Justitian, The Protectorate
Autumn 2095 AD
The Old Wall had stood for centuries.
On this spot at the south eastern corner of Justitian, a rampart fortress had been excavated several hundred years ago during the Time of the Beast. The name of the settlement it was originally built to protect was forgotten now, lost as much as the languages that made the legends were now also lost. Then the Judges had brought their own brand of law and peace to the city, and Justitian had been hammered from the ashes.
Old Wall Corner was the first place newcomers from the southeast Borcan Wasteland would arrive and be inspected by the Spitalian checkpoint for sepsis. In the dusty space where Downtown, Tech Central, the Jehammedan Quarter and the road through the Scrapper Camps met, a bazaar had quickly appeared and flourished, catering both to those arriving and those wishing to profit from them. Under the noses of the Hygienists and their security details, stalls sold everything from pustulosis-resistant seeds to forgotten technological marvels, and everything in between.
Carts were arriving constantly. Borca had been turned upside down by the migration of the clans between the Reapers Blow and the Protectorate, mostly due to the rampagings of Chernobog. The Cockroaches, it was rumoured, for so long subdued under the Judges vigilance, had begun to stir once more, sending runners and scouts deep into the West, even infiltrating the tunnels and bygone sewers under Justitian. A slow, long forgotten sense of panic spread nationwide. It was clear that many Clans were making a break for the safety of civilisation, even if that meant leaving all they had behind for the savages and the Primer. Sad faces trudged forwards under the compound steel walls, entire families seated on carts of fly-ridden baggage and supplies.
At the checkpoint under the Old Wall, the Hygienist was having a rough day. The holding pens were filled with Mollusk-confirms and they were massively understaffed. Most of the Spital’s troops were in the East on the front, and those left behind were stretched thin, tending to the duties of city purification.
So many unclean.
“Alright, this one is a negative. Move it along, people.” He waved the next family forward wearily.
Nearby, the bazaar bustled with the activity of the morning. Vendors and wallahs from all cultures stood around crying their wares; hawking jewellery, selling dirty looking vegetables or piles of wheat in sacks, laughing with their neighbours or cursing the street urchins, spitting into large ceramic jars, or sitting with their associates smoking hookahs and nodding sagely, terse expressions on their faces covered with cloth or breather masks. Drafts and dinars were changing hands constantly, and Chroniclers wandered through the crowd, trying to look visible for anyone with Bygone treasures. The autumn winds gusted gently at tent edges, sending the smell of the city along its dusty thoroughfares. Holoscreens on intersections buzzed periodically as a solitary spore drifted over the crowd, as if unsure where to settle in such an easy-going throng of people.
What the fuck am I doing here, thought the woman.
A short man dressed in a scuffed bowler hat and old leather coat was in her path, attempting to rid her of her stash of hard-won drafts. She had somehow entered into bargaining with the imp-like idiot without even realising it, and he had decided that she now deserved his full attention in the middle of this most public of spaces.
“Listen, I ain’t messin around with you ‘ere, I got twelve o’ these things back at the Scrapper camp at a bargain price, with yer name on ‘em. Whaddya say? Woss yer name anyway?”
She eyed him up and down skeptically as whatever he had in his hand disappeared back into his jacket. His accent suggested a Frankish origin, maybe London.
“For the last fucking time, it’s Sokolia, and I’m not interested. I just want to get my shit sold in Tech Central and get a drink.”
The man held his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender.
“I understand completely, atchyer service.” He bowed, miming a removal of his hat. “I know, I know, honest lass like yerself is hard workin’, for sure. Same wi’ me innit?! You just looked like you was new in town and in need of a guide, someone who knows the ropes around ‘ere. Honest people like ourselves gotta try sticking together, know what I mean?”
“The last man who wanted me to trust him ended up with an arrow through his throat,” she replied.
The man paused, confused.
“Um, your arrow, or someone else’s?”
Her expression remained stony despite her annoyance.
“What do you think?”
“I think he was just a bit unlucky considering what great company he found himself in,” the dirty man quipped, an easy grin brushing the veiled threat to the side.
