“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light”
– ‘Darkness’, Lord Byron
I can see the triplet pillars of the City’s space elevators lighting up the grim night sky, a dying planet’s very own North Star, as our truck peels its way through the grey slush towards the meeting point.
Sidrovich claims it’s just a simple excursion outside the City, nothing to worry about: hand over the goods, get the payment in return, head back. But that’s what Sidrovich says with every job, and the fact that he’s gone to the trouble of sending me along has our new friends worried. You don’t come loaded for war unless you’re expecting a fight, and you don’t send me on a job unless you’re anticipating it being far less than simple. I’m getting nervous looks as the truck’s electric engine hums calmly along down the road. The local muscle Sidrovich has sent as backup, all vat-grown muscle implants and thick beards, are good for show, but there’s no telling how useful they’ll be if things go south. My partner Levi occasionally glances at them with amusement from the driving seat; two years we’ve been working together, and he still gets a kick out of the reaction I garner.
The truck’s heating is cranked up as high as it can go, but even still I can feel the chill from outside pushing its way in. Doesn’t matter how many layers of thermal clothing, body armour, and jackets you might be wrapped in—there’s no escaping the cold in this day and age. We pass beneath the shadows of the towering, brutalist residential blocks, laid out in uniform rows like nails driven into the snow-clad ground and somehow looking even darker than the sky from this angle. No beauties even when they were built, the years of exposure to Earth’s crippled environment have done little to improve their looks. Still, they offer a roof over the heads of workers and their families, walls to keep out the cold, even some protection against the background radiation, ever-present even this far away from the wreckage left by the war.
There are people in the Shanty City that would kill for such luxuries, and I’m not just employing poetic license.
Soon we’re past the blocks and out towards the south gate checkpoint, patrol drones drifting overhead as City security step towards us. When Levi rolls down the window, the officer’s expression makes it clear he wants to ask what the hell we’re doing driving out towards a snowstorm; the card my partner flashes him stops him before he can open his mouth. With a brief nod, he waves us through, tapping at his arm-mounted AR rig to open the gates and allow us out beyond the City limits.
The end of civilisation’s vestiges. The beginning of the wastelands.
Before long the wind is crashing against the truck and snowdrifts are surrounding us. Not often someone in my line of work will find themselves doing deals outside the City, but when we do we can be sure no-one will be snooping unless they have the means of staving off both the chill and the radiation. If you know what you’re doing, the wastes make the ideal location for exchanging the kind of goods that City authorities might frown upon.
We sit in silence for a good half hour within the heated truck, the snowstorm kicking into full gear around us, until finally Levi tilts his head to regard me out of the corner of his eye. There’s a certain curiosity to his gaze, and no small amount of amusement.
“Hey Koss, didn’t you swear off jobs outside the City? Y’know, after the last clusterfuck we were in?” I resist the urge to groan, knowing full well where this conversation is going. Instead I shrug and turn my head towards the rear-view camera feeds, refusing to meet his eye.
“The money was good,” I offer in response, but my partner just chuckles.
“Bullshit, bratan. You’re like my Uncle Yusuf, the one who works the orbital station construction gigs. Keeps swearing he’s never going back up there every time he’s home. Too much radiation, he says, too many guys getting lost to the black, the pay’s shit, blah blah blah.” He turns his head to look over at me properly, flashing the sort of shit-eating grin only he can manage. “Then three months later, he’s right back up there again. Just like you, hauling yourself out here to the frozen ass-end of nowhere. You just can’t help yourself.”
Again suppressing the urge to snarl, I manage to simply roll my eyes at Levi.
“Please, you’re the one who begged me to come along. Someone’s gotta babysit your ass, make sure you don’t make a mess of things again.” My eyes narrow. “Like that last gig.” With a shrug and a chuckle, he turns his attention back to the wheel.
“Hey now, they shot first. I just retaliated.”
A couple more hours of driving through the growing storm passes, until the windscreen’s enhanced HUD brings the sight of our destination into view. The warehouse we’re working out of today has, to put it mildly, seen better days. The roof has fallen in long ago. But it’s shelter from the elements and a space to make the exchange. As Levi brings the vehicle to a halt I turn around in the passenger seat to speak to our companions.
“Here’s the ground rules. No open carrying, keep your weapons out of sight unless you need to use them. No talking, that’s Levi’s job. Just follow my lead, make sure the exchange goes smooth, and we all go home richer. Ponimat?”
The two men share a glance between them, probably not used to having a wiry caucasian woman talking to them in this fashion. But they’ve been briefed; they know who I am and why I’m here. They nod curtly, almost in unison. “Good. You set, Levi?” In response my partner finishes sealing his face behind his helmet and reaches down to haul up a case from his right, tucking a heavy matte-black handgun into his shoulder holster as he does so.
