Omega Genesis and Other Stories: Volume 2
This is my second collection of flash fiction and short stories set in the (hopefully) alternative timeline I've named Omega Genesis. The stories mostly explore the lives of people, some ordinary, some extraordinary, but all living in interesting times. Much of what I write is based on my worst fears for the future; some of what I write is to detail the lives of people living in the a world with the problems of today exacerbated; a little is pure introspection and fantasy. They aren’t in chronological order because I wrote them to answer questions about characters that came up in my longer story: Pride of a Forgotten Son.
It’s roughly written and needs work, but If you have any commentary; I’d love to hear it.
The well-earned beer hit the back of Macca’s throat and he heaved a sigh of relief at end of the working day.
He turned the little box of redhead matches over and over in his meaty hand; he didn’t smoke anymore but he kept the matches on him out of habit. It was, like many things, an affection he’d gotten from his father and his father's father before him. The matches had become harder to come by but they were his own little personal gimmick, a reminder of the glory days of the early 21st Century.
He unexpectedly found himself coughing, a rough hacking cough that caused his hand to shake, spilling some of his drink.
Running his tongue around the inside of his mouth to clear away the phlegm and spread the taste of the beer, Macca looked around the recreation room; the low tin roof didn’t do much to protect the dozens of tired miners from the oppressive heat and Macca, like most of them was sweating in his high-vis vest.
The beer was awful, a low-grade company brewed swill that was over-priced and understrength. Still; it was the best that was available and Macca deserved some sort of reward for another day of backbreaking labour underground.
Benny came back from the bar, taking a seat next to Macca and taking a gulp of from his own pint glass.
“That’s still fucking cat piss, isn’t it mate?” he laughed as he almost choked on the amber liquid.
“Yep.” Agreed Macca, he was about to say something else when he coughed again, the wracking force of it turning his face crimson under the stubble of his new beard.
“You alright mate?” laughed Benny, his concern masked by his laid-back drawl.
“Yeah, no worries.” nodded Macca, although he knew already that he wasn’t.
He’d been here at the mine for five years and while the work was hard, he’d been damn happy to get the job. After the Great Flood he’d been jobless for a while and he’d had to pull in every favour he had to get this gig here at the SeaCorp CSG. The initial wells had dried up years ago so the company had decided to go back to basics, sending drill teams deep below ground to place deeper bores.
Macca was not from around here, he had been born up North in Queensland but there wasn’t any work to be had up there anymore, at least none that paid, the whole state had become a madhouse under the One Nation government.
SeaCorp had waited a long time to get its hands on the land here in South Eastern South Australia and it was only five years ago they had finally eroded the last remnants of the regulations that prevented them accessing the resources hidden below ground.
There had been protests of course; as Macca and Benny and the rest had been bussed in to start work there were crowds of furious locals who’d fought against the mining for years.
Nevertheless, the locals's protests had failed and the mine had gone ahead.
Not many of the locals bothered to protest now; the smart ones had abandoned their dairy and wheat farms and gotten jobs with SeaCorp as it moved to take over the local industries. The ones still fighting against the mines had begun resorting to terrorism; throwing firebombs at the camps of portable homes and barracks brought in by SeaCorp Housing. Occasionally the scum would go too far and one would disappear, then on the news a statement by SeaCorp Community Relations would appeal for help even though everyone knew what had happened. That wasn’t any of Macca’s business though.
The days were hard in the mine and the nights in the camp were lonely, with a midnight curfew and few places to socialise besides the rec room in which he now sat. Still, Macca managed to share some camaraderie with Benny and Bruce most nights.
The barman in the camp wasn’t a man at all but a machine with a sensor light; so it was difficult to change up the conversation from the usual topics of how bad the beer was and how long the days seemed to be; especially now in summer.
“Hell, mate.” sighed Benny; “How long we gonna be able to do this sort of work?”
Macca raised an eyebrow; it was a rhetorical question that they both knew the answer to. “Until we drop.” Macca smiled at his friend.
Benny winked in agreement and raised his glass, taking another deep gulp of the watery liquour.
“Does it taste like they made it weaker again?” he asked Macca.
“Fucked if I’d know.” grumbled Macca, although it certainly seemed worse than it ever had been and it had never been good. He took one last gulp, finishing the glass and setting it down before sighing heavily.
“Macca, what is it?” asked Benny; this time his concern couldn’t be hidden by any slurring in his pronunciation.
Macca looked away towards the beer dispenser. “Nothing I reckon, just coughed up a chunk of blood this morning.”
“Shit.” breathed Benny and the two friends sat in silence as they watched the rec room begin to empty of workers as they made their way to their bunks and sleeping mats.
“Yeah, I’d hoped that it was nothing but you saw what happened to Darren last month.” Macca murmured before continuing. “Fine one week, coughing the next, dead as a stone two weeks later.”
“Yeah mate.” nodded Benny, frowning. “That’s fucked aye.”
After a brief pause Benny continued, “But at least his missus will get an insurance payout; that will make it worth it for her and his kids at least.”
Macca shook his head, thinking of his own wife and kid. He hadn’t seen them since he’d started working here and he only got one call a week. “Nah, they didn’t. The insurance doesn’t cover death as a result of environmental factors. Apparently, working in a gas-filled, particle choked mine is environmental. At least that’s what the lawyers had argued.”
Benny slumped back on the bar stool on which he sat; his gut pushing out wide under the pressure.
“Oh, shit. I didn’t know.”
Macca turned and looked at Benny conspiratorially. “Hardly anyone does, I was in the foreman’s block getting his safety helmet and I saw the report on his desk; had a squiz. Wish I hadn’t now.”
“Does that mean none of us are covered?” asked Benny, “What are we paying all that insurance out of our pay for then?”
“SFA” snorted Macca, “and now I reckon I’ve got it too; that blacklung that killed Darren.”
“Nah mate.” Disagreed Benny, shaking his head emphatically, “Nah, you’re as strong as a bull. You’ll be fine.”
“Four weeks, mate.” Said Macca, becoming morose; “Four weeks and I’m not even going to see the wife and kid again; there’s no way the company will fly me to Queensland.”
“Aw mate, that’s fucked.” Said Benny, clapping Macca on the shoulder to comfort him.
“Well, I’ll be heading off to bed.” Macca sighed, standing up and giving Benny a nod.
“Yeah, yeah.” Said Benny, his shoulders slumped helplessly at his friends's situation. “I’ll catch you tomorrow, mate.”
Macca walked slowly away from the rec room, his legs and arms feeling heavy, and a consistent nagging pain in his back. His lungs hurt in his chest; a tightness that reflected his suppressed angst and worry. He coughed again, this time the first cough rambled into a second and a third, cascading into a fit that lasted for over a minute and left Macca doubled over and gasping for breath.
He could feel blood on his lips and could see it clotting in droplets on the ground; he closed his eyes momentarily and sighed deeply once more.
“This is bullshit.” he grumbled, then walked towards his dormitory.
Macca’s alarm woke him up well before dawn as it always did. His bunk-mates, Andy and Chong were already up and stumbling round bleary eyed as they pulled on clothes and prepared for work.
Andy didn’t speak to anyone as he was preparing, he never talked much to others and that was fine by Macca at this time of the day. Chong didn’t shut up though and rambled on about one thing or another, none of them of any interest to Macca. His mood was poor enough for the thought to cross his mind that he wished the black lung would hurry up and kill him.
Macca didn’t bother showering, the water that was piped in was thick with pollutants from the fracking done a couple of decades before and Macca would rather smell of sweat than methane. He rubbed his hands through his greying hair and wished he’d shaved it clean last week. It was thick with oil and grime but there wasn’t time to deal with it anymore.
Once his work gear was on he trudged out of the dorm and to a waiting shuttle bus that would take him to the mine works a couple of kilometres away. The dorms used to be closer until a gas explosion had killed several hundred workers while they slept. The company didn’t seem to mind about the fatalities, but it had slowed down production until more eager laborers could be shipped in from the work farms in Adelaide and Melbourne.
Poor bastards, thought Macca; dying in an explosion like that; but at least their families had been compensated. Not like Darren’s family.
The thought gave him an idea. If he could off himself instead of the black lung finishing him then his family would get an insurance payout, he was going to die anyway so wouldn’t it be best to get what he could?
Macca sat down on the crowded shuttle alongside his workmates and pondered the thought. If you had asked him ten years ago if he would have ever considered killing himself he would have just laughed. Macca was a man who like to live large and the thought of killing yourself had always seemed like a choice for losers and weaklings. He’d gone through hard times, just like his father before him; but he’d soldiered on and in the end succeeded.
Now it had come to this. Sitting on a crowded bus with a bunch of broken men thinking of the best way to die.
The short journey travelled through the dilapidated workers' village and then across what used to be farmland but was now patchwork of swampy ponds filled with oily wastewater. Macca had visited here a long time ago when he was a kid, at that time, there were cows and sheep meandering across green pastures but none of that was around anymore. Even a fool could see it was from the fracking but no one was going to be held responsible; there were no agencies that could do anything about it anyway, SeaCorp owned the lot.
The more he mulled it all over the more aggravated it made Macca, he was just a bloke doing a job to feed his family but he wasn’t inhuman. He knew that the farmers that used to live here must have been pushed off their land at some stage and now they were who knows where.
The bus skirted around the security walls that surrounded the city of Mount Gambier; it had become a corporate military base a long time ago due to being a halfway point between Adelaide and Melbourne. Macca stared at the lines of tanks and armoured vehicles parked behind the wire and wondered why in the world there would be a need for so many vehicles out here; it was like SeaCorp was preparing for a war no one knew about.
That was none of his business either though.
Finally, the shuttle ground to a halt and the door peeled open, exposing Macca to the stench of machine oil, lubricant and gas fumes. Macca rubbed his eyes and stepped off the bus, taking his place in a long line of waiting miners. A klaxon wailed and the line began its shuffling march into the elevators that would travel deep underground to the thirteenth drilling project.
It took almost half an hour for the elevator to reach the drilling floor and the miners set about pressing their thumbprints to the bio-scanners to ensure their time was recorded. Several SeaCorp Mercs in gas masks stood alert and ready for trouble near the assembly area, their riot guns held loosely in gauntleted hands. The miners didn’t bother talking to the mercs; they came in on two week shift rotations so nobody got chummy and that way if any unfortunate deaths occurred there was less chance of someone feeling guilty about it. Guilt caused trouble and trouble affected the bottom line. Macca could see how that was a smart business decision but he didn’t have to like it.
Another twenty minutes of walking down the borehole to the newest drill shaft and Macca tried to shield his mouth from the air-borne grit and particles as much as possible. There were exhaust fans shunting the gas-filled air to the surface but they struggled to get rid of it all and the miners still sucked in a lungful of crap with every passing minute.
A couple of them wore gas-masks like those of the guards but Macca simply couldn’t afford one, not if he wanted to send some money back to his family.
He took his place next to the giant bore piece, ready to help shunt another drill bit into place to extend the gouge into the earth. The foreman called out and the bore began to turn, slowly at first then faster and faster; its low growl rising in pitch until it became a grating whine that scratched at Macca’s ears and caused his to squint his eyes.
He thought about his family; would he see them again? It would be another six months at least before he was allowed a weekend off to go and visit and Macca knew that he just wouldn’t last that long.
Benny came to stand next to him. Macca nodded a greeting but didn’t say anything; losing concentration at the wrong moment could spell death and Macca didn’t want to be responsible for Benny’s demise. He also knew that if it was found he was negligent his family wouldn’t get their accident insurance; he really needed to make it look like an accident.
The bore drill rattled loudly and Macca feared it would shatter or break; he began to signal to the foreman that it needed to be shut down but he’d already heard and was hurridly working at the console to slow down the drilling so the bits could be realigned. The grinding noise quietened and then stoped as the drill slowed and stopped. Macca and the other miners breathed a sigh of relief.
“Fuck, that could have been bad.” Sighed Benny.
Macca was about to reply when he was wracked by another coughing fit. He doubled over as he felt bloody phlegm speckle the inside of his mouth. One of the guards had wandered over to see what the hold up on the drilling was and motioned with the barrel of his shotgun towards Macca.
“What’s wrong with him?” he shouted at the foreman, his voice muffled by the gasmask.
“Nothing, mate. Just a bit dusty down here.”
“He’s not sick is he? We’ve got orders to report all sickness to corp command.”
“Nah mate, he’s just copped a lung of the grit is all.” replied the foreman as Macca struggled to regain his breath and stand up straight.
Macca was thankful the foreman had his back, he wasn’t overly fond of the bloke but knew he didn’t have much love of their employer either. Plus, the foreman probably didn’t want some stupid corporate investigation snooping into the ins and outs of his team’s work; or his own.
“Macca?” asked Benny, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“I’m right, mate.” Said Macca with a smile, though in truth he was still struggling a bit for air. “Can you do me a favour and get me a drink though?”
Benny nodded and smiled, “Sure mate, stay put and I’ll get one.”
Benny moved off towards the drill camp to where they kept the food cart. It was well before break time but one of the few privileges the miners had was access to drinking water while they were on the job, the reason being that the hot, dusty air caused workers to pass out and an unconscious worker wasn’t making money; simple corporate economics.
Macca watched him walk, then looked at the other miners; most had gathered to chat about twenty metres away, the foreman was still talking to the merc and Macca stood alone by the drill rig.
The smell of gas was strong, the bit must have penetrated the coal seam deep below although not enough to expel a refinable amount.
Now was as good a time as any.
Macca took the little box out from his pocket and turned it over in his meaty hands, sliding the match box open and thumbing out a single sliver of wood.
Benny was fossicking around for a bottle of water, the foreman still speaking; the rest of the lads were away.
The time was now.
Macca flicked the red tip of the match against the box and smiled as the little stick burst into flame, he smelt the gas and held back a cough the match flared bright; finding the seeping gas of the bore shaft.
He closed his eyes, thinking of his family not needing to worry about the bills.
“Oops.” He smiled.
Bound For South Australia
The man scowled, his bald brow furrowed in disdain at the giggling of the passengers in front of him.
There was a reason he had paid to travel first class, he had thought that he would, just once; be free of the constant stink and noise of blacks, browns and yellows.
Yet here he was and yet again he was surrounded by them, babbling in their own languages, wearing their ridiculous clothes, having the audacity to sit alongside their betters.
It was disgusting, but the man, Morgan, hoped that this would be the last time he was forced to endure such conditions. He was leaving his home in South Africa to take a job with SeaCorp, based in that last great bastion of white superiority, Australia.
True there were coloureds there, they infected every country on the planet; but they didn’t have control yet. SeaCorp and its executives had seen to that. Australia was ruled by the white man, as it should be. Morgan knew he would fit right in.
He pressed the service button on the side of his plush seat, deciding to order himself a drink but when the flight attendant arrived and Morgan saw she was black, bile instantly filled his throat.
“Where’s the other girl?” he demanded.
The flight attendant balked slightly at his vitriol, but regained her composure quickly.
“She’s just on a break, sir. May I help you with something?”
“No.” snapped Morgan. “You can’t. Get the other girl.”
The flight attendant pursed her lips and nodded. “Certainly sir, I’ll get her right away.”
Morgan allowed himself a grin; at least this one knew her place and didn’t argue back. He was still seething about the security guard at Johannesburg airport who had dared to frisk him. As a licensed firearms owner Morgan had wanted to bring his sidearm aboard the plane but had been denied. When he had argued with the airport guard, the superior had been called and Morgan had been disgusted that it was a black.
Of course, he had immediately demanded to see the next man in charge but the black was having none of it. Weapons had been drawn and the situation threatened to escalate; Morgan had been humiliated in public and if he ever had a chance to gain his revenge, he would. Djoki, had been the black’s name. Morgan would remember it.
The black flight attendant returned, along with the white stewardess Morgan had seen earlier. He pointedly ignored the black and spoke to the other girl.
“Girl, I want a drink; gin neat, make it a double and make sure it isn’t contaminated.”
The white girl looked at Morgan, clearly trying to contain some level of frustration. “Sir, I will get your drink this time but you must know that in the future Candice will be your stewardess.”
Morgan almost hissed. “No, that’s not good enough; I won’t be served by this thing. She can serve in the economy section where the rabble are. Do you know who I am?”
Morgan’s tirade had drawn the attention of other passengers in first class, a large woman in bright floral tribal dress glowered at him.
“You aren’t on the farm any more, Boer.” she growled, “Your time is long gone and its time you woke up to that.”
Morgan bunched his fists, the only reason he didn’t strike her was he knew it would cause him to be thrown off the flight. Political correctness had ruined South Africa, including its airlines.
“I didn’t ask you to address me, black.” he snapped back. “Mind your own business, you dirty ape.”
The air in first class grew chilly and several passengers gasped. The flight attendants both looked furious.
“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave your seat and come with us.” Said the white girl.
“Now.” said the black.
“Get fucked you monkey.” sneered Morgan
The white flight attendant raised a comlink to her mouth and spoke. “Security, first class immediately.”
Within seconds a pair of combat armoured air guards entered the cabin, armed with machine pistols. Like the flight attendants, one was white, the other black.
“What seems to be the problem?” the black air guard asked.
“The passenger is being offensive to the point of it causing distress to other passengers.” said the black flight attendant. “He needs to be removed.”
“To where?” asked the second guard.
“I don’t care, just get him out of my sight.” seethed the white girl.
Morgan could only sneer at it all. He wasn’t going to argue with the air guards, he knew they were trained to deal with security issues with extreme prejudice and Morgan wasn’t some sort of an idiot.
“Just take me somewhere I don’t need to look at these savages.” hissed Morgan to the white air guard. “That one can stay here; I won’t cause you any trouble.”
Morgan stood up and began walking towards the back of the plane as the air guards followed. He was reminded that at least he didn’t have the indignity of being handcuffed or tasered, that was to be expected though because as a cultured and civilised man, even under duress such as this; he wouldn’t be acting like an animal.
As the trio passed through the economy section, Morgan tried not to look at the dregs crammed into their seats without legroom or personal entertainment systems. Asians sat next to blacks, blacks next to whites, whites next to Asians; like some sort of disgusting human stew. Integration was a lie and a sham, Morgan knew nothing good would come of it and ached for the day when the rightful guardians of the earth would again assume the mantle of rulership over the lesser races.
The guards ushered Morgan through the door at the end of the economy cabin and into a small room dominated by six small bunk beds; it was a crew rest area.
“Sit” said the black air guard; not unkindly.
Morgan glowered at the man for having the audacity to command him, the other guard sighed heavily and said “Sit, please, Mr. Morgan; we don’t want to cause any more commotion than necessary.”
Morgan sat but continued to stare belligerently at the black guard, who seemed to be smirking; obviously enjoying being able to command his betters.
The white guard addressed Morgan once more.
“Mr. Morgan, you are required to stay here until the end of the flight. Please do not leave this area or there will be serious consequences.”
Morgan simply grunted and looked away from the still smirking black. The two turned and left the room, leaving Morgan alone.
He sighed heavily; the stress of being in close proximity to the blacks had wound him up severely and he would greatly enjoy a shoulder massage. He played with the ring on the index finger of his right hand, a reminder of his failed marriage to Cecile. He still missed her sometimes; at least he missed the deft massages her hands provided.
No matter; it was her loss that she left him and now he was going to embark on the greatest role of his career and she wasn’t there to share it. Good riddance to bad rubbish. There was nothing to be done about it all. Morgan reclined on the staff bunk and closed his eyes; soon he would be off this stinking plane and his new life would begin.
Morgan didn’t leave the plane with the other passengers and was instead escorted by the two air guards across the tarmac to the security centre. The air in Adelaide was hot and wet with humidity. The airport was new, the old one having been submerged during the Great Flood and from the windowed waiting room of the security tower where Morgan waited, he could look across the tenement covered plains of the Murray Flats.
Morgan turned and gazed at the line of hills to the West, clustered with black and silver towers that made up the bulk of the new city. Closer to the airport were the countless blocks of squared, concrete tenements where indentured workers would return after a day of labour in SeaCorp’s factories, warehouses and mines.
Everything was neat and organised, a triumph of white civilisation; Morgan thought.
His reflection was interrupted by a knock on the waiting room door. It was a young woman, probably twenty or so in the green pressed uniform emblazoned with SeaCorp’s triple wave motif.
“Mr. Morgan?” the girl asked. She was pretty, her eyes large and blue, her hair a wavy brown.
“Yes, Miss.” replied Morgan with a smile, “I am Morgan.”
The girl nodded in acknowledgement and continued. “My name is Sarah; I am to take you to SeaCorp Towers to meet Mr. Greenworth.”
“Excellent.” grinned Morgan. “Let us not delay, I am eager to get to work.”
“Of course.” said the girl and led Morgan through the back corridors of the airport to the waiting limousine.
Morgan could taste the success as he sauntered closer to the waiting vehicle but the grin on his face was wiped clean once again when he saw the man holding open the car door.
The driver nodded deeply and respectfully as Morgan stared at him with an expression that said I’ve just swallowed a rotten egg.
“Please, Mr. Morgan.” said Sarah, “Take a seat.”
“Is this our driver?” asked Morgan unpleasantly.
“Why yes.” answered the girl. “This is X34, a clone with a distinguished service record.”
“A clone?” choked Morgan, incredulous. “Why would you clone a black? There are billions of them running around South Africa.”
The driver stood impassively, seemingly unconcerned by the outburst.
“SeaCorp has several clone product lines, X34 is a security clone and has several skill sets hardwired into his DNA, allowing him and others like him to exceed expectations as a defensive driver, personal guard and when the need arises, assault combatant. I can personally vouch for his abilities.”
Morgan rounded on Sarah, having to deal with blacks was bad enough but having an otherwise outstanding white girl defend them was beyond the pale.
“They are animals and there is no way I would want to trust my safety to a black at all. Half of them can barely read or write, let along thing strategically.”
From within the limousine, came a nasal voice, at once commanding and contemptuous.
“Mr. Morgan, I have not employed you to care about the racial heritage of my resources, but to ensure that they provide me and my company with security second to none.”
Morgan’s breath caught in his throat, he knew that voice. The voice of one of the most powerful men on the planet, who thought nothing of ordering executions and of crushing even the slightest opposition with murderous force. The CEO of SeaCorp Enterprises; Charles Greenworth.
Greenworth stepped from the limo and pulled himself up straight in front of Morgan; the man was average in height and was wearing a suit tailored to accentuate his whip thin waist and sinewy frame. A waxed moustache adorned a thin upper lip that quivered in barely suppressed rage.
“I can send you back to South Africa, if you’d prefer.” whispered Charles, drawing close. His breath smelt like onions and caviar with a hint of strong liquor.
Morgan straightened himself and bit back a retort; he needed this job. “No, sir. That will not be necessary.”
Greenworth narrowed his eyes as he looked hard into Morgan’s. “Good. There are enough simpering cretins surrounding me without me needing to add my security chief to their number.”
The CEO relaxed slightly and added. “You don’t need to like the clones, Morgan; but they are invaluable at keeping costs down and this model has achieved exemplary results.”
‘Yes sir.” said Morgan, attempting not to grind his teeth.
Charles smiled an unpleasant, predatory grin. “Come and join me in the vehicle and we will return to SeaCorp Towers.”
Morgan took a seat in the expansive back of the limo and Charles Greenworth seated himself opposite. Morgan was expecting some sort of debrief but instead, Greenworth spent the trip playing on a personal entertainment device, Morgan noted that by the lewd sounds issuing it was some sort of pornographic virtual reality program.
He felt slightly sickened. Was this why had left South Africa? True it had many, many problems; not the least of which was the growing power of blacks and their militant tribes. However, it was home and Morgan knew where he stood. Could he really see himself working for this decadent fool?
Morgan guessed he would have to. At least he knew his salary was well worth the effort and he looked forward to seeing what sort of lodgings the company would provide to a man of his stature.
The limo slowed to a halt and the driver spoke through the intercom.
“Sirs, we have arrived at Mr. Morgan’s quarters.”
Greenworth took a moment to stop playing his game although he twitch of his eyebrows told Morgan that he had indeed heard the driver. Finally, after long seconds of uncomfortable silence, Greenworth looked over towards Morgan and simply said. “Get out.”
Morgan nodded stoically and exited the vehicle, immediately looking around to get his bearings.
The limo door slammed shut and the vehicle pulled away hurriedly. Morgan was somewhat shocked at the lack of formality from his employer and had concerns about how he was do his job if the man continued to act in such a rash and reckless manner.
He turned to face the cluster of buildings in which he expected he would make his home for the near future. A trio of large, two storey blocks, SeaCorp’s triple wave design emblazoned at the top of every wall. It was ugly and obviously, purpose built in a hurry because Morgan could still smell the paint as it dried.
A young man, obviously a SeaCorp employee, was walking towards Morgan, hurrying lightly down the cascading steps in front of the building. His sea green uniform screamed concierge and a pair of larger men in rumpled coveralls followed. Morgan guessed they were to take his luggage, except he had no idea where it was; probably lost in transit.
“Sir, you are Mr. Morgan?” asked the concierge; smiling with practiced politeness that Morgan knew was nothing near genuine.
“Yes, stop fucking about and take me inside. It’s been a long day.”
The young man didn’t seem disturbed at all by the gruff comment and bowed again before gesturing towards the building.
“This way, Mr. Morgan.” he said smoothly.
Morgan grunted and shouldered his way past the two menials.
This wasn’t what he’d signed up for, he’d better be able to kill something.
“The End is nigh!” screamed the filthy old man, as he staggered, directionless through the muddy streets of ScumTown.
Clad in the hanging rags of one who once worked in an office, the tattered remains of a grime encrusted suit hanging from his shoulders, his tie abandoned and his feet bare the man’s eyes were wild as he shouted his promises to the uncaring passers-by.
“This world will burn in hellfire, I have seen it.” he bawls at a mother carrying her swaddled infant on her way to fetch water.
The preacher spins around as the mother ignores him and fixes his gaze upon a pair of urchins, both girls in their late teenage years.
“You two, did you know what it coming? Have you seen Revelation?” the preacher hisses.
The taller of the two, with auburn hair tied in a loose pony tail give the preacher a lopsided grin and shrugs; the other, her dusky face almost hidden under a tangle of black dreadlocks averts her gaze; unwilling to face the madness head on.
“You too will play a part.” Continues the preacher, licking cracking lips with a tongue thick from shouting. “Yes you shall, all will play parts but you and you most of all.”
He turns away and stumbles on, catching the arm of a labourer as he passes with a bundle of scavenged timber packed on his back.
“The strong will be brought low, the weak will perish, sinners will become what they wish most and that will be their eternal doom. Repent wrathful one and put away your anger.”
The labourer shoves the preacher away, knocking the man to the ground where he lands in a puddle of muck; the preacher seems not to care as he stands once more and seeks another target.
Now people avoid his gaze and a large circle has opened up around him, giving the insanity room to breathe. The preacher sees an opportunity and clambers up on a pile of discarded trash to issue a sermon.
“Our doom is not of the other but of ourselves, we and our sins have set the scene for calamity my friends and I tell you now that only the blessed few will survive.”
Few people pay attention to the preacher, although none know where he came from or who he is. Perhaps he was struck on the head, some muse; perhaps he’s a drug addict, abandoned by the corporate hell that spawned him and cast adrift here in ScumTown; where the forgotten cling to lost memories and lost hopes.
The preacher still rambles, nodding his head and bellowing into a shabby beard. “We have placed our faith in science and through science will we be damned, repent and face the truth; that only in submission to the plans of God will be find salvation, time is short and the end draws near.”
Still the preacher is ignored and he stops his sermon for a moment to peer at the crowd with rheumy eyes. He never asked for this, to know the future of these people and of all others; he never asked for the life he had or the one he has now; he is just a messenger, but no one will listen.
