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Chapter One



The train came to a screeching halt, the wail of metal-on-metal the high pitch of scouring ballistic missiles. The tang of cooked steel spiked the air, jabbing nostrils like an ice pick to the sinuses. Boxcars like the segments of a giant centipede lurched beneath human cargo. All aboard swayed with the motion, save Conner. He stood still and unmoved as a statue. Someone grabbed him by the shoulder to keep upright.

Gouge, slash, spill guts, spill brains.

No. Quiet.

Conner turned to them, a practiced smile already served up.

“It’s okay,” he said first.

The dirty, little workman had the look of a fish out of water, prey in the grasp of an eagle. He didn’t respond.

“Hey,” Conner insisted, “it’s alright. I ain’t patrol.”

“F-Forgive me, Sor,” he blurted, head bowed, gaze averted, arms stretched out in almost religious supplication.

He pushed his way back into the others, made as much distance between himself and Conner as possible. The rest of the crowd parted away, affording him passage. They all looked as if half-expecting a bomb to go off. Thwarted, Conner’s blood, his personal engine of destruction went back to sleep. *sigh*

He turned back to disembark. The sliding doors cracked ajar.

He leapt down before they fully opened, the lunch box tied at his waist clanging against sliding metal. The new jackhammer in hand offset his balance, and he landed the wrong way, damn-near twisting an ankle. Overeager, he made way to the head of the train, to the main hub where they allocated the work. A long strip of busted ceiling lamps plunged part of the tunnel into darkness. The train’s lighting cast thick tiger stripes against the mines’ walls.

At the bullpen, the time-tested slave gangs and worker co-ops’d already boarded the Super-Max trucks bound for the newly dynamited area. The rest of the morning crowd’d gathered twelve deep by thirty, everyone hot to stake a claim. Despite his height, Conner got on his tiptoes to get his head above the rest. One of the drivers hung from the exhaust pipe of his machine charge, looking like he swung from the horn of some creation myth bull ready to lick the world into being. He raised a loudhailer to his lips.

“Charlies got space for few more! Which one of you sorry bastards’re useful?!”

The workers raised their pickaxes to the cause, pledging their service, begging to be brought along. Conner strained beneath the jackhammer’s heft, lifting it up above his head, above the others. His elbows buckled. The driver noticed him, pointed with the bullhorn, and hailed “You, jackhammer, get on up!”

Conner made way through the masses. The jackhammer’s tip dinged against the earth, *tink*tink*,*tink*tink*. He mounted the truck with his free hand, and situated himself near the cabin, kept his distance from the others. Minutes passed, and the Super-Max roared to life and staggered on its way, gaining pace and racing down the tunnel, a steel steer speeding for the kill.

Rubble and stones the size of heads littered the area. Bulldozers cleared the site.

Conner hadn’t expected this. Old battlefields came back; dirt ditches swallowing whole villages, the hot sun cooking dead natives, flies and rats feasting, Rangers taking skulls for trophies, his own felled brethren removed from the accumulated gore for ceremonial processing.

From their transport’s high-raised seat, Foreman Charlie hollered, “Alright ya sorry pricks, welcome to Pit Devil Cat!” He had a blue collar priest-king’s making, perfumed with cheap beer and sweat, consecrated with badge and steam pistol. He was a bulbous polyp resting atop the head of a scrap metal monster. A re-purposed DCT-150b “Spider,” the rotating wheel-spokes kneaded the twin tank treads along the uneven ground. Its jerky movements had a uncanny gait. Thick, noxious fumes issued from a sole exhaust pipe, a pack-a-day smoker’s breath in dead-deep winter. Machine innards rattled. Pistons pumped. Fuel smoldered beneath a worn and beaten chassis, an underground coal fire waiting to tear free. It all sputtered in a guttural, animal-like way.

It reminded Conner of the horde.

He put the images out by imagining petting a friendly cat, a trick he’d picked up from his old psych-chaplain some one hundred years back.

“Now get ta work!” Charlie barked, departing for his shanty office. “First one to find metal gets a month’s pay in advance, and a ration bump up to two. First to find salt gets twice for three!”

Conner pulled his dirty blonde mane into a bun, claimed a dark spot of rock on the line, and hammered away. Despite ten years’ work experience, he’d only ever worked the depleted ranges by the train and bullpen. He rarely got the chance to read mineral veins to learn what to look out for. But he knew enough to seek out darkened earth; dark meant water, water meant ore. A former Scouts captain, he hoped being observant would make up for the inexperience. All he needed now was to find one big motherlode, something to cash in and walk away for a few weeks. Money enough to spend more time with his family, to grease the wheels for a transfer to the Last Valley closer to home.

The labor was backbreaking, but he made quick work. Heavens for Molly, a San-sir if ever one. His wife’d put down the initial five hundred purse-daggers to buy the jackhammer. His old pickaxe was bound to break apart someday soon, and what then? as he often worried. Gratitude made the strain bearable. Still, he struggled to adapt to its power, at times failing to keep a hold of it. The salesman’d claimed it would work for an entire day before giving up on a full battery. Bits of dirt and gravel flew into Conner’s shaggy beard.

