Unregretted Attrition

17 April 2073
Enroute to Reserve Station Y28, Ash Woods Death Zone
43°25'33.1"N 110°46'17.1"W
08:48:13 Saturday

Heavy leaden raindrops crashed against a procession of six-wheeled hardtop Balle Rouge cargo haulers. The convoy's corporate-mandated white paint proudly declared its allegiance to the Universal Negotiators. Freshly applied before each mission, the pristine white vehicle hulls glistened in the torrential downpour, contrasting starkly with the Ash Woods desolate mudflats as they snaked through remnants of the Great Maw's volcanic eruption. Ugly and top-heavy, the Balle Rouge handled like a drunk cow. Because of the weather, the procession of ponderous vehicles traveled slowly along the Universal Negotiators-built service road. Only recently carved through two meters of lahar-deposited mud, the road was getting its first actual stress test with this rain.

The point vehicle for the UN caravan security detachment was an up-armored Ground Prowler recreational vehicle. The high profile of the boxy four-wheel civilian utility vehicle gave the 33-year old driver, Gallo, a grand view of the desolate landscape – nothing but flat muddy ash. Gallo fought against losing himself in the liminal space between ashen, low-hanging clouds grabbing at the mudflats below. The lahar's bleakness grew on a person. It was common for drivers to lose track of the road in such conditions. Gallo, a veteran citizen-staffer employed by the UN, spent a few of his earlier years in the region and remembered hating every second of those deployments. The region's bleakness depressed younger Gallo, eventually requiring psychiatric intervention and daily medication. However, since returning to the Ash Woods as a security lead, Gallo was unaffected by the landscape; its hoary lifelessness mirrored his bonne-amie despondency.

Now, two months into his current Ash Woods posting, Gallo felt protective of not only the region but also Reserve Station Y28 and its population of indentured staff. Y28 was populated exclusively by former repudiators, and the station’s construction gave 250 formerly destitute repudiators a new chance at corporate life. UN policy required a 5-year probationary period for onboarded repudiators to gain full citizen status. As hard of a pill 5-years of shit tasks was to swallow, it got the people out of the dangerous wilds surviving hand-to-mouth and back into contemporary living. Loath to admit it openly, but Gallo had come to feel a sense of pride in the project. His team was one of a dozen providing security during the fabrication of both the station and the current road on which he drove.  

It was during the road's construction that he even learned what lahar was. According to UN geologists, three millennia back, during the volcanic eruption that created the Great Maw, an avalanche of pyroclastic debris and mud rampaged through a petrified forest in a cataclysmic blast. Eventually, that mess hardened and became the grim landscape currently under a deluge.

The downpour worried Gallo, and he spent most of the day's drive fantasizing about burials in soupy, muddy sludge. The caravan's road was just three weeks old and already riddled with potholes. Days of torrential rain paired with the UN's typical cost-cutting construction methods and regular, heavy cargo traffic meant terrible road conditions. Gallo's sick daydreaming kept circling back to what if the reinforced barrier walls failed. Those barrier walls held back enormous mounds of saturated earth, getting wetter and heavier by the minute. And Gallo knew the barriers were made with the same loose standards as the road – making him worry he was leading a funeral procession to their muddy graves. Gallo tightened his grip on the Ground Prowler’s steering wheel.

Further complicating the drive was a lack of satellite-linked GPS. The regular network seemed to be down, and the convoy wasn’t requisitioned drone support, so Gallo had to rely on his eyes and the Ground Prowler’s local sensors to navigate.

Along with the shit driving conditions, Gallo also had to chaperone an outsider. It was one of the countless ignominies the driver had endured as a UN citizen-staffer and would continue to abide in the name of "teamwork." Fortunately, Gallo's passenger seemed oblivious to his host's hostility oozing mere centimeters away. Probably in his early teens, the youth sat annoyingly casual in the vehicle cabin. Refusing to hide his irritation Gallo scowled at his unwanted companion.

Named Brayson, the kid had an especially punchable face. Brayson's eager expression practically beamed with enthusiasm as he incessantly drummed his fingers on the Ground Prowler's dashboard – out of sync with the beating rain. The nuisance child was unexpectedly dumped in Gallo's lap by a shift supervisor earlier that morning.

"It's a cakewalk – a resupply run, Gallo. Let him snap some pics of the company doing good to post on his socials and get him home by dark. Easy stuff that pays an OT shift differential. Just make it smooth and routine, okay? Lots of smiles for the PR folks – no problems, no hiccups, remember that." 
 

Forty minutes later, Gallo was ready to pitch the kid out of the Ground Prowler's cab. Brayson asked questions every few minutes like an excitable chatterbox, quickly leaving Gallo running out of answers and patience. With a few exceptions, the veteran driver didn't care for the company of others, especially non-UN citizen-staff. Brayson was an outsider to Gallo. The kid was a tourist and wouldn't usually ping Gallo's radar except that Brayson was also a JURC. The Junior Universal Relief Corps was a public relations campaign started by the UN that took non-company youth and exposed them through volunteerism to the cultures around the continent serviced by UN charity and relief departments.

The program was only a decade old and had already proved a massive boon for public sentiment toward the company. Images of smiling kids delivering UN-branded relief to communities ravaged by war or natural disaster go down real smooth with the public, it turns out. And everyone involved freely disseminates the material across their social media channels, creating viral content that gives people the feel-feels. And when people got those warm fuzzy feelings regularly with some excellent branding, it was simple conditioning after that. The JURCs became a significant feather in the company's cap, which meant Gallo had to be on his best behavior and try and engage with Brayson. Otherwise, a bad review from the kid could get Gallo in hot water with his superiors – and Brayson seemed like a snotty little pissfuck who would leave a negative review just for shits.

"Gallo, how far are we from the Great Maw?"

"About 400 kilometers." Gallo sucked in air through his teeth and glanced at the vehicle's prominent navigation system, which flickered due to an inconsistent signal.

"Wow, and the area is still all devastated like this? That was a big blast, huh?"
 

 "Yup," was all Gallo could manage.

He was trying, but only so hard. Also, what the hell? The Great Maw's eruption, and its aftermath, were taught to Gallo at age eight as part of the World Knowledge Organization's standard regional history curriculum for the continent. Unless this kid was pulled from some backwater cult, he was taught this shit and just wasting Gallo's time.

Gallo's neck hairs slightly tingled as he pondered his uninvited guest. It was a strange sensation Gallo learned to give a lot of reverence out of superstition. Nasty things tended to occur after he got the tingles. But, after a lifetime of corporate service and navigating the political minefields therein, Gallo came to trust this inexplicable sixth sense. Gallo glanced at Brayson, who fidgeted with an Augmented Reality program, gesturing obnoxiously in the air.
 

"I'm scared, Gallo! Do you think we are in danger of it erupting while we are here? You know, the Great Maw?"

Brayson's cloying tone contrasted with his age and made Gallo's mouth go dry. Nevertheless, the little pissfuck continued gesturing wildly, almost like he had never seen AR before.

 "Nope," Gallo said without taking his eyes off the road.

He couldn't tell if the kid was fishing for conversation starters or was somehow testing him, but after nearly an hour of this pointless chatter, Gallo was at his limit.


The convoy covered another kilometer on the flooded, deteriorating road before Brayson spoke up again.

"How old is this road? It looks wonkus. Feels wonkus, too, with all the bumps. Must be ancient, yeah?”

"The road is less than a month old – built the same time as the reserve station we're headed to." Gallo didn't know what wonkus meant, but if it meant shit, then yeah, he was finally finding some common ground with Brayson.

"Wow, less than a month? No wonder this area is considered a death zone. If a UN road can't make it a month, it's a wonder how anyone else could conquer this region."

 

Gallo looked at the kid to see if he was being sarcastic, but the dumb shit's face was earnest. The JURC propaganda worked wonders if Lil Brayson thought so highly of UN craftsmanship. Not interested in bursting the naïve idiot's bubble, Gallo resumed scanning the road silently.

Having driven this route dozens of times in the last three weeks, Gallo felt like he knew every meter of polymer cement on the road. Moreover, he knew the next twenty kilometers were particularly rough, even in dry conditions. Exhausted, Gallo couldn't wait to get to Reserve Station Y28 and ditch the kid for an hour or so.

