The entire night, Henry feverishly dreamt about a knife in his back. When he woke up in a cold sweat for the second time, he decided he’d had enough of trying to do what was impossible. He couldn’t figure out what Alfred was talking about. Who was this spy, and what was going on? Slipping on a new body glove, Henry threw on some trousers and marched over to the infirmary. Inside a sterile treatment room, Alfred lay face up and naked on a metal table. Tubes from a chemical drone ran up his nostrils and down his throat. His leg looked red from some blood around the stitching, but otherwise the surgical drone had patched him up nicely.
A medical attendant noticed Henry standing there, and she came over to talk to him. “Hello sir,” she said. “Your brother will be doing fine. We need to sedate him for at least two days due to an allergic reaction.”
“A what? I’m not allergic to anything.”
“I understand that,” said the attendant. “This is a new agent we just got in from the Pyramid last week. It’s a biological anti-inflammatory, and it was supposed to help with the plasma burns.”
Henry blinked. “Why two days?”
“As soon as the drones noticed the reaction, they cleared his system out and we put in the old agent. He just needs time for his body to recover.”
Henry didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry. His brother was now out of danger from the people outside, but now he had this freak accident to contend with. Is this a coincidence? He kept asking himself and got no answers while watching the drones place a covering over his brother. Maybe he shouldn’t have killed the Colonel – but no, he had to do that. This is a fucking mess, he thought.
“Let me know as soon as he’s out, even if I’m in the field.”
“Yes, sir,” said the attendant. She went back to her duties.
Henry padded off towards the mess hall. Wide arrays of tables and chairs littered the room, and a few of the locals were in there sipping coffee and eating an early breakfast. Everyone got quiet when he went in, grabbing a tray from the machine service bin. Mess chow was always terrible, but the predictability of that awfulness was a comfort in its own right. He grabbed a mug of coffee and sat by himself.
In the middle of deciding whether to attempt eating whatever was on his tray or just leave it, one of the local lieutenants came up and stood at attention. “Good morning, Major,” she said.
He squinted at her. “Good morning, Lieutenant. Is there something on your mind?”
She nodded. “Sir, on behalf of some of the newer officers here, we’d just like to thank you for what you did yesterday.”
“What exactly did I do?”
“We didn’t get through the Barracks back home to come out here and watch Leroy and Laney Laborer do whatever they wanted. The people in town, well, they’re a bit cocky. Colonel van Targ just let them get that way. It’s about time we went in and showed ‘em who’s holding the leash.”
“How long have you been out here, Lieutenant?”
“About a month, sir. I got quite a while left on my tour.”
Henry sighed. You didn’t see how I broke your Colonel’s neck, he thought. It’s like he was cursed being surrounded by people too inexperienced to know better, or too experienced for their own good. These people shouldn’t be thanking him; their tour just got worse. “I wouldn’t be thanking me just yet,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of time left out here. Focus on each day at a time.”
The Lieutenant frowned. “Well, sir, we’re not just thanking you for doing what you did. I mean, yes, we’re new and all, but this place is dangerous. Like, we weren’t allowed to talk about it. Some of our people would disappear, and the Colonel wouldn’t let us investigate. There’s a warehouse in the town that we never could go search. We had to get permission to go through neighborhoods-”
“What was that about the warehouse?”
“Oh, there’s a warehouse out on the main circle. The northeast one, the one with the weird graffiti on it.”
Son of a bitch. “Thanks, Lieutenant,” said Henry, draining the rest of his coffee. “What’s your name?”
“Alright Cortez. You’re now a field captain. I want you to round up the local militia and get them back into their riot gear. After that, you’re going to take command of my brother’s company. Report to Captain Jackson for reading in on what we’re doing.”
He got up, and left the surprised lieutenant standing there with her jaw hanging open. Henry was too lost in his thoughts to care. That warehouse might have been cleaned out by now. Then again, with an operation like that, it might take time to conceal. Definitely it would explain the mob. They’ve been keeping us fragmented and off-balance since we got here, he thought.
The terrorists might have had a spy or maybe some spies locally; they didn’t have enough time to recruit the new officers. Colonel van Targ might not have been one, but he sure as shit was complicit in what was going on. When Henry got him kicked out, that was something the terrorists weren’t planning. But what if they weren’t just there for the Colonel? Henry wondered if there was a more important asset they were trying to rescue.