“He tried to rape me.”
There was a pause.
“Oh. Well… in that case, I might actually have something for that.”
He rummaged in his pockets. Sokolia rolled her eyes and continued walking.
“Piss off, little man.”
He ignored her and leaned in closer whilst backpedaling, glancing to either side.
“Wait, wait! Could be Mademoiselle might be a need of a little something… extra… on her journeyings?”
He opened his jacket slightly. Her eyes were drawn inside to what was the telltale tip of a Burn cusp, the scales shining tantalisingly.
He waggled his bushy eyebrows, grinning like a maniac. “Well?”
The woman ceased trying to barged past him and looked sternly at him, gaze darting from jacket to eyes several times. The people continued around them, seemingly oblivious to their little exchange.
By the Mother Raven’s infested cunt lips.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
The man immediately looked taken aback. His jacket snapped shut. The long mutton chop sideburns on his cheeks were dark and crusted with something recent and greasy. He looked up and away to the side.
“Free world, innit? Can’t a man ply his trade in peace and privacy without raising questions from the wrong people? Besides, might be as I just found it lying in the gutter, going begging. Can’t have that now can we?”
He frowned with a melodramatically sad facial expression, shaking his head slowly and patting the jacket pocket concealing the contraband. His tilted his head slightly and blinked, the almost inconceivable gesture adding reverence to his words. The emotions and expressions flowed across his face like water.
Good acting skills.
The woman raised a hand, palm down, chin lifting.
“I’m not with the Judges. Only asked where you got it.”
Although informing them could be profitable.
He picked at a nostril absently, apparently inspecting its contents for purity with dexterous fingers. Every ounce of his body language radiated unconcern.
Probably pretty decent thief too.
“Good cos it’s a rare type too, very potent. Wouldn’t want it in the wrong… hands.”
He left the last sentence hanging, the words stretching. There was a pause as he saw her eyes widen slightly. Gotcha.
Might need him where you’re going, she thought.
A troupe of small children charged past the pair, laughing and waving toy weapons made from scrap metal.
Taking hold of his collar with a fist, she pulled the man closer. His smell grew in potency to the point where it could have filed its own tax returns. She kept her voice low enough so only the pair of them could hear.
“What type is it, how much do you have, and what’s the price?”
He began to reply, but his attention was suddenly drawn towards something happening over her shoulder.
The midday sun beat down overhead whilst the Spitalian waved his Mollusk over the mother and son seated on the cart again, shaking his head at his superior officer.
“I don’t understand Sir, it didn’t register anything a second ago. Must be an impurity in the tuning fluids.”
The Hygienist sighed.
“Freitszch, try yours. Let’s get this backlog unjammed asap before these people get itchy trigger fingers.”
If they could even understand guns.
The line of carts and families stretching back down the road was shifting. Flies buzzed angrily around the clanners. People were beginning to talk absently with one another, and the men had drifted together in small groups, eyes wandering periodically over in their direction. Some had their hands resting on the hilts of their staffs or whips. There was a subtle tension to their body language, not enough to indicate malice, but a definitive signal of a creeping unease. The behaviour pattern was something he had seen many times before in crowds of exhausted, tired people who had travelled far from home to a strange place. A horse whinnied, stamping a hoof irritably.
Another Famulancer strode forward briskly and waved the butt of his Splayer around in the air over the waiting family’s heads.
“Same here, Sir. Anomalous readings; nothing definitive, inconclusive. Suggestions?”
The Hygienist frowned under his mask. He could do without equipment malfunctioning right now. His men shifted nervously. He had only five infantrymen, and without rifles or any heavier firepower, their Splayers and training were all they had to rely upon.
The boy on the cart drew closer to his mother, murmuring in a clanner language. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the eyes were heavy and pleading. A baby began crying somewhere.
“We can’t let these people through without a clean stamp. You know what it could mean for the Providers and the city if even one aberrant breaks quarantine.”
He hesitated, weighing his options. What I wouldn’t give for a vocalizer… and why the hell didn’t Preservist Steinberg give me just a few more men?
Nothing for it.