“Won’t your listen? Won’t you hear the words that will lead you to salvation? Friends?” he urges.
The crowd of poor and destitute inhabitants of ScumTown continues to flow around his island of piety; godless and having forgotten where they fit in the great plan.
The preacher grows angry and frustrated. He speaks to them but they do not listen, how can he save them when they are blind to the truth of what he says? How can they be saved if they do not see the danger?
The preacher’s shoulders slump and he steps down from the pile of rubbish, dejected and empty. Head down he shuffles through the crowds, now no longer a brimstone preacher but just another emaciated vagrant set adrift from the Upper City.
He stumbles to his camp, a bed of torn rags and a smouldering campfire beneath the sagging remains of the Torrens Bridge. Dozens of others huddle around their own fires or sleep in their nests; their lives empty of purpose beyond surviving just one more day.
“We are damned,” mutters the preacher to himself, “these tired souls have not the energy to save themselves and they will undoubtedly become victims of the day when hell walks the streets.”
“Shut up.” Shouts a nearby vagrant, “We’re trying to sleep here.”
The preacher feels his rage building despite himself, but forces it back down. He will not become a victim of the Sins; he will not allow his difficulties to control his destiny. He will survive.
He lays down to sleep and within moments of drifting away he is assaulted by the visions. Scenes of the insane damned stalking the very streets he walked on in the morning; flames burning through the shanty-town shacks and lean-tos. He sees the tide of gnashing teeth and clawing talons as the victims of Sin crowd together before twelve dread lords, apostles to the Lord or the Damned.
He sees the pain, the flesh, the fire and the endless torment that sheets down upon the earth like the acid rain in a thunderstorm.
He sees the hope. The girl from the morning, her dusky skin and dark eyes and her refusal to yield, her love, her dedication, her endless strength in the face of adversity. He sees the web of causality spread from her to a half dozen others and then to dozens more, then hundreds and he sees it finally enmesh every last thing on the planet.
In his sleep he moans with released relief, his heart beats faster as he witnesses the return of the Visitor and the beginning of Revelation.
His heart, in joyous rapture cannot continue and it stops cold as his brain tries in vain to continue tracking the infinite causality and consequence of a twenty billion intertwined destinies.
The vision fades and with it his breath, his body grows cold in the night and in the morning it is quietly removed and buried, without a word being said.
A Girl and her dog
Riley smiled as Woofer bounded from one stinking pile of drying kelp to the next as the pair ambled along the rubbish-strewn beach.
The ruins of abandoned houses peeked from the troughs of the rising tides, providing a clue that once upon a time the sea had been much lower.
To Riley, at the age of fifteen and something months, the Flood was a childhood memory, she never knew the world before it and had never walked barefoot along a sandy beach, instead the crumbling rubble of water washed bitumen crunched under her feet and she kept a careful eye out for scraps of rusting metal and broken glass.
The kelp had adapted just fine. It hung in sheets off the half submerged buildings and choked the warm waters of the shore. It was possible to collect and eat if you boiled it long enough and Riley had certainly spent more than a few nights chewing strips of the tough sea-plant to make the pangs of hunger in her belly go away.
Woofer continued to bark as he urged Riley to catch up, then distracted by a particularly nasty smell he set to rolling around on his back; his shaggy fur soaking up the pungent odours of rotting kelp and whatever else had been discarded on the shoreline.
Riley swung the old plastic bucket in her hands, it was half-full of periwinkles she planned to sell later on and if she couldn’t sell them she’d eat them herself. She wasn’t a picky girl, who could afford to be?
Looking across the bay she saw storm clouds rolling in, another reminder that the wet season was about to begin and her time relaxing on the shore was going to end for another year. It was simply too dangerous to spend time here when the waters came, the lack of proper drainage in ScumTown meant that flash flooding could occur anywhere, creating driving rivers that stranded shore-goers, sweeping them into the swirling eddies and undercurrents that hid beneath the waves.
Riley quickened her step and cast her gaze towards the floating houses of the water people, those that continued to live between the ruins of their old homes on barges made of junk, adapting their life to a new world of water and storm winds.
Riley shook her head, not for her.
Whistling to Woofer she clambered up over the undercut bank of the shoreline, rising from the broken bitumen to more solid footing. The market would still be open, nothing really closed in ScumTown and she reckoned she’d have enough periwinkles to trade for a meal of bread and some ale at OT’s place. Otherwise, she’d find Axel and see if he’d look after her for the night.
It began to spit and Riley cursed under her breath. Bloody rain, she’d be saturated before she got to the markets, she didn’t mind the rain but it would mean her clothes would cling to her skin and that could be dangerous. It was easier when half the people she met thought she was a boy.
“C’mon Woofer.” Riley called to the exuberant beast that continued to roll in every stinky pile of refuse it found as it reluctantly followed her up the embankment. Woofer was a big dog and very protective of his human companion. Riley didn’t know what she’d do without him because there had been several times his presence had made the difference between her getting attacked while she slept.
Around her, Riley saw the people of ScumTown scurrying to reach shelter, carrying inside washing they had hung on flimsy lines and collecting baskets of wares they’d been selling in front of their crude shack homes.
At least they had homes, Riley had been alone for four years now; her father having disappeared when he’d gone up city to apply for work. Riley’s mother had gone years ago, a waxer addict driven to suicide. Riley hated drugs, she knew she’d never end up like that.
The rain began to pelt down with force, banging loudly on the tin roofs of the shacks and lean tos, rattling on the rubble strewn road and making Riley pull her hood over her head to get a little bit of shelter. It didn’t seem to bother Woofer at all, his thick brown coat seemingly impervious to the liquid assault.
By the time Riley reached the market there were few customers, most of the permanent stalls had their weather shutters up and closed signs hanging from hooks and door knobs. Riley sighed in frustration.
“Shit, that was a waste of time.” She mumbled.
Woofer took the opportunity to nudge gently against Riley’s hand, looking up at her with his big dumb eyes.
“I know boy, you’re hungry.” Said Riley with a pat on his head. “C’mon, let’s find you some food.”
Soaked to the bone and beginning to shiver despite the warmth of the rain Riley and Woofer made their way further into ScumTown, travelling down the broad avenue that led to the former city centre. The buildings to either side were older than the shacks around the market, many made of stone and bricks with ancient signage speaking of long past glories and popularity.
The Land of Promise was one such place, a two story former pub, now bristling with dozens of lean-tos and shacks that were buttressed against the old hotel’s walls. It was a dive and Riley knew it but she also knew O.T. would put her up for the night, he had a special relationship with the kids from Riley’s gang and even though he was a pimp, a killer and a loan-shark, Riley felt confident she’d be relatively safe there. In any case, the Lop was where she had gotten Woofer and OT liked dogs so they’d both be welcome.
As she approached the door she stopped, seeing the guard, Lunk on duty.
“What’s up, Lunk?” asked Riley.
“Get lost kid, you’re too young to be coming in here, adults only.” Sneered the brutish man.
“What?” protested Riley, you’ve got to be kidding, I know O.T.s got girls working for him a year younger than I am, sure I can come in.”
“Yeah, well they’re girls and you’re not. Come back when you’re a man and you’ve got money to pay for the services we offer.”
Riley sighed, it wasn’t like she was going to flash the guy so he could work out that she was actually a girl, but at the same time she liked that he hadn’t cottoned on to it yet. Lunk really was well named, what an idiot.
“Look, Lunk. I’ve got a deal with O.T. I help in the kitchen and he gives me a cot for the night, you can go and ask him if you want. I’ll wait.”
It wasn’t really the truth although Riley would have been happy to scrub pots if it meant she could stay warm and dry for a change, but it was plausible and it put Lunk in a predicament.
“Yeah, nah; I’m not allowed to leave my post kid, that’s how it works when you’re a man. You’ve got to do what you’re paid to. You can go in, but if I find out you lied to me I’ll break both your arms and spoon feed your dog to you.”
“Pfft.” Sniffed Riley, dismissive of the threat, it had probably taken Lunk all day to think of it, or he’d heard it from someone else and thought it sounded clever.
She stepped past Lunk and entered the pub, then spun around as Lunk screamed in pain.
“Your fucking dog bit me.” He screamed, holding his hand although the skin was barely broken. Woofer, growled dangerously.
“Did you touch him?” asked Riley, putting her hands on her hips.
“Well, yeah, no dogs allowed.” Protested Lunk.
“I don’t think he cares.” Smiled Riley, “C’mon Woofer, let’s go see uncle.”
The inside of the Land of Promise was about as seedy and rundown as could be expected, drunken and stoned patrons slumped at tables and half-naked girls gyrated on poles set up on podiums. A half dozen girls with little on sat cozied up to a thin, ageing man with a wispy moustache and shrewd, but patient eyes. Riley marched up to O.T. and held up the bucket of periwinkles.
“Need a room, give you a bucket of these and I’ll do some chores for you, deal?” she said forcefully.
O.T. grinned widely, his perfect yet fake teeth gleaming through he haze of pot smoke the suffused the air.
“Ha ha, I’ve always like you Riley; you’re gutsy and tough.” He laughed.
“Deal?” said Riley, her face still serious.
“Sure thing, now head upstairs, this place isn’t right for a young kid like you.” Smiled the man, but Riley knew he’d be sizing her up as she left, deciding whether she was old enough to start working for him in a more professional manner. She was glad she always wore baggy clothes.
She stomped up the stairs, her clothes dripping water that pooled on the creaking wood. As she reached the second floor she was greeted by Joanna; O.T.s Madame.
“You’re a bit young to be up here young man.” The painted lady purred with her sibilant voice.
“Joanna, its me; Riley.” Huffed Riley.
“Oh” said Joanna with a smirk. “I didn’t recognise there was a young lady underneath all that dirt. For a moment I thought it was one of midden men come for a customer.”
“Ha fucking ha ha ha.” Grimbled Riley, now she was inside the water soaking her clothes was beginning to chill her and she didn’t really have much patience.
Joanna fixed Riley with a look of disapproval. “Child, I applaud your fierceness, but it’s directed inconsiderately at the moment. Room 2G is free, you can bunk down there for the night, draw yourself some water and I’ll make sure no one disturbs you if you have a bath.”
Riley cast her eyes down, chastised more completely by Joanna’s motherly care than by any tongue-lashing. “Thanks, Joanna, sorry.”
Joanna reached out and patted Riley’s messy brown hair. “It’s okay. Just get that dog out of my hallway, I’ve got business to run and no customer wants fleas. This is a quality establishment.”
At the last remark, both Riley and Joanna shared a sniggering laugh, while Woofer looked between the pair of them happily wagging his tail.
“Thanks Joanna.” Repeated Riley as she walked to her room, Woofer trailing behind. Joanna blew Riley a kiss and disappeared down the stairs.
Inside the room, Riley stripped off her clothes and ran water in the corner basin. There was a large plastic tub that could be used as a bath and Riley began to fill it with water.
Woofer set about rubbing his stinking wet hair across every dry surface in the room, grunting in pleasure at the thought of sharing his scent with any future visitors and Riley groaned at his antics although she didn’t stop him. O.T.s place couldn’t really smell any worse than it already did so there was no real harm in her dog’s actions.
Once the water was ready, Riley lowered herself into the tub and sighed in relief. It had been a while between baths and she hadn’t expected Joanna to be so generous as to offer her one; who was she to complain? She looked at herself in the water, her thighs and ribs were covered in bruises from the fight she had gotten into a few days ago, yellowing and purple spots that marred her pale freckled skin. She frowned at the gentle swelling of her breasts and the widening of her hips; she didn’t want to be womanly because it led to too much attention. Riley liked Joanna, but she didn’t want to end up being one of her employees and often girls didn’t really have much choice in the matter.
There was a knock on the door and Riley froze.
“Amberly?” wailed a drunken voice on the other side. “Amberly I love you.”
Riley said nothing although Woofer issued a low growl as someone tried the handle and found it locked from the inside.
“Amberly, why don’t you love me?” continued the voice.
Riley sighed, confident that the lock would hold and after several more minutes of complaining abut unrequited love the drunken customer moved away.
The water was beginning to go cold and so Riley reluctantly pulled herself from the bucket, wrapping herself in one of the hotel’s rough cloth blankets. It scratched at her skin but it was dry, thick, and warm and she luxuriated in the comfort of it all.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Riley laid out her clothes; hoping that they would dry by morning. She definitely wouldn’t be able to fake being a boy if someone saw her naked. Woofer had fallen asleep at the foot of the bed and was already snoring loudly. Riley watched the rain outside the window continue to pour down. she stood with the blanket clasped around her shoulders and walked across to peer through the dirty glass.
Large pools of water were beginning to form on the street below and not a single person was to be seen. She suspected Lunk would be hunkered down somewhere below, still guarding the front door. Thunder rumbled in the distance but she hadn’t seen lightning strike, perhaps it was behind her.
She closed her eyes and could hear the activities of the customers in adjoining rooms.
“Ugh” she snorted and concentrated on watching the rain.
Riley thought about what she was going to do with the rest of her life, no parents and no real future; would she eventually succumb to the temptation of a regular roof in exchange for selling her body? Would she have some sort of a meltdown and become a drug addict like her mum, left to rot forgotten on the street? Perhaps she’d just be murdered because someone thought she had something valuable and they wanted it.
What the hell, she was fifteen, why did she need to worry about these things?
Feeling frustrated, Riley returned to the bed and tried to ignore the rumbling of her stomach. Having left the periwinkles with O.T. she was without anything to eat and she was in no mood to be doing dishes just yet. She collapsed back on the bed with a huff and wrapped the blanket tightly around herself.
Perhaps Woofer had the right idea she thought. She looked over to make sure the door was locked and closed her eyes again as she rolled over. She’d get food some other time.
She awoke to Woofer barking furiously at the door, someone was knocking again and Riley huffed again as she imagined yet another drunken idiot thinking this was his personal hooker’s room.
“She’s not here so piss off.” Shouted Riley.
“Riley, it’s me; Joanna.” Came a voice, “We need to get you out of here.”
Riley frowned as she stood up but could not ignore the warning. Joanna was a good sort for a hooker and as much as Riley trusted anyone, she trusted her.
“Hurry, Riley.” Urged Joanna, Woofer continued to bark.
“Shuddup boy.” Warned Riley, pulling on her still damp clothing with a disgruntled shiver.
Riley unlocked the door and had a quick look around before fixing her attention on a distraught Joanna. “What’s up?” she asked, cautiously.
“Corpers.” Warned Joanna. “We’ve had a tip off that they’re coming here and they’re taking young women by force.”
“What, to jail?” snorted Riley, “Two meals a day and a dry cell doesn’t sound too bad to me, sign me up.”
Joanna glared. “No you silly girl, this isn’t CorpSec, its some SeaCorp mob, they’re dressed in chem suits and they aren’t going to the upper city, they’re going to those labs they have in the North. No one comes back from there.”
Riley gulped despite her anger. The research labs were places of dread and scummers who went in never came out. When the North wind blew in you could smell the retching stink of hair burning in incinerators coming from behind those barb wire fenced enclosures and Riley certainly didn’t want to be one of the “honoured guests” that went on that one way trip.
There was a commotion down stairs and Joanna looked at Riley in shock. “They’re here, quick; take the fire escape.”
Riley nodded and urged Woofer to follow. “C’mon boy.” Then she turned to Joanna and smiled warmly. “Thanks sis, you’re the best.”
Joanna nodded sadly, she hadn’t asked for this life but she was doing the best she could and if she could make sure her independent sibling had a better life; then she’d do anything to protect her.
Riley rushed to the barred fire-escape door and lifted the heavy bolt before clattering down the badly maintained flights of steps. Woofer bounded after her his hackles raised.
The commotion inside was ongoing with screams and shouts echoing through the air, Riley cursed the rain as she was once again soaked to the bone already, she cursed SeaCorp and all of the Upper City arseholes that treated the scummers like animals or worse.
She was still cursing when she was grabbed from behind, thick black plastic gloves covering her mouth and an arm wrapping like a python around her belly, lifting her from the ground.
Riley tried to scream but whoever had her was big and strong and her struggles were pointless so she took a different tack and bit down hard on the hand across her mouth.
There was a muffled shout and she was dropped heavily on the ground. Riley dove forward as Woofer began barking loudly. She looked behind to see her would be captor lunging forward towards her, he was dressed in white coveralls, his feet and hands covered in thick rubber gloves and boots. His face was a reflective silver visor, like those of the CorpSec guards.
Riley fell over a tangle of rubble and the assailants armed reached out to grab her, Woofer leapt at the covered man, using his size and weight to bear the attacker to the ground. Riley stood up and prepared to help, but saw a trio more of the white clad kidnappers running towards her from the Land of Promise’s fire escape, they must have chased her down.
“Woofer, let’s go!” screamed Riley through the rain.
Woofer looked up, his eyes’ usually so placid and friendly burning wth anger. The man on the ground took the opportunity to punch the faithful dog in the face and Woofer rolled away with a yelp.
“No!” shouted Riley at the man as he rose and drew a pistol from a holster. As the other three attackers surged past Woofer the first man pulled the trigger, shooting Riley’s companion in the flank, knocking the dog to the ground.
Riley stared for a moment at her friend lying dead in the rain and her tears came freely, the three attackers were closing with the first re-holstering the gun that had taken Woofer’s life.
“Fuckers!” screamed Riley, and stood her ground, lashing out with a kick as the four corporate flunkies surrounded her cautiously.
One withdrew a taser from a belt clip and Riley snarled at him, all thoughts of escape gone; consumed by her rage.
“Come peacefully girl, or it will go badly for you.” Ordered one of the figures.
“Fuck you.” Shrieked Riley and threw herself at him, flailing her fists at his masked face.
The man was repelled by the assault but Riley felt hands clawing at her from behind. Her arms were grasped and then her legs and the man with the Taser moved in close to shock her into submission. Riley spat in his face, her gobbet of saliva mixing with the rivulets of rain that poured over his plastic clad body.
“Bitch.” Muttered the man, bringing the Taser in closer.
Then he was down and another attacker stumbled as the bloodied furry form of Woofer collided with the group. Growling and gnashing his teeth the wounded hound clamped his jaws around the throat of the attacker with the Taser, biting down hard and producing a gurgling scream.
The other attackers stumbled away, drawing pistols but unable to shoot for fear of hitting their ally. Riley stared at Woofer and saw the look in his eyes that said I will save you.
With a sob, Riley rose to her feet and ran into the rain; behind her shots ran out, five, six seven. Then silence.
Riley cried as she felt the painful price of freedom burn in her chest and promised she would have her revenge against SeaCorp and that she would bring down everything they did.
Bax Jones was a powerful man, true he wasn’t Bryson Greenworth important but Bax liked to think that he’d done pretty well so far in life.
At the moment he was sitting behind a battered desk, counting the thick wads of cash that he’d collected over the past week. It was a Friday and Jones always counted his money on a Friday.
The walls were hung with glossy pornographic prints of naked women, Jones used them to cover the patches of mould and damp on the walls, he certainly couldn’t be bothered actually cleaning the filth off. When it got too bad he’d just move rooms to another of the hundreds in this abandoned hotel.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true, it was abandoned by its previous owners but not by the people of ScumTown. Jones controlled the building, he’d taken over from the previous controllers two years ago, using a pack of mercenaries to run them off and then he’d begun charging all the residents rent for the benefit of staying there.
Sure, they’d been protests, but nothing a few beatings didn’t fix and once Jones had made it clear he wasn’t kicking them out, he was actually providing them with protection the scummers living in the five storey building didn’t complain too much again.
Jones wasn’t a pretty man, he wasn’t particularly imposing either; he looked like an accountant, a rather slimy, unkempt one at that. He always kept a well-maintained pistol on his hip though and the obvious firepower helped prevent any undesirable confrontations. Although he’d ordered plenty of legs to be broken he wasn’t a big fan of witnessing blood or pain himself; it made him feel squeamish and that wasn’t something a slumlord should be.
There was a knock on the door and Jones called out without looking up.
He continued counting his money for a minute while the visitor waited patiently in the doorway, when Jones finally did decide to see who it was he couldn’t hide his surprise.
“Maddox.” He said, trying to sound relax. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Maddox, a brutish man with a buzzcut of black hair and gang tattoos took a seat without being asked.
“I doubt its pleasant for you Jones, let’s not beat around the bush. I want my money.”
Jones smiled nervously, Maddox was the mercenary who had helped Jones dispose of the previous owner. He was not a man to be trifled with but Jones had thought he was rid of the man when he’d tipped off the police to the known criminal’s location.
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of spare funds at the moment” began Jones, “Perhaps you can come back……”
“Bullshit, Jones.” Snapped Maddox. “What’s all this shit then? Bog roll?” the scarred mercenary pushed several stacks of crumpled notes off the table and they hit the floor, snapping the rubber band and sending cash across the room.
“These funds are required for upkeep and maintenance of the building.” Tried Jones.
“More bullshit” snarled Maddox, “Lie to me once more and I’ll gut you like a fucking dog.”
Jones felt himself begin to sweat and hoped it wasn’t too obvious. “Look, I tell you what; how about I give you this cash and we call it even. There has to be at least five grand here.”
Maddox bent low over the desk and Jones could smell the sour stink of his breath.
“Five grand? Five fucking grand? You owe me nine you fat piece of shit and if I don’t get it you’ll be hanging by your balls from your own shitty building.”
“I can get it by next week.” Simpered Jones. “You can take what I have as a down payment.”
“I’m taking what you have as an extra for wasting my time.” Scowled Maddox, “You still owe me nine large and I expect it by next week.”
The mercenary turned on his heel and stormed out without another word, leaving Jones alone, his breathing coming fast and shallow.
Jones knew he was in deep trouble, Maddox wasn’t just a mercenary, he was a murderer and rapist and it was rumoured he’d joined some sort of cult while in prison. He’d been set free to star in the kill or be killed reality programs that the Upper City douche’s liked to watch and since then he’d been terrorising ScumTown while living it up in a corp paid apartment. The man was dangerous and Jones knew that whether he paid Maddox or not, the killer was not going to be disappearing by himself.
Jones would need to help him along.
That very evening Jones had another visitor in his office; this one was tall and lean and looked like the professional mercenary that he was. Steven Mills was a practised killer and hitman, but the difference between him and murderers like Maddox was that Miller wasn’t a psychotic ball of pent up rage. Mills was the opposite; calm, calculating, and completely dispassionate about his work. The man chilled the blood and seemed to have no humour whatsoever.
“The price is five grand.” Stated Mills.
“Five grand is good.” Agreed Jones, it needs to be done by next week.
“Okay.” Said Mills simply, as if Jones was asking him to clean dishes.
“You can organise it then?” asked Jones, hesitantly.
“Yes, but I’ll need to be paid up front.” Said Mills blandly.
“I don’t have the money yet. I don’t want to pay until the job is done.” Replied Jones, worried that he might have misjudged Mills.
“That’s fine, once you do I’ll take the job. Until then…..” Mills turned and walked unhurriedly towards the door.
“Okay, wait.” Called out Jones, “I’ll get the money by tonight, I just have to collect it. Can you come back then?”
Mills turned and looked at Jones with that ever-present, bored expression. “Okay.” He said, then left.
Jones was sweating again, he needed five large by the evening and he did have it but it would mean a trip across town and he didn’t like leaving the safety of the hotel. Being a slumlord meant an accumulation of enemies and you were never really safe outside your own domain. He’d need protection.
Once again, Jones sat in his office, his stress levels peaking. The man infront of him looked nothing like the professional killers from earlier in the day, in fact he wasn’t a killer; he was a guardian.
Jones had heard of the guy a couple of weeks ago, a renegade clone escaped from the upper city and now trying to survive here in ScumTown. Most gave him a wide berth but he’d been ambushed by some gangers and had fought all six of them off, that had gotten the attention of several slumlords, including Jones and now he had an opportunity to hire the clone as a body guard.
“I’ll pay you room and lodging and two hundred bucks a week.” Offered Jones.
The clone looked at Jones suspiciously, he was huge, his ebony black skin made his face almost invisible underneath his drawn up hood and Jones detected the bulk of combat armour under the thick material of the clone’s coarse jacket.
“Alright.” Said the clone. “Are you expecting any trouble?”
The clone spoke without judgement, a consummate professional trying to work out the best plan of action.
“Well, ah yes.” Muttered Jones. “There’s this mercenary by the name of Maddox who is trying to extort me, I’m sure you know that as a legitimate businessman, I cannot allow this behaviour to continue.”
“Of course sir.” Agreed the clone, his eyes betraying no emotion. “Are you expecting him to assault your person in the near future?”
Jones was a little taken aback by the clone’s acceptance of his statement. “Ah, yes. He has said he will come to collect the money he thinks I owe him next week. I need to go an collect that money but I suspect he may try to attack me on the way, he has no honour and he doesn’t have any respect either.”
The clone’s eyes betrayed no emotional concern so Jones couldn’t tell if the guardian had bought the story. “Very good sir.” It said simply.
Although Jones controlled a five-story building he didn’t have access to his own car so the journey across ScumTown had to be made on foot. Jones hated it out here, seeing the shabby shacks, the tin lean-tos and the crowds of coughing, starving poor made him feel guilty for being successful. He certainly didn’t want to be recognised by a tenant who might decide to rob him or beat him up.
He patted the gun at his side. As Jones and his clone guard left the building he felt his chest tighten and he squinted his eyes against the light of the sun. It had been raining only hours ago but once the sky had cleared the sting of the ultra violet light caused Jones’ pale skin to itch. He wished he had brought a hat.
There was a bunch of scummers casting dirty looks in Jones’ direction and the slum lord realised it was a group of his tenants, no love lost there; that was for sure. Jones pretended not to see them and instead hurried along; the clone guard’s swift strides keeping up with Jones’ frenetic scurrying.
Jones pulled his hood up over his head as he walked and tried to look unobstrusive, it was made difficult though by him being flanked by a monstrous gene-altered bodyguard stomping along.
“Sir, we are being followed.” Stated the clone, calmly.
“What? Who by?” hissed Jones, unable to prevent himself from turning around to look.
The clone sighed in annoyance but Jones didn’t hear; he’d fixed eyes on the tail and recognised him immediately. It was Maddox.
The mercenary wasn’t making any attempt to hide himself and approached Jones and his guard with a confident swagger; his eyes full of simmering anger.
“So, don’t have enough money to pay your debts but you’ve got enough to hire some muscle.” The killer sneered. “If I’d known you were afraid of something I could have had you hire one of my own lads, they would have kept you safe.”
Jones felt his lips drying in Maddox’s presence, the clone guard stood by impassively; why had Jones even bothered to pay him?
“Don’t try any funny business, Maddox; I’ll have your money. I just have some business to attend to.” Said Jones, trying desperately to sound unconcerned about the looming killer.
Maddox took a threatening step towards Jones and found himself blocked by the broad hands of the clone bodyguard.
“Step away from my client, please sir.” Said the clone mildly.
Maddox looked up at the taller man who stood there calmly. “You’d best not interfere with my business, clone or you’ll find yourself on the waste heap.”
The clone didn’t look threatened at all, it just stood there with its hand blocking Maddox’s path.
“Get out of my way.” Snarled Maddox, thrusting his chin up towards the clone.
The bodyguard didn’t budge at all, it didn’t even blink until Maddox tried to push past; then it moved with blinding speed, twisting the mercenary’s arm and kicking his heels out from beneath him, forcing him onto the muddy bitumen.
“I asked you to stand away from my client, sir.” Said the clone, still without anger. “Do you understand this instruction now?”
“Fuck you.” Swore Maddox from the ground. Jones couldn’t help but smile at the mercenary being in pain.
