Motif In Violence
By Will Greenway
They called him Picasso; not because of his artistic talent but because anyone who crossed him ended up looking like one of the painter’s fragmented abstracts. He was a blocky man with beefy arms and giant hands that had been gentle only twice in his wretched life. Though he armored himself in hardened leather he saw himself as naked before the eyes of God. Picasso lived by the old testament’s words of wisdom; if an eye offend thee, pluck it out.
Lying on the burned out hulk of an overturned Cadillac, Picasso stared at the dawn sun through the wavering haze of sterilizing gas. The light burned sickly and gray in the East, backlighting a skyline of decaying buildings and pillars of smoke rising from the steel mills near the Pittsburg quarantine wall. A breeze guttered down the debris-littered street, reeking of old diesel fuel, burned plastic, and rotting garbage. Gunshots and screams echoed in the distance. Another day in Purgatory was beginning.
Picasso’s stomach growled. He sat up, aching. The rot had not miraculously left him. God had put a pox on man that wouldn’t stop until all the souls of His children stood again in the Light. HIV, MRV, EVR, the mutations came faster than they could be identified. Terrorists had tampered with God’s wrath and tried to create bio weapons. The fools doomed themselves as surely as they did the infidels.
All the world’s nations could do was incarcerate the infected victims and keep an airborne wall of antiseptic spray between the damned and the rest of humanity.
He grabbed the tools of his trade, a pair of beat up binoculars, a bandoleer of throwing knives and a 3 foot steel rod. Time to hunt. Not only for food, but for reasons to keep fighting.
He trudged down the block. All the smog-stained buildings looked alike to Picasso. He’d stopped caring where he went. He simply needed to keep moving and stay alive. Best to face death with a knife in his hand. He’d been a soldier too long to give up, regardless of how hopeless a fight seemed.
It would be a week before the inoculation crews came in to try the next battery of research drugs. He’d been a subject a few times. So far all they’d managed to do was extend his pain-filled existence.
The Government control in Purgatory had deteriorated into anarchy. There was little the outside world would do except look on. Every day the government delivered more victims to live out their shortened lives. Eventually, there would be more of the sick than the healthy. Then it would be unafflicted trapped behind walls.
Listening for gunshots Picasso headed toward the noise. Often where there was fighting, food could be found. The supply trucks long since had stopped coming into the zone; too risky. Now, crates of supplies came in by conveyor or skylift. Gluttony and muscle did the rest.
He stopped at a corner and scanned the area with the binoculars. Nothing but more buildings. In the distance, far beyond Purgatory’s walls, he could make out the silvery glint of the Inoculation Bureau skyscraper in downtown New Pittsburgh. The home of the damned’s only hope; so people said. Picasso wondered. After three years it seemed they’d made damned little progress.
A raspy male voice called to him from behind. “Hey, Picasso!”
Picasso dropped his binoculars and headed off. He recognized Scrape’s voice and didn’t care to talk to a remora right now. He didn’t like little-fish hangers-on trying to get scraps for free.
He heard a huffing breath. “Marion! Marion Francis! Come on!”
Picasso turned and pointed the rod at the balding man dressed in ripped khakis. “What’d you call me?” he snarled.
Limping toward him from the mouth of an alley, Scrape froze. He put his hands up as if to ward off a blow and stared at Picasso through glasses so thick it was like studying his bloodshot eyes through a microscope. The remora’s skin had a jaundiced tint and tiny sores ran down the left side of his neck; stage one EVR. “Hey, only trying to get your attention, man.”
“Yeah?” Picasso turned away. “Well, don’t. You saved me a stitch, but that don’t put us on a first name basis.”
The gunshots grew louder. He focused on the sound. They were fighting with shotguns and small-caliber rifles.
He heard Scrape struggling to keep up. He paid the remora no mind. Scrape had been in the zone long enough to know better than to get in the way of a player.
“Picasso, Picasso!” Scrape huffed along behind. “Something you should know.”
They turned down a side-street and the volume of the noise grew, sounding hollow and reflected.
“Picasso, there’s a bad-ass new player in east side hunting other players.”
Picasso snorted. “So? It’s a big town. He’ll get tired of it soon— I did.” He frowned and glanced at the remora. “What’s his handle?”
The pudgy man shrugged. “Didn’t hear it. Heard your name mentioned though. Guy’s looking for you. Did you screw anyone on the outside?”
“Lotta people get fucked in merc work.” He laughed at the irony. One bad screw was all it took. “Made more enemies than I could count.”
