James Fadeley
James Fadeley



Under Siege

Spitalian Borca Defiler

I have hated Siege ever since my eyes first fell on this shithole. 

Every morning serves fresh, steaming reminders why. The rotten egg stench of sulfur stings the nostrils, borne of flintlock firearms that crack the loudest at dawn. Beyond the junky, slapdash homes to the north, farmhands haul pails of water to the fields, firmly believing that the Protectorate needs them. Yokels smile insincerely as they wish each other a “guten” tag, ignoring the conflict in the south. Anything to maintain this charade of invincibility. Yet once home, they’ll check their weapons and beg the Judges for more munitions “just in case.” 

“A new cape to keep you warm in the field, Spitalian!” one of the Black merchants near Markoff Plaza calls out to me. He too smiles, though under the illusion that I’d consider buying his junk. Or maybe he enjoys masquerading as a friendly fellow, “concerned for my welfare.” Nevermind his burly henchman, eying me warily while guarding a wagon of colorful fabrics and gear. Both are ready to sell or to flee, like every other African here.

I carry on, letting my rolling eyes say no. Yet my attention accidentally falls upon a pair of teenagers. Vagrants, the idiot recruits of the Judges. One clutches a half-bandaged patch of yellowed flesh that reeks of garlic, while the other raises a bloodied hand towards me. “Spitalian! Spitalian, wa–”

I jerk a thumb over my shoulder. “Hospital is there.”


“Off you go.” Good deed for the day, check. I step past them wearing half a smirk, savoring the bittersweet satisfaction of their meritless arrogance beaten into agony. Shame they hadn’t moistened the injured one’s bandages, lest those phosphorus burns risk reigniting. If only they’d kept their squad’s Famulancer alive…

Not my problem.

West by northwest. To my right, dwellings of rusted panels clamber over each other and provide the population with tetanus. To my left, the dirt streets expand into the inflammation known as Nassius’ Public Market square. One whiff sends me scrambling for my gas mask to escape the miasma of pungent capsicum, horse dung, thyme, noxious dye vapors, cloying Elysium oils, earthy cumin… 

And the sour tang of the unwashed masses blocking my path.

I loathe this place. Barely a millimeter of neoprene keeps the worst at bay as I press through this unyielding sea of flesh and microbes. A filthy urchin draws near, holding up a right palm expectantly. “Just a draft, Mr. Spitalian? I have to keep my Pa happy or he’ll beat m–”

My gloved slap cuffs her cheeks, arresting the sticky carpals she’d aimed at my medical pouch. “There! Now it won’t hurt so much.”

The blemish I left probably won’t blossom into a contusion, but I have faith her “guardian” will finish the task.

The crowd thins near the eastern exit, and the road funnels into a narrow pass. Here Judges loiter about, stopping the occasional dirty Clanner for a random search. Their shaded glasses turn my way, but they leave me unmolested after an eyeful of my black-and-white suit. What luck! No fresh arrivals in need of an important lesson.

Don’t fuck with a man who might decide if you live or die.

North, then northwest. The buildings grow taller and better constructed, and I remove my mask to partake less stale air. Sparks glisten from the hall next to the Scrapper radio station, where the shitdiggers slap more of their garbage together. White-clad Hellvetics march down the street, pestering me with nothing but a subtle nod. Their nearby security terminal, basically a giant cement brick one could walk into, sticks out like late stage gangrene. 

Nearing Frieda’s, my favorite trough-hall, I come across the Supreme Judge’s pièce de résistance as the Frankans would say. A monolith, crafted from crania of long dead savages. Skulls staring out with vacant orbits upon the “triumphant of civilization” which surrounded them. Oh, I’m certain a hammer of steel is superior to stone, but that’s no proof the wielder is any less primitive…

Under an awning, I push through a metal door bearing ancient rivets, and the soles of my boots clap against poorly tiled floors. Rafters hold up walls of aluminum paneling. Copper tubes stand in for floor moulding, pumping water towards the kitchen and other facilities. Meanwhile wires stapled to the ceiling provide power for a few neon lights, highlighting the darkness where the open shutters could not. 

“Name and rank?” the hostess asks with a husky monotone.

“Famulancer Luther,” I spit out, eager to luncheon. “L-u-t—”

She doesn’t record my information as usual. Instead the cow waves me on. Strange, but my gurgling stomach–a symptom of my elevated ghrelin levels–irritates me too much to care.

I take the bowl from my mess kit as I approach the short line. The server gives me a stupid look, until I realize the hostess is distracting him. Accepting my bowl, he slaps on mashed potatoes mixed with cream and bits of ham, a product of faraway Harm. To my surprise however, the server withdraws a pair of tongs, unveiling a steaming tray…

And lays an entire sausage link upon my meal.

“Where did that come from?” I ask when he returns the bowl.

“Fresh caught last night.” He mutters almost inaudibly.

Disgust gives rise to my sneer but before I can berate the idiot, he jerks a thumb at a paper on the wall nearby. The reindeer is certified, signed by none other than Dr. Elisabeth Schulz. The food is clean. Of Sepsis contamination, anyway. I shut up and snatch my meal. 

Siege’s defenders seldom go hungry. The citizenry feeds us for almost nothing, lest they become food for the enemy. Naturally the Scrappers and dummkopf Judges are content to eat whatever’s sloshed on their plates. Yet Spitalian regulations are more stringent, and Siege’s Hygienists have difficulty enforcing certification like in Justitian. It’s not difficult for a batch of spore-laced rye flakes or infected game to slip into the kitchen, thus only a select few places pass our routine inspections. 

Still, meat is rare, and too much means one is being “fattened for the front.” Looking around, I only see a few Spitalians. Most are almost finished, so I can’t tell if they received sausage too. Though one girl, a fresh Famulancer from the look of her, savors a link slowly. 

Nevermind, Luther. Stop being paranoid and just eat already. I take a seat and dig in.

It’s fresh, I’ll give them that. The gamey flavor is accented with only salt, readily found in Borca. When food gets, let’s just call it “stale,” the chefs usually cover the flavor with exotic spices like black pepper. The Neolibyans cleverly “donate” their oldest stock in lieu of paying taxes or tariffs, a wartime contribution that keeps nearly spoiled grub palatable. For another day. Usually. 

I eat. And eat, and eat. Rich cream, thick potatoes. The ham gives way easily under every bite. Instinct overrides my judgment, and my neoprene suit slightly tightens. Carbohydrates and dairy proteins are wonderful, but nothing fills and keeps one filled quite like fat.

“Mammalian adipose tissue,” I whisper, correcting my thought. 

Sleepiness weighs down the back of my eyes, as postprandial somnolence leaves me sluggish. I take a laborious breath and rub my nose to stay awake, though the clatter of utensils is more effective.

“Famulancer Oliwia,” some idiot Judge says to the woman who ate the sausage. “You are to report to the Conflux for assignment. Immediately.”

I spin about, sneering at the muscular Protector who looms behind me. “Famulancer Luther, you are to report t–”

Piss off!” I order through bared teeth. “I am the assistant to Surgeon Besselman, and I don’t take orders from the floppy hats!”

Hidden behind his round, reflective glasses, the only tell on the Protector’s face is the faintest twitch over his maxilla. Almost a sneer. He clenches his fist, and I smirk. Worthless cunt wouldn’t dare.

Then his gaze shifts, and mine follows. A caped figure approaches, with a combed steel helmet over a gas mask. 

My mouth opens just in time to welcome the Preservist’s fist.

My concussion transforms the world into dim images and far away voices. I’m not sure what was then or now. Yet I feel myself rise, head slumped as two Famulancers “assist” me by acting as human crutches. With my arms over their shoulders, the tiles glided by underneath me. Everything ached. Every sound, every shift in motion amplifies the pain to such vivid heights that even the darkness of my tightly shut eyes offers no solace.

