File 01: Ihlia
My chest swelled and deflated in slow rhythmic pulses as I sank one knee onto the frigid floor in front of a half-shattered window within an abandoned stone building. The darkness saturating the third level of the four-story structure strangled me in an unsettling icy grip leaving me almost blind to my immediate surroundings.
Of course, that which I desired to see was not inside the ruinous building but outside in what remained of our allegedly precious world. In fact, the longer I hid within the eerie darkness staring out into the run-down suburbs of a small, desolate town, the more I realized the strangling pressure felt more like a comforting embrace. I turned my jade eyes to the streets outside the window, and as I focused my senses, the nanite hub lodged within the temporal lobe of my brain buzzed to life, enhancing my sight by several times that of a normal human.
Each individual droplet of rain crystallized in sheets outside the window. A slow breath escaping my lips transformed into a cold mist before dissipating into the room’s darkness. Long strands of my obsidian hair fanned in the crisp wind whistling in through the broken window. The breeze carried with it the decaying stench of a rotting world saturated with rust, mold, and blood. Out in the Dusk Territories, special care for aesthetic and olfactory senses simply did not rank among top priorities, and it was painfully obvious.
The scuffed black leather trench coat adorning my slender shoulders groaned quietly as I stretched trained muscles into the position necessary to steady the bolt-action rifle from which I was never separated. My left hand steadied the length of the rifle where the bi-pod would normally be attached. Careful not to poke its muzzle out the shattered window, I situated the killing utensil’s stock against my right shoulder and placed my fingers against the trigger guard. With one of my nanites granting me superhuman vision, a scope was unnecessary.
Quickly factoring in the environmental conditions, I determined my effective range was roughly one mile. One mile to incapacitate the target I calculated would be traveling down the road within a few moments. I garnered my information from a reliable source, but if that old codger was mistaken…
“I’ll just turn my rifle on him, instead,” I inwardly mused.
As I pondered various ways to torture my old friend if his information proved useless, three distant silhouettes appeared through the curtains of acid rain that descended on the decrepit rubble of the former city. He was early. That still warranted punishment to my source, but a condescending slap to the back of the head would suffice. The target, Al Narljecht, was a twitchy, small-time gang leader for a bandit den centered in a place once referred to as Northwest Florida, a small territory set on the fringes of the world’s once great nation, America.
Throughout history, America remained one of the most powerful and hated military and political forces on the planet. However, whatever reason the country suffered global scorn mattered little when it became ground zero for the global holocaust Bradich initiated. Another reason to eliminate that man’s putrid existence: it was a good Samaritan act, kind of like taking out the trash. And Al Narljecht would be the perfect stepping stone on my journey.
Al’s physique mocked the standard for even surviving in Dusk Territory, let alone becoming a crime lord. Those incapable of benching five times their body weight in pilfered loot and unwilling damsels usually died pretty quickly. What made Al survive, and in fact thrive in Dusk Territory to the point of assuming leadership of an entire gang, was his vast information network. Al knew many contacts both in Dawn and Dusk territories, and through those contacts he could easily exploit a city’s defensive weaknesses and overstocked supplies.
In essence, Al knew where to hit, when to hit, and how to hit for the best risk to reward ratio; this knowledge attracted flocks of people to his feet willing to carry out his bidding for easy food, water, and entertainment. I was attracted more to the prospect of gathering vital information and stopping his vitals.
Given his meek build, Al never traveled alone. He hunched at an unimpressive five feet four inches, gaining an additional illusory six inches from the towering neon green mohawk that frilled the center of an otherwise bald head. His creamy complexion and sunken eyes bordered in bright red “war paint,” previously called make-up, vividly distinguished him from the dismal blandness of the surrounding buildings which were half or fully toppled and dark with aged rot. Walking on either side of the gangly crime lord, a pair of thugs with muscles bulging from a combination of rigorous exercise and strength implants splashed through puddles of sulfuric precipitation.
With steady hands I lifted the tip of my instrument and quickly trained the iron sights on the first lumbering brute’s forehead. A hush fell over my surroundings like the stifled moment in a crowd just before a grand orchestra roars to life. The performance I prepared required such mastery that the waiver of but a few millimeters meant the difference between deathly silence and a standing ovation. In my particular line of work, the standing ovation would have been a most unfortunate finale.
