Prologue: Brothers Apart
Two women bearing children in their final trimester lived worlds apart. Both were experiencing contractions and coming to the realisation that their child was ready to enter the world. Neither knew of the other’s condition, nor in fact that they even existed. Nearly everything about them was of stark contrast. One was surrounded by family and in the best possible care known to modern day science. The other was alone, scared and without any form of pain relief. The first lived in luxury amongst the highest echelons of society. The second lived in poverty within the slums of a forgotten people. One flourished in the new world, while the other fought to survive in the old. There was one thing they had in common, one person that connected them across the thousands of miles that lay between them. They shared the father of their unborn child.
* * *
Alisa was full term. She was under the care of the top medical specialists around with state of the art technology to hand. All aspects of her unborn child’s life had been monitored from the point of conception. Any defects or unwanted hereditary conditions had been delicately removed and several genetic enhancements had already been carried out. This child would be born perfect and had less than zero point zero one per cent chance of suffering any traumatic or physical damage from the process of its entrance into the world.
She was a princess from a blood line stemming back long before the Fall of Man. She had been wed into the royal family of Gregor and subsequently the empires of New Atlantica. Her marriage continued an alliance that ran back centuries. Initially forged during a time where savage wars ran between old continents and family bonds could mean survival and dominance.
Alisa had always been beautiful, despite the continuous surgery she had put her body through. Her thick and long blonde hair was completely natural. It was a gift from her ancestors that proved an aggressive gene passed down through generations. As were her blue eyes and great facial bone structure. She was admired and adored across the new world, the people hung on her every word and followed her fashion religiously. She often joked with her husband that she held more influence than him and in some circles she certainly did. Her attendance at official events across the Free Cities was in high demand and she took every chance to extend her popularity.
Albert Gregor, husband to the pregnant princess, stood by her side. He was considered one of the most powerful men in the world, both in strength and influence. His name was of historic note. It was tied to the creation of mankind’s second chance and this was honoured through several lands, cities, statues and streets taking the name Gregor. For a king he was classed as middle aged at ninety six. His skin regeneration was strong and gave him a youthful appearance, thanks to years of cell enhancement. He let his hair and beard grow long and white as a sign of his experience and wisdom. The royal line had access to many enhancements that the kingdom did not, and the kingdom had many that the rest of the world was unaware of. Kings, however, could not live forever. Even with science as advanced as it was, he would expect to become less capable towards the end of his second century and that meant he needed children to continue his royal line. This child was to be their fourth child together, and their third boy.
Alisa lay on the medical bed, draped in pristine white robes. Slow rotating rings surrounded her, one above and one below her swollen belly. The rings were made of a translucent polymer that emitted a yellow glow that spilled across the room. They completed a full rotation once every natural contraction, but they could also help slow down or speed up her cycles too. The rings performed a number of medical operations throughout the birthing process. They could administer several forms of pain relief for both mother and child. They controlled muscle movement, held the position of the unborn child and projected detailed information through a holographic display for the accompanying specialists. The rings currently held the baby in position, poised to be delivered in the safest way possible. Alisa was calm and her thoughts were collected. She felt no pain or discomfort. Her body was regulated by an implant that sat deep in her parietal lobe; this implant’s purpose was to mask pain and manage the body’s sensations from temperature to tranquillity.
The Parietal Core was one enhancement that all New Atlanticans were allowed. It was a microchip processor, implanted deep into the host’s parietal lobe, in their brain. It allowed the user to override their body’s chemical reactions through a series of trained thoughts and memories. The trick was to associate the commands with mental images that were personal to you and unlikely to exist in reality. Incorrectly coloured fruit was a popular approach. Need a burst of adrenaline during that game of sport? Just call up that image of the purple banana. Feeling tired after a long day and need a boost? Just think of those blue grapes.
The user could customise their mental attachments by seeing their family doctor, a simple procedure would allow them to re-assign new memories. Generally you kept your own visual references to yourself, otherwise you were at risk of someone being able to force you into triggering a reaction at an inappropriate time. Imagine a tough business meeting where you need to be sharp and fight your corner, but your adversary has discovered your mental associations. Just at the right moment he pulls out a genetically modified blue apple and takes a bite into it. Although not a common sight, the rest of the room thinks nothing more of it, but your body has injected a large amount of compassion into your system and you end up making a bad decision. Skilled conmen had been known to pull these tactics off with the art of word, making the trick even less obvious to those around them. Now imagine the same trick being pulled in the midst of battle. Keeping your commands private could mean life or death.
