second story installment of my take on the cyberpunk genre
|I : passing days|
“Looking up at the heavens and finding yourself breathless, ever happen to you? Up there...can you imagine? I find myself thinking what it’d be like to just drift in a nebula—watch planets forming, and stars starting their lives. Being lost, without any sort of desire for direction, yet never feeling more content in my life. Watching these civilizations and their timelines unfold—witnessing their attempts for the heavens…” She took a long, deep breath, “…but I’m here…on this rock for a planet.” Looking down, she released her rifle and let it hang from its strap.
Saint walked over and stood next to her. “You don’t think about it. Don’t look up—don’t dream. You know as well as I do that dreaming isn’t something that we can afford to do. For us, we only get to live. That’s our hand. Save the big dreams for another life. Just the way it is.”
Saint was a salt-and-peppered short-haired man with a trimmed, but full beard. He was just short of six-feet tall and his build was muscular; a product of decades of hard living through security contracts and missions for the wealthy colonists of Ascension and Terra. His hands were calloused and arms scarred from repeated enforcement missions against Rogues. He held a heavy assault shotgun with little effort due to military-grade cybernetic muscle implants.
Saint pointed down a road to their left. “Serenity. You don’t fuck up. Dreaming will get you killed. You just keep your head and eyes focused on the mission. My life, as well as yours, depends on keep a straight head when things escalate. We’ll check down there. Base intel says there are Rogue sympathizers operating in the area. After the shift’s over, we‘ll get drinks and you can tell me all about your dreams and goals in life, and I’ll tell you all about what I used to dream about. Got it?”
Serenity smiled, and nodded. She was in her twenties, and had been assigned as Saint’s patrol partner four months ago. She was almost as tall as Saint, and her coffee-brown hair was tied off into a neck-length ponytail. Long bangs framed her new steel-gray cyber eyes. Ranged support and suppression was her specialty, but she could handle close-quarters combat as well as any other enforcer.
Saint and Serenity were patrolling the outskirts of Settlement One-Twenty-Four-A. Enforcers were assigned patrols in the physical world. If they were needed, they’d get called in for operations on the Net. Big missions that were sure to weaken Rogue operations usually happened once, or twice, in a year. They belonged to a class of enforcers that were given something to the effect of a pardon. Less offensive past crimes didn’t mean that they’d get sent to the Phoenix colonies, as long as they served life contracts as enforcers, and agreed never to attempt to enter the Space Colonies. Terra and Ascension were their homes. They called themselves the Redeemed. Being able to remain on the Terra and Ascension colonies was worth the pardon; Phoenix was hell, going there, and never being able to see the stars, or the sky, or the colonies above, or have a future, was as good as death.
Their heavy armor was olive colored and ammunition and communications equipment hung from various attachment points. The armor was designed to resist most military and consumer-grade ballistics, and it had the weight to serve that function. Enforcers couldn’t wear the equipment unless they underwent the cybernetic enhancement process to be able to carry the weight. The heavy boots drummed on the ground with each of their steps.
Enforcers and their equipment cost less than having heavy vehicles to combat the Rogues, and when an Enforcer showed up, Rogues always ran, or hid. The Rogue phenomenon had been on a rise over the last decade, due to a growing discontent with the way Terra and Ascension power elite handled the operations of the colonies. Founded in the Phoenix colonies by radicals who sought a better future, sympathizers in Terra, Ascension and the Space Colonies started taking up the cause. “Rogue” had become a blanket term to cover all criminal activity. Politicians realized that if people began to associate crime with the Rogue movement, it would discourage any significant rights movement from forming.
Serenity scanned the suburban-styled settlement. “Imagine being stuck in those Phoenix colonies. Life’s better here in Terra and Ascension, but I’d eat a bullet before I ever got sent to those rotting colonies with the scum of humanity.”
The streets of the settlement glowed under the shifting colors of the sky. Terra Three was on the part of the planet that was currently facing away from the sun. They used to call this night time. UV filters protected the colony’s seven hundred million inhabitants from the sun’s leaking radiation. One-Twenty-Four-A was neat and organized. Lawns were kept and bots tended to yard work. Kids played outside, while others sat, disconnected, on the Net. Laughter occasionally came the yards with the neighborhood kids. The settlement was safe because the residents of Terra and Ascension were always diligent in securing themselves from the influence of the degenerate Phoenix Colonies. They could afford to live in the real, away from the Net, which was usually only utilized for business purposes and entertainment, and always away from the addicts who needed to be on the Net out of necessity of and consequence of being in the throwaway societies of Phoenix.
Saint tapped Serenity on the shoulder and pointed to a steel-and-glass five-story house. “Keep your head straight. We check this house; looks like no one’s home. Perfect place.”
