Once the poisonous seed of doubt takes root nothing grows faster with such little nourishment. Like a strangling vine the growing insecurity climbs up the walls of the mind unchecked, never ceasing, until it has successfully undermined the integrity of everything in its reach. Once the broken foundation is cemented the tower will always topple. Nothing can be built upon a cancer.
– Citizen None, Defector of the State
“I want to keep this quiet, understand? We can’t have the public get wind of this. The prime minister really jumped the gun with his press conference.” The words seeped through the grey beard of the drunken Colonel to the ears of the aging officer. As crowded as the pub was, they felt naked and weary. Glasses chimed with the roaring of “cheers,” followed by the plopping of suds against a plastic table.
“It wouldn’t be the first time he didn’t listen to Intelligence,” retorted the officer to his superior. He’d grown tired of swallowing the filth they shoveled down his throat, promising with each gulp a healthy version of the truth. They could season it however they liked, but it still tasted like bullshit.
He’d heard more than anyone’s fill of “it’s almost over” or “the end is near”. So many lives teetered on the edges of tomorrow’s promise. Too many were lost over its thin edge.
“Hey, I’m with you on this one Major. Either way, this operation is off the books. You slip in and out. There are no bells and whistles this time. Check and double-check your work. Supreme efficiency,” said the Colonel, careful to check his peripheries before and after he spoke. In his mind a snake slithered around every corner… rats watched with their beady little eyes, their whiskers twitching like antennae with every plot and scheme to come across their radar. The Major smirked. He never got tired of the Colonel and that damn nose of his.
“Understood. You know as of five minutes ago I was officially retired. Thanks Colonel. Let me finish my pint and I’ll be on my way.” The Major gulped the last of his drink angrily and placed his glass on the bar. What did a man have to do, or not to do to enjoy his god given right to peace and poison? Ask a madman. No one else dare venture a guess.
“No,” the Colonel quietly exclaimed, “I can’t have you leaving on eve of our finest hour. It would raise suspicion amongst the men and I’ll be damned if half of them aren’t informants for the press. Go to the old hangar tomorrow morning. Ask for a Captain Nick Seaver.” Reaching inside his coat, the Colonel pulled out a security pass along with a folded piece of paper and handed it to the Major.
The inferior officer nodded in agreement. Unfolding the note beneath the bar he made out the government information on the Mr. Seaver he was to meet. As the Major looked down, the Colonel subtly gestured to a man alone in the pub. The Major quickly stuffed the paper his jacket pocket, thinking someone had made them out.
In a dark corner of the tavern, seated in an adjacent room to the liquored soldiers, a man guzzled his malted hops in blissful silence. A ratty cloak shielded the man’s pale skin from the smoke that choked the stagnant air of the pub. Lifting his head from the stupefied gaze of his drink, a raised eyebrow crept through his tousled black hair, matted with random specks of crimson. Cracked lips curled over his teeth as he sneered at the men across the pub.
“This man will be your escort into the Underbelly. He’s a free-lance hunter who claims even more neutralizations than you. Even if he’s only half right he’s got the experience we need.” The Colonel knew the Major was not fond of the type, but worse comes the worst there always had to be a scapegoat. Few of these devil-dogs still worked the underground government circuit. If the hired hand had avoided persecution or death for this long there was little doubt to his skills. His intentions however were left for the Major to ponder.
The colonel tilts his head towards the hunter inviting him to join them.
The leviathan paused as he stood. His broad shoulders all but brushed against either side of the swinging double-leaf doors that connected the two sides of the tavern. The floorboards of the pub creaked underneath his boots as he made his way towards the men. There the giant stood, head and shoulders above all else. He leaned on the bar casually besides the pair.
“I’d like you to meet… your name?” The Colonel spoke softly, careful not to conspicuously address the giant. This blind date of theirs was not meant for anyone else’s eyes and the Colonel blushed easily. “I’d rather not,” the behemoth snapped. The sandpaper voice of the beast was unsettling to the Colonel. The heavy stink of smoke and alcohol hung on his breath, along with a bit of cheap perfume from the wench from the night before adding its weight to the pleasant aroma.
“Fair enough. Anonymity is a luxury no mass of credits can buy. I’d imagine a man of your position would hold that comfort dear. This is Major Roh.” Said the Colonel, nudging the Major with his elbow.
The two peered out of the corner of their eyes, greeting each other with a menacing stare. The Colonel felt the urge to squash the growing tension between the two men and hurry the trio‘s involvement in their social taboo.
“The Major will meet you at the 7th Sewer shortly after sunrise: He will be accompanied by a Captain Seaver. You will be their eyes and ears. Sniff that bastard out if you have to. As I told the Major, ‘supreme efficiency’. You will be handsomely compensated of course.” The Colonel paid for many of these extracurricular operations through a careful maze of paperwork and technical loopholes. As stringent as protocol can be little got done within the parameters of red tape. Bureaucracy was not a science so much as an art.
“Of course, nothing less,” the slayer remarked. Nameless as he preferred to remain the bounty hunter’s reputation preceded himself; execution always flawless with a presence known to dance among the shadows. In the absence of light demons will play.
“We play by my rules, killer. Try anything funny and I’ll come back with two neutralizations, got it?” the Major spoke out of turn. He’d be damned before he’d have any shoot-em’ up cowboys on his last mission. Freelancers never played fair and very few were professional. Too many of them were trigger happy dishonorable discharges fueled by personal vendettas and a taste for blood. This beast however stank of a different breed.
A sinister cackle bellowed from the belly of the wayward warrior and reverberated against the tarnished walls of the tavern. Piercing the cauliflower ears of the pub’s patrons, all became silent. Scanning the contours of the pub, he returned a menacing stare to his spectators. He fixedly covered his brow with the hood of his dilapidated cloak. He could feel the preying eyes of the men following his footsteps as he exited the pub.
“So much for anonymity” the Major whispered under his breath, placing his fist on his chin then his elbow on the bar. He stared beyond the bottles of gin and whiskey to the mirror behind the bar, his empty reflection staring back.
“Just this once more Alan.” the Colonel begged, waiting for the pub to fill with conversation before speaking. Once more to the Major was beyond one too many. Just once is once enough. One follows you just as they all do; no rest or break in the journey until reaching its end: Our end that is. Murder has a funny way of doing that.
“You pull this off and you get me my star. I hate to ask of you what I couldn’t ask of myself. Sometimes I can’t imagine asking anyone what I have asked you to do for so many years. The blood on our hands never washes clean, but we‘ll always have to shake hands with the world, whether we like it or not.”
The aging officer stared darkly into his stein as he swirled it lightly in his hand. For every man in the tavern there was a sob story as hazy and delusional as his vision. True words of wisdom never come without a blanket of inebriation. For some, the warmth draped by the fruits of fermentation was no longer the leisurely activity it once had been. In this day and age the spirit was the poor man’s morphine; a tearless man’s therapy where empty drops could fall on a nameless shoulder.
“What should we file this under, Sir?” Alan asked. He had been reminded his paperwork was getting lazy by a memo earlier in the day. He had a pension to collect. It would be a pity to lose it over a timecard.
The Colonel paused before drudging up his answer “Code 48: Meeting Activities, Subfield: Meaningful Conversation. You’re due for one.” The colonel waved to the barkeep who was chatting up a cool dark drink of his own.
“Let‘s have a drink. Bartender! Two widowmakers” the colonel added, as he snapped his gaze from the earthy hues of the black brew. The pair drank their ale in the manner of a wolf licking its wounds.
“Goddamn parasites,” grunted the Colonel, “Gonna be the death of me even after they’re gone.”
Eco-friendly lights flickered along with the apartment’s Host voice as it welcomed the Major’s arrival, the plastic white glow hard on his eyes. A moth danced in circles around a single bulb taking no notice to the graveyard of his kin beneath him. The weather, television programming and latest state directives were announced as they always were with the opening or closing of the apartment’s only door. Few things irked the Major more than forgetting something and having to hear the daily run down more than he had to. The day he forgot both his gene-card and stash he put his fist through the plasti-plaster wall just below the Host Interface Panel, the hole remaining untouched since its creation. He supposed it could be turned off or at least modified, but the Major had little patience for the numbers and keys and commands that purveyed every facet of his daily life. For this, he lived a begrudgingly minimal life.
After ditching his uniform in the general direction of his hamper, he headed straight to the bathroom for his evening nightcap. Fidgeting with the medicine cabinet’s worn hinges he instructed its pharmacy to refill his prescription for SynThose. The Host informed him that his prescription was premature and could not be released until the following week and that he had well exceeded the allotted quota for the past 3 months. After returning from fetching the utility belt from his uniform, he held in his hand what made him a fiend since he had realized it existed. It was the Major’s Holy Grail; a proxy card issued to a state certified pharmacist. The Primary doctor’s proxy he scored a month earlier could yield as many prescriptions as he desired but only a month’s supply at a time. Now that he had both in his hands, his supply of Synthose would be endless. No more monotone voice which he always felt was a little degrading in the moments the computer denied his fevered request for more. Being a patsy for big brother had few benefits, but this was the perk he’d been waiting for since he had begun counseling 2 years ago.
With the swipe of the proxy cards his request had been granted. He took 4 of the 30 gelcaps dispensed to the living quarter’s coffee table and pocketed half the rest. The remaining half was safely store in the hollowed out Government Regulation textbook he was issued graduation day from the academy. He thought of it a much better use than reading it.
Carefully etching a slice along the circumference of the pill, the Major moved the razor with the dexterity of a seasoned surgeon. Ingesting the medicine orally provided a body high, which was suitable for the day, but when a heavy head buzz was desired a little surgery was required to separate the outer layers of the Synthose from the gold inside: an alchemy of endorphins. Once the juice was extracted he began to smell the roses. As the warm blanket wrapped his soul he lay in bed, flipping through the television with no particular program in mind. He closed his eyes and rested his head. He was finally ready for sleep. With a crashing wave of euphoria his mind floated away to the place where the conscious world met the dreams of what we all wish was real. All was right with the state.
The Major shook off the morning cold as he stepped from his cruiser, careful not to forget his weapon and coffee. Both were cold to the touch. He walked between the rising sun as it crept over the city wall and the hangar that soared some few hundred feet in height and length. He headed towards a boy in the distance prepping a vintage cruiser.