The anguish only grows worse when we step into the dusty outside, and I can’t hide from the sunlight.

“I’m not certain he can serve like this, sir,” the question echoes from my left.

“Too bad.”

The pain eventually begins to relent, though I feel no real relief until I am laid down upon the dirt. I don’t move, blocking out my senses for as long as I can. Until there is a crack and the awful pungency of ammonia fills my nostrils. Wincing from my stinging sinuses, I swat the hand holding the inhalant tablet away.

In reply, they almost shove it up my nose.

“Awake now, Famulancer Luther?” a mask-muffled voice asks.

Holding my breath, I give short, fast nods. The Preservist pulls the tablet away and I roll over, gasping. Half a minute later, something emitting a gurgling noise clatters to my right. Blinking several times, I gaze upon a backpack, a water flask, and a Splayer. 

My Splayer.

I open my mouth to object but my throbbing temple stops me. Crawling over to the bag, I root inside for the med kit, and wash down four paracetamol pills with the flask. Covering my glabella to block the sunlight from my sight, I wait until the pain abates at last.

“Do you Spitalians normally treat your members this roughly?” an adolescent male asks.

“Watch your tone, boy,” the Preservist warns. “Unless you plan to use your precious Codex’s pages as bandages.”

“Fynn, you do not address the Spitalians in such a manner,” an older Judge barks. I open my eyes long enough to recognize the same Protector who confronted me at breakfast. “And Preservist Albrecht, you don’t talk down to my Vagrant under any circumstances. If you have complaints about his statements, you take them to me.”

Albrecht. Fuck me, I should have known it was that asshole.

“So I should hold you responsible for your underling’s sharp tongue, Heiner?” Albrecht replies.

The Protector seems to consider that a moment, before turning his dark glasses my way. “Should I hold you responsible for his?”

The laughter rings from the abyss of my very soul, even though it wracks me with fresh aches. Of course I hate the Judges, but seeing the almighty Albrecht humbled by one is too delicious to ignore. 

I can’t see Albrecht scoff beneath his gas mask, but the Preservist doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead he kneels beside me, pulling his breathing piece down. The countenance beneath would be perfect if not for the contracture scarring over his jawline, the legacy of third degree burns. 

“Laugh it up, Schweineficker. We’re dearly going to miss you out there.”

His words kill my schadenfreude, and I suddenly feel the pangs of horripilation–arm hairs rising even under my neoprene suit. “The fuck you will. Dr. Besselman would have your hide for sending his assistant beyond the Chokepoint.”

“Dr. Besselman doesn’t care. He was reassigned to Justitian this morning, and turned down the offer to take you with him. The simple fact is that no one likes you, Luther. There’s no one left to pamper your incredible ego. No coat tails for you to ride on, no way to skip out of field duty. You haven’t even been on patrol for a year while your fellow Spitalians are fighting and dying in your stead. So,” Albrecht smiles, that crinkling mass on his cheek making the expression devilish, “make the enemy choke on you out there, will you?”

With that, the Preservist pats me on the cheek, which flares up again briefly. He rises, preparing to don his mask again but not before glancing at the Protector. “They’re all yours, Protector. Feel free to discipline this one anyway you deem necessary.”

The Judge nods slightly. My ass is the peace offering.

Tonguing my molars for any looseness, I glance around as my eyes finally adjust to the sunlight. We’re in the Conflux, an assembly area for missions venturing beyond the gates south of Siege. The dry earth is packed down with boot prints, gunpowder soot, and crimson patches left by unfortunates. The tangy whiff of urine tickles my nostrils. There are five of us here, assuming the Hellvetics patrolling the wall aren’t going.

“So what is this all about, Heiner?” says a man with a Purgan accent, a ramshackle shotgun over his shoulder. Between the patchwork of leather clothes, metal plating, and the X sown on his bandana, it’s safe to say he’s a Scrapper.

“Introductions,” Heiner declares. “I am Protector Heiner, in charge of this operation. This is my Vagrant, Fynn.”

The adolescent is slightly taller than Heiner, but far more skinny with sleepless eyes. He nods to us and smacks his lips in an idiotic way. 

“Famulancers Luther,” he points at me, then shifts his finger to the right, “and Oliwia.”

She holds her left elbow with her right hand. Slightly stocky, pale with curved features, a Pollner by her name if nothing else. Her blue eyes are rheumy and distant, as if denying she is even here. Naturally, I want to smack the shit out of her. 

“And this is Martello,” Heiner concludes, gesturing to the Scrapper. 

The man presents a smile absent an incisor. “Piacere di conoscerti.

Fucking Purgans.

“Three hours ago, one of our delegations from Nullpellia issued a distress call. They were attempting to cross Ramein under the cover of night when they were attacked by the enemy.”

Oliwia inches closer to Heiner. Is there actual concern in her eyes over these fool Judges? Wincing, I stand, teetering a moment. “If that was three hours ago, they’re probably breakfast by now.”

I see my reflection in the Protector’s glasses, but his features remain stoic. “I’d agree with your assessment, Famulancer, if we hadn’t received another transmission less than an hour ago. Several of them made it out, but they’re lost and off course. Martello, map.”

The Scrapper pulls a cloth roll from his pouch, and hesitates. 

“We’re not out to steal your junk, merda scavatore,” Fynn says as he slings a musket over his shoulder. I snicker, even as it aggravates my aches. 

The Scrapper sighs and unrolls a mess of marks and lines which vaguely represent the plains beyond Siege’s gate. From what I can tell, Martello has cross referenced and at least got an idea of the numbers. Nullpellia is roughly 40 kilometers south of us, although the rugged terrain and roving hordes of man-eaters make Africa seem more accessible. “Based on the description they gave us over the senza fili, they’re probably within 15 to 20 kilometers, give or take.”

With that, the Scrapper takes out a scribe-compass crafted from bits of junk and adjusts it against a scale on the map’s right. He then dips the tip in an ink vial at his side, and draws a quarter of a circle around Siege’s south. 

Heiner’s hat casts a shadow over the drawing. “There are two patrols going out today just after us. The first is going southeast, another south. So we’ll be going southwest. Find them, provide aid and bring them back. Dead or alive.”

Or leftovers. I bite my tongue to keep the question a mere thought.

“That said, we’re still to return before dark. Stay within sight, obey my orders and we’ll get through this alive,” Heiner declares, jerking a thumb–pollex–towards the gate. “Get your kits, it’s time to go.”

I can’t keep myself from scoffing. “This is a waste of time.”

“I said get your things.” The hint of a growl tints his voice.

“They’re dead! Fuck, we’re sending, what? Five men, three groups, fifteen total? We’ll be skewered and roasted!”

“Fifty-five.” Everyone stops cold, to which the Protector adds. “The other two groups are a mix of Vagrants and bounty hunters, with some Protector and Hellvetic backup. Twenty-five a pop, maybe more. We’re the exception, because they believe we’re the least likely to encounter trouble, and the most likely to find nothing.”

“Well there you have it!” I chuckle, holding myself in check as I grab my backpack, perusing for further evidence that we’re being sent to die. Aside from my open medical kit, there is a full canteen of water, matches, wrapped goods I can only assume are a meal. “I need spare water for phosphorus burns. And they didn’t even give me antibiotics. Just what are we expected to do if someone’s bit by a gendo out there, hm?”

To this, Heiner makes an irritating buccal click. “Well then… don’t get bit?”

This time the others laugh. Even Oliwia, a fellow Spitalian, turns her head away, yet I see her shoulders bob from giggling. Martello wags a finger as he speaks. “Ha ragione su questo, tesoro.”

Fucking. Purgans. Silently, I swear to skip painkillers should he require surgery, as I begin unscrewing the mollusk from the butt of my Splayer.