Half an hour in, someone came up to his left with hammer and chisel, and started chipping away at the edges of his claim. They kept their distance, just shy of encroaching, but barely put in any effort into it. Shadowing. The last thing Conner needed; competition. He kept digging, weary of the intruder, but determined to find something. For five straight hours he obliterated earth, burrowing in almost three meters all around. The other kept quiet, their work half-hearted the whole while.

Sometime after noon, Conner’s jackhammer locked-up, the air circuit smoking. He’d overworked it. He didn’t know how to un-fuck it by himself, but knew there’d be a gear-doc by the chow line. They could mend it for a few rooks. He didn’t like the idea of abandoning his work, even if only for a few minutes. Daylight burned. Four hours remained til night shift. He glanced to the shadow, who was busy being useless. Chancing it, he used a piece of chalk to mark his spot with his initials, and humped it over to the picnic seating. He found the gear-doc, slipped her a tattered twenty, and went to have lunch.

He anchored down along the bleachers’ top row, keeping to the back. Away from the others. Gossip and murmur rose up to bother him; horsefly buzzing. They droned about their game nights and drinking parties, some suggesting an orgy or two over the weekend. Opening plastic containers, beverage cans, and bottles broke up the groggy, haggard chorus, artillery shots breaking up the low roar of battle.

A few were tan, artificially toasted from the sun parlors. Most were ghastly pale, some nearly as Conner. The air sagged heavy with sweat and pulverized rock, the stink of mortal struggle. But true to knight-kin design, Conner remained clammy, cold. His body generated no extraneous heat. The dust clung to him rough and dry.

He cracked open his C.F.R. Box. Inside, Molly had, once again and as always, packed him his favorite; carrot and celery soup in a thermos, and a thin brick of calorie starch, drizzled with sickly red gunk. Supposedly, “home-made” raspberry syrup, out-of-the-box. The Bastion Mining Cooperation didn’t provide communal microwaves for the common laborers, and the chemical heating element within the Box’d run dry months ago. Conner ate the soup cold, the piece of nutromate for a crude stirring instrument. As he downed his meal, he swore to himself that Molly made everything out-of-the-box taste great, like the kinda stuff the old politicos’d kept in reserve for their fancy dining occasions. Of course, Conner couldn’t actually taste any of it, but he could imagine. The smell gave him a rough idea of the flavor profile, the quality of her cooking.

All his tongue registered was not poisonous.

He didn’t cherish his soup and bread for long, returning to the gear-doc after only seven minutes. As with military service, merits on the work line were hard-earned, with prizes just as golden as any promotion up the chain-of-command.

With a half-filled belly, he lugged the jackhammer back to his claim. The spot’d been commandeered by 15 others. His initials’d been chiseled off. Already they made headway into the breach he’d carved. Enemy, his blood goaded. 

A fury as ugly as a botched root canal took hold, animating him. Only his gaze hinted at wrath, his face a blank of seeming indifference. He stormed towards them, one hand balled into a fist, the other clutching the jackhammer by a handle, the tip bucking against rock. *tink*tink*, *tink*tink* heralded his approach. They turned to him, some leveraging pickaxes for a swing.

Scare them off. No killing. 

But inside, the blood prepared itself, conditioned him for the clash. His muscles tensed; the jackhammer got lighter, lifting a finger’s width off the ground.

The knight’s blood hungered for mayhem.

Someone cried out for help. “No! Please, I’m sorry!”

Conner snapped out of his fugue of fuming ire. He turned from the crew, looked away from his purloined work, searched elsewhere for the source of that desperate plea. Someone needed rescuing.

Not thirty paces away, a public beating. The others’d stopped to watch.

A bellicose slave-driver and his top man savaged an old, raggedy workman. The latter’s pickaxe lay shattered in two nearby. The enemy had a gang of seven other bondsmen to their backs, obedient and observing; some jeered, while others kept silent and unconcerned, unmoved by the appeals for mercy. The larger of the two, the slave-driver in burgundy leather and pink satin, was a fat boar of a man, a closed fist shorter than Conner but twice as thick. The other was a lowly rat-thing, less than half the boar’s size, and naked save for blue slacks and red sandals. The downed worker stopped moving, their hushed sobs the only sign of life.

Another hot torrent, stronger than before welled up inside Conner. The force potential of every nerve of his being redoubled. Shoulders squared, he took first step to engage. Writhing, boiling, his blood rallied. Sublime, maniacal, it twisted inside, appetite piqued. It’d been over ten years since he last called upon it to such a degree. It would give him its all now.

“Aye!” he barked, shocked to hear the old battle voice coming through. He felt powerful. He ignored the voice of doubt telling him to stay out of trouble. Master and slave, startled, turned to him, a pang of terror etched into their faces. But as he closed the distance, the fear fell away. Their sport ruined, they would sic their scornful venom onto him. “What in Eran’s name’re you doing?”

Conner scanned his targets, measured stride affording mere seconds to plan. Nine, so far. Deescalate. Don’t touch money-man. A harness bound the rat’s torso, a slaver’s leash. A rhinestone earring pierced his left ear. Yank piercing, subdue with pain. Pull up by harness, meat shield. The others slaves wore similar trappings.

The blood sent strength into his limbs. The jackhammer got lighter still.