“All set, bratan,” he replies. “Let’s go get paid.”
The cold hisses in like a nest of angry hornets, doing its level best to pierce through my armour and reach my skin, as we push the doors open and step out into the open air. Grey snow crunches beneath my boots as I reach up to engage my helmet’s sealing sequence. There’s a hiss of air as the world briefly goes dark, and then the helmet’s HUD blooms into life. In a blink my view of the warehouse goes from gloomy to saturated and high-contrast, a picture passed through a filter as the mask gets to work. Old military tech, a customised overlay pattern ready to highlight any sudden movements that step into view.
Levi falls into step next to me, thick padded coat rippling with the wind and the case containing our payload clutched tightly in one gauntlet-clad hand as our hired help trails behind us. I nod approvingly as both begin to follow the footprints left behind by myself and Levi—not complete amateurs, then. Out here in the open we’ve got absolutely no protection from the elements, so we need to move fast. Were it not for the helmet’s HUD filters compensating for the deluge of powdery snow and ice being pulled from the drifts and kicked up around us, I would barely be able to see my hands. Another point in our favour: the only people out in conditions such as these are either the desperate, the suicidal, or the well prepared. As we stride towards the abandoned warehouse where our contacts wait, expectant, it is my hope that the four of us fall into the final category.
“Almost there,” I rasp into the sub-vocal mic built into my neck seal, the tiny device picking up the vibrations of my vocal chords and processing them out onto our team’s comms. “Sound off for mic check.”
“Priyem,” Levi rumbles back.
“Da,” mutters the first of our hired help.
“Receiving,” intones the second.
Holding up a thumb to confirm we’re all good, I reach a hand into my jacket to grip the weight of the collapsed VIPER I have tucked at my side, coiled like a spring and ready to burst into action upon command.We all have our rituals. The things we do right before we walk into a situation we might not walk back out of.
At least mine is practical.
They’ve brought more men than Sidrovich told us they would.
That’s the first red flag.
The second one comes from the men themselves. From the way my shitbag of a client was talking I was expecting professionals: Tai Huen Chai, maybe, or private contractors—wiry experts in smart weather gear, perhaps, or old post-war environment suits. These clowns, though? A ragtag half dozen in cold weather suits that barely look functional, weapons proudly displayed like they’re at a fucking gun show as they watch us enter the crumbling, half-collapsed warehouse. Mostly Asian, a few Slavic faces interspersed, all of them hidden behind crude weather masks or else open to the elements with nothing but rebreathers to protect them.
The man standing at their head doesn’t inspire confidence either. Hunched-over, stocky little shit, his face riddled with pockmarks. Only his environment suit lends him any credibility, and even that is mostly hidden beneath a ratty, worn overcoat. Chinese, if I had to guess. Most of his head hidden by the hood of his suit; what can be seen lies behind a crude layer of smart-glass, a low-tech variation of the helmets my people wear. He smiles, almost apologetically, as we draw closer. The clowns behind him are watching us like hungry animals, gaunt faces barely blinking as they do.
“This feel off to you, Koss?” Levi intones into his mic, the motions of his vocal chords hidden by his neck seal.
“Very,” I respond. “Eyes sharp, khorosho?” I can feel our two companions tensing up, no doubt taking in the sight before us and not liking their odds if this goes badly. Bad form for a trade-off, one side spooking the other. I don’t know what the hell these guys are playing at, and I sure as shit don’t like it.
Coming to a stop in front of him, the Chinese man at the centre of what I’m worryingly starting to think of as the competition gives Levi a nod and a grin.
“Huānyíng. You guys here for Sidrovich?”
“Deal was to come with three others,” Levi grumbles back, not bothering to return the hello, “not six.” Our contact turns his palms up apologetically, bowing his head again.
“Very true, very true. Wǒ dàoqiàn, there was a… miscommunication, between ourselves and your boss.” He smiles again, something simultaneously obsequious yet alarming about the display. “You understand, yeah?”
Levi’s voice remains flat, expressionless.“No. Not especially.”
“Extra backup is your first strike,” I interject. “Fact that they’re waving their guns around is the second, and you’re not getting a third. Lose the weapons.”
The spokesman blinks, his gaze snapping over to me with irritation before looking back to Levi. My companion simply shrugs, still expressionless. Eyes narrowing, the spokesman finally deems fit to reply.
“Not all of us got Mr. Sid’s budget, nǐ míngbái? Got to make do with who we can find. Dangerous times, yeah?”
