Upon graduation, Super-soldier Jon 310-257 is ready to fight for his home. The city-state-fortress is a shining beacon of hope for all the survivors of the human race, keeping them safe from the swirling forces of chaos outside its walls. And Jon is ready to defend his home at all costs.
But a shadow creeps nearer, obscuring a dark secret, a secret that Jon never expected. And when a sworn enemy makes contact, everything he knows is turned upside down. Now, it's up to Jon to discover what it truly means to be a hero.
Does he have the strength and courage to become what he was destined to be? To become Humanity's last hope?
The old man and the boy moved silently along the narrow alley in the Shanty. Their hoods cast their faces in shadows even darker than those that lay over the slum, making it impossible for strangers to see their downcast and suspicious eyes. Their feet sloshed through the day's snow, now melted into a runoff that mingled its streams with the omnipresent filth; overflowing open-air sewers, trash middens, and other spilled fluids: oil leaks, petrol, occasionally blood. The Shanty was not exactly a safe haven, though to the multitude of refugees that staked their tents there, it was a far cry safer than the chaotic wilderness of the Rough—an untamed land, plagued by Invaders from beyond.
Lazarus shivered against the frigid air. Holiday always brought with it a cold snap, blowing down from the mute and jagged peaks of the Western Range, assaulting all of Home with snow, biting winds, and granite skies. But tonight seemed colder than usual to Lazarus, for he was on his way to meet someone. Someone who claimed to have what he, and all the Resistance, were looking for.
Musing on the implications made him shiver harder.
"Lazarus!" the boy called out in a hushed tone while grabbing the old man by his elbow, "Hoppers!" The boy pointed to a pair of men encased in flying armored suits that passed by overhead, appearing in the dimly lit space between two of the Shanty's haphazard structures, then disappearing again, leaving behind only the distinctive whisper-roar of their propulsion systems.
"And what of it, boy?" Lazarus hissed back, jerking his elbow free from the kid's grip. "They have no cause to be alerted to our doings unless you give them one! Now tighten up!" The boy was paranoid, of course, but having spoken his fears and doubts aloud, it was as if by some magic he had manifested them into reality. Now Lazarus felt the wintry kiss of paranoia creep over his skin like a lover's caress, mixing with and adding to the Holiday chill that already resided there. He watched the strip of dark gray sky, framed in by the black silhouettes of the buildings, waiting to see if the Hoppers would return. His ears strained behind the thin cotton hood of his ancient garment, listening to the fading sound of the flying power armor engines. Satisfied that the military patrol had not determined them a threat, he urged his young companion to continue.
"Come along, Andrew."
A short time later, Lazarus and Andrew exited the alley and came to one of the Shanty's many plazas: a meeting of roads, an open border space between the otherwise tightly packed neighborhoods that had sprung up organically. For the Shanty was no intentional city, but an eighty-year-old refugee camp, slowly built up into a town of sorts, by wave after wave of people, human and otherwise, who had come to Home, seeking refuge behind the walls of the Ziggurat, only to be turned away at the gates. Rejected, but savoring still the relative safety that came with living in the shadow of the city-state-fortress that was the Ziggurat, the displaced masses had grown roots.
In the open now, they could see the blinking lights here and there on the surface of the mountain-like, pyramid-shaped fortress that towered over the Shanty. Even in the dark of night, the Ziggurat was clearly visible as a myriad of lights, some electric, some wood fire, cast their glow on the sloped walls of the massive enclosed city. They could hear the coming and going of engines above them: the flying units, the Hoppers, entering and exiting the top levels of the Zigg through gargantuan hangar bays that opened and closed by unseen hands, as well as the more conventional traffic that made its arterial way from the fortress to the Near Rough and back again by the four massive highways that spanned over the Shanty. Sky-bridges, lofty as low clouds, passed entirely over the slum and didn't touch earth again until well past the Shanty's outer edges.
"Are we going to the Breaks?" asked Andrew, looking in the direction of one of the plaza's streets.
"No, to the Warrens," Lazarus answered and stroked his salt-and-pepper beard.