Taking his mind off Brayson, Gallo realized he was famished. He hadn't eaten for six hours, and now he knew what he would do with his rest hour. If Gallo were lucky, the cantina would be serving Dima's chili. Dima ran Y28’s cantina. Gallo had struck up occasional conversations with Dima while eating at the cantina. Gallo found the indentured staffer pleasant, and his culinary skills were, frankly, magical. Gallo enjoyed all of Dima's creations, but the man's chili was next level. It was an old family recipe or something; Dima was never too clear where he learned his trade. Gallo didn't care much for why, only how Dima could turn the awful UN meat rations into seasoned, succulent bites of peppered bliss. Gallo zoned out, thinking of Dima's chili paired with a hunk of fresh sourdough bread. Predictably, the hunger-induced reverie was interrupted by Brayson's annoying voice.

"Are we—" but Brayson's question was immediately cut off as Gallo swiftly held up his right bio-hand, index finger pointed towards the Ground Prowler's ceiling. Gallo glared at Brayson. The kid's gaze followed Gallo's fleshy finger towards the vehicle's ceiling and then to the man's grimacing mug. Utter confusion registered on Brayson's face.

 

"I need to drive," Gallo growled in irritation. 

 

Sweet silence reigned for ten precious minutes before the Ground Prowler dislodged a chunk of polymer cement, causing the rear passenger tire to dip hard into the new pothole and slightly lurch the vehicle.

 

"Whoa, what was that?" Brayson turned wildly in his seat. "Are we under attack?"

 

"Relax, kid. It's just a pothole."

 

"Oh, okay. Damn, that would have been vander, though, right?" 

 

 "I don't know what that means," Gallo said, shaking his head slightly with annoyance. 

 

 "Uh, it means ripe. No? Uh, do you know what interesting means? Ha, you didn't know vander. What a jabro." 

 

Gallo audibly sighed. Moments later, the Ground Prowler bounced over another pothole which must have gotten the little shit thinking about ambushes again. 


"Have you ever been attacked by wild repudiators, Gallo? I've seen vids of their ambushes. Do you ever watch those? I love seeing those savages getting blown to shit!"

Gallo gave Brayson a side-eye but remained silent. The kid was back to drumming, seemingly untroubled by Gallo's lack of engagement.

"Are there any savages around here? I mean, other than the ones at the reserve station. Could we be attacked? I hope there are – I wanna see those brutes blasted!"

Gallo turned to skewer the kid with an acidic glare. The Ground Prowler repeatedly bounced over rough, broken road causing Brayson to bang his right shoulder and arm against the passenger door panel.

"Ow, damn. Are you trying to hit those holes? But I'm serious; I'd love to see that!" Brayson's face dripped with unearned smugness. "They should know their place, right?"

A few beats of silence passed before Brayson resumed his absurd interrogation.

“Is that how you lost your arm? Did repudiators take it from you? What is it like having a mechanical arm, anyway?”

Gallo kept his tone level, professional.

"Listen, kid. I don't know what you are playing, but I am not game. I am fairly sure you aren't who you claim you are, so I'll give you the official response: Your use of pejoratives when referring to repudiator communities is against Protocol 72 of the Citizen-Staff Handbook regarding acceptable terminology for disadvantaged populations. You have uttered four restricted terms, and as a result, I will no longer engage in this line of questioning."

Brayson scrutinized the side of Gallo's face as a fresh rain cell hammered against the Ground Prowler's exterior with enough force to drown out the road noise. Gallo allowed a kilometer to pass under the vehicle's water-slickened wheels before turning away from the road and matching Brayson's gaze.


"Well?" Gallo's curt monosyllable sliced through the cacophonous rainfall.

Brayson's youthful demeanor instantly drained from his face, replaced with a cynical managerial mask.

"You pass! Well done, employee G04-D017-080440. Not only were you able to ascertain the testing conditions, but you responded appropriately to the use of prohibited language." Brayson's voice was loud and dripping with confident authority. Using Gallo's employee number left him certain Brayson was an HR Agent. Gallo’s neck hairs wanted to jump out of his skin.

What Gallo couldn't figure out was the deception at work. Brayson looked biologically young and didn't have any hint of augmentation other than standard cranial ports. He was a real-deal physical child but with the consciousness of someone else. Gallo figured that meant he was a high-level VIP-type if the company spent the resources for a juvenile tether. If Gallo died in the line of duty, he'd be lucky to get a geriatric body-tether and then be fired for inability to perform his duties. But this person got a brand new set of skin, so who the fuck were they? His neck tingling madly, Gallo turned back to the road with a scowl – certain the testing wasn't complete.

Seemingly sensing Gallo’s inquiry, the little pissfuck spoke.

"I am HR Agent Brayson Turner, and I'm assuming command of this operation. Please continue to the previous coordinates. Reserve Station Y28 is still the destination. However, the objectives are changing. Upon arrival, you and your team will oversee the breakdown and removal of key equipment. Then you will execute all on-site indentured staff."

After hearing that order, Gallo could sense Brayson scrutinizing his facial expression, but the driver remained relaxed. Professional. The security lead kept his eyes on the road. Gallo let his disdain for Brayson lead his instincts. From this point forward, Gallo would expect the worst from this enigmatic shit.

"Deliberate harm of UN personnel, including indentured staff or contractors, is prohibited and punishable by hard labor in a correctional facility under Protocol 34-A of the Citizen-Staff Handbook," Gallo let the words beat into him as a child march out efficiently, emotionless.

"You pass," Brayson said cheerily without smiling. "Well done, driver. However, the order stands. Upon arrival, you and your team will oversee the breakdown and removal of key equipment. Aaaaand then, you will execute all on-site indentured staff."

Brayson leaned across the center console and whispered conspiratorially in Gallo's ear.
 

"As you may know, employee G04-D017-080440, under subsection 3 of Protocol 34, immediate expiation of indentured staff time-debt is allowed in service to national corporate interests."

Gallo nodded once and spoke clearly as another stretch of pock-marked road began shaking the Ground Prowler.

"It has been a while since my schooling, but I believe that subsection is reserved for acts of clemency or diplomacy. I am unfamiliar with the expiation of time debt used as justification for murder."

Brayson pulled back slightly but still hovered uncomfortably close to Gallo's face.

 

"I'm surprised you even know that,” Brayson spit sardonically. “So, are you refusing the order, employee G04-D017-080440?"

Gallo's ocular AR display ticked down the time until his estimated arrival at Station Y28. They were roughly 15 minutes away. Racking his brain for an out and trying to stall for time, Gallo mumbled in response, "Protocol 1 strictly states to never disobey a directive from senior staff."
 
"As a Human Resources Agent, I am your senior, am I not?" Brayson cooed mockingly. The HR Agent's tone dripped with malice, but the smile carved into his smooth face was plastic and gleaming.

Gallo flushed and gripped the steering wheel as his chest and muscles tightened with rage.

"Citizen-Staff Handbook chapter 18 – Human Resources Agents operate outside of traditional staff hierarchies and conduct investigations pursuant to maintaining order within the corporate state," Gallo's mouth went dry, and his tongue felt thick and parched. Gallo needed to clear his throat before continuing.

"All citizen-staff should answer HR inquiries accurately, and any orders given by HR Agents should be treated as sacrosanct and critical to the health of the corporate nation. Refusal of orders given by HR Agents is immediate cause for incarceration and death by forced labor –" Gallo's vision narrowed, the road and steering wheel slowly phasing out of his conscious focus. His words, mechanical and sour as they left his mouth, became dim and unintelligible. He floated numb – except for his mouth, which was buzzing rancid.

"You pass!"

 

Brayson's chirpy voice pulled Gallo back to the Ground Prowler's cabin. The driver's hands clenched so rigidly around the steering wheel that it was momentarily difficult to loosen his grip – his bio-fingers throbbing as circulation returned to the extremities. Gallo's AR display showed less than five minutes remaining. He had lost time.
 

"My, you know your protocols, Gallo – I can't recall hearing nearly the entire HR chapter recited by a subordinate. So, you understand now? Their lives are already forfeit; are you going to discard yours as well?”

