They charged at each other.
Leat threw the flesh at eye level. Atriya strode forward and backhanded it from the air. Both men pumped their feet, closing the distance as one. It took less than a second.
The cannibal was all snarls and teeth as he ran at Atriya. The Crusader’s refusal to see things from his twisted perspective had clearly touched a nerve.
Leat’s right hand arced in, shooting his blade at Atriya’s ribs. Atriya stepped forward, pointing his right shoulder into his attacker’s chest. Simultaneously, he raised both hands into an elevated guard position, readying them to swing down.
Pop pop. The Crusader’s fists chopped brutally at the knife arm. Left fist first, right fist second. His first hit broke the forearm and his second took care of the bicep. Two cracks rang through the air as the strikes snapped the radius and humerus bones.
The combination was concluded with Atriya squeezing harder into his stance and explosively twitching forward, shoulder-checking his attacker hard in the sternum. The final blow, the shoulder-check, lifted Leat bodily off the ground; his feet rose in tandem as he landed on his rear and skipped backwards, coming to rest near the corpse. It all happened at the speed of instinct.
The mood quieted; they both knew it was over.
The cannibal’s breathing rasped laboriously, crackly and grating. Pneumothorax, Atriya thought. His shoulder strike must have broken a rib, causing a lung to puncture.
There was no pain in the Leat’s face, only curiosity and puzzlement. He vaguely resembled an overgrown child as he sat with feet sprawled, hands dangling. His right arm was accented by two crazy jags; it almost appeared to have grown an extra pair of elbows due to the double fractures.
Leat’s left hand patted the section of jacket over his lung-the area adorned with the elephant shaped stain-like he was exploring a new body part. Cocking his head, he stared at nothing in particular, trying to comprehend this new and unfamiliar experience.
“I can’t breathe.” He looked at the Crusader wonderingly, like it was a revelation.
“Now you know how the addict felt.” Atriya said tight-lipped, in no mood for mercy.
In a slow and marveling tone, the cannibal parroted him. “Now I know how the addict felt.” He kept touching his chest, as if the sensation of stolen air was foreign and alien. He resembled an infant that beheld a dazzling new color: Not sure what to make of it, not sure what it meant.
His expression changed, becoming regretful and sad. He stared soulfully up at Atriya, “But where will the beauty go? Without a covenant between men like us, all of it will disappear.”
Because the killer was disarmed and dying, his charisma had vanished. He bore resemblance to a lost and confused simpleton. Almost deserving of pity. Atriya was taken aback as he processed the change. After a bit he thought: Nothing’s different. Motherfucker still has to die. His disgust for the cannibal resettled and solidified.
The Ascensioner tried again. “Don’t kill me. Help me. Look at how beautiful we are. Kill me and you make that beauty a lie. And what will the world do without beautiful people?” He said this with utter conviction, as if it was the undisputable truth.
An armored fist cocked to the rear. Atriya’s clenched hand shot forward and down, thundering into the corner of Leat’s jaw. The impact made the killer’s head whip sideways so fast that his body followed; he went from sitting on his butt to flopping on his belly.
After a moment, he rolled onto his back and faced the sky.
Leat’s jawbone skewed grotesquely to the right. Stunned from the impact, his eyes remained closed as he gathered himself. Pink drool oozed from his lips. A steady, “hhhhh, hhhhh, hhhhh,” filled the air as he struggled to breathe through his injuries.
Atriya scornfully remarked, “Yeah. You look real fucking beautiful.”
Pale eyes opened. Flipping onto his stomach, Leat began dragging himself towards the addict. His bad arm trailed behind, limply scraping the ground. Atriya was at a loss as to what was happening. What the fuck? His brow wrinkled.
The cannibal paused when he reached the body, his expression widening in a frenzied spasm. Darting forward, he plunged face first into the innards, deformed jaw awkwardly working. Unable to contain himself, he gave voice to sensuous moans of contentment. His eyelids drooped half-closed, witless with pleasure.
Atriya was beyond disgusted at this point. What he felt now was more like bafflement. Nothing about this man made sense except that he had to die.
His right hand twitched toward his holster when he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. Don’t advertise. The dead-check had to done without a gun.
He strode over so that Leat’s head was by his boots. The killer turned his face up, pale cheek resting on the junkie’s guts. He stared curiously at Atriya.
“Uh?” Leat could only grunt the question. He was rendered speechless: Either because of his injuries or from being lost in mindless gluttony. Probably both. Atriya thought
Rising to waist level, the operator’s knee hung in the air, then descended in a sharp, savage thrust, sending his boot slamming into the back of Leat’s neck. With a sharp, upward jerk of his skull, Leat’s vertebrae compressed, breaking in harsh pops. His mouth uttered a reflexive, “kkkkkk,” forming pink bubbles that swelled and burst. Finally, he was still.
