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Roman struggled to keep his footing in the ankle-deep slog of the muddy riverbank. The tainted water, mixed with rubble, dirt, and debris, had been accumulating broken bits of the ruined city for centuries. The resulting mixture was a slow-moving speckled brown mush that folded over itself repeatedly as it flowed down the steep slope.
He slipped on a metal plate embedded in the goo and fell onto his belly, sliding several meters and losing whatever small progress he had made climbing up the hill. He spat out a mouthful of the gunk and cursed as a mushy tide swelled, rolling over and caking him in its grime.
Black abyss, he was going to smell like shit until his next shower. Unfortunately, his next hygiene maintenance wasn’t scheduled until the morning after tomorrow. That meant he was going to stink like a latrine until then. Probably meant he was going to have to rack outside of quarters tonight as well.
Someone above him laughed. “Chaki, you bunking with Roman, right? Have fun.”
Chaki’s face appeared at the top of the hill as Roman tried to reclaim his footing. “Damn clumsy fodder. Stop playing in the mud. The collie’s here.”
Roman looked at the green metal plate that precipitated his fall and scowled. There were some letters on it in an archaic form of solar English. He wiped the gunk off with his sleeve and read it slowly: NEW LONDON.
“Are we on the right continent?” he asked in a loud voice. “I thought we’re on one of the Americas.”
“What kind of a stupid question is that?” Renee called down.
“I don’t know,” Roman said. “This is my first tour on this planet. I just thought London was a city in Europe. Or was that Africa?”
Overhead, a gray box-shaped ship struggled to fly around the many obstructions to their position. On top of the hill, fallen poles, loose wires, hanging vines, and building fragments jutting up and out were scattered all over the landscape, often making it difficult for the collies—flying boxes not known for their maneuverability—to reach their landing zones.
They were near a river mouth, and the soft ground had sunk so much that many of the buildings on both sides of the river leaned in over the water until they formed a triangular roof above it. Several of these buildings looked ready to collapse and probably wouldn’t stand much longer.
“Why are our extraction points always on top of hills?” Roman grumbled. “Why can’t it just come down to us for once?”
He renewed his efforts, using his hands to claw his way up. His arms sunk elbow-deep into the muck, getting even more grime onto his now completely filthy uniform. Not that it mattered anymore; he couldn’t get any dirtier.
Roman and the other half-dozen jackasses with him were just finishing an eight-hour patrol of a region southwest of the city of Boston. Surveillance had picked up movement from what could possibly be the wastelander tribe they had been searching for the past six months, and of course, his was the unlucky squad sent here to investigate.
The Cooperative Forces, or Co-op, was created after the failed attack on Boston to retrieve the temporal anomaly to fulfill the agency’s contractual obligation to the megacorporation. It was supposed to be a joint operation by Valta and ChronoCom. However, those Valta assholes—their leader, Securitate Kuo, specifically—did not seem to know what “joint” meant. Almost all the heavy lifting was carried out by ChronoCom monitors, while Valta’s troopers just sat on their collective asses. Kuo had even had the audacity to tell the lead monitors to their faces that the Valta troopers were too valuable to waste. Black abyss, everyone in the agency hated that woman.
Ever since they had cleared out all of Boston and realized that the savages had fled, the patrols had had to expand their search perimeters to include the areas surrounding the city. Now, Co-op troops were forced to blindly chase the hundreds of random energy signatures that popped up, in the hopes that one of them was the tribe of savages they were after.
Roman finally reached the top of the hill and was helped to his feet by Renee and Pau. Chronman Mong sniffed him irritably as he continued to eye the collie making its way to their position. “Next time, be more careful, fool. If the collie pilot insists we clean his ship, you’re the fodder doing it, you hear?”
“Easy for you,” Roman muttered. “Not every asshole gets exos to fly around.”
Roman wouldn’t have dared to say that aloud. Mong was a Tier-5, fresh out of the Academy, and like most chronmen, thought he was a big deal. If Roman had to guess, the guy was probably nineteen years old. Definitely green and inexperienced, but already as arrogant as a Tier-3. Still, even the lowest chronman outranked the most experienced monitor.
The squad brushed themselves off and waited as the collie lowered itself to the ground. Fortunately, this patrol had been uneventful, though part of him wished the damn savages would just show up so they could end this hellish mission working under those corporate Valta assholes.
“I can’t wait to get transferred off-planet,” he ranted. “I didn’t sign up to escape from the hellhole on Naiaid to end up in an even worse hell-hole on Earth.”
A couple of the other monitors chuckled in agreement. Mong just sniffed and continued staring at the collie. No doubt the kid probably felt insulted having to patrol with a bunch of monitors instead of running time salvages, which was what chronmen were supposed to do. The collie landed with a splat in the mud, and the squad, exhausted and glad the day had ended without incident, made its way on board.
Mong looked Roman over and stuck his hand out. “Wipe yourself off first, damn it.”
