Lightbar, a vicious corporation run by a mechanically modified, capitalist maniac has been working China’s citizens to death. Robert Lilly, a young savant soldier with the genetic ability to talk with machines, joins the Citizen’s Army to help the Chinese people start a revolution. When he arrives, the plan immediately goes awry as Lightbar levels Xi’an, a prominent city of 20 million, with a kinetic energy bomb the size of which the world has never seen.
Robert and his squad of misfits must race against the clock to plan a counterattack before Lightbar’s army regroups. His journey takes him from the stinking city of Lanzhou eastward to the super-megacity of the Jing-Jin-Ji. Through his travels, he forms unlikely friendships with his squad, and even finds love, but can he and the Citizen’s Army retaliate before the bombs destroy all of China?
C.E. 2254 June 16
* * * * *
We were on our way to Xi’an when the rods fell, leveling the metropolis.
The city of Xi’an had gone through many names. Its current name meant “Western Peace”. Unfortunately, by adopting this moniker, the city practically opened its doors to war. Once considered the root of Chinese civilization, it was now a smoking ruin, twisted under a sky clogged with acrid black haze.
I could taste the winds of death breathing hotly over my face. In the distance, the jagged skyline loomed like the carrion-encrusted teeth of a massive monster. I imagined it devouring the lives of Xi’an’s twenty million citizens, belching smoke as it digested. A haze hung upon the city, blotting out the sun, its oily fingers clinging to the mangled, darkened frames of ‘scrapers, their vacant windows staring forlornly upon us.
We walked down a wide boulevard, formerly a bustling maglev track, now littered with debris and crushed vehicles, all blanketed in a thick layer of soot. This was a small comfort for my unit of young savant soldiers, just weeks removed from basic training. The soot hiding the carnage that lay beneath.
We had yet to see any real war, training under the darkness of racial injustice. The grittiest officers, those veterans of the resistance, had been fighting a losing battle all their careers. Many could trace their military lineage to the heroes of World War Three—a war over a hundred years ago between genetically-modified savants and the machine-enhanced humans we called mechs.
A war that tore the world asunder. A war our ancestors lost.
Nuclear bombs tore apart much of America and Europe. The oceans swelled and rose. Megacities grew atop the surviving metropoles and slum cities emerged from the rubble. Corporations took over economies, then governments, controlling everything from food, to tech, to people’s freedom.
Since then the savants have fought to take back control from the greedy Triumvirate, a worldwide corporate oligarchy built on consumerism. In the United Corporate Cities of America, my home, it never amounted to much. Poorly executed insurrections fizzled quickly due to the strength of two members of the Triumvirate: XCGen and Black Arrow.
Their highly trained private militias annihilated the rag-tag crew of savant revolutionaries. CORPs-run media reported these events yearly, making a statement by publicly executing the dissenters. Most savants moved deeper and deeper into hiding. Some tried to pass as True Humans with no Skills, while others opted for mechanical modification just to make the persecution end. The most fortunate savants traded one master for another and went to work for the cartels where at least they weren’t under the constant scrutiny of the Triumvirate.
In China however, the resistance adopted a different strategy. Having survived The Third much better than the west, the country quickly became the CORPs preferred center of manufacturing. Mechs, True Humans, and savants, never having fought so bitterly here, labored long hours together. Initially, the Chinese citizens helped the west rebuild—sending goods and skilled scientists to Europe and the UCCA.
The CORPs took over full operations in Asia in the late 2180s with no righteous intentions whatsoever. Profit—the keyword of the times—sent production skyrocketing and wages plummeting. Their demands worked the citizens down to their bones and wires.
Unrest grew with demand. The Chinese citizens united in their suffering and formed unions. The cooperative façade concealed something deeper, simmering beneath the surface, rebellion. The population had finally had enough of their corporate overlords.
When the American underground learned of the unrest brewing in China, they rushed to scrape together an army. The leaders hoped to usher in a new age—an age where all people could live together in a future without fear. The UCCA was not ready for this mentality yet, the wounds of the Third still too fresh on its corpse but China could be the first step. Maybe show the rest of the world how to have compassion.
I signed up immediately. I would have a new family to support, and a promised marriage. I wanted to make a better world for my kids. And, let’s be honest, I was a dumb, twenty-something who had knocked up his girlfriend and dropped out of school. I was broke as a joke.
My squad, the Street Dogs consisted of barely trained factory workers, orphans, ex-criminals, and hooligans. Armed with a little training, some determination, and the barest minimum of gear, we soared on the high ideals of justice. We thought we could save a population we didn’t even understand.
As part of the Citizen’s Army, we were there to start a war.
