“I said no, Crax, and I mean it,” spat Jasten Kek. “And I’m tired. I want to go home.”
“Jas, aren’t you tired of not having anything?” Craxton Tel pressed. “When was the last time you and Mara went to the South Coast?”
Sadly Jasten admitted, “Ten summers ago.” His response was barely audible over the incessant barrage of over amplified pound crashing out of a mid-hab nightspot.
“When? Speak up Jas; I can’t hear you over the dejection in your voice. Did you say ten summers? Throne man, you need to get away.”
“Can’t afford the coin,” Jasten added gazing blankly down the trash-strewn street. Flashing neon signs advertised vices galore. Girls. Boys. Drink. Fouler things.
“What about wheels, Jas? You got wheels or do you like the public trans in this crap hole?”
“I got a quad cycle. Mara uses it to go to the market.”
“I mean real wheels. Something you can cruise into the hive on.”
“I know what you mean fracker. What about you? You got a set?” Jas pressed.
“You know I don’t. Throne, I’ve been on half salary so long I can’t remember what coins feel like. I’m tired of it. I don’t care that trades down. I don’t care that the hive is still battling the separatists. I don’t want to ‘sacrifice for victory.’ I want to get away from the stinking city. I want to breath fresh air and drink some hydro that hasn’t spend the last thousand years in the recycler. I want things, man.”
“Yeah, it’d be nice,” replied Jasten.
“Your kids, you send them to a nice mid-hive scholum?”
“Hell no, Crax, I can’t afford that. Public, like everyone else.”
“Not everyone. So what, they gonna follow you into the butchery?”
Looking down at his meat and blood-speckled clothes with a rising sense of shame, Jasten felt his cheeks color.
“Hey brother, there’s nothing wrong with your job. I just bet you’d like better for them. Right?” Craxton needled.
Not even replying, Jasten started walking again. Matching his pace, Craxton kept at it.
“Come on, aren’t you ready to get some more. Why does everything have to be so damn bleak out there? Up hivers are living fat. Fine dining. Fancy clothes, Air cars.
They don’t even drive on the streets, Jas. Off world vacations. They have it all. Don’t you want some of it?”
“Well, yeah, but we can’t afford it. It’s not our world Crax.”
“No? Who says? The Administrator jagoff who assigned your career? Those worthless scholum jockeys who spend more time boozed then sober? No man, we deserve it. ‘Sides, its only grinweed. It’s not like we’re dealing ‘flects or med pharms. Nothing else. Think about it, but I need to be know by tomorrow night.”
“Why do you even need me, Crax? Why?” asked Jasten.
“To help me load and unload the bundles. That’s it. We load it, drive it, unload it, get paid. That’s it.” Looking up at his big friend, Jasten inhaled the scents of decaying rockcrete, molding flakboard and rotting food. The smells of decay and age. Everything in the hab was so fracking old. Stinking. Rotting. Ancient. A flashing neon sign advertised off-world booze in a hypnotic rhythm. Shabbily dressed off-shift workers shuffled in to drown cares with distilled spirits. Painted girls clustered in the shadows of abandoned establishments, darting out to proposition passing dockers and fabbers. A dozen clubs blared variants on the latest pound tracks. The din mixed into a discordant, headache inducing cacophony of noise. The whole street reeked of decay and a better past. And no promise of a better future. Distant, warbling sirens announced an Arbites transporter racing to some disturbance. More distantly was the faint roar of shuttles at some landing field. The despair and hopelessness sealed it.
“I’ll do it. Just this once. I can pay some bills. Maybe take a trip, and have some coin left,” answered Jasten hurriedly. Fearing his own answer he glanced quickly around, waiting for an Arbites truncheon to descend on his law-breaking skull.
“Good. You won’t regret it Jas. The money is good. Even once. Be at the west docks two nights on, at twenty hundred. Warehouse GaranLen Alpha on Front Street. Try to look relaxed too, will ya?” Craxton slapped his meaty hand on Jasten’s shoulder. “Easy money, brother. See you.” Finished, he disappeared into the club they had stopped in front of. Smoke lazily drifted from the dark interior, lighting up in flashes as the neon flashed on and off, on and off. Stale tabac and the faint hint of lho mixed with putrid incense and rotting street trash into a nauseating aroma. Spitting the foulness from his mouth, Jasten hurried off.
