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Frontier Earth: Bandicoots of War
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Askhati
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PostPosted: Sun Jul 09, 2006 7:13 pm    Post subject: Frontier Earth: Bandicoots of War Reply with quote

Something I wrote about two years ago, thought I'd share some (since ol' Kyler Adams seems to doubt my writing ability).

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It is the year 2215, eighteen years after the end of the War of Old Earth. Humanity has abandoned Mother Earth, leaving her with the filth, pollution and corruption of more than two millennia of human activity, receding into the darkness of orbit and even deep space to plot their course on new worlds. The Moon, previously considered off-limits to all by various charters, was Earth’s largest surviving settlement of pure humans, most being from the rich politicians and businessmen who had fled Old Earth when Death had come with handfuls of glowing radiation and bio-weapons, scattering them over the nations of the world with a twisted, smoking smile of discord and chaos. Those who could afford life away from Earth, had left. Those who couldn’t leave – or had no desire to – became the lawless sentinels of a wasteland that stretched from continent to continent, surviving on the synthetic foods and medicines that were occasionally sent from a government that ruled the Earth from gargantuan orbital space-stations. Others reverted to their more basic human desires, fighting and killing for that which they could not have by law – a law reinforced by no justice, and left only as a grim memory of the past.

Code:

   “They’re late.” Antek glanced up from his wrist console, scanning the sky towards the west. A tall, well-built youth of approximately twenty-three years of age, he lounged against his hover-bike with ankles crossed and a small synth-cigarette dangling from the one corner of his mouth, the smoke drifting up in lazy curls that spiraled backwards over his face, tumbling through his unkempt hair in small streamlets as the smoke got caught up in the wind. From where he stood, his view stretched over several miles of desolate landscape, the ruins of a great pre-War city smoldering amongst the distant lines that formed the horizon.
   Unfolding his arms and pushing away from his hover-bike, he strode down the hillside to where the other members of their gang were camped out under the derelict awnings of an old factory. The signal transponders from the factory’s old control center had long ceased to transmit, but signposts along the way had identified the site as the property of Holtz & Co., The Leading Manufacturers of Synthetic Furniture, a company that had long since disappeared into the ravages of time. Its owners had evidently been some of the lucky few that had managed to escape from Old Earth, even as their old prospects had succumbed to the cruel touch of decay and neglect. Their products were still on display, but now attracted no visitors and none of their shares or stocks had been sold on Earth for almost twenty years. It currently served as the meeting place for many of the more friendly inclined gangs, although the scarred tarmac bore silent witness to the numerous deals that had gone wrong there and had ended with an exchange of fire instead of goods. Near the gate that led to the old, unused tar road that led to the distant conglomerate of ruins that once prided itself as a city, were three grave-markers. Crudely fashioned from spars of metal and plastic that had been salvaged from the surrounding terrain, the crosses stood out against the blistering heat as three tiny beacons of both despair and hope. Antek had himself erected two of those crosses – one for his older brother, Gheran, who had been lost amongst the ruins of the distant city, the other for a life-long friend and brother-like figure, Mu’tha. Mu’tha had been the living evidence that radiation, no matter how weak, could still be dangerous – he had been a mutant.
   The events of the past two years finished their loop through Antek’s mind as he reached the base of the hill, his boots beginning a stomping rhythm as he crunched his way over the light carpet of debris that cloaked the tarmac. The glare of the sun was a constant, unmoving light that burnt down with ferocious force, the thinning atmosphere from centuries of pollution not giving much resistance. A hand reached up, moved into the inner pocket of his leather jacket, withdrew a set of black sunglasses.  A brushing motion left them wrapped around his eyes from ear to ear, reframing his world into a dark shade of blackish-brown. A sequence of strokes on his wrist console activated the built-in speakers in the sunglasses, the heavy, pulsing beat of Desolation FM thundered out into the upper channels of his ears. Run by a mad group of metalheads from down south, Desolation FM was broadcasted day and night, interrupted only when the station had to be moved to another location after a skirmish with the police from ‘above’ for illegal broadcasting. The vocalist of the particular band  - they weren’t even announced, the jock just kept the tracks spinning – was screaming about “…those space-ass fuckers from up above, ripping our asses ‘till they get enough…” his frustrations and anger at the ‘orbitals’ (as they were called from Earth) evident.
