Volume 2

THE TASTE

OF ASHES

2

CHAPTER 1

Eight Enforcer platoons were standing by in dropships, waiting to hear that the warehouse was prepped. Until they were given permission, the ships would remain above cloud cover so they could stay out of sight. The one exception was the react team that had been chopped over to Retrieval-their craft trailed the assaulters' and landed on an adjacent rooftop.

The react Enforcers stepped out of their ship and began setting up. Rolling in with them were two large hover platforms-floating discs bristling with armaments-equipped with midgrade light matrices (switched off to remain unobtrusive), dual repeating grenade launchers, and a pair of heavy machine guns. Five troops were on each vehicle. Four manned the weapons, one served as a pilot.

The platforms drifted to the center and settled in. The rest of react-roughly thirty grunts-established a perimeter that ringed the rooftop's edge.

If the call came, the grunts could mount up and head to a requested location, offering on-the-spot mobility and an enhanced base of fire. Until then they would strongpoint their building, in case the strike team of Retrieval Specialists and Crusaders (colloquially referred to as "assaulters") needed a place to fall back or rally up.

One roof over, Retrieval commandos formed a circle and took a knee, providing 360 degree security as their ship lifted off. The craft assumed a stationary hover, providing the assaulters with additional protection via the ship's side-mounted cannons, as well as the option of a quick extract if things went awry.

The Crusaders walked the edge of their roof, inspecting their surroundings. So far, so good.

Atriya waved his arms at the ships, letting them know they were allowed to depart. They silently ascended and disappeared from view. Per procedure, the dropships would punch above cloud cover and assume an anchored drift above the warehouse, ready to descend and assist the strike team with supporting fire.

Until the Crusaders initiated breach, the assaulters' mandate was stealth. To avoid early detection, the men had dropped a good distance away from their target; they had a little over two miles to cover before making the hit. The dropships had used the curvature of Echo (the horizon), as well as the buildings' skylines to remain unnoticed. To further ensure they maintained a low profile, the team had inserted into a long-defunct industrial zone.

Their route would take them through a decaying piece of city that led directly up to the warehouse. Forsaken areas like this were fairly common on Echo, and were collectively referred to as the Wastes. These badlands were a magnetic draw for substance addicts but also for a variety of less-than-savory types-anyone who was falling apart.

Aside from a core population of junkies, the Wastes' residents included cannibals, rape gangs, and roving bands of marauders. Due to the inherent danger, Department personnel routinely avoided "going Waste-side" unless they were packing overwhelming firepower. Dissidents would steer clear as well.

On a typical approach, Crew teams would blend in with Echo citizenry and make their way across the cityscape proper. Two Crusaders in civilian clothing wouldn't look out of place in a regular stretch of cityscape, but now that they were working with Retrieval and Linke, the strike team was undeniably conspicuous. In order to mitigate their increased visibility (as well as serve the mission's underlying purpose of killing Atriya), they were going to travel directly through the Wastes. This had been passed down by the Retrieval squad leader, who Colonel Jenkins had designated as on-site commander.

Getting ambushed wasn't a concern-not only were the assaulters shadowed by orbital fire platforms, but the unspoken threat implied by their gear (from the exoskeletons and linkups, potential attackers could see that each man was packing the equivalent lethality of multiple Enforcer platoons) served as sufficient deterrent. The team's hardened presence was enough to discourage the majority of predators, which meant that an approach through the Wastes was an acceptable risk.

After ascertaining there were no immediate threats, Atriya assessed the building he was on. Four stories high. Gray and forbidding. Boxy. Close to the center of the roof, there was a stairwell entrance in the form of a squared-off hut. Like most Waste-side structures, it was in dire need of maintenance.

Atriya signaled to Clement. The two of them walked to the stairwell and took a knee-the cue for the rest of the team to start moving.

Retrieval treaded over with their guns up, scanning for threats. When the team leader was within arm's length, he put a gloved hand on Atriya's shoulder: Ready to enter.

Atriya opened the door and walked in.

Arachnids were bunched together on the stairwell's ceiling, watching silently as the men descended. Atriya felt clusters of eyes crawling across him, empty of nothing but appetite. To keep a clear line of sight, he brushed away thick tangles of webs. In a matter of seconds, his arms were completely enveloped by feathery spider-silk.

Find something smaller to eat, he thought. I'm spoken for.

As he continued downward, resignation arose in his mind. It flowed through him like a moonless tide, weighing his soul with listless apathy.

Is there any other way this can end? He considered the possibilities.

If you survive…then what? Grow old? Mumble into watery beer at a service members' lounge and talk the ears off bored strangers? The thought was followed by a pang of disgust.

Death was better.

So what, then? Run? Kill the team? He instantly dismissed both ideas. Not only were the Specialists too formidable, they undoubtedly had orbital fire ready to gun him down. Traps set by a localized Specter-or teams of Waste-side mercenaries-were another possibility.

Face it: you're already dead. The realization fell on him like an executioner's sword.

When it comes time, take as many with you as you can.

They reached the bottom level and filtered out, passing into the gray quiet of the streets. Retrieval was split into three 3-man teams: two mirrored each other on opposing sides of the path, while one lagged behind on the left edge of the column. The trailing element was in charge of rear security.

Due to their unorthodox tactics, both operators were positioned a dozen yards fore and aft of the patrol. Atriya in front, Clement in back. If they were attacked, the extra space would allow the two Crusaders to fire and maneuver without having to worry about shooting one of the Retrieval Specialists. The arrangement also bestowed an additional protective punch onto either end of their formation.

Atriya assessed his environment, noting the low level of ambient light. Cloud cover was good and the stars weren't a concern-they never appeared as more than dim flickers anyway. It was the illumination from Ascension and its white dwarf clusters that sometimes required a tactical work-around. And though the moon-city was waxing glaringly full, it was cloaked by a heavy overcast; the assaulters were gifted with ample darkness.

He mouthed: "Linkup: Infrared highlighting." The command caused his visor to display visual outlines based on temperature, which would in turn reveal whether enemy fighters were hiding behind walls. The overlay only showed heat signatures within a limited distance. This was by design; displaying long-range imagery would result in a jumble of signatures bleeding together. Unreadable to the eye, incomprehensible to the brain.

Atriya scanned his surroundings and saw slumped, reddened silhouettes behind concrete exteriors. Substance addicts. Either dying of overdose or deep in the throes of chemical gluttony.

He felt an odd kinship with them. It was a strange feeling, considering that all throughout his life, he'd regarded addicts with scorn and derision.

Maybe it's because I'm on the way out as well.

That was probably it. His personal affinities didn't carry the same importance-or seemed just plain meaningless-given his current predicament.

He trod further down the road, his boots squelching out dry, rubbing creaks against the asphalt. He could only hear them because his senses had been boosted by his linkup.

The intensified perception was capable of cutting both ways-his temporarily enhanced faculties could be overwhelmed by gunfire, explosions, or drastic changes in light. In order to compensate, the circuitry threaded into his wetsuit-style hood downshifted sound above a certain decibel range. His visual overlays incorporated a similar feature; they modulated light so that whatever he saw was neither too dim, nor too bright. The auto-regulating machinery was essential in the Wastes (or any trek into hostile territory) as it evened out his perception. In the chaos of battle, it made the difference between living and dying.