“Can’t be doing too bad,” I retort, “since you brought two extra bodies. Guns away, or this deal’s off.” His jaw tightens, sickly smile looking more like a grimace for a few seconds. Then his head bows again, and he twists about to motion downwards with one arm at his men as he barks,
“Shōu qǐ tāmen! Xiànzài!” There’s a short pause as the enforcers look between themselves and their apparent leader. Then slowly, sullenly, the firearms are holstered or else tucked over shoulders. The spokesman turns back, pointedly ignoring me as he looks again to Levi. “There, no more guns. We can do business now, yeah?”
Levi and I exchange another glance, our shared concerns not needing to be spoken aloud. You survive long enough in a world such as this and you learn to get a read off people, and the spokesman here is already making my skin crawl. Still, he’s told his guys to back down and holster their weapons upon request and I suspect that Sidrovich isn’t going to accept ‘rubbed me the wrong way’ as a valid reason for scuppering the deal. Going by the resigned shrug that Levi makes, he’s come to a similar conclusion. I return the shrug; no going back now. My partner turns back to the spokesman and gives a brief nod.
“Da. Business, then. You have the payment?” That sycophantic grin is back on our opposition’s face as he nods furiously, reaching into his jacket to produce a battered, metal-encased data stick.
“ERC commands and credits, just like Mr. Sid asked for. You can verify, no problem.” He’s still nodding, his gaze trailing down to the case at Levi’s side like a Freudian slip. “You got the goods, yeah?”
I’m frowning now, something about this head-bobbing little shit making me want to inch for the door or start shooting even as Levi shrugs again and brings his payload up to chest height. His gauntlet-clad fingers punch in a passcode and the seals are released, allowing him to pull open the metal device and reveal its contents. Sidrovich has, as usual, overdone things for effect. The case interior has been draped with faux-velvet, the two power cores stored within laid inside carefully shaped hollows. Perhaps it’s to try and compensate for how uninspiring the devices look themselves: a pair of battered, weather-stained steel chunks, clearly showing their age.
“Pre-war, as requested. Picked up by licensed requisitions team, thoroughly tested to ensure they are fit for purpose.” Levi raises an eyebrow at the spokesman. “They are to your satisfaction?”
There’s an intensity to the spokesman’s gaze as he nods, something almost akin to a hunger as he speaks the words, “They are, yeah.”
That’s the moment when the red flags turn into blaring sirens and I know the whole exchange is about to turn into a shitshow.
The guns that were just seconds ago politely holstered and out of sight are suddenly being reached for, half a dozen grubby hands reaching to pull them free. The movements are clean, practised, not the work of bumbling amateurs, but despite that I’m still faster. My arms move on instinct as they reach down to my side and into my jacket, one finger carefully brushing the side of the collapsed VIPER in just the right spot. As I pull it free and bring it to bear, what initially appears to be a gunmetal rectangular package expands outwards into a stocky little instrument of death as internal pneumatics propel the weapon’s parts into place. I hold the VIPER at an angle, letting the motion of my draw propel it into a sweeping arc as I send a raking volley of gunfire across the assembled mob of would-be thieves. Through the helmet’s filters I hear the guttural rattling of AP rounds going off, the yelps and screams as they meet their mark.
Instinct and training are pitching my rational mind out the driving seat as I lunge to the left out of the path of potential return fire. My two hired hands are pulling on their own weapons, to their credit, and also diving for cover. Plenty of it to be found in a partially collapsed warehouse. Levi, though, is too busy trying to re-seal the case to draw or dive, head no doubt filled with repeated demands by Sidrovich not to let anything happen to the package.
The spokesman of our double-crossers moves with a speed I didn’t think possible for someone so small and disheveled, closing the ten metres between himself and Levi before my companion can react. I throw myself forward, hoping to propel myself behind a nearby collapsed section of ceiling as I try to bring the VIPER to bear on the man. Before I can, his right hand darts into the sleeve of his overcoat.
The holdout pistol clears his jacket. He jams it against Levi’s neck and pulls the trigger.
The gunshot rings out through the confusion, and Levi drops like someone’s just cut the strings that were holding him aloft. I feel a sudden numbness wash over me as I line the spokesman up through my smartlink and squeeze the VIPER’s trigger with a sharp twitch of my finger. The impact sends him tumbling across the concrete and scattered metal that makes up the warehouse floor, his other hand clutching at the case he’s just ripped from Levi’s dying fingers. Don’t linger on the dead, echoes the old mantra, as I continue to unload the rifle across the room. Nothing you can do for them now. Focus on the fight, on doing what you have to do to stay alive.
Levi’s face gapes blankly up into the ruined ceiling through his mask, as lifeless and empty as doll’s eyes.
