Is a self-aware pawn a collaborator or simply one who has given up the fight? Humanity is a redundant and obsolete hubris. 1. Home Spoiler "May your heels point you home." —Ancient proverb"Fuckin' pisswater." A scowl escaped 37972, amassing a gob of spit in her lips and spraying it onto the mask, wiping it down from the dirt and dust that had caked it from the deployment before. City 38 was much different than seventeen, that was for sure. There was a lot less tension, less propagation from civil administration than there was in the capital. However, pretty sights were seldom to frequent in the industrial muck coating the ozone above. On the best of days you'd might be lucky enough to catch the horizon in the morning for a few spare seconds. On the worst of days, you couldn't see five damn feet past you. COSAIR was a squad of quality in the aspects of face: Having a dirty uniform was grounds for a blackmark, which went to show how extreme they were when it came to their mannerisms. She had learned well over thirty different marching positions within the past handful of months, and December's wrathful presence of untamed weather made it all the more dissatisfying. Field command got pissy whenever a unit swore, but that didn't stop a true sailor of the sea. She was headed out from the locker room and pressing on her mask when the radio came to life in her ears. Squad Leader was requesting her presence at the office. A grumble slipped through the vocoder in a twisted dementia of static, and her boots marched down a court of stairs and into the squad office. Her commander was almost never happy to see her; at first it was irritating, but now it's become part of the pleasantries. She cut right to the chase, hardly giving 37972 the time of day to puff out her chest in any formality. "You're being transferred back to the capital." 49803 sounded almost eager to rid of her, his eyes not even making contact with the 03. "Your train leaves in an hour. Consider yourself deserviced if you aren't on it when it takes off." He continues typing off a report into his desk terminal while he speaks, his words seething out from between his teeth and out the filter of the mask. "That gives you plenty of time to return your gear." 37972 hardly wasted any time to strip down her uniform and return it to the quartermaster. She didn't bother keeping the armband, though. This squad of misfit elitists didn't fit her shoes all too well. When she returned to City 17, her squadron DUTY had been reformed under a new name: HAMMER. To her surprise and comfort, it was all the same in it's atmosphere. When she arrived, her old olive armband rest entwined between her fingers, twirling it about slowly as the train came to a stop. It was good to be home. At least, what you could make of it in it's absence. 2. Sunshine I Spoiler "When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six, I did. At first the brightness was overwhelming, but I had seen that before. I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink, and then the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrunk to pinholes and everything came into focus and for a moment I understood. The doctors didn't know if my eyes would ever heal. I was terrified, alone in that darkness. Slowly daylight crept in through the bandages, and I could see, but something else had changed inside of me. That day I had my first headache." –Max Cohen, Pi Light crawled in from between her eyelids and greeted her slowly to the golden, sunlit bedroom. Still entangled in her own bedding, there was a short-lived bliss before her eyes could meet with the clock on the wall. 9:58. While skipping wasn't originally her plan, she had slept in long enough for the decision to be made for her. Sliding out from atop the mattress, her shoes grounded with the wood floor and, with a little preparation, swung herself off the bed. A cursory glance peered out the window, and seeing that the red Mégane wasn't in the drive-way, she threw on a coat for the early Spring weather and slung her bag over one shoulder, propped up the window and slid out the back and over the backyard fence. It didn't matter if her father was at work or making his weekly trip to the whorehouse, it only meant that he wasn't home and wouldn't be home long enough to cram something entertaining into the day. There was a sense of freedom that came with days like this, although it was a luxury that should be enjoyed with moderation. Too many days off and the school would be likely to send a call home, and nothing was worth having to bear witness to an angry father, and knowing him he was more likely to be drunk off his hinges when he actually decided to give a damn. She dug her hands into the small black bag at her side and flipped open the ever familiar package. Only seven cigarettes left for this month. The thirteen year-old gave a prolonged, desperate sigh and came to the street corner. Even in the suburbs, the sun on the horizon was absolutely mesmerizing. Silver linings for living in such a small neighborhood was how the sun peaked just between the trees. It seemed to paint everything in it's gaze a shimmering gold colour, and even the shadows cast by it bowed their heads to it's beauty. And it made the wear made for summer weather in the midst of early spring all the better. In her eyes, she'd