Bearing Humbler Gods

By R.J. Barna

Chapter 1

“…I’m gonna throw my hands up, wave around my red cup, shake it ‘til I throw up-
Gotta have my own way-ay-ay.
Skinny dipping in my girl’s pool. Pretty bitties make the boys drool. Only hurts to be so cool-
Gonna have my own say-ay-ay.
Let the other haters hate;
Tomorrow never comes, and all that matters is today…”

           The pilot’s arm casually swept over the console’s volume control between intended stops along the path of his routine startup sequence, turning the radio off as easily as he flipped ambiguous switches from red to green. The young woman sitting beside him beamed while not taking her eyes from the flickering diagnostics display in front of her. With a swift dart of her wrist, the song filled the cockpit once again. The pilot froze in place. He struggled to keep a rising smile at bay, locked within the twitching corners of his tightening lips.

            “This is my jam, Skip.”

                        “I’m sorry?”

            “This is my jam,” she repeated more loudly.

                        “I heard what you said, Gonzalez,” the pilot jabbed; “I meant that I’m sorry this garbage is your – what did you call it?”   

            “My jam,” she chuckled to herself. “My lita always says that.”

                        “…your gram with the tattoos?”

            “Everyone her age has tattoos,” she replied. Minimizing the running diagnostics, Gigi “Gluegun” Gonzalez, Stick mechanic of White Raven: Recon Zulu enlarged a family photo from a clutter of neglected icons scattered around the rim of her VI (virtual interface) Pad display and held it across the aisle for her partner to see. She also took the brief break from complex calculations to clear a single strand of dark-brown hair that had come loose from below the snug fit of her corporate ball-cap and rested in the crease at the corner of her dark-painted lips. “We’re together on the left…”

            Jay “Skip” Howard, also known by squad veterans as ‘the bus driver,’ ran one hand through his short, prematurely greying hair as he looked over the pic. He pursed his lips and shrugged before turning to look at her briefly and returning to his work. “You were blonde…” he muttered. Her silent retraction of the device encouraged him to elaborate further. “It’s just that the girl in the song you like is all about being herself no matter what anybody thinks, but then you try to be something else, right? You know… the hair… lipstick…”

            The slight satisfaction of knowing that Skip had noticed her new lipstick, the shade she had spent far too long tone-matching, was immediately displaced by defensive coyness. “But who is the girl really? Is she herself, or just who she thinks the boys want to see? Maybe she has to change in order to be herself…”

            Skip rolled his eyes and let them fall in Gigi’s direction. “I was just trying to say – I don’t know – that you don’t need to try so hard. It was supposed to be a compliment…”

            Gigi scoffed as she set down her VI-Pad on the polished smart-glass of the console in front of her and pulled a latch overhead. Light slipped into the dark cockpit as the solar shield lowered slowly from the front pane, locking into place with a soft clunk. She sat down again and crossed her legs, bare feet hanging out from beneath her knees and said, “She’s a trans anyway: the girl who sings the song.”

            “…so, he’s a trans.”

                        “No, she’s a trans.”

            “…so it’s a he-she or a she-he?”

                        “Does it matter?”

            Skip took a long breath and held it in his chest. Looking out from the now-unshielded cockpit window, he watched a gentle breeze play through the lush evergreens that lined the suburban streets outside the chain-linked fence that surrounded the landing pad in carefully decided increments between nearly identical condos. Soon, the streets would be congested with the beat-up white pickup trucks, rusty equipment, and orange traffic cones of competing lawn-care services, each regarded as inhuman obstacles in late-started morning commutes. He seemed to exhale with the world. An uneager orange sun ignited the worn horizon as breath escaped from slightly loosened lips. “Guess it only matters if she plans to write her name in the snow…”

            Gigi snorted.

            The narrow doorway behind them opened and a slim, but broad-shouldered woman in full tactical gear stepped through. She tightened one of her scuffed elbow pads with a gloved hand: fingerless at thumb and trigger finger. “Are you two grab-assing again?”

            “He’s certainly trying, Sergeant,” Gigi replied, turning to share a smile.

            Skip rolled his lips inward and held them tightly together.

