Beasts, in the Belly of the Beast




Life in the Malthusian Church was give and take. Give and take. Bad things were good things and good things were bad things. The salvation of humanity through ugly deeds - the ultimate good by a thousand sin's cuts. Funny thing was, most Malthusians denied this! Nobody wants to stare at the blood on their hands.

Ajna Hadžić did, though. Give and take, good was bad, that was her life. In everything.

She'd always been able to sleep anywhere. Her kind old neighbor, a woman who'd fought the Nazis in the war, back when Yugoslavs killed Germans and not each other… What'd she say? What'd she call her? Little Ajna, lazy angel, scaling the fence one moment and snoring the next, weaseling out of chores with a yawn and an earnest smile. Then they'd snack on home-cooked cevapi and the old lady would tell stories. The biblical ones were lost on little Ajna

Long live Marshal Tito, right.

Give and take. Good was bad.

She was sleeping in an unmarked van, packed together with freaks and fanatics, bouncing along decrepit American infrastructure. That was good, rest was essential to survival - adrenaline could keep you up, but it makes you a fool quick. The nightmares weren't good.

Acrid smoke, screaming, half-remembered figures mashed with scenes from documentaries watched a decade later. Hellish scenes that weren't exactly accurate to what happened, but it was etched into her mind and soul. Bosniaks dragged out of houses, armed men in loose fatigues, she was hiding in the old lady's house and then they always found her. Little Ajna only heard the pleading and the gunfire, never saw the act only the rotting aftermath - but she'd made plenty of memories to fill the gap. A dead-eyed woman in loose fatigues, bloody vitruvian man on her shoulder, Kalashnikov in her hand… those memories were real, exactly as they happened, exactly as she'd made them.

Suddenly she wasn't little Ajna anymore, the gun was in her hands, and there was pity in her younger self's eyes. Pity, anger, condemnation, gunfire. Dreamless sleep was a treat.

And there was more. She saw further, this world and other worlds, not from her memories. Slumped over from a bullet in the Congo, malaria in the jungle, torn apart by a incomprehensible monster in a barren salt field where the sky bore two moons and a haloed star, a thousand others over the years. She saw deaths in places she'd barely escaped with her life, saw her death in places that didn't exist on Earth, claustrophobic tunnels and ruined cities and flower-blessed fields.

It was enough to shake the soul. Was she the very last Adja Hadžić in that was and would be? Doomed to die some miserable death for an unworthy cause. Never in shining armor, clean clothes, or a satisfied smile… agony, dirty fatigues, rags, jackboots.

A third-rate cell in the Church of Malthus was far from a worthy cause. Fatalism, apathy, brought you down into the world's sewage - down past reality, into the anomalous underworld - and kept you there.

Feeling a little worse, she opened her eyes, peering around at the insides of the van. Gas masks, Geiger counters, crude environmental hoods - not that many would wear them - equipment for the task at hand. Hell of a task, a nuked Authority site and a jackpot of anomalies to steal in the ruins.

Malthusians liked to kill with intent, act with purpose, prevent the Malthusian catastrophe and save the world from overpopulation. They tripped up all the time, though. Straight psychopaths, power-hungry bastards, common scum… meat cult madness, anomalies replacing theory, rich fucks hijacking them to kill the poor out of scared self-interest. She wasn't lying to herself, they were thieves here, raging and killing and taking what they could. Not often that the bank blew its own vault doors open, and if the Authority response was as shocked and confused as their liaison claimed? They might even get in there alive.

Liaison, right. Riding up front, sweat-stained suit, speaking of rich fucks. Bumming around the war-torn Congo one day, a private 737 into Canada and a hop into Colorado, miserably hot ride south now. No mistake, there was a rich and desperate Malthusian funding this whole show, drawing the unscrupulous and mercenary cells into his temporary service, converging on "Site-014" like moths to flame. What happened to moths?