Screams and the rattle of gunfire blare up behind me, and I twist around to see my two remaining companions go down in a hail of bullets. Before I can react, what feels like a cross between a freight train and a shuttle engine slams into my back, knocking me sprawling and stealing all traces of breath from my lungs. The dizzying pain that rolls across my torso is confirmation that I’m not dead, at least; dead people don’t hurt this much. Snarling and gasping for air, I twist about to face this new threat as my helmet’s HUD informs me that I just took a blast from some form of automatic rifle and that my armour’s integrity is in an even worse state than I am. Struggling for breath as I try to curse and swear, I return fire at the figures advancing through the snowy mists outside the warehouse. New threats, and if they’re out here in the snow it’s a safe bet that they’re not from the City. Which means I’m even more fucked than I thought I was ten seconds ago.
Hauling myself over the collapsed roof to find cover from our new attackers, I reload the VIPER just in time to see a few of the spokesman’s grunts pulling him out the doors of the warehouse. It’s spite, more than anything, that has me pop up and let loose another stream of automatic fire in their direction, blowing apart the shoulder of one of the spokesman’s rescue party and sending the other two diving for cover. A stupid, amateur move—I’m letting my emotions make combat decisions for me, and I quickly pay the price as another two rounds impact against my armour’s chest plate.
God snaps the breaker switch to zero, and the world goes dark.
blood pumping in my ears so loud it’s making my head hurt and I’m glad of that pain cos it’s a distraction from the agony swelling across my chest always knew I was gonna die loud and stupid that’s what they said about my kind
Footsteps crunching through frozen snow, coming from very far away. Like I’m hearing an echo rather than the real thing.
survive the end of the fucking world survive the initiation into the regiment and them cutting you up to stitch you back together again stronger make it through all the shit that comes after the collapse of everything humanity once knew to be real only to go out like a common thug you fucking
Voices, muffled like I’m hearing them from underwater.
“The fuck was that?” one of them is exclaiming. “Bitch took a MAG round in the back and kept on coming! Jen-sin said this was gonna be a cakewalk!”
“And you believed him? More fool you, húndàn. Now stop moaning and get her piece, we got wounded to haul back to camp.”
The first voice mutters darkly under his breath, and there’s the scraping of metal against snow-coated concrete.The footsteps drift away and are lost in the howling of the wind.
always knew you’d die alone in the snow and this was a long time coming dunno why you’re acting so surprised…
As always, it’s the pain that tells me I’m alive.
My breath comes in ragged shallow bursts and for a good few seconds I’m convinced that something’s blinded me before I manage to blink the swirling cacophony of black spots from my vision. HUD’s flashing like a fireworks display, all manner of panicked, glowing red warnings begging to tell me the myriad ways in which I am fucked—except for the spot where my visor has cracked completely, the reinforced smart glass shattered, a parting gift from the spokesman and his wastelander cohorts. Smart move, too. Why waste a bullet when you can just break open someone’s helmet and let the radiation finish the job for you?
Muscles aching and straining from the effort, I haul myself onto my knees and then onto unsteady feet with a groan.
Spokesman and his cronies got me good. Stripped me of my gear pretty well, left only the battered armour and expended VIPER rounds behind. Anyone else would be glowing with the rad intake in just an hour or so, assuming they even got back up at all. But the wastelanders didn’t factor in the subdermal antirad injectors in my legs and arms. They didn’t know about the weeks of gene therapy treatments me and mine went through back in the day, the ceramic bone-lacing and synaptic boosters they implanted into every member of a regiment sent out to try and carve out a small sliver of sanity in a world that had lost its mind.
Or, to put it less politely? They didn’t know who they were fucking with.
Getting ahead of myself, though. First things first: assess the damage and take stock of the situation. Find a weapon. Regain contact with Sidrovich and let him know his wonderful little ‘outside the City business deal’ has turned into a gargantuan clusterfuck and his merchandise is gone. That ought to get the fat Ukrainian shit into gear. Helmet’s screwed six ways till Sunday, though, so I won’t be getting through to him via its broadcaster. I haul the now useless hunk of metal and superpolymer layers off my head and let it hit the ground with a muffled thump. Still unsteady on my feet, I manage to haul off my overcoat and chest plate, leaving only the silver nanowire-lined bodysuit underneath. Internal power is still kicking, at least, heating the wire and keeping the chill at bay—if it wasn’t, I’d be little more than an icy block of flesh by now.
One other small mercy is the holdout pistol that I have stowed in the chest plate’s internal pockets, which managed to avoid the rifle fire I took. It fits snugly into my hand, the ceramic components feeling flimsy and small in the midst of the swirling grey snowstorm that surrounds me. Better than nothing, though.