“Good?” The Retrieval leader.
“Then keep moving.”
Atriya drew his guns. For some reason the sight of Leat’s mouth on the exposed guts struck him as obscene. He kicked the cannibal’s head off the junkie.
Looking down, he found himself ardently wishing that he could cover the addict’s gaping eye sockets. Something about them was gruesome and abhorrent. Not just for the obvious reasons, but on a deeply personal level. A thought occurred to him.
The Crusader holstered his left pistol and gripped the other one at an approximately skyward angle. Ejected the clip and grabbed it. Clamped his drawn pistol between his left elbow and ribs so he could hold it in place. In a practiced motion, his thumb ran twice over the rectangular ammo at the top of the clip, dispensing two unfolded rounds into Atriya’s right hand. Securing the projectiles between his fingers, he snapped the clip back into his gun and stowed the weapon.
Kneeling, he placed the ultra light strips of metal over the corpse’s destroyed eye holes. A tacky layer of fluid and grime made the bullets stick in place.
The metallic segments still looked inappropriate. Ill fitting. Atriya put a bloody scrap of shirt over top to conceal the man’s face. It didn’t change anything. He felt a deep sense of wrongness knowing that the bullets weren’t meant for the addict’s eyes. The departed deserved a more appropriate currency.
The Crusader stood up and drew his guns, letting the issue go. Sorry friend, that’s all I’ve got.
His earpiece buzzed. “Keep. Moving.” The team leader. Irritated at his dawdling.
Behind his face wrap, Atriya’s lips twisted in a sneer.
Fuck you asshole, he thought.
“Sorry.” Atriya started forward again.
“Atriya.” The team leader again. His tone was different. Measured.
“Orders?” Atriya whispered distractedly.
“No. Question: Are you still on mission?” Under normal circumstances asking this would have been absurd; you did what the fuck you were told. But in this instance, the hidden meaning was clear: Are you acting weird because you’re cracking? Are you going to do your job, or do we kill you here? He could almost feel Retrieval’s sights dancing across his back.
“Still on mission.” Atriya responded. He kept treading. A feeling of lightness ran through his head, chased by a flash of hilarity. Nothing matters. I’m already gone. Might as well fuck with this Retrieval dickhead. He keyed his comms.
“What’s your name? Didn’t catch it in the briefing.” He knew that he was being extremely unprofessional considering that he was on the net, but he had stopped caring.
The team leader knew it too. There was a long pause as they kept pushing forward. No noise except for the careful rub of their soles against the concrete road. The uncertain silence stretched.
“Question: Are you still on mission?”
“Still on mission.”
“Then keep moving.”
Translation: Shut the fuck up and keep going. Atriya grinned to himself. At least he’d gotten to mess with Retrieval a little bit.
The warehouse appeared up ahead, delineating the boundaries between Waste and cityscape proper. The separation was easy to see: Buildings in the ‘scape had a dim glow surrounding them while structures in the Waste were pitch dark, almost as if they swallowed the light. On one side there was architecture spotted with flashes and glows while the other side emitted nothing but stony blackness.
Standing opposite the warehouse, a decrepit apartment complex came into view: The eleven-man team’s staging point. Also the intended overwatch for Retrieval’s four snipers. Atriya made his way to an apartment door that faced Waste-side, staying hidden from Dissident sentries. The ten other guys filtered to his end of the street, stringing out single-file so they could stay low key as well.
The Crusader stopped at the entrance. The team caught up; three of them stacked behind while the others pointed their weapons outboard and provided extra security. He checked the building with heat overlay. Nobody inside. Holstered his left gun so he could communicate with hand signals. He silently mouthed: “Linkup: x-ray sonar.”
Due to Echo’s atmosphere being identical to Old Earth’s, layers of gas shielded the ground from cosmic x-rays. To get around this, each linkup was fitted with a burst emitter that bathed the immediate area in radiation. The data was then read and interpreted by the linkup as black and white shapes on his readout.
Atriya scanned the apartment with x-ray. Nothing. He looked back at Clement, who’d just done the same. Atriya pointed at his eyes with the index and middle finger of his free hand and shook his head. Nobody inside. Clement replied with a raised thumb to confirm; he hadn’t seen anybody either. The gesture was repeated and sent back by each man.
Clement stepped out from the stack, holding a pistol tight by his ribs. Reaching slowly with his free hand, he gently tested the door knob. Turned his head to look at Atriya, nodding once: Door’s unlocked. Atriya nodded three times: Open it.
Clement turned and pushed, and the door swung wide. Atriya shuffled in, the team flowing behind him. They systematically cleared the room. Transparency overlays were useful but not foolproof; there had been past instances when they had failed to detect Dissidents. It paid to be vigilant and methodical.