If Siege is a shithole, then the Red Expanse is the cancerous colon polyp that gives the city a crimson tinge. 

Beyond the Chokepoint’s gates lies a dry patch of soil which always bears a few bloodstains. The further one goes, the more the earth makes some attempt at life. Yellow grass sprouts in patches or clusters about rocks. The occasional tree scratches its way out of the ground, only to die or live a half-life of perpetual thirst. 

The tension keeps us silent and alert through the first kilometer. Regrettably. Beyond the range of the Hellvetic’s Trailblazers and the Judge’s mounted patrols is when vigilance is most needed. Of course, it’s the Scrapper who gives into laxity first.

“Do you always have to shave your head, mio cuore?”

“Standard protocol,” Oliwia responds. There’s neither annoyance nor welcome in her voice.

“Shame. I wonder what it looks like when it grows out. What color is it?”

“When I was a little girl, I was blonde.” Is that the hint of a smile? “But sometimes hair color changes as people age.”

“It would look molta beautiful if you grew it out…”

The sour tang of bile spreads over my tongue. Before I can say anything, the little shit in the coat beats me to it. “Eyes off the curves and on the horizon.”

I snicker as Oliwia blushes. The Purgan flashes Fynn an incomplete smile. “Be calm, bambino, it’s a long trip.”

“Then don’t make it longer,” Heiner comments without turning around. “Fynn is right. Stay alert. Now fan out and look for tracks. Martello, you take the center.”

Martello turns around, the rebuttal forming on his stupid lips before the thump of Hellvetic artillery humbles everyone. We can’t see anything–their cannons can hurl shells 40 kilometers away. Yet the blast’s distant echo reminds us that we’re marching through no man’s land.

We drift apart, and I find myself on the far right-wing of our line. Oliwia is to my left, and beyond her walks the Scrapper, the Vagrant, and Heiner on the far end. Even a few meters apart, the Purgan spins about to blow her a kiss. This time however, Oliwia gazes away, vertical creases forming along the infraorbital region below her eye. 

Her disgust causes me to smirk.

The shadows cringe from the sun’s light. Between the midday warmth and our exertions, the heat does us no favors. Diaphoresis isn’t setting in, yet perspiration is forming under my neoprene. I fan my collar to cool off. Oliwia manages better, though at times she pinches and pulls her suit away from her epidermis. 

We’re given respite from the monotonous march perhaps an hour later. Heiner points to an outcropping of rock shelves which have a hint of pre-noon shade. We only rest after a swift check for traps or dangerous fauna, such as snakes or cannibals. Only a bird in the distance catches our eye.

“What is that?” Oliwia asks.

“Looks like a bird of prey,” Fynn says, spitting. Wasting saliva.

“I heard something once,” Martello says. “Is it vera that some Cockroaches use falcons as pets?”

I pause at this, yet Fynn guffaws like an idiot instead. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard all week. How about you, boss?”

“Gyrfalcons.” Heiner stares at the horizon. “Whether or not the Cockroach clan trains them is unconfirmed.”

It’s not as foolish as it sounds, not after touring the infirmary last week. One patient comes to mind. Excoriation across the cervical spine, trachea and buccal regions–deep scratches and shearing on the neck, throat and cheeks. Likely caused by something avian and large. Dr. Besselman’s comment echoes in my memory, “That’s the third one this month with wounds like that…”

I take a seat under a shadow, drawing my canteen and “wetting my whistle,” as the Clanners might say. Heiner stands watch while the Purgan puzzles over his own scribblings. The Vagrant keeps to himself, leaving me in the company of my fellow Famulancer.

“Why did you remove your mollusk?” she asks.

“Because I don’t feel like lugging a heavy jar along with my Splayer and other crap. Besides, the only reaction we get from it is when we take Scrappers on patrol.”

She briefly looks at Martello suspiciously, then to me. “But that’s against regulations.”

“Haven’t you heard? Borca is spore free.” I roll a shoulder, both to shrug and to ease my trapezius muscles, straining from my backpack’s strap. In truth, the Spital isn’t certain about the region being Sepsis free with regard to the south. But if it shuts her up, what do I care? 

Her lips tighten, as if she bit into one of those sour, yellow fruits from Africa. “Have you been in Siege long, Luther?”

I smack my lips a moment before replying. “Just over two years, too long.”

“Have you,” she cringes meekly, as though anything she could ask would offend, “ever been out here? In the field?”

“When I first arrived, most Spitalians venturing out were the Preservists. I lucked out, just had to stick to the hospital. Until…”

My head reels. There are a hundred ways I could spin this. Looking into her big, blue eyes tempts me to give her a taste of death. Yet her supple skin, not yet scarred or dried by the Borcan summers, almost leads me to say something heroic. Perhaps so I could taste it when we get back. 

Forget it. I tell her the truth.

“Until those fucking Judges ran right into them. A trap of traps, laid by the Phosphorites and Cockroaches. The Clanners clamped down like a gendo’s jaws on the Protectorate forces. Archot’s big counter-offensive,” I say mockingly with a smile, opening a hand, “and instead he got his ass handed to him.”

Oliwia shrivels before me. Fynn glances my way, disgusted. I grin, and keep going. 

“After that, everything changed. ‘New policy. No patrols go out without Famulancer support.’ Field hospital staff drew straws, and I got unlucky a half a dozen times. Usually nothing happened. Just a lot of walking, bandaging a guy here and there who slipped or got a snake bite. Every once in a while there was a skirmish. During my last patrol, we ran into Phosphorites.”

I take another swig. Her mouth is slightly ajar as she stares. She isn’t the only one, as Heiner observes as well.

“A third of us were blasted by their mortars. Only the Hellvetic stepped out, protected by that fucking harness. She charged on, and the Vagrants followed while I’m stuck alone, trying to douse white fire devouring some screaming kid…”

I almost go on, almost. At this point, Oliwia’s pale and breathing heavily. Seeing mere words affect someone so amuses me on a level I can’t explain. Her agony is more pleasure than her body could ever provide. 

That’s. Enough.

Heiner speaks. Yet his voice is a dangerous growl, a firm warning. Ugly looks from Fynn and Martello suddenly makes me realize I have no allies here. Seems no one appreciates me getting my jollies.

I draw a breath and roll my eyes to the side. “Sorry. It’s been a rough week.”

Heiner stares me down hard, but nothing more comes from him. The Scrapper stands. “We’re going the right way, capo.”

“Formation,” the Protector says. “Famulancer Oliwia, you can take my right. Swap places with Fynn.”

Oh great. He gets the girl and I get the wunderkind. The Vagrant huffs as he arrives to my left. “Hope you shut your mouth.”

“I can stitch your ears closed if you’d like.”

His spittle lands in my path. I smirk and keep marching.

Two, maybe three kilometers on and our latest discoveries consist of more rocks, more grass, and more dry trees. Listless, everyone has fallen silent, sick of this as much as each other. Then things get interesting when the radio Heiner carries crackles to life. A distress signal. 

“Martello, where’s our bearing from these coordinates?” the Protector asks.

The Purgan fumbles with his map for a moment. “East, not far.”

Turns out that even a Scrapper sometimes finds a working clock. After 10 minutes of travel, Fynn points ahead and says, “Look!”

Some distance away is a large hill, upon which a figure waves. One doesn’t need binoculars to spot the floppy hat.

“Approach but be on guard.” How Heiner can speak so quietly and still be heard is a mystery. We draw our weapons and advance, yet soon realize it’s unnecessary. 

“Are we glad to see you,” the stranger Judge says as we near. “One of our guys needs medical attention.”

“How long has he been injured?” Famulancer Oliwia asks before I can interject.