“Alright. Checkpoint is closed. Hold these families here while I take the boy and the Mollusk that registered the fault and consult with Spitaline Tower 4B on the issue directly. See to it that the people are kept in confinement until I return.”
“Are you sure that’s wise, Sir? The pens are fit to burst, and some of these people have been waiting days to-”
“You are aware of the protocol, Famulancer,” he replied tersely. “One equipment anomaly is less than acceptable, but within tolerable limits. Two in the same squad goes beyond recall and leaves us open to the Primer’s corruption.”
The Famulancer’s voice raised slightly in pitch, but he kept the volume low, his eyes darting swiftly to the side.
“With all due respect, Sir, we don’t exactly have the manpower to-”
“I am well aware of the potential difficulties, boy. Now kindly follow my orders and secure the prisoner and the Mollusk – and if you display insubordination like this again in public, I will have you demoted and shipped to the Spore Wall. Understood?”
His subordinate lowered his gaze and swallowed. He looked over at the family cowering on the cart.
“Yes, Sir. Understood, Sir.”
The Hygienist turned to the family. He became acutely aware of the language barrier as he took in the cart and its passengers.
“Good. Now take the boy for processing.”
A female Famulancer stepped forward and began rattling away explanations to the family in the gruff clanner speech. Freitsczh approached the cart and reached in to take the boy in his arms. The mother immediately began to shriek, clinging to her child with all the desperation of a mother faced with immediate separation from her offspring. The cacophony rolled back over the crowd, heads turning to face the commotion. The other Spitalians held their Splayers before them anxiously, standing in a line across the checkpoint, eyes scanning for potential disturbances.
I must contain the situation, thought the Hygienist. “Katerinja, translate for me.”
He motioned for the young Famulancer, then climbed atop a wooden crate, cupping his hands over his mouth. All eyes were on him.
“Attention please. We have a situation that requires immediate action. There is a potential infection vector coming from these migrants that may cause an infestation in the city. We ask that you remain patient and wait here until we have this issue resolved. I understand you are tired and in need of shelter. Please remain calm and we will process you as soon as we are able, but we must investigate this issue with the utmost haste. I need not remind you that if it were not for the vigilance of the Spital humanity would be lost to the corrupting influences of the Primer. You must have faith and stay within the safe limits of the confinement zone until we return. Thank you.”
These people have lived their whole lives around the horrors of the Aberrants, what makes you think they will start to care now?
As he spoke, he could hear the noise beginning from those at the back. Shouts of anger grew to a crescendo. Children began crying. The mother was still struggling to keep hold of her child as the frustrated Famulancer attempted to abduct him. Freitsczh’s anguish was growing, but he was torn between maintaining what peace remained at the checkpoint and following his orders.
A male clanner strode forward and punched the Famulancer squarely on the temple, knocking him to the ground. He dropped his Splayer and lay there, looking up at his assailant, visibly shocked at the display of resistance. He looked at the Hygienist, unsure of the next step. The clanner stood over the Spitalian defiantly, barring the path to the boy on the cart. Other clanners watching sneered, laughing at the challenge to the cult’s authority.
Then one of the other infantrymen stepped forward and gutted the clanner with a Splayer. The blade emerged from between his kidneys with the sound of tearing paper. A little grunt issued from the man’s lips and he stared down, amazed at the metal blades suddenly protruding from his innards, then slumped back against the cart.
For a instant, no one moved. The single spore hung in midair overhead.
Kranzler protect us. I must purge this filth. The Hygienist drew his pistol.
Sokolia had moved to get a better view of the commotion as soon as she heard the noise, dropping the shyster without a second thought. She had recognised her language being spoken, and the emotional wailing of the mother was stirring something inside her to life, to action, to defend the honour of these refugees, somehow her people. Her compound bow was in one hand and an arrow nocked in an instant. She watched as a single clanner jolted to life and charged the Spitalians. The anger of a frightened refugee in a foreign land made manifest, ready to defend his people. It would be seconds before he managed to cross the ground before them.
Her senses worked quickly to take in the scene before her.