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth… He’d was paying for his sins bigtime. Too many on the outside sat in their glass towers passing judgement, holding up research projects, citing federal regulations and drug testing laws. While they blustered in closed senate hearings, men and women were croaking in purgatory and other quarantine zones around the world. It reminded him of quote a sergeant in his squad mumbled during the first quarantine round up. It was a quote from Stalin: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. It hadn’t meant anything to him until it was his own brother he had to shove into quarantine detention.
Scrape faded back. They’d reached the source of the noise. Picasso’s stomach tightened. A white inoculation service van lay overturned at the entrance of an underground parking structure. The bulletproof rear window was broken. Helmet shattered, a med-tech in a sterile suit lay face down. The side of his head had been carved away like someone would take a slice from a Christmas turkey. The poor slob had died hard.
Picasso’s cheek twitched. Seeing death always made his tic act up. This was the work of a player with a mean streak.
What the hell was that van doing here now?
He glanced inside and gritted his teeth. Another tech lay amidst medical supply cabinets, helmet shattered and head mutilated. No more clues, just pieces of the man scattered around inside the vehicle.
What’s with bloodying the side of their heads?
A roar startled him and he ducked for cover. His heart pounded. The shotgun blast came from close by. Must be something worthwhile for them to still be fighting over it.
Picasso shrugged to make sure the ablative paneling in the leather wasn’t kinked. It wouldn’t stop a big bullet but little ones had to hit straight on to penetrate. He peered around the truck down into the cavern-like mouth. No sign of movement. He glanced back at Scrape.
The man stood a good distance away now, shaking his head.
Picasso tensed, then charged for the nearest defendable position and rolled behind a pile of debris. Cement buttresses angled up and overhead forming the ceiling of the underground lot. The ramp slanted out to the street level. The air stank of cordite and burned rubber. In the shadows, something glinted.
Another report and a flash outlined a running man. A shriek preceded the middle of his silhouette fanning out in a mist. Darkness returned. A thud, then metal clattered.
Picasso heard the characteristic whine of a drum autoloader ramming a shell; AS-7 assault shotgun. The twitch continued to tug at the corner of his eye.
Deadie looked like a scavenger. So who had the milspec boom-boom— a player? More sense if the player was the one making the scavs rush that gun. Nothing else could force basic cowards to charge that cannon.
“Drop the canister and we’ll let you out!” a deep voice bellowed from farther in the structure.
A low female voice yelled back, “Murdering bastards! Anyone comes at me, I’ll blow their goddamn head off!” A woman, a gutsy one at that. Of course being behind the trigger of an AS-7 lent a lot of courage.
What could be in a canister worth dying for? Only way to find out was to get it and the girl for himself.
What the hell, no guts no glory.
He crawled closer. In the darkened interior, support pillars, derelict vehicles and garbage provided enough cover to hide an army. Several dead scavs and an armored I.B. security man lay twenty yards in. A gun lay near the downed sec-man who wore milspec armor. Stuff stopped low-caliber fire but was useless against a cudgel. The guy had learned it the hard way.
Picasso tightened his grip on his own steel rod. Like himself, most players on the P-burg turf were ex-military. A guy who lived to earn a rep had street smarts.
Anyone who’d charge a scatter gun must be desperate or insane. Their weapons couldn’t touch the armor. Only thing she had to worry about was getting overrun.
Picasso spotted cover and ran for it. He slung his cudgel. They might try to blitz the sec-woman. If so, many would die. For an AS-7 ‘room-sweeper’, wreaking mass mayhem only took someone willing to pull the trigger.
Picasso didn’t wait long. The area filled with the rapid reports of hand guns and rifles. With shrieks, twenty scavs charged in from different directions brandishing cudgels, knives and swords.
He saw no evidence that the suppressing fire had any effect. Four scavs howled as their legs splintered into a red haze. Picasso sprinted into the chaos as they fell. Bullets whined around him. Another blast, four more scavs dropped, parts of their bodies melting like wax, agonized faces frozen in the strobed light.
Picasso pulled a knife and threw as he saw a scav diving for the gun and armor. The blade scored between the scav’s ribs and the man hit the ground writhing.
Pain creased Picasso’s shoulder, then a rip across his stomach. No penetration but he’d be sore for weeks. Picasso tackled the screeching scav whose spindly body smelled of urine and sweat.
The AS-7 bellowed again, shredding human beings like paper. Still, she couldn’t get them all.
Picasso pushed the scav away and snatched up the sec-man’s weapon. It wasn’t an AS-7 as he’d hoped. An M-30 carbine would have to do. He yanked the bolt and snapped it to burst fire. On auto, this puppy would empty the clip before he could sneeze.
Yells echoed, then he heard boots on cement and the dull blare of a shotgun at point blank range.
Another shot winged his shoulder in a slash of pain. He aimed and fired. The gun hiccoughed. Explosive shells ripped concrete, dirt and car-metal, sending scavs running. The cover on the far side of the lot wouldn’t stop this gun.