“I don’t require sexual attention, thank you, sir.” Stated the bodyguard. “Will you leave my client alone?” The clone twisted Maddox’s arm further and planted a booted foot on the small of the writhing man’s back.
“Fine, but he’d better pay my money.” Gasped Maddox.
Jones was tempted to order the clone guard to kill Maddox then and there but he wasn’t sure that the man would comply; he’d been hired as a body guard, not an assassin and the literal way the gene altered human took things might mean that killing was off the menu. Jones would have to satisfy himself with seeing Maddox squirm.
“I’ll have your money, Maddox, you have my word.” Said Jones and walked away chuckling under his breath.
The clone straightened and released Maddox’s arm; leaving the injured man on the ground as he returned to Jones’ side.
“Was my effort satisfactory, sir?” asked the clone.
“Yes.” Replied Jones, trying to remember whether to take a left or a right turn at the junction they stood at.
“Do you require assistance, sir?” asked the clone.
“No, just trying to remember which way I should go.” Remarked Jones.
“Very well, sir.” Said the clone.
The pair stood there for another five or so minutes before Jones made up his mind to go left, still not sure of himself. “I think its this way.” He said.
The clone simply nodded and the pair set off again.
The rest of the journey seemed uneventful and Jones was glad to reach the home of Slick Pete, the money launderer. Pete had been in business for a long time and the only more successful money shifter was probably that old reprobate O.T. A pair of thugs stood guard outside the single storey home, a sturdy patchwork of bricks and concrete slabs.
The thug on the left of the door nodded a greeting as Jones and the clone approached, but held his hand out for them to stop as they drew near.
“Do you have an appointment with Mr Farhad?” said the thug, using Slick Pete’s family name.
“No, but he knows me.” Said Jones, a little annoyed at his time being wasted.
“Mr Farhad doesn’t see anyone without an appointment,” said the second guard, “You can call his secretary on 058 934 99362, or email him on……..”
“Email?” interrupted Jones with a splutter. “There isn’t any damn internet in ScumTown, who the fuck uses Email?”
He stepped towards the door and called out. “Pete, Pete you dick head. Come out here, I need to do business.”
The door opened immediately as if Slick Pete had been standing behind it the whole time. The man himself was short and well-fed, wearing a beanie and clad in a rumpled blue suit that hadn’t been washed in over a decade. A thick reddish beard spilled down Pete’s chest giving him a comical appearance.
“Oh, Jones its you.” Remarked the man with a pleasant smile. “Come inside. But your clone has to wait out here, I’ve heard renegades are unstable.”
Jones wasn’t happy about abandoning his bodyguard but agreed nonetheless; how much danger could he be in inside one of the most secure houses in ScumTown?
Pete led the slumlord inside and motioned for him to sit in a chair behind a large card table set up in the middle of the room. He poured himself a drink of some brown liquor but didn’t offer Jones any.
“I take it you’re here for your money then?” questioned Pete.
“That right, my friend” said Jones. “I’d like it right away.”
Pete leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. “Well, there’s a problem, Jones. I have it on good authority that you owe Maddox money and he owes me money, so I was thinking perhaps I just keep the money and we call it square.”
Jones coughed “That just won’t fly, Pete. I need that money.”
Pete raised an eyebrow. “Really? It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, we both know Maddox will try something on you so why not just remove him from the equation?”
Jones leaned forward. “That’s why I need the money, to remove him from the equation forever.”
Pete laughed, “You want to kill Maddox” he chuckled, “You wouldn’t be the first but the arsehole has more lives than a street cat. Just let me deal with him. He knows I’m owed enough favours to stop him doing the dirty on me.”
Jones shook his head. “He’d still come after me, Pete, you know what he’s like.” Sighed Jones, his heavy shoulders slumping.
Pete leaned back in his chair to think. “You’re right, we need to get rid of him for all our sakes. He can’t be controlled and that’s bad for business. What did you have in mind?”
“Mills.” Stated Jones.
“Mills?” choked Pete, “Look mate, that’s like trading cancer for being burnt alive. That guy’s as cold as a fish, you trust him?”
“No.” acquiesced Jones, “But he’ll get the job done and that’s all I care about right now.”
Pete drummed fat little fingers on the table and then began to nod slowly. “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll use your money though.” Said Pete.
“Then how is it a we?” complained Jones, seeing an opportunity to lessen his outlay. “What do you bring to the deal?”
“I’ll be bringing two guards for back up and giving you an option when things go sour.” Smiled the money launderer; “You can thank me later.”
Jones sat behind his desk in his tenement block again, waiting for the arrival of Mills. The clone stood quietly in the corner, arms folded across its chest.
The slumlord looked at the worn leather bag on the desk in front of him, it was loaded in old crumpled notes; carefully counted out by Pete to the last cent. Jones hated the idea of giving money away to either Mills or Maddox but at least with Maddox out of the picture, Jones wouldn’t be kept awake at night fearing a knife at his throat from the shadows.
He stood and glanced out the broken window of his office. Pete’s battered old van sat on the street and Jones could imagine Slick Pete and his goons arming themselves in case of conflict. It made Jones both nervous and thankful, he didn’t like the idea of fatalities, as a slum lord he was happy to break some bones but he drew the line at murder.
At least usually.
A thought occurred to him and he turned to the clone guard. “Do you ever use a gun?”
The clone looked at him and replied simply. “Yes.”
“Do you have a gun, then? It might come in useful right now.” Followed up Jones.
“No.” replied the clone and Jones sighed in disgust.
A figure was making its way across the road, stopping to look at Pete’s van before making its way into the building. By the long coat and broad hat, Jones guessed it was probably Mills come to collect his money.
“Mills is here.” Jones stated to the bodyguard, who as usual; just nodded.
Jones took his seat again and attempted to look relaxed, within a couple of minutes there was a knock at the door.
“Come in, Mr Mills.” Called Jones, hoping he sounded prescient.
The door opened and Mills entered, his body bulked out under his jacket; Jones expected it was body armour and was pleased to see Mills ready to start the job once he got paid.
Mills’ long hair covered his face and his gait as he stepped forward looked awkward. Jones ignored it, he wanted this over and done with.
“I have your money, Mr Mills. You can count it if you like and then I hope you can undertake the job as soon as possible.”
Jones furrowed his brow as he saw his bodyguard stiffen and step towards Mills, who turned his head and stepped back.
“Mr Jones, sir. Get down.” ordered the clone.
Mills’ hands came up holding a pair of pistols, which he aimed towards the approaching clone, as Mills took aim Jones could see his face had been bloodied, and his left eye was swollen shut.
Mills opened fire, seven shots blasting towards the swiftly moving clone. With his left eye closed the aim was off and only two bullets clipped the big man in the shoulder, the rest flying to the side and over his head.
The clone crashed into Mills and bore him to the ground, the larger man quickly overpowering the thinly built assassin. The clone struck Mills a mighty blow on the side of the head and the man collapsed into unconsciousness.
Heart pounding Jones stood up, not having realised he had followed the clone’s orders and hidden behind the desk. He looked at the prone form of his would be hireling and the massive shape of the clone squatted over the hitman’s chest.
“Did he come here to kill us?” Jones asked incredulously.
“Not us, sir. You.” Stated the clone as he pulled back Mill’s jacket; as he did so Jones hissed sharply.
It wasn’t body armour Mills was wearing, it was a bomb vest. A timer ticked down the last few minutes before it exploded and the bodyguard stood and grabbed Jones by the wrist.
“We need to go, sir.” Ordered the clone, pulling Jones across the desk and towards the corridor.
The pair rushed down the stairs with Jones thinking of the bag of money left behind. The clone led Jones towards the stairs, the elevator having long been out of use.
Maddox and his goons were waiting for them.
“I’d stop right there kids.” Sneered the thuggish killer as he pointed a shotgun at the pair. A gang of six nasty looking miscreants stood around Maddox, all pointing firearms in Jones’ direction.
“Tell your clone to lay on the ground.” Ordered Maddox.
Jones complied immediately, “Lay down, we don’t want any trouble.”
The clone nodded and laid down, placing his hands above his head. Maddox smiled cruelly and winked at Jones.
“They’re so fucking stupid.” He said, his voice dripping with contempt.
The shotgun roared and the clone’s head vanished in an explosion of blood. The corpse twitched momentarily, before lying still.
Maddox turned his attention to Jones.
“Jones, you shit balling, scum sucking parasite; you’re not cut out for this land lord business; so I’m here to buy you out. I’m taking over the building and you’re going on a long holiday.”
Jones quavered before Maddox’s insanity, he was covered in the dead clone’s blood and brains and had no illusions about his survivability if Maddox turned nasty again.
“Okay, I’ll just go. It’s all yours.” He said. “Just let me go.”
“Just let me go.” Maddox mocked. “You’re a piece of shit and a coward.”
“We have to get out of here, the bomb on Mills…..” Jones began.
“Bomb? It’s a fake, Jones.” I just wanted you out of your hidey hole so I could get rid of this useless piece of shit.” Laughed Maddox, pointing the barrel of the shotgun at the clone.
“I was going to pay you.” Began Jones.
“No you weren’t, you liar.” Chuckled the killer. “You were going to pay Mills to off me and then go about your business. The problem is, Mills was the obvious choice so I was waiting for him. Did you kill him?”
Jones shook his head, hoping to negotiate his way out of trouble. “No, I don’t think so. He’s in the office.”
“A pity” said Maddox, his disappointment obvious. “I never liked that skinny bastard, I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone. Now get out.”
With the only way out being to pass Maddox and his crew, Jones began to walk towards his tormentors. Maddox grinned unpleasantly as Jones drew close but the mob of miscreants stood aside to let him pass.
Jones continued on, walking slowly and carefully; reaching the stairs before turning around.
“I know we’ve had our differences, Maddox, but I hope we can continue to do business in the future.” Jones said, trying to salvage something from the debacle.
“Fuck off.” Shouted Maddox and fired the shotgun into the roof above Jones. His crew dissolved into laughter.
Behind them a bloody Mills appeared, staggering out of the doorway. As the thugs laughed at the retreating Jones, Mills took aim and opened fire with both pistols.
The first went down, struck in the back of the head and the second spun around, gurgling through a bloody wound straight through her neck. Maddox dove to the ground before smashing open a door to crawl through.
Halfway down a flight of stairs, Jones didn’t see what was happening and fled, terrified. Gunfire continued above him and he ran outside towards Pete’s van. He reached for the sliding passenger door and then stopped. Why hadn’t Pete intervened? What if he was in on it all?
He stepped away from the van as the door rolled open and he looked once again down the barrel of a gun. It was Pete.
“Hello my friend.” Smiled Pete, pointing his pistol at Jones.
“Pete, what are you doing?” choked Jones. “I thought we were friends.”
This time Pete laughed. “Friends? No, we’re not friends. You’re just a business opportunity.”
“Pete, we have to get out of here; Maddox is upstairs and he’s going to kill us.” Insisted Jones, trying to deflect the topic.
“I doubt he’s going to be a threat for much longer. In three, two, one.”
The windows, those that remained in the tenement, shattered outwards as somewhere within the apartment complex something exploded. Jones dropped to the floor but Pete just laughed.
“Maddox said it was a fake.” Gasped Jones.
“Maddox’s bomb was a fake, but the one I strapped to Mills wasn’t.” confided Pete. “I contacted Maddox once you were gone and had him track down Mills, then I ambushed Mills on his way here and swapped the vests. I told him I’d let him live if he killed you and Maddox, but here you are. So here he isn’t.”
The nasty little accountant smiled again and Jones tried to get up.
“Oh, no; you’re quite fine down there my friend.” Said Pete. “The only reason you’re still alive is because I wanted to humiliate you a little more.”
Jones seethed inside but couldn’t see any way out.
“What now?” he said
“Now this fucker dies.” Shouted Maddox, stepping around the van. The killer’s cheek and chest were blackened and he bled from a half dozen wounds but that didn’t stop him unloading both barrels of his shotgun into Slick Pete, blasting the little man back into the van. Maddox snarled at Jones and climbed in after the wounded Pete, beginning to beat the dying victim with the butt of the gun, cursing loudly while he did so.
Slumlord Jones leapt to his feet and ran. Heading towards the upper city; he would put himself in a work gang and live the rest of his days in misery before subjecting himself to any more insanity at the hands of killers and fools.
Whisper and Fox
“Can you believe Katy did that?”
Fox rolled her eyes at the thought but Whisper kept her gaze down, scratching in the dirt with a stick.
The two girls were squatting in an alleyway, deciding what to do with the rest of their day. Fox, with her auburn hair and freckled vulpine features seemed to be the more upbeat of the two while her slightly smaller companion, Whisper seemed glum and withdrawn.
“Why does she treat us so badly?” asked Whisper, looking at Fox with sad brown eyes. “She didn’t need to hit Podge, it was just a few dollars short, she would have made it up.”
Fox sighed heavily and stood up, stretching her arms and legs like she was about to get ready for a race.
“Katy’s just a bitch; she always has been but let’s face it. She’s good in a fight and as long as we do the right thing by her then she’ll protect us.”
Whisper shook her head in disagreement. “It’s not okay, she’s getting worse Foxy, every week she gets angrier and more unstable. I’m thinking we should get out of here and leave.”
Fox snorted derisively, “Leave? Where would we leave to?”
Seeing the hurt in Whisper’s eyes, she squatted down again and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, Whispy, we can do this. We’re survivors.”
Whisper smiled and nodded but Fox could tell her heart wasn’t in it. She decided to change the subject.
“How about we go and rip off some fat bastard in the Upper City; that always makes you happy.”
Whisper giggled, Fox knew her well. She always loved seeing the overfed corporate types jiggle as they protested being mugged; it wasn’t like Fox or Whisper ever hurt any of them more than injuring their pride and lightening their credit balance by a few dollars.
“Okay, let’s go.”
The two walked hand in hand across the trash-strewn alleys and streets of ScumTown until they arrived at the looming concrete wall separating ScumTown and the Upper City. Fox led Whisper to one of the many breaks in the wall, a product of disrepair and the two girls squeezed themselves through the cracks.
They were in the Upper City.
It contrasted greatly with ScumTown; broad avenues planted with shrubs rose and fell across the hilly landscape while tall, clean buildings of steel and glass rose high above. Whisper and Fox ignored the sneers of disdain they got from the passing residents of the Upper City, some holding their nose in disgust when they passed the two urchins.
“Do I smell bad?” asked Whisper, suddenly self-conscious.
“Nah, it’s just these hoity-toighty types, Whispy.” Replied Fox. “Don’t let them get to you.”
Dodging the air-cars that sped down the streets the girls laughed and jogged their way across to the shopping precinct, stopping momentarily to look up at the looming presence of SeaCorp Towers. They didn’t dare approach too closely for the CorpSec guards around the tower would react to the presence of scummers with extreme prejudice.
“Could you imagine what it would be like to live in there?” Whisper wondered.
“It would be shit,” quipped Fox, “nothing but parties and snooty people talking shit to each other.”
She stopped and pantomimed a discussion.
“Why yes Jeeves, I have invested a gazillion dollars in silk nose toggles, what about you? Oh, I decided to buy another fifteen poor people to use as foot rests for my poodles.”
Whisper couldn’t help herself but laugh at Fox’s silliness. She pushed past her friend and they continued on their way.
The shopping precinct was already busy despite the relatively early hour. Most of the people shopping were servants and workers, buying fresh food for their masters and mistresses, although Whisper did see a few younger upper class types jogging through the area in their active wear, usually with a gaggle of clone guards following behind.
Before they went any further, Whisper took a moment to tie her dreadlocked hair back. She loved her dreads but they got annoying when she was trying to run really fast and visits to the shopping precinct with Fox usually ended up with the two running away from CorpSec.
Fox looked at Whisper and brushed a hand across her cheek gently. “I love you, Whispy.” She said softly.
Whisper blushed and turned her head down. “Stop it.”
Fox feigned indignation for a moment, “What? You don’t like me declaring my undying love for you?”
Whisper looked at her seriously. “No, it’s just weird in a way. I never thought I’d feel this way.”
Fox grinned, her good humour making her eyes twinkle. “You mean feel this way about a girl?”
Fox shrugged her shoulders and kissed Whisper on the cheek. “We are what we are; it’s not something we choose.”
“Disgusting” muttered a passing woman in a gaudy apricot business suit, shaking her head at the display of affection.
Fox reacted immediately, “Got a problem with it you fruit coloured skank? Probably just angry because my girlfriend is hot and you’re stuck in a pointless slave marriage.”
The woman turned red and scurried away, fuming but unwilling to pursue any argument with the feisty young scummer.
“Was that really necessary?” asked Whisper, not liking the many looks the pair now were getting from people in the area.
“Fuck them.” Grumbled Fox. “They aren’t better than us, they just had more handed to them.”
She took a deep breath and then continued.
“Well, we’re going to take something back, let’s go.”
The pair decided on the scam they were going to use, it was an old one; but reliable. Whisper would look dodgy in one part of the shop, drawing the owner’s attention while Fox pilfered items from another section. They chose their mark, an electronics store noticeable for its dumb waving banners and constant sale signs. Fox hated that sort of crap.
Whisper entered the shop first, dressed as she was in threadbare pants and a stained tee shirt and jacket, she drew the owner’s attention straight away, and he sent a worker over to watch Whisper as she moved around the store. Whisper made a big deal of picking up a few items and turning them over in her hands before looking furtively at the owner behind the counter, an average bloke who probably was just trying to make ends meet.
Whisper felt a bit bad, but a girl needed to eat and the only real way she had to make money, besides prostituting herself, was to flog things off to O.T. or through Katy Fivehands.
Whisper saw Fox enter the shop and walk unobtrusively to the front counter. The owner ignored her, his gaze drawn to Whisper at the back despite the employee nearby.
“You can’t just hang out in here, if you touch something you should buy it.” said the assistant, scorn dripping from his voice.
Whisper fixed the teen with her own scornful look before saying “It’s not like its food; you can still flog it off to some other sucker if I don’t buy it.”
At this point, the owner spoke up. “We have the right to refuse service, girl. You need to leave before I call CorpSec.”
Whisper laughed dismissively, projecting a confidence she certainly didn’t feel. “Call CorpSec? As if you can afford their premiums with this shitty little shop, you’ll call the beat cops and they’ll be here in two to five days.”
The owner was outraged and stood up from behind the counter taking out a cricket bat and stomping towards Whisper at the back of the store. As he did so, Fox leaned over the counter and stabbed a data-stik into a computer port, the tech’s inbuilt programming beginning a credit transfer immediately.
The owner reached Whisper and towered over her, the assistant closed in on the other side.
“You need to get out now, girl or I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.” Threatened the big man.
“You wouldn’t dare.” Retorted Whisper, “Lay a finger on me and you’ll lose your whole shop. We don’t forget people who screw with the Dead River Killers.”
She’d made the name up on the spot and while she waited for the transfer to complete Fox couldn’t help but snigger. Her younger companion was the shyer of the two but had a tongue that could lash warts off a toad.
The data transfer completed with a tiny chime and Fox withdrew the stik before sauntering to the door. As she got there, she reached up and tipped over a small shelf, scattering electronic parts across the floor with a loud clatter.
The owner and assistant turned towards the commotion, their mouths agape and their attention distracted. Whisper took the opportunity to act like her namesake and ghosted out the door; meeting Fox a few metres away where they shared a laugh before jogging away.
The owner and the assistant wouldn’t even know that Fox had pilfered their credit for hours yet and even then the program she had used wasn’t terribly obvious to anyone without a reasonable amount of tech savvy. They appeared at the door but rather than being angry, they just looked confused and a little annoyed.
Fox slapped an arm around Whisper’s shoulder.
“Easy money, lover.” She chuckled. Whisper giggled in return and slid her arm around Fox’s waist.
The pair walked for a time among the shopping precinct, their presence disdainfully ignored by most of the well to do shoppers, they passed like shadows through the crowds. They paused for a while to stare in amusement as a woman dressed in outrageously translucent robes engaging in a shouting match with her husband, Whisper giggling and Fox laughing as she beat him about the head with a handbag as she shrieked about something incoherently. The pair of friends left swiftly though when the comical engagement turned ugly and the man slapped the woman hard, knocking her down.
Whisper squeezed Fox’s hand as she saw her face set into a glum funk; she knew that Fox had lost her mother to domestic violence and had run from her father as a result. Whisper didn’t really know much about her parents, only that she had been born outside the city and her parents had met a bad end when they travelled to ScumTown to try and find work. She had been about five and had barely survived before being taken in by an old woman called Cindy, who’d lost her own children to chickenpox. Cindy was dead now too and the only person Whisper felt really close to was Fox. She didn’t know what she’d do without her.
Fox’s mood improved by the time the pair reached the wall and squeezed through the gap. Taking the time to walk through ScumTown’s own market district, the girls noted how there seemed to be fewer fishmongers these days, perhaps they were getting harder to catch. Perhaps no one was buying them. Fox laughed that no one would really want to buy food that smelt like Katy Fivehands but Whisper’s eyes had widened in shock as the woman herself strode out of the crowd to confront the urchins.
“You two, what the fuck have you been doing?”
Katy was an imposing woman with a statuesque build turning to fat. Unlike many in ScumTown Katy was well fed and it showed. The nutty brown skin of her face was covered in crude tattoos that announced her exploits and gang alliances and her hair was gelled with some foul smelling past into short, reddish brown spikes.
Fox rolled her eyes and stood to the fore, sheltering Whisper from Katy’s wrath.
“What do you think we’ve been doing? We’ve been working and I think you’ll be happy with the work we’ve done too, Katy.”
Katy turned her ire at the red haired girl. “Really? I hear you’ve been slacking and piss-farting around the Upper City.”
Fox shook her head emphatically, “Yeah, nah; we ripped off a tech store and we’ve got your fist full of creds right here.” She pulled out the data-stik with a flourish and held it before Katy.
Katy’s eyes narrowed and she snatched the stik greedily.
“Just as well, I wouldn’t want to have to make an example of you two bitches.” She snarled.
During the confrontation, the crowd had begun to flow smoothly around the trio of scummers leaving them like an island in a stream, but with Katy’s anger subsiding the crowd pushed in close again and Whisper felt herself jostled by passing people.
“Look, Katy; we didn’t mean to cause any worry, we’re good earners, you know that.” Said Fox to the gang boss.
“I know.” Smiled Katy, suddenly calm. “You know I’ve got a rep to keep though, I can’t have you two falling out of line, and everyone needs to know their place.”
Without another word, Katy turned on her heel and strode away, leaving Whisper and Fox standing in the throng. With their payments made, the couple would be allowed to stay in the gang’s building, a rundown apartment complex populated by urchins and thieves. Katy Fivehands was the unelected leader of the group but she had a reputation for violence and as long as the kids collected and fed her a share of the profit, she kept them safe.
“I guess that’s that then.” smiled Fox, squeezing Whisper’s hand. “Let’s go look for shells.’
Whisper smiled and nodded. Life might not be easy, but it could still be beautiful.
Ratburger and Co
Dingy smiled through browning teeth as he held up his stabby stick, complete with an impaled rat on the end. It was fat and had a thick coat of matted, wet black fur; a marvellous specimen.
Most people hated rats, but not Dingy, he loved the things because rats were his meal ticket. Mr. Hadley paid a dollar a rat and on a good day Dingy could catch close to a hundred. Naturally that meant that he had a sizeable sum of cash hidden away in several places around ScumTown.
Dingy didn’t overly care that he had so much money though, even though he probably could have spent it all and bought himself a nicer place than the hovel he lived in near the shoreline where the Upper City’s sewer pipes emptied out into the lagoon in ScumTown. Dingy didn’t care about the money at all. What Dingy cared about was that people were fed.
That’s why Dingy caught rats.
Mr. Hadley was a businessman; a scummer but a man with some class. Dingy knew that he himself had none so he certainly wasn’t going to be trying to muscle in on Hadley’s business. Instead he was happy, crawling around in the foulness of the sewers, collecting rats for Hadley’s food processing business, finding the occasional dropped bauble and being left alone.
Dingy wasn’t well liked by most scummers.
He could understand why, he didn’t hold a grudge. He was ugly and mishappen, the result of congenital defects that left him looking like a skeletal dwarf; a collection of awkward knees and elbows that hobbled along, smiling at everything with a horrible, rictus grin.
Dingy didn’t mind.
Dingy knew that the reason he was so misshapen was likely the result of his much missed mother’s poor nutrition and drug use when he was in utero, Dingy; contrary to most people’s opinions about him, had an exceptionally fine understanding of natural sciences and the part everything plays in the cycle of life. Not for him the crude superstitions of The One True Church, or anything of its like. Dingy was a man, or perhaps a dwarf; of science and reason.
Which was why he hunted rats.
While he was forced to admire the creatures with their exceptionally fast breeding cycle, their survivability and ability to adapt to pitiful conditions, he hunted them because he had witnessed the results of a rat population explosion. Rats increased disease amongst ScumTown’s population, infection from rat bites, even deaths of infants s attacked by the ravenous vermin while they slept or lay prone in their cribs.
Dingy didn’t like the idea of babies being hurt or dying, his twin had died at birth, leaving his mother with only Dingy’s misshapen form to love and care for.
Dingy slipped the rat’s carcass into a plastic bag, along with the dozen or so others he had collected in the morning. He worked by the dim light filtering through the manhole covers above the cistern where he crouched; the traffic of the Upper City loud and droning.
Standing up to crack his twisted back, Dingy sighed. It was difficult sometimes to stay positive when your contribution to society went largely unnoticed and uncared for. Regardless, that would not stop him from doing his best.
He bent down again and then knelt to crawl through one of the four large pipes leading away from the cistern where he’d caught his last rat. His stubby nose wrinkled as Dingy sniffed the air to ensure there weren’t gas pockets up ahead; he’d almost died several times in the past when his concentration had faded and he’d begun inhaling clouds of methane released from the rotting detritus of the sewer system. He’d also learned never to take a naked flame down into the sewers themselves; no one wanted to blow themselves up.
He surprised a rat crawling out of a side pipe and grabbed at it without thinking; the rat twisted out of Dingy’s grip and tried to scurry away but the hunter thrust himself forward and slammed his other hand down hard atop the rodent. It squeled in protest as Dingy tightened his grip around the creature’s neck, choking it to death. When it finally stopped squirming, Dingy held on tight for another moment before pushing it into his bag with a low chuckle. It was going to be a good day.
Dingy climbed out of the sewer tunnel near his hovel and straighted his back again, staring into the setting sun with a satisfied grin. He’d caught about eighty rats today by his reckoning, a good enough effort that would see him well paid. His plastic bag was heavy with furry bodies and he tried not to feel bad for his victims, there were plenty more rats and the sewers
He retired to his hovel and waited for night to set in. Dingy knew his work was important but a lot of people didn't really understand it and they would treat him harshly if they saw him carrying his bag of rats through the streets.
It was funny really, everyone knew that the sandwiches, meatloaf and burger patties sold by the vendors throughout ScumTown were likely not lamb or beef, pork or chevon; most assumed it was dog or perhaps cat or with some luck perhaps chicken or pigeon.
No one wanted to eat rats though, rats were filthy, disgusting creatures.
That was one of the reasons you couldn't usually find rats on a stick or whole roasted rats or similar foods, people wouldn't buy them unless they were completely desperate. But if you didn't ask what was in a burger you didn't get told and many people were happy to eat rodent meat as long as they weren't looking at a pointed snout or a thick hairless tail.Dingy settled onto the nest of his own bed, a collection of discarded clothes piled up on a pallet base. It was crude and dirty but given his vocation and how used he was to smells and grime, Dingy didn't mind at all.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of exploring the Upper City's sewers, finding interesting gadgets discarded by the rich and wealthy citizens of that place; he dreamed of tinkering with broken curios and bringing life back to their forgotten forms once again. It was a good dream.When Dingy awoke it was dark and the distant call of gulls over the lagoon had been replaced by the chirruping of trash crickets and the occasional screams and shouts of ScumTown's gangs at war. For Dingy this was the time to collect his pay and he gathered up his bag of rats and bundled on a heavy jacket under which he could hide his catch.
