quickly.
Taking the briefest of instants to let his weight settle, he pushed off and started running. Punching both guns out, he fired instinctively, hands and enhanced senses tracking and zeroing targets. He saw that he wasn’t just taking fire from topside positions; muzzle flashes were sputtering at him from the deck through the metal links of the walkway. Everybody was shooting at him.
Atriya sprinted harder, his legs churning against the perforated steel planking, guns beating out a steady drumbeat of thunder.
An explosion shook the ground floor and an unforgiving gust of heat washed over him. It was followed by the rocky sound of crumbling debris; Clement had just breached the lower level.
Each bullet that struck Atriya created a spiky glitter of light as he began his attack on the higher path. The volume of fire was so thick that he looked like he was being doused in sparks.
This is too many guns, he thought. Way more resistance than what we saw from outside.
He glimpsed a streak of hot light screaming its way toward him from the left. Beam round. The bolt shone with dazzling brilliance as it struck against his matrix and undulated along the protective shielding, diffusing in color and intensity. The concentrated ray turned into gorgeous, mother-of-pearl waves that curved and rippled from the point where it sizzled against his invisible barrier, briefly revealing the shape of the matrix’s interlaced design. As the energy traveled along the weave of radiation, it made the construct of the shield fully visible-a projection that punched out roughly one foot from Atriya’s body and followed the contours of his form.
Thank you, light matrix, the Crusader thought.
Atriya instantly replied with a few rounds towards the source of the bolt. His weapons were ceaselessly busy responding to the hail of bullets that enveloped him, sending back answering cartridges as he blasted away. He kept running.
A fresh volley of beam rounds scorched towards him. Searing and hissing, they splashed across his matrix, giving him an aura of iridescence as he sent his own bullets cracking back through the air. From his peripherals, he saw the web’s outline bend ominously inward from a well-placed cluster of bolts: a sign of stress on the shield’s capabilities. Matrix won’t hold out if this keeps up. He clenched his teeth and ran faster.
A crash shook the walls as a bullet smashed its way through from the outside. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a Dissident jerk sideways, twisting as his head exploded into gory red mist. Retrieval’s marksmen were getting in the game. Their sniper rifles could blow through most barriers and came equipped with a variety of options: Explosive bullets, energy rounds, or a regular shot that could go long range-more than four miles if conditions were right. Their scopes also had nonvisible overlays that allowed them to engage marks that were behind concealment; they could spot and zero targets even if they were sheltered by cover.
Despite the fact that he’d been fretting over how to kill the sharpshooters less than an hour prior, Atriya was grateful for them as he darted down the walkway, swathed in an angry glitter of hostile fire.
The catwalk stretched a good distance before him. Maybe a couple hundred yards-the warehouse was enormous. It would take him less than half a minute to run the whole thing. But despite the short crossing time, the amount of ordnance and fiery light that was battering him made it seem like each nanosecond-each rise and fall of his feet-took forever.
As he ran on the planking, his boots drummed out rattling clinks. Constantly moving, his hands danced between different angles and positions. Every now and then his eyes would register the results of his work; a body would collapse or a head would snap back as his shots tore the life from someone. It wasn’t something he focused on. He was too busy looking for fresh targets.
Situated on elevated platforms at the warehouse’s far end, he picked out the shapes of unmanned, slave-protocol autocannons that tracked threats by radar and motion sensor. Their dim silhouettes gave the impression of giant, mechanical spiders: Ponderous, spherical bodies supported by eight, lumbering legs. Originating from their main bodies, barrels sprouted outward on mechanized limbs, rotating efficiently on robotic ball joints. The guns blazed away in his direction, showering his surroundings with hot metal that zipped and bit at him.
Subconsciously, he hunched lower into his sprint as slugs whined and snapped, shearing the air.
I need to take out those autoguns.
His armor was taking an unprecedented beating. Dents and shiny nicks were visible where bullets had ripped at the fabric that coated his plates. To make matters worse, he saw the walkway flooring starting to deteriorate under the sheer volume of fire. A few yards ahead, a big chunk of catwalk groaned and fell away as he kept sprinting. The rest of it was disappearing in bits and spurts as a blizzard of rounds ate everything in his path.