Leaning against the graffiti scrawls and filth on the wall of the rocking transporter van, Jasten started doubting his decision. Never a true patriot, he nonetheless was not a lawbreaker by habit. He’d done his time in the PDF, ten years active with weekend drills and yearly training operations, ten years reserve with monthly training and once a year mobilization drills. He burned a candle at the basilica for the Emperor and Imperium. Though he hadn’t done that in some time. He tried to teach his children faith in the Emperor and belief in the holy writ. But it was difficult. Life had kicked Jasten Kek. Hard. Poor marks in school had left him with few career choices and he’d been assigned as a meat carver in a sprawling packing house. Grox, bovines, ovis, and other stock were brought out of the west and south for processing for the main hive. Working ten hour shifts six days a week was tiring. Soul draining. Jasten worked hard to pay rent and keep food on the table. At least they ate better then most. He took meat home nearly every day. Everyone did. Crax was right, a thousand crowns a month was barely above poverty. Ten years ago, before the children, he and Mara had two salaries, plus his PDF stipend. Summers in the north and winter trips to the south shore were the norm. When she took time off to start their family, they had meant for her to go back to the loom mill after they entered the scholum. That was before the weevil pest had destroyed the cotton industry nearly overnight. Most of the mills closed. A handful survived on imported fibers, but none in Hab Complex Alpha Six. None at Mellack Hive, for that matter. Mara worked a few shifts in a local eatery before the big fabricas on Macharius Avenue closed. When the workers went away, so did the eatery. They had joked that she should join the PDF. The stipend could be their vacation fund. At least until the separatists in the out hubs around Zenic Hive had taken up arms. With the PDF heavily engaged there trying to root them out, he was glad she wasn’t in. The hive loops claimed the compliance action was going well, but no one missed the fact that second wave reservists had been called up two months ago. The money would have been nice, but losing Mara would have crushed him.
Jolted from his reverie by the station approach horn, Jasten pushed towards the exit hatch as the van train slowed to a stop. Crowds of people filled both the train and the platform, the endless cycles of humanity moving to and from work and home. Endless manufacture and never-ending data collection in the Administratum blocks meant twenty-four hour a day life in the main hive and the surrounding hab blocks. Slowing trade due to recession in the sub-sector meant more and more people were out of work each month as fabs and mills shuttered. Over drinks the pessimists claimed it was an Administratum ploy to create a population surplus for a recruiting drive. It had been three or four years since Murthi Principal had raised any tithe regiments, so manybe it was time. Those with time or money to monitor the nets claimed the Hellenes Crusade was consuming men at an alarming rate and Murthi would be called on to provide fresh troops for the warmaster to use up.
Flowing with the press, Jasten frowned as he thought of Mas being called up for induction. His only son, he couldn’t bear the thought that the might be sent into the meat grinder of the Imperial Guard. They were loyal citizens, sure, but what father wanted to send his son to war?
Impelled down the worn iron staircase to street level, Jasten felt the first drops of an evening rain. A fitting backdrop for his mood. Stopping into the local bakery, Jasten bought a loaf of rye crust for dinner before trudging home.
Mara was she staring at the pict viewer when he kissed her.
“Where are you going, Jas?”
“Out. Some of the guys from the plant are going to the Carnivora and invited me,” Jasten lied.
“The Carnivora? Don’t you all get enough blood and meat during the week?” she asked with a cocked eyebrow.
“Sure. But not like in the blood pits. Just blowing off steam.”
“Okay. Not too late, though. I thought maybe we could to the fauna hall tomorrow. There is an aves exhibit. A collection of birds from across the sector. I thought Kessi would like it. Not too late, okay?”
“Not too late. We’ll to go the fauna hall. And have lunch in the city. Someplace nice. A splurge.”
“Why? Did you get a raise you didn’t tell me about?”
“No, I sold a kidney. I wasn’t using it and some up-hiver needed one. No Mara, I just think we need to live a little.”
“Okay, Jas. It’s a deal. We’ll go to the city, enjoy the exhibit, and then eat someplace nice. It will be a family day.”
“A family day. I like it. Not too late.”
With that Jasten left their tiny hab. Heart pounding, he hurried to the transporter station.
He had never been to the docks this late before. The derelict fish canneries rose brooding and broken over the long, low warehouses. Ages ago when the seas of Murthi still had abundant biomass, a fleet of trawlers called these docks home. They scoured the sea for fish and shellfish. The canneries were a thriving, busy industry, supplying protein to the early settlements and even off world to Pazer and Gurél. As the population rose post-Old Night, the fleets took a greater and greater catch, until the whole industry crashed. Now a handful of boats chased the few remaining species for the up-hive markets. No more bulk trawlers breaking orbit with holds of flash frozen mega-tuns or prawns. The warehouses had been converted into storage for the mills and fabs. Most held raw materials waiting for use. The dockworkers guild provided labor to load the cargo-eights and –tens that would haul the material across the hab. Night shift here was nonexistent, the alleys and loading pits empty.
Crossing between lumen globes, Jasten hurried on. Keeping to the shadows, he nervously scanned for watching eyes. His guilt for committing a crime against the rule of law was outweighed by his desire to better his family’s prospects. Pressing on, he ducked into an entrance tunnel as a low-slung transporter turned onto the avenue from between a pair of dark stained warehouses. Powerful headlights cast a harsh glare as the car accelerated away. Continuing on after it passed; Jasten nearly fainted as a voice broke the quiet evening with a roughly voiced “Freeze!”
Skidding to a halt, Jasten held in place, wondering if he should raise his hands in surrender. Feeling set up and doomed at the same time he nearly collapsed in relief when the unseen speaker called out in Craxton’s voice, “You’re late.”