Strapping the remains of my armour and jacket back on, my eyes dart about the bullet-riddled remains of the warehouse for Levi’s body. My partner lies where he fell, face-plate stripped and shattered by his killers. Ice is starting to form on his skin, lending him even more of an inhuman, waxwork-like quality. The dead never look like they’re sleeping, and whoever claimed otherwise was a fucking idiot. Limping over to him, I drop down to one knee so my hand can brush those staring eyes closed.
“Ostavaysya spokoyno, bratan,” I mutter quietly, the words almost lost in the wind, “I’ll send them on after you soon enough.” Nearby, the corpses of Sidrovich’s two contractors are also starting to frost over. As I reach down to close the eyes of the second man, it suddenly occurs to me that I never even learned their names. Didn’t care to. I look down at his face, lined and scarred, bearing the marks of a man who had witnessed the end of the world and lived long enough to tell the tale. Survived all of that, only to die here in the snow for a pair of pre-war power cores.
Outside of the ruined warehouse and into the open elements, it quickly becomes apparent that the wastelanders have been thorough in their efforts to steal or destroy anything Levi and I brought with us. The truck is battered and smoking, flames still smouldering up from the engine block where the battery rows have been stripped or smashed. Nothing I wasn’t anticipating, but the sight still sends my stomach spiralling. Vehicles like that don’t come cheap in the City, and it had been Levi’s pride and joy to own one.
Staggering over to it, I do a quick assessment of the damage and realise they’ve not been quite as thorough as they intended to be. Though the tracks are broken beyond repair and the engine is thoroughly totalled, they’ve missed one of the survival gear compartments my partner had added to his truck for these very occasions. I remember laughing at him over it at the time, and my chest tightens a little at the thought. Kneeling down near the back end of the vehicle, I tap the location of the compartment with the right rhythm to reveal an AR-projected keypad. After a moment of struggling to remember what sequence we used for this spot, I’m staring at a small cylindrical compartment tucked into the armour of the truck, stocked with the essentials for not dying of exposure in the frozen wastes. Nothing fancy, but enough to keep me going: survival rations, a spare power supply, goggles, a sat-linked rebreather that I can use to get back in touch with Sidrovich, and Levi’s battered old ushanka that he’d promised me he’d thrown out six months ago.
Strapping the rebreather and goggles into place, I hesitate for a moment before pulling the fur-lined hat on as well. A small memento to bring with me as I go after the people responsible for his death, I suppose.
The goggles’ HUD boots up and syncs with my suit’s internal systems, the rebreather linking in and finding a connection on a nearby satellite network. Almost immediately I’m bombarded with messages and alerts, all of them Sidrovich, all of them in increasing stages of fury. The last one is a particularly tasteful threat in Ukrainian that actually manages to provoke a smile from me. Let the fat prick simmer a little more, I need to figure out just where the hell I’m going first. Turning away from the ruined truck and facing out towards the snow-strewn wastes around me, I start hunting for signs as to the direction my attackers headed off in. The goggles run a scan for footprints, but in this weather it’s a lost cause; snow drifts will have covered their tracks within minutes. Frowning, I opt for a different route and start cycling through nearby networks to see if I can’t find any other devices connected to them. Can’t be too many people crazy or stupid enough to be wandering around in these conditions, so any signs of activity will stand out.
Bingo. A quartet of signals linked to the same sat-network as me, pinging roughly five klicks to the south-east. I drop my search immediately, before my newly acquired targets can notice that someone on the network is hunting about for others, and set off after them without looking back as I place a call to Sidrovich.
To his credit, he doesn’t take long to accept it.
“Ebatʹ nareshti!” a furious, rumbling voice barks down the line at me. “Koss, if you and that partner of yours have tried to play me I’m going to pull out your fucking—”
“Levi’s dead,” I inform him, cutting him off mid-threat, “and so are the two guys you sent along with us. You set us up on a deal with wasterlanders, ty zhirnyy kusok der’ma, so don’t start throwing around accusations.”
Sidrovich comes to a stammering halt, then comes back with full force.“Suka, what the fuck are you talking about? The deal came from a reliable middleman, properly vetted! The fuck is this bullshit about wasterlanders?”
“You want helmet-cam footage? Cos I got the whole thing. Us going into the warehouse, them drawing on us, Levi getting shot in the fucking throat for your power cores. Whole goddamn thing, suka.”
There’s an angry pause, then Sidrovich growls,“Send it.”
I oblige, my suit transmitting the stored footage of our deal turned gunfight from my position in the ass-end-of-the-world’s-end to Sidrovich’s comfy office in the City. Through the call I can hear my client’s breathing grow shorter and sharper the further he watches, and by the time he’s finished watching he all but explodes back down the line at me. “SHCHO TAKOYI LYUDY! Who the fuck do these valenki cocksuckers think they are, robbing me?!” His voice takes on an echoing quality as his head turns away from the mic. “You! Suka! Get Vasily and the boys ‘round to that dealer’s house, pravyy chort zaraz! I want to know what he was thinking, setting up deals with wasterlander scum!”
