The Man with a Brick Head
30 November 2086
Mojave Death Zone, I-15 marker 194
“Be sure to blanket the area with encryption drones, we don’t want any orbital surveillance or satellite strikes, right guys?”
Assorted grunts of compliance belched out of quickly moving bodies clambering over still smoldering hulks of Locust transports and Badger security trikes that once comprised a Universal Negotiators supply convoy. The corporation’s iconic white vehicles stood out like a beacon in the rich browns and reds of the sunbaked Mojave where they had just met a violent end. Some of the convoy’s gleaming panels were pockmarked with plasma burns or perforated with high-caliber projectiles. A few engines still idled likely due to dead or unconscious crews. One of the U.N. Locusts overturned, its front tire obliterated by heavy weapons fire causing the heavy, boxy chassis to upend ignobly on the desert highway’s shoulder. This was the third U.N. convoy lost in the region in as many weeks, and another notch on his belt. Krenshaw strode along the boiling blacktop absorbing the carnage his crew just wrought.
Bartholomew Krenshaw, popularly known on the socials as “Half-Machine,” was a fresh face on the viral feeds, using his newfound notoriety to capture a large and increasingly loyal following in the 6-months since his profile went active on the quantum web. A former indentured staffer of Universal Negotiators Krenshaw worked as a convoy gunner on supply routes servicing forward operating bases in the dangerous Everglades Exclusion Zone. It was in the Everglades where Krenshaw was grievously wounded setting into motion his eventual rebellion from the U.N. and the creation of the Bear Legion from other rogue indentured staff. Using stolen U.N. combat vehicles, the Legion attacked U.N. outposts as they fled west from the god-awful Everglade marsh. Krenshaw began uploading the Legion’s attack footage to the quantum networks as a way to tweak the U.N.’s nose. More surprising to the budding warlord was the reaction from citizens in nations across the continent who became enrapt with Krenshaw’s story and catapulted the charismatic leader of the Bear Legion to instant celebrity.
“Grab the weapons, grab the ammunition, grab the fuel and grab the liquor – in that order, please! Oh, did someone pick up Mel? Her Badger crapped out about a kilometer back.” Krenshaw removed his shirt which was soaked through with sweat from his short walk across the highway. Despite its alarming appearance Krenshaw often flaunted his immense gut. A massive, lumpy, and misshapen stomach that ballooned outward in a glorious half-dome was crisscrossed with dermal plating scars and artificial organ components. Krenshaw’s torso revealed his violent past in all its reconstructive horror. Patchwork dermal armor clung desperately to grafts running from his wide waist up to his cheek bones where the skin budget seemingly ran out. From just above his lips rose a metal monument to emergency surgery – a complete neural transfer and cranial transplant encased in a ceramic-coated titanium shell. Excepting his lips and part of a nose, the man’s features were missing. The cyber-head resembled a metal brick save for a thin optical panel which ran horizontally around the entirety of the head. The strip of composite glass glinted in the unrelenting sun but gave no indication as to where the man’s gaze fell which was everywhere at once.
Krenshaw considered the cyber head a curse. The constant scanning and analysis of data inundated his consciousness which he was unable to interrupt without chemical intervention. His acute sensory abilities and 360-degree vision were a godsend in combat, but for the rest of his waking hours the intense intake of new information was an unending nightmare. It took all his self-control, and an inhuman level of alcohol, to quiet the roaring of stimuli assaulting his senses.
“Xochitl is grabbing Mel, but what about any food we find?” Charlotte asked while wrenching open an armored panel from the overturned Locust. Charlotte commanded the only other Moose battle wagon in the Legion beside Krenshaw’s. Before he could respond a half-dozen, dull thumps reverberated across the desert as the screening drones finally launched from their tubes.
“If there’s room after the booze, sure. Otherwise, we still have some of those C-rations left. You know, the ones we picked up last week outside of Zyzzyx?”