They hurried over to the house, their heavy stride under the equipment seemingly gone; they were almost silent. Serenity followed Saint at a short distance. The door of the house was of a solar-panel material, and it was unlocked. Saint crouched off to the side and signaled base;
“T326M472140, requesting permission to conduct a search of residential structure on Mist Street, number 4859. Possible Rogue activity.”
Once permission was obtained, Sainted leaned over and pushed the door open. Serenity lead into the structure, with her short-barrel assault rifle trained and ready for hostile engagement. Looking around, Saint didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It was a typical household of a politician, or businessman. The furniture was made of steel and leather and modern. Abstract art paintings hung from walls, and granite pillars rose up and past the ceiling, possibly fancy structural-support pillars. The lights were off, but there was ambient lighting.
Saint moved to the second floor, and Serenity, the third. On the second floor, there was a library; most of the books were on humanity and the shift into space. Some of the titles were: “To become gods: Space & Civilization,” “Transcendence: Cybernetics and Genetic Engineering,” “Finding Eden: A New Earth,” and “Arbiters of Fate.”
Saint radioed Serenity. “Looks like we’re getting some sort of positive hit as far as a psychological profile goes; reading material is the kind of stuff an idealistic Rogue would be reading. Space and heavens—that kind of nonsense.”
Serenity radioed back, “I found VIP passes to the ‘Busty Bot Bitches’ Net simulation. Wanna go?”
Saint responded, “Maybe this weekend. Sweep the fourth floor. I’m going to the top floor.”
The stairs to the top floor led to a set of heavy doors that displayed a mural of a woman with wings, in flight.
He readied his shotgun, and pushed open the doors.
In the room beyond the doors, there was a vast space, and the granite pillars from the base of the structure joined at this floor to form an altar, with a large, golden telescope on top. The ceiling was made of glass, and the privacy screens were retracted. Sprawled across the wall on the far end of the doors, and over paintings of planets and stars, were the words, in red paint: “You can’t keep us from Heaven.”
Saint walked into the room, looking for hostiles. When he reached the altar, a voice resonated through the room;
“The attack dogs have arrived. Tell me, do your masters treat you well?”
There was a man with a shaved head, wearing a black business suit that was facing away from Saint, at the end of the room, to the left of the entrance. He sat with legs crossed, on the floor. He spoke again. “A person of my position, and I am unable to change anything through the establishment. Humanity is sick. Up and above us should be where our futures lay—but we’re so content to feed on one another down here. I am now at the end of my life, it seems. How will I be judged? Is there redemption for me? For you? What of the people that have suffered by our hands? The lives we’ve taken? Do you even contemplate your actions?”
The man stood on his feet and drew a black-bladed katana from the saya that was attached at his hip. “Poor dog. Neither you, nor your sinful masters can hold back the will of a people who have been denied life. How arrogant of you to play gods—to decide their fates.”
He walked forward slowly with the katana held in front of him, and Saint trained his shotgun, ready to fire. The man continued, “If it is my fate, then I must suffer for my sins in this life. Humanity must be forced to evolve. We can no longer be mere animals that are bound to a planet, and base instincts. The ethos must be purified.”
The man bolted forward, with his katana slicing through the air, Saint was surprised by his speed, and couldn’t fire fast enough. The shot missed. The katana came crashing down onto Saint’s armor with a KA—CHIIINGG that did not move him at all. The blade bounced off of the armor and sent the man falling backwards. In almost an instant, he bounded forward again—with katana raised, but three rifle shots rang aloud, and the man crumpled over. Sucking sounds came from his chest as his lungs struggled for air. He started convulsing violently as blood bubbled from the wounds and started to flow onto the floor.
Saint walked over to the man, aimed his shotgun at his chest, and fired.
Serenity put her rifle to her side and looked at the man with contempt. “Asshole thought he was some kind of cartoon character. Let’s get those drinks?”
II : thoughts and scars
Cosmic was a glass-ceiling lounge that was located on Ascension One. The glass-ceiling allowed for a view of Space Ramp Five. Space Ramps allowed the peoples of Terra and Ascension to travel to and from the Space Colonies. Serenity would come here on occasion to look at the blinking lights of the ramp, and to dream of what it would like to be on a space-bound vessel one day.
Saint and Serenity sat at a table-for-two on the second floor balcony that provided a center view of the bright moon, glowing sky, and the space ramp. Saint leaned over a cup of Ether—a cell replenishment drink, and Serenity held a glass of Soul-Eater—her favorite beer. It helped her to relax after the long shifts and acts of enforcement.
She turned her wide, glassy eyes to Saint. “Old man, what happened today? You let that fanatic hit you with that big knife.”
Saint didn’t look up from his Ether. “Sweetheart, I’ve been around the block more than once. That isn’t the first time someone has swung a sword at me. And I’m not old, either. I can kick your ass, if you pushed me to it.
