The Archetype Crucible


The Archetype Crucible

2108 AD: the world was slowly recovering from the ravages placed upon it by the fury of the Last War. For the last decade and a half the world had slowly climbed up out of the hole it had spent over fifty years digging for itself. Civilization existed in pockets, ruled by the Artifints. It was a new world order, an unexpected one consisting of the rise of new small nations and powerful city-states governed by massive computers and the surviving artificial intelligences, some of which were the remains of wartime military and government infrastructures which had taken up the reigns of social order when the human governments that created them had collapsed into chaos.

For the last ten years now, the local area had been plagued with raiders and bandits, fast roving gangs of outlaws, heavily armed and highly mobile with salvaged military assets. Most of the gangs were composed of ex-military soldiers, deserters, and common criminals thrown together out of a desire to survive and prosper. The latter had escaped and found freedom when the domestic criminal justice systems and local authority levels had broken down. Towns and cities became fortresses, trade routes were traveled by armed caravans, in turn protected by guards and hired mercenary groups. Now the remaining vestments of civilization that were left were constantly preyed upon by outlaws. The bandit chieftains and their gangs raided the towns and cities, razed the villages and ambushed the convoys at will. The shipping routes were even beset by a new generation of pirates and hijackers. The criminals lived in the ruins that dotted the landscape, scavenging what they could from the past. Smashed or hastily abandoned military bases, old naval ports, tactical staging areas, and the long forgotten heavily fortified urban security centers became their makeshift bases of operations from which they roamed at will and struck with impunity far and wide through the shattered territories and the newly formed nations.

Not every band of ex-military personnel had chosen to the life of the raider, some chose to sell their services as convoy and caravan guards to the wealthy merchants and trade companies, some sold their skills as mercenaries for hire, and some chose to act as bounty hunters, tracking down the troublesome outlaws and eliminating them, always for a price. The new armies of the new political powers were often formed from the remains of the old armies of the old political powers. Veterans who survived the Last War and the Fall found ample employment opportunities in the world that followed. The local market had once been good, but the competition was well armed and bandits were not above forming temporary alliances to deal with a particularly strong band of vigilantes, often decimating their ranks even further when the spoils of war to be divided were hotly contested over.

Bandit and outlaw gangs were picking the area southwest of the Line clean to support their greed. The outlaw gangs were traditionally nomadic, they moved when the area was played out, roaming to fresher pickings. Campaigns of conquest, driven by lust, were common place tales among the bands of displaced refugees found on the roads and the shattered highways. With the collapse of any central government and the territories all squabbling over dividing lines, the warlords were having an easy time of carving out large fiefdoms from the remains of the Old World order. In the world today, might still made right. There was strength in numbers, and divided, without alliances, without trade routes and trust, the territories were falling under bandit control, one by one.

Towns and cities paid for what protection they could with what they had; supplies, food, equipment, alcohol, and sometimes drugs and medical supplies. Trade between areas of ordered civilization required constant protection from the outlaws. Often the mercenaries were as bad as the bandits that they replaced, sometimes taking up residence in the locales that they had been hired to protect, establishing a new order in favor of their own regimen. The territories grew wary of any strangers, especially well armed strangers.

But every now and then, there were tales of groups of soldiers who still lived by some semblance of ordered discipline, with a view to justice, and who molded their lives by the rule of military law.

This is one of those tales.

General Rettig had more than a full company of loyal soldiers hidden in the mountains to the southwest. His mixed force was one of the better equipped mercenary units operating this side of the Line after the Fall, but even Rettig had suffered from simple attrition and prolonged depletion of his supplies over the last few years. His armor was patched, his infantry hobbling, and his munitions dwindling. From his hidden base of operations in a fertile valley, Rettig had waged wholesale war on the bandits and the outlaws for the last seven years, sweeping down with the shriek of blower fans and the rumble of heavy treads, showing no mercy in his war on the lawless, and looting the ill-gained caches of those who stood against his. He often traded with cities and towns, equitably, gaining his reputation as a fair and honest, if somewhat cold and harsh abdicator of justice. For years, Rettig’s troops were the favorite choice of many territories, and a regular sight with many of the established trade route caravans. But that was years ago, and times had become hard and bitter now for everyone.

At first, the pickings had been good, Rettig could maintain his force’s pressure through simple combat accumulation, but as the bandits fought against not only Rettig, but each other, the supplies available to all sides dwindled and were fiercely contested. At the current rate, Rettig estimated that his forces would be walking and using sharp sticks by Spring time, maybe sooner. Rettig needed supplies to maintain his forces; medicine, food, ammunition, spare parts, and volunteers to replace those who fell under his command. His best scouts were sent far and wide, by foot and by horse, to negotiate contracts and to find supplies or those who would still trade for protection. Most of his scouts never returned, they were either killed or chose to desert, finding better employment opportunities. Either way, Rettig knew it was only a matter of time before his base was discovered, if it hadn’t already been learned in a variety of methods from one of those who had not returned. He needed a new base of operations and he needed his scouts to find his one and quickly. Out of all the scouts sent out, only three returned but one of those scouts had a very interesting story to tell and backed it up with detailed information.

The roads were never safe, packed with refugees and gangs of highwaymen, the once prosperous trade between towns and cities had come to a virtual halt in the last two years, despite the efforts of Rettig and others like his to keep the conduits of civilization open and flowing.

Somewhere, some of the bandits had gotten smart, much to even Rettig’s surprise. The roving packs of outlaws were suffering horrendous attrition rates when they tried anything other than their traditional hit and run raid tactics, but the targets available for such hit and run raids were rapidly vanishing. The refugees were little more than sport for the bandits, and often the refugees were just displaced victims from a previous raid. The philosophy became that you could only rob someone so often before they had nothing more to take. That time had come upon the outlaws without warning and without mercy. The lifestyle had reached its pinnacle, a new order was required if banditry was to survive as a profitable occupation. A new angle was needed and one man had the vision. Escobara Farez, an ex-Paneuropean special forces officer who prided himself not only in his tactical cunning and military ruthlessness, but also in his claim to owning the most still-functioning military hardware as well as the ex-military personnel required to maintain it. Farez had taken over several rival factions, often by brute force, assimilated them, and shaped them into a large, fast moving raider force, a cohesive blade which he used to carve himself out a small outlaw empire southwest of the Line, making Bethelshire in Cape Far his hub of operations.