Composure was deemed an important persona across the Free Cities. It was considered poor manners to lose one’s temper, become a nervous wreck during public engagements or become overly upset when receiving bad news. Of course, what you did behind closed doors was to each their own. Some turned their Parietal Cores off so they could experience their natural emotions from time to time. To some this was too risky, leaving them feeling out of control and exposed. Others would purposely dial up certain emotions during sport to increase their drive to win. This was one of the most common enhancements found across the new world and one of the few that was not limited to just the royal line.
* * *
Danika sat on the dark mud floor, several thousand miles away from the father of her child. A dim, slow burning candle barely lit the walls of her dank underground dwelling. She was alone, scared and in pain. Her child was not due for at least four weeks, but her body was aggressively telling her different. She had been well instructed for a situation like this by the town’s midwifery. She knew there was nothing that could be done for the pain, but it was imperative that she alert someone to get help in case the baby needed to be delivered.
Danika was of Eastern decent, her blood line had been watered down over the years, but she had retained several visible traits of her heritage. Her slim frail build was offset by her enormous pregnant belly, her jet black hair had been cut short to remove the need to maintain it and her pale complexion was even more enhanced from her body’s state of shock.
She only had her younger sister to help her. The rest of their family had been lost to various illnesses and wars over the years. They lived out in the desert together, known as The Scratch, in the subterranean levels of Dryton. The Scratch was a barren and dry land. Endless desert ran for thousands of miles with communities mostly hidden underground. The majority of the land was unable to bear life in its poisoned ground. This led to food, water and radiation medication being precious commodities and highly sought after.
Condensed water pills were the easiest to come by, the new world had flooded the market with the tiny silver balls ever since they worked out how to purify and compress sea water. Then came the various types of medication, this was often expensive and watered down by dealers in order to expand their profits. Poorer societies were often familiar to radiation burns and bad health. The hardest to find was good food, many unsavoury substitutes were available and often aided the abundance of sickness. Real meat was rare and considered a delicacy to most Scratch dwellers.
Dryton was a typical Scratch dwelling; poverty was rife and illness a common sight. Like most surviving communities in this land, Dryton was situated on a small wealth of resource. Once upon a time the area sported a river and although now dry, diamonds had been embedded in its banks. Diamonds were still of good value in certain parts of the world. This had led to the town being fought over and run by numerous tyrants over the years. The inhabitants never capitalised on the resource themselves, but it meant work and a chance of survival.
Her sister, Nanika, had rushed off that morning due to some commotion in the town square above ground and had not returned since. It was drawing close to midday and the sun was starting to warm the underground chambers unbearably. Sweat poured from every part of Danika’s body, she was dehydrated, her throat was so dry it hurt to swallow. Every time she tried to sit up her head spun, leaving her nauseous, so she lay on her back trying to pace her breathing, trying to count in her head to calm her uncontrollable shaking.
* * *
King Albert Gregor stood to the side of his wife. His famous light blue armoured suit stood alone and stationary outside the facility’s main entrance. It was rare for a king to be unsuited outside of his personal chambers, but it was not deemed appropriate for any means of war craft or aggression to be present during the birth of a child. When worn, his armour made him a god amongst men, granting him immense strength and near immortality. The king, however, was a mighty presence with or without his suit. He towered nearly ten feet in height and was of exceptional muscular build. He turned to Doctor Zane Petrs, who in comparison looked a bag of bones and of an average height of only six and a half feet. “Are we ready,” he asked the doctor.
Zane was the chief medical officer at Quanticore, the highest ranking medical professional in the new world. He was also the royal family’s personal doctor. He was a lean man, not built for fighting, but held his own through intellect and wisdom. There were few people willing to question his guidance, even within the royal line. He wore a pair of thick black rimmed glasses and always carried with him a small notepad and pencil. Neither were needed in the new world, but Zane had a thing for history and insisted that everyone could learn a little by observing the population’s old ways. He studied his scribbled notes, before looking up at the king.
“Everything is in check, sire,” the doctor replied. “If Lady Alisa is okay for us to start then we will bring the young prince into this new world.” He looked at Alisa with a questioning gaze and she nodded back at him. “Right then, off we go. You know the drill, of course, let me know if you feel any pain and we’ll remotely boost your Parietal Core. You will feel a tugging sensation as the rings control your muscle movement, please don’t try to resist it.” The doctor gave the princess a reassuring smile before moving down to the rings.
“Activate natal gesturing,” he commanded to the rings as he held both hands out in front, palms cupped as if he was holding something precious. A thin blue veil of light projected at the doctor and washed up and down over both hands. The light switched to a green colour for half a second before fading away. “Start holo-delivery,” the doctor commanded as he watched the holographic projection of the unborn child overlaid between the rings. Two blue hands appeared on the projection, cradling the babe. As Zane moved and repositioned his extended arms, the holographic representation mimicked him, gently coercing the unborn child’s movement towards delivery. The rings were moving faster now and had turned green to indicate that the princess’s dilation was appropriate for birth.