            “I’ll get the hose if you can’t control yourself, Skipper,” Sergeant Hannah “Huck” Finley said as she gripped the pilot’s shoulders and pressed her warm, brown cheek against his ear. “Then we can make it a three-way,” she whispered with a low giggle.

            Skip shrugged off the playful advance with a casual demeanor immediately betrayed by steadily rising rouge in his cheeks, which he hoped to discount as an effect of the morning sunlight. Failing to adequately voice the reply several times, he simply mumbled, “I swear; I will crash this bird and take you all with me…”

            “Was that a threat? That sounded like a threat! Sergeant, I feel threatened,” Gigi goaded him, earning a rapid but brief exchange of antagonistic eye contact.

            “The way he flies,” the Sergeant smiled and squeezed the pilot’s coiled shoulders before stepping away, “I’d say it’s a promise. How’re we looking, Skipper? The new bird, I mean…”

            Skip swallowed hard. “Can’t say I’m a fan of the new bird, Sarge. It’s twice as big as our last helo with half the space inside.”

            “I’m with the Skipper on this one,” Gigi added, craning her neck to look up at her XO. “Had to strap the P.O.F.s (personal ordinance frames) to the roof…”

            “Can’t say I’m happy about that either,” Huck agreed. “It would be nice to have our heavies ready on deployment instead of getting buttoned up in the field. The new Bob picked it out. Thinks it looks tough, I guess…”

            “I’ll take practicality over Johnson-compensation any day. And what’s with all the flashing lights and decals all over the outside?”

            “Do you ever have anything positive to say, Skip?”

            The pilot smirked and replied without hesitation. “New Bob is really great at making bad decisions…”

                        “Ha!”

            “Would’ve been nice if the prick asked the guy flying it before making the buy.”

                        “Or the chica fixing it. Half of the parts are metric. Half!”     

             “Good thing you aren’t a pair of useless Schmuckatellis,” Huck interrupted the momentum of their cooperative rant. She knew, in her position, it was best to side-step them than risk standing on either side. The back-handed compliment seemed to satisfy, though she knew it was a temporary fix. Huck certainly had her doubts about the new boss, Robert Zydeck, who after two years of seeming invisibility, had suddenly emerged to flex his executive muscle: new helo, new uniforms, new hires, and invented positions: none particularly practical or informed. For the op at hand, a personnel retrieval from hostile territory with a seemingly endless supply of unknowns to consider, she was fortunate that he had placed his faith in her command, or at least, kept his doubts to himself. Whether or not it was an effort to avoid culpability, Huck didn’t care. When it came to uncertain situations, she didn’t want a stiff-collared suit calling the shots. She may not be in the Corps anymore, but she was Semper Gumby: forever flexible. “Time to dust-off?”

            “A quick-minute, Sargeant,” Skip answered. “Just syncing our course with local air-comms. Gotta wait for a window in the drone fog. Five a.m., you know: deliveries going out.”

            “All systems, greenish. Never can tell when you don’t buy American,” Gigi added.

            Huck stood silently by and allowed the last barb to pass without acknowledgement, but made sure to smile just in case Gigi turned to her for some. A deep rumble began to well up through the steel floor plating as the helo’s dual Toshiba bladeless rotors powered up overhead. A green light flashed on the smart-glass beside a three-dimensional hologram of the transport and its surrounding area, including an erratic swarm of tiny triangles, drones, whizzing overhead.

            “Good to go, Sarge.”

            After a quick rear glance through the open cockpit door, the Sargeant ordered, “Punch it.”

            “10-4.” With practiced ease, the pilot engaged both foot pedals and angled the center stick back with one hand while slowly increasing the digital controls for thrust with the other. Dappled coats of dew shook free from the hard rectangular lines of the virgin helo’s freshly-waxed finish, leaving a brief opalescent shower below. The phrase, “PIG STY,” keyed crudely through to the primer of the ground-facing deployment door, was visible briefly. Haloed by the glittering haze, the blocky helo was airborne for the first time on official business. “Handles like Gigi’s grandma,” he mumbled in spite of his apparent ease.  

            “You would know,” his partner snipped back, her eyes darting quickly between Skip and the data displayed in easy-to-read charts foregrounding rapidly scrolling lines of code on her console. “ETA forty minutes, Sarge.”