Bethelshire had once been a thriving port city, a resupply depot for the Combine as it launched its Springtime offensives ever deeper into Paneuropean controlled territory. Some twenty years ago, much of Bethelshire had been leveled in a three week long campaign by the mechanized forces of the 3rd Paneuropean Army to retake the port, and the dogged effort of the Combine 5th Army to deny them that outcome. Then, as war often does on a whim, the strategic and tactical value of Bethelshire shifted, it was forgotten as the Last War moved on to other territories, leaving the refugees and the citizens to salvage and rebuild as they could in the wake of combat.

The refugees from the smashed and broken criminal gangs were inherently drawn to Farez’s carefully organized operation. Farez required discipline, and the weak and malcontents were quickly eliminated. The survivors of the bandit wars and the punitive mercenary strikes enlisted in his ranks, swelling his numbers obscenely and multiplying his strength to that which was far greater than anyone could have ever imagined. In the space of a few months, under his direction, Farez fortified the city of Bethelshire. He and his men reinforced the walls, restrained the citizens, and took control of the city. Now, after fortifying the city and using the raw materials available from the ruins, Escobara and his gang were in an enviable position of having a well stocked base of operations from which to terrorize other cities and towns, bringing them under Farez’s control.

Farez’s assault on Bethelshire had been one of surprise, expert planning, and lightning swiftness. Months in planning, Farez had seeded the city with his own spies to act as a Fifth Column when the time was right. On his command, his army attacked simultaneously from within and from outside the city. Victory was complete and undeniable. Any local resistance had been overrun and smashed, dissenters were quelled, and the city became his and his alone. Three months of purging out any resistance to his plans, both on the side of the townsfolk and within his own ranks cleared the way for his ascendancy to be the supreme ruler of Bethelshire and eventually the surrounding area.

Bethelshire had been transformed into a vision of hell. Fires burned in Bethelshire all day long, the makeshift factories of Farez producing crude instruments of war for his army, the citizens working as the menial labor. Those who stood against Farez, those who betrayed him, or those whom he simply took a dislike to were often made examples of. Public displays of torture and mutilation were regular, with the sentence of being tortured to death as the most common punishment to be meted out. The body of the victim was often left impaled on a pike outside the city, mounted along the thoroughfare leading up to the city gates, or simply hung from an outside wall like a banner until it decayed into nothing. Each corpse was left as a warning to others and as a tribute to the handiwork of Farez’s torturers and their ill-gained craft turned vile art. Bastards and orphans were rampant in the social order of Bethelshire, where Farez’s soldiers roamed where they wanted to and did as they pleased.

The raid on the local manufactory, soon to be the jewel in Farez’s crown, had been equally well orchestrated. A crack team of ex-Paneuropean military computer and heuristical specialists had quickly reactivated the Artifint and put the automated processes to their own use. But a factory needed raw materials to produce finished goods, and Farez used his army to enslave the citizens of Bethelshire into a crude slave labor force, working day and night to supply the manufactory with raw materials scavenged from the destroyed parts of the city. Now the manufactory turned out small arms, support weapons and basic equipment for Farez and his forces. His army began to look more and more like an army, insignia, as well as equipment and weapons became standardized. Old junk was fed to the recyclers, to act as the core material for the construction of an insane outlaw war machine.

Understanding the capacity for Farez to gain control of the entire region, and knowing the fate of the cities and towns nearby if he did so, General Rettig had sent a single soldier into this man-made visage of Hell on Earth. That soldier was Lieutenant Jace. His mission was to find the leader of the citizens, discover if there was any chance of resistance, and to destroy Farez and his troops from the inside out, freeing the city and setting up trade negotiations between Rettig and the citizens. It was an impossible mission and an unobtainable objective, but it was the only shot that Rettig had, short of signing over his troops and joining Farez’s army to feed his soldiers and ensure his continued survival past the Spring. Morale was starting to fall within the ranks of the Irregulars and already there was talk of joining Farez’s army by some of the soldiers in Rettig’s ranks.

Rettig needed a miracle not only to save his and his troops, but to restore justice and trade to the area. Jace was given the task of manufacturing that miracle, in short order, from almost nothing at all. It was his specialty and Jace accepted his mission with the discipline of a soldier. His infiltration of the outlaw fortress would require that he travel light and fast, on foot. He took only what he needed; a secure tactical communications set, six days hard rations, a supply of drinking water, and two layers of refugee clothing to fight off the lingering Winter chill as well as not to arouse suspicion. His rucksack also carried a few personal essentials; a small Bible, some chemoglow sticks, first aid kit, some antibiotics, a few gold coins, a pair of silver chains, and a gold locket containing two pictures of complete strangers now long dead, the last items to be used for trade and barter if the need should arise. His weapons were also chosen with care and for the fast pace he would have to maintain to meet his mission parameters; a 5mm NORINCO snubmachinegun with variable electronic sight, five cassettes of spare ammunition, and his combat knife strapped to his right thigh in a low, quick break sheath.

Jace took with him one final piece of equipment, a dull, flat gray case, metal and alloy, with faded lettering on it. Jace couldn’t make out the faded writing, but the stylized hourglass and the barely legible large word TACOMBINE were all he needed to see to know that he held a genuine piece of relictech in his hands. Something from long ago, created when the world was at war and conflict was not simply confined to this territory, or the next one beyond. Jace carried with him a codekey with a chain around it. Only this specific key would open the case. The small skull and crossbones at the lower right hand side of the case indicated that any attempt to access the contents of the case without the key would result in destruction of the case, the contents, and possibly anyone within a few meters radius. For its size, the case was light, a kilo or two at the most. Jace stowed it carefully in his rucksack and hung the key around his neck, next to his crucifix on a chain. A silent play of hands and arms in mutual conformation of an unspoken pact, a pledge to duty understood and sincerely felt, followed by a short nod where the eyes met, was all that was required between the soldier and the commander. By the time that Rettig had turned to say something else, something that might have meant trouble saying, the soldier was gone.

