Zachary Metz

3/1/12

Struggles Within

To explore the darkest depths and reveal to the entire world what lies within

To face whatever evils lurk there and destroy them

To band together as brothers and sisters for a common cause

To protect the world above from what once was…

"Congratulations cadet, you're officially a Hound." The middle aged politician croaked with a weary grin. His graying hair and deep wrinkles seemed to convey a sense of timeless age, as if he had always looked like this. Perhaps, the cadet thought, he had. It was impossible to know who was a Post Human, who was a Pre Human, and which of the two was actually a robot. Ever since the Times Before, the line between human and automaton was blurring. But it was rarely a source of conflict in the more modern times. After all, who could tell for certain what the plan of the greater gods was for mankind? The robots made excellent workers; there was no reason to begrudge their existence. It was the Pre Humans that were the focal point of all violence. Long forgotten procedures of medicine and magic forged their frail bodies into immortal vessels for their souls; they lived nearly forever, and as most were rich they could afford to have their manna replenished. The Post Humans, those who lived on the outermost crust, were jealous and afraid of these demi-gods. But in the same breath, the Pre Humans were a necessary evil. They used their powers of science and (it was rumored) dark magic to cast back the greater chaos creatures that stalked the middle crust. And as for those that escaped their power… well that is where the Hounds came in. And at long last, Jeren would be joining their ranks.

"Thank you sir, it will be an honor to serve the government and our gods." He bowed slightly at the waist, conscious that he was no longer fully below the government officials, but still somewhat in awe of them.

A kind smile was his only response. Turning, he walked out. With difficulty he dropped the crisp, efficient march of the infantry and tried to adopt the more fluid, self assured step of a Hound who had seen too many things.

"So you're in at last, little cousin!" A harsh, grating voice belched out. Jeren stopped suddenly as a huge, bear-like man heaved around the corner and clapped him on the back. Although his face was clean shaven and his uniform immaculate, he seemed to radiate a sense of sloppiness and gluttony. But in the same fetid breath he rippled with muscle all across his chest and arms, and his face was crossed with scars he had received in honorable combat.

"Indeed, Max. Seems like someone owes me dinner."

Max roared with laughter. "Trust me, comrade, the pleasure will be mine. All you can eat buffets, and you eat about as much as a chicken! Don't worry, if you can't finish the adult size I'll buy ya a kid's meal with one of those plastic trinkets!" He laughed again and slapped Jeren on the back. Jeren looked slightly amused, but Max was used to his unresponsiveness, and simply swept him down the hall all the faster. Important government interns and high level politicians who Jeren would have once avoided eye contact now parted before the two Hounds with the strange uniforms.

A Hound uniform consists of what at first glance may seem to be jeans and a combat shirt. But the jeans were woven of a super dense metallic material known as Draknium to scientists and 'weird metal crap' to the average layman. The shirt resembles a normal T shirt with the Hound insignia (a pair of wolves, one sniffing the ground and the other howling) but features heat dampening technology and some coolant properties. Over top of this the Hounds wear a jacket, also with the insignia on the back, and usually outfitted with several soldier specific add-ons. In Jeren's case, this included an electronic protection system and a reflective inner weave. For Max, the techies added in some extra padding and inlaid small barbs across the surface, to be activated at a moment's notice.

Jeren had never felt as proud as he did that day. Like most Post Humans, he had no idea what human couple had birthed him, but he hoped that wherever they were they were proud. It had not been easy to rise through the ranks like he had, and it was far from over. It was especially difficult with his special circumstances, as he was both a Post Human and a Jumper.

Jumpers are not exactly what the general public believed them to be. The average Joe assumed a Jumper to be a subhuman beast with the ability to scale buildings barehanded, turn invisible, and leap huge distances. This belief was born from the legend of one of the greatest thieves of all time, Alex Jumper. But he was as different from his kind as a human is from an ape. Jumpers are born with only one uniquely inhuman power, and that is a body with built in adaptive evolution genes. Given enough time, any Jumper can adapt to a situation. In northern regions they are thick bodied and hairy, to survive the cold. In warmer areas they are dark skinned and smooth to allow them escape from the heat and improved swimming abilities. Alex Jumper spent so much time traveling in darkness and leaping through the buildings of the city that his physiology simply absorbed this information and made him as effective as it could. Jeren was not as impressive as that, but his body had toughened far past that of the other cadets in half the time. As incredible as his progress was, the other, "normal" people were resentful and isolated him. Much of the time it was just him and Max, although they would occasionally get lucky and see Rexy around the barracks.