He hobbled through the rubble of ScumTown, his malformed legs and twisted spine making the travel over broken ground difficult and sometimes painful. As usual he was given a wide berth by most scummers, those that recognised him ignored his passage, strangers drifted close before being driven away by Dingy's pungent odour.
At the rear door of a rusting warehouse, Dingy rapped loudly on the corroded frame. It was answered mere moments later by a solid looking man wearing the apron and checked pants of a chef. “Dingy" remarked the man with a smile warm and friendly, "I see you've brought me an order. “Dingy nodded politely, his hunched back swaying with the motion. "Yes, Mr. Hadley; I've got eighty two for you. It was a good day. “The man smiled again, evidently pleased as Dingy unveiled his bounty and handed it to his client. “Excellent, come inside; I'll organise your pay. “Dingy bowed again and followed the pleased chef into his place of business. Hadley had set up an industrial sized kitchen in part of the warehouse, partitioned from the great empty expanse of the place by curtains of thick, industrial plastic. Crudely made chimneys and range hoods hung above barrels and cauldrons under which burned lumps of coal or scavenged driftwood. A half dozen kitchen hands scurried about preparing food, coarse breads pulled from ovens, salads made from fossicked weeds found growing in the slums, fish and seafood chowders stewing in bubbling pots. Dingy loved to come here and see the beating heart of the machine that helped keep ScumTown's people fed. True, Hadley liked making a profit and unlike Dingy had well known aspirations for leaving ScumTown to set up a real business somewhere else; but he'd been here for twenty years and showed few signs of leaving. "Put the produce over there." Said Hadley, motioning with a flour covered hand as he resumed working at a bench, kneading dough into loaves. “You’ve been busy, Mr. Hadley." Asked Dingy, trying to spark a conversation. “Well, the work never ends, but success is provided to those who seize it for themselves; we are both evidence of that. “Dingy nodded, he enjoyed these conversations and Mr. Hadley was one of the few people who'd take the time to speak to him at length. "Rex, get over here and take this bread over, I've got to do some business." Bellowed Hadley to a mop haired kitchen hand who was mucking out a collection of pots. The young man nodded seriously and rushed over. Hadley stood up again and clapped Dingy on the shoulder, sending a small cloud of flower into the air. Dingy laughed in appreciation and followed his patron across to a large locked chest under several large stones. The burly chef easily removed the stones one by one and then withdrew a clunky key from one of the many pockets of his apron; undoing the latch and hoisting open the lid. Several neat piles of paper money were stacked inside and with a deft hand and appreciating glance; Hadley selected a small pile and handed it to Dingy. "Here's your pay, there's a hundred in fives there; keep the extra for now and make it up later if you want. I know you're good for it. "Dingy couldn't help but grin at the kindness of Mr. Hadley. He took the cash gratefully and stuffed it under his coat. "Be off now, Dingy." Said Hadley with a wink. "I've got burgers to make and those rats don't skin themselves. "The chef handed Dingy a large sack, stuffed with small loaves of bread and dried meat sticks. It was a bounty worth more than any amount of money. "You deserve this too." noted Hadley solemnly. Dingy simply nodded again and bowed once more, taking his leave and finding his way out. He closed the door behind himself, the latch clicking as he did so. Night was deep on ScumTown, the distant sounds of sirens drifted across from the Upper City; the smell of trash fires slithered into Dingy's nostrils and the clouds began to drift overhead; signalling a change in the weather. It had been a good day.
The carpet squelched beneath mud-laden boots and the stiletto heels of dancing girls in the Land Of Promise’s main bar. It hadn’t been cleaned in decades and the original colour was long since drowned under a cracking coating of grime, ash and spilt drinks.
The patrons of the bar milled around or leaned against grubby mantles, others crowded into booths to share drinks of dubious quality.
The mood in the pub was a curious mixture of happiness and regret, of drowned sorrows and celebration. The raucous music raging from tinny speakers well past their prime meshed with the hubbub of shouting, complaining and cheering at the gyrations of topless dancers, spinning around on poles set on stages throughout the bar.
In a corner booth, surrounded by his favourite employees sat the proprietor of the establishment; an ageing man known as Old Trusty, or O.T. for short. Few people knew his real name and that was something he worked hard to continue, knowing that a name holds power over its bearers and more importantly, over those he loves.
O.T. wasn’t by any means a pretty man, the scars and pockmarks on the wrinkled skin of his face told of a life lived hard and fast and dirty, the polished white teeth that shone through his ever-present grin told of money and the ability to spend it beyond his otherwise homely appearance.
O.T. wore his hair long, grey strands tied back behind his head with a simple cord, a ratty moustache lounged on his top lip. His fingers twitched, tapping continuously on the booth table as he scanned the crowd of his bar for trouble and for opportunity.
On his left side sat Lola, her ebony skin and slanted eyes giving her the look of a seasoned predator. Like O.T., Lola scanned the crowd for trouble and one hand remained low, close to a pistol she always had close by.
The staff of the bar served drinks and drugs to the clientele, trading for money or other drugs or notes of trade and transfer, promises of labour in exchange for a few mugs of rotgut or catpiss ale.
In the corner of the bar a man sat, angry; scowling and dead sober. Gang tattoos ran the course of his neck and left cheek and his heavy clothing could easily conceal a firearm. O.T. pretended not to notice the threat but had two of his own heavy boys waiting to spring into action at a second’s notice. O.T. wasn’t a man to jump to conclusions but there was something very wrong with this particular visitor to the Land of Promise.
A woman entered the bar, clad in flimsy skirt and tank top, her face was painted in gaudy colours; a style appreciated by some of the bars clientele. On her hip she carried a child, two or perhaps three years old and her other shoulder had an old bag stuffed with rags and bottles for the baby.
O.T. smiled warmly as the girl approached and motioned for her to sit down.
“Sam.” He said. “You’ve brought your little one to work today.”
It was a statement of course, not a question of any sort and O.T. continued to smile as Sam looked at her employer nervously.
“Bazz has taken off, O.T. and I don’t have anyone to look after her.” Said Sam, worry spread across her face. “I need to work but I can’t leave her by herself. What can I do?”
O.T. placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder “Look, I understand and it’s not a problem, just take her upstairs and have Joanna look after her. I’ve got four clients booked for you tonight so far, so I can’t have you off work.”
Sam looked relieved, “Thank you O.T., you always treat me so well. I won’t let you down; it’s just this once until Bazz comes back, I promise.”
O.T. smiled in his fatherly way and Sam took her leave, O.T. stared at her ass as she took her baby upstairs and thought about how Bazz wouldn’t be coming back because Bazz was floating in the bay.
O.T. wasn’t a good man, he was the first to admit that. However, he wouldn’t allow his girls to be beaten up by some arsehole guy fixing to pimp them out anyway; pimping was O.T’s second most profitable venture, but he didn’t beat his girls. Bazz hadn’t understood that and after the fourth time Sam had come to work with bruised across her face and neck, O.T. had sent Lunk out to deal with the problem.
Bazz had resisted, now he was fish food.
There was a commotion at the bar, two of the patrons had begun arguing over something and O.T. sighed and nodded to the bar chick who brought out a shotgun from beneath the counter. O.T. couldn’t hear what she said but the two arguing men stopped their behaviour and quietly went back to their drinks. That was how O.T. liked things, apply the right force early and it prevents problems later on.
The guy in the corner was still staring at him, O.T. didn’t like that and decided to find out who it was. He muttered into the lapel of his old leather jacket.
“Shell, who’s the guy with the tatts having a good gander at me?”
One of the girls at the bar stiffened and turned away from the counter as she answered through a dermal microphone. “His name’s Maddox, he’s a merc that spent a few stretches in prison. Bad news boss, word is he’s a bit of a psycho.”
No surprises there, thought O.T. whoever Maddox was he would end up causing trouble if he didn’t learn his place. O.T. made a mental note of it and gave Lola a cuddle.
The young woman scowled at him before returning the affection. She was a tough girl and O.T. kept her close because she could handle herself in a fight, not to mention she was incredibly able at knowing when shit was about to go bad.
One of those times was now.
“That guy’s gonna do something stupid.” Muttered Lola, tensing like a cat and glancing at Maddox in the corner.
“No he’s not.” Hissed O.T. and tagged the mic in his jacket.
“Harris, Jax; time to remove our problem.”
Immediately a pair of customers, one at the bar and another ogling the dancing girls strode towards Maddox in the corner, revealing large bore pistols and pointing them at the surly guest. Maddox looked shocked and then angry, sending a withering scowl towards O.T. and Lola. O.T. ignored the fool, he’d been in charge of the Land of Promise for a long time and wasn’t about to lose it to some gutter trash killer.
Maddox stood slowly and stepped away from the corner, allowing Jax and Harris to escort him from the premises. O.T. hoped that Maddox would learn his lesson and just stay away, despite what he’d had Lunk do to Bazz, he didn’t relish bloodshed.
O.T. motioned to the bar and a new girl came over with a drink, his usual. She giggled as she put it down earning her a nasty scowl from Lola.
“That Maddox guy will be back.” She warned O.T. “He’s a bad egg so we’d better be ready.”
O.T. smiled at his confidant. “We will be Lola, what’s he gonna do, bring an army?”
The Last Frontier
Captain Raphael Guerra sat heavily in the command module of the Pegasus International Space Station.
The orders had been very clear; Pegasus was being shut down.
Guerra felt too empty to cry and too disappointed to be angry; he had devoted the last two decades of his life to Pegasus and it was all for nothing.
He looked out the viewing portal, across the gulf of space towards the small blue planet and its orbiting moon. He hadn’t walked on Earth for eighteen years and with all that was going on there, he didn’t want to return.
None of the Pegasites wanted to return to earth, Pegasus was their home.
Four hundred and sixty two men and women lived on the station, its vast expanse spinning slowly around the Earth in a far orbit.
The station resembled a tangled spider’s web of gantries, pods and panels; even after two decades it was far from finished. Like humanity, Raphael reflected, it was a work in progress, an evolution that had not yet achieved perfection.
The captain’s lip curled into a sneer as he came to terms with the fact hat perhaps now, it never would be perfect and like the human race, would never reach its potential.
The module hatch chimed and opened and Corporal Veers stepped lightly into the room. Veers had never stood on the surface of the earth, she had been born aboard Pegasus eighteen years ago and had known nothing outside of her duties. Her loyalty to the station was absolute.
“Captain,” she said quietly, Veers never raised her voice. In the quiet corridors and pods of Pegasus there was no need to.
“Hello, Vanessa.” Replied Guerra as he turned around, his face strained by his grief.
Veers was straight to the point. “Sir, I heard that the mission has been cancelled and we are to return to earth. Is that true?”
Guerra found it difficult to form the words so he nodded instead. Long moments of silence followed as Veers digested what it would mean.
Finally she spoke again. “Sir, you need to address the crew, I shall organise an assembly in twenty minutes in the mess hall. I expect you will be there.”
Guerra nodded again, not feeling like saying anything. He outranked Veers in every way but he couldn’t be bothered pulling the headstrong Pegasite into line, what was the point?
Veers saluted her captain before turning on a heel and leaving the pod. Captain Raphael Guerra turned back to the viewing port and gazed silently at the small blue planet he had once called home.
Every single one of the four hundred and sixty two crew had crowded into the mess hall. It was the largest room aboard the station but still strained to contain the workers, officers and leadership of Pegasus.
Captain Guerra took his place in front of the gathering, Corporal Veers by his side with a data tablet; her face stern. Guerra just looked tired, he felt empty.
The susurrus of the crowd faded as Guerra licked his lips to begin his address. Feet shifted nervously and people’s smiles faded as they looked toward the captain for hope and found none.
“Friends; our mission is over.” Guerra stated in a voice that hardly felt like his own.
“In their wisdom, the members of the Pegasus Space Project board have decided that Pegasus is too costly for them to continue supporting us. Therefore, the station will be decommission in an effort to maintain shareholder gains for the parent companies on Earth.”
There was muttering and no small measure of complaining from the floor and Guerra had to hold up his hands for silence.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. We are at the mercy of the board. Their decision is final.”
From the crowd a man spoke out. “So, are we going back to earth? What will we do when we get there? Pegasus is our home and our life.”
Captain Guerra sighed before replying. “The board has told me that transport can be arranged, but it must be paid for by us. They seek to recoup some of the costs we have incurred in the time we have been here.”
The assembly became angry, a single shuttle journey from Earth cost billions and there was no way the crew could afford to pay for the hundred or so required to transport them all back to earth.
“This is madness.” Exclaimed science officer Perkins, “We’ve worked up here for years and now they are going to make us pay to return home?”
Some in the crowd murmured their agreement but another crew member disagreed. It was the Engineer, Husseini.
“I am not paying to go back to that shit-hole earth.” He stated with defiance “I would rather die here on Pegasus that live amongst the filth and stupidity of the corporations’ slaves.”
The defiance emboldened others to speak up.
“We should stay.” Called out the nurse Anana.
“Pegasus is our home.” Shouted Griers, a cook.
“But how will we survive?” protested Umber, a tall thin man who served as a communications officer. “I have no wish to starve to death up here in the void of space.”
Captain Guerra nodded his agreement with Umber, without the corporate support how could the men, women and children of Pegasus survive?
“I have a suggestion.” Pronounced Veers, her quiet voice somehow carrying over the clamour and din.
The angry discontent quietened and then the room grew silent as hopeful eyes looked towards the Corporal.
“We do not need to return to earth.” Stated Veers with confidence. “The station can provide all we need and more. We just need to live to survive.”
The murmuring returned as people discussed the possibility, Guerra looked at the corporal, feeling somehow embarrassed but also in awe of her quiet assuredness.
“I have run the numbers.” Continued Veers, “Our macro labs and photo-synthetic experiments produce more than enough nutrient to sustain us at our current population, there are areas where we can save on waste and our water reprocessing plants will need to take energy use priority over personal entertainment. That said, it is perfectly achievable if we begin right away.”
Griers shouted out again. “Let’s do it, fuck the corporations and fuck earth; we’re staying on Pegasus.”
Cheers were raised and Guerra allowed himself a little hope, perhaps they could do it and stay on Pegasus; although without a mission to achieve, he found it difficult to think of a reason why.
“Our master’s wont stand for this though.” Called out Umber. “They will see this as an insult to them. We know what some of them are like.”
The oppressive gloom immediately returned to haunt Guerra, he knew exactly what Umber spoke of and in particular who. Charles Greenworth, the newly appointed CEO of principal sponsor of Pegasus, SeaCorp. An individual loathed and feared by all who knew him. Greenworth was an unhinged mad man, who made decisions on whimsy and destroyed any who questioned his decisions. Guerra knew that the board’s decision was probably heavily influenced by Greenworth and that if they stayed, there would be retribution.
“I’m going to say we take a vote.” Said the captain, “Think about it, I’ll have the corporal organise a ballot to be finalised in twelve hours. That’s all for now, people.”
Without another word Captain Raphael Guerra left the room, his minded clouded and his heart heavy with fear.
The ballot had been counted and the response was overwhelming, the Pegasites had voted to stay. Only three percent of the station’s crew had voted against remaining on Pegasus with another four percent abstaining entirely. Those that had voted to stay were celebrating in the mess hall but after the verdict had been declared Captain Guerra had decided not to remain with them. He instead made his way through the narrow pipes and corridors to the communications suites; where he would inform the Pegasus board that they didn’t need to send any shuttles.
It took some time to hail the board and several more hours before they were all available for teleconference. Guerra waited patiently, his mouth becoming drier with nerves every single moment he did.
Finally the wide screens of the communication array flickered into life, placing Guerra in front of fourteen men and women who controlled the most powerful corporations on earth.
“Are the terms agreed to then, captain?” asked Vladimir Rusov, the secretary General of Golden Bear Industries and the chairman of the board.
“Members of the Board, the crew have had a vote and decided to remain aboard Pegasus. We will not require a return to earth.”
There was silence from all of the board members but through the screens, Guerra could see the features becoming masked in controlled anger.
“That’s not an option, Guerra.” Warned Rusov; your crew will be returned to earth and they will pay the cost of the return. The Board has decided.”
“With all respect, sir.” Said Guerra, feeling himself wilt under the scruitiny.
“You have no respect!” shouted Madam Gusaide, the most junior member of the board. “Your snivelling crew has no right to overrule the decisions of this board; on your return to earth I will see you hung in a public square for your insolence.”
“That may be excessive.” Quipped Chancellor Goldburg, the controller of the Israeli Defence Corp. “I am sure that the captain can be persuaded to change his crews’ minds.”
“Sir, with all respect.” Began Guerra; “the community onboard the Pegasus is a democracy, I can’t overrule them.”
“Bullshit.” Screamed the CEO of SeaCorp, Charles Greenworth. His yellow brown eyes bored into Guerra’s through the screen. “You will get those fucking maggots off my fucking station or I’ll blow the whole thing into atoms. Do you understand you stupid pleb?”
Guerra was lost for words. The sheer venom in Greenworth’s tone had been meant to cow him, to make him acquiesce to the Board’s demands. Something inside Guerra snapped and he replied, almost without realising.
“No, I will not. We will not be returning to earth. Pegasus is our home and if you don’t want to support us; that’s fine. We’ll support ourselves.”
Without another word Guerra cut off communications and sat in the hub silently. He had begun to shake all over as he realised the enormity of what his momentary lapse in temper meant.
He had said no to Charles Greenworth; he had signed his own death warrant with only a handful of words.
The crew of the Pegasus again assembled in the mess hall. This time there was a very different mood amongst the standing crowd. Anger, perhaps fear but most of all determination. The men, women and even the children; born among the stars stood shoulder to shoulder, every one armed with heavy tools and makeshift weapons; prepared to defend their lives and their livelihood, rather than surrender it to the Corporations who were prepared to abandon them to fate.
Veers again stood by Guerra’s side as he prepared to address the Pegasites. Her steely resolve was a palpable support for Guerra as he sought the words that would express his feelings.
“Crew of the Pegasus, as you know I am not a man who enjoys conflict. Nor am I a man who would wish us to be in the situation we currently find ourselves in, I am simply a man who had a job to do. That job was to ensure this station met its obligations to the conglomerate who built and sustained Pegasus station.”
The crowd stood silent, waiting for what was still to be said.
“I am not really a brave man, but the one thing that has always mattered to me is family. It is family that holds people together and family that gives us the strength to stand in times of duress. It is family that provides the love which sees a name carried from one generation to the next. Most of all it is family that allows each individual to be more than a single entity, which provides focus and meaning to everything else which we do.”
Guerra paused and looked across the crowd before continuing.
“Crew of the Pegasus, you are my family.” Guerra took a breath. “You have been by my shoulder for almost twenty years, you have shared meals with me, confided in me and some of you have been joined in marriage before me. I can think of no better people with who I should stand today, when those who were meant to be our shepherds become our wolves and strike out against us in spite. People of the Pegasus I salute you.”
The crowd clapped and cheered and Veers even managed a tight lipped smile. Guerra called for calm. When he spoke again, it was with righteous zeal.
“We know that we will be attacked, our slight to the egos of the Board will not go unanswered. Our choices are to submit when our oppressors arrive or to fight with such determination that they flee, never to return.”
The crowd cheered again, many banging weapons against the ships metal deck; the clattering growing in volume until it drowned out the shouts and cheers. Grimmacing with the noise, Guerra called for calm once more.
“They are on their way, but they are not yet here. Go back, spend time with your loved ones; work as you will. Corporal Veers will communicate your battle stations via com-slate. To all of you, my admiration, my hopes and my thanks.”
The crowd cheered again and began to move off, filled with enthusiasm for the coming conflict.
Guerra left the crowd as they continued to celebrate, Veers stepped in behind him.
As they passed out of earshot of the crowd, the corporal cleared her throat and spoke
“Sir, permission to speak freely?” she asked.
Guerra was a bit taken aback, Veers normally had no issue speaking her mind regardless of the occasion.
“Of course, Vanessa. What is it?”
Veers stopped mid stride and looked Guerra in the eye, her own were moist with worry.
“Sir, are we going to die?”
Guerra sighed heavily.
“Probabably, Vanessa; do you know who Charles Greenworth is?”
Veers nodded, her eyes hardening once more.
“He is the CEO of SeaCorp, sir. Rumours have it that he let his own father die in order to take the position.”
Guerra nodded, “Well, that hasn’t been proven but in any case, I made the mistake of challenging him and so it won’t be a gentle warning when the Board come to take back their prize. Greenworth will want blood and given what I’ve heard he won’t be satisfied with mine alone.”
“Is speaking freely still in effect, sir?” asked Veers.
Guerra nodded once more and Veers continued. “Charles Greenworth sounds like an absolute cunt, Sir. I hope he comes personally so we can wipe the stain of him from the face of the galaxy.”
Guerra couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his aide using such foul language. “That would be great, wouldn’t it? But Greenworth won’t come himself. He’s a vindictive coward who wouldn’t put himself in real danger. He’ll stick to punching kittens or whatever he does to pass the time these days.”
Veers looked disappointed. “Very well sir, I’ll leave you to your rest.”
Captain Guerra smiled tiredly. “My thanks, Corporal, rest up too.”
The inside of the captain’s room was cramped, as were most personal lodgings on the station. His single bunk was attached to the wall, a narrow shelf of plastic and bedding. Raphael laid down on it without removing his boots and closed his eyes. He guessed it would be a week before the Board’s response arrived, if they didn’t just shoot the Pegasus down, but Guerra guessed that wouldn’t happen as Greenworth would want to exploit the attack on one of his pay television channels. Every gory moment of the attack would be captured on film and broadcast to an angry public, hungry for violence to fill the void of their empty existence.
Before he drifted off into fitful sleep, Guerra smiled. He was getting philosophical in his old age.
It wasn’t a week before Pegasus’ scanners detected an inbound shuttle, it was barely five days. Veers had woken the Captain as he rested in his office, surrounded by data files about the Pegasite’s preparation for an imminent assault. There was still so much to do. With the help of the engineering team, Guerra had organised the station to become a series of killing grounds and death traps, with chemical bombs and booby-traps laid in almost every room. The few non combatants were scheduled to be hidden in the bowels of the station, guarded by the more elderly pegasites, some of which were close to seventy years old and had served on other space stations.
Guerra strode down towards the communications deck, pulling on the last pieces of his survival suit. It wouldn’t stop a bullet or an energy bolt; but in the case of a critical vent it would protect him from the vacuum of space; something he was counting on.
As expected, Veers was waiting to brief him as soon as he arrived. The communications deck was a buzzing hive of frenzied activity.
“We are being hailed sir.” Said Veers, handing the captain a data jack, which he inserted into an interface behind his ear. The corporal had a sly grin on her face. Guerra looked at her quizzically as he listened to the communication that produced images within his very brain.
He was surprised by what he saw; it was not the face of some corporate thug demanding surrender, but that of a woman in a suit of green combat armour.
“Captain Guerra, I presume.” Said the woman. Besides her mouth, her features were hidden behind a dropped visor but her voice was feminine, her body exaggeratedly so. The green of the armour’s glaze and the strange elongation of the helmet gave her the look of some kind of mantid.
“I am Guerra.” Stated the Captain, unsure of what to make of this unexpected situation.
“Captain,” began the woman. “I represent a group which believes you have been unfairly treated and which wants to ensure the Pegasus Space Station remains operational. The craft, which is currently approaching you, is not from the Board but contains both myself and a group of my personal soldiers. I would ask that you open docking bay two and allow us safe passage to discuss our next move.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trick?” asked Guerra.
“You don’t, Captain.” Replied the woman, “Suffice to know that if I wanted you dead I wouldn’t bother to come, I’d leave it for SeaCorp’s goons to achieve.”
The disdain for SeaCorp in the woman’s was obvious, Guerra made a snap decision.
“Okay, docking bay two will be ready.” He said into the comlink.
“Very good, I look forward to meeting you.” Said the woman with a smile, then the communication link went dead.
“The captain buzzed the control suite, “Open docking bay two, have the inner bulkheads sealed tight though.”
The control suite indicated affirmation and then Captain Guerra turned to Veers. “Corporal, I need five good men and women to meet me at docking bay two, we are about to have visitors.”
Veers’ eyes glimmered in anticipation. “Very good sir, I’ll be ready in five minutes.”
Guerra nodded and turned to the viewing screens. The shuttle was obvious now, a plain unadorned craft used for hauling supplies and cargo, certainly not a combat ship of any kind. He hoped that whomever it was carrying were friendly, otherwise he had opened the gate to his peoples’ deaths.
Only ten minutes later the shuttle was in the process of docking and Captain Guerra stood nervously in the bay. The bulkhead door behind him was shut tight and he could almost feel Veers’ presence, viewing him through the dock’s security feeds.
It seemed to take forever for the shuttle to finally settle onto the locking clamps and the umbilical to slide out towards the craft’s hatch. The visitors would emerge from the tube like a worm from its hole and if Guerra actually had some kind of firearm then they would be easy targets. Unfortunately, he thought; Pegasus wasn’t a military station and the crew were completely without firearms of any sort. Given that the visitors were most likely armed to the teeth, Guerra hadn’t even bothered bringing a knife or club; it seemed pointless and perhaps provocative; diplomacy would have to win the day.
When the arrivals appeared from the mouth of the umbilical, Guerra stiffened and then relaxed. The woman who had been wearing the helm came first, the helmet held under the crook of her arm. Her age was indeterminate, her skin an alabaster white and her head was shaved completely bare and elongated like a pharaoh’s crown. Guerra guessed it was the effect of some sort of drastic augmentative surgery though whether practical or aesthetic he could not tell.
A half dozen battle armoured warriors marched behind the woman as she stepped confidently onto the floor of the dock before walking towards Guerra, a broad smile breaking out across her face.
“Captain Guerra, it is a pleasure to meet you.” Remarked the woman, holding out a hand in greeting.
Guerra took the offered palm and shook it firmly, noting the strength in the woman’s slender arms.
“It is a pleasure to meet you too, Ms……” he paused, unsure what to call the visitor.
“Maggie.” She said with another smile. “You can call me Maggie, although if you just called me Commander, that would be much better. I’d prefer my identity not to be known, for safety reasons.
Guerra gave Maggie a level stare, “I assume that this means that you aren’t supposed to be here, am I correct?”
Maggie returned the stare and the smile dropped from her face. “Your assumption is unnecessary, Captain Guerra. It would be best if my soldiers and myself were not thought about at all, for all our sakes.”
Her mouth set in a thin flat, line before she continued.
“We have something for you.”
Maggie turned to the warriors behind her and two brought up a large, rectangular crate. It looked heavy but the two soldiers carried it without any noticeable effort. They placed it in front of Guerra before resuming their places behind Maggie.
The woman bent over and keyed a combination into the electronic lock, the lid gave a hiss before disengaging and sliding to the side. Guerra peered in.
Two dozen or so high-powered laser carbines as well as a pair of shocker launchers sat within, along with a set of power packs. Guerra whistled; the weapons were high-tech and restricted access, even on Earth.
“These are for us?” he asked.
Maggie nodded sombrely. “Yes. We also have five more crates on board the shuttle, there should be more than enough for you to stage an effective defence against whatever SeaCorp throws at you.”
The captain had to agree, the carbines would make a mockery of most combat armour but with the added advantage of being unlikely to cause serious damage to the reflective inner plating of the station. They were the perfect weapon for a defensive force.
“What about the shockers?” Guerra asked “How are we supposed to use them?”