rather shiver her way to hypothermia and back than look like a tacky prep with a lack of fashion sense. And like a good child, she swung her head both ways before making her way across. It was about the most her father could actually drill into her, especially with what happened to mom. Not like her father meant for it to be put to use anyway, considering if he found out about her wandering the streets alone there would be nails and planks outside her bedroom window. And that was something she was not about to let happen. Rounding the fence, her eyes locked with the champion of the sun. Hair like actual strands of physical sunlight, and blue eyes that were vibrant even from this distance. Her legs came to a cross while sitting upon the wood bench beside the bus-stop, and she herself seemed focused on something else entirely. As the taller, brown-haired individual approached the bench, the seated girl swung her head at the sound of approaching footsteps, and neither of them were ready for the smile that both of them shared. Wordlessly, the brunette sat down aside her, bathing in sunlight and their own joy. Everything else suddenly didn't seem to matter. Her alcoholic of a father. Her crumbling education. The birth of her ever-growing addiction to the once casual, now religious smoke. None of it seemed to amount to anything except for her. The tallest of the two slowly crept her hand across from her lap, and clasped the other's palm tightly... 3. Sunshine II Spoiler "I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s no one anywhere that seems to know what to do with us. Now into it. We know the air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in a house as slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won’t say anything.” Well I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad." –Peter Finch And then the alarm rang. She snapped back to reality. Back to City 17. Back to hell. Her eyes were struck wide open, and what warmth that was given by the surreal dream slipped away as if it were never there. She remained still for minutes, as if trying to cling to the dream even as she was wide awake, desperately reaching for it. Eventually, her arm reached out and slammed down on the digital clock, shutting it up with a deliberate smack. She slept in her clothes like she always had, and crawled out from the window curtain repurposed as a thin blanket. The one-armed woman slumped over to the bathroom and flung the light on, and shared her greetings and condolences respectively to the woman in the mirror. It was hard to tell which was colder: The water coming out from the showerhead or the night before. The heater hadn't worked since last fall, and she didn't give enough of a damn to actually get it fixed. Dirt and ash slowly washed off from her like bad vibes and sunk down the drain, and a clean face welcomed the new day with a pessimistic and bitter expression. It took only a minute to fit on the plastic arm piece, and flexed the fingers out unanimously to ensure that they were working. Gray tanktop. Flight jacket. Cargo pants. Work boots. A full pack of cigarettes and a canteen filled to the brim with scotch. The normal day, the normal get-up. Everything else was in the locker-room at work. And her shift began in less than an hour. She locked the door behind her and peddled her way down the creaky, wood steps of the housing block. As the wind met her face, she looked towards it, and up at the industrial skyline. Smog stained the sun in a gloomy fashion; a pale orange parting between the clouds. It wasn't the same, and likely never would be again. The street around her stood colourless and grayed, and lacked any sign of liveliness. The sounds of a distant train roared ever closer, and she began to make her way across the street and into the station. The ride lacked much conversation. Everyone looked at eachother and read each face like a book. The dead faces all told the same story of something precious taken away. And no one seemed to give half a damn when she lit one on the train, only the man across from her who asked if she could share one. The man looked like a bleached raisin with a crooked smile. She tossed him a single stick and extended her hand out, holding a lighter out across the isle. It was probably the most courteous thing she would do today, and it was helping another man slowly kill himself. The train rolled to a stop at the next station. Some filed off. Some remained. One was stopped by masks, and was searched from head to toe. It wasn't her business. It wasn't anybody's business. Everyone walked away from it like they always did. Police brutality was the open secret: Everybody knew it existed. They just pretended it didn't. She reached the large, metallic keep that stood at the hub of the entire district. She flashed a single card at the camera, and the door welcomed her in expectantly. The buildings cold, blue walls was just as monochrome on the inside, and just ahead of her stood the door to the locker room. Two suits slid out from the door, and she crept past them. Her day began in thirty minutes, and dressing down only took under five. It was just like that old fuck had said. The mask doesn't conceal: It reflects. Every wolf of the pack needed to recognize that one simple truth if they wanted to last out there, and it took a whole