In a dark room in Imperial City, computers buzzed. Blue light radiated from two rows of monitors on a wall. There was a three dimensional map pulled up on it showing arcing lines connecting nodes. The room buzzed with activity as the techs prepared for the meeting. Dredge stepped in and found the relevant docs on his screen. A line of black dressed women poured in after him, dozens of them. Vipers. The Vipers were the elite of the elite in the Sikka military. They were made in a lab, with the help of the Sikka machine, crafted over generations by a brutal selection process and later through genetic screening. Unfit Vipers were killed whenever they were found subpar. From birth, they trained for the singular purpose of accomplishing the Emperor’s military desires. They took their seats orderly, silently. They all had the same look, all of them female, with jet black hair of varying length and sharp features. Even Dredge felt on edge in their cold gaze behind unnaturally pale grey eyes. One word from the Emperor and this squad would not only take him out, but his wife, his daughter, his brother, and so on, until something more pressing demanded their attention.
“We’ve led the Wrannamen to believe that they have been able to trace a few of our servers, and thus bases.” Dredge began. “We have so far been unsuccessful finding the girl though we believe this particular one is a direct descendent. We have managed to find more bases and have turned them over but we now believe that it will be beneficial to try and let them come to us. They know we have Paxos, and depending on the capabilities of their team, they may or may not find the information we planted letting them confirm that we do in fact have him. That much is true, but the rest is set up to surround the attackers, whether they come by land, air or sea, and bring them in.”
He looked at the Vipers, who studied the maps in front of them as the screens flicked between slides. None of them took notes. None of them moved. They simply absorbed with a cold precision. They had been trained to behave like the machines that helped create them, and the result was unnatural. Perhaps supernatural, though that was the idea.
After the briefing Dredge went home for the evening. He packed up his briefcase and walked out of the Imperial Defense building. On his way home, he passed through the market and picked up some exotic looking legumes his wife had asked him to.
She was already cooking when he came in and kissed her and his youngest son. His daughter was in the other room watching a broadcast on the latest Imperial fashions. How to wear one’s hair. What pants the latest screen junkies were wearing. He was glad she could enjoy such trivialities. Despite the wars and the insurgent bombs that went off, their family and many others amongst the Imperial City elite had known relative peace. They’d known relative safety. And for that he was both grateful and determined to get rid of the Wrannamen once and for all. He felt if they could see what he could, if they could live in his shoes for an evening, they would know what they were pursuing was wrong, and unjust. They might even give it up. But that wouldn’t work. Hence the Vipers. You fight darkness with darkness. He would have preferred a diplomatic resolution in some ways, but a complete submission would not be amenable to them. And for him, it would not work without a centralized authority planning the rebirth of civilization. Letting it come about democratically would take too long. He wanted his daughter to live in a world of safety, international travel, and all of the other benefits from globalization their ancestors had enjoyed so long ago. No, democracy wasn’t going to work, it needed to happen sooner.
Dredge made his way onto his balcony overlooking the endless cityscape. It’s huge blue triangular buildings poking holes in the sky. He could just make out one of the defensive walls far into the distance. They lived on the foothills below the Emperor’s estate. It stood like a beacon of hope on that hill. His wife joined him with a drink and he put his arm around her waist. This city he protected meant everything to him.
Suddenly, the ground started shaking, and moments later an explosion threw up parts of a nearby residential complex in a huge plume of fire and ash. Their screams carried up to the foothills in low, terrifying bursts. Two more parts of the city erupted in the same fashion. Dredge knew those areas, knew what was in them. These weren’t random events. These were coordinated, and if they coordinated he would be getting a message soon. It came as expected on his screen. He sighed and put his drink down. His trembling wife looked up at him after peeling her gaze away from the event. “You go get those motherfuckers,” she told him, with a quiet fury that reminded him of the Vipers. Just like that his brief moment of respite was over. He kissed his now sleeping kids and picked up his briefcase and went back to work.
His office was bustling with activity from the attacks. He was greeted with incoming data streams to his screen and tried to catch up on it all as fast as he could. He went into a reading room where he put on special glasses in a booth and sped through an assault of information from all sides. It was a tricky invention that supposedly helped you absorb information more rapidly. Dredge thought he’d try every advantage he could think of. He looked ridiculous with his enhanced muscles, tight uniform and high tech glasses. He dwarfed the chair he sat in and closed the soundproof door behind him. The suction engaged and he loaded the info he needed to cram. The machine spun up with a gentle buzz but seemed to get louder and louder as the text picked up pace, Dredge’s eyes went bloodshot as they stood fixed on the center of the screen reading about one thousand words a minute. Six minutes into the process, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he went limp leaning back over the chair with his arms outstretched. The machine automatically spun down and sprayed some substance into the room, a little mist from the ceiling and Dredge violently snapped awake. He returned the glasses to where they were and took off the headphones. He ripped off the sensors on his arms and stepped out of the room informed.
Dredge sat down in the conference room with the other elite leaders of the Sikka. On a screen in the front of the room, a visual representation of their Emperor came into view.
“The Wrannamen have attacked our city,” the Emperor’s dry, lifeless voice echoed through the room. His expression changed little during the broadcast, and it was devoid of emotion. ”This has been confirmed. Their forces here are larger than we had anticipated, though they are still few in number. You will capture the remaining men. We will secure our city before embarking on any new outside attacks. All existing personnel out in the field are to continue their missions and return back here for reassignment in the city. I’ve restricted travel into and out of the city. We will need more ground units to calm and quiet our people who are sick and tired of being terrorized by these fanatics. Thank you, and honor to the machine.” The emperor's face faded slowly as he continued eye contact with the transmission device, making it appear to everyone that he was looking directly at them. An uncomfortable amount of attention.