“But, you know, it’s just tiring. Year after year, seeing these people fighting for something greater than themselves, or so they think. Only, they don’t know what they’re messing with. Caught up in ideals and foolishly going up against enforcers like you and I. You have wonder if it doesn’t really take something out of you. To kill these people that believe in something strong enough to attempt to kill you.
“Ever thought about it? I don’t have anything like that. And that’s why I’m alive. I know that bullshit ideals don’t mean anything. Dreams, either. You better realize that sooner or later, or you’ll wind up dead, someday.
“These people change their convictions with the seasons, and they’re weak. They just cling to people with strong personalities and follow them to whatever end will help their cause. They want this great freedom from Phoenix, and the Earth Colonies, but if they got it, they’d still be the same low-lives they’ve always been. Opportunity and freedom mean nothing if you don’t have it in you to realize ‘em.
“—But I mean, I don’t want to kill them. But it’s my job. I’m a Redeemed. I’ve got no choice.”
Serenity drank some of her Soul-Eater. “Ah, choice. Yes. What choice do they have? Do we have? Our roles dictated by powers beyond our comprehension. We are punished if we deviate from our roles. What’s the great wisdom of the system, tell me? In the end, does all of this work out? You work your life. I work my life. And it’ll mean what? That we just didn’t get sent to Phoenix—that we stopped people who actually fought for something?
“Yes; we’re Redeemed, but I think we are the weak ones. We look out for ourselves first. Gave our souls away so we didn’t have to go to those colonies. If we had freedom from our roles in this life, would we know what to do with it? Who decides if I am worth giving a choice?” Her eyes wandered to the sky. “So, what are you in for? Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you why I’m in this god-forsaken role in life.”
Saint looked at her, and then sipped his Ether. “It was decades ago, and I was a lot weaker back then. I wasn’t an enforcer, or anything like that. I worked for Icarus—a company that manufactures some of those larger space colonies you’ll find up there. I remembered walking into the main section of Anthea—one of the space colonies that’s venturing out into the Milky Way as we speak. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I stood at the entrance and looked at the countless rows of buildings, highways, floating infrastructures, hive constructs, and thought of how much work it took to make just this single colony; how this was the product of the minds of people who wouldn’t accept that just because Earth was practically gone, that our species was consigned to some slow death.
“Look at our species. We’re growing at a rate that was unheard of when we were planet-bound, and what they’re discovering out there is constantly redefining our civilization; yet, we still seem to hold onto irrational practices and beliefs.
“Well, I used to be part of the Net infrastructure division. We planned and implemented the radios and terminals to facilitate disconnects at the conscious level. I knew the ins and outs of disconnecting. How the consciousness left the body, and was transferred to the mainframe of the Net—and I still do. The conscious is completely transmutable—thoughts and emotions are nothing more than electrical responses and chemical responses, and ultimately, just memory data.
“I used to be something like a Net addict. When I wasn’t working, I’d spend my time on the Net. I didn’t do anything special. I’d just roam the Net, looking for anything. Maybe I was looking for some kind of purpose, or someone. I don’t really know. I was at a Star-City sim, when I met her. I won’t say her name, because I don’t deserve to. I was a fool, and at the time, I thought I was in love. After months of meeting her on the Net, she told me she was from Phoenix.
“I should have left her alone. But, I was an idiot. I thought I could change things. So, I starting searching around, and stuck my nose where it didn’t belong. I learned about smuggling operations, where they’d sneak people out of Phoenix and it was up to you to figure out how to keep them free once they were out.
“Thought I was smarter than I was. So, I told her about the plan. How we’d finally see one another in person. I couldn’t sleep the night before because all I could think about was her. I was in contact with her throughout the day to make sure everything was going according to plan. I told her if she felt anything wasn’t right, that she should get out of there as fast as possible.
“Everything looked like it was going okay. I dreamt about the life we’d have. How I’d figure something out and we’d go up to the heavens and into space and find our futures there.”
Saint brought his eyes to the space ramp, but he was really staring far beyond it. “Funny, isn’t it? How you can be so removed from everything in life and just going through the passing days without any involvement. Then, you find someone and everything changes.
“It makes you weak. That’s what it does. You can’t afford to be weak in this life. Everyone and everything will cut you open, if you let them. You look at your scars and remind yourself how not to get more of them.”
He took a deep, trembling breath. “When I finally saw her, she was more beautiful to me than anything else I could ever hope to see in this life. I remember staring at those eyes—and I didn’t know what I had done.
“Enforcers arrived, and I realized it was a set-up. I was frozen in fear, and couldn’t do anything. They started to take the refugees into custody, when some of the men in the refugee group panicked, pulled out weapons, and started firing at the enforcers.
“I stood there, like some weak, worthless thing. I watched the enforcers gun every last one of them down.
“I watched the life leave those eyes of hers.