The curious gathered around in hushed interest. Some took out picto-grabbers to record the encounter. Others whispered amongst themselves, taking bets on who should come out on top. The slaves kept to their master’s back.

“Whatta ya want, dog-rida?” the boar slurred. His flat-face crinkled into a mass of deep wrinkles and bared teeth, graying whiskers against skin like brown leather. Pertwood accent, tan; merchant-lord baby. Out of shape. Still strong.

“What has he done to deserve a beating?”

“Listen ‘ere,” the rat butted in, as Conner got in arm’s reach, “this ‘ere moron came-a ‘ammerin’ away at ‘r spot. ‘e, ‘e’s a stowaway done ‘itched a ride on ‘em Maxes, look at ‘is grubby gear! ‘e’s no crew mate, ‘e’s dead weight!”

The rat’s left hand twitched; a boot-knife concealed just above his left ankle. Neutralize first. Kill order. Conner wanted to deescalate. But more than that, he wanted to fight.

“Ain’t no laws saying he can’t work these rocks too,” he countered, trying to dissuade himself from giving in. “He’s entitled to carve out whatever patch he finds fitting. You have disagreements, you work it out, civil-like.”

“Whart?” the boar growled. The battered workman crawled away.

The rat went for the boot-knife. The boar pulled away. Conner tossed the jackhammer up, grabbed it by the chisel-end. He lunged in, left palm thrust to the rat’s throat, jackhammer arching back. Windpipe flattened, vertebra powdered to dust, dead-on-arrival, the dagger clanged against broken earth. The rat slumped, heart stopped like it never had a pulse, face slacking to soft dough, total nerve collapse from the neck up. Conner’s blood pulsed, engorged. A high like an itchy sweater around the brain got him dream-silly, shards of ice aflame digging through meat and mind, a swaddling of water forged in numbing stone.

Gasps. A chorus of *clicks*. A dead man’s demise, a executioner’s triumph immortalized. A flush of adrenaline, more more more. Someone swung a pickaxe. It splintered against a rigid forearm, a sturdier, superhuman limb. Crush the vermin. Memory of an axe swing, the jackhammer rose, motor component an extinction-grade mace, a meteor to crown a globe bearing down faster faster faster. It found perch, the nearest foe brained in, obliterated to non-personhood. Blood and bone and brains cascaded. Insects crawled out a busted gourd. A pale fruit disgorged pulp and seed. A blooming mushroom head covered in mycelium beaded red with poison.

The knight’s blood surged like a cleansing flood over a levy, enveloping entrails, a timelapse of luminous slime mold conquering a damp log.

The first time in a long time, it felt like Conner’s first.

There were screams; the reverie fell away.

He turned to see horrified faces all around. A killer again, he hated himself for it. The blood retreated.

The boar rushed into his unguarded flank. A hard right to the face with a fist of gaudy rings sent him tumbling to the ground. The shock forced the fluid in his braincase to slosh around, the entire left side of his face crackling with nerve firings. Speed-lines flashed, blurring his bruised vision. If only he’d had a helm on; if only he’d had his fabled suit of Battlehide armor.

The boar and his remaining slaves descended on him with swift, vicious kicks to the chest and belly. An ordinary human would’ve perished, but knight-kin were hardier creatures. Yet they overwhelmed him. Conner could only take the beating as best he could to mitigate the worse of it. The blood fortified his most vital innards. They cursed him for his foolhardy heroism.

A whistle blew. Armed security thugs ran up to them, Foreman Charlie at the lead, steam pistol drawn.

“Devil’s going on here?” he barked.

The boar called his men off.

“This here prick tried to get in our business, and killed two of me men!”

Charlie leaned over to inspect Conner, pistol aimed on him.

“What’s your name, fella?”

“Clay… Conner Clay, work I.D. 3417J.”

A note of terror crept into Charlie’s voice. “Conner Clay? Double-initials?”

He gingerly grabbed Conner by the shoulder —bite, claw— and turned him over. Charlie went even paler at Conner’s scars, the twin lines running down his face from the eyes to the jawline; the knight-kin breed’s birthmarks.

The indignant boar roared. “I don’t care if he’s a veteran! Eran-on-a-bitch, I don’t even care if he’s a blinkin’ war-hero. He killed two of me men! That’s money out of me pocket. If I isn’t given recompense, I’m taking me boys back up. There’re shitters that need cleaning, streets that need sweeping. Find cheaper manpower, I dare ye.”

“Worker 3417J, you’re hereby suspen-”

The slaver roared again. Charlie kept his cool.

“You’re suspended pending an investigation. Grab your stuff and hit the road.”

“Sir, there’s still four hours left til night shift.”

“I repeat, grab your gear and personals, and leave.”

“Am I fired?”

Charlie declined to answer. He walked away with his goons. The boar and his bondmen returned to work . A moment later, Conner rose back up, regaining some of his reeling composure. His right eye was swollen near-shut. It stung to the touch. Two scavengers’d come by to haggle for the two dead slaves, for recycling.

The worker Conner’d rescued was nowhere to be found. The crowd’d dispersed as well, not wanting to get involved. His blood quieted down back to sleep. It wouldn’t even bother healing the busted eye.

Conner didn’t blame it.

After all, the damnable blood only aided the bold and victorious.