“She’s a beaut ain’t she,” said the Major to the young man, his own eyes watering in the morning sun. Soft golden rays of sunshine materialized momentarily as they struck the vapor of his breath in the frigid winter air. “Can you point me in the direction of a Captain Seaver?” the Major asked. The young man crawled from the cockpit, jumped to his feet and saluted the Major.
“Captain Nick Seaver, reporting for duty!”
The Major, stunned at the boy’s enthusiasm, especially on such a cold morning, was further stirred by his youth. A captain at such an age was guaranteed to have earned his title from a university, not from the valor of battle. The Major knew he had inherited a serious handicap for the mission before its deployment. “Why not just kick me in the balls Colonel?” he thought to himself.
“At ease soldier, at ease. You have been briefed on the mission?” The Major lazily flipped through the data he compiled for the mission, looking at nothing in particular just to avoid locking eyes with the kid. He could tell the boy was one of those eager beavers that just chew away at your sanity until someone gets a black eye.
“Yessir. And let me just tell you how excited I am to be involved with a mission of such importance…”
The Major cut the young-blood short. His hangovers only had so high a threshold for this sort of pain. Today, it was especially low, “That’s swell Seaver. Ready the cruiser for departure.” The Captain hopped back in the cockpit of the classic cruiser and began his pre-trip inspection. This undoubtedly consisted of numerous amounts of tedious nonsensical jargon. The Major’s, however, never included much more than checking the level of his flask and the jingle of his prescription bottle.
“What are you doing Captain?” the Major asked, mulling over in his head why in the State’s name he would be readying the old bird for flight.
“Oh it was the Colonel’s idea. He thought it would be less suspicious if we used one of these older fellas. Something about an air show for the parade. A good guise he thought.” The Major preferred his own cruiser, set to his specifications and therefore, one of the few places he actually felt comfortable. Understanding that this would be his last flight, the Major was indifferent to everything except the kid.
The Major shrugged his shoulders, “Such a brilliant strategist. Very well, Colonel’s orders! Start ‘er up kid!” His forged enthusiasm slipped past the ignorantly genial youth. It will all be over soon he thought. Then the Major could do what he had always felt he was born to do: nothing.
The engines whirred like the swan song of some long-forgotten titan: Its echoing drone music only audible to those whom it seldom beckoned. The Major couldn’t recall how these dinosaurs flew, for even they were before his time. He could however, discern a smooth ride from a bumpy one. On obsolete equipment though, he couldn’t figure whether it was a worthless or just an invaluable skill. The ride proved to be teeth chattering as the Major was able to confirm his suspicions of the boy’s experience; a whiz on simulators but a virgin to the skies.
The trip to the 7th sewer was a short one, but it was made longer by the Captain’s incessant nagging about the hell below. Every greenhorn wanted the skinny on how things came to be, why the world was the way it is. The Major couldn’t tell him why but he could tell him how. The special sugar coating on his morning breakfast was the only thing that ever made him chatty.
The answer was revolution. The wonder wheel of human behavior rolled along in no particular direction. If it did it was with a purpose that escaped the Major. There really wasn’t any grand design behind it. All that determined what your life would entail was where your place in circle was nailed. The bottom, top or middle of the rotation didn’t really make much difference; it was all inescapable. Revolution gives breath to a new order, the new order rises to a Golden Age, the Golden Age grows stale and unstable and topples over into revolution. The Major told the boy how the now and present are just ripples in the wake of a former chaos.
The Major hated small talk but loved to ponder the big things. The kid actually understood well. The Major was the kind of guy who would sooner talk about the illusion of reality than what happened on Sunday’s game. Little did the Major know, the kid’s studies focused on a new program in the academy. This program was introduced to design a soldier that would acclimate better to society upon retirement or discharge. The Major’s contemporaries had an overwhelming number of failed marriages, substance abuse issues, homelessness and suicides. Somehow, the kid pondered, this bookworm wriggled out of harm’s way. Then again, burying your head in the sand comes with its own dangers as well.
What was left out from the newer academic program was a large part of the dark history before the boy’s time. It was a history the Major knew all too well and had a hand in building. He knew talking about yesteryear with a greenhorn would guarantee him a court marshal, but what the hell? Right?
This was the best the Major could offer the kid. A long time ago it had become accepted that civilization served no benefit to the environment. The primary realms were separated from each other to ensure the survival of all. Civilization, people and cities ruled the world above. The bellows of smoke from industry was allowed as long as it remained away from the natural. The material world was viewed through a lens of concrete, steel, plastic and other hybrid compounds.
The world below was a cultivation of the remnants of the natural world. It was no beautiful landscape, but enough genetic greenery to sustain the mouths above. Simple plant and microbial organisms provided enough material to be molded into the necessary subsistence compounds to satisfy nutritional needs but by no means the want of taste buds.
Between the two were the necessary Bufferzone that, according to the Major, had it existed before, could have lead to a more promising future than this. Beneath it all was where the poisonous byproduct of the living world was collected and channeled away from the city, away from the buffer and away from the simple green. This is where they believed the Parasite hid.
They would begin their journey at the Bufferzone. An underground city in its own right, this subterranean society was built by those whose jobs were liaisons between the world above and The Greenery below. As dark and damp as it was, to many at least, it sure as hell beat multilevel commute. But no matter above or below, a domain filled with subjects needed governing.
The politics that ruled the Bufferzone below were in the simplest of terms, raw. Ask one from the city above and they would say savage. Ask one below and they would say free. In essence, it simply lacked the red tape that donned the concrete jungle on the surface. Even though the Major was a product of the city above, he had the grit and connections to survive here. The Major knew the boy Captain was in for a rude awakening. Opening your mouth at the wrong time could mean at the very least, closing it without a tongue.
The Major left his lesson at this. Anything else he felt couldn’t be told but learned. Concerning the bleakest bit of truth, the Major didn’t have the heart to lay it on the unsuspecting ear. How do you say that the hand in making the very plague they meant to eradicate was their own? He truly believed that ignorance is bliss. It wasn’t my hand he thought; my hands are clean.
He distracted himself with more tactical thoughts. Portals to the Underbelly would be accessible to the living are scattered in many of the abandoned factories and residential neighborhoods that comprised the inner lining of the city wall. Areas further from the wall were all the more habitable. A bird’s-eye view, should there have been any birds, would show a city shaped like a pyramid. Unlike a classic pyramid however, the shape was composed of spires of buildings, emanating from a central point equidistant from each other and descending in height as it spiraled outwards. Much like a tree, should there have been any, its shape above was as below. Above was the living and below its waste.
The cruiser’s descent was low and tucked neatly behind a sizeable, yet still ancient concrete building. Its stainless steel shimmer bounced off some of the few unbroken windows, cascading light across the faces of the duo.
From here they would walk to the sewer’s mouth where it would swallow them whole. Desolate as it was, the Major’s senses were on high, his step ginger on the empty asphalt street.
Evidence of the decades-long riots was not as plentiful as they were the Major’s last visit to the outer city some 10 years ago. The absence of life would fool most unseasoned vets into believing this place to be desolate. But the Major knew these residents were the scrappy sort and picked the streets and buildings clean of everything they needed to survive in the State’s blind eye. The outer towns allowed for many citizens to walk the fine line between city and underground life. Community here was fluid with little to no identity. Minimum wage and scavenging were the most common profession along with looting, prostitution, drug trafficking and highway robbery. Depending on the company, these residents would adapt the proper customs that best suited their needs. If you were clever enough to finger one for their true identity you might call them shifties, although they would never claim such a brand for themselves.
Suddenly, the Major paused as he heard no clumsy steps from the following Captain. The boy hadn’t heeded the Major’s warning about dragging his feet. The Major warned the kid that if he kept making the annoying noise he’d kill him but he failed to mention death by any other hand.
“You’re a clever one. How a big oaf could be so quiet is anyone’s guess,” said the Major, before turning to see the Captain, mouth muffled and knife to his throat courtesy of the hunter. The guile of the slayer impressed the Major a bit. Where at first the Major had little confidence in his new colleague, now he knew the hand he was dealt was a little more playable.
“I thought you’d like that, Major. Tell the pipsqueak here not to wet his pants. Parasites can smell piss from a mile away.” The brute smirked as he bumped the Captain aside with his brawny shoulder. The Major could see the intimidation in the kid’s eyes and shot the boy a stern look. With his eyebrows he urged the kid to keep his shit together.
Without question the pair of soldiers followed their guide closely along their trek through the skeleton city, careful to make as little noise as possible and remain unseen. The slayer had his ears open for shifties and the Major’s eye focused on the slayer in front and kid behind. The boy followed the captain like a baby elephant tugging at his mother’s tail.
While there were no visible corpses that was no guarantee that things didn’t die here more often than not. Countless packs of ravenous dogs easily picked off the wayward traveler. Constant fighting for street corners by druglords and gangsters were waged in an endless turf-war for goods and in desperate cases, cannibalism. These dangers were why the shamed residents hid deep within the buildings and never made residences on the first few floors of buildings.
Derelicts and several lots of bandits crept amongst the shadows, robbing and murdering any unfortunate being careless enough to become lost or stranded in the emptied city.
Standing before the carcass of an ancient cruiser, the hunter pushed the hunk of metal effortlessly, revealing an iron disk in the ground. Clearing off the dust and rubble from the metal, the words Municipal BufferTube became visible. Normally entering the portal would guarantee being followed by bandits to loot the small gang. Luckily the slayer held a deadly enough reputation or at the very least enough physical prowess to intimidate any bandits with unsavory intentions. It crossed the Major’s mind that this may be the only man to have ever walked openly in the streets of this neighborhood. It has been said in this city that under every open step a life remains buried. To go about unchecked meant many battles fought, none lost and an army of ghostly footsteps.
Eying the circle first and then his pair of clients, the hunter spoke firmly, “We enter here. And let me return the favor of your warning earlier, Major. This is where your jurisdiction ends. If you don’t follow my orders, it is of no consequence to me. I won’t have to neutralize you. The belly of your beautiful city will save me the chore. Grab your little dog Major. We go now.”
The hunter slid the lid, revealing a ladder that dipped into a bottomless black. The giant was nimble on the steps, careful not to disturb the relic that he deemed perfectly sound. The pair of soldiers however had little trust in the rickety metal steps. Bits of rust flaked off the ladder under the soldier’s boots and sprinkled the hunter, irritating him greatly. He cursed in an unfamiliar tongue. Playing babysitter was never enjoyable, no matter how well the pay. The Major was always a little envious of his young contemporaries. It was not only his job but also one of the few moral obligations he held to keep the young ones from killing themselves or others. He couldn’t remember the last time he had nothing to worry about except saving his own ass.