“Yes, chronman.” Roman sighed. “Just give me a…”
His voice trailed off as a dark flash arced up into the air. He squinted and raised an arm just in time for the object to thud into his shoulder, the impact knocking him on his back once more into the mud. Roman groaned and stared in shock as a thick wooden shaft stuck out of his body. Another shaft sunk into the soft ground near his feet. He began to scream.
More spears rained down, bouncing off the collie’s roof and sticking in the soft ground. There was a loud bang, and Chaki fell, clutching his leg. A blaster shot narrowly missed Renee. The rest of the squad scattered for cover, their wrist beams pointed outward at the ruins surrounding them.
A swarm of savages appeared, seemingly crawling out of every nook and cranny of the ruined buildings. They peppered Roman’s squad with small-arms fire, ranging from thick spears to primitive firearms to blaster rifles. Mong activated his exo and launched into the air. Most of the enemy attacks bounced ineffectually off his shield.
“Defensive positions around the collie,” he roared. “Renee, get Roman. Gouti, suppression fire on the building to the north.”
Two kinetic coils appeared on both sides of Mong as if he had grown wings, and he barreled toward the main group of the charging savages head-on. The coils cut the savages down as he swept through them, knocking a score of them off their feet. He changed direction and shot upward along the nearest building. Redirecting the coils into the opened windows, the chronman began to pluck savages out and drop them down into the streets below.
Roman whimpered as rough hands grabbed his injured shoulder and hauled him to his feet. “Come on,” Renee said, dragging him toward the collie’s opened hatch. A savage charged at them from the left, only to fall to her wrist beam. Another came from their right, which Roman was just able to hit before the savage could bury a hatchet in his face. More came from every direction, forcing Renee to drop him halfway to the ship so she could engage them.
Roman fell onto a knee and held his right arm with his left to steady his trembling body. His nerves screamed as he forced his arm up to aim with the wrist beam. He hit an old-looking savage in the chest and took out another who didn’t even look old enough to shave. That last one came perilously close to sticking him with another spear. He watched, dismayed, as the young savage fell at his feet.
An involuntary shudder coursed through his body. He had almost become dinner just now. At least that was the rumor among the monitors; these wasteland tribes were cannibals, and civilized people were a delicacy. He couldn’t think of a worse way to go than roasting over a fire. He bet he tasted awful.
Gouti screamed at them from the collie’s hatch, “Get your asses inside!”
Renee picked Roman up again and the two desperately tried to sprint to the collie. To his right, Baeth shot a charging savage point-blank in the stomach, then fell to a vicious club to the side of his face. Roman watched in horror as a savage woman towered over his squadmate, ready to strike the killing blow. It never came. They must like their food alive when they cook them. Those bastards. It was too late to help Baeth now. The rest of the squad converged on the collie. Chaki was limping badly while Gouti desperately tried to provide covering fire.
Mong was still flying through the air, acting as a battering ram and launching his body at groups of savages, trying to keep them at bay to buy time for the rest of the squad. Roman, himself a failed initiate at the Academy, had often seen chronmen and auditors in battle. Mong wasn’t one of the more skilled exo-wielders, but he was getting the job done. Roman and Renee had almost fought their way to the waiting collie when it began to take off, jerking unsteadily into the air.
“We’re not in yet!” Renee screamed, dropping Roman and sprinting toward the ship. It was too late. By the time she reached it, the collie was already five meters off the ground. Before it could speed away, something slammed into it, knocking it out of the air. It crashed to the ground on its side, almost crushing Renee and Roman as it slid down the slope. The two were just able to dive out of the way at the very last moment.
“Black abyss, no.” Roman stared at a new figure floating in the air above him. It was the traitor, James Griffin-Mars. Before Roman could react, a coil wrapped around his feet, lifted him off the ground, and tossed him into the mud. Renee tried to flee down the hill but was pulled back and flung into the embankment next to him.
“Chronman.” The traitor’s voice echoed through the ruins. “Leave the Elfreth alone and face me.”
When Mong, who was still busy tearing through scores of savages, didn’t respond, the traitor shot forward in a streak of yellow and collided with the chronman. The two of them, exos flaring, slammed into the side of the hill, spewing mud and rocks into the air. A second later, they exploded out and crashed down at the bottom of the riverbank.
The men’s coils were interlocked, but it wasn’t difficult to tell who was winning. The traitor had the chronman wrapped in what looked like ten coils. Somehow, Mong was able to slip away and launch up into sky. Just as quickly, the traitor shot half a dozen coils after him. The chronman created four of his own coils to fend them off, but it was obvious the former Tier-1 was much more skilled than the Tier-5. The traitor’s coils tied up Mong’s coils, and then the remaining ones sunk into his shield and dragged him back down to earth. As much as Mong tried, he couldn’t get away a second time.
“Go ahead, you abyss-plagued traitor,” Mong spat. “Finish the job.”
