Illustrations by wOlly at RebelStar Studio
In war, truth is the first casualty.
I climbed into the Valkyrie and palmed the Identi-pad inside the hatch. Linda Lu warbled with synthetic sexiness – “Lieutenant Aswin Dorr. Service Bureau: Intelligence and Analysis.” A chorus of moans rose in the troop compartment.
“Pansy time. ‘Gator’s on board.”
“Toss him out! I wanna waste Cronies. Not chat ’em up.”
“The frak? I can’t shoot anyone now?”
Command Sergeant Chladek shaved off a sliver of contempt and waved me toward the back like a bad smell. It’s so heart-warming when people are glad to see you.
“Cramped” would be the polite word to describe the VTOL’s hold. Already small, two full tactical teams were stuffed inside, rampage ready. Bulked out in black obfu-armor, hunched over their tricked-out Daewoos, it looked like someone had crammed a mob of psychotic ninja trolls into a dumpster.
I threaded the gauntlet of sneers and wise-ass remarks, stepping past padded legs, weapons, and gear-bags in the center aisle. The troopers made way, more or less. I’m a lieutenant after all, and technically that made me ranking officer on board.
Except I’m an Interrogator, subcontracted from Intel and Analysis. I’m from a different department with a different chain of command, different ROE, different goals. These guys kick in doors and put big holes in vital organs; I need warm bodies that can still talk. So, rank or not, I come online only if Detain and Question orders get issued. Until then, my job is to stay out of the way and not get shot.
Tonight was another ‘hurry up and wait’. We’d been called up, but didn’t know shit about the mission. That’s always the problem with Immediate Action drops; Command might have a hot tip on a Bratva boss sit-down or an actionable lead on an Anachronist bomb-factory. Or we might sit on the pad for three hours, only to find out the mission had been cancelled two hours earlier. No matter, I. A. teams have to piss misery down on any one’s head at a moment’s notice. Kind of like a flash mob, but with automatic weapons.
But whatever this drop was, somebody higher up had decided I might be necessary, which was why I was on this Mark VII Valkyrie Assault Transport at two on the morning, being subjected to Command Sergeant Radko Chladlek’s tender ministrations.
I squeezed in between a couple troopers I had never seen before and listened to the dexamphetamine banter bounce around the compartment. It was the usual macho posturing. After five minutes, I was ready to fall back asleep. Then Sergeant Chladek put a hand to his earpiece and turned his back to us. Silence fell like a broken window. He ended the conversation thirty seconds later with a kind of vocal salute. As the Valkyrie’s turbines started to whine up to speed and he turned around and shouted in a voice like gravel and emphysema. “Strap in, ladies. Target’s a Crank lab in North Yellow. Not Cronies, but bagging tweakers is better than sitting at home.”
There was a round of acknowledgments and boot stomps, but the good sergeant was glaring at me like he’d just caught me boinking his daughter. “Good news…” he growled. “Except as you can see we have a Short Bus kid with us tonight. FYI, Detain and Question orders have been have been issued. So that means we have to play all nice and cuddly.”
Grins turn to groans and hissing, stares and swears. I spread my hands and bowed. “At your service, gentlemen.” Somebody threw a glove. I clutched it to my chest for a second before tossing it back. The VTOL’s four engines hit a screaming pitch, and the transport lurched into the air, sliding up and forward.
The Sergeant yelled over the din. “So for you Numb-Nuts that forgot your Procedurals, that means non-lethal… unless you take direct fire.”
“I got a throw-away in my bag, Sarge,” one trooper shouted. Scattered chuckles.
“Stow it, Pranav. We got our orders.” Sergeant Chladek swept the compartment with a stern look before speaking again. “I’ve also been informed we will have an audience with us tonight. Elements of the TTA will be joining on location, so I want each of you squared away.”
