Eight Enforcer platoons were standing by in dropships, waiting for the Crusaders’ signal that the warehouse was prepped. Until the Enforcers were given the go-ahead, their ships would remain above cloud layer to avoid detection.
The one exception was the platoon chopped to Retrieval for react duty. Their ship quietly followed the assaulters’ craft and landed on an adjacent rooftop.
Stepping out of the ship, react Enforcers started setting up, preparing to aid in the assault if ordered. Rolling in behind them were two hover platforms that came equipped with midgrade light matrices (switched off to stay unobtrusive), dual repeating grenade launchers, and a pair of heavy machine guns. Five troops were on each vehicle, keeping the weapons manned and one person in the driver’s seat. The platforms drifted to the center of the perimeter and settled in; they looked like giant, floating discs bristling with weapons. The other thirty grunts took up positions on the roof’s edge.
If the call came, the react guys could mount up and head to a requested location, providing mobility and an enhanced base of fire. Until then, they would stand by and strongpoint their building in case the strike team of specialists and operators (colloquially referred to as “assaulters”) required a rally point.
One roof over, Retrieval commandos formed a circle and took a knee, providing 360 degree security as their ship lifted off. Their craft assumed a stationary hover in order to provide cover with side mounted cannons. This maneuver also offered the option of a quick extract, in case the team was ambushed.
The Crusaders walked the edge of the surface, inspecting their surroundings. Everything seemed good. Atriya waved his arm towards the ships and they departed. Per procedure, they would surreptitiously punch above cloud cover and maintain an anchored drift over target, ready to descend and provide assistance with supporting fire, or pick up the assaulters after the strike.
Prior to the Crusaders’ breach, the mandate was stealth. To maximize surprise and avoid early contact, the men had dropped a good distance away from their destination. They had a little over two miles to cover before making the hit. The dropships had used the curvature of Echo (the horizon) and building skylines to make sure that Dissidents wouldn’t spot them on the way in. To further assist in keeping a low profile, the team had inserted into a long defunct industrial zone.
The assaulters’ route would take them through a decaying piece of city which lead right up to the warehouse. Forsaken areas such as these weren’t uncommon on Echo, and were collectively referred to as the Wastes. Their defining property was that they were a magnetic draw for substance addicts and other less savory types-anybody that was falling apart.
Aside from the Wastes’ primary population of junkies, additional residents included cannibals, rape gangs, and roving bands of marauders. Unless they were packing enough heat and mobility, Department personnel would routinely avoid the Wastes as a matter of common sense. Dissidents would steer clear as well.
On a typical approach, Crew teams would cross regular sections of cityscape until they arrived on target, blending in with Echo citizenry in order to do so. Two Crusaders in civilian clothing wouldn’t look out of place in the cityscape proper. However, add on Retrieval and Linke, and the team would stick out. For the sake of keeping the operators and specialists together (as well as serving the underlying purpose: killing Atriya), the order was given to take the road less travelled: through the Wastes. For similar reasons, on-the-ground command was given to the Retrieval squad leader.
Getting attacked en route wasn’t a major point of concern. Not only were they shadowed by orbital fire, but the unspoken threat implied by their gear (potential ambushers could see that each man was the equivalent of multiple Enforcer platoons from their exoskeletons and linkups) served as sufficient deterrent. The team’s hardened presence was enough to discourage the majority of predators, making the perilous route an acceptable risk.
After ascertaining there were no immediate threats, Atriya’s perception creeped out to other features of the rooftop. Four stories high. Gray and forbidding looking. Boxy. Like most buildings in the Wastes, it was in dire need of maintenance.
Once he deemed them secure, Atriya signaled Clement. The two of them walked to the central stair enclosure and took a knee. It was the gesture for the specialists to begin moving. Retrieval treaded quietly over, guns up, scanning for threats. When they were within arm’s length the team leader put his gloved off-hand on Atriya’s shoulder: Ready to enter. Atriya and Clement stood up, opened the door, and began descending.
The stairwell’s ceilings housed bunches of watchful arachnids, watching them hungrily as they carefully stepped their way down. Atriya could feel the inhuman clusters of eyes crawling over him, empty of nothing but appetite. The operator walked through heavy layers of webs and brushed distractedly at the strands, causing them to stretch and break.
