Monday, March 7, 2022

Road to Chequn Part 1

 As discussed in my previous post, I will be unveiling three stories on my blog. Each story is a microcosm of a story universe I've been working on. Over the coming weeks, I'll be publishing these stories as webserials. I'd like your opinion on which story is best. That story will become the seed for my next series.

The first story is titled Road to Chequn. In this setting, eldritch beings from beyond the stars have laid waste to the planet, plummeting the land into an eternal winter. The Protector Order is sworn to defend what is left of humanity. This story describes what should have been a routine resupply mission...


Winter Landscape, Sunset, Twilight, Winter, Snow, Cold

Outsiders

“I heard you were a monk.”

Leung Wai Kit glanced at his partner with mild amusement. Gam Fong was a kid, his eyes as bright as freshly-lit candles, his smooth skin untouched by the never-ending frost. This was his first job as a Protector outside the Barrier Cities. Wai Kit had heard this same statement from so many boys during so many missions. Was it the universe playing a joke on him? Or was it the distant echoes from a knot of unresolved karma calling to be resolved?

It was the hair, he figured. Most men wore heavy beards and dense manes, the better to trap what little warmth there was outside the boundaries of human civilization. Not him. His head was completely clean-shaven, his last link to his youth.

Well, not completely clean-shaven. A dusting of fine gray bristles covered his pate. He hadn’t had time to take a razor to his skull lately. But that was all right. He wasn’t bound by the rules. Not anymore.

“I wasn’t a monk. Only a novice,” Wai Kit replied.

“Oh? What’s the difference?”

“I never took the full vows.”

“But you followed the precepts.”

Wai Kit sighed.

“Once.”

“How did a monk—a novice—become a Protector?”

Snapshots flashed through his head. Columns of smoke and pillars of fire. Screams of agony, screams of terror. Broken bodies and bloodstained snow. Reddened claws and savage fangs clashing with bright steel and desperate mantras.

The thing that should not be.

“It’s a long story,” Wai Kit said at last.

“We’ve got time.”

Wai Kit shook his head. “Not today.”

“Alright, alright. But… I have to ask… is that how you learned your kungfu?”

Wai Kit sighed. If he had a yuan for every time he’d answered this question…

“Yes.”

Wonder broke out across the kid’s face.

“Where did you learn kungfu?”

“Cingwu Temple.”

The light in Gam Fong’s face extinguished.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Wai Kit shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It was a long time ago.”

An uneasy silence fell between them. Wai Kit closed his eyes and breathed deep of the warm, recycled air, expelling the ghosts of unwanted emotions. Three exhales later, he looked out at the world beyond the windshield.

The locals still spoke of Bakho Valley as it was in the vanished mists of time: a verdant valley of lush forests and fertile earth, fed by the swift, powerful river that lent the region its name. The river was still here, reflecting a sea of clouds across its now-calm surface. It was the only remnant of that long-vanished era.

Dense snow buried ancient farmlands and fishing banks. Tufts of hardy grasses poked above the blanket of white, stretching towards the dim daylight. Bald conifers stood sentinel at irregular intervals, their snow-smothered branches drooping into brows and beards. Islands of ice drifted downstream, carried along by unseen currents.

The wind carried the sound of silence.

The Eternal Winter had touched every corner of the globe. Here was no different. At least there was light and water, and with that came the possibility of life. Of subsistence, or at least survival. But where life could flourish, so too could the Outsiders.

Wai Kit’s hands drifted to the curves of his Type 77 heichung. His left hand ran down the forend of the long gun, feeling its integral folding bayonet. He unlatched it and eased it forward, enough to check that the mechanism hadn’t frozen. Then he tested the tension of the retractable lanyard that secured his weapon to the integral backpack of his suit.

The Seven Stars Three Fields suit was the last and greatest relic of the pre-Winter era, the legacy of the long-vanished Ancestors, one of the few pieces of advanced technology that had been transmitted to the present times. The living weave wrapped around him like a second skin, granting him unparalleled freedom. The outer layers insulated him from the cold while the inner layers defended him from the horrors that stalked the wastes. Bundles of artificial muscles married to an exoskeleton of lightweight alloys freed him from fatigue—or, if set to training mode, could resist his movements to help him grow his muscles.

And its prisms turned a man into a god.