As my perception of time slowed to a sluggish crawl, I distinctly felt the modest swell of my breasts slowly expand beneath my ragged black shirt in an elongated, drawn out breath. A single drop of water exploded into tiny translucent shards against the bridge of the unfortunate bodyguard’s nose as the breath slowly hissed from my lips into a white fog. At the trough of my exhale, during the serenity of my calmest state, I squeezed the trigger.
The end of my rifle released a crack as the bullet streaked through the rain like an opening crescendo. After traveling nearly a mile, the abrupt percussion heralded the grotesque split of the target’s head; against the dim, gray environment, it resembled a brightly exploding crimson fruit. The lifeless husk collapsed to the ground much to the bemuddled jerks of Al and his remaining companion. The scrawny thug’s intellect instantly whirred to life; he grabbed hold of his surviving bodyguard and leapt behind him.
Still confused as to why his comrade painted a scarlet mosaic on the graveled road with bits of his own face, the second towering brute thought nothing of his leader’s strange maneuver. Seeing as my performance left the bodyguard speechless, I decided to waste no time on the encore. I inhaled deeply, fluidly tugged the bolt-action lever on my rifle, and quickly replaced the ejected cartridge with a fresh, custom high caliber bullet before shifting my sights to the second hulk.
In reality, the caliber of the round was high enough to slice through the man like paper mache and find its home in the squirrelly, poorly postured crime lord, so I paid little attention to the dumbfounded behemoth and set my sights on the target behind him: Al. I fired again, and the splattered skull of the second goon mocked the first; a poor case of plagiarism in both sound and artistry. I expected to see the mutilated figure of Al crumpled to the ground after the mangled corpse of his second bodyguard dropped to the gravel. To my extreme disappointment, there was nothing.
“Blasted midget…” I cursed under my breath even as I chambered the next round. My eyes honed in on a pair of metallic claws and a bulbous nose poking from behind a granite slab that probably once served as a wall to a building. Al’s weapon of choice was a pair of gauntlets that sported three jagged, toothy spikes messily jutting from the back of the hand.
Though the age of technology offered many advancements in ranged weaponry, their availability was borderline uncommon; it was not rare for a person to specialize solely in melee combat. I glanced down to the belt holding up my black, camouflaged cargo pants. On either side of my slender but supple hips rested a pair of long daggers with which I was well trained; I could understand having a contingency, but dumping my precious rifle in favor of an exclusive relationship with my blades was out of the question. No, I would maintain a swinger relationship.
When I returned my focus to the remnants of the building Al hid behind, I caught only the slosh of displaced rain as a blur zipped from that position. My inability to track Al’s movements shocked me; he tore through the street in my direction with jets of water shooting up at either of his sides like an old-fashioned jet ski slicing through the ocean.
Whether a lucky guess, implanted telepathy, or incredible deduction, Al shot behind the next stone structure just as I brought the sights of my sniper rifle to bear against the center of his forehead. My eyes twitched with a tiny pang of concern at the sheer distance he crossed during that brief moment I took my eyes off him. At least an eighth of a mile of my advantage was consumed by his unfathomable speed and my carelessness. The only explanation for that quick jolt of leg power was a nanite implant.
As the world developed and evolved nanite technology, both before and after the apocalyptic catastrophe of the Titan Crisis, new and creative implants hit the markets, legal and underground alike, almost every month. From nanites prolonging life span to ones propounding psychokinetics, the market for superhuman capabilities became as varied as those found in any comic book or novel. Many fighters and mercenaries possessed more implants than one might shake an electrocapacitor rod at.
That, however, came at a terrible risk and grievous cost. Nanites combined quasi-organic, silicon-based material with programmed microchips. As such, the nano hubs in a nanite served as virtual intelligences to accomplish the task for which they were designed. As those intelligences integrated themselves into the brain and began learning, their effects on the psyche threatened to override the sentience of the host.
That variable was factored into calculations regarding successful surgery, and an overall threshold for the safe number of implants was established. Individuals put themselves at great risk by exceeding three implants. This basic number functioned to prevent cases of a mental disorder known as hyperaugmentation; anyone suffering from hyperaugmentation was referred to as hyped by the layman.