The brief flash showed him that the weapon had already been used to chew up that side of the structure. There was perhaps a quarter clip left.
In a corner, the silhouettes of four men and one woman tangled. He heard the thwack of gunstock on skull. Now it was three-to-one. Where was the other player? He should be making his move now.
Picasso trotted toward the action to learn what this was about. He arrived on the scene as the three men overpowered the woman.
Using the gunstock, he gave the one on top of the pile an attitude adjustment in the back of his head. He tossed the stunned man aside. A punt to the ribs cleared off the next. While the sec-woman struggled with the last, he snatched up the shotgun, then booted the man in the buttocks so he cracked head first into the wall.
The woman grunted and shoved off the inert form. She righted herself and he saw the flash of brown eyes through her helmet shield, and a wisp of dark hair. She looked smaller than he imagined such a toughie might be.
Picasso leveled the shotgun. “Cool it, Coleen.”
She backed up, fists clenched. “Name isn’t Coleen, buster. Touch me and I’ll rip off your balls.”
Her eyes burned into his. This one was a real fighter. He admired that. No sign of the other player, nor the canister. He saw her name stitched into the uniform. “Lighten up, Erma, unless you really do want to die.”
“Yeah?” she snarled. “Who are you, my guardian angel?”
Must be from New York. Do her a favor and she cops an attitude. He poked her with the shotgun. “No, but I’ll shove this AS-7 up your ass and pull the trigger if you don’t change your tune. I saved you.” He shoved her against the wall. “So be nice.“
Picasso put his back to the concrete wall. “Tell me. What’s so valuable?” He nudged one of the corpses with his toe. “Obviously, it’s important enough to defend.”
Erma stared at him.
He shrugged. “Want to be that way? Good luck getting past that player. Thanks for the guns.” He turned.
“No, wait!” She grabbed his arm.
Picasso glared at her glove. “You’re touching me.”
Erma took her hand away. “It’s a vaccine.”
A wave of disgust surged through Picasso. Such a waste. “A freaking vaccine!? Dead copies of the rot?” He shook his head. “Bunch of people died for garbage?”
“This is a protoviral vaccine.” She said it as if it would mean something to him.
A vaccine against the super viruses? It sounded wrong. The mystery was why here in the zone. If a breakthrough had been made, word of the discovery would have filtered into Purgatory long before a cure reached the damned.
Unless it came from inside. He’d heard ugly rumors of illegal test labs hidden in the zones that used human test subjects. There’d never been any proof though. He’d heard scientists screaming that it would be the only way there would be fast enough progress to halt the rot’s advance.
“I don’t feel like sorting through this bullshit. You want out, stay close.”
“Wait.” Erma reached beneath a fold of her armor. Something made a high pitched beep.
Picasso saw something shimmer. A large cylinder wavered into view near the wall. Erma hefted it. Thing looked heavy. Trying to handle it and a weapon was likely what killed the sec-man.
“Neat trick,” he muttered.
“Don’t know if it’s worth the weight.” She frowned. “A dead-man switch activates the camouflage field.”
Picasso glanced at Erma’s partner face down on the concrete. “No pun intended, I’m sure.”
Her jaw tightened. “Go. I’m behind you.”
He headed toward the entrance, staying wide of the pillars and giving himself room to maneuver. Walking up the incline to the street level, he pushed Erma ahead of him. “Stay tight.”
Lugging the canister, she staggered toward the van. Good body; it seemed like years since he’d seen a woman who wasn’t dressed in a sterile suit or wasting away. When they reached the side of the van. Erma stopped and glanced back at him. Her gaze flicked to the dead tech lying on the ground with his head bloodied.
Picasso glanced around. Where had Scrape gone? Not like him to wander away from easy pickings. A cold feeling tightened in his guts as Erma moved to look inside the van.
“No!” He lunged, swinging the shotgun over her head.
Sparks blazed as gunmetal and sword clashed. The blade slashed through the AS-7. Deflected, the sword scored down Erma’s back. The sec-woman yelled and fell asprawl. The canister clanked, rolled away, then vanished.
Picasso threw the now useless gun away and stepped back as a blond giant came around the van door. Dressed in khaki-colored leather the player looked like a gorilla with blue eyes. A necklace of bloody human ears hung around his neck. Crimson stains covered his hands.
“Peekaboo,” the gorilla rumbled, grinning with perfect white teeth.
Picasso unslung his cudgel. “Who are you supposed to be?”
“Call me Van Gogh.” He fingered the grisly necklace. “Ain’t room in Purgatory for two artists.”
“Jeez.” Picasso shook his head. “Man, aren’t we trite?”