Agent Turner sighed conspiratorily and took on a softer tone. “Look, I get it. You may have started to see these indentured staff as compatriots, right? You think the company is doing them dirty? No! They are still getting their new life with the company; it will just be deferred a while. Nothing we can do about it, though. These orders come from the top, right? The company’s stakeholders understand how this looks, but ultimately, this is what’s best for the company’s interests. So, how about I make this a little easier and offer you and your team a week of PTO after all of this? I think I can even rustle up some gift tokens you guys can use for extra consumables. Will that work for you?”

Gallo then heard the plastic smile crack across the child’s face.

“Now, I will ask one last time. Employee G04-D017-080440, do you refuse the order?"

Gallo glanced at Brayson, who was sitting back in his seat, eyes glinting with hate while his face remained cold, professional. 

"I do not refuse the order," Gallo said flatly. 

"Excellent! Just in time, too. Pullover at the next opportunity. We will ride the rest of the way in one of the Balle Rouges," Brayson's sentence trailed off while he struggled to release his safety belt.

 

Gallo pulled onto the road's shoulder and shut down the Ground Prowler's engine as the HR Agent fought with the belt's locking mechanism. Ditching the security vehicles seemed stupid to Gallo, but this was no longer his operation. With zero fucks left to give, Gallo complied with Agent Turner.
 

Gallo’s ocular AR toggled open the convoy’s secure audio channel from a menu and activated his throat mic. Gallo did his best to sound calm.

 

"Convoy halt and wait to onboard passengers. Rear security team, pull over to the shoulder, and embark on lead BR. We are leaving the Prowlers here. Over."

Bile rose in Gallo's esophagus, leaving his mouth acrid and filthy tasting.  

 

The rain pounded on the stationary Ground Prowler. The downpour gave Gallo a faint glimmer of hope in his stomach as he wished once more that the road's barrier walls failed and drowned the whole damn convoy in mud. However, moments later, Brayson's safety belt latch audibly clicked open, and the glimmer died as the HR Agent continued his ridiculous orders.

 

"Awful design, right? Now, once inside Y28, I want you to order the reserve's population to stop their tasks and immediately commence breaking down all on-site communications and additive manufacturing equipment. Oh, but prior to that order, you will introduce me to your security team as 'HR Agent Brayson Turner' – I don't want to waste time playing protocol memory games with them, you know. Oh, and finally, once the Balle Rouges are loaded, your security team is going to –." Brayson interrupted his infantilizing orders on an upswing and looked expectantly at Gallo.

 

Swallowing hard, Gallo snarled, "execute all on-site indentured staff."

 

Brayson said nothing but flashed his plastic smile.

 

His thoughts racing and unfocused, Gallo rotely reached for his Boonie hat before unlocking the weapon cage secured to the Ground Prowler's center console. Trying desperately to find a way to stop this insane operation, or to get at least a word of warning out to Y28's indentured staff, was like trying to stop the rain from falling. Gallo then realized he couldn't send a quick message through his security team's AR chat because, as an HR Agent, Brayson had access to all of Gallo's company communications. That young, plastic-faced-fuck was probably monitoring them in real-time just in case Gallo was stupid. Plus, with the GPS down, who knows if his chat application would even reach the station without a direct line of sight to the recipient. Nothing! Nothing came to him, and the seconds melted away as he screamed internally. With nothing left to hope on, Gallo fell back on his training to get through the moment.

 

Gallo's goliath augmented fist smashed against the vehicle's glove compartment panel – harder than needed – revealing four 10-round magazines stacked snugly inside. Gallo swiped at each magazine, angrily shoving the 30-centimeter-long mags into open pockets on his utility harness. Then, with his ammunition stowed, Gallo yanked open the weapon cage and retrieved the 12-gage bullpup shotgun within.

"Marvelous. Are you ready then, employee G04-D017-080440?"

Gallo opened the Ground Prowler's door without a word, allowing the roar of rain to rush into the vehicle's cabin. Closing his eyes, Gallo tried to savor the smell of the air as a memento of something before he became a monster. An undertone of biodiesel and a hot engine marred the wet despite the downpour and kept him present. The shotgun in his hand grew heavier the more he breathed in biodiesel. Finally, opening his eyes, Gallo gave himself to the storm.

It was still late morning, and the large raindrops hit hard, leaving cold, slick sensations on Gallo's exposed bio-forearm and neck. The two other security team members, Mandy Gulang and Jenny Li, looked confused as they exited their own Ground Prowler and hustled over to the row of idling Balle Rouge cargo carriers.

 

"Heya, Gallo," Jenny's booming voice carried through the storm and engine noises. "Who's this little guy?"

 

 Gallo winced and held up a hand to try and stop the gregarious security associate from saying anything else.

 

 "Heya, Jenny. I'll explain everything once we get to Y28," Gallo said, keeping his tone even and professional. Gallo's eyes were a different matter. They screamed shut-the-fuck-up! but Jenny was pretty dense. 


"Yeah, sure, whatever, man. It's wet out here. This our ride?" Jenny slapped the Balle's bumper before climbing into the back of the lead cargo carrier. From within, he heard her exclaim, “Oh wow! There is some serious hardware in here!”
 

Mandy, meanwhile, nodded at Gallo and looked dismissively at Brayson but said nothing as she hoisted herself into the back of the Balle Rogue's cargo compartment.

Gallo and the little pissfuck were left soaking on the crumbling road. Gallo gave the security barriers one last disappointed look before offering Agent Turner a hand ascending the Balle Rogue's rear bumper. The agent accepted the offer without comment or hesitation and quickly scrambled up into the large cargo truck. Gallo dully followed, still unsure of how to stop the impending atrocity.

The 9,000-kilogram Balle Rogue was a heavy hauler in the truest sense of the word. Even its tires were massive at 205 centimeters tall, enabling it to support a cavernous 21,000-kilogram cargo bay. Unfortunately, Gallo knew from experience that the stubborn beast handled horribly and was prone to breakdowns. He spent six months operating one shortly after leaving the driving academy and hated every moment of that tour.

Somehow it felt appropriate for Gallo to be rattling around in the back of a fucking Balle Rogue minutes before he would shotgun innocent civilians to death. The vehicle represented everything wrong with the UN. A leviathan truck that was too large and heavy for the roads it relied upon but too cost-effective for its operators not to use. The corporation had tens of thousands of Balle Rogues, sending the heavy transports traversing across the continent with little regard for the crews operating them or the destruction they wrought on the roadways – the truck was an environmental disaster on ten wheels.

If a Balle broke down in a hostile environment, it was often cheaper to write off the crew, shipment, and vehicle rather than risk sending a retrieval and recovery unit after the stranded transport. Balle crews who lived longer than a few weeks knew the truck’s supplemental coolant injection system's deadly short life cycle and learned creative mechanics and jury-rigging – anything to coax life out of the overworked cooler. Gallo had become incredibly slick at changing out a corroded coolant hose while taking hostile fire – his quickest record being 45 seconds.

In anything but an ideal environment – flat plain, 22-degree weather with a newly paved road – a Balle was highly prone to overheating and relied on its supplemental coolant system to keep the engine running. Under ideal conditions, a Balle Rogue engine would rarely utilize the supplemental coolant system, but very few Balles operate in perfect conditions. Given their massive cargo bay and the UN’s propensity for squeezing efficiency out of thin air, Balle Rogues always ran overloaded. In addition, most operated in far-flung regions away from regularly maintenanced roads, further straining the engines. The Balle was truly a vehicle made by a committee; the beast was an anchor around the UN’s neck and a death sentence for hundreds of citizen staff every year. Gallo thought he had dodged his Balle Rogue fate years ago, but maybe if he was lucky, he’d get to die in one.

Gallo’s thoughts turned dark. He should do it. Just open up the shotgun right here. Two rounds and done. Point at Brayson, click, dead. Turn gun up under the chin, click, dead. It would be easy. The shock might even keep Jenny from saying something stupid and insensitive. Probably not.

Gallo ran his thumb across the safety latch of the tactical shotgun – polymer cool and still wet from the rain. His thumb felt stiff resting on the safety, like all the momentum of his being, past, present, and future, was assembling at the point where his thumb contacted the weapon’s latch. He couldn’t move. Gallo glowered at the HR Agent, who, oblivious to Gallo’s internal struggle or excess attention, was studying Mandy with a malicious upturn of his plastic smile.

