The comm-pad on the table between them chimed, a new notification scrolling across its otherwise dark screen. Ya’teng picked it up, a pained look spreading across his face before he slammed the device down in disgust.
“They’re cutting overtime rates again, completely this time, and increasing the tax on energy credits to 40%.”
The words were strained, laced with a creeping despair, as if a spring within him was being wound tighter and tighter, threatening to break along with his sanity.
“They only just put the tax up to 20% last cycle. How can they raise it again so soon?” he complained to his drinking companion.
The pair of Cryx sat at a dimly lit table in Tanti Station’s only remaining bar. The others had been driven out of business since the station’s residents had been forced to tighten their belts under an onslaught of taxes and pay cuts foisted upon them by the station’s owner, the asteroid mining conglomerate MetaCorp. MetaCorp’s draconian contracts changed often and arbitrarily, and never for the better. Many of the station’s workers were struggling to provide their families with basic necessities, let alone the cost of a ticket off-station, and tensions were rising quickly.
Ya’teng’s tirade continued, becoming more heated.
“These frakking employment contracts have to be illegal. How can they just change the conditions like this? Between the wage cuts, the tax hikes and the prices at the company stores, I’m actually losing money working here.”
Oh’ren, the older of the pair, scowled as he took a sip of his drink, the same one he had been nursing all night, the only one he could afford.
“Why don’t you volunteer as union representative instead of just complaining about the damn contracts all the time?”
Ya’teng scoffed and rolled his eyes.
“And get dragged out of my sleep pod by the Board’s goons, never to be seen again this side of an airlock? Not frakking likely.”
A moment of silence settled over them as they remembered last cycle’s brutal crackdown. At the order of the MetaCorp Executive Board protesting miners had been attacked in the streets by the station’s security forces, and the violent purge that followed had left the miner’s union shattered and leaderless.
“If the Board isn’t careful, it’s going to end up with a mob on its hands,” said Oh’ren, looking across the room at a table crowded with humans.
The oldest of the humans, a large man with a wild mane of orange and silver hair, noticed Oh’ren’s gaze and gave him a nod, raising a glass in greeting. Oh’ren nodded back.
The human’s name was Edward, although the other humans called him Red, for some reason the two Cryx didn’t understand. Red was the unofficial mine foreman, a good man, if somewhat stern, who kept the younger, and rowdier, human miners in line. As a sort of father-figure to many of them, he could generally be found surrounded by a group at any given time, both inside and outside the mines.
After several seconds of puzzled silence, Ya’teng had to ask.
“What’s a mob?”
Oh’ren turned back to face his companion and placed his drink back down on the table.
“Have you ever seen a swarm of Arkanoids on Hopi Prime?” Oh’ren asked.
Ya’teng shook his head. “I’ve only seen them in holovids, but I heard a swarm can hollow out a Bovid to the exoskeleton in less than a minute.”
They both paused as the front door opened and a teenage human male stepped into the bar. Ya’teng recognised him as Jimmy, a sixteen-year-old orphan who worked the mines in order to provide for his younger sister.
Jimmy hurried to join his older compatriots, their conversation stopping suddenly as they all turned to him expectantly. With a grin and an extravagant flourish, Jimmy produced three med-packs of insulin from the inside of his jacket. He fanned himself with them in a display of mock coquettishness as loud cheers exploded from the rest of the group.
“JIMMYYY!!!! That beautiful bastard! He did it!”
Within seconds, Jimmy was surrounded by his friends, who wasted no time assaulting him with joy. When the congratulations were over the human youth was left battered and dishevelled. The Cryx had worked alongside the human miners long enough that they no longer mistook their boisterousness enthusiasm for aggression.
Once Jimmy had picked himself up from the floor, he handed two of the insulin packs to two other men who nodded gratefully. He put the third pack back into his jacket pocket. Red, who had refrained from the dogpile, simply gave Jimmy a pat on the back and thrust a drink into his hand. The group then resumed more subdued conversation.
Oh’ren and Ya’teng turned back to each other now that the distraction was over.
“A mob is a human grouping, a bit like a swarm, but worse. A swarm is dangerous, sure, but it’s not intelligent. There’s no malice in Arkanoids, they just act on base instinct. At any given time, you’ve got a fairly good chance of guessing where they’re going and what they’re going to do. A mob, however, is more like a state of mind. On the surface, it’s much like a swarm, but it’s comprised of members that are individually intelligent, yet collectively aligned to a shared purpose, good or bad. A swarm mindlessly attacks and consumes; a mob’s behaviour is much less predictable.”
Oh’ren stopped to take a sip of his drink. Ya’teng knew when his friend was in storytelling mode, so he waited silently for him to continue.
“I’ve only ever seen a mob in action once. About twenty-five cycles ago, back in my younger days, I picked up some work with a mercenary group that operated in the Second Spiral Arm. We’d been contracted by the Litari to provide ground support for their occupation force on Prannik V. The Litari and the Prans had been kicking the shit out of each other, on and off, for hundreds of cycles at this point. Planetary occupation was governed by a whole slew of written and unwritten rules, so my team thought we knew what to expect.
“What we didn’t know was that Prannik V had a small human enclave of a few thousand people. Of course, they were classified as protected non-combatants. The Litari didn’t hold any grudges against the Terran Republic, and they definitely didn’t want to do anything that would bring the Terrans into the war to fight alongside the Prans. So the humans got left alone as long as they didn’t cause any trouble.”