A realization flashed through his mind: I can’t keep running on this thing. Not the main part, anyway. Gotta get on the handrails.
Still at a dead sprint, he briefly lowered his guns so he could dip his upper body and compress his legs; the move allowed him to coil himself so he could jump.
Just as the footing underneath disappeared in a cluster of sparks, he pushed off with his feet and hurdled through the air, his body unfolding as his back straightened. His arms and legs partially unbent, allowing him to stay upright as he leapt.
Without missing a beat, he started running again as both feet found purchase on the still intact, left-side handrail. It was a slim, silvery pipe no more than an inch in diameter. He looked like the world’s deadliest tightrope walker as he sprinted on the narrow rail, guns out and blazing. A brief flash of gratitude hit him for the enhanced balance imparted by his cybertech linkup
As he pumped his legs and drummed his triggers, he saw that there were two catwalks paralleling the one he was on, one to either side of him. Too far to jump to. They were filled with Dissidents, visible to him as flitting silhouettes that were hunched behind makeshift barriers.
Because the changes in light were so drastic and erratic, his vision modulators were having a hard time compensating. Detailed features were being erased from his sight. Enemy fighters appeared as nothing but dark shapes until muzzle flashes or the glow of beam rounds lit their faces.
Atriya put down handfuls of them, his fingers so fast that his guns sounded fully automatic. But for every fighter he shot, he ran past one or two that he couldn’t get.
Retrieval’s going to have their hands full mopping up behind me.
Dozens of yards ahead, he saw a stack of graphene shipping containers organized in a horseshoe, resting on a reinforced landing. If I can make it over there I can grab some cover and get my bearings.
He heard someone cry out, “Crusaders! Heavier rounds-lay down some airburst!” The Dissidents had realized that they weren’t up against regular Enforcers and needed harder ammo. Atriya gritted his teeth as his feet tapped along the railing. Goddammit.
Airburst rounds were specifically dangerous to Crusaders; they took advantage of the fact that operators survived by virtue of their agility and high-grade armor. The detonative rounds had rudimentary sensors on them which caused them to explode near their target and blow shrapnel outwards. Because Atriya’s armor was sufficiently reinforced, it wasn’t the shrapnel that could damage him (if his plates took enough abuse it could-an extremely strong possibility at the moment) but the explosive effect: that was what was deadly. The concussives could potentially disorient or throw him, stunning him and making him easy prey to scoop up.
Here it comes. His vision picked up the fatter rounds as they streaked closer. Realizing the nearby detonation would be too much for his noise modulators, he put his gun-clutching hands over his ears, simultaneously opening his mouth so he could reduce the eruptive fallout on his equilibrium. He sunk further into his crouched run.
Poom poom poom. The airburst exploded around him; kiwi-sized rounds puffed into clouds of white smoke. He jerked from one side to the other, his balance on the railing challenged by each new wave of pressure. Undulations of force visibly warped the air.
Thankfully, his linkup was working as prescribed; he was able to maintain his footing on the narrow steel rail and run without falling. He stopped firing, concerned solely with keeping his balance and momentum.
Angry clinking filled his ears as hot fragments from the shrapnel clattered against him. His armor was definitely getting compromised. He felt the sting of fresh cuts-rounds that had zipped across the weaker points of his suit and gotten through.
Only a matter of time before my plates start failing or they use something heavy that will do the job, he thought. On the heels of that: Hell, the plating’s probably cracked all to shit as it is.
His lips curled back into a snarl and he tightened his crouch, making himself as small as possible while pushing himself to go faster. There was nothing he could do but keep moving.
Airburst exploded a few yards in front of him, and he was carried by his sprint into a mass of pale smoke. He leaned into the pressure wave to keep from being pushed back. Even though fabric covered his nose and mouth and acted as a filter, Atriya caught the whiff of burnt metal. The sharp tang of explosives invaded his nostrils, coating his throat as he darted through the acrid fog.
There was a good 10 or 15 seconds of sprint remaining before he could reach the containers and get some cover.
Ten steps ahead, the remaining railing flew to pieces, tumbling and falling as fragmentation tore them to shreds. Everything was being deluged with slugs and pellets.