            With a nod, Huck turned from the cockpit and closed the door behind her. Keeping her arms tense and at the ready, she waited between storage lockers with one knee braced on the frame of the unoccupied bathroom until the tilted floor of the ascending helo leveled out. The last thing she needed was to slide down into the cargo hold and lose face in front of the Stick, especially so considering that two of Zydeck’s clandestine hires were along for the ride. From her position, only her squad’s heavies strapped in against the rear wall, Catchphrase and Oldman, had a line of sight to her. The first was passing the time flipping between unnecessarily abbreviated texts from his latest girlfriend, nude pics of his last, and a pirated holovid, while the latter was pretending to sleep so as to avoid having to talk to the former. Huck twisted to adjust the fit of her ballistic vest beneath her new, black polyester polo, emblazoned at the left breast with “Cray and Zydeck” in gold. The floor settled beneath her, and after giving up on trying to contain the ever-dampening hotspot at the small of her back, Huck marched into the trooper hold.

            On either side of a drop floor framed by black and yellow caution tape, and illuminated by red running lights and the flicker of lazily handled VI-Phones were the remaining ten members of Recon Zulu. The Stick, an airborne squad dubbed White Raven by the company’s founder, Robert Cray, was actually the only ‘organic field asset’ employed by Cray and Zydeck (formerly Cray Solutions). As with the majority of private security firms currently in service, surveillance was carried out and recorded by thousands of drones. Observations were automatically recorded onto secure clouds and reviewed only as needed by a skeleton staff whose only other duty was to alert someone else in the event of any suspected emergency. When a drone lost contact with HQ, however, human technicians had to be sent to retrieve and repair them. After the dozen-or-so muggings of unarmed repairmen, the company decided that activating an armed response was more cost efficient than a growing queue of employee compensation claims, and so, Recon Zulu was formed, though seldom operates under its prescribed function.

            Huck stepped out into the center of the bay and activated the VI-Pad mounted to her wrist. Aside from two cleanly-shaved, heavy-set men sitting together sipping coffees (Zydeck’s men: Roberts Murphy and Barker: two new Bobs to add to the herd), the Stick looked on with red-eyes and stubbly faces, bitter from their ninth hour of unannounced overtime. As if they hadn’t been bitter enough to begin with. The entire Stick, Huck included, had been cobbled together from mismatched bits of military has-beens, never-were Special Forces, and public service misfits: part-time cops, volunteer firefighters, and small-town EMTs lacking the connections needed to make a living wage doing it. Without apology, the Sargeant started her mission briefing, and without so much as a look, Catchphrase and the others pocketed their VI-Phones.

            “In approximately forty minutes, we will be setting down in the outskirts of Brigantine, New Jersey – or rather, I should say the flotilla slums over what used to be Brigantine, New Jersey: before the Flood Riots of ‘76.” Huck called up a holo-map displaying their current course trajectory leading towards their designated drop zone. The gentle blue display saturated the ambient reds and cast the Stick in a soft lavender glow. “Mission specs are uploaded to your HUDs (heads up displays), but the general plan is as follows; heavies will suit up and stand-by for support while three squads advance in spearhead formation towards an indigenous shanty-town. The name changes almost daily, sometimes hourly, so don’t worry about it. There, we will overcome any possible hostilities and, by authority of a federal warrant, extract one Aiden St. Clare for questioning…”

            “Aiden St. Clare!?” Catchphrase choked with a disbelieving smile.    

            “The one and only,” Huck acknowledged, her holo calling up a rotating portrait of the lean, middle-aged man with piercing blue eyes and neatly flipped bangs. “Aiden St. Clare: the mind behind the Ponder app, playboy, billionaire, and philanthropist with more PhDs than Mars U has to offer. He went off the grid a couple years back after bailing on a government contract. Some of you may have seen that he’s been in the news recently…”

            “…heading some kind of cult, right?” Oldman asked without opening his eyes.

             “Not sure,” the Sergeant admitted. “He’s certainly gained a cult following on social media. Kids, mostly Floaters, are posting weird vids about having powers and claiming that he’s some kind of god. Feds suspect synthetic narcotics are involved: something called ‘Conduit’…” 

            “Speaking of doped-out Floaters,” a gruff older trooper referred to as the Dutch-Oven interrupted, “what the hell are we supposed to do about them? Why aren’t the police handling this, or the Feds? WTF, over!”