The mood shifted. Everyone in the compartment sat up a little straighter. Even I leaned forward, suddenly interested. “Command say why, Sergeant? Drug Interdiction isn’t exactly their jurisdiction.”
Chladek launched a withering scowl at me. “It’s the Trade and Transit Authority, Lieutenant. Everything in Drop City is their jurisdiction.” He grinned at the tactical teams. “Interrogators, agents… Pucker up, ladies. Tonight is going to be a veritable orgy of inter-agency love. You got seven minutes ’til we roof.”
I was pushed against the back wall as the Valkrie jumped into the sky. It clawed its way over C.E. Headquarters until it cleared the dish relays and cell towers, then banked hard. Everyone leaned as the skyline tilted. Outside the porthole, Kuan Kung and Lakshmi were bright, waning crescents of polished ivory in the western night. For a second, I spied Drop City neon slithering through dark streets far below. Then the VTOL leveled off and leapt forward, following the Herbert Artery north, engines howling at the twin moons like something feral.
The trooper on my right looked at me, his face too young for so much worry. “Shit — TTA agents. What does that mean, lieutenant? This some kind of test?”
I shrugged. “I know as much as you. Stay frosty and everything will be fine.”
The one on my left spoke up. “My cousin’s friend knows a secretary at TTA Main Office and she told me sometimes agents observe raids. It’s a recruiting thing.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “They look for extra tight troopers, you know… like a talent scout. That’s how they find new agents.”
The first trooper tugged his chest plate straight, fussed with the optic rig on his rifle. “An agent…. C.D.I. baby”
“Frak, yeah,” said his friend. “Chicks dig it all the way.”
The two knuckle-bumped. I sat back with a sigh. I’m no expert, but I know they don’t make TTA agents from plankton-standard grunts. Rumor is with all that wet-ware in their bodies, they’re vat-grown. But I wasn’t about to spoil the moment.
The engines had trimmed back to a throbbing snarl. The compartment stuttered with tight, truncated motion: the clack and chatter of troopers yanking straps, tapping comms-gear, racking slides, checking ammo. The pilot keyed the intercom and noise exploded out of the speakers. Thunderous heavy metal music fought the engines for the right to deafen the occupants. It took me a second to recognize this month’s unofficial Tactical Team anthem: Code Red by Target Lok.
Gotta green light, baby. I’m gonna run and gun.
Gotta code red, baby. Gonna kill someone.
Stop him. Drop him.
Double to the head.
Wall spatter gray matter,
Bagging up the spread.
The ninja trolls started nodding to the beat, chests swelled and shoulders back. They ran through their pre-drop ritual of coding their weapons’ targeting systems, blowing kisses and winks as they aimed their rifles and scanned the IFF tags in each other’s armor. I fished out my Saab-Bofors magnum, switched on the sight and “blinked” each chest plate. Everyone scanned me in return. No kisses though. So much for the inter-agency love, I thought. At least I wouldn’t get shot by accident.
The promise of action had woke me up, so I sat there trying to tetris the image of agents babysitting a drug-bust. I’d been call up dozens of times to squeeze tweakers on-scene for raw intel on their production and distribution networks, but since when did the almighty Trade and Transit Authority care about better living through pharmaceuticals? What does an Agent think he’s going to learn from some dirtside junkies and their home chemistry kit? Something wasn’t right with this picture.
We were over the target district three minutes later. North Yellow is one of Drops City’s nefarious zones; a warren of high-rise concrete tenements filled with every shade of gang-banger, street-rat, hacker, cracker, pusher, pimp, and con-man in the criminal spectrum. Definitely prime real-estate for illegal Crank labs. I just hoped someone sent a couple last-minute Fly probes in to make sure we were at the right address.
Last year, a CE task force mounted a raid on what was supposed to be a major Anachronist compound. It turned out to be a Mennonite enclave. Assault teams wasted half a dozen Straw-Hats and blew up a storage unit filled with quilts and hand-made furniture. Lawyers and Media had a field day. Last I heard the Major who led the raid was assigned to Trump Station patrolling the ass-end of the Gates Asteroid Belt in a converted tug. He supposedly gets family leave once a year.
