Content warning: cannibalism, graphic violence, gore
They were in the stairwell when it started raining.
Sergeant Vanya Kraz bent her ear to the sound, even as her booted feet continued to trample up the flaking ochre steps; muted bass thumping to counterpoint the drumroll reverberations from the armored men and women of the 6th Urban Pacification and Counter-Terror Group.
Strange, she thought. The skies had been clear when they’d deployed, a crisp autumnal morning that had smarted the eyes, its brilliance intensified against the wan skein of the Volstov skyline.
Stranger still that they could hear it underground.
“Someone at the WSB is getting the axe,” joked Harad.
A ripple of dark amusement passed through the nine operatives at Vanya’s back. The State had little tolerance for inaccuracies; even the Weather Service Bureau was known to blacklist employees who failed to meet even the smallest standards set before them.
She hissed for quiet, then, pausing at the service shaft that would lead them out of the industrial bowels of the Kolstovo Corporation, radioed command.
“This is Sickle One, on-site and preparing for ascent to the thirty-sixth floor. Confirm hostages? Over.”
A squelch of static had them all flinching, hands pressed to earpieces, dialing down volumes against the electronic screaming. When Command came through, it was fragmented, the deep voice butchered by interference. She caught the words “copy”, “hostages”, and what might have been “fortieth.”
“Think we’re being jammed?” Ilya asked. She kept taking her hand off her weapon to wipe her face, even though it was freezing in the powered-down darkness of Kolstovo’s innards. A nervous habit that had weathered the selection process.
“Unlikely,” replied Krys, spindly exo-assisted fingers spidering over her wrist computer. “These jackals love to talk. They have control, and they wish to lord it over us.” She slapped the instrument, apparently displeased with whatever it spat out at her. “More likely we are too deep underground.”
“Should we hold?”
Vanya snatched Ilya’s restless hand. The younger woman paled, though she was smart enough to nod in acknowledgment of her mistake. “Restlessness is the eye that misses the knife, the finger that jumps the trigger. It is inefficient, and inefficiency leads to catastrophe.” Words they all knew by heart, in their bones; they played out on Ilya’s face, her generous mouth miming the passage.
“No,” said Vanya. Waited until Ilya gripped her weapon proper, then: “Every second wasted is a second we risk condemning an innocent. We shall proceed cautiously, but assume our intel remains unchanged until we can contact Command. Clear?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” replied the 6th in unison, a rumble to match the dull ache of the rain outside.
As Harad took point and began to climb, Vanya’s mind wandered again to the rain; she hadn’t felt its approach at all. The old wounds loved to chatter when the weather was bad, but now as she slung her weapon and flexed the exosuit’s nano-fiber claws in preparation for the ascent, she realized that she felt nothing, not in the bolts and plates holding her together, nor even the fillings in her teeth. Nothing but the usual cramps and discomforts that foreshadowed conflict.
Maybe this is a good omen, she thought fleetingly.
They could certainly use one.
At approximately 8:30am, one-hundred employees of the Kolstovo Corporation shuffled into the lobby, ready, if not exactly eager, to get a start on the workweek. Security guards nodded at hustling salesmen, secretaries flashed smiles at favored coworkers, meager glances at those less-so. Janitors mopped up scuffs and wiped down vidscreens so the motivational slogans and zen imagery buzzed with a clarity even the most jaded employee couldn’t ignore. In the upper floors, executives barked at their attendants, fixed their cufflinks and smiled down as the ants finished filing in and the work began in full.
Less than an hour later, the building was locked down and twelve people were dead.
The perps: called The Keepers of Stoldadt, they stood for all the things revolutionaries did—anti-corruption, anti-capitalism. Things that Vanya might be inclined to understand, if not openly support—except for the fact that otherwise innocent people, whose only crime was trying to feed themselves and their families, were now swept up in this volatile agenda.
Hostile numbers were unknown, though drone-cams and snipers counted anywhere between ten and twenty. They’d dragged the eighty-eight remaining hostages up to the fortieth floor. The security force constituted the twelve casualties—the terrorists had dumped the corpses off the roof: a message. Then the demands had started: something about public resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, an upheaval of the system, safe passage for the perps, dead hostages if the rules weren’t followed.
Vanya honestly hadn’t paid it much mind. That was for the mediators and the regular EmPees hunkered behind their APCs. The State didn’t negotiate with terrorists; not really. Oh, they’d send the uniforms out with vox-amplifiers and open channels to the terrorists, offering deals, playing along, giving and taking just enough to keep the enemy engaged on the right people. Holding tactics, is what it was. A public smokescreen, an assurance to the civilian onlooker that the government valued their lives.
And it did… only so much as those lives understood who was on top. Who, at the end, mattered most.
These things, Vanya Kraz understood. These things, she paid attention to. She had to; it was the only thing keeping Ani and herself from the Institutes. They allowed her because she served; they protected her from persecution because in that service, she excelled.
So, they would root out these terrorists—revolutionaries only in her head, and sparingly, for the ears of the State were everywhere. She would see them executed with buried mercy, save as many hostages as she could. Every life taken here ensured another day of freedom for her and Ani. It was not a fair price, but it was the one she had to pay.