“I just watched.” He sat back in his chair, folded his arms, and looked off into the glowing sky. “You can’t really find any tears in you when you hate yourself so much. My life ended that day. They offered me a choice. Either, I go to Phoenix, or I become one of the Redeemed and live my life in service to humanity. Never go to the stars again.
“Thought I could somehow find some kind of salvation through being a Redeemed. What I’ve learned from that day and after all these decades is that—in this life—you’re powerless to change anything. You learn that you don’t want what you can’t have. You learn to never make yourself weak, again.”
The slow, ambient, electronic music played throughout the lounge. They sat in silence for a moment, watching as a passenger shuttle was shot up and off of the Space Ramp, destined for some colony amongst the stars.
Serenity finished her Soul-Eater, and then spoke. “I’m sorry. I know words will mean nothing, but they’re all I’ve got.”
Saint looked at her again. “It’s fine. Tell me your story.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m in here for foolish reasons and they’re nothing compared to what you’ve had to endure. I feel horrible for having you retell that.”
Saint signaled the waiter for refills, and then replied. “I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t want to. And, whatever you did was significant enough to put you in here. You’re enduring as much as I am. Fate has us both in service against any other choice. So, tell me.”
The waiter slid another cup of Ether and a bottle of Soul-Eater onto the table. Serenity grabbed the bottle, took a drink, and looked at Saint. “My parents worked for Genesis Corp—one of those companies that does the research and development for colony expansion technologies here on the planet.
“My parents always worked long hours, and I knew they loved me. I was as spoiled as any child could be, given the circumstances. My father always said that we were going to save up enough, and buy a residency on one of the outbound colonies. That one day, we’d find a new planet to call home—some place to belong to that wasn’t hell.”
She drank some more, placed her arms on the table and put her hand on her neck. “I was starting to hang with rebellious kids that didn’t know what they had. Seeing things from these kids’ perspective, I thought it wasn’t fair that—because of this system—other people got to go to the stars, while the rest of us languished on this dead rock. Watching the same burning sky every day, and for what reason? Because some powers beyond us thought there was purpose down here?”
“I started committing various petty crimes. The people I ran with thought our futures were dead-ends. Thought that all of the terrestrial colonies should be called Phoenix—a lame Phoenix that could never rise from the flame and ash.
“I couldn’t see the reason why my parents should have to work those years, on pointless endeavors, like improving the colonies down here. –For gods’-sakes, the planet is dead and we’re getting nothing out of it other than thermal energy. Why aren’t we leaving this place behind? Some sort of sentimental attachment? Are those us down here not worthy of the heavens?”
She sighed, and continued, “We got caught up in the Rogue movement, and with our youthful zeal and ignorance, we were directed to some haughty-big wig’s files on the Net. We were basically script-kiddies—ran some executable given to us by some leader that was probably in a dark moldy hole in one of the Phoenix colonies.
“Those files got leaked all around the Net. How much he spent on his various proclivities. Public funds diverted for personal use, those kinds of things. Of course, he was important enough that the case was made that the files were modified and inaccurate. He was never charged with anything, formally.
“But, they came down on us. I remember that morning when the enforcers came through the front door—and the look my mother gave me. She seemed so distant. They took me away and were going to send me to Phoenix Forty-One. My father pleaded and said I was young and stupid. That I should be given another chance, and that he’d be a more responsible parent.
“—Like it was his fault that I am who I am. That really hurt me…but, I hurt them, too.” Saint placed his right hand over her left hand. And she continued. “Authorities decided that they’d consider me a Redeemed in order to spare the Phoenix colony placement. I was enlisted as a trainee—and they stuck all these cybernetics in me in preparation for the heavy armor I’d be wearing for the rest of my life. When I turned eighteen, I got my suit. I haven’t seen, or been contacted by my parents since the day of that judgment.
“All of those hours, days, and years that my parents worked. I realize it now, but it wasn’t for them. I was their future, and now I am dead to them. I never had a future.” She took another drink of her Soul-Eater before speaking again. “I hope they’re up there, and that they’ve found happiness. I was a failure to them. I hope that they never experience that type of disappointment again. I’ve got the rest of my life to repent.”
“But I still have this stupid bit of hope that someday I’ll meet them again, and that I will be able to tell them that I am sorry. But, after hearing your story, I’ve come to the same conclusion. We are indeed powerless to change anything in life.
“Listen, huh? I’ve always a need to hope. One day, if things ever change, let’s catch a ship to the edge of the solar system and look back at this little planet before making our own futures, yes?”
Saint nodded. “Yeah.”
III : sin and sorrow
Sky City was as close to Space as anyone could legally get while still being considered on the planet. The city served as a half-way point up to space on the Star-Elevator that used to take people out of the Earth’s atmosphere and to the colonies. Once Space Ramps were developed, the Sky City fell out of favor as the preferred means of leaving the planet. There were plans to pull it out to space, retrofit it, and use it as a colony, but those plans were lost somewhere in the bureaucratic process.