From her experience it was clear that the Spitalians were outnumbered significantly, but discipline was what really counted in these skirmishes. The clanners were a large angry throng, and they had some burly fighters, but the ground was littered with the obstacles of the bazaar; jugs, jars, boxes, crates, piles of food and materials, even whole carts with animals crossed the waiting line. The clanners were also on the verge of exhaustion, some almost staggering into battle. The Spitalians on the other hand were relatively fresh and well fed, armed with weaponry and techniques they had trained with many times over.
They will be slaughtered. Do something!
“FRONT LINE! FORM PHALANX!”
The troopers moved to form a solid barrier five men long, levelling their Splayer heads at the charging wastelander.
The Hygienist moved behind his men and clumsily flicked the safety catch off his pistol. His heart raced, and he tried to calm his breathing.
Remember the training, remember the training. Sight the enemy.
The bearded clansman, eyes blazing with fury and fear, leapt over his fallen gutted comrade, brandishing a blacksmith’s hammer. He issued forth a bellow of defiance, the sinews in his tattooed neck bristling, the spittle flying from his mouth. The crowd stood agape.
The Hygienist raised his hand, clenched fist shaking, and pulled the trigger. The projectile caught the man on the shoulder, spinning him around as he stumbled forward into the waiting blades of the phalanx, which sliced into his unarmed flesh. What was an angry clanner one instant became a twitching corpse the next, draining of life.
The body hung limply, until a Famulancer kicked it off his Splayer and let it fall.
The crowd erupted.
A rock flew at the head of the Hygienist. He cowered reflexively, hands protecting his head.
Someone in the crowd raised a warcry and a dozen more responded to the call, grabbing whatever weapon they had to hand. They looked to each other, rallying as a group before screaming and charging at the troops in neoprene.
Say something about Kranzler to the men, it will sound brave.
Something heavy smacked into his head, sending his vision spiralling into darkness. He teetered on the verge of consciousness for a second, reeling.
The Spitalian line stepped forward over the bodies as a unit, barking a syllable. The troopers on the edges defended at an angle, guarding against flank attacks. Their pale white bald heads shone as their eyes remained locked forwards. Splayer blades pulled back as the phalanx readied to strike.
With a slam of bodies and steel, the lines met.
The clanners piled into the waiting blades as they sought to squeeze through to the men. Limbs and organs were skewered, the weight of charging comrades pushing those ahead further onto the articulated metal blades. The fresh fighters at the back tried to hit the Spitalians over the heads of the front row but failed, lacking the reach. The famulancers shouted in unison and heaved at their assailants, driving them back, whereupon the front row collapsed bodily to the ground and the second row were skewered.
The noise of screaming was reaching into the higher octaves.
The hearing returned to the Hygienists as he staggered to his feet. The ringing whine in his ears was almost equal to the exquisite pain that had bloomed in his head. He looked around at his men.
“Kill them!! Kill them all!!” he wailed, all composure dropping as his nerves began to fray.
The famulancers steeled themselves, chopped forward once more, spurred on by their officer.
Boxes and pieces of detritus began raining down from above, hurled by crowd members further back. A burning bottle landed under the cart, its contents igniting with a crash of broken glass and exploding gases. The horse, ensnared by its reins, whinnied in terror as it was engulfed by smoke and cinders.
Fights were now happening on the edge of the area between the clanners and the public as well, fists and sticks swinging as brawling combattants struggled to pummel one another. It seemed impossible to tell what side people were on. Clanner bodies were piling up around the Spitalians, the blood pooling and splashing as the savagery evolved. One of his squad received a solid blow to the face with a club, his knees buckling under the impact but his fellows stepped in to support him hastily.
The trapped nag freed itself from its burning harness with a shriek and bolted, cantering past the fighters with a shrill whinnying, stopping only to backkick a flailing clanner in the face, the orbital bomes of his eye sockets imploding with a dull, thudding crack.
The family threw themselves from the burning cart, landing to the side of the struggle. The distraught mother gathered the boy and began to flee for safety when the Hygienist caught sight of them. Something in his brain reacted in reflex, in spite of the situation’s rapid degeneration into chaos, still clinging to the distant and idiotic principles of protocol, chains of command and hygiene. He leveled his sidearm at her.