“15, maybe 20 minutes. Birgit’s up there with Private Leon.”

Climbing the rocks, I hear someone’s muffled groan. Around a boulder we spot a Hellvetic caring for a Vagrant. Slapdash bandaging clings to her calf haphazardly. I scoff. “Is that the best you can do?”

Whatever expression Leon makes is lost behind his red visor. “I am not a medic.”

“Clearly. Now move.”

As the worthless mercenary shuffles away to join the others, Famulancer Oliwia and I kneel and set to work. “What caused this?”

“A fucking bear trap,” the victim, Birgit, mutters. Her eyes are closed, her breathing rapid. “Dammit, we were clearing them and I screwed up.”

“Did you get your tetanus shot?” I carefully put my hand on her knee and tilt it to the side, inspecting the limb. The hem of her pants is rolled up, the wrappings still scarlet. Her skin is cool and clammy from the shock.

“The fuck’s tetanus?” she snaps. 

My jaw clenches. “When you got to Siege, did we stick a needle in you?”

“Yeah you did, you stupid baldies. Fat lotta good it did me.” 

“Maybe you’d like another?” I spit back at her, baring my teeth.

“Luther,” Oliwia offers, “how about I do this?”

I keep from biting her head off. Surely I know more than Oliwia, yet why should I care whether this witless bitch keeps her leg? “Fine.” 

I sit back, and Oliwia sidles forth. Her hands are deft as she checks the integrity of the tibia and fibula bones. “I don’t feel any protrusions. Can you move your foot in a circle?”

“Alright.” The victim’s voice is calmer, though shaky. She rolls her ankle, though the mobility test makes her wince. I smirk, but Oliwia shakes her head. “Can you point your toe upward?”

The motion is clearly painful. Flexing downward proves no better.

“Luther, ready the dressing and a splint. Listen Birgit, I have to put a little pressure to stem the bleeding while I rewrap it, okay? It’ll hurt some,” Oliwia lies–it’ll hurt a lot, “but it’ll hold up better.”

Birgit chews her labium inferius oris, her lower lip, but nods. Oliwia presses the side of her thumb into the center of a fresh blood spot, and takes scissors to top of the badges. The pressure seems to stem the bleeding, meaning no tourniquet is necessary.

I prepare fresh dressing and gauze, and a bottle of povidone-iodine. Peeling away the soaked rags, Famulancer Oliwia reveals open flesh wounds, though there’s some congealing clots. She douses the injury with the iodine, then slips the gauze over the punctures, holding it down with a thumb. With that, I press the end of a bandage to the shin, and we pass the fresh bandages back and forth, looping about the victim’s leg.

“And the splint?” Oliwia asks while fastening the dressing tight.

I grunt irritably, but reach into my pack. I’ve only two splint packs, long flat packages of foam and aluminum produced by the Spital. Once gone, we’d have no choice but to craft our own from whatever could be scrounged. As if we’d find anything. I unfold the device with a grunt, forming a trough, and undoing the velcro straps with a deep scratching sound. 

Without a care for our future, my bleeding heart companion snatches the device and fits it over the idiot victim’s leg. 

“Can you stand up?” Oliwia offers the girl a hand. 

Birgit rises with a groan and walks with a hobble. Every step leaves her wincing. 

Oliwia covers her mouth for a moment, studying this. “The pain is going to get worse as you walk. When you get back, you need to go straight to the hospital for an X-ray. Luther, can you make her a crutch?”

I survey the hill. She’s almost shit out of luck, but a dried out tree near the base of the hill might yield something that passes for a walking stick. Descending, I pass the rest of the group, overhearing the other Judge speaking to Heiner.

“… broke away from the south-bound group with orders to clear these traps. Then just after Brigit got hurt, I received a weak radio transmission. Couldn’t tell if it was from our delegation.”

“What was the message?” Heiner asks, while Fynn and Leon listen nearby. 

“I’m not really sure. Sounded panicked like a call for help, but it was strange. Said like, ‘tin can 7’ or something like that. Was there some broadcast code we weren’t informed about?”

The Purgan perks up from the rock he’s seated upon. “That’s a coordinate Scrappers from Siege sometimes use.”

At the tree, it doesn’t take long to secure a longer branch that might bear the victim’s weight. As I return, Martello rustles his maps while Heiner adjusts a radio. 

“And your original group hasn’t responded?” our oh-so-stalwart leader asks.

“They’re out of my broadcast range. Best handhelds usually do is a good five kilos. But if Miss ‘Tin Can’ was using one herself, she must be close.”

Heiner glances my way. “Luther, tell Oliwia to get ready. We depart as soon as the Vagrant is mobile.”

Oh yes sir, right away sir. In fact, why wait? This bitch has a two hour hike from hell awaiting her, limping all the way back to Siege. Even if an infection doesn’t kill her, she could still lose her leg. Yet Oliwia isn’t deterred after I inform her of Heiner’s orders. She takes the proffered stick and wraps the end with some cloth as makeshift padding.

Once the Vagrant is moving on three legs, we head back to rejoin the rest.

“You’re gambling on our own survival, you know,” I whisper to my compatriot.

Oliwia spins about, shocked.

“Out here, our lives are measured in medical supplies. Every antiseptic, IV and painkiller you give away is one less when we’re in tiefe Scheiße.”

“She needed them.” Ah, the empathy defense.

“So will you. Or Fynn, or Heiner. Neither Private Leon nor Vagrant Birgit will be around to cover your ass when we run into trouble. Tell me, got any morphine in your pack? More iodine?”

“I have iodine.” What she doesn’t say says more.

“Next time, take stock of what you have and ration it carefully. The Spital doesn’t deliver out here.”

“No wonder Albrecht hates you,” she shoots back, openly wearing her scorn. “I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not you haven’t seen field duty in so long.”

So, she was paying attention when Albrecht chewed me out. I smile at that. What she doesn’t know is that luck favors the prepared, and I had a heavy hand in those preparations. No sense spoiling that for her though.

“City Judge Ernst tells us they received a radio distress call,” Heiner announces as we rejoin them. “We’re going to investigate.”

“But you said it was probably just a Scrapper,” Fynn interjects. The fool is correct. 

“The Nullpellia delegation would travel with Scrappers as guides, or with Cartel stronzi hauling shipments back north,” Martello says, then turns and spits. No love lost there.

“It’s worth a check. Even if our Scrapper wasn’t with the delegation, she might have seen signs of them.” With that, Heiner turns his shades to the Purgan. “You have our bearings?”


“Then move out.”

Onward southeast. Not good. Closer to the enemy lines. Now the sun is directly above us. The heat is on. At least the Purgan has shut up.

Fynn wipes the perspiration from his forehead. I mean sinciput. “Hey boss, weren’t they going to put a watchtower out this way at some point?”

Heiner shoots his Vagrant a scowl, visible despite the dark glasses and the shadow of his hat. “Not that it’s information to share outside the Protectorate, but command decided on another location.”

As if it would have done much good. The Protectorate’s watchtowers were isolated fortifications, often host to a few Judges presiding over a machine gun. Enough to scare off a group of Cockroaches, but worthless before a dedicated push, and easily cut off. 

“This is Protector Heiner to whomever called tin can 7, please respond.” Our leader tries again over the radio. No reply.

“How far out are we?” Fynn asks the Scrapper. “From Siege that is.”

“With our rest breaks, maybe a… better than 15 kilometers?” 

“So that puts us within range of the delegation’s original distress?” Oliwia asks. 

“Almost,” Heiner says. “So stay on high aler–”


All eyes shoot to Martello. His foot hangs in the air, arms circling backwards like some Purgan clown. Oliwia rushes forth and grabs his shoulder, jerking him away from the gully that none of us spotted.