            “Quite honestly,” Huck admitted grimly, “the local authorities won’t touch it: not even the State Troopers. The ‘civilized’ section of Brigantine, about three hundred civvies, has a local-yokel outfit with only four full-time officers, and the Floaters don’t recognize their authority any more than ‘the Drowned State’ anyway. My research suggests that private companies passing through the area are hardly taken seriously enough to warrant a unified response, so resistance, if any, should be light. That’s why we aren’t going in disguise; don’t want them mistaking us for ‘real’ cops. The Feds made that mistake and never made it within a klick of the target.” She chuckled to herself. “And we’re cheaper. Anyway, I picked this morning because there was a Drift-Rock concert last night in a stadium nearby,” Huck said as she called up a broad holo display of numerous live drone feeds of the area.

The aerial streams from Recon Kilroy and Charlie revealed a live feed of clusters of seemingly random placements of floating scrap shacks. The make-shift habitats surrounded an ovular inflatable dome, stitched together from mismatched tarpaulin: the stadium. The structures, largely floating on netted islands of discarded plastic bottles between rusty skeletons of submerged wreckage were connected by planks of loose lumber, and presently littered with bodies and fires, as if from some biblical plague. In each feed, the target zone where Huck’s intel hoped to find the infamous Aiden St. Clare residing were highlighted in red: the zone tentatively titled ‘Afterbirth, NJ.’ “Approximately thirteen hundred locals showed up to watch a few dozen bands play all night,” Huck explained: “Aquabitch, Drowning Victim, harPOON, Aweigh We Go, and Red by Mourning to name a few: big acts with big followings. Last stage cleared at oh three fifty.”

            “…and?”

            “And,” she added; “the bastard-boom kids that followed the Flood Riots invented Drift-Rock.” Seeing that few of the squad seemed to understand the effects of pop-music, she rolled her eyes and continued. “A very large number of the local Floater population is now hungover, half-deaf, and going to have to respond to our presence on less than two hours of sleep, if they wake up at all.”

            “Outstanding,” Oldman grinned, interlacing his fingers behind his head as he reclined.

            “Rah,” the Sergeant grunted. “Remember that however you feel about them, the Float indigenous are still American citizens. They may reside above American soil, but their homes are well-within American waters. That means we’re going in with shotguns and bean-bags with riot-shields and shock-sticks for the Corporals. Heavies, based on the locale, I’ve secured some high pressure riot hoses which will draw directly from the canals. They’re already installed on your rigs. Floaters have deployed drone technicals, Molotovs, and printed firearms in the past, so if we encounter any of these, you are of course within your rights to rely on your personal sidearms for self-defense. You all read the fine print on your contracts, though; you’ll need to prove your life is in jeopardy if you kill anybody. The company will not, I say again, will not defend any acts of lethal force, especially if you kill a kid, no matter how big of a prick he is or how dead he plans to make you. You know the drill; keep your cams up and stick together for witness, otherwise, you’re better off letting them shoot you first; bullets hurt less than the press.” She looked over the sleep-deprived mugs of her rag-tag Stick and lingered on the disinterested, glossy stares of the Bobs, seemingly fixed on some point beyond her. “Anyone have anything they’d like to add?”

            “Make sure you bundle up,” Corporal Nancy Phelps added while combing his fingers through his thick beard. “I checked Weather, and it looks like it’s just above forty dee – in August. Global warming, my ass…”

            His fellow Corporal, Amber “Boner” Barnes shook her rusty red curls at him from across the aisle. “You do realize that we’re deploying in ocean where an island used to be, right? Like, less than a hundred years ago.”

            “It’s liberal propaganda is all I’m saying…”

            “It’s ten feet underwater is all I’m saying; the artificial reef from the old casinos is the only thing keeping the Float from drifting into the Atlantic,” she sneered. “Didn’t your moms teach you anything?”

            The pair glared at one another for a moment before the Dutch-Oven broke the silence by asking, “What’s it going to be this time, Catchphrase?”

