File 01: Ihlia
Rain fell in sheets against the lifeless landscape. Overhead, dark storm clouds rumbled like a growling beast toying with unwary prey. Each rain drop that splashed against the ground exacerbated the pungent odor of soil and rust. Decrepit houses and abandoned businesses lingered like society’s corpse; their shells were a testimony to the great human condition.
I lifted my rifle to my shoulder. My chest swelled and deflated in rhythmic pulses as I sank one knee onto the floor in front of a shattered window in an abandoned four-story building. The two floors beneath me had been difficult to scale thanks to a broken staircase, and the floor above me looked as though it might collapse if I breathed too heavy. The room was dark; without my nanites activated, I couldn’t even see the walls.
But what I wanted to see was not inside the building but outside in what remained of a run-down city, and the longer I hid within the darkness, the more it comforted me like a warm embrace. I turned my eyes to the streets outside the window. I focused my senses, and the nanite hub lodged in my temporal lobe buzzed to life; it enhanced my sight by several times that of a normal human’s. A cold mist rushed from my lips, and long strands of my obsidian hair fanned in the wind that whistled through the broken window.
The breeze carried the world’s decaying stench on it; it smelled like rusty blood growing mold. Out in the Dusk Territories, special care for aesthetic and olfactory senses didn’t rank among top priorities, and it was obvious. My scuffed, black leather trench coat groaned quietly as I stretched trained muscles into proper position and steadied my bolt-action rifle. I smoothed my left hand down the rifle’s belly to support it. Careful not to poke its muzzle out the window, I placed my finger against the trigger guard and stared down the barrel. My pupils dilated and contracted like a hawk’s, and I had long since trained to adjust my aim down the iron sights for long distance. I didn’t need a scope.
I assessed the wind speed and direction. I needed my target to approach within one mile to incapacitate him, and I waited for him to appear on the horizon with morbid anticipation. I intended to put him down, but I also needed him alive and talking if I hoped to find the world’s destroyer: Bradich Lesfort. According to my source, the target should have been arriving within ten minutes. I trusted my source, but if that old codger was mistaken…
I’ll smack him upside his bald head, I inwardly mused.
As I playfully pondered my old friend’s reaction to such a blow, three distant silhouettes appeared through the curtains of acid rain. With my superhuman vision, I identified my target. Al Narljecht was a twitchy, small-time gang leader for a bandit den in a place called Northwest Florida, a small territory sitting on the fringes of the world’s once great United States of America. Throughout history, America had remained one of the most powerful and hated military and political forces on the planet, but whatever caused the global scorn for the nation mattered little when it became ground zero for the Titan Crisis.
Technically, the Titan Crisis ended the world, but Bradich was the one who woke those monsters and blew away civilization. A single titan warhead made the old world’s entire nuclear arsenal seem like a string of firecrackers. Bradich unleashed them all. No one knew how he did it, though I suspected nanite technology. Bradich always kept ties with nanite black market cartels during our mercenary days. No one knew why he did it, not even I. As quickly as he blanketed the sun with a radioactive nanite cloud and wove Armageddon, he vanished.
Al Narljecht’s connections made him the perfect stepping stone on my hunt. His physique mocked the standard for even surviving in Dusk Territory, let alone becoming a crime lord. People incapable of benching five times their body weight in pilfered loot and unwilling damsels usually died pretty quick. What allowed Al to thrive in the wastelands was his vast information network.
Al knew as many contacts from the local settlements as he knew from the wastelands, and through those contacts he could easily exploit a city’s weak defenses and overstocked supplies. In essence, he knew where to hit, when to hit, and how to hit for the best risk to reward ratio; that knowledge attracted flocks of people to his feet willing to do his bidding for easy food, water, and entertainment. I was more attracted to the prospect of gathering vital information and stopping his vitals.
I stared at the other two men; given Al’s meek build, it didn’t surprise me that he brought protection. He hunched at an unimpressive five feet four inches, gaining an additional illusory six inches from the towering, neon green mohawk that evenly divided his otherwise bald head. Bright red makeup framed his sunken eyes like war paint, and his creamy complexion distinguished him from his dismal surroundings. Walking on either side of him, a pair of thugs with muscles bulging from a combination of rigorous exercise and strength implants stomped through sulfuric puddles.
With steady hands, I lifted my rifle’s tip and quickly trained the iron sights on the first brute’s forehead. A hush fell over my surroundings like the stifled moment in a crowd just before a grand orchestra roars to life, and 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. With a click in my brain, I activated a nanite no one else in the world possessed.