“How the fuck didn’t we see this?” the Vagrant asks as he spits into the large ditch. Fair question. I get near the edge and kneel. The headscarp rises just enough that the grass hides it. If the enemy were prepared to ambush us, we’d be dead already.

“If I were running from the Cockroaches, this would be a decent hiding spot but a poor place to flee through,” Heiner says. True. The gully is narrow, though almost three meters deep with a floor of rocks and bushes to snag anyone running along the bottom. 

Oliwia points across the chasm. “Look though.”

“At what?” Martello asks.

“The grass across from us.” She was right. It was disheveled, hanging limply over the opposite edge. Some roots hung in the air, as though someone tugged them out of the earth in a mad scramble to climb. 

Fynn holds the edge and descends. The walls are a slant and not a straight drop, and he slides the remaining meter. Approaching the spot Oliwia indicated, he kneels, then shouts. “Boot print!”

“Don’t go up over the torn grass,” Heiner orders as he lowers himself. “I want to preserve their tracks.”

Finding a trail on the other side proves difficult, until I notice a smattering of wires beside a rock. Sweeping away some dust, I lift a shattered radio. “Found something.”

Martello takes an immediate interest, and I can see the greedy gleam in his eyes. “Definitely belonged to a Scrapper.”

“How do you know?”

He taps the back. Of course, a rune. The shitdiggers would carve them on their undergarments if they bothered to wear any. 

Between tussles of grass, we find another boot print in the dirt. Then another. Heiner unslings his hammer and rests it on a shoulder, drawing a flintlock pistol in his opposite hand. “Fan out, stay low, stay quiet. Watch for traps.”

Martello draws his shotgun, while Fynn readies his musket. Oliwia and I glance at each other and pair up without question nor hesitation. A product of our phalanx training. 

We creep forward, our attention everywhere. The grass is taller, dancing from an western wind. We inspect every few steps for signs of snares–concealed bear traps or strange patches of dry clay. Boulders and sharp rock outcroppings in the distance could be concealment for the cannibals.

But the trail is there. Left boot print. Right. A blood stain. A footprint, then another. Boot print to the side, then… I’m no expert, but something happened here. A scuffle. More blood. Fynn lifts a spent shell casing.

Oliwia points. Behind a bush sprouting unnaturally crimson leaves lies the still body of our enemy.

The dead Cockroach is gaunt and nude save for a loincloth. What muscles he once possessed are wiry. Paint made of black ash covers his torso, depicting insect limbs of his clan’s namesake. His gnarled hands grasp at his gut, dark blood running over his digits to be imbibed by the parched earth.

I hold my breath to escape the stench of his abdomen wound, yet I still smirk down on the carcass. The gunshot no doubt passed through the liver, perhaps turning the organ into hepatic mush. I step around and oh… oh ho ho. The exit wound is lower than the entry, and possibly snagged a kidney on the way out. His back is completely soaked. That countenance though. Mouth open, half in the dirt. Maybe his death was instant or took a moment. Or maybe he died of the exsanguination, slow and steady until death was a relief after several long minutes of agonal respiration…


“What the fuck are you smiling at?” Heiner asks.

I cough, recovering. “I think our cold friend here tackled our Scrapper and was shot, point blank, during the struggle.”

“He wasn’t alone though,” Oliwia says. “I found a different pair of boot prints, and more bare footprints.”

“How many attackers?” Heiner asks.

“I’d say at least two others besides the dead one.”

We press on, coming across a dirt patch with a clear trail. Rounding a boulder, we spot the end of our search.

Three bodies lie upon a blockfield. The first is almost supine, wearing patchwork leathers and goggles. Her abdomen is ruined, crimson ponds where a Cockroach stabbed her half a dozen times with either a sharpened bone or a knife. An aging pistol sits in the dirt just beyond her cold fingers. 

Her killer didn’t live much longer, however. He had collapsed perhaps 10 meters beyond her, face down. His arm up to the clavicle is utterly decimated, likely blunt force trauma. Further on, another cannibal is splayed upon the rocks. A couple of vultures are already enjoying the vivid picnic of exposed gray matter.

Oliwia covers her mouth and looks away, going pale. Looking at me, she manages, “I’m going to guess a Judge’s work.”

“Astute,” I say. “What else?”

“Assuming this is the work of their hammers, then at least a City Judge in rank.”

Heiner scans the horizon. “How long ago?”

I kneel next to the Scrapper and open her jaw to test the firmness. “Paleness yet no rigor mortis…”

“What?” Heiner asks. 

“Her muscles are relaxed. No bloating yet, so recent. No more than four hours.”

Even as I’m speaking, the grave-robbing Purgan lifts her pistol. His avarice clear as day as he pulls the emptied magazine. An acrid taste forms on my tongue, and I nearly deliver a round of saliva to the filthy scavenger’s face.

Then he opens her satchel for all to see. My eyes light up. There lie several silvery cubes, shiny enough to draw the attention of dirt diggers. I tighten my lips to keep from speaking as the fool reaches with his bare hands…

Don’t touch that!” Oliwia screams.

Martello halts. Damn you, bitch!

“I think those are heavy metal.” She kneels down beside Martello, scowling as she studies the find. “What do you think, Luther?”

 If only she kept her mouth shut. I don’t know how neutral I keep my features as I mutter, “It could be thallium.”

“What is the pericolo?” Martello asks, waving his hands in his ignorance.

“There’s a reason she was wearing protection.” Oliwia points to the victim’s gloves. “It would readily be absorbed in your skin. You’d be sick within an hour.”

And dead within a week, I don’t add.

The Scrapper nods, but is undeterred. Closing the satchel, he raises the woman’s head to free the strap, then places it at his side. “Should be worth something, ?”

The flash of anger Oliwia bears speaks volumes. Suffice to say, she has reached her limit for this Purgan piece of shit. 

The blast catches us off guard. 

My back tenses reactively, neoprene tightening from my quickened pulse. Wide eyed, Oliwia and Martello immediately look behind me. I spin around. 

A small white cloud rises from the now upturned Cockroach. The waft of sulfur stings my nostrils. As it clears, I see a lump nearby. 

It’s Fynn, curled into a ball. 

A moment later, the Vagrant starts screaming.

Fynn!” Heiner rushes towards his protege. Oliwia scrambles to her feet to join him, and I follow. 

Rolling him over, Fynn is grimacing tightly. One hand squeezes the other, and when Oliwia coaxes the boy to show the wound, we realize he’s lost two fingers. The small and ring digits of his right hand, all the way down to the middle phalanxes. 

“What the fuck was that?” Oliwia screams, wide eyed.

“Black powder bomb. Another Judge must have left a trap for the enemy,” Heiner replies as he undoes Fynn’s bloodied shirt. The Vagrant yelps as the garment snags on a nail penetrating his torso, and the Protector moves much more cautiously after that.

I watch Oliwia, whose gaze darts all over the damage. The panic is palpable, her skin paling. I’m not surprised though. Injuries after the fact are one thing, but a concussive blast followed by lacerations and dismemberment is a potent mix of shock. After a moment, she begins rattling words. “Multiple penetrations in… need, need some bandages. Um, um, s-swabs…”

My mandible flexes as I roll my eyes. This is no time for amateur hour. “Are you a Spitalian or not?”

She looks at me, bewildered then angry. “What? Of course!”

“Then speak like one, Famulancer.”

Her anger lingers before she swallows, and determination brings her back to her senses. Examining the wounds on Fynn’s chest harder, her assessment becomes smooth. “Multiple foreign bodies, at least one penetrating the chest cavity. Another in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, and two in the left lower. Luther, povidone and bandages. Heiner, try to make him comfortable.”

“What can I do? What can I do?” Martello yelps. 

“Go find his missing fingers,” I say. Oliwia perks a brow, but I meet her stare, daring her to contradict me. It’s a pointless gesture, but better to give the idiot purpose so he doesn’t hinder us. 