As they descended into the small tunnel, muffled commotion could be heard bouncing lightly against the walls of the concrete tube. In the distance a mere crack of dim purple light appeared as the source of the soft sound.
“There is the first gate to the Bufferzone. Give me a moment to talk to the sentries” spoke the slayer. “Oh and Major,” he added, “I hope you brought plenty of credits. Down here nobody does anything out of duty.”
After a quick haggle the hunter made his way, cash in hand toward the door. A specific series of bangs on the door opened the door revealing two armed sentries. Upon its opening, the tunnel became illuminated just enough to make out the shattered pieces of armor from city soldiers. The relics of those who ventured beneath, undoubtedly on missions similar to these, would serve as warnings to those who had any inclinations of sticking their nose where it didn’t belong. It pays to know the correct jingle when banging on the door to hell.
The lead sentry instructed the group to follow closely behind and not to speak unless spoken to and only by guards or officers. Down here security was hardly the type the Major and Captain were accustomed to. Rank was divvied out more or less by the amount of steel reserve a man possessed. The bigger the bruiser meant the higher the rank. Medals were worn in the form of tattoos and kills counts notched as scars along the forearm.
After walking for nearly a half an hour, the several kilometers of the first corridor opened to a bustling beehive of activity. A gigantic room stretched to beyond the horizon and a ceiling stood above the tall grey clouds.
Men, women and children shopped and worked in a market place with winding alley ways, tents, wooden stands and countless other makeshift shops. This is how the other half lives.
To avoid looking conspicuous the bounty hunter went about his usual routine of visiting the arms dealer. The giant always drew a big crowd with his rare and top of the line arsenal. With the hunter at his usual appointment the two out-of-towners a chance stock up on supplies before the journey and avoid being seen with the hunter. Before the wide eyed boy even had the chance to act the fool the Major grabbed the Captain by the collar and the two ducked down one of the darker, less busy aisles. There they found a fabricsmith and purchased one of the more generic cloaks that the local residents wore. After donning their new threads the pair kept their heads down, gaze to the floor and walked briskly to the market’s darkest corner where they agreed to meet their guide.
They hugged the outer walls of the market place and walked shoulder to shoulder as per the Major’s orders. He didn’t want the Captain getting lost in the crowd or making the mistake of conversing with less than savory characters. Even if the Captain had the go ahead to walk alone, he was more than happy to keep tied to the Major’s hip. Suddenly, the Captain made the mistake of taking a peek at the chaos around him, his eyes catching tanned leather hanging on a rack. Bloody tendons frayed at the ends, dripping down to the entrails beneath. This prize was no big game animal. Without warning, anxiety filled the greenhorn’s heart as he sweat profusely underneath his garb. A pain began to grow in his chest, his heartbeat deafening inside his head. He tried to clear his mind but the more he thought about the adrenaline piercing his chest the more it grew. It was an exponential pain he failed so many times before to describe to the host shrink in his living quarter (this was a new service provided by the state due to an alarming rise in behavioral disorders in young cadets.) As his mind ran away from itself, he bolted to a table in an empty shop and hid underneath, hugging his knees and babbling to himself. The Major was about to chase after the kid but stopped himself when he remember that he had seen this sort of thing before. He had felt it on the days when his sweet tooth beckoned but there was no candy to quell the want. The kid will live he thought.
As much as the Major didn’t want to deal with the kid’s nonsense, time was pressing. By the time the Major had walked over to the shack the kid had crawled out from underneath the table, still shook up but at least he was standing. The Major threw is arm around the poor S.O.B’s shoulder, not out of sympathy but to give the kid a little assurance that maybe, just maybe, neither of them would be skinned alive. It’s been known to happen. The Major knew walking like that would look odd but he couldn’t waste any more time and certainly wouldn’t cater to any more crap.
The Major had hoped nobody had noticed the scene. Just as the thought crossed his mind a hand tapped him on the shoulder a grainy voice spoke, “I thought that was you! What are you doing here today, Brock? We aren’t supposed to meet until the day after next.”
As the Major turned he positioned himself in between the man and the Captain hoping neither would get a good look at the other. This time it was not the mission at stake, but the reputation of the Major.
“Hello Gore. I’m sorry but I can’t talk right now. I have to get back to the surface. I was just visiting that hot little number you introduced me to a month ago. And let me tell you, you weren’t kidding about that trick she does. Haha!” The Major gave a fake chuckle and slapped the man on arm. Before the he could bid his farewell the stranger asked one of the two questions the Major didn’t want to answer. “Whose the kid? You always come down here alone. What’s up?”
From years of hiding his chemical hobby he had become a master of the false truth and spoke the language fluently. Without hesitation he answered, “Oh that’s just my nephew. I wanted to treat him to Roxy.” Leaning over towards the man the Major whispered, “You see the boy’s a cherry.” The man nodded and gave the Captain a queer look.
To the Major’s dismay the Captain had heard. Embarrassed, the boy’s voice cracked, “I most certainly am not! Major Roh here must be pulling your chain,” The Major elbowed the kid in the stomach cutting the rebuttal short. “We really must be going now. His mother will kill me if I don’t have him home soon. I’ll see you as planned, Gore. You’re good right?” The man nodded. As the two left for the rendezvous point Gore grabbed the Major’s arm spinning him around forcefully. “I’m not sure what you’re up to Brock, or should I say, Major Roh, but if you’re up to something I’ll find out. If I hear any contrary words I’ll have you strung up by your ears in the town square.”
Threats down here were never a bluff. The Major knew the man meant business. The Major pulled his arm away from the man’s grasp, “I got it. Don’t worry. It’s me.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The bounty hunter had seen the confrontation but could not make out conversation. Military training had done much for the Major in terms of composure in his youth. Countless notches on his belt and a career filled with bleak visages cemented his cold demeanor. It was here, at the beginning of his grey years he began to sway in the blowing winds of time. Chemical therapy was the only glue holding together the remaining fragments of his steel nerve. Speaking of which the Major reached into his pocket and threw a few of the little sweet nodules into his mouth and bit his tongue, encouraging enough saliva for swallowing. No luck. Dry mouth. The hunter smiled. He’d shaken down enough deadbeat junkies to know the face. The Captain kept his head down unless he wanted another smack upside the head as the Major so politely asked him more than once. The Major upped his pace and swiped a stein of ale from a vendor’s table without losing a step. The Captain apologized to the man, swiped his payment card after the threat of life and limb, and scurried to catch up.
Smiling, the stranger crossed his arms and began to take jabs at the Major. He knew there wasn’t anything the officer could do down here to pull rank. “Hard day, Sir?”
“Don’t start. I have a headache.” Staring at the wall the Major tuned everything out around him, nothing more so than his own words. He’d satisfied his reasoning for the day. If there was anything a little observation would prove of those stricken with their choice disease its: Any excuse is a good excuse.
Some people drink coffee, others tea to get them going. How is this any different? Justification is the living equalizer. No other faith holds a deeper devotion. Religion, politics, philosophy; all are means for justifying our actions: No other art permeates our minds more than this, nothing is worth dying for more than this truth, and nothing will ever be more right. It’s never the reason; it’s just knowing that there’s a reason.
“I hope it’s not on my behalf, Major” The hunter egged him on a bit more. He knew he could get away with a little banter but wanted to test the Major’s patience for his own evaluation and just as much pleasure. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone above or below who didn’t scorn those in uniform and the hunter felt both pride and a sense of duty to make the Major’s life difficult. The Major’s presence preceded him and was well known in circles where dealings in death were the business and hardened men the players.
“No. But the day isn’t over yet.” The Major retorted. He wasn’t going to respond at first but didn’t want to make things stiff between the two. If the slayer wanted to play then he’d play. It was far too soon for a cold shoulder and an attitude. Everybody is a clown in this 3 ring circus they call society. We’ll see who has the last laugh when its time for the final act thought the Major.
“In that case be sure to let me know.” Although the slayer could pick up on the Major’s attitude he figured finishing the conversation was expected. Much like the Major, the slayer understood the politics of personality. And much like the politics of ancient times, it had become accepted that a straight line is the quickest way to resolution. It is easily gathered among any circle that talk is cheap. Few truly understand where such a philosophy is born. Necessity has no place here. The downtrodden road leaves no room for new steps or wandering gazes. Some live to play the game. The Major was not such a man.
“Don’t worry I will.” The Major hurried the conversation to its finish. “Come. It’s time,” said the hunter, waving his hand.
“Time for what?” the boy asked. The Major turned away from the boy and looked into the dark tunnel, “To find out whether you live or die.”
Carefully sidestepping sporadic outburst from steam tunnels and herds of fleeing rats, it was an oddly short walk down a desolate tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was a great double door some 3 to 4 meters high made of polished brass. At either side of the door stood another two sentries heavily armed and well armored. A quick introduction led to a lengthy wait to the Captain’s dismay. He had been waiting for a bathroom after a lengthy explanation that he couldn’t just go “anywhere”. Just as the boy swore his bladder was about to burst the door opened and the trio stood alone in a lavishly furnished hall.
Several of the rarest black market items confiscated by the State in the Bourgeois Purge adorned the many tables, chairs and walls. Televisions and radios with more than one channel were set to a popular underground television shown hosted by State radicals. Paper books of philosophy sat on ancient wooden shelves as images of dancing women whirled on the screens of both handheld and home Digital Interface Units. These the young Captain took extra interest in.
The smell of fresh paint hung in the air. The red and brown hues of rust had become blue skies and tetanus as common as hay fever. When at play, children would lie on the cold diamond plated ground and stare at the crumbling ceiling picking out shapes and characters in the brown sky.
“Don’t speak unless spoken to. If he does ask you a question answer only yes or no. He’s real sharp so try not to give him anything to run with. He probably already knows some of what were doing down here and what you’re thinking before it crossed your mind. He’s an opportunist of the worst kind but will never move on speculation so leave it up to me to keep him guessing,” spoke the Major.
“Understood Sir,” replied the Captain.
“Oh and one more thing,” added the Major, “Don’t mention anything about his, uh, appearance. He’ll make you pay dearly for it.”