"Yo, Bandana, you're awake?" a voice called - it was Billiards, the knife fanatic.

Low-level Malthusians usually didn't use real names with each other. Some were self assigned, like Billiards' self-proclaimed skill with a cue stick, some was dress or temperament. Adja wore loose fatigues and a dirty bandana tied around her head, so she was Bandana. Or Dana, pronounced like the last two syllables of bandana, whatever. Not like Marcus and his pacifist fucks, conferences and peace and polite talk.

"How the hell you sleep in this bounce-house oven?" Billiards griped, already losing interest, teasing his thumb with a blade. Dana rolled her eyes at the sight. Fine for intimidating the odd journalist or aid worker, the Authority would just shoot him.

They were bringing the big guns out, though. Dana lifted herself up through the press of bodies, peering out the rear door windows, chuckling at the sight. Horse trailers behind pickup trucks, that's where they kept the Martyrs. Freaky stuff, Martyrs with the capital M; grotesquely mutated and bulked-up monsters, barely human, desperate enough or drugged enough to give themselves fully to the blood magic and experimental "accelerated evolution" that disreputable Church "scientists" peddled.

Body and soul to the Cause, kept in iron chains and anomalous chains, ornate spikes through their spines and mind-warping amulets round necks. The best among them were monsters. There was a nasty metaphor somewhere in there.

The landscape was barren under the setting sun, hardscrabble brush drawing long shadows over the dust. The sky was gorgeous; no pollution, no haze, orange and pink hues drenching the cotton-ball clouds. Dana wasn't looking up, though. Authority gunmen don't hide in the clouds, they hide behind rocks and hidden cameras. Besides, watching for aircraft was somebody else's job, and if one came? Pure luck to survive, pray that Moxie's piece-of-shit Soviet anti-aircraft missile actually works.

Deceiving beauty. Fine to look at, but if you got lost out here, exposure would kill you quick. Fine place to build a secret facility.

The Malthusian unit was marching in a loose single file, the last few kilometers before the mine entrance - and beyond that, the Authority Site. The soft clatter of equipment, strained grunting, squelching noises from the Martyrs burdened under heavy loads. No land mines, at least, an advance party had supposedly cleared the way and they hadn't found their corpses on the trail yet…

A reedy voice broke the purposeful noise. Recent convert, fresh-faced college senior that knew too much useless shit. "Sand People always walk in a single file, to conceal their…"

"Shut the fuck up, holy hell," somebody else called from the back of the line.

A bare-chested brute, festooned in webbing and equipment, twisted around to glare at the kid. "That's not even the right quote, idiot. Sand People ride single file, you think we're riding now?"

"Where's the horses, God damn it? Horses don't count in Malthus' population calculations, we could all have one." another Malthusian joked, drawing scattershot laughter from the line.

Dana shook her head, then flinched at the gunshots, echoing from somewhere ahead - weren't they getting near the cave entrance? She dove into the dirt, joined by a half-dozen other Malthusians - survivors - as the Martyrs stood contemptuously and too many others just stood gawking, trying to figure out the sounds' source.

A pause - silence in the badlands - Dana picked herself back up, angry at how soft they'd become. Her unit wasn't new, they'd nearly all been smuggled over from ops in the Congo… hell, standing around in gunfire was almost safe there, with how terrible the locals' aim usually was. Easy to mock it, forget the danger, get soft. Authority security shot straight, but Dana would let them figure that out for themselves tonight. If they even made it into the facility.

The line was slow, a few guys running forward, not wanting to get caught in the open. She joined them, rifle in one hand and clenched fist in the other, her carved arm, intricate ritual wounds stinging in the dusty wind. Past thirty Malthusians, and there was the mine entrance - ten more standing around a couple of prone figures. There was blood.