My perception of time slowed; I distinctly felt my breasts expand beneath my tattered black shirt when I inhaled. A single drop of water exploded into translucent shards against the bridge of the bodyguard’s nose. I hissed white fog. At the trough of my exhale, I became still and squeezed the trigger. The end of my rifle released a crack, and my perception of time returned to normal.
The bullet streaked through the rain like an opening crescendo. After traveling nearly a mile, it split the target’s head. It became an exploding crimson fruit against the dark sky. The bodyguard’s lifeless husk collapsed to the ground much to the confused jerks of Al and his remaining companion. Al’s instincts took control of him, and he leapt behind his surviving bodyguard.
Still staring at his comrade’s colorful headache, the second bodyguard thought nothing of his leader’s strange maneuver. I wasted no time on the encore. I inhaled deeply, tugged the bolt-action lever on my rifle, and replaced the ejected shell with a fresh, custom bullet before shifting my sights to the second hulk. The round’s caliber was high enough to slice through the man like paper and find its home in Al, so I paid little attention to the dumbfounded behemoth and set my sights on his boss behind him. I fired again, and the second goon’s stomach exploded in blood. After the bodyguard dropped to his knees clutching his gut, I expected Al to crumple to the ground behind him with a bullet lodged in his chest, but to my extreme disappointment, there was only a street puddle rippling as the bodyguard’s blood flowed into it. I chambered another round and put the second bodyguard out of his misery with a bullet between his eyes.
“Damned midget…” I cursed under my breath as I reloaded and fired a second shot to the bodyguard’s head to ensure his demise.
I scanned the streets and spotted a pair of metallic claws and a bulbous nose poking from behind a granite slab that was probably a building’s wall, once. Al’s weapon of choice was a pair of gauntlets that sported three jagged, toothy spikes jutting from the backs of the hands. I encountered many advanced and experimental firearms in the wastelands, but they were hardly common after the Titan Crisis. It wasn’t rare for a person to carry melee weapons; I was no stranger to such a practice, myself. I glanced down at the belt looped around my black, camouflaged cargo pants. On either side of my slender hips rested a pair of long daggers I was well trained to use. I certainly understood having a contingency, but dumping my rifle in favor of an exclusive relationship with my blades was out of the question.
The water at Al’s feet suddenly exploded in all directions, and a blur zipped across the street. My inability to track his movements shocked me; he moved across the concrete in my direction with jets of water shooting up on both of his sides like an old world jet ski slicing through the ocean. Whether by luck or design, he shot behind another broken wall just as I aimed at the center of his forehead. A tiny pang of concern grew in me; the distance he crossed during that brief moment I took my eyes off him was unbelievable. He’d traveled at least an eighth of a mile in that instant, and that meant I lost an eighth of a mile of my advantage.
I cursed under my breath again. Only a nanite could explain Al’s quick jolt of leg power. As the world developed and evolved nanite technology, new and creative implants had hit the markets, legal and underground alike, almost every month. From nanites prolonging life span to ones offering psychokinetics, a variety of superhuman capabilities became as common as the cure for cancer, but those capabilities often came at a terrible price.
Al’s figure twisted from behind the stone ruin, and his legs flexed beneath him. In that infinitesimal moment, I saw a pair of black rings spiraling around his pupils with my enhanced vision. He possessed two rings, and that meant at least five implants. It varied from person to person, but as a general rule of thumb, three implants was the limit before the nanites began overriding the host. Anyone brave enough to socket more than three nanites was just asking for hyperaugmentation, and it looked like Al had begged for it.
For every implant that exceeded an individual’s threshold, another black ring spiraled about the pupil of the eyes indicating that individual’s hyperaugmentation severity. The more rings in the eye, the sicker the individual. Eventually, the eyes filled with black and anything resembling a human gave way to a crazed, berserk killer: a hyped. Normally, one ring brought with it the occasional headache or trouble sleeping. One ring was also the point most surgeons denied any further implants to an individual. Thugs inhabiting Dusk Territory, however, never accepted “no” for an answer. They cared even less for phrases such as, “It’s for your own good!” In fairness, surgeons preferring a ruthless life in the wastelands rarely feigned concern for the health and well-being of others.
The infinitesimal moment passed, and before my finger began applying pressure to the trigger, Al rocketed across the landscape like an electric current. Frantically, I attempted to track his movements. In my desperation, I fired a shot which I only half-expected to find its mark, yet I was still frustrated when it ricocheted off the gravel with a metallic whine. The obstacles littering the former city proved too difficult a handicap when combined with Al’s speed, but he was only moving in short bursts. Why?