“Yeah, well, the transporter doesn’t come all the way in after twenty one hours. You didn’t tell me that,” Jasten defiantly replied.
“Well, let’s get started.”
Craxton let himself into a well-worn warehouse, closing the door and throwing a heavy bar to lock the door. The cavernous interior was shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from a solitary lumen globe at the far end. Low piles of crates and paperboard boxes were scattered throughout the vast space. Polysty cups, brown ply bags and crumpled papers littered the floor. Scurrying noises in the dark spooked Jasten, and he kept jumping at the noise.
“Relax, Jas. It’s rats. No one’s here.”
“Easy for you to say. You must be used to being on this side of the law.”
“Well, I’m not. Let’s just get this done.”
Under the solitary globe, neatly concealed behind a stack of dusty wooden crates, was a battered cargo-six. Tailgate down, several bundles were already loaded. Craxton pointed into the cargo bed, “Get in. I’ll hand them to you.”
Working quietly the two quickly loaded the hauler bed. Jasten noticed that Craxton was pulling the bundles from a metal cargo container. The compact rectangles were tightly bound in celloplas, each bundle marked with arcane symbols. Some were repeated over and over, others seemed unique. When the last bundle was loaded, Jasten jumped down. They lifted the cargo gate, latching it closed. Craxton pulled the canvas tilt down, locking it to rings on the gate.
“Get the door. I’ll drive,” Graxton ordered.
Climbing in and settling into the seat, Craxton turned over the engine. Idling roughly, he gassed the engine before shifting gears and lurching forward. Rolling through an overhead door he looked over at Jasten and called to him as the –six rolled out
“Close the door and get in.”
Climbing in, Jasten had barely closed the door when Craxton popped the clutch and the truck lurched forward again. Accelerating, he traveled on surface streets for block after block. Seemingly turning at random, they finally climbed a ramp on the main feeder into the hive tower. Accelerating, they joined the late night traffic flowing into the hive. Mostly the passed trailer trains of cargo coming from out fabs and the shoreline greenhouses. A few private cars zipped through open spaces between all the cargo haulers, speeding well over the posted limits. Driving in silence as the main hive loomed ahead, Jasten watched the signboards marking off hab districts, markets and cross routes. A trip to the hive by private carriage was a much different ride. The maglev transport vans that carried the swarms of labor from the habs into the hive were faster, but less scenic. The cramped vans had small, dirt scoured plastek windows that didn’t provide much of a view. The human cargo passed fabs and manufactories, markets and park spaces without even realizing it.
Soon the hive tower reached out of sight above them. Craxton dropped off the main artery onto a descending spiral route. Changing onto a low-level entrance route, they passed through the hive wall. Market stalls, warehouses and small fabs blurred by as they continued on. Dropping deeper into the tower, the route pressed coreward and down. Thriving levels gave way to shuttered establishments, fire damaged fabs and derelict trolley lines. Eventually the route was crowded with tenement stacks and enormous support columns for the upper levels. Huge metal work air movers hung above the streets, vast churning fan blades vainly attempting to circulate the stale down-hive air. Besides passing from the main level business districts into the low-rent hive-sink tenements, they moved into the more abandoned areas of the hive. Piled trash, collapsed habs, and burned out street lumens marked their passage into the lawless zone. Arbites patrols were rare down here. The few citizens left eked out a living on the fringe of hive life. Most everyone here was avoiding someone else.
Finally Craxton pulled to the curb, flashed the main lights once, then darkened the cargo-six.
“What now?” Jasten asked nervously.
“We wait. And you keep quiet. You are a passenger only.”
Moments later, a torch blinked from the second level of a derelict hab a block down. Flashing the lights once more, Craxton shut off the truck and climbed out, looking back at Jasten as he did. “Keep quiet.”
“Frack you. I will.”
Standing next to the truck, they were approached by a group of hard looking under hivers. Skin tats, piercings and two enhanced thumpers marked this group as crime players. The fact that all of them were brandishing weapons made a rip job seem likely.
“Your from the Scarletts?” asked a smallish thing with a face covered in knotted tattoos. Heavy rods pierced his brows, ears and lips, stretching them out. When Craxton didn’t answer fast enough, he asked again, “You from Scarletts, habber?”
“Yeah, Scarletts sent us.”
“How many you got?” he asked.
“Geez habber, you stupid? How many packages you got?”
“Uh…” he started eyeing the vat-grown bulk of the thumpers.
“One sixty,” he finished.
“Let’s check ‘em.” Head motioning to his crew the ganger leader and his thumpers stayed while the others went to the rear of the cargo hauler.
Trying not to stare at the freakish face of this under hiver Jasten was rubbing an aquila icon furiously in his pocket.
“We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Shut up Jas.”
“Throne, we shouldn’t be here. This is so wrong.”
“Shut up Jas. I mean it.”
“What’s the problem, habber?” asked the ganger.
“I think you got a problem. Maybe you like my ink. You like my ink, habber?” he pressed.
“Uh, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know ink.”