            The doe-eyed young man bit his lip and thought hard for a moment. “Ok, I got it,” he exclaimed. “When I get ahold of that prick, I’m gonna say, ‘Do Saints pray? You might wanna start, son.’” His head bobbed steadily with self-approval as he turned to his left, but Oldman had stepped up his performance by allowing his jaw to fall open and a thin trickle of drool to run down the side of his chin. Undeterred, he finally received a patronizing five from the squad medic, Roger “Ramen” Raman, sitting to his right. 

             The Dutch-Oven and the mustached former fireman, Mark “Just Mark” Veetz, beside him shared a short glance before the former broke out into stifled, cackling laughter. The restrained amusement resulted in unrestrained flatulence which he immediately saluted like reveille. Just Mark followed suit, and the pair broke out into a half-whispered rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus” when Skip interrupted over comms to called out, “Thirty minutes.”

“Outstanding. Right,” Huck muttered as she strapped herself in to a seat next to Oldman. Her exposed forearms immediately erupted with gooseflesh as the chilled and unpadded aluminum wall that served as a seat back pressed against the sweat mark of her lower back. Fighting the feverish sensation, Huck’s pit-black eyes hung on the whispering pair of bloated Bobs, cooperatively assessing a poorly hidden holo not provided by her own mission uplink. Failing to make out anything more than the letters, “o-d-h-a,” through the back of the clandestine display, and finding her attention lingering for too long on their steaming ventis, Huck retrieved her own VI-Phone from the only nylon pouch on her belt not designated to some sort of workplace utensil: radio, quick-ties, plastic bags, pepper-spray, flashlight, and two spare clips for her M9 Beretta. After thumbing the screen with her recently downloaded Ponder app active, the device scanned her vitals and cross referenced time, location, and browser history. It opened her browser to an article titled, “ADIP: Avoiding Workplace Drama,” e-mailed her coupons for Starbucks and Under Armour, and automatically posted, “Gonna have my own say; let the other haters hate,” to her false persona’s page.

Chapter 2

“…Pigs can fly: fascists falling from the sky.
Descend to terrorize: victimize: black some open eyes.
One hand on your throat, the other on a nine.
Hands up! Bang! Bang! Bring you into line…”

            A lazy morning tide lapped waves against the damp timbers and rusty edges of the flotilla. Too exhausted to sleep, a young Floater curled up beneath a heavy rubber raincoat covered in handstitched patches held fast with safety pins and fish hooks. Loose strands of dyed-green hair that peeked out from below the frayed seam of a stained, knit cap curled around a red-tipped nose against the damp pier. The curls began to twitch gently before whipping around wildly in the oppressive gale from above which tore away the drift-punk’s impromptu source of shelter, sending the coat fluttering into the grey swamp which used to be Brigantine, New Jersey. Exposed tattooed arms clung tightly to a ripped, sleeveless flannel before they too were torn away: twisted behind her back and quick-tied at the wrists.

           Corporal Boner rested her knee in between the youth’s shoulders and signaled for Nancy’s squad to advance. As they took position behind the charred wall of a roofless shack, Huck passed between and took point. The rubber-soled boots of Recon Zulu padded softly across the saturated planks as they stepped quickly along the outskirts of the flotilla. Steady eyes peered out from behind riot glass and followed along the sights of lifted shotgun barrels as the helo lifted away, sealing its drop doors with a soft hiss. As the gust of its departure faded along with the hum of its bladeless rotors, Huck turned to her three squads with a pair of Bobs in the ass and signaled for them to wait.       

           Boner made two short piles from the contents of the floater’s pockets while they held position. The legal pile held a few crumpled bills and a venue ticket, some open-prescription Ritalin, two VI-Phones (both with cracked screens), a glass bowl with a dime-bag of skunk-weed, two condoms, and three .22 rounds, while the other contained a half-crushed pack of cigarettes and a single-shot printed firearm. By the time she had laid the trinkets out, Skip called over comms that the helo had touched down to fit the heavies, Catchphrase and Oldman.