Before Gallo could muster the courage to go blue on blue, the Balle Rogue downshifted and began slowing down.

 

“We’re here,” Gallo said hoarsely. “Oh, yeah. Mandy, Jenny, this is HR Agent Brayson Turner. He is in command now.”

“Oh, wow, sorry for the ‘little guy’ comment, sir,” Jenny said with genuine sounding remorse. But unfortunately, the security associate stood much too close to Agent Turner as she said this, and the adolescent sneered at Jenny in response.

“Your mouth and lack of decorum are already noted in my report, associate Li. Now, form up outside and try and act professionally.” Agent Turner didn’t wait for a response from Jenny and hopped out of the Balle’s rear compartment and into the dreary weather.

Gallo was the last to leave the covered cargo bay, hobbled by the regret of his inaction. The cavernous rear bay was closing in on him, and the air felt thick, heavy. Pushing his head past the cargo flaps as he finally exited, Gallo took an urgent breath. Mingling with biodiesel, mud, and rain was the peppery scent of multi-material printing. Being a newly fabricated community, Reserve Station Y28 still operated a dozen rapid prototyping additive manufacturing units capable of “printing” just about any object or material in the UN’s vast object database. From his tingling nose Gallo guessed masonry was currently in the print queue. 

Another odor quickly caught his attention as Gallo hopped down from the Balle Rogue’s bumper. It was a combination of scents dancing deliciously through the damp air—Dima’s chili. Gallo’s stomach churned nervous bile. The hulking security associate looked down at his muddy boots and then at the expectant faces staring back at him. Mandy looked annoyed as the rain fell while Jenny kept shuffling from one foot to the other and making a loud production of stretching and popping her joints. Her sarcastic expression seemed misplaced to Gallo until he remembered she was ignorant of what would soon go down.

 

Even the little canker sore, Agent Turner, looked his way. Gallo unintentionally stared blankly, his mind adrift in schemes of betrayal and heroism that all ended in death or prison.

Gallo failed to notice a trio of indentured staffers' approach. All three were older than Gallo and much shorter. Gallo wondered how long these indentured staff previously lived as repudiators. Given their weathered looks and wiry bodies, it was probably years. The UN was awful for many things, but Gallo never starved. But he never heard of repudiators killing their own, either. He kept repeating the mantra ‘you’ve never starved,' trying to justify carrying out his pending order. Almost immediately, the hulking man became overwhelmed with guilt and more indecision.

  

“Welcome to Reserve Station Y28; we just now received notice of your impending arrival, Agent Turner,” said the only woman in the trio as she extended her right hand. “I am Sammidae Green, on-site overseer of this station, and very happy to update you on every facet of our operations.”

Gallo noticed the look of unease behind Sammidae’s attentive eyes. Gallo could see her sizing up the situation quickly, and he figured, accurately. No one liked dealing with HR, and surprise visits were rarely portents of anything good.

Agent Turner accepted overseer Green’s hand and shook it with the hesitancy of a child meeting a distant relative for the first time. Brayson really didn’t like physical contact, it seemed.

“Thank you, overseer. I won’t ask you to explain your operations. However, I will need you to cease all production. Station Y28 is shut down effective immediately. You and your staff will need to break down all prototyping units and prepare them for transport. Now, I am sure you have questions.”  

Without thinking, Gallo turned on his heel and stormed away from the gathering. If Agent Turner objected to Gallo’s sudden departure, it went unacknowledged by the large man as he thundered away from the congregation. Disgust clouded his thoughts as the rain continued its unrelenting downpour.

 

The security lead didn’t see how he could get out of this day alive. Agent Turner’s brutal order was just as much a death sentence for Gallo as it was for the indentured staff. Too many witnesses and HR opened itself up to potential problems. Internally, if word got out that indentured staff was purposely killed for budgetary reasons, it could lead to a slump in staff morale. If the worst were to happen, and this information leaked externally to other nations, it would be a black eye and PR nightmare for the UN. It could even lead to sanctions and other diplomatic headaches. The enormity of the situation pressed Gallo, leaving his chest tight, making breathing difficult.

A known secret among the regular UN staff was that coordination with HR operations often left those same staffers mysteriously unalived – with a low-priority resurgence rating to keep secrets buried. A low-priority resurgence rating amounted to a sort of perma-death, making HR the bane of UN staffers. Feeling sorry for himself, Gallo cursed his bad luck.

But what alternatives awaited Gallo and his team without compliance? It was only a matter of time if they ran before the corporation hunted them down. Any fight would be in vain. No other corporate nations would harbor fugitives, which meant that Gallo and his team would be joining the ranks of the repudiators.

“Fuck that,” Gallo muttered to the falling rain. “What kind of short life would that be?”

And so lay Gallo’s conundrum. Obedience probably led right back to a bullet in the head and a shittier body whenever the company got around to pulling his ticket for resurgence. 

Mulling over his limited options left Gallo with growing anger bubbling in his gut. He had tried to be a standup citizen staffer, and where did it get him? He kept his nose clean, followed the rules, and didn't make noise even when he should have, and things were still going to shake out like this? A bunch of shoulda-coulda scenarios of alternate life paths tortured his mind. Why had he tried to play the game? It was their game - their rules. He'd seen fellow staffers torn apart in the name of service to the company, and for what? So some asses sitting in plush domiciles off the Silicone Coast-who never lifted a finger in actual labor-could watch their portfolios increase a quarter point? A flash of scrawled graffiti that had mesmerized Gallo in his younger years suddenly came to mind. 

 

Ours is not to reason why ours but to fucking die.

 

As a youth, Gallo saw the authorless rhyme every day in his training center's lavatory, and the combination of words had always sorta tickled his brain, but he never seriously considered their meaning. Now, suddenly those words were in sharp focus.

 

"None of this makes any fucking sense," the large man said to the gray, weeping air. No closer to an answer, Gallo numbly walked towards his last meal, lost in thought-his feet finding their way to the cantina.


Complex, rich odors shook Gallo from his angry reverie with the seductive suggestion of spiced meat. Pushing his large bio-hand against the cantina's damp faux wood door triggered anticipatory gurgling in Gallo's stomach. Wafting aromas released by the swinging door left him outright salivating as he entered the bright interior space. Unfortunately, Gallo's foul mood barely allowed him to take in those details, cheery, clean, and welcoming. Instead, he shuffled robotically to an empty table he had used dozens of times before. 
 

"Oi, Gallo! Followed your nose, yeah?" 

A gangly-limbed man with a slight paunch for a stomach jovially sauntered over to Gallo's table. The man wore the standard gray coveralls of UN indentured staff with a deeply stained apron tightly tied over. Over the apron were Dima’s prized knives nestled in their hand-stitched leather holster. Blessed with an infectious smile, Dima was hard to stay angry around. Of all days, Gallo finally felt up to the task but softened immediately upon making eye contact.
 

"Smells great, Dima," Gallo muttered dully, unable to keep Dima’s gaze for more than a second. 

"Something wrong, big man?" Dima leaned casually against the table.

"I'm still wearing this uniform, aren't I?"

Dima sucked his teeth and playfully patted the table edge, "Don't go quitting now - whatever's troubling you isn't as bad as being cast out. Trust."

"Maybe. Yeah, maybe." Gallo stared down at the table's veneer, visually tracing patterns in the printed wood grain.

"A large chili bowl will chase away whatever is eating at you. I'll be back with some extra sourdough, too."

 

Gallo could only muster a slight nod in response.
 

Dima strolled away to the kitchen, whistling a tune Gallo didn't recognize. Gallo noticed the cantina's relative silence only after the cook disappeared behind two swinging doors. Looking around, Gallo saw the place was empty except for him. Such unusual seclusion made Gallo immediately reconsider spilling his guts to Dima - hoping the cook could escape his looming doom. However, Gallo's altruistic impulse was instantly challenged by the sobering reality of all the potential outcomes for Dima. Running would be worse for the smiling fool than just getting plugged here at the camp, along with jeopardizing the cook's chances at resurgence. Plus, if HR discovered Gallo's involvement, the consequences for both him and Dima would be even more severe than mandated execution. Still, knowing how futile Dima's chances were, telling him the truth still felt like the right thing for Gallo to do. 