Rettig’s envoy to Bethelshire spent five days marching into hell, down from the mountains, through the mire that was the late Winter melt, and losing himself among a group of refugees where he found shelter on his second and third night. The 5mm select fire caseless repeater was hung from a strap beneath his right arm, ready to be grabbed and fired through the rags that he had draped himself in, but the refugees were beyond thievery and banditry. Their morale was gone, they were already lost souls, wandering the Earth, looking for the basics of survival. He adjusted his stature and his pace from that of a disciplined soldier to that of a broken and destitute soul. They accepted him as one of their own, silently, asking no questions, and offering nothing in return. Jace took leave of their fetid company on the fourth day of his march, having come as close to his objective as the streams of refugees could carry him. From here on out, he was on his own. His regimen carried him south-southwest of the Line, away from the streams of refugees and he soon found signs of organized banditry. Some small groups of refugees, ambushed and picked clean, none more recent than several hours. His margin for safety remained high but his pace became more cautious, his actions carefully chosen, his stops for rest carefully planned and secreted from any wondering eyes. Often he avoided roving patrols of bandits, Farez’s men and women, well armed, but not always disciplined or alert. Their nature suggested busy duty rather than a steadfast desire to stop anyone who might try to infiltrate the area. Their search patterns were designed around large scale engagements, masses of troops, large gangs of rival factions or groups of frightened refugees, not solitary individuals wishing to avoid contact with them altogether.

Jace was a shadow, even during the day. He moved from cover to cover, using every bit of terrain to mask his presence, to break up his silhouette, and to hide his form. There in the shadows he silently observed each patrol, making notes of any old unit insignia, any uniforms, and any equipment. He tried to ascertain patterns to the equipment, if any weapons present were old or new, used or freshly manufactured. He made notes of patrol routes, routines, and anything else he thought Rettig might be interested in, carefully building a map of the area, detailing it as much as he could. The glow on the horizon reminded him of the Hell mentioned in the Christian Bible which he had read occasionally, sporadically, and in bits and pieces. It was the one book he kept with him, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He had found it five years ago, while hiding out in some ruins north of the Line. The tiny book had been clutched in the hands of a corpse, kneeling in the corner, back to the wall. Death must have come slowly, judging by the grimace on the face, illuminated by infrequent flashes from incoming artillery rounds in the distance. Intrigued as to what someone would wish to read in the last painful minutes of their life, Jace had carefully taken the Bible from the brittle fingers and spent the next few minutes reviewing the yellowing pages. After sliding the small Bible into a pocket in his fatigues, he noticed a silver chain and a crucifix around the corpse’s neck. Jace had taken that as well fort he dead had no use for such things. Now the crucifix rode around Hendrick’s neck, sharing the space with his dog tags, relics of his time spent in the Combine’s 4th lift calvary group, a lifetime ago and a world away. The tiny book in his pocket and the cold metal around his neck gave him comfort when he focused on them.

From his point of view, hidden from sight, the visage of Bethelshire was different at night, when the fires of the crude factories lit up the night sky in orange and yellow as they cast eerie dancing shadows that played across the buildings and lurked among the metal skeletons of the industrial ruins. During the day, he noted that a pall of black smoke hung about the city, a dark shroud that dimmed the sunlight. The smell of manufacturing mixed with the smell of decaying flesh in a putrid swirl that made him breathe lightly. The amount of violence that hung around the city was appalling even to one who had seen such horrors of war as Jace had.

Jace easily adjusted and synchronized his routine to match the various patrols. Their discipline was lacking, often the least concealed of available hiding places served him just as well as any of the harder to find areas would have. Either the outlaws were lax, or they were over confident. Each prospect was to his sole advantage. His entry into the city proper occurred at night, between patrol changes, and was not difficult for a specialist of his talents and experience to achieve. Gaining his bearings, he found shelter for the night in an abandoned warehouse, some three kays walking distance from his point of contact. His resting place would be within a discarded modular packing container half again his height and five meters long. It was one of many such units long ago abandoned in the ruins of an industrial warehouse, possibly by the retreating Paneuropeans. It’s owners had never come back to claim it and no one since then had staked a claim to it, so Jace considered it fair game.

The container smelled of dust and decades of disuse by anything larger than vermin, but it was his home for the night and he welcomed it as he would a hard cot back at the base. The five sides of the container were molded from five centimeter thick gray plastic and made for an excellent wind break since the open container end faced the wall of the warehouse, further masking his presence. His luck as much as his skill had determined where he would rest for the night. As long as he was silent, he was free to move around inside the container as he desired and be free of roving eyes which might see his movements. Jace had long ago foregone the softer pleasures of life which would lead him to be weak and undisciplined. Comfort was a stranger to him, decadence a sin. His life was regimented, his every move thought out, and his nature Spartan to a fault. Jace sat down, slowly relaxing sore muscles. After a brief and silent prayer of thanksgiving, he ate sparingly from the last of his rations, alone, and in the dim light afforded him by the early morning dawn that was slowly rising. His rucksack was noticeably lighter now without the six days of hardtack rations and his water supply was almost depleted. He bunched up the now empty space in his rucksack to form a crude pillow for his head. Setting his snubmachinegun where he could instantly reach it in the dark, he closed his eyes, said another short but heartfelt prayer, and relaxed as his soul became at ease. His sleep was one of a soldier’s, practiced, light and shallow, but enough to recharge his reserves and rest his tired muscles.

He did not dream and if he did, he did not remember.