With his mind now poisoned by dark doubt, Lazarus wanted nothing more than for this midnight rendezvous to be over. He gestured to his young companion and together they hurried across the open bled of the plaza, passing hungry beggars sleeping on the cold, wet floor on whatever high ground they could find—one atop a pile of wooden crates, topped with flattened and soggy cardboard, another perched delicately on a narrow retaining wall, its original purpose long forgotten. A derelict truck, missing most of its components, now nothing more than a skeletal hulk, lay at the center of the plaza, like a morbid park fountain or raised garden bed. The truck was of a pre-Storm variety, but as large as any modern Republic transport. Its resting place was what no doubt caused the break in the flow of the three surrounding neighborhoods and therefore created the "plaza."
The remains of the old truck had been built upon and turned into a dwelling; the front half, the cab, was some kind of shop, a wooden placard hanging from the rusty bar that once housed the side view mirror. The sign was written in the common tongue, a Creole blend of pre-Storm English and Spanish. It read "Knives sharpened here." The back half of the truck looked to be originally for cargo. Its tires long removed, the trailer—for that was what it was—now rested on piles of crumbling stones and cinder-blocks. Crude windows had been cut out, and Lazarus could see behind moth-eaten curtains of pale blue cloth the soft flickering glow of an oil lamp. As they passed the wretched yet creative home, Lazarus felt eyes fall upon him. Or is it the paranoia again? Glancing up at the trailer, he saw one of the curtains had been pulled back. A human child, its muddy face crowned with blisters and sores, stared at him. Unable to tell the child's sex due to its tender age and the long, semi-dread-locked blond hair that fell about, Lazarus called out, "Good evening, child."
"Mnghh!" The child moaned back a toothless cry in such a way as to lead Lazarus to believe it deaf or dumb, or perhaps both. A second later, the child, still making its disturbing sounds, was pulled away and replaced in the window by a burly man. A pair of walrus-like tusks grew out from his bottom teeth, drawing all attention away from his tank-top-clad potbelly and
mostly bald head. The man, clearly an Invasive of some kind, pumped a shotgun that he held in his hands, a shotgun that Lazarus hadn't noticed at first. Andrew started, but the older and more streetwise Lazarus calmed him with a gesture. Then, nodding to the tusked man in the window: "Gentle evenings and warm mornings."
"Harrumph," the man grunted back, watching them intently as they walked off. When they reached the other side of the plaza, Andrew asked, "Why was he so hostile? Do you think he is a State informer?"
"Not everyone is aware that we are Resistance, boy. Only you are. And that knowledge is warping your seeing of this. Get it out of your head! You are making me jumpy. No. That man, his child, everyone here in the Shanty is as paranoid as you, it would seem. But for different reasons. These communities have come to trust only themselves. They are suspicious of outsiders, and rightfully so. Strangers bring trouble. Invasive or Unpure, strangers bring the Scrubbers."
Andrew's freckled face paled more than usual at the mention of Scrubbers. Few things brought greater terror to the denizens of the Shanty. The Harvesters were one of those things, but the Harvesters were out there, in the Far Rough, beyond the military outposts and farms of the Near Rough, far from Home. In contrast, the Scrubbers were right here, patrolling the very streets and pathways they walked.
They left the plaza and entered another darkened alley, weaving in silence through and among the crude domiciles of the Warrens, many constructed from spare parts; old, creosote-soaked logs cut from ancient utility poles, sheet metal, cargo canisters, bricks, and anything else that could support a roof and keep the rains and snows off the heads of the dispossessed. At last, they came to their destination,
"Here. This is the place where we will meet him," Lazarus whispered, grasping Andrew's arm to stop him from walking on.
"Here?" the boy asked incredulously.
"Yes. I know it's a rowdy place, but the Scrubbers don't come 'round here. Makes it safe. Guess the State prefers to let the hooligans kill each other off. Do their dirty work for 'em."
Rising from the street before the pair, causing the path they walked on to fork, much like a boulder or an islet in a river, stood The Hammered Wombat, the Shanty's first and most infamous drinking hall. From the outside, the building didn't look like much; a claptrap, multi-story patchwork building at best. It had been added to a piece at a time as it grew in patronage, the result being a modular, jury-rigged appearance. The tavern didn't stand out, however, for it looked much like everything else. Nearly every standing structure in the Shanty had been cobbled together by whatever materials had been at hand, leftovers of the previous civilization. The tavern was just another sad building in a sad world, built from the bones of the dead.