One nail hangs superficially beside the sternum, not really even penetrating the skin. It’s the same story for one of the two in the lower abdomen, but the other is deeply embedded. We leave it–better to prevent blood loss. However, a twisted piece of metal is nestled just below the ribs. 

We both pause. The blood is almost black.

“Get it out!” Fynn screams, scratching at the wound.

“Stop! That’ll make it worse!” Oliwia manages to grab his wrist before he can complicate things. “Bandage and leave it until we can get back!”

Heiner makes himself useful, holding down his Vagrant. Meanwhile we administer iodine and bandages for the trunk, then tend to the stumps of his fingers.

The tasks become monotonous, everything handled through muscle memory. My mind is preoccupied, trying to weigh how we’re going to tell Heiner that Fynn is already dead. Yet I keep wondering how many medical supplies we’ll waste on a lost cause. Gauze, dressings, iodine. How long before Oliwia offers our precious painkillers? 

Then I stare at Fynn’s twisted countenance, and instantly remember another Vagrant. The last one I treated in the field. 

I can’t remember his name, but he was even worse off than Fynn. Phosphorus had burrowed deep craters into his umbilical and epigastric regions. The lining of his intestines were burned through. One did not have to look hard to make out the smooth, meaty flesh of his liver. The burn victim grabbed my arm, squeezing hard enough to hurt my bicep. 

“Do not look,” I told him.

He did of course, and he knew what it meant. He wanted to scream, but the hole in his diaphragm complicated the attempt. With teary eyes, he pulled an envelope from his coat and thrust it into my hands. Again and again, he tapped the name on it. “Clara of Koch Farm.”

Then he died. And little did I know at the time that the contents of that letter would keep me out of this hell for almost a year. My eyes narrow, his name almost forming in my mouth when someone pulls me back to the present with an ignorant question.

“Can his hand be saved?” Heiner asks, oblivious as to how unimportant that is. Oliwia looks at me, with no heart to tell him the truth. I squash the urge to lie, to tell the Protector yes–provided we depart immediately. The Vagrant would suffer, but we’d be on the road home all the quicker. 

Meeting Heiner’s gaze, I tip my head to the left and stand, stepping away. He follows some distance, and once alone I keep my voice down. “We can’t save Fynn’s life.” 

Heiner says nothing. His countenance is chiseled granite. Admittedly, I am a little disappointed.

“He’s suffered serious liver trauma, and there’s nothing we can do. The trip back will be brutal, and if blood loss doesn’t take his life, an infection surely will.” 

Something softens in Heiner briefly, but he hardens himself again. “Is there anything we can do at all? You have nothing that can stabilize him?”

My hand creeps onto my pouch. Naturally I don’t want to surrender it, to waste even more on a futile gesture. Yet the Protector would mention Fynn’s death in his report, and the Hippocrats would ask questions. I had no delusions that Oliwia would cover for me, meaning there would be reprimand. Consequences. Here’s hoping I won’t regret this later. “We can administer something for the pain. He won’t suffer as he goes. I’ll tell him the news.”

“Found one!” Martello screams triumphantly, rushing over to Oliwia with his grisly find. I flex the sternocleidomastoid muscles of my neck in a desperate attempt not to laugh. If his clenched jaw and bulging temporal vein was anything to go by, Heiner would murder me.

I walk over and accept the missing digit for her, then Martello runs off to seek the other. The appendage is covered in soot and getting cold. My mouth becomes a flat line as I kneel down beside the wounded Vagrant. He looks at me with angry eyes and saves me the trouble, his voice weak. “I’m not gonna make it, am I?”

Oliwia stares at the ground, crushed. A buccal click escapes my mouth, before I meet his eye. “No Fynn. It’s in your liver. We can give you some morphine and you can try to walk if you want. But you’ll either bleed out or–”

“Let me try.” He says, and adds when I reach for my pouch. “No drugs.”

My brow rises in surprise. Oliwia perks up as well, a glimmer of disgusting hope in her eye. Fynn puts a hand on my shoulder, and we try to help him stand. Yet half way up he collapses with a grunt, grasping at his abdomen where the shrapnel no doubt grinds at already torn tissue. He scowls, baring his teeth. “Give me a minute and let’s try agai–”

Capo?” Everyone’s attention goes to Martello. The Scrapper is still, gazing on the horizon.

Distant lupine shapes appear where the sky meets the earth.


And just behind them, men. Several. All coming our way.

“They must have heard the bomb,” Heiner snaps. “Can he be moved?”

“Luther, take his legs, Heiner his shoulders,” Oliwia blurts out. “We’ll carry him t–”

“Forget it,” Fynn huffs before we can respond, sweat on his brow. “Take my weapon, boss. Leave me one of your pistols.”

Heiner remains still for a moment, and reluctantly bends down to collect the fallen musket. Rising, he draws a pistol from his coat and offers it to his protege. The Vagrant coughs as he withdraws a muzzleloading pouch from his coat and the ramrod from under the gun barrel. He sets them on a flat rock and prepares a few reloads.

“You can’t just give up like this,” Oliwia says, in a tone bruised by defeat. 

“Famulancer Oliwia, gather our supplies and prepare to leave.” Heiner delivers the orders stoically. Oliwia gives him a petulant lip but begins packing. 

Martello joins us, hopping from foot to foot. “What do we do, capo?

Despite his shades, I can tell from the wrinkles that Heiner’s eyes are narrowed. He scans the area, looking for something, a defensive point. “We’ll take position a–”


Everyone looks at Fynn.

“Just go, boss. I’ll buy you time, just get away.” Fynn brings a knee up and sets his forearm upon it, readying his shot.

The Protector says nothing. Perhaps it’s more than a rank to him. Oliwia fidgets, wrestling to shut up.

“Go!” The Vagrant yells. A tear gathers in his eye as he takes aim.

Heiner nods. We leave Fynn behind.

The first shot is heard before we reach the gully, followed by a faraway whimper. The second shot echoes just as we reach the headscarp. Martello is the first to descend. We hear no third shot by the time he reaches the bottom. Only animal snarls as the beasts find their prey at last. 

Fynn never screams. 

“They’re gaining on us,” Oliwia warns, pointing out the approaching figures behind us. She isn’t wrong. Over the plains of brown grass come three gendos and six Cockroaches. At least. 

Heiner’s jaw juts out as he surveys the area, then points at a rocky hill across the gully, maybe 15 meters to our left. “There. Take up defensive positions.”

My stomach churns. I bite my lip and slide into the gully. Heiner drops beside me and the two of us catch Oliwia, whose short height makes getting down challenging. She runs past and climbs the bank with the help of Martello’s proffered hand, while the Protector and I find our own ways. Before long, we’re scrambling up the boulders.

“Spitalians, take positions at the front,” Heiner commands as he unslings Fynn’s musket. “Martello, help me reload.”

The Protector climbs to a higher rock, Martello in tow. The Purgan proves something of an idiot savant–he accepts the Protector’s ammo pouch and immediately begins readying pinched packets of powder in a row. Then he holds the ramrod at the ready.

Oliwia and I kneel side by side, setting our Splayers against the cover of a rock. Without looking at her, I say, “I’m guessing you don’t have any firearms or grenades.”

“Just a knife if they get too close. You?”

“Didn’t see any. Guess Albrecht forgot.”

She suppresses a sardonic chuckle. I smile, then study the advancing enemy. They’re close enough that I make out chains, rattling around the necks of the gendos. At least we don’t have to worry about Phosphorite artillery…

“Fynn deserved better,” Oliwia mutters.

Then suddenly I remember. “Eike!”


“That was his name. The Vagrant. The one who died of phosphorus burns during my last patrol.”