Nightfall found him refreshed, awake, and hungry. He finished the last of his rations, clearing and focusing his mind. The hunger in his stomach now abated, he reviewed his list of standing mission parameters, sanitized his presence in the warehouse, and became one again with the shadows of the night, moving deeper into the city and his objective.

Three hours later found him observing the section of the city where Farez kept the citizens confined to. Crude walls had been erected around a five square block area to contain the population in the remains of office buildings. Gates, with guards and watch towers were spaced at regular intervals around the perimeter of the wall but they appeared to be designed to prevent someone from escaping from the compound rather than entering. Forced work gangs, often twenty to thirty individuals guarded by two or three heavily armed outlaws, were taken from the compound for work shifts and then put back within at regular intervals. It would be little trouble to wait in hiding and slip in among the gangs of workers shuffling back to their quarters thus gaining access to the more well defended areas. The populace had been crushed, their morale dampened to the point where even the guards inside the city were careless in their duties.

Jace stopped his thoughts as he realized that he wasn’t alone on the rooftop. The unmistakable sound of a weapon’s safety being released carried over the ambient noise as distinct as it was out of place and a sound that Jace knew all too well. Reflexes that had been honed on the battlefield now took over as he rolled sideways and into the cover of shadow, the only sound he made was a slight contact of his clothes as they pressed against the material of the roof. He squatted there in the shadow of the remains of a utility shack, waiting, listening, reaching out with his senses to determine how many adversaries there were and where they were in relation to his own position.

There came the sound of a muted footfall to his right, the sound of cloth waving in the wind, hand signals being given. Hand signals implied some form of training. There was a slight clink of metal on metal to his left, a hand weapon brushing up against a fastener or a link on a set of clothing. That makes it two on the roof top with him. The clink of metal sounded again along with a footfall. Then silence. The other person obviously knew that he had messed up twice in his approach but he was still willing to carry through with it. Clumsy, thought Jace as he grimaced at his adversaries’ mistakes. His adversaries had stopped in their advance on his position. He knew this because the rooftop was quiet, devoid of foreign sounds and only the ambient sounds of the city carried over the lip of the roof. A warm wind blew across the roof carrying with it the smells of smoke, food and crowds of unwashed people.

Another footfall; closer, and to the right. Jace looked down to see a shadow fall across his position. Amateur, he thought, as he rolled to meet his adversary as they rounded the corner of the utility shack. Jace spun on the small of his back, his right leg snapped out, sweeping the feet out from his opponent at the same time as Jace’s left leg snapped upwards, connecting with the weapon that the person carried two handed. The shape of the weapon was easily recognized, a Paneuropean PkZ-629 battle rifle, its bullpup design fired caseless four point two millimeter rounds from a linkless feed hundred round capacity disposable cassette. The weapon clattered from surprised and numbed fingers as the person fell almost next to Jace. He used the shock of his attack to withdraw his combat knife, grasping the pommel in his hand and angling the blade downward and inward so that the back edge of the blade rested parallel to his forearm, allowing him the options of slicing, stabbing or striking. His blade lashed out, its matte black edge reflected no light in its short, fast passage to the throat of the woman who lay next to him.


Her clothes were patchwork, mended, and obviously that of the citizens rather than the ex-military uniforms of the bandits. Home spun material, sewn by hand. Her gloves had once been regulation military or industrial grade but were now well worn with the fingertips missing. The PkZ-629 was also about as worn and Jace wondered if it would either fire or blow up in the user’s hands, a situation he didn’t intend to find out regardless. At any rate, the woman in front of him was not an enemy and thus Jace pulled the power of his strike at the last instant, turning a killing strike to her jugular vein into a higher up blow against the side of her skull, a blow that simply rendered the woman unconscious, removing her from the fight and allowing him to deal with the second opponent.

Understanding his position better and who he dealt with, he spun to reorient himself toward the second adversary, the foot falls rapidly closing in on him from behind. Jace spun and flexed into a combat crouch, his knife ready in his right hand, his left hand prepared to grab or strike. He stared up at the man standing three meters from him, the Combine M35A4 automatic pistol was held in both hands, a position of authority, his stance belied some training with the weapon and Jace could see that the handgun was newer than the PkZ-629 of his fallen companion, as well as showing signs of having been better taken care of. Staring down the dark muzzle of a weapon designed to carry and discharge anti-personnel rounds was enough to make Jace stop. At this range, in the hands of a trained user, the M35A4 would be able to score three to five center of mass hits on Jace before he could move, its ten millimeter caseless rounds were sabots designed to carry a pre-fragmented core that was utterly useless against body armor and utterly lethal against the unarmored. Jace remained still, breathing slowly, as he watched the other man.

“You are not one of Escobar’s soldiers…” the man said, quiet enough so that only Jace would hear him and his voice would not carry over the lip of the rooftop.


“I do not know you and I know everyone, I even know Escobar’s dogs by their own names.”

The man looked at the woman behind Jace, noticing her sprawled form then raised the pistol even further, advancing two steps to bring him a meter closer.

“Is she dead?” he asked. Jace could tell there was concern in his voice, with a twinge of personal regret? Was she a subordinate or perhaps a friend, even a lover? Jace had no doubt that if he had killed the woman on instinct that he would even now be bleeding out on the roof top, the final resting place of a handful of tightly grouped ten millimeter AP rounds that would have found a new home in his center of mass.

“No. She will be out for a little while yet. I had no reason to kill her just as I have no reason to kill you.”

The man smiled, staring down the fixed sights of the large automatic pistol at the target that Jace presented.

“I think you would be hard pressed to kill me in your position, eh?” the man said, motioning slightly with the automatic for emphasis.

“It is not my intent to kill you.” Jace said again.

“Ah! Now that we are in a position to talk, I will ask you to slide your blade over to me, slowly. If you try to trick me, I will lose all interest in asking you questions and simply leave your corpse up here for the elements and the birds to take care of. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Jace said.

The man nodded. “Good.” He said, taking two steps back while covering Jace with the handgun.

“Now, if you please, your blade and do it both slowly and carefully.”