Coming closer, she saw the casualties weren't Authority gunmen - a guy in a plaid shirt, sports cap, dead as hell face-down in a pool of his own blood. And - ah, and presumably his kid, young boy, knees drawn up to his chest and face buried in his arms. He was shot, too, but probably wasn't dead just yet. A couple hunting rifles were in the dirt, casings… the Malthusians were yelling at each other, waving arms, fuckup kind of reaction. Here we go.

"-yeah - yeah they were shooting, whatever, that's what we have the uniforms for!" the commander was shouting, gesturing at two Malthusians dressed in local police attire. "We send them off and the fucking Authority takes care of them for us. Imbecile!"

Dana pursed her lips, not approaching any further. The current commander (they never lasted long) was a self-styled intellectual, and 'imbecile' was about the worst thing he could say. The guy getting chewed out was glancing up and down, to the victims and back to the commander, clearly embarrassed. "Sir - they shouldn't have been here. A couple dumb locals shooting rocks out here, we thought they were the Enemy-"

"Can't trust you with anything, Barnes. Just - fuck - take care of the kid, leave them in the entrance." the commander was snarling now, "We'll be meeting the real Enemy shortly. Barnes, you especially, you're point man for this op." He jammed a finger in Barnes' chest, then turned and stormed off into the mine entrance.

Barnes blinked, not quite understanding a death sentence when he heard it. "God, man -" he said weakly, forcing a smile to the clearly unsympathetic Malthusians, "he tells me I'm point man, but I gotta, y'know, get rid of the kid. Job in there, job over here. Make up your mind, right? Can't blame me."

"You could've done it by now," a gas-masked woman pointed out, but nobody made a move to finish the job. The kid was sobbing, softly, he'd be head up and staring disbelievingly at his dad in a bit. It usually went that way.

Barnes looked around, seeing unfriendly faces, settling on Dana, saying, "Hey, I know you're - I've got to - can you, you know, do your thing, I do my thing, right?"

She scowled, inwardly cursing her reputation. Quiet, dedicated - if lazy - and never complained at putting a wretch out of their misery. Close your eyes, ignore what you did, pass off the final blow to Bandana over there.

"Dana?" he asked again.

"Yeah. Good luck up front." Coward, she wanted to say, but gifting a reason to begrudge you in a group as unstable and violent as hers was… stupid.

"Dude, thank you," Barnes sincerely said, turning and jogging into the mine entrance. One of the other Malthusians laughed disbelievingly - Barnes thinking Dana meant it - and the unit passed into the entrance, hulking Martyrs ducking under support beams.

Dana knelt down next to the kid, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, resisting his efforts to push her away. "Hey, man," she said quietly, "That looks like it hurts. You look hurt, are you…?"

Ghostly, barely comprehensible, a whisper came back. "Yeah."

"Tough guy. You're not crying are you?"

He sniffled, trying to raise his gaze - Dana gently kept his head down. "No. Dad, he's…"

"Fine, he's fine," she said, her voice full of warmth. "Your dad got hurt too, but I checked him, he's okay. He just doesn't want his boy to be crying. You can do that, right? Those angry guys, they're gone, we need to be quiet."


"Here, lemme…" Dana reached under him and picked the boy up, carrying him into the mine entrance, setting him down carefully.

"Dad's not okay, miss." he said softly. Dana hadn't seen how the fight had played out - more lies wouldn't help.

"He's fine, believe me. What's here… isn't really here. It's not everything. See all those rocks?" she asked, pointing to the floor - the sun was casting dying shadows over the uneven surface, a thousand pinpricks stretched out and swallowed up by the darkness deeper into the mine. There were little lights dancing there, the Malthusian unit advancing, looking like so many fireflies at night.

"Rocks," he repeated, confused. A painful gasp, his hand clutching his wounded side.

"Thousands of them," Dana said, "and each of them is you. You're back home, you're in school, you're sick in bed, all that happened and they're happening all at once. This isn't the only thing happening to you. What's your name?"

He didn't answer.