           Huck dug her thick, stubby thumbnail into the deck beneath her feet. The plank seemed to be in a perpetual state of rot, and it was impossible for her to differentiate between the sickly green-grey wood and the heavy layer of swamp scum that coated it. She wondered if the flotilla could handle the P.O.F.s with each rig weighing in at roughly one half ton plus operator, but it was hardly the first time the thought had occurred to her. She comforted herself again as she did the first dozen times, insisting, in part through force of will, that if the Float could handle thirteen hundred drunk teens jumping up and down in place, it could handle her heavies. It had to. Extracting Aiden St. Clare from a teenage wasteland would be hairy enough without having to worry about American youth in revolt. Just the presence of a pair of heavies could curb that.

            As Skip and Gigi circled overhead in the helo, Oldman and Catchphrase caught up to the rest of the squad. Each stood nine feet tall suited up, strapped firmly into hydraulic frames meant to drastically augment their strength and carrying capacity, as evidenced by the three hundred and fifty pound pump motor and a pair of hundred pound hoses that each handled with ease. Most folks see a hulking robotic man marching towards them and they tend to be dissuaded, especially so in limited civilian engagements. The personal ordinance frame was not without its weaknesses, however. While it was graceful enough to walk in a straight line, it could be easily outmaneuvered and overwhelmed in an extended riot, limiting its potential for extended use.

           Additionally, although the legs and lower torso were armored with steel plates, the operator’s upper torso, head, and arms were largely exposed. While the little armor it did have could provide some protection, it was hardly effective. P.O.F.s had all but fallen from the favor of military infantry units; no amount of armor plating could protect against the barrage of RPGs and IEDs they tended to attract. Huck had seen that first hand in Syria, and she’d studied the clips of Black Friday mobs and lucky Molotovs devastating overwhelmed operators. She knew how best to use her heavies for support and shock, and what dangers to keep them away from.

“Comm check; sound off,” Huck whispered into her collar.

            “Zulu One, good copy,” Boner reported over comms.

                        “Zulu Two, good copy,” Nancy added.

            “Zulu Three, good copy,” Oldman grumbled.

                        “Zulu Four, good copy; three bars connection to base,” called Skip.  

           “Roger: good copy all,” Huck replied, looking back to the Bobs for confirmation. After a long second of vacant expressions, the pair looked to one another and responded with a weak thumbs up. She took small comfort in the fact that while the pair were patched in to comms, they kept off of them, for whatever reason. It didn’t matter to her then. She had a job to do. “Move out. Eyes up. Heavies, stand by and watch our six.”

           Huck led from the front: point of the spear. From her forward position she could set an appropriate pace for the field and issue silent commands to the following squads flanking her on either side. Huck ordered the Stick along the unsteady walk-ways connecting rows of slap-dash shacks, over piles of refuse, while being careful not to disturb the many glittering ornaments that dangled from rusty awnings overhead. They stepped double-time to avoid bottlenecking in the narrows, paused to secure stray Floaters that littered their path, and timed each soft step to fall in sync with the creaky groans of the flotilla rolling lazily on the waves.

           From overhead, their progress was recorded in real time by the helo and monitored actively by the whole Stick. Gigi laid out a route based on thermal scans and flagged potential threats. Just as Huck had expected, the majority of Floaters were congregated around the stadium, however, those few locals fortunate enough to have steady work, legitimate or not, had avoided the scene and were readying themselves for another day at whatever grind. After ten minutes of minimal engagement, Huck could see a rise of corrugated steel roofs, two and three floors above the cluster of homes that the squad had been cutting through. A steel highway sign, thick with irregular coats of mismatched paint, was mounted in plain sight. The sign read “Afterbirth,” in neatly stenciled letters.

           “Movement!” Gigi half-shouted, but too late.

           Huck caught the sharp glint of a gun barrel out of the corner of her eye as it leveled on her head. A crackling shot rang out and lingered in the morning stillness. The shooter, an obese mass of bruises, tattoos, and hair curlers couldn’t manage to chamber another .357 round before the Dutch-Oven crashed through the cardboard shanty door and tackled her to the ground. Just Mark hustled to cover the open corner ahead of them while Ramen, who had been standing behind the Sergeant helped her to her feet. He asked, “Are you – alright, Hannah?” as he held her cheeks gently between his shaking hands. Fingering the surface graze in her tac-helmet, he muttered, “I can’t – see…”

           A thick stream of blood ran down between Ramen’s bewildered eyes. He had been standing right behind her. Huck did her best to steady her Stick’s medic as he crumpled to his knees and fell forward into her. “Contact,” she spoke calmly in spite of the fist-sized hole she found in the back of his helmet. “Medical emergency; Ramen’s been hit…”

           “Coming around…,” Skip called.