* * *
Danika screamed as she rolled off the bed and onto all fours. She reached down with a trembling arm and tore off her wet underwear, throwing the sodden shreds against the wall. This child is coming whether it’s ready or not, she thought to herself. “Help me,” she shouted at the closed door to her room. No one will bloody hear me from here, she cursed at herself. She stiffened both arms and started crawling towards the door in between the cycles of pain.
She reached the crude wooden door and let out a cry of frustration as she stretched up to open it. The pain intensified as she slipped, clawing at the rough wood and tearing her fingertips. The cycles are getting shorter, she thought, I have to get out of here. She unleashed a muffled scream through gritted teeth as she lunged once more for the door handle. She found it this time and hung from it using her body weight to force it open.
As the door widened fully it dawned on her that she should have let go as it dragged her off balance and slammed her back to the floor. She lay on her side trying to steady her breathing. Her head lay against the warm mud floor, flakes of dirt littered her nostrils and lips from the impact. She gathered her strength as the pain moved through a lesser intense period. From her line of sight, she could see shadows running back and forth behind the cloth curtain that separated the next room and the communal tunnels. She took a deep breath in preparation to shout once more for help. She broke out into a coughing fit as her lungs filled with particles of dust. With her face now covered in mud and spittle, she shouted with all her strength, this time at the cloth curtain. “Someone… help… me!”
It suddenly became apparent to her that she was not the only one shouting. A sea of distant screams and shouts were flooding back through the small divide. What in raining fire is happening out there, she thought as she struggled to make out any words from the incoming noise.
She wiped the sweat from her brow and rolled back up onto all fours. If I can’t understand them, then they surely can’t hear me, she informed herself. She started to crawl towards the next door, a heavier one made from metal to protect the dwelling from unwanted visitors. Another bout of pain flowed through her body and she crumbled back to the floor. So this is how I die, is it? she cursed at herself.
* * *
Alisa lay on the bed, still very much calm and collected. “How long will the augmentation take, once he is out?” she asked lifting her head to ask the doctor with a hint of boredom. “I want to get the birth ceremony out the way as quickly as possible.”
The doctor cocked his head with a grin and paused for a moment as his hands controlled the delivery. “The child is nearly out, my lady, and the augmentations have already been set,” he said reassuring her. “Our natal-ring technology has improved since your last visit. Studies showed us that it is less invasive to set the implants during birth than afterwards. No need to double up on the child’s traumatic experiences when we can simply get it all out of the way at once.”
He turned back to the holographic projection as his hands gently made the final pull. A nurse cradled the baby as it finally left the support of the mother’s body.
Zane turned to a table at his side and picked up a large pair of golden decorated scissors encrusted with jewels. He turned to the king and presented them to him laid out across his open palms. “By tradition, sire.”
Albert turned and looked to the doctor, his eyes slowly fell from his face to the decorative tool. He reached out to take the scissors, hand poised above the oversized handles as he muttered under his breath. “Hello again, old friend.” A flood of memories washed over him from the births of his previous three children. He turned to the new born boy and lifted up the umbilical cord. “I welcome you into the new world, Prince Aidan Samuel Gregor.” He cut the cord and handed the scissors back to the doctor as the nurses took the baby prince to clean and wrap.
Doctor Petrs walked back to Alisa. “The rings are just removing the afterbirth and cleaning you up inside, would you like them to resize your bump while they’re at it?” He smiled as he gestured to the rings that were whirling at twice their previous speed.
“I hear it is all the trend to carry your post birth bump these days,” Alisa informed the doctor, “I think I’ll try keeping it for a day or two.” She turned her head towards her husband. “We can’t have the public thinking the royal line is out of touch with society now, can we dear.” She gave him a crude smile knowing full well her husband was particularly bad at keeping up with social trends.
The doctor chuckled turning to meet the King’s unimpressed gaze. “Very well,” he said removing the smirk from his face. He turned back to the rings and gestured a double-handed swipe, one fist open the other closed. The rings reacted by sliding to the end of the medical bed and slowing to a stop. “De-activate natal gesturing,” he commanded once more to the device and turned back to Alisa. “You’re all set, bump and all, wear it proud, Your Highness,” he said smiling to her.
Alisa shifted her body and slid her feet to the floor as she sat upright. “Come, Alby, we must get dressed for the ceremony, the people will be expecting a show.”