Jace loosened his grip on his combat knife and set it down in front of him. He carefully spun it so that the pommel was facing the man then he used three fingers to carefully lift the knife by the back edge of the blade and slid it over the rooftop towards the man. The knife stopped about a half meter in front of the man but he didn’t bend down to pick it up. Good, thought Jace. This one has some form of military training and discipline to match.

“So, what is your intent, stranger?”

“I have been sent to talk to the elders of the city.”


“I bring an offer to them.”

“An offer? Who is making the offer?”

“General Rettig.”

The man’s stance softened somewhat but only a veteran like Jace would have been able to tell.

“Rettig sent you to talk to our elders?”

Jace nodded silently, noting the confirmation of his belief that he was dealing with some of the citizen’s hidden militia soldiers that were kept from the sight and knowledge of Escobar. Perhaps the man in front of Jace was a veteran of these underground resistance forces, the woman sprawled behind him might be an initiate. If so, she had made a mistake that might have cost her life if Jace had been one of Escobar’s men, or someone equally as desperate and depraved. The woman behind him was not unattractive, and there were worse ways to die than a blade and ways that took a lot longer as well. Death to a soldier these days was a not-oft given mercy but sometimes it could be a reward.

“It is not my place to hear your offer nor can I decide what to do with you since you have acted like a soldier. You are not one of Escobar’s dogs and for that, I will carry your message to our elders.”

“Until then?” Jace asked.

The man took his supporting hand from the pistol and made a quick wave, motioning with his fingers in the clear sign for others to move forward. Jace felt as well as heard footfalls approaching him. He relaxed his stance into one of submission and compliance.

“Until then, you will be kept in the warehouse below. If our elders decide to hear your story, then you and they will meet. If they do not, then there are plenty of storage containers in the warehouse to conceal your body.”

“I understand.” Jace said.

He did not resist as three other men and a woman approached and quickly bound his wrists and ankles with leather strips. A man and a woman squatted near the woman he had knocked unconscious, checking her vital signs then nodding affirmation to the man with the handgun. The man squatting near the fallen woman picked her up in a field carry while the woman picked up the PkZ-629 and carried it at a ready position, not pointed at Jace but not pointed away from him either. A metal bar was slid between Jace’s wrist and his bonds where it would be used to provide pressure and steer Jace with the application of pain if required. Jace was more than familiar with pressure point combat and control techniques, even if his captors were doing it both wrong as well as badly. Satisfied that Jace was secure, the leader with the handgun holstered his weapon under a flap of clothing then headed off quickly across the roof. With a gentle shove on his shoulder, Jace and those assigned to guard him were off at a fast walk as well.

From the rooftop they made their way to an abandoned industrial staging area, waited to make sure that none of Escobar’s patrols were in the area, and then did a quick jog through several abandoned buildings and partial ruins until they came to another loading area. Rusty equipment, long ago abandoned and now useful only for scrap stood like museum pieces, displays of a time long past when the world was different, when the air smelled of industrial production instead of entropy and rust. The basement of the loading area held a maintenance shaft that led to the sewer system of the city. Jace didn’t think twice as he lowered his head and was led by his captors into the darkness beyond. A sewer system would be the ideal way to move around the city undetected but that tactic applied to both the citizens as well as Escobar’s troops. Jace didn’t want to think about meeting a group of Escobar’s soldiers in the sewers, his captors didn’t have the firepower to deal with even one of Escobar’s smaller squads let alone a good sized detachment and if he remained bound then he would be at the mercy of Escobar’s men should those who were escorting him fall.

“You use the sewers to move without Escobar seeing you.” Jace said flatly.

“Yes.” The man who was leading him replied.

“And Escobar’s people do not come down here?”

“A few have tried. None have returned. They believe that the sewers are haunted or filled with many hungry rats. It is a belief we like to reinforce from time to time with evidence that they may readily find. Escobar does not like the sewers but if he ever found out that we were using them, he would simply gas us down here and take out his anger on our families. We are very careful.”

Jace understood all too well.

The series of sewers was not hard to navigate. His captors lit their way by self-charging chemoglow strips either held in their hands or taped and wired to the barrels of their weapons. The woman that Jace had rendered unconscious was revived at the start of their march and by the half way mark appeared to be none the worse for wear. The few times that Jace and her eyes met he saw anger but not hatred. Her anger may also have been directed inward; she would be a good soldier, if she could only learn quicker and if she learned from her mistake today.

Their pace had been an easy one with little regard for caution. Jace surmised that these tunnels were well known to his captors if not traveled often. The air was dry and old smelling, the scent of something long forgotten and seldom used. Rodents appeared every now and then at the edge of illumination, scurrying away before the full effect of the light could be cast on them.

Several times his captors stopped to rest while one in particular, a gruff looking man with not a few scars and a pronounced limp, went on ahead of the group, deeper into the tunnels before finally vanishing from sight. Several minutes later, there would be a muted whistle and they would all resume their journey again. Jace was not oblivious enough to miss the camouflaged anti-personnel mines as they passed, mines that the gruff man had obviously deactivated before they got close to them and which he reactivated in the wake of their passage. Jace could not determine if the mines had been placed there by Escobar’s soldiers or by the citizens nor did he ask. If it was the former, then the mines were ineffectual in their duty and intended purpose. If it was the latter, then any of Escobar’s thugs who ventured into the sewers would have a nasty surprise waiting for the unwary and the ill-trained.

This sort of stop-start, leap frogging movement went on for nearly an hour and a half. Jace guessed that they had covered a distance of about four kilometers in that time. Neither he nor his captors were more the tired for the underground, low light march. His other guess was that they had bypassed all of Escobar’s men, their hard points above, and had come up somewhere deep inside the city where Escobar’s gang were few and far between. If Escobar knew of the sewers or cared about them, there was no indication of such. Jace remembered his own experience in sewers in Volstagrad during the closing years of the Last War. They were not good memories. Urban warfare was a very distinct hell in and of itself and one which many soldiers had gone into but fewer still had returned from.