   In the shaded light of his glasses, Antek’s world seemed an even darker place, the threatening storm clouds from the north gaining an extra shade of darkness, while the sun was reduced to a dull flare over his left eyebrow. He reached the small triad of crosses and stopped. A small drop of perspiration trickled down his brow, leaving a trail of shiny moisture behind that dried almost immediately, the rolling drop flicked away over the top of the one cross with a finger. His leather pants creaked as he bent down on one knee, one hand trailing over the weeds that had sprouted over the grave. He wiped at them with his hand, crushing the fragile stems with a gloved hand that left shallow grooves in the poor soil, the sickly stench from the crushed stalks rising to fill his nostrils with the pungent aroma of sap. His brother’s grave was symbolic, after all – his body had never been recovered from the city. A duel between Gheran and a rivaling gang leader had led him into the depths of the ruined city on a hover-bike chase that had started on this very hill, and had ended in an inferno of flames that had scorched the sky and denounced the light for several days as the city had burned anew. Only one body was found after the blaze – the other gang had taken it and left for the north, leaving the desperate Antek and the rest of the Bandicoots to search in vain for Gheran’s body. A heap of molten slag in an underground parking-lot later turned out to be Gheran’s hover-bike, but no other clues were ever found – Antek had neatly removed the one handlebar that hadn’t been destroyed with a small laser hacksaw, and had kept the short roll of piping with him ever since. It had doubled as a crude knuckle-duster on several occasions, each blow rendered leaving Antek with the thought that one day, he would be able to lay down that piece of piping, leave all these fights over turf behind, start anew.
   His thoughts burned in endless circles – a conversation with someone, a place once visited and never forgotten, words spoken… A shadow moved over the crosses, reached down, materialized into the feminine shape of his girlfriend, Nikita.
   “You really miss him, don’t you?” She asked from where she crouched at the end of the row of crosses, her eyes fixed intently on the side of this face. A button depressed, releasing Desolation FM’s beat back into the silent void that ran from transmitter to receiver. She moved closer, reaching up and turning his face towards her. Delicate fingers pried the sunglasses away from his face, folded them back, hung them neatly over the cross-spar of the cross that marked Gheran’s grave. Antek’s eyes stared out from beneath a damp swathe of hair, the synth-cigarette in the corner of his mouth long dead, the one end a clot of ashes, the other a thin, crushed piece of tubing. Her hands swept over his face, pushing his hair back into spikes of perspiration, closing his eyes momentarily. When his eyes opened again, they were back in focus, the gaze of the past gone from their darkly blue centers.
   “Yes, I do.” He paused, holding her hands in his own gloved ones, looking at the black nail polish that covered the tip of each finger, wondering how much time she spent on applying all the things that turned her into the lovely creature that now crouched next to him.
    “But life goes on, doesn’t it? I still have you.” A smile creased his face, mirrored instantly on Nikita’s face. She rose, tugging him upwards with her.
   “Yes, and now you have to deal with the others – they’ve arrived.” A quick glance in the direction of her outstretched arm focused his gaze on the distant cloud of dust that moved in from the west, trailing the old highway as it twisted towards the factory. Amidst the technological decay of Old Earth, hover technology was dominant, although the occasional groundcar still managed to resurface under gangster control, their greater armor and endurance a benefit in a wasteland where fuel was the main – and only - trading currency.
   Taking the sunglasses and with an arm over Nikita’s shoulder, Antek turned away from the crosses, leaving the memories and scars of the past behind, forgotten like the flattened weed. Their footsteps crunched another, doubled beat back to the other gang members, their shadows disappearing into the oily blackness of the awnings’ shade as they reached the entrance to factory where the other hover-bikes where parked.