* * *
Danika had hauled her body across the floor to the door separating her chambers from the communal hallway. A thick trail of blood soaked mud told the story of her struggle so far. She had indeed lost a lot of it, she felt weak and numb, her joints were starting to ache and her extremities felt cold and heavy. Her head felt slow and clouded; she had to fight to keep concentrated on her task at hand. Even her eyes felt heavy and her sight seemed dull; colour had almost disappeared from her, leaving a world of dark grey tones.
She pulled herself up the rough metal door and reached for the handle. Her fingers fumbled at the latch, she struggled as they clumsily failed several attempts before finally unhooking the bolt. Her head gave in and flopped forward against the door with a soft thud, she rolled away onto the adjacent wall and let her body slump down to the floor. As the weight of her body shifted away, the door fell slightly ajar. She sat staring through the small crack letting her eyes adjust to the brightness as another cycle of pain hit her. She curled up and clenched both fists, even her feet and toes contorted trying to drain away the pain. She felt the baby move inside her as the pain eased slightly. She cranked her neck back against the wall and looked through the opening. She could see people running up and down the corridor, knocking each other aside and shouting in panic. They’re wielding weapons, she thought to herself, we’re under attack. Her face grimaced and she screamed louder than ever, it’s coming and we’re fucking under attack, her mind raced as she desperately thought what to do.
* * *
Tallaen had slayed two dozen foes since entering the tunnels of Dryton. Evidence of his actions had left a trail of broken bodies and blood splatter along his path. He was an artist in combat, trained in dual wielding swordplay. He had almost danced his way down to the first subterranean floor. Unfortunately for his foes, they had lacked combat training entirely. Tallaen had guessed they were probably simple town dwellers told to find a weapon and fend for themselves. He had cut through them like sand, gently twisting and turning from one to the next, occasionally flicking out a sword to shed the accumulated blood.
Tallaen sheaved both blades as the town dwellers stood around him in surrender. He was tall compared to Scratch dwellers and muscular in a lean fashion. He wore a full set of black leather armour with no helm, his long black hair tied in a series of bands down his back. He favoured agility and visibility over defence and protection, trusting in his abilities to strike first every time.
He stood tall and crossed his arms as he scanned his audience. “You all need to assemble above ground, you will not be harmed anymore if you do this. You will continue to live in this town under Souza rule and honour the almighty Godfather Piero Palio.” The people stood in silence as they slowly digested his words. A few looked to each other trying to gauge their thoughts. One by one they started to move past him, their crude weapons abandoned and sprawled across the ground.
Tallaen gazed at the empty cavern, he felt a little sad that the fighting was over. It had all felt a little too easy. Surely taking control of a whole township should be more challenging than this.
“Tal,” a female voice called out from a tunnel entrance back up the corridor, “come look at this.”
Tallaen turned and moved towards the dimly lit entrance. “What ya found, Maraella?” he called out into the darkness, his voice echoed and rattled around the curved tunnels.
“A baby,” Maraella replied as she stepped out of the passageway and into the light, cradling a collection of clothed rags in her arms. Her head hung low, staring intensely at the child with her long blood-red hair spilling over her shoulders. A show of wonderment lay upon her face. “Newborn… the mother must have given birth during all this, poor helpless bitch!”
“Well,” Tallaen replied suspiciously, “why have you taken the bloody babe from its poor forsaken mother, Maraella?” He stared at her incredulously as she seemed to ignore his question and continued to gaze into the rags. “Maraella!” he snapped at her.
“She’s torn apart,” she replied shrugging her shoulders. “Literally parts of her hanging out that shouldn’t be, blood everywhere!” She extended her free arm, fingers delicately dancing to depict trails of bodily parts. I took mercy on her and ended her miserable life, but this one,” she held the baby up to Tallaen showing him its face for the first time, “this one’s a fighter, I say we give him to the nursery. They’ll make a soldier out of him for us.” Her face was beaming with excitement.
Bloody psychopath, Tallaen thought to himself, she’s just murdered countless innocent victims, but gets excited about some motherless newborn baby. He looked her squarely in the eyes trying to read her true intentions. “Very well,” Tallaen spoke, “but he is your responsibility until the nursery arrives tomorrow.” She nodded and shuffled off past him. “Oh, Maraella,” he called out to her before she reached the end of the corridor, “I am not having this town think of us as child killers. I’m serious, the kid is your responsibility now!” She stuck her middle finger up at him as she disappeared into the darkness.
Chapter 1: The Desert Walker
Jojo sat crouched, her padded knee resting down on the blistering hot desert floor. She faced a small building amidst an endless sea of sand in all directions. Today the sky was a moody yellow with overcast shades of orange, a constant reminder of the poisonous radiation field embedded in the atmosphere.