Two buildings ahead, a cluster of figures was staring intently at the team from a second-story window. Four of them were immediately visible. Atriya stared back at them, and saw the curves of heads between their shoulders.

They were being watched by dozens of sentries.

The men by the window were equipped with rifles and dressed in threadbare clothing. Rust-speckled knives hung from simple, reinforced loops affixed to their waists. Frayed tactical vests dangled off their frames, two of them covered by cross-slung bandoliers. Assortments of war trophies-strung-together ears, fingers, noses-were bound into necklaces that drooped across their chests. One of them (by the look of him, Atriya thought he might be their leader) was adorned with what appeared to be a baby's head. It looked old and withered, eyes squinched tight in silent misery. Its mouth gaped open in a frozen cry.

Atriya didn't know what they were. Cannibals, a rape gang, scavengers…probably a little bit of each. There was no doubt in his mind that if they were given the chance, they would strip the team of everything: humanity, gear, flesh…all of it.

Every so often, underequipped Enforcers would chase Dissidents into the Wastes. Most of the time, personnel and enemy would simply vanish and never be heard from again. Occasionally though, gory remains of Enforcers or Dissidents would show up a few days later.

Here in the Wastes, death wasn't feared-it was a welcome relief.

Hollow, expressionless eyes tracked the assaulters. The gaunt-faced shades showed no signs of aggression; they knew these men weren't easy prey. Despite that, Atriya could sense their appetite.

Wait and see, their faces said. Wait until you're hurt, or stop paying attention and slip. We'll come for you.

Atriya almost welcomed the idea. He'd undergone similar scrutiny during other Waste-side ops, but he wasn't afraid this time. He only felt savage, reactionary anger.

Fucking come for me then. There's nothing you'll get but a hole through your skull. Or your feet ringed with your guts.

As he walked by, he gave them a flat, blank stare. The deadly, lackluster, I'm-done-giving-a-fuck look that marked the truly dangerous. He thought he saw the leader smile in response. His suspicions were confirmed when the man gave him a slow, meaningful nod-a salute from the closest thing to the embodiment of chaos that he'd ever laid eyes on.

It threw him. For a surreal moment, he fought the absurd desire to nod back.

Weirdest bonding moment ever, he thought.

The leader turned and disappeared from view. Another man replaced him and kept steady track of the team.

Atriya thought back to when he'd seen other Waste-siders behave in a likewise manner. It always made him feel like he'd passed some sort of nameless test. His best guess was that the assaulters' presence was being reported to whatever passed for a higher authority around here.

The Crusader recalled that no unit that had perished in the Wastes had ever mentioned anything about scouts or sentries. It led him to believe he was being warned: We see that you're tough and that earns you a pass. This time. Never before though, had he received outward recognition from one of the watchers.

He dismissed the nod, as he didn't know what to make of it.

Everything happens for a reason.

Without intending to, he pictured the desiccated baby-head, dangling below a leathery neck, and put an addendum onto his last thought:

Everything happens for a reason-I hope.

Fog rolled in, blanketing the air with heavy gloom. He spotted a figure a dozen yards ahead, stumbling drunkenly across the misty street.

Atriya called a halt by lifting his right hand up. The others stopped. The patrol bristled with alert eyes and shouldered weapons as each man dialed in on his respective area of responsibility.

A whisper in his earpiece: "Problem?" The team leader.

The man to their front staggered toward a building, bracing against it with a bent arm. He pitched his head into the crook of his elbow and fumbled with his fly. A steady spatter became audible.

Atriya keyed his comms and whispered back, "Just an addict taking a piss. All good." He signaled for the others to keep moving. There was a quiet rustle as the team started forward.

As they walked closer to the addict, more details came into focus. Dirty, unkempt beard. Wild, tangled hair. Streaks of dirt marking his face and his fingers. Nail beds crusted with thick blackness and old scabs. The clothes he wore were layered on, one stained piece atop the other. His mouth hung agape as a stream of urine left his body and flowed noisily down the wall.

Atriya couldn't help but be impressed. Lucky old man. The addict might not have been old in the chronological sense, but the layers of filth and tatter that had accumulated on his body were the perverse equivalent of rings on a tree. The man had obviously weathered a longer and harder stretch than most junkies-most junkies died before becoming this broken down.

Atriya began carving a respectful berth around him, intent on leaving him be. The rest of the team curved their route and followed in the Crusader's footsteps. Per procedure, Atriya was supposed to periodically check in all directions to make sure that security was tight and his teammates were good. Subsequently, he executed a slow, cautionary spin as he walked forward.

From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of motion. His hand snapped up, calling another halt. His guns twitched skyward. His visor displayed a targeting rectangle that zoomed briskly onto an outline, glowing brightly to confirm a lock.

His mind struggled to process one of the strangest things he'd ever seen: an Ascensioner in the middle of the Wastes, crawling out from a second story window.

The richly dressed man paused, then leapt lightly from the ledge and dropped toward the junkie.

He stayed hunched as he fell. In his right hand, he held a curved knife in an icepick grip. His descent was smooth and languid. The Ascensioner seemed to be moving in a controlled float-like a spider rappelling towards its prey. But rather than using a silk strand to break his fall, he appeared intent on using the addict for that instead.

The well-dressed predator crashed onto his victim's back, wrapping the bum's waist with his legs and snaking his arm across a bearded throat. Staggered by the impact, the drifter lurched forward and straightened his back, keeping both of them upright. Rheumy eyes flew open as the bum clawed desperately at the arm around his neck. A sliver of moonlight broke through the clouds and glanced off the blade, making its silhouette briefly resemble a scorpion's tail. For a single, unnerving instant, Atriya could have sworn he was looking at a cartoon he remembered seeing as a child-one that depicted a harried man trying to buck off a crazed monkey.

The knife came down precisely-almost politely-into the addict's eyes. Two unobtrusive sounds-they were halfway between a gentle suck and a wet pop-passed faintly through the air as the sharpened blade slipped in and out of eye jelly.

The addict tried to scream. Silence prevailed as the clean-cut thug clamped harder with his choke-arm, causing alabaster cloth to bunch at his elbow. The Ascensioner's face and manner remained impersonal; he could just as easily have been watering the lawn, or emptying the trash.

The Crusader felt a wave of revulsion as the addict wobbled and staggered, eyes transformed into dribbling red pits. He continued to pull at the pricey fabric locked tight around his airway.

Just die already, Atriya thought.

He was impressed by the man's resilience, but it was clearly a losing battle. The merciful thing for the junkie (and for Atriya, who was strangely disgusted-strange because he'd seen comparable carnage plenty of times before and been unaffected by it) was to let the struggle be done and over with.

By the look of things, the killer couldn't care less. His casual demeanor suggested that this was routine business. Just another day at the office.

The Ascensioner unwrapped his legs and placed his feet on the ground, careful to keep his choke-arm in place. He reversed his knife so that he held it in a conventional grip, then took a couple of steps back, causing his quarry's feet to sprawl frontward. The move created a gap between the addict's back and the Ascensioner's hips, and the killer took advantage of the space by matter-of-factly pumping the knife in and out of the bum's kidneys. Atriya lost count of the number of thrusts.

