The various musky smells of the jungle now seemed unexpectedly stronger. I eventually realized I could now both smell and taste through every inch of the plant armor, a capability I never asked for and couldn’t imagine would make me more combat effective.
It felt like walking around with tastebuds on my feet, the relatively inoffensive but unappetizing flavors of mud, soil and crushed undergrowth now my constant companions. The ability to taste the air, on the other hand, very quickly proved its value.
The plant armor could evidently detect scents much more effectively than my unassisted nose. This must be what dogs smell, I reflected as I closed my eyes and visualized the scentscape around me. Only the humid stench of the jungle in all directions…except one.
That’s gunpowder, isn’t it? Gunpowder, fire, the familiar acrid stench of welding…and an irritating, sterile chemical scent I also remembered from Dave’s trash barge. That must be whatever goes into their veins, into their lungs or up their noses.
Meth almost certainly, but it could be anything. The advent of molecular printers has erased the formerly clear distinctions between different substances. New ones hit the street faster than regulatory bodies around the world can schedule them.
The only important detail, from my perspective, was the distinct scent. It made it remarkably easy to find my way through the dimly lit, thickly overgrown jungle until I wound up peering at the remnant operation from a ridge overlooking it, obscured by ferns.
The structures looked burned out, but still occupied. Most of it just the charred skeletal remains of buildings that must’ve been razed by a competing cartel, after which the remnants didn’t bother to rebuild.
The blackened, rickety framework of girders and partially demolished walls housed row after row of molecular printers, first generation judging by the size. They must’ve paid a pretty penny for those back in the day.
Either that, or they deliberately sought out legacy hardware because the embedded security protocols preventing the printing of weapons and drugs was long since cracked. The manufacturer would also no longer bother to supply over the air updates. Molecular printers that old are typically recalled and destroyed in order to undermine…certain uses.
Uses like those I now witnessed in the mangrove swamp below. The age of the printers offered some meager degree of comfort; neither the drugs nor the guns that came out of them would be of terribly good quality. They would still have no trouble finding buyers for either.
It proved difficult to get an accurate headcount because of the crumbling structures obscuring them. I counted the ones hunched over computers and packaging ‘product’ in adjacent buildings, visible through partially collapsed walls.
Then I assumed the worst, that a similar number occupied every building I could see, plus the average of about twenty that could be seen milling about between the buildings at any given moment. That yielded a figure of a little over 100.
Steep odds, much too steep. I dreaded breaking the news to the chieftess, though she still seemed convinced that a nonviolent solution was possible. I heard the undergrowth rustle behind me, and my heart leapt into my throat at the sight of three remnants on patrol.
They walked straight past, not twenty feet away, somehow oblivious to my presence. I held my breath until they disappeared into the dense darkness of the jungle. Were they blind? Too high out of their minds to see an intruder crouched in plain sight, a stone’s throw away?
Glancing down at my body made sense of it. The outer surface bore a pattern of coloration which blended perfectly into my surroundings. Beyond anything I have seen a chameleon do, more comparable to the capabilities of cuttlefish skin.
I released the contents of my lungs in a ragged, terrified sigh. If I wasn’t so tense, I might’ve pissed myself right then. I’d been in such a rush to evaluate the strength of the enemy, it didn’t occur to me what a blunder it was to do so before I fully understood the suit’s features.
Then again, I didn’t need to know about the camoflage. It kicked in right when I needed it most. That implied a troubling degree of intelligence hiding in the suit. An organism unto itself, apparently able to recognize threats and take pre-emptive measures to protect my life from them.
I closed my eyes, activated my video recording app and captured some footage of the remnant base for later review. Zooming in revealed a few wore full American Action officer’s regalia, while the rest wore only the trousers of their uniforms with white undershirts and helmets on account of the heat.
All looked ragged and feverish, no doubt sampling their own wares on the regular. But the poorly painted metallic mass bobbing gently in the canal interested me most of all. I know a narco sub when I see it.
Not one of Dave’s that I could tell, too competently built. I still somehow expected he had some hand in all this, simply because experience told me that I’d find his fingerprints on anything sufficiently fucked up. The sub must be how they transport product from their manufacturing base here in the swamp to some clandestine pickup point either on shore, or an especially lawless seastead.
A rusted snorkel and exhaust pipe protruded from either end of the craft. Fossil fuel powered? Like the very first military submarines, if I remember right. It should be able to travel on battery power underwater for some ways, then come just close enough to the surface that the snorkels poke through.