Find something smaller to eat. He thought. I’m spoken for.
As he made his way toward the bottom floor, Atriya felt resignation. A tired sense of peace followed, washing over him. Was there any other way it could end? He briefly considered the possibilities.
If you somehow survived, what would you do? Grow old? Mumble into watery, discounted beer at the service members’ lounges? Hopefully catch the ear of random, glory-blind strangers? A wave of disgust washed over him. Death was better.
So what, then? Run? Kill the team? He quickly dismissed both ideas. Not only were the specialists too formidable, they undoubtedly had orbital ready to gun him down. Traps set by a localized Specter or groups of mercenaries weren’t out of the question either. Face it. You’re already dead. Do the job. The realization fell on him like a sword. When it’s time, take as many with you as you can.
They reached the bottom and filtered out of the building, passing into the gray quiet of the streets. Retrieval was split into three 3-man teams, two mirroring each other on opposing sides of the path and one lagging behind on the column’s left edge. The trailing element was in charge of covering the rear.
Because the Crusaders used unorthodox tactics and equipment, both operators strung themselves out dozens of yards to the fore and aft of the patrol. Atriya was in front taking point and Clement was in the far back. The extra room allowed them to fire and maneuver with less possibility of the others getting in the way. The arrangement also bestowed an additional protective punch to either end of the team.
Cloud cover was good. The stars weren’t a concern-they never appeared as more than dim flickers anyway. It was the illumination from Ascension and its white dwarf clusters that intermittently required a work-around.
Atriya assessed his environment, noting that the ambient light level on his readout was low. He looked up; the moon-city waxed glaringly full but they still had ample shadow due to the overcast sky.
He mouthed: “Linkup: Infrared highlighting.” The feature caused his visor to display people behind walls by utilizing an estimation based on temperature and silhouette. In order to keep the visual overlay sensible and easy to interpret, only heat signatures within a short distance were shown.
The short range of the optical render was by design; revealing imaging at further intervals would result in a jumble of signatures bleeding into an indistinguishable mess. Unreadable to the eyes, incomprehensible to the brain.
Atriya slowly scanned his surroundings. Reddened shapes, slumped over or prone, appeared behind concrete exteriors. Substance addicts. Either dying of overdose or in the throes of their chosen poison. Regardless, they were oblivious to the world around them.
Atriya felt an odd kinship with them. It was strange, considering that he’d always regarded users with scorn and derision. Maybe it’s because I’m on the way out myself. His personal affinities didn’t carry the same importance-or seemed just plain meaningless-in his current predicament.
As he walked further his boots squelched out a dry, rubbing creak against the asphalt, only audible due to his linkup-boosted senses. The intensified perception was capable of cutting both ways; enhanced faculties could quickly be overwhelmed by the noise of gunfire, explosions, or drastic changes in light. In order to compensate, circuitry threaded into his wetsuit-style hood automatically cancelled out sound above a certain decibel range. His visual overlays had a similar feature; they modulated the input of light so that whatever he saw was neither too dim nor too bright. The autoregulating machinery was essential in the Wastes, but useful any time he trekked into hostile territory, since it evened his senses out.
His feet carried him further into the barrenness and he caught a glimpse of more people: A cluster of figures stared at them from a building ahead.
The watchers were huddled close to a second-story window. Four of them were immediately visible, but he saw curving outlines of other heads poking up between the dips of their shoulders. The room was filled with sentries.
The ones at the window were wearing threadbare clothing and sported rusty, dark-specked knives. The blades were stuck through a simple reinforced loop along their waist, metal edge still visible. Old and worn bandoliers or frayed tactical vests hung off their frames. Rifles dangled from their hands. Assortments of gruesome war trophies drooped in necklaces around their chests: Strung-together ears, fingers, noses. One of them, the leader by the looks of him, was adorned with what appeared to be a baby’s head. It looked old and withered, eyes closed. Mouth open in a frozen cry of silent suffering.
Atriya didn’t know what their deal was. Cannibals, a rape gang, scavengers, maybe a little of each. He had no doubt in his mind that given the chance, they would strip the team of everything: Humanity, gear, flesh…all of it.