She gives me a perked brow. “Why are you suddenly saying this?”

Good question, why bother? We’re going to perish on this hill, all due to a fool’s errand for the Judges. Everyone dies, but is there a fate worse than a meaningless, moronic death? I shake my head. “If we make it out of this, I’ll tell you. Who knows, it may save you from going through this ever again.”

Her quizzical look vanishes as Heiner’s thunder rings out. 

A gendo yelps loudly as the bullet catches its chest, and crashes into the dusty earth. The others race on, some distance from the gully. Above me, Martello packs the barrel and slams the ramrod home while Heiner switches to his flintlock pistol. He lines up another shot, and fires.

This time, the bullet zips through another gendo’s flank. The beast doesn’t stop. Adrenaline and norepinephrine help it ignore the injury. Yet the savage behind the gendo suddenly hobbles, fresh blood erupting from his foot. Two for one, not bad.

My hands tighten about my Splayer. The animals aren’t stupid, spotting the gully and arching their spines to prepare their jump. Heiner gets another shot in, but there’s no time to watch or think.

The first vaults, teeth bared and claws extended. Oliwia lifts her Splayer, letting the beast sail right into the tip. Impaled, the dying gendo struggles and thrashes, its weight almost dragging her into the gully as it falls. 

I’d help, but I have my own problem. Another gendo sails over and lands to my left, more cautious than his dying packmate. I jab my Splayer a few times, but the beast plays coy. Sidestepping, keeping its distance. Neither of us overcommit, yet time is on its side. Already the Cockroaches near the gully, preparing to leap across.

The gunshot is different, a blast that sends my enemy rolling back into the ditch. The click of the break action means the Purgan is reloading. Something whistles over my head, but I can’t afford to check.

The enemy flies at us. 

Oliwia and I are back-to-back. Swarmers land around us, just beyond our reach. Naked save for the occasional rag and soot warpaint. Barely an ounce of fat on any of them, which explains their appetite. Cunning, they gather and wait for a larger figure nearing the gully. 

One sees an opening and lunges towards Oliwia, a stone club raised. The musket cracks, catching the assailant in the shoulder. Yet the Famulancer doesn’t think and thrusts out anyway. Her Splayer stabs his torso, finishing him off. 

And leaving her wide open. 

I bring my weapon around to cover her, but the other Swarmers press in. It’s over, I think. Until a shadow passes above.

Heiner descends with his hammer, in a flying arc that catches the foremost Swarmer right in the cranium. The crunch is wet, a scarlet burst that coats the others. Yet the Cockroaches aren’t even deterred–there is no friend or enemy. Only meat. 

The Protector frees me to thrust into another assailing Oliwia. As the spearhead sinks in, I jerk the trigger, and the wings of my Splayer’s blade snap closed. The Swarmer’s expression is horrified and white as his abdomen is deeply sheared.

I look to another target as something zips by again, and Martello screams. I risk a glance above, and notice an arrow jutting from his chest. Dangerously close to his heart and lungs. Snapping back to the fight, I spot the cunt of an archer. She hangs beyond the gully, grinning gleefully. A stripe of black over her joyful eyes.

Then the biggest problem of all thuds before us. A Warrior, broad and muscular, wearing a helmet crafted of human jaws and bearing a thick shield. This one sports a long club protruding several sharpened ribs.

Heiner dives straight at him.

With their leader’s arrival, the Swarmers near Oliwia sidestep out of the fray, fearing the wide swings of both sides’ champions. Relieved, Oliwia is suddenly beside me. Our phalanx training guides us.

We point our Splayers outward and begin alternating thrusts, marching forward. Jab, step, jab. Every motion is quick and controlled. Finesse pushes the three Swarmers back with pure, sustainable offense. They stumble, unbalanced and unable to organize. One weaves away to escape my Splayer, only to knock his ally off the ledge, into the gully. 

“Now!” I shout, thrusting deep. Oliwia does the same. The two Swarmers flail and teeter, one sliced into the arm as they drop. We slip forward and stab downward, catching them on the slope and skewering their pelvises and legs. Oliwia’s victim howls as her Splayer finds something sensitive. Good.

Zip! I feel the thud. Cold spreads over my skin. I glance down, expecting the worst. 

The arrow sticks out from my satchel. 

No time to dwell on good fortune. With the left flank secure, we round Heiner’s fight to tackle the remaining foes. As we reposition, I spot Martello on the ground, dead still. The shotgun lies open next to him. There is nothing we can do.

Lifting our Splayers, Oliwia and I charge the last two Swarmers. Yet at the last second, something leaps from the gully upon me! The fucking gendo that Martello wounded! Panicking, I slash with my Splayer, creating a red gash. Yet the beast still tackles me!

The haft of my Splayer falls across my chest, and the gendo’s weight pins on the ground. It thrashes, claws biting into my neoprene. Unable to throw a punch, I grab its open wound, squeezing and rending with my hands. The beast tears itself away with a pathetic whine and I shoot a foot at its snout for good measure. The stupid animal dives into the gully to escape, yelping repeatedly as it dashes off.

My chest is bleeding, but it doesn’t matter. The pair of Swarmers batter Oliwia, her arm limp. I rise and turn the tide, sinking my Splayer into one of their sides. Angling the rear of my haft up, I force him onto his knees. He screams without a sound. I shove the spear deeper to finish him off, my teeth grit with hate.

The final Swarmer bellows, turning his attention from Oliwia to me. I can’t withdraw my weapon in time as he leaps, axe rising. 

Then I hear twang.

The arrow sinks into his shoulder, and the Swarmer drops onto me. The archer fucked up! I block the axe with my haft, slightly denting the shaft. Yet Oliwia isn’t out yet, her weapon piercing the Cockroach’s back. 

As the man dies, I turn my attention to the archer. She’s running, her bare ass perpetually slapped by her empty quiver. 

“Luther!” Oliwia screams.

I step back just in time. A club serrated by bones clips my shoulder. The Warrior brings his weapon about for another slash. Slipping beyond his strike, I spot Heiner behind him, lying on his back. His arm is a ruinous mess.

Oliwia dives in. The Warrior swings, and I catch the loud crash of glass shattering as she falls. Then the Cockroach turns and stomps towards me at an alarming rate.

I raise my Splayer defensively, but can’t get over how fucked I am. He didn’t get through his fight with Heiner unscathed at least. The shield clings to his forearm in broken tatters, while purple welts blossom on his arm and chest.

The Warrior charges.

I feint with my Splayer. His club still catches it, smacking it aside. I gallop back, bringing my weapon about again. He catches the shaft with a backhanded swipe. Wise to his tactics, I drop my guard and let the club swoosh by.

I lunge for the kill. 

Big mistake.

He sidesteps, catching me in the throat with his spare hand, anticipating my maneuver. I’m horizontal for a moment before the earth slams my back, jarring my spine. The air escapes my chest and I can’t breathe for a moment. My senses fail me–I can’t roll. Can’t move.

I can only watch the club descending. Through the collection of jaws, the Warrior sneers vengefully as the coup de grâce falls. 

At least I’ll never see Siege or Albrecht again. 

The Warrior screams, leaning to his left. Blood squirts from his flank. Oliwia snarls as she jams her Splayer’s broken mollusk-case into him. Broken glass shards sparkle in the sun.

Move! My body listens, and obeys. I rise, choking on my Splayer and thrusting. It enters, just beneath the sternum. I push deeper, viscera running down the length of my arm. Bypassing the ribs, I can tell from the pink froth forming over his lips that I’ve punctured the lungs. The Warrior goes limp, grasping at his chest. 

Perhaps I have a future as a cardiovascular surgeon after all.