When hyped, one began experiencing acute signs of insanity ranging from hallucinations and blackouts to dissociative identity disorder and, eventually, absolute psychosis characterized by an aggressive desire to kill… well, everything. The symptoms typically started on the less severe end of the spectrum and rapidly manifested with each consecutive implant.
A person’s true threshold actually varied quite extensively from individual to individual depending on factors such as mental fortitude and will power. Those with exceptionally strong sense of self and firm wills were less susceptible to becoming hyped and as such exceeded the normally accepted threshold of three implants. Any number of implants over the threshold, however, still presented increased risk as a method to determine any individual’s true threshold was nonexistent. But a method did exist to determine whether or not someone was hyped.
Al’s figure twisted from behind the stone ruin, and his legs flexed beneath him. In the infinitesimal moment I beheld him, I simultaneously noted the swelling of the muscles in his thighs and the two black rings spiraling around his pupils. For every implant that exceeded an individual’s threshold, a black ring would spiral about the pupil of the eyes indicating that individual’s level of hyperaugmentation. The more rings in the eye, the more hyped the individual.
Normally one ring indicated occasional headaches and sleep trouble. One ring was also the point at which most surgeons denied any further implants to said individual. Alas, thugs inhabiting Dusk Territory rarely accepted “no” for an answer. They cared even less for phrases such as “It’s for your own good!” In fairness, surgeons preferring the ruthless thug life in the wastes of the world rarely feigned concern for health and well-being. Before my finger could even begin applying pressure to the trigger, the cacophonous thud of Al’s feet digging into the ground propelled him across the landscape like an electric current in my direction. Frantically, I attempted to hone in on his movements.
In my desperation I fired a shot which I only half-expected to find its mark, yet I still found myself cursing under my breath when it ricocheted off the gravel with a metallic whine. The obstacles littering the former city proved too difficult a handicap when combined with the nanite enhancing Al’s speed. Given the nature of such quick spurts of insurmountable velocity, it stood to reason the muscle fibers in his legs were likely being shredded with each passing moment. That meant extra strain on Panacea.
After several well-timed dashes, Al rested behind a new moss-covered rock a little over a quarter mile from my nest. I was nervous. The musty odor in the room infiltrated my nostrils the same way the fear that the darkened room would become my tomb infiltrated my thoughts. I exhaled deeply, forcing the adrenaline levels to recede within my body long enough for me to regain my composure. At most, it would take Al three more dashes to reach the doorway of the rundown building. I wanted to incapacitate him in order to extract more accurate information, but my chance to keep him alive long enough to speak with him dwindled with every second.
“Al Narljecht. I had no idea you were so badly hyped. You seem to have it relatively together for someone who’s supposed to have lost their mind by now.” Attempting to hide my exact position at this point was meaningless. With every shot and each passing second his keen intelligence worked to evaluate the most likely perch from which I sniped. It was not rocket science, and in all likelihood Al possessed the mental processing power of a rocket scientist.
“Oh my what a beautiful voice. Why… why it almost sounds like silk rubbing against a wind chime! Ahaha! I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like as I’m ripping you to pieces!” Al’s voice escaped him in a twisted, bird-like eccentricity. In fact, the irony only struck me as to how closely the man resembled a scavenger bird after I heard his voice. With his stooped posture, hooked bulbous nose, towering mohawk, and talon-like choice of weaponry, Al’s personification of the vulture was uncanny.
“I really have no reason to kill you. No reason yet, that is. All I want is information and you can go about your business.” I hoped the conversation would make him think. Thinking too much led to mistakes, and mistakes led to getting your brain blown out the back of your skull.
“You? Kill me? Ahahaha! I’m in stitches! Stop, stop! Hehehehe! Oh my. Interesting proposition, that one. Hm, yes, yes. And your name? You know mine, not very fair to not know the name of my… hehe… killer.” His voice cracked every few words. Despite the speed and depth at which his mind processed thoughts, it seemed his composure could scarce keep pace.
“Ihlia. Ihlia Lorando. Now, where’s Bradich?” I decided to get straight to the point.