Occasionally, Enforcer squads lacking sufficient firepower or vehicle augments had chased fleeing Dissidents into the Wastes. Gory bits of both Enforcers and Dissidents showed up days later, if at all. When somebody was captured in these badlands, death was not the worst fate. It was a welcome relief.
Hungry gazes followed the assaulters with hollow, expressionless eyes. The gaunt faced shades showed no signs of aggression; they knew these men weren’t easy prey. Despite that, Atriya could sense their appetite. Wait and see. It said. Wait until you’re hurt, or stop paying attention and slip. We’ll come for you.
Atriya didn’t care. Almost welcomed it. Contrary to his previous trips into the Wastes where he’d undergone similar scrutiny, Atriya felt no fear. This time, he only felt savage, reactionary anger.
Fucking come for me then. He thought. There’s nothing you’ll get but a hole through your skull. Or your feet ringed with your guts.
Walking by, he scanned them with a flat, blank stare. The deadly, lackluster, I’m-done-giving-a-fuck look that marked the truly dangerous. Even though it was imperceptible through his visor, he thought he saw the lead predator smile in response. His suspicions were confirmed as the same one unmistakably gave him a slow, meaningful nod. A salute from the closest thing to the human embodiment of chaos that Atriya had ever seen.
It threw him a little. For a second, he fought the oddest desire to nod back. This is the weirdest bonding moment ever. He thought.
The leader who had given him the acknowledgement turned his back and walked into the shadows, disappearing from view. A few more eyes replaced him and kept steady track of the team.
The other times he’d gone in the Wastes he had seen identical behavior from the locals. He never knew what it meant, but it always made him feel like he’d passed some nameless test. His best guess was that the highest-ranking one was reporting the team’s presence to whomever he swore obedience to.
He also noted that every unit that had gotten attacked and gutted Waste-side had failed to communicate anything about being examined in their final moments. It all led Atriya to believe that he was being simultaneously assessed and warned: We see that you’re tough and that earns you a pass. This time.
Never before though, had he received outward recognition from the residents. He dismissed the nod, as he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Everything happens for a reason.
As if in response, his mind alighted on the baby’s head as it dangled from the leader’s leathery neck. He quickly put an addendum onto his initial thought: Everything happens for a reason-I hope.
Fog rolled in, blanketing the streets with heavy gloom. Through the mist in front of them a figure became visible, stumbling drunkenly across the street. Atriya’s right hand went up, calling a halt. The others saw his signal and stopped. Bristling with alert eyes and shouldered weapons, each man dialed in on their respective area of responsibility.
He heard a quiet whisper into his earpiece. “Problem?” The team leader.
Atriya was still as the man in front of him staggered to a wall and braced himself with a forearm. The bum’s head exaggeratedly pitched forward into the crook of his elbow while his free hand fumbled with his fly. A steady spatter was audible as he began relieving himself against the concrete.
Atriya keyed his comms and whispered back. “Just an addict. All good.” He turned and signaled to keep moving. A nearly imperceptible rustle touched his enhanced hearing as the team restarted their advance.
As he walked closer, details of the addict sharpened into focus. Dirty, unkempt beard. A wild mess of tangled hair. Streaks of dirt marking the face and fingers. Nail beds crusted with thick blackness and old scabs. The clothes he wore were layered on, one stained piece of fabric on top of another. It was the look of someone who had been living on the streets for years. The man’s eyes were closed and his mouth agape as a stream of urine left his body, marking the building facade.
For a second Atriya was impressed. Lucky old man. The man wasn’t old age-wise, but his accumulated layers of filth and tatter were the perverse equivalent of rings on a tree; he had obviously weathered a longer and harder stretch than the typical junkie. Most of them died before they could live to become so battered and broken down.
Atriya walked closer and started to carve a respectful berth around the addict, intending to pass by and leave him be. The rest of the team curved their route accordingly, following in his footsteps.
Per procedure, he was supposed to periodically check in all directions to make sure that everything was copacetic and his teammates were good. Subsequently, he did a slow cautionary spin as his feet tread onward.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of movement above the addict. His hand snapped up, calling another halt. His body compressed and both guns came up in a twitch, ready to blast apart any threats.