Dana shrugged, standing him up and gripping his arms tight. "This isn't the end. Otherworlds, you're already there, it's you… your dad went farther in there. He's hiding, he's waiting for you. He asking me where you are, what's taking you so long."

With a gentle push, she released her grip and he stumbled forwards. He didn't understand, maybe he didn't believe a word she'd said… did it matter? He took a hesitant step towards the dark, probably afraid to look back - but she didn't want him to be afraid now. The confusion was okay.

Quietly, Dana slung her rifle off her shoulder, raising it. She looked behind her, out into the dull copper landscape - even if she fixed him up, the exposure would kill quick. And there was another Malthusian unit, advancing from the same road, bloody banners, limbs on sticks, grotesque Martyrs towering over the column… meat cults were always late, and meat cults would do worse to him.

No lying to yourself here. Another sin's cut on her soul, own it, see if you could live with it. She brought her rifle up to her shoulder, aimed carefully for the head - impossible to miss at this distance - and fired.

That wasn't the whole truth. Dana fired, killing the boy instantly, dragging his dad's corpse in and stepping over the two bodies to follow her unit. That was the truth, that's what she did. Give and take. Good was bad and bad was good.

Air whistled through the mine tunnel, eyes up, following the faint glowsticks bouncing from the man in front of her. She could imagine getting lost in here, lying down next to a rusty bucket forged in 1875 and disappearing into pitch-black oblivion.

Reality: you'd die of thirst and probably go mad. The jury was out if that was better than anything they'd find in the Site; you could hear artificial blowers, vents, thundering above; the oppressive presence of an Authority Site already weighing down on tunnels a century and a half old.

They passed a fresh corpse - she couldn't discern much in the eerie half-light, but the man was an Authority employee with advanced radiation sickness. Right hand still clenched around a pistol, casing on the floor; somehow escaped out here, only to take his life.

His ID card had been stolen by someone upfront, but Dana kneeled down to read his uniform's tag -


She produced a tiny book, flipping well-worn pages to an empty spot. Jesus Menendez was scribbled in childish handwriting - the elementary school had been interrupted by the Yugoslav Wars - alongside a swarm of names, two of them fresh.

Patrick Malone and Marsden Malone, father and son, rotting at the mine entrance.

Bandana rose to her feet, hurried after the others.

A little disappointing, and terrifying, her first impressions of a real Authority facility. Concrete walls and cookie-cutter office spaces, vault doors and janitor's closets, too normal and too sprawling. How far did it go? Hard not to think of their resources, the futility of their fight.

No welcoming reception, luckily. Through the hole in the wall, splitting up, smash and grab. Four hours was all the liaison would give them.

Stamping boots and the clatter of equipment behind them instantly captured Adja's hyper attention, echoing loudly in straining ears. The other Malthusians heard it too, turning around with varying degrees of alarm; Dana was faster, spinning quick, throwing herself to the wall and raising her rifle.

A moment later, wide-eyed recognition, she reached forward and grabbed the nearest Malthusian to haul him backward. "Get the fuck back!" she hissed to the others.

Stamping boots, masked faces, arrogance in their bearing - not Authority but surely not friendly - three armored gunmen, soldiers, wrapped in heavy cloaks and modern equipment. Night vision goggles on the blood-red helmets, red blood Vitruvian men splattered over their cloaks, glimpses of armor vests and ritual knives beneath. Well funded, well equipped, utterly ruthless, cursed with incredible abilities - they didn't even have guns!

Elite operators, the private army of some rich Malthusian, Dana had seen it before. They went in through the chaos caused by lesser cells, like a scalpel, extracting a doomsday device or some shiny trinket, something specific. Get out of their way like insects in the giants' path, or they'd toss your corpse aside without missing a step. She glanced right and left, her unit had flattened itself against the walls, even Barnes…

…except for one man, cheap BDUs, and a jammed pistol, more fanaticism than sense upfront. He was glaring at the intruders, raising his pistol and opening his mouth to challenge them, and he was dead. A boiling arm, red and pink, shot out from under the cloak - a clawed hand clamped over his head, tearing into his neck and eye sockets, the calcified fingers bending and shifting unnaturally dig into the weak spots. The lesser Malthusian didn't even manage to bring his own arms up and fight the death-grip. Dead and tossed aside like a rag-doll, striking the wall and slumping down in gurgling, eyeless disbelief.