It was once seen as a place of religious significance. People would bring their faiths with them, and pray for good fortune before departing for the expanse of space. Vast temples and cathedrals marked the resilience of faith. Even on the cusp of a civilizational evolution, people needed to believe.
Faith for some people meant opportunity for others. As Sky City fell out of use, the pleasure industry moved in as tenants. Some places of worship were turned into factories to manufacture sex-bots that would be used throughout the colonies. Churches that were once used as places of spiritual worship now served as places of other kinds of worship.
White marble columns and limestone veneer buildings ran for block after block. The streets were six lanes wide and once were filled with vehicles. Now, taxi cabs carried pleasure seekers from one spot to another. Enforcement patrols were still required due to the function of the city, and the propensity for violence.
Serenity looked at Saint, as they proceeded on a sidewalk. “Can we watch the sunrise? We’ll have time after we’re finished with this mission. I promise that it’ll be beautiful. Life isn’t all about following orders...”
Saint checked his shotgun before replying. “This isn’t a typical op. Base lost contact with two enforcers that were on patrol approximately One-hour-twelve-minutes ago. We’re going to investigate. We’re out of here once we’re finished. They last made contact right before the Sky Cathedral, so that’s where we’re headed.”
After putting away her sniper rifle, and getting her assault rifle, she responded. “What do you think happened?” She grinned, “I’ll tell you what happened. Who’d come to this place and not have a little fun? You know, this city is full of priests trying to save whores and johns. Or maybe it was the other way around?
“So,” she asked curiously, “do you have any kind of faith?”
“That’d be too easy,” Saint scoffed. “No such thing as gods.”
“Life and then you die, huh? Sounds fun.” She said, dolefully.
“We don’t have much longer to the cathedral. Remember, Serenity—straight head. If you need to, get it out of your skull before we get there.” Stated Saint.
The Sky Cathedral was a primary religious site during the city’s better days. One of the largest places of worship, the cathedral was vast enough to hold half a million worshipers.
Looking up, Saint saw the banner that was tied over the metopes of the cathedral. The image on the banner was of a white-haired angel, wearing glittering-gold lingerie, in a seductive pose. The text read:
“HEAVENLY. Opening in 19026.”
Serenity walked past Saint, stating sarcastically, “I don’t think I can wait that long!”
Saint radioed Base and notified them that they were beginning the investigation. The entrance to the cathedral was marked by two massive metal doors measuring fifty feet tall. Engravings ran over the surface of the doors, with scenes that seemed to be from a religious war. Angels warred with demons; swords, trumpets, and fire filled the engraving scenes.
The door on the right was already slightly open, so they readied their weapons and proceeded into the cathedral. Columns ran to the glass-ceiling that filtered the shifting sky light onto the interior, which was designed in a stadium template; the main path to the altar below was lined with statues one-hundred feet tall, dressed in armor and brandishing shields and raised swords that formed an arc over the pathway. Marble pews spanned the length of the entrance, and arranged in a descending theater seating fashion. Additional booths ran up the wall of the entrance, and on the wall at the opposite end.
And a person wearing cloak was sitting on the golden altar, which was before a statue of a female angel that was no less than three hundred feet tall. She wielded two swords that were raised to either side of her; and a gold and stone pulpit stood to the right of the altar.
Saint tapped Serenity on the shoulder. “Radios are nonfunctional; I’ll take point.” He motioned to the person on the altar.
He walked forward, cautiously—shotgun trained on the cloaked figure. As he continued on the path that was lined by the religious angel warriors, the entire western-face of the cathedral came into view. It was made of glass and steel—allowing a view of the grand balcony that held another statue that was of the same size of the pathway warrior statues. This statue depicted two angels in flight, with one above and before the other, with hand outreached to the other one below. The balcony overlooked a view of the shifting expanse of the horizon, at the edge of the Sky City.
As they came to the golden Altar, the cloaked person spoke. “You’re looking for them? They’re behind the altar. I am unarmed.” He raised his hands to show that he had no weapons. The altar was ten feet tall and ran thirty feet in length. On it were more engravings of angelic spiritual warfare. Behind the altar, Saint found the bodies of the enforcers. He yelled to Serenity.
She retrained her rifle onto the cloaked man. “Don’t move—Do not move!” She commanded.
He looked at Serenity, and spoke again. “We’re all caught up in the flow of Fate. We’ve got no choice but to play out our roles. You enforcers know that better than I do. But—Fate has it that the narrative should change today; we’ve thrown ourselves against these ever-constant gears and begged for something to break—to grant us respite. How much suffering does it take to achieve salvation?” He looked around the cathedral, and continued. “They call you the Redeemed. But, I look into your eyes, and I see emptiness.”