The junkie's head lolled forward. His arms slumped to his sides and dangled loosely in the air. Atriya suspected that it was the choke that killed him…although the loss of blood would have done it soon enough.

Finally.

It hadn't taken long, but the gruesome nature of the scene had made it seem eternal.

Most of the blood was absorbed by the vagrant's dirty clothing. As a result, the Ascensioner's eggshell-colored suit remained unnaturally clean. The gentleman-murderer carefully laid the body on its back, then pulled up layers of shirt, exposing his victim's belly.

He pressed the edge of his knife into the addict's midsection and proceeded to make long, even cuts. As he started slicing into organs, blood welled from the torso and drenched his hands.

Atriya's earpiece buzzed. "Problem?" The Retrieval team leader.

The Crusader replied, "Possible cannibal. Zeroed an addict."

"Kill him."

"There's something off about him; I think he's an Ascension resident. His clothes-"

"He's in the way. Kill his ass." The curt reply left no room for interpretation. The team leader was obviously pissed, but he was too professional to allow more than a slight edge of anger into his voice. It wasn't hard to imagine what he was thinking: There's a potential obstacle/threat in our way. Fuck his clothes. Do your job and take him out.

"Atriya." The team leader again.

"Orders?"

"Don't advertise."

"Understood." The commander didn't want a gunshot to herald their presence-there were gangs in the Wastes whose MO was to kill others for weapons and gear. While the team's outward lethality might serve as a deterrent, the scales would begin tipping if they started flaunting tech or equipment. Chances were that no Waste-sider would be stupid enough to move on them, but still…it paid to show etiquette.

Even though Atriya had a silencer, he wasn't going to use it. Silencers didn't truly silence a bullet-they only nullified its supersonic crack. Waste-side predators would instantly recognize subsonic ammunition.

Guns were out. So he was going to do this with a blade.

A dark flash of comedy surged through his mind. Death and dismemberment? Fine. Expensive gear? Keep it hidden.

The Crusader holstered his guns. He reached to the small of his back and drew a respectable-sized dagger from a magnetic sheath. He stepped forward in a crouch, holding it in a knife-fighter's grip as he approached the murderer.

The Ascensioner confirmed Atriya's suspicions when he started digging out finger-length strips of meat. He let them dangle over his lips before settling them onto a row of perfectly even teeth. The killer's jaw worked in rhythmic bulges, making sure that each strip was assiduously chewed.

The Crusader was furious. Addict or not, he doesn't deserve to be knifed while taking a piss. And he doesn't deserve to be eaten by a rich, moon-side scumbag either. He had no doubt that the Ascensioner had been treated to the finest, most luxuriant foods known to man…yet he'd still decided to prey on the poor in the most disgusting manner conceivable. For no other reason than entertainment, apparently.

Atriya couldn't help but feel that he was witnessing a mockery to some unseen, greater balance. Observing the cannibal was like watching a shitbag teenager spit and laugh in the face of a random passerby.

His grip tightened on his dagger. They were on a schedule, which meant he couldn't take the time that he wanted to. Still-he was looking forward to turning this fucker into a leaking bag of skin.

Right as he was about to activate the dagger's plasma edge, the killer bowed his neck, exposing pale skin from beneath frosty hair. The clouds shifted again and a bolt of moonlight lanced down, highlighting a wan, scabrous length of tissue that tendriled above the man's collar.

The Crusader stopped short. Devouring Plague.

It came from eating tainted meat, but was also passed through contact with blood. Aside from vile, pus-filled patches that erupted across the body, the Plague had the same symptoms as someone in the second stage of Final Solidification: psychotic fits of rage along with boosted strength and speed. The Plague's defining symptom, however, was ravenous hunger for freshly killed flesh. Combine that with the psychosis, and murderous cannibals were the predictable result.

Atriya deliberated for a bit, then bent his arm back and sheathed his blade. Despite the fact that Retrieval was going to kill him, he was still repulsed by the idea of contracting the Plague. Due to the possibility of infection through blood, he would use his hands instead of his knife. His natural ability, training, and linkup-augmented strength made it a viable alternative.

He strode forward, intending on snapping the man's neck before he was aware of the Crusader's presence. It was at that moment, still facing away from Atriya, that the cannibal spoke:

"My name is Leat. Leat Water. Whom do you serve?"

The man's voice was surprisingly charming-upper-crust dignity seasoned with a touch of wryness. It sounded remarkably close to what Atriya remembered from holo-records as a Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent-a cultured mode of speech used by the American upper class before falling out of fashion during the latter half of Earth's twentieth century.

Leat shuffled sideways, crab-like. He turned his body so he could converse with Atriya while cutting and chewing. Splashes of blood had gotten on his hands and face, but aside from a single scarlet blotch that lay across his heart, his expensive clothing remained unblemished.

"Serve?" Atriya blurted. He was thrown by the outlandish juxtaposition posed before him. The Ascensioner's refined demeanor and tailored suit clashed bizarrely with what he so obviously was: a monster in human form, one that was scooping up handfuls of innards and wolfing them down.

Leat continued as if Atriya had replied with a firm statement instead of a bewildered question. "I serve the Crimson King. On Old Earth, he walked among us as a red elephant, taller than the highest skyscrapers. Did you know that back then, everyone served him?"

Red elephants. Right. Atriya felt grounded again as he realized that Leat was insane. Deep in the throes of the Plague.

"Look: I bear his mark." Leat's eyes dropped toward his chest. He tapped the red blotch on his left pectoral with the tip of his knife.

Atriya looked. Sure enough, the stain resembled a red elephant.

The Ascensioner chewed reflectively, eyes searching the air. "I was alive back then. I had the same name…well, almost the same." He looked expectantly at Atriya, fresh blood squishing from red-stained lips. The expression in his eyes was almost innocent.

For some inane reason, Atriya tried to respond with logic. "Apex is the only one from Old Earth that's still alive."

He knew this man was crazy. He knew. But something in Leat's cultured voice demanded that he be treated as if he wasn't. The amazing thing was that some deep part of Atriya was nodding agreeably along, as if what Leat was saying actually made sense.

He shook his head, reminding himself that Leat was a sick fuck that needed to be put down. But listening to the Ascensioner was like watching a magician creep across your peripherals, freezing every time you stared at them; you knew in your soul that they'd just been moving, but they'd done it so impeccably that they almost convinced you they'd been standing still.

Leat tilted his head back and looked at the sky, like he was registering something of great import. "Apex. Yes, he was alive back then as well. He's been alive since the first prokaryotes. Alive since the first kill, as a matter of fact."

As far as Atriya could tell, Leat was saying that Apex had been present when the first microbes were spawned into existence. The Crusader scoffed behind his face wrap. Crazy piece of shit.

Nevertheless, there was something to it. Leat's nonsense was…

There was something entrancing about it.

Leat looked Atriya up and down, then went back to staring at his food. His elbows bent as he dug in and sawed away, cutting loose a handful of dark, seeping meat. He pulled it out-it made a horrendous tearing sound, as if canvas fibers were being stretched and ripped-and extended it towards Atriya, offering the Crusader a chunk of liver.

"You look strong. Come. Eat with me. This is the best bit. Those as strong as us need to band together so that we can better hunt the weak."

"You're insane," Atriya spat. He was repulsed by the thought of even touching Leat, but it had to be done.

He took a breath. Steeled himself.