The suit sited a prism at each of the seven stars of the human body: the hands and feet, the knees and elbows, the hips and the shoulders, and the head. With these crystals, the wearer could absorb hei from the cosmos or discharge a burst of concentrated energy. Sophisticated circuits routed the hei into the suit’s hei cores, emplaced over the belly, the chest and the forehead, corresponding to the wearer’s dantin. The three energy fields radiating from the three cores united with the wearer’s own hei, ready to unleash wonders.

It was barely enough to fight the Outsiders.

“Nervous?” Gam Fong asked.

“Pay attention to your driving,” Wai Kit said, his voice without heat.

“Yes sir!” Gam Fong exclaimed in the Western tongue.

The kid had both hands on the wheel, his foot pressed gently against the accelerator. To the left was a wall of trees, to the right the deep river. The Shepherd 8X8 all-terrain vehicle occupied the narrow strip of rocky land between the two, perilously close to the river bank.

True, the Shepherd was an amphibious vehicle, its mammoth four-layer adjustable low-pressure tires capable of conquering any terrain, but why go into the water when they didn’t have to? The Shepherd might be built for war, but its cargo was far more delicate.

Sensitive electronics. Perishable emergency supplies. Medicine. Everything a frontier village needed to survive, nothing it could produce on its own. With sickness raging through Chequn, he didn’t want to take chances with the cargo.

Their Shepherd occupied the trail position in a three-vehicle convoy, driving in the deep tracks of the Shepherd ahead of them. Separated by a mere twenty-five meters, the rugged terrain required the drivers to stay in visual contact.

They were five hours into a six-hour drive. Fatigue mixed with anticipation of the end of the march would erode a man’s attention. As the vehicle commander, it was Wai Kit’s job to ensure the driver remained on task.

The radio crackled.

“Leopard One to all Leopard elements. Clearing fifty meters ahead, to the left. I see tents and carcasses hanging from trees. Possibly local hunters.”

“Leopard Two here. I don’t recall anyone saying there are hunters in the area.”

“Leopard Three. Me neither,” Gam Fong chimed in.

A chill gripped Wai Kit’s heart.

“Convoy, accelerate. Speed past the clearing now!” he ordered.

“Roger, accelerating,” Leopard One acknowledged.

The Shepherds surged ahead. Sprays of white snow obscured the windows.  

“You think something’s wrong?” Gam Fong asked.

“I know something’s wrong.”

“Contact!” Leopard One called. “Ten o’clock! Thirty meters, at the trees! Squad—”

A primal roar drowned him out. A dozen tongues joined in, shattering the silence. Behind the undulating came a fusillade of colossal cracks and silken whispers.

Steel shrieked. Snow erupted. A tire exploded.

“AMBUSH! Outsider Warriors!” Leopard One added.

“Move move move!” Wai Kit urged. “Get off the kill zone!”

Gam Fong stomped the accelerator. The Shepherd lurched ahead. Wai Kit slammed into the safety harness. Gritting his teeth, he seized his Type 77 in both hands and looked to his left.

The clearing came within view. White figures crouched beside dense trees, nearly invisible against the snow. The unnatural lines of their extended arms broke their silhouettes, betraying their presence. Howling at the top of their lungs, they loosed a blizzard of supersonic spines into the convoy.

Dark slivers shot past the windscreen, too fast and too small to track with the naked eye. High-pitched screams reverberated inside the cab, the sound of the air splitting apart. Snowbursts showered the Shepherd. Rocks shattered. Geysers exploded across the surface of the waters. An ice pack disintegrated.

“Suit, combat mode!” he ordered.

The suit processed his voice and read his intent. Living glass unfurled from the rim of his helmet, protecting his face. Breathing vents opened. Readouts appeared along the inside of his display. He glanced at the essentials.

Suit integrity: 100%

Hei points: 38100

One more breath. Deep into the belly. Slight pause. Exhale. A state of battle-calm fell over him. The world popped into vivid colors. He sensed the mottled fabric of his undersuit, the warm air flowing into his lungs, the hard mass of his weapon. Serenity filled his mind, an emptiness filled with potential, ready to become whatever he needed to be.

Hei rushed from his belly. Liquid lightning, hot and hard, rushed down his meridians to flood his hands and feet. His suit’s prisms siphoned off a portion of energy, ready to convert it into whatever he willed it to become.

He was ready for war.

Movement caught his eye.

A white arrow punched through the front passenger window of Leopard Two.

Searing light blasted out the hole.

The Shepherd went wild. Swerving one way, then the other, the stricken vehicle veered off course and slammed into a tree.

“Leopard Two is disabled! Enemy has a shaman! Peel back for vehicle recovery!” Wai Kit ordered.