A chorus of groans echoed along the heat-cracked road.
“What? Too low brow for the mighty Bear Legion? They are nutritious and chock full of vitamins, at least according to the labels.” Krenshaw’s statement started loud and ended in more of a child’s uncertain mumble.
“They taste like shit,” shouted Remy, who was in cahoots with Charlotte on account of driving her Moose. That outburst was followed up with more vocal affirmations and banging on armored plate.
Drewpont, a hound-faced gunner with jowls for days added to the dog pile, “They’re just gelatinous crap bound together with grease– they look the same going in as they do coming out. They’re brutal, Barty.”
A few moments passed as the large man with the cyber head stood in the scorching sun before a rumbling laughter started first in his distended belly before erupting out of his fleshy lips. The laugh was a chaotic mess of wheezing, sputtering, and screeching and it was backed up by a percussion track of the man’s giant hands slapping his bumpy stomach.
“I wouldn’t know, would I? I’ve got no fucking tastebuds!” With one meaty finger Krenshaw poked vigorously at what presented as his forehead. The ceramic was cool despite the extreme ambient temperature. The self-deprecating joke landed, and laughter began spreading among the rest of the Legion.
“Okay boys, my mistake. Apparently, C-rations suck! So, if anyone finds anything better, we can drop a few of the redundant weapons and load up on the grub instead. Just spike the weapons we leave; I don’t want these U.N. shits recovering anything useful. Are we good? Okay, well get to work!”
Krenshaw took a few steps before losing control over the data flowing through his head. Stopping abruptly the gut-heavy man passively scanned the area as the other members of the Bear Legion cheered and went about their tasks of salvaging the convoy. It took an accidental shoulder check and a “sorry, B!” from Vikram, one of the Bear Legion’s shorter members to rip Krenshaw free of his sensory reverie.
Quickly rubbing a meaty hand over his flat, brick head Krenshaw smiled and shouted, “no problem, Vik!” before heading swiftly along the highway to the idling chassis of his Moose, dubbed Papa Bear. The cavernous, 12-wheel chassis was ruggedly built for operating in extreme environments and classified as an all-terrain assault vehicle. Weighing nearly 40,000 kgs, Papa Bear was Krenshaw’s home all these long months and thousands of kilometers since breaking his U.N. contract. The seclusion offered by the metal behemoth comforted Krenshaw, as did its heavy plating which masked most of his optical sensors. Sitting in the bowels of Papa Bear was as close as Krenshaw could get to quieting the constant noise in his head. Well, mostly.
Krenshaw plopped heavily into his worn command chair which was anchored to a console station in the heart of the vehicle’s interior. Papa Bear’s massive 20-cylinder biodiesel powerplant purred quietly, giving everything inside the armored hull a slight vibration. Rather than allowing the rhythmic undulating of the engine to lull him, he thought back over the day’s attack.
The convoy was a decoy. All of the transports supposedly carrying foodstuffs were actually up-armored Locusts that had their cargo bays converted to drone hangars. Knowing the U.N.’s security protocols had helped the Legion score early victories in their feud since they typically knew what sort of resistance the U.N. would kick up. Today was different. After half a year of bloodshed the damned corpys were finally starting to pay attention! Krenshaw’s chest tightened with adrenaline borne from excitement and fear.
“You got their short hairs, now’s when they start playing hard. Welcome to the game you fucking shit stains! It is only going to get worse,” Krenshaw shouted to the phantoms in his mind.
The Bear Legion fought dirty. Stacking the deck was the name of Krenshaw’s game, and he liked to use overwhelming force to pulverize his adversaries. Typically, the corporate crews operating U.N. convoys were conservative with their actions because they had bean counters back at their depot waiting to scrutinize every bullet or plasma bolt they discharged. Today was different. The convoy unleashed a blistering defense and poor Mel and her Badger bore the brunt of it. The three-wheeled ATV was nearly cored by a U.N. gunship drone. Mel walked away this time, but Krenshaw knew that luck wouldn’t hold out forever.