 

Unable to decide on a particular course of action, Gallo sat in frustrated silence. His self-loathing ramped up as his vacillation persisted, and soon he was no longer pondering Dima's predicament. Instead, Gallo tore into his own dithering, disgusted at a weakness carried his whole life. As far back as he could remember, Gallo froze when forced to make significant decisions involving his own best interests. Instead, Gallo just fucked things up, regardless of how easy a choice might be. For a man who could function, even thrive, in a firefight, he couldn't make a healthy decision, especially regarding his career. Doubt inevitably clung to the edges of his consciousness, clouding his judgment to the point of indecision. 

 

Unwilling to acknowledge his fears of success and failure, Gallo clung to the status quo as much as possible. It was why after two decades of work, Gallo still called the UN home despite his loathing for the company and its policies. It was why he continued his employment in the security department, even though everyone else from his childhood cohort was now promoted to managerial positions or dead. Gallo liked to joke to anyone who would listen that each day was the worst day of his life. But Gallo never owned his culpability in the equation. 

 

From his perspective, altering circumstances to give himself more agency would also provide Gallo with too much rope to potentially hang himself. If he failed on his own, who could Gallo blame? Instead, he chose the balm of perpetual victimhood to keep his disappointment focused outward. Shutting down and letting life roll over him allowed Gallo to shrug and blame fate, luck, or whatever for his misfortune. His toxic defense mechanism left him wretched, in any case.  

 

A familiar revulsion chummed his guts as his thoughts circled decades of self-imposed victimhood. Then, unconsciously, Gallo smashed his mechanical left hand down hard on the table, sending a cady of condiments tumbling on its side. The heavy strike broke his downward spiral of thoughts and snapped his focus onto the present. 

 

Dima stood over the table holding a tray heaping with slices of toasted sourdough leaned precariously against a steaming bowl of chili. Gallo could see the topping of onions and Colby-jack cheese wilting from the chili's gyrating steam.

 

"All right, big guy. I don't mind serving you, but if you assault my table again, I’m 86-ing your ass right out of here." Dima capped his joke with a playful chuckle as he slid the food tray in front of Gallo. Then the lanky man pulled up the chair facing Gallo and sat down.

 

Unsure of what to say, Gallo blinked at Dima and then at his food. 

 

"Don't ask me to spoon-feed you. Damn, Gallo, are you okay? I've never seen you this unhappy. Seriously, you can level with me. What is it?" Dima's earnest tone lacked any playfulness.


Gallo stiffly sank a spoon into the piping hot chili bowl. The thick contents momentarily resisted as he pulled piquant morsels of meat and beans up to his mouth while tendrils of melted cheese dangled off his spoon before snapping fast against his chin. The flavor was there, but Gallo's enjoyment was elsewhere. The security lead continued mechanically spooning the meal into his mouth with his eyes downcast. He never touched the sourdough slices even though they were toasted lightly brown, just as he preferred them.

“All right, I can take a hint,” Dima said with a twinge of hurt in his voice.

The lean man kicked his long legs out from under the table and began extricating himself from the booth, stopping only when Gallo dropped his spoon.

“I’ve been ordered to kill you.”

“Oh. Shit.” Dima slowly returned to his seat. The two men sat silently for a few moments before Dima broke the stillness.

“May I ask why?”

Gallo sighed and then shrugged.

“I honestly don’t know. They aren’t telling me, but the station is being stripped down and decommissioned as we speak.” Gallo still couldn’t meet Dima’s gaze, so he continued directing his confession at the food in front of him.

 

“Once the printers and other valuable equipment are loaded up, my team is supposed to retire all of the station’s indentured staff.” Just saying his orders out loud made Gallo’s stomach lurch.

“It is bullshit, Dima. It doesn’t make any sense, but it is coming straight from HR.”

Dima sucked his teeth before asking, “An agent is here?”

Gallo simply nodded.

Silence resumed in the cantina allowing the plinking of rain to once more fill the space. After a few uncertain breaths, Gallo looked up from the plate of sourdough bread and finally gazed over at Dima. The older man had a strained look on his face, and his eyes took on a vacant stare that Gallo found painfully familiar.

After what felt like a lifetime of empty silence, Dima's resigned grace shattered the stillness.

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, Gallo. Thank you for telling me.”

“Wait, you are fine with this?”

“Of course not! But what can I do?”

“Run.” The simple statement surprised Gallo as it left his lips, but the weight on his chest diminished ever so slightly.

Dima let out a violent laugh. It was a loud, desperate laugh that echoed through the empty cantina.

“Where, Gallo? Where would I run? There is nothing out there but death. Real, actual death. No resurgence, no hope. Just stark, ugly survival. Survival so painful and wretched that you lose yourself and become something else. No. No more. I’ve lived that life and vowed I would never go back. I’d rather wait for my turn and start over with resurgence.”

Gallo stared at Dima in abject disbelief. While the two men had only known each other briefly, and Dima never shared much of his repudiator past, Gallo was secretly fascinated by the experiences the cook had lived. Dima’s reluctance to return to that life gave those unknown circumstances even more mystique.

Gallo knew repudiators were maligned by the average UN staffer, just as they were by most corporate citizens across the continent. UN media portrayed repudiators as criminals, misanthropes, and terrorists. They were seen as lazy, ungrateful sponges that didn’t contribute to corporate society. Hell, Gallo even hated them until recently. He had seen friends killed in action and relegated to the resurgence waitlist because of repudiator attacks. Gallo even lost his left arm a few years back from a repudiator ambush. Lately, though, he realized they were just people. All of them were once corporate citizens who ran afoul of policy or circumstances and ended up cast out. Of course, they fought with ferocity to live and prosper; what else could they do? Gallo saw that same zeal in Dima’s face now as he’d seen on adversaries encountered in past deployments.

“I can’t say that I get it because I’ve never been cast out. But shit, I guess I could be now that I’ve told you what’s about to happen. You might be able to spare yourself if you turn me in, you know?”

“Oh? And what about my family?” Dima’s eyes were beacons of pain as he smiled back at Gallo. “Besides, what an awful way to repay your kindness.”

“I, I didn’t realize you had a family, Dima. Are they here at the station?”

“You never asked, big guy!” Dima chortled and reached for one of the pieces of sourdough on Gallo’s plate before tearing off a healthy bite. Ignoring Gallo’s inquiry, the cook asked through a mouth of bread, “No family for you, though, right?”

“Nah, I am just a lead. Families aren’t authorized for leads.”

“Ah, yes. Well, you are missing out, I am afraid. Eh, at least most days,” the man chuckled almost to himself.

“So, not to be too direct, but how much time do I have?”

“An hour. Maybe two? However long it takes to break down the printers and pack up whatever else is important around here.”

Nodding and taking another bite of bread, Dima then swung his legs out from the booth and stood. The cook extended his right hand to Gallo with a smile.

“Thank you, Gallo. You gave me a chance to say goodbye.”

Gallo peeled himself out of the booth and clasped Dima’s hand. Dima’s grip felt warm against Gallo’s bio-flesh, and the security lead savored the brief contact as a tactile memory of the man.

“Please take these. I’d hate for them to get discarded.” Dima unlatched the leather clasp holding his knife holster to his apron and presented the collection of three knives to Gallo. Not knowing how to decline, Gallo stiffly accepted the gift.

“They have a story longer than my own. They have belonged to members of my family for two generations, but now they have nowhere to go. Care for them, will you?”

“Dima, I don’t know what-”

“Listen, big guy. They come with a dowry of sorts,” and the cook leaned in towards Gallo and touched his forehead to Gallo’s. Upon contact, a quick file transfer protocol beamed a document into Gallo’s temporary memory drive. Dima pulled back and gave a conspiratorial nod.

“The knives will help as you practice my chili recipe.”

With a flourish of his hands, Dima untied his stained apron and cast it to the floor.

“You better save that recipe," he called back. "Oh, and if I come back anytime soon, expect I’ll be looking for those knives.”

Dima disappeared through the kitchen’s double doors, whistling that same unknown tune.

Gallo likes to pretend that was the last time he saw the cook. His fantasy is that Dima died with his family nobly if tragically. Gallo clings to that fantasy whenever memories of the actual events fight through the narcotic haze he consumes daily. And fight they do. Agent Turner’s malice during the extermination of Y28 surprised even Gallo that afternoon.

