I thought it might be fun to share the intro of my 15-Day story. I’ve no idea if this first chapter is a keeper, but it starts with Kohl hungover so that’s a step in the right direction.
October heads to a church in San Francisco, recently the site of a major Ezeroc battle against humanity’s defenders. The city’s a ruin, but you can still get liquor.
Dead Men Walking
“October Kohl, I need your help.”
Six words Kohl never wanted to wake up to. Especially not in the arms of two of San Francisco’s finest working girls, with the beginning of a three-day-binge hangover forming right behind his eyes. These things were related, Kohl’s focus on shore leave second to none.
“Kohl? Can you hear me?” Male voice. A little reedy. Shaky with fear, talking too fast. Been a lot of that lately, what with the roaches tearing Earth a new asshole.
Kohl opened an eye. White sheets. Long brown limbs, not hairy enough to be his own. A window framing the scene behind the long limbs, God’s own vengeance hungering for his skull as white light purer than fusion fire burned behind lace curtains.
“Kohl, Shig sent me.” That damn voice wouldn’t let up. Kohl pushed limbs aside, taking a moment to survey their owners. Nope, no idea who they are. He got out of bed, linen rumpling in his wake, and cast about for his personal comm. There. It was under a cocktail dress — not his — next to a bottle of whisky drained to within a finger’s width of empty.
Kohl fielded the whisky and comm both, sitting back on a couch. The comm showed UNKNOWN ID for the caller. In easier times he’d assume it was someone trying to sell used starships for less, but what with San Francisco burned to the waterline, that felt less likely. He opened the comm. “Hey.”
“Thank God, Kohl. You’ve got to help me—”
“Do you know where my pants are?” Kohl rubbed a hand over his face. Still there. Nothing hurts. No fights, then.
“I, uh. Your pants?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll work something out.” Kohl took a pull of the liquor. Tasted pretty good, and made him feel less like shaving his tongue. “What day is it?”
“What day is it?”
“Is there a fucken echo?” Kohl scratched his chest, catching a whiff of himself. “I thought it was a three-day bender, but it could be four.”
“It’s Tuesday.” The voice held confusion and not a little desperation.
“Four it is.” He rewound the conversation in his head. “Shig?”
“Yeah. Shig asked me to—”
“Shig Ishikawa? Shig of the yak? Shig the Shig?” Kohl looked around for something to throw up into. Potted plant in the corner looked the right type of destination.
“I guess. Shig asked me to get a message canister to you. Hand delivered.”
“Gimme a second.” Kohl levered himself from the couch, dragging himself to the plant. He retched, hands braced on the rim. After he finished, he noticed the plant wasn’t plastic. Higher class hotel, then. Kohl fielded the comm and wiped his mouth on the back of his wrist. “Who are you?”
“Okay, Jiro. Why don’t you bring me Shig’s message?”
“They caught me.”
Kohl nodded along like he watched that damn bouncing ball on karaoke holos. “Who’s ‘they?’”
“Mercs, I think. They got me right after I left the shuttle.” Jiro wasn’t winding down, still as tight as a Guild-spun spring. “They’ve got me in a church. Took the message canister.”
“Church of the Undying Dawn. Do you know it?”
“Never been much for prayers to invisible friends.” Kohl spied his pants atop a freestanding wardrobe. He wobbled to his feet, charting a course across the room. Snaring his pants from the wardrobe, he checked them for holes or dirt. The polymers held little of either, so he leaned against the wardrobe, tugging them on. “What you want from me?”
“Bust me out. They’ve got Shig’s message. It’s important.”
“What is it?”
Pants on, Kohl wandered into the hotel’s bathroom. It was the size of a starship ready room, marble everywhere. He turned the lights off, gave a grunt as light sharp as spears stabbed his brain through his eyeballs, and palmed them off. The bathtub was the size of a swimming pool. It held a bottle of champagne (empty), his shirt, and his jacket. He left the bottle but got his clothes. Putting the comm on the tiled vanity, he shrugged into his clothes. “How do you know it’s important, then?”
“Because Shig’s dead.”
Kohl waited to feel something. Anger, or hurt, or stunned surprise, but nothing came through the hangover’s throbbing insistence. His eyes wandered the collection of exquisite soaps and shampoos arrayed on the vanity. They had Exalted Pier and a small crown logo on each. “Do you know where the Exalted Pier hotel is?”