Humanity wrote its checks in blood, and paid the bills with flesh. Theirs, the planet’s… it hardly mattered so long as power maintained itself.
Sometimes, in her lower moments, Vanya wondered how long they thought it could last? How much longer before the checks bounced, and collection time came? Would all that blood come back to drown them?
Then, Ani would hold her hand and remind her gently why she should stop drinking.
They encountered two terrorists on the thirty-sixth floor, and four more between then and the thirty-eighth. With their exos’ dampeners on, Vanya and her team moved like armored ghosts through the jumble of cubicles, break rooms, and executive offices, their silenced ordinance and tactical acumen ensuring none of the would-be sentries raised an alarm. They dumped the bodies and kit down the elevator shaft they’d emerged from. Ilya had recommended taking a prisoner; with Command still not answering, they could use the intel, she’d reasoned. Vanya had agreed, until Krys pinged the panicware spliced into them. Anything they said would be picked up by the central controller; a good way to get caught in an ambush.
So, they’d continued on blindly, clinging to the hope that their intel was still solid and the hostages would be waiting for them two floors up. She’d left Belik and Tati on the thirty-eighth to guard their rear. Their inter-team comms weren’t suffering interference from the storm at least, which seemed to have gotten worse; the muted thumps gave way to wet thwacks, like someone dropping globs of clay, and there came a reverberation of thunder, familiar as gunshots. Vanya had flinched at first, submachine gun twitching for a target. Anxiety chewed on her spine. She tried Command again. No luck.
They were cutting through a rather utilitarian break room when Vanya saw the first body pass by the window.
It was a white blur in her peripheral, enough to get her attention but not enough to make a call. It could have been trash swept off the roof, maybe one of the larger birds-of-prey swooping in for a kill. She’d stared out the duraplas into the gray tempest subsuming the once-vivid blue.
Vanya glanced at the voice. Ilya was sweating; a hand twitched on her weapon’s grip.
“Did anyone—” Vanya started, then jumped back as something hurtled by. Harad cursed, and she knew he’d seen it too: a pale tangle of limbs snapping like banners in the wind, a hairless head tucked to the bony chest: a man, naked for nothing and making his way fast to street level.
Then she saw another. And another.
After the fifth body she was running, pushing past Harad and into the waiting stairwell. The metal in her teeth ached as she gritted them together, rage coiling in her chest like a red viper. The others hurried after her, all pretense of stealth gone, their dampeners off to afford the exosuits more mobility. The chipped stairwell flew under her boots, three steps gone in a bound. The others trailed in her wake, and though they held their silence, Vanya knew it was their professionalism alone that held them to it. For surely their lips burned with the same words as hers, their minds clattering with the same thought...
Thunder shook the building. Again, Vanya heard gunshots. Maybe it was; certainly, the snipers below would have opened fire in an attempt to stop what was happening, the smokescreen of diplomacy scattered in the face of such atrocity. The rain pounded harder, as if aroused by it all.
And, unmistakable against the beating heart of the storm, she could hear the screams of the hostages above as they were forced over the roof like bleating livestock sent to slaughter for a cause they could not comprehend.
Whatever sympathy Vanya may have had for The Keepers died. This was not the actions of righteous people. In acts of revolution, there must be blood spilt, she understood this, and no transition of power nor threat against it had gone by without its fair share of suffering… but these were not security guards or even her own soldiers, which could be seen as accomplices to oppression: these were innocent workers, simply trying to survive. They did not deserve this. The Keepers of Stoldadt, however…
She would be sure to show them exactly what they deserved.
Vanya shot the man twice, his shirt bursting open like a flower in violent bloom; at the same time she grabbed him by the jaw and put his head through the wall with an exo-assisted shove. Harad came to the bend in the stairwell and flowed past her, followed by Krys and the others. She heard the trample of feet above, dull like the thunder still thick in the air; felt the compressive release of gunfire, a vise on her skull.
The head-pressure faded. “Stairwell clear,” micced Harad.
The thunder persisted. As Vanya retook point, she cocked her head.
No. Not thunder.
She swore. Did the savagery of these people know no bounds?
Beneath her helmet, Ilya quailed. “They’re shooting them? Why?”
“Probably think they’re sending a message,” one of the others replied, and Vanya was glad for it. She feared if she opened her mouth, she might scream. Times like these, she felt no guilt for the work she did, the price she paid for her and Ani.
Past the crumpled bodies of three more terrorists, around another bend of ochre stairs and she saw the door, a 40 blocked in peeling black against the white-washed wall. The enemy knew they were coming; the mad rush down the stairs could be nothing other than an attempt to thwart them. Even as the staccato rip of auto-fire pounded from beyond the metal door, Vanya knew there was probably a few of those guns trained their way. It didn’t matter.
She hit the pitted steel with an armored shoulder. Ripped it near-off the hinges with a terrible shriek, lost already to the not-thunder of sustained weapons’ fire, her own raised and seeking targets…
And froze at the nightmare unfolding ahead.