Dana stayed stock-still, like the others, a mix of shock and pragmatism. The victim had been in their way, and sure enough, the three elites were heedlessly moving onwards. Not a word of a glance spared to the dead man's comrades, and why would they? Who would fight them for their "buddy" in a wretched, low-level Malthus unit?

A man with a shotgun and a gas-mask managed to shout in protest, insulting them, but he was safely ignored. Nobody else made a move or a sound…

Oh, shit. The bare-chested guy - Morris, was it? He silently stepped forward, eyes narrowing, raising his rifle.

A few things happened within three seconds.

Morris fired a long burst at the backs of the elites, shattering the helmet of one and stitching rounds down his back - the elite stumbled, falling to the floor.

The second elite whipped around, bloody cloak billowing like a halo, a boiling arm shooting out and extending fifteen meters like elastic; he impaled Morris on it, fingers digging in and tendons straining with a squelch as some organ was crushed.

The third elite doubled his pace, disappearing around the corner, doubtless intent on their real mission.

Dana glanced sideways at Morris, blood spilling from his mouth and weakly gripping the arm impaled through his chest. The second elite was standing still, hunched down and poised for further violence, daring them to do anything about it; the wounded elite groaned, trying to pull himself to his feet using an errant gurney.

Fight or flight, Adja.

"Fucking kill them!" Dana howled, raising her rifle and dropping back behind a recess in the wall.

She was mindful of the dying Morris, but it was too fast to react; the second elite flung the impaled corpse sideways, colliding with Dana and pinning her under a tangled heap. Blood in her eyes, blood in her mouth. She sputtered curses, trying to push Morris off - gunfire thundering around her - screaming. A gas-masked Malthusian was impaled, flying down the hallway and drawn into a mouth with too many teeth.

The first elite - both were injured now, under the storm of bullets - scrambled towards them on all fours. Feral, a mad dog, he pounced on the nearest Malthusian, losing the rest of his helmet and a quarter of his skull in the process. Heedless to the wounds, his victim struggled to keep the maws away - mad dogs, a distant part of Adja marveled. Dress them up as nice as you could, still a coin toss for every Malthusian between skill and insanity.

Dana looked up - the gas-masked Malthusian with their head bitten off, writhing, wilting under the gunfire of a dozen weapons. She looked back down to the struggle on the floor - all in the span of a second. Some switch had flipped, deep in her, and that rare fire was burning alongside the adrenaline. No, freak. Not another one.

She broke cover and ran, covering ground fast, shoving two comrades aside - sending them sprawling - so she wasn't shot in the back.

Blood was up, breath burning her lungs, seizing the elite by the shoulders, momentum and straining muscles wrenching him off his victim. Too close for the rifle - it fell with a clatter, spinning on the floor - Dana reached up, balled her fist, and brought it down with a crunch on the elite's gaping skull. One, two, three hits, flailing and his boot connected, kicking Dana straight through a door.

Pain, muffled by the thick fatigues. Concussion, unmitigated by the bandana on her head. Ears, ringing from the animal howl of agony from the elite - followed closely by the elite, all fours, bounding through the ruined entryway.

"Shit!" she gasped, rolling to the side and feeling claws rip into her ankle.

Head pounding, she rose to her feet, looking around - they'd landed in some kind of pumping station, a dingy table, a wall of pipes and valves. Tangled in a mess of pipes, rapidly untangling himself, the elite snarled and raised his arm -

"Shit!" Dana repeated, searching for a better weapon - her belt knife was too small for this beast. A rusty crowbar, covered in dust, she'd barely wrapped her fingers around it when the elite reached out - over nearly ten meters - and grabbed her neck.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Or choked. Instinct took over for oxygen, the elite pulling at her, a nightmarish maw set in a half-missing skull at the other end. Dana let go of the chair - rushing air, momentum, and slammed the crowbar into its left ear.