           “Negative,” Huck replied quickly. Although she was sure of the course, the word hung as heavily as the gunshot still ringing in her ears. Bringing the bird into the heart of the flotilla would risk drawing even more attention, and diverting it to act as medical transport would rob the rest of her Stick of any chance of evac, and now they were running without a medic. “He’s gone.”

           “You filthy pigs,” the bloated crone shrieked, struggling to throw off the steadily tightening grip of the experienced veteran on top of her. “You come in here ‘cuz we’re criminals or are we criminals ‘cuz you come in here!?” A flood of tears rolled down her swollen face almost as quickly as the life poured out from Ramen’s head into the swamp below them. The Dutch Oven cut into the scaly folds of the woman’s wrists as he pulled the quick-tie tight with a jerk and quickly gagged her with a soiled scrap torn from the bottom of her tattered nightgown.

           Huck worked quickly to roll Ramen onto his stomach and began assembling the stretcher he had been carrying on his back. A single hand outstretched halted Boner from advancing her squad to assist. “Button up and stay put,” Huck ordered. “He’s gone. Gigi how do we look?”

           “Gunshots are nothing new in the float,” she choked between quivering breaths. “Shouldn’t draw too much attention – wait… Maldita sea. You got an – an army coming down from the stadium…”

           “Calm down, Gigi,” Huck replied. “Give me a count.”

                      “…”

            “How many?”

                        “…maybe twenty? Moving South.”

            “Then we keep heading East,” she thought out loud. “Sarge to Zulu Three.”

                        “Go ahead,” Oldman’s dry voice responded immediately.

            “I need a distraction; see if you can’t scare them off.”

                        “Happily…”

            “Oldman…”

                        “…what?”

            “Those kids didn’t kill Ramen; we got the bitch who did.”

                        “…10-4.”

            “Displace Westerly once you’ve engaged,” she ordered. Leaving a broad crimson smear across the face of her wrist-mounted VI-Pad with a dripping finger, she designated a rally point for him to fall back towards: just a few klicks away from their original deployment zone. “Zulu One, you’ve got stretcher. Zulu Two, you will collect the prisoner in the rear and follow; if she struggles, drag her. Mark, are we good?”

            “Yeah, we’re good…,” he replied with eyes firmly locked on those of a skeletal child down the alley he was securing. There was no telling how long he had been dead. It was too cold for flies, and the odor of the flotilla shared the tell-tale stench of decay.  

            “Move out: double-time,” Huck ordered, lifting her shotgun again to the shoulder. The Sergeant left a trail of red footprints for the squad to follow as she crossed over a steel bridge leading under the sign for Afterbirth, through an open chain-link gate. A quick glance to her wrist showed a few heat sources scattered throughout the courtyard within, which she visually confirmed as a flock of resting seagulls. Silently, while the Dutch Oven and Just Mark leaned their shotgun barrels through the gate on either side of her, Huck signaled the trailing squads to rally in the cover of the compound gate. Once their unintended prisoner was pressed flat against the deck alongside the body of the man she killed, Huck pointed to Nancy and then to the mess at his feet. Looking to Boner and her squad, the Sergeant tossed her head towards the compound, turned, and moved in. Her own squad fell in step behind her, forming a triangle to cover all angles and scan the many open windows which surrounded the white-caked courtyard.   

           With a rippling chorus of blood-curdling squawks, the gulls fluttered up and away from the rapidly advancing squads, chaotically raining down a mess of white feathers, heavy droppings, and putrid bits of rotten fish. Stepping carefully over a mess of energy drink cans and antiquated children’s toys, Huck pushed towards the tallest building at the far corner of the courtyard: its foundation, a repurposed cargo tugger. According to her intel, this was the current residence of Aiden St. Clare. Huck waved toward each corner of a rusty iron door. Just Mark and the Dutch Oven quickly moved past her and rested shoulders against either side of the ivy-stenciled door frame. The Dutch Oven, on the left, set a pair of thermite charges on the hinges before turning away his eyes. Her uplifted hand counted down from three for the sake of the following squad as she squared off to breach the entrance. As she verified that there were no warm bodies on the other side of the door with her VI-Pad, Boner pulled the pin on a flashbang grenade and held it at the ready.  