Of course neither Max nor Rexy were exactly normal. Max was a devout Catholic and Rexy was gay. Neither group was accepted by the government or the Pantheon. Religions that were not centered on the Pantheon were considered heretical, and homosexuals (as well as all other forms of so called sexual deviancy) were considered to be counterproductive to the common good of all. At first Jeren had been dutifully disturbed and somewhat suspicious of his two comrades, but he quickly came to realize that not only were they no different than other people, but that they were the only friends he had. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, as the saying goes. Not that Jeren ever let Rexy near his bed.

"Sweet mother of Mary, you're smiling!" Max said suddenly, noticing the small grin on Jeren's face. "You must be damn proud of your promotion."

Jeren nodded. "I've waited so long for this day. It almost seems like everything's starting over."

"That's because it is. You're not some cadet anymore. You're a Hound. And going to be a damn fine one, too. You were the best shot in our group, other than Joe. And you were almost as strong as me by the end." He flexed his massive muscles and smiled broadly at two nearby female interns. They ignored him, but it didn't seem to phase the lug. "You'll probably make it into the Alpha squads before me, to be honest. The only reason I made Hounds first was because I saved Rexy's bacon one too many times."

Jeren chuckled lightly. "I doubt that, comrade. After all, you saved my bacon twice as many times as you did Rexy's, and I haven't got your weapon skills."

"Whatever, you're just too humble. Never get a girl like that. Could probably get Rexy if you wanted though." He guffawed.

Jeren punched the man mountain in the arm. "You brag all the time and you can't even get Rexy. What does that say?"

Max flexed again. "That they haven't made the woman who can handle this much man in one place." He winked.

Jeren punched him again. "Let's go already. I want to eat a ham, not look at one."

They walked off together laughing, heading in the direction of the restaurant sector. Behind them, in the shadows between two buildings, lurked a trio of dark cloaked figures. They were all the same size, and all were dressed in a single flowing cloak that seemed to push light away. They paid no attention to the pair of Hounds, being more intent on the massive, dangerous looking weapon that sat on the ground before them. It was an oversized sniper rifle, so huge no man could have fired it without at least dislocating his shoulder. The cloaked figures stared at each other for a second, and then the middle one picked up the monster gun and raised it to his hidden eyes. The crosshairs lined up easily with the head of a politician who stood almost 800 feet away talking to a cluster of subordinates. With a slight hiss, the cloaked figure pulled the trigger.

Jeren whipped around at the sound of screaming. There had been no roar of gunfire, but amidst the chaos he saw what appeared to be a man whose head had been, not shot, but destroyed utterly. The man seemed to have been important, because there were already automaton Special Forces on the scene, having leaped out of cover as soon as impact had taken place. Jeren and Max rushed back, pulling their modified pistols as they did. They scanned around for the source of the shot, but the black figures were gone without a single witness.

As Jeren attempted to locate the assassins, Max calmed down the civilians who were in the middle of a group panic attack. "Everyone, please remain calm. This is not a simulation; head immediately for the nearest safe rooms and stay there until we give the all clear. May the Pantheon protect you!" He repeated these orders several times before the frightened interns moved en masse towards the large, bunker like protrusions that had appeared as soon as the alarm sounded. This left only the automatons and the Hounds on the scene, although Jeren could hear the military police drawing close. Max scanned the skyline carefully while Jeren examined the body. The man's name had been Gerald Bard. Jeren's mind snapped back to a magazine he had read some time ago, about the Senator Bard. He had campaigned fiercely for more rights for those like Jeren; Jumpers and Slimers and Nightwalkers in particular. Jeren had the strangest and most unpleasant feeling that this assassination was no random murder; neither was it the result of an infantile power struggle. It was political sabotage.