“You know why this ink is brown, habber?” He was grinning now, showing his bad, stained teeth.
“Shut it,” whispered Craxton through gritted teeth.
“No. No, I don’t know.”
“It’s blood. I gots blood inked in,” he replied casually flicking a straight blade open.
“Oh frack,” breathed Craxton. Louder he parried, “Hey, was just to make business. Wes not a problem.”
“Don’t speak to me habber,” the ganger hissed.
“Hey Slam,” spoke a ganger behind Jasten and Craxton, making them both jump.
“’Sup,” he replied.
“Stuffs good. Fresh, long leaf grinweed,” he called out.
“Good.” Flashing a worn stab light, Slam signaled down the street. Seconds later a battered Bergman four place of ancient manufacture rattled up. Wheezing and cranking, the shabby machine seemed ready to collapse from age and hard use. Staring down the habbers, Slam took a proffered bag from the driver. Holding it out to Craxton he spoke again, “This be yours when you get it loaded. Get it?”
“Yeah. We got it.”
Before either ‘habber’ could move powerful arc lights and small stab lights burned into the huddled group. “Stay where you are! You are surrounded by Arbites patrols! Do not resist!” boomed a vox-amp. Every one of Slam’s crew that wasn’t already holding a weapon drew battered pistols, some in both hands, without seeing targets the entire crew started banging shots towards the light sources. The quiet night erupted into a riot of noise. Booming riot guns and heavy auto rifles nearly drowned out the barking auto pistols and sizzling laspistols. Ricocheting rounds zinged off cracked rockcrete and chewed into the cargo-six.
Grabbing Jasten by the collar, Craxton pulled him behind the truck and towards a boarded up hab. Looking over his shoulder, Jasten watched the crew split and run. The front end of the cargo-six was shredded under the fusillade, the tires exploding in a shower of torn rubber. One tattooed ganger knelt down to return fire with a belt fed autogun, rattling rounds at the hab across the street. He quickly became the target of numerous Arbites shooters until his head popped explosively. Slumping over his body was riddled with shot and shell.
Jasten watched the whole scene unfolding while Craxton was kicking out flakboards nailed over a hab doorway. Another ganger was running away, head down, when he seemed to stumble, cut down by fire.
Jerked from his detached watching, Craxton yanked Jasten into the hab, screaming at him “Move! Move! We have to get through here!” Running ahead of Jasten, he stumbled over scattered debris, kicking up clouds of dust as he bulled through the abandoned hab. Faint light shone through the smashed door, and filtered through flakboards covering the windows. Broken furniture, upturned shipping crates and piled newssheets completed the signs of decay. Slipping on the newssheets, Jasten stumbled and fell. The banging riot guns and staccato auto rifle fire outside motivated him back to his feet. Eyes slowly adjusting to the dim light, he struggled to find Craxton.
“Over here Jas,” came a harsh whisper.
Turning towards the voice, Jasten could just make out a darker rectangle. Hurrying through the door, Jasten nearly collided with his big friend.
“We gotta get out of here. I’m not getting thrown in the dungeons.”
“Big surprise Crax. Why the frack did I let you talk me into this? I got a family Crax! What are they going to do?”
“We’re not getting caught, Jas. Come on.”
Hurrying down the passageway, they come to a blind end. Craxton immediately started hammering the mouldering flakboard.
“Help me break through this wall,” he urged.
Kicking and battering the wall, the two quickly forced a hole through the rotting materials. Mold dust and disintegrating insulation fell out, covering both men as they scrambled through. Sneezing violently, Jasten tried not to think about the contents of the wall dust.
Eyes now adjusted to the gloom, both men scurried for the exit, scrambling over more debris and piled garbage to reach it. Finding themselves in another hab, they headed for the far corner and started battering another hole. The wall was in better condition than the first wall and took them longer to batter down. Once through, they found themselves in an interhab hallway. Hurrying down the hall, both tried the hab entrances as they raced on.
Crax found the first open door. As they stepped into the hab their nostrils were assaulted with an overpowering stench of decay. Not the normal scents of mouldering wallboard, or dusty, rotting carpets. No, this was a charnel scent of spoiled meat. Making their way through the deeper gloom, Craxton stumbled over something. Unable to make it out, he pulled an evertaper out and flicked the small flame to life. Stepping back in horror, Jasten felt his gorge rise. A bloated, lifeless male lay sprawled on the worn carpeting, lifeless eyes staring up at them.
“Come on Jas. Forget it. We can’t get caught.” The pleading breached Jasten’s shocked mind. Stepping around the corpse, the pair found a locked door in the room. Flailing kicks quickly broke the door off its hinges. Carefully passing through, they found themselves outside the habs. A narrow alleyway led either closer to, or farther from, the now muted shouting or scattered shots back on the main avenue. Heading away from Arbites troopers, they started jogging down the alley. Reaching a rockcrete wall, Craxton pulled down an escape ladder and clambered up.
“Come on. Let’s get off the streets.”