“Stop with that child this instant, woman!” He called out, trembling with anger and confusion.
The shabby woman froze, turning to face the officer.
“The boy! Hand him over!” He motioned to the child with the pistol, waving the muzzle dramatically.
The heavy sounds of hand-to-hand fighting continued in the background as the mother slowly and without breaking eye contact with the Spitalian moved between him and her child. Her teeth bared in a silent feral snarl.
“I WARNED YOU!” He shouted, hearse with fury.
He took a step forward and pressed the gun to the forehead of the clanswoman.
An arrow flew into his thigh.
He collapsed onto one knee, howling in agony.
The woman screeched and pounced on him, biting the wrist that held the weapon in a wild display of parental aggression. The Hygienist thrashed, throwing the woman to the dirt with a wild backhanded swing of his arm, all the finesse of training and discipline lost. He staggered up to stand over her, chest heaving with the effort, then snapped the arrow at the head and pulled it out, wheezing in pain.
Make the savage cunt pay.
He lifted his weapon and fired between her eyes.
Sokolia ducked out from cover after nocking another arrow, surveying the damage of her previous shot across difficult ground at long range under chaotic conditions.
Still wasn’t enough to save the mother.
She sighted the hooded man along the shaft at his chest, aiming for the opening just under the armpit.
Inhaling, the string tensed as she pulled back.
At that moment, a horse burst out from the bazaar to charge into the Hygienist, knocking him bodily to the ground. The combatants began to scatter, startled by the sudden entrance of cavalry to the engagement. The rider wheeled the mount, expertly leaping the bodies as a shotgun rang out into the crowd.
Panic took hold in the onlookers. The space cleared as if by magic, fleeing fighters running straight into an advancing group of brutal-looking Orgiastics, who began to swing their bidenhanders into the rush of people around them. A couple of them were even laughing, Sokolia realised.
The horse skidded to a halt by the burning wreckage, and a rider with a wide brimmed hat dismounted one spurred boot at a time, then came to stand over the Hygienist, face shrouded in a shawl. As the noise of the rout ebbed away, the hat was removed to reveal a woman with short cropped blonde hair and a scar running down her right cheek. Her face was stone cold, and as hard as a Stukhov sandstorm. Someone in the crowd gasped.
“That’s Laika the-”
“BITCH!” The woman snarled through gritted teeth. “That’s right. Round ‘em up, Pack. It’s time someone got blamed for something.”
She stood statuesque, poised in an expression of command. Her long leather trench coat swayed. The scene was now nearly silent except for the noise of the injured and dying quietly bleeding out or gurgling in pain. The cart continued to burn, smoke rising several stories over the rooftops.
Sokolia found herself suddenly held in a vice-like grip from her back harness that lifted her up effortlessly and without warning. She twisted to see a giant man in chainmail with short red hair and eyebrow ridges that could have easily nested a pair of small gulls. He carried her with one hand, striding over her barricade to deposit her on the floor in front of the judge.
The four of them faced each other in the clearing; Laika, her giant henchman, the Hygienist, and Sokolia.
“Now I want answers and I want them now.”
The Spitalian finished tying a tourniquet around his thigh and got to his feet.
“Who are you and by what authority do you-”
The mountain that was the red headed brute grumbled like an earthquake, and the Hygienist shrank back reflexively. Laika lips moved, but the rest of her remained immobile.
“What my associate Carnage is trying to say, is that we are ones who ask the questions. Not you.”
Sokolia stood up, slinging her bow on her back and gestured at the troops in neoprene who now stood warily to one side. The unmistakeable atmosphere of an uneasy ceasefire permeated the area.
“They started it, the Spitalians-”
“I saw what happened, Clanner. I’ll deal with you later.”
She saw what happened. She let it happen.
A pair of Orgiastics barged past unceremoniously and threw another figure into the clearing. It landed on its feet and dusted itself off, spluttering and placing its bowler hat upon its head with as much pomp as it could muster.
