They charged at each other.
Leat threw the flesh at eye level. Atriya stepped forward and backhanded it away.
Both men pumped their feet, closing the distance as one. The cannibal was all snarls and teeth as he sprinted at Atriya. The Crusader’s refusal to acknowledge his twisted perspective had clearly touched a nerve.
Leat’ shot a bloody knife toward Atriya’s ribs. The Crusader stepped and turned, pointing his right shoulder toward the cannibal’s chest. At the same time, he raised his hands into an elevated guard position, readying them both to swing down.
Pop pop. His fists chopped at the knife arm. Left fist first, right fist second. His first strike broke Leat’s forearm, and his second took care of the bicep. Two dry cracks rang through the air.
Atriya finished his attack by squeezing tightly into his stance and twitching forward, shoulder-checking Leat hard in the sternum. The final blow—the shoulder-check—lifted the cannibal bodily off the ground; his feet rose in tandem before he landed on his rear, skipping backwards once, twice…then coming to a stop near the addict’s corpse. The exchange had happened at the speed of instinct.
The mood quieted. They both knew it was over.
The cannibal rasped and wheezed, his breath sounding crackly and grating.
Pneumothorax, Atriya thought. His shoulder-check must have broken a rib and punctured a lung.
There was no pain on Leat’s face, only puzzled curiosity. He looked like an overgrown child as he sat up and let his feet sprawl to either side. His right arm was accented by a pair of crazy-looking jags; from the look of it, Atriya had broken the Ascensioner’s radius and humerus bones.
Leat’s patted his chest with his left hand, the area adorned with the elephant-shaped stain. He cocked his head and stared at nothing in particular.
“I can’t breathe.” He looked at the Crusader with wondering eyes.
“Now you know how the addict felt.” Atriya’s voice was tight with fury.
Leat parroted him in a slow, marveling tone. “Now I know how the addict felt.”
He continued touching his chest as if the sensation of breathlessness was foreign and alien; he looked the same way an infant might upon observing a color that they’d never seen: not sure what to make of it, not sure what it meant.
His expression turned regretful and sad. He stared soulfully up at Atriya. “But where will the beauty go? Without a covenant between men like us, the beauty on Echo will fade and vanish.”
The killer’s charisma had disappeared. Instead of the smooth-toned predator that Atriya had initially spoken to, Leat now appeared lost and confused, almost deserving of pity.
Atriya was taken aback by the change.
After a bit, he thought: Nothing’s different. He still has to die.
The Ascensioner tried again: “Don’t kill me. Help me. Look at how beautiful we are. If you kill me, then you make that beauty into a hideous lie. And what will Echo do without beautiful people?” He said this with utter conviction, with utter earnestness.
Atriya cocked an armored fist behind his ear. An instant later, his knuckles thundered into the corner of Leat’s jaw. The killer’s head whipped sideways with enough force to make his body follow; he went from sitting on his butt to flopping on his belly.
After a long moment, he rolled over and faced the sky.
The cannibal’s jawbone had skewed grotesquely to the right. His eyes stayed closed as he worked to collect himself. Pink drool oozed from his lips, and a steady hhhhh, hhhhh, hhhhh, wisped from his mouth as he struggled to breathe.
Atriya’s next words were full of scorn: “Yeah—you look real fucking beautiful.”
The Ascensioner didn’t reply; he rolled onto his belly and crawled toward the addict. His bad arm trailed limply behind, scraping across dirty concrete.
Underneath his hood, Atriya’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement.
The cannibal paused when he reached the body. His mouth widened in a frenzied spasm, then darted forward and plunged into a mess of innards. His deformed jaw began working in awkward bites. Unable to contain himself, Leat voiced a series of cloying, sensuous moans. His eyes drooped halfway closed as he lost himself in ecstasy.
Atriya’s disgust was eclipsed by bafflement. Nothing about this man made any sense.
Well, that wasn’t quite accurate. One thing still made sense:
He still needs to die.
The Crusader’s right hand twitched to his holster when he remembered his orders: Don’t advertise. No guns.
He strode over to the cannibal, standing so that his boots were positioned a few inches away from Leat’s face. The killer turned his head so that his red-coated cheek plopped wetly onto the corpse. He stared curiously up at Atriya.
“Uh?” Leat could only grunt the question. Either because of his injuries, or because he was stupid with gluttony.
The Crusader’s knee rose to his waist…then descended in a sharp, savage thrust. His boot slammed into the back of Leat’s neck, causing vertebrae to compress and then break in harsh, rattling pops. A reflexive kk-kk-kkkkk slipped from the cannibal’s mouth, and tiny pink bubbles formed on his lips.