“Yes. It’s about five klicks from where I am.”
“Great. I’ll see you in a few.” Kohl snapped the comm off. The hotel’s supplies included hangover remedy, so he dry swallowed four of the pills. He hunted around for his blaster, but didn’t find it. He either didn’t bring it drinking — unlikely — or lost it sometime during the past four days.
Before he left, he cast a glance to the bed. Neither of the working girls moved. Kohl had a dim memory of this hotel being their choice but his coin. He ambled for the door, palming it open. He squinted at the hallway lighting. Some asshole had turned the lights up to white fury levels of lumens, blasting their brilliance onto dark red carpet.
Adjusting his pants, Kohl set off toward the hotel’s elevators. He wasn’t quite sure where they were, but left down the corridor felt just as good as right, and he’d find his way out eventually. To Jiro Drury, and the message from his dead friend Shig Ishikawa.
The outside of the Exalted Pier wasn’t terrible. The hotel wasn’t huge, or new. It had the solid virtue of surviving the shelling San Francisco saw three months back when the Empire fought the Ezeroc. The city wasn’t unique. Most of Earth was proper fucked, but Kohl liked it here. It felt like the site of victory, and his hero status got him a liquor discount more often than not.
Since Nate and Grace abdicated the throne, crying for a general election, Kohl called bullshit and started drinking. He’d eyeballed Nate, saying, Come find me when you’ve finished fucking everything up, and left his Emperor’s Black uniform on the hanger.
Nate hadn’t looked angry or sad. He was too damn busy for that.
The hangover remedy took effect, the angry orb of Sol sitting back down to mere sunlight. The hotel was close to the sea, salt brine trying its level best to overcome the smell of rot that hung in the air. So many died in the war. Hell, hundreds turned into food for the roaches, but there were more buried under fallen buildings, corpses lost in the rubble. Grace said they’d get ‘em out eventually, but she’d looked away when she spoke. Kohl took that to mean sometime south of never.
Didn’t matter. He’d retired until Nate stopped being such a dick about everything.
Kohl wasn’t sure which direction the Cathedral of the Undying Dawn was in, but he needed a weapon. A few waterfront piers stood after the roaches shelled the planet. People used ‘em as meeting points, and often as not, swap meets. Wasn’t enough of an economy to get excited about, but a few enterprising souls sold what they had spare to those who had none.
Ahead a canvas canopy flapped in the breeze. Beneath it, a weathered man minded a blanket spread on the ground. He was selling weapons, tens of blasters, masers, and a few kinect weapons spread atop the covering. They had a post-retail look to them, most of the locations a discerning manufacturer would put a serial number filed away.
The man was missing an eye, one lid sewn shut, but that didn’t stop him looking twenty-seven directions at once. Be hard to pull something over on the old timer. Kohl shored up in front of him. “How’s business?”
One-Eye glared. He put a lot of effort into it, which Kohl respected. “Everyone wants a weapon. Roaches!”
Kohl sniffed, adjusted his crotch, and shook his head. “Roaches are dead, old man.”
“How would you know?”
“Spent some time killing ‘em.” Kohl eyed a weapon on the ground. “Is that an Empire carbine?”
The old man lay hands on the blaster, offering it up. Short, with a scope atop. “Aye. You like it?”
Kohl hefted the weapon. It had a few nicks along the barrel. Battery housing was fucked up too, like a toaster tried to mate with it, but the cell stayed in there well enough. The scope was nothing but broken glass. “I think if you hit a firefight with this, the outcome’s certain.”
“A beauty, amirite?” One-Eye cackled. “A mere twenty thousand coins.”
Kohl coughed. “Twenty thousand?”
“Not a coin less.”
Handing the weapon back, Kohl shook his head. “Too rich for my blood.” He turned on his heel, sauntering away. Twenty thousand. Twenty thousand. It was a number that commanded respect. Maybe some asshole stole his blaster? If a black market economy was shilling space trash for twenty Gs, his sidearm would be worth a hundred.
Do I need a blaster? Bunch of god-bothering throwbacks … probably not. He had the coin, but he had a fundamental problem with robbery. Time for an auto taxi.