Much to our surprise, the third CORP in the Triumvirate, Lightbar, beat us to it. They sent kinetic weapons in a vengeful rain from the heavens, using gravity as their fuel for utter destruction. The city crumpled under a blast larger than any nuke in the Third.
By the time we got the news, we were already halfway over the Pacific. The officers used this tragedy to fan the flames of rage in our breasts. The war had already started—now we would win it. It started with cleaning up Xi’an, a task none to glamorous—especially for a squad of toughs who were young stubborn, and too idealistic.
The short spring of the plains withered in the heat of an early summer. The sun baked the thick smog hanging over the smoldering city. Temperatures rose to 40 degrees Celsius. I sweat under my army-issued radlon uniform–the fabric designed for keeping harmful particles out also held heat like an oven. My pack hung heavy on my back, pinching into my shoulders. My feet were already growing blisters. So far, deployment sucked.
He entered a squat, blocky warehouse at the edge of the city—our barracks and the seat of the resistance. A broad-faced man sat at a desk just inside the door, grimacing, face lined with sweat and soot. I scanned the room briefly as I approached the desk. Soldiers in varied colorless uniforms rushed about, paying our small group little heed.
“Nǐ de míngzì?” The man asked me. I gave him a blank stare. It would take my entire stay in China to learn enough of the language to be useful.
“We’re American!” One of the other soldiers shouted from farther back in the line.
The man looked as if he’d eaten something sour but repeated with a heavy accent, “Your name?”
“Oh, uh, Robert Lilly.”
“Robert Lilly from…America?” The man continued uncertainly.
“New Colorado,” I clarified. A look of confusion crossed his face. “Yeah…Just America.” I was definitely a long way from home.
A commotion drew my attention at the far end of the warehouse.
Two soldiers in gray fatigues held a black clad figure by each arm. She was struggling, though not very forcefully, and yelling at the top of her lungs.
“Let me go, you Neanderthals!”
A fourth man shook and gasped on the floor. Blood was pooling floor from his open mouth. As he choked, red droplets sprayed across the concrete, glistening in the flickering LEDs.
The man at the desk cleared his throat angrily. He held out his hand. I fumbled through my jacket pocket with shaking fingers, one eye following the struggle of the woman. I pulled out the slim tablet containing my orders paperwork and passed it to the clerk distractedly.
“Nǐ de fángjiān shì sānshíwǔ hào,” the man said to me, alternating his gaze between my tablet and a computer screen.
“Huh?” I asked stupidly.
He frowned again, obviously thinking I was a complete idiot. “Um, your bed. Number thirty-five.”
He thrust a matte-textured chip toward me along with my tablet. I snatched it, muttering a “thank you” as I hurried away. I focused back on the woman. She had thrown both the soldiers from her arms, though they appeared to be twice her size, and was again reaching toward the fallen man. Someone raced past me: a smaller man with a scruff of golden facial hair. He was one of the recruits from my squad whose name I couldn’t remember. He put his hand close to the woman’s shoulder.
She whirled; fist poised for a punch. I braced for impact. This wasn’t going to go well.
“You don’t want to do that,” the young man said calmly, as I reached the commotion. Several others gathered around. Someone was already attending to the fallen man whose breath was rasping in even more ragged gasps. I gave a side-eyed glance to the man; it didn’t look good.
But the woman was frozen in mid-swing, her face inches from my squad mate’s calming stare. He still hadn’t touched her. Slowly, she lowered her arm while simultaneously twisting her mouth into a frown. Her chest was still heaving when she ripped her eyes away.
And stared at me. I flinched at her gaze.
You know that moment in life when you realize you’re about to make some pretty bad decisions? Yeah, this one was mine.
Her eyes were a deep brown, so dark as to be almost black. The gentle rise of her cheekbones flowed down to a sharply pointed chin. Her black hair was messily cut, and her tan skin tinged with the pink flush of rage. Her clenched fists turned the muscles of her forearms into tight cords, protruding sharply on her bare arms. There was a fire behind her gaze refusing to be ignored. She terrified me. Yet I couldn’t break her stare.
“Rostbane!” I heard my lieutenant shout at the other man. Everyone jumped, as if awoken from a sluggish dream, “Get yourself back here and checked in.”
I, too, came back to reality as I slowly I remembered the other man’s name. Judas Rostbane, or JR as he preferred, was slightly younger than my twenty-three years. He had been the son of a wealthy savant businessman but lost his trust fund to the consumptions of youth: drugs, sex, and liquor. Though he rarely talked about it, we all assumed he’d joined the army because it was either that or jail.