“I don’t know how you law makers live wiv yerselves round ‘ere, but where I come from we’s innocent until proven g-”
“…Guil-ty…” Finished Carnage, the syllables sliding from his mouth like the movements of glaciers as he moved with surprising speed to snatch the little man’s ankle and hoist him up to eye level. Somehow his hat remained on his head, as if stuck on by all the grease.
Laika turned to cast an appraising eye at him.
“And that, my little slimy friend, you almost certainly are,” she leveled at him. “What do you have to do with all this?”
One of the Orgiastics of the Pack raised her voice.
“He was throwing explosives from the crowd.”
The man apparently had the ability to look hurt, even when hanging by his feet. He squirmed in the grip of the giant man like an eel. Several pendants fell from his waistcoat, jangling on chains around his neck as he writhed. One looked like an Helvetic symbol, another a replica of an Anubis figurine.
“That’s a bare-faced lie right there! These ruffians of yours ain’t got no proof, Laika, and you can’t just go around mandhandlin’ my clients like this!”
Shit, thought Sokolia, he’s talking about me.
The Hygienist looked at the group, confused.
“Do any of you know each other?” He asked.
Laika kept her gaze held on the scruffy man hanging in Carnage’s grip. Her hands moved to her waist, elbows to the sides.
“You could say that.” She raised her voice so that the onlookers could hear. “We’ll start with him then. This man is well known to the Judges. He claims to be of the Frankish clans, but this may be just an… economic version of the truth. There is evidence to suggest he has attempted to join nearly all the Cults, even the Palers, but his lack of allegiance to anyone but himself and his ability to become distracted by anything shiny leads him astray before too long. Even the Apocalyptics won’t trust someone with such a love of gold. As for his crimes, he is a thief and a con artist, caught and convicted.”
At both of the charges she pulled off his gloves and pinched his nose shut. His palms were red and his tongue was green, tatooed by a judge’s ink pen in brutal fashion.
“He goes by the name of Hodgkins, or ‘Dodgy Hodgy’, but is far less famous than he likes to think, which he seems to take as a gross personal insult to his character.” She drew her flintlock pistol from its holster, arming it. “Adding arson and rioting to his crimes today make it clear the risk he poses to the city.”
She turned to face Hodgkins, only to find that he had already wriggled free of the clutches of Carnage and was standing boldly in the open baring his buttocks at the Judge, jiggling and slapping them with glee. She fired a round at him but missed, sending dust flying as he raced around a corner, hands clasping his hat.
She bared her teeth in irritation, holstering the ancient sidearm. The Hygienist snorted a laugh and she whirled around, eyes piercing him to the wall in fury. A strange smile flickered across her face. She motioned to one of her group.
A box from the bazaar landed at her feet, tossed in by an Orgiastic. Carnage up-ended it, stacking it at the feet of the Hygienist.
“Kneel,” said Laika calmly.
The mirth on the face of the Spitalian evaporated as his brain joined the dots.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m an officer of the Spital!”
“You are guilty of manslaughter,” she replied, pointing at the body of the woman, “and I have run out of patience. Now kneel.”
Carnage kicked him savagely in the wounded leg, and he dropped to all fours. He turned his face up to stare at Laika, eyes pleading.
“You’re not thinking this through. There will be very serious reprisals for this, mark my words! You’re head will be forfeit to the Hippocrats!” He was shouting now, head forced onto the block by Carnage by the scruff off his cape. His eyes were wide, searching in a last futile effort for escape.
Laika smiled. An ornate and frightening-looking metal hammer had appeared in her hand. Her teeth gleamed in the sunlight.
In one swift movement she stepped towards the convicted man, hefting the weapon of judgement over her head as if it was a toy, and pausing as it reached its zenith.
“First we need yours.”
Then she slammed it onto the block with the force of a thunderclap.
Silence gripped the clearing, broken only by the wet sounds of fluids seeping into the dust. The Famulancers stood aghast. Laika turned to Sokolia.
“So,” she said, her voice somehow lighter, as if a burden had been lifted. “Let’s go over your case.”