One would then suck in air for the combustion engine while it spins an alternator, recharging the batteries. The other would expel the noxious exhaust. What a archaic, dirty setup! But it’s not as if there’s anybody around to fine them for the emissions.
Probably they also couldn’t get their hands on the high grade batteries they would need to make the entire trip submerged, either. I immediately began working out a plan to jack the sub right under their noses, but no matter how I tried to connect the dots, I didn’t get the picture I wanted.
A hundred plus remnants, most or all of them tweaking, is no laughing matter. Every one of them trained soldiers, with a lifetime of experience hiding from Habsec out here in the wild. I only just killed a man for the first time today. I’m no match for even one of them, on even footing.
The organic arsenal my arm is stuck elbow deep in changes the equation somewhat, as does the armor. But a hundred to one? A hundred and twenty, more likely? I would need a hardsuit and some drones. Maybe a tank? Ideally both.
If I could persuade the villagers to fight, it could tip the scales. After growing each of them some armor and weaponry from the seeds that gross fucking plant vagina pooped out, I mean. If I could only make them see that their total devotion to the feminine spirit, to gentleness and nurture was going to result in the extinction of their culture.
For all of its many splendors, that dimension of the human spirit is ill equipped for combat. It is but half of the unified whole, counterbalanced by the oft reviled but eternally necessary aggression of the male spirit.
Without one, what am I but a brutal monster with no redeeming qualities, which nobody can or should love? But without the other…what am I but a warm, soft, gelatinous blob waiting to be torn apart by the first ruffian who comes along?
I’ll make them understand. They have to. If they don’t, there will soon be nothing left of them to bury. Their remarkable blessings, bestowed upon them by Asherah, will fall into the worst possible hands. With weapons like the one fashioned for me back in the village, they would go from being nothing but job security for Habsec to an authentic menace.
Having decided on what I would say to the chieftess and any of her subjects willing to listen, I silently inched away from the ridge and doubled back the way I came. Nothing for me to do here. Not yet, and not by myself, unless my goal is to add another body to the pile.
The return was complicated by the absence of any identifiable trail. Not that I wished for one, and in fact took great care not to leave any indication that someone had recently come this way. As I trekked through the stinking hot jungle, I wondered to myself why it’s always fucking tweakers.
Neo Nazis? Tweakers. Remnants? Tweakers. I don’t know if radical Muslims are tweakers, those explosive vests don’t leave enough behind to perform a drug test on. It wouldn’t surprise me though. Something about the manic, hyperactive headspace lends users towards ideologies predicated upon absolutism, and exclusionary elitism.
Maybe I’ll understand what all goes on in their heads after I blow a couple of ’em open so I can see inside. The surge of bloodlust I felt swelling within me came as a surprise. Am I a killer? I wasn’t yesterday. I’m going to have to become on though, aren’t I? I’m going to have to kill my way out of this.
The rustle of ferns tickled my eardrum. I instinctively ducked behind the nearest tree. It might just be villagers, but I didn’t care to risk it. Only, when I peered around the edge of the tree, it was neither villagers nor remnants that I saw marching through the jungle just a dozen yards away.
It was half a dozen fullmetal enforcers, identical in design to the ones that died in the crash, stomping along in rank and file. My back stiffened, pupils dilated. Death on two legs, multiplied by six. I recalled the chieftess mentioning a second VTOL landing nearby, I just thought I had more time.
They’ve got no way to track me that I know of. If they did, I’d be dead already. I ought to be like a needle in a haystack out here. All I could figure is that they found the crash site, then searched in a spiral pattern outwards from that point.
…Which would lead them to the village, if they haven’t already found it. Anxiety gripped me, and brought nausea along for the ride. My stomach gurgled. One of the enforcers stopped in its tracks, gesturing for the others to do the same. Shit. Fuck. Shit.
Really? God fucking damnit, really? This is how I die? I held perfectly still, hoping the camoflage would fool them. Only short lived confusion instead. “He’s right there” I picked up, audio amplified by my hearing implant. “Some kind of optical cloak I’m guessing. Switch to thermal, he’s still slightly warmer than the-”
I blasted the approaching squad with acid. It had no effect on their bodies, but did rapidly eat away at the rifles of the nearest three. Their confused, angry chatter faded away behind me as I frantically bounded off into the jungle, desperate to reach the village and warn them.
Stay Tuned for Part 51!