Kohl found one with only one window smashed. He hauled the door open, settling inside. “Church of the Undying Dawn.” The machine beeped, but not in a healthy way. A previous passenger went monkey rage on the inside of the taxicab, the console cracked, the holo flickering. Despite that, it trundled away from the curb, electric motor working well enough.
What’s Shig got himself into now? The courier Jiro said Shig was dead, but people’d said Shig was dead before and he kept coming back, like spring rain. That he’d send a human suggested it was yak business. They counted people as more reliable than Guild gates, mostly on account of being able to murder those who got it wrong. Hard to murder a Guild Bridge. Jiro might be yakuza, or he might be a legitimate courier. No sense worrying about it.
The auto taxi gave a sickly chime, slowing as they reached their destination. A stone structure struggled to get much higher than three stories off the crust. At least it’s still standing. Kohl tried to leave the taxi, found the door jammed, and shouldered it with a grunt. Daylight washed over him. Five clicks inland, the smell of rot was stronger.
A billboard about the height of two Kohls stood before a stone fence outside the cathedral. It was weathered, but fresh paint adorned the front. An enterprising squatter painted over whatever church used to own this land, then proclaimed in cheerful white paint, Church of the Undying Dawn.
Calling something ‘undying’ was setting a challenge for the universe. Kohl gave these assholes maybe four weeks before someone rolled ‘em.
Kohl walked through a broken metal gate, pausing to finger the stone fence. It was smooth, worn down by the elements. Not ceramicrete. No, people figured this fence important enough to carry rocks here and pile ‘em atop one another. Seemed a painful way to spend an a month, but no accounting for taste.
He headed through the grounds, charting a course for the entranceway. Back in happier times, like before the roaches dropped rocks down Earth’s gravity well, or maybe before the constructs unleashed a new nanobot swarm, it’d been a grassy area. Now it was brown, but a few trestle tables were setup outside, colorful cloth draped over them. More painted signage here, but smaller. Free food. Take what you need.
The tables held plates, but they were all empty. Folk needed a lot these days.
No one out here. Kohl squinted toward the gloom of the cathedral proper. No movement or noise. Kinda creepy, if you were like as not to be startled by deserted churches. What really bothered Kohl was the lack of human lice out front. Anyplace offering free food should be swarmed by the needy, waiting for the next handout. This place had none of that.
The people who’d nabbed Jiro might well have come through here, scaring folk, killing those who didn’t run. Kohl spied a hint of red among the brown weeds. He made for it. Crouching, he retrieved a jacket. No body parts, no body, just a jacket, but with everyone in desperate times, armor against the cold wasn’t a thing you’d leave behind.
Time to find out what’s going on. Kohl stood, heading inside.
Cool, but not cold. Dim, but not dark. The cathedral interior was stone, just like the outside, but had rows of uncomfortable-looking wooden benches lining up in formation. Kohl prodded his brain, and after a moment, realized what they were: pews. The room’s ceiling was all three stories of its height above, windows high above. Pillars of stone shouldered the roof. The cathedral itself was a good five hundred meters long.
Still no one. You’d expect a priest or a sinner inside a church.
He sidled aside from the doorway. No sense in being more of a target than he was. “Hey. You assholes have a courier in here?” Silence. Kohl walked further in. As his view angle changed, he glimpsed a body among the pews, arm thrown out in supplication toward the front of the church. The body was clothed in a black cassock, a blaster hole through the middle. Killing a priest was pretty low even by Kohl’s standards, and it didn’t factor well for Jiro’s life expectancy once his captors got what they wanted.
Slowing his roll, Kohl followed the direction of the arm, taking in all manner of god-hailing equipment. Crosses. Candles. Above, a massive chandelier. Further back, no longer obscured by a pillar, stood a closed maybe-real wood door, in front of which waited a guard. The man looked military; buzz-cut hair, impassive face asking to be punched, and square shoulders that spent a lot of time standing at attention.
Square Shoulders made no move, but he watched Kohl across the distance.
Clearing his throat, Kohl called out. “Yo. You got a weaselly runt around here? Jiro Drury.”