Leat gulped the piece down, then wagged his knife at the Crusader, a look of disgust blooming on his face. "Don't do that. Don't pretend-it makes us both look stupid. You and I…we're the same." A hint of a smile played across his face, then it dropped away, and he became serious again. "I know this, but more importantly: you know this. You have a choice."

Leat paused, letting the words hang in the air and gather weight.

"A choice…" he repeated. "And the choice is simple. Be like me, or be like him." As he said the word him Leat reared up and plunged his knife into the corpse's eyesocket. A hideous splutch carried through the air as the blade slid in and out of the ruined hole.

Atriya fought to keep his gorge down.

The butcher rose from his squat, hands and mouth covered in gore. He squared up with Atriya, giving the Crusader his full attention.

"The right to eat the weak is ancient. Holy. And you-you're one of the strong. As such, it's your duty to kill them. But more important than that: it's your duty to consume them. Don't forfeit your right-I'm warning you." He wagged his knife teasingly, his voice adopting the singsong cadence of a sadistic child play-threatening a schoolmate: You asked for it…

Leat bent down, cut out a large hunk of flesh, and offered it to Atriya. Beads of red dripped off the meat, marring the concrete below with fat drops of blood.

Leat locked eyes with the Crusader and repeated: "Don't forfeit your right."

Atriya's head was angled down and to the left. He was fighting back revulsion, anger, and an undercurrent of sadness.

To Leat, who could only see the hood and face wrap, it appeared as if the Crusader was deep in concentration.

After a long moment, Atriya lifted his chin and looked the Ascensioner in the eye. He kept a tight hold on his roiling fury.

Clearly and deliberately, he said, "You've forfeited a right of your own."

Leat's gaze was wide and curious. "Which one, pray tell?"

The Crusader's words came out in a harsh, grating whisper:

"The right to live past today."

CHAPTER 2

They charged at each other.

Leat threw the flesh at eye level. Atriya stepped forward and backhanded it away.

Both men pumped their feet, closing the distance as one. The cannibal was all snarls and teeth as he sprinted at Atriya. The Crusader's refusal to acknowledge his twisted perspective had clearly touched a nerve.

Leat' shot a bloody knife toward Atriya's ribs. The Crusader stepped and turned, pointing his right shoulder toward the cannibal's chest. At the same time, he raised his hands into an elevated guard position, readying them both to swing down.

Pop pop. His fists chopped at the knife arm. Left fist first, right fist second. His first strike broke Leat's forearm, and his second took care of the bicep. Two dry cracks rang through the air.

Atriya finished his attack by squeezing tightly into his stance and twitching forward, shoulder-checking Leat hard in the sternum. The final blow-the shoulder-check-lifted the cannibal bodily off the ground; his feet rose in tandem before he landed on his rear, skipping backwards once, twice…then coming to a stop near the addict's corpse. The exchange had happened at the speed of instinct.

The mood quieted. They both knew it was over.

The cannibal rasped and wheezed, his breath sounding crackly and grating.

Pneumothorax, Atriya thought. His shoulder-check must have broken a rib and punctured a lung.

There was no pain on Leat's face, only puzzled curiosity. He looked like an overgrown child as he sat up and let his feet sprawl to either side. His right arm was accented by a pair of crazy-looking jags; from the look of it, Atriya had broken the Ascensioner's radius and humerus bones.

Leat's patted his chest with his left hand, the area adorned with the elephant-shaped stain. He cocked his head and stared at nothing in particular.

"I can't breathe." He looked at the Crusader with wondering eyes.

"Now you know how the addict felt." Atriya's voice was tight with fury.

Leat parroted him in a slow, marveling tone. "Now I know how the addict felt."

He continued touching his chest as if the sensation of breathlessness was foreign and alien; he looked the same way an infant might upon observing a color that they'd never seen: not sure what to make of it, not sure what it meant.

His expression turned regretful and sad. He stared soulfully up at Atriya. "But where will the beauty go? Without a covenant between men like us, the beauty on Echo will fade and vanish."

The killer's charisma had disappeared. Instead of the smooth-toned predator that Atriya had initially spoken to, Leat now appeared lost and confused, almost deserving of pity.

Atriya was taken aback by the change.

After a bit, he thought: Nothing's different. He still has to die.

The Ascensioner tried again: "Don't kill me. Help me. Look at how beautiful we are. If you kill me, then you make that beauty into a hideous lie. And what will Echo do without beautiful people?" He said this with utter conviction, with utter earnestness.

Atriya cocked an armored fist behind his ear. An instant later, his knuckles thundered into the corner of Leat's jaw. The killer's head whipped sideways with enough force to make his body follow; he went from sitting on his butt to flopping on his belly.

After a long moment, he rolled over and faced the sky.

The cannibal's jawbone had skewed grotesquely to the right. His eyes stayed closed as he worked to collect himself. Pink drool oozed from his lips, and a steady hhhhh, hhhhh, hhhhh, wisped from his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Atriya's next words were full of scorn: "Yeah-you look real fucking beautiful."

The Ascensioner didn't reply; he rolled onto his belly and crawled toward the addict. His bad arm trailed limply behind, scraping across dirty concrete.

Underneath his hood, Atriya's brow wrinkled in puzzlement.

The cannibal paused when he reached the body. His mouth widened in a frenzied spasm, then darted forward and plunged into a mess of innards. His deformed jaw began working in awkward bites. Unable to contain himself, Leat voiced a series of cloying, sensuous moans. His eyes drooped halfway closed as he lost himself in ecstasy.

Atriya's disgust was eclipsed by bafflement. Nothing about this man made any sense.

Well, that wasn't quite accurate. One thing still made sense:

He still needs to die.

The Crusader's right hand twitched to his holster when he remembered his orders: Don't advertise. No guns.

He strode over to the cannibal, standing so that his boots were positioned a few inches away from Leat's face. The killer turned his head so that his red-coated cheek plopped wetly onto the corpse. He stared curiously up at Atriya.

"Uh?" Leat could only grunt the question. Either because of his injuries, or because he was stupid with gluttony.

Probably both.

The Crusader's knee rose to his waist…then descended in a sharp, savage thrust. His boot slammed into the back of Leat's neck, causing vertebrae to compress and then break in harsh, rattling pops. A reflexive kk-kk-kkkkk slipped from the cannibal's mouth, and tiny pink bubbles formed on his lips.

Atriya leaned in, pressing down and grinding with his heel. The bubbles expanded and burst, dotting Leat's still-white patches of skin with faint specks of red.

Finally, the Ascensioner was still.

"Good?" The Retrieval leader.

"Good."

"Then keep moving."

Atriya drew his guns. For some reason, the sight of Leat's mouth on the junkie's guts struck him as obscene. He kicked the cannibal's head off the addict's body. His gaze drifted to the junkie's face, and he found himself wishing that he could cover those gouged-out eye sockets. Not just for obvious reasons-they offended him on a deeper, inexplicably personal level.

A thought occurred to him.

Atriya holstered his left pistol, and gripped his other at a skyward angle. He ejected the clip, grabbed it, then clamped his drawn pistol between his left elbow and ribs so he could hold it in place. His thumb ran twice over the rectangular ammo at the top of the clip, dispensing two unfolded rounds into his right hand. He held the rounds between his fingers, snapped the clip back into place, and stowed his weapon.