He looked at Serenity. “People feign ignorance with one face, and with another, their actions allow for the suffering of others; you enforce the rules of a system that you do not support. The truth is that choice is there, but you do not like those choices. You’ll sacrifice others in order to keep yourself from their fate.
“That is the nature of humanity. But—worry no longer—I will let your troubled souls rest.”
The man pushed himself off from the golden altar, as he was in mid-air—on his way down—Serenity started to fire her rifle. The man held his hands up, and translucent blue panels appeared in front of them, deflecting the bullets.
“What the—“ Serenity exclaimed to herself, as she tried to head for cover. The man landed, and focused his hands at her, as she was falling back towards the entrance—a pulse emission came from his hands and hit her, sending her airborne and crashing through multiple rows of pews, in a cloud of pulverized stone-dust.
In that instant, Saint dived from the side of the Altar—towards the man—and aimed his shotgun. The cloaked man was quicker, and sent another pulse energy emission from his hands. The blast was weaker than the one that had hit Serenity. The energy was enough to send Saint tumbling a few steps back. His vision blurred, but he was able to make out the shape of the cloaked man running away. Putting his thoughts together, he deduced that the pulse-emitters were some sort of new cybernetic technology. Heavy Armor was ineffective against it—but they operated on a charging system. This would be his chance against the cloaked man.
Saint dashed forward and towards the cloaked shape. He ran as fast as he could, and readied his shotgun. Another figure joined the cloaked man as he ran towards the grand balcony. His vision was starting to return, and he was almost to them when the cloaked man turned around and trained his hands.
Saint lunged forward and to his left, watching for the glow of the pulse-emitters. When he saw the glow, he fired.
He landed hard, but watched the shape of the cloak man fall over. The other figure still ran, so, he gritted his teeth and pushed himself up and pursued. The figure was almost to the glass wall of the grand balcony when he caught up. His vision was almost fully restored, and he could discern that the person was a woman. He grabbed her by her shoulder and then pushed her to her knees, with his shotgun aimed at her heart.
She was terrified—her brown eyes were wide with fear; sweat beaded on her forehead. She breathed heavily. “No—!” She pleaded.
Her long, braided-black hair was frayed and unkempt. Saint loosened his grip on her shoulder, took a step back, and lowered his shotgun. He breathed warily.
And, he took another step back.
He turned around, and was beginning to walk away, when a domineering voice filled the Cathedral.
“You’re not going to do that.”
He searched for the source of the voice. It was a female’s voice, but it wasn’t Serenity’s voice.
After a brief moment, a woman and a massive man came into view from beyond the pulpit. They wore the dark gray heavy armor of enforcement officers.
Viper and Pug were seasoned special-tactics enforcement officers that were called to the investigation scene as a security measure, along with Saint and Serenity. Enforcement officers were only called out when situations escalated to a point that warranted their skills.
Viper stood five feet six inches, with an athletic build. Her short hair was copper-colored and shaved on one side to produce an asymmetric effect. Likewise, asymmetrically long bangs flowed to either side of her snake-themed cybernetic eyes. She carried a heavy pistol-revolver, and two daggers that were sheathed at the base of her spine.
Pug was a gigantic, muscular man, he was almost triple the size of Saint, and stood nearly seven feet tall. He had short, buzzed, black hair, and glowing red eyes; a large scar ran down the length of the left side of his face. His fists were doubly-reinforced with hardened armor.
They walked across the Cathedral, weapons in hand.
Viper held one of her daggers, and her arms were folded; she spoke arrogantly. “Redeemed. I knew you lot weren’t good for anything. You’re all serving as criminals. Cowards—too afraid to face your destinies. You beg and whine to be pardoned. You live your lives knowing you’ll never be free. Your loyalties would shift, given an opportunity.
“Today, we’re going have a test. Just how honorable are you, Redeemed? Are you a sycophant, or do you truly believe our wisdom?” Her eyes narrowed.
Pug grinned, and nodded.
Viper’s eyes slowly drifted to the woman on her knees. “Look at them; fear and weakness. They believe in their delusions of equality—a world where they deserve the same privileges as we do.
“They are lesser creatures that naturally sink to the bottom of any population distribution. Yet, for all of the history of humanity, they’ve always wanted more than they were capable of. Phoenix doesn’t exist out of forced inequality—no. Phoenix exists out of necessity. These people have no future because they are inherently incapable of making one for themselves.
“So, we guide them. We provide for them their purpose—their primitive and base goals. Is that not fair?”
She looked at Saint, unfolded her arms, and gently ran the tip of the dagger across his chest. She smiled deviously and bit her lip. She then ran the blade along her mouth, and explained;
“We were called out here because Rogues stole some new technology from us. You saw some of the tech that they stole—the pulse-emitters. What you didn’t see, most importantly, was the technology called “scrambling.” That man you killed was just buying them time to escape. If the cowards would’ve stood their ground, we’d be dead right now.” Her eyes shifted to the woman.