 

 






 

17 April 2073
Enroute to Reserve Station Y28, Ash Woods Death Zone
43°25'33.1"N 110°46'17.1"W
08:48:13 Saturday

Heavy leaden raindrops crashed against a procession of six-wheeled hardtop Balle Rouge cargo haulers. The convoy's corporate-mandated white paint proudly declared its allegiance to the Universal Negotiators. Freshly applied before each mission, the pristine white vehicle hulls glistened in the torrential downpour, contrasting starkly with the Ash Woods desolate mudflats as they snaked through remnants of the Great Maw's volcanic eruption. Ugly and top-heavy, the Balle Rouge handled like a drunk cow. Because of the weather, the procession of heavy vehicles traveled slowly along the Universal Negotiators-built service road. Only recently carved through two meters of lahar-deposited mud, the road was getting its first actual stress test with this rain.

The point vehicle for the UN caravan security detachment was an up-armored Ground Prowler recreational vehicle. The high profile of the boxy four-wheel civilian utility vehicle gave the 33-year old driver, Gallo, a grand view of the desolate landscape – nothing but flat muddy ash. Gallo fought against losing himself in the liminal space between ashen, low-hanging clouds grabbing at the mudflats below. The lahar's bleakness grew on a person. It was common for drivers to lose track of the road in such conditions. Gallo, a veteran citizen-staffer employed by the UN, spent a few of his earlier years in the region and remembered hating every second of those deployments. The region's bleakness depressed younger Gallo, eventually requiring psychiatric intervention and daily medication. However, since returning to the Ash Woods as a security lead, Gallo was unaffected by the landscape; its hoary lifelessness mirrored his bonne-amie despondency.

Now, two months into his current Ash Woods posting, Gallo felt protective of not only the region but also Reserve Station Y28 and its population of indentured staff. Y28 was populated exclusively by former repudiators, and the station’s construction gave 250 formerly destitute repudiators a new chance at corporate life. UN policy required a 5-year probationary period for onboarded repudiators to gain full citizen status. As hard of a pill 5-years of shit tasks was to swallow, it got the people out of the dangerous wilds surviving hand-to-mouth and back into contemporary living. Loath to admit it openly, but Gallo had come to feel a sense of pride in the project. His team was one of a dozen providing security during the fabrication of both the station and the current road on which he drove.  

It was during the road's construction that he even learned what lahar was. According to UN geologists, three millennia back, during the volcanic eruption that created the Great Maw, an avalanche of pyroclastic debris and mud rampaged through a petrified forest in a cataclysmic blast. Eventually, that mess hardened and became the grim landscape currently under a deluge.

The downpour worried Gallo, and he spent most of the day's drive fantasizing about burials in soupy, muddy sludge. The caravan's road was just three weeks old and already riddled with potholes. Days of torrential rain paired with the UN's typical cost-cutting construction methods and regular, heavy cargo traffic meant terrible road conditions. Gallo's sick daydreaming kept circling back to what if the reinforced barrier walls failed. Those barrier walls held back enormous mounds of saturated earth, getting wetter and heavier by the minute. And Gallo knew the barriers were made with the same loose standards as the road – making him worry he was leading a funeral procession to their muddy graves. Gallo tightened his grip on the Ground Prowler’s steering wheel.

Further complicating the drive was a lack of satellite-linked GPS. The regular network seemed to be down, and the convoy wasn’t requisitioned drone support, so Gallo had to rely on his eyes and the Ground Prowler’s local sensors to navigate.

Along with the shit driving conditions, Gallo also had to chaperone an outsider. It was one of the countless ignominies the driver had endured as a UN citizen-staffer and would continue to abide in the name of "teamwork." Fortunately, Gallo's passenger seemed oblivious to his host's hostility oozing mere centimeters away. Probably in his early teens, the youth sat annoyingly casual in the vehicle cabin. Refusing to hide his irritation Gallo scowled at his unwanted companion.

Named Brayson, the kid had an especially punchable face. Brayson's eager expression practically beamed with enthusiasm as he incessantly drummed his fingers on the Ground Prowler's dashboard – out of sync with the beating rain. The nuisance child was unexpectedly dumped in Gallo's lap by a shift supervisor earlier that morning.

"It's a cakewalk – a resupply run, Gallo. Let him snap some pics of the company doing good to post on his socials and get him home by dark. Easy stuff that pays an OT shift differential. Just make it smooth and routine, okay? Lots of smiles for the PR folks – no problems, no hiccups, remember that." 
 

Forty minutes later, Gallo was ready to pitch the kid out of the Ground Prowler's cab. Brayson asked questions every few minutes like an excitable chatterbox, quickly leaving Gallo running out of answers and patience. With a few exceptions, the veteran driver didn't care for the company of others, especially non-UN citizen-staff. Brayson was an outsider to Gallo. The kid was a tourist and wouldn't usually ping Gallo's radar except that Brayson was also a JURC. The Junior Universal Relief Corps was a public relations campaign started by the UN that took non-company youth and exposed them through volunteerism to the cultures around the continent serviced by UN charity and relief departments.

The program was only a decade old and had already proved a massive boon for public sentiment toward the company. Images of smiling kids delivering UN-branded relief to communities ravaged by war or natural disaster go down real smooth with the public, it turns out. And everyone involved freely disseminates the material across their social media channels, creating viral content that gives people the feel-feels. And when people got those warm fuzzy feelings regularly with some excellent branding, it was simple conditioning after that. The JURCs became a significant feather in the company's cap, which meant Gallo had to be on his best behavior and try and engage with Brayson. Otherwise, a bad review from the kid could get Gallo in hot water with his superiors – and Brayson seemed like a snotty little pissfuck who would leave a negative review just for shits.

"Gallo, how far are we from the Great Maw?"

"About 400 kilometers." Gallo sucked in air through his teeth and glanced at the vehicle's prominent navigation system, which flickered due to an inconsistent signal.

"Wow, and the area is still all devastated like this? That was a big blast, huh?"

 "Yup," was all Gallo could manage.

He was trying, but only so hard. Also, what the hell? The Great Maw's eruption, and its aftermath, were taught to Gallo at age eight as part of the World Knowledge Organization's standard regional history curriculum for the continent. Unless this kid was pulled from some backwater cult, he was taught this shit and just wasting Gallo's time.

Gallo's neck hairs slightly tingled as he pondered his uninvited guest. It was a strange sensation Gallo learned to give a lot of reverence out of superstition. Nasty things tended to occur after he got the tingles. But, after a lifetime of corporate service and navigating the political minefields therein, Gallo came to trust this inexplicable sixth sense. Gallo glanced at Brayson, who fidgeted with an Augmented Reality program, gesturing obnoxiously in the air.

"I'm scared, Gallo! Do you think we are in danger of it erupting while we are here? You know, the Great Maw?"

Brayson's cloying tone contrasted with his age and made Gallo's mouth go dry. Nevertheless, the little pissfuck continued gesturing wildly, almost like he had never seen AR before.

 "Nope," Gallo said without taking his eyes off the road.

He couldn't tell if the kid was fishing for conversation starters or was somehow testing him, but after nearly an hour of this pointless chatter, Gallo was at his limit.


The convoy covered another kilometer on the flooded, deteriorating road before Brayson spoke up again.

"How old is this road? It looks wonkus. Feels wonkus, too, with all the bumps. Must be ancient, yeah?”

"The road is less than a month old – built the same time as the reserve station we're headed to." Gallo didn't know what wonkus meant, but if it meant shit, then yeah, he was finally finding some common ground with Brayson.

"Wow, less than a month? No wonder this area is considered a death zone. If a UN road can't make it a month, it's a wonder how anyone else could conquer this region."

Gallo looked at the kid to see if he was being sarcastic, but the dumb shit's face was earnest. The JURC propaganda worked wonders if Lil Brayson thought so highly of UN craftsmanship. Not interested in bursting the naïve idiot's bubble, Gallo resumed scanning the road silently.

Having driven this route dozens of times in the last three weeks, Gallo felt like he knew every meter of polymer cement on the road. Moreover, he knew the next twenty kilometers were particularly rough, even in dry conditions. Exhausted, Gallo couldn't wait to get to Reserve Station Y28 and ditch the kid for an hour or so.