Maggie smiled, a wicked gleam reaching her eyes. “I expect that the mercenaries sent to deal with you will be wearing exo-armour, the shockers will simply shut the armour down, leaving the soldiers immobilised with their weapon systems offline. The have a blast radius of about twelve feet, so make sure you don’t fry your own life support systems.”
Guerra’s lips had turned dry, the weapons meant that the Pegasites had a fighting chance against the mercs. But questions remained.
“But look, even if we defeat these mercs, SeaCorp will just send others; won’t they?”
Maggie leaned in close, resting her hand on Guerra’s chest. “SeaCorp will think the mercenaries were successful, unfortunately; their shuttle won’t make the return trip successfully, probably due to damage sustained during the fight.”
“They’ll send a crew to salvage the Pegasus though.” Said Guerra.
Maggie shook her head again. “No, the damage sustained to the station rendered it inoperational. Its little more than space junk. It won’t be financially viable to send a crew; the entire Pegasus project will be mothballed. No one will know you are even here anymore.”
Guerra took a step back, absorbing the details. If SeaCorp and the other investors thought Pegasus was little more than space junk they they’d be left alone for sure; at least for the foreseeable future. His doubt still gnawed at him though.
“Why are you doing this then, Maggie?” he asked, “What’s in it for you?”
Maggie smiled again, this time it was neither predatory nor sly, just a simple; tired smile. “The people aboard the Pegasus have achieved something those on earth never have; you live together in peace, you have the means to live sustainably and without impact on the greater environment and most importantly, you are free of the politics that has destroyed our planet. I’d like to see that kept safe, our species might need you one day.”
Guerra blinked, lost for words. Who was this woman who would provide so much and yet seemingly ask for little to nothing in return.
“I can’t understand why you would do this for us, Maggie; but thank you. My people and I owe you our lives.” He bowed his head in respect.
Maggie snorted, “Well, you haven’t even survived anything yet. You can thank me when this is over. Right now though, we need to get ready. Let me address the crew.”
Guerra nodded his agreement, his confidence soaring. He buzzed Veers who disengaged the bulkhead locks and led Maggie and her soldiers into the station. The group made their way through the twisting maze of corridors and across gantries to the mess hall where, for a third time; the people of Pegasus were gathering. At the sight of the armoured Maggie and her soldiers there were gasps of shock and apprehension, but the relaxed demeanour of the woman and the smiles she directed about her seemed to reduce the tension.
It was twenty minutes later that the people had finished gathering and Guerra spoke to them.
“My friends and family, it seems we are not so alone after all. Today we are joined by unexpected allies, bringing weapons to aid us in our struggle for freedom and for our survival.”
He turned to Maggie, “How should I introduce you?”
She gave Guerra a wink and stepped forward. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Greetings people of Pegasus,” Maggie said, her voice loud and clear. “My name is Commander Riven, I am an enemy of SeaCorp and a friend of those who would be free. You have taken the first step towards independence from an entity that is responsible for great atrocities against our species and against the Earth. Today, far from the sight of others, you take the first step towards claiming back humanity’s destiny. Today, you will be heroes and I will bear witness. Today, we begin the long march to freedom.”
Maggie stepped back and nodded to Guerra, indicating she was finished. Guerra looked at her and then at the crowd.
“Okay, well I guess that’s it for now, get to your stations, Corporal Veers will organise weapon distribution and check we are ready. Good luck people, I’m very proud of you all.”
There was a smattering of clapping and good natured back slapping as the pegasites moved to the exits, to resume their positions. Guerra turned to Maggie to speak when Veers’ voice interrupted over the station’s communication system.
“Attention, people of Pegasus; we have inbound SeaCorp shuttles approaching, I repeat inbound SeaCorp shuttles approaching. Prepare for battle.”
“I don’t suppose they are yours?” asked Guerra, already knowing the answer.
“No, they’re here much earlier than I would have thought though. I thought Greenworth wouldn’t have then up here for at least another thirty six hours.”
“Well, I guess our luck’s run out then.” grimaced Guerra. “Come, I have to get ready.”
The captain and Maggie travelled to the command module, where Veers met them, two of Maggie’s soldiers lurked outside while the rest had gone off to help prepare defences.
“Captain, I estimate we are eighty percent ready to repel boarders, several stations have not yet reported in.” said Veers.
“It’ll have to be enough.” Muttered the captain as Maggie sat herself at a console and began flicking through security feed.
The two SeaCorp shuttles were ugly things; great wedges of metal emblazoned on the flanks with SeaCorp’s triple wave device. They didn’t bear any external weapons, but the captain knew that they would be filled with mercenaries armed to the teeth.
The two craft didn’t bother hailing to secure a launch bay, instead they swung abeam of docking bay one and four and deploying grapnels that dragged them alongside the station. Embracing the station like parasites the shuttle doors opened and industrial torches flared to life; cutting through the outer shell of Pegasus.
Maggie grimaced and Guerra frowned at the speed of the assault. Klaxxons whooped throughout Pegasus’ tangle of rooms and the security feeds showed determined Pegasites taking cover behind makeshift barricades, many shouldering the firearms brought by Maggie. It was difficult to determine where the invaders would emerge first due to their method of attack, the service gantries they would be entering crisscrossed the station and led to the most vulnerable of areas.
When the station had been built these narrow service corridors had been identified as a potential weakness; but SeaCorp, RedDragon and their associates had not been prepared to fortify the station, a decision that was rewarding the invaders now.
Veers stepped up to Guerra’s shoulder and cleared her throat. “Sir, all hands are at their allocated stations, non-combatants are in secure confines with guards.”
Guerra nodded and noted that Maggie was smiling.
“Well, let it begin.” He sighed heavily.
Almost on cue the first of SeaCorp’s marauders emerged from the ventilation corridors, brutish figures in exo-armour toting wide bore guns. Guerra knew the type, they were a shot gun type weapon designed to strip flesh, often loaded with chemically laced pellets that incapacitated a victim through nerve damage. He couldn’t help but scowl.
Fighting broke out almost immediately across the station as the marauders ran afoul of prepared defences, the Pegasites unloading withering fusillades of energy bolts into the attackers emerging from the air ducts. Guerra could see the confusion of the marauders as an easy job turned deadly, two fell to the defenders in moments, but others returned fire with enough determination to force the Pegasites’ heads down, allowing more of the invaders to make a beachhead.
Maggie was grinning, but her grin soured as she spotted something unusual. One of the feeds had phased out. “Get me contact with the team at that point.” She snapped.
Veers looked to Guerra who nodded and Vanessa punched up the com address.
“Shit” swore Maggie. “We have to get a team over there right now.”
Guerra was worried but had no idea what to do. “What is it?” he asked.
“Phasers” called Margaret from the bulkhead, signalling the remaining two guards to accompany her. Guerra hurried to catch her, leaving the bridge in the hands of Veers.
“What do you mean, phasers?” asked Guerra, running behind the Maggie’s loping green armoured form.
“They’re a new concept, they project a field that disrupts communications; they’re close combat and sabotage specialists. What was near that station?”
Guerra thought as he ran, “Fuel cell storage.” He said in realisation, “They’re going to blow the whole place up.”
“Not today.” Growled Maggie.
Maggie, Guerra and the two guards burst into the open bay of the fuel cell storage just as the two phasers were slaughtering the Pegasites guarding the room. Wearing matte black armour, with enclosed helms like skulls they were a projection of nightmares. Bandoliers of explosives were strapped to their waists and they wielded long hooked knives. The pair turned to the defenders, the rictus grin of their masks cold and intimidating. Maggie ordered her guards forward and drew an energy blaster from a hip holster. Guerra hoisted his own snub nosed pistol, his hand shaking from nerves.
The phasers leapt forward; fibre bundles in their armour making them spring like insects, one surged past the first guard, gashing the man’s throat as he did so. The other barrelled into his opponent and bore the bigger man to the ground, stabbing him deep in the chest before rolling away smoothly.
The first guard dropped to the ground, gurgling blood; the second lay still, stone dead. Maggie snapped off a shot at the first killer but the apparition managed to lurch aside, its figure blurring with the speed.
The captain wasn’t subtle, flicking the pistol to full auto and spraying the area near the assassin. The phaser, expecting an aimed shot, was taken unawares and took two slugs in the gut and torso. It fell backwards, injured but not down. Guerra unleashed another burst, three slugs hitting their mark. This time the phaser fell over, incapacitated. The first attacker though had leapt again and Maggie had barely deflected a blow aimed at her face. The vambrace of her armour knocked the phaser’s knife to the left and Maggie deftly stepped forward to hammer an elbow into the marauder’s face.
She connected, but barely with the phaser swaying away from the blow, it drove a knee into Maggie’s gut, then tried to bring the daggers to bear one more. Guerra clubbed the phaser to the ground with his pistol butt, then shot it once in the back of the head from point blank range.
The room was silent except for the Guerra and Maggie’s laboured breathing as the captain pulled Maggie to her feet.
“That was exciting.” She said from behind her faceplate.
“Too exciting for me.” Grumbled Guerra before continuing “Do you think that’s all of them?”
“SeaCorp deploys them in teams of two, RedDragon use a similar saboteur, but nastier, let’s hope this wasn’t a team effort.” Maggie replied.
The two began making their way back to the command module, Guerra called Veers using his comgear.
“Vanessa, how are we going?”
“It looks to be all over Captain,” came Veers’ tinny reply. “Twenty eight attackers killed and accounted for.”
“We got two ourselves, that makes thirty.” Said Maggie. “That sounds about right, two lots of fifteen, including five crew aboard the shuttles”
“What now?” asked Guerra.
Maggie raised her faceplate, and grinned.
“Now we think of a way to make it look like we’re all dead.”
The phasers’ demolitions gear was put to good use, as were some of the armoured suits worn by the marauders. A call was sent from the shuttle saying that the station had its life support destroyed but that the surviving Pegasites were attempting to escape via shuttle. A second pantomimed call sent out a request for aid, immediately followed by an SOS, the frantic babbling of an engineer saying a catastrophic meltdown was occurring.
The twin SeaCorp shuttles were loaded with fuel and set loose, a timed fuse set to blow them once they’d drifted closer to earth. The explosion was spectacular and the Pegasites watched from the mess hall as it was projected onto the communal screen.
All eyes turned to Captain Guerra and Maggie, standing before the people of Pegasus.
Maggie spoke first. “People of Pegasus, today we have struck a blow for your freedom from the tyranny of despicable men, those who would treat you as products to be consumed and slaves to be whipped. The station you stand in now is now truly your home. I will ensure that those corporate entities which sought to control you, instead forget you and you may live forever in peace; here among the stars. The only thing I ask you is that one day, when I call for your help you will answer. I will need your strength before the end.”
Silence descended upon the room, no one knew what this woman spoke of but they were thankful for her efforts.
Veers began to clap, Guerra followed and one by one the remaining people of Space Station Pegasus showed their thanks and appreciation to a woman who had fought for them for reasons known only to her.
Guerra kept it simple. “Friends, we are free.”
This time the applause was spontaneous, cheers and whoops of delight filled the room and for a moment the dead were forgotten.
“You’ll need us?” muttered Guerra to Maggie.
“Oh yes.” She replied “There is a war coming, I want you in my corner.”
She remembered the day it all began.
Dust danced in the beams of sunlight that stabbed in from the high-angled windows
The teenage girl shuddered with nerves as she sat before the panel. She had spent months preparing for this hallowed moment but she still feared it wouldn’t be enough, she feared she would fail in her testing and that all her efforts would be for nothing.
It wasn’t pride that made her fear failure, it was the knowledge that time was short and finding another candidate would further weaken the aims of the Organisation.
The panel themselves, five grim faced men and women in ordinary suits and functional dresses, certainly didn’t seem intimidating, they seemed exactly as they were supposed to appear.
As ordinary people.
But the girl knew that these five men and women were nothing ordinary, in their own way they represented a hidden power in society; one that the girl hoped would overturn the long dominant group of tyrannical kleptocrats, tycoons and trillionaires that controlled all of the resources, all of the wealth and ultimately all of the lives of the billions of people upon planet earth.
The lead interrogator flicked over the sheaf of papers in her hands, then looked at the girl across the rim of her glasses, frowning not in disapproval but in concern.
“What we ask of you will determine the path of your entire life, Margot. You will be denied the choices you might wish and every decision you make will be in accordance with our designs and our wishes. Do you understand?”
“I do.” The girl, Margot, spoke clearly but she could hear her heart thumping in her chest, she was positive that the panellists could hear it too, she was sure they could smell her fear.
A man spoke, he wore a flannelette shirt, he was broad shouldered, with a deep brown beard and thick hands that spoke of decades of physical work. Margot knew that like the woman with the glasses; his appearance was entirely an act.
Just as hers would be.
“Margot, there will be times when you are needed to do things that you have been taught to find reprehensible, things that go against all of our teachings and beliefs, yet in your role you must do them. The role you play must not be compromised.”
Margot nodded again. “I understand, I will not fail.”
The broad shouldered man nodded and sighed, then sat back in his chair.
A third panellist spoke, a woman in the neat tailored suit of a corporate accountant. Her hair tied back in a functional bun.
“Margot, your task is among the most dangerous any of our agents have had to perform, it will threaten to corrupt your sensibilities and perhaps even steal your sanity, but you cannot afford to fail. Do you understand?”
“I do” said Margot simply.
The woman in glasses spoke once more.
“Very well, we will select you. Good luck Margot, our species is counting on you.”
She remembered the day clearly, she had been only seventeen at the time and although she had thought she understood the enormity of her task, it still bewildered her just how long and arduous the road to victory had become.
She looked down at her arms, her skin was a shade of ivory, the result of long hours of operations and procedures to mask the natural darkness of her flesh, it was not obvious to others but the delicate frame of her body concealed cybernetic devices and chemical dispensers that made her almost as much a machine as she was a woman.
Her luminous eyes, surgically altered to appear larger than the norm were not those she had been born with and screeds of data flowed across the inside of her vision as information was fed and diagnosed through her internal sensors and receivers to be fed into her enhanced brain.
The woman who had been the girl Margot smiled as he approached, bedecked in his usual ostentatious finery, wearing a chest full of medals he had not earned and a enough gold frogging across his epaulettes to strangle an elephant.
“Hello Charles, my dear.” Margot breathed pleasantly, every syllable still making her feel sick.
“Fuck off bitch” snapped Charles, the man who had been Margot’s husband since their arranged marriage a year ago.
“My apologies, Charles.” Smiled Margot placidly.
The first months of their marriage had been a shock, the average looking yet stylish Greenworth showing a penchant for abuse and foul behaviour moments after they had left the inquisitive gaze of their wedding guests. It had only been days before he struck her and then forced to apologize for making him angry and for over a week Margot had contemplated what to do.
Her thoughts had turned bleak.
But she had a mission and the growing disgust at Greenworth and all he represented hardened that disgust into burning determination to see him brought down, along with every other spoilt brat turned despot that was ruining the earth.
She’d submitted herself to his drug addled desires and been secretly delighted when she found out he was completely sterile, for what reasons she did not know, nor did she care.
But that caused complications, for the mission to be successful, Margot would need to produce an heir.
She had again sunk into despair, her days and nights an endless procession of fake smiles and ball gowns, her moments alone spent hiding the bruises left by Charles’ not so tender affections.
It was a little bit easier now. They had been married for three years and Charles had mostly grown bored of tormenting her, the strategy of placidly allowing him to rage seemed to deny him the sadistic pleasure he required to keep his interest. Instead, her acquiescence of her fate seemingly frustrated him, first leading him to rage even greater but then leading to him ignoring his wife outright, finding other distractions for his abhorrent desires.
Margot heard footsteps approaching and looked up from where she looked at a data slate advertising cosmetic modifications. The butler, Aaron drew near and smiled. The man had been born into service to the Greenworths, as had his father before him and Aaron was about as mild mannered a man as could be imagined. Margot had caught the fuming looks the discreet butler shot Charles when his rage was spiking though and knew the manservant despised his employer and liege as much as Margot did.
“Hello Aaron.” She said. She smiled, the placid curving of her lips as practised as her ability to breathe.
The butler frowned. “My lady, is there anything I can get for you while you take your rest?”
Margot giggled despite herself, Aaron was endlessly polite, even in the face of Charles’ aggression and rudeness.
“No thank you Aaron, I’m fine, thanks.”
The butler cut a handsome figure in his impeccably neat suit, his blond haircut neat at the back and sides, his patrician features serious but affectionate.
“I’ll be waiting in my suite if you need me, Ma’am. Please call me if you require any assistance.”
Margot smiled again and nodded, watching the butler walk unhurriedly away.
Margot found herself smiling again, the gentle curve of her belly filled her with hope beyond what she had felt for months or perhaps even years.
She lay reclined on puffy cushions, her announcement to Charles Greenworth that she was pregnant being met with the expected egotistical nonsense.
Her husband stood nearby, exclaiming his sexual prowess to a gaggle of hangers on as he related how he had worried his wife was infertile, and naturally, his own virility must have overcome her faults and rightly asserted his will in her womb.
In the far corner of the room, Aaron stood, his face as always, inscrutable, his eyes glimmering with pride. Margot caught his eye for a moment and they shared a secret laugh, the knowledge of the trick they had pulled on one of the most loathsome humans to walk the face of the earth.
She woke to the regular beating of monitors and with her left eye puffed closed. Aaron stood nearby in the gloom, one hand resting upon her own.
“Is the baby okay?” were her first words.
“Yes, he is okay. He is in the neo-natal ward.”
Margot sighed in relief. She had gone into labor during one of Charles’ ridiculous ballroom parties and he had been enraged that she needed to leave. He had struck her in front of all the guests, decrying her rudeness and audacity. With her belly heavy with child Margot had been knocked to the floor and her head had struck the marble hard. She could not remember much after that besides a VTOL flight to the nearby hospital and a dim memory of Charles screaming at her as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
“Where is Charles?” Margot gasped.
Aaron’s flash flushed with anger. “He has left the city to celebrate, I imagine he’ll be whoring and drinking his way through some resort town up North right now.”
Despite the pain, Margot smiled. It was good that Greenworth was gone, it would give her some time with Aaron and just as importantly with her child.
“He named the child.” Said Aaron, trying to gain some composure.
Margot was surprised, she hadn’t expected that.
“What?” she asked.
“Ivan” remarked Aaron, “After Ivan the Terrible apparently, your husband seems to be a fan.”
“Such a dickhead.” Breathed Margot. “Is the baby okay?”
Aaron nodded, “He’s fine. You managed to shield him from Greenworth’s blows, unfortunately that means a lot of damage was done to you.”
“It’s okay, I’ll be okay.” Muttered Margot, then she found herself drifting off into blessed unconsciousness.
Margot sat watching her two small children play in the courtyard of the Greenworth’s country estate. Her husband, Charles believed she was here recuperating from another round of plastic surgery and that was partly true, but she was primarily here to speak to an ally long unheard from.
“Your children are beautiful.” Said the woman with the glasses.
She had aged, her once blond hair turned grey and wrinkles lined her face, although she still had the same hard unyielding gaze when she looked at Margot from behind her glasses.
“They are, I’m very lucky.” Replied Margot with a smile, unlike many directed at Charles, this smile came from the bottom of her heart.
The woman nodded. “Greenworth continues to get worse, but the Organisation has seen an opportunity to wipe the stain of him and his ilk from the earth, or at least much of it, with one move. Are you ready to comply?”
Margot nodded, her gaze still following her children as they giggled and ran, hiding amongst the ornamental shrubbery.
“SeaCorp is about to take over two of its biggest competitors in the southern hemiphsere. This will make Greenworth the most powerful man in between here and New York, he must succeed in his merger.”
Margot turned to the woman, curious and surprised.
“Do you really want a man like Charles having that much power? He would be virtually unchecked, his only real competitor would be……”
“RedDragon” finished the woman. “We know, we have agents infiltrated that group as well and they are almost ready to take control of the situation. Greenworth currently is directing his efforts against the government of Nicaragua and unfortunately, that has put us in a predicament. They were one of our early successes but with Greenworth determined to crush their newfound independence we may have to cut them loose, for the greater good.”
“You’d sacrifice a whole nation of people?” spluttered Margot, in the garden Ivan looked towards his mother in askance.
Margot nodded and waved to her boy, he went back to playing.
“It is a necessary sacrifice.” Said the woman, her voice low. Greenworth will be drunk on victory when he crushes Nicaragua, he will no doubt travel there personally and when he does you will be able to make the changes to SeaCorp’s ownership documents. You need to make sure that your children stand to inherit the company and that if Greenworth dies, his shares do not fall to the executive.”
“But my children aren’t even close to being adults yet.” Said Margot, “how is them being in charge of SeaCorp supposed to help the Organisation?”
“You are their mother, but we know that Greenworth doesn’t trust you. You will not inherit anything if he dies, but if your children are the benefactors then you control their interest in trust. Therefore we control SeaCorp.”
Margot sighed. “I understand.”
“Good.” Said the woman. “This is the last time you will see me, I grow old and there are many issues to be dealt with. But my time to deal with them is done, I’ll be retiring.”
“What will you do?” laughed Margot, “This has been your whole life, you know nothing else.”
“I’m becoming a bag lady.” Smirked the woman, taking off her glasses and leaving them lying on the glass outdoor setting.
Margot watched the woman leave and then returned to watching her children. Bianca was a fierce three year old and Ivan a solid and occasionally dour child of five. Her children were her hope for the future. She wondered what Aaron was doing, her strength through the long days and nights of Charles’ exhausting insanity.
She flicked through the media feeds from SeaCorp and saw that works were under way to mothball the Pegasus Space Station, a station she had helped secure financing for.
“Damn Charles.” She swore under her breath.
Margot brought up details of the station and saw that even now SeaCorp was meeting to decide the fate of the apparently antagonistic crew of the station. Margot decided that they sounded like her sort of people. As she watched an executive order to terminate the crew was placed on the corporate legislation listings.
“Not on my watch.” She said with a smirk. She dialled up the children’s nanny who was no doubt nearby.
“Claudia, I’m going to be away for a few days, can we have the mansion locked down? We’ll say I’m undergoing surgery and don’t want to be disturbed.”
On the view screen, Claudia, a well spoken indentured servant who knew Margot well replied. “Very good, Margaret.” Using Margot’s assumed name “ I assume you’ll not be wanting Mr. Greenworth to interfere?”
“Correct.” Said Margot.
It was time to begin the war against Charles Greenworth.
With her light brown hair tied back in a ponytail, her fringe kept from straying with a tied cord, the young hunter surveyed the land before her.
It had been five months since she had journeyed here, to this place in an effort to escape the madness that had consumed the city, five months since she had left the crumbling edifice and riots and starvation of a society in utter ruins.
Her family had come too, she was not alone although often she preferred the solitude of hunting by herself; she was quieter this way and much, much more deadly.
She peered from her vantage point on the low hill, the flat terrain before her dotted in thick tussocks of grass and scrubby bushes, it was a land fertile with animals to catch and for those who knew the secrets, such as the girl did, many plants that could be harvested for eating.
But today, she was not hunting animals to eat, nor was she fossicking for fruits and tubers.
Amongst the scrub she saw it, her prey, shuffling its way towards the place where her family made their home. She doubted that it knew they were there, the home was well hidden with much of it below ground and out of sight; but there would be no chances taken.
The prey drew closer, its pallid skin had been crudely tattooed with marker runes, sigils depicting the devil spawn which owned it. The hunter didn't care which infernal lord called this thing its property, to her it was just another threat to her family.
She raised the bow; she had made it with her father's help, a long curved stave of treated wood strengthened with horn and bone, polished to a bright gleaming black. She nocked a heavy, barbed arrow, much weightier than those she used to hunt the rabbits and kangaroos that often served as food. This arrow would hamper the prey, the barbs refusing to shift, the weight making it clumsy and easy to strike again.
The young hunter knew that with prey like this, crazies; one arrow was rarely enough, she also knew that once it had been wounded it would become enraged, its pain giving it strength and speed so it was imperative to deny it any advantage.
She pulled back, the crazy stopped in its shuffling walk sensing something amiss. It saw her on the low bald hill.
She released with a soft breath, the arrow flew.
The crazy threw itself to the side but the arrow still found a mark, driving deep into its thigh.
It screamed in pain and rage and started to run, the hunter stayed calm and drew another arrow.
It was barely fifty feet away, the first whiff of its charnel stink washing across the young hunter's nostrils but she didn't let that distract her.
She nocked the arrow, this one was broad bladed, designed to cleave into flesh then fall away; causing a bleeding wound.
Thirty feet away the crazy lowered itself to all fours and bounded forward like a beast, its hollow black eyes endless pools of agony, its jagged, sharpened teeth bleeding at the gums.
She released, and breathed, the arrow flew.
It took the crazy in the neck and blew through, leaving a gaping wound.
But it still came on.
It should be dead but the hunter was prepared, she drew a long knife from the sheaf at her hip and lowered her bow to the ground, she would not risk the weapon being broken.
Ten feet away and the crazy was stumbling now, yet still it leapt for her.
Powerful legs drove the creature, once human; forward with filthy claws extended to pierce the hunter's flesh. Its maw opened wide and despite its wounds the hunter could sense its anticipation of the kill.
She rolled forward, the crazy soared above her to crash into the ground where she had stood, the hunter rolled to her feet, her ponytail tugged free, leaving her hair to whip behind her in the stiff warm breeze.
The crazy struggled to its feet, still determined to kill one last victim, its senseless rage driving it on.
It stepped forward and this time the hunter did not roll away, she dashed first left, then right; wrong-footing the mutant creature so it swayed to the side.
She darted in, ducking below a clumsy swipe from blood encrusted talons and then she drove her knife deep into the crazy's chest.
It was too much, the three wounds overcame even the mutant's stubborn hatred and the darkness of its eyes faded, leaving the hunter to looking into eyes that simply looked
She drew a breath and stepped away, closing her eyes, this was always the worst time; the guilt that once this horrible thing had been a human, once this horrible thing might have had a family, and a home just like she did.
But it was no longer human, it was much less, much less than an animal, it was just a wrongness upon nature and the hunter would not allow it to threaten her family.
Not when they had survived so much.
The hunter collected her bow and extracted the arrow from the crazy's thigh, she would return later with her father and bury the corpse so that its rotting stench did not attract others or worse.
She lifted her bow and gave silent thanks as she read the name carved by her father.
A Pagan Wedding
Sweat beaded on Sharon’s brow as she fussed with her bridal gown, her mother, Liz. Tried her best to smooth out the off-white skirts and blouse but the humidity made doing anything properly difficult.
Today, Sharon was getting married to her fiancé Geoff, they had been together since they were young teenagers and finally the pair had saved enough money to host a small party, here in an abandoned warehouse in ScumTown.
When Sharon was a girl she had dreamt of a lavish wedding with hundreds of guests, a magnificent five tier cake and a dress the shone with rhinestones and sequins. As she had grown that dream had faded like her hopes for a nice home and perhaps a real job.
It couldn’t be helped. Not many people in ScumTown had a “real” job, most of them got by with day to day tasks and labour hire, those who didn’t prostitute themselves or eke out a living as a thug or stand-over man.
Sharon’s husband to be, Geoff; had a real job. Geoff was a maintenance man who had the rare skills needed to look after and if needed fix, the water stills that supplied many of the scummers with water clean enough to drink. Geoff didn’t own the stills, but the owner; Randy Greaves, didn’t kmow how to fix the old engines himself and Geoff was a likeable bloke who’d inherited the skills from his father.
So, really; life wasn’t too bad. Geoff was never going to be rich but at least they would be able to afford food and even if it wasn’t the gorgeous gown Sharon had dreamt of as a child, she did at least have a dress.