He went for the bloodied jackhammer. The crew that’d stolen his spot kept watch on him, prepared to defend themselves. One of them now wielded a sawed-off shotty. She aimed at him, as the others continued.

He spent the rest of the shift by the chow line, cleaning blood and brain off the jackhammer. The ambient grime made it near-impossible. Clumps of the stuff gummed up the seams.

Four hours later, Charlie called it a day with a prolonged shot of his steam pistol. In the end, no metals’d been unearthed, and more troubling no salt deposits either. Conner didn’t know which was worse; his troubles, or that another day’d passed without uncovering resources humanity woefully needed.

Gear and lunchbox in hand, he rejoined the others. Everyone kept a wide berth of him. Wider than what he usually afforded others. Even aboard the Super-Max they edged away, hugging the railing. They reached the bullpen, disembarked, and walked up to the crudely erected payout offices halfway toward the train. In a rueful melancholy, to him the whole place looked like a termite colony, the kind he’d seen during entomology studies at the Imperial University. Happier times. Peace times.

“Name?” the lordly, effeminate clerk at the counter asked, as Conner dragged himself towards the open-air desk at Payouts : C-D, one of many along the building’s side. On the desk in front of them they had the numbers book, a finger on the page ready to turn. Their attention was focused on the small, ancient paperback in their free hand, A Love So Torrid, My Lord Henry.

The clerk was new; name tag read B.Q. Ambrosia. By the green, triangular-slits running down their nose and across their high-raised cheekbones, Conner recognized him for an Ambishor, a high-borne from Ornlundia. Not since the Retreat had Conner thought of that planet, or its fiefdoms and priest-caste nobility; he’d cut his teeth on that world, during the first Crime Wave insurgency. He didn’t recognize the house colors, but suspected B.Q. hailed from a more progressive household. Not Armstrong. Not Waldgrup either. Those hawkish households frowned upon even the slightest whiff of femininity. He wondered what’d happened to old, reliable Clerk Joe.

“Name, please?” B.Q. asked again, a touch terser.

“Clay, Conner, worker 341-”

“-17J, yeah,” the clerk interrupted, “hard to forget you, Sor Clay.”

Have I met you before? They seemed friendly, if a bit too haughty for his liking. A strange breed, the Ambish nobles ranged from the well-meaning but overly regal, to the downright asocial and sinister. Devilish.

The clerk flipped to the right page, glanced down to check the numbers, and handed him a pamphlet with half a week’s ration stubs for one person, plus a hundred and fifty purse-daggers in tens. Payout issued, they returned to leisure reading.

Conner stared at the crinkled rooks.  

“One-fifty only?” A deduction of two hundred from last week, a net loss greater than his lost hours. B.Q. looked up from their book, setting it aside with a nervous glance graven across their slender face.

A fearful tremor in their voice, they mustered up some courage. “Th-Things have been tough, Sor Clay.”

They looked down at the numbers, tried to look busy.

“Finances have been tight. We’ve been trying to balance all the work with what we’re getting from the boys above. You of all people should know how High Command can get at times. Also… I’ve been informed that your pay has been garnished to cover for damages caused to Cooperation equipment. One pickaxe, and two indentured workmen. I am also required to inform you, that your services will not be needed for the foreseeable future, pending an internal review.”

Conner held his spot, staring at the lean payout. His mind swam with all the setbacks his stunt’d begot. Rent. Gabby’s braces. My food. The Valley plan. The Daggers. B.Q. got agitated. They kept their gaze to the numbers.

“Listen, Sor Conner, I know its been tough for you, and your lot. It isn’t easy being a former operative these days, San-sirai know. And you’re one of the honest ones too. But we have to live with what little we’ve got left, where we can. Now please, move aside so I can payout the next person.”

“Please, can I, can I talk to Charlie? I don’t have to work the line, I can do other stuff around the field, I can work with reinforcement, I can-” —a shot of dread down his spine— “I can do guard duty if I have to, I’ve experience. If its just for a few days off the work li-”

B.Q. reached for a button by their side, but kept from pressing it.

“I’m certain you can find work outside the mines, Sor Clay. There are people out there willing to pay for what you can provide.” A nervous laugh honeyed their voice. “Who wouldn’t want a noble warrior of old by their side?”

The uneasy smile died away as quick as it’d formed.

“Now please leave, or I’ll have to call security.”

The fear tasted honest. Hesitating a second, Conner moved aside, making way for the train. After the nighttime guys boarded off, he climbed aboard with the rest of day shift. An hour’s commute later, he got onto the rider, the elevator at the Bastion’s heart. From there, he ascended from the deepest bowels of the world, up towards New Earth’s highest peaks.

He dreaded returning to more civilized climes.

He dismounted the rider halfway up, and made way to 580D. There, he sold the jackhammer back to the San-Sir’s Workshop. The shopkeeper, the elderly Miss Shrew, didn’t ask about the stains on it, nor about the bruise taking up half his face. Nor why he was returning it so soon after purchase. He looked to the Temp-Emp bulletin board. It was empty now, with not a single stub left. Before he departed, he asked her if the Workshop itself was hiring, or if she knew of any other work. He didn’t push the issue when she answered “no” to both questions, not wanting to beg. But a glimmer of hope, she told him to come back tomorrow.