She looked back to Saint. “Point your gun at her.”
The woman tried to remain silent, but she sobbed, and Viper looked over to her and yelled. “Whore—shut up!”
Saint didn’t move. He tightened his grip on the shotgun, but stared off and down into the distance of the Cathedral—at something that didn’t exist.
Viper smiled again, and ran the dagger along her own neck. “I am ordering you to point your gun at her.” She said, authoritatively.
Saint breathed out slowly and raised his shotgun to the woman. She cried, but remained still. Viper laughed with satisfaction. Her eyes widened as she gazed at Saint, purposefully, and spoke;
“This whore will get sent back to Phoenix—she’ll fuck around—and pop out little bastards that’ll grow up and want freedom for the sake of it. We already know her future. You’re going to be kind to her, and save her the trouble of that life. Understand?”
Saint shook his head defiantly.
Viper walked over to Saint again, and ran the dagger up his spine. “You never had a choice, Redeemed. You will never have a choice. The only thing that differentiates you from that whore over there is the fact that you follow orders. Now, do you value this life you’ve been given? You’re going to shoot her.”
Saints hands started to shake. His palms were sweaty; he couldn’t look at the woman. His eyes were cast down deliberately.
Viper reached to the base of her spine and drew her other dagger. She motioned both daggers slowly before and around herself, before pointing them at the woman, from a distance. “You die here today, and so does the whore. Or, you shoot her.”
“Shoot her! You fucking shoot her now—pull the trigger!” Commanded Viper.
“C’mon man, do it already, you fucking puss! No way around it!” Jeered Pug, as he danced around in a goofing fashion.
The woman looked at Saint, with watery eyes, and cried “No…please don’t!”
“SHOOT THE FUCKING WHORE!” Yelled Viper, as loudly as she could.
Saint thought about the words he spoke once.
“Powerless to change anything in life.”
He was weak. Everything in him told him to defy those enforcers, but if he did, he’d either die, or be tried and revoked from being a Redeemed. What was the cost of another life amongst the many he’d already taken by following orders? This was another day in his service contract.
His throat felt constricted, so he swallowed, and then he pulled the trigger.
IV : against any other choice
“Well, isn’t this just so dramatic? My heart is broken!” Said Viper, as she mimicked a sobbing motion and melodramatically leaned on Pug for support.
After Saint pulled the trigger, a little girl—no older than eleven—dashed from the pulpit and yelled out for her mother. She cried as she hugged the dead woman. Blood stained both of them.
The shotgun felt heavy, so he held onto it tighter. His legs felt weak, so he fell to his knees. He looked at the little girl, and time didn’t seem to matter at that moment. He was powerless to change anything, yet, he had taken the future from this little girl that cried for her mother.
The shifting night sky continued to color the Cathedral interior and everything was silent for what seemed like an eternity.
Breathing felt a difficult task to accomplish. His heart pounded against his chest. He looked at Viper with menacing eyes.
Viper grinned contently at him and spoke. “We’re not finished yet.” She glanced over to the girl.
“They’re going to rape her once she gets to Phoenix. And then they’ll sell her. That’s the future you gave her, killer. That’s the kind of actions these people take—and they want freedom and equality. They’re animals. They don’t even deserve to live. So, find absolution for yourself—shoot her.”
Viper grabbed Saint’s arm and lifted the shotgun in the direction of the little girl. “Go on, then. Do it! You know as well as I do that there’s nothing that can be done.” She said, reassuringly.
Saint pulled his arm away, and labored to stand on his feet. He stood in contemplation for a moment. Amidst Viper encouraging him to shoot the little girl, and Pug’s indifference to the events happening before him, Saint muttered something to himself.
Viper leaned in close to him and asked that he repeat himself. So he did.
“I’m getting too old for this.”
He grabbed Viper by her face and threw her—with great force—back and onto the pews. In that very moment, one of Pug’s massive fists—larger than Saint’s skull—came crashing into his chest, and he felt bones breaking under the force. He felt the pain radiate just in time for the other fist to crush the left side of his ribs.
He couldn’t recover.
Pug’s fists slammed into him again and again and sent him crashing through the glass cathedral wall. Glass rained down onto them and Saint felt one of his lungs collapse under another fist—and his face burned and stung. Blood started to pour out of his mouth, and then a fist caught him and sent him airborne and into the base of the Angels statue on the balcony. Saint tried to get up, but he fell over and onto his stomach. His body shook involuntarily, and he fought for air through one lung.
He had lost vision in his right eye, and he lay there and thought that this would be the end of it. The monstrous man walked towards him with a look of disapproval on his face.
“Hey, Viper—he isn’t even fighting. What a loser.”
Viper touched her bruised face and responded, “Don’t kill him. I want him to watch me kill this little bitch.”