Following, Jasten pulled himself up. The two climbed in silence until they reached the hab roof. Panting and glistening with sweat, they huddled by the parapet, trying to catch their breath. Craning his neck to peer down, Craxton quickly pulled back.
“There are lights down there. They must have followed us.”
Hauling himself up, Craxton raced across the roof, dodging around air handling ductwork. Crushed stone crunched underfoot and a detached part of Jasten’s mind thought how odd it was for the roof to be finished on a building that was constructed deep inside a hive construct. Still wondering over the oddity of that detail, Jasten slammed into Craxton.
“Frack, Jas, You trying to push me over?” Craxton cried out.
“Sorry Crax, I didn’t notice you stopping,” mumbled Jasten.
“We’re gonna have to jump down there,” he replied, pointing.
Peering over the edge, Jasten saw the neighboring edifice was maybe five meters lower. Of similar construction to the roof they were standing on, he slowly shook his head.
“No, no we can’t. We’ll get hurt Crax” he murmured.
“Huh? Did you hear what was going on back there? Those Arbites shock monkeys didn’t seem to want a lengthy investigation, and you can bet those gangers are going to blame us for this whole night going to shit. Hurt? No, if we stay here it’s going to way worse.”
As if to strengthen Craxton’s point, the sounds of gunfire picked up in intensity and volume. Nodding to his friend, Jasten clambered over the parapet, lowering himself until he was clinging by his fingertips. Releasing his grip, he landed hard. Legs buckling under him, he hit brutally and went down. He could feel his knee tweak, pain shooting through his leg. Craxton seemed to fair better. He leapt, rather than dropped off. Rolling as he impacted the rockcrete and gravel, the popped up and hurried to Jasten’s side.
“Get up man, get up!” he hissed.
“My knee, Crax. I hurt my knee,” Jasten groaned.
Helping him up, Craxton pulled his arm around his shoulder and pulled Jasten along. Hurrying across the roof, Jasten clenched his teeth and groaned deeply with every other step. Reaching the other side, Craxton let go and whispered, “Stay here. Let me see if there is an escape cage.”
“Don’t leave me Crax,” Jasten cried in pain and frustration.
“I won’t man. Throne, I got you into this, I’ll get you out,” he promised.
Leaning against a ventilator hood, Jasten winced as the stretched and twisted his knee, trying to determine how injured he really was. Resting in the dark night, he noticed the cloying smell of decay again. Rot, moulds, stagnant water and decaying flakboard mixed in an aroma that could only be described, as eau’de hive. Laughing at the thought, Jasten was startled by Crax’s quiet reappearance.
“I found a bridge to the next hab. Come on,” he growled.
Taking his arm around his shoulder again, Craxton pulled and carried his friend along the roofline. Stepping up on a mesh-decked frame, Craxton pushed Jasten forward.
“Grab the handrail. It seems sturdy.” Scrambling single file across the gap, the bridge groaned and protested the weight, but held. Stepping off onto the next hab, Craxton helped Jasten to a small, blocky structure. “Let’s see if we can get down off the roof.”
Circling the construction, Craxton found a steel door. Checking the handle, it luckily opening easily. Peering inside, he couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. Flicking the evertaper again, the weak flame illuminated a simple stairwell. Carefully letting the door close, he circled back to Jasten. “I found stairs, come on.”
Helping him to the stairwell, they started descending the dark stairs. Hands on the wall, they slowly felt their way down. “Here’s a door,” Jasten called out. “There’s no handle,” he dejectedly added. “This must be some kind of fire well. Exit only.”
“Let me go all the way down. I’ll call back if I find something.”
“Alright, I’ll just rest here,” Jasten replied, slumping down. Rubbing his knee as Craxton hurried down into the darkness, footsteps fading. Moments later, the pounding sound of feet on rockcrete stairs returned. Gasping with the effort, he stopped hands on his knees, resting before he could speak.
“Nothing. All locked. Frack, this place is abandoned. Who locks doors on an abandoned hab? Aren’t there any slummers or gangers squatting here?” he finally gasped.
“Back up?” Jasten asked.
“Back up. Maybe there’s a fire cage on this building, or a vent access. Something.” Standing, Craxton peered up into the dark before pulling Jasten up. Cautiously opening the roof access again, they listened for sounds before stepping back out. Heading off, they tripped on a metal ductwork. Picking themselves up Craxton spoke, “Follow this. Maybe it has an access hatch.” Sliding alongside the duct, they came to the roof edge. The duct dropped over the edge, descending down the wall into the obscurity.
“Wrong way,” moaned Jasten.
Before they could head back the way they came, the whirring sound of hi-powered turbines screamed towards them. Powerful stab lights pierced the gloomy night. The flyer hovered several habs distant.
“Hustle man! Those shock boys aren’t messing around.”
Hurrying back along the duct, they came abruptly to a huge air mover. Circling the unit they found a heavy grill. Pulling at the grill, they found an unattached edge. Peeling it away from the unit Craxton hurried Jasten through. “Hurry, we have to get under cover.”
Squeezing through, Jasten turned and forced the grill open and Craxton wiggled through.