The Legion had already lost eight members in their six-month rampage. Krenshaw struggled to retain his organic memories of the fallen so had bio-files stored of the lost legionnaires in his neural CPU which he could access as needed. He dreaded adding to those files and sometimes wished he had never started this damned fight with Universal Negotiators.
Krenshaw became agitated and so reached for the current bottle of whiskey occupying his secret stash, which was simply an empty ammo can bolted to his console. The brown liquid sloshed as he took gulp after gulp. He couldn’t remember what good whiskey tasted like. Since the accident and his entombment in a damned synthetic body Krenshaw’s senses were off.
Thanks to the machinery in his head he could chemically analyze the liquor’s compounds, note its alcohol content, purity, age, but none of the infinitely useless data that streamed into his consciousness when he examined, held, sniffed or swallowed whiskey remotely resembled what he remembered as experiencing whiskey. Worse, it seemed his memories prior to the accident were fading quickly, first among those flavors and scents. He swallowed another mouthful and focused on the hazy memory of whiskey and tried to imagine its flavors once more.
Trans-3-Methyl-4-Octanolide. m-Cresol. Ethy Hexonate.
Irritated, and his mouth burning with wooden fire, Krenshaw hacked his own liver, shutting down the synthetic organ’s filtration enough to allow the alcohol to take effect. Along with his brick head, Krenshaw also gained synthetic versions of most internal organs, a new musculoskeletal system as well as his cybernetic right arm. His synth-liver was extremely adept at filtering toxins, which made getting drunk a chore. Krenshaw paid a coder for a subroutine which grants him access to the filtration protocols for his liver allowing the brick head to fine tune his organ’s operation at will. Dampening the protocols brought an almost immediate wave of euphoric dizziness to Krenshaw, and within moments he was in the catatonic clutches of his drink.
Minutes before consciousness returned Krenshaw’s liver resumed full functionality, thanks to the reset feature of the liver subroutine. The burly man awoke in the thrumming embrace of Papa Bear’s command compartment with what felt like a cactus jackhammering inside his skull. A torrent of information flooded his brain and he audibly groaned in protest. The stream of data indicated almost two hours had passed since he had returned to the Moose and began drinking. Shifting in his seat he found the bottle of whiskey leaned precariously in his lap. Had the contents been fuller they surely would have spilled on his pants. The realization elicited a sardonic grin followed by a phlegmy cough.
With Krenshaw regaining control of his motor skills he stood using the left-side weapons control console as a crutch. His attention focused on not falling or vomiting, Krenshaw missed the initial scan of movement outside the Paper Bear. Faint heart beats, two of them, were congregating in front of the entry hatch and were all but obfuscated by the heavy polymer-ceramic of the tank’s hide - causing Krenshaw to jump when one of the assembled persons knocked on the hatch door.
The shirtless man fumbled in the confines of the vehicle before switching on the external mics and cameras. Vikram and Drewpont stood outside. Their posture and expressions indicated something was the matter.
“Krenshaw! Are you awake, buddy?” Vikram’s voice came through clearly over the comms. “We need you out here. There are a few prisoners needing dealing with.”
A thick palm slapped down the transmission button and Krenshaw’s croaking voice blasted out of the vehicle’s PA system.
“Okay, one minute please.”
Krenshaw pushed off the console he was leaning on and dropped down into a bouncing squat. He used the momentum to flex his legs and then extended his arms to stretch their muscles. Willing his body to function the huge man stood again and kicked down on the hatch release mechanism with one of his heavy boots. Papa Bear’s hermetically sealed hatch hissed open and immediately flooded the climate-controlled interior with the Mojave’s arid heat.
Vikram’s face was slick with oils and sweat, and he had an imploring expression in his eyes.
“We missed you, buddy. Have a nice nap?”
Choosing to ignore the bait Krenshaw responded with a curt, “What’s up, Vik?”