By this time, the rest of the savages—and they numbered in the dozens—had the monitors surrounded. Most of his squad were beaten up pretty badly. Baeth had suffered a concussion and was awake but woozy. Blood poured down Chaki’s leg, and Roman still had this stinking spear sticking through his shoulder. Two of the savages were carrying an unconscious Renee up the embankment. The remaining monitors—Gouti and Pau—were being rounded up. A few second later, the pilot of the crashed collie was pulled out of the wreck and also joined the prisoners. Roman squeezed his eyes shut. This was when the savages would decide which one of them looked the most delicious.
Roman had been with ChronoCom for almost fifteen years, and nothing made the hair on the back of his neck stand up more than savagery, either from the pirates along the Ship Graveyard or the commies in Venus or these primitives here on Earth.
The traitor suspended Mong in the air. “Release your bands to me and I will spare you and your people.”
“How about you go fuck yourself,” Mong replied.
“Actually,” Pau said, “that’s not a bad trade.”
The chronman shot him a glare. “Be quiet.”
“Give him the stupid bands,” Gouti said.
“Shut up, monitors,” Mong snapped.
“Just give him the fucking bands!” Roman screamed.
The rest of the squad joined in with their pleas. Mong looked furious, but Roman didn’t care. It was better to give up the stupid bands than become dinner. Chronman or not, this kid was risking their lives for no reason.
“Fine,” Mong snarled. “You want the bands? Here you go.”
He held his hands out, and with a snap, all his bands broke in two.
Roman’s legs gave way and he collapsed to the ground. That fool. Now they were all going to be dinner. He felt his pants grow warm as he wet himself. This time, his body shook from fear instead of pain. He couldn’t decide what was worse, being boiled alive or roasted over a fire.
He flirted with the idea of pulling the spear out of his body so he could bleed out. Roman gripped the shaft with his working arm and took a couple of deep breaths. He gritted his teeth and willed his arm to pull the spear through his body. The stupid thing wouldn’t budge; his arms felt like noodles. He tried once more, and again, his hands felt so weak, he could barely hold the shaft, let alone budge the damn thing.
Roman just couldn’t do it. He was too frightened to kill himself. That was why he had failed to tier at the Academy. He was good enough, everyone said so. He had surprised his teachers by failing. And now his stupid cowardice was going to get him killed in the worst way possible. His frustration and the tension in his body built up, begging for a release. Roman’s arms shook as he stared at his own blood sliding down the shaft and dripping onto the ground. He did the only thing he could think of at this very moment. He began to bawl. All eyes turned to him as his sobs grew louder.
Pau leaned in to him. “Pull yourself together.”
“Please … please don’t eat me.” Roman sniffed loudly. “I’ll taste terrible.”
A buzz spread through the crowd of savages. A few of them seemed to understand what he said and translated to those who didn’t. A chorus of laughter erupted. Several of the savages began rubbing their bellies. An apple bounced off his head. Even the traitor was masking a smile.
The traitor floated Mong to the rest of the squad and picked up the broken bands, examining them one by one. He sighed and tossed them to the ground. “You’re making my life a lot harder than it has to be.”
Mong stuck his chin out defiantly. “Just get it over with and kill us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Gouti grumbled.
“If we had wanted you dead, you’d be dead,” said James.
Roman looked over at the rest of his squad. He hadn’t realized this at first, but it was true. All of them were alive, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence. In fact, these savages took extra precautions, at the risk of their own lives, not to kill any of them. Why?
The traitor motioned to a group of savages standing nearby. “You have seven minutes. Get to work.”
Roman watched open-mouthed as two dozen savages swarmed the collie, like burn ants over a corpse, and began to strip it bare. To his shock, they moved efficiently, as if they knew what they were doing. These were primitive savages. How could this be possible? However, within minutes, many of the collie’s modules were dismantled. All that remained was its frame, engine, and structural components.
“Wrap it up,” James said. “Co-op forces will be here any minute.”
Just as quickly as they appeared, the savages disappeared back into the ruined city. The only one left was the traitor. He surveyed the sky and then the squad. “Your people will be here soon.”
Mong looked confused. “Why not just kill us and be done with it?”
“Shut up before he changes his mind,” Roman hissed.
The traitor studied Mong’s face. “How many years out of the Academy, chronman?”
Mong hesitated before answering. “Five months.”
The traitor nodded. “You use the exo well for a Tier-5. You’ll make a fine chronman one day. Just make sure you live long enough to make a difference.”
“Why are you letting us go?” asked Mong.
James sighed. “Because at the end of the day, you’re just trying to do the right thing, and so am I.” Then he shot into the air in a streak of yellow and was gone.
Five minutes later, a Valta Valkyrie appeared, followed by three collies. The area was soon flooded by monitors. Roman looked in the direction he had last seen the traitor as he and the rest of his squad were led to safety. This was the first time he had seen the traitor, this James Griffin-Mars. He had to admit he was surprised. All the intel had described the man as an unstable, greedy, self-serving lunatic. This man seemed anything but that. He glanced over at Mong, whose troubled face spoke volumes as well.
Roman crawled into the medical collie and was soon in the air. His last thought before he passed out was that now that he was injured, did he still have to wait two days to shower?
Copyright © 2016 by Wesley Chu