“Always have a few new jobs in the mornin’. I’ll ask around for ya.”

Conner nodded and gave her a thumbs up, leaving it at that.

His grief bottled away, he got back onto the rider and made way for home, the late afternoon slipping into early evening.

The elevator ascended through the agri-complex levels near the top. The pungent smell of loamy, recycled earth and animal stink greeted his nostrils, bringing a warm nostalgia. Conner watched the workers tend to the crops, harvest the matured yields, maintain the irrigation system. If the mines were a termite colony, this place had the grandeur of a coral reef locked away inside a beehive cradled in an oak tree. Layered terraces of wheat, barley, and rice rose up along the walls, the illusion of mountain ranges giving the place its namesake. Pockets of genetically engineered jungles dotted the central plain around the elevator, parasitic vegetable grafts burdening soft, sickly branches. Irrigation pylons sucked water up from the shallow drenches cut into the ground, dispensing a light shower. Artificial sunlight radiated from the high-mast lighting rigs, giving the air a faint lavender hue. Some filtered through the protective grill caging the rider’s enormous carriage. It felt good on the skin. Rainbows frolicked in the mist.

A few levels up, thousands of milking goats and the few cows left for beef eternally walked the great grass spiral around the elevator. 19 milk farms, and one slaughterhouse broke the strip into 19 even sectors. Large crates of eggs came out the back end of a giant chicken processing plant on the last floor. The surplus of life invigorated him, but also brought a somber pang, a wrenching want.

All this she could’ve had. He desperately wanted to work here, so that his child, Gabrielle might be raised alongside so much growth and splendor. He’d been waiting five years for a transfer. Without a steady job his prospects dwindled. As a dark mood descended to snuff out his fleeting cheer, the warmth of the Last Valley receded beneath him, as the carriage carried him higher, up towards the cold, concrete summit of his world.

A hundred years ago, the Archives’ pinnacle provided a view of almost the entire northern hemisphere of New Earth. It’d been the purview of the elite, the resident Senators, and visiting Governors and families. Now it merely provided a reminder of what’d been lost; a reminder to those who’d failed to keep the Imperial dream alive. In the gloom, behind reinforced steel blocking out the sun, only Rangers roosted. The Bastion’s upper levels were the Empire’s last remaining Knights Nest.

Should the last great enemy breach, New Earth’s knight-kin would be the first to engage at the very top, their loved ones caught in the crossfires. Seemed almost too cruel, despite the logic behind it; “with home in peril, a man fights like the Demon King himself!” Conner ofttimes wondered if perhaps, in truth, his C.O.s just wanted to be the first ones killed, to be done with it quick.

A dozen apartment complexes, nearly two thousand domiciles made up the Nest. A small city in the acreage of a small township, all of it vertical planning. A growing number of apartments were empty. With a scant few lights on, the Nest looked like crumbling smokestacks bleeding flame from gaps in brick and mortar. Conner’s home was on the first floor, level 957, district B between Hammerstrike and Deadogre.

The apartment was deathly still and quiet, save for the shoddy wiring’s low frequency hum. He and his family had to wear noise-canceling earpieces at night to block it out, lest nightmares plague them. Sound had a funny way of playing tricks on the mind. The place unsettled him.

Battered, weary, he walked through the hallway, passed the laundry room, and entered the kitchen. The counter was as clean as discolored and nicked linoleum could be. He pulled a glass from the drying rack, and poured himself some water from the tap. The flimsy metal cabinets choked the already cramp dining area tight. Suffocating. He moved into the living room to find more space. He plunged onto the reinforced couch, and downed his drink while looking to the large bay window against the wall farthest from the bedrooms. He watched as the sun lowered towards the horizon. At such a high altitude, it barely radiated, barely lit the sky. As if at any moment, a breeze could snuff it out.

Nobody’s home.

He was wrong, and realized it after a moment; I’m home.

Just alone now.

He hated the place, hated the hum, hated the cabinets, hated the sickly sun.

He finished his drink with one last swig, set the glass on the coffee table, and got up to get closer to the window. At near 97 thousand meters up, he scanned across the vast expanse of what used to be the northern-most coast along Princess Emilia’s Lake, New Earth’s great central sea. Jagged rock and crumbling skyscrapers carpeted the terrain, the Bastion the last remaining monument to a bygone utopia.

With a deep breath he turned away from the vista, and started turning in for the day. He grabbed his evening wear from his and Molly’s bedroom, hopped into the shower, and washed away the day’s dirt. As the water beat down his head and back, the thought of ending his life crept up on him. He entertained the idea of relinquishing his body and blood to High Command. Be of some use as one of Mannheim’s puppets. It wasn’t the first time he contemplated suicide; last time, before Molly, he’d even filled out the paperwork. He scolded himself for even considering it now. But it would put his family in good standing, enough to see to it that they’d be provided for long after he’s gone. The bile in his belly rose up. He shut off the water and dried off. Looking himself over in the mirror, he checked his injuries.