Ducking out of the Papa Bear’s entry way Krenshaw stepped into the Mojave’s furnace and his bare torso instantly sprouted sweat. Still foggy from his whiskey siesta, Krenshaw shrugged at Vikram who gestured down the road towards the upended Locust. Without a word the trio of Legionnaires began walking.
Vikram kept pace with Krenshaw’s large gait through quick leg work and finally spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone.
“There were eight survivors total. Six were full-on corpys so we took care of them. It is the remaining pair that need your attention. They’ve been wildcatting ever since we plugged the corpys, so Charlotte and Remy went to work subduing them. Charlotte might have broken her guy’s arm in the process.”
Krenshaw’s oversized brick-of-a-head swept left to right scanning ahead as he walked, when suddenly the large man stopped.
“Wait, Vik. If you guys took care of the corpys, how am I going to razzle-dazzle these last two?”
Vikram nodded in acknowledgement of the screw up, his slick head hanging low, eyes downcast. The small man was suddenly interested in toeing a pebble along the highway with his boot as he spoke.
“I know, Barty – sorry. We meant to keep one or two around but, in the round-up and interrogation the corpys got uppity and tried to get the jump on Drewpont – stabbed him in the chest, the fucking pricks!”
Krenshaw shifted his massive frame with frightening fluidity and turned to face Drewpont.
“D! Brother, you injured?” Krenshaw’s voice was weighed down with concern.
Drewpont took a step back and slapped his reinforced chest with his cyberarm.
“Fucker had no chance. Her blade hit nothing but metal.”
“Phew! You had me worried there for a second! Getting shanked on the side of the road, developing gangrene, and dying of sepsis is a bullshit way to go, and I didn’t want that for you, D.” Krenshaw embraced Drewpont with a heavy hug, clapping him on the back hard. “You metal motherfucker!”
“Damn, Bart you went dark. Sepsis? No, but I’m okay. Thanks for your concern, big guy.”
As Krenshaw resumed walking the group followed closely. Within a few beats the coterie of augmented brutes passed the overturned Locust bringing the prisoners into Krenshaw’s view. The two U.N. personnel were pinned to the ground with guns pressed to the backs of their heads.
Swatchback 9mm serial #8JM95863327FI. Haberfield ‘Steel Rain’ .50 AE serial #125P98R64713UN
Charlotte and Remy each had a knee pressed into a prisoner’s back, and Charlotte’s prisoner quite clearly had a broken arm confirmed by the stark white Radius bone jutting out of swollen, bruised flesh. Krenshaw noted the prisoner’s bone density was low, and further scans indicated the probable cause was osteoporosis linked to malnutrition. Krenshaw began nodding enthusiastically.
“Okay, I may have found my razzle-dazzle. Gonna play it fast and loose. I’ve got this, guys. Stay back a bit and let me talk to them.”
Detaching from the other Legion members, Krenshaw walked briskly towards the U.N. prisoners. As he approached, he continued scanning them. While the one was undernourished, frail, and had a racing heartbeat, the other was lean and muscular, and his heart rate was calm. More curious to Krenshaw was the man’s chemistry indicated powerful depressants in his system which Krenshaw’s pharmacological database flagged as corporate-military class performance enhancers.
Flunitrazpnol. Pentonemsecrina. Benzobutyric Acid.
Realization hit Krenshaw just as he approached the two incapacitated men. Razzle-dazzle was coming in spades.
Krenshaw moved towards Remy’s prisoner and stood over him. Gesturing for Remy to release the man, Krenshaw squatted down as Remy moved away, placing both hands on the man’s shoulders and helping him roll over and sit upright.
“Hey there. Big day, huh?” Krenshaw squatted behind the sitting U.N. crew member, still gripping the man’s shoulders when he turned his attention to Charlotte’s prisoner who remained face down on the searing highway. “Charlotte, would you sit him up too, please? Thank you.”