The pressure released, oxygen rushed back into her lungs - thinking now, Dana grabbed the momentarily stunned elite by the throat, brought the crowbar up and crashing back down into the hole in its skull.

It snapped in half. She looked at the stump in her hand - no problem. Shift the grip, stab it through the ear, leverage to bring him to his knees.

Looking good, Adja.

Less good was the ugly, crackling noise, rising up from the bile spilling out of his throat - boiling skin, spikes. She didn't have long - another glance, the wall of pipes. One of the bigger, lower ones looked rusty. Looked weak.


"Good enough," she muttered, wrenching him up, swinging back like a great log - a boiling hand reaching up to stop her - smashing the head into the marked pipe. It buckled, she swung again, cracking it open and releasing a torrent of inky black liquid that quickly slowed.

Were those eyes, bobbing in the flow?

The elite was screaming, clutching his soaked, ruined face, screaming. Eyeballs growing in his cheeks, in the spikes and boiling pus… Dana looked down to find an eyeball in her left hand, where the liquid had spilled on her.

Shit. Couldn't even loot the corpse, after all that work. The room was slightly recessed into the floor, relative to the hall outside, filling with the liquid, and Dana didn't trust her ragged boots.

Still breathing hard and fairly annoyed, Dana stole what she could - a glittery pendant cut from his neck, an ornate dagger strapped to the inside of the Vitruvian cloak. Her fatigues' pockets a little heavier, she staggered over to the room's table. A small sink recessed into the wall; wincing, Dana balled her free hand into a fist and squashed the eye, juices erupting, washing it off with Authority water. Torn eye-flaps, a socket of flesh, that'd leave a nasty scar; better than the corpse slumped in the corner.

She ducked back into the hallway, her absence unnoticed, typical for their unit. The second elite was thoroughly looted - how the hell was Barnes still alive?

"That wasn't so bad," Barnes said, like the brainless idiot he was. "Where's the Authority, huh?"

Glad you could meet them. Dana chuckled, in spite of everything, at Barnes' bullet-riddled corpse.

There was the Authority. Right in front of them, armed security, a brutal ambush. Paint can of… something that wasn't paint, rolled in and exploded among the Malthusians, half of them staring at it like an idiot. Some kind of lobby, big enough to trap a fair dozen, not large enough for the Church to press through with sheer numbers.

On Dana's part, she'd picked a solid-looking support column and ran for it. Now if Billiards - the knife fanatic - would stop screaming from the flames sticking to every limb, she could concentrate. Shouting, gunfire, a proper firefight. She'd been soaking in this shit for a decade.

An ax-waving Malthusian broke cover - Dana was pretty sure she was from a different unit entirely, mixed in with the chaos - ran five steps, then collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Another man, AK firing from the hip, tried to follow - he dropped after two steps. Idiots. Suppress and advance, basic shit… the Authority, even with radiation burns and backs against the wall, didn't miss like scared village guards.

A grenade bounced by, screaming, an explosion - Dana traded glances with a gas-masked Malthusian behind an opposite pillar. Time to go.

Sprinting, firing, the other man dying; pure luck that she made it.

She slid to cover, grimacing at the pain in her ankle, hand, all over. Now the Authority guns were thundering a few meters away, clear voices, they knew she'd made it.

"You're dying like flies!" one of them taunted.

"Dogs! Dying like fucking dogs!" another voice added.

Dana relaxed behind the collapsed pillar, patting herself down and wondering if she still had that grenade. She looked back, casually, and a cruel grin split her face.

"Yeah?" she called, watching the bleeding Martyr thunder towards the lobby - hunched over, too tall for the ceiling, picking up speed - "Ground meat, friend."