As he begins speaking to me again, his tone returns to normal. “You. Koss. Tell me you’re going after them.”
“They shot Levi in the throat.” It’s all the answer he needs.
“Dobre-dobre. Tell me what you need, and it’s yours if you return my product to me.”
“And if it’s long gone by the time I catch up?”
“Then you bring me the head of the valenki who thought he could rob me with impunity.”
“That I can promise you.” Sidrovich chuckles darkly.
“Knew there was a reason I hired an ex-Pathfinder. One second, let me find out just where the hell you are.”
Another pause, as Sidrovich pulls up satellite feeds to pinpoint my location. “Svyate derʹmo, of course you’d be right in the eye of the fucking radstorm! No way to get any backup out to you, not in those conditions, but I can send an AV with supplies if needed.”
“My armour’s totalled and the bastards stole my gun. It’s needed.” I can hear Sidrovich typing as he talks.
“Zrozumiv, won’t be a problem. AV will be with you soon, so long as your connection holds. If it doesn’t, I’ll set it to wait for you at these coordinates.” My HUD flashes with a map marker that has just been sent to me, three klicks along my route.
“Understood. You got a bead on the guys that pulled this? Aerial footage?”
My client grunts. “Nemaye, the snowstorm is kicking up too much interference. You’re only seeing them because you’re on the ground with them.”
“Old-fashioned way it is, then. Get that AV out to me ASAP, or else I’ll be fighting these guys with a fucking peashooter.”
“Their heads, Koss! You bring me their fucking heads—”
Rolling my eyes, I cut Sidrovich off before he descends into another round of insults and incoherent snarling. I’ve met men with shorter fuses than that Ukrainian black marketeer, but few so willing and able to apply it as literally as him. Still, he pays well and his jobs are usually simple enough.
At least they were, before this one.
My feet crunch down into the grey snow, my goggles doing their best to filter out the swirling maelstrom of snow, ice, and radiation that flies around me. Thought I’d given this shit up years ago, all this marching off into the unknown in search of people needing to be shot. I was just working cushy City-based jobs with Levi. Pathfinders are long gone, a product of a more troubled time; most of us are dead or off-world by now.. But fate has a sense of humour, it seems. Or it’s just a fucking asshole.
Either way, the spokesman and his cronies are out there, lurking in the wastes and no doubt thinking they’ve pulled off their little robbery nicely. Wasterlanders were always ones to labour under the delusion that these open expanses of dying earth belonged to them and them alone, even back when my regiment was still operating. Since then, they’ve only grown more overconfident.
But they were wrong then, and they’re still wrong now.
These are my woods they walk in. They’re among wolves now, even if they’ve forgotten it.
They’ll remember soon enough.
We used to say that when it came to waste excursions, if it wasn’t the elements or the radiation that got you it would be your own head. The human mind craves stimulation, visual imagery for the brain to process and comprehend; faced with nothing but a vast, swirling expanse of grey and white, it quickly starts getting antsy. Time seems to slow, and without any signs of the day’s progress it’s all too easy to succumb to that quiet but growing hiss in the back of your head that tells you that you’re trapped in some frozen, snowbound limbo. That you’re lost, never to be found, in the white.
The human mind isn’t able to process a concept like infinity.
They prepared us for this during the selection process, figuring out who could hack extended isolation whilst keeping their shit together before we could progress to the next stage of Pathfinder training. What it comes down to is knowing how to compartmentalise, knowing how to focus on the situation at hand and not let your mind wander. Lucky for me, that was a part of the selection process I excelled at.
Lucky for me, the wastelanders I’m after have given me the perfect thing to focus all my attention upon.
Out in the white, progress is always going to be slow. All the technique and practice in the world isn’t going to make you navigate your way through drifts of rad-choked snow any faster. I’ve learned to think of it as a rhythm rather than a race, a slow and trailing dance across the corpse of the Earth. My heavy boots have their cleats distended to help my progress, and I know from the occasional signal check that I’m making good time. The wasterlanders must still be carrying their wounded because I’m catching up.