I squinted at Al’s hiding place; when he prepared to dash again, he shifted his leg just enough for me to see it. It trembled beneath his weight, and it stood to reason that his nanite shredded the muscles in his legs each time he activated it. He used cover to give his Panacea implant time to repair them. Everyone possessed Panacea. In addition to rapidly healing wounds and serving as a virtual cure-all for every disease known to mankind, it was the only way to survive the constant radiation from the fallout cloud. Anyone without that implant had died a long time ago.
My brain went into overdrive. After several well-timed dashes, Al rested behind a moss-covered rock a little over a quarter mile from my nest. My palms were covered in sweat despite the cold, and the musty odor in the room invaded my nostrils the way the fear my nest would become my tomb invaded my thoughts. I urged my adrenaline levels to recede long enough for me to calm myself. At most, it would take Al three more dashes to reach my nest. I originally wanted to incapacitate him in order to extract more accurate information, but my chances of keeping him alive long enough to speak with him dwindled.
“Al, I had no idea you were so badly hyped. You seem to have it relatively together for someone who’s supposed to have lost his mind by now,” I shouted.
Attempting to hide my exact position at this point was meaningless. With every shot and each passing second, Al’s keen, augmented, crazy mind worked to evaluate my exact location. He likely already knew it. It wasn’t rocket science, and in all likelihood, he possessed a rocket scientist’s intelligence.
“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 was a twisted, bird-like screech. In fact, the irony only struck me as to how closely the man resembled a vulture after I heard his voice.
“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 brains 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? Mine precedes me; it’s not very fair to not know the name of my… hehe… killer,” Al said in a voice that cracked worse than the pavement. Despite his speed and intelligence, it seemed his composure could scarcely keep pace.
“Ihlia Lorando. Now, where’s Bradich?”
“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 a joke only he understood.
“If I find him, he’s the one that’ll be in a bag. Mark my words,” I said. I trained my sights on the area closest to Al’s position in case he decided to bolt.
“Hm, consider them marked! You want to kill him? Hah! Well, 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 the old world. Ohohoho! Come now, you don’t need to seek Harbinger to kill you, I’ll take care of that for you right here and now!” No sooner had the words squawked from Al’s mouth than he made another dash to a new cover closer to my nest. 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.”
“Don’t know, but I know someone who might. West of here, used to be called New York or something. Ahahaha!”
Al must have hoped that his odd directions might confuse me the same way I had attempted to keep him talking, because he took that moment to sprint across the remaining distance separating him from the doorway to my makeshift base of operations, but I was ready. I activated my nanite, and my perception of time slowed once more.
Al was leaning forward, bracing himself for his high speeds. In the moment I activated my nanite, he wore a sickening grin and stared up at my window mere feet from the building’s doorway. His grin melted in slow motion when his eyes met mine. I had already learned I couldn’t track his movements, so I didn’t try. Instead, I posted my rifle as an unmoving sentry covering the only entrance or exit to my building. His body slowly crossed the trajectory of my aim as my finger squeezed the trigger; minutes passed in my mind. Al’s widened eyes betrayed the fear of death in them, and my rifle’s tip erupted in a flash of light.
“Ohohoho shi—” Al tried to stop; his boots skidded through puddles of water. He crossed his claws in front of his face to guard against my rifle’s bullet, but it changed nothing. Like a knife through butter, the high caliber round shattered Al’s middle claw and continued with a loud crack into his skull. After turning a back flip, Al landed face-first in the rusty mud and slid forward several feet. He stopped in a mound of mud in front of the doorway; I deactivated my nanite.
I reached into the ammunition satchel at my side and procured another bullet then leapt from the broken window. I landed with feline grace on the ground. Al’s body lay still at my feet with a swirled mix of blood and mud pooling around his face. Unfortunately, I had grown to dislike him… unfortunate for him.
“New York was north, stupid asshole… Thanks for nothing,” I spat.
I chambered an extra round before draping my rifle across my shoulder in preparation for the long trek back to Junction City. It felt as though several moments passed, but I heard a sound only seconds after I started walking. It was faint, the familiar whisper of water being sloshed. I turned my head, but it was too late. With a grotesque sound of clothes ripping and flesh giving way, cold steel pierced my back and erupted through the front of my abdomen. A set of three claws impaled me from behind, and the middle one was broken.
NANO Archive 01: The City of Fire is now available on Amazon! Read the first installment to this action-packed, four-part science fiction series today!