Atriya leaned in, pressing down and grinding with his heel. The bubbles expanded and burst, dotting Leat’s still-white patches of skin with faint specks of red.
Finally, the Ascensioner was still.
“Good?” The Retrieval leader.
“Then keep moving.”
Atriya drew his guns. For some reason, the sight of Leat’s mouth on the junkie’s guts struck him as obscene. He kicked the cannibal’s head off the addict’s body. His gaze drifted to the junkie’s face, and he found himself wishing that he could cover those gouged-out eye sockets. Not just for obvious reasons—they offended him on a deeper, inexplicably personal level.
A thought occurred to him.
Atriya holstered his left pistol, and gripped his other at a skyward angle. He ejected the clip, grabbed it, then clamped his drawn pistol between his left elbow and ribs so he could hold it in place. His thumb ran twice over the rectangular ammo at the top of the clip, dispensing two unfolded rounds into his right hand. He held the rounds between his fingers, snapped the clip back into place, and stowed his weapon.
The Crusader knelt and placed the strips of metal over the corpse’s eyes. A tacky layer of gore held the bullets in place. He ran his gaze across the addict’s body.
Still. There was still something wrong. The metallic segments looked inappropriate. Ill-fitting.
Atriya placed a bloody scrap of shirt over the corpse’s eyes and mouth, concealing the horrific injuries, as well as the man’s silent, protesting scream. It changed nothing—the Crusader still felt a deep, abiding iniquity.
The departed deserved a more appropriate currency.
Atriya stood up and drew his guns.
I’m sorry friend—that’s all I’ve got.
His earpiece buzzed. “Keep. Moving.” The team leader. Irritated at his dawdling.
Atriya’s lips twisted in a sneer. Fuck you, asshole.
“Sorry.” He started forward again.
“Atriya.” The commander sounded different this time. Measured.
“No. Question: Are you still on mission?” Under normal circumstances, asking this would have been absurd; you did whatever the fuck you were told to do. But in this instance, the meaning was clear: Are you going to do your job, or should we kill you now?
He could almost feel their sights dancing across his back.
“Still on mission,” Atriya replied.
He kept walking. A feeling of lightness ran through his head. It was 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 this was unprofessional, that it was bad comms etiquette, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
The team leader knew it as well. There was a long pause. No noise except for the careful rub of soles against the concrete road.
“Question: Are you still on mission?”
“Still on mission.”
“Then keep moving.”
Translation: Shut the fuck up and keep going.
Atriya grinned. At least he’d gotten to mess with Retrieval a little bit.
The warehouse appeared up ahead, delineating the boundary between the Wastes and Scape 87. The separation was easy to see: buildings in the scapes were surrounded by a dim glow, while structures in the Wastes were pitch-dark, almost like they swallowed any and all ambient light.
A decrepit apartment complex stood opposite the warehouse. This would serve as the eleven-man team’s staging point. Its rooftop would be where Retrieval’s snipers established their overwatch.
Atriya made his way to the apartment, walking to a door that faced Waste-side, careful to keep a low profile. Ten men filtered to his end of the street, stringing out into a single-file line so they could follow his lead.
The Crusader stopped at the entrance. The team caught up; three stacked behind him while the others pointed their weapons outboard and provided security.
Atriya checked the building with his heat overlay. No one inside. He holstered his left gun, freeing a hand so he could use tactical sign language.
The Crusader silently mouthed, “Linkup: x-ray sonar.”
Due to Echo’s atmosphere being identical to Old Earth’s, layers of gas shielded the planet from certain types of radiation, meaning there were no organic x-rays that a Crusader could work with. To get around this problem, linkups were fitted with a burst emitter that could bathe their surroundings in a flood of spectra. The data was then displayed as black-and-white shapes across an operator’s readout.
Atriya scanned the apartment, this time 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, then shook his head. No one inside. Clement replied with a raised thumb; he hadn’t seen anyone either. The gesture was repeated and sent back by each man in their stack.
Clement stepped out from the line, holding a pistol tight by his ribs. Reaching slowly with his free hand, he gently—gently—tested the knob.
He looked at Atriya and nodded once: Door’s unlocked.
Atriya nodded three times: Open it.
Clement pulled and the door swung wide. Atriya shuffled in. The team flowed behind him, then out to the sides as they systematically cleared the room. Transparency overlays were useful but they weren’t foolproof; there had been times in the past when they had failed to detect Dissidents. It always paid to be vigilant and methodical.