JR turned slowly and cracked me a confident smile. Smoothing his hand over his close-cropped hair which was already beginning to show its natural curl, he strode purposefully behind our squad leader as if he had planned the whole thing.
As he passed, I felt his aura wash over me with a warm, golden glow. I instantly, felt more relaxed and almost followed the younger man before mentally slapping myself. JR was a Sway and even at his young age, he knew very well how to use his Skill of persuasion for maximum effect. Shaking my head, I turned away, hearing his chuckle echo across the hall or directly into my mind, I couldn’t quite tell which.
I looked back at the woman. She was glaring at the soldiers who tentatively approached her, but none of them dared make contact again. Her jaw was still clenched, and I imagined a growl hanging in her throat. The man she had felled was gone, rushed to the infirmary where, if he was lucky, he wouldn’t die. He’d left behind only an abstract painting of red blood, artfully arranged to signify his suffering.
“Hey,” I approached her slowly, hands raised and head down in a gesture of submission, “You okay?”
She nodded, looking around at the growing circle around us.
“What happened?” I asked, wondering why I felt the need to insert myself in this situation…wondering if I would regret it.
She seemed to take a deep breath, but the following words still came out through gritted teeth: “No one touches me without permission.”
It was all I could do not to drop my jaw at the vehemence of that statement. Despite the strength she projected, I could sense hesitation in her voice—a slight tremble. Her hands were shaking. I guessed she was younger than she looked.
“I…I’m Robert,” I said, awkwardly sticking out my hand, not really sure what I was doing. Then again, no one else was doing anything so at least I was ahead of that.
She looked at my hand, then at me, a look of confusion on her face.
“You’re supposed to shake it,” I clarified, “If you want…it’s an old gesture.”
A slight smile fluttered across her lips but was quickly suppressed. Gripping my hand in a bone-crushing grip, she shook it back and forth. Not exactly, I thought but didn’t feel the need to correct her. “Mara,” she replied.
I pulled away with a tiny exclamation of pain, attempting to stifle it before she noticed. Her hand was like a vice! Suddenly the realization struck me.
“You’re one of those…strong people, aren’t you?”
“Tank,” she corrected.
“Yeah…never met a female Tank before,” I replied lamely. How could someone make me feel both nervous and intrigued?
Mara shrugged as if it were no big deal.
Finally, an officer with some rank came pushing through the crowd. She approached us stiffly, her countenance solidified into a mask of disapproval.
Glancing between the bloodstain, Mara’s grimace, and the tablet still clutched in my hand, she frowned deeper. The four-pointed gold star on her jacket indicated she was a major. The name tag said Healey.
“Soldiers!” Major Healey shouted. Her tone was tinged with rounder vowels and a more liquid r, indicating she was not from anywhere in America I recognized. “What is the meaning of this ruckus? Who are your commanding officers?” Her shouts made me flinch, but Mara stood calmly, staring up at the slightly taller officer.
“Uh, I, uh,” I began to stammer, but soon remembered my training. “Sir!” I said, holding my order in front of my face like a shield.
Mara didn’t say anything.
Major Healey peered at the tablet.
“Private Robert Lilly. You’re from the new platoon of Americans?”
“Getting into trouble already?”
“Uh…” I had no idea what to say.
“No,” Mara said in a low voice, “He had nothing to do with it.”
Healey nodded, “Then get to your bunk, Private Lilly, and try to stay out of trouble. Briefing is at oh-six-hundred tomorrow!”
“But, sir,” I began, then regretted it when the major turned her focused gaze on me. Hesitating a minute, I continued uncertainly, “Mara didn’t do anything wrong.”
Healey glanced at the bloodstain on the floor, then up at the woman who was grimacing. “Private—” she began but stopped when she did not see a name tag on Mara’s open jacket.
“Dark…Sir,” she said, lowering her tone to almost one of respect.
“Private Dark, you will be escorted to the detention wing until we figure out what happened here.” The major touched Mara’s elbow gently. I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. It was from Healey’s electromagnetic Aura. How a Spark had been able to keep it together long enough to make Major, I would never know. Their volatile personalities and quick use of their EMP were contrary to the calm demeanor I witnessed in Healey.
Mara glanced at me, pushing a piece of choppy hair from her eyes. She raised her eyebrows slightly as if to ask will we meet again? Her anger had all but drained, so she nodded in compliance.
“Understood, sir,” she nearly mumbled as she followed Major Healey. Two lesser officers trailed behind the women, but they kept a prudent distance. Everyone had seen what happened when you made a Tank angry.
© 2020 Lyndsie Clark
To read more: contact the author for questions on the In Memoriam future publication!