The Protectors never left a man behind. Not when there was even the slightest chance that he was still alive.

“Leopard One, roger! Moving to you!”

Gam Fong spun the wheel. The blocky Shepherd responded with a grace that belied its appearance, ploughing through the snow in a tight arc. Shifting gears, Gam Fong hit the brakes.

“Hang on!” Gam Fong yelled.

Soft white walls sprayed across the window. Wai Kit breathed, quick and fast and deep, charging himself with oxygen, sending strength to his limbs. The Shepherd halted just short of a thick tree.

“Go!” Wai Kit urged.

Gam Fong grabbed his Type 78 repeater, flung the door open and jumped out. Keeping low, Wai Kit followed him. As he scooted over to the driver’s seat, heavy metallic taps rattled the Shepherd. A supersonic spine slammed into the passenger seat window and buried itself deep.

Gam Fong braced himself by the engine block, where the vehicle offered the most protection. Wai Kit scooted over to the rear, knelt by a huge tire, and leaned out.

A bright blue diamond marked Leopard Two on his display. The vehicle was exactly 23 meters away. Smaller circles with callouts indicated the Protectors’ positions inside the truck.

The circle indicating Leopard Two-Two was yellow. He was wounded.

Leopard Two-One was black.

Dead.

“Covering fire!” Wai Kit called.

The repeater howled. Bright white bolts lashed the forest. Every impact produced a blast of heat and light, turning snow to steam. The enemy howled in return, redoubling their fire.

Weapon at his shoulder, Wai Kit scanned left to right, right to left. Nothing. Neither he nor his suit had spotted any threats.

“Leopard Two, Leopard One. What’s your status?”

No response.

“Leopard Two. Come in!”

Silence.

“Leopard One, set!”

“Leopard three, moving!” Wai Kit replied. “Rooster, Rooster, Rooster!”

He didn’t have to speak the command. The suit could read his brainwaves and divine his intent. But it wasn’t perfect, and here, there was no room for error.

Power flowed from the three energy fields to the suit’s artificial muscles. Hei charged prisms of the lower three of its seven stars. Cooling fins steamed. Wai Kit blasted off the snow and charged to Leopard Two, faster than a regular man could sprint.

He ran like a rooster, his weight balanced on one foot at a time. As he stepped, he sank his weight entirely into his grounded foot, rooting deep into the earth, then coiled his leg and blasted off. Though the snow was slippery, he maintained his traction and balance. He had spent countless hours on the grounds of Cingqu Temple practising the Chicken Step, and now it was second nature to him.

Spines struck all around him. A fire arrow hurtled past, harmlessly exploding water into steam. His hei points steadily decreased with each step. He kept running, a blur of muscle and motion, arms and legs pumping, focused solely on the Shepherd.

One last step, and now he stood on one leg by the engine block of the Shepherd. He dropped into a crouch, spines screaming over his head, taking cover by the engine.

“Set!” Wai Kit yelled.

“Moving!” Gam Fong shouted.

His repeater went silent. Leopard One took up the slack. Miniature explosions rippled along the tree line.

Dead ahead, a creature burst from the forest.

The size of a man, it bounded ahead on all fours. Powerful muscles rippled along its massive limbs and broad back. Gaps in its white carapace revealed patches of dense white fur. Dark eyes glared at Wai Kit. Insectile jaws hinged open to reveal a forest of saber-like teeth.

It was a warrior.

Lifting its left arm, the warrior continued loping along on three limbs. A carapace plate slid back, exposing rows of sharp spines. It swung towards Wai Kit—

Who was already on target.

Weapon planted firmly in the pocket of his shoulder, optic aligned with the eye, he saw neither crosshair nor target, instead sensing the universe with the entirety of his being. He was simply a spot in space-time, and so was the target, and he was simply drawing a line to connect the two. When his body aligned the muzzle with the target, his body settled into a sense of knowing, of rightness.

He fired.

The white bolt lanced into the warrior’s face. Pink steam shrouded its head. Toppling over, it discharged a volley of spines harmlessly into the snow, then twitched and threshed in death.

Its fellows responded immediately, deluging Wai Kit’s position in spines. Tires exploded, one after the other. Grimacing, he slid back behind cover and turned to look at Gam Fong.

Just in time to see the kid trip and fall.