The damnable heat continued to torment Sharon as her mother straightened and nodded.
“That’s about the best I can do, love.’ She smiled apologetically.
“Thanks, Mum that’s great.” Replied Sharon, appreciative of her mother’s flustered efforts.
Sharon peeked out from behind the screen where she was standing to sneak a look at the assembling wedding guests. There were plenty here already, Sharon’s younger brother was standing on a platform of old pallets entertaining the growing crowd with his usual selection of lewd jokes.
Old Trusty had arrived with his angry sidekick Lola, who scowled at everyone who dared look at her. Old Trusty himself favoured other guests with genial smiles and waves, enjoying his infamy as much as he always did.
Sharon gulped, where was Geoff? He should have been standing out there already.
“Where is he?” she gasped, poking her head out further from behind the screen.
“Shhhh, he’s there I saw him earlier.” Muttered Sharon’s mother annoyed, “get back in here.”
Sharon reluctantly stepped back into the screened off alcove, frowning. “I can’t see him.” She said.
“He’s out there, don’t worry. He’s looking forward to today just as much as you are.”
An elderly woman, jasmine flowers tied into her hair poked her head around the screen.
“Sharon, we’re ready.” She said.
“Thank you Myrtle, is everything okay?” replied Sharon, her voice quavering.
The elderly woman placed a hand on Sharon’s shoulder, her calm presence reassuring the young woman. “Everything is fine, now let’s make you a married woman.”
Sharon nodded and the little old woman withdrew.
Sharon heard music begin, a tin whistle tweeting out a merry tune, joined shortly after by a box-fiddle and guitar.
Sharon’s mother gently reached up and placed a crown of daisies on her daughter’s head.
“Now you’re ready to be married.” She said.
Sharon started to feel overwhelmed, she could barely hold back tears.
The music played on and Sharon’s mother opened the curtain screen, urging her daughter to come out.
The crowd watched, standing in their best, least patched and rumpled clothed fifty odd guests turned smiles and grins towards Sharon Dempsy as she stood before them.
She saw Geoff then, he was there; standing in cleanly washed overalls with a shirt borrowed from who knew where, his usually messy hair slicked back across his head and his chin free of its usual three day beard.
He looked so handsome.
He was smiling, standing straight and tall with his hands clasped in front of his lap and Sharon had never felt more in love.
She began to walk.
The music played on, it was lively, enthusiastic and hopeful.
Myrtle stood next to the groom, a long staff wreathed in jasmine flowers supporting her weight.
She was almost there.
As Sharon walked through the crowd the people filled in behind her, there were no divided sides in this wedding, all that mattered was unity, everyone’s family was one.
She took her place and looked into Geoff’s eyes.
Oh how she loved him.
Geoff looked back serenely into her eyes, the warmth of his brown gaze flowing through Sharon enough to make her forget the heat and the flush in her cheeks.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join these two people Sharon and Geoff in life long partnership and matrimony.”
Sharon smiled at Geoff, lost in the happy moment.
“Under the eyes of God and the sun, we simple people perform this simple rite to make formal this pair’s commitment to one another, to witness their love and their dedication to the principles of faith and family.”
Sharon whispered quietly to Geoff.
He smile and replied.
“Geoff and Sharon have prepared rings for one another, simple bands that signify their endless love and the cycle of life, can we have the rings?”
Sharon’s brother stepped forward and provided from his pockets two small copper bands, cut from pipe and smoothed away, with Geoff and Sharon’s names carved in tiny letters upon each. Myrtle took the rings and placed them on the bride and groom’s fingers.
“By the power invested in me by our community I may name you husband and wife, by our beliefs and traditions, do you take one another as husband and wife?”
“Stop” called a voice.
Sharon felt numb. Geoff looked away, Myrtle’s mouth dropped agape.
“Stop” came the call again and Sharon turned in slow motion to see who had broken the day and destroyed the dream.
“Stop” came the call once more and she looked upon the face that would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life.
The man was dressed in a black cassock, his hem and the cuffs of his sleeves a crimson red. Upon his breast was a stylised “U”.
Sharon knew that symbol it was from The One True Church.
Behind the priest were ten men, clad in black coveralls, their faces masked by balaclavas their hands clasping machine pistols and shock clubs.
“This is an illegal ceremony” called the man in black, his heavy jowls quivering. “There is only one church, The One True Church and attempting to marry without consent is a crime against The Church and against SeaCorp, your rightful government.”
The crowd drew back towards where Sharon, Geoff and Myrtle stood on the pallet stack, tensions rose and muttering spread throughout the guests.
The church thugs fanned out, levelling their pistols to cover the crowd.
“The Church doesn’t have any power here, this is ScumTown, you’re not wanted.” Called out Myrtle, pointing her staff at the priest.
The man puffed himself up. “The One True Church oversees all marital planning in Australia, your heretical beliefs are illegal. Disperse immediately or you will be incarcerated according to our law.”
“Your law you mean.” Laughed Myrtle, seemingly unconcerned by the machine pistols levelled in her direction. “We never asked for your stupid, brain fart church to have rights over us, what makes you think you can come in here and tell us what to do?”
“The law” declared the man bombastically. “The CEO of SeaCorp has decreed that The One True Church is…..”
“Where is he then?” interrupted Myrtle, “Where is that dick head? He isn’t here and he never asked me what I thought, you’d best piss off before we get angry.”
“What?” spluttered the priest, “I have the right to use force.”
“And then what?” called out Old Trusty from the crowd, who had now taken a step as one toward the priest and his thugs. “You shoot us you think you’ll be getting out from here alive? You’re in the middle of ScumTown and those pea shooters of yours only have so many bullets, you’re head will be on a fucking stick before you get back to your cosy little apartment you pathetic piece of shit priest.”
The man in black went red and the previous confidence he projected wilted away, behind the priest and his group other scummers had entered the warehouse, many of them armed with crude axes and clubs.
“It we take action, it will be a massacre” tried the priest, taking a step backward.
“Damn right it will be.” Said one of the guests, it’ll be you massacred by us. You’re a little bit outnumbered church boy.”
The crowd pressed forward and the unity of the church thugs was broken, first one, then a second dropped their weapons and raised their hands, leaving the spluttering priest alone with two hands clenched around the haft of his little club.
“Its over priest.” Called Myrtle. “Now fuck off, I’ve got a wedding to finish.”
The crowd seized the thugs, hauling off their masks to reveal young, inexperienced men who looked badly shaken. The priest was also grabbed, he attempted to club one of the guests but his baton was slapped aside and then the priest himself was slapped by a burly woman, causing him to drop the weapon.
With curses and cries of indignation the invaders were hauled outside and Sharon and Geoff looked at each other in shock and worry.
“Where were we?” said Myrtle to the couple “Oh yes, clasp hands and say, I do.”
Sharon and Geoff smiled and clasped hands, the rings on their fingers touching and their hearts beating in union, together they spoke the words.
As the missiles had rained down and the streets filled with screaming scummers, Maddox grinned.
Fires raged through the shacks and lean-tos of ScumTown and burnt and blistered body parts lay scattered like rose petals at a wake. Some "leaders" tried to organise the pathetic local populace to fight the building inferno, tried to rescue those trapped in their own decrepit hovels that they proudly called home.
Others had wailed about the end finally coming; Maddox had laughed in joy.
Where others saw hell on earth, where others saw death and disaster, Maddox saw opportunity.
The puffy contrails of another flight of missiles emerged over the horizon, prompting another wave of hysteria; Maddox chuckled to himself as he and his crew of loyal soldiers prepared themselves for a party like none before.
ScumTown was a cancer and today it was going to be cut from the face of the earth; but like all cancers it would come back and then, Maddox reasoned; he would be in charge.
"Let's go." He snarled to his crew and the bunch of burly, geared up mercs nodded their assent as they hefted weapons and adjusted body armour. Like Maddox, they were hard men; forged in years of televised pay per view death matches, black op assassinations and drug-cartel gang wars.
Like Maddox, they didn't fear the apocalypse, they welcomed it.
The avatars of war left the safety of their stolen van and stormed out into the street towards their first target; a flop house and brothel owned by a pimp called OT.
Like all of the locals he was a scummer by name and scum by nature, he'd risen to the top of a dubious heap by pimping girls, selling drugs and running protection; Maddox had told him before that one day all that would be his.
Today was that day.
A thug still stood guard outside OT's establishment, a worn out pub called The Land of Promise; Maddox didn't bother slowing or announcing himself as the thug turned towards his band of warriors; he just shot the idiot in the face; then again in the groin as the dumb guard slumped to the ground.
The door was open, OT's was always open for business and Maddox's band stormed through the narrow corridors, ignoring the side rooms until they emerged in the main bar.
Drunk and stoned patrons, too wasted to notice the bombing still lounged around in torpor while OT's hookers rushed about, preparing to leave and seek shelter. The old bastard wasn't to be seen but Maddox knew he'd be somewhere close and knew how to smoke him out.
"Waste 'em" he growled.
The crew opened fire indiscriminately, shotguns roared and Molotov cocktails were hurled, the bark of homemade rifles split the air.
Customers died where they leaned against the bar or were blown out of their creaking chairs; the pros screamed and dove for cover, a pair of bouncers rushed into the room from a corridor and Maddox unloaded a clip from his automatic pistol in their direction, pummelling the big men with bullets, exploding one's throat and the other's eye socket.
That should get their attention.
Shouts came from upstairs and Maddox nodded to his crew, they took up defensive positions and waited for OT and whatever pathetic counterattack he tried to muster.
They didn't wait long; a dozen or more scum flooded the room, armed with small arms and clubs, chains and knives; several carried crude shields made from sheet iron; forging their way through a storm of shotgun pellets and bullets.
"Their legs!" shouted Maddox, annoyed at the stupidity of his crew, he blasted away at one shield bearer's feet, causing him to fall forward and drop the pavise; then blew away his face.
He needed to change clips so he knelt behind a booth's upturned table.
Several of the hookers rose up from behind their cover, pulling out pistols from Church knew where, they took two of Maddox's crew by surprise, shooting Ronny in the neck and Jas in the guts; both went down.
"Dumb fucks" roared Maddox at the two fallen mercs, they deserved to die.
He unleased again, shooting the hooker who'd put down Ronny and causing the other to duck behind a table. He primed one of the grenades at his belt and tossed it over the cover; demolishing the bitch and her cover at the same time.
More of OT's thugs rushed into the room, how many did he have? These ones had shotguns and rifles and with two of the group down; Maddox's boys were sorely pressed.
There was no going back now; they'd take this shit-hole or die trying.
But it seemed like the new assailants weren't trying to exterminate Maddox's crew; they were trying to get the girls and wounded patrons out. Stupid, weak fucks; thought Maddox with relish; that would be the end of them.
The world exploded in light and Maddox fell back into the booth; something had gone off, a stun grenade or something; he wasn't sure. The bedlam in the main room escalated and he fired indiscriminately into the room, not caring who or what he hit.
The light faded and the unholy ringing in Maddox's ears subsided; he saw a great number of the girls had been spirited away; but several others were dead on the floor, along with dozens of patrons. Another of his crew was dead; Ormuz had had his head split open by a crude hatchet, still stuck in his brain. OT's thugs were gone.
The Land of Promise was his.
Organising whores was hard work; wherever OT had fled to he'd managed to take the most popular girls and boys with him, leaving Maddox with a selection of cheap floozies and worn out drug addicts. He'd press-ganged some more from the street, dozens of women made homeless by the airstrikes and the fires that were still smouldering were willing to do anything for a meal and a bed; even if they needed to share it with drunken customers.
Still, the money was rolling in and Maddox felt fine. There had been a bit of a problem with the crew, Yongo had wanted more than a five percent share and complained about why Maddox got seventy five; being stabbed in the balls had shut him up and Maddox had had him strung up on the roof aerials as a lesson to anyone else. If Maddox was prepared to do that to his own brother, no one else was going to step out of line.
Yongo had always been an idiot.
It was late at night and outside there were distant screams, seated in the second story office that had once been OT's Maddox didn't at first pay it much heed, but the noises intensified and came closer. He stood and looked towards the noise, the upper city still gleamed in the night; untouched by the missiles due to its defence systems.
But it wasn't, there was smoke rising in several places and Maddox was sure he could hear gunfire and the crump of explosives, along with strange roars like those of a tortured beast.
Those screams were getting closer.
Johnny D was standing guard in the office; Maddox nodded to him and issued an order.
"Find out what that fucking noise is, let me know."
Maddox wasn't a man to feel fear, but something made his skin crawl and he didn't like it. There were two sets of screams, the normal sort that Maddox usually heard, of fear, of pain, of suffering but there were others; animalistic shrieks of joy and hatred, the sort Maddox usually only heard from his own lungs.
Was it some sort of attack?
He peered out into the night and his brow furrowed as a mob of scummers emerged into view from the heavy shadows of ScumTown's wreckage. They were running, their eyes wild with fright. Maddox saw Johnny D down below, trying to pull one aside; he punched a woman in the face, bringing her down but none of the other fleeing scum stopped to help.
Maddox saw Johnny pull the woman to her feet and begin to say something; then he saw what the crowd had been running from.
Most of them were naked, or wearing the tattered remains of hospital shifts; a few wore the garb of SeaCorp security. All of them were armed with pipes or clubs or rocks clutched in bloody fingers; something was wrong.
All of them had eyes black as pitch, teeth elongated into fangs and nails grown long and twisted, all of them had strange shapes carved out of the flesh on their foreheads. Blood caked their mouths and gobbets of flesh shook between their teeth as the crazies screamed guttural curses and litanies of perverse prayers in a tongue Maddox knew well.
It was the speech of the Black Church.
Maddox had long been a follower of the occult, a believer in a life after death; he had no time for The One True Church's creed of Oblivion.
But to see this here, was baffling, it didn't make sense.
The crazies overran a pair of vagrants that were camped next to a trash fire and set upon them with weapons and teeth; Maddox stared at the gory murders and mouthed the words of the Black Gospel that had determined his actions for so many years.
"The earth shall be conquered with passion and hate, the twelve lords will arise and the secret faithful will be blessed."
Was the end truly beginning?
The missile strike, fires in the sky.
The devastation of the poor, the great cleansing
The wave of chaotic devastation, the earth shall be conquered with passion and hate.
It was true, it was his time. For all his adult life he had dreamed of this moment, he had practiced the art of death and ruin, now; he would rise and become one of the twelve lords of the end times.
Johnny crashed through the door.
"Boss, did you see, did you see?" he yelled, aghast.
"Yes, I did." Smiled Maddox at his old friend, then shot him thirteen times.
"Hallelujah" Maddox chuckled.
Maddox had ordered the Land of Promise closed as he prepared for his ascension, surely he would be rewarded for the years of his faithful devotion to the Dark Creed. No one he had heard of was as well versed in the forbidden scriptures as he was, but he needed to reclaim his unholy books and they were hidden across the desolation of ScumTown.
He'd watched daily as the calamity of the crazies continued outside; he had painted large protective runes across the pub's doors and walls using the blood of scummers hoping for shelter. The fools were nothing more than chattel to be traded and slain at his leisure, had the Dark Creed not promised as much? That all wants and desires would be granted to those that had but the strength to claim them?
The crazies were growing in number, they marauded throughout the ruins, pulling shrieking victims from shelters and hiding holes, leading Maddox to laugh in delight at the growing horror.
They were changing too, more of them were appearing, dressed in the clothes of both scummers and of people from the upper city; shambling, screaming crazies in ragged, torn suits bickered with mutated scum over crying victims as they dragged them away. The crazies had stopped their wanton massacres and now moved with purpose, in groups of five or seven, working together to restrain and carry their terrified prey.
Maddox wondered at this and at the way the crazies were changing, already some sported small horns, or were bulked with extra muscle unknown in a normal person. Occasionally he would spy an obesely changed crazy walking alone, shovelling any manner of detritus into a distended mouth.
Once he saw a woman in rags, beautiful beyond reckoning despite the twin ivory horns that curled from her brow; was she one of the twelve lords?
No, mused Maddox; she couldn't be. But upon seeing her he knew he must act soon or he would be forgotten and left here in this wretched, crumbling building he had once aspired to own.
He was made for greater things.
In a world where success was either bestowed or taken, he would seize power for himself.
With the taking of OT's business and the old scummer nowhere to be found, Maddox was the new employer of choice for thugs and killers as well as the host of lesser pimps and madams that OT had controlled. He'd assembled a team of eighteen hardened murderers, arsonists and maniacs to venture out into the pandemonium of ScumTown and find out what it was that had caused the crazies to appear.
He had his suspicions, it was well known that SeaCorp kept several subterranean facilities for its bio-weapons experiments in ScumTown and Maddox reasoned that the missile strikes had busted one or more of them open, allowing the freaks to escape. That didn't explain how their numbers had begun multiplying though, neither did it explain the way they were changing and becoming more organised. Maddox wanted that knowledge, he wanted that power and when he looked across ScumTown to the once pristine Upper City and saw the billowing smoke and the distant screams of distress and horror, he knew that they weren't in control of the situation.
Chances like this came once in a lifetime.
One of the arsonists, a former CorpSec guard called Braggs, knew of a vehicle depot he was sure would have been abandoned. Maddox knew what the CorpSec vans were like, big brutal boxes that were used to terrorize protesters and scummers alike; he liked the idea of having one for himself. Braggs had said how if there were still guards there, they'd be bunkered down and with all the shit going on outside; would be tempted to join up with Maddox if it meant a ticket out of the living hell they were stuck in.
Maddox didn't care whether they joined or died, but he did know he'd need something secure to get him across to the research labs he suspected sat on top of whatever place the crazies had come from, for that he'd need the van because he sure as hell wasn't going to be walking there through a shit-storm of epic proportions.
The raid was scheduled for the following night, a Tuesday, not that it meant anything at all when every day was a continuation of the insanity of the one before. Maddox gave his orders to his mob of goons and returned to his office to study the Dark Creed in his personal Black Church Bible.
The Creed had saved his life, he'd stumbled upon it as a youth serving time in one of SeaCorp's many private prisons. As other cons had turned to The One True Church for salvation, the young Maddox had instead fallen into a small group of men of more determination. Nothing, they said; could stop the control of all by those with the determination to seize it; nothing could prevent the strong from subjugating the weak and nothing could stop the apocalypse; when it came then the worthy and strong would rise above all others and those concerned with limitations, restraints and moderation would be forever doomed to servitude.
To a determined, yet impoverished youth such as Maddox, the words of these bitter men were sweet nectar, addictive and wholesome. They drove him to survive his first prison sentence and when released and brought back for murder; his second. He'd grown to manhood during that second stretch of time in the crowded cells of Yatala and when he'd been released he'd killed again so he could return and finish learning the secrets of the Dark Creed.
He remembered the day when the old man had smiled and said he now knew all there was to be learned and Maddox had smiled too as he drove a shank into the old man's kidneys, killing off the weak, just as the Dark Creed instructed.
He paused as he read through the tattered pages of the stolen bible, the one that had belonged to his mentor and wondered if the missile strike was just the omen that his time had come.
Surely it had to be, why else would the missile protection systems that guarded even ScumTown have failed? Those of the upper city had not. Unless, did someone else follow the Dark Creed too? Someone with the power to command the deliberate extinction of all of ScumTown?
Maddox sneered, curling his upper lip as he imagined which soft-bred, sycophantic pseudo-noble had thought it would be him to take control. No one was as determined or for that matter deserving to become one of the twelve.
Maddox laid back and closed his eyes, picturing a vista of death and chaotic violence, a throne and himself seated as the black lord of a burning realm of misery and torture.
It was not a nightmare, not for Maddox.
Waking while the sky was still dark, Maddox kicked awake his followers as they slept in the common bar room, surrounded by their chosen whores. They rushed about like the feeble cretins they were, his loyal scum, his ablative sacrifices on a road to supremacy. When the assembled again the moved out as the sun rose over the still burning Upper City and trekked across the devastated landscape of ScumTown on foot.
Maddox wore his combat armour, a mish-mash of stolen ballistic plates, kevlar, a slew of bandoliers stuffed with shells and throwing knives; he was a walking arsenal. His gang of miscreants were armoured in whatever they owned, scrappy Kevlar suits and vests, home-made iron gorgets and chest-plates and padded jerkins thick with grime and scum. Each of them had a firearm of some sort, some; like Braggs clutched combat shotguns, stolen after he had left CorpSec. Others like the Wilson twins had little more than crudely made blunderbusses, cobbled together from scrap to fire a storm of nails and screws. All of them had knives, crude hacking things made ugly to threaten as much as cut or stab but Maddox knew that they would do they job, they'd always served him well.
The streets were never usually empty of scum at this time, but the arrival of the crazies had changed things and little moved besides the scurrying rats and scavenging dogs that fossicked for corpse meat.
It was almost half an hour before they saw their first crazy; a bloated pig of a thing with a distended gut and teeth grown long and pointed. It was naked and covered in its own filth, its lardy belly jiggling as it dug in a pit of rotting offal, stuffing its mouth full of the decaying flesh it found.
Maddox's gang halted about twenty feet away from the hulk and it was minutes before it sensed them, lifting its bald head from its dire feast to sniff the air around it. It turned to the men, bloodshot piggy eyes gleaming hungrily as it looked them up and down; but it made no move to attack and Maddox wondered if perhaps the crazies were not so crazy after all.
"Do you speak?" called Maddox to the creature as it brushed clots of gore from the flesh of its chest; as if preparing itself for a second course.
The creature raised a bald eyebrow and rolled its tongue in its mouth before it spoke.
"I do, but being asked to speak is not what I expected of the unblessed." The thing smiled widely and waited.
Maddox's heart beat faster upon hearing the words spoken. "Blessed?" he asked, "Who or what had blessed you that you think you are our betters?"
The gang levelled weapons and prepared for the word, but Maddox raised his hand to hold their fire.
"You seek to know what gifts I have?" slurred the creature, standing straight and proud, its rolls of oily fat quivering as it moved. The abomination's confidence was unnerving, especially in the face of over a dozen loaded guns. Maddox saw one of his minions lick his lips in rising fear and made a note to sacrifice that pawn first; he had no time for weak minded cretins.
"Tell me everything." Ordered Maddox, rising his pistol to aim at the greasy creature's head.
"No" said the thing, "Let me show you."
And it opened its mouth wide.
A bilious fog belched outwards from the creature's maw; spreading to envelop Maddox's mob of thugs. Disgusted yet cautious, Maddox held his breath and kept his eyes on the monstrous crazy, but his minions were not so staunch and unwavering; all of them gasped in shock as the haze drifted over them, dragging in lungful's of the putrid stench. Maddox could feel his eyes burning and his skin itching and he narrowed his gaze, but still kept his sights on the abomination made flesh.
His followers were screaming, their lungs melted from within, the caustic exhalation burning through thin walls and infecting their blood; in ones and twos they fell to their knees, clutching their eyes and clawing at their own throats; digging deep wounds in their own flesh to try and escape the gaseous torment.
The creature lumbered forward towards Maddox, but its gaze held no malice, just amusement and that perhaps stayed his hand. Despite its bulk it made the distance in only a few short seconds and it waited for quiet as Maddox's band of killers expired in agony, their last gasps for help ignored, with their deaths the mist subsided, fading into the air.
"You are strong" the creature gurgled as it stood eye to eye with Maddox.
"I am." agreed the killer with a smile.
"You seek the truth?" grinned the crazy, its hollow black eyes boring silently into the darkness of Maddox's soul.
"I seek power." Maddox snarled.
"So, shall you have it." Whispered the beast.
Faster than Maddox could imagine he was gripped by the putrid thing and pulled forward towards its mouth; a tongue grey with rot and dripping maggots thrust forward, pushing its way between Maddox's lips and prying apart his jaws. Maddox tried to pull away but was paralysed by a noisome stream of bile and vomit that poured from the creature's mouth into Maddox's and down his throat, gagging insensibly he felt himself choking, his flesh and lungs on fire as acidic puke sloshed its way into his system. Maddox's eyes rolled back and he felt his body loosen with weakness as the creature let him fall to the ground among his dead minions. Visions assaulted Maddox once more, of decay and death and a universe of rotting corpses, working endlessly for an unseen lord, a god amongst fiends. Amongst the crowd of living dead Maddox saw his forgotten friends, his murdered brother, the parents he had fled; then he saw himself; emaciated, studded with open sores; a slave to an uncaring godling, nothing more than a memory of what he swore to be.
Not him, he was more than this, he was greater than this.
He was nothing.
Waking was a surprise for Maddox for he was sure he had been killed. He sat up from where he lay, atop a stone slab; cold and plain, covered in dried blood and decaying scraps of meaty remains.
His room was bare, there was no window and the single door unhandled slab of steel. Still, despite its solid nature Maddox could see scratches from nails and lines of dried blood where someone had tried to claw their way to freedom. Several of the walls bore similar marks but the concrete was polished hard and unyielding. Maddox snorted, knowing that he would not be so scared and driven to futile activity.
He was awake and alive and that meant that whatever the disgusting, rotten hulk had done to him had not killed him. Whether or not that was the purpose he had no idea but he did recognize that he must have been brought to this place and with a sneer of contempt for the universe he imagined he knew exactly where.
It was the lab he had been trying to reach. For whatever purpose he had been spirited here by his captor or by someone else; Maddox didn't overly care as it was simply more proof of his destiny. More proof that his Dark Creed spoke to him of his own ascendance and that his own rise to power was assured by the foul gods of Sin themselves.
He wasn't even held down or chained on the table, obviously his captors or saviours had no fear of him; he grinned as he decided they may regret that mistake.
His thoughts were interrupted as the door swung open without even a squeak and he was confronted by a figure of diabolical splendour.
Clad in silken black robes, staring at Maddox imperiously with soulless black eyes was a creature that could only have been a child of infernal glory. A pair of twisting horns crowned its head and its alabaster skin was luminescent with power. Maddox felt the blood drain from his face as he beheld majesty incarnate; utterly unable to summon a thought of attack or defence he knelt in submission.
Long moments of silence passed and Maddox felt his nose begin to drip blood as his head began to throb violently.
"You are Maddox" the devil said, quietly; its voice smooth and cultured, unhurried and unmoved.
"Yes." Sighed Maddox, his voice a mere croak.
"You have come seeking power, Maddox, that much is obvious; but how can you expect to seize power when even the least of my minions can render you defenceless?"
Maddox didn't know if the question was rhetorical or not, but he sensed his grand plan for glory slipping away with every word this dark lord spoke.
"There have been hundreds, if not thousands petition me and my fellows for a mere taste of the power you crave, Maddox. Do you think I have granted it to any of them?
Maddox could not even speak, his throat had run dry and he stared at the reflection of himself in the spreading pool of blood beneath his face.
"None, Maddox; none of them have been found worthy and so now they are nothing more than mindless soldiers within the army I shall use to conquer this worthless planet and take my righteous war to the heavens themselves."
The dark lord's attention seemed to drift elsewhere and Maddox was able to gasp a few words. "I am worthy." He managed.
The apparition approached, kneeling down in front of Maddox's prone form.
"Really? You haven't shown much spirit so far Maddox; however, it seems you have one thing many others here have not."
The devil grasped Maddox's chin in his hand and lifted his head to stare directly into his eyes.
"You have faith, Maddox and for that you have been chosen."
Maddox stared into the dark lords eyes' and knew perfect insanity.
He was assailed by visions which made his dreams of mad violence seem infantile in their simplicity, he knew miles of gardens of flesh trees, growing in the still writhing corpses of a billion desecrated souls, he saw legions of crazies throw themselves into the crucible of war, fighting an enemy of dire light and terrible discipline. He saw his dark lord atop a throne of bloody skulls and at his feet, bedecked in the panoply of war stood Maddox, proudly holding the standard of Hell itself, horns like those of a ram curling away from his temples, his skin stained red. He saw himself as the loyal right hand to a lord unwilling to sully himself with graceless combat, he saw his own legions of loyal drone warriors, soulless automatons whose existence was at his whim alone.