His wrist screen beeped. “Dredge, it’s Rusko,” the text read, “I have something for you to see.”
Dredge made his way down into the city on a government issued, military grade electric motorcycle. The dark lines and hissing whines whipped past citizens who knew better than to stare. Other cars and carts and wheeled personal mobility devices darted to the side of the road when they saw his quiet approach. He swung through the market, the smell of spices hitting him like a reminder of home and family and hunger. He curved out of the market and into the slums that rimmed the eastern wall of the city. All kinds of biological and mechanical rejects survived here. There were even a few Hybrids who didn’t make it out to the Dunes. The sidewalks were littered with discarded electronics. A broken hybrid was baning his head on the wall of a bakery that was trying to attract customers despite him. The hum of his motorcycle bounced off the narrow streets as he cut through a carless path. The people parted like water before him, and his reflective helmet both shielded his face from them and told him everything he wanted to know about the faces he scanned as he drove.
He parked his motorcycle on the curb. Lights still flashing blue and red, a vestige of old times. Rusko came out to meet him. He had similarly enhanced muscles, and was topheavy, but looked like he could flip a car by himself. As with several other experiments during his time, he had his legs extended and that landed him at just under 7 feet tall. They bumped fists and Rusko waived for him to follow. They waded through dust and broken beams in a condemned building. It was one of the explosion sites.
“We noticed at first the wiring on the rig, there’s a piece of it still decently intact, up here.” Rusko walked as he talked.
“And there is a significance,” Dredge asked.
“I’ll let you decide.”
They came to a crowded corner of the room and shooed away the investigators. Rusko swiftly dropped on his knees and Dredge did the same.
Dredge grabbed the magnifying glass from Rusko and inspected it from the center out. He looked at the chip set and slowly brought down the magnifying glass.
“These are ours.”
“Yes, it is unlikely the Wrannamen got their hands on our chip sets. They’re tightly controlled. Though generic, they’re always traceable back to us.”
“Will this be in the report?”
“It may be. You were the first call I made.”
“Leave it out. I want to see if they catch it. If they don’t, I’m not sure where to take this to. Perhaps the emperor himself.”
“It’s not impossible they got a hold of one of ours.”
“No, it’s not, but Eros and Paxos taught most of the guys capable of doing something like this, or at least taught their teachers, and I know that man’s work when I see it. This is not it.”
Dredge walked himself back out to his motorcycle and connected his helmet to his wrist watch. He sat with the engine off and looked out at the cops patrolling the scene, and the forensics guys in white suits. He eyed each one suspiciously. Time would tell. He returned to the Imperial Building overlooking the city. He went down the elevator to a floor far below ground. He had to wait a few moments to adjust his eyes to the dimly lit corridor. It smelled of sweat and piss down here. Paxos sat in the corner of a cell and barely made any movement when Dredge unlocked and entered his cell.
“I have a question for you, no a riddle, if you will,” Dredge pulled up the image on his wrist watch. Paxos looked deathly white and weary. Dredge grabbed Paxos’ head with his meaty hand and gently forced him to look at the image.
“Is this your work.“
“The explosions? Is it? Dredge I know you know the answer. Look at that chip. It’s one of yours is it not? Crude, and large. You never were able to get them much smaller were you,” Paxos smiled a grimy smile.
“It is unfortunate, yes, but I am hopeful. We have among us now one who could help with such things.”
“Yes, If only.”
“Mole’s are difficult to uncover. Is it a rogue soldier? Is it someone who has found out the truth of your Emperor and your phony hegemony?”
“Or is it deceit?”
“It is certainly deceit. By whom, though, and why? Perhaps your Emperor has a feint within a feint.”
Back in his office, he readied his presentation for the deployment to a nothing city in the middle of the jungle. He left his office and set up the screen to show his notes from his wrist screen. People slowly started trickling in, and he made small talk, but in the back of his mind he continued asking himself if each of these men and women, his team, were in on what he saw earlier in the day. He finished the presentation and crossed his arm, “As you can see, we have been feeding data to the Wrannamen as if this were a local epicenter of activity. And it will be for them when they arrive.” His cadets laughed, and the door opened, letting in a stream of women dressed in all black with dull reflective blades and other weapons showing briefly as their coats opened while they lined the back of the room. “The Vipers will be leading this op. If you’ve never worked with them before, well, ask around, you’ll figure it out. Thank you and dismissed.”
The Vipers stayed in the room after everyone left. They all stood and stared at Dredge as each soldier eyed them on their way out. As if controlled by the same thought, they all stepped forward at the same time, lining the front of the auditorium.
“I understand we’re to capture the girl you lost,” the leader of the vipers said, chewing gum with her legs crossed. Her right ankle bouncing up and down like an impetuous teenager.
“Yes, that’s right, the same girl I was tasked to find after you couldn’t, Vin,” Dredge said flatly. At that, the Vipers hissed at him behind their face coverings. Only the eyes could be seen. The group represented the pinnacle of Sikka biological engineering. Their genes had been culled and swapped for the optimum killing machine. And somewhere along the way in their research, they found a perfect balance between a killer and a good soldier. Each one of them since birth was biologically different. That is not what made them unique. It was after they were born, rigorously tested and taught that they began pulling away. Sometime in their teenage years the very best of them underwent enhancement surgery. This is where very few came back from. Even if the surgery worked, sometimes the body just wasn’t the same. The mental sharpness would decline or the fast twitch response wouldn’t be quick enough, and they fell behind. This meant that the Viper squad was the best of the absolute best. Though Dredge could almost crush a skull with bare hands, this group still gave him pause. Their chain of command was slightly different than his. They did not fall under his command, nor anyone’s other than the Emperor himself for that matter.
“When are we heading out,” Vin asked.
“We leave tomorrow,” they stood
“Vin, the girl is to be alive.”