Chaos, Confusion, and Calamity are the engines
of relativity. Ben Waters, circ. 4312 CPE
The sharp crack-crunch of fragile glass shards between my boot and concrete pierced the hollow silence of the still night, waking the dead. A jerk on my harness instantly followed that gritchy sound, dragging me back around the corner of the alley a split second before a spray of bullets filled the space I’d been occupying. A hot-breath whispered warning passed by my ear: “You’ve got to be more careful. Come on, we’ve got to be gone before the militia investigates.”
“No, left. And for god’s sake, don’t shuffle your feet! Heel-toe, heel-toe. Let’s go.” And so, my father and I melded into the fabric of night, new cloth woven into old. After passing through the ruins into the desolation we call the gap, we rested, vigilant, eating small bits of food carried with us.
“I want you to take three lessons away from this. The first is, for the unwary, normal-looking surroundings can be warning traps—the glass was put there purposefully. The second is they’re running low on manpower, relying more and more on sensors and automatics.”
“What’s the third, Papa?”
He looked away, moving his right hand, palm against chest. Under his clothing, against his skin, he guarded a locket holding the last remaining picture of his wife, my mother. His eyes locked on some faraway place I could never see. “The third rule is always have two exit routes other than the approach path. Moving backward is deadly.”
After twenty years, I still have dreams of that night. My near death, my father and I on the run, searching for hope and trust … a way out. The auto-guns had been aimed and guided by sound, not body heat. At their adjusted height, meant to yield center-mass impacts on an adult, my eight-year-old head would have been shredded by the subsonic impactor needles. Very few guns used high-velocity kinetics back then; the long-traveling crack of ammunition rounds passing through the sound barrier would attract the wrong sort of attention.
Tonight, again in the gap, I’m surrounded by the slow, steady schick … schick … schick of steel against whetstones. There’s no talking. Of what I possess, the cleanest thing I own is my knife. If you’re naked and have a good knife, you can survive. When I was five my most prized possession was a soldier rag doll my mother had made. It remained a comfort, a treasure, long after one of the eyes had fallen off. I remember searching for days to find it. These are the thoughts that rattle and shake me before going out. I’ll be fine once I stand to leave with my squad. Before a mission, we exercise personal rituals fallen into over the years. Still, in the final minutes of preparation, we converge in a silent circle of communal edge-working before we move out.
As far back as I can remember, my father told the old stories of how ties to Earth were intentionally severed by our forebears. Our planet’s population, only seven generations young at the time, sought to strike out on their own, seeking a path to a self-built golden future. They realized too late you can’t cherry-pick the parts of humanity’s proclivities you think are needed while tossing away the apparently useless, irritating, or detrimental ones—the junk DNA. Human culture is an ecosystem, developed, balanced, and rebalanced again over tens of thousands of years. After you exterminate all the bothersome insects, creepy-crawlers, and carrion eaters, you come to realize the need for their existence to maintain a healthy societal biome. With those removed, the remaining vacuum created havoc as it was chaotically and disastrously filled by the remaining, slightly maladjusted, slightly psychotic citizens.
Tonight’s raid is to rescue three of our own, recently captured at the boundary of our fiefdom. We have good leaders, good families, and talented artisans, but few are warriors. By need, our forays are sharp, rapid thrusts, with even faster retreats. My squad will provide cover on the right flank to prevent too-soon reinforcements from moving to the attack area. Our secondary purpose is to gather any portable tech and tools left unattended. The left flankers, blocks away, will be in a position to make off with seed stock from the offending opposition’s storehouses.
The pacing watchmen aren’t there to raise alarm of raids. Their task this night, as every night, is to deter the thieves living in their community. Others, the more capable of their clan and kin, are further out at the edges, surveying approaches to their enclave—except the one we use. We’re careful to avoid overuse of that route to prevent its discovery. Our path takes abandoned drainage tunnels, dug passages, and breakthroughs into now-useless utility shafts, webbing up and outward tying to points of former industrial and commercial centers. This is the same route my father led me through in echoing darkness and filth on the night of our escape.
While eight of our number guard the rear lanes leading to the strike force’s objective, four of my squad are tasked to raid the nearby warehouse holding recovered and cleaned elements from older times. With rucksacks half-full of rags to wrap our treasure finds and blackened knives in hand, we creep closer—nothing rattles, nothing shines—heel-toe, heel-toe. My target is the watchman on the right corner of the low brick building, furthest from the entrance.
When you intend to cut a person’s throat, you have two choices: the curved, razor-sharp edge, or the opposing off-set saw-tooth along the spine of the blade. I like the former. It allows me to quickly rip out the larynx, preventing warning grunts and cries by swiftly exposing and widening the airway. I’ve come to appreciate the effectiveness of the ratcheting effect my knife has on its quick ride across the thin, vulnerable ridges of soft flesh and cartilage. I keep the other option for times when my targets don’t present their necks well. Then it’s the thin, sharp edge—a drag from knife heel to tip, followed by a rapid plunge-twist motion to quickly sever something important, stifling any reactive sounds. You’d be surprised how loud a bloody breath gurgle is if you simply cut muscle and jugular, not to mention the spray and rapid accumulation of gushing, slippery blood. To avoid the body’s natural leg jerking, it’s best to pivot to the side as you make the cut, using leverage to lower the dying body to the ground. After that, it’s a follow-up search between the ribs for a thrust to the heart. It’s then I appreciate the blood groove on a well-made knife.
At night, familiar natural sounds fall easy on the ear. In contrast, clicks, clanks, or whispers are needle stabs to the attention center of the brain, activating the adrenal gland. A side-effect of adrenaline release is tunnel vision. Unfortunately for my target, she focuses on the sound of a pebble landing on pavement fifty feet away, followed a few seconds later by another hitting the roof a bit closer, causing her head to rise, looking up. As I said, a well-presented neck makes the job so much easier. She is left-handed; I approached from the right, slightly behind.
In near-total darkness, other than by size, texture, and weight in hand, it’s not easy to determine what you grab in heists like these. Since this is an aside to the mission objective, anything we collect from the old days is considered a bonus. Even if we have no clue as to the purpose, if it fits in our sacks and doesn’t make noise, we wrap it up, take it. Our exit, ninety seconds from our entry, uses a different path; backing up is deadly.
When we lose one of our own on a mission, we hold a silent memorial before crossing back into our land. It’s a simple ceremony, one of shared pain. Squad circles form, each member facing outward, holding their knife in the right hand, left arm outstretched toward their mate on that side. The leader begins with a slow, blood-drawing drag of his blade across the forearm of the warrior next to him. And so it goes, silent wounds, around the circle until the leader has been marked. It’s a reminder of the pain the lost one’s family and friends will endure on our homecoming. I have nine scars from dozens of previous missions.
That, my dear child, is what I do; my place in our community. Now, turn off the light and go to sleep. Your class has evasion training tomorrow. You’ll want to be well-rested for that, so goodnight, Anna.