“Then again that’s just good manners,” spoke the hunter.
“Appearance?” questioned the Captain? The Captain and slayer ignored the boy, looked at each other and just shook their heads.
The entrance to the next level was in territory belonging to one of last remaining warlords in the unruly society of the underbelly. Still quite powerful, the once party leader headed the last class rebellion of the current era. His failure led to a semi-retired life of loan sharking, strong-arming and a rather successful black market enterprise in the import-export business.
To the population beneath his reputation varied as much as the many roles he excelled: scholar, entrepreneur, officer, politician and pimp. His capabilities were limited only by his will, and the state that ostracized him. To the Major, the Renaissance man was a former colleague and a failed state defector.
Lead by a harem of several women, a man emerged from behind a small chamber door behind a throne. Donned in silk and wearing on nearly all appendages some form of jewelry the powerful man walked over to a servant girl holding a silver platter with several shiny goblets. With one hand he took a single cup and the other he stroked the girls face. Smiling she took the platter with the remaining goblets and distributed them to each of the visitors. As she handed a goblet to the Captain he politely declined stating that he doesn’t drink. This proclamation justly received a kick to the shin from the Major.
The lord walked over to his throne and with the assistance of two burly guards was placed atop the tall ornate seat. This man whose reach ranged from every facet of the underworld into the pockets of the city’s most powerful couldn’t even reach the floor with is feet. The giant they knelt before, begging permission from, was a dwarf. This was well understood only in the physical sense. A dwarf never sat so high. A dwarf never looked on a world beneath him.
“Major! How nice of you to join us down here. I know it is hardly up to State standards but then again I was never either. Correct?” the lord spoke, opening his arms and motioning to the surrounding chamber.
“Oh come now. Don’t get fussy with me. It’s not my fault you were demoted and certainly nobody’s fault but your own about that cute little rebellion you pulled. How long ago was it? My memory serves me poorly these days.” The Major scratched the 5 o’clock shadow on his chin and looked around the chamber in a mocking manner.
The lord smirked. He knew the pot shot was coming. “Enough games Major. We know each other all too well for subtleties. I heard you and the old boys still go out for a pint to celebrate. However I’ve heard the herd has grown thinner these days.” Trading insults was an art form the Lord knew no superiors. From time to time however he still enjoyed friendly competition.
“What else is there to expect to from a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” A tinge of bitterness hung on the Major’s tongue.
“Come now Major, don’t call yourself a sheep. After all it was nobody’s choice but your own that made this sewer my home for the past 10 years.” The lord stared deeply at the Major, spinning one of the many rings on his fingers with his thumb.
“Are we here to dredge up old grudges or are we here to talk business?” The Major knew the Lord could go on all day like this. Nobody made it to the throne, no matter the size and no matter the domain by backing down. Ever.
“Ah yes business. My favorite. Live for the profit. I think we both know that it’s been some time since I’ve done anything out of charity; same goes for duty.” said the lord.
“That would have been right around the time you gave up your job,” said the Major.
“I didn’t give it up. They gave me up. But again, old grudges,” The lord answered.
It was explained to the lord how they requested, humbly of course, permission to cross his domain and needed access to the only portal leading to the next lower level.
The fact that their intentions were ludicrous was brought up by the lord but reminded by the Major that the less he knew the better. In return the State offered the lord some of the few things he didn’t posses. State medicine was well accepted as second to none. As knowledgeable as many underworld chemists were, few had other talents than producing cheap and quick highs for junkies and dealers. The Major knew that if the lord was keep in favor of the general underworld population he needed to provide something to the public and not just hustlers. Along with meds additional offerings on the table included state sponsored vaccinations, prophylactics, contraceptives, fine cloths, modern plumbing and metal working tools and of course a pile of State credits.
In return the lord agreed to the proposal and offered to send two of his very own private guards to accompany the trio on their journey to the next lower level. The deal was sealed with a handshake and the customary death threat for breach of contract. They commented on how nice it was to see each other but really wished each other misfortune and swift trip to hell. As the trio made their way behind the throne to the rear chamber door the lord motioned to the two guards to follow. Just as they were about to pass out of sight the lord yelled, “Halt!” freezing everyone in the room to a standstill. “There’s just one more thing.” The lord proclaimed, winking at the Major.
“Of course there is. I knew you couldn’t just leave it at that,” the Major responded. He’d seen the lord in action so many times before he kicked himself for thinking the negotiations would go otherwise. But the proposal that came next was more for the both of them than just the Lord.
“I want Junior,” the Lord said, motioning with his head to the Captain.
“What do you mean?” the boy asked even though he was afraid asking would bring repercussions at the hands of the Major.
“I want his ass.” the lord said, smiling with a wide grin and winking at the boy.
“Beg your pardon?” the Captain asked.
“Oh come, come, come. The boy’s cherry isn’t he Major?” the lord asked, puckering his lips at the kid.
“Ripe” the Major responded, trying his best to hide his smile knowing where the lord was going with this play.
“You had me, now I think you owe me the boy. After all if I had stuck around he’d be mine”, the lord spoke, his words sounding heavy with excitation.
“Fair is fair. Go ahead kid. What did you say? Anything for the mission?” said the Major, raising an eyebrow at the Captain.
“I don’t recall saying that,” said the Captain.
The blood had rushed from his face leaving him pale white and sweating. He tugged at his neck collar and heavily swallowed and empty gulp.
When it looked as if the boy was about to pass out the Major and lord shared a look until the lord burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry I can’t. Did you see the look on his face? Boy Major, you sure know how to pick ‘em.” The lord looked at the Captain and slapped his knee in a mocking manner.
“Ok. You may leave. You bore me and I’m tired of your faces,” spoke the lord. He winked at one of the chambermaids and waved the party away.
As they walked away the Major paused, turned to look at the Lord and said, “You always were a bastard.” Returning the smile the Lord spoke after taking a big gulp of wine from his goblet, “What can I say? I learned from the best.”
Quite suddenly the cacophony of echoes and clapping boots disappeared. Hard ground gave way to a soft thin carpet of green. A single footstep on grass was as foreign to them as swimming in the ocean. A general consensus was reached that under no circumstances was anyone to touch anything. The greenery down here was the raw source of nearly all the city’s food. Large automated machines called Harvesters would collect the strange organic life and process the pulp. A blinding combination of scythes, grinders and spider like arms did the cutting and collecting. A single glance at one of these machines incited less a vision of agriculture and more the sinister impression of an application of malicious intent. This reminded the Major of the Riot Control Modules he stood beside in his youth during many of the countless rebellions and Union strikes.
Through echolocation and instruments used to detect biological signatures, these machines they stood before would target areas with high volumes of growth. When full, the Harvesters would deliver their collections through several transport tubes leading to factories at the surface where the mulch could be sterilized and chemically treated for further processing and future distribution. Luckily for the party they found these crops before the Harvesters found them. In the killing fields the reaper is never far behind.
Both the soldiers and the escorts found some pleasure in the softness of their steps. Even the bounty hunter found the plush ground beneath his boots a bit bewildering. From birth it was either concrete, steel or if one was lucky enough to be born wealthy, a ceramic floor to walk on. Ancient rumors of blacklisted items called “carpet” were apparently something like padded cloth. Nobody had ever seen such an object but if it did exist the lord was sure to have it. Such amenities were outlawed years ago under the Basic Standards and Measures bill. The thought behind the law was that any behavior, objects, practices and the like being overly soft, comfortable or otherwise compromising to the development of a strong, hard and able bodied citizen would be banned entirely.
The Captain soon realized something peculiar about the simple plants. Since their humble beginnings as a collection of organic compounds the engineered elements continued on a unique an uncharted evolutionary path. Nowhere in that journey had light ever been introduced. The little grasses, weeds and semi-solid slime began to react to the touch of light from the soldier’s portable high beams. The little stems, petals and spores reached for beam, stretching with all their might to the imitation sun they had never known before.
Suddenly, the plants ceased their stretching and settled to their original position. They began to emit a form of bioluminescence, shining like a laser through a perfect diamond. The shattered rainbow sprinkled its bits and pieces upon the entire corridor, flickering randomly then to a clear and intentional pattern quite suddenly. The soldiers, escorts and hunter stood watching everything around them with a hypnotizing gaze. The blades swayed in waves until quite suddenly they froze perfectly still and began to throb and swell together in perfect rhythm. The grass began to grow taller and taller until it began to reach above the boots of the lead escort. He smiled, reaching down to touch the soft blades. The grass carefully caressed his fingers, which he was finding to be a bit ticklish.
Quite suddenly the blades wrapped around the escort’s fingers, cutting into them like rings of razors. Blades shot through his hands like thousands of little spears as others made their way up his arm pulling him down into the field of needles, slicing his arm to ribbons as he went down. The blades beneath his feet and knees stiffened, piercing through his skin down to the bone. The rest of the party watched in horror as the grass grew to vines, wrapping around the escort and pulling him further down until his body became sliced and diced into smaller and smaller pieces. Flesh became chunks. Chunks became bits. Bits became blood.
Knowing they couldn’t go back, the Major ordered the Captain and escort to throw their lights into the far side of the tunnel. The grasses and vines reached for the light allowing the remaining members of the party to clamor along the curved walls of the tunnel into the darkness ahead where hopefully the forward greenery wouldn’t adopt the same idea.
The hunter made due with the darkness quite well. As hard as he tried to suppress any personal characteristics or any class denominations, the Major could see past the hunter’s tough demeanor that he was a child of the Underbelly. The hunter used his sixth sense to maneuver amidst the dark corridors. The Major figured he must have been an orphan or at the very least the son of a prostitute. These women of the night would make their rounds in the Underbelly or if desperate enough up top in the Bordertowns looking for a rich politician on a bender.
Before work they would drop off their bastard children at orphanages or leave them in the metal bins that made their cribs. A brain spent years developing in the darkness gave some of these choice children cat like eyes impervious to darkness. Others developed a primitive type of echolocation by making clicking sounds with their mouths and feeling the sound reverberate along the walls. Just as the Major thought of these mole-children he heard the hunter clicking lightly in the darkness ahead of him. He smirked. I still got it he thought.
Luckily for the journeymen, the grasses proved to be weary of the party, which had made the decision to huddle together in their march.