year in the line of duty for 379 to recognize it. The last thing she wanted to do was to admit 404 was right, but damn he sure was. She pressed the button on the radio affixed to her belt, informed Dispatch of her on-duty status, and looked at the watch on her wrist. Twenty-five minutes early. She pushed the double-doors outward and descended down the steps, and once again the sunlight shined through her portholes almost blindingly as a single hand rose as a visor to shield her eyes from it. She had long since forsaken the sun; its beauty had faded, and through that the beauty of the world, which died eleven years and seven hours ago. 4. Silence Spoiler The uniform you're given as a recruit is the only uniform you're going to get. Of course, there are exceptions. Field Command. High Command. Intelligence. The list goes on. But we aren't like them. We don't get the limelight. We are not destined for greatness, but forever damned. We are the soldiers on the ground. We keep what peace we can find and wage the big man's war. Our uniforms tell a story and describe who we are. Those with more blood on their vests are often revered as the bravest, but make no mistake: We are not here to protect you. We're here to protect us. I couldn't give less of a damn about the man starving on the streets, the woman without a home. Any remaining Good Samaritans have outdone their due date in this new world. I gave up that life. I can't care anymore. Its either I cut my losses and keep moving or rot in the dirt with the rest of the forsaken dead. At this stage you could almost argue that we've nothing else to live for but ourselves. We walk with out purpose, follow orders like drones not because we believe in them but because failure to follow through is only accompanied by certain death. And yet, we never pass up an opportunity to die on our own terms. Out of bullets? Fuck it, charge them with your knife. A dozen armed men who would see you dead behind a door? Fuck it, bust in head first. A houndeye in the ventilation and won't come out? Fuck it. Chase after it. Everyone in the PT disagreed. At first, they denied that I was even considering it. Then they began to frantically find an alternative to sending in a unit to what they thought, and I knew, was suicide. But I knew just as well that if I didn't volunteer, some other poor soul was going to have to do it in my stead. And so I went in. I told them that if my biosignal lit up on the comms to not come after me. I crammed into the vent with my head first, the laser illuminating a straight line through a thick cloud of dust in the air the passage. I made it half-way through before the first shockwave hit me. It was worse than any flashbang, headache or migraine you could conceive of. Immediately, upon impact, I could feel my chest crumble in on itself, and my whole body shot up in livid pain. I needed to keep moving. And so I persevered, blood, sweat and tears puddling at the bottom of my mask as I did. As I did, a single thought flowed through my mind for only an instant; "Am I going to die?" before I brushed it aside. I didn't care. It wasn't important. I needed to focus on the objective. And that is when I noticed it. The silence. Everything was quiet. I could not even hear my own breathing, but I was alive and I could see hazily through the cracked visors of my mask. I made it forward a few more feet before the second blast hit me. I couldn't hear it, but I could sure as hell feel it. As if my body was not already failing me. At that point, I was sure I was going to die. And so I attempted to seal my fate, by continuing to move forward. At this point, I was certain that comms were blowing up with my biosignal status, and units scrambling to get me out. It didn't matter to me. It didn't matter.. It didn't.... Nothing. By the third shockwave, everything went black. Its not that I was knocked out, but that I simply can't remember what happened after that. Maybe I was dead, for those few minutes in the ventilation. Maybe I had died. But then, what felt like just after that, my eyes pried open, my eyelids like anchors as my blurred vision asserted itself on my surroundings. A room of dark obsidian walls, bright lights, and figures in white uniforms. And so I returned to hell. 5. Choke Spoiler I wake up every morning with a foul taste in my mouth, and a dry, painful scowl stuck in the back of my throat. It lingers there as if I am dehydrated, stranded in the sands of a desert far off from here. It burns through every fabric of my being like a guilt I cannot swallow. It is a thirst that cannot be quenched, and a need unknown. Attaining peace and quiet while trying to fall asleep has become a non-problem ever since the incident. Silver linings, one might argue. It's been six months since she had seen a horizon as beautifully grim as the one before her. Prying through her bedsheet curtains and her dusted windows, the orange light glimpsed softly onto her wooden floorboards from the streetlight outside her housing. It was late; brooding hours for those that would seek to do harm to what they had built in this new-founded age. Or that was what they taught her at the very least. It was time to go to work. She wouldn't consider the reassignment a promotion of any sort. That would be granting herself far more credit than she deserves. But