Pug used one arm to grab Saint by his head and pull him to his feet. He watched the blood stream from Saint’s mouth, and how he labored to breathe. His right eye was swollen shut. He looked back to Viper. “I think I hurt him bad.”
Saint was haunted by the words that had always bothered him: “Powerless to change anything in life.”
Pug took up guard in a playful manner and placed his fist on Saint’s chin. “C’mon buddy. No hard feelings, haha!”
It was then that Saint drove the heel of his foot forward and into Pug’s gut with all of his strength. As Pug reactively hunched forward, he stepped to the side and kicked in the back of his left leg. Pug lost balance and fell onto that knee.
Saint leveled his shotgun to the base of Pug’s skull, and fired. The bones in his skull and face began to fragment and separate; the flesh ripped, and his head expanded into a cloud of red mist that splattered over the balcony. The body fell onto the floor.
A dagger was driven into his arm, with his shotgun still aimed at where Pug’s skull was. The dagger slid down his arm and armor effortlessly, to his hand, and his grip on the shotgun gave way. The gun fell to the floor, but Saint didn’t feel much in the arm beyond a radiating numbness and burning.
Viper drove her other dagger through the leg armor and into his leg before pulling him by the knife lodged in his arm. “Come with me. I have a show to put on for you.”
She pulled him over to the shattered glass wall, and pushed him down and up against a piece of steel framing. “Tell me what you think?” She smiled at him.
She walked over to the catatonic girl, grabbed her by the hair, and dragged her away from her mother and out onto the balcony. She dragged her over to the statue and turned to Saint.
“Look at her.” She pulled her up a little by her hair. “Get a good look at her. This is the fucking little bitch that you just gave your life up for.”
Saint saw the little girl and knew that she wasn’t afraid of dying. He was going to have to find something more within himself to stop Viper. His arms felt too heavy to move, but he had to move them. He grabbed the steel frame and pulled himself up.
He pulled the dagger from his right arm and held it with his left hand. He wiped some of the blood from his mouth and limped towards Viper.
She put the girl down and walked up to Saint. She easily took the dagger from him, and then pulled the other dagger from his leg, and pushed him back down onto the ground.
She scolded him. “Just sit here. You’re being pathetic.”
Pulling the girl up by an arm, she continued. “Where were we? Oh yes. I am going to show you why you will never have a choice in this life.” She licked her busted lip. “How about we do something in the fashion of an eye for an eye. You killed my partner, so it’s only fair that I should get to kill this bitch that has granted you courage. I want you to suffer with these memories.”
She smiled to herself, and gazed at Saint again. Pulling the girl up further, she spoke. “Let’s start the show, then, shall we?”
When she readied the dagger to strike the girl, a muffled noise came from the Cathedral:
She tossed the girl down and looked to her torso. Four red lights blinked rapidly under her skin and her torso expanded and exploded—sending bits of her in every direction. What was left of her upper body had fallen onto her legs. The little girl moved back to her mother and sat down.
Serenity walked onto the balcony and looked to Saint. “We can still get this sorted out.”
He looked at the statue on the balcony and spoke deliberately. “I can’t go back. I’m too old for this life. I’m tired, Serenity.”
She helped him up, and he started walking towards the little girl, but Serenity interrupted. “Please, don’t force me to do this. I can’t go to Phoenix. There’s no hope for me there...please don’t drag me into this. At least I can see the sky as a Redeemed.”
She pointed her rifle at Saint, and he turned around and looked at her. “I’m not asking you to. I wouldn’t have you make that decision.” He walked over to her and took her rifle from her hands, aimed the rifle at her left leg, and hugged her. “Just tell Base that I’ve gone Rogue.”
She nodded, and he fired the rifle. As he held her and she tried to ignore the pain, she asked. “Let’s watch the sunrise? It shouldn’t be much longer.”
Saint carried her over the steel framing of the shattered glass wall that was in a good position to view the sun coming up. He sat down next to her. His breathing grew less labored and he sighed in relief.
She looked off into the distance and watched at the UV filters activate as the halo of the sun broke the horizon. “This will be one good memory on top of the big mess that was today, huh?”
Saint didn’t answer. He had never taken the time to watch the sun rise in all of the years of his life. It was something he could probably do again in the future. It felt nice not having an order to follow for once in decades.
The shifting colors of night gave way to the ambient glow of a burning sky from behind UV filters. Serenity sighed, longingly. “I’ve never seen clouds.”
He pulled himself up and walked over to the little girl, crouched down with some effort, and looked at her. He brushed her dark gray hair away from her dull orange eyes, and held his hand out. “I need you to trust me.”
She didn’t move. He took her arm and pulled her up so that she sat on his shoulders, and then he stood up. He didn’t look at Serenity, but answered her. “Someday down the road, we’ll find a planet with nice clouds and catch the sunrise there, okay?”
A tear ran from her eye, and she looked in the other direction. “Yeah.”
He walked away.