The hunter led the party through the dark abyss for hours. It may have made sense to the ancient engineers who created the city but to the party it was a labyrinth with ill intentions, mocking them as they stumbled amidst the dim hallways. Once they had reached a barren stretch of tunnel void of greenery the Major ordered the Captain to turn on the Poly-Visual which allowed them to scan the featureless walls in multiple light and temperature spectrums. After another long stretch of walking the scanner picked up anomalies on the tunnel wall just above them.
Hanging above them was a fresco rich with ancient inscriptions and illustrations. The hands that created the visage had died long ago yet the message resonated ages after its conception. Although faded and hidden by years of filth, the fresco depicted a beautiful landscape of blue skies, white clouds and a bright shining sun; things that have neither been seen nor remembered by any living creature. At the epicenter a dark silhouette of a man opening a box could be seen. Inside the box is another man, somewhat smaller but very much like its maker.
Interrupting the silence as the others stared above, the escort began to tell the men how as a boy he had heard a few senile grey men talk of such visions. Desperate men would break into pipes looking for food or water but more often than not all that was discovered was sewage and nuclear waste. Some of the pipes found were empty and large enough for a man to fit in. They would crawl along the pipes for miles feeling around in the dark like worms. The lucky few who returned alive spoke of strange paintings like these. These madmen entered the pipes again in search of their blue skies never to return again.
“According to scanner there is a piece missing,” spoke the Captain. The Major asked the remaining escort and the hunter if they knew anything about the fresco or the missing piece.
“What do I look like some kind of arch-I-ologist?” answered the hunter. The escort shook his head no. The Major concluded that it was of no consequence to the mission and they were to continue on to the next level. As they argued between themselves the best way to reach the level beneath they heard the echo of squishing and crunching down the corridor. The hideous sound began to grow louder and louder. By the time they realized the sound was that of a tiny tidal wave of carnivorous slime and grasses it was already at their feet. Before they could scamper out of the way or climb the walls to safety the wave had passed them.
“Close call,” said the Captain, wiping the sweat off his brow.
“A little luck at last,” said the escort. Just as soon as the Captain nodded in agreement a new, more nefarious sound penetrated their short moment of relief.
“I don’t think so,” said the hunter, raising his cannon towards the sound in the darkness ahead. A cacophony of slicing metal shot down the hallway. Sparks traveled along the circumference of the tunnel like a halo of fire.
“What the he..?” asked the Captain. Before he could finish his words the escort grabbed him by the collar, yanking him in the opposite direction of the fiery ring, screaming “Harvester! Run!”
The sparks dimly illuminated the flailing ballet of scythes on all sides of the machine, ensuring no missed surfaces when traveling down the pipe in search of its vegetable prey. For the party this meant nowhere to hide.
They sprinted down the dark corridor from the invisible death behind them. Just as the Harvester was nipping at their heels a screaming blue fireball shot out of the forward darkness in their direction. A large explosion behind them lit up the Harvester and the Hunter emerging before them, running back in the direction of the deadly machine. “Quickly! Climb up!” The hunter’s rifle blast had knocked out the top and front pair of scythes allowing the hunter to scramble atop the Harvester. The machine had lost much of its momentum but was quickly gaining speed. The Captain and Major were clamped on to the smoldering face of the machine trying to follow the escort who had beat them atop. As the hunter made his way to the back of harvester preparing to jump off the opposite side the escort kneeled down towards the two soldiers and pointed his weapon at their heads.
“The Warlord extends his deepest regrets, but business is business. Adios G-man.” The escort cocked his weapon, emitting a quick whine from the charger and looked down the barrel at his mark. A large bang shocks the harvester as a blinding bright light bounces off the tunnel walls. A headless body falls in front of the machine. For a moment the clanking of metal is muffled as a red mist sprays in the air. Vacuums whirr as spider legs tediously work to stash the remaining pieces in its hold.
“Are you two going to get up here or am I going to have to leave you there?” spoke the hunter. The Major looked at the hunter stunned. The Captain, arms wrapped around the Major’s leg and head buried in his chest was still muttering “I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead” until the Major shook his leg free from the mumbling boy.
“Thank you,” said the Major as the hunter pulled them atop; the Major by his hand and the Captain by his collar.
“Don’t thank me just yet. I’m sure I’ll get the chance to piss you off again soon,” answered the hunter. Gratitude was a strange bird to ears so used to hearing “please no stop!”
After a few slaps to the face the Captain regained most of his composure. They sat atop the harvester riding the pipeline contemplating their next move. Before a plan could be hatched the rumbling of the damaged machine slowed to a standstill. Loud locking mechanisms could be heard clamping against the Harvesters sides. Beginning with a loud click, the Harvester’s back half split open revealing its damaged cargo bay. With a shudder the bay container began to tilt at an increasing angle until the greenery inside and the stowaways were flipped end over end down a long dark vertical tunnel. Tumbling down the pipe along with a shower of slime the trio landed in a pool at the bottom of the pipe with large splash. “Where are we?” asked the Major, spitting the gunk out of his mouth.
“Bottom of a depository is my guess,” answered the hunter. Breaching out of the water like a drunken seal, the Captain began wailing, “I can’t swim! I can’t swim!” The Captain clawed at the hunter, trying to climb his tall body to higher ground.
“Relax junior. It’s not that deep,” barked the hunter. The Captain’s flailing feet found enough solid ground for him to stand in the pool, the surface water at his collarbone.
“Oh. I guess you’re right,” he spoke feebly. They waded back and forth in the pool, looking for a drain, door or any point of exit. The search remained empty despite the hunter’s instincts, the Major’s cunning and the Captain’s whining. The hunter’s fist pounded the walls of the giant pipe in anger. Frustrated, the hunter cocked his weapon, dipped the muzzle in the green water and closed his eyes. The Major, seeing the hunter’s move, pushed the Captain against the far side of the wall and covered his head. With the click of a trigger and a bright flash the ball of fire shot through the water, a colossal geyser thrusting into the air. Just as the emerald rain came crashing back down the hunter disappeared beneath the liquid. They grasped at the sides of the pipe as the spiraling suck whipped them in circles, dragging them into the void beneath.
They spilled out beneath the concrete pool like spiders down a rain gutter. Like the neglected birth of a sick child, each landed hard against the floor with a flume of the putrid liquid. Barely conscious, they squirmed in the slime trying to stand as the room spun around them. The Major helped the Captain to his feet as the hunter cleared his gun from the gunk.
“Where in the hell are we?” asked the Major. They looked around the featureless room connected to another tunnel that stretched into the darkness like so many of the others they had already seen. The Captain said what the other men were thinking but would never say. Hard men hide in their silence. An experienced ear listening hard enough can hear pain and frayed nerves simply by their absence. Grand gestures and deep heartfelt speeches come from places of pride and willpower, no matter how grim the words. True pain numbs and desensitizes removing all feeling until all that is left is emptiness. What can come from emptiness if not silence?
The Captain ran his scanner again, the machine gurgling with the green moisture. The technology sparked and sorted out several times but enough juice was there to run the cycle. A feature was found in the floor approximately 100 yards down the dead end tunnel. Yet again the pried-open a manhole cover, this one much more ancient than the first they entered.
“It seems like this place never ends. It’s like there’s no bottom,” the Captain said.
“There’s always a bottom,” said the hunter, “It is we who have no bottom.”
The rope ceased in the middle of the void. The hunter lit the multiple flairs he had been saving, dropping them beneath him illuminating an immense chamber. The concrete cathedral rivaled the size of the old aircraft hangar where they began the day. The light revealed structural abnormalities at the floor but too faint for the soldiers to identify. From here the trio rappelled below.
Halfway down the chamber, honeycomb dwellings lined the walls on all sides. The roofs of these honeycombs could be seen littering the chamber floor. The lighted disc from where they entered seemed but a faint star in the vast darkness above. The rope ended just short of the ground. A quick leap planted their feet loosely on alien soil. The two soldiers were awestruck at the gruesome architecture, composed of rubble and refuse, erected by a simple yet sinister intelligence.
“Quiet,” whispered the giant. “Follow my lead and keep your aim true and pointed sharp. Not at my head tenderfoot,” he added, eyeballing the Captain.
Nerves on high, they walked through the honeycomb forest. Their eyes were peeled for flesh and bone in the midst of a crowd of ghosts. Ears listened for a gasp in the deafening still of a thousand silent screams. Kicking about the rubble with his boot, the hunter meandered back and forth a large clearing in the dwellings.
“Not a single fresh track. You boys want the good news or the bad news?” the hunter asked.
“Good news,” the Captain answered.
“Well the good news is that we don’t have to spend the next half of an eternity searching these huts.”
“And the bad news,” The Major asked.
“Deeper we go.” The hunter pointed to the mouth of a black cave, a solemn expression on his face. He didn’t say so but this was the first time he felt out of his league.
The trio made their way down the throat of the cave, its hunger eager to taste anything at all, for it had been quite some time since swallowing any living creature. Never mind the buildings piercing the grey city skyline. Ignore the statues of important men and coliseums with their bloody murder up above. The Underbelly was the real heart of the city. Who could be the architect if not the devil himself?
“We’ve been walking for miles. Mind at least clueing us in on what you’re trying to accomplish?” the Major asked the hunter. The hunter pepped his step to quell the soldier’s growing unrest. He had a general idea of where he was heading, but hunting was never an exact science no matter how keen the nose. Lady luck always had her hand in any game played down here. Here, the lady was a bitch.
The hunter turned to the soldiers and gave his off the cuff plan. “This is the main tunnel from which all other pipes splinter, and those that splinter from them and so on and so forth. Considering the chamber we were just in was a ghost town any recent activity on the part of our parasite, or other parasites, would be much farther out. We look for the freshest refuse or makeshift shelters and use your scanners from there.”
They kicked around the rubble and waste, flipping this or that with their shoes. “Check any food wrappers and their expiration and born-on dates, and any shiny metals free of rust,” the hunter told the men.
The Captain paused and tapped his Major on the soldier, “Ugh Major, I think I found something. Something better. How about a fresh road apple?” The Captain lifted his shoe showing the other two his bit of good luck.
“Bingo,” the hunter exclaimed, “Turn on those fancy scanners you brought fellas.” The hunter had found his four-leaf clover, and was happy not to be the one who discovered it first.
The Captain fiddled with his scanner, having some trouble in the darkness. The orange glow of the lights running along the ceiling of the pipes was faint, but just enough to manage their instruments. “It’s faint, but I’m picking up something large about two quadrants down.”