Everything was breaking apart.
I need to jump to the other handrail.
There was no alternative. Clement and the others were depending on him to spearhead the assault and soften the upper level. He needed to stay on the higher floor. If he stopped moving or fell, he would be easier to target. It would be the end of him. Possibly the end of all of them.
Dashing toward the looming void, he pushed off the piping underneath with his left foot. For a snapshot of time he was suspended in the air-left leg straightened, right leg cocked to his chest, body leaning toward the right-as he launched himself upwards and laterally towards the right hand railing. His arms unfolded from their compressed position.
He brought both knees up to his chest, giving his body the appearance of a cannon ball. The angle and rotation he’d pushed off with caused him to gyrate so that his back faced the floor and his chest faced the ceiling mid-leap. For an instant, he looked like a gun-slinging street gymnast as he curled his legs into a tuck and punched his arms straight out, firing at Dissidents on either side of him.
Quick pictures flitted across his vision as both guns worked at top speed from within his lethal, sideways somersault. Brains sprayed out the back of a head. A Dissident’s face blew apart in a mess of bone shards. Another one dropped her weapon, clutching her neck as a shot burrowed its way through her throat.
The Crusader saw the fruits of his work and felt an intense and savage satisfaction.
Come and get me. All of you.
I’ll kill every fucking one of you.
He completed torqueing in the air, chest rotating to face downward. Stretching out with his right leg, he straightened it while keeping his left knee close to his chest. Touching the right side railing with his toe, the rest of his foot settled onto it and he began running again-as fast as if he were on solid ground, rather than a length of one inch, circular piping.
Five yards ahead, a six-foot section of rail got hit by an energy bolt and glowed cherry red. A spatter of bullets instantly followed, tearing the weakened piping completely away. It clinked and clattered downwards, resembling a smoldering piece of incense.
Fuck. The other railing, the left-side one, was destroyed. So was the walkway. And now? A big gap in front of him was the only viable way forward.
He pattered his feet to gain momentum, then sprang off his right foot. Instead of jumping sideways this time, he went up and forward. His right leg straightened from the force and he whipped his torso downward, arms out to both sides so his guns could continue firing.
The torque of his violent bow caused him to execute a front flip as he traveled through the air and touched down on the remaining section of rail. His left knee untucked and both feet danced across the vanishing length of metal.
5 seconds. He thought, looking at the remaining distance. 5 seconds until I can grab some cover and call in react.
The metal railing swayed jerkily in front of him. Thick fire made it twitch one way, then the other. He swayed with it, not even registering the results of his shots.
Just make it, he told himself. His jaw clenched tighter.
To stabilize his weight, he huddled forward and crossed his arms, pointing his right gun towards his left side and vice versa. It allowed him to compress his body a little more and keep firing.
Almost there. Just a few more steps. He was going as fast as possible, and as his feet surged forward, the steel underneath moaned in protest. Jumping off of it, he hurdled toward the shipping containers, bicycling his legs so he could max out the distance.
Behind him, beam rounds lit up the rail and it glowed a baleful crimson. A volley of airburst followed, knocking the metal off its moorings. It spun furiously out into nowhere.
Atriya’s boots made weighted clunk clunk clunk noises against the landing as he ran towards the containers. He dashed into the horseshoe and put his back up against its central length, gasping for air.
Fuck. Thirty to forty guys? Try a few thousand.
Keyed his comms. “Team leader.”
“You’re on the net. Send it, Crusader.”
“Call in react. We’ve grossly underestimated Dissident size and strength.”
Atriya heard a buzz as the team leader responded. “They’ve-” The words were lost in a haze of gunfire and shouting. The comms went silent. They fritzed up again. “They’ve just arrived.” More gunfire, and a yell of “Fucking waste his ass!” “Every other platoon is pinned down. Orbital fire is working at full capacity.”
A dreadlocked, rifle-toting Dissident rushed around the corner and Atriya shot him once, causing his head to snap back. The man collapsed, looking puzzled and dumb as his face lolled to the side, drool oozing from his lips.
“Understood. Team leader, I recommend that we pull out and block up. Call in orbital and toast this warehouse. Forget the intel.”