Krenshaw turned back to the man in his grip and leaned his massive head towards him.
Krenshaw was so close his lips brushed the man’s ear when he said, “Look, I know you’re a mole or bounty hunter or something. Regardless, you ain’t normal U.N. crew, are you big guy?”
The man tensed slightly but Krenshaw’s scans told him everything he needed to know.
Heart rate climbing. Shifting chemistry. Combat Enhancing Drugs Detected [methcathinone, benzoid acid ester Level 7]. Attack imminent.
Krenshaw, still holding the man’s shoulders, squeezed hard with his left hand until his fingers began to push into and break through the man’s tissue. Another of the benefits granted by the U.N.’s fuckery over his body was Krenshaw massive grip strength. As the man screamed Krenshaw reached his right arm around the man’s chest as if to choke him but instead plunged his fingers into the man’s open mouth. Reflexively biting down hard, the man shattered teeth on Krenshaw’s tungsten-reinforced polymer carbonate digits eliciting a muffled, but slightly different agonized scream. The man struggled to remove Krenshaw’s fingers from his mouth, gripping the limb with both hands but failing to budge it a centimeter.
“Oh, biting down was a rookie mistake,” Krenshaw snarled.
“As you try not to choke on your teeth, I want you to think real hard about how everything that’s happened to you in the last few seconds was financed and made possible by your employer. This arm, my charming disposition, all of it courtesy of Universal Negotiators.”
Krenshaw once more turned towards Charlotte’s prisoner with the broken arm.
“Hey, bud. I know this looks bad, and it is. Your friend here is a piece of shit operative for the U.N., and he is going to die.” Upon hearing this the man caught on Krenshaw’s hand struggled harder. Krenshaw loved this part of the razzle-dazzle.
With his left hand still buried in the man’s shoulder meat Krenshaw restrained him into silence with a vigorous shake.
“Anyway, this guy is dead. But you have a chance here. You aren’t a natural born corpy for the U.N., right?”
Charlotte’s prisoner looked aghast at Krenshaw, his own mouth agape as he witnessed the huge, bear of a man shoving his fingers violently into his companion’s mouth. After a long pause Krenshaw’s question finally sank in and the frightened man shook his head rapidly, which immediately caused him to clutch his broken arm.
“No, you aren’t a natural born corporate citizen of the U.N.? Okay, great! So, you are part of their Indentured Staffing Corps, right?”
A soft hiss, imperceptible to anyone present but Krenshaw, escaped as he cycled off the dampening fields for his cyber arm. Octagonal ports dotting the arm slid open and inky, shimmering liquid began streaming out of the vents and coalescing around Krenshaw’s right arm. The liquid moved with a sentience that some found beautiful and hypnotic, but most found disconcerting. Charlotte’s prisoner fell into the latter category.
The injured prisoner finally spoke. “Y-yes, sir. Indentured staff, sir.” His eyes stared in disbelief at Krenshaw’s right arm, the tendril of liquid growing larger as it engulfed the upper arm and elbow and moved down the forearm towards the fingers crammed into the mole’s mouth.
“What’s your name, bud?"
“Sung-jin, I am Bartholomew Krenshaw, and I have sworn a blood oath to eradicate all Universal Negotiators assets that cross my path. Do you know why, Sung-jin?”
The sentient liquid on Krenshaw’s arm had gathered at his wrist before pausing, as if waiting for Sung-jin’s response. Portions of the liquid farther up on Krenshaw’s shoulder seemed to solidify, hardening with an interlocking hexagonal pattern that refracted the late afternoon sunlight with prismatic glory.
“No, sir. I have no idea who the hell you are – sir.”
Krenshaw laughed, his massive stomach shifting up and down rapidly.