Taking his mind off Brayson, Gallo realized he was famished. He hadn't eaten for six hours, and now he knew what he would do with his rest hour. If Gallo were lucky, the cantina would be serving Dima's chili. Dima ran Y28’s cantina. Gallo had struck up occasional conversations with Dima while eating at the cantina. Gallo found the indentured staffer pleasant, and his culinary skills were, frankly, magical. Gallo enjoyed all of Dima's creations, but the man's chili was next level. It was an old family recipe or something; Dima was never too clear where he learned his trade. Gallo didn't care much for why, only how Dima could turn the awful UN meat rations into seasoned, succulent bites of peppered bliss. Gallo zoned out, thinking of Dima's chili paired with a hunk of fresh sourdough bread. Predictably, the hunger-induced reverie was interrupted by Brayson's annoying voice.

"Are we—" but Brayson's question was immediately cut off as Gallo swiftly held up his right bio-hand, index finger pointed towards the Ground Prowler's ceiling. Gallo glared at Brayson. The kid's gaze followed Gallo's fleshy finger towards the vehicle's ceiling and then to the man's grimacing mug. Utter confusion registered on Brayson's face.

 

"I need to drive," Gallo growled in irritation. 

 

Sweet silence reigned for ten precious minutes before the Ground Prowler dislodged a chunk of polymer cement, causing the rear passenger tire to dip hard into the new pothole and slightly lurch the vehicle.

 

"Whoa, what was that?" Brayson turned wildly in his seat. "Are we under attack?"

 

"Relax, kid. It's just a pothole."

 

"Oh, okay. Damn, that would have been vander, though, right?" 

 

 "I don't know what that means," Gallo said, shaking his head slightly with annoyance. 

 

 "Uh, it means ripe. No? Uh, do you know what interesting means? Ha, you didn't know vander. What a jabro." 

 

Gallo audibly sighed. Moments later, the Ground Prowler bounced over another pothole which must have gotten the little shit thinking about ambushes again. 


"Have you ever been attacked by wild repudiators, Gallo? I've seen vids of their ambushes. Do you ever watch those? I love seeing those savages getting blown to shit!"

Gallo gave Brayson a side-eye but remained silent. The kid was back to drumming, seemingly untroubled by Gallo's lack of engagement.

"Are there any savages around here? I mean, other than the ones at the reserve station. Could we be attacked? I hope there are – I wanna see those brutes blasted!"

Gallo turned to skewer the kid with an acidic glare. The Ground Prowler repeatedly bounced over rough, broken road causing Brayson to bang his right shoulder and arm against the passenger door panel.

"Ow, damn. Are you trying to hit those holes? But I'm serious; I'd love to see that!" Brayson's face dripped with unearned smugness. "They should know their place, right?"

A few beats of silence passed before Brayson resumed his absurd interrogation.

“Is that how you lost your arm? Did repudiators take it from you? What is it like having a mechanical arm, anyway?”

Gallo kept his tone level, professional.

"Listen, kid. I don't know what you are playing, but I am not game. I am fairly sure you aren't who you claim you are, so I'll give you the official response: Your use of pejoratives when referring to repudiator communities is against Protocol 72 of the Citizen-Staff Handbook regarding acceptable terminology for disadvantaged populations. You have uttered four restricted terms, and as a result, I will no longer engage in this line of questioning."

Brayson scrutinized the side of Gallo's face as a fresh rain cell hammered against the Ground Prowler's exterior with enough force to drown out the road noise. Gallo allowed a kilometer to pass under the vehicle's water-slickened wheels before turning away from the road and matching Brayson's gaze.

"Well?" Gallo's curt monosyllable sliced through the cacophonous rainfall.

Brayson's youthful demeanor instantly drained from his face, replaced with a cynical managerial mask.

"You pass! Well done, employee G04-D017-080440. Not only were you able to ascertain the testing conditions, but you responded appropriately to the use of prohibited language." Brayson's voice was loud and dripping with confident authority. Using Gallo's employee number left him certain Brayson was an HR Agent. Gallo’s neck hairs wanted to jump out of his skin.

What Gallo couldn't figure out was the deception at work. Brayson looked biologically young and didn't have any hint of augmentation other than standard cranial ports. He was a real-deal physical child but with the consciousness of someone else. Gallo figured that meant he was a high-level VIP-type if the company spent the resources for a juvenile tether. If Gallo died in the line of duty, he'd be lucky to get a geriatric body-tether and then be fired for inability to perform his duties. But this person got a brand new set of skin, so who the fuck were they? His neck tingling madly, Gallo turned back to the road with a scowl – certain the testing wasn't complete.

Seemingly sensing Gallo’s inquiry, the little pissfuck spoke.

"I am HR Agent Brayson Turner, and I'm assuming command of this operation. Please continue to the previous coordinates. Reserve Station Y28 is still the destination. However, the objectives are changing. Upon arrival, you and your team will oversee the breakdown and removal of key equipment. Then you will execute all on-site indentured staff."

After hearing that order, Gallo could sense Brayson scrutinizing his facial expression, but the driver remained relaxed. Professional. The security lead kept his eyes on the road. Gallo let his disdain for Brayson lead his instincts. From this point forward, Gallo would expect the worst from this enigmatic shit.

"Deliberate harm of UN personnel, including indentured staff or contractors, is prohibited and punishable by hard labor in a correctional facility under Protocol 34-A of the Citizen-Staff Handbook," Gallo let the words beat into him as a child march out efficiently, emotionless.

"You pass," Brayson said cheerily without smiling. "Well done, driver. However, the order stands. Upon arrival, you and your team will oversee the breakdown and removal of key equipment. Aaaaand then, you will execute all on-site indentured staff."

Brayson leaned across the center console and whispered conspiratorially in Gallo's ear.

"As you may know, employee G04-D017-080440, under subsection 3 of Protocol 34, immediate expiation of indentured staff time-debt is allowed in service to national corporate interests."

Gallo nodded once and spoke clearly as another stretch of pock-marked road began shaking the Ground Prowler.

"It has been a while since my schooling, but I believe that subsection is reserved for acts of clemency or diplomacy. I am unfamiliar with the expiation of time debt used as justification for murder."

Brayson pulled back slightly but still hovered uncomfortably close to Gallo's face.

"I'm surprised you even know that,” Brayson spit sardonically. “So, are you refusing the order, employee G04-D017-080440?"

Gallo's ocular AR display ticked down the time until his estimated arrival at Station Y28. They were roughly 15 minutes away. Racking his brain for an out and trying to stall for time, Gallo mumbled in response, "Protocol 1 strictly states to never disobey a directive from senior staff."
 
"As a Human Resources Agent, I am your senior, am I not?" Brayson cooed mockingly. The HR Agent's tone dripped with malice, but the smile carved into his smooth face was plastic and gleaming.

Gallo flushed and gripped the steering wheel as his chest and muscles tightened with rage.

"Citizen-Staff Handbook chapter 18 – Human Resources Agents operate outside of traditional staff hierarchies and conduct investigations pursuant to maintaining order within the corporate state," Gallo's mouth went dry, and his tongue felt thick and parched. Gallo needed to clear his throat before continuing.

"All citizen-staff should answer HR inquiries accurately, and any orders given by HR Agents should be treated as sacrosanct and critical to the health of the corporate nation. Refusal of orders given by HR Agents is immediate cause for incarceration and death by forced labor –" Gallo's vision narrowed, the road and steering wheel slowly phasing out of his conscious focus. His words, mechanical and sour as they left his mouth, became dim and unintelligible. He floated numb – except for his mouth, which was buzzing rancid.

"You pass!"

Brayson's chirpy voice pulled Gallo back to the Ground Prowler's cabin. The driver's hands clenched so rigidly around the steering wheel that it was momentarily difficult to loosen his grip – his bio-fingers throbbing as circulation returned to the extremities. Gallo's AR display showed less than five minutes remaining. He had lost time.

 "My, you know your protocols, Gallo – I can't recall hearing nearly the entire HR chapter recited by a subordinate. So, you understand now? Their lives are already forfeit; are you going to discard yours as well?”