With a sigh, Wai Kit poked his weapon and his head around cover. Already the prism in his right hand fed hei into the weapon, recharging its twenty-shot core. The warriors left no muzzle flash to trace, and the sounds of their shots were strange and distorted. His display flung up a translucent patch of red, indicating the piece of land where it thought the enemy might be. With slow, methodical shots, he peppered the area in fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted more white streaks stabbing at the trees.

Gam Fong came up to him. “Set!”

“Swap with me! Suppress them!” Wai Kit ordered.

As Gam Fong scooted over, Wai Kit duck-walked to the driver-side door and popped it open. Blood streamed out in a thick pool. The driver, Sam Yung, lay slumped forward on the dashboard, painted in blood.

“I’ve got you!” Wai Kit said, grabbing the frame and climbing up on the Shepherd’s running board.

A thunderous blast rocked the armored vehicle.

Wai Kit’s fingers clamped into iron vices. His boots rooted downwards, seeking solidity. His artificial muscles fired up. Together, they prevented him from being thrown off.

He released his weapon, allowing it to swing freely from his pack, then undid the safety harness and seized Sam Yung’s collar.

“Wake up!” Wai Kit urged.

Sam Yung blinked, groaning softly, and drew in a deep breath.

Aided by his suit’s musculature, Wai Kit dragged him out of the seat. When Sam Yung’s boots touched the snow, he found his bearings and propped himself up against the frame.

“What… happened?” Sam Yung muttered.

“Ambush. Can you fight?”

Sam Yung nodded. Winced. Then snatched at his power cable and reeled his weapon into his grasp.

Wai Kit looked back into the cab.

The other Protector was gone. Everything above his neck had been obliterated and sprayed across the interior of the cab.

The suit was highly protective. It was not invulnerable.

“I’ve recovered the wounded!” Wai Kit radioed.

“Break contact now!” Leopard Two replied.

They were down one vehicle and two men. They had no idea how many enemies they were facing. Retreating was prudent. But…

“We need to take out the shaman!” Wai Kit replied. “We can’t let it cut us off!”

“Where is it?”

“I’m suppressing it!” Gam Fong replied.

He hosed down a patch of forest. A red diamond appeared in Wai Kit’s display, Gam Fong marking the shaman’s position. Wai Kit sat Sam Yung down by the wheel, then headed around the back of the Shepherd.

Raising his weapon, he cranked up the magnification to 8X, zooming in on the diamond. It marked a humongous tree. Behind it, Wai Kit spotted a flash of white fur.

There was no carapace. Shamans weren’t expected to engage in front line combat.

Taking careful aim, Wai Kit inhaled softly, then let out half his breath. His body settled into position, becoming as still as a rock.

He fired.

The bolt blew off a huge chunk of tree trunk, sending flaming dust and vaporized snow into the creature’s face. It flinched, exposing its upper body.

He fired again.

The bolt caught the shaman full in the chest. With a puff of pink, it disappeared from sight.

“Shaman down,” Wai Kit reported. “Move to break contact!”

More howls erupted from the forest.

“They’ve gone berserk!” Leopard One said.

“Move! We’ll cover you!” Wai Kit shouted.

Sam Yung rose to a high crouch, propping up his weapon against the hood, and popped off quick strings into the woods. Gam Fong loosed longer bursts, smoke billowing from the cooling vents. Wai Kit stepped down the zoom to 4X and hunted for threats.

Blue circles to his one o-clock revealed Leopard Two’s positions. They bounded to the rear, each man taking turns to move and cover each other. Bolts flashed through the forests. Small fires blazed, throwing out plumes of thick smoke. Wai Kit fired at movement, at flashes, at anything he thought betrayed the enemy’s position.

And then the gun refused to fire.

The heichung’s core was completely depleted. He’d fired too much, too fast, and his suit cores were down to 26872 points.

“Red!” Wai Kit called.

Keeping low, he breathed deeply, drinking hei from the air. He willed most of the energy to flow directly into the three fields, taking only enough to sustain himself. The other two Protectors continued firing, making up for the downed weapon.

Sam Yung shrieked.

The Protector dropped behind cover, clutching his right hand. Gam Fong held his ground, still firing at the enemy.

“Sam Yung! Are you alright?!” Wai Kit yelled.

“Got me in the hand!”

A long spine nailed Sam Yung’s hand to the grip of his weapon. Fresh scars marred his suit where other spines had shattered themselves against his armor.

“Red! Red! I’m red!” Gam Fong called.

A repeater was designed for suppressive fire. But even with its enormous batteries, it could not fire indefinitely. Especially if wielded by a newcomer whose suit couldn’t even muster 30000 hei points.