The Crusader knelt and placed the strips of metal over the corpse's eyes. A tacky layer of gore held the bullets in place. He ran his gaze across the addict's body.

Still. There was still something wrong. The metallic segments looked inappropriate. Ill-fitting.

Atriya placed a bloody scrap of shirt over the corpse's eyes and mouth, concealing the horrific injuries, as well as the man's silent, protesting scream. It changed nothing-the Crusader still felt a deep, abiding iniquity.

The departed deserved a more appropriate currency.

Atriya stood up and drew his guns.

I'm sorry friend-that's all I've got.

His earpiece buzzed. "Keep. Moving." The team leader. Irritated at his dawdling.

Atriya's lips twisted in a sneer. Fuck you, asshole.

"Sorry." He started forward again.

"Atriya." The commander sounded different this time. Measured.

"Orders?"

"No. Question: Are you still on mission?" Under normal circumstances, asking this would have been absurd; you did whatever the fuck you were told to do. But in this instance, the meaning was clear: Are you going to do your job, or should we kill you now?

He could almost feel their sights dancing across his back.

"Still on mission," Atriya replied.

He kept walking. A feeling of lightness ran through his head. It was chased by a flash of hilarity.

Nothing matters. I'm already gone. Might as well fuck with this Retrieval dickhead.

He keyed his comms.

"Team leader."

"Send it."

"What's your name? Didn't catch it in the briefing." He knew this was unprofessional, that it was bad comms etiquette, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

The team leader knew it as well. There was a long pause. No noise except for the careful rub of soles against the concrete road.

Finally, "Atriya."

"Orders?"

"Question: Are you still on mission?"

"Still on mission."

"Then keep moving."

"Acknowledged."

Translation: Shut the fuck up and keep going.

Atriya grinned. At least he'd gotten to mess with Retrieval a little bit.

The warehouse appeared up ahead, delineating the boundary between the Wastes and Scape 87. The separation was easy to see: buildings in the scapes were surrounded by a dim glow, while structures in the Wastes were pitch-dark, almost like they swallowed any and all ambient light.

A decrepit apartment complex stood opposite the warehouse. This would serve as the eleven-man team's staging point. Its rooftop would be where Retrieval's snipers established their overwatch.

Atriya made his way to the apartment, walking to a door that faced Waste-side, careful to keep a low profile. Ten men filtered to his end of the street, stringing out into a single-file line so they could follow his lead.

The Crusader stopped at the entrance. The team caught up; three stacked behind him while the others pointed their weapons outboard and provided security.

Atriya checked the building with his heat overlay. No one inside. He holstered his left gun, freeing a hand so he could use tactical sign language.

The Crusader silently mouthed, "Linkup: x-ray sonar."

Due to Echo's atmosphere being identical to Old Earth's, layers of gas shielded the planet from certain types of radiation, meaning there were no organic x-rays that a Crusader could work with. To get around this problem, linkups were fitted with a burst emitter that could bathe their surroundings in a flood of spectra. The data was then displayed as black-and-white shapes across an operator's readout.

Atriya scanned the apartment, this time with x-ray. Nothing. He looked back at Clement, who'd just done the same. Atriya pointed at his eyes with the index and middle finger of his free hand, then shook his head. No one inside. Clement replied with a raised thumb; he hadn't seen anyone either. The gesture was repeated and sent back by each man in their stack.

Clement stepped out from the line, holding a pistol tight by his ribs. Reaching slowly with his free hand, he gently-gently-tested the knob.

He looked at Atriya and nodded once: Door's unlocked.

Atriya nodded three times: Open it.

Clement pulled and the door swung wide. Atriya shuffled in. The team flowed behind him, then out to the sides as they systematically cleared the room. Transparency overlays were useful but they weren't foolproof; there had been times in the past when they had failed to detect Dissidents. It always paid to be vigilant and methodical.

Clement and three Specialists settled in, picking windows as observation posts. The rest of them-Atriya, Linke, the team leader, and the four marksmen-huddled together in the middle of the room.

The team leader nodded at the sharpshooters: Go to the roof. Get in position.

They nodded back and began treading up the staircase, rifles at the ready, sniper systems hanging off their backs.

The Retrieval commander addressed Atriya: "We'll keep this simple. You and your gunner make the approach. Snipers will cover from up top and we'll back you from down here. Do a gun run or two. Tell me when you're done and we'll follow. Good?"

"Good."

"Oh, and Atriya."

"Yeah?"

"Do your job. Don't worry about my fucking name." The team leader faced away, took three steps, then turned back to Atriya. "Or run. I couldn't give a fuck-you're dead either way." The parting remark was said in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, then accompanied by a blasé shrug.

The Specialist shuffled to a window. Linke followed, but not before giving Atriya an insolent smirk.

Fuck off, Atriya thought. He looked down at his guns. Hopefully he'd get lucky and be able to jam them up their asses. Pull the trigger until it goes click.

Behind his face wrap, his lips widened in a smile.

He made his way over to Clement, who was now watching the warehouse through a scape-facing window. Atriya examined their target, flipping rapidly through his overlays. The building was enormous; maybe a few square miles in area.

Two levels. Base floor with a second floor comprised of landings and catwalks. Multiple fortifications all throughout. Looks like they're made of pieces of scrap metal; probably welded together and bolted to the floor. Maybe thirty to forty people split between each level. No visible sentries outside the building.

Atriya switched back to standard night vision and locked eyes with Clement, who'd just finished up with his own scan. Both Crusaders were cautiously relaxed. They were thinking the same thing: Forty guys? Fifty, tops? Not bad. Between the eleven of them, it would be easy pickings. They probably wouldn't have to call on the Enforcers that were standing by as support. Not until it was done and over with, anyways.

Atriya put a hand on Clement's shoulder. Let's go over the plan of attack.

Standard procedure dictated that Crew operators do their pre-assault comms using hand signals, one gun out for security. Maybe it wasn't necessary where they were, enclosed within a building, but old habits died hard.

Atriya moved his fingers and gun hand to convey the plan.

I climb. You cover. Okay? Due to Atriya being a climber, he was the logical choice to hit the upper level. To ensure clarity, the exchange was broken into pieces, each piece separated by verification from his following gunner.

Okay. Clement signaled back.

Atriya: I make entry: upper level. You wait. You make entry: ground level. Okay?

Clement signaled: Okay.

A second later he raised a finger. Stop. His head turned down and to the right. Something had occurred to him.

Atriya waited as his partner puzzled over it.

Clement met his eyes and signaled: You make entry. I wait-how long? How long should he wait before he breached the lower floor?

Atriya thought for a bit, then responded: You make entry: first shot. Okay? Go in after the first shot.

Clement understood. He signaled: Okay.

They went through the entire plan one more time, just to make sure they were both in sync. Once they gave each other the final okay, they rose to their feet.

Atriya opened the door and the two slipped into the street, scurrying along building contours and sticking close to shadow-darkened walls. Their hunched posture made them look vaguely inhuman, reminiscent of a fairy tale creature-a troll or a goblin-while their skittering gait imbued them with an insectile aspect. Retrieval covered them as they got situated.

Clement posted in an alleyway that fed off one of the warehouse's corners, guns close by his abdomen in case anyone tried to disarm him. Atriya holstered his pistols and got ready to climb. He needed to cover about thirty feet.