Agent Turner sighed conspiratorily and took on a softer tone. “Look, I get it. You may have started to see these indentured staff as compatriots, right? You think the company is doing them dirty? No! They are still getting their new life with the company; it will just be deferred a while. Nothing we can do about it, though. These orders come from the top, right? The company’s stakeholders understand how this looks, but ultimately, this is what’s best for the company’s interests. So, how about I make this a little easier and offer you and your team a week of PTO after all of this? I think I can even rustle up some gift tokens you guys can use for extra consumables. Will that work for you?”

Gallo then heard the plastic smile crack across the child’s face.

“Now, I will ask one last time. Employee G04-D017-080440, do you refuse the order?"

Gallo glanced at Brayson, who was sitting back in his seat, eyes glinting with hate while his face remained cold, professional. 

"I do not refuse the order," Gallo said flatly. 

"Excellent! Just in time, too. Pullover at the next opportunity. We will ride the rest of the way in one of the Balle Rouges," Brayson's sentence trailed off while he struggled to release his safety belt.

 

Gallo pulled onto the road's shoulder and shut down the Ground Prowler's engine as the HR Agent fought with the belt's locking mechanism. Ditching the security vehicles seemed stupid to Gallo, but this was no longer his operation. With zero fucks left to give, Gallo complied with Agent Turner.
 

Gallo’s ocular AR toggled open the convoy’s secure audio channel from a menu and activated his throat mic. Gallo did his best to sound calm.

 

"Convoy halt and wait to onboard passengers. Rear security team, pull over to the shoulder, and embark on lead BR. We are leaving the Prowlers here. Over." Bile rose in Gallo's esophagus, leaving his mouth acrid and filthy tasting.  
 

The rain pounded on the stationary Ground Prowler. The downpour gave Gallo a faint glimmer of hope in his stomach as he wished once more that the road's barrier walls failed and drowned the whole damn convoy in mud. However, moments later, Brayson's safety belt latch audibly clicked open, and the glimmer died as the HR Agent continued his ridiculous orders.

 

"Awful design, right? Now, once inside Y28, I want you to order the reserve's population to stop their tasks and immediately commence breaking down all on-site communications and additive manufacturing equipment. Oh, but prior to that order, you will introduce me to your security team as 'HR Agent Brayson Turner' – I don't want to waste time playing protocol memory games with them, you know. Oh, and finally, once the Balle Rouges are loaded, your security team is going to –." Brayson interrupted his infantilizing orders on an upswing and looked expectantly at Gallo.

 

Swallowing hard, Gallo snarled, "execute all on-site indentured staff."

 

Brayson said nothing but flashed his plastic smile.

 

His thoughts racing and unfocused, Gallo rotely reached for his Boonie hat before unlocking the weapon cage secured to the Ground Prowler's center console. Trying desperately to find a way to stop this insane operation, or to get at least a word of warning out to Y28's indentured staff, was like trying to stop the rain from falling. Gallo then realized he couldn't send a quick message through his security team's AR chat because, as an HR Agent, Brayson had access to all of Gallo's company communications. That young, plastic-faced-fuck was probably monitoring them in real-time just in case Gallo was stupid. Plus, with the GPS down, who knows if his chat application would even reach the station without a direct line of sight to the recipient. Nothing! Nothing came to him, and the seconds melted away as he screamed internally. With nothing left to hope on, Gallo fell back on his training to get through the moment.

 

Gallo's goliath augmented fist smashed against the vehicle's glove compartment panel – harder than needed – revealing four 10-round magazines stacked snugly inside. Gallo swiped at each magazine, angrily shoving the 30-centimeter-long mags into open pockets on his utility harness. Then, with his ammunition stowed, Gallo yanked open the weapon cage and retrieved the 12-gage bullpup shotgun within.

"Marvelous. Are you ready then, driver G04-D017-080440?"

Gallo opened the Ground Prowler's door without a word, allowing the roar of rain to rush into the vehicle's cabin. Closing his eyes, Gallo tried to savor the smell of the air as a memento of something before he became a monster. An undertone of biodiesel and a hot engine marred the wet despite the downpour and kept him present. The shotgun in his hand grew heavier the more he breathed in biodiesel. Finally, opening his eyes, Gallo gave himself to the storm.

It was still late morning, and the large raindrops hit hard, leaving cold, slick sensations on Gallo's exposed bio-forearm and neck. The two other security team members, Mandy Gulang and Jenny Li, looked confused as they exited their own Ground Prowler and hustled over to the row of idling Balle Rouge cargo carriers.

 

"Heya, Gallo," Jenny's booming voice carried through the storm and engine noises. "Who's this little guy?"

 

 Gallo winced and held up a hand to try and stop the gregarious security associate from saying anything else.

 

 "Heya, Jenny. I'll explain everything once we get to Y28," Gallo said, keeping his tone even and professional. Gallo's eyes were a different matter. They screamed shut-the-fuck-up! but Jenny was pretty dense. 


"Yeah, sure, whatever, man. It's wet out here. This our ride?" Jenny slapped the Balle's bumper before climbing into the back of the lead cargo carrier. From within, he heard her exclaim, “Oh wow! There is some serious hardware in here!”

Mandy, meanwhile, nodded at Gallo and looked dismissively at Brayson but said nothing as she hoisted herself into the back of the Balle Rogue's cargo compartment.

Gallo and the little pissfuck were left soaking on the crumbling road. Gallo gave the security barriers one last disappointed look before offering Agent Turner a hand ascending the Balle Rogue's rear bumper. The agent accepted the offer without comment or hesitation and quickly scrambled up into the large cargo truck. Gallo dully followed, still unsure of how to stop the impending atrocity.

The 9,000-kilogram Balle Rogue was a heavy hauler in the truest sense of the word. Even its tires were massive at 205 centimeters tall, enabling it to support a cavernous 21,000-kilogram cargo bay. Unfortunately, Gallo knew from experience that the stubborn beast handled horribly and was prone to breakdowns. He spent six months operating one shortly after leaving the driving academy and hated every moment of that tour.

Somehow it felt appropriate for Gallo to be rattling around in the back of a fucking Balle Rogue minutes before he would shotgun innocent civilians to death. The vehicle represented everything wrong with the UN. A leviathan truck that was too large and heavy for the roads it relied upon but too cost-effective for its operators not to use. The corporation had tens of thousands of Balle Rogues, sending the heavy transports traversing across the continent with little regard for the crews operating them or the destruction they wrought on the roadways – the truck was an environmental disaster on ten wheels.

If a Balle broke down in a hostile environment, it was often cheaper to write off the crew, shipment, and vehicle rather than risk sending a retrieval and recovery unit after the stranded transport. Balle crews who lived longer than a few weeks knew the truck’s supplemental coolant injection system's deadly short life cycle and learned creative mechanics and jury-rigging – anything to coax life out of the overworked cooler. Gallo had become incredibly slick at changing out a corroded coolant hose while taking hostile fire – his quickest record being 45 seconds.

In anything but an ideal environment – flat plain, 22-degree weather with a newly paved road – a Balle was highly prone to overheating and relied on its supplemental coolant system to keep the engine running. Under ideal conditions, a Balle Rogue engine would rarely utilize the supplemental coolant system, but very few Balles operate in perfect conditions. Given their massive cargo bay and the UN’s propensity for squeezing efficiency out of thin air, Balle Rogues always ran overloaded. In addition, most operated in far-flung regions away from regularly maintenanced roads, further straining the engines. The Balle was truly a vehicle made by a committee; the beast was an anchor around the UN’s neck and a death sentence for hundreds of citizen staff every year. Gallo thought he had dodged his Balle Rogue fate years ago, but maybe if he was lucky, he’d get to die in one.

Gallo’s thoughts turned dark. He should do it. Just open up the shotgun right here. Two rounds and done. Point at Brayson, click, dead. Turn gun up under the chin, click, dead. It would be easy. The shock might even keep Jenny from saying something stupid and insensitive. Probably not.

Gallo ran his thumb across the safety latch of the tactical shotgun – polymer cool and still wet from the rain. His thumb felt stiff resting on the safety, like all the momentum of his being, past, present, and future, was assembling at the point where his thumb contacted the weapon’s latch. He couldn’t move. Gallo glowered at the HR Agent, who, oblivious to Gallo’s internal struggle or excess attention, was studying Mandy with a malicious upturn of his plastic smile.

Before Gallo could muster the courage to go blue on blue, the Balle Rogue downshifted and began slowing down.