A sudden silence fell across the forest.

Terrible howls filled the quiet.

“Fix bayonets!” Wai Kit ordered.

“Yau mou gau chor?!” Gam Fong replied. Are you kidding me?!

Wai Kit unfolded his bayonet, locking fifteen inches of steel into place.

Mou,” Wai Kit said. No.

Sam Yung struggled to unfold his bayonet. Gam Fong stared in disbelief for a second, swore, then brought out his own bayonet.

The warriors roared once more.

“They’re coming!” Wai Kit warned.

Five warriors burst out of the forest, charging headlong at the trio, so fast they were white streaks against the snow. Wai Kit gunned down the leader. Gam Fong cut down two more in a long burst. Wai Kit shot the fourth in its armored chest.

The last leapt at him.

Wai Kit jumped back.

With a ferocious roar, the warrior slammed its giant fists into the ground like twin meteors, missing him by inches. Snow burst from the point of impact, whiting out his display. Hurriedly he wiped down his visor, just in time to see it raise its left arm and retract its carapace covering.

Wai Kit scissor-stepped backwards, crossing his left leg behind his right, drawing his weapon down to his left hip. Steel contacted carapace, subtly deflecting the arm to the side. The warrior discharged a volley of spines into the snow behind Wai Kit, so close the sonic booms buffeted his helmet. Stepping forward with his right leg, he uncoiled his waist and thrust into its neck.

The steel spike punched through flesh, through the spine, and out the other side. He twisted savagely, feeling the bones crack and separate. With a shout, he retracted the bayonet, stepped in and kicked out with his left boot, charging the blow with hei.

Reading his will, the suit switched to Rooster mode, charging the circuits, the prisms, the muscles. Energy, kinetic and ethereal, blasted into the Outsider’s belly, sending it flying. The warrior landed on its side, writhing and bleeding, liquid gurgling issuing from its wound. Wai Kit covered it warily, watching for signs of life.

“Help!” Gam Fong yelled.

Wai Kit rushed over.

Gam Fong wrestled with a humongous warrior. Man and monster grappled for control of his repeater. The warrior’s chest carapace was cracked and blackened, but it was still in the fight. Sam Yung stabbed it in the armpit, driving his bayonet to the hilt. The monster barely noticed.

“Move! Get clear!” Wai Kit yelled.

Sam Yung retracted his bayonet and retreated. The warrior cocked a massive fist and swung at Gam Fong’s head. Gam Fong ducked under it. Wai Kit sidled up next to the creature’s flank, powered up his leg, and stomp-kicked the side of its knee.

Bone shattered under the augmented blow. Howling, the beast buckled.

Wai Kit switched the suit to Bear mode, filling his arms with power. He seized the Outsider’s crown and chin with both hands, the jaws of a tiger slamming shut, then spiraled clockwise and spiked its head into the snow.

Screaming, Gam Fong stabbed it in the throat. Over and over and over again.

Wai Kit stepped back, letting the kid vent, powering down the suit, then scanned for more threats.

“It’s dead already,” Sam Yung said.

One last thrust, and Gam Fong relented. Gasping, panting, he propped himself against the engine block.

“You alright?” Wai Kit asked.

Gam Fong trembled. Contracting into himself, he gripped his weapon with shaky hands and looked up at Wai Kit. The kid tried to say something. His mouth moved, but no sound emerged.

“Breathe,” Wai Kit said.

Ragged silence crept into the forest. Sam Yung covered the dead monsters. Wai Kit watched the woods. Gam Fong breathed and nodded.

“First time?” Wai Kit asked.

The kid nodded again.

“Leopard Three, Leopard One. We’re out of the woods. What about you?”

“We’ve just fought off a charge. All quiet here,” Wai Kit replied.

“I think we got all of them.”

Maybe. Or maybe the enemy had simply sacrificed a few warriors so that the rest of the body could escape. When fighting the Outsiders, anything was possible.

“Consolidate on my position,” Wai Kit said.

“Understood,” Leopard One said.

Turning to Gam Fong, Wai Kit said, “Do you need a moment?”

The kid nodded, still unable to speak.

“Alright. Sam Yung, Gam Fong, watch the truck. I’m going to secure the area.”

Wai Kit turned away, wiping off his bayonet on the snow.

“Hey,” the kid whispered.

Wai Kit looked back.

“Yeah?”

“How did you…”

Gam Fong’s voice trailed off. His eyes rested on the corpse.

“It gets easier,” Wai Kit said.

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