The Martyr charged, chains rattling and eyes hidden under a grossly calcified forehead. He raised an arm to shield his face - no good, concentrated fire tore it apart, punching out his eyes, sprays of blood and ichor. Blind and bellowing, the Martyr crashed through, seizing an armored security guard and pinning him to the wall, squashing the shoulders flat against the cracking wall.

"Dog meat!" Dana shrieked, almost giggling, shocked by a force like a train rushing past her with violent intent. Allah's mercy, she was far gone.

Adja sunk a little lower behind her pillar, knowing the job was as good as done, and a worrying number of Malthusian bullets were flying past her. It'd be faintly comical, but also very stupid, to rise up like an avenging devil to kill the scattered Authority thugs and get instantly shot in the back. She was just fine where she was, listening to the screaming, right in the shit but not quite deep enough to drown.

She glanced over the edge of the pillar - the first guy was chunks on the floor, another guard was ducking under the Martyr's blind swing, retreating - farther away, some scientist type woman was gesturing.

Then, she saw something brave. From a little supply closet - a mop sticker on the door - a grizzled man in coveralls leaned out, bucket in hand. Some kind of janitor? With a quick jerk, he doused the raging Martyr in a shiny gold liquid, and the other hand revealed a burning acetylene torch taped ON. A toss - and Adja winced when the janitor was shot, stumbling forward, going up in flames with the Martyr. They were both screaming, and Adja raised her rifle; firing her first aimed shots of the fight, putting the suffering janitor down to the ground.

Then a couple more through the head to be sure.

A few Authority corpses littered the ground - nearly a dozen Malthusians in the lobby, a few able to limp on, tracing ritual circles on their skin and shooting up combat drugs to keep them going. Sloppy, undisciplined, embarrassing. The survivors - thick like rats now, mixed in from other units and cells - swarmed over the lobby, stripping the dead. Killing off the population was a noble sacrifice, but no respect for the dead here and now.

Wrapping her wounds in gauze pilfered from an Authority first aid kid, feeling utterly numb, Adja vaguely recognized one of the new faces.

"Olga, is it? Claw arm?" she called, no response. "Claw arm?"

He turned, a grin dissonant against the grotesque, pus-stained Martyr arm. "Olesk, it's Olesk. We keep meeting in, real fucked up places."

A bitter snort, grim smile. "Yeah. Dropping like flies, it's like a heli gunship tore through us. Just a couple assholes at the end of a hallway, dumb traps in the ceilings…"

Olesk frowned. "I'll tell you why. You - an army, us - we spend months, years, grinding a boot in villagers' faces. Hell, it feels good. Pretending to be at war, pretending to carry out Malthus theory, people die but there's never… never a real threat. We run like bitches when serious security forces show up."

"That's how it is," Dana shrugged. "Testing fucked up artifacts, experiments, bribing and shooting local rebels."

"Steady work, but it seduces you, like that 1984 quote - grinding your boot in somebody's face feels good. Over and over, superior the whole way. Makes you weak, takes the muscle out, dulls the blade. And then you get this mess," Olesk sighed, gesturing towards the stripped bodies getting stacked in a corner.

"Sounds about right," Adja frowned, then her face twitched; eyes bright, voice full of mischief. "Hell, Olesk, what is this? The weak dying, the unworthy dying, and dare I say - the strong survive?" She thumped the Vitruvian man emblazoned on her fatigues, a wicked smile drawn across her face like a knife.

Olesk considered it, and sputtered with laughter, "Yes, we're living out Malthus and Darwin and all the thinkers."

"Every Malthusian thinks they're putting theory into practice, that they wield it," Adja declared, leaning forward, still smiling, "and look at that, we're practitioners and victims, statistics, theory-provers, test subjects. Fuck, the Authority guys are as much of practitioners as we are!"