Jojo had lived in The Scratch her entire life, she had grown up on the streets with her twin brother Rafa, being passed from merchant to merchant as they worked for scraps of food and shelter. Although being the same age, Jojo had always been the one to take care of her brother. She had always been the strong one, the one to take charge in a tricky situation, the one to fix things each time their lives fell apart. Her hardened exterior and rational thinking had led her to many challenging roles over the years. Right now, she was going to be leveraging all those years of experience, she was playing assassin.
The winds were stronger than usual, they blew her thick auburn hair across her face, leaving her with poor visibility as a flurry of sand peppered her camo cloak. The tiny grains bounced up and tapped against her protective breathing mask. She listened to the heavy sound of her breath coming through the filters. The mask was cumbersome, but it was the only tool she had on her to prevent a lung full of the radioactive sand. The cloak kept her well hidden. Its specially developed material automatically adapted to its surroundings and the desert was not exactly a tough challenge to mimic.
She had not moved position for six hours as she watched patiently at the outpost. The building looked abandoned in the sand storm, apart from a lone vehicle parked to the side of the front entrance. The vehicle most likely belonged to her target, a sand skimmer, designed for long speedy journeys over vast desert planes. It was a nice model too, not too many of these were seen this far out from the new world. Twin turbine jets for speed and six point deflectors for added manoeuvrability. She had already decided that it would be her ride home.
Her reports all lead her to believe that the target would be here inside that building right now. Her intelligence read that he routinely checked up on the company’s productivity all the way out here in The Scratch. The target was Sanders Corporation sentinel class. This above all else meant augmentation and good tech-grade armour. The term ‘tech’ referring to the scientifically advanced equipment often granting the bearer superhuman attributes. He probably had a decent side arm or sword too. Not necessarily smart though, most of the smart ones gained promotion quick and wouldn’t have landed themselves with routine missions all the way out here.
The other officers inside would be standard Sanders guard class, average gear all round. You don’t need special abilities all the way out here; the people are poor, weak and easy to keep under control. Even the most influential gangs are lucky to have a tech-grade weapon between them. She had seen no evidence of augmentations during her travels in The Scratch.
She felt calm. She had this job under control. All targets were dangerous if not considered carefully, this one could potentially be deadly if they were fighting on equal ground. This is why surprise would be key, especially if she were to collect his chips safely.
She assumed this was the purpose for most of her missions: to collect augmentations and take out Sanders trash along the way. Augmentations came in many shapes and sizes, but most commonly they came in the form of microchip implants, buried in the carrier’s brain. At least the ones she had encountered were.
The biggest challenge with collecting chips was removing them before it worked out the owner had died. All the modern ones had what was known as the Anti Chip-Jack Mechanism. This allowed the device to monitor the carrier’s vitals. If the chip suspected the owner had died then it would initiate a self-destruct routine. This process often fried everything inside the skull, leaving the eyes and ears smoking.
She was trained not to question the reasoning behind her target’s termination, but this one would be easy for her to carry out. Jojo’s report had given her the target’s background. He had a reputation back in the Burrows. Nicknamed Blunt, his full name and title was Sentinel Len Chambers. The likelihood was that he would be grilling the stationed guards right now. He embraced his responsibilities with a little too much zeal, often using brutality as his means of persuasion. One report claimed he butchered thirty five Burrow dwellers in an uncovered refuge. All men, women and children had been hacked apart. Some had been members of Jojo’s resistance. Not warriors like her. They had been scientists and healers. Thankfully the occupants managed to collapse the tunnels before connected settlements were found.
She took a long deep breath and exhaled slowly. It was time to make use of her cranial augmentations. She activated her Occipital Core by thinking of a familiar object; a tin cup containing a red dice with white dots appeared in her mind’s eye. Inside the cup, the dice sat still showing a single white dot. This was a common choice of visualization for users of the chip, but generally you could train yourself to use any custom representation. Her brother had once told her that he had chosen a clock face, using specific times to initiate each function.
A wealth of numbers and values appeared across her vision, visible only to her. Her vitals at first, showing heartbeat, blood make up, breathing, tiredness, hunger and hydration. She focused back on the tin cup in her mind again. Four. The dice rolled from the tin cup, bounced once, twice and stopped on a four. The values in her vision started altering, at first spinning into chaos, but quickly settling into an array of positional data. She could see that she faced south by southeast, one hundred and thirty five feet from the compound that shielded the target. She could see the layout of the building too. The internal floor plans showed entry and exit points all based on the latest intelligence. Heat signatures and vibration overlays were weak in this weather, but indicated to her that someone was coming close to the exit point. She waited, silently, hidden under her cloak. She drummed up a new image, blue apple, she thought as she pictured the incorrectly coloured fruit in her mind. She had just accessed the second chip buried deep in her brain, her Parietal Core. This chip could override her body’s chemical balance and manage her pain receptors.