“B-Bradich?! You seek Harbinger?! Ahahaha! This gets better and better! Ihlia, yes Ihlia. Seeking… Harbinger? Ehehehehe! You know he has his own agenda and doesn’t take followers very easily! Most that seek to join his cause wind up in bags! Bags! Oohahaha!” I imagined Al’s clawed hand flattening against his face as he tipped his head back and howled at his own jests.
“If I find him, he’s the one that’ll be in a bag. Mark my words.” Grinding my teeth together faintly, I trained my iron sights on the area closest to Al’s position. My desire to merely incapacitate him drifted closer and closer to lethal intentions.
“Hm, consider them marked. That changes things quite a bit I’m afraid. The difference between your claim to kill Harbinger and your ability to do so are wider than the seas of old. Ohohoho! Come now, you don’t need to seek Harbinger to kill you, I’ll be taking care of that for you right here and now!” No sooner than the words squawked from his mouth, Al made another dash to a new cover notably closer to my sniper nest. Just as before, I was unable to even track his movements, let alone aim long enough to put a bullet in him.
“I’d much prefer if you just told me where he was so I could be on my way.” Using every ounce of will in my repertoire, I stifled the urge to panic rising up in my chest like a giant lump forcing its way up my throat.
“Don’t know, but I know someone who might. West of here, used to be called New York or something. Ahahaha!” The crazed cackle sloshing from his lips made me unable to discern if the madness prevented him from knowing his cardinal directions and the name of states, or if he simply wanted to confuse me. That was quite unfortunate for Al. My teetering decision to keep him alive or kill him and hope for the best toppled to the latter.
Al must have banked on his mismatched directions giving me pause because he took that moment to rocket across the remaining distance separating him from the doorway to my makeshift base of operations. I was ready. I activated a nanite lodged in my brain which, thus far, no one possessed save myself. Time slowed to a sluggish crawl. Al was leaning forward, bracing himself for the high speeds stressing his lower body. In the instant I slowed my perception, he wore a sickening grin, staring up at my window mere feet from the building’s doorway.
But his grin melted in slow motion when he beheld me. Unlike before, I refrained from trying to follow his movements with the barrel of my rifle. Instead, I posted it as an unmoving sentry covering the only entrance or exit to my alcove. Al’s body slowly crossed the trajectory of my aim even as my finger squeezed the trigger over the course of what seemed like minutes. His widening eyes betrayed the obvious fear of death all mortals shared even as the flash of light erupted in front of his face.
“Ohohoho shi–” Al tried to stop; his boots skidded through trails of water which he pushed up by the recoiling force of his unearthly speed. He crossed his clawed appendages in front of his face attempting to guard against the bullet that cracked from the maw of my firearm with a thunderous roar.
Like a knife through butter, the high caliber round shattered one of the claws in its trajectory and continued with a loud thud into the skull of the surprised crime lord. His body’s forward momentum continued even as the force of impact sent his upper torso arching back. After turning a back flip in a forward direction, Al landed face first into the rust scented mud and slid forward before squishing to a stop at the entrance to my building.
I reached into the ammunition satchel at my side and procured another bullet before shoving the busted window open; I leapt from the third floor landing with all the grace of a feline. Al’s body lay still at my feet with a swirled mix of blood and mud pouring from the chunk of his skull removed by the shot. It was unfortunate that I had grown to dislike the thug: unfortunate for him.
“New York was north, stupid asshole… Thanks for nothing,” I spat the words as I chambered an extra round before draping the rifle across my shoulder in preparation for the long trek back to the nearby settlement and my home of the past ten years, Junction City.
It felt as though several moments passed, but I distinctly remembered hearing the sound only seconds after I started my journey. It was a faint sound, the familiar whisper of water being shot in a lateral direction. I pivoted my head, but it was too late. With a grotesque sound of clothes ripping and flesh giving way to steel, I felt long cold extensions pierce my back and burrow their way through folds of flesh, muscle, and organs before erupting through the front of my abdomen. I was impaled from behind by a set of three claws, and the middle one was broken.
NANO Archive 01: The City of Fire is now available for purchase on Amazon! Read the first installment to this action-packed, four-part science fiction series today!