           The thermite hissed as it reduced the door hinges to a molten puddle at the foot of the door. As soon as the flare from the charges subsided, Huck’s let loose with a straight right kick before falling into place beside Just Mark on the right. Taking a knee behind her riot shield, with the readied shotguns of her three squad mates behind her, Boner rolled the flashbang into the dark room beyond the now-open doorway. It clinked along a steel-plated floor before coming to rest against the toe of a ratty sneaker, sticking out from the shadows. A freckled girl in a tattered flannel reached down to collect the foreign device with a curious smile. She managed to take a single step with the grenade outstretched before it exploded in her hand. Boner’s green eyes swelled as the magnesium flash illuminated the horrific scene further. A half-dozen other children were gathered around the door behind the girl, their attention likely drawn by the earlier thermite sparks. An instant later, when the foyer was replaced by smoke and shadow, a lingering ghost image of glittering eyes and dirty, cherubic faces had burned itself over her vision.    

           The Corporal bellowed in horror as she threw herself into the room, waving her riot shield around wildly in hopes of clearing the oily smoke. Huck followed in behind on the heels of Boner’s squad, and she was followed by the remains of her own. Boner cursed beneath her breath as she frantically searched around the deck on her knees, rifling through half-melted action figures, smoldering plush animals, and the blackened cars of a wooden train. The toys were the only remains of children that she could find.  

           The others in the squads activated their barrel-mounted lights and began to cut through the turbulent swirls in the air with blue LEDs. The gloom lifted, and they found themselves in a high-arched, rectangular foyer, surrounded by an elevated terrace, presumably reached from stairs elsewhere in the structure. There was an ornate door in the room against the opposite wall, framed by heavy velvet curtains. The walls themselves were covered in blistered marquis paper and ornamented with unpowered seashell lights. Patches of tattered burgundy carpet covered sections of the exposed steel deck, and a pair of brass posts and velvet ropes marked off a set of stairs in the middle, leading down into the hull of the ship which kept the building afloat. Huck kept a sidelong eye on her VI-Pad, syncing visual and scanned data in her mind as a single stream of information. According to scans, there were no heat signatures apart from their own in the building, the same as before they breached.

           As she stepped carefully around the edge of the stairwell in the center of the room, Huck’s flashlight flickered out. Looking back, she watched as those of each of her men went dark as well. Huck held up her wrist to illuminate the room with light from her VI-Pad, but the display blinked out as well. Some light trickled in through the open doorway behind them, but before her eyes could adjust to the failing light, her device began to strobe brightly: blindingly rapid flashes from her holo projector. Holographic ghosts of children began to run around the room, into and out from the walls around them. The pocketed phones of every squad member began to ring at maximum volume, creating a cacophony of digital tones overlaid with pop song recordings. Their comms squealed with feedback. The assault of sound and light ceased as abruptly as it had started, but Boner’s VI-Phone continued to play quietly from behind. It was a song she had never heard:

     “…Pigs can fly: fascists falling from the sky.
Descend to terrorize: victimize: black some open eyes.
One hand on your throat, the other on a nine.
Hands up! Bang! Bang! Bring you into line…”

            The chorus repeated several times.

            One after another, hooded figures revealed themselves from the dark terrace above, illuminated by open flames which seemed to burst to life from the palms of their open hands. They were drift punks: waste land teens: all of them in grungy patched flannels with tattered jeans tucked into their heavy leather boots. Spikes, pins, and studs flickered around them like orange specks in the erratic light of the flames they held. Huck and her men were surrounded from an elevated position by any number of unknown assailants, somehow clever enough to mask their own heat signatures and turn their own tech against them. She knew they had stumbled into a trap. A single overhead light cast a pure beam over the ornate door in front of them. It opened slowly and Aiden St. Clare stepped into the room cautiously with one hand raised and the other on the handle of a packed suitcase.

            “What seems to be the problem, Officers?” he smirked.  

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