She drew a few strange looks from passing Malthusians, but she and Olesk were laughing now, to hell with them. Strange feeling. "Yeah, well, like I always said-"

Olesk paused, glancing over his shoulder; there was a commotion farther on. He spoke again, changing the subject, more serious, "They're finding good stuff. Anomalies, in crates, breaking locks to get into places, you know."

"The jackpot," Adja said dispassionately, "I'll catch up. How many units are mixed together here?"

"Four, maybe five," Olesk replied, already heading for the door.

"Yeah. We tear each other apart over scraps, how about a full meal?" she muttered, feeling very lazy.

A somewhat nasty thought occurred to her; there'd been special security doors, keycard readers and the pads you put your hand on, like in a movie. The Authority's dead were stripped of everything - even their uniforms, especially the uniforms, priceless for future subterfuge and infiltration. Poor bastards, but Adja had seen worse and Dana had done worse.

Crawling over - the wounds were hurting badly now, pain that kept on her knees in lieu of a life-or-death threat - Dana regarded the bodies, unable to tell rank without uniforms or keycards.

Ah, hell. Time to dull her knife on a few elbows. Swearing under her breath, Dana started cutting with the saw blade edge.

Make your own ID cards, huh?

Eventually, Dana was up again, exploring the labyrinthine facility - an outlying installation, at that. She couldn't imagine the nightmare maze at the center that the nuke had destroyed. The home of the Enemy… muffled gunfire had faded into oblivion, utter silence. Only the crackling of the Geiger counter swinging from her hip and the stamp on boots on concrete could be heard.

A dying man slumped against the wall, another man kneeling beside him, talking. Vault door, palm reader right next to them, worth checking out.

Rifle up and aimed, Dana quietly advanced to the entryway of the room. The dying man was looking right at her, but wasn't alarmed; glazed-over eyes, blind man. What happened to him?

"Hey, friend," she said, finger on the trigger, "No quick moves."

Wide-eyed alarm, a hand tightening around a bloody hammer - standing stock still when he stared down the rifle barrel. The dying man's friend - or coworker, acquaintance, Dana reminded herself that their organization was a lot less prone to fratricide than Malthusians - regarded her like a dead man, silently.

What was one more corpse? This was what Olesk was talking about, a boot in somebody's face, that toxic nectar of superiority. A God looming over another human's world, their whole world, life, and death.

One more corpse. Bloodstain on Bandana's fatigues, another face burned into Dana's memory, another cut on Adja Hadžić's soul.

She lowered the rifle slightly, tilting her head towards another door. "Isn't worth it," she said.

Agony on his face, glancing at the door and back down to the dying man. Still, he didn't speak.

"He's gone." 'Felt good to say the whole truth. "Whispering in his ear won't change that."

He moved - she tensed, ready for a suicidal rush - and went out the side door. Not a moment too soon - she heard a commotion behind her, glanced back to see a crowd of Malthusians was gathering, bloody and nasty and in the shadow of a hulking Martyr.

Smart guy. She walked across the room, mindful that the other Malthusians were waiting for a trap to be sprung. Dana was usually in the crowd, letting others run over the tripwires, but to hell with it. Maybe this was the end.

"Who are you?" the dying man demanded, hoarse voice, not much time left.

She opened her mouth, then closed it, Dana dying in her throat. Who was she? Bandana, Dana, a mid-level - at best - thug in a third-rate cell of an international terrorist group, innocent blood on her hands. Ajna Hadžić, a sobbing girl cowering in a cupboard as the Bosniaks in her village were dragged out. Scum with no country and no righteous cause, really, doomed to die in her dreams. Caught in the web of the world's underworld, watching a man die in the irradiated ruins of a facility that didn't exist.

She settled on something that Malthusians claimed to be, but she - she wasn't. Never was, never would be, she was something else and far less impressive.

"Why," Dana said, Bandana smiling, Adja lying, "I'm the blood-red right hand of Thomas Malthus."

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