perhaps she took a little pride with her on the way out. Perhaps such an attitude of aloofness, to think that one has been made untouchable and obsolete, was an asset to the job she had been given. Perhaps it was all going to her head. One might choke on all that pride, but if there's one thing that's kept her alive for this long, it's making herself out to be bigger than she truly is. On her enlistment day, this street waif was frail, skin and bones compared to the gargantuan, beast-like stature that accompanies her now. She's had years to train and drill herself physically to become unmovable; an unruly fist of what she represents in her day job. Her drive was knowing- or at least thinking, that she was untouchable and invincible. But in truth, the pools ego that which she draws her strength from are merely smoke and mirrors. A mouse feigning itself as a lion. A prey masked as a predator. Her physical feats are very much a cover to her frail nature. No one can think her weak if she makes herself look strong. No one can think her unloyal if she devotes her utmost loyalty. No one can think ill of her if she goes the extra mile for everything in her reach, and no one can dispose of her if she makes herself out to be indispensable. To prevent herself from being bagged and dragged out by her own employers, she anchors herself in. And to think at this point, she puts so much effort and energy into trying to stay alive, when it wasn't until recently she was trying to claim her own life. Each attempt inevitably failed, and while what didn't kill her didn't make her stronger, it made her more fervent to keep living. To keep living for what, however, is a question she has not found the answer to. It is an answer that she does not expect to find until finality strikes her down from her facade of a pedestal. When lightning comes crumbling down on her, she will finally know. 6. Ecstasy Spoiler This job has taught me to think differently. See things differently. Understand things differently. The street corners and alleyways I once knew and belonged in are the places that now forsake me the most. I have been deprived of my sanctuaries yet offered promise in exchange for my service. I don't like this job. I said goodbye to a coworker yesterday- No, that's not right. I said goodbye to a friend yesterday. I didn't know her for very long. I mean, we had met before this job, but it wasn't until I put on the uniform that I really knew her. And God, I miss her already. Her departure doesn't mean that things are going downhill, but different pastures for sure. We can't dwell on who we've said goodbye to, or else we'd never get anything done. Moving on is bittersweet like that; It's not the same, but it's something new. Sometimes I have to take a moment to realize that I'm still alive. It wasn't until not too long ago that I wanted to be put six feet under, but something made me stop. I still haven't quite figured out what yet. But it's there, and for the first time in my life I've felt alive. I've felt unstoppable, like a legendary high. Ecstatic, exotic and absolutely mind numbing, even if I've no clue what exactly it is that I want from living. But a wretched feeling, deep down in my gut tells me that whatever I want is staring me straight in my face, and I just don't know it. And God I'm desperate to find it. 7. Mummified Spoiler Goodbye, my only friend. The ones that knew what had become of him spoke as if they never saw it coming. As if his betrayal and inevitable death was something unforeseeable and unpredictable. They clearly did not know him quite as well. Lam was far too broken for something as damning as this assignment. There's something wordlessly chaotic about witnessing a Buddhist take his first life. You can feel the pain he felt. The same pain that the man he shot felt as suppressed rounds nailed the poor soul to a slowly submerging crucifix. I had taken lives a dozen times before. I'm fairly certain that at this point I've racked past a hundred. Far too many in the eyes of the sane. Far too few in the eyes of the desperate. But nothing measured to the amount of agony emanating from his sorrow as he stole his first life in cold blood. His friends and family would never come to know what became of him. Lam understood this as he committed his first crime against humanity. It shattered him. When I first met him, he was far from this reality. He was optimistic, ambitious and generally down to earth, even if he knew of the tasks at hand. But the good things never last in this life. And now here I stand, wearing his very skin. The same skin every other psychopath, mass murderer and misplaced family man wore before him. A mere instrument of the regime, enveloped in imperialistic black and gray garb. Mummified in silicone, kevlar and white noise. Ruthless, is the word she used. I needed to be more ruthless. And here the one man who stood between my mindless animal and a human being was gone, forever branded as a traitor. Anyone else that I was once close to had either died out or escaped my reach. It has become clear to me that I am damned to die alone, as if an unholy vice has clamped onto my gut- an anchor dragging me to the very depths of an ocean made of all the innocent blood that I have collected over my career. Of all the families that I have shred unto scattered viscera