He saw his soul in a box, a trapped plaything for a lord displeased with the efforts of a minion, he saw the torment of light and flame and darkness, he saw himself eternally drowning in the black waters of an abyss and he saw the eternal slicing of his mortal flesh by jagged thorns.
He saw this was his choice, except it was no choice at all.
"I will serve." gasped Maddox.
The dark lord smiled and patted Maddox's head.
"Of course you will, like a good dog."
The sinister being turned away and left the cell, motioning for Maddox to follow him; Maddox did so without conscious thought, overwhelmed by the creature's majesty. They were obviously in some sort of cell block and as the pair passed dozens of featureless steel doors Maddox often heard whimpering or maddened muttering filter from the hairline cracks between metal and concrete.
The corridor twisted and turned and Maddox became disorientated, at one point the pair passed a group of hunched, mutated crazies; the nubs of horns growing on their foreheads and their spines sharp like those of a lizard or a fish's fins. The foul creatures bowed low at the dark lord's approach but narrowed their eyes and hissed at Maddox, he could feel their spite, loathing and envy.
Pride touched the edges of Maddox's conscience and the dark lord looked over his shoulder with a smile.
"You recover quickly, Maddox; this is why I have chosen to bestow upon you the gift of Essence in its most pure form."
Maddox couldn't help but ask, his voice was thin and desperate; like a man dying of thirst dropping his last cup of water. "What is Essence?"
The dark lord chuckled, a knowing laugh; he continued walking and answered simply. "You will find out soon, Maddox."
The pair came to the end of the corridors and entered a sequence of rooms. These had obviously once been patient observation, clinic and sitting rooms although now they were splashed in welters of blood and vivid streaks of excrement and gore; often painted into strange symbols and phrases that meant nothing to Maddox at all. Here and there they passed crazies, many armed with crude blades of sharpened steel or clubs made of furniture wrapped in wire and studded with glass. Many of the crazies had daubed or cut versions of the strange symbols onto or into their flesh and every one abased themselves before the dark lord as it approached. Maddox grinned now, his previous fear forgotten as he absorbed the hubris of his captor; again the dark lord chuckled, seemingly knowing Maddox's condition and enjoying it immensely.
The pair came to an elevator and the enigmatic devil man gestured for Maddox to enter, they descended for several minutes before arriving at what seemed to be a floor deep underground. The doors opened smoothly and Maddox eyes widened as he beheld what the room in front of him held.
It was a set of concentric circles, made of differing metals; with a central sphere seemingly constructed from a blurring, shifting mix of the same metals as the circle. The outermost circle rotated clockwise, the next counter clockwise and so on and the sphere seemed to rotate in every direction and yet hold still at the same time. Inscribed on every surface of the rings were the same tiny runes and sigils that Maddox has seen scrawled on the walls of the rooms above, intricately linked in long flowing script that linked one circle to the next, regardless of the rotations.
The entire room was suffused with an unearthly red glow and a deep bass throbbing sound issued forth from the contraption; mist bled from the hairline join between the innermost disc and the sphere, spilling a fine, creeping mist to pool across the floor. Peeking through the wafting clouds of the creeping cloud were golden lines leading to rune edged circles, like those of many of the rituals Maddox had performed in his following of the Black Bible.
The dark lord gestured again with a smile on his alabaster features and Maddox stepped across to the closest golden circle; he looked at the creature which had brought him so far and the dark lord nodded with a sly grin.
Maddox stepped inside.
Within moments pain paralysed him and the roiling mists snaked around his ankles and calves, riding up his thighs and across his gut and chest. It slithered across his motionless neck and poured itself down his throat as Maddox gasped for breath, unable to move at all. His eyes bulged as he felt it ram itself through the thin lining of his lungs and into his blood and then he felt fire; piercing, shooting flames of agony that cut at his nerves and scraped away at the soul of his being.
The dark lord stood in front of Maddox, an amused grin on his face and a feverish gleam in his eye.
"Soon my friend." He hissed.
Maddox could feel something shaping itself inside of him, a consciousness alien and yet familiar on the most primitive levels; a parasitic alien that wanted to force itself to the fore and reduce Maddox to a mere meat puppet.
He would not allow it, he would not submit.
The Machiavellian fiend in front of Maddox began to sneer in annoyance, its façade of complete control slipping and Maddox felt the invader inside of him growing desperate as it sought to break the barriers of his will.
Maddox's mouth slipped into a toothy grin. He was winning; he redoubled his efforts to force down the thing inside of himself, willing it into submission and promising it oblivion if it didn't.
"Azazeal?" whispered the black clothed devil, Maddox felt a chuckle in his throat; and then he laughed aloud.
"Is that its name?" he scowled as the creature inside of him whimpered in defeat. "Is this the name of the pitiful remnant that tried to use me as a vessel?"
The dark lord stepped back, aghast. "This is impossible, how can you resist the possession?"
Maddox stepped from the circle and glowered at his would be killer. "I have waited for this day for long, long years. I have promised myself that I will rise above all others and today, sin creature; you have given me the fuel to power that rise. For that, I should thank you. But I think I'll kill you instead."
The dark lord stepped back in horror and Maddox lashed out with a fist; he felt the infernal power of his parasite inside him and willed it to the fore, his fist gaining the momentum of a crashing avalanche as it bashed the dark lord backwards to fall in a tangle of robes and windmilling limbs. Maddox advanced, intending to destroy this pathetic creature and take its power for himself. The creature shrieked for help and almost immediately a shadowy form coalesced in the air, gaining size and substance, it was immense.
The shadow took on mass and became solid, a Taurean monster with clutching hands and a head bedecked with curving horns.
"Behemoth, protect me!" shrieked the dark lord.
The bull creature sneered contemptuously but strode forward regardless.
Maddox met it head on, siphoning power from the thing inside to build his own strength and resilience, Behemoth struck with a hammering blow that Maddox caught in both hands but which forced him down to kneel on the floor. It raised its arms for another smashing attack but Maddox rolled away and stood up. The dark lord had risen from the ground and now, its shock overcame; wove its hands in intricate patterns, muttering dark prayers that the creature inside Maddox squealed in fear at.
Maddox felt flush with power but knew he could not deal with both the physical assault of the Behemoth and with whatever esoteric fiendishness the other one produced. His thoughts flashed and the creature inside of him provided answers; a shadow gate, that is where we are strong. Maddox stole the power from his captive and wove it into the air, creating a disc of darkness leading to a world between worlds. As Behemoth strode closer, Maddox stepped through, tearing down the gate behind him and finding himself in darkness.
"Where am I?" he asked.
The thing inside him lingered sullenly and Maddox felt his anger rise.
"Where am I?" he asked again, focusing his spite inwards; driving his hate into the thing infesting his flesh.
The thing writhed under the emotional knives and Maddox received his answer.
"Between where?" Maddox thought
This time there was no struggle, the visitor in his meat bestowed its knowledge, of Between and the realms of Hell, of the Rules of Law and the desire to corrupt them, to shatter them and to forge the universe anew. Maddox drained the thing of its knowledge and understanding; using its esoteric might to build his own strength and leaving nothing for it to resist him with. His pride soared as he sucked hungrily at the power within himself, learning of the Essence and all that it was, of The Fallen and The Plan and all the other secrets that humanity had long ignored. He saw the place of The Black Bible and how it was the key to a new order of might and a promise of eternal life in flesh, not just in spirit.
Maddox knew all this and it was good.
Then, he searched deep within himself, finding the drained husk of the creature that would have stolen his flesh and he took from it, its very name and those of the dark lords
Azazeal, Asmodeus, Belial, Behemoth, Cimeres....... Others that waited in the shadows. It took this knowledge and decided that it would not seek to be one of equals, he would be one above all.
He would be God.
Survey Station 12
Randy Glitchman knelt down in the lapping waterand squinted at the vegetation sloshing around his feet.
The shoreline on which he worked was on the northern side of the Heard Island, previously an icebound rock in the middle of the ocean but now a fast changing hotspot for ecological researchers, geologists and other scientists.
“Brown, take a look at this.” He called to his companion.
Verity Brown wandered over unhurriedly, her bright yellow overalls contrasting with the grey skies overhead.
“What is it?” she asked, her curiosity reflected by the tone of her voice.
“This weed, look at it.” said Glitchman, poking a mass of the rubbery stuff with a gloved finger.
“It looks thicker than normal.” noted Brown, kneeling down beside her companion.
“It certainly is, and look at these spines; its as if it is evolving defences against something.”
Brown shrugged. “What would want to be eating wire kelp?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” said Randy, mystified. “I’m going to take a sample and bring it back to the labs, what’s the water temperature?”
Brown paused for a moment then fished an instrument out from the utility belt around her waist. She plonked one pointed end into the water near the weed and exclaimed. “It’s about a degree and a half more than normal. What on earth?”
“Its as if the kelp itself is generating heat.” Mused Glitchman, “come on, let’s get back and we’ll find out more in bit.”
Research Station 12 was nestled into the dubious shelter of the slopes of Mawson Peak. A cluster of huts, modified shipping containers and biodomes it was a hold out for the Australian government’s dying scientific endevours. Luckily for the researchers though Research Station 12 was pretty much self sufficient, with generous grants during its inception meaning it could produce its own power and as a result manufacture the food and water supplies needed to sustain the dozen people who called the station home.
All of the researchers knew that their efforts would go unnoticed, all of them knew that if they drew too much attention to themselves they would risk being closed down entirely even though they were effectively independent from any of the remaining government departments and were certainly not involved in the corporate research facilities that were clustered across Antarctica itself.
The lack of acknowledgement didn’t bother Randy Glickman any more. Initially he had been angry but over the last six months or so, he’d learned to wash his hands of any thought of responsibility to society. After all no one had listened to the scores of scientists who had warned about climate change or about drilling in the Antarctic or about the economic effects of ignoring entire swathes of the population.
He was content now just learning for the sake of understanding himself, it was almost as if he was an outsider looking at a microcosm of the entire ecology of the planet simply by isolating one small piece.
It was as if he had an eye on the entire world.
Randy bent over the microscope and looked at the sample of kelp.
It did have spines, tiny prickly hairs studded the frond of the plant, unlike any other kelp in the area, but that was only half of the surprise. Around the kelp’s surface swam a plethora of tiny plankton sized creatures unlike any that Glickman had seen before.
“Brown, are you seeing this?” asked Glickman without looking up.
“I certainly am, Randy.” Verity Brown replied. “I’ve never seen these ones before. Plankton?”
“It looks like it, but I’ve got no idea what sort.”
Silence descended on the little lab as the two researchers continued to stare at the minute creatures that jittered across the glass plates under the microscopes.
Glickman gasped with wonder as something happened infront of his eyes, observing the spines of the kelp he saw a tiny bubble erupt on its surface and a half dozen of the little plankton creatures spilled out from inside the plant’s interior, drifting away. In response the tiny hole of the kelp closed over and elongated into a tiny spine.
“It’s a response,” Randy exclaimed. “The spines are a response to the plankton being birthed.”
“What?” called Verity, “How is that?”
“The plankton are using the kelp as an incubator, when they are birthed the plant responds by producing a spine.”
“There’s thousands of spines on each leaf, how long has this been going on?”
“I don’t know,” chortled Randy joyously, “But it looks like we are seeing evolution in action.”
“I’ll call the others in.” shouted Verity as she stood up and left the room.
The little lab was crowded with the dozen researchers of Survey Station 12. Each of them had looked at the wire kelp spawning the tiny plankton type creatures and the room was noisy as the companions exchanged theories and ideas about what they were seeing.
It turned out though that the changes in the kelp and the mysterious new plankton were not the only things happening. Olga Koleshkno had returned with observations of seals exhibiting strangely aggressive behaviour and being much more mobile on land, she had lost one of the expedition’s sled dogs to a seal that had exploded from the sea and dragged the canine back under the sea ice within seconds.
Kwazami had taken samples of a moss that seemed to drain heat from its surroundings; a situation as perplexing as the wire kelp that generated heat.
Gomer had filmed a flock of gulls that behaved like pack hunters, harrying a stranded seal pup and attacking it like hyenas, gradually pulling the creature apart before they feasted like crows on its still warm corpse.
Individually the changes were strange and perhaps disturbing, but together all of the researchers agreed that great changes were afoot.
“These changes will revolutionise our understanding of evolution.” Exclaimed Robertson, the eldest of the group.
“No one’s even going to find out old man,” retorted Kwazami, “the only people who care about this shit is us.”
Verity rolled her eyes and grinned at Randy, “It doesn’t matter.” She says. “Even if the rest of the world doesn’t care it justifies us and our decision.” She paused and made sure everyone was listening before continuing. “My friends, life on Earth is changing, the environment itself is undergoing some kind of metamorphisis and all of the things we have taken for granted are going to be in flux.”
There were murmurs of agreement across the room.
“Perhaps we aren’t going to find out exactly what has triggered these changes, perhaps it doesn’t actually matter for us, but it does tell us that our species is no longer in control.”
More murmurs of agreement, some with notes of concern.
“Personally, I think that is a good thing.” She finished.
Glitchman stood up from his chair to speak.
“I agree with Verity, we’ve been doing this a long time; some of us” he said pointing to Robertson, “A very long time.”
There were a few chuckles and Robertson raised his hand in thanks.
Randy continued. “But we’ve seen that our own species seems unable to control itself well enough to be trusted with the guardianship of our planet and I think that what we are seeing here today is a great relief to us, nature is reasserting its influence over the planet and that may mean great upheavals across the eco-sphere. We face a choice, my companions, do we attempt to inform the rest of our species that nature is taking the future of our planet into our own hands or do we simply wait for it to assert itself?”
“We should tell the others,” said Robertson. “As scientists that is our responsibility.”
“Fuck em.” Shouted Kwazami, “This whole world has been ruined by greed. The best thing we can do is let nature hit the reset switch and start again.”
After a moment of shocked silence there were murmurs of agreement. The researchers, once idealistic believers in humanity and science had grown jaded and frustrated in their self-imposed isolation. They kept up to date with what happened in the greater world, their communication technology wasn’t lacking even if their enthusiasm to communicate themselves was.
Every day the twelve companions saw the world devolving ever further into a mire of wars fought for profit, misery and exploitation and often a morose fugue had settled over their spirits. Strangely, seeing the bizarre events on the isolated island around them filled them with apocalyptic hope that the worst traits of humanity would be brought into line by the awesome might of unstoppable natural forces.
There was a bang on the door.
The loud conversation stumbled to a stop as the residents of Survey Station 12 turned to look at one another and then the door.
The door banged again and a loud grunt issued from the other side.
“Who is that?” asked Kwazami.
“Or what?” continued Ericson.
The door banged a third time and Robertson started towards it.
“Well, we can’t let whoever it is freeze out there.” He quipped.
He opened the door and was immediately set upon by the thrashing bulk of an elephant seal. It’s visage was covered in blood and its eye’s rolled wildly in its head.
“Bloody hell.” Swore Kwazami.
Robertson had been knocked to the floor and the seal hurled itself bodily atop him, crushing the old man under layers of blubber. Behind the leader three more of the huge male seals jostled each other to get into the tiny lab as the remaining eleven researchers pushed against each other on the far wall.
“Get the rifle.” Shouted Kwazama over the din of the roaring seals and screaming, terrified researchers.
Of course no one could get the rifle, it was locked away securely in a safe in another building, with the three bull elephant seals crowding the doorway there was no way out of the room at all.
“Smash the windows.” Urged Randy, picking up a stool and banging it against the double glazed plexiglass.
The plastic seat bounced off the window ineffectually as the first elephant seal lumbered further towards the eleven researchers, the other two clambered into the room behind it like a tide of rampaging gristle and teeth.
“What’s wrong with them?” shrieked Verity, “Seals don’t attack like this.”
Frustration overwhelmed Randy as he gave up trying to smash the window, instead he stepped forward and clobbered the elephant seal across the face with the stool. The creature roared in anger and reared back, its head scraping the roof of the lab.
“Rack off you bastard” snarled Randy as he smacked the seal again.
Brown was looking for a way out but the two other seals had now pushed their way forward, shouldering aside tables and chairs to threaten the researchers where they huddled against the opposite wall. She could see Robertson’s twitching body on the ground, crushed so badly as to be almost unrecognisable, Randy was still holding off the seals with determined swipes of the chair and now with their initial terror overcome the other researchers were attempting to help.
The second elephant seal, larger than the first lunged forward to bite at Randy but the first seal got in its way, confounding the attack. The pair of seals turned on one another in frustration; snapping and bawling at one another.
Brown saw their chance.
“Go, around the side.” She scampered around the thrashing creatures, avoiding a desperate lunge by the third seal across the bodies of its competitors. Most of the other researchers followed suit except Ericson who remained paralysed against the wall.
Now the three bull seals were fighting each other in earnest and the human victims were forgotten, the researchers spilled out into the open space between the ring of buildings looking about for a place they would be safe.
“Where do we go?” shouted Kwazami.
“To the lookout.” Gasped Brown as rising wind froze her breath, “Seals can’t climb.’
The researchers struggled away from the camp towards the lookout that was perched higher on the peak some three hundred metres away. The ground was only covered by a little snow but it was often icy and the rocks were jagged.
Behind the group the first of the elephant seals burst from the lab, Ericson’s screams echoing from the open doorway, Brown looked back in horror but Randy dragged her forward again.
“Come on, we have to get out of here.”
The ground sloped up swiftly and the researchers had to climb several ladders fastened to the steep hillside. The seals were still in pursuit but there was nothing they could do to climb the ladders.
The first of the terrified fugitives reached the platform of the lookout, Kwazami threw open the door to the small building and almost fell inside, the others followed.
Randy was last, he slammed the door behind him and locked it for good measure.
“What the hell happened?” bawled Kwazami.
Brown just shook her head.
“I have no idea.” Muttered Glitchman, “but something’s not right with the world and I think this is just the beginning.”
Erica wished she hadn’t taken a short cut.
The crumbling walls of tenements loomed on either side of her as she felt her way through the gloom of ScumTown’s northern reaches.
She lived nearby but the inky darkness and rough ground made every step seem like a marathon in itself.
Virtually blind, her other senses tried to take over; she heard the rapid beating of her heart and her nose drained the air of scents, the dry, tired smoke of a dying fire, the cloying sickness of rotting food, the thickness of mould spores from wet walls that never saw full daylight.
It wouldn’t be long, she told herself and she would be home.
Erica was lucky, home was nearby; a comfortable little shack shared with her sister Nessa in a community of other muck farmers. The muckers, as they were known; grew cockles in the muddy silt of the flooded northern plains, a simple living but one that was peaceful and provided enough to get by.
Erica had journeyed into the ScumTown markets to sell a bag stuffed full of the little shellfish and she had collected enough cash from her sales to perhaps pay someone to put in some modifications to her roughly built home.
The night clung to her skin; she wished she hadn’t stayed so long in the market place now; even if it had meant she’d sold all the cockles. She had worried about missing the communal dinner and at the time taking a shortcut through the tenements seemed like a reasonable idea, night hadn’t fallen then.
She paused to get her bearings, the cloudy sky obscured the moon and stars and only the broken tops of the tenements were lined with the soft glow of lights reflected from the Upper City, far away on the hills. Erica couldn’t see the hills though, the tenements seemed to go on for miles, blocking out all light and sucking away all comfort.
She toyed with the idea of taking shelter inside one of the expansive buildings but dismissed the thought almost as quickly, the tenements weren’t the homes of honest folk; they were the domain of waxer addicts and pushers and the gangs that preyed on them. A nice girl like Erica wouldn’t last long, even for a single night.
She kept stumbling along.
One hand clenched the worn old purse that had her day’s earnings inside, the other reached out before her, she could barely see her own hands and was making her way almost by sense rather than sight.
What was that?
Erica stopped again and listened, hearing only the beating of her blood in her ears, seeing only darkness and deeper shadows.
She walked forward again, each footstep a slow lowering of one leg in front of the other, the gravel and desiccated rubble beneath her feet crunched shockingly loudly, although Erica knew it was nothing more than the dread silence that magnified the sounds.
She paused, what was that?
Erica looked around in the darkness, unable to penetrate the murk with her sight no matter how tightly she squinted or how hard she peered.
“I’m not afraid of you.” Erica called to the darkness.
There was no answer.
She exhaled and after a moment turned around to keep walking, telling herself to stop jumping at shadows.
Erica almost cried out in relief as the moon peaked out from the edge of the towering tenements and the rubbish-strewn streets around her were bathed in its silver light.
Gosh, the tenements were ugly. With the moonlight shading everything in grey it looked like a bad memory, or a half forgotten dream. Erica looked behind her as she walked a little faster.
What was that?
Something stood in the shadows, waiting in the place where she had walked minutes ago. It was upright but she wasn’t sure if it was a person, it was too hunched over, too wide.
She gasped and walked faster, bending down to scoop up a fist sized chunk of rubble, thinking to use it as a weapon if the stalker got too close.
She wasn’t going to be scared, she was better than this.
She looked behind again and the figure was gone. Good, she thought.
But where had it gone?
Clouds rolled across the sky and shrouded the moon; casting the street back into darkness. A shiver ran down Erica’s spine and the fine hair on her arms prickled. She gripped the rock a bit tigheter with one hand, clutching the purse with the other.
Where was it?
She stumbled forward, catching her toe on a jutting chunk of bitumen and had to let go of the rock to steady herself. Her breath quickened and she spun around, fearful she would be caught without a weapon to defend herself with. She stared into the darkness again, searching the darker corners of the streets for the hunched thing that stalked her.
She could see nothing.
Carefully she bent over and retrieved her rock, holding its weight in her hand made her feel reassured, she knew that with the rock she had a chance. Without a weapon she was too small, too weak to fight against the bulky thing in the darkness.
The clouds rolled on and the hope giving light of the moon returned.
There was nothing.
Erica walked on.
The streets became wider and Erica felt a flood of relief as she approached the edge of the maze of tenements. She could see the reflected light of the moon on the briny, shallow sea of the salt flats and the distant glow of drum fires.
Her steps became more determined as she moved onward and she was at the edge of the water when she turned to look behind herself, one last time.
It was there.
Standing in the shadow of tenements, she felt its unseen eyes boring into her soul. It carried a staff or a spear topped with jagged, black glass that gleamed malignantly in the grey light and its arms were uneven and gangly.
She could not see its face, only broad shoulders set around a hunched neck and cloth swaddled head.
Erica gasped and began to wade into the shallow waters. She would not walk around to the spit, she craved the safety of the fire.
She looked behind her again; the creature was gone. Surely, it would not follow her now.
Ripples spread around Erica’s hurried steps as she slogged across the muck, the water rimmed with silver. She could hear the voices and laughter of the people around the fires.
Was that her sister’s laughter?
Relief flooded into Erica’s heart as she thought of her sister, smiling and laughing, how pleased would she be when Erica showed her the money she had earned.
Tomorrow she’d go back to the markets and sell more cockles, if they kept selling like this then the girls would be set.
The world tumbled around her as Erica was pulled off her feet. Her rock dropped from her hands along with her purse as she tried to break her fall, but the shallow water did it for her.
She went under, feeling her feet being pulled away even as her head was submerged and smashed against the mucky seabed. She screamed, opening her mouth to the cloying brine which flooded her mouth and tried to get into her lungs.
Erica rolled, she felt a tightness around her ankles, not hands, something else. Tightening with a cruel grip that cut into her skin.
Her legs were pulled high and Erica’s face dragged across the muddy sea floor, she pushed up with her arms to take a breath.
She gasped as her head broke free and tried to look at her attacker, salt burned her eyes and all she could see was a looming shadow, hunched and broad.
Guttural laughter chided her and her ankles were whipped around until she lost her purchase and she was driven under the water again. She gulped water and then air as she was hoisted upwards again.
This time she was not forced back into the water, she was struck hard across the face, by something thick and misshapen.
“Stop it.” growled a voice, slurring and clumsy.
Despite herself, despite the panic and growing fear Erica stopped and looked around herself. She hung in the air like a fish on a line but she saw it clearly for the first time.
It was a man.
Dressed in tattered clothes, hunched and with a face covered in bandages; she could still see the all too human eyes that stared at her.
“Let me go.” She choked as water poured from her throat and lungs.
“No.” growled the thing and dumped her into the water again.
Erica’s head hit the bottom once more and in the cold muck of the water, she saw stars before her eyes. She was hoisted aloft once more and in her delirium, Erica heard more shouting and distant splashing.
Someone was coming.
“Help.” She cried, her effort burning her throat.
The stalker hissed and pulled her close.
“I’ll see you again.” It promised; its breath hot and rotten.
Then, with a swing of a knife, it cut the line that held her to its staff and crashed away, leaving Erica to sink beneath the muddy slurry a final time.
Many hands grasped her, pulling her up into the night.
“Erica, is that you?” her sister.
“What was that thing?”, “Is she okay?”, “Let’s get her home.”
Erica heard the voices but had no words, all she could think of was the eyes of the thing that had stalked her, all she could think of was its promise.
“I’ll see you again.”
Another day was over and William closed his eyes in relief. Like the other hundreds of workers on the plantation, his back was in agony after a fifteen-hour shift pruning the vines of the coda plants.
William was proud to work on the plantation; it was one of thousands carpeting the plains of the Central American territories and he was part of a long family tradition of people working the land. In truth he had little choice in the matter as he was born into servitude, but his life was stable and more importantly, safe.
Watchtowers overlooked the plantation and as night fell spotlights were readied to sweep the tangles of genetically engineered plants to ensure not a leaf was stolen by scavengers.
William hated scavengers but it wasn’t his role to protect the crops from their thievery, that was the job of CorpSec; the armoured guardians of his livelihood. Many people felt scared when they were scrutinized by the faceless mercenaries but for William they provided a comforting reliability.
The farmers made their way towards the flatbed trucks that would drive them back to the village; William took his place and squeezed in close to his silent companions. He looked at their faces, dry and dirty, gazes blank and thinking of whatever it is they thought of in these rare moments of leisure.
The flatbed started up with a guttural roar and moved away in a cloud of peaty dust. Like the other workers, William pulled his handkerchief across his face to prevent himself choking on the swirling filth. The ride to the village was over an hour long through the coda plantations and William took the time to close his eyes and catch a bit of sleep.
Arriving at home was a welcome relief. He was met at the door of his plastic sheet shack by his two children, still in their work clothes. Andre was six and Michele ten, both had already begun working on the coda production line, sorting the leaves so they could be refined into waxer.
William bent down and gave the children warm hugs and they reciprocated with weary embraces. William held down a grimace at their weakness, they would learn to appreciate their place on the farms in time; as he had done.
The tiny one room shack was filled with the steam of cooking tubers, the plastic sheet walls covered in condensation. William pulled one of the sleeping mats away from the wall, the condensation and heat would make it mouldy if left touching.
“Hello, William.” Smiled Lucinda, William’s wife of eleven years.
She was still beautiful, although her time in the waxer refinery meant she had a series of small scars around her forehead where her work mask didn’t cover. Waxer refinement created a caustic mist during its drying process and the women who worked in the refinery usually sported scars where weeping sores had finally healed.
“Hello, beautiful.” Grinned William, giving his wife a kiss on the cheek.
William took his place at the bench by his wife’s side and begin to slice off several slivers of dried liver, making sure not to take too much as the sweet meat would have to last the family until the end of the following week. Buying the meat from the company store was expensive, but William knew that his children needed to keep their strength up; too many little ones died during work from exhaustion or from broken bones which didn’t heal fast enough.