After what feels like at least a day (but what I know objectively to have been maybe an hour) Sidrovich pings me with a single message: ‘Middleman for the deal is dead. Looks like he was tortured for info. You and I have both been played. AV approaching, enjoy the gift package. BRING ME THEIR HEADS.’ Sure enough, I soon hear the steady hum of a powerful electric engine over the swirling din of the wind. Turning, I spy the squat, angled form of the AV as its treads push their way through the snow and come to a stop before me. Another perk of working for the Ukrainian—he’s reliable. When I crouch down next to it, the AV’s storage compartment snaps open and I haul out the set of armour I’ve been provided with. Older and bulkier than the stuff I came out here with, but at least this new set hasn’t taken a MAG round in its back plate recently. Shrugging off my old set and letting the new protection slide over my chest and back where it snaps into place, I reach inside for the second item, then frown slightly. It’s heavy and ugly, not my style in the slightest: old Kalashnikov stock, aftermarket railgun barrel modifications, and a scope that’s probably older than I am. Still, it’s a hell of a lot better in a fight than my holdout pistol.
Sliding the extra magazines I’ve been supplied with into the armour’s webbing, I re-seal the AV’s compartment and sling the rifle over my shoulder. There’s a certain reliability to the weight, I suppose, the knowledge that I’m carrying a weapon born of two centuries worth of conflict and warfare. Jabbing at the touchpad on my left wrist, I scan again for other connections on my satellite network. Once again the wastelanders’ connections bounce back my way, more of them this time, maybe half an hour now from my position. Setting my shoulders, I move off through the snow once again towards my intended targets. The numbers aren’t in my favour, and I know from bitter experience that you should never underestimate a wastelander in a fight.
But they don’t know I’m coming. That’s all the advantage I need.
Wasn’t expecting a camp. Wasn’t expecting so many people.
Wastelanders are full of surprises today.
From a ridgeline overlooking their encampment, I peer down at a small cluster of vehicles and tents that my quarry has stopped at through the Kalashnikov’s scope. Maybe a few dozen or so, including that cocksucker Jen-sin and his goons. They’re the only major threats I can identify. The rest are hunched, dishevelled families bundled in as many layers of clothing available, looking more like refugees than wastelanders to my eyes. It’s a bizarre mix, but I’m not seeing any animosity between them—save for the spokesman and a tall, pale-faced woman. The two have been standing in the centre of the camp since I got here ten minutes ago, each of them taking turns to scream and shout at one another.
It’s a division I can exploit, if nothing else.
Maneuvering around the camp to view things from a different angle, it quickly becomes apparent what the argument is about. Damn thing is a relic, probably barely functional, but I know an orbital shuttle when I see one. They have it tucked in behind the hollowed-out remains of a pre-war building, hidden under a white tarp. Two of the spokesman’s goons are inside the cockpit, Sidrovich’s case lying abandoned outside as they struggle to fit something within the craft, and it finally clicks why these people were so desperate for pre-war power cores. These are indeed refugees, people hellbent on getting off-world whilst there’s still a world to escape from.
A plan starts to form in my mind.
For maybe another ten minutes the two men scramble about in the shuttle’s cockpit and the spokesman argues back and forth with his refugee companion. I can feel the cold starting to set in around me even through the nanowire-lined bodysuit, feel my muscles start to strain from continuous doses of anti-rad injections. My ribs ache from the gunshots I’ve spent the day walking off, and even with the stimulants I’ve been taking, exhaustion is beginning to set in. Nobody can keep this up forever.
But I don’t have to. I just need to wait for my opening.
Sure enough, it comes when the two wastelanders finish installing the power cores with a triumphant outcry, leaping down from the shuttle and running towards the main group. I recognize the man on the right from the warehouse ambush, so he’s the one I take aim at with the rifle. There’s a crackle of energy and a brief jolt from the Kalashnikov and then suddenly the man is howling as he collapses onto the snowy ground, his kneecap atomised by the round I just put through it. Panic ripples through the assembled crowd of refugees and wastelanders; most of them scramble for cover, while a few start going for weapons as they scour the nearby area for me. The spokesman looks ready to bolt, but three rounds lock him into place like chains as I land them around his feet. The modulator and booster on my rebreather kick into effect as I call down to the group from my position.
“No-one fucking move. I see hands going for weapons, you lose them.” Silence hangs then, the men I’ve followed and their refugee counterparts looking between each other nervously as the spokesman glares up in the direction of my voice. It’s the pale woman next to him who speaks up first, her voice impressively level despite having just been fired upon.
“You’re firing at women and children, you understand?”
“See me hit any women and children?” I retort.
She spreads her arms out and takes a step towards me, the universal symbol of ‘look no scary armaments, please don’t shoot’.
“Why don’t you tell us what you want, and we can resolve this. I don’t want anyone else hurt. Are you one of Toecutter’s people?”
I chuckle darkly, keeping the Kalashnikov at the ready.“Never heard of him. I’m the person your friends shot three times. They tell you about that? How they stole those cores?” The look the pale woman throws at the spokesman tells me that no, they did not, and I smile. This is all coming together.
“They told us they’d bought them.”