No response, but the guard’s eyes flicked to the left. Kohl dived, the movement sparing him hot death by blaster bolt. Blue-white plasma roared across the church, kissing the stone wall behind Kohl. He scrambled, head down, pews blasting into flaming fragments around him. The fire came from behind a pillar a hundred meters further up.
Kohl shored up in the lee of a pillar, silence falling once more. These motherfuckers killed a priest and they’re trying to kill me. That deserves attention. Careful not to disturb debris, Kohl crept further up, closing the distance between him and the blaster fire. He heard movement not just from where he was headed, but off to his right as well. At least two people were here, other than the Square Shouldered strong silent type at the far end. Kohl’s experience with being in similar situations — sans cathedral — suggested maybe two or three more he couldn’t see.
Time to flush ‘em out.
He paused behind the pillar he was sure his assailant waited behind. Kohl heard breathing, the subtle click of a finger on a trigger, and the scrape of cloth on armor. Armored, and the fucker’s got a blaster. No problem.
Kohl swept around the pillar, coming face to face with a man almost as large as him. Tattoos, bent nose from a previous break. Sweaty face, light-blue eyes just now widening in surprise. Armor from helmet to boots, good against blaster fire. Kohl swung a savage uppercut in, connecting with his opponent’s jaw. He heard the blackboard-scrape of teeth breaking.
No knock-out, though. The broken-nosed behemoth swung his blaster rifle, trying to club Kohl in the head with the stock. Kohl shifted close, fouling the blow. He brought a knee up, impacting against a box, then brought his elbow around in a savage strike to his enemy’s nose, breaking it for at least the second time in his about-to-be-shorter life.
The man stumbled back, holding his face. Eyes squinted in pain widened in surprise as he noted Kohl now held his plasma rifle. It was a nice unit, very much like the ex-Navy weapon the one-eyed old man tried to extort twenty thousand coins for, except this one wasn’t broken.
Kohl swung the rifle like a bat, collecting the man in the head. He fell. Once down, Kohl stamped on his neck. A crunch, and it was done. Kohl waited, but heard nothing else. No running reinforcements, no blaster fire. Everyone here was careful, keeping to cover. Just the kind of thing trained Marines might do. Kohl bent, taking his opponent’s helmet and helping himself to a grenade. He tossed the lid like a frisbee, nice and low. The helmet spun out at chest height. Blaster fire raked pews from the opposite side of the cathedral.
Eyeballing the distance, Kohl primed the grenade, tossing it. It arced above the pews, clattering behind a pillar. He ducked back, the crump of the grenade shaking his teeth and deafening him some. Ducking low, Kohl scuttled between the ruined pews, heading across the cathedral to the explosion site. He arrived, finding another soldier down, missing a leg, but otherwise alive. His other leg held a long knife in a sheath, the hilt a professional-looking ceramic affair. Kohl looked around, but didn’t immediately see the leg. It’d turn up.
He rose, standing above the soldier. “How’s it going?”
“Help. Please.” The man’s voice was brittle, like over-tempered hull metal.
“Sure. Who you with?” Kohl rattled his plasma rifle for emphasis. “I don’t figure you for the church-going type.”
The man rolled, hand out to drag himself away. Kohl shot him with the plasma rifle, the smell of barbecue roiling in the air alongside stone dust and explosive. Two down. He helped himself to the knife.
Sounds of movement from across the cathedral. At least this fight would get his step count up for the day. His personal trainer Kimberly was always on at him to get in more cardio, and this felt like something he could record in good conscience. He bent around the stone column, risking a look. Nothing obvious. “I just want to talk!”
“You killed Carrique and Sinkowski!” Woman’s voice. Strained, but not frightened. Pissed off, more like, riled like a bear.
“They started it.” Kohl had an idea of where the voice came from now. He crouched low, ignoring a twinge in his back from another fight reminding him he wasn’t getting any younger, and set off.
“What are you, five?” When Kohl didn’t respond, she said, “You still there?”
Kohl, now no stranger to crossing the cathedral at speed, made it across without incident. The pews looked uncomfortable, but they made for great cover. He just hoped the other team wasn’t wising up the idea. He didn’t want to chase people down, or scare ‘em out. He was too damn tired for that shit.