Sergeant Chladek pulled his faceplate down and held up two fingers: two minutes to drop. His voice scraped in my ears. “Comms check. Team One. Team Two. Sound off.”
I called out “Gator One” after the tactical teams checked in, then flipped my own faceplate into position. Optimized for low-light, the optics auto-adjusted to the interior, and suddenly the troop compartment snapped to hi-def green. Everything was outlined in crisp, cartoon clarity. Little white HUD tags began popping up across my field of vision, the targeting computer identifying every single item and individual. Forget the training infomercial hype: “Enhanced Tactical Awareness” is distracting as hell. The tech-heads who invented this stuff had obviously never been in a firefight. I dialed back the auto-tagger until my display was just a red targeting reticle with an IFF flag. To shoot or not to shoot. That is the question.
Chladek gave us the finger. One minute.
All of us stood to our feet.
The Valkyrie’s engines shrieked and my guts wrenched as the VTOL plummeted toward the target building. The steel deck quivered under my boots. I bent at the knees, held my breath. Then came the spine-jarring slam of a hover-stop. The gull doors flew up and Chladek shouted “Go! Go! Go!”
The twelve of us burst into a whirling haze of dust and trash fifty stories up. We all hit the tar sprinting towards an open door, the visor-optics rendering it a glaring yellow square against the green-gray building geometry. I spied the wasp shape of a two-man Specter perched on the far side of the roof. That meant the TTA was already here, but where?
I had no time to look around, the apartment lab was two floors below. Maybe there were already down there, waiting for us? The two tactical teams poured down the stairs, Chladek in the lead. I followed, pistol drawn.
We were in position less than a minute later. Team One was the Door-Knockers. They crouched in the hall around the front door, waiting for the signal to blow the lock and hinges. Team Two had been slated for what in polite company is termed “Dynamic Secondary Entry”. They hustled around the corner and started sticking long lengths of det-cord to the hall wall outside of the apartment’s living room. They’d be making their own door. I stood at the tail end of Team One, waiting for the All-Clear.
Now I know about the element of surprise, but you’d think the average criminal would at least be curious about a dozen guys stomping around right outside their apartment. Assuming they haven’t bolted, no activity meant either the music was cranked, they were stoned to the gills, or they’re waiting.
They were waiting.
A trooper named Estes was placing breach charges when shots blew through the front door.
He slammed against the far wall, body armor sizzling. Sergeant Chladek’s voice roared in my ears, “Hostile Action – Code Red.” The troopers behind Estes blasted the hinges and knob with their rifles, then kicked in the door. More gunfire answered, and another trooper tumbled backwards. The rest of Team One barreled through the splintered doorway just as Team Two blew their hole in the wall. There was a gust of dust and light, then the shooting went absolute Hollywood.
In the six steps it took me to get to the door, I’d swear every trooper on both teams emptied their clips. The firefight sounded like a giant chainsaw ripping through a side of beef. There were screams, shouting in my helmet. No one was making any sense.
Then as fast as it started, it stopped.
I spun in low around the door jamb, pistol up. Smoke and grime billowed in the front room. I could see figures moving, bodies thrown over furniture. My targeting reticle bounced and blinked, little blue or yellow flags springing up. Everyone I saw was either friendly or dead.
Troopers were talking in my headset now. I heard them call out “Clear” as rooms were deemed safe. Someone was moaning, Sergeant Chladnek was shouting at dispatch for an EMT-unit. Pistol still up, I went toward the kitchen, abruptly numb. What the hell had just happened?