His only option was to get to his room and notify the Triumvirate of what was going on. No politician would be awake this early in the morning, but he could send a message of his intent. He next notified the Barracks that they were about to receive a number of people for detention. They weren’t to be allowed to speak to anyone, to send or receive communications, or to meet with visitors. With that taken care of, Henry suited up and headed towards the infirmary. On the way, he signaled one of his platoons to get the grav ship ready for launch.
The Administrator, Lieutenant Carnath, and the other militia with the Colonel were all in recovery. Henry waved for the guards, some of his own people, to come over to help him. “Everyone,” he said, “Due to what happened yesterday, I need you all to come with me. There’s no emergency. I just need to move you all to a safer location.”
“Where are we going?” asked Ewing. “I need to get back to work. The people need me here.”
“I understand your concerns,” Henry lied. “However, I still need you to come with me.” He stepped forward and grabbed Ewing by the arm. Unable to resist, Ewing complied. Henry walked them all outside to the grav ship. Although the outside lights were on, the morning sun already had cast some of its rays across the sky.
Carnath saw the ship and halted. “Where are we going?”
The doors to the ship opened, and there was Henry’s platoon. Henry replied, “You’ll be informed when you get there.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said one of the militia.
Henry waved his people over. “You’re going,” he said. “Think of it as having leave without needing to use any of your personal time.”
Ewing sighed. “Let’s go, everyone. I’ll lodge a formal complaint when we get wherever we’re going.” With that, the resistance ended, and everyone got onto the ship. Henry hoped the spy was on board, but he wouldn’t know that until Alfred woke up. Even if the spy was gone, the terrorists seemed to be in decent contact. They might figure out that their spy was taken away and do something else.
One of the many things Henry learned about controlling people was that it was infinitely harder to do if one had lost the initiative. He knew where he needed to look, and the window of opportunity he had could only be closing.
Dismissing the others, he called for Miranda and Cortez to meet him in the ranged weapons locker. It was situated on the ground floor of the barracks, down some metal steps and through several corridors. Three security doors later, Henry was looking at the compound’s stock of rifles and pistols. Dust covered a wide assortment of plasma rifles, plasma pistols, concussion pistols, and stun rifles. The latter two were non-lethal varieties of the former. He dusted off the nearest sound rifle and checked the battery. Inspecting it for damage, he found none.
“Reporting for duty, sir,” said Cortez.
Miranda was there, surprised Henry was in his full armor. “What can we do for you, Major?”
“Captain Cortez, do you have the locals suited up yet?”
“Yes sir,” she replied. Henry caught the half-smile at hearing her new rank.
“Alright, get them to dust this shit off and then make sure they’re fully equipped for pacification.” Cortez nodded, and marched off. To Miranda, he said, “We’re going to try her out while Alfred is laid up. What I’m about to tell you doesn’t go anywhere, got it?”
“Sure thing,” she said.
“I’m taking the Pyramid battalion out to that warehouse we saw yesterday. A local battalion is going to pacify the residence area just outside the compound. The other local battalion is going to keep our escape route open. You’ve got that job right now. Our mission is simple. I go in, I search that place, and then we all get back to the compound before the terrorists can do shit about it.”
“The locals won’t be happy that a neighborhood’s getting pacified.”
“I couldn’t care less after they ripped apart one of my people,” said Henry. “Anyone gives you shit, they get a collar and brought back for questioning.”
“Shouldn’t we be questioning people in here right now? What if the terrorists hit here while we’re out?”
“This is time sensitive,” said Henry. “If we leave soon, I think we can beat any counterstrike. Even if I’m wrong, it will be one less place to search. But I really think what we came here for is in that warehouse. That’s why I think the terrorists are rousing the locals. Now get your shit together, we move in an hour.”
Exactly on time, Henry and a massive force of militia left the Administration compound. They all marched briskly, making the trip into the town a few minutes faster than the day before. The blue sun was already high in the southern sky, its rays beating down on the white brick residences. The entire group stopped inside the residence district’s walls, the Pyramid militia blocking off access to and from the main street.
Henry walked up to Cortez and asked, “Have you ever run a pacification operation?”
“Only in training,” she replied.
“Watch and learn, then,” he said. Setting his speakers to address the neighborhood he said, “Residents, your attention please. This is a pacification action. Please wait for the militia to come and nerve collar you. Becoming violent or any other breach of the peace shall result in dire consequences.” He waved for the militia to begin.