Clement and three Specialists settled in, picking windows as observation posts. The rest of them—Atriya, Linke, the team leader, and the four marksmen—huddled together in the middle of the room.
The team leader nodded at the sharpshooters: Go to the roof. Get in position.
They nodded back and began treading up the staircase, rifles at the ready, sniper systems hanging off their backs.
The Retrieval commander addressed Atriya: “We’ll keep this simple. You and your gunner make the approach. Snipers will cover from up top and we’ll back you from down here. Do a gun run or two. Tell me when you’re done and we’ll follow. Good?”
“Oh, and Atriya.”
“Do your job. Don’t worry about my fucking name.” The team leader faced away, took three steps, then turned back to Atriya. “Or run. I couldn’t give a fuck—you’re dead either way.” The parting remark was said in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, then accompanied by a blasé shrug.
The Specialist shuffled to a window. Linke followed, but not before giving Atriya an insolent smirk.
Fuck off, Atriya thought. He looked down at his guns. Hopefully he’d get lucky and be able to jam them up their asses. Pull the trigger until it goes click.
Behind his face wrap, his lips widened in a smile.
He made his way over to Clement, who was now watching the warehouse through a scape-facing window. Atriya examined their target, flipping rapidly through his overlays. The building was enormous; maybe a few square miles in area.
Two levels. Base floor with a second floor comprised of landings and catwalks. Multiple fortifications all throughout. Looks like they’re made of pieces of scrap metal; probably welded together and bolted to the floor. Maybe thirty to forty people split between each level. No visible sentries outside the building.
Atriya switched back to standard night vision and locked eyes with Clement, who’d just finished up with his own scan. Both Crusaders were cautiously relaxed. They were thinking the same thing: Forty guys? Fifty, tops? Not bad. Between the eleven of them, it would be easy pickings. They probably wouldn’t have to call on the Enforcers that were standing by as support. Not until it was done and over with, anyways.
Atriya put a hand on Clement’s shoulder. Let’s go over the plan of attack.
Standard procedure dictated that Crew operators do their pre-assault comms using hand signals, one gun out for security. Maybe it wasn’t necessary where they were, enclosed within a building, but old habits died hard.
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 logical choice to hit the upper level. To ensure clarity, the exchange was broken into pieces, each piece separated by verification from his following gunner.
Okay. Clement signaled back.
Atriya: I make entry: upper level. You wait. You make entry: ground level. Okay?
Clement signaled: Okay.
A second later he raised a finger. Stop. His head turned down and to the right. Something had occurred to him.
Atriya waited as his partner puzzled over it.
Clement met his eyes and signaled: You make entry. I wait—how long? How long should he wait before he breached the lower floor?
Atriya thought for a bit, then responded: You make entry: first shot. Okay? Go in after the first shot.
Clement understood. He signaled: Okay.
They went through the entire plan one more time, just to make sure they were both in sync. Once they gave each other the final okay, they rose to their feet.
Atriya opened the door and the two slipped into the street, scurrying along building contours and sticking close to shadow-darkened walls. Their hunched posture made them look vaguely inhuman, reminiscent of a fairy tale creature—a troll or a goblin—while their skittering gait imbued them with an insectile aspect. Retrieval covered them as they got situated.
Clement posted in an alleyway that fed off one of the warehouse’s corners, guns close by his abdomen in case anyone tried to disarm him. Atriya holstered his pistols and got ready to climb. He needed to cover about thirty feet.
The Crusader began pulling himself up. He looked shadowy and insubstantial as he swung and arced, using ledges and handholds to boost himself skyward. Free climbing was second nature to him, and his ascent took less than a minute.
He finished his climb and perched on a ledge. He was crouched right at the edge of an expansive second-story window, one large enough to double as a hangar bay entrance. He unholstered his right gun for security, leaving his other hand free so he could manipulate a breaching package—an explosive tool designed to create a point of access.
The concrete around him abruptly lightened. Moonlight coated everything in a dead-eyed luster, etching sterile numbness onto the warehouse’s front.
Fuck. He glanced up and saw a shifting bank of clouds. A gap had opened in their midst, allowing the light from Ascension to burn its way down. His adrenaline spiked in hot flashes across his neck and back, but his anxiety was quickly replaced by a flash of gratitude: he was thankful that the moon had stayed hidden until they were ready to breach.