The inside of the building didn't look like much either. The floors were dirty, earthen, and compressed by foot and claw over nearly a hundred years, making them as hard as rock. Tables stood here and there, that, like the building that housed them, hearkened back to any number of seemingly random origins: this one a repurposed sheet of metal from an old machine, that one a former office desk, here and there actual tables from a variety of pre-Storm restaurants. Not a thing or color matched in the entire place, including the customers.
As they entered, Lazarus felt the eyes, some human, some not, scan them with a fleeting suspicion, only to drift away as he and Andrew were judged as just another pair of thirsty mouths in search of the Wombat's potent hooch. The interior walls had been framed in with actual wood, a rare aesthetic that betrayed both the establishment's age and popularity. Another luxury, electric lights and a small smattering of pre-Storm neon advert signs, hung on the walls. The assortment of pale, glowing colors reflecting off the myriad surfaces of the different styles of tables added to the bizarre tableau. The air was pungent and humid, a blend of vile aromatics: sweat, piss, vomit, and the unmistakable rocket-fuel fumes of the Wombat's signature brew.
Seeing Belsen, the current owner-operator of the landmark establishment, take note of them, Lazarus ushered Andrew to follow him as they made their way to the bar.
"It's best that we at least order a drink, so as not to look conspicuous. But nurse it, Andrew. Nurse it. We need to keep our wits about us. The stakes are too high."
Lazarus played it cool as he approached Belsen, trying to ignore Andrew's nervous glances at some of the more brooding imbibers. Bar fights and murders were not uncommon, but acting like you didn't belong, acting the way Andrew was, only invited the predators to prey.
Belsen grinned broadly as Lazarus reached him. Lazarus did not return the smile but nodded politely.
"Laz, ol' buddy. Haven't seen you in a long time." Belsen extended his meaty paw of a hand. Lazarus noticed that the man's arms, as thick as his legs, hadn't shrunk any since he had quit working in the forges and acquired the watering hole. "What brings you in? And who's this?" He turned his smile to the nervous Andrew.
"Meeting someone," Lazarus whispered and shot a furtive glance over his shoulder, Andrew's paranoia having wormed its way deep into his mind. "Says he found what she is looking for."
"Right on—wait." Belsen's wide grin fell flat. "She, she?"
"Oh..." Belsen drifted into a dream-like trance and then violently shook his head. "Well, then. Drinks on the house." Belsen turned away and returned a moment later with two drinks. The cups matched in shape, size, and material no more than the tables in the place did. Doesn't matter, thought Lazarus. That's just what we do here in the Shanty. We make do. Lazarus thanked his old friend and then, doing his best to stem the stream of overflowing nerves coming from Andrew, he sipped his white lightning in silence over the next few minutes.
Not speaking, either to Andrew or Belsen, Lazarus was able to glean bits of conversation from the nearby tables.
"Did you hear about the Glass Forest?" one man, a big, burly, overweight one with a thick black beard, asked his companion, a smaller man, who, for reasons unbeknownst to Lazarus, wore what looked like a full-face gas mask at all times. Probably an Invasive and can't breathe our atmosphere. Or maybe he got too close to a Drop, and it fucked him up somehow.
"What about it?" the gas-masked man replied.
"My bud in the military says the Heavies are amassing near the old city. Rumors of Harvesters in the area," the man said and stroked his beard, apparently satisfied with his gossip.
"That far north? I don't believe it," Gas-Mask hissed back.
I'm with you there, Lazarus thought to himself. Harvesters, the only known organized Invasive to step out of a Drop, while extremely dangerous, hadn't been seen this far north for over twenty years. The early reclamation campaigns that had made Accoba Warbak the adored leader of the Republic had seen to that. Adored by those who were fortunate enough to live in the Zigg, or dumb enough to believe the Ministry of Social Purity's story, or those just plain lucky enough to be considered pure by said Ministry.