The door to the compound swung open, fighting with the strong winds. Out stepped a tall man with long blond hair that whipped about his face. He wore a white tech-grade suit and cloak, it looked good quality for combat protection. His suit branded a black ‘S’ emblem on his left breast, the association of a Sanders Corporation sentinel officer. He stood there scanning the landscape for a moment, two guards stood just behind him, much less glamorous in appearance. He muttered something about the weather. The audio was not entirely clear to Jojo, but he said something about the storm. He took several steps towards the parked sand skimmer. The other two turned away and started walking back to the building entrance.
Blue apple, she commanded in her mind’s eye. She felt her pulse slow down, a cold sensation dripped down the back of her neck and a familiar foul taste materialised in the back of her throat. She pulled the sniper rifle from over her shoulder and held it up to her face. Her right eye focused through the simple optic, her Occipital Core gave her all the information she needed. Six, the dice toppled over onto the number six. A crosshair lit up overlaying her vision, offset to counter the wind from the storm and the movement of the target. Her breathing was so slow she could barely feel the air touch her throat. She aimed at his right shoulder, the same side that his pistol was holstered on. She didn’t want to kill him yet and taking out his right arm would greatly reduce his ability to attack in case close quarters combat was required.
Her finger gently stroked the trigger and the weapon fired. The recoil instantly punched the rifle backward. She nursed the movement by pushing up the weapon’s muzzle. It flipped over her shoulder and landed neatly on her back. At the same time she pushed down on her right leg to lift her body into a charge. To Jojo this all felt like it happened in slow motion due to the chemical enhancement running through her veins.
Black apple. A burning sensation made its way down the back of her neck, followed by her body feeling supercharged. Each muscle in her arms and legs felt over whelmed with strength. Every stride she took carried her faster towards her target. She glanced at the heads up display, through her vision, knocking down from one hundred to ninety feet. The target was still falling backward towards the ground from the impact of the shot. The two guards had stopped in their tracks, but still faced away from her charge. Seventy feet. Her hands punched through the air, the target’s head lifted slightly trying to see its foe, eyes sluggish. Fifty feet. Her right hand broke rhythm and reached round to the left side of her waist. She found the cold, hard hilt of her blade. Thirty feet. Her fingers slid down gripping firm and pulled the weapon from its sheath. The target hit the floor, plumes of sand scattered out around him. One of the guards started to turn towards the sound of the collapsed body. She adjusted her trajectory to reach him first. Compressing her weight down on her right leg she launched into the air and kicked off the guard’s chest, sending her back towards the target, blade now poised in the air above her head. Down came her blade with awesome speed, hitting the target just below the jaw. It entered the neck with ease and then crunched through the spine, severing the spinal cord. A quick and clean kill. No time for last words or justification, no time for the culprit’s brain to comprehend death. No time for his chips to trigger a self-destruct.
Both guards, one still standing, the other on the floor, were stunned at what had just happened in such a short space of time. Their bodies failed them with shock, waiting for the other to make a move first.
She was knelt over the target. Her hand was still gripped tightly to the hilt of her sword that pinned his dead body to the ground. Without getting up, she turned her attention to the two guards. Her instructions were clear; kill the target, collect the implant, avoid any further confrontation. She had her mask on, her identity was protected. She let go of her blade and got up to confront them both.
“I have my target, leave me!” she said firmly at the guard she had knocked to the ground. Seconds felt like minutes going by to her. Change the dates, make a decision already, she thought.
“They’ll be tracking this, they’ll know if we don’t at least attempt to capture her,” the standing guard said to the other.
“You saw what she just did, unless you’re holding out on some brain tech I don’t know about, I give us zero chance of walking away from trying that!” the other guard replied still laying on the floor.
She didn’t need an answer. She knew when cowardice had set in when it came to collateral damage. She turned back to the target, placed her boot on his forehead and grabbed his long blond locks. She wrenched her blade free dispersing a small fountain of blood shimmering through the air. Removing her boot she lifted the head up by its hair and examined the ears and eyes. No sign of cranium burn out… that’s a relief. She extended her blade to arms length and decapitated the target with a quick strike, allowing the body to slump back to the ground.
“Scorched forests!” the first guard cried. “Let’s just get the fuck out of here!”
“Agreed,” the second guard said faintly, starting to get back to his feet as if hoping not to be noticed.