* * * * *

   “Interesting piece this time,” Antek studied the screen a moment longer, looked up, frowned at his contact across the table. Like himself, the man was dressed in a leather jumpsuit, had closely cropped black hair, and surveyed the world through a set of black sunglasses. Unlike himself, the man opposite was still armed – the sense of trouble that pervaded the meeting thickened, clotting in the corners of Antek’s mind like the dust that framed the window above the man’s head. In the distance, a loose piece of plating rattled free, skipped and tumbled across the tarmac like a stricken bird, passed from view as it reached the grass.
From his seat at the table that was set up in the middle of the empty factory, Antek followed the spinning plate, hearing each bang and thump, looked back.
   “Interesting, yes, but it is not your business to be inquisitive – you are being well paid for that,” the man spoke, flashing a smile that showed brilliant white teeth, some sharpened to create a smile that reminded Antek more of some sadistic dog than a human. He was known as Hendrick Belahn, from a continent once called Europe, somewhere between an ocean and another place called Asia. His hand extended, tapped the stack of cells that lay to his left. “Too well, in fact…”
  “Yes, but we’re the ones who’re going in, not you. We’re the ones who’re gonna run the risk, not you. We’re the ones who’re gonna have to drag this…” Antek’s hand smashed down besides the screen, sending ripples through the hologram as it spun in gentle circles above the surface of the table, “…piece of shit back here, so don’t tell me it’s on a need to know basis – I’m doing the dirty work, so I need to know.”
   A deathly calm descended over the factory, the raging wind dropping unexpectedly to send echoes through the building, the silence tautening, stretching, breaking at the hand of a dry cough as Hendrick sat forwards. Two bony hands reached out, twisted back, pulled off a set of sunglasses. Across the table, Antek stared back, unmoved. Hendrick had no eyes – from the cavities of his eye sockets, two softly glowing orbs of luminous red gazed out of a bed of finely imbedded wires, his eyelids whispering softly as the cybernetic eyes shifted from position, swiveled from gangster to gangster, settled back on Antek.
   “My arrogance once cost me dearly, Bandicoot,” Hendrick’s voice hissed vehemently as he leaned over the hologram, bending closer until his face was mere inches from Antek’s immovable visage, “ And I am sure you would not like a repetition of my reward. I was lucky to have loyal friends, friends who could afford to send me to Lunar City to have my eyes replaced – I doubt if you could afford, or even pay back such a debt. I found a new employer, paid back that which my friends hadn’t been able to cover, and finished my term seven months ago.” There was a brief pause as Hendrick studied Antek’s face, the red globes swiveling like the head of a hungry carrion bird, his gaze continuing its travel even as he began to speak again. “I’m now one of the most powerful men on Frontier Earth, Bandicoot, but I still have my loyalties.” Another pause - this time his eyes locked in Antek’s own before he continued. “You are not the only person our syndicate knows of that can perform the task at hand, but you are the best – I can therefore advise co-operation, for you are not irreplaceable.”
Hendrick leaned back and picked up his sunglasses, shook the fine film of dust off, tucked them back around his eyes. With deft hands, he closed his electronic notebook, slipped it back into its protective covering, handed it to a man behind him. He sat back for a moment, undoubtedly studying Antek, then leant forwards again.
   “The item you are going after is part of a modular computer designed in the final days of the War. It was used to guide ground-based weaponry against incoming threats from orbit – things like nukes, A-bombs, bio-pods, regular stuff. We,” and his one hand pointed at the badge on his shoulder, “are in need of this specific component. It’s fragile and unshielded, so keep it away from anything ionized.” A pause as Hendrick sat back, folded his arms. “Enough for your ‘need to know’ basis, Bandicoot?”
   Antek studied the hologram for the last time, stood up, pulled the chip from the holo-projector with a soft snap and dropped it in one of his pockets. Hendrick mirrored his motions, picking up the holo-projector, passing it to another of the waiting men.
   “Then our businesses are concluded, yes?” A slight nod from Antek seemed to satisfy Hendrick. Turning from the table with a spin of his heel, the syndicate man walked for the doors, signaling his guards into position as they marched across the tarmac to where their vehicles were parked. Antek trailed behind, yet another synth-cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The tip of the cigarette glowed brightly for a moment, and the tangy, synthetic taste of tobacco that wasn’t quite tobacco surged down his throat, revitalizing him from the drag of the meeting, spurning him onwards. The last of the syndicates were getting ready to leave, the engines of Hendrick’s groundcar whistling a fine tune on the old hydrogen-powered mechanics they evidently used, the hover-bikes of the patrol growling with a more distinct rumble. His boots crunched to a standstill, left his shadow anchored to the ground as it stretched back to the factory, his hands casually hooked into his belt, his handgun riding low on his right thigh. In the vehicles side, a window rolled down, Hendrick’s face turning to face the young Bandicoot leader.
   “I take it we still deliver to the same place?” The question hung between the two men on thin threads of smoke, dissipating as Hendrick passed out a small scrap of paper to Antek’s waiting hand. A smile flashed, and Hendrick Belahn was gone, the thunder of revving hover-bikes closing off Antek’s world as the convoy turned and left, following the same road they had come by, Hendrick’s groundcar kicking a new path through the dust scattered over the highway as it twisted back west.