The yellow discoloration around the busted eye clashed with his pale complexion, as did the other yellow bruises. The infused plassteel and carbon nano-fibers of his skeleton provided weighty strength, his muscles underdeveloped as a result. That, and knight’s blood simply refused to build muscle-like substrate. The physical might it engendered could only be earned through slaughter and conquest. He looked flabby. He looked like a bloated corpse.

He pulled on his clothes and tied his hair back. As he reentered the living room, he heard the front door open, recognized the footsteps entering in. He knew Molly just by the sound of her stride, the way her work boots fell on concrete.

A weary smile creased his ruined face. Part of him wished he’d stopped to get a San-sir’s Bandage to cover the eye, to look more presentable. Would’ve cost too much. He needed to start saving now.

As he made into the kitchen, Molly and Gabrielle entered from the hallway.

Molly’s work jumper was halfway off, the sleeves wrapped around her waist and tied at the front in a big bow. Her sweat stained undershirt clung to her upper body, her lightly developed limbs and torso defined in white cotton. Her job at the Cultural Recovery Corps was physically demanding, at times forcing her to lift her own body weight. Her brunette bob was held in place with her C.R.C.-marked cap, her sharp features even more angular by its complement.

The five year-old at her side had her lucky, purple knit-cap in hand, her dirty blonde locks down past her shoulders.

“Hey you two,” he greeted. He took a deep breath to keep control. He imagined the cat again. He didn’t want to cause any worry.

Gabrielle gasped. “Papa, what happened?”

“Oh, don’t worry Gab-Gab. Just got hit with a tool at work. It’s fine. Now come here, give your old man a hug.”

With the smile returned to her face, she ran up and latched onto him.

He lifted her up, clutching her tight to his chest. Molly’s cool gray eyes pierced into his. She already knew something’d gone wrong. Oh Moll, please forgive me. Her sad, thin smile proved nearly enough to take the life out of him. He looked away first, he had to. Returning his attention back to Gabrielle, he released her back down.

“How was work with Mama?”

“It was great!”

Molly broke in, cheerful and satisfied. “I found a lost work today, a complete set.” Her pride lifted his spirits.

“Honey, that’s fantastic! Your fourth one this quarter. At this rate they’ll make you Head of Ops.” Her smile forced the bruise’s sting to retreat. “So, what was it?”

“Well,” Molly began as she set her backpack down into a dining chair, removing groceries from it. “I was just fixing a junction box near Daphne’s Dashing Emporium in 703C for a few extra rooks, when I decided to take a closer look into the wall. Found an active terminal and ran it through my array. Con, there was a complete copy of Memire The Mummer’s Fables and Yarns. They would’ve given me a raise on the spot if they weren’t such cheapskates.”

“That’s great! I loved reading those back at the Forge, back when I was a kid.”

The warm mood carried them into the evening, as they prepared dinner. Mixed rice, fried eggs, and a medley of expensive vegetables for mother and child. A sizable pot of carrot and celery soup for him. Toasted nutromate on the side. Such good eating was just one of the perks of living so high up the tower, the benefits of Conner being on the reserve list. First dibs on the freshest food.

With the table set, Conner kissed Molly on the forehead, cradling her in his arms, hungry for her touch. Being a head taller, he overwhelmed her. With a laugh-snort, she returned his embrace with a tight squeeze of her own. Conner’s troubles seemed so far away. But when it came time to eat, he ate in silence; a whole gamut of worries ran through his mind. They’re gonna have to dip into their own rations for me. How am I gonna put in for rent? Can’t ask her to pay more out of her purse. Should I reenlist and patrol again? If I don’t make up the pay, we’ll have to move down.

By the time they finished, it was past bedtime for Gabrielle. After she cleaned up and brushed her teeth, Conner took her to her room. He tucked the sheets beneath the mattress.

“Papa,” she started, “how did you hit your eye?”

“Oh, I was careless. Didn’t look where I was going, and when I turned around I got hit with a piece of metal.”

“Did it hurt?”

“A little, but making you and Mama worry felt worse.”

“Papa, when can you stop working there?”

His blood spasmed then went limp, taking cue his stomach’s sudden drop; an all-too human reflex the Empire’s engineers could never totally remove from his species’ design. Her question was uncanny given his day. More than that, he dreaded where the conversation would lead.

“Well, sweetie, I have to work the mines.”

“But why?”

“Because, we find all the stuff we need down there. We find the salt to make the water safe to drink, so you don’t get an upset stomach. We find the copper and gold, and the silver too, which we use to fix up the Bastion and keep it running when things break. Sometimes we find red mercury, to make more weapons for the Pack, to keep us safe. We do it to protect what we have.”

“But why do you hafta dig, Papa? Why don’t you work for the people up there?”

She pointed to the ceiling. She pointed towards High Command.

“Papa had a bad time with them. I don’t want to work for them again.”

In the days since the Retreat, the W.A.R. proved no better than a security gang. At first he’d taken pride in hunting down the criminal, until every minor non-violent offense was deemed sufficient for crackdown. Anything to put people in the red, force them into indentured work, reduced rationing. He despised preying on the weak, despite the blood’s encouragement. Evicting and resettling people sickened him. Sometimes it got fatal.

He and his kind’d been raised to believe they were protecting Father Eran’s flock. In the end, they’d turned out as wolves in sheepdog’s clothing.

“But… What about the monsters?”