The Crusader began pulling himself up. He looked shadowy and insubstantial as he swung and arced, using ledges and handholds to boost himself skyward. Free climbing was second nature to him, and his ascent took less than a minute.

He finished his climb and perched on a ledge. He was crouched right at the edge of an expansive second-story window, one large enough to double as a hangar bay entrance. He unholstered his right gun for security, leaving his other hand free so he could manipulate a breaching package-an explosive tool designed to create a point of access.

The concrete around him abruptly lightened. Moonlight coated everything in a dead-eyed luster, etching sterile numbness onto the warehouse's front.

Fuck. He glanced up and saw a shifting bank of clouds. A gap had opened in their midst, allowing the light from Ascension to burn its way down. His adrenaline spiked in hot flashes across his neck and back, but his anxiety was quickly replaced by a flash of gratitude: he was thankful that the moon had stayed hidden until they were ready to breach.

Atriya wasn't unprofessional enough to look directly through the glass and give himself away, but a trick of the light angled his image off a near section of window and confronted him with his own reflection. The hood smothering his head-combined with the visor concealing his eyes-made his mirrored self appear featureless, like a human embodiment of nothing. A long, crosswise crack bisected his face, infusing it with a discordant, funhouse look. His window-pane counterpart resembled a black-clad bogeyman.

A hungry ghost. The thought came and went, and was quickly forgotten.

He rose to a half-crouch and reached into a matte-black utility belt clipped around his waist. His partially gloved fingers dug out a small, nondescript metal cylinder from a compartment near his right hip. The cylinder was about an inch in diameter and the length of a human hand. On one of its ends there were two buttons.

Atriya's thumb danced from one half-circle trigger to the next, pressing them in a specifically keyed pattern that would activate the device. He saw a light mounted halfway up the cylinder begin to blink. The device was primed. For the sake of stealth, the flashing indicator was only visible to specialized optics.

He stuck the non-buttoned end onto the window's bottom corner. The cylinder wavered for a moment…then stabilized and adhered to the glass. Its sticky end had a range-enhanced, strong-force attractor that allowed it to attach to any surface. From Atriya's vantage, it looked like the window had grown a thin metal rod protruding from its bottom corner.

Holes opened on the mechanism, and tiny bots flowed outwards. To the casual observer, they looked like insects-exactly what they were supposed to look like if someone saw them from a distance. The explosive bots were programmed to map any surface that they needed to blow. Hard-light tamping fields ensured they would only detonate in one direction, negating the danger of errant backblast.

Atriya leaned in, facing his reflection. He unholstered his other gun. After a brief scurry, the drones spaced themselves across the warehouse window. Once they were set, they stilled for a brief instant….then they detonated and shattered the pane.

Atriya's boosted perceptions registered the tinkling of glass as it fractured and clove into an infinity of fragments. He watched his reflection transform, lazy and lethargic, as the window disintegrated into a free-flowing mass of glassy particulate. His image started as a faceless outline divided by a glaring crack…then split billions of times over, partitioned and captured by endless points of light.

His neurophysio enhancements enhanced his ability to process the environment, but every now and then, by chance occurrence, they would kick into overdrive. His cognitive speed would be sharpened to the point where his physical actions couldn't keep up; he could do nothing but watch as time inched by. Operators called it dream surfing, or simply just "tripping." The phenomenon was regarded with sweeping indifference-a fluke that meant nothing.

At that moment, Atriya's consciousness was fully immersed inside of the dream surf. He'd experienced it before, but never this deeply. In the past he'd responded with standard, Crusader-issue apathy: Let me get back to the real world so I can do my job.

This time, however, he felt transported. Fully engaged .

This is not just a fluke, he thought. This is something.

And: It may, in fact, be the 'real world.'

His eyes were too slow to flick between the suspended shards, but his attention wasn't. Within that shining nebula, his mind jumped back and forth, to-and-fro, millions of times over. The Crusader's perception had slowed to the point where it was all happening in one inhale, so the feel of respiration was rendered moot. At the same time though, he swore he felt breathless; like a bolt of something-a mix of wonderment, grace, and other concepts that could never be verbalized-was blazing through him and stealing his oxygen.

Hey, it's a kind of magic, he thought dazedly, marveling at each quanta of glass. Then: This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Is it? his logical side questioned as he gazed in awe at the crystalline haze.

A thrill of surety flowed through him.

Absolutely.

Eons seemed to pass as he fell deeper into the surf. He couldn't resist the urge to wallow in it; the suspension of motes and flecks was irresistibly entrancing. Each gleaming scrap spun slowly through the air, switching between being a mirror or a shred of transparency. He couldn't help but think that he was watching the death and birth of galaxies, each one a reality in and of itself, but also a piece of some massive and indescribable mechanism. He became hopelessly lost in the relentless blast of symmetry, a force beyond chaos and order, a force that could transcend the illusion of opposites and tear through existence without concern. Without strain. Without doubt.

As each fraction of instant yawned before him, he heard a deep-rooted hum. A profound MMMMMMM that seemed to shake him at the cellular level. For a while it drove out all thought…then transformed into a harsh rush-like wind ripping through a tunnel, or the crazy scream of atmosphere as it whistled outward from a punctured space ship. The sound built in intensity, as if the hole it was pushing through was starting to narrow, and wind was rushing out faster and faster.

Suddenly, it ceased. As if somebody had stopped up the hole-jammed a cork into the spaceship's hull.

Atriya snapped back to real time. Glass fell. Smoke blew.

He pushed hard off the ledge, tucking his body into a ball. His knees were curled to his chest, elbows bent by his face. His forearms and guns were pointed up. As he launched himself inside, he heard the chatter of automatic weapons.

Here we go.

CHAPTER 3

Rain. It sounds like rain.

The patter of rounds against his armor struck up a symphony. It was thick and unrelenting-a torrential downpour crashing onto a roof. As he sailed through the air, Atriya thought of a snippet from a book that Verus had recommended, one detailing the life of the ultimate warrior:

"The rain on my chest is a baptism-I'm born again…"

His right leg reached out, and his toe caught the lip of a catwalk. Soothing vestiges of dream surf fell away as his sped-up brain returned to its normal, linkup-enhanced pace. He landed in a crouch-body compressed, right knee on the ground.

A second later he was being drenched in ordnance. Not just a storm anymore-a monsoon. One of his plates was hit at an unlucky angle. It protested with a harsh crack as it fractured and split. The punishment he was taking was nothing short of insane.

He had to end this quickly.

Atriya took an instant to let his weight settle…then pushed off and started running. He punched both guns out and fired instinctively, his enhanced senses working to track and zero targets. He wasn't just taking fire from topside positions; muzzle flashes were sputtering at him from the deck below.

Everyone was shooting at him.

Atriya sprinted harder, his legs churning forcefully against steel planking, his guns beating out a frenetic drumbeat of thunder. Each bullet that struck him created a spiky glitter of light. The volume of fire was so thick that it looked like he was being doused in sparks.

An explosion shook the ground floor. It was followed by the rocky sound of crumbling debris, then a gust of oven-hot wind. Clement had just breached the lower level.

This is too many guns, Atriya thought. Way more resistance than what we saw from outside.