The room was wide and open, visibly still under construction; spools of electrician’s wire threaded the concrete, where they terminated in floodlights and power ports. There were no windows, only hastily draped scaffolding and tarps to keep the weather out. Through the plastic skein she saw dark shapes hurtling past—what moments before she’d assumed were the hostages.
Assumption, she realized numbly, could be blissful.
At first, it appeared that maybe the tables had turned, the Kolstovo employees having mustered their courage and swarmed their would-be terrorizers with superior numbers, perhaps galvanized by the cruel deaths of their coworkers. In her twenty-three years of service, she’d only seen such things twice, but it was a scenario she would have understood. She did not understand what was happening now.
There were seven gunmen spread throughout the room, their attention focused on the doorway at the end, what Vanya presumed led to the roof, where a press of bodies congregated. Pale. Long-limbed. Hairless. Naked and gore-stained. One opened his mouth—and it was a he, Vanya’s shocked brain registering the exposed genitalia, as if somehow that detail might lend sanity to the horrid reality playing out before her.
They’re eating people.
Kolstovo employee and terrorist alike were caught in the melee of naked flesh, their suits and skirts and body armor stark against the pallid thresh of limbs and snapping teeth. The pale men swarmed over the dead and dying like ants, tearing out throats and severing limbs with frightening ease. She watched, transfixed, as one of the terrorists grabbed an office worker and tried to pull her from the swarm, his Kalashnikov flaring. As she stumbled free, a man grabbed her ankle. Suspended between the two warring forces, the woman screeched. Blood bloomed dark under her clothes, there was a wet crunch and her leg separated at the hip in a spray of crimson and shredded muscle. Terrorist and hsstage toppled backwards, the man pinned under her deadweight… and then the sea of white crashed over them. Several more gunmen were overtaken, the suffocating gunfire holding the monsters at bay lessening; more and more were slipping through.
A man toward the back wheeled around, undoubtedly to run, and Vanya saw the strange mixture of fear and relief and animalistic desperation scorching his bearded face as he took in the ten police officers blocking his path.
“Help us!” he screamed. “Quickly!”
In any other situation, Vanya would have ignored such a request. The ridiculousness of a terrorist asking her, the police, for help, smarted her in a way she couldn’t begin to explain. But this was not any other situation. She wasn’t sure what it was… but even as rationale struggled for an explanation, instinct surfaced and took the reins.
“Open fire!” she commanded, and wasn’t the least bit ashamed at the tremor in her voice.
The Bashok Munitions UP90: an integrally-silenced submachine gun, loaded with an eighty-eight round helical magazine and capable of dispensing eight-hundred rounds-per-minute. Designed for pacification of large-scale urban unrest, the weapon was chambered to accept various lethal and non-lethal rounds. The members of Sickle One, not in the business of prisoner-taking, had kitted out with the standard ten-milimeter Dreikon round; a “smart bullet” that detonated upon penetrating soft tissue, all but negating collateral damage. Each operator carried on their person no less than three extra magazines, plus the one loaded; three-hundred-and-fifty-two rounds per member, and at ten members that made for a munitions total of three-thousand-five-hundred-and-twenty. More than enough for most protracted firefights; some would say overkill for their current operation.
It barely saw them through the first five minutes.
At eight minutes, sidearms had been expended, and it came down to exo-assisted blades and fists against the seething crush of flesh spewing from the doorway. There was no thunder then, nothing but the screams of dying men amidst the visceral punch and thrust of close-combat. The copper tang of the rain surrendered to the bitter stench of sweat and blood and excrement.
In the end, they’d had to collapse the door to the roof with a satchel charge. Harad was gone, vaporized in the blast, his sacrifice taking at least ten of the Pale Men with him. The terrorists were all dead, the hostages too, pieces strewn across the concrete or splattered on the street below. Four more of her team had followed them. Vanya tried not to look at where Krys had fallen, nor the places she’d been scattered. One wrenched arm jutted up from the pile of shredded fabric and sparking electronics, the wrist computer’s display somehow still functioning.
Belik wandered near the debris clogging the roof access and she snapped at him, secretly glad for a reason to look away from the carnage. Her skull was pounding, her hands and body bruised from the extended battle. She doubted she could stand, let alone move, without the exosuit.
“Get away from there.”
He complied, his bearish face blanched and taut with nerves.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. Looked at the shadows whipping by the tarps. Swore. “Men raining from the sky. It’s—”
“Impossible,” stammered Ilya. She was back to her nervous mopping.
Vanya did not reprimand her. Even if the younger woman hadn’t been covered in blood, she wouldn’t have said anything. Not after what they’d been through.
Vanya looked through a tear in one of the tarps. Screaming men hurtled from the clouds toward the city streets, their gangly forms swallowed by the haze of the devastated police barricade below. Their hungry wails bled the outside world of all other sound.
Her mind drifted to her conversations with Ani, about mankind’s sins coming to collect. Maybe this was it, she thought, as she watched the impossible torrent through the tattered plastic, snapping like broken bones in the unnatural storm-winds. A pale flood to wash the Earth clean.
Ani… please be safe.
Breath hitched; pain, like glass shifting in her chest.
Vanya wished she had a drink.