Gabrielle didn’t dare say their name, afraid that doing so would be enough to summon them. She’d told her parents as such. She’d heard from someone that they could hear everything in the tower. He’d made his living digging up the very materials the horde needed to reproduce. She’d finally made the connection.

“Honey, those nasty things, they need the stuff, but we need it too. And no matter what we do they will always try to hurt us, and they will always try to take that stuff from us first, even if we don’t try to get it ourselves. The only thing we can do is use it first, so that we can live better.”

“But Papa… What are they?”

He wasn’t prepared to tell her the truth about the horde. He’d committed treason revealing it to Molly, as best he knew the facts. He hesitated to say any more. The silence ate away at him, a doomed creature in the jaws of something bigger.

“When you’re old enough.”

He forced a smile. He suspected that Gabrielle had never actually had nightmares about the “monsters,” or if she had they were wholly inaccurate to the reality. She didn’t know the horror. Not yet.

“But there’s no reason to worry. The Grand Pack protects us. The monsters can’t get in. And I wont let anything hurt you or Mama. Now time for sleep, sweetie.”

He kissed her on the forehead, plugged her ears, and ruffled her mound of wild, untamed curls. He left the room, closed the door behind him, and found Molly sitting at the dining room table, a lit vita-cig in between her right index and middle fingers.

“Conner.” Her disappointment was clear as crystal.


He sat down across from her, his courage draining away as he sank into the chair. He dared not speak.

After a moment, she broke the silence.

“Did you get sent home early again?”

He nodded, whimpering. He held his tongue. He didn’t want her to know the full extent of his punishment. Or his crime.

“Conner, you can’t keep getting into trouble. This is your third fight this year. Last time you crippled a guy. They’ll drop your work schedule,” —like a dagger to his guts— “maybe even drop you from the reserve list if you keep it up. San-sirai know, I’d be glad if you never work for the bastards ever again. But they’ll kick us out of the Nest. They might even draft you for the Chair…”

“They were beating a man to death.”

Her lips cracked into a sad, thin smile, the left corner slightly raised. Her eyes watered, but she kept her composure. It killed him to look at her.

“You’re not an operative anymore.”

He looked to the half-emptied bowl of soup in front of him.

“I know-”

He fought back the tears.

“I know I’m no Ranger anymore, not a real one. Just wanted to help someone who needed it is all.”

“You wanted to feel like a proper soldier again. You wanted to give the blood what it wants.”

Her words hurt, ringing awfully true. He did want to help out, his first instinct was to come to the rescue. But he also wanted to feel strong again. He wanted to feel the rush of combat, hear the shattering of bones, taste the coppery smell of blood in the air; he longed for the blood’s familiar writhing twist, as it pumped hormones and steroids into him, fortifying his already superhuman anatomy. In his service years, it’d made him feel alive and healthy.

He felt ashamed for wanting it. He looked away.

“Yeah… Sometimes… Sometimes I think I’m not a man, not even a person if I’m not out there taking fire to the enemy, some enemy, any. Age doesn’t take the bite out of the dog, Moll. Now I feel like I’ve lost my teeth. I’m no good outside of fighting. I’m worse than useless.”

“You’re not. You’re my husband, and my child’s father, and the two of us love you. That’s all you need to be. Let those who still patrol, let them do the fighting. Let the creeps at the top control the Pack. Just live your life, here with us.”

He forced himself to look her in the eye. He would’ve been a irredeemable coward if he couldn’t even manage that.

Molly dropped the cig into what remained of her glass of water, the bright cherry annihilated into mold-grey smudge. She rose up from her seat, and walked over to his side, got behind him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and across his sternum. His lips quivered. He felt like blurting out something about the two dead men, the pay deduction, the firing, just to vent and get it off his chest. But that would’ve been unfair. He felt like such a damned cur.

He looked out of the bay window to distract himself.

There in the window, as he sagged in Molly’s loving embrace, as he stewed deep in dour silence, he saw them coming. Over in the distance, against the setting sun on the horizon, he saw them.

He managed to mutter out, “But the Hell Comet-?” before bolting into action, taking Molly aback. He ran for Gabrielle. The alarms went off. It took Molly a second to recognize them; she’d been a girl of 16 when they last went off twenty years ago. The color drained from her face.

The automated alarm blared throughout the Bastion. “ATTENTION CITIZENS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. WE HAVE BLOODFANGS ON THE HORIZON.”

All over the tower, people scrambled to what counted for safety. Some went into the reinforced bunkers located in each quadrant. Others went to family to ride out the oncoming storm. The lower level dwellers made way deeper into the tower, deeper into the earth, hoping to take refuge in the mines should it come to it. The Rangers on patrol, those foolhardy enough to still fight, manned their stations. One unlucky and valiant soul at the very top made way to his final post, his awful Chair. There were no bunkers in the Nest, only operatives readying to battle to the bitter end.

Conner didn’t go to his station, didn’t intend on fighting.  

He rushed to Gabrielle’s side, the frightened child bawling her eyes out, already upright in her bed. Her earplugs couldn’t spare her from the shrill clamor. Over the alarms, he heard her screams.

“I don’t wanna die, Papa!”

One of the worst things he’d ever heard in his exceedingly long life.