Gaze tracking upwards, he witnessed one of the strangest sights he’d ever seen. From the window above, an Ascension resident dropped towards the clueless junkie.
The falling man’s body was hunched. In his right hand, he clutched an arcing, wicked length of knife in a downward-facing, icepick grip. His descent was smooth and languid; he almost seemed to cruise toward the earth in a controlled float, reminiscent of a spider rappelling towards unsuspecting prey. The assassin, however, was lacking any silk strand to break his drop. He was intent on using the addict to do that instead.
Crashing onto the intoxicated vagrant’s back, the well-dressed predator wrapped both legs around the man’s waist and snaked his left arm across the throat, clamping down and keeping his victim from screaming. Staggered by the impact, the addict-turned-prey bowed violently forward and instinctively pushed with his legs, keeping both of them upright. Rheumy eyes shot open and the drifter’s fingers clawed desperately at the arm cutting off his air.
The two of them weaved disjointedly through the street, looking for all intents and purposes like a crazy man trying to buck off a murderous monkey. Breaking through the clouds, a runaway sliver of moonlight glanced wickedly off the raised blade, highlighting the gleaming metal as it took on the poise of a scorpion’s tail.
The knife came down precisely-almost politely-twice into the addict’s eyes. One stab for each eyeball. Two quiet, unobtrusive noises-the sounds were halfway between a gentle suck and a wet pop-passed faintly through the air as the sharpened metal slipped in and out of eye jelly. Through the beard and smears of dirt, muscles and veins popped into sharp relief as the victim tried to scream. Silence prevailed as the clean-cut thug clamped even harder with his choke arm, causing alabaster cloth to bunch at the suit’s elbow.
Belying the hideous nature of his actions, the killer’s face and manner were blank and impersonal; he could just as easily have been watering the lawn or emptying the trash.
Atriya couldn’t help but feel revulsion as the blinded man wobbled and careened, his eye sockets turned into unseeing pits of wounded red. He pulled desperately at the pricey fabric squeezing his airway.
Just die already. Atriya thought. In a way he was impressed by the junkie’s resilience, but it was clearly a losing battle. The merciful thing for the victim-and Atriya, who was disgusted though he’d seen comparable carnage-was to let it be done and over with.
He suspected the Ascension butcher couldn’t care less. To him, this seemed purely like business. Just another day in the office.
Sensing his prey was weakening, the killer unwrapped both legs and placed his feet on the ground, keeping his strangling arm in place. He reversed the knife so the blade extended from the curled circle of his index finger and thumb. Straightening up, he took a couple of steps back, causing his quarry’s feet to sprawl out frontwards. The move created a small gap between the man’s back and the assailant’s waist. The assassin took advantage of the space, matter-of-factly pumping the knife in and out of his prey’s kidney area. Atriya lost count of the number of thrusts.
Fight had leaked out of the junkie and his head lolled forward. Slumping to his sides, his arms dangled in the air. Atriya suspected that it was actually the choke that bore responsibility for killing him, although the blood loss would have done it soon enough.
Finally. He thought. It hadn’t taken long, but the victim’s agony had made it seem endless.
Due to layers of dirty clothing soaking up blood and gore, the transient’s executioner looked remarkably clean, considering what he had just done. His eggshell-colored suit was relatively untouched.
The gentleman-murderer carefully laid the body on its back and pulled up layers of shirt and jacket, exposing the corpse’s stomach. He pressed the edge of his knife into the belly, making long, even cuts, opening the flesh. As attentively as if he was threading a needle, he started slicing into the organs. Blood welled up and drenched his hands.
Atriya’s earpiece buzzed. “Problem?”
“Possible cannibal. Zeroed an addict.” Atriya responded.
“There’s something off about him-I think he’s an Ascension resident. His clothes-”
“He’s in the way. Kill his ass.” The curt reply was laced with irritation, though the team leader was too professional to allow more than a slight edge to infuse his voice.
It wasn’t hard to imagine his thought process: There’s a potential obstacle/threat in our way and I couldn’t care less about his fucking clothes. It’s my call. Get rid of it and do your job.