“Negative. Higher wants the warehouse cleared and secured. You are to hold tight while-” Atriya heard a staccato chatter of automatic weapons and somebody on Retrieval’s end yell, “Zero that cocksucker!”
“Hold fucking tight.” The team leader lost his cool and swore over the net, where it was imperative that communication be clear and concise; swearing only made things more confusing. He was interrupted by more explosions and gunfire.
Atriya could hear the specialist’s spiked breathing over the comm-link. The commander was fighting to regulate his pulse and keep things on an even keel. The Crusader’s earpiece buzzed again, “Atriya-Atriya, you there?”
“Still here. Send it.” Two fighters raced around the containers to try and get him but he blew their throats out. They collapsed, making gagging noises as the soft insides of their necks lay scattered and glistening.
“Atriya-” The team leader tried again.
“Send it, Retrieval.”
“You and Clement hold tight until we catch up. React and their hover plats are on site. Once we push to your position we’ll provide a base of fire so you two can reestablish momentum. Failing that, we’ll take the rest of the warehouse by inches. Understood?”
“Understood. Holding now.”
“Team leader out.”
“Lead gunner out.”
Atriya keyed his comms on the Crew’s frequency. “Clement, you there?”
He heard a fritz and a thundering series of shots. “I’m-” The comms cut, then fritzed again. “Just fucking barely! What the fuck is this bullshit? Our overlays-” Clement was losing it, shouting and swearing, letting his professionalism slip over the net.
Atriya cut him off. “Following. Gunner. Calm down. Stop cursing. Are you secure?”
Atriya heard a series of shots and hisses. They comms cut off. He waited tensely, eyes twitching from side to side. The comms keyed up.
“Yeah, I’m-” Off again.
“Clement? Clement? You there?”
“Yeah I’m here.” Clement’s voice was steady; the sound of gunfire and airburst was momentarily abating. “I’m secure.” Deep breath. “For now.”
“Okay. Stay tight. Did you catch Retrieval relaying orders?”
“No I was too busy-” He stopped for a second. Atriya heard a quick exchange of shots and Clement yelling, “Fuck you!” Clement began again, “I was too busy ventilating these graymeat motherfuckers!” Another barrage in the background.
Clement used the derogatory term “graymeat” to describe the working class of Echo. They were often called that by Ascension residents because of the constant coating of gray dust (composed of concrete, mortar, and grime) that they always seemed to wear from working in and occupying deteriorating cityscapes. Department personnel, even though they were technically “graymeat” themselves, would toss the word around to separate themselves from the average laborer.
Atriya again: “Okay. Calm down.” He took a breath. “React is on site, and they’re going to back Retrieval as they head a push to our loc,” The Crusader used the shorthand term for location. It was pronounced so it sounded identical to the word lock.
He continued, “Once they get here, they’re going to establish some weight of fire, and we’ll start moving again. If all goes well, we can keep at it on a gun run. If not, we’ll take it slow and-”
“Fuck that. Let’s scram and get orbital to cook this place. It’s not worth it.”
Atriya chuckled. “Already suggested that. It’s a no-go.” Atriya saw a Dissident spot him from a hundred yards and get on a knee, bringing rifle sights up and stilling her body.
Atriya brought his guns up and fired four times. Three shots caught the fighter in the chest and the other turned her left eye into a red pit. A quick spray burst from the back of her skull.
Clement on the net: “Fucking Higher. Fuck them. Fucking pieces of shit. Playing with their assholes while we’re eating bullets and airburst. Fuckers.” More shots.
Atriya laughed again. “Yeah, fuck them.” He swore openly, letting his comms etiquette slip as he thought, what’s the point? “Did you get all that? Once Retrieval gets here, we restart the run. Or we take it by the square foot. How copy?”
“Yeah yeah. Solid copy. Got it.”
“Lead gunner out.”
“Following gunner out.”
Atriya stood there, the first few seconds since the breach where he had some time to think and breathe. The lack of motion and intensity was unsettling. He was at a loss as to what to do.
The Crusader looked towards the entrance of the building, where Retrieval and react were slugging it out with the Dissidents in a storm of metal and light. Resting with his back against the containers, he smiled.
He thought to himself:
All things considered?
Not a bad way to go.