He made the pillar she hid behind. Same as the others, huge, old, but this one had a small bookcase filled with actual books. Seemed a waste, but no accounting for taste. Kohl nabbed one. It was small, barely the size of his palm, with gold leaf around the edges. Readying his knife, he tossed the tiny book across the pews, rewarded by plasma fire torching it. The book exploded in a shower of burning pages, looking nothing so much like a dove hit with a shotgun.
Kohl slipped around the pillar, striking with his knife. He hoped to get someone in the spine, but his boot scraped on a fragment of wood, and his attacker turned as his knife hit. She was definitely angry, rage filling brown eyes below a shaved head. No helmet on this one, which spoke of either stupidity or staggering belief in their own competence. His knife scraped home in her arm, but not with the comfortable slick feel of meat. It grated, lodging in place.
She snarled, hauling her arm away with the strength of a loader. The knife went with her. She jabbed for Kohl’s eyes with gloved fingers. He ducked aside, slipped on more pew fragments, and stumbled. The woman used the moment to haul the blade from her arm. It tore free in a shower of sparks. She’s got a prosthetic. Maybe something like the cap, but not as shiny. He’d always wanted to go a few rounds with the cap, but the time never seemed right.
This here’s a perfect opportunity. Kohl roared, charging her. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she brought the knife up in her meat hand. Kohl slammed it aside, slugger her across the jaw, and wore a staggering haymaker from her metal arm for his troubles. She swapped the knife to her prosthetic arm. He narrowly missed being eviscerated by the knife as she swung for his stomach. He blocked a second strike with his rifle, the blade lodging in the battery. Electricity arced to her metal arm, but she grinned like it didn’t matter.
They were close enough to kiss. Kohl heard a whine of servos, her metal arm straining. Fuckit. He kneed her in the groin. Not as effective as on a dude, but it left an impression. No box this time. As she ooomph’d, staggering back, he borrowed the knife from her combat harness. Fair was fair.
She lowered her stance, the blade weaving between them. Kohl waited, his knife held low. He never understood why people felt the need to get all showy with knives. They were short, useless swords for the most part. Fast, sure, but not as good as a long blade, and a far cry from a decent blaster. His opponent didn’t think so, lunging. The blade went for his midriff, and he let her think she had him for a hot second before turning aside. He buried her blade in the side of her neck, and as she gurgled, took his own blade back. It had a better weight. On reflection, he helped himself to her plasma carbine.
One left, maybe, other than the statuesque motherfucker guarding the door. It bothered Kohl he hadn’t twitched a muscle to get involved as his friends were being murdered in a church. Maybe he was going for some macho final-fight nonsense.
Plasma raked the stone next to his head, surprising Kohl into a furtive duck. A man’s voice called from across the cathedral. “You killed Regan!”
“Yeah. And Carrique and Sinofsky.”
“Whatever.” Kohl noticed from his crouch that the pews weren’t solid all the way to the ground. Legs held ‘em up. “I’m pretty sure I’m gonna kill you too.”
“Give up, or we kill the Emperor.”
Kohl laughed. “People try that shit every day. Be original.”
“’Sides, he ain’t the Emperor anymore. He retired.” Kohl lowered his head to the cool stone. Sure as stars shat radiation, he could see across the floor. The jibber-jabbering asshole’s boots were visible beneath the pews.
“He’s nominally in office until the election. Aren’t you October Kohl, Captain of the Black?”
“Not anymore.” Kohl aimed his carbine, firing. Plasma roared across the floor, tearing the remaining soldier’s legs away. The man fell with a scream, delivering the rest of his body to the ground, so Kohl shot that too. The air smelled of ozone and burnt blood.
He levered himself to his feet, eyeballing Square Shoulders. “We going to have a problem?”
“I think so.” Square Shoulders had a voice like a steel mill, loud, and strong, and not to be fucked with. He raised his rifle.
Kohl ducked down. It’s a long way to that motherfucker. The woman he’d knifed in the neck still lay nearby, sightless eyes staring at something he couldn’t see. Kohl grabbed her body, hefting her in front of him. He rose, charging. Her body was armored against plasma fire, which meant he was also armored against plasma fire.
Square Shoulders fired. Plasma raked the body Kohl held, the pummeling fearsome. He crouched, returning fire. Square Shoulders ducked, roadie-running for cover behind the god-hailing equipment. Kohl kept up his fusillade of fire, rising to get a better sightline on his opponent.