His captors used a mechanical winch of some antiquity to hoist themselves and eventually him through a moveable plate in the floor. As Jace was hoisted up by his bound wrists from the sewer tunnel he spun on the monofilament wire slowly taking in his surroundings. The warehouse he had been taken to was almost identical to the one he had spent the previous night in, differing only slightly in layout and the amount of empty cargo containers scattered about the interior. The winch operator swung Jace away from the hole in the floor and started to lower him as two men stepped forward and grabbed his legs, helping him down to the floor, unhooking the cable and harness from his wrists and body then leading him to one of the empty containers near the rear of the warehouse. The leader of the group, the man with the handgun, had been the first to be lifted from the sewers and was now nowhere to be seen. Jace guessed that the man had gone on to make contact with whatever superiors he answered to. The patience of a soldier came to Jace as he was pushed slightly towards the floor of the cargo container, his new captors indicating to him silently that they wished him to sit. He did so, retaining his compliance but making sure to keep his back facing away from his captors. They had failed to search him on the roof as well as failed to search him at any point in between. It had been a simple mistake, Jace thought, but a simple mistake that might cost his captors dearly should the negotiations go badly. He worked his fingers to the back of his belt, felt between his pants and his belt for the small folding monocrystal lockblade he kept secreted there and let himself feel happy at the presence of the blade that his fingertips slid over. It would take him about a minute to work the blade free of where it was located in the back of his belt, flick it open silently and then cut through the leather bonds that held him. It would be a minute that Jace could otherwise appear to be still and silent. This wasn’t the first time that he had been held captive hence his need to carry the small blade secreted in his belt. Nothing but a dedicated search would have found the blade and his captors didn’t appear to be that interested, feeling instead a false security given to them by the leather strips that bound his wrists and ankles. Jace felt calm reassurance fill his inner self and he closed his eyes to rest. After his captors grew lax in their duty and ambled off to join the other members of their group, leaving him alone, Jace even managed to allow himself to sleep, even if it was only a light sleep, the sleep of a soldier but tiredness overtook him and he fell deeper down than he would have preferred into a sleep that was unwanted but thoroughly needed.

Jace awoke to the sounds of several men talking. The warehouse was much darker now than when he had been brought in and he assumed that many hours had passed. He came to slowly, listening and feeling with his senses, careful to keep his breathing steady so as not to alert anyone standing nearby as to the change in his state of consciousness. The heavy breathing from his right was indicative of one man standing near him. The shuffle of a heavy boot brought reassurance to Jace’s summation.

Jace had been in worse situations before but none that were this uncertain and none that carried so much weight upon the outcome. He slowly opened his eyes, maintaining his breathing at a steady pace. His captor was facing away from him with no weapons visible save for a large civilian camping blade sheathed to the left hip. Jace saw a group of old men standing about ten meters away from him, directly in front of the position that he occupied. These must be the elders, the leaders of the citizens. He watched with growing interest as the elders talked quietly with a strong looking bearded man, apparently the leader of the city militia. Jace recognized him immediately as the man who had captured him. Their voices did not carry across the distance between though Jace could tell that their exchange was often heated.

Jace silently tried the strength of his bonds again and found the leather cords to be more than adequate to prevent him from regaining his full mobility, such as they were used to bind his ankles and his wrists. The smell of the building was musty, old. It was abandoned, and the general upkeep of the building suggested it hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in decades, maybe longer. Everything was dark save for the sputtering flicker from a few hooded candles that did not cast shadows where anyone else might see them from outside the warehouse.

Jace caught a glimpse of dull gray and black, the strange case which the General had given to Jace to present to the leaders of the city. That meant that someone had not only found his other equipment, but that they had thought enough to bring it forward as evidence either for his fate or against it. The elder and the bearded man took turns handling the metal case that Jace had brought down from the mountains with him. It was evidently an item of great worth or great importance, such he could gather from the way they spoke of it and the way that they handled it, occasionally looking back in his direction with sometimes incredulous expressions. He tried to study their lips, to read words without sound, but such was neither his gift nor his training and he gave up trying to eavesdrop from his distant position. His single guard was still in front of him, carefully watching Jace now while continuing to stand out of the way of any sudden movement which Jace might be able to produce.

Jace relaxed as best as he could, given his current situation. As a soldier in Rettig’s company, he was used to discomfort, even long periods of being motionless in miserable conditions. Jace, however, did not care for captivity nor did he care for confinement. There was a difference between choosing not to move, and not being able to move. The bonds, he thought, were more for the peace of mind of his captors than anything else.

Jace’s equipment was arranged on the floor near the elders. His snubmachinegun, its spare cassettes, and his combat knife which had been taken from him. Nearly thirty centimeters of razor sharp and serrated BPC with a kilo and a half heft to it served him well in the past and he was fond of his blade. He hoped to be given the blade back when this was over with. The knife was an artifact from a different time and only a few locations in the world could reproduce such a weapon, a weapon that had once been as plentiful as ammunition had been, but that was from a time now past, a time when the world had produced the desires of war and not survival. Jace doubted that this city had the technology that could sharpen the blade of his knife let alone the technology that could reproduce it.

He had traveled light, coming down from the mountains, carrying a disposable ruck sack with only enough provisions to get him to the city, two days march. Once his rucksack was empty, he had folded it into a tight roll and stowed it in the thigh pocket of his fatigues. Hopefully, his captors would be able to provide him with some hardtack for his return trip, where he would carry their answer back to General Rettig. He assumed that if they did not agree to his terms, he would never be allowed to leave and his failure to deliver a timely response would be its own answer to Rettig.

Jace reviewed his captors. Given time, he could easily escape from his current confinement, but he kept reminding himself of his mission, and that he was not truly a captive for he and his people had done no wrong to those who lived in the city. If anything, they were trying to save the people who lived here more pain and misery. Often, however, those who carried the guns were little better than the ones they replaced. The world was short on trust, and well so it was for there was little trust between men these days. Deeds, not words, ruled the negotiation table. Facta non verba, General Rettig had once said. It was the motto of Rettig’s outfit.