“Frack, I’m cut!” he yelped as he got inside.
Backing into the darkness, they felt their way behind a huge impeller. Sinking to the dusty floor, Jasten could feel rust sheeting away as his back slid down the wall. Catching their breath, Crax and Jas waited for the probing lights to shine through the grill work. Or for hi-powered solid rounds to rip through the corroded sheet metal tearing into them in the darkness.
Feeling a strong hand grip his shoulder and shake him roughly, Jasten peered around groggily trying to remember where he was. Sore, aching muscles protested as he shifted and stretched.
“Crax, how long was I out?” he whispered.
“I don’t know. I lost my cron when we were running.”
“Have you been awake long?”
“No, just a minute or two longer.”
“Not so far. I think they are gone. Ready to move?”
“Yeah, lets get out of here. Frack, Craxton, what the hell have we got into?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to go down that way.”
“Really? It wasn’t? I was hoping the Arbites would be there. I was really hoping a shock monkey would slap me stupid with a truncheon. Frack you, Crax. When I get home I’m not sure I ever what to see you again.”
“I said I’m sorry, Jas. I was trying to make some crowns. I’m tired of my life. I’m tired of not having anything. This was a chance…”
“Frack off.” Jasten cut him off suddenly. “Let’s just go.”
Getting up with a grunt, Craxton crawled to the grill. Pushing it outward he called to his friend, “It’s open. Go first.”
Slithering through the opening, he felt and heard his coat tear as he did. Cursing under his breath, he turned to pull the grill open. Crawling through the narrow opening, Craxton stood up and looked around. Distant vapor lamps and lumen globes spread faint light in this desolate corner of the under hive. Without any visible landmarks, he had no idea where they were.
“We have to get to street level and find some signs or map boards. If we can find a lift or a stair silo we can get up a few levels and find a trans wagon out of the hive. Stay quiet though, you never know if the Arbites boys really went home for the night.”
“Alright. Let’s get off this hab tower then.”
Crunching across the roof gravel, the pair quietly approached the parapet. Leaning against the side, the street below was impossible to make out.
“Lets find a savior ladder,” Craxton said before he headed off. Quickly circling the building they found the ladder and started down. The creaking metal groaned under their weight but held steady. Quickly descending the ladder cage, they reached the second floor platform. Crouching low they scanned the area carefully. With no street lumens, and the only functioning lamps so far away, the street was dim at best. Alcoves, alleyways and side streets all provided plenty of opportunities for skulking law enforcement officers. Waiting for the explosion of light or sound from stab lights or rifles, they finally exhaled.
“Frack me, Jasten. I think we are clear,” Craxton whispered. Climbing out on the last stair, they held on as it rattled down. Leaping off before it touched down, they ran down the street, ducking into a hab entrance. Waiting again, they were relieved when again there was nothing but silence. Creeping out, they made their way do the nearest corner. Scanning for street names or map boards, they noted the street and moved on. Reaching the next street, they found a flaking map board. Unable to read the map in the dim light, Crax flicked open his evertaper. Silent for long seconds he finally let the flame die and motioned with his head down the cross street.
“Five blocks that way is a lift cage. Five blocks further is a stair silo. There seems to be light that way too. Maybe there is still life down there.”
“Right. Let’s go.”
Heading down the street, they could see lumen and vapor lamps ahead. Walking down the street in silence, they halted in surprise as a dark vehicle crossed in front of them. Continuing on when it didn’t stop, they quickly reached the lift cage.
“Frack, it’s dead,” Craxton spat when he saw the heavy chain locking the door shut. “We’ll have to climb then.”
Continuing on, the distinct ‘whoop whooooop whoop’ of an arbites patrol transporter screamed out of the night. Ducking down a covered alleyway they ran on. Hiding behind a trash bin that smelt strangely like citrus, Craxton peered towards the street. Noticing a doorway across the alley, Jasten crossed over and tried the handle. Calling back to Craxton he spoke in a loud whisper,
“It’s open, let’s get inside.” Looking back towards the main street, he hustled across the alley and through the doorway.
Stepping into the dim hallway, Craxton noticed the flicking lumen strips.
“Finally, an occupied building,” he breathed. Hustling down the corridor away from the street, they turned down a side corridor. Speeding up, Craxton broke into a run after hearing a door crash open behind them. “Run Jas!”
Turning down another corridor, he sped towards an exit door. Reaching the door, panting hard from exertion, he waited for Jasten to catch up. Cracking the door and peering out, he pulled Jasten out, closing the door quietly. Across the street was another boarded up hab, flakboards shot nailed over the first floor windows. “In or towards the silo?” he asked.
Before Jasten could answer, red and blue light flashed down the street as an Arbites transporter screeched to a halt at the intersection. Heavily armored troopers climbed out of the hatches and disappeared from sight.
Sighing in frustration, Craxton answered his own question, “In.”
Waiting briefly, he ducked across the cracked rockcrete and into the door arch. Squeezing through a gap in the boards he waited for Jasten in the dark entranceway.