A ray of green came screaming toward him. Beam round. The bolt shone with dazzling brilliance as it struck his matrix. It transformed into gorgeous, mother-of-pearl waves that flowed outward from the point of impact. As the energy rippled along the radiation-weave, it made Atriya's shielding fully visible-a projection that punched roughly a foot out from his body and followed the contours of his form.

Thank you, light matrix.

The Crusader kept running and replied with a hail of bullets. His weapons blurred in his hands as he tried to match shot for shot.

A volley of beam rounds seared and hissed as they hit his matrix, once again coating him in blazing iridescence. From his peripherals, he saw his shield's outline bend ominously inward from the cluster of well-placed bolts.

Matrix won't hold out if this keeps up.

He clenched his teeth and ran faster.

A crash shook the walls and a bullet smashed through from outside the warehouse. Down on the ground, he saw a Dissident collapse with a jerky twist. His head exploded in a splatter of blood. For a brief moment, fragile red mist hung in the air.

Retrieval's marksmen were getting in the game.

The Specialists' sniper rifles could blow through a variety of obstacles, and came equipped with a quartet of options: explosive shot, beam rounds, smoke, or a regular bullet that could go long range-more than four miles if conditions were right. Their scopes also had nonvisible overlays that allowed them to engage targets that were hidden behind cover.

Even though he'd been fretting over how to kill the sharpshooters less than an hour ago, Atriya was grateful for their presence as he darted down the walkway, swathed in a glitter of hostile fire.

The catwalk was maybe a couple of hundred yards-the warehouse was enormous. It would take him less than half a minute to traverse the walkway, but despite the short crossing time, the amount of ordnance and light battering his armor made it seem like each nanosecond-each rise and fall of his feet-was taking forever.

As he ran on the planking, his boots drummed out rattling clinks. His hands moved constantly, dancing between different angles and positions. Every now and then his eyes would register the results of his work: a body would collapse, or a head would snap back as one of his rounds tore the life from someone. It wasn't something he dwelled on; he was too busy looking for fresh targets.

At the far end of the building, mounted on elevated platforms, he glimpsed the silhouettes of unmanned autocannons-lethal bulwarks that tracked threats through an array of sensors. They had the same arachnoid outline that a giant spider might have: a ponderous, spherical body supported by eight lumbering legs. A score of barrels extended outward from their main thorax. The barrels were mounted on mechanized limbs, and due to their design (each one's base was connected to a robotic ball joint) rotated and fired in short, efficient snaps.

The guns were blazing away at Atriya, saturating his environs with hot bursts of angry metal. He hunched lower as slugs screamed by and sheared the air.

I need to take out those autos.

His armor was taking an unprecedented beating. Dents and nicks were visible where bullets and beam rounds had ripped the fabric off his plates. To make matters worse, the walkway flooring was starting to deteriorate from the sheer volume of fire. A few yards ahead, a ten-foot chunk of catwalk emitted a raspy groan and fell away. The rest of it was disappearing in bits and spurts; a blizzard of rounds was consuming everything around him.

I can't keep running on this thing. Not on the main part, anyway-gotta get on the handrails. He lowered his guns to his hips, dipping his torso and compressing his legs. The movement coiled his body and prepared him to jump.

The footing underneath disappeared in a cluster of sparks. He pushed off and hurtled through the air, his body unfolding as his back straightened. His arms and legs partially unbent, allowing him to stay upright as he soared through space.

Both feet found purchase on the left-side handrail-a slim, silvery pipe no more than an inch in diameter. He looked like the world's deadliest tightrope walker as he sprinted down the rail, guns out and blazing. A flash of gratitude hit him: he'd have been long dead if not for the enhanced balance imparted by his cybertech linkup.

As he pumped his legs and pulled his triggers, he saw there were two catwalks paralleling the one he was on-walkways to either side of him. Each one was filled with Dissidents-flitting shadows hunched behind makeshift barriers.

The changes in light were incredibly erratic. As a result, his visual modulators were having difficulty compensating. Detailed features were being erased from sight; enemy fighters appeared as nothing more than indistinct shadows. He only glimpsed faces when the spark of a muzzle flash or the glow of a beam round lit someone's features.

The Crusader put down handfuls of Dissidents, working his guns fast enough to make them sound fully automatic. But for every fighter he shot, he ran past one or two that he couldn't get.

Retrieval's going to have their hands full mopping up behind me.

Dozens of yards to his front, he saw a stack of graphene shipping containers arranged in a rough horseshoe, resting on top of a reinforced landing.

If I can make it over there I can grab some cover-get my bearings.

He heard someone cry, "Crusaders! Lay down some airburst!" The Dissidents had realized that they weren't just fighting regular Enforcers-that they needed harder ammo. Atriya ground his teeth as his feet tapped along the railing.

Goddammit.

Airburst rounds were especially dangerous to Crusaders; the specialized munitions took advantage of the fact that operators depended on their heightened agility and high-grade armor. The rounds had rudimentary sensors built into their noses, allowing them to position themselves at an optimal distance and blow out shrapnel. It wasn't the shrapnel that could injure him (actually, if Atriya's plates took enough abuse it could-a strong possibility at the moment), but the explosive effect: that was what was deadly. The concussives could stun him and make him easy prey to scoop up.

Here they come.

He caught sight of the snub-nosed rounds as they streaked toward him. He knew the detonations were too much for his noise filters, so he put his gun-clutching hands over his ears. At the same time, he opened his mouth so he could reduce the eruptive fallout on his equilibrium.

Poom poom poom. Airburst exploded around him. Swarms of kiwi-sized ordnance blasted open, transforming into white puffs of smoke. The Crusader jerked from one side to the other, his balance on the railing challenged by each wave of pressure. They looked like bleary warps of air that rolled across his body.

He stopped firing, concerned solely with staying on the rail and maintaining his speed.

Hot fragments clattered against him. His armor was definitely getting compromised; fresh cuts were stinging his joints-rounds that had zipped across the weaker points on his plating and gotten through.

Only a matter of time before my plates start failing, or they use something heavier.

And on the heels of that: Hell, the plating's probably cracked all to shit as it is.

His lips curled back in a snarl and he tightened his crouch, making himself as small as possible. There was nothing he could do aside from keep running.

Airburst exploded in front of him, and he was carried by his sprint into a mass of pale smoke. He leaned into it to prevent himself from being shoved backward. The fabric covering his nose and mouth functioned as a filter, but Atriya still caught the whiff of burnt metal. The sharp tang of explosives invaded his nostrils, coating the back of his throat as he darted through the fog.

He still had ten or fifteen seconds of hard sprinting before he could reach the containers and grab some cover.

A lifetime.

A dozen steps ahead, the railing was torn to shreds. Everything was being deluged by slugs and pellets.

Everything was breaking apart.

I need to jump to the other handrail.

There was no other choice. Clement and the others were depending on him to spearhead the assault and soften the upper level, which meant that he had to stay on the higher floor. If he stopped moving or fell, he would become easier to target. It would be the end of him.

Possibly the end of all of them.

He dashed toward the looming void and pushed off the rail with his left foot. For a brief moment in time he was suspended in the air-left leg straightened, right leg cocked to his chest, body leaning right-as he launched himself upward and sideways toward the right hand railing.

