Morning shift isn’t so bad, I thought as I leaned my elbows against the parapet of the Baja Wall and smoked my pipe. At least the breeze is nice up here.
I looked out over the wall and down two hundred meters or so to the ground below. It was early still but the local Sunrisers were already setting up their stalls and beginning to cry their wares. The low, ramshackle mess of the Morning Market was beginning to take shape. I’m told there’s a logic to the thing with a unique pecking order and wannabe merchant kings carving out miniature, capitalist kingdoms anew each morning. I don’t see it, though. It just looks like chaos to me. But then, most things on the Sunrise side of the Baja Wall seem like chaos to me.
“Hey, Carlos! Hey, man!”
I sighed, pulled the pipe from my mouth, and turned away from the morning sun. Julian, one of the younger Watchmen, was approaching me with a weird skipping, stumbling haste – something between a walk and a jog which just made him look like an excited puppy who wasn’t sure how to use its legs. Julian was new to the Wall and got overly excited by… well, everything about it, really.
“Mornin’ Jules,” I said, “What’s up?”
Julian stopped in front of me but couldn’t seem to keep still. He kept shifting from one foot to the other and had a twitchy sort of half grin on his face.
“Hey, morning, check it out, man! Boss says I can go into the Market with the Patrol today! Is that badass or what?!” Julian’s half smile had spread into a manic grin so wide it threatened to split his face in half. “Dude! So stoked! I hear there’s this one merch who’s got a stockpile of Cocola for sale! Sam even says that he thinks the guy’s sitting on a whole pallet of Debbs!”
I shook my head slowly. “Jules. What you want Debbs for, man? That’s not even food. That stuff will kill you.”
“Aw, Carlos, I know it’s not like… real food. Who cares?! I just wanna try one, you know? See what all the fuss is about!”
I jabbed the short stem of my pipe at Julian as I spoke, “It’s not food Julian. It’s not even drugs. It’s just poison. Addictive poison.” I sighed as I could see that I wasn’t making even the slightest impact. “Listen, just don’t go crazy ok?” He grinned at my capitulation. “And don’t get caught. The Boss hates that crap and she won’t take it easy on you if she catches you with it.” He nodded happily as he started to skip away to join the Sunrise Patrol in the square below.
“And when you crash, don’t you come whining to me!” I shouted at his retreating back.
I shook my head and turned back to the parapet. As I gazed out at the Morning Market, I put my pipe back in my mouth and adjusted the shoulder strap of my rifle. I was surprised that the Boss had agreed to let Julian join Patrol this morning. He’s too young, I thought, too inexperienced. What is she thinking? He’s not even close to ready for Patrol.
Looking out at the market, I realized that Julian wasn’t the only reason I felt uneasy. Something just felt off this morning. I swept my gaze back and forth quickly across the stalls and merchants. On the surface, everything looked normal. Here a group of Enem nomads were trying to erect their rickety, tent-like stalls while the Zone merchants, who felt like this was their land, yelled at them to move out of the way of their more sturdy, but less portable shopcarts. There was a mixed group of Zone and Enem children running through the crowd playing some indecipherable game. Everything was just like it always was but something kept giving me that itchy feeling in the back of my head like when you’re just sure someone’s watching you.
I dumped the ash and remaining tobacco from my pipe into my ash tin to save for composting later. Both tin and pipe went into the large breast pocket of my jacket and I unclipped a small set of tactical binoculars from my belt. I raised the tacs to my eyes and began slowly scanning the growing market crowd for whatever was giving me the heebies.
There, I thought as someone caught my eye, What in the world are YOU doing here, friend? My tacs brought his face into sharp focus and I could immediately tell that he didn’t belong. He clearly wasn’t an Enem like the crowd around him. Not with that pale, smooth skin. And he wasn’t a Zoner with that drab, off-white outfit. And he definitely didn’t belong to the Sunset Empire. He was oddly lumpy and overweight, with an unhealthy sheen of sweat beading his upper lip and a twitchy left eye that looked like it was trying to jump right out of his face. That’s withdrawal, I thought. Wonder what this guy comin’ off of?