“We need to find a hall to the right. Try and get back on Avenue Burgot. We only have a couple blocks to go!”
“I’ll follow you.”
Heading into the darkness, Craxton kept one hand on the wall as he stepped over fallen chunks of plascrete. Every step crunched on dead vermin and old polysty food containers. Doors hung ajar opening to rooms of more trash. The faint scents of stale recaf and rotting food mixed with something more exotic.
“This place must be the local landfill,” Jasten coughed.
Feeling his bile rise at the cloying, thick garbage scents, he covered his mouth, retching, as the exotic, spicy scent grew stronger.
“What the frack is that,” he whispered, gagging again.
Craxton couldn’t answer as he was gagging and retching. Coughing, he finally answered, “I don’t know. Let’s keep going, Jas.”
Forcing himself to breath as the scent seemed to be getting thicker.
“Found the hall,” Craxton whispered and turned out of sight. Rounding the corner, he stopped short. A wall of stench met him face on. The oily, spicy scent was so thick he could taste it now. The exotic spice masked another scent. Barely. Working in the butchery, Jasten was familiar with the smells of meat gone bad. Something was off though. Really off.
Scrambling to identify the scent, Jasten stood out the hallway intersection and called out to his friend, “Craxton, wait!”
Still struggling to identify the smell, Jasten was frozen in place. It was organic and rotting, but not grox, aug, or porcine flesh. Slowly, realization came to him, just as he was losing Craxton in the dark hallway. It was rotting flesh for sure. Rotting human flesh.
“Craxton, come back!”
Breaking from his stupor, Jasten finally started down the hall to retrieve his friend. Something was very wrong ahead, and they needed to find another way.
Craxton was standing still now; maybe he realized what the foul smell was, too.
“Crax?” Jasten called out. “Crax, you ok?”
A snip like the sound power sheers make clicked in the dark.
“Crax?” he called again as he slowed.
Craxton didn’t turn but his face looked at Jasten as his head flipped backwards. Severed vessels jutted blood in a fan that splashed the walls and ceiling. A fine mist caught Jasten in the face, coppery warmth on his lips.
Eyes wide in shock, a frozen scream on his mouth, Craxton crumpled. As he did, his large frame revealed something hulking, hunched and dangerous. An oblong head tilted as the thing contemplated Jasten. Dark and somewhat shiny or wet, the beast-thing hunched forwards stepping on Craxton’s corpse, approaching Jasten. Its four arms ending in claws ‘snick snipped’ in grotesque anticipation. Too dark to make out details, Jasten felt his bladder void.
Too terrified to scream, he realized he was facing death.
Some mutated, lab-bred thing or escaped xenos beast was hunting him. Deep in his primitive brain fight was instantly overruled and flight was his only option. Knowing he probably wouldn’t be able to outrun the beast-thing, he turned and ran anyways. Stumbling through the trash and fallen ceiling debris, Jasten sprinted on. Heart thundering in his chest, he ran straight through the flakboard shot nailed over the entrance door.
Crashing into the rockcrete, he felt flesh peel from his palms and knees as he skidded to a halt. Scrambling to his feet, he finally looked over his shoulder towards the beast-thing. Unable to see into the dark hab, his eyes were vainly trying to adjust to the strobing red and blue lights. Half a dozen Arbites transporters were skewed across the roadway, lights flashing. Realizing he had no excuse for being inside the main hive so late, his hand clamped to his face, wiping the misted blood he knew was there. Not waiting to see how people would react to his explosive exit, he hurried away from the scene. Struggling to not look over his shoulder as he hurried down the street, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and stared at his feet as he walked.
Reaching an intersection, he looked for another map, taking the chance to glance back to the riot scene behind him. A couple Arbites troopers in full combat gear were milling around now, though none seemed to looking at him. And the beast-thing was nowhere to be seen. Heart still hammering in his chest, Jasten looked up at another peeling map. Trying to orient himself, his mind was reeling from the shock of witnessing his friend’s death. Struggling to comprehend the map as he tried to identify the beast-thing, he picked a route to the stair silo.
Checking the Arbites scene again, he crossed the street and quickly walked on. There were people out now, hivers, wanna-be gangers, workers getting off shift. Crossing the street was like entering some other hive. The street was still cracked and decaying rockcrete and the hab facades were still sloughing material, but there were people now. The abandoned district gave way to an inhabited zone. Small shops and eateries were mixed in with street-level dwellings. Somewhere close by over-amped sound was pulsing into the night. Afraid that his face still had speckles of Craxton’s blood, he scanned for an ablutions chamber or fountain as he made his way through the growing crowds. Face down; he hoped to blend into the anonymous hordes mingling in the night.
Looking down, he saw the stream before he stepped in it. Following the water flow to its source, he found a hydro source with a broken valve leaking water onto the walk. Judging from the wear in the rockcrete, that valve had been broken for years, wearing a groove in the ‘crete as it flowed onto the roadway and into a drain. Scrubbing his hands, then his face, the cold water invigorated Jasten, despite his mounting exhaustion. Cupping a handful of hydro, he washed out his mouth, spitting into the water flow at his feet. Looking up as he finished, he scanned the crowds for anyone noticing him in particular. Satisfied he was one amid many, he stepped back into the flow of bodies and continued to the stair silo.