People in armor marched into houses, and the collaring began. Some residences had screams, while there were more runners that tried to break free. After a house got cleared, all but its youngest residents collared and walking down to the street, the militia moved on to the next ones. In short order, the majority of residents were outside and lined along the road.
“What happens next?” Cortez asked. “Are we detaining people who were in the mob yesterday?”
“No,” said Henry. He toggled his controls for the collars. Everyone along the street started jerking, their movements spawned by the collars furtive and uncoordinated. He was ordering them to strip until they were all naked. Then, he forced them all to kneel. “Residents, you shall remain out here for one hour. It will be long enough for your skin to burn and blister. You will be in great pain.
“I want you to think of that pain the next time you decide to join a mob. Some of the people I captured yesterday are from your neighborhood. The terrorists you are hiding killed them by burning them alive. As you heal, I want you to remember that and your poor behavior is why you suffer.
“But I also want you to know that you have been shown mercy today. My own brother was wounded during an attack. Several other militia were killed. I could do whatever I feel like because of that. Instead of seeking revenge or doing worse, I want you to know that this is the fairest punishment I could find.” Henry toggled his voice controls, and he started to leave.
Cortez grabbed him by the arm. “Sir, are we really going to leave them out here this long?”
“Yes,” said Henry. “It’s something we frequently did to the miners when they got out of hand. Do you have a problem?”
Cortez looked at the nearest laborer, a woman that was probably twenty. Her pregnant belly had stretched the barcode on it. She knelt there motionless, empty eyes forward, lips clasped together, hands dangling by her sides. “Surely not everyone was involved in the mob,” she pleaded.
Henry shook his head. He leaned over to speak in a hushed voice. “It’s either you or her out here, Cortez. Some of them want back into the Pyramid, but others do not. Nowhere is safe.”
Cortez nodded. She let go of Henry, and she went back to take charge of her people.
Henry wondered for a moment whether or not he should entrust her with keeping this part of the town open. As word spread of the pacification, some of the other laborers might come up to watch. If they were smart, they’d hide. But their spirit was far from broken, so he knew that they might still think that they could maintain the life they had with the Colonel. These people were more like the miners than the farmers he’d always heard about. They were supposed to be too tired to rebel.
Miranda and Kat were having a conversation near the district entrance. “It’s already gotten attention,” said the sergeant. “These people don’t have fear in their eyes.” Kat was nothing if not a good reader of people. He played at cards with her once, and only once. She almost cleaned him out of energy credits.
“A show of force it is, then,” said Henry. “Miranda, you know what to do.”
Miranda went out and signaled her people. “We are closing this road off,” she announced. People in the crowd started to murmur. Some shouted obscenities back at her. Captain Jackson nodded at the closest person, and a local militia soldier came out and grabbed the person, slapping a nerve collar on him. That person immediately went into the neighborhood and started stripping, joining the rest of the residents who were being punished.
“That’s how it works when you interfere,” she said. “Now get the fuck off my road,” she yelled. Still a little too grudgingly for Henry’s liking, the crowd at least obeyed this time. The militia started laying out roadblock signs and pushing foot traffic away. Slowly, the other parts of Miranda’s battalion marched northwards to close off the rest of the eastern road. Henry checked the time; they’d only been out there for about twenty minutes.
Now for the hard part, he thought. “Let’s go,” he ordered. Four platoons went to each corner of the building, while the remaining six lined up at the main entrance, a wide open door standing about ten meters high. They all entered at the same time, each platoon taking a section of the warehouse to clear. A group of laborers were inside, standing in the middle of the main floor around some food crates. When the militia showed up, they immediately tried running. Two of them made it out a side entrance, but they were shot with the stun rifles.
Five of them ran head-on at the invading militia, and they were all taken down and collared without any problems. Several of the militia stopped to look, and then one cried out to Sergeant Phipps, standing on the warehouse floor and facing the wrong way. A grav lift plowed through the crates, sending strawberries and plastic everywhere. Kat swung around, holding up her concussion pistol. “Stop right there!” she commanded. Hearing no response, she fired three shots into the open cab of the lift, and then she rolled off to her right.