The gun fight had lasted maybe twenty seconds, but it looked like someone had taken a jackhammer to the walls. A Team Two trooper grabbed me, stared intently at my face, then stumbled past me calling a name. I stepped over another body, auto-tagged blue. A dead friendly. There seemed to be a lot of those. Two troopers came out of the bedrooms carrying a third between them, his blood dripping on the carpet. Something had blown through his ceramic chest plate.
Sure as hell these weren’t ordinary tweakers.
I found another body near a bathroom, this one a scrawny Asian male with gang-ink and trashy dermal bling. Gunfire had almost cut him in half. A submachine gun lay on the floor next to him: laser sight, helical magazine, silencer. Short, ugly, complicated… it was a Chang Feng Series Four. A military weapon.
I stepped into the kitchen, brain reeling. Things weren’t matching up – at all. Out of sheer routine, I thumbed my helmet cam and started video-logging the crime scene.
There was the usual ghetto collection of battered appliances, dishes piled in the rust-stained sink, take-out cartoons. Trays with flaking chemical residue lined the counter, along with glass beakers and steel pots for cooking their mix. The kitchen table was pocked with sepia cigarette burns, and there were several stacks of D.C. twenty-dollar bills next to a mound of tight little cello-packets of crystal. Crank single hits – junkie origami.
Then I heard him: a wet wheeze from the floor. I jumped, almost blasted the shit out of that ratty old table. I knelt slowly, letting the fat muzzle of my Saab-Bofors lead the way.
A tweaker was under the table. Alive. An Indian in his thirties, the only tat or marking I could see was a micro-circuitry implant for the tilak on his forehead. His Charm. My guess was he was the chef or the gang-equivalent of an accountant. He was breathing ragged, drooling blood, and his hands were pressed on a glistening gut wound. Deep red blood seeped through his fingers. A quick pat-down didn’t turn up any weapon.
His eyelids fluttered open and he looked at me. “You’re not V8’s,” he gurgled. “He said it would be Voodoo Eights.”
I chinned my mike. “I got a live one in the kitchen. Need an EMT unit ASAP.” Sergeant Chladek acknowledged.
“Who said what would be V8’s?” I kept my pistol trained on him. “Why the frak did you shoot at us?”
He spasmed, then started panting. “He said the Eights were gobbling turf… and we were next. Tonight. The guns were… in exchange for our next batch. Bastard… guns didn’t do shit. You weren’t…. V8s.”
He spit flecks of blood on my faceplate with every word. The dead and wounded troopers disputed his remark about the guns, but I holstered my magnum and pulled a compression bandage from my back pouch. I moved his hands away from his stomach. Almost retched. “Who said?” I swallowed. “The person that gave you the guns?”
The man’s eyes suddenly went wide and he spluttered, trying to speak. I was afraid he was aspirating, choking on his own blood. I lifted his shirt, looking for chest wounds when a voice behind me whispered, smooth and dry as rotted silk.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Dorr. Med-techs are on the way. I’ll take over from here.”
I turned around. This one was tall, thin, with a shaved head and kabuki white skin. His eyes were hidden behind a thin combat visor and he was wearing TTA Blues; the indigo ballistic jacket so dark it was almost black, and BDU cargo pants. He moved with the careful precision of a dancer, gesturing towards me and the tweaker with a nasty little PDW of a make I’d never seen before. The image of a deep-ocean predator flashed in my mind, the kind that hunts far below the waves where sun’s rays never reach.
A thin smile flickered over his lips like he’d read my mind. He repeated himself. “Thank you, Lieutenant Dorr. I’ll take over from here.”
I wasn’t relieved. I looked at the bandage in my hand, feeling like I should stay put for some reason. “Sure thing. Let me finish patching him up,” I nodded. “Don’t want him to bleed out before the medics get here, right?”
The Indian’s eyes were wide with pain, or panic. I tore the package open and peeled his shirt away from the wound.
The agent spoke again. “You are recording.” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course. Prosecution always wants this stuff.”
I felt a tap on my helmet-cam. My visor snowed, wavered, then cleared. Suddenly white HUD tags were sprouting everywhere.