Feeling an incessant, firm prodding in his ribs, Jasten opened his eyes. Waking fully as he realized he was still on a transport carriage, he looked down at the prodding. A plastek writing board gripped by a calloused hand was stabbing at him. Looking up at the board’s wielder, the conductor-engineer stared at him tiredly.
“End of the line habber. You all right?” he said.
“Huh? Uh, yeah, just tired.” Jasten replied, stretching and pulling himself to his feet.
“Long shift today. Where are we?”
“Hab Annex LenGaran Alpha. End of the green line. Where’d you mean to get off?”
“Hab Annex GaranBrock. Frack, does this line run back to the hive?”
“Not until morning. And you can’t sleep on the carriage. You sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah. Throne, I’m just tired.”
Stepping to the open hatchway, Jasten climbed out onto the platform and headed to the stairs off the platform. Not wanting to continue his chat with the conductor, he tried to hurry without hurrying. Out here in the hab districts, there were Arbites everywhere. All that conductor would have to do is blow his whistle and he’d be caught. If they ran his transport card, they’d see where he got on the train and maybe want to see what he had been doing in the hive. His permits allowed him hab access, but not hive access after normal hours. He was too tired to come up with a good story. He just needed to get home.
Glancing over his shoulder as he started down the stairs, the conductor was in the carriage hatch watching him. Trying to keep his gait normal Jasten felt his heart start to race. Aching and exhausted from flight and adrenaline, all he wanted was to get home. At the stair bottom he had to force himself not to look back up to the platform as he turned to walk the sixty blocks home.
The four hours he had been able to fit in before his shift did little to refresh him. A full shift on the meat saw had his feet aching and his back stiff, but finally he was heading home. He wanted to report the beast-thing at a local Arbites precinct office, but he knew there was no way to explain what he had been doing in the hive last night. His friendship with Craxton demanded that he report it somehow. Shuffling down the street, he grabbed a polysty cup of hot recaf as he debated how to report Craxton’s horrific death. Moving with the press of bodies, he spied a vid-link across the street. Sitting in an isolation cell, it seemed ideal. Crossing the street, dodging heavy haulers and private carriages, he stopped to check the area for patrolling shockboys. Seeing none, he stepped into the booth and sealed the door. Heart hammering his thumb hovered over the activation stud without mashing it. Seeing at the vid-cam staring darkly back at him, he realized that even though it wouldn’t be in person, they would still see his face. Making his decision led to what would happen to Jasten Kek if they did? Could they identify him from a vid-capture? How would he explain his presence in the hive last night? Pulling his smock off, he rumpled it up and perched it atop the cam lens. Pressing the activation stud, a disembodied voice filled the tiny cell.
“Please state your call.”
“Uh, Arbites reporting,” Jasten stammered.
“Umm, not sure.”
“Connecting…connecting…have a good day citizen.”
“Arbites Control, Main Hive,” came another voice.
Unable to speak at first, Jasten just stood there.
“Arbites Control, who’s there? Where is the vid? State your business citizen.”
“Uh, I need to report a xenos beast loose in the hive.”
“Why isn’t the video playing? Who is this?”
“The beast killed my friend!” he nearly shouted.
“What are you talking about? What killed your friend? Where? Who is this, identify yourself!”
“It was in an abandoned area, in a hab stack. There was some kind of raid by Arbites there last night. The thing killed my friend in the hab. It cut his head off. It’s not from here. It’s xenos. Dangerous xenos. You have to kill it. It’s dangerous!”
“Stay on the line, citizen, wait for a patrol transporter to arrive. You need to come in to make a statement. Stay where you are…”
Jasten keyed the deact stud and grabbed his smock as he headed out the door. Barely noticing the line was still active as he hurried away.
“Citizen, wait for transport!” buzzed out of the vox as he hurried away. Ducking into a recaf bar he slid into a booth near a rear exit. Eyeing the door nervously he ordered a recaf and sweet roll. Digging for coins he nearly jumped from his seat every time the door barged open. Eyeing him suspiciously, the waitress collected his payment, scowling and moving off.
Staring at the doorway, he picked at the roll while sipping the steaming caffeine. Thoughts racing, uncontrolled images of horrific interrogations and psyker probing flashed unbidden to his mind. “Did anyone see his race from the vid-booth to the recaf shop?” he wondered. “Of course, you stupid fracker,” He realized, “Did anyone care?” Unable to bear the tension, he pushed the cup away and stood to leave. Watching the door as he tried to casually don his smock, he slipped out the exit.
Turning into a market hall, Jasten kept stopping to browse at a variety of booths and checking for a tail or wandering Arbites. Confident no one was paying attention to him, he climbed a stair to the carriage train. ‘Would they find the xenos beast?’ he wondered aloud.