I watched as he haggled with a food merchant. The merchant shook his head and pointed to a sign on his stall that said, “Hatch Charlie’s, All Natural” and the lumpy man started to yell. As he raised his fist to the merchant, I slipped an ear bud into my ear and flipped on the tac’s laser mic.
“… cazzin’ honey?! I don’t drink bee kack!”
The merchant raised his hands placatingly, “I’m sorry, mister. I didn’t mean to offend ya. I can get you a black coffee, no problem.”
“Black coffee?!” the lumpy man practically screamed, “Whadda I look like, some sorta gumma? Who drinks black coffee?! I need a joe with double shugg and cream. How hard is that?”
The merchant patiently pointed back at his “All Natural” sign as I flipped the mic back off. I’d heard enough. I knew what this guy was now.
But what’s a Yorker doing so far from the arcologies? He’s gotta be struggling with smog and sucro withdrawal at the very least. Not a lot of either this far west.
As I watched, the man went from screaming to pleading with the merchant. Classic junkie behavior, I thought. What a mess. Suddenly a large hand grabbed Lumpy’s shoulder from behind and spun him around. I quickly adjusted the focus on my tacs and zoomed out a bit to see that there was a small group of men and women looking at Lumpy with stern faces. More people were joining the crowd and filling up the aisle as I watched.
Looks like Lumpy’s about to get taught a lesson by the home team, I thought with a small touch of satisfaction. The Enems and Zones might not be Sunsetters but they’re, by and large, good people and I don’t like seeing them get mistreated by some eastern poison junkie.
But the crowd wasn’t attacking Lumpy. The man who’d grabbed Lumpy was just… talking to him. I zoomed in on his face and realized that he looked at lot like Lumpy. He wasn’t as… well, lumpy but he was just as pale, was carrying weight in odd places, and had that same, oily sheen of sweat on his face. Another Yorker? One person from so far east was odd but two? I quickly started scanning the other faces in the crowded aisle and realized that there were almost no locals in the bunch. In fact, the few locals that I could see were quickly making themselves scarce.
What the… how the Hah-Vee did so many easterners make it this far? Why are they even…
Suddenly, something clicked in my head. I dropped my tacs and grabbed my radio.
“Command, this is Gate 1! Come in Command, this is Carlos! Priority one comm! I repeat, priority one comm!”
“Gate 1, this is Command.” The reassuring alto of the Boss’s voice crackled from the radio. “What’s got you riled, Carlos?”
“Boss! Thank God. Look, I don’t know what’s going on but there’s a huge crowd of easterners in the market this morning. Yorkers mostly, it looks like, but I’ve seen a few others that could be Stonians or Marys. I can’t tell.”
“Yorkers?” The boss sounded as surprised as I felt. “What in Mo’s hot sandbox are Yorkers doin’ here? Even if they manage to get through the Republic in one piece, those folks don’t usually make it this far. The Hah-Vee does for ‘em long ‘fore they get here. How many did you say are out there?”
“At least a hundred that I can see, Boss,” I replied. “And that’s not all, they’re all of ‘em comin’ off of something. Probably the standard smog and sucro but who knows? Could be that ubermeth they’re brewing over in Dixie 5. Whatever it is, they’re aggro and they’ve got the local Sunrisers scrambling for cover.”
Suddenly the morning bells rang out, their sweet clear call sailing over the wall and echoing across the Morning Market, signaling the opening of the gates and the beginning of trade between the Sunrise tribes and the Glorious Sunset Empire. The crowd of easterners all stood still for a moment and then, with a terrifying purposefulness, started moving quickly towards the Baja Gate.
Spak! The gate!
“Boss! You’ve got to stop the Patrol! Don’t let them open that gate! It’s a raid! They’re going to try to take the damn gate!”