“Atriya.” The team leader again.
“Orders?” Atriya queried.
“Understood.” Retrieval didn’t want a gunshot heralding the fact that they had firearms. There were gangs in the Wastes whose primary MO was to kill others for weapons and gear. While the team’s outward lethality served as a generalized deterrent, the scales would begin tipping the other way if specific rewards of tech and equipment were openly flaunted. It would still be unlikely that anyone would move on them, but it paid to show some etiquette.
Even though Atriya was packing a silencer, he wasn’t going to use it. The reason being that silencers didn’t truly “silence” the bullet-they only nullified the supersonic crack. The residents were familiar enough with the sounds of subsonic ammunition that using it might have unpredictable consequences. He was going to do this with a blade.
A dark glimpse of comedic irony flashed through his mind. Screams? Fine. Expensive gear? Keep it hidden.
Folding his elbows in, Atriya quietly holstered his guns. He slowly reached to the small of his back and drew a respectably sized dagger from a magnetic sheath. Holding it in front of him in a knife-fighter’s grip, he stepped forward in a crouch, approaching the murderer’s back.
The killer confirmed Atriya’s suspicions of cannibalism when he started digging out finger-length strips of meat. They momentarily dangled above the man’s mouth before settling onto red stained teeth. Each gristly strip was chewed assiduously. Atriya could see the man’s jaw bulging rhythmically as he ate with gusto.
It infuriated and disgusted the Crusader. Addict or not, he didn’t deserve to be knifed while taking a piss. He doesn’t deserve to be eaten by a rich Ascension scumbag either. He had no doubt the killer had been treated to the finest, most luxuriant foods known to Echo and yet he still came down from his lofty Ascension home to turn another human into meat and shit.
For some reason, the sight profoundly rattled Atriya. His thoughts briefly spiraled, and he couldn’t help but feel that what he was witnessing was mockery to an unseen, greater balance. Observing the cannibal was like seeing some asshole kid spit and laugh into the face of a random passerby, cheerfully violating codes of decency and common sense.
His grip on the dagger tightened. They were on a schedule so Atriya couldn’t take the time that he wanted, but he nevertheless looked forward to turning this fucker into a leaking bag of skin, filled with nothing but pain and suffering.
Right as he was about to activate the dagger’s plasma edge, the killer’s neck moved, exposing pale skin under frosty hair. The clouds shifted again and another bolt of lurid moonlight shot down, highlighting a wan, scabrous looking stretch of tissue that crept above the man’s collar.
Atriya stopped short. Devouring Plague. It came from eating tainted meat but was also passed via contact with blood. Aside from vile, pus-filled patches of flakes that erupted on the afflicted, it had much the same symptoms as someone in the second stage of Final Solidification: Psychotic fits of rage, boosted strength and speed, and a pronounced streak of violent insanity. The Plague’s primary effect was a ravenous, unending hunger for freshly killed flesh. Combine that with the psychosis, and murderous cannibals were the predictable result.
Deliberating for an instant, Atriya bent his arm back and sheathed his weapon. Despite the fact that Retrieval was going to gun him down, he couldn’t help but feel an instinctive aversion to contracting the Plague. Due to the odds of infection by blood, Atriya made the decision to kill with his gloved hands instead of using the blade. His natural ability, training and linkup-augmented strength made it a viable alternative.
He shuffled forward, intending to snap the man’s neck before he knew it. Still facing away from Atriya, the cannibal spoke:
“My name’s Leat. Leat Water. Whom do you serve?” The man’s voice was surprisingly charming; upper-crust dignity and rationale oozed from it. It sounded like what Atriya remembered as a Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent from Old Earth-a cultured tone of voice used by the American upper class before falling into obscurity during the latter half of Earth’s twentieth century.
Leat shuffled sideways, crab-like. He turned his body so he could converse while simultaneously cutting and chewing his meat. His hands and face were coated in red. Aside from a single blotch over the heart however, his opulent white jacket and trousers were surprisingly untouched.
“Serve?” Atriya blurted. The unexpected words caught him off guard. It wasn’t just Leat’s query that threw Atriya, it was the bizarre contrast posed before him: the man’s rational tone juxtaposed with the sight of a monster scooping up handfuls of innards.