The hunter nodded. “Two quadrants down could only be a power coupler. We’ll go from there,” the Captain said. For the first time on their mission both the Major and the hunter were impressed. They didn’t think the runt could make a call no matter how small the step.
Winding their way through the infinite maze of crossways and linkages, they were careful not to touch anything they didn’t have to. The grime, moisture and filth of surface refuse and parasitic waste created a cesspool of diseases. Contact with an open sore would guarantee a grisly death by gangrene, dysentery or any other wonderful sort of rampant necrosis before the victim could see the light of day.
They reached an octagonal room, the center at which was a pillar fixed with an array of wires, knobs, transformers and coils. The floor of this room, just as the main chamber, had many makeshift honeycomb huts. Unlike the main chamber these had very little rust, few cobwebs and didn‘t feel as petrified. In this room, oxidized iron and arachnid signatures were traded for the bleached bones of the eradicated species.
“Good god, is that a parasite?” The Major asked the hunter. Troubled by the sight before him the figure was wretched and had an air of something cruel, not only in its nature, but whatever shaped its terrible form.
“The pipes did it,” said the hunter. “All these years in tight spaces and toxic chemicals have turned them into a far cry from what you remember Major.” The hunter said this with a hint of grim enjoyment in offering the uneducated a disconcerting truth. Very few had ever had the privilege and lived to tell about it.
The slayer had both hands ready on his high-powered cannon. The rifle was decommissioned and straight off a vintage cruiser, retrofitted as the mother of all rifles. The wicked assembly was too heavy for an average man to lug any farther from a workbench to a cruiser. Such a messy and careless weapon was the one luxury a man schooled in a paradigm of pure survival dared to afford. A smaller sidearm would have better suited a man of this profession. When it came to neutralizing, however, or a means to an end as he saw it, a little style made such a barbaric career all the more enjoyable. Hunting heads was more bearable when using an instrument of murder that wasn’t business all the time. Anything worth killing is worth killing right.
The slayer paused, raising a clenched fist above his shoulder signaling them to halt. He looked at both though more firmly towards the Captain and raised a single finger to his lips, “Shhh.” He signaled to flank the coupler on both sides. They circled the electric trunk with soft steps, creeping towards a destination only known to the hunter. The hunter’s eyes fixed on a niche high in the wall of the room. It was clear he sniffed something in the air besides the heavy tang of ozone.
Suddenly a scattering was heard in the upper niches of the room. The noise scurried from side to side, its position changed as soon as it could be made. The parasites didn’t last this long by being anything but skittish at damn near everything. In a swift movement on the opposite side of the coupler from the hunter debris fell at the feet of the Captain. Startled, a blast shot from the Captain’s weapon, striking an exposed organ of the coupler. Sparks showered the room like snowflakes in hell.
The coupler began to sizzle and smoke. Bolts of electricity shot erratically throughout the air incinerating the surface of the surrounding walls. The hunter shot radically into the niches above as they backed out of the room. The cannon blasts brought concrete and iron slabs down onto the already crippled coupler, further releasing more of the hellish lightening.
“Run!” yelled the hunter, “It’s all going to blow.”
They sprinted through the tunnel from which they came, the octagonal room crumbling to pieces. A blinding flash was followed closely by the supersonic roar of an angry sun; its fiery grip closing in fast on the fleeing trio. With a leap the three flew through the inferno, like chaw spewed from the devil’s mouth, spilling onto the ground beneath.
The hunter rose from the ash and dusted himself off. The Major and Captain were slow to their feet. With a quick flash the hunter held the Captain at arm’s length by his neck, feet dangling and kicking wildly
“I will have your head for this” the hunter shouted. The Captain’s eyes bugged from his skull as his pimply face became plum purple. He gasped futilely at the stale air around him.
“That’s enough!” the Major yelled, weapon pointed at the hunter’s temple. The hunter dropped the Captain just shortly of his losing consciousness. Holstering his weapon, the Major pulled the boy to his feet and gave the instruction to check for any burns. Each man had his share and were suitably bandaged and treated.
“Back to the scanners,” the hunter ordered the soldiers. His patience was growing thin with the pair. He’d have offed them right there if only he had known how to use their equipment.
“Hold your horses I’m on it,” answered the Captain, not before giving his friendly strangler the stink eye. After a few short moments of dialing the charred contraption and wandering about the scanner picked up its beat. The boy was quicker this time around to execute his task. He may have been an imbecile but he knew the penalty for any infraction this time around. When finding yourself dealing with death its best not to tempt fate twice.
“That’s him on the other side of the coupler, or what’s left of it. Sorry about that!” the Captain spoke through a cowered grin. The hunter shouldered his rifled, not before returning a wicked stare to the cockroach he’d quietly been begging to squash.
“We go the long way. Believe it or not this little pissant’s mishap actually may benefit us. The parasite is pinned between the coupler and the runoff. It’s in a corner. Leave the scanner on, dunce, and give the Major your weapon.” The Captain belittled, nevertheless complied.
It scurried along the pipe, careful not to scrape its bare hide against the walls of the rusted bowels of The Underbelly. The city’s veins pumped its toxic lifeblood through endless channels, interconnected by the infinite pig iron capillaries, and it was just another clot to be rid. Technically classified as Parasites, the early lay-man’s term was “heartworms”, as they would hoard themselves within the innermost chambers in the earlier days. It wasn’t long before the radioactive warmth was no longer mistaken for a mother’s love. The outer arteries were cold, tight and coagulated with the trickling of surface influent. It was here and only here the parasites could find an appropriate balance between warmth and shelter. Follow the runoff for a small eternity to the outfall and the foul liquids rain on a piceous wasteland.
“The scanner’s going wild. It’s just a few dozen yards away pinned against the runoff gate. Ready your weapon. When we pass the bend, follow my lead.”
The beast poked its head out of the spout, scanning the barren landscape with its eyes. It squeezed its wiry body through the steel bars just as the marksman turned the corner. The beast leapt to the ground, landing hard and rolling through the loose gravel beneath. Gathering itself and shaking off the pain of the scratches, cuts and fresh bruises that riddled its body, it made its way westward.
Dumbfounded at the scene, the hunter and Major walked to the end of the pipe, watching the parasite scatter to and fro some dozens of yards beneath them. Scampering meagerly amongst the rubble it fled with what little vitality it had left.
“Can you remember the last time we had to chase one out of the city,” the hunter asked the Major. He shook his head, hung it, then put his shaking hands in his pockets before pacing away from the others a bit. “I really need another hit,” he whispered to himself.
Gathering his composure he answered, “Only in the early days, before they knew that pipes and tunnels were safer than a scorched landscape.” He strolled on a bit more. He wanted just enough distance between them for him to hope that maybe, just maybe they wouldn’t ask him anymore. No such luck.
“Ok so what the hell do we do now?” the Captain belted. A bitter taste pooled in the boy’s mouth before trickling down his throat. The young man’s tongue writhed against his teeth in anticipation until he could wait no longer. Before the impatience could leave the pauper’s jaws, a bolt shot from the stoic colossus.
“Back to the surface. There is nowhere to hide out there. We’ll spot it easy with our cruisers.” The hunter wasn’t sure what to make of it, but as brutal as he was, he still considered himself a professional. Professionals never let the situation get the best of them, whatever stranglehold it may have around them. The hunter was fighting it hard.
The Major looked at the hunter, both sharing a befuddled look all the while trying to hide the fear behind their eyes. The pair walked over to each other in an attempt to be an earshot away from the frightened child.
“Last time us or them left the city was before our time. There isn’t even a fresh breath of air out there,” the hunter whispered to the Major. The Captain was pacing up and down a short length of pipe section. Parasites were like any other animal. Survival was paramount. Animals have no adulation for the irrational.
“We don’t need to chase it! No why would we? It will be dead by sunset. Yes. Now we can go back to the Colonel and debrief.” Fiddling his thumbs, the scholar-soldier found himself with a problem with no solution, a question with no answer. It did not compute. He had never been so far out of his element.
“Captain we have to see the mission through. Orders are orders.” Asinine as it was, it was the only way to be sure. It may have been his last mission, but the Major was never one to walk away from his duty, whatever he deemed it to be
“This wasn’t part of the deal! Not the Outer Fringes! Major! Surely you fear the demons of the night; the horrors that skin your soul and leave you damned to hell?” the Captain shouted, his body trembling.
The hunter grabbed the Captain’s shirt by the collar with an iron fist, pulled him nose to nose and looked into his beady eyes and growled, “Fool, I am that evil!”
Just as the two soldiers prepped a route back in the Positioning Map for the long trek back they heard the cocking of the hunter’s rifle behind them. The Captain spun around thinking the hunter had found something but the Major already knew. There the hunter stood, his cannon pointed at the soldiers wearing an ear-to-ear grin on his face. “What’s the meaning of this?” the Captain spoke, stammering his words. He had never looked down the barrel of a gun before. He wasn’t taking his first experience well.
“Who put you up to this?” asked the Major. He had been the target for termination countless times before but never after having his life saved by the same devil that meant to take it.
“Why didn’t you let the machine do your dirty work? Why did you spare us before?” asked the Major.
The hunter tapped the side of his head with his free hand, still smiling, “I need your memory banks. Nobody cares if a search party finds enough of you to put in an urn but we certainly can’t have your dossier become public knowledge. Politics. You should understand that better than anyone.”
“That I do,” answered the Major, shaking his head. “It never ends does it?” he added.
“For you it does… So sorry. And twice as sorry for you boy,” spoke the hunter.
“Why is that?” asked the Captain.
“Nobody wants to die a virgin,” answered the hunter.
“Tell me about it,” said the Captain, hanging his head, his shoulders slouched over.
“Any last words Major?” spoke the hunter.
“Yes. See you in hell,” he answered with a dark smile.
The hunter returned the grin, “As you wish.”
Just as the two soldiers closed their eyes awaiting the cold kiss of death they heard they blood curdling scream. Upon opening their eyes they saw the hunter against the tunnel grate, one leg on either side of a single bar. The sounds of popping and cracking bones were only overshadowed by the howls of pain. The Major pushed the boy back and took a step forward to see more of the carnage. His own steps were halted by the hunter’s outstretched hand looking for help. Bloody, tearing eyes begged for mercy. For him there would be neither. When the horrid sounds ceased the bar was halfway up the hunter’s torso. The two stood frozen in fear at the scene before them. So petrified were the soldiers that they did not notice the little river of blood at their feet. Forever burned in their minds would be the glowing red eyes of parasite as it looked into them, through them and beyond.