Atriya wasn’t unprofessional enough to look directly through the glass and give himself away, but a trick of the light angled his image off a near section of window and confronted him with his own reflection. The hood smothering his head—combined with the visor concealing his eyes—made his mirrored self appear featureless, like a human embodiment of nothing. A long, crosswise crack bisected his face, infusing it with a discordant, funhouse look. His window-pane counterpart resembled a black-clad bogeyman.
A hungry ghost. The thought came and went, and was quickly forgotten.
He rose to a half-crouch and reached into a matte-black utility belt clipped around his waist. His partially gloved fingers dug out a small, nondescript metal cylinder from a compartment near his right hip. The cylinder was about an inch in diameter and the length of a human hand. On one of its ends 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. He saw a light mounted halfway up the cylinder begin to blink. The device was primed. For the sake of stealth, the flashing indicator was only visible to specialized optics.
He stuck the non-buttoned end onto the window’s bottom corner. The cylinder wavered for a moment…then stabilized and adhered to the glass. Its sticky end had a range-enhanced, strong-force attractor that allowed it to attach to any surface. From Atriya’s vantage, it looked like the window had grown a thin metal rod protruding from its bottom corner.
Holes opened on the mechanism, and tiny bots flowed outwards. To the casual observer, they looked like insects—exactly what they were supposed to look like if someone saw them from a distance. The explosive bots were programmed to map any surface that they needed to blow. Hard-light tamping fields ensured they would only detonate in one direction, negating the danger of errant backblast.
Atriya leaned in, facing his reflection. He unholstered his other gun. After a brief scurry, the drones spaced themselves across the warehouse window. Once they were set, they stilled for a brief instant….then they detonated and shattered the pane.
Atriya’s boosted perceptions registered the tinkling of glass as it fractured and clove into an infinity of fragments. He watched his reflection transform, lazy and lethargic, as the window disintegrated into a free-flowing mass of glassy particulate. His image started as a faceless outline divided by a glaring crack…then split billions of times over, partitioned and captured by endless points of light.
His neurophysio enhancements enhanced his ability to process the environment, but every now and then, by chance occurrence, they would kick into overdrive. His cognitive speed would be sharpened to the point where his physical actions couldn’t keep up; he could do nothing but watch as time inched by. Operators called it dream surfing, or simply just “tripping.” The phenomenon was regarded with sweeping indifference—a fluke that meant nothing.
At that moment, Atriya’s consciousness was fully immersed inside of the dream surf. He’d experienced it before, but never this deeply. In the past he’d responded with standard, Crusader-issue apathy: Let me get back to the real world so I can do my job.
This time, however, he felt transported. Fully engaged .
This is not just a fluke, he thought. This is something.
And: 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 that shining nebula, his mind jumped back and forth, to-and-fro, millions of times over. The Crusader’s perception had slowed to the point where it was all happening in one inhale, so the feel of respiration was rendered moot. At the same time though, he swore he felt breathless; like a bolt of something—a mix of wonderment, grace, and other concepts that could never be verbalized—was blazing through him and stealing his oxygen.
Hey, it’s a kind of magic, he thought dazedly, marveling at each quanta of glass. Then: This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Is it? his logical side questioned as he gazed in awe at the crystalline haze.
A thrill of surety flowed through him.
Eons seemed to pass as he fell deeper into the surf. He couldn’t resist the urge to wallow in it; the suspension of motes and flecks was irresistibly entrancing. Each gleaming scrap spun slowly through the air, switching between being a mirror or a shred of transparency. He couldn’t help but think that he was watching the death and birth of galaxies, each one a reality in and of itself, but also a piece of some massive and indescribable mechanism. He became hopelessly lost in the relentless blast of symmetry, a force beyond chaos and order, a force that could transcend the illusion of opposites and tear through existence without concern. Without strain. Without doubt.
As each fraction of instant yawned before him, he heard a deep-rooted hum. A profound MMMMMMM that seemed to shake him at the cellular level. For a while it drove out all thought…then transformed into a harsh rush—like wind ripping through a tunnel, or the crazy scream of atmosphere as it whistled outward from a punctured space ship. The sound built in intensity, as if the hole it was pushing through was starting to narrow, and wind was rushing out faster and faster.
Suddenly, it ceased. As if somebody had stopped up the hole—jammed a cork into the spaceship’s hull.
Atriya snapped back to real time. Glass fell. Smoke blew.
He pushed hard off the ledge, tucking his body into a ball. His knees were curled to his chest, elbows bent by his face. His forearms and guns were pointed up. As he launched himself inside, he heard the chatter of automatic weapons.
Here we go.
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