He held her tight, shielded her eyes, stifled her screams into his chest. Molly reached them and cradled him. She sobbed into his shoulder, hysterical with terror. She didn’t dare look out the door, averting her gaze from the world, from the window.

Conner’d never seen her like this before. Molly was the strongest, bravest person he knew. To see her like this, in the dying light of sunset bleeding in from the window, her cries drowned out by the Bastion’s bloodcurdling scream, it was unbearable. Snap their necks. Spare them. He forced the thought out of mind. He clung onto his family. He watched the window from the bed. He’d bare witness to what barreled down on them.

He wished he had a saber, a spear, his old trusty medic-axe, anything. He wished he had his armor on, wished his Crimson was by his side, ready for the charge.

He was powerless.

The collision rocked the tower to its foundation —Conner’s hand went to the back of his child’s neck— and for a moment it felt as if the Bastion would tip over. The blow jostled everyone where they sat, or stood, or crouched, or laid prone and helpless on the ground. They feared to make a move, so heavy was the horde’s strike, their weight ramming into the mega-structure. But the Archives held.

The horde carved into the stronghold, clawing, chewing their way into hard steel, eager for the soft meat inside they despised and coveted with all their malign intelligence. Precious metals and human flesh, the raw materials they needed to make more copies of their horrid race. The hateful, ravenous swarm sought to turn Grand Hyperborea’s last great corpse into a roosting colony.

They generated a thunderous cacophony as they fed, gnashing teeth and rending claws digging into the Bastion’s outer framework, tearing at precious stone and lesser metals. The roar penetrated deep into the tower, rattling everything. A peal of heated barking, the Grand Pack descended on the enemy, artillery shelling rocking the tower like a earsplitting hailstorm. Through it all, Conner had a front row seat to the havoc. He dared not tear his eyes away from the grotesque vision, the mutating hell revealed to him by the glowing coin that was the dying sun.

Crude and gangly cybernetics powered mangled flesh, attacked the window pane. Scratches, gobs of acidic spittle, body slams, flame-gel belches. Wild scavengers trying at hearty viscera from outside a shell of tough, transparent chitin. They collided into one another in their frenzy, claws and teeth just as likely to cut their own as to strike the high strength plastic-glass. There was no uniform appearance to them, each one a unique abstraction of tools and technologies meshed with human bodies. Only their general form was somewhat consistent, each around six meters long by two wide, quadrupedal, and with great snapping jaws like that of alligators at the front. Some had butter knifes and dinner forks for nails, others bearing stumps ending in larger bladed weapons or flame-throwers. Many bore maws of jagged metal teeth, while cannons protruded from the throats of a few. One had graspers arising from their esophagus, like the predatory mandibles of dragonfly larvae. All bore a necrotic shade of red like rotten meat. Splotches of creme-white discoloration mottled the repulsive cerise; the converting of human flesh into raw Battlehide.

Nightmares, bedlam, a pincer with drill bits for ends cracked the window in the lower left corner. The score was a blossoming flower threatening to bloom wide open. Every passing second the individual splinters cleaved further along. The Clay-Affable household on the verge of incursion, Conner fought the urge to rise up and engage; he had to stay by his family’s side.


A piece of meat exploded. A second ordnance strike shredded a limb to sinewy ribbons. A third split a unit in two across the waist, a shower of gore drenching the window. Dank, rotting fluids rolled down the pane, seeped into the cracks. Harried, the others fled, leaving the window unbreached, but nearly rent open.

Deep red and rainbow burnished silver streaked by the window. Humanity’s last Silver Wolves fended off the horde, scarring the twilight sky, scalpels cutting away at cancer bearing sharpened teeth. The Grand Pack fought with its superior fury, but the horde had numbers on its side; the horde always did. Catastrophe averted, Conner forgot about Molly, forgot about Gabrielle even. He couldn’t help but recall the worst day of his life.

He remembered Annette.

After some thirty minutes, the onslaught ended.

The surviving Bloodfangs disappeared into the night of space above New Earth. The Pack patrolled the Bastion for some time longer, searching for stragglers. A few more shots, a few more explosions. The alarms kept blaring.

Twenty minutes later they went quiet as well.


In silence, Conner rose up from Gabrielle’s bed, and made way to the window. Molly checked on their daughter.

He gazed back for only a split-second, to see his child staring back at him. Her eyes were red with tears, her nose runny with snot, her cheeks flushed with broken blood vessels from all the screaming. Each of her sobs felt like a repeated kick to the gut.

But he couldn’t comfort her, not now, not after what’d just happened. My hand on her neck. Our hand. He continued into the living room.

After seeing that Gabrielle would recover, Molly went after him.


She sounded lost. She needed something to hold onto, anything to anchor her here and now in the wake of the storm.

But he didn’t answer back.

He just stood there in the living room, staring at the plastic-glass. The sun’s final rays were disappearing beyond the world’s rim, sinking towards further vistas of ruin. Molly walked up from behind him. She placed a trembling hand upon the damaged pane. A shiver shot down her spine.

“Con, it’s okay, we can just get a replacement.”

Her words fell on deaf ears. He had tunnel vision.

Dulled inside, his world was a cracked window.

Chapter Two
Chapter One: Text
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