I got up in his face. “What the frak? You just re-set me? What the hell are you doing?”
“Eliminating redundancy. This a TTA investigation.”
“Since Anachronist links were found in two of the criminal’s Charm clouds, as well as on an external drive,” he purred.
“These guys aren’t Cronies,” I scoffed. “They’re North Yellow Crank-heads. Probably have a file of priors a kilometer long.”
“Then where did they get those weapons, Lieutenant Dorr?”
“I was getting to that when you interrupted me.” I pointed to my helmet-cam. “And now I’ve got no record of it.”
I knelt back down but the agent put a hand on my shoulder. “There’s no need for you to continue. Our analysts will arrive momentarily.”
“Back off. I’m just bandaging the poor bastard up.” I tried to shrug him off, but he held on.
“I will stay with him until the med-techs arrive. You can go now, lieutenant.” The grip tightened and he pulled me up in one quick motion.
Next thing I knew, I was hustled out of the kitchen and standing beside Sergeant Chladnek. He was looking even grimmer than usual. A trooper was being stretchered out, another zipped up in a coroner’s bag. “Murderous, junkie hopheads,” he ground his teeth. ” I’ll slot every last one of the Cronie frakkers.”
My headset was frantic with comms-chatter, word of causalities and the terrorist links was spreading fast. New C.E. teams were reporting in to cordon off the area, ambulances were vectoring in. I even heard troopers waving off Media ‘Copters. Bodies were still warm and the vultures were circling. Someone said the D.C. NewsNet had just splashed a story about a major blow to the Anachronist network. I was stunned. Word of our raid had already gone viral.
Every few seconds, our Tac-net would be overridden by TTA comms and bursts of terse whispers. The Ghosts were coming out of the woodwork on this one. Then I heard, “Cancel EMT request. Prisoner has expired.”
I ran back to the kitchen.
The agent was standing by the sink holding a compact flechette pistol, bloody smears on the grip. “You missed this,” he murmured.
“Where the hell did you get that?”
“It was tucked in his belt in the small of his back.”
I bent down. The Indian’s hands were in his lap. His windpipe had been crushed. “He reached for it after you left, ” the agent sighed.
I shook my head. Guy was gut-shot , half bled out. He could barely breath, let alone twist himself for that. I stood, both hands on the table to steady myself. I was clamping down, trying to sort out the right words without losing it when I saw the box.
Next to the stack of bill was a long, yellow container with the Pfizer-Teva logo embossed on the sides. Inside were small, red-capped vials, about fifty or so. “What the hell is this?” I pointed.
“Low-grav pharmaceuticals. Clar1ty, I suspect. Big demand, big markup. Seems this gang had Orbital connections as well. Of course,” his hoarse whisper insisted, “the TTA is securing all evidence and classifying it under the Planetary Security Act until the investigation is resolved.”
It wasn’t there before.
The words were on my lips, so loud in my head I swore I spoke them.
Except I didn’t.
My mouth stayed shut. I turned back around. The agent was standing perfectly still, midway between me and the doorway. No words were spoken but the truth hit me like a bullet to the chest: he would go towards the door or he could go for me. My choice.
Early-morning raid in the slums, drugs, guns, cash, dead junkies. Terrorist links.
Was I going to piss on the memory of dead cops and say it didn’t go down that way ? Was I willing to put my career, my life on the line for a hunch?
I knew the truth but they had the evidence.
The moment stretched. Then I exhaled, gave him a little nod, and the room resumed its expected squalor.
“Your efforts to resuscitate the prisoner will be noted, Lieutenant Dorr,” the phantom voice chafed.
I walked out and found Sergeant Chladnek ordering his surviving troopers back up to the Valkyrie. “Get your ass up there. Unless you plan on walking back.”
I climbed the stairs one at a time, something jagged and irrevocable gnawing at my insides.