He brought his knees up, cannonballing his body. The angle he'd pushed off of caused him to gyrate; midway through his leap his back faced the floor while his chest faced the ceiling. He looked like a gun-slinging street gymnast as he tucked his legs and punched his arms out, firing at Dissidents on either side of him.

Quick pictures flitted across his vision as he worked his guns from within his sideways somersault. Brains sprayed out from the back of a head. A face blew apart in a mess of bone shards. Another Dissident dropped her weapon, clutching at her neck as two of his shots burrowed through her throat.

The Crusader saw the fruits of his work and felt an intense, savage satisfaction.

Come and get me. All of you.

I'll kill every fucking one of you.

He completed torqueing in the air, stretched out with his right leg, and straightened it while keeping his left knee close to his chest. Once his right toe touched the railing, the rest of his foot settled onto it and he resumed his run-as fast as if he were on solid ground rather than a length of one inch piping.

Five yards ahead, a section of rail was hit by a beam round, causing it glow cherry red. A spatter of bullets followed, tearing the weakened piping away from its mounts. It clinked and clattered as it fell downward, bouncing off hunks of machinery and sharp-angled struts. As it fell, it briefly resembled smoldering incense.

Fuck.

The other railing-the left-hand one-was destroyed. So was the walkway. Now he was running towards a giant gap.

So jump it.

He pattered his steps to gain momentum, then sprang off his right foot. Instead of jumping sideways this time, he went up and forward. His right leg straightened and he whipped his torso sharply down, arms out so he could keep firing. The torque of his violent bow made him execute a front flip. When he landed, his left knee untucked and he began running across the vanishing length of rail.

Five seconds, he thought, eyeing the remaining distance. Five seconds until I can grab some cover and call in react.

The railing swayed and jerked. Heavy fire made it twitch one way, then the other. Atriya swayed with it, not even registering the results of his shots.

Just make it, he told himself.

To stabilize his weight, he huddled forward and crossed his arms, pointing his right gun left and vice versa. The posture allowed him to hunch lower and continue firing.

Almost there. As he rushed forward, the piping beneath moaned in protest. He jumped off it and hurdled toward the shipping containers, bicycling his legs so he could max out his distance.

An instant later, beam rounds lit up the rail behind him, making it glow a baleful crimson. A volley of airburst followed, knocking the metal cylinder off its moorings. It spun furiously out into nowhere.

Atriya's boots made weighted clunk clunk clunk sounds as he ran towards the containers. He dashed into the horseshoe and put his back against its central length, gasping for air.

Fuck. Thirty to forty guys? Try a thousand.

He keyed his comms. "Team leader."

"You're on the net. Send it, Crusader."

"Call in react. We've grossly underestimated enemy size and strength."

There was a staticky buzz as the team leader responded. "They've-" His next words were inaudible-lost in a haze of gunfire and shouting. The comms went silent, then fritzed back up. "They've just arrived." More gunfire, and a yell of "Fucking waste his ass!"

The commander spoke stiltedly, trying to keep his voice level. "All other platoons are pinned down. Orbital fire is working at full capacity."

A dreadlocked, rifle-toting Dissident rushed around the corner and Atriya shot him in the head, stopping him in his tracks. The fighter stood in place for a long moment…then collapsed, looking puzzled and dumb as his tongue lolled from his mouth.

"Understood. Team leader, I recommend that we pull out and block up. Call in orbital and toast this place. Forget the intel."

"Negative. Higher wants the warehouse cleared and secured. Hold tight while-" Atriya heard the chatter of rifles, then somebody on Retrieval's end yelling, "Zero that cocksucker!"

"Hold fucking tight." The team leader lost his cool and swore over the net, where it was imperative that communication be clear and concise; swearing only made things more confusing. His words were followed by explosions and gunfire.

The Crusader could clearly hear the Specialist's spiked breathing, interspersed with a deliberate mix of forced exhales and short breath holds. He was struggling to regulate his pulse, struggling to keep things on an even keel.

Atriya's earpiece buzzed again. "Atriya-Atriya, are you there?"

"Still here. Send it." Two fighters raced around the corner. He blew their throats out and they dropped in place, making gagging noises as the insides of their necks lay scattered and glistening.

The team leader tried again: "Atriya-"

"Send it, Retrieval."

"You and Clement hold tight until we catch up to you. React and their hover plats are on site. Once we push to your position, we'll provide a base of fire so you two can reestablish momentum. Failing that, we'll take the warehouse by inches. Understood?"

"Understood. Holding now."

"Team leader out."

"Lead gunner out."

Atriya keyed the Crew's frequency. "Clement, you there?"

He heard a fritz, then a series of thundering gunshots. "I'm-" The comms cut, then fritzed again. "Just fucking barely! What the fuck is this bullshit? Our overlays-" Clement was shouting and swearing, letting his comms etiquette slip.

Atriya cut him off: "Following. Gunner. Calm down. Stop cursing. Are you secure?"

Atriya heard a series of shots and hisses. His comms cut off and he waited tensely, eyes twitching from side to side.

His comms keyed back up.

"Yeah, I'm-" Off again.

"Clement? Clement? You there?"

"Yeah I'm here." Clement's voice was steady; the sound of gunfire and airburst had momentarily abated. "I'm secure." Deep breath. "For now."

"Okay-hold tight. Did you catch Retrieval's orders?"

"No I was too busy-" Atriya heard a quick exchange of shots and his partner yelling, "Fuck you!" Clement continued: "I was busy ventilating these graymeat motherfuckers!" Another barrage.

Clement's use of the derogatory term graymeat described the working class of Echo. They were often called that by Ascensioners due to the constant coating of dust and grime that covered their skin, a result of toiling in and occupying deteriorating cityscapes. Department personnel, even though they were technically "graymeat" themselves, would toss the word around to separate themselves from the average citizen.

Atriya: "Okay. Calm down." He took a breath. "React is on site. They're going to back Retrieval as they head a push to our loc." Atriya's use of the shorthand term for location was pronounced so that it sounded identical to the word lock. "Once they get here, they're going to establish some weight of fire, and we'll start moving again. If all goes well, we can keep at it on a gun run. If not, we'll take it slow and-"

"Fuck that. Get orbital to cook this place; it's not worth it."

Atriya chuckled. "Already suggested that. It's a no-go."

He saw a Dissident spot him from a hundred yards away and get on a knee, bringing her rifle up and stilling her body. He fired four times. Three shots caught the fighter in the chest, and the fourth turned her left eye into a leaking red pit.

Clement: "Fucking Higher. Fuck them. Fucking pieces of shit. Playing with their assholes while we're eating bullets and airburst. Fuckers." More shots.

Atriya laughed. "Yeah, fuck them." He swore openly, ignoring his comms etiquette as he thought, what's the point? "Did you get all that? Once Retrieval gets here, we restart the run. Or we take it by the square foot. How copy?"

"Yeah yeah. Solid copy. Got it."

"Lead gunner out."

"Following gunner out."

Atriya stood against the graphene containers, utilizing the momentary calm to take a breather. The lack of motion and intensity was strangely unsettling.

The Crusader looked towards the warehouse entrance, where Department personnel were slugging it out with Dissidents in a storm of metal and light. He rested his back against the containers.

Then he smiled.

All things considered?

Not a bad way to go.