Another man entered from the open rear of the container and stood behind Jace, shifting his balance behind him, keeping out of peripheral sight of Jace. Good. That meant that the man was at least somewhat competent. Jace was bound because one of the things that the world had lost during the Last War was trust. Jace did not have the trust of those who he appeared before now, and they were afraid of him. Fear generated anger, anger lead to violence and irrational hatred. Rettig had taught all of his soldiers this. Trust was the most important thing you could offer in the world, and it came with a price, often a high one. Because Jace did not have the trust of these people, the leather cords would have to suffice for their trust of him. They did not know him from a common bandit or highwayman. The leather cords and the power to restrain him gave them the trust that they needed it reduced their fear of him because they thought that they controlled him.

Jace moved against the bonds again more out of habit, not so much testing them as simply trying to find a more comfortable position from which the leather cords would not bite so deeply into his wrists and ankles. Already, after what seemed more than a few hours he was beginning to feel the pins and needles of the loss of circulation. He moved, slowly, without noise, and felt the blood return to his extremities. For that he was grateful and murmured a small thanksgiving to God.

Jace shut his eyes and relaxed again. He must have cat napped because when he opened his eyes, the elder and the bearded man had been joined by three others, all showing the signs of middle age, without much exercise. Bureaucrats all looked the same, whether they wore a uniform or a farmer’s garb. Jace hated bureaucrats, their decisions were often based on their own personal welfare, and not the lives of ordinary people. To a bureaucrat, soldiers were expendable, and often for the most foolish of exercises, the tiniest of victories and the smallest of rewards. Bureaucrats had almost destroyed the world, once, with their talk, their ideals, and their endless streams of orders given to men who lived by honor and not words. Men and women had died, everywhere in the world, but the bureaucrats had been safe, in their offices, in their bunkers, behind their desks. Jace sneered and unconsciously flexed his muscles while the bite of the leather cords restored his professionalism in an instant.

“Release him.” Said one of the elders as they all slowly approached the container that Jace squatted in. Jace looked up again at the sound of those words, the elder and the bearded man were looking at him. The elder made a motion with his hand and suddenly Jace was hauled to his feet by the man behind him. He tried to stand on legs that were numb and found it took nearly all of his concentration.

“Stand still. I will untie you.” The man behind him said.

Jace nodded as his bonds were released. He bent in half at the waist, and massaged his ankles through his boots, then rubbed his legs slowly, rising as he rubbed higher, massaging the feeling back into his lower extremities. The two men approached as he straightened, massaging his wrists. His combat gloves were short, fingerless, with no protection other than the palm and first digit of each finger and thumb.

“You will cause no trouble?” the elder asked.

The bearded man stood behind the elder, arms folded, dubious.

“This one is not like Escobar’s dogs. This one is a soldier. His honor is still intact from what he has displayed to me.”

“I will cause no trouble.” Jace replied. “I am not authorized to cause trouble for you, only to negotiate on General Rettig’s behalf.”

“Hummmph.” The elder replied, turning to motion for the other three men to come forward. “Soldiers always cause trouble.”

Bureaucrat. The ugly thought spat hotly through Jace’s mind but didn’t register on his face or through his posture. Jace watched the other three men approach, one in front, two behind him. The first one carried the case which Jace had brought with him. They formed a semi-circle around him, staring him up and down.

“You speak for Rettig?” one of them asked.

“I do.”

“Do you know what this is?” another one asked, pointing to the case held by yet the third man.

“It is a gift, from General Rettig. It is an offer of trust.”

There was murmuring, the shaking of heads. Three of the men were speaking a variant of a local dialect, following it was hard for Jace but he managed well enough.

“And what do we have to offer Rettig in return?” one of the elders asked.

“Food. Shelter. Clothing. Equipment. Supplies. A secure base of operations.”

“Bah! A base for raiders and bandits! Why trade a bandit that we know for one that we do not?” one of the elders said, spittle forming as he spoke excitedly.

“Rettig is not a bandit or a warlord. We do not prey upon the weak.”

“But you are soldiers! We have soldiers already in our town!”

“No.” Jace replied. “You have soldiers who have lost their honor. You do not have soldiers in your town, you have brigands and highwaymen. They may have been soldiers at one time, but they are no longer soldiers.”

“But they are here!” the elder said.

“But you did not invite them here, did you?” Jace countered.

More murmuring, dissension, and shaking of heads. Whispers and glances. The endless prater of those who thought words carried meaning without action to back them up.

“Can you make them leave?” the elder asked.

“I can.” Jace replied. “With that …”

He indicated the case which he had brought with him.

“And with your help.”

“What you speak of is a crime, punishable by death!” an elder said. “Escobar does not tolerate subversion.”

“Then what do you call this that we are engaging in right now.”

The elder harrumphed for effect but grew silent.

“Death is best when it is quick, not when it is a life to be endured. You are all dead men now, even as you speak. You do not control your own fate, your own time of dying. Escobara does that for you. He takes what he wants, when he wants. You may think that you have found a way to circumvent his authority but you have not. He allows you to roam your sewers, to move as you will your small bands of fighters. Do not think that he does not know what you do, where you go. Right now, your men here are nothing more than an itch. If he ever decides to scratch that itch, you will all die. Escobar’s people were once soldiers who have now turned to criminals, but remember, they were once soldiers. That is a form of training you do not have nor can you compete against. These are soldiers who have turned to criminals, not criminals who have become soldiers.”

“Escobara is powerful!”

“Rettig is powerful as well, more so than Escobara. Rettig can defeat Escobara. I have served with Rettig for many years now. Rettig can be trusted.”

“Bah! One bandit warlord is just as good as another…”

“Rettig is not a bandit. Rettig is not a warlord. Rettig is a soldier.”

“A soldier?” the elders asked. “In what army? You and your kind may wear Combine fatigues but the Combine is no more. Your Combine fled our lands years ago, bound for your own homeland before it collapsed upon itself. You are no army because your army is no more!”