Clement and three Retrieval guys settled in, picking windows as observation posts. The rest of them-Atriya, Linke, the team leader, and the four Retrieval marksmen-huddled in the middle of the apartment.
The team leader nodded at the sharpshooters: Go to the roof. Get in position.
They nodded back. Bristling with shouldered rifles, they started up a staircase, sniper systems hanging off their backs.
The Retrieval commander addressed Atriya in a whisper, “We’ll keep this simple. You and your following gunner make the approach. Snipers will cover from up top and we’ll back you from down here. Do a gun run or two. We’ll follow. Good?”
“Oh, and Atriya.”
“Do your job. Don’t worry about my fucking name.” The team leader took a few steps, then turned back, “Or run. I could give a fuck. You’re dead either way.” The parting remark was said in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Accompanied by a blasé shrug. He shuffled away towards one of his guys. Linke followed, but not before he gave Atriya an obnoxious smirk.
Fuck off. Atriya thought. He looked down at his guns. Hopefully he’d get lucky and be able to jam one up both their asses. Pull the trigger until it goes click. Behind his face wrap, he smiled at the idea.
He made his way over to Clement, who was watching the warehouse through a ‘scape facing window. Atriya examined their target with overlays.
Two levels. Base floor with an open second floor composed of reinforced landings and catwalks. Multiple fortifications on each. Maybe thirty to forty people split between each level, judging from signatures and outlines. No outwardly visible sentries.
Atriya switched back to standard night vision and looked at Clement, who’d already finished his scan while Atriya had been conversing with the team leader. Both Crusaders’ postures were cautiously relaxed; they were thinking the same thing. Forty guys tops? Not bad at all. Between the eleven of them, easy pickings. Probably wouldn’t even have to call in the platoon assigned to make the hit until it was done and over with..
Atriya put a hand on Clement’s shoulder. Let’s go over the plan of attack.
Standard procedure dictated that Crew operators do their final pre-assault comms with hand signals, one gun out for security. Maybe it wasn’t necessary where they were, enclosed within a building, but old habits died hard. If at all.
Atriya moved his fingers and gun hand to convey the plan.
I climb. You cover. Okay? Due to Atriya being a climber, he was the natural choice for hitting the upper level. To ensure clarity, the exchange was broken into pieces, each separated by verification from his following gunner.
Okay. Clement signaled back.
Atriya continued: I make entry: Upper level. You wait. You make entry: Ground level. Okay?
Clement signaled: Okay.
Clement raised a finger. Stop. His head turned down and to the side. Something had occurred to him. Atriya waited as Clement briefly puzzled over it.
Clement signaled back: You make entry. I wait-how long? How long did Atriya want him to wait before he assaulted?
Atriya thought for a second, then responded: You make entry: first shot. Okay? Go in after the first shot.
Clement understood and signaled: Okay.
They went through the whole plan one more time, just to make sure they were both in sync. Once they gave each other a final okay they got up.
Atriya opened the door and the two slipped into the street, scurrying along the building contours. Staying as close as possible to darkened edges of concrete, they stuck to the shadows out of habit. Their hunched posture made them look vaguely inhuman, reminiscent of something out of a fairy tale-a troll or a goblin-while the urgency and purpose behind their gait imparted an insectile aspect onto them. Retrieval’s guns covered them as they got situated.
Clement posted in an alleyway that fed off one of the warehouse’s corners. He scanned the surrounding area, guns remaining close in case anybody tried to grab them. Atriya holstered his pistols and got ready to climb his target. He needed to cover a little under thirty feet.
The Crusader began pulling himself up. Body swinging and arcing, he looked shadowy and insubstantial as he used ledges and improvised handholds to boost himself upwards. Free climbing was second nature to him, and his ascent took less than a minute.
He finished scaling the exterior and perched on a ledge next to a huge, second story window. Unholstering one of his guns for security, the move left his dominant hand free to manipulate a breaching package-an explosive tool that would create an access point into the structure.
Suddenly he saw the concrete around him lightening as it took on a harsh luminescence. It coated everything in a dead-eyed luster, etching a sterile numbness into the warehouse facade.
Fuck. A glance upward showed the clouds shifting. A gap had opened between them, allowing the illumination of Ascension and its white dwarf clusters to burn its way down. Even though he instinctively recoiled from the revealing moonlight, he was extremely thankful that it hadn’t happened until he was ready to go.
Atriya wasn’t unprofessional enough to look through the glass and give himself away, but a trick of the light angled his image crazily off the window and he saw his reflection superimposed on the transparent surface.
The uniform smothering his head-combined with the visor concealing his eyes-made his mirrored self look featureless. Like a human embodiment of nothing. A long, crosswise-running crack in the window bisected it, imbuing it with an aura of fragmented discord. His reflected counterpart resembled a black-clad bogeyman or ghost. Hunched over. Hungry.