Lazarus turned his ear away from the bearded man and his masked companion and considered Andrew. The lad's pale and freckled cheeks were already flushed from the Wombat hooch. Besides that, the kid's eyes continuously shifted about over the rim of his mason jar, making him look very much like a fish out of water.
Thank the Lady we weren't stopped on the way here. Lazarus slurped another sip from the heady brew. Then again, it occurred to him; there are folk in here that would skin us alive, just to see what we might be hiding.
Lazarus took another small sip and let his eyes scan the room, his veteran ears straining to pick up other tidbits of local gossip.
"Them new super-soldiers graduate soon," he heard from one table, where a group of Eastland merchants sat.
"Oh yeah?" another asked.
"Yeah. About the same time as those new towers are gonna be done."
"Obelisks," corrected another.
"They aren't towers; they're obelisks."
"L-L...Laz-" Andrew stuttered. A second later, Lazarus felt room-temperature wetness spread across the top of his thigh.
"What in blazes?" Lazarus jerked to attention and saw that the kid had knocked his drink over. Before Lazarus could scold the boy or ask what was going on, his brow was darkened by the shadow of a stranger, approaching him far too closely to just be ordering from the bar.
"Are you Lazarus?" the stranger asked, stopping his approach mere feet from Lazarus and Andrew. Looking up, it was all Lazarus could do not to start at the sight of the man. The stranger stood a good half-meter taller than him, though nearly a half-meter thinner. He wore a mechanic's jumper, the same gray coveralls used by those lucky enough to get a job working in the lower levels of the Ziggurat. The tall man was so skinny that his jumper hung off him like a boat's sail on a windless day, hiding his assuredly bony frame. And while he was tall, the man's head was bald and looked to be about two sizes too small for his already skinny body. His eyes were too close together as well, which only emphasized his much too small skull, but what was most striking about the stranger was his powdery white skin and pink eyes. The man was an albino.
Recovering quickly from his mild shock at the man's unusual appearance, a skill one acquired when forced to live side by side with the alien Invasives, Lazarus confirmed that he was, in fact, Lazarus.
"And are you? Are you the… the contact?" Lazarus stammered, the tide of his nerves rising once more.
"I am indeed." The pale man with the shrunken head nodded and gave a near toothless smile that made Lazarus's skin crawl. "My friends call me Reuben."
"Reuben it is," Lazarus managed. Though I wonder if I can call you friend. Lazarus tried not to narrow his eyes in suspicion as he offered the man his hand. He succeeded, or at least he hoped he did, in maintaining a good poker face, though his mind raced with the same worry that was behind young Andrew's darting eyes. Lazarus knew, or at least knew of, practically everyone in the Underground Resistance. He had never heard of this Reuben before. So just how did this Reuben know of him? Even more disconcerting, how did this albino stranger know of what she sought? Know of the Good Work?
"You have made some tall claims," Lazarus said. "I hope you plan to back them up. We are busy men."
"Men? I would say this one is more of a boy." Reuben showed his rotten-toothed grin again, this time looking at Andrew, who practically shivered in revulsion.
"Andrew here has seen more in his few days than most before the Storm saw in a lifetime," Lazarus countered.
"Hmm." Reuben nodded. "Yes, I believe that to be true." Then, turning back to Lazarus, he said, "Of course I plan on proving what I claim. You have the payment?" The albino cocked his bald, conical head to one side and peered with amusement at Lazarus with his beady pink eyes.
"Of course. But not in here." Lazarus glanced around at the scowling and armed patrons. "The Hammered Wombat is not the safest place in the Shanty for such transactions. Besides, I want to see her first."
"Fair enough. But you'd better not try anything funny. I have friends in low places," the albino warned. "Come then, let's go."
"Go where?" Andrew asked so quickly, his question sounded like the gulp of a drowning man.
"To my private dwelling, of course. You didn't actually think I would bring the girl here, did you? To a place like this?"
Now Andrew did gulp, and his face paled almost enough to match the stranger's. Lazarus stepped in front of the boy, sheltering him from Reuben's countenance.
"Lead the way. We want this business over and done before dawn breaks."