“A bandit lives by the day. A soldier lives by discipline and by planning. A soldier also lives with honor. I am a soldier. I uphold the principles of the Combine. That is my pact.”

“And this?” the elder with the case asked, holding the case up so that the faded symbols could be seen in the flickering light. “What is this?”

“That is a key. It comes as a gift of trust.”

“A key? What does this key open?” the bearded man asked.

“Your future. It breaks the chains that currently bind you, it makes you all free men again, and it gives you command of your lives once more.”

“And only you can use this key.”

“I have been instructed how to use that device, yes.” Rettig answered. “But I will use it only with your help and only with your permission.”

The elders looked at the case again, turning it over, examining it carefully, and talking. Always talk, scared little men uncertain of their future, at a crossroads to their destiny and scared to take it. They lacked discipline, they lacked devotion, and the lacked courage. Jace pitied them for their kind would always be sheep to the wolves.

A furtive movement out of the corner of his eye caught Jace’s attention. He watched a shadow form barely ten meters away, near some smashed shipping containers. They were being watched. The man behind Jace must have seen the spy as well, as his hand moved swiftly to bring his weapon to bear on the target.

“No.” Jace said in a low, commanding voice, attracting the man’s attention and instantly freezing his intended response to the deteriorating situation.

The shadow must have realized that it had been seen because it broke from its hiding place and began to sprint from the boxes, resolving itself into the form of a running man, heading for the exit to the warehouse.

“One of Escobar’s men!” the elder with the case cried. “That is Jobai and he is a fast runner!”

“Then I will deal with him.” Jace said as he shoved the guard’s arm out of the way and broke into his own sprint towards the spy. It was a good ten meters distance between the two and true to what the elder had said this Jobai was fleet of foot and agile as well but then so was Jace. His long legs and powerful muscles propelled his muscular form to a speed that quickly matched the pace of the spy while his mind plotted the path the spy would take to clear the warehouse. A pair of small containers nearby gave Jace a short cut and he ran up them, hopping from one to the other as he ran across the stacked containers, keeping the spy in sight below him. Five meters from the entrance, Jace leaped from the stack of containers, slammed into the back of the running man and sent him sprawling. Jace rolled, coming up to a fighting crouch as the man pulled an old Paneuropean 5mm officer’s service pistol from a holster on his hip. Jace stepped in and brought two swift combat strikes against Jobai’s wrist and forearm, shattering the first in a cross pinch. The weapon dropped from the screaming man’s suddenly numb fingers as Jace stepped in, grabbed the man behind the right elbow and reeled him in, twirling him about. The screaming stopped almost as quickly as it had started as Jace clamped a hand over Jobai’s open mouth then worked his muscular arms around the front and back of Jobai’s neck. The muscles in Jace’s arms flexed once and there came the sound of dry sticks snapping. Jobai instantly went limp in Jace’s arms, dead weight that Jace slid to the ground.

(stopped here)

Jace stood over the dead spy as the elders shuffled up behind them. Jace squatted near the body and checked it for life, finding none. A man stepped up behind Jace, covering him with Jace’s own snubmachinegun. The barrel of the slug thrower touched the nape of Jace’s neck and he slowly raised his hands.

“Why?!” one of the elders asked, waddling up on aged legs.

“It was one of Escobara’s men. If he had reported to Escobara that we were talking with a soldier…”

“Why didn’t you shoot him?! You have a gun!”

Jace turned his head to face them all.

“If you had fired, you would have brought every one of Escobara’s men down on our heads.”

“And your way was better?”

“My way was quieter.” Jace said flatly.

“You have killed him!” one of the elders said. “Escobara will kill us all and slowly too! Our families will be made to suffer as well! What have you done?!”

Jace slowly stood up, the barrel of the snubmachinegun never left the contact of the skin of his neck. He turned to face the men, staring down the dark barrel of the weapon which the guard pointed now at his face.

“I have taken the first step for you. I have set you on the road which will make you free.”

“You have doomed us all.” The first elder said, but there was no hatred in his voice, only fear and indecision.

“I have just set you free.” Jace said flatly. “The path to personal freedom is never easy, and it is usually not one you will take willingly if given the choice. You are debating now on killing me and hiding both of the bodies.”

“Yes.” Hissed one of the elders. “That would be the obvious solution to this problem which you have created for us.”

“It would be the wrong solution. Escobara takes from you without giving. Rettig would be a partner and a powerful friend.”

The older man stood near the body of Escobara’s soldier and prodded it with his foot.

“If only this were Escobara…” he said softly, wishfully.

Jace turned and stood beside him.

“It can be.” He said. “I bring you trust. I bring you a future that is your own. I only ask for your trust in return. And for sanctuary for my people in your city.”

“Your people?” one of the elders asked, stepping forward to view Jace better in what light was available.

Jace spread his hands in front of him, palms open.

“My name is Jace Rettig. I come to you, on my own, to bring you this offer. I have come at a great risk but I felt it was necessary in order to convince you of my honor as well as what I had to offer you in return for your cooperation.”

There was silence. Those with weapons pointed at Jace lowered them out of both shock and respect. Jace never broke eye contact with the elder who had questioned him.

The elder turned to stare at the ceiling, lost in darkness some twenty meters above. After what seemed an eternity to Jace, the man turned to him, put a hand on his shoulder.

“Tell us what must be done, General Rettig.” He said. “Tell us what must be done to rid our people and our city of Escobar and his dogs. If you do this for us, we will do what we can for you in return.”

“I do not ask for anything more than I am willing to offer in return.” Rettig said. “My gift to you is the last of its kind and it is a gift that only you can use.”

“What is it?” asked the leader of the militia.

“A template.” Rettig said. “A twenty-five hundred terabyte template stored on a five kilo chip of stabilized polycrystalline memory.”

“And what will you do with this?” asked the militia leader.

“I will use this template to save your people.”

“And in doing so, you will save your people as well?”

“Yes. I will save my people as well.”