* * * * *

   Antek watched the face on the other side of the glass, saw the way the eyelids strained, how the mouth creased its way around a synth-cigarette, the bluish stains of stamina-enhancing drugs showing at the temples, the hair wild and disheveled. A button clicked and another image replaced the previous one – the same face appeared, but with no cigarette, paler stains, eyes that were more aware. He thumbed the button again and the image folded in on itself, left a black screen for a moment, returned to show his own face. A mimicry of his face turned to the left, guided a hand to a electric shaver, watched as black stubbles began raining down in the basin. The images were of the previous two days – the first from the night they had returned after retrieving Hendrick’s merchandise, the second from the night thereafter, yesterday in Antek’s mind, six days after the signing of the contract in Hendrick’s. Nikita had captured the images remotely from the mirror’s internal camera, recording his face as he had stood over the basin every night. The day before, Antek had spent the entire day in the bunker, eating, sleeping, recovering his strength and burning the last of the drugs out of his system. The assignment had been one of the worst yet – the needed component had been part of an underground installation run by the ‘orbitals’ in a remote sector of an old pre-War city called Los Angeles. They hadn’t been expecting the attack, but they had responded quickly – too quickly, in fact, but Antek had kept his mouth shut and had forged ahead, killing lazy, inexperienced guards with skills that spoke of years of training – or years of hardship and survival on Frontier Earth. They had escaped the complex, but only just – heavily armored patrol ships had floated around and above the warren that had been Los Angeles, tiring Antek and the three other Bandicoots both mentally and physically as they had struggled to remain undetected. By the end of the fourth day, the ships had left, Antek and his small team having to wait until sundown before they could leave the city. Long hours and grueling shifts – each member flew cover for about fourteen hours per day – had left them as walking corpses at the end of day five, the night hiding their approach as they finally touched down in familiar territory. Antek had sent the three other Bandicoots back to their respective camps, left for the bunker called home by himself and Nikita. With a throbbing skull and eyes that saw everything in triplets, he had negotiated the maze that formed part of the underground bunker, left his hover-bike somewhere in the middle, had trailed off to where the living quarters were situated. Nikita had found him halfway down a set of stairs, semi-conscious from an overdose of Kleronox (the stamina-enhancing drug he had been living off for four days), his eternal synth-cigarette trailing like just another facial feature. He had barely managed to reach their quarters, collapsing on the floor mere moments after the mirror captured an image that looked like death incarnate. That had been the night of day five. He couldn’t remember anything from day six – Nikita had filled him in this morning, filing away at her nails as he had hungrily devoured a hearty breakfast Both his thoughts and stubble ran out at about the same time – the shaver was clicked back into its niche, the thoughts pushed into a corner of his mind somewhere. From the bedroom beyond, Antek suddenly heard the padding of feet, turned to see Nikita appear in the doorway, one of his oversized shirts hanging from her lithe frame.
   “Since you’re feeling better, do you think you’re up for it?” Nikita smiled, began giggling as Antek strode over to where she leaned against the doorpost, picked her up, carried her to their bed.
   “I’ve been waiting for you to say that for five days now,” he whispered into her ear.