She let the head hang from her left hand, sheathing her blade with her right and turned to look at the sand skimmer. Time for a ride, she told herself as she lifted her leg over and straddled the saddle. She ran her free hand over the centre console, this was nothing like her vintage skimmer back at base. This was a modern contraption, the upholstery was genetically printed cow hide, the saddle automatically moulded to her thighs, the console dials were overindulgent and elaborate. This was the opposite of her skimmer back home. She had re-built it countless times, each time stripping it down, making it lighter, making it faster, removing unnecessary parts and driving the most out of what was left. No… this was an impressive vehicle, but all Jojo could see was the fat and the useless junk it was wrapped in that would slow it down.
She charged up the twin turbine jets and smiled as the dull drone slowly increased in pitch. She reached back and punched open one of the two compartments placed either side of the rear deflector. Jojo tossed the head in and slammed the lid down with her fist. She turned back and dropped the skimmer into gear. Leaving the outpost and the two guards in a ferocious cloud of swirling dust.
The skimmer roared across the desert flats on a cushion of soft air. Jojo couldn’t feel a single bump from the terrain below, if she closed her eyes she could have mistaken the vehicle for being stationary. She hated it, she wanted to feel the vehicle’s power, feel the fight of the twin jet engines pushing against the sand below. This ride felt too manipulated, its six point deflectors being controlled by the computer to give a perfect manoeuvre every time. Her own skimmer was raw; you needed skill to get the most out of it and if you didn’t respect her limits she would bite you.
* * *
Doctors Farren Kleint and Jeffers Deisse were soldiers of science. The war they waged and the efforts they dedicated their lives to were essential to the Falco resistance, but their fight was carried out away from confrontation and the front line. They were doctors, surgeons and scientists who specialized in the art of augmentation. They were also Ex-Atlantican, turncoats and outcasts from the luxuries of the new world, their laws and their beliefs.
Farren had been exposed smuggling out radiation medication and condensed consumables through Freedoms Pass. The passage of small islands and tectonic ridges was the primary connection between New Atlantica and The Scratch. An electro-magnetic monorail, called Sky Rail, allowed fast passage for military personnel and materials to and from The Beard and The Eye. The Beard was the furthest reaching point, in New Atlantica, to The Scratch and was the landing point during the original settlement process. The Eye was a free trading centre and home to the tallest known tower in The Scratch, also referred to as The Eye. It allowed visibility for miles both into The Scratch and back across the Sky Rail. The free trading centre allowed Scratch merchants to trade scavenged materials for new world medication and sustenance. There was a constant struggle to suppress black market trading with smuggled goods traveling both ways across the border. Although Farren was only caught smuggling low-risk goods out of The Beard, it had still been deemed detrimental to the laws put in place to maintain peace and control, that’s what the courts had said. A network of smuggler runs spanning the lower level grounds of the connecting lands had been uncovered by the authorities and had led all the way back to Farren. He was stripped of his practising rights and banned from the Free Cities, forced to live out in the smaller trading villages along the Iron Ridge.
Jeffers had been caught operating on children of lower classes in the Free Cities. He was a long believer of equal abilities for children in the new world. He had campaigned for over a decade to fight for all children to have any learning impediment addressed, no matter what class or family they were born into. An equal start to achieving greatness, was their slogan. Unfortunately, fourteen years of campaigns that made little difference led Jeffers to go underground, building a secret clinic for underprivileged children. He and his team of like-minded professionals carried out countless procedures to give many children a fairer start in life. His operation was uncovered after five years of service. Because he had not charged for his work, the Supreme Court had taken leniency on Jeffers, but he had been stripped of his practicing rights and warned of continuing his campaign in any shape or form.
Farren looked at the scan of the dead man’s legs. A network of nano-lace was still embedded in both calf muscles. This is going to be tricky, Farren told himself as he stepped closer to the scan. He focused in on the replacement bone structure and analysed the joint setup. “This is a mess, we are going to have to cut away all the lacing and I have no idea if the augmented bone strut will re-bind and re-lace to the new subject.”
Jeffers was bent over the legs as he examined the muscle structure. “Agreed, it’s completely fused with the muscle,” he said as he made several incisions into the calf. “Yup,” Jeffers confirmed again. “Totally fucked up, it’s all got to go.”
Farren stepped away from the scan and faced Jeffers, who was still probing and dicing the calf muscle up. “You okay stripping it down while I head up top? One of the walkers is due in with a new harvest, with any luck we’ll have a new chip to play with.”
Jeffers waved his hand up without lifting his head and gestured for him to go. Farren pulled off his surgical gloves and mask and threw them in the bin. The gloves had left his hands feeling clammy, he nervously ran them through his ruffled mousey hair in an attempt to add some order to the craziness. He took one last glance at his reflection in the glass door and headed out the room to make his way to the surface of Burrow Four.