Van Gogh growled and rushed in. From the moment the blond man started his offensive, Picasso knew he had his hands full. Van Gogh was swift and powerful. He fought with canny efficiency.
Picasso tasted blood and felt the pounding of his heart. The bruises from the gunfight weren’t helping. His chest ached and his arms felt like lead.
No guts no glory. They’d have to write that on his tombstone. Couple more mistakes and Van Gogh would have another ear for his collection.
Knee shot, reverse, rib spike, head swing. He drove every bit of his muscle behind each attack. Picasso scored and drew grunts from his opponent but it simply wasn’t enough. The old body didn’t function as it used to. The rot had worn away his fighting edge.
Van Gogh’s elbow caught him in the chin and he stumbled back, rolled and came to his knees huffing and dizzy.
He clutched his weapon, heart hammering, blood roaring in his ears. Van Gogh advanced, sword upraised.
“Remember where you put your canister?” Picasso gasped.
Van Gogh hesitated. Picasso saw the man’s eyes flick left and right. The man was too smart to be distracted for long. “The bitch can find it.”
Picasso grinned. “She might— if she were here.”
Van Gogh backed away, sword still readied and glanced around. Erma had vanished. At least this evil bastard wouldn’t get what he wanted.
Van Gogh let out an bellow. “We needed that, all of us did! That was the last breeder batch!” The blond giant leaned around the van to look down the side alleys, his sword still aimed at Picasso. “No! How did she get out of sight so fast!”
“Poor boy, you don’t get to play with dead germs.”
“Proto vaccine, you moron!” Van Gogh roared. Flecks of spit dribbled down his chin. “The private I.B. labs haven’t been trying to cure the damned. They only slowed the rot. They’re keeping us alive to use as incubators for their hunter-killer viruses. It’s destroying us, but it’s curing the rich on the outside. They’re stretching out the epidemic to make a buck and keep their illegal research going as long as possible!”
The big man’s frustration grew worse. Metal clanked. Picasso looked over in time to see Scrape whirling a trashcan lid across the street Frisbee style. Van Gogh ducked.
If an eye offend thee…
Picasso brushed aside the sword and struck. His finger thudded home in hard membrane. Van Gogh reeled away clutching at his face. Picasso snatched up the M-30 and fired a burst. He didn’t look at the result. A sword clattered. His cheek twitched violently.
Across the street, Scrape raised a fist. “That’s two you owe me, Marion!”
“Little shit, come over here and say that!”
Scrape laughed and disappeared down the alley. “Remember, first dibs on the leftovers!”
Picasso growled. He hated owing that little remora. He felt like hamburger meat, his remaining strength ebbing. He pointed the gun toward an empty spot on his right and spoke aloud. “If I spray the area with bullets, at least one will hit you. You aren’t far from that canister.”
No response. He yanked the bolt back.
Erma and the canister shimmered into view. “I can explain…”
“Don’t try,” he growled. “Sucker was too pissed off to be lying. Don’t know how he found out.” Picasso’s tone hardened. “Couldn’t care less. Pick up the canister, we’re going on a walk.”
Erma grabbed the canister and staggered to her feet. “What are you going to do?”
“Not me, Erma— you.”
Picasso grabbed her shoulder and turned her. He ran his hand across her armored back, touching the rip put there by Van Gogh’s sword.
“Ow!” She flinched away. “What the hell are you—” Her eyes widened as she saw the blood on his hand. Her lip trembled and she tried to form words.
“You’re damned, Erma. Open cut to purgatory air and that sword—” he pointed to the glinting steel stuck in the dirt by Van Gogh’s riddled corpse. “Real damned.”
Picasso could see his grim visage reflected in her face shield.
Erma was shaking her head, muttering incoherently, tears starting to creep down her cheeks.
He shoved her. “Suck it up, Babe, what goes around comes around. You been standing around collecting hazard pay while the people in here were getting fucked by your bosses. Maybe you wouldn’t help out the damned to spite your paycheck, but I bet you’ll squeal like a pig to save your own ass.”
The sec-woman shuddered. “The I.B. will have me killed!”
“Yeah.” Picasso thumbed the M-30 to single-shot. “They can try.” He snorted. “Fact is they’re obviously delaying the release so they can wring every penny out of the epidemic they can.” He walked over and pulled Van Gogh’s sword out of the ground and wiped it off. “By the time these vampires finish bleeding the public we’ll probably both be dead.”
“We can’t fight the I.B.!”
Picasso held the sword up to the rusty light of the morning sun. The edge was sharp and perfect. He pulled the sheath belt off Van Gogh and slid the sword home. He tossed it to Erma.
He raised the M-30 to his cheek and sighted the silvery glint in the distance he knew to be the I.B. headquarters building.
“What have we got to lose?”