“Fair enough, Sung-jin. I’ll tell you why. See, I used to be just like you. In fact, we all used to be just like you - U.N. indentured staff. Most of us got swallowed up by those greedy bastards a few years back after the Georgian expansion campaign beat the shit out of my people in the Floridian Isles. To add a bit of stink to the whole affair the Georgians didn’t want terms of surrender and just wanted the water rights we had and so they took them and left us nationless. Fucking left us as repudiators, can you believe that? Heartless if you ask me. So, ‘Barty’ you might ask, ‘why don’t you hate on the Georgians?’ And to that I say, fuck ‘em but at least they played by the rules!”
Krenshaw shifted his squatting posture slightly eliciting a fresh round of hushed screams from the man harpooned on his hand.
“The U.N. don’t play by the fucking rules. They claim to, oh boy, Sung-jin will they make a real convincing argument that they follow the rules, theirs and all the precious rules governing other nations. They love rules! Laws! Orders! Codes of Conduct! The must because they have so many of them, right? You went through orientation; you know the corporate dictates that they swear up and down are iron-clad! What happens to an indentured staff member ‘in the event of severe injury resulting in impairment or loss of bodily function in the service of the Corporation,’ Sung-jin? Do you remember that gem of a policy?”
Sung-jin looked at Krenshaw, fighting through the pain in his arm to answer rotely, “’immediate forgiveness of accrued time debt.”’
“Correct, Sung-jin! You said that as quickly and efficiently as any HR taskmaster could hope for! They blast that shit constantly, don’t they? The Indentured Staffer’s Handbook was on the PA system non-stop in my barracks, and I am guessing with the way you rattled off the answer it was in yours too.”
Krenshaw’s victim resumed struggling, futile though it was to extricate himself from the man’s grip.
“That’s cute, but it won’t work. Anyway, Sung-jin your arm is killing you and my arm’s about to kill him, so I’ll get to the point. I worked a gunner’s seat in a convoy servicing the Everglade Exclusionary Zone. Do you know what kind of living hell that assignment was? But I did it without incident for three years into a seven-year contract because I believed in the rules. Then, when my vehicle was hit in a repudiator ambush and my ride flipped over with me in the turret, well I was fucked. I should have died in that marsh, Sung-jin and that would have been it. Instead, a piece-of-shit administrator by the name of Clarken Mason scraped my hamburger-ass into a rehabilitation center for some experimental surgery and charged it to my tab. HR wanted to add fifteen years onto my contract for the privilege of getting to field test experimental gear like this fucking brick for a head. They took my body from me, Sung-jin. They took my peace. I know more about you just by staring at you than I should have any right to know. I can’t turn that off, Sung-jin! My body is not my own. They took my memories, my taste, my face. The fuckers made me a monster, Sung-jin. And they charged me for it. So, I live to cost them money, Sung-jin. And that is best achieved by breaking their shit.”
Punctuating his point, Krenshaw jammed his hand further into his victim’s mouth and the liquid, which had been waiting patiently at his wrist through his diatribe, suddenly surged forward, rushing down the man’s throat. Gargling sounds quickly silenced as the torrent of liquid began leaking out of the nostrils, tear ducts and bulging out eyes - seemingly filling the man’s oral, nasal, and ocular cavities. What followed was a revolting series of bone-splintering cracks. the wet tearing of flesh and a gushing splash of bloody cerebrospinal fluid as the man’s head split apart by the rapidly expanding liquid.
Krenshaw released the spasming, headless body which fell heavily onto the highway asphalt. Standing fully upright Krenshaw flexed his right arm and the liquid moved with him, briefly retaining the mushrooming shape which burst the man’s skull before undulating and reforming in twisting tendrils which snaked and stretched back up along Krenshaw’s arm. Within seconds the liquid had flowed back into the octagonal ports oriented along Krenshaw’s cyber arm. Kicking the body hard before stepping up to Sung-jin the Bear Legion leader loomed threateningly over the injured man.
“So, ask yourself, Sung-jin. Are you a U.N. toady or are you something else? Do I get to splatter your brains on the road like your buddy there or do you want the Legion to pick up your contract?”