“Bullshit,” she said, realizing that none of her shots did anything. Whatever was driving that should have fallen out by now. Hopping up to her feet, she ran after the lift and leapt onto the left rear runner. Her hands found metal bars on the side, and in a few seconds she was on the top bar of the cage. Grabbing the bar with both hands, she swung downward, letting the full weight of her feet crash into the driver below. She heard a grunt, and then she heard a wet smack on the ground.
Pausing to turn the lift off, she leapt out and went over to check on the driver. “You should have stopped,” she said. Already two other militia members went to collar him. He was a pretty big guy, dwarfing the two people standing next to his body. The man on the right knelt down, and a massive hand reached up to backhand the officer away. Kat’s eyes went wide. “Evans, Mallory, get away now!”
Evans jumped away at the sergeant’s command, and Mallory reacted just quickly enough to take the swing on her shoulder, spinning her violently and slamming her to the ground. Kat dropped her rifle and took out a knife, bolting towards the driver. As the driver rolled over to get up, she jammed her knife into his back, keeping her weight down on the hilt. The driver just grunted, and reached back to try to grab the armored woman hanging off him.
When the driver stood up, Kat jumped down, drawing the knife out. The driver turned around, looming above her at about 2 and-a-half meters tall. Evans shouted something, but Kat had her entire focus on the fight. The sergeant ducked a few swings and jumped out of the way of a few kicks. Lifting his arm up for another swing, Kat saw an opportunity and jammed the knife into the giant’s right knee. She rolled left, and when the giant tried to turn to keep her in front of him, his tendons shredded themselves on the blade. He slumped to the floor.
One of the militia members came up with a nerve collar, but Kat flagged him off. With a sickening crunch, she slammed her boot down on the giant’s skull. The kick didn’t kill him, and she had to do it twice more to cave it in. “Fucking genie,” she said.
Henry came over to see the commotion. He looked at the corpse on the ground, and then he saw Kat’s bloody boot, smeared with a reddish-purple blood. The other militia started gawking, and Henry had to order them back to their search. Kneeling next to the body, he let out a tired sigh.
“That thing shouldn’t fucking be here,” said Kat. “It shouldn’t.”
“I know,” said Henry. The body had no tattoos and no other markings. Its skin was leathery, and it was completely hairless. Only he and Kat had seen one before. “Burn it,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Corporal Morris stopped Henry on his way towards the crates. “Sir,” he began, “We’re doing a search of the premises. So far, there were twenty occupants and the lift driver there. They’re getting collared and readied for transport back to the compound. Behind them, Kat had nicked the line from the grav lift and poured engine fluid onto the giant’s body. She jammed a shocker onto the fluid, and the body went up in flames. “Should she be doing that in here, sir?”
“Yeah,” said Henry, staring at the corpse like it might start moving again. “What have you found?”
“Other than some of the markings you cataloged from the grav pad, nothing.”
“Wait, nothing?” Henry arched an eyebrow. “What about the crates, the walls, everything else?”
“It’s been sanitized,” said Morris. “The only things we’ve got are some crates near the entrance. They’ve got shipping labels on them, but we can’t tell what they were shipping.”
Henry looked at the body, and then he looked at the crates. “What’s the radiation levels on the crates like?”
“We don’t scan for that,” Morris explained.
Henry went over and turned his helmet scanner on. The radiation levels were lower than normal. In the corner of a couple of them, he found mold. Mold wasn’t supposed to grow in those containers, because it was rarely humid long enough. Even after a rain, the lack of humidity wouldn’t let moisture last long enough for the spores to mature. Morris said, “That’s the interesting thing we found.”
“Mold,” said Henry. “Is there any chance it could be local?”
“I’ll need to type it,” said Morris.
“Let’s take a crate back with us.” Henry motioned for someone to pick up the crate he scanned. “Everyone,” he said, “Let’s get a move on.” The crate and the collared laborers made their way around the warehouse, and then they all marched back down the road, Miranda’s regiment falling in behind them.
When they got to the residential district, Henry went with the evidence they found back to the compound. By now, the residents forced to kneel outside had started burning, their flesh puffing up as it warmed. In a way, they reminded Henry of the giant that Kat killed. Only these people were smaller, and they were controllable.
Henry got to the exit of Peccara, and he stopped. What was in that warehouse got to him. He didn’t want for there to be mold in those crates. He knew exactly what all of that meant. Toggling his communications equipment, he hailed Cortez. “Captain,” he said, “Cut them loose after about ten more minutes.” Enough people had suffered today.