In the dark private office the Colonel sat at his desk sifting through a mountain of memos and towers of dossiers. Electric firelight glowed behind his chair as he swirled a high-octane spirit in a crystal glass. Undoubtedly both were black market items. Spinning the chair around to face the warm light he looked at the many plaques and trophies that adorned his mantle. “For Exemplary Service to the State” read one. Another in a small display case held his Medal of Supreme Efficiency. They meant nothing more than cheap party favors to him. They were handouts; Generic tokens of gratitude from a system that could truly care less whether he lived or died. The way anybody could see it, this wasn’t living anyways.
The Colonel’s gaze was interrupted by a beeping on his portable powerpad indicating he had a message. Flipping the “READ” switch with a finger on his drink hand it read, “Mission Accomplished: Arrange for Swap.” Tapping the powerpad with his finger he took a moment to mull over an inconspicuous rendezvous point.
“Drop Location: Skipper Doody’s Pub, Section 8, Bordertown.” Just as soon as he sent the message he heard the chiming of his inbox. Checking his inbox he found nothing. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him. The Major emerged from behind a curtain in the shadows. He held the Hunter’s powerpad in his grasp. The Major threw the assembly on the Colonel’s desk along with the accompanying hand. The digits on the hand were molded into a gruesome gesture unbecoming of a soldier.
“I don’t think he’ll be getting the message,” spoke the Major.
“No. I guess not,” answered the Colonel.
“So this was all a great big ruse huh? Does the council know?” For the first time in his life the Major was interrogating a superior. Most soldiers would trade their pensions just to find themselves in such a position. They would revel in the opportunity to poke and prod those who cracked the whip at their backs. The Major however felt numb and nauseas.
“No. They had no idea. What am I talking about? They? I meant he. There’s only one elder left.” The Colonel knew the Major suspected an insider of systematically ousting the Senior Council members out of office. He was actually a little disappointed in his protégé that he never thought to finger the mentor as the snake.
“A piece? You know?”
“Of course. I made a deal with Warlord that if he had you neutralized he’d be given a full pardon. He had this crazy dream of trans-level import- export that he couldn’t pull off up top without state credibility. Anyways, I’m not sure if you knew this, nor at this point do I care, but I have been a long time customer of the lord. He contacted me when some crazed loon found some strange artifact. After I bought it and figured out what it really meant that’s when I offered him the deal. A deal that could make both of us rich. I’m pretty tired of being stuck at this pay grade.”
The Colonel told the Major of how he considered the last remaining elder to be a “self righteous bastard” and if the inscription was made public it would undermine everything their society was built upon. The truth is a luxury only the poor can afford.
“What does it say?” asked the Major. What the hell was so important about a rock that the Colonel was afraid?
“Damned if I’d tell you. That’s on a need to know basis. Anyways I had it destroyed,” the Colonel said. The Major figured as much. He knew however that dirty footsteps were the hardest to hide.
“So the escorts were really your men? And the hunter his?” asked the Major. As intelligent as the Major was the science behind backstabbing was more confusing to him than the female brain; a mysterious subject that throughout time has only raised more questions and no answers.
“No they were both my men. I dealt with the hunter directly and on my orders the warlord sent his escorts. Remember what I said? Always check and double check your work.” Even when the Colonel found himself the suspect of questioning he still had the nerve to scrutinize the talents of an opponent who got the better of him.
“You did say that. I should have listened. So you wanted to be head honcho is that it?” said the Major. Sitting at the head of the table was a dream that never passed through the tired brain of the aging officer. No matter how hard one may try or how honorable the actions may be, nobody can please everybody. Then again being numero uno was never really about serving anything but the ego.
“I wanted office. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to serve the public,” spoke the Colonel. He was reaching for the Major’s last remaining heart strings. The Colonel should have known better that they were undoubtedly lost many missions ago. Left on the battlefield like so many fallen comrades, sympathy is the always the first casualty of war.
“Don’t give me that. You’re a soldier just like I am and you know the way things really are. You want to know what a politician is? Politicians are not saviors nor are they public servants. Politicians are salesman. Their product is bullshit. The only difference between them is which flavor you find easiest to swallow. You my friend, you’re loaded to the gills. You know, considering the fact, you would have been the best.”
“Would’ve? Come on now Major let’s not do anything rash,” spoke the Colonel, gesturing with both hands, as if to push the Major back.
“Rash? Like assassination? Like neutralization?” barked back the Major. The angry dog was foaming at the mouth.
“Let’s talk about this, you know, like we used to? Before those bastards started to pull our stings. Before they plucked us from the womb and stamped us on an assembly line?” said the Colonel. The Major could tell he was trying to weasel his way out of this pickle but as pathetic as his attempts appeared, they were hitting their mark. The Major was human after all, no matter how many pieces of him were missing.
“What is it? Is it a matter of money? We’ll have all we want once we’ve ousted the last council member. Or is it this?” spoke the Colonel, opening the top drawer in his desk. The Major casually placed his hand on his pistol paranoid of a last ditch effort by the cornered rat. The Major could barely make out the figure in the Colonel’s hands but he heard the all too familiar rattle of a bottle and its little morsels of heaven. The sounds made his hairs stand on end. Goosebumps chilled his skin as he swallowed the bit of saliva gathering in his mouth.
“That’s it, isn’t it? It’s this,” the Colonel spoke to the Major, a bit of degradation in his speech as if talking to a dog, saying “Here boy, here! Come on. Get the stick!”
The Major stared at the bottle. His focus went from pinpoint to backwards; the place where your eyes are wide open but see nothing save the emptiness inside. With a quick blink he broke his gaze, raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. The Colonel spun around in the chair and keeled over into the electric fire, landing with a splash of sparks. Smoke swirled through the bullet hole from the crackle and fizz beneath the limp body.
The Major lowered his weapon, pulled out his Service Knife. The blade was a gift for years of quality service, the edge never worked over until the moment he used it to pry loose the memory chip from the back of the Colonel’s head. Throwing it on the ground, he was about to crush the little piece of silicon underneath his standard issue combat boots. He froze, remembering what the hunter had said only moments before his grisly demise. Picking up the chip he put the small card into his powerpad. Kicking the chair around with his foot he sat in the broken seat. It cracked a bit under his weight as he slouched over, his head weighing heavily in his hands. Flipping through page after page of depressing memories, sexual exploits and military coups he had found the thought he had been looking for.
“Why? No. It’s not true. It must be a scheme by the Colonel” he said aloud. “I…I…I don’t understand,” he added, the words stuttering out of his mouth. He tried to rationale the image and its meaning. He knew though that if this was just another plot by the Colonel then why the cover up? The memory banks corroborated just what he feared; no evil plans, no illegal black market dealings and no firewall to hide the truth. It was all legit.
Just as he felt he was about to cry for the first time in his life he heard a buzzing over the intercom.
“Is everything ok Colonel? I heard a loud noise,” the voice asked. There was no genuine concern in the secretary’s voice. The Major, knowing his former boss, figured the girl was undoubtedly the target of many unwanted advances at the hands of the Colonel. The Major imagined how she would feel upon walking into the office and finding the battered corpse of “the despicable bastard” or what she referred to the Colonel behind his back.
“Yes. Everything’s fine,” the Major answered, his voice cracking in his effort to sound natural.
“Ok sir. There is a man on line 1 asking for you. He didn’t say who he was but he said you would know,” said the secretary.
“Patch him through,” said the Major, knowing just who the call was from.
“Colonel, I have a bit of bad news. I regret to inform you that my men never returned from the expedition. I don’t know if you have heard back from your men or not but either way I can be assured the situation will be handled immediately?” The lord’s voice lacked its usual boisterous quality the Major was used to. The lord was seldom accustomed to losing and the Major relished the hidden shame.
“Don’t worry. Everything is under control, just not your control,” the Major quipped. This was the first day in his lack luster career he had the higher ups by the balls. He had the jump on his old adversary and it felt good.
“Major. How nice to hear from you. I had feared the worst when my men never returned. Where is the Colonel?” the Warlord suspected the worst but was hoping the Major, a man of unquestionable loyalty, might have followed protocol one last time. No such luck.
“The Colonel has retired from service. Permanently,” said the Major, bitterness strangling his words. He unconsciously flipped through the papers on the desk, almost forgetting he wasn’t at work.
“Well. I guess that leaves an open seat,” The lord’s tone quickly returning to its usual ego.
“What seat?” the Major asked. Nearly every word out of the lord’s mouth was an exercise in business negotiations. The way the lord looked at it even when backed into a corner there was always an angle.
“Well seeing as you’re next in command…,” said the lord.
“Go on,” said the Major. He was curious as to what rabbit the lord was going to pull out of his hat.
The lord waited in silence for just a moment before answering. Whether an empty stomach or bursting at the seams, suspense will always make a man hungry.
“Care to make a deal?”
“Police Unit Alpha Charlie 4602 heading due north in hot pursuit of parasite.” The transmission crackled over the tired radio and reverberated against the cruiser’s cabin windows.
“Last parasite that is,” shouted the officer, seated behind the Major in the cockpit. He patted his Captain on the shoulder with his free hand, the other steadily tracking their mark. The Major had spent the entire journey back to the surface reassuring the young Captain that they would come to no harm. He swore the Outer Fringes were desolate and the only demon was the one they were tracking.
“That’s right Nicky-Boy; The last parasite. Last of the goddamn plague.” the Captain retorted, his breath heavy with relief. In a manner of a few short minutes it would all be over.
“What are you going to do when it’s all said and done Alan? Is it ok if I call you Alan, Major?” the officer asked. An original query was born. The subject hadn’t been explored anytime before. Exterminating the parasites was the be-all-end-all of their existence. Nothing mattered before or after the moment of the next neutralization.
“Dunno. What are any of us going to do? Suppose I might go back home. Get a job at a local factory and raise a family. You know, white picket fences and what-not.” The microwave dinner of being was becoming more and more palatable when compared to life on the hunt. When you’re hungry for long enough, any meal will do.