He doesn’t fall as much as he crumbles. Decades of accumulative muscle mass, thickened bones and finely honed nerves now nothing more than a pile of limbs and ruined organs. Oliwia limps over, bearing a black eye, and offers me a hand. I accept her help and stand.

“Why didn’t you…” I take a burning breath. “Use your Splayer end?”

She spins it around. The blade is bent aside, now more of a spatula than a Spitalian weapon.

Chuckling hurts as I seek a cold pack from my pouch and give it to her, then glance across the gully. 

The archer grows distant as she chases the horizon. Another Cockroach hobbles away, leaning heavily on his uninjured foot. He holds the heckles of a gendo who moves lamely. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the beast is chained to him. How long before one decides to eat the other, I wonder…

“Let’s check the others,” Oliwia says. One glance at Martello says it all. The Purgan’s chest is not rising, his eyes firmly closed. She goes to examine him anyway, while I make my way towards Heiner.

A groan escapes the Protector as I gently roll him on his back. He’s alive, just. His arm holds on by a few tendons, and he has the sense to clench the end in a tight grip. Blood streams from his mouth and nostrils, and his rattling breath convinces me to remove his chest plate. For a second, I think I am staring at a massive hematoma. Yet there is something asymmetrical about the ribs, protrusions that don’t break the skin. 

After applying a tourniquet to his stump, I fetch my stethoscope for an auscultation. Oliwia returns, crestfallen, as I listen to the absent lung sounds in Heiner’s chest. 

“Mart…” Heiner’s voice fails him.

She nods. “Archer got him.”

“Deadly, bitch…” he croaks. 

I chuckle at Heiner. He doesn’t smile back.

“How bad?” Oliwia asks.

“Pneumothorax. At least one lung is almost certainly penetrated. Between that, internal bleeding and other trauma…” I shake my head. “You’ll die before we return. At least we have morphine.”

His scowl is hard as he weighs in on this, considering his options. Archot’s imperative is that the bodies of all Judges be returned if possible. I look away, and my sight falls on Martello’s satchel. 

Then an idea forms, one that leaves me smirking. “Would you prefer a little vengeance instead?”

“What?” Oliwia asks. 

“You could take several with you, Heiner. No bomb this time.” I meet the Protector’s gaze. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I let another man see the true evil in me. The ruthlessness, the disdain I have, all so he knows the sincerity of my hatred.

There is a long wait. I don’t need to check over my shoulder to know that Oliwia is gawking at me.

Heiner grunts. And nods.

“Famulancer, get the thallium from the Scrapper’s bag and a few things to burn.” Meanwhile I obtain the rubbing alcohol from my pack, and a tin cup from Heiner’s kit. If I recall my chemistry lessons, the average campfire should get hot enough to melt the metal…

Our return journey is uneventful, and silent. Oliwia broods, though sometimes I see the muted emotions almost surface. A tear she dabs at. Her long stare of Weltschmerz–world weariness–settles in. A few times she opens her lips to ask a question. I suspect she’s about to ask about what we did to Heiner. Instead, she asks a smarter question.

“You said earlier,” she begins haltingly, late in the afternoon. “That you’d tell me about how you got out of this duty. Something about a Vagrant named Eike.”

I grin. “He gave me a letter addressed to Clara of Koch Farm. His love.”

She threatens to cry.

“Oh, don’t get soft now. Koch Farm was just outside Siege, long abandoned and turned into a brothel by the Apocalyptics. Clara was just another Magpie whore.” Her sadness transforms into disgust, a tantalizing sip of what is to come. “Please. She didn’t care in the least. Couldn’t even read, but she was for hire.”

“I’ve heard eno–”

“Oh no you haven’t, because it gets better. She was for hire, and had a real kink for roleplaying too. Pretending to be poor Eike’s fiance was getting stale. So when I introduced her as ‘my sister’ to Dr. Besselman, she would do anything to keep her ‘big brother’ off the front lines. Coincidentally, Dr. Besselman needed a new assistant in the surgery wing.” 

I laugh. When syphilis is a problem in one’s work, it’s amazing what a few shots of penicillin can buy.

Oliwia’s eyes go wide. My grin spreads from ear to ear as I absorb her sweet horror before continuing.

“I like you Oliwia, enough to tell you the truth. Nothing out here is worth dying for, and believing otherwise is naive innocence that will only get you killed. After today, think hard about whether you ever want to go through field duty again. Then do whatever it takes to stay in Siege, or even better, get out. Go back to Justitian.”

I expect her to slap me. Groan. Vomit. To call me vile, slime. Instead, her features seem relatively calm, even pensive, as if considering my words. I can’t say if I’m pleased or disappointed. 

We carry on in silence.

It’s almost dusk when we encounter another group of about a dozen. Vagrants, Judges, a Hellvetic, Scrappers, and two other Spitalians. The lead Protector approaches us. “What group are you with?”

Oliwia says nothing, so I take charge. “Heiner’s. I’m afraid he and the other two didn’t make it.”

The Protector turns and spits. “Damn waste of Judges, and all for nothing.”

“Why? Any news?”

“Yeah. Hellvetic beam unit radioed that most of the delegation made it back on its own.”

How fortuitous. Shame I’m too tired to celebrate. Or even laugh at the delicious irony. 

“Pardon me, my good sirs,” someone breaks in, a City Judge by the look of him. His smile is empty, a doll’s imbecilic grin under a curved mustache. “You wouldn’t happen to have heard a rather loud bang during your recent journey?”

Oliwia stiffens. I bite. “Oh, we certainly did.”

“Good! Good. I left a present for our dear friends out there, and I certainly am glad that they received my parting gif–”

“Bartelan, will you shut the fuck up and get back into rank?” The Protector snaps. Bartelan’s smile vanishes, though I detect a faint tick in his cheek before he turns and obeys.

“Friend of yours?” I ask.

“He’s a piece of shit we found while chasing our own asses out there. Honestly, his antics earned him a helluva reputation. Anyway, if you both don’t need anything, fall into line and let’s get moving.”

Oliwia and I drift to the far left of the column, but already I hear Bartelan expounding the finer virtues of black powder bombs to one of the Vagrants. There’s something lacking about his manner, an inability to fit in, connect with others. Yet refreshingly there’s no desperate attempt to. No, it’s almost as though he’s proud of his deadliness. A predator, obsessing over his dangerous trap, even if it likely caused the death of a Vagrant and endangered four others.

Perhaps he’ll prove useful someday, I think with a smile.

Which reminds me. I glance at Oliwia and whisper, “Remember. We tell them Heiner died fighting.”

“Did we have to do that back there?” She huffs, whirling on me angrily with low but hot words. “Heiner couldn’t have known what that would have… you… you corrupted him.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps,” is all I say. He died soon after the injection. We were forced to administer CPR to continue circulating it, to fully marinate his body. Oliwia couldn’t do it though, not after feeling Heiner’s broken ribs through the compressions.

Perhaps I did corrupt him, convince him that revenge is the greatest virtue when a man is dying. Yet there was something in his resting countenance, an… acceptance. Stoic resolve. I couldn’t help but feel he gave us permission only to defend others. Every dead Cockroach was one less to threaten Siege and the Protectorate.

“You’re a total bastard,” she mutters, and turns away.

I smirk. So I didn’t twist Oliwia. Yet. And Heiner probably stayed true to himself at the end. 

Still, he did his part. See, those Cockroaches out there… those who find Heiner’s remains. They’ll do what they do best. Eat. Feast. The cannibals won’t even notice the odorless and tasteless thallium we laced within Heiner. Soon they will be vomiting their guts out. Fire will race along their nerves. Finally comes respiratory paralysis as they suffer slow, insidious deaths from heavy metal poisoning. 

As far as final meals go, theirs will have quite a rancorous taste.


Find more writing from James (aka Coniglio) at The Shape of Words to Come.