Blood from the knife wound dripped from the woman’s armor. Kohl’s boot slipped on it, and he fell backward. His plasma rifle roared, blasting a chandelier high above. The metal cable mooring it to the ceiling sheared, the entire glass edifice racing for the floor.
It landed in a shower of crystal, cutting off a short scream from Square Shoulders. Kohl shoved his makeshift shield aside, the body flopping to the floor. He stood, rolling his shoulder, working out a kink, before wandering up the cathedral’s length.
He found Square Shoulders under the chandelier wreckage, a spare of gold filigree metal through the man’s throat. Kohl kept on, docking alongside the door the dead man guarded. He knocked. “Jiro?”
“Kohl?” Jiro sounded excited, relieved, and would be annoying like a puppy when Kohl let him out.
“The devil himself. Where’s the message?”
“It’s with a mean-looking guy. Shoulders like a baulstrade. Can’t miss him.”
“I didn’t.” Kohl left Jiro’s door, and rooted through the chandelier-slash-body wreckage. He managed to haul the dead soldier out, patted him down, and came up with a Guild message canister. Standard size, about the length and thickness of Kohl’s thumb. Inside would be a data sliver. He eyed Jiro’s door. Let him out? Leave him there? He heaved a sigh, heading to the door. “I need you to stand away from the door.”
“Sure.” After a brief pause, Jiro’s voice was fainter. “I’m clear.”
Kohl blew the door to splinters with the plasma carbine. Burning wood rained inside. Kohl squinted until the smoke and ash settled, then walked through the breach. Jiro, as he’d expected, was a squirrelly-looking man with hair styled to look like a hedgehog. It was probably fashionable on Venus. Jiro crouched inside the room, brushing splinters from a red-on-black jacket. It looked like vat-grown leather, more supple and strong than you’d get from livestock. “Hey.”
“Thank you.” Jiro hurried over. Kohl took a wary step back. Today was not a day for hugging. Jiro stopped just outside arm’s reach. “Shig sent that,” he stabbed a finger at the message canister clutched in Kohl’s hand, “and said it’s for your eyes only.”
“What’s on it?”
Jiro blinked. “I don’t know. It’s for—”
“My eyes only. I got it. There a password?” Kohl turned the message canister over in his hand. The cap was loose, so he took it off, shaking the data sliver to his palm. It gleamed in the cathedral’s dim light.
“Yeah. Shig said you’d know.”
“Fuck.” Kohl tossed the used canister aside, pocketing the sliver. “You okay for a ride?”
“Great. See you around.” Kohl trudged off, heading back through the cathedral. Someone would clean this up, or they wouldn’t. A lot of San Francisco was in a worse state. Maybe if more people got religion alongside a work ethic it’d sort itself out. Regardless, it wasn’t Kohl’s problem.
As he walked, he slotted the sliver into his personal console. It prompted him for a password, so he keyed KOHL IS AN ASSHOLE. The little holo on the console cleared, and the voice of Shig Ishikawa spoke to him from beyond the grave. “Kohl, if you’re listening to this, you’ve got to help me. I’ve found it. It’s the thing that’ll keep us alive forever. But they’re on my heels. On my best day, I couldn’t take ‘em. I’ll split the prize with you.”
Kohl paused the playback. Split the prize sounded the kind of thing a man still alive might say. He resumed the audio. “I know you’re with the Empire. Bigger than the yak, mighty across the stars. You’ve landed well.” Shig gasped, like he was in pain, hissing his next words. “Bring help and get me the fuck out of here. I won’t last long. Go to the Seuden system.”
The audio ended. Kohl turned, eyeballing Jiro. “You get that?”
Jiro, who held a small blaster on Kohl, nodded. “Thanks.”
“No sweat. You know that system doesn’t exist, right?” Kohl scratched the back of his neck, freeing a wood sliver mired in sweat. “It’s never that easy.”
“What?” At Jiro’s confused blink, Kohl whipped up his plasma rifle and shot him center mass. Jiro’s body tore apart, fragments of charred body tumbling to join the mess of pews on the ground.
Seuden system, huh? Kohl opened his comm.
“Hello, October Kohl.”
“Hey, Al. Get your shit.”
“Because we’re going on a road trip.”
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