Ya’teng glanced over at the human table. Two of the men were arm wrestling while the others tried to distract them by throwing toothpicks at them and twisting saliva-soaked fingers in their ears. One of the wrestlers flinched as a wet-willy was driven home, his arm was quickly pinned by his opponent while the others laughed and jeered.
“I’m guessing they didn’t stay out of trouble long,” said Ya’teng.
“Most of them did, but there’s always a troublemaker in any group. One of humans was quite friendly with the Prans. He joined up with a resistance cell that was running a bombing campaign against Litari military targets. When the Litari caught them, he got arrested with the rest and the whole lot of them got sentenced to a firing squad by the Litari provincial governor. He wanted to send a message, so he declared that the executions would be public, for all to see.
“When the day of execution came, there were more humans than Prans in the crowd. They were outraged that a human prisoner was going to be executed. Humans were classified as non-combatants, so they demanded that he be sent back to Earth for trial, not subject to summary military justice. My squad got called into to run crowd control, since the Litari didn’t want to divert their own units away from rooting out other resistance cells.”
Oh’ren fell silent for a moment, remembering that day long ago.
“Around noon, Litari soldiers marched the rebels out into the city plaza and tied them to a wall. That’s when I first glimpsed it. The mob. I don’t mean I saw the humans, they’d already been gathering for hours. I mean I saw that spark of… madness, the inferno of rage that burnt within them. It began in a small cluster of humans. One of them was quoting law statutes and screaming threats of retribution. But he wasn’t addressing the governor up on the stage, he was addressing the humans around him. He was whipping them into a frenzy, and it was spreading.
“One by one, each of the rebels was brought forward and executed. The governor left the human until last. I think that was his biggest mistake. It gave the humans enough time to let their madness fester, to tease them with hope that he might issue a last-minute pardon. But a pardon never came.
“When the executioner stepped forward for the last time, there was only silence. From my post on a nearby rooftop, I saw a sea of human faces. Some were crying and some showed despair, but on the faces of most there was only anger. I could see it spreading. Brows furrowing, fists clenching. The anger was a darkness that seemed to reach out and connect them together, like an flammable gas that was filling the plaza. The executioner’s trigger was the spark.
“Before the echoes of the shot had died away, the crowd exploded. That was the moment I saw the mob flare fully into life. Humans screamed and rushed forward towards the governor’s stage. Some of the soldiers opened fire on them, and several died right there, but the rest kept coming. The soldiers that stood their ground died hard deaths under a hail of human fists and kicks.
“My squad and I held our fire. We were just mercenaries, we hadn’t been pre-authorised for deadly force, especially against non-combatants. But the order to fire never came. I think the officer authorised to give it was already dead. We just watched as the last of the soldiers died and the mob surged up the steps and on to the stage where the governor was sitting. What I saw then sit haunts me to this day.”
Oh’ren raised his glass to his mandibles and downed the whole thing in one gulp. As he placed the empty glass down on the table Ya’teng could see his hand shaking.
“They tore him apart. The governor, I mean. Literally. He tried to run, but someone threw a chair into his legs and he fell. The last time I saw him whole, he was sinking into a sea of angry fists. Then I saw his arm, but just his arm. Torn out of its socket, the fur matted with thick blue blood. That’s when my squad leader gave the order to get the hell out. There’s no fighting against that kind of madness. You can’t beat it with force, that just makes it worse. We hightailed it back to our ship and bailed on the rest of the contract. Three weeks later, the Litari abandoned the planet and sued for peace, and that was it. I decided I needed a career change after that. Now here I am, an asteroid miner getting screwed by a mega-corp.”
“Frak,” was all Ya’teng could say.
Again, both Cryx looked over at the table of humans, who had abandoned their arm wrestling in favour of some kind of card game. They looked placid enough at that moment. Happy and jovial.
Oh’ren shook his head slowly.
“I’ve met many good humans, even ones I would call friends, but mark my words, Ya’teng, there’s a madness in the heart of every one of them. When enough of them get together, when the anger rises and their blood boils, they don’t need a reason for violence… they just need an excuse.”
Oh’ren reached out and placed a hand on Ya’teng’s shoulder carapace, staring straight into his eyes.
“If you ever see one, a mob, you run the other way.”
At that moment, the bar’s calm was shattered by a loud bang as the front door crashed open and three MetaCorp security guards burst into the room with weapons drawn. They were all Galden, as were most of the station’s security forces, tall lean bipeds with leathery grey skin and four triple jointed arms. They wore the black body armour that was the security force’s uniform. Straight away, they made a beeline to the human table.
Ya’teng’s felt his insides lurch. The spring inside him wound tighter.
“Human James McDougal! You’re under arrest for theft of MetaCorp property!” yelled the leading officer.
The other two guards jumped forward and seized Jimmy by the arms, rapidly dragging him back towards the door before anyone could stop them. Chairs toppled as the other humans suddenly pushed back from the table. One man rushed forward to help Jimmy, only to stop short as the barrel of a plasma rifle was jabbed roughly into his chest.
“Do not interfere! This is a lawful arrest under the station charter!” shouted the officer.
“What are ya doing?! He hasn’t done anything wrong!” bellowed Red, striding forward, elbows flared and hands balled into fists.
The officer spun quickly, the butt of his rifle lashing out and connecting with Red’s jaw with a sickening crunch. Red stumbled and fell to one knee. Dazed, he brought a hand to his injured mouth. A trickle of blood seeped out between his fingers.
“No! Please! Red! I had to steal them! It was the only way to get the insulin! Grace is going to die without it!” cried out Jimmy. There was real terror in his voice. He kicked out with both his legs in a futile effort to escape. “Look after her! