Volume 1

APPROACHING

SHATTER

1

CHAPTER 1

Atriya was on his way up.

The boots on his feet struck hard against the trail. His ruck, as well packed as it was, still shifted ceaselessly on his back. Every bounce tugged at his shoulders, sending stabs and aches throughout his body. His lungs burned as if he were holding his breath. Fatigue had spread from his legs to his arms, even though his arms were under no strain whatsoever. The exhaustion was simply a measure of how hard he was pummeling the ground with the combined weight of his gear and his body.

He embraced the pain. In a way, he was addicted to it. Not the pain itself, but the validation it gave him. Each burning breath, each chafe of gear against skin-every ounce of discomfort assured him he was strong. That he was tough. During his runs, he would pick the hardest, steepest trail available. And he always made it a point to fill his pack with the densest, heaviest sandbag he could find.

All throughout his life, he'd been rewarded by sticking to a simple philosophy: refuse to be weak. Push as hard as you can. Pain and hardship were not only inevitable, they made you stronger. Fuck everything else. What didn't make you stronger wasn't just useless-it was a waste of time.

Occasionally, someone would ask him why he punished himself as harshly as he did. The only answer he could produce was a condescending scoff, or a blank look.

Why not?

It was the only way he knew. For him, it was the only way that worked. Whether it was talent or luck that allowed him to push as hard as he did and avoid injury or plateau, Atriya had never cared.

That, however, was starting to change. His contemplative side had begun to interrupt the regulated march of his thought process. The timing of it was troublesome-he couldn't afford distractions. The job was too important.

Atriya wasn't just ascending in the physical sense; his career was taking off as well. He was gaining acceptance as a member of the Crusaders, an elite division of shooters within the Department of Enforcement. The guys in the unit openly mocked the pompous sounding title of "Crusader," and opted simply to call themselves "The Crew." If they ran into former or active teammates outside of work, they would shorten it even further, dropping the word "the." As in: "Hey, are you Crew?"

He saw a plateau up ahead, where the trail leveled off. He summoned the last of his energy, churning his boots against dirt. He reached the break-point drenched in sweat, gasping, feeling like he was drowning even though he was on dry land. Every ounce of his ruck was transcribed into a unique pain: a mix of screaming agony and paralyzing fatigue.

He paused at the leveled part of the trail and sucked water from a bottle. He looked down to his right and saw the Crusader training compound at the base of the mountain: a series of squat, boxy buildings with the occasional comms array or obstacle course breaking up the drab, linear patterns of architecture.

Home.

Up towards his left lay a series of gentler, flatter trails that revealed an expansive view of forest-ringed lakes on the side of the mountain that was opposite the compound. During off hours, a good amount of compound staff would hike past the plateau to appreciate the scenery, but nobody explored those wilds. It would be beyond foolish; that territory was held by Dissidents.

Atriya didn't run past the plateau-ever-so he never got a chance to appreciate the view. Why should he? He could run up the steeper, lower-lying grades faster than most could sprint on the higher, flatter sections. The lower trails were a better workout, which meant that the upper trails were an indulgence, a waste of time.

The other reason he didn't want to venture up there was purely mental. It was his job to kill Dissidents. Thinking of them got his blood boiling. So regardless of the view, he opted not to interrupt the tentative peace he found during his runs with a visual reminder of the enemy. He experienced a welcome escape in his solo exercise, and refused to disturb it with thoughts of work.

He looked back towards where he'd come from, and noticed a Crew Selection class approaching from a distance, rucking in a loose column of two abreast. After reaching the plateau, he would usually race down the trails and proceed to crush himself in the weight room. But this time-for some reason-he decided to drop his pack, sip some water, and watch the class.

Every now and then a small, inquisitive part of him-one that was buried deep and marked by intense curiosity-took control. That part of him enjoyed noting the layered, subtle connections that ran through the world. He was rewarded with a profound satisfaction from indulging his contemplative side, but also realized that it was potentially dangerous; it could easily lead to a lack of focus.

Atriya counted heads. This class looked to be about twenty strong. They would probably drop another ten or so before moving on to Technical Phase. Typical Selections started with around a thousand prospects. Nine excruciating weeks later, they ended with roughly ten survivors. The remaining men (occasionally a woman) would move on to train in the nuts-and-bolts skills of being a Crusader.

Despite passing the first nine weeks-Commitment Phase-the harshness would continue. The majority of it, however, would be channeled into training rather than weeding out the weak.

In Commitment, students were thrown into a world of merciless competition, where hurting and crippling each other was standard procedure. In a very real sense, each class would cannibalize itself. This was to be expected-animalistic brutality was forever present in the life of a Crusader; it was threaded throughout training from beginning to end, and also infused in the day-to-day job.

As the class grew from dots on the trail to distinguishable outlines, Atriya heard the instructor's haranguing grow from far-off needling to a steady drumbeat of insults, interspersed with appeals demanding to know why the students were putting up with this shit. The instructor had no ruck, so while the candidates destroyed themselves in an effort to keep up, he chugged along at an easy jog.

They clambered up the trail, close enough to where Atriya could make out faces. Their pace was barely a shuffle, and their mouths were slack with exhaustion. There were two that were having a harder time than the rest, and they were getting the entirety of the instructor's love.

Stragglers. In training, stragglers were the enemy.

"Bottom ten percent," the instructor sneered. "What the fuck."

The verbal abuse was a nonstop thing, and often punctuated by a smack to the face, or a half-push, half-punch to their packs or their arms. The worst was when he wound up and threw a vicious kick at a random pair of legs. Agony on top of agony.

The instructor called a halt, and the ragged group stopped in its tracks. Outwardly, they looked dumb and slow. Lazy. Atriya knew though, having been in their place, that this was a result of the accumulated abuse they'd been forced to endure. He knew that their hearts-even while sleeping-were racing abnormally fast from the unrelenting grind. He knew that their once trustworthy bodies felt traitorous; their limbs and joints had become awkward collections of fatigue and rawness. He knew that every action-an action that might normally be considered doable-required extra scrutiny to insure that limbs or spines didn't give out. He knew that it felt like they were in a never-ending series of sprints, each one making them weaker and clumsier.

Atriya recognized the instructor as a Crew operator named Clement. Good on the gun. Not much of a personality.

Clement addressed the stragglers, arms crossed. "Hey fuckers, I've got a treat for you. Extra incentive, you might say. See Candidate 382 up front? Since you fucks aren't pulling your weight, one of you is going to buddy carry him while the other handles his ruck. 382's been pulling his weight, so he deserves a break. You pieces of shit are going to put in some extra work to make up for your fucking slacking. If you can keep pace for two minutes with the added load, then I'll let the class drop rucks and sit for twenty minutes. If not…well, you know what comes next."

He took a step back. His head canted upward and he addressed the rest of the group: "Any shitbag that falls back will join these weaklings in their misery. Keep the fuck up."

The pair of stragglers gave each other dumb looks, steam rising from their uniforms. A resigned dread had entered their eyes, but upon hearing the instructor's announcement they both straightened, and pitiful hope registered in their clammy expressions.

Atriya noticed that one of the two bore a strong resemblance to him.

The stragglers loaded up with the extra weight. The Atriya look-a-like was assigned the buddy carry. Heavier, but more stable. The candidate with the extra ruck had less weight, but less stability. The pack was positioned on the front of his body, and its main straps threatened to slide off his arms-the straps were designed to pull against the front of his shoulders, not the backs. It was only by gripping a pair of bunched up storage pockets on the front of the ruck that he was able to anchor it in place. The bottom part-the lower piece of the frame-pressed against the top of his hips, cutting his steps short. Because he needed to stay upright in order to keep ahold of both rucks, he couldn't lean forward. All of this combined to cut down on the efficiency of his stride.

Instructor Clement looked on implacably, his mouth etching a hard line across his face. His eyes were covered with menacing sunglasses, giving him a cruel, robotic appearance.

Without speaking, the class realigned and neatened their formation. They were wrung out, barely able to think, but training had made this reflexive. They would endure brutal hardship that threw them into chaos, but as soon as they had a moment's reprieve, they were expected to straighten their gear out, and then themselves. All the while knowing that the results of their toil were going to fall apart, and that they would have to repeat themselves again and again. Their efforts to maintain order never ceased, and stretched endlessly into infinity. Their suffering seemed eternal.

The two stragglers took their place in the back, one hoisting 382 in a fireman's carry, the other adjusting the extra ruck through his arms, anchoring it as best he could on the front of his torso. With one ruck on his back and the other on his front, his silhouette bore vague resemblance to a double-shelled turtle. One shell on his front, one on his back.

Clement took his place at the head of the column. He set the timer on his wrist holo and began jogging.

The sound of rustling packs filled the air. While Clement was moving at an easy clip, it might as well have been an all-out sprint for the burdened candidates. Their breathing harshened into pained braying. To Atriya, the sound seemed starkly out of place amidst the sun-kissed trails and the whispering trees.

The two stragglers bowed forward with the extra weight. Their mouths were open wide, forcing out plumes of moisture with each exhale. Their eyes were sightlessly intent on the boots of the man to their front. Their already-reddened skin adopted an alarming flush, causing them to look severely sunburned.

Thirty seconds. The two stayed close, their faces tight with desperation.

Sixty seconds. The additional weight became apparent as the two began to stumble and trip. Grunts and moans burst from their lips, and occasionally one of them would let loose with a defiant yell, trying to summon any aggression he could in order to help bear the load. The one carrying the extra ruck was hanging on to it by gripping the bunched-up folds of the front-side pockets; the jostling had caused the main straps to slide completely off his shoulders.

Seventy-five seconds. While the rest of the students' breathing had a steady, grating quality to it, the men bearing the added mass were exploding with gasps. Dread blossomed in their eyes as they saw a short gap appear between them and the others.

Clement looked over his shoulder, noted the gap, and picked up the pace.

Ninety seconds. The gap widened. The stragglers weren't going to make it.

Two minutes. Beeping from the wrist holo filled the air. It sounded like the crowing of a playground bully. The doomed pair were now unacceptably far back. Not just stragglers now, but failures as well. The candidate assigned the buddy carry, the one who resembled Atriya, turned an ankle and fell.

Legs were normally springs; muscles, tendons, and ligaments worked together to partially recycle the energy of every step. For the man doing the buddy carry, exhaustion had turned his legs into dumb, unresponsive weights. He had to spend the familiar effort of lifting a leg, but also the unfamiliar one of making sure that it didn't collapse once he put it back down.

The man's time was up; he had reached the limits of his energy and caved like a marionette that had just had its strings cut. The dust of the mountain trail blew upwards in a quick puff as his face smacked the ground and 382 tumbled off his back.

The beaten-down group had reached Atriya's perch on the plateau. They were uncomfortably close, so he picked up his ruck and moved back a dozen feet. He dropped his gear and sat on it, resuming his observation. He knew what was coming. It was Crew tradition.

The instructor called a halt and rallied the men around the failures. The one with the extra pack had shucked it, and was now sucking air with his hands on his knees, barely conscious. The student who'd been carrying 382 was facedown on the ground, legs quivering.

A malicious smile bloomed on Clement's face. This was the only time in Selection where the training cadre would demonstrate joy.

Clement gave the order: "Drop rucks!"

The class peeled off their rucks and organized them into a neat, double-row of packs by the side of the trail. Now that their fear and adrenaline were cycling down, they moved like old men. They took short, choppy steps and walked with a pronounced hunch; their best attempt at trying to keep the chafing to a minimum and exert as little energy as possible.

Clement spoke with a raised voice, demanding everyone's attention: "What's the Crew motto?"

In dull unison: "I am the mission."

"What are these two, who refuse to carry their weight?"

"Obstacles."

"And what are obstacles?"

"The enemy."

"Show me what you do to the enemy."

The men shuffled over to the failures and began kicking them. Weakly at first, but with increasing savagery as they recovered from their sprint. Members of the class began smiling and laughing, whooping it up. The relief from dropping their rucks had flooded their minds and pushed out all other thoughts.

The men on the ground mumbled and groaned as punishment rained down on them. The one who had been carrying the extra ruck coughed up dark streamlets of blood.

The instructor looked on, nodding approvingly. He walked closer so he could get a better look.

"Keep going. I want to hear some bones crack. Cripple these motherfuckers."

The class picked up the tempo, boots coming down in one earnest thrust after another. One of the failures was now drooling blood. He let out a pained yell as someone stomped his elbow, catching it at the joint while it was straightened. A harsh crack shot through the air.

The students stopped, assuming the air of handymen admiring their work.

"Good job," the instructor said. "That one's done. Get to work on the other."

The mob crowded around the one that resembled Atriya. At first they rained down a storm of blows, but were rewarded with little more than muffled grunts. Then they started taking deliberately aimed shots. Still nothing. They were getting frustrated, and so was Clement.

"Hey fuckers, if you guys don't break something, we'll do buddy carry races for the next two hours. So hurt this motherfucker."

They paused to reorganize their efforts. One man pinned the failure, so that the full force of each blow would be completely absorbed. Others hyperextended his limbs and propped them onto rucks, ensuring that his joints would be extra vulnerable.

With the failure's body positioned and secured, candidates wound up and took their best, cruelest shots. It didn't take long before three joints-an elbow and both knees-broke with sickening pops. The failure screamed, but it came out as a lazy moan. Without the context of exhaustion and abuse, the noise might have been comical.

Clement had been watching the process with a frown, disappointed at the man's resilience. As the pops rang through the air, his frown relaxed into a smile. He sauntered closer to the failure, knelt down, and spoke in a conversational tone:

"Hey man, you hear about those cold-hearted fucks that wouldn't piss on you if you were covered in flames? Well you're in luck, friend. Because we're not them."

The class howled with laughter. It wasn't funny per se; they had heard the joke thousands of times as every straggler was beaten and crippled, but their relief at having dropped their rucks made the statement temporarily hilarious.

The instructor stood up, unbuttoned his trousers, and let urine fly on to the face of the man by his feet. Clement hammed it up, sighing and groaning, and the men laughed harder. Once he was done he made an exaggerated show of shaking off, which got a few extra chuckles. Everybody was in a good mood when the instructor was. And instructors were always in a good mood when there were failures.

He turned to the class. "Line up! Piss break!"

Two lines formed. Once everyone had fallen in, the mob took turns pissing on both failures. The conquered men turned their bloody, swollen faces to the side as dark streaks of urine arced through the air and onto their bodies.

The remaining candidates were in a good mood, laughing at the misfortunes of their former classmates. Their loss was the class's gain. Failing selectees meant that the class got to experience relief from the weight of their rucks, and in the literal sense as well.

The instructor turned to Atriya. "You want in on this?"

Atriya got up and walked over. Even though he didn't feel like participating (which he knew was strange; this was a scene he'd witnessed-and been a part of-countless times before), he said, "Got to uphold tradition."

The last man finished, and Atriya replaced him. He unbuttoned his fly, relaxed his muscles, and took aim. He waited expectantly. Nothing came. For some reason this disturbed him deeply, but his only admission of it was the furrowing of his brow.

What the fuck? I've been sipping water all day.

Clement called out, "What's taking so long? Don't worry about us-we won't tell anyone how small your dick is."

Laughter from the class.

Atriya covered it up with a joke: "It's the exact opposite. I can hear all you fuckers smacking your lips and salivating over this luscious penis. I can't relax knowing that all of you are barely restraining yourselves from chugging my amazing cock."

They howled in laughter, and even Clement chuckled a bit. Atriya buttoned up, unable to relieve himself. He covered his consternation with another joke. "Get out of here. Your hungry-ass meat gazing makes me too nervous to piss."

More laughter.

Clement turned to the class. "That's a Crusader addressing you, motherfuckers. Ruck up-time to get moving." His smile was pure malevolence-like a slick, underhanded stab. "There's still almost twenty of you. About half of you are going to get what you just gave."

There was a low-voiced groan as the men staggered to their rucks, readying themselves to re-enter the cycle of suffering. They lifted sweat-darkened packs onto their backs, primed to dive into agony once more.

The instructor keyed his wrist holo and spoke into it. "Command. Requesting med pickup for two." His console barked out a static-threaded reply and he nodded in response.

The class took off, leaving the crippled failures where they lay. A steady rustle filled the air as rucks jostled along, accented by the choppy drumbeat of booted feet.

Atriya watched them leave. He had seen the insides of people strewn about like garbage. He had pushed himself through mind-bending pain. He had completed some of the most brutal and demanding training on the planet. For some reason, his inability to piss on a failed candidate-something he'd done hundreds of times-distressed him more than anything he could remember.

And he couldn't figure out why.

He raced down the mountain, trying not to think about it.

CHAPTER 2

Atriya walked into his apartment, tracking in dirt. He was still wearing his ruck.

Various pieces of training equipment were scattered throughout his flat, showing different stages of wear. Most of it was old and needed replacing.

His weights-presently littered across his living room floor-sported a solid coat of rust that had started as a light creep but had long since settled into a brown, unattractive layer of armor. His gloves and pads that he used to sharpen his striking skills were frayed and uneven; protective stuffing was bursting from their skins. Small piles of overused gear dotted the apartment, infusing his housing unit with a stale, stagnant odor.

Atriya shucked his pack and threw it down.

Holy shit, that feels good.

Rucking replaced his thoughts with anger and aggression. Only after he was done, after that pervasive weight was off, did he feel relief. During training runs, he would forget that pain and irritation weren't universal constants.

Ironically, halfway through each run, he forgot that he was even carrying the ruck.

Fuck yeah. Time for him to fuel up, rest, and get ready for more training. He marched over to his fridge, opened it, and poked around.

The food inside was basic: fruits, vegetables, meat, coarse grains, nutrient shakes…flavor wasn't a concern. The stuff didn't taste great, but he'd gotten used to it.

He rooted through the bottom level, where he kept the fruit. On the same shelf was a mix of performance-enhancing injectables. He didn't enjoy using them, but he recognized he needed them in order to perform.

Almost half the Enforcer Corps was on some kind of hormone enhancement, although the day-to-day duties of being an Enforcer weren't strenuous enough to warrant it. By contrast, every member of the Crew was using. If you were in the Crew, you had to juice up in order to recover from the horrendous grind inflicted on your body.

The vast majority of shooters went way overboard, obsessively seeking the next generation of strength or endurance enhancements. The cycle of injectables that Atriya used was relatively mild in comparison to his jacked up teammates'. The bulk of them seemed to inhale a never-ending supply of uppers and juice. Crew doctors, despite the fact that their primary function was to administer battlefield medicine, spent an inordinate amount of time making sure that operators' organs were still functioning. The running joke was that it had become the medical staff's unofficial mandate; instead of bullet wounds, they treated needle marks.

Atriya pushed the drugs aside, looking through his options.

As he shuffled through the food, he noticed a plastic container of rotten pomegranates. They were spoiled in a big way-each fruit was nearly engulfed by large, whitish patches of mold. The Crusader had no idea how long they'd been there.

Fucking disgusting, he thought, his face wrinkling in revulsion. He picked the container up, intending to throw it away. As he turned from the fridge, the container tumbled from his grasp.

The lid was loose and it flew off in mid-air. Bloated pomegranates landed on the floor with hideous splats. The flesh had decayed to the point where the berries couldn't hold themselves together, and a sickening mess spread across the kitchen tile. Nausea-inducing odor exploded from the wreckage, inundating the entire apartment with the smell of blight.

He gagged hard, and a flush of heat curled up his neck-his body's instinctive protest to the foul odor. His eyes watered it was so fucking bad. He realized he'd turned away without consciously intending it. After he collected himself, he got a plastic bag and picked up the ruined chunks of fruit, disciplining himself to breathe through his mouth.

He chucked the bag into a garbage can and scrubbed the hell out of the tile, using copious amounts of cleanser. He did this for a good half hour. The defiled fruit was nasty shit, and he didn't want his apartment to be permanently marked by the stench. It already smelled bad enough from his old training equipment.

After washing his hands, he tied off the trash bag and took it out to the communal dumpster. The atrocious odor somehow spilled from the plastic.

How the fuck can it smell so bad through the goddamned bag?

He threw it out, then went back to his flat. He opened the fridge again, downed a shake, then picked out an apple and some strawberries. Both fruits were extremely ripe. He started eating, his thoughts drifting back to the scene on the mountain. Nothing arose from his reflection but annoyance and confusion.

Trying to forget his frustrations, he jumped in the shower and fiddled with the dials. Half the time, the temperature on his shower was wonky. Today was no exception as he struggled to find the right mix of hot and cold.

Motherfucker. Nothing was going his way. He scrubbed off and cut the water, which, after five minutes, had achieved a kind of tepid warmth that barely qualified as lukewarm. He snatched a towel from the rack and dried off.

After changing into shorts and an old t-shirt, he almost smacked himself on the forehead. He was definitely off-kilter; he had forgotten to check his weapons, something he instinctively did whenever he came home.

He didn't mind if the rest of his stuff fell apart-other pieces of gear pertained to his hobbies, and had no bearing on his job-but weapons readiness was something he took seriously. It was woven into his identity as a Crew guy. Concerning anything work-related, he considered even a momentary lapse of attention as inexcusable.

He crossed his living room and opened a large cabinet where he kept his gear. In contrast to the disorganized mess that enveloped the rest of his house, the items inside the cabinet were neatly arrayed. Inside the container was his linkup rig, a couple of different holsters, cleaning tools, miscellaneous equipment, and his own personal armaments.

If he was off duty, the only weapons he carried with him were a short, collapsible baton and a snub-nosed, five-shot revolver. They would have looked right at home on Old Earth. On Echo, however, they were quaint curiosities.

Both items were plain and simple. The revolver had a spectroscopically enhanced genetic scanner that designated him as its sole user. The baton had a similar system that kept it from expanding in the hands of a stranger. But aside from the security measures, they could have easily passed for Old Earth weapons. No hard light or plasma edges. No hyper-compacted, chain-programmably explosive bullets. No Slave Intelligence interfaces.

His preferences were in direct contrast to his teammates'. Other operators had an obsessive relationship with gear and tech. Nearly to a man, they blew huge chunks of their paychecks on outer accoutrements that-in one fashion or another-supposedly upped their lethality. Crew guys turned into excited children when discussing the newest armor mods, wrist guns, plasma-edged knives…it never stopped. Being a "gear queer" was part and parcel of being in the Crew.

Atriya was different. He eschewed the fancy stuff and stuck to the basics. Gizmos and toys were pretty to look at, but they weren't the steak, just the potatoes.

He looked over his baton and revolver, checking for rust or irregularities. He expanded the baton, then collapsed it. Its springs and lock responded smoothly. Good. He snapped the revolver open, emptied the ammo, then spun the wheel. Flicked it shut and pulled the trigger, testing the action. Good. He reloaded it, put it back in its place, then closed the cabinet.

With the essentials taken care of, he wandered over to his sofa. After plunking down, he squirmed a bit to settle in and picked up his holo screen: an empty rectangle that was roughly a foot-by-foot square. Its silvery edges were made of chrome-silver smart-fibers. When it was switched on, the middle filled with a tactile-responsive, holographic layout.

He pressed a pressure nub on the side, activating the device. It radiated an eye-catching light. The control display popped up: a brightly colored desktop of items, any one of which would open to his touch. His finger selected a shimmering icon of a book titled Snapshots Of Old Earth Wisdom. The tech sounded with a pleasant voop as the icon enlarged and the display shifted. A soft-light image of a book appeared before him.

The text had been recommended to him by Chaplain Verus, a good friend of his who seemed completely uninterested in projecting airs. Everyone he'd met (including friends, family, and coworkers) was concerned with how he saw them-whatever light that happened to be in-and tried to pander to him accordingly. He enjoyed being around Verus because she never indulged in any of that bullshit.

Not only did he enjoy talking with her, but she was also an expert in hand-to-hand combatives, so he trained with her as well. Atriya's interest lay heavily in the direction of empty hand techniques. He found that he could easily lose himself in the hands-on stuff, even though Crew guys never really used it.

It made him a slight oddity. Crusaders were taught basic, easy-to-learn strikes and grapples. Their curriculum emphasized using the gear they carried to disorient or incapacitate via a gross-motor strike or break, then get back to shooting. Every movement they learned was specifically designed to put ranged weapons or lethal tech back into play.

Despite being unable to verbalize why he liked unarmed combat, Atriya felt there was something to it…he just couldn't say what. It was a big reason why he hung out with Verus; he sensed that she was privy to some sort of key knowledge that was integral to his progress.

The book she had recommended was an incomplete gathering of Old Earth stories-snippets here and there. She had cautioned that much of the stories' context was lost due to their partiality, and to explore what personal meaning the anecdotes held for him. She was the only one that seemed to know about the book; everybody else he'd asked had never heard of it. Couldn't give a shit either. Whenever he'd mentioned it, even in casual conversation, the response was predictable: A disinterested glaze would bloom on the face of whomever he was talking to, and if they graced him with a reply, it would be something along the lines of: Huh. Old Earth? Pretty cool, bro. He'd learned to stop bringing it up; he knew that his oddball interests made him look weird at best, and crazy at worst.

He flicked at the display, opened a chapter, and began reading. He couldn't focus though; he kept thinking about what had happened to the stragglers. And then afterwards: that nasty, shitty fruit. When it burst open it had looked voracious and ill, as if there were a deformed monster trying to spring from its guts.

The passage he had selected was about a monk named Takuan. Takuan was instructing an unnamed student on the similarities between combat and personal interaction. It described the student as having such a fearsome aura-

Aura? What kind of hokey bullshit is this?

-that men fled from him. The implication of the lesson seemed to be that too much aggression was counterproductive. It might scare off enemies, but it would also repel friends. Reading the passage only served to irritate Atriya.

Who the fuck wouldn't want their enemies scared of them? That's worth losing some friends.

Fed up, he shut off the holo and leaned back on his sofa, closing his eyes and trying to stop his thoughts.

No use. He sat there for an hour, trying in vain to push away the memory of the savage beating he'd seen on the mountain, as well as the memory of the putrid fruit that had burst open on his kitchen floor. He couldn't help thinking that it had looked alive-and not in a good way.

Over and over, he saw the beleaguered candidates failing to keep up.

Over and over, he saw the bloated pomegranates plopping onto the tile.

In his mind he could hear the fruit groaning and sighing. A noise that might come from a dull-witted mutant, one that garnered pity but still warranted strict caution due to its hulking strength. The noxious gas consumed his imagination; he kept seeing it expand into a repulsive miasma.

Over and over.

Fuck this. He opened his eyes. Time to see Verus.

CHAPTER 3

Atriya stood up from the sofa, intent on leaving the confines of his flat. It was the first moment of the day when he felt right-when he felt sure about his actions.

He stretched, raising both arms towards the ceiling. Calves and thighs tensed, lengthening his body and lifting him up. Holding the pose, he took a small moment to savor the feel of his expanded form. His arms dropped, and a light rush went to his head.

As if for the first time, he saw the piles of gear scattered across his living area. The rust-covered weights. The stuffing leaking from his pads and gloves. All of his equipment was old and smelly. Some of it was showing the beginnings of mold.

He couldn't deny it: he needed to replace his shit.

That deeply buried part, the one that enjoyed observing the connections of the world, came to the fore. It whispered that this was the first instance where he'd even so much as entertainedthe notion of replacing his stuff. Like most thoughts voiced by that hidden side of him, the idea came and went.

He started getting dressed. The cityscape surrounding his apartment was dangerous, and the clothing he wore was tacit recognition of this. He stepped into an innocuous pair of jeans, ones chosen for their mobility: the elasticized fabric didn't restrict his stride or pull at his hips. He changed out of his t-shirt and slid into a gray collared short-sleeve. He slipped on some dress shoes that gave him the same ease of movement as a pair of sneakers. Easy to run in. Easy to fight in.

The muted dress decreased his chances of encountering trouble. Planet-wide, every cityscape harbored healthy populations of thugs and predators. The other reason for it was that he wanted to look somewhat presentable; Verus commanded mild deference from Atriya-not just through her storied reputation, but also through her conduct and bearing.

The next part was essential: weapons. Every citizen bore armaments. Whether it was a cheap blade or a custom sidearm, it was common sense to carry protection. The threat of physical danger was woven into the air itself; the entire world was unsafe.

As he started towards his weapons cabinet, his line of sight crossed paths with a mirror, visible through the open door of his bathroom. He halted in place, mentally jolted by the clarity of his reflection.

As if on cue, the deeper part of his psyche tapped at his brain, bird-like in its insistency. That contrary piece of him dragged an observation to the fore: this one about clothing.

It had been over a millennia since Echo had been colonized, yet the fashion of today was indistinguishable from that of 21st century Old Earth. Sure, there had been a few tweaks here and there, but lack of change was status quo when it came to wardrobe. Pretty much how it was in most fields, now that he thought about it. Progress was the exception, stagnation the standard. He knew from his reading that within the same length of time that Echo had been settled-almost 1200 years-Old Earth had made enormous strides not just in fashion, but in every arena.

It wasn't as if this knowledge was hidden or obscure; everyone knew. But it was the same as knowing that computers could run programs and do calculations. Atriya's ruminations were the equivalent of asking how a computer actually worked. As long as it performed, nobody thought about it. Nobody cared.

If someone had said that right then, he would have disagreed; he cared, and damn what others thought. His psyche had taken to probing at every flaw, every ambiguity, and showed no signs of stopping.

He felt compelled to turn his musings over in his mind and gaze at them from different angles. Study them with the full absorption of a jeweler scrutinizing a precious gem. He was unable to shake the feeling that there was something exotic and wondrous at the core of his thoughts. If he could just see clearly enough, then maybe he'd be able to…

He shook his head, tensing his mind and quashing his reverie. His contemplations had the unpleasant effect of letting a dazed relaxation take hold. He redirected his focus back to what he'd been doing and opened his weapons cabinet.

Displayed prominently in the center was the hallmark of his job: the coveted Neural Linkup Enhancement. Teammates simply referred to it as a rig, linkup, or L-rig. The cybertech linkup was exclusively used by shooters in the Crew.

His mind began bubbling over with extraneous commentary. Unable to help himself, he paused to look at the linkup. Really look at it.

It resembled a spinal column. The "vertebrae" were smooth, black, and deadly-looking. Each section was roughly the same size as a fist. The side of the segment that lay on the shooter's back was almost flat, curved and plasticized so it would fit comfortably against the skin. Needle-thin "legs" protruded from the sides of the segments; these tines inserted into the wearer's flesh and allowed the rig to interact with the user's spinal nerves.

The outboard side of the vertebrae bulged away from the body. High-frequency LEDs were embedded in their centers. The LEDs allowed someone with enhanced optics to assess whether that particular section was working correctly. Green was good, yellow was damaged but functional, and red was inoperable. To avoid compromising light discipline, the LEDs were rendered invisible to the naked eye.

The top segment was different from the others in that it was slightly bulkier. It contained a collapsible visor that expanded up and around an operator's eyes, giving him or her the ability to see nonvisible frequencies of light. The visor also contained a heads-up display that imposed transparent information onto a shooter's field of vision.

In addition to the visor, the linkup housed a pair of armored smart-fiber cables that could plug directly into a pair of specially modded pistols. Plugging these in allowed operators to greatly enhance their accuracy via neural link-the connection united the shooter's senses with targeting computers that were built directly into his weapons. Operators couldn't shoot with sniper-caliber precision, but they could fire as well as a decent rifleman on a knee, only they could do it at a dead run, and holding a pistol with one hand.

The linkup could also alter the electrical activity in a shooter's brain, and was capable of dishing out an artificial influx of hormones and stimulants. When triggered, the process would deliver a temporary enhancement in speed and strength via the individually keyed voice command, "Boost me." The rig was sensitive enough to detect a shooter simply mouthing the words, in the event that noise discipline was a tactical concern.

Every Crew guy aside from Atriya would don their linkup when they went into town. Most never took it off, and left it on even while they slept. It wasn't mandatory to wear outside of work; shooters wore it because it was a recognizable symbol of their elite status.

Despite the popular image that the Department tried to peddle (Crusaders were ostensibly humble and discreet) the truth was that they were more like wild animals that loved-no needed-attention.

When they were off-duty, operators would move shark-like through the populace to do the smallest things-eating, shopping, running errands-all the while basking in the lowly civilians' fear and awe. Crusaders reveled in knowing that they exuded a quiet menace, one that was rarely verbalized, but still deafening.

The majority of them also paid for cheap pleasure hacks, and configured their linkups to deliver an on-command rush of feel-good compounds. As far as substances went, getting high on a linkup was far more potent than any other delivery method.

It wasn't the safest thing, and it wasn't in regs either. These considerations were blithely ignored by operators and administrators alike. Medical techs that were assigned to the Crew would devote much of their time to repairing substance-driven damage. They wouldn't say a thing about it, despite knowing that their patients were addicts.

Ultimately, it didn't change the fact that shooters had a shelf life. On the rare occasion that an operator lived to old age, the wear and tear on their nervous system-not to mention their musculoskeletal tissues-was a guarantee that he or she would end up a cripple.

When it came to traditions like wearing his linkup off duty, Atriya was torn. A big part of him wanted to merge with the pack. Leave it on. Don't stow it. None of the others do. Drink in the awe from the plodders (a derisive nickname for Enforcers, who, unlike Crew operators, lacked the ability to engage in acrobatic combat), and fear from the graymeats (condescending slang for civilians, who were always coated in a film of dust and fragments from living and working in decaying cityscapes). Enjoy the pleasure hacks. Why not? He sure as hell had earned it-just by virtue of Crew training being insanely hard, never mind the hundreds of Dissidents whose lives he'd cut short.

A part of him kept him from walking that path. It was the annoyingly inquisitive part. That part had enough sway to keep Atriya from immersing himself in the cocky, self-destructive identity that permeated the Crew.

He was uncomfortably aware that this made him stick out, and tried to make up for it by working harder than any of his fellow operators. During his free time he would either train his ass off or spend hours poring through military philosophy and history.

When his mind became hushed-which was almost never-he felt a quiet desperation. It was imperceptible to him except in the vaguest and faintest of ways.

His eyes lingered on the L-rig. He felt the emphatic desire to put it on, fire it up, and never take it off. Despite working ten times harder than any of his coworkers, he'd become painfully aware that he lacked talent; the best shooters would leave him in the dust on a regular basis.

In his unreasoning desire to be a top performer, he would punish himself without mercy. When he rucked, he ran hard enough to make his legs quiver as if they were having seizures. Most evenings, he would visit Verus and drill hand-to-hand techniques with her, or have lengthy discussions about how to be better at his job. At home, he would study books that she recommended in an effort to improve his critical thinking. Blending in wasn't good enough; he wanted to rise above.

He thirsted after the exclusive knowledge that seemed to define every warrior immortalized into legend. On some level, Atriya knew he was striving for an awareness that would grant him mastery over a handful of key disciplines-disciplines attributed to the truly exceptional.

Yet time and again, he saw the best Crusaders breeze past him. They partied every night, or wasted their time in a hormone-induced stupor. They didn't bother to demonstrate an iota of his dedication. When it was time for a raid, these same men would outperform him without effort. Not a sweat broken, not a fuck given. Unstrained by the slightest concern, Atriya's teammates wrote gory poetry with their guns and their linkups.

Lately, the futility was beginning to feel bone-deep. Inescapable. One of these days he would leave the linkup on and let his dreams fade away in a wash of pleasure hacks.

Not today, though.

He pushed the incessant thoughts out of his mind. He threw on his shoulder holster. Checked his revolver and strapped it in. Stuck his baton in a drop-sheath under his right arm, grabbed an egg-sized stun sphere, and put it in a velcro pouch that was sewn onto the holster's gun-side, just in case he had to run like hell and needed a head start. He shrugged on an easy-to-move-in leather jacket and went out the door.

It was nighttime in Cityscape 42. Cityscapes covered over half the planet, blanketing Echo with vast stretches of urban buildup. Scape 42 was where Atriya's apartment was located.

Light pollution had rendered the stars into faint pinpricks. The only illumination coming down from the sky was courtesy of Ascension and its four white dwarf clusters. Their radiance slathered the streets with a sterile, deadened cast.

The moon-city of Ascension was home to the Regent, as well as the rest of society's elite. Special authorization was needed to live there. Every one of its residents, by law, was required to undergo mind-blowingly expensive genetic surgery. The procedure imbued their skin with a chalk-white color, and also a touch of bioluminescence. The light coming off an Ascensioner was proportional to his or her status; the more money and reputation they possessed, the brighter they shone, both literally and figuratively.

Ascension was the heart of the Regime, the organized authority that kept things running. When Echo was first populated, people might have used words like "government," or "mega-corp," to try and describe it, but those were terms of antiquity. Governments and corporations had merged and become the Regime within the first century of Echo's settlement.

To Atriya, the light from the sky seemed overly harsh. Lurid. He couldn't say why, though, and added it to the growing number of things that bothered him. With a vacant sense of surrender, he resigned this observation to the back of his mind.

Recently, he'd noticed a pattern: he'd see something amiss, it would bug him…but he wouldn't be able to say why. Most of his irritation came from the fact that he was unable to articulate the why. After fruitless investigation, he'd bury the observation as deeply as he could, stuffing it into the far recesses of his psyche, and hope that it would just disappear.

He ignored the inexplicable offense he felt from the moonlight, and moved through the dusty gray streets. His attention was still divided, but now part of it was focused on his surroundings. The lizard-brain part of him was busy assessing every person he saw. He paid particular attention to their hands, making sure they weren't armed. A small, paranoid voice in his mind nagged at him: Hands. Hands. Hands. It was automatic.

The other half of his attention scanned a sea of tired, uncaring faces and wondered: Have people always been this aimless? This run down? A while back he had asked Verus that same question and she'd responded that it was cyclical. Times of stagnation came and went. There had been similar periods on Old Earth: eras when culture and progress had nearly ground to a halt. He'd nodded politely, but had lost interest and switched subjects.

That was months ago. Things were different now; he was becoming aware of a growing inability to bury his observations, to forget they existed. It gave birth to a haunting sense of anxiety. He might not always have been conscious of it, but it weighed on his spirit like the psychic equivalent of a loaded ruck.

He knew he was reflecting on things that were above his paygrade. It used to be that he was like everybody else-along for the ride. He used to be focused on doing what he was supposed to be doing, and not concerned with asking so many goddamned questions.

If he tried to talk with his coworkers about anything that wasn't job related, he would inevitably garner a negative response. Sometimes it was casual dismissal, other times a scoff or an insult. When he brought up the topic of Old Earth or any why pertaining to the existence of the Crew, he was treated to blank looks and puzzled stares. Occasionally, he'd get a response along the lines of: I swear Atriya, if you didn't work so hard, we would beat your ass for asking these stupid fucking questions. The meaning behind the Crew? Killing a shitload of Dissidents and partying as hard as possible. There's your fucking meaning. End of discussion.

Outside of teammates and Verus, he didn't socialize. He had no idea how other people felt about Old Earth-or anything else for that matter-but he could guess. Watching the faces streaming past him, he got the impression that they were cut from the same cloth as his teammates. Echo's citizenry was happily oblivious when it came to the bigger picture. They didn't care, and didn't want to.

His feet made muffled thumps as the blocks passed by. The streets were filled with harvesters that had gotten off their shift. They were all committed to one of two activities: going home or getting drunk.

Over half of Echo's citizens were harvesters. Everyone else supported them in one form or another. Depending on the assignment, a harvester might end up off world, collecting energy from the bodies of stellar corpses, or be stationed planet-side, working in plants that greedily inhaled power from the planet's geothermic core.

Atriya wasn't sure how the power got dispersed, but he suspected that Ascension and the Department were allotted a disproportionately huge share. The rest of it kept the harvesters harvesting. His job was to smooth out problems with Dissidents, so that workers could stay undisturbed in their drudgery.

Everyone knew their role, and for the most part, everyone knew their place. That's how it had been for over a thousand years. Aside from Dissidents, people didn't ask questions and didn't cause trouble. Not for the Regime, anyway. On the streets of Echo, predatory activity was accepted as the norm.

There were times he wished he could stop thinking; stop observing, stop noticing, stop analyzing, just stop. Being ignorant made life simpler. Easier. On Echo, all you had to do was go to work, cling to any pleasures that might distract you from suffering, and die. Ignorance wasn't bliss, but it sure as hell dulled the pain.

Atriya's feet carried him down a snarled tangle of roads. The scapes seemed purposefully made to get lost in. Their sprawling construction wasn't guided by any grand vision or burst of inspiration; it was all designed to direct harvesters to work sites.

As spectra-probes uncovered neutron stars, dying volcanoes, and other wellsprings that bled off energy, construction would start on fresh streets and rails to shuttle workers to the latest fuel source. Old streets would only be destroyed if they interfered with a harvester's commute to the most recently discovered aquifer of power. With the passing of time, layers of aged and obsolete city had piled up like rotted wood. Every scape was littered with turns that cut at steep, nonsensical angles, or roads that lead nowhere.

Over the course of centuries, these defunct sprawls had become riddled with pockets of stagnancy-capsules of isolation that lay tomblike and still. These locations existed for no other purpose than to take up space. If Echo was a house, then it was one filled with mold and vermin, one that desperately needed a spring-cleaning.

Atriya didn't care for the mess, but he didn't mind it either. It had intimidated him when he was a boy, but that was decades ago. As an adult, he knew how to navigate through the dilapidation so as to maximize efficiency and minimize danger. He didn't dawdle when he went out; he was humble enough to realize that the scapes could draw anybody into a rat's nest of wandering.

He pushed through a muddle of claustrophobically small streets, and arrived at an open square. In the center of it there was a public holo platform that was showing commercials. An ad started up. His eyes flicked away from it and took in the dozens of vacant eyes that were fixed on the holo. Like moths to a flame, people milled closer. The light from the projection made their faces look empty. Zombie-like.

All across the square, speakers came to life. They bled static, whined, then resolved into an enthusiastic voice interspersed with bursts of feedback. The garbled speech was unintelligible-something about new entertainment programming. No one paid attention to the poor sound quality; everyone was used to it. It wasn't uncommon for communication tech to be spotty, especially if it was designed for public use.

While the spoken message was incomprehensible, the images were clear. Pictures flashed through the air, depicting a reality show where the contestants dressed up as Roman gladiators and fought against each other. Their costumes and weapons dripped with ostentatious menace. They roared and pranced across the platform, screaming in distorted howls about how much ass they were going to beat.

More people were drawn to the holo. Watching them, Atriya felt deeply disturbed. Something about the way the shadows capered across their features.

He studied the commercial, and failed to understand why the crowd found it interesting. All he saw was an idiotic display where morons flexed their muscles and played to an audience of uglier and less fortunate morons.

Fucking stupid.

A small part of him, one he barely acknowledged, felt a bone-deep sadness. But on the surface of his mind, all he felt was an inexplicable anger-a rage that flared up with violent intensity. He knew it was starkly out of place (especially considering the fact that he couldn't pinpoint the cause for it), but he felt it nonetheless.

He turned away in disgust, and continued deeper into the concrete maze. At this point he was nearly at Verus's chapel-roughly three blocks away. He felt his mood lightening at the prospect of talking with her, but it quickly darkened when he saw Benson, his old platoon sergeant, loitering outside a bar. Benson was a relic from Atriya's time as an Enforcer-an unpleasant reminder of what he'd had to deal with before he'd passed Crew selection.

While Crew teams were designed specifically for raids, Enforcers' duties were more generalized. Enforcer might find themselves manning checkpoints, engaging in offensives, executing searches…Enforcers did it all. They were Echo's equivalent of low-level infantry, but were also expected to fulfill the function of police and sheriffs. Compared to the Crew, Enforcers were much more disposable, not as well-trained, and treated accordingly. Rank and military bearing were taken seriously in Enforcer battalions, whereas in the Crusader Squadrons, the opposite was true. Crew operators tended to see anything that had to do with formality as something to be ignored-or, depending on the mood they were in-vilified.

Sergeant Benson had endangered Atriya's life more times than he could count. As the Crusader locked eyes with Benson, he swore under his breath. He couldn't turn away without being rude; Benson had already seen him and was beckoning for him to come over.

Atriya plastered a fake smile on his face and surreptitiously pressed his arms against his sides. The movement allowed him to check the placement of his weapons. Reassured by their honest weight, he made his way towards Benson, remembering the misery he'd suffered because of this shitbag.

CHAPTER 4

Benson's ruddy face broke out in a jowly, repugnant smile. He called out, "Kishchan!"

Atriya hated being called by his first name. He hated it enough to where he would tell people it was Christian instead of Kishchan (and why not, he reasoned; Christian was the older, root form of it). Benson, always happy to nettle a subordinate, had never called him anything but Kishchan.

The sergeant had somehow intuited that it pissed Atriya off. Benson was in possession of that powerful magic that all bullies were endowed with: the one that allowed them to hone in on what was irritating and disrespectful and-without being blatant or overt about it-prod patiently away until there arose a slow burning, soul rattling fury.

Atriya made his way toward his old boss, the skin around his eyes aching with the effort of locking in a fake grin. It didn't just feel false; the act of smiling was physically uncomfortable.

Three pairs of eyes-previously directed towards Benson-slid toward Atriya, curious.

Looks like he's got himself a new crop of goons.

Atriya wasn't surprised by the entourage; Benson exuded the ugly, trademark charisma that radiated off tyrants. As a result, he was perpetually surrounded by a clique of thuggish numbskulls.

Benson gestured grandly with a glass of something alcoholic. "I was just talking about you man. The good old days. You were green as hell and I was assigned to mentor your ass. You remember that shit? Clearing city like motherfuckers read about."

Benson's lackeys leaned closer, their interest growing. Atriya saw that they were all clutching drinks. Their skin was flushed, but their bodies-and more importantly their eyes-looked steady. Coiled and mean.

Not in the mood for this.

The pained quality of Atriya's smile ticked up a notch. Boozy war stories were not his thing. Time to make a quick exit.

"Well, Sergeant, it was great seeing you, but I've got someplace-" Atriya shifted his body, taking a purposeful step towards the street, but Benson's arm thumped against his chest. Not with enough force to be egregious…but still. Atriya looked down and saw that the sergeant's hand was wrapped around a bottle.

"What the fuck, Kishchan? Don't be a pussy. Stay and chat. Here-have yourself a drink." Benson's obnoxious smile widened into an unattractive rictus. His face tilted in, and Atriya's eyes were hit by the unappetizing sight of bloated pimples. The Crusader's sense of smell was assaulted by Bensons's breath, a stinking waft that was muggy from dip and drink. Atriya glued his smile in place so it didn't become a snarl. His fingers felt wooden as they grasped the bottle.

"Thank you Sergeant." He said this in the same measured tone used to guide someone that had frozen on a mine through a set of avoidance measures.

"I was just telling the boys about when we drop-shipped into Scape 31. You and me, right?" Benson's eyes flicked skyward, and his caveman face took on a musing expression. "Damn, those were the good old days, weren't they? Think it was five years back." The sergeant turned to his flunkies. "Clearing city that day was a pain in the ass. Dissidents dug in like fucking ticks. Me and Kishchan here-" He slapped a smelly hand on Atriya's shoulder. The Crusader saw what he thought was old snot on the index finger. "-were entering probably what I'd say was our…mmm…fiftieth room that day. We were both down to pistols. A step up from holding your dick in your hand, you know? My rifle had taken a hit in the receiver, courtesy of some Dissident sniper, so it was pretty much useless. Guy had taken out half our squad and burnt our heavier guns with some well-placed rounds. Damn good shot, I'm telling you." Benson shook his head with grudging respect. His stooges nodded respectfully along. "He had some kind of ranged energy weapon-you guys know how accurate those are due to their lack of recoil. We didn't have suppressive guns-none that worked anyway-and our rifle ammo was running low." Dramatic pause.

"Anyways, our remaining guys were providing cover for another squad so they could try and shift to a better position. The net sparks up and we hear there's an officer pinned down in the building directly across from us. We get orders to send our guys in and save this idiot, but seeing as how we're close to being completely fucked ourselves, all we can spare is me and Kishchan. We need our leftover guys to cover our approach. Think at that point we were down to eight. We'd started with sixteen." Benson paused, taking another slurp from his glass. His three-rookie audience huddled closer, drinking in the ambience of guts and glory.

Atriya tightened his grip on his drink. His anger built as he realized that Benson was twisting events so that he looked like a hero and not some bumbling piece of shit.

"Me and Kishchan break from cover. We sprint like fuck across the street. Our squad lays down a mag. We'd left our spare rifle ammo with our guys so they had enough rounds to give us some breathing room; that should tell you how bad off we were. Quick stack on the door-no need to worry about kicking or blasting it 'cause it's blown to fuck-and I hook right while Kishchan crosses left. And then-holy fucking Judge's Day-I got six hostiles on my half, all with weapons shouldered. Without thinking, I get to work." Another slurp.

"Lemme tell you: that day, I was on fucking fire. I drop five with five shots. I'm closing in on the sixth when he grazes my helmet with a round. Throws me off. I'm dazed-don't know if my brains are in my head or splattered across the floor…but fucking whatever, right? Don't join the Department if you aren't ready to man the fuck up. Anyways, my next three shots go wild and my gun goes dry. I yell 'check' to let Kishchan know I'm taking a knee to reload."

Benson took another swallow. He ran a calculating gaze across his audience. They were enraptured. Streetlight reflected off their pupils, making them look completely spellbound. This wasn't the case with Atriya.

Atriya was barely holding back from turning Benson's fat, lying face into a pulpy mess.

Benson leaned in, taking on a no-nonsense, you guys know what I'm talking about air. It was the same mannerism that con men used to imply that anybody disagreeing with them was not just in error, but a ridiculous jackass. His three followers leaned in with him.

God, the man's breath stank. Atriya didn't know how the human body could emit a stench as bad as shit from any place other than one's asshole, but miracle upon miracles, Benson had apparently figured out how to pull it off.

"Okay, so you three haven't gotten trigger time, but you know that when you're reloading, you're on a knee and you call out good when you're ready, right? So your shooting buddy knows to hoist you up. You don't just stand up by yourself because that's a fucking safety hazard; your team needs to know if you're going to pop up so you don't accidentally flag your guys. Flagging is when a friendly muzzle points at a teammate. You also don't want to smack into the shooter behind you-that puts everyone at risk." Benson's stooges were nodding along, as if this were the sagest information to ever fall from human lips.

Atriya watched them, simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Everybody knew what flagging meant; it was one of the first things you learned as an Enforcer: Don't flag your buddies. When Benson explained it to his three charges, however, they all acted as if they were hearing it for the first fucking time.

Obviously, Benson wanted to be the hero, the go-to guy-that was something Atriya could accept and understand (he found it distasteful, but he could still accept it; he wanted the same thing, only in a different context). What pissed him off to no end was the way Benson's subordinates-to a fucking man-were pretending that what Benson was talking about was new and innovative. Like they all didn't know what flagging was, or how to do reloads in a hot room. Everyone knew.

As Benson droned on, spewing lie after lie detailing how brave and on point he was, Atriya was reminded of why he'd applied for Crew selection. He'd done it to get away from men like this. The Enforcer platoons seemed to have no shortage of these grandstanding shit-talkers.

Like every good bully, Benson was a showman. And now, it appeared that he wanted to accentuate his story with a visual demonstration. "Here, hold my drink Smith." He stopped blowing hot air and handed his glass off, carelessly sloshing liquid onto Smith's chest. Smith didn't seem to mind; he actually looked kind of grateful.

Brown-nosing little cocksucker.

"James, pretend you're me while I'm doing a reload. Get on a knee." The Enforcer named James trotted obediently over and sunk down. Benson looked around, checking to see that he still had everyone's attention.

"So I'm Kishchan. James is me. James does the reload and calls out his status." Benson gave James an unnecessarily forceful nudge with his knee. "Call it out, James."

James pitched forward, nearly losing his balance. He looked up, a little surprised, and called out, "Good!"

Benson looked around again, making sure he was still the star of the show. His face took on the expression of a man who knew he was describing the painfully apparent, but nobly holding back the brunt of his exasperation. "Now we all know that when your shooting buddy calls that out, you hoist him up with your off-hand. Just like-" Benson's left hand bunched on the folds of James's jacket and jerked him up. The movement was too abrupt for James to get his feet under him in time, and the fabric of his jacket absorbed the excess pull. An audible rrrriiiiIIIIPPP sliced through the air. As James stood, he canted his head towards the damaged part of his jacket, dismay clearly visible upon his face. Benson ignored it. Couldn't interrupt the great and wise Benson. Not when he was on a roll-that would be tantamount to a capital crime.

"-like that. We do this for safety. You all know how this goes, right? Well Kishchan here-" Benson shot a vulgar nod toward Atriya.

"He pulls me into him, knocking us both over. Like-" Benson pulled hard on James, yanking the younger Enforcer off his feet and causing him to stumble onto his butt. James was forced to break his fall by sinking to a crouch and catching the ground with his hands. "Just like that."

Benson, of course, had remained standing. Not a surprise: The Great and Wise Benson was too great and wise to follow the rules of his own fucking production.

"So I'm on my back, Kishchan is doing God knows what, and there's two hostiles closing in from a door that's opposite our entry-maybe twenty, thirty feet away. I've also sprained my off-hand so badly it's shaking. That's courtesy of Captain Goddamn Graceful over here-" He looked towards Atriya, and the four of them did the mob mentality thing where a unified chuckle emerged from multiple people. It was something that Atriya detested, and it only served to fuel his anger.

"At this point I can't grip my pistol with both hands, and I'm ass over tea kettle, so I make do with what I've got. I one-hand my weapon like a goddamn Crew guy-except that I ain't got no fancy cybertech linkup to aim for me-and I blow those Dissident fuckers off the face of Echo." Benson made a pistol with the fingers of his free hand and mimed the shots. "Probably the best shooting you'll ever hear about," he added smugly, running his gaze over his audience.

His followers were hypnotized; their eyes were wide, their mouths agape.

"Well that was it. We deadcheck the bodies-you guys know, make sure they're down by putting one in their heads-and push into the next room. Drama free after that. The net wasn't acting up-for once, Judge be praised-and we were able to make comms with the officer. He had two other Enforcers with him. Two guys-that was all that was left from his original unit. Before they'd started the op, there'd been a whole platoon of 'em-like forty something grunts-that had gotten bogged down in that building. Pay attention to what the fuck you're doing, 'cause that's what can happen. Every one of those idiots got zeroed except for those three. Just a bad fucking day for 'em, I guess." Benson shook his head in a poor show of humility. "Anyways, we get the remaining shooters out, call for extract, and head home. And that's how I got this beauty."

Benson reached under his shirt and pulled out the Star of Valor, the Department of Enforcement's highest decoration. Atriya found it hard to believe that his three cronies could have looked any more in rapture than they already did, but they somehow managed as their eyes fixated on the gaudy piece of medal poking out from Benson's shirt.

Atriya couldn't keep the disbelief from showing on his face. He couldn't believe that Benson wore his medal out in town, or that he flashed it around like some kind of holy fucking artifact.

James smacked his other two cohorts on their shoulders. "Hey-you guys know the regs: 'In garrison, any personnel awarded the Star of Valor shall be rendered a salute regardless of rank and/or setting.'" He rattled off the instruction with the solemnity of a true believer. The three of them carefully set their drinks on the ground, nodding and murmuring their agreement.

The three goons straightened, then snapped off parade ground-perfect salutes. Benson tried to look humble, but any idiot could see the smugness oozing from the glistening corners of his upturned lips. He returned the salute and nodded at his three subordinates, waving dismissively while making false noises of humble protest. Atriya felt his gorge rise.

The four Enforcers turned expectantly toward Atriya. The Crusader stood stock still, inwardly yearning to be anywhere else. Anywhere where he wouldn't have to salute Benson.

The seconds ticked by. Anger and tension dripped and pooled. It was weighty and maddening-an itch that dug deeper and deeper. James was the first to speak up.

"Sergeant Benson says you're a Crusader. Well Crusader or not, the regs still apply to you. So why aren't you fucking saluting?" The younger Enforcer had lifted his shoulders up and back, forced his chest out, and craned his neck aggressively forward. Benson stood a few yards away, arms crossed, while the other two Enforcers fanned out to either side of James, forcing Atriya to use his peripherals to keep track of them.

This was not a good position to be in.

Slow breath in, forceful exhale out. Atriya bit back all the things that he desperately wanted to accuse Benson of being. Shitbag. Coward. Incompetent. The enemy. No, Benson was worse than the enemy, because the enemy was honest. The enemy tried to kill you and let you know it. Here was somebody you had to rely on to protect your flank but could never be sure about; a man you could never trust not to rationalize his craven backstabbing into a noble act.

And the worst part? The worst part was that Atriya suspected-it was just a hunch, but it was a strong-that Benson's actually believed what he was saying, simply by virtue of the fact that he'd repeated it over and over; to others, and to himself as well. He'd brainwashed himself with his own lies. Or so Atriya believed.

But whether Benson's behavior was due to the fact that he bought his own bullshit, or from a conscious decision to deceive others, or from some jackass mix of the two…the verdict was still the same:

Fucking inexcusable.

Atriya's eyes flicked back and forth, keeping track of potential threats and mulling his options. At last, he decided to try and go the civilized route. He had an appointment to keep, and wanted to look presentable. Getting in a fight wasn't going to help him realize his goals.

The Crusader bent to the ground and gingerly set down the bottle he'd been holding.

Burning with rage, he straightened up, ready to salute. His heels clicked together, toes facing outboard at moderate angles, left hand straight and unyielding against the side of his thigh. His right hand snapped crisply up, knife-like, palm angled slightly inward, fingers near his temple. His face was a stony mask.

Atriya saluted Benson, and like so many others in the Department required to do the same, he paid homage to this inverted mockery. This caricature. Sergeant Benson was all the more offensive because nobody seemed to see him for what he truly was. They all believed the twisted, easy-to-swallow story that this parasite doled out to them.

Benson's grin had grown to epic proportions. He let Atriya hold the salute for longer than was appropriate. Then, maintaining his loose and casual stance, Benson flicked his right hand up to his forehead and dismissively threw it towards Atriya. His index and middle fingers were somewhat straightened, but the motion clearly fell short of a real salute. Through his gesture, Benson adhered to the semblance of propriety while returning nothing but disrespect.

"Why don't you take off Kishchan. Oh, and try not to get anyone else nearly killed." Benson turned his back to the Crusader, a cloying smirk plastered across his fat, repellent face.

For a throbbing moment, Atriya stood fixed in place. There was no indication that he was on the brink of losing it. Not visibly. But he could feel a pair of tics under the skin of his cheeks, the muscles flitting as fast as a hummingbird's wings. It was something that happened when his anger built up, when the energy in his psyche begged to be released in the form of destruction.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

In. Out.

Slowly, ever so slowly (though it was only a few keen, sharp seconds), Atriya regained control. The tremor in his cheeks eased…then ceased. His chest loosened. While he wasn't relaxed, he was no longer on the verge of killing Benson.

It wouldn't be right to meet with Verus and be scuffed or hurt because I got in a fight.

Another breath, deep and steady.

Think of Verus.

He was already taking the first few steps towards his destination, trying to forget about Benson, when his mouth betrayed him. Atriya heard himself say: "You're a fucking liar, Benson. I didn't screw up; I didn't get people killed."

The sergeant, still smirking, turned slightly to the left so he could face the Crusader. Atriya turned around and threw a burning, hateful glare at his old boss.

"That was you-you piece of shit."

CHAPTER 5

A part of him warned that this would end in annoyance at best, suffering at worst, but he was too committed to back off now.

"Why didn't you wait for the react team, Benson?" Atriya walked towards the sergeant, murderous light shining from his eyes.

"Time was short, and we had an officer's life at-"

"Spare me. We were ordered over the net to hold our position and wait for react." Atriya's words were clipped and short.

Benson arched an eyebrow, "I understand your concerns, Kishchan, but our actions ended up saving-"

"Our actions ended up burying our teammates. We were cowboying it in that building while you left some kid in charge-some kid who was less than a week out of the academy. The officer-that fucking numbskull we were trying to save, according to your bullshit story-told us over the net that he was secure. He had a squad with him and plenty of ammo-not just the two guys you mentioned, you lying fuck. He'd called for react so he could get support from a mobility-enhanced platoon, not from two jerkoffs slinging pistols.

"I heard later that our guys panicked and couldn't direct accurate fire onto the enemy. And surprise surprise: the landing zone was too hot for react. Our reinforcements got chopped to bits when they tried to make their insert. Because we weren't there to guide our squad." Atriya was on the verge of screaming.

He kept going. "As for our guys? The dumb fucks that looked up to you? Every one of 'em zeroed in a Dissident rush. Was it worth it?" Atriya stepped forward and shoved Benson in the chest, sending the Enforcer stumbling back. "Was it fucking worth it?" The Crusader's voice was high and dangerous, brimming with unstable anger.

Two of Benson's goons wrapped themselves around Atriya's arms, holding him in place. The other one inserted himself between Atriya and Benson.

The sergeant seemed unruffled by the outburst. "Those who fell that day made a noble sacrifice. What else would you have had me-"

"I would have had you follow orders and use some common fucking sense! Oh, and I like how you tell it as if you did the reload correctly and I pulled you up too hard. As if the real story wasn't that you forgot to call out and let me know your clip was in. As if you didn't knock us both ass-backwards when you stood up by yourself." Atriya strained against his captors' grips, but was beginning to relax. Being able to express the truth eased his maddening urge to eviscerate Benson. "Our squad died because of your stupidity, and you almost got the two of us wasted because you're a sloppy fuck." Atriya was calming down, the anger within him dimming to a hot smolder. The two holding onto him must have sensed it; they cautiously let up on their grip.

Benson coolly replied, "Not how command saw it." He tapped the medal lying on his chest.

Atriya sneered. "Right. As if nobody knows that you haven't been sucking Admin's dick for justthis type of circumstance. I'm sure the events surrounding your medal were given an honest and uncompromising review." Dripping sarcasm.

Atriya and Benson stared each other down.

As the two faced off and the seconds stretched, Benson carefully assessed Atriya. Something shifted behind the sergeant's eyes, and his expression became a little meaner. A little more malevolent.

"Look Kishchan, I'm sorry you feel this way-" Conciliatory, reasonable tone.

You're so full of shit, Atriya thought.

"-but we were all under a lot of stress, and the op went sideways at regiment level, not just for our guys. Dozens of platoons were taking casualties. I heard that even the Crew lost a few. Wraiths weren't just waving their swords around and scaring the locals, they actually had to get in there and fuck shit up. Hell, they had to use Apex as a tactical asset, instead of him doing the standard thing where he pushes around some dumbass harvesters."

Benson was telling the truth: that day, fighting Dissidents in Scape 31 had been unusually hellacious.

Wraiths were Echo's premiere super soldiers, although that phrase failed to fully describe the breadth of their power. They weren't soldiers so much as walking bombs. They were by and large symbolic, despite costing the Regime the rough equivalent of a dozen cityscapes' gross energy output. There were only three of them-though there were urban legends of a fourth-because they were insanely expensive to build and maintain.

The highest ranking one, Apex, was capable of planet-wide devastation. Typically, he'd be used to scare off-world Dissidents into backing down and letting harvesters go about their business. The fact that he'd had to be utilized for practical effect-instead of simply being used to strike fear into the enemy-was significant. It wasn't unheard of, but it was very, very rare.

Benson finished up with, "You and I are still alive. And for that, I thank the Judge." He kissed the ring on his finger. It looked like a shiny white oval with a small part of it-the underside-colored black. That part was shaped like a slim crescent, giving the glossy white portion the appearance of a waxing moon, one that was close to being full.

The other three kissed their rings, murmuring, "Praise be to the Judge. White over black. Always and forever." It was the formal response to Benson's invocation.

Atriya wore no ring. They were a symbol of the religious fanatics known as the Jury; a group of fundamentalists that specialized in condemning any they judged as "faithless." A vocal minority of them would intimidate the less fortunate into paying "tithes," as well as lauding the Jury in public forums. Jurors that didn't function as outright thugs would rave about the Judge to all who would listen. Interestingly enough, they never mentioned the acts of violence committed by their own; silent endorsement was their modus operandi.

Atriya felt uneasy as he watched them pay their tributes. He wouldn't be at all surprised if these men were the type of Jurors that liked to "collect tithes."

The four of them finished the ritual and stared as one at Atriya. Benson's eyes weren't assessing him anymore; they now shined with something closer to predatory calculation.

Not good.

Atriya shifted his eyes left, then right, taking in his surroundings. To his rear was an alley that dead-ended after ten, maybe fifteen yards. The four in front of him had fanned out, blocking the way forward and cutting off his exit.

Benson stepped closer. "Kishchan, I understand that you disagree with official policy. Fine-agree to disagree. What matters is that under official record, events transpired as I've described them. There's nothing either of us can do to change that. Let's put it all behind us, huh? It's been years since it happened."

Atriya suspected Benson was up to something.

Fuck it. Just get out of here.

As the Crusader prepared to shoulder past James, Benson spoke up.

"You know, after that whole episode in Scape 31, I knew that a greater power was looking out for me. There was no other explanation for how we got out alive. I felt I had to give back; to contribute…and later that night, I realized how I could. I'm sure you've noticed the ring on my hand. Being a Juror was my way of thanking the Judge…thanking him for getting me through that fucked up day. The thing is, he got you through it too. And while I may look the other way when it comes to you disrespecting the Department, I can't do that with the Judge. I'm going to have to insist that you pay tribute and kiss your ring."

"You know I'm not a Juror. I don't have a fucking ring."

Benson's smile, already carnivorous, went further up the spectrum: it became positively reptilian. "Oh that's all right Atriya, you can use mine." He stuck his hand out. "Kiss the ring and pay tribute."

Tersely: "Not a chance."

One of the underlings piped up. "Sergeant, when I was holding his arms I noticed he didn't have his linkup on."

Goddammit. No way to scare them off now.

"Really?" Benson cocked an eyebrow. "That's sloppy…even for you, Kishchan. Crew guys and linkups are like babies and pacifiers. If you asked me-"

"I didn't." Atriya bit the words out.

Unruffled, Benson went on. "-and I was Crew? Hell, I'd never take that damn thing off. Even without your guns, you can still fight like a motherfucker juiced on brain boosts and hormone dumps."

Atriya stayed silent, his body humming with pre-fight jitters. He had gotten to the point where he wished somebody would just hit him. He enjoyed the violence of a physical assault-the purity of it-but the cat and mouse bullshit that preceded a fight was something that grated on his nerves.

He waited for his cue. These were no longer men; they were pieces of meat. All he needed was an excuse to start hurting them.

"Last chance, Kishchan. Kiss the ring or-"

And there it was. Atriya launched forward, smacking James's nose with the heel of his palm. James wasn't ready for it, and the surprise hit brought tears to his eyes, just like Atriya knew it would. The junior Enforcer's hands flew up to cover his face. Atriya was counting on that as well. He closed with James-to give the other three a more confusing target-and pried one of the fingers away from the man's nose.

He tightened his grip on the finger, then matter-of-factly bent it backwards. He bore down on the digit as hard as he could, and was rewarded with a stomach-churning pop.

James screamed and shrank back. Atriya let him go and saw the Enforcer holding the wrist of his injured hand. The hand was shaking, and the index finger now branched sideways at a grotesque angle.

Knuckles thumped against the back of his skull. Even though Atriya was too adrenalized to register pain, he experienced a flash of lightheadedness and knew that he'd taken damage. He turned and barreled into his new attacker, trying to disrupt the sense of spacing the four of them might get if he remained stationary.

By nature, the qualities that made Atriya formidable were his explosiveness and aggression. He was a little taller than average and solidly built, which made him effective in a fight due to a decent amount of inherent mass. The thing that made him truly frightening, however, was his ability to snap out forceful strikes in rapid succession. Every one of his hits had knockout power, and he could throw them all with the speed of a jab. Verus had tried to clarify that talent by training him to focus on an opponent's rhythm, as well as teaching him the finer points of redirecting momentum and energy. Her lessons didn't take. Though he enjoyed learning about leverage and timing, and how a fight needn't be won through sheer brutality, he would revert to being a raging powder keg whenever he was pushed.

His new opponent was feeling every bit of that ingrained volatility as Atriya clinched, tucked his head, and drove the man deeper into the alley. Atriya's assailant let out a gasp of surprise and backpedaled, trying to stay upright and gain purchase with his feet. It was no use; the Crusader moved as if his entire body was a giant, fast-twitch muscle.

They smacked against a wall. As Atriya's antagonist rebounded off of it, the Crusader launched forward, driving hard with his legs so he could throw a head butt using all of his body weight. There was a loud, painful-sounding thunk as Atriya's forehead crushed nasal cartilage. The man screamed and crumpled to the ground, clutching at his face. Fresh blood streamed through his fingers.

Atriya knew there were two uninjured threats somewhere behind him. He stepped in the direction that was opposite to where he'd seen them last and swiveled, hoping to catch them in his line of sight and simultaneously grab some space.

As he was turning he felt a sharp slice of pain skim across his side: the fresh sting of a paper cut, only on a larger scale. His brain registered that he'd been attacked with a blade, and the general direction of it. He blindly shoved out toward the attack and was lucky; he connected with a body and pushed it back.

As his perception caught up to the action, he saw that Benson, James, and Smith had drawn knives and were leaning forward, ready to close with him. Benson's knife was decorated with a smear of blood, marking him as the one that had tagged Atriya. The sight triggered a fresh wave of fury in the Crusader's mind.

Going to make sure he regrets that.

The guy he'd head-butted was getting to his feet. Atriya had done some damage, but hadn't taken him out. James looked like he had recovered from the broken finger-at least enough to fight-and from the way he was handling his knife, it seemed that his uninjured hand was his dominant one.

Fuck. Should have gone for the other hand.

Benson and his goons weren't attacking, just hemming Atriya in. Maybe they wanted to intimidate him with their knives. Maybe they were afraid to rush him after seeing how aggressive he was. Whatever the case might have been, the Crusader was grateful for the space. It gave him the chance to reach in his jacket and draw his baton.

The weapon made a dry, metallic click as it extended outward.

His gut told him not to go for his revolver, not yet. They might have ranged weapons. Don't escalate. He was hoping they were still trying to intimidate him. It didn't look like de-escalation was possible…but still. No need to turn a street fight into a shooting gallery.

There was also a part of him that was enjoying this. He didn't want to spoil the fun with a firefight.

"Kishchan." That was Benson. He sounded wheezy. Fat fuck. "All I'm asking is that you pay tribute to the Judge. Kiss the ring. It's the God-fearing thing to do. The right thing to do."

Atriya put effort into slowing his breath. You have room. Shake off the tunnel vision. Assess. His eyes darted back and forth as well as up and down, searching for an advantage he might have missed. Nothing. He was going to have to scare them off or beat them into submission.

Wet warmth leaked down his side. Blood from the knife slash. It didn't feel deep, but he felt anger flare up at the idea that his jacket had been damaged. An irrational thought, given the circumstances, but at this point his mind was churning through hundreds of impressions, and not all of them were logical.

Eyes front. His four attackers had fanned out into a loose half-circle. Behind them, pedestrians on the street gave the scene a nervous glance before scurrying along. They saw conflict and wanted no part of it.

Fucking sheep.

Benson was talking, but the Crusader wasn't listening. Atriya was studying the body language of his four opponents, trying to gauge whether they were going to back off or keep pressing.

Seconds passed. Benson was still running his mouth. His goons stayed where they were.

Wait for it.

Atriya didn't register what Benson shouted-probably something along the lines of "Fucking get him!"-but he was ready for what happened next. The four came at him. James-the one with the mangled off-hand-led the charge, the pain of his broken finger momentarily forgotten.

Atriya tightened his grip on the baton.

The Crusader half-hopped, half-skipped backwards. As he did so, he exploded into a vicious turn, one where his right hand-which had been cocked to the rear-now whipped towards his front. Force was generated by the rotation of his torso as well as a quick drop in posture, while the backwards hop allowed him to properly distance the end of his weapon.

Its metal nub connected with the outer edge of bone surrounding James's eye, exploding the Enforcer's face into a bloody, pulpy mess. James crumpled to the ground, knocked cold and in need of an operating room.

Happy reconstructive surgery, motherfucker.

The second guy, the one whose name Atriya hadn't yet heard, followed right behind-too close for Atriya to effectively swing at him. So the Crusader executed a short uppercut with the handle of his baton, catching guy number two on the end of his chin. Atriya followed up by shuffling forward, smashing the man square in the eye socket with the butt of his weapon in a staccato thrusting motion. Even though it was short range, the move generated enough force to knock the man's head back and angle it toward the sky. Asshole number two covered his injured eye and stumbled away.

Smith, the one who had served as a stupid prop in the sergeant's lecture on urban tactics, was next in line. He piled on top of Atriya while Benson stayed slightly behind, trying to maneuver into the Crusader's blind spot.

Of course. No surprise that Benson was leading from the rear.

Smith wrapped Atriya's right arm-the baton arm-with his left, trying to hug him close and use his knife. Atriya caught Smith's knife arm at the elbow, keeping the blade away from his ribs. This prevented Atriya from getting cut, but both of the Crusader's arms were now immobilized. He flicked his eyes over Smith's shoulder. Benson was slipping left, sliding in to take advantage of the stalemate.

Need to get out of this or he's going to fucking stab me.

Atriya brute-forced Smith so that the Enforcer's body lurched in front of Benson and served as a temporary barrier. He grunted with the strain of it.

Acting on instinct, the Crusader leaned forward and bit down on Smith's ear, grinding his teeth at the base of the lobe. He heard a pleasing series of pops as cartilage broke and shredded. This was accompanied by a rough yell of pain, which sent a visceral flash of pleasure down Atriya's spine. Even more satisfying was when Smith loosened his hold and tried to move backward.

Don't think so, dickhead. Atriya moved with him, maintaining the tight press of their bodies. He circled Smith's shoulder with his right arm while using his left hand to maintain control of Smith's knife arm. As Smith let up completely, Atriya swiveled towards the alley and pedaled hard. They hit a wall, and the jarring impact caused both of them to drop their weapons.

Got a chance to put him down. Make it count.

Atriya shot his right arm under Smith's, using it to brace his enemy's tricep over his bicep. The Enforcer's elbow was now bent at ninety degrees. Atriya wrapped both hands around the top of Smith's hand, bending it at the wrist.

If not for the gritty context of the scene, the trapped hand would have looked exactly like the stereotypical bent-arm wrist flick assigned to the weak and the frivolous. The silhouette of the Enforcer's contorted arm would have resembled that of a goose, with Atriya's hands wrapped around the top of the "head," and the "belly"-or the bottom side of Smith's arm-pressed against the top of Atriya's bicep, preventing the Enforcer from lowering the limb and relieving the pressure of the compliance hold.

Atriya let up on his grip for an instant-so he could generate a jerky little bounce and surprise Smith into loosening up-and squeezed hard with both hands, forcing Smith's trapped hand to bend at an angle that was far past what a wrist would naturally allow. There was a gristly crack-the sound of snapping ligaments. Smith's palm was now forced to lay flat against his inner wrist. The younger man screamed, then began to blubber and shake.

Good. Atriya grinned fiercely. I hope your rehab sucks. He was struck by a flash of pride; small joint manipulation was not in his usual repertoire. It was more refined than his typical grab-bag of strength-reliant techniques. Verus would have approved.

He set himself up to execute a shoulder throw, tracing a small circle with his left foot so that his hips opened and had room to torque. The Crusader bowed forward, bucked his waist, and launched Smith up and over.

The Enforcer sailed in a graceful arc around Atriya's shoulder and smashed into Benson, now coming in for another attempt at a stab. Both men tumbled backwards, bouncing across the pavement like ragged scraps of trash.

Benson scrabbled backwards on his hands. He sat partway up and reached for the small of his back.

Atriya's mind flashed with alarm. Gun.

Atriya had practiced his draw (as assiduously as he practiced everything else), and smoothly whipped his hand into his jacket. As his revolver came out, his fingers intertwined around its grip. His feet squared up and gripped the ground, and his arms punched out and assumed the just-right mix of straightness and bend. The Crusader had a good, solid shooting stance. Benson had pulled his pistol…but the muzzle wasn't even pointing in Atriya's direction.

The sergeant was beat and he knew it.

Atriya knew it too.

"Drop the gun, fucker." The Crusader had gotten a bead on Benson, but his eyes were flicking from side to side, making sure that all threats were accounted for.

Benson complied. His pistol clattered as it hit the pavement.

Atriya spoke forcefully: "You know how this goes. No sudden moves. Spread eagle, face down. Point your head and hands away from the weapon. Inch away from it-slowly. I see your elbows or knees bend too much and I will put a fucking hole in you. Stay low. Keep moving until I say stop."

Once again, Benson complied. The sergeant inched away, scooting across the ground centimeter by centimeter, pulling with his elbows and knees.

"Move. Move. Move. Move. STOP." Atriya's directions left no room for ambiguity.

The sergeant was now a safe distance from the pistol. Atriya, mostly on the balls of his feet, shuffled smoothly over to where it lay. He kicked the sergeant's weapon to his left, creating enough room so he could bend down, pick up the gun, and still have a chance to shoot if Benson sprang up at him. It was a controlled kick; the gun never left his field of vision.

He crouched, retrieved the pistol, and stowed it in the back of his waistband. He put his off-hand back on his revolver and reassumed a shooting stance.

Atriya assessed the other three Enforcers. One was unconscious and lying on the ground, his face jutting at odd angles from shattered bone. He looked like he'd been struck by a wrecking ball.

Good hit.

The other was sitting-crying and clutching his snapped wrist. The third guy was lying prone, holding his eye socket, where the butt end of Atriya's baton had opened a free-flowing cut on the surface of his eye. Good. Atriya was secure and in control. For a little while, at least.

"Shit," Benson wheezed. His voice was slightly muffled due to the fact that his cheek was pressed against the street. "We were just asking you to be respectful-to show reverence to the Judge. You didn't have to-"

"Shut the fuck up." Atriya snarled. His eyes caught on the four discarded knives.

Be thorough. Get rid of them.

The Crusader used his feet to herd the knives over to a gutter, careful not to wander too close to Benson or his goons. He punted one of them into the gutter.

Benson turned his head toward Atriya, dismay writ large on his face. "Hey! What're you-"

"I said shut the fuck up! Face on the ground!" The Crusader booted two more knives into the gutter.

He was about to get rid of the fourth when Benson spoke again. This time his tone was pathetic and simpering. The words were also clearer than when he'd last spoken; the dumb shit had turned his face to the side, so he could see what the Crusader was doing.

Fat fuck can't follow orders, even when I'm beating his worthless ass.

Benson mewled, "Kishchan man, you don't have to do that. Give me back my knife-I paid a fortune for it. It's the one with the Judge's emblem."

Atriya looked at the weapon lying by his feet. On the crosspiece-where the blade met the handle-there was a large, gaudy symbol of the Judge. Its manufacturer had used a highly polished stone inlay that depicted the mostly white oval atop a slim crescent of black.

The material was nice, but the symbol took up a disproportionate amount of space on the weapon, creating an ostentatious look that demanded attention; a kind of cloying appeal that carried a hidden threat: Keep watching me, flattering me…or I'll turn on you and hurt you.

Atriya also saw that it was constructed with a charged plasma edge, one that was currently deactivated. It was the low-end kind, more for appearance than for function. Cheap plasma blades would light up and look intimidating-the charge around the knife would look big and colorful-but they weren't capable of inflicting any damage beyond a weak burn. Low-grade plasma couldn't cut anything, and it certainly couldn't hurt anyone. Additionally, because weak-charge knives compromised light discipline, their colorful glow was worse than useless.

High-grade plasma knives carried a black light charge that-aside from the shimmer of heated air that surrounded their edge-was invisible without enhanced optics. A good charge hugged a blade, and was hot to the point that it could cut through material without needing to use the metal edge of the weapon. The alloy on a decent plasma blade had to be specially treated, as well as threaded with hardened nanotech. Very dangerous, and very expensive.

Benson's knife was the exact opposite: a cheap piece of shit you might flash around to impress drunks that didn't know better, or were too smashed to care. Maybe not cheap in the literal sense, but cheap in every way that mattered. Cheaply constructed, cheaply designed…just fucking cheap.

Looking at the weapon incensed Atriya. The knife represented two of his lifelong hatreds: garish showboating and glorification of the Jury. He was averse to the first activity simply because it conflicted with his personal aesthetic, while his aversion to the second was born from a lifetime of bullying. The Jury was part of Echo's hierarchy; if your parents weren't members, then a good chunk of hell was forced on you throughout your childhood. It was something that Atriya had firsthand experience with.

He booted the knife down the gutter, watching the Judge's symbol flash and disappear as it spun into a concrete void. Fuck you Benson. He heard a moan of dismay from the Enforcer sergeant. The sound triggered a pleasant shiver that resonated outward from Atriya's gut.

"You know Benson, if you spent more time at the gym or the range-instead of yapping about the fucking Judge and showing off your stupid fucking medal-you wouldn't be so goddamned fat and pathetic." Atriya's tone was conversational. He had never been a Commitment instructor, but he was still well versed in the ways of cruelty.

He scanned the others lying on the ground, then his surroundings. People were passing by as if nothing was happening. No changes, no threats. Still secure. He turned back to Benson.

"I mean, what the fuck? Pandering to kids fresh out of training? Riding the coattails of your fake-ass commendation? Truth be told, it's not the fact that people fall for your lies; that's not what gets to me. People are people-meaning there's always idiots who lap up shit and swear that it's sugar-no, what bugs me is that so many of them buy your bullshit."

Confident he was safe, Atriya holstered his revolver and picked up his baton. He checked to make sure that Benson was still spread-eagled on the pavement.

"Keep your hands exactly where they are, shitbag."

The sergeant shifted, his fingers curling inwards. "What are you-"

"HANDS, motherfucker!" Atriya put bass into his voice. It was a practiced weapon-when done correctly, it struck someone with the force of a physical blow, even if the person on the receiving end had experienced it before. Despite its forcible effect (Benson flinched and complied) there was no anger in the command; it was simply a tool garnered from practice.

Atriya gripped his baton. "Let me hear the Judge's prayer, you bloated fuck."

"Kishchan-"

"Pray, you piece of shit. And you know goddamn well my name's Atriya."

Benson began mumbling into the ground. "All praise the Judge. He who teaches us white over black, good over evil. What is sacred and what is vile. Avert thine eyes and worship his Righteousness. All praise the Judge."

As Benson finished, Atriya swung his baton in a vicious, downward arc. The nub at the end cracked against the back of Benson's outstretched hand. The fact that the hand was flush to the ground meant that it absorbed every bit of incoming force.

Benson screamed and rolled to the side, clutching his bludgeoned hand with his uninjured one. For an instant, Atriya could see the outlines of bones under the traumatized skin; he could see they were pointing in the wrong directions.

Good break.

The unsightly jags disappeared from view as the sergeant's battered flesh swelled with angry, purplish grey. Benson began crying in gasping, undignified wails.

Atriya stood over the Enforcer, grinning harshly down at him. "See Sergeant, I have my own version of a prayer. It comes from Old Earth-from a man named Thucydides. Want to hear it?"

The sergeant was bawling like a baby, loosely grasping his quivering hand. Streamers of snot were leaking down his nose. He was lost in a world of pain, and gave no sign that he'd registered what Atriya had said.

The Crusader shook his head, conveying disappointment.

"Seems like you wouldn't appreciate it in your current state. But hey-say hello to the rest of the Jury for me, will you?" Atriya dropped his weight and rotated, the motion harmonizing with his ankles, his knees, his hips…it traveled to his shoulders, through his arms, and sent the end of his baton crashing into Benson's uninjured hand. The sergeant screamed louder than he had before-Atriya didn't believe it was possible until he heard it-and curled into a fetal position, both hands shaking in front of his chest.

After taking a long moment to drink in the welcome sight of a miserable and crippled Benson, Atriya exited the alley, making sure to keep his beaten enemies within view. When he was a safe distance away, he turned his back and began walking. As he did so, the quote from Thucydides echoed through his mind:

He is best who is trained in the severest school.

Thinking of it, the Crusader couldn't help but smile.