“Oh doesn’t that sound quaint” the Captain said mockingly. For the first time in recent memory, spirits were high, and the pair wore it on their person. A few quick swigs from the Major’s flask and the Captain’s anxiety meds didn’t hurt either.
“Sure as hell does!” the Major exclaimed. “Sounds like heaven if you ask me,” he added, whispering under his breath. The officer relished the idea of succumbing to mediocrity. The monotony of nine to five is repulsive only to those whose wages are not made from the blood of the damned.
“Hot damn the last one. Feels good just to say it. Can’t imagine what else is going to fill our days. We’ve spent damn near our whole adult lives chasing these things across all of god’s creation,” said the Captain. The boy didn’t honestly need much of an idea. Anything but the status quo was as good as retirement and endless holidays. Few soldiers were gifted with a career of little to no bloodshed. The Major reminded the kid how lucky he was and how so many other’s were not. “How old were we when we left the academy?” added the Captain.
The Major paused and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Couldn’t tell you. I don’t think I can remember a thing before graduation,” he answered. He began to search the memories he had spent a lifetime learning to forget.
“Haha! That’s how you know we did it right!” shouted the Captain, the boy giddy for the first time since the mission began. He was perhaps the only one stupid enough to be giddy. At the right times ignorance can be a welcome handicap.
The Major smiled, “Damn right buddy. Damn Right.”
The cruiser cut the gray matted sky, dancing amidst the clouds like a butterfly in a fog of cigar smoke. The light of the late day sun feverishly tried to push its way through the haze but to no avail. From the earth to the heavens endless smog enveloped all to be seen. Eyes become superfluous and in the absence of instinct, instruments replace intuition.
A slight buzz tried to push its way over the radio requiring assistance from the captain. A quick dialing of frequency and the faint noise became audible, “Attention all units, please alter course to Sector Nine and await further instructions.” The computer’s voice grew softer as they closed in on their mark and made distance between themselves and the heart of the city.
“What do you think they’ve got going on back home?” asked the Captain. He envisioned praise from his superiors, women on his arm and the respect he never earned up until this point in his brief career. This mission was his only meal ticket to the top. As far as the rest of the world knew the war was over. The two soldiers just thought of the present mission as arriving to the party fashionably late.
“A hero’s reception I’m sure: Crowds, floats and a nice dame to kiss under the ticker tape. Real picturesque.” The Major answered. The entire city would rejoice. If the world only knew what it truly took to make the Major smile.
“Yea, we’re real heroes alright,” the Captain said through a plastic smile. As much as he looked forward to glory, he was reminded at what cost it comes, what was paid for it and those who footed the bill; those who turned a blind eye and those whose eyes had seen all too much.
Condensation began to build on the inside glass of the cockpit. The kid’s fingers drew smiley faces as the old man tried to steady the cruiser, but turbulence smeared the sketch. The Captain grimaced and wiped the glass clean with his sleeve.
“Hey Alan. All this we’ve been doing over the years, all this neutralizing, you ever, well, you know?” The Captain asked.
“No I don’t. What are you getting at?” quipped the Major. He wanted to know what the boy was getting at. He had an idea but was hoping he was wrong. The Major was hardly ever wrong.
“Eh don’t make me say it. Seems like such a shame you know. You can’t help how you are made,” responded the Captain. He was hesitant to ask, but he felt he didn‘t want to be alone on this one. Hearing it from his superior may have comforted him although he knew it was improbable.
“Yea I guess you could say I don’t take any pleasure in this,” the Major responded. “Then again I don’t lose any sleep either. The way I figure, termites fixing to eat you out of house and home well, it’s either him or me. Survival of the fittest, ay? Nothing personal. It is what it is.” This was a different kind of justification for the Major.
“C’est la vie?” asked the Captain.
Alan cracked a half smile. “Si signor.” Both men gave a half-hearted chuckle. What humor they shared puzzled them both.
Time in the cabin is always heavy. Built for efficiency and not for comfort, extended trips were uncommon and uncomfortable. The cockpit grows stale and the blanket of moist air hangs heavy in the sky like the breath of an inebriated god. Stomachs turn where agoraphobia meets claustrophobia, something like the life that burns low in the womb of a condemned mother.
“Hey Alan, do you remember your first?” The interview was as standard for soldiers as the salute or handshake. You can’t trust a man if you don’t know how he came to be one.
“Sure. Who could ever forget? It was pretty standard really. It was early in The Resistance when I was just a flatfoot. There was a small skirmish in the inner sectors and we were working Riot Control. You see this was just before the whole lot of them started making way for The Underbelly. At this point they still had numbers on their side. Anyways, they began looting the food stocks and destroyed at least a half a dozen cruisers. Then one of them broke free of the pack. I guess he picked up my scent and headed straight for me. I caught it right between the eyes and dropped it at 45 yards. And that was that. What about you Nick? When did you break your cherry?”
The seasoned veteran had told his story ad nauseam over the years, but never reflected on it with anything but indifference until his weathered career’s final hour.
The young one paused as the lump grew in his throat. He wasn’t quite sure if he asked out of morbid curiosity, or to be asked in turn. “It was only a few months ago, when everything was winding down. Before then I hadn’t seen real action. We were using UAVs to run recon in the tunnels and came across a nest in a major hub. When they saw us they took off. We dusted the pipe with gas but instead of heading towards the runoff they made a beeline straight for the core. I don’t imagine anyone could answer why. All I know is that we circled for hours and didn’t pick up a beat on the scanners. It was a 99.9% sure kill rate. They fried themselves. There were females and birthlings too. I got a promotion for that. This job to be exact.” The Captain’s eyes scanned the cabin, looking for any knobs or levers to press but could find none. His stare found nothing but an empty space beyond the cabin’s window.
The Major’s face sighed but made no noise. His palms grew clammy on the controls. He found comfort in the fact he couldn’t see the rookies face, or more so that the rookie couldn‘t see his. “That’s bad, but at least you didn’t need to see the sucker face to face.”
Nick may have been wet behind the ears, but he was anything but nescient. War can fade a baby face in the single blink of dying virgin eyes and wither a soul many years before its time. Apathy and wisdom become one and tread empathy beneath its calloused feet.
“I suppose,” said the Captain. He paused for a moment then added, “In the end the hand that pushes the button is just as guilty as the finger that pulls the trigger.”
The creature clamored on all fours, scraping its belly against the charcoal ground as it leeched upward along the incline. Resting on the peak of the ridge, it’s curved and knobby spine whistled in the wind. Raising its head it sniffed the air, but found no evil on the breeze. Negotiating its way along the broken and staggered crevice it paused just before a split in the ridge. Many feet had downtrodden the black earth countless moons ago and the parasites sixth sense grew keen to this. Gooseflesh tightened its grasp on the clammy skin of the parasite as it carefully made its way down the path. Huts of sheet metal and plastic tarp lined either side of the chasm, split down the middle by the bare path that lead the parasite. The musk of dead flesh hung in the air. The carcasses of vultures and rats lay strewn about the ground. Countless remains have been shoveled amongst the rust. Perched on the cusp of an endless valley the parasite stood on its hind legs. Its gaze was cemented on the barren contours that split the earth like the cracks in endless ebony pearl.
The milky white sky thinned as they closed in their last few hundred meters towards the parasite. The heavens and earth finally met in this forsaken stretch of terrain. The clouds diluted to nothing, exposing a blackened earth, shimmering like an obsidian sea in the setting sun. As the cruiser landed thrusters blew a thick cyclone about the chasm, whipping the tarps about the air like trash in the wind. They followed the parasite’s footsteps through the path and caught sight of it in the near distance. The approach was slow. The duo flanked the parasite on all both sides.
“It’s over pal. Nowhere to run. We can make this real simple and painless,” said the Major. His words bolted hard towards the offender. The old man’s eyes were glazed over and his face expressionless. A profession such as this didn’t have the luxury of the hangman’s hood. It was up each man to plaster a guise on his tired mug.
“It will be painless I’m sure. How could anything feel worse than this,” the creature said. The parasite didn’t turn to face its judge, jury and executioner. Much like the graying soldier the parasite had no blindfold handy.
“Kneel please. I’d hate to ask twice.” The Major beseeched the parasite. Up until that point he had never asked his bounty, always ordering it like the soldier he was.
“If it’s all the same to you I’d rather stand,” the creature snapped back, using its last bit of energy to execute a promise it made to itself. It would roll over no longer.
“Suit yourself.” The Major made for his holster but was stopped by his partner’s outstretched arm.
“It’s alright Alan. I can take care of it.” The boy spoke with firm yet somber intention.
“You sure about this?” he asked the greenhorn.
“Yes. Yes I suppose.” The Captain pressed the weapon to the back of the parasites head as the Major watched. “You’ve been charged with crimes against humanity. Penalty is neutralization.” The kid began the process. The parasite’s gaze was snapped.
“Why do you call yourselves that?” it asked the Captain, the sting of abhorrence sharp on its tongue.
“Call ourselves what?” the boy asked the demon.
“Humans,” it promptly responded, “Why?”
“We were made in your image,” answered the Major. The Captain stared at the aberration with unblinking eyes. The Major had hoped he didn’t have to tell the boy of the abominable truth he discovered in the Colonel’s office.
The Captain suddenly thought of all the years spent studying, learning, teaching and training. None of it helped him understand why. None of it helped him cope.
“Yes I suppose you were. And us in his.” The parasite’s gaze wandered above before returning from where it belonged.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” the creature spoke, motioning with a nod. The boy stared beyond the parasite.
“What is it,” asked the Captain.
“The horizon. Have you ever seen the sun set behind anything but the outer wall?” spoke the creature. It didn’t imagine they had. The thought probably never crossed a city mind.
“I can’t say that I have,” the boy answered, searching inside himself for a more meaningful answer than an empty “no.”
There he, the parasite, stood in violent placid, watching what no eyes had seen in a painful memory. The grey light of the day met the blackness of night for a short time to illuminate the myriad colors of the earth and sky across the world. He knew this was the only time the gods were to blink, interrupting their gaze of amusement that played out below the clouds. It was just him and the jeweled sky that penetrated their grasp; the beauty long held and slipped through the cracks of their eyes. He enjoyed the last and only time the one thing that could bewilder the last man of such a grim existence.
The duo’s sterile eyes sized up their mark. The Captain offered the quarry the customary last rights, “Any last words?”
“Yes,“ he answered, “Please don’t miss.”
Brocco/Grey Like Ghost/