“Sure, with bullets. Rat-faced pizda next to you shot my partner in the throat, left me to die in the snow.” At this, one of the thieves from the warehouse decides he’s going to make a move, reaching into his coat as he lunges towards cover. With a sweeping motion, I put two rounds through his upper thigh and he collapses with a scream.
“Měi gèrén, bǎochí lěngjìng!” the pale woman is shouting over the cries of distress that ring out in the wake of my shots. “Just stay where you are!” She looks back up towards me, and finally I can see the strain on her face. “What do you want? I’m sorry for what Jin-sen did to your friend, truly, but we’re desperate here. We need those cores.”
The last piece of my plan falls into place, and I raise myself up slightly from the ridgeline so the group can see me. The rifle remains locked and ready as I speak.
“Don’t care about the cores. You want off world, that’s your business. Only thing I want…” the barrel of the Kalashnikov twists to point at the spokesman, “…is him. Rest of you are free to go.” My target is sneering up at me now, rage blooming up at me through my weapon’s scope.
“Cāo nǐ!” he screeches, “You mercenary bitch! How the fuck are you even still alive?” Ignoring his outburst, I continue calling down to the woman.
“It’s a fair deal. Fairer than the ones your friends offered me and mine. He stays, you all leave now. What’s your answer?” The refugees and remaining thieves are all looking between each other, muttering quietly, and I don’t need to be an expert in reading people to know exactly what they’re thinking. Trade the man who got their people killed for a free ticket off-world? The answer is obvious, and when the pale woman looks back from them to me, I know before she speaks that she’s of the same mind.
“You fucking traitors!” the spokesman howls, “Fú zhā! Nuòfū! You’d all be dead or in chains if it wasn’t for me! I’m the one who got us out of Toecutter’s camp, I’m the one who found the ship, I’m the one who—”
“—who robbed your friend up there and got a bunch of us killed,” the pale woman interjects, glowering at him. “We’re not paying the price for your decisions any longer.”
The refugees are already starting to drift towards the shuttle, nervously at first but then more confidently when I don’t start firing. The spokesman, Jen-sin, is looking between them and my position on the ridge with increasing desperation, and I can hear him quietly pleading with the pale woman as she starts to move away as well. When she shakes her head and takes another step his hand darts out to grab at her, but I fire another round down onto the snow inches from his feet. Staggering backwards with a yelp, he returns his attention to me, his eyes locking on my outline hatefully as the pale woman moves off.
We watch the shuttle launch together, the spokesman and I; hearing its systems swell and rattle into life, seeing the outline of its ancient frame through the snow as it pushes off from the ground with it’s VTOL thrusters before the main engines kick into gear. Its engine roars like some ancient beast roused from sleep, booming through the wind as it begins to push itself into the sky. Doesn’t take long for the shuttle to be lost amidst the swirling winds, and by the time Jin-sen turns back around to face me I’ve made it down the ridge. Standing maybe ten metres from him, I keep the rifle against my shoulder. The rage is gone from his face now, a look of resigned finality having taken its place.
“You’re a Pathfinder, aren’t you.” It isn’t a question, but I nod anyway. He smiles bitterly. “I’ve been trying to figure out just how the hell you survived. That was the only answer I had.”
“Full marks, then,” I mutter, not letting the barrel of my weapon drift even an inch. He shrugs, making eye contact with me.
“Guess my luck had to run out sometime, yeah?”
“Guess it did.”
I squeeze the trigger and his throat bursts, showering the grey snow in crimson as he drops. Closing the distance between us, I keep the rifle pointed down at his crumpled form all the way and put another two in his chest just to be sure. Steam is rising from the holes in his throat and chest as I lower my weapon finally, and I stare down at the man who was, just seconds ago, alive. By now I know better than to expect some rush of emotions now that Levi’s killer is bleeding out on the ground in front of me. Revenge isn’t a rush of emotions. Just a cold, quiet sense of satisfaction.
Overhead the snowstorm is starting to clear, the twisting clouds of ice and radiation no longer being buoyed up on winds to obfuscate the world around me. I take a moment to watch as the night sky begins to appear in gaps through the snow, as the City’s three space elevators come glowing into view. Tall spires reaching up into the heavens, small pinpricks of light rising through their centres or else breaking away to forge their own paths into the atmosphere. Onwards to the orbital stations, maybe even Luna or the Martian colonies. Like embers from the smouldering blaze that was the Earth, drifting upwards to something better.
With a sigh I turn away from the sight, focusing my gaze back on the ground. The body of Jen-sin lies before me as I crouch down next to it, patting the man’s coat down and retrieving a sharp, vicious-looking blade from inside it.
Sidrovich was promised a head, after all.
And a Pathfinder always gets the job done.
© 2019 David Ardent, All Rights Reserved.