Standing in a half-crouch, he reached into a slim, matte-black utility belt that wrapped around his waist. His gloved fingers grasped a small, nondescript metal cylinder. It was about an inch in diameter and the length of a human hand. On one end there were two buttons.
Atriya’s thumb danced from one half-circle trigger to the next, pressing them in a specifically keyed pattern that would activate the device. Glancing down, he saw a steady, blinking light on its side. Primed. For stealth’s sake, the flashing indicator was only visible to specially modified optics.
He stuck the opposing end on the window’s bottom corner. The device wavered for a moment, then stabilized and adhered. The sticky end had a range-enhanced, strong-force attractor that allowed it to attach to any surface. From Atriya’s viewpoint, it looked like the window had grown a thin metal rod protruding from its lower edge.
Holes opened themselves on the cylinder and tiny, mechanized bots flowed outwards, appearing to be baby insects. Exactly what they were supposed to look like if somebody saw them from a distance.
Atriya leaned in, facing his reflection. Only a couple seconds from breach. He unholstered his other gun, filling his free hand. Ready.
The explosive bots were programmed to automatically map any surface they needed to blow. For the safety’s sake, hard-light tamping fields ensured that they exploded in the opposing direction of the assaulter. After a brief scurry, the tiny drones settled themselves throughout the surface in order to create a sizeable point of entry.
Boom. The bots detonated, shattering the window. Atriya’s boosted perceptions registered the slow-mo, musical tinkling of glass as it fractured and cleaved into an infinity of fragments.
He watched his reflection lethargically transform as the pane disintegrated. Starting as a faceless outline divided by a glaring crack, it became unrecognizable as it was distributed and split billions of times over into a cloud made up of endless points of light.
The neurophysio enhancement from his linkup naturally boosted his ability to process the environment, but every now and then-by chance occurrence-it went further: His cognitive speed would be sharpened to the point where his physical actions couldn’t keep up; he could do nothing but contemplate and observe each microscopic fragment of time as it inched by. Operators called it dream surfing, or simply just “tripping.” The phenomenon was sweepingly regarded with indifference. A fluke that meant nothing. It happens. Whatever.
At that moment, Atriya’s consciousness became completely immersed in the dream surf. It had happened before, but never this deep. In the past, he’d responded with the standard bored apathy: Get me back to the real world so I can do my job.
This time, however, he felt transported. Fully engaged in wonder. This is not just a fluke. He thought. This is something. It may, in fact, be the “real world.”
His eyes were too slow to flick between the suspended shards, but his attention wasn’t. Within the nebula of shining particles, his mind jumped back and forth millions of times over.
The Crusader’s perception had slowed to the point where it was all happening in one inhale, so the feeling of respiration was rendered moot. At the same time though, he swore he felt breathless. Like a bolt of incomprehensible something-a mix of wonderment, grace, and concepts that couldn’t be verbalized-was blazing through him, stealing his oxygen.
Hey, it’s a kind of magic. He randomly remarked to himself, marveling at each quanta of glass. Then: This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The thought came up instinctively as he gazed in awe at the haze of crystalline shimmer. The realization struck him and evoked bemused surprise. Is it? His logical side questioned. Atriya’s attention was drawn back to the scattered slivers of light.
It felt like eternities were passing as he fell deeper and deeper into the surf. He couldn’t resist the urge to wallow in it; the brilliant suspension of motes and flecks was overwhelmingly entrancing. Each gleaming scrap spun endlessly through the air, switching its form between being a reflective mirror or a clear shred of transparency, depending on how it caught the light. It seemed like the different pieces of window were ceaseless revolutions of eternity that sprawled out before him, and he couldn’t help but feel like he was watching galaxies forming and dying, revolving through time and space as part of some massive and indescribable mechanism.
His consciousness was hopelessly lost in the blast of relentless symmetry; a force that was beyond chaos and order. Something that was able to transcend the illusion of opposites and tear through existence without care. Without strain. Without doubt.
As each minute fraction of instant yawned before him, he heard a deep hum. A profoundly rooted MMMMMMM that shook him at the cellular level. For a while it drove all thought from his mind, then transformed into a harsh rushing noise, like wind ripping through a tunnel, or the crazy scream of atmosphere as it bled out of a punctured space ship. The sound became more intense, like the tunnel was narrowing and wind was being forced through faster and faster.
Suddenly it ceased. As if somebody had stopped it up in a twitch, or jammed a makeshift cork into said spacecraft.
Snapped back to the world. Glass fell. Smoke blew.
He pushed hard off the ledge, tucking himself into a ball. His knees were curled to his chest, elbows bent by his face, forearms and guns pointed up. As he launched himself inside, he heard the chatter of automatic weapons.
Here we go.
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