* * *
Jojo coasted across the desert flats, twin air jets only at half power. Burrow Four was somewhere on the horizon, about sixty seconds away. She was going to have to ditch the sand skimmer away from the burrow. This vehicle was certainly being tracked. They would analyse its journey from the outpost where she took it.
Jojo currently sported multiple augmentations and three tech devices; this made her in many ways super-human out in The Scratch. Two of these augmentations were about to come into play. The first was her Internal Stability Lace. This kept her internal organs secure and protected during high-impact situations. The other was her second-generation Skeletal Reinforcement Technology (known in the new world as SRT). Some newer versions could actually enhance muscle strength and agility. Jojo’s only strengthened her bones, allowing her to withstand higher impact.
Jojo pulled the mask off her face and tucked it away in her jacket. She triggered the skimmer’s cruise control and let go of the handlebars. She twisted her body around so she could reach the luggage compartment. She flipped it open and once again went to grab Blunt’s head. The hair was not blond anymore, streaks and patches of orange and red bloodied hair tangled with itself inside the compartment. She grabbed a damp fistful and twisted it round her fingers so that it would not slip. She carefully brought both feet up on to the saddle as she scanned the horizon. There she is, she thought as her Occipital Core overlaid the hidden entrance across her vision. She compressed her legs and leapt from the bike, the stabilization technology kept the sand skimmer going on without her. She briefly watched the bike shoot off as her momentum carried her upwards.
She changed her focus, calculated her landing spot and adapted her body position. There was no need to force a chemical change artificially. She could feel her body’s natural adrenaline kicking in. She touched down and fell into a controlled forward roll to cushion the impact. Her footing skidded a little as she came out of the roll and she lost her balance. She tumbled forward, slamming the side of her face into the desert floor. The rest of her body proceeded to overtake her and sent her into a flip, leaving her on her back with a face full of sand.
Jojo lay on her back staring up into the sky. She checked her vital signs through her occipital implant. No serious injuries. She turned her head and spat out a mouth full of sand, watching the dust cloud trailing off into the distance. Four, she thought as the dice in her mind rolled, bounced and settled showing four white dots. As the values overlaid on her vision danced into their new positions, a triangular lock fixated onto the now unmanned vehicle. Numbers flashed up to its side, indicating it was still traveling off in the same direction. She took a deep breath, got back up onto her feet and started walking. The burrow was only a hundred feet away.
* * *
Farren had been peering over the lip of Burrow Four and watched the approaching figure. He stepped up into the desert. “Jojo, my dear, welcome back!” he said with his arms open wide. She dropped the ball of bloodied hair and embraced him. “Good to have you back home, hun,” Farren said softly in her ear.
The resistance had brought them together. He had discovered that they both had been part of the same smuggling operations earlier in their lives. They never would have met back then. The operation was too compartmentalized. She drove runs across Freedoms Pass and he was tucked safely away in The Nest. They never would have got close to each other. Yet somehow they had ended up together, thanks to Dillan. Farren saw through the girl’s damaged past. He saw the passion she held for making a difference in this world. A passion, he felt, at least equal to his own.
She ended the embrace first. “That’s all yours, Doc,” she pointed back to the mess of hair that lay on the ground, “it looks intact, no signs of burn out. Is Isaac about? My augs need servicing again.”
Farren looked at her with a sympathetic gaze. “Are you in pain again?” He reached out and placed his hand on her right arm. He hated seeing her in pain. The first time he met her was on the operating table. Dillan had rescued Jojo and her twin brother after they had fallen into trouble with the local authority. She was pretty beat up and required surgery that Farren undertook and ever since then he couldn’t help but want to fix her. “What is it this time? Arms? Legs? Was it from that fall off the skimmer just now?”
She stared back at his helpless expression. Why does he always need to understand things, she thought in frustration. “It all hurts… it all, always, bloody hurts! You Reds just keep butchering our bodies and then mask it with more and more suppression drugs. This parietal chip in here must be on fucking overdrive!” She thumped the top of her head with her fist. “Parietal Core failure, I reckon that would be one hell of a way to go out!” Her barrage left Farren standing there speechless. “And another thing, hun, I didn’t fucking fall off the skimmer!” She strode past him and down into the burrow, leaving the head on the desert floor. She hated getting angry at him, he was her rock and her moral compass. Their love had been forged from a desire to change the world for the better. Jojo knew that relationships sometimes needed just as much work, but right now she just wanted to rest. I’ll make it up to him later, she promised herself.
Farren pulled a sterilized bag from his pocket and carefully placed it over the bloodied head. Should never have fallen in love with a walker, he chuckled to himself, picking up the bag. He turned the bag so that the face looked back at him. Let’s see what you’re hiding inside, shall we?