   Night had fallen by the time Antek and Nikita emerged from the bunker, their lunar shadows merging with the desert sands and dried shrubs as they both mounted up on Antek’s hover-bike. Hendrick’s merchandise was in a small backpack, tightly strapped to Nikita’s back as she sat behind Antek, her arms encircling his waist with twin bands of love and protection.
   “So,” Antek fiddled with his helmet’s strap, tightening it as he turned slightly to look back at Nikita,” Are you ready for tonight? Hendrick’s people are apparently throwing one of their big clubbing events.”
   “Just as long as they don’t play any of that old ‘rave’ stuff – it’s usually a load of crap,” came the answer.
   “Yeah…” With a final backwards glance, Antek kicked the bike alive, the roar of its turbines shattering the silence around them with growls of suppressed eagerness. On a nearby hillock of desert sand, a wild coyote turned, snarled at the roaring hover-bike as it lifted into the sky, watched it disappear into the night before returning to its hunt, its keen senses fixed on some unfortunate creature that would soon fuel its own natural engines.

* * * * *

   “So…” The tip of his cigar flared as the man behind the desk inhaled, holding the smoke in his lungs for a few blissful moments, exhaling again with a slight wheeze. For a few moments he was like stone, face immobile, eyes closed, the cigar held close to the ashtray on his desk.
   “If what you’re telling me is true,” Another puff on the cigar, this time quicker and less relaxed, “ it would seem we have a…a situation… on our hands, yes?”
On the other side of the desk, well outside the circle of light conjured by a lonely desk-lamp, another shape reclined within a chair, arms laid out on the chair’s armrests, gloved hands hanging motionlessly out into space, ankles crossed over each other.
   “Depends on what you’re willing to risk,” came the answer, the dark shape shifting slightly, crossing his arms over his chest, his leather jumpsuit creaking. For a moment there was silence, the corporate behind the desk holding on to his cigar with whitening fingertips, his chest starting to heave.
   “You fool!” he shouted, his voice cracking through the enclosed office-space with an explosion of anger. “Do you realize how much is at risk here?” Kicking his chair back, the corporate sprang to his feet, slamming his fists onto the desk’s top. His breath came in short ragged gasps, his cigar crushed to a pulp in one meaty fist, eyes wide and dancing. Fear flitted across them for a moment, was replace with an anger that seemed to pulse and grow with each intake of breath.
   “You and your damn mercenaries! We give you the job, we give you the funds, we even give you the fucking equipment,” the cigar’s remains was flung in the general direction of the cleaner droid, another combusting in the corporate’s trembling hand  “and we have to hear that you go and contract other mercenaries? The Los Angeles facility was the very fucking last one on our list. Do you want to know why? That… that piece of machinery is the most important part of our whole project! Without it, nothing from the past three years would work!” Scarlet flames had crept up the ranting man’s neck, his bald head shiny with perspiration as he sucked on his cigar, the tip of which flared with the intensity of a magnesium flare, his lungs straining through the unfiltered sweetness of the burning leaves. Silence descended briefly as he tried to regain his composure, saw the smirking face in the darkness of the other chair, exploded again with renewed fury.
   “And now I have to hear you left it in the hands of a fucking… fucking hired gun!” The cigar flew across the length of the room, spinning past the seated figure in a swirl of ash and sparks. Glinting sunglasses and a pale skin was visible for a moment, clouding into darkness again as the cigar bounced off a wall, landed on the carpet, began scorching a smoldering patch into the fabric. The cleaner droid was on it immediately, dusters and small carbon dioxide sprayers tackling the cigar with calculated precision, the sound of it’s whirring locomotors teasing the fragile silence as the corporate stood hunched over the desk, hands clenched into fists and planted firmly on the tabletop, head bowed low. More leather creaked as the second figure stood up, brushed a spot of ashes from his shoulder, looked down on the exhausted corporate with a disdainful sneer that reveal sharpened teeth that seemed to glint of their own accord. He turned to leave, stopped for a moment, looked back again. The corporate had collapsed onto his desk, head buried in his arms.
   “You will have your toy by sunrise tomorrow morning, Corporate. Just don’t expect any wrapping-paper.” The door slid open and the corporate was alone once again, the slightest smell of tobacco still lingering, evading the air-recyclers as they started another periodic cycle, the sound of striding footsteps in the outer corridor disappearing completely as the door closed again. It was night, and below them, in the ruins of a pre-War city, Antek and Nikita made their final approach to Hendrick Belahn’s club.

* * * * *

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