Leat continued as if Atriya had responded with a firm statement rather than a disoriented question. “I serve the Crimson King. On Old Earth he walked in the form of a giant red elephant, taller than the highest skyscrapers. Did you know that back then, everybody served him?”
Red elephants. Sure. Atriya felt grounded again as he realized the man was fucking crazy. Deep in the throes of the Plague.
“Look. I bear his mark.” Leat’s head looked toward his heart and he tapped the red blotch with the tip of his knife. Sure enough, it looked strikingly like an elephant. He stuck more drippings in his mouth and chewed reflectively. “I was alive back then too. My name was the same…well, almost the same.” Leat looked expectantly at Atriya, red-stained lips working as he chewed. The expression in his eyes was almost innocent.
Atriya couldn’t help but respond, “Apex is the only one that’s alive from Old Earth.” He knew this man was insane. He knew. But something in the cultured rhythms of his voice demanded that he be treated as if he wasn’t. The most amazing thing about it was that Atriya found his thoughts nodding sensibly along, as if the cannibal made sense.
He shook his head, reminding himself that Leat was a sick fucking animal that needed putting down. Listening to him talk was like watching somebody move slowly across your peripherals, freezing each time you stared. Every time you caught them you knew they’d been moving, but their manner was so impeccable that they almost convinced you they’d been standing still.
Upon hearing Apex’s name Leat’s head tilted back to look at the sky, like he’d registered something of great import. “Apex. Yes, he was alive back then. He was alive since the first prokaryotes. Alive since the first kill.”
As far as Atriya could tell, Leat was saying that Apex had been alive when the first microbes were born. Atriya scoffed behind his hood and face wrap. It shook his body a single time. Fucking crazy piece of shit. But at the same time there was something to it. The nonsensical words had an unexplainably entrancing quality.
Leat’s eyes ran over Atriya and dropped earthward. His elbow bent as he dug in and sawed industriously, cutting loose a handful of dark, seeping meat. He extended his arm, offering it. “Here, you look strong. Come. Eat with me. This is the best bit. Those as strong as us need to stay together, so that we can better hunt the weak.”
“You’re insane.” Atriya was repulsed at the thought of touching this animal, but he knew it had to be done. He steeled himself.
Leat wagged his knife at the Crusader and sneered lightly, a mild look of disgust passing over him. “Don’t do that. Don’t pretend. It makes us both look stupid. You and I…we’re the same. You know this. And what it comes down to is this: You have a choice.” Leat paused, letting the words hang and gather weight.
“A choice…” He repeated. “And the choice is simple. Be like me, or be like him.” As he said him Leat reared up and plunged his knife into the dead man’s eyesocket. A hideous splutch carried through the air; the noise of the blade pushing in and out of the ruined hole. Leat drew it out, still low in his crouch. Atriya fought to keep his gorge down.
The butcher rose from his squat, hands and mouth oozing with gore. Standing, he faced Atriya directly, giving him his full attention. “The right to eat the weak is ancient. Holy. Now. I can see that you’re one of the strong. And as such, it’s your rightful place to hunt them. You and I…we’re alike. So. Don’t forfeit your right. I’m warning you.” As he said this he wagged his knife teasingly, his voice adopting the singsong cadence of a child play-threatening another: You asked for it…
Leat leaned down and cut out another piece of flesh. Proffered it towards the operator. Drops of gristle and blood fell from it, hitting the concrete. Fixing his eyes on Atriya’s, he gave him one last chance. “Don’t forfeit your right.” He repeated.
Atriya’s head was down and to the side as he fought back a mix of revulsion, anger, and underneath it, a current of sadness. To Leat, who could only see the blackened hood and face wrap that hugged Atriya’s head, it only appeared as if he was deep in consideration.
After a couple long seconds, Atriya brought his head up, looking Leat square in the eye. The Crusader kept a tight hold on his fury.
“You’ve forfeited a right of your own.”
Leat’s eyes widened in curiosity. “Which one, pray tell?”
The next words came out in a harsh, grating whisper:
“The right to live past today.”
Click the link to read Chapter 2: Echo Volume 2: The Taste of Ashes, Chapter 2