using my very own forsaken hands. I do not deserve the fabled viking funeral. Nothing I have done has been worthy of any honour. I have sacrificed nothing to get here; to the throne perched upon a hill of familiar corpses. Perhaps the worst of it all is that I still don't know what I do it for. Why do I keep at this? Why don't I just follow in his footsteps? Finish the job that he started? Is it the well being of the subjects that now serve beneath me that I keep going? That might excuse why I might stay alive now, but what has kept me going until that point? It remains an enigma to me, one that I know is just a hair inch beyond my fingertips, taunting and provoking me with every step of the way. This is the district that I've lived in ever since I first came to City 17. No matter my different assignments, save my previous tenure in City 38, I never requested for a relocation. I even pulled enough strings to ensure that a relocation would not occur. This is my sanctuary. The only place that, for even if just for a short time, the screams stop and the bullets do not fire. The boots do not stomp and the violence enters the back of my mind in utter bliss. Due to the nature of my job and my newfound responsibilities, I have taken poor care of it since my transfer. The wallpaper has begun to peel, the heater has broken, a nest of pigeons has roosted within my broken refrigerator, and a leak in the ceiling had ruined the carpet so bad that I had no other choice but to rip it all out and stick with the bare floorboards. I still haven't gotten the chance to repair it, so I often entice my laziness and utter disregard of my horrible procrastinator habits by simply placing a bucket underneath the hole. By the time I finally return home for the month it's usually flown over with acid rain. I've painted enough canvases in my time in this city to fill a whole museum. Often times the passing officers will pillage through and take the better works, causing me to both stash them in secret or chase down the burglar once I returned to my uniform. They're the last tangible bit of peace I have left, I wouldn't want anyone to take them from me. It was the closest thing I could make of a home that I never had. 8. Eclipsed Spoiler Lauren nods to 58572, gesturing at the body. "Now?" Her expression's of interest: her eyes settled on his green sockets. "What is your purpose for her?" 58572 would be smiling, a rare action transformed into mythical due to his mask. He settles a hand on Lauren's shoulder and guides her out of the room, a troop of stalkers pacing by them just as they exited. Strange that they'd show up, when had he called for them? "Do not worry, Lauren. She will serve us well." The one before me had died. Like a defunct program, she was purged from the system and replaced. It was exactly what 33404 had said: This department is as immortal as the Union is. And now, I too am immortal. A perfect being, molded by my very Commander to be without flaw. Constructed from scratch to serve a direct and singular purpose. This division had been plagued with foul leadership far before the former inhabitant of my physical host was drafted in. Defectors, incompetent fools far too clouded with their own humanities to comprehend the important matters of dissecting malignancy piece for piece. Often times, they too were corrupted by the very same strand of ignorance that has swept across the cities. An epidemic of far less grand measures. To think that after all they have seen they still would fall victim to such and tempt fate with a force of nature is almost absurd. But it is not unheard of, nor impossible. In fact, it is precisely why recruitment is a very narrow route from civil protection to intelligence. The operations this division in specific often conducts exposes them to the flaws of man, the imperfections of form and the follies of the impure. To the mundane and simple minded, these hindrances become enticing- homely, even. And they too begin to slip and fall unto the very darkness that previously enveloped this world, eleven years and seven hours ago. A candidate for recruitment filed into my office, several dawns after my ascent. His chest was void of irons, medals or trinkets. Physical proof of their duty and loyalty, or lack thereof. His uniform was recently sewn, boots scratchless without wear. Either he was orderly and proper or he was unseasoned. With my given knowledge, prior to browsing his file, I imagined the latter. I was reading a fresh report from a field operative when he began his prattle. He spoke with a full mouth, blatant and out of line. To think he was one digit away from an auxiliary commander, I found myself questioning the capability of his commanding officer. He spat out his resume; self-proclaimed skills and irrelevant experiences. I spoke naught, letting him spill out bullet point after bullet point of how he was supposedly capable for reassignment. I don't recall catching at his serial identification. I don't even recall so much as looking at him. Eventually, I grew bored of his monologue. I rose a hand, ushering him away and out the doorframe from my chamber. He caught on rather quickly that I had become tired of him and he were better to try his chances in the ranks of the infantry. A sigh filtered through, coaxed in white noise and melancholy. How arrogant.