It was too late, they’d already begun opening the gate and the Sunrise Patrol was starting to march through. Julian was at the very front, the cocky kid, still half jogging with excitement. I could hear the Boss screaming orders to her staff through the radio as I slammed it down on the parapet, unslung my rifle, shouldered it, and put the scope to my eye. There was a roar from the market as the crowd of easterners broke free from the jumble of stalls and charged the gate. Poor Julian stopped in his tracks, paralyzed with fear. I carefully took aim and dropped the lead easterner as he ran towards Jules. I was able to drop three more, cycling my bolt as fast as I could, before the mob swept over Julian, crushing him under their numbers. I cried out in anger and took down two more.
Suddenly, a barrage of shots rang out and, all through the crowd, easterners were hitting the dirt. The other Watchers had finally joined the fray were taking shots as fast as they could. There were about a dozen of us on the wall now and the cumulative effect of our sniping was devastating. Even so, several large Yorkers managed to make it to the gate. The remnants of the morning’s Sunrise Patrol struggled with them as the Watchers assigned to the gate struggled to pull the gate shut. I watched as one large easterner actually vomited in the eyes of one of the Patrolwomen. She screamed as his poison-laden spew literally burned her skin. I leaned out from the wall, aimed almost straight down, and put a round right into the top of his skull and he crumpled to the ground. Someone threw a bucket of clean water on the Patrolwoman’s face and pulled her back from the gate as the Watch finally managed to pull it shut.
The easterners threw themselves at the gate with wild, withdrawal-fueled abandon but, with the gate shut, it was just a matter of mopping up the stragglers. As we dropped the last of the mob, I slung my rifle across my shoulder, picked up my radio, and tossed it to another Watcher.
“Radio in and let the boss know it’s over.” I told him as I made my way towards the stairway that led from the top of the wall down to the square on the Sunset side of the Baja Gate.
By the time I made it to the ground, the gate Watchers were already sorting through the bodies that had managed to spill into the square during the assault. Easterners, Patrol, and Watchers alike lay around the square. The easterners were sprawled out like ragdolls but generally breathing evenly. The non-lethal suppression rounds that we used would leave them with massive bruising and the guy that I shot in the head would definitely have a concussion but they’d recover. Once our people were seen to, the Patrol would gather up the easterners that had made it through and take them all to the detox camps where they’d pray for death until they were clean (assuming they even survived detox) and could be put back out on the Sunrise side of the wall.
Our people were far worse off. Everywhere I looked, members of the Patrol and Watch lay bleeding, broken, and moaning in pain. Damn savages don’t care about hurting people. They just want through the wall, I thought angrily.
I looked down at the easterner at my feet and was surprised to see that it was Lumpy. He looked even worse up close than he had through the tacs.
“You junkie bastard,” I said quietly to the unconscious Yorker. “What did you think you were going to accomplish?”
“Carlos? Carlos, man, is that you?” I looked over and was surprised to see that Julian had somehow made it back through the gate before it was shut. He lay against the wall about five feet away holding an obviously broken arm and looking at me from a face covered in blood from a gash on his forehead.
“Hey, kid,” I said as I made my way over and squatted down in front of him, “Glad to see you made it out of that mess. Hell of a first taste of Patrol life, huh?”
“Yeah,” he replied slowly. His eyes were unfocused and his pupils dilated. Probably a concussion. “That was… kinda crazy, you know?” He looked down at his broken arm. “So fast…” He stared off into nothing with unfocused eyes. “Didn’t even get chance to find that Debb dealer…”
I shook my head incredulously. Kids, man. I stood and patted my breast pocket absently, then pulled out my pipe and tobacco pouch, and started filling my bowl.
“I’m tellin’ ya, kid,” I said as I turned and started to walk away. “That crap’ll kill ya.” I struck a match and set it to my bowl.
“It’s not even food…”