The children moved around the sitting area, tidying up the pallet furniture and thin blankets so that the family could sit down together and eat.
“All ready.” Sighed Lucinda in relief as she placed the steaming tubers in their plastic bowl and lowered onto the floor mat that served as a dining table. Four of the vegetables were placed aside for a cold breakfast the following day.
Willaim joined the family with his plate of sliced liver and sat down, his back still aching from the day’s work.
“Can I say Grace, daddy?” asked Michelle.
“Of course.” Smiled William, proud that his daughter was already so mature and responsible.
She began the prayer. “Dear One True God, thank you for this meal, thank you to SeaCorp for providing our family with employment and helping us to serve the wishes of the Profit. Without you we would be nothing.”
“Amen” said William.
“Amen” repeated the rest of the family.
The family ate in silence, it was getting close to lights out and there was little time to waste on such pleasantries as conversation.
“Good food” smiled William as he shoved the last of his tubers into his mouth, Lucinda smiled appreciatively.
The family hurriedly scrubbed their plates clean with the sand set aside and prepared for sleep. The children moved the sleeping pallets back into the middle of the room and everyone stripped down, placing their tattered clothes into neat piles for the next day.
With everyone tucked in, William reached out to the button that would turn off the power for their little tent home.
“Good night my loves.” He said. “And Profit bless SeaCorp.”
It was still dark outside when the dwelling’s lights turned on automatically, strobing for several minutes as the family awoke and pulled on their clothing. The four left-over tubers were passed around and everyone ate quickly, making their way outside to the central pickup location. Dozens of others were there, still rubbing tired eyes and yawning as they readied themselves for a day of labour in the fields and factories. William saw his friend Joe and reached out to shake his hand; the two men shared a smile and then stood next to each other, Joe nodding towards the approaching line of flatbeds that would take them to work.
“The weather looks good today.” He said, satisfied.
“It does, we should be able to get a lot of cuttings done; the company will be pleased.”
The lorries pulled up and William waved goodbye to his wife and children as they set off towards their own designated transports. Joe helped William get up on the truck and within minutes it was on its way to the plantation, this early in the morning the dirt hadn’t dried to a powder and so William could forego his face mask. It was good to feel the crisp air of morning filling his lungs.
Life was good these days, so much better than back in Texas.
William reflected on his last few years in the former USA, before his family had fled here to Nicaragua. The crashed economy, the constant food shortages and nation wide riots, the government has ceased to be an effective agent years ago and the only order came at the end of a CorpSec baton. SeaCorp had been their saviour, enlisting everyday folk to come and work on the farms and plantations in Central and South America, huge tracts of land under corporate control, territories bought from tin-pot dictators and drug lords.
A new life for hard working citizens like William.
It hadn’t been easy of course, the early dreams of owning a big family home on an acerage had given way first to hoping for an apartment, then to having a solid roof over his family’s heads. At least they had a roof though, even if it was a plastic sheet. At least working here for SeaCorp they were safe from the violence that had swept over the land of William and Lucinda’s birth.
William watched the fields of coda plants roll by, it still astounded him how fast the genetically engineered plants grew and how durable they were. He wondered if it was possible to grow plants that would be tastier then the tubers the farmers lived on, he supposed it didn’t really matter. He should be grateful that his family had been saved at all.
The flatbed slowed to a halt and William was jerked from his reflection, he took another look at the sky; it was going to be a fine day indeed.
The men walked across to where they would pick up the tools used in the fields, they weren’t allowed to take them back to the camps for fear of violence or suicide, the same reason why farmers didn’t wear belts. While William appreciated all he had been given, others found themselves worn down by the toil and the conditions. They were weak though and to be perfectly honest, unhuman.
Taking up a pair of pruning shears, William made his way through the fast growing stands of coda plants to where he had finished working yesterday and began clipping away the excess growth. He was quick, he had to be, but he was also careful not to let the thick oozing fluid of the plants sit on his skin for too long; coda juice was caustic and laden with the narcotic agents for which it was harvested. Many farmers had fallen victim to its addictive qualities and had been removed from the farms, executed like common criminals as the law dictated. There was to be no stealing from the company. William respected the law, he was and always had been a diligent, patriotic and loyal citizen, first to the USA and now to SeaCorp.
The work continued for several hours and it was during the heat of the afternoon that William was stirred from his concentration by a commotion across the fields. People were shouting and calling out and as William strained to see across the fields, he saw the guards on the watchtowers pointing at the sky and preparing missile launchers. William looked towards where they were pointing and saw the reason for their distress; a fleet of fast moving VTOLs, military class aircraft, scudded towards the farm. They were close enough that snub-nosed cannons and missiles could be seen under the stubby wings.
They were under attack.
It wasn’t unheard of, occasionally rival corporations would launch raids on the properties of their competition but William had never witnessed an attack himself, not here in the heart of SeaCorp territory.
Farmers ran across the fields in a panic but William could see that they weren’t the targets, the fields themselves were. Still over a kilometre away the VTOLs began dropping payloads of incendiary bombs, sending billowing sheets of flame across the coda plants. William ran, his gaze snapping upwards as a nearby guard tower unleashed a barrage of anti-aircraft fire towards the raiders.
An air-raid siren began to wail and William continued his flight, he saw Joe running too and shouted out to his friend. Joe responded by pointing towards one of the flatbeds that was waiting nearby. William immediately understood, they could use the flatbed to get to safety.
The first incendiaries dropped on the farm. Wind rushed past William’s face as the air was sucked from the air to feed to spreading flames. Joe had reached the flatbed, along with a trio of other farmers; Joe held open the cabin door for William and they both climbed inside.
The keys had been left in the ignition and Joe wrenched them around to start the truck. The rear platform clattered as other farmers piled on, hoping to get to safety. The flatbed roared to life and Joe planted his foot on the accelerator, William was thankful to the Profit that Joe knew how to drive, many other farmers didn’t including William himself.
There were cries as the rapid departure saw farmers fall off the edge of the flatbed and be left behind but Joe wasn’t stopping. William knew that if they stayed they would be burnt to death and that was pointless. He risked a look behind, the fields were fully alight now and the guard towers had been abandoned, the attacking VTOLs lazily circled, dropping more bombs and occasionally firing a fusillade of cannon fire towards groups of farmers fleeing on foot.
Why would they do such a thing? Thought William, couldn’t they see that the farmers were simple folk. He worked for SeaCorp, sure; but he didn’t deserve to be killed for it, he was just trying to feed his family. He grew angry as they sped past more burning fields, driving back towards the camp for lack of anywhere else to go.
“I have to check on my family.” Said William quietly.
“We both do.” Agreed Joe, “We need to get to processing.”
The men’s determination to ensure their families were safe quickly turned to despair as they saw smoke billowing over the trees. The VTOLs had already been to the processing plant and as they drew nearer the men passed ragged bands of blackened and burnt factory workers fleeing the devastation. Many were covered in chemical scalds and shrapnel wounds. As the friends got closer to the industrial zone blackened corpses replaced the fleeing bands of women and children, some smouldering from being set on fire. There were no guards present.
“I have to find my family.” Repeated William, frantic at the idea that they could all be dead.
“I know, I know.” Shouted Joe.
The farmers who had been clinging to the flatbed started to jump away from the truck, running towards different parts of the factory complex and calling the names of their loved ones. Joe drove towards the building where both his wife and William’s worked. Flames leapt from the squat buildings and parts of the steel structure had collapsed entirely.
“No, no, no, no, no.” muttered William as he jumped from the cabin and ran towards the collapsed part of the factory. William knew that was where Lucinda worked and seeing it no more than a shattered wreck drove him to the point of insanity.
The flames around the ruin were intense, the heat blistering William’s face as tears washed across his face.
“No.” he said again and then sank to his knees, sobbing.
The fires had burned for two whole days and William had spent them searching for his wife and children. He knew from the outset that Lucinda must have perished but he held out hope for the little ones; that was until he heard that the children were in the sorting rooms where the very first bomb had dropped.
Like his wife, they were gone.
Now William sat in his home, the lighting off, the little stove cold. He felt empty inside. What did he have left?
He had his work.
In the morning, William stood in the darkness waiting for the flatbeds to arrive as they always did.
One by one, workers started to arrive, many red eyed or covered in soot. William didn’t care that only half of the workers came at all. He would get by as he always had, one day at a time.
Only a single flatbed came to the meeting point, it was enough. The farmers climbed on board slowly today, as if in a dream and as the vehicle rolled away towards the farm.
There was a lot of work to be done, its what the Profit would have wanted.
The Big Show
“You know what feels good?” said Blair Jackson adding a dumb laugh before finishing, “The feeling of your balls against your legs when you haven’t blown your load for a few days.”
The statement, made in the crowded crew cabin of a bouncing security van provoked chuckles as well as groans.
“The fuck Jackson?” replied Matty B, laughing aloud.
One person who wasn’t amused or impressed was Lieutenant Sarah Carson; the gum chewing, brutally scarred commander of the assault team; she sneered at the crude attempt at humour.
“What?” laughed Jackson, his mouth wide in mock surprise; “Don’t tell me you don’t like it too boss.”
Carson narrowed her eyes beneath the visor of her tactical helmet and Jackson looked away, unwilling to antagonise his commanding officer any further.
“Been told, boy.” Laughed trooper Beck, the oldest in the crew and still never promoted. Beck was a good fighter, hard and gnarled; but he lacked even the vaguest hint of charisma, so would never even reach the rank of corporal.
“Fuck off, old man.” Snapped Jackson but lowered his eyes again as Carson’s lip curled at his poor restraint.
Carson left it there and instead addressed the team on the situation instead.
“Listen up, we’re expecting some low quality gangers and a few heavy guns as we progress forward. Normal deployment, two by two; watch corners and try not to kill too many civvies.”
As she drew breath to continue most of the team members except a still surly Jackson sniggered; there were always civvie casualties, the team’s bosses didn’t care but the announcement got made every time they went out regardless.
“Shut it,” growled Carson, despite her own growing bloodlust. “We all know this place is dirt-bag central but seriously, look alert because it only takes one kid with a pea-shooter to get a clean shot and you’re rat food. Don’t get sloppy.”
The team knew the drill and Carson knew they knew it, mostly the speech was for show; the tiny camera drone currently sitting on a rack was recording the antics for pay-per-viewers at home and the team knew if there wasn’t civilian casualties and collateral damage the viewers wouldn’t be happy. If the viewers weren’t happy then they wouldn’t tune in next time and that would cut into the crew’s bonus. Officially they got a bonus for not causing collateral, but it was wildly offset for their entertainment bonus, paid for by a separate arm of their employer, SeaCorp.
Matty B adjusted his helmet mic as the rumbling of the armoured cab’s engine changed tone, it was slowing down. He gave Carson a cheeky wink, she sneered at him; another moment for the viewers at home to wonder about.
The cab chugged to a halt and the rear doors flung themselves open on pneumatic hinges. The team of four jumped out, assault weapons ready; Matty B and Beck in the lead, Carson and Jackson behind. As they formed up another two troopers joined them from the driver’s cabin; Osolot and his sister Mexi. Both of the twins wore lighter armour than the first four warriors but carried packs of special equipment instead.
Carson looked at the slums ahead, this wasn’t ScumTown; they had been flown half a world away to some shanty city filled with the sorry arse refugees from a dozen failed states.
“Find the objective and neutralize it.” called Carson to her crew as the little camera drone circled around the warriors, panning to each in turn. Carson could imagine that for the viewers at home little title screens and kill count information would be appearing on their tele-screens. Betting information would be spooling down one side, encouraging watchers to place a wager on who would live or die or who would kill how many of what. Carson had already placed her own bets before she left; someone in her crew wouldn’t be making it home, that was for sure.
Shouts issued from the buildings around them as warning were spread about the impending assault. Matty B grinned ferally for the camera drone, lapping up the imagined attention his hyperbolic antics would provide.
“Time to kick some scummer ass.” Whooped Jackson, racking the slide on his overly large combat shotgun.
“Move forward.” Grunted Carson, chopping the air with her hand.
The crew snuck forward, sticking to the cover of skip bins and debris as they closed on the front door to the barnacle clusters of slum dwellings where they would complete their mission.
Carson snuck a peek at the corner of her heads up display, the little number next to the stylised eye icon letting her know that her operation was currently being viewed by over fifty thousand watchers; not her best effort but it was still early days yet. She’d give them the entertainment they craved and perhaps the producers would slip a little something extra into her pay-packet. That was the hope anyway.
The loud crack of a homemade rifle echoed in the air and the four warriors took cover searching for the assailant. It wasn’t clear who it was but they could see the jiggling barrel of a weapon poking out between fallen masonry, three stories up the building façade.
“Sniper” called out Jackson, before rising from cover to spray the building with a fusillade of explosive shells.
The bullets smashed against the concrete and rebar barricade, pulverising it and igniting clouds of smoke and flame. The gun barrel and the sniper disappeared from view and as Jackson shouted obscenities, Carson detached a phosphor grenade and tossed it into the building ahead.
The thick white smoke billowed out and shrieks of fear echoed around the warriors; phosphor was a terrible weapon but with the Geneva Convention dead and buried the warriors’ only concern was coming out on top.
“Gas masks.” Ordered Carson, fitting her own and detaching a second grenade; this one a bulbous canister filled with pressurised nerve agent. She flung it deep into the cavernous mouth of the decaying warehouses.
The group of mercenaries clipped their protective gear on quickly and efficiently and as the phosphor smoke cleared followed Carson forward.
The nerve gas worked quickly, as the four fighters breached the building a pair of stumbling scummer teens struggled out of their patchwork tent; gasping for breath, their eyes wide, bulging and bloodshot. Carson could see they weren’t armed and was going to ignore them but Matty B fired point blank, gunning both to the ground.
“First kill, baby.” He chortled. Carson could hear the double ding of his kill counter across the comms traffic.
The nerve gas filled the air ahead, making the air look perforated and thick, like a jelly of some sort.
Jackson took the lead and Carson let Matty B follow him up with her and Beck taking the rear guard. Beck had been doing this a long time and was getting slow, he didn’t have the hunger for the kill anymore it seemed and that meant he was a liability to the team’s bonus pay. Carson would have to deal with that.
“Slaves to the corporations, this place will be your doom!” called out a voice, amplified through some sort of audio distortion device.
“Carson, it looks like we might be going home early.” Said Matty B.
“You’ve said that before.” Growled Jackson, “Last time we were stuck on mission for weeks, trapped in that hell-hole down south.”
“Quit it.” Growled Carson. “Concentrate you idiots.”
Jackson and Matty B lapsed into silence; Carson could hear movement on the floors above and from the amount of noise a fair amount of it. That worried Carson because if the enemy weren’t expecting them then they should be spread out and easy pickings.
A stairwell came up on the right, just as Carson had expected; the fire-door had been removed and she poked her head in the doorway to look up.
A barrage of bullets and shrapnel fragments stormed down around her and she threw herself backwards to avoid being hit. The thick greaves of her armoured legs took some fragments but nothing that would slow her down.
“Careful boss” laughed Jackson, “Wouldn’t want you getting hurt out here.”
Carson ignored the jibe and used a hand sign to call Beck up.
“Need to poke a hole, right there.” She said pointing her finger at the ceiling above her. “Time to fry some turkey.”
Beck nodded, and loaded a heavy shell into his riot-gun. Aiming vertically, he fired and the oversized bullet bludgeoned a melon-sized hole in the concrete ceiling. Carson unclipped yet another grenade from her harness and twisted the fuse before tossing it through the gap.
“Cover.” She yelled, diving to the side as a ball of fire erupted in the room upstairs. Again, screams echoed through the building and Jackson’s face was split by a grin under his gasmask.
“Burk, bruk bruk.” He laughed, imitating a chicken and flapping his arms.
As the flames died out the little camera drone hovered up through the hole and Carson allowed herself a contented smile as her kill count ticked over, one, two, three, four, five.
“That’s efficiency, kids.” Said Beck, trying to sound sagely.
“Keep moving.” Ordered Carson, chopping her hand forward again.
The teams split into pairs, with Carson and Beck forming up together. The old man was getting slow, though Carson; but he was at least predictable and reliable up to a point. Jackson and Matty B formed another pair; advancing quickly and without much caution down a corridor to the East. The twins began unpacking the components to a compact sonar kit; they would stay in place and feed information to the fire teams.
Sarah and Beck scampered from cover to cover and Carson heard Beck sigh in relief as the comlink clicked and Mexi’s voice sounded.
“Sonar up and running, scans show four hostiles in the room ahead of you.”
Carson clicked her tongue in reply, not wanting to alert the enemy. Perhaps the people in the next room weren’t hostile, perhaps they were just trying to get by in this shit hole of a slum; that wasn’t her problem. They were here to do a job and that job was to get ratings and get paid.
Beck racked the slide of his riot gun and fed another explosive shell into the breach. Carson nodded and the older mercenary kicked open the door and fired blindly, bouncing the shell off the ceiling and then spinning back around the cover of the door frame.
It exploded with a blast of flame and Carson could feel the heat through her protective clothing. There were shrill cries that cut out almost immediately as throats were seared into silence.
She stepped into the room, still thick with smoke and washed her rifle light across the corpses of her victims. They were unidentifiable which was entirely the point, viewers didn’t like seeing kids dead on the ground; not all of them anyway.
She heard gunfire from behind her, towards where Jackson and Matty B had gone.
“Jackson, report” hissed the Lieutennant.
“Yeah boss, Matty B here. Jackson’s fucked up.” There was a pause. “I’m pretty sure he’s dead.’
Carson clucked her tongue in annoyance. “Are you sure? Have you checked his vitals?”
There was another moment of silence and perhaps a groan. “Ah well, I’d check his pulse but he doesn’t have a head anymore; I’m pretty sure he’s not going to recover.”
Carson could almost hear the canned laughter that would be playing for the viewers at home; this wasn’t the plan. It was supposed to be Beck who bought it today, not Jackson. Still, she had bet that one of the team would be going home in a bag and she hadn’t specified which one so she’d still be making some cash.
She looked at the back of Beck’s head as he moved forward in front of her, “It’s your lucky day, old man.” She said under her breath.
“Say again boss?” said Osolot over the com.
“Nothing, just muttering.” Snarled Carson, kicking her self that she had murmured aloud. It might have been picked up by the audience at home and if it got back to Beck, the target could be painted on her back next game.
“Boss, should I keep going forward?” asked Matty B over the link.
Carson thought about it for a moment. Matty B was pretty twitchy and not too good by himself. He would be at serious risk if he went on alone, but given the prey and the location the tension might be good for the viewers at home.
She switched the coms to production channel. “Production, how about we get a bit of tension music on, switch feed to Matty B.”
The reply was instantaneous, cheerful and loud. “Great idea Lieutennant, we’re dropping in some critters to ratchet up the mood.”
Fuck, thought Carson. It was one thing fighting armed scummers but critters made everything a whole lot worse; “Should I let Matty B know?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“Negative Lieutennat, if he comes out alive we’ll give him a bonus.”
Carson sighed in resignation. “Fine, its your show.”
She switched coms back to the team. “Move up, we’ve got a fifteen minute window.”
Her notice to the team wasn’t strictly true, but she wanted to be done with this episode; with one of her team dead and another likely to be soon she wasn’t going to be a popular leader. Best take what she could get and make up for it next episode.
“Mexi, you got a tag on our target?” asked Carson, their target would have been injected with a magnetic tracer before release; making it easy to find them.
Mexi replied. “I do, the prey is three rooms away, Lieutennant.” There was a pause. “Be careful.”
That was a funny thing for Mexi to say, she wasn’t usually the caring type. Carson realised that the scanner operator had used a closed channel and neither the rest of the team, nor the viewers at home would have heard what was said.
Beck was looking at Carson expectantly.
“Move forward.” Ordered Carson with a chop of her hand.
The next two rooms were empty, Carson knew that but took her time moving through them, she could hear animalistic shrieks and bursts of gunfire from wherever Matty B was. It sounded like the critters had been dropped close to his location. Poor bastard.
Her com crackled and Matty B’s panicked voice blurted across the feed. “Fucking critters man, where the hell did they come from? Carson this is fucked up; I’m moving back to base.”
Sarah nodded to herself and confirmed. “Roger that, Mexi, Osolot; prepare your position, it sounds like Matty B needs help.”
Beck and Carson had reached the door to the room where she expected her prey to be lying in wait. “This could be it, Beck.” She said. He turned briefly to nod, but said nothing.
“Breach” she ordered and the veteran shouldered open the door before rolling in and to the side; Carson followed her rifle light scanning the darkened room.
“Where is it?” she asked; looking left and right.
A bang and a flash and Carson turned her head as a crash of masonry assaulted her ears. Something heavy landed in the centre of the room and she blinked to try and regain her sight.
She heard the groan of servos and the whir of a rotator cannon spinning up to fire. She threw herself to the ground.
There was a boom as Beck fired his riot gun and the solid sounding “PANK” of hard projectile on thick armour.
This wasn’t a soft target; what the fuck?
The screaming roar of the rotator cannon firing almost drove Carson senseless as she continued to blink, her vision still awash with stars. She heard a scream and a horrific ripping sound as the cannon’s thousand shots a minute tore through the body armour of trooper Beck, killing him with little more than a tortured gurgle.
The prey stepped around, heavily armoured feet stomping down and shaking the floor around her.
“I need help.” Ordered Carson across the coms, already knowing it was too far away.”
Gunfire and animal shrieks rattled across the coms channel. “We’re pinned down, Lieutenant. We can’t move.” Shouted Mexi across the channel.
Carson looked up at her assailant as her vision cleared. A Mark IV Combat chassis, not even a flesh target. They’d sent them after a robot. It was a death sentence.
Floodlights on the bipedal robot’s shoulders dazzled Carson as she lifted her weapon and fired blind; she heard the pathetic plinks and pangs as bullets deflected from its heavy carapace armour.
“We’ve been screwed.” She screamed. “Traitors!”
She knew even as she said it that Production would have muted her and instead they would be playing a pre-recorded battle cry to the audience; deceiving them into thinking that this hadn’t all been staged and that they hadn’t decided to wipe Carson and her team out for a spike in shock ratings.
The Mark IV’s rotator cannon spooled up again and Carson stared at it hatefully, the company had screwed her. Arseholes.
She didn’t think of much else as the heavy calibre shells made a mockery of her body armour and she died, the twins and Matty B died seconds later, ripped apart by the mutated animals made in labs to kill everything that wasn’t themselves; but that part played first.
In Production, the director smiled in relief as the camera drones did a final loop of the death scenes and zoomed in on Lieutenant Sarah Carson’s bloody face.
On the screens of a record pay-per view audience a graphic flashed up to let them know the show was over.
“Mission failed, Game Over.”
Some people said it had been a long time coming.
Others were shocked, they didn’t think it would ever happen, despite all the noise and rhetoric from the guys in suits and the guys in uniforms, standing behind podiums, waving their arms around while surrounded in national flags and stony faced yes men.
I was just numb. I watched it unfold on my phone screen, the news reports and the emergency broadcasts as I rode the train from Melbourne to Sydney. I watched the news reports barely hearing the sobs of fear and desperation over the ringing in my own ears.
The train had slowed down and then stopped as it happened. The drivers unsure of whether we should keep going. We were about two hours away, half way on the high speed rail. No one knew what to do.
I guess when I think back it was strange that we hadn’t guessed that it would happen eventually and those that did had kept quiet. Canberra was little more than a military bunker by then and Melbourne, with its low-lying areas swamped by the rising sea and its remaining suburbs cramped with temporary parks was already a broken hub. Sydney had ridden through it all, it seemed impervious to the collapse of our government’s ability to govern, the police were just replaced with private security and the Western suburbs were just bulldozed and replaced with tenements, little more than glorified prisons to keep a population unhappy with their lot under tight control.
The North of Sydney was booming of course. The trust fund kids were laughing as they made out like bandits from another economic collapse, pulling their shares before the mum and dad investors, leaving the workers to take the fall.
SeaCorp had rolled in and taken up the slack of businesses foreclosing, eating up properties and homes, knocking aside efforts by the crippled State government to prevent a total takeover, it was too late to stop them. They controlled the banks, had most of the politicians in their pockets and could kill any court action by tying it up in red-tape.
Still, a lot of people carried on; they didn’t really care who their bosses were, as long as there was food on the table at the end of the day. That soon became a problem as well, having everything owned by one company meant people went into debt just living day to day, the company forced contracts on them; turning them into indentured workers. They had their personal church, The One True Church, move in and criminalised any other religions.
There were riots and people died.
I can’t give more detail than that because I refuse to remember it. I know I was there but I thought Australia would have always been better than this. It’s not.
SeaCorp started to get really busy then, all of the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and practising Christians who refused to convert were rounded up and interred for being enemies of the state. SeaCorp said that they were fomenting rebellion which was true; it might have been the one time the different. Churches stopped arguing and tried to work together, but a lot of them had been infiltrated by SeaCorp too, the company owned them and when push came to shove all the church’s were left with was a few angry parishioners wondering where all the power they used to have had gone.
They protested too, then they died.
SeaCorp must have been laughing, they used the laws the government had made to protect itself against the last few people prepared to stand up for the government. Dissenters were jailed if thye said anything on social media and the new Ministry of Security made sure people knew that if you said too much you’d just disappear.
So you’re wondering if things were so bad, what was I heard on the news to make it worse?
It was the bomb, actually bombs. There were four of them.
Four dirty atomic bombs, two on the ground, two dropped from the air.
I’ve heard there had to be four to make sure the job was done. There had to be four to make sure the devastation was final and there was no coming back.
There had to be four, otherwise the lesson wouldn’t be learned.
Sydney’s now a wasteland. For a hundred kilometres around the putrid, dead harbour it’s a rad zone of drifting dust and silent crumbling buildings. If I believed in ghosts I’d say it would have to be haunted. I’m not sure if people will ever go back.
Why would they?
So you wonder who did it to us? Who destroyed the biggest city in Australia and turned ten million people to ash in the space of a few minutes?
Was it terrorists? No.
Was it another country? No.
It wasn’t either of the things we’ve been taught to fear, taught to hate because neither were really ever a threat to us, not really.
No; it was another company, a rival that wanted to edge in on SeaCorp and was prepared to waste ten million people to increase their share of the market by five percent. It was another company that thought it would be able to clear out the SeaCorp board and take advantage of the confusion.
SeaCorp had done it to others before, perhaps they thought it was time for payback.
The problem was, the board wasn’t in Sydney; they’d moved to Adelaide weeks before because like anything that goes on these days SeaCorp already knew about its rival’s plans.
But it didn’t take steps to protect its workers, it didn’t even attempt to defend its own factories; why would it? They were insured by the government as vital assets of the nation.
SeaCorp’s board were settled into their new offices in Adelaide and they watched Sydney burn as they celebrated bankrupting Australia and taking complete control of the nation. They used the attack to justify sending Australia’s remaining national military forces to attack the rival and of course every last soldier was killed before they even set foot on enemy territory.
Then after the tit for tat, SeaCorp sat down at the stable with its rival, RedDragon and negotiated a “Peace”. War between the two wasn’t profitable they said, our primary responsibility is to our shareholders.
They made out like bandits, it only cost a city and ten million lives.
I guess I’m lucky, I wasn’t in Sydney when the bombs went off, I was on a train that stopped half way as we listened and watched our homes being burned to the ground. SeaCorp put it on pay per view and made billions.
People love a car crash, watching a city burn is even better.
The train never go to Sydney and we didn’t make it either. We just live here half way between worlds, between the burned out death that is Sydney and the flooded, crowded hell of Melbourne. We make do, we get by and we survive. SeaCorp leaves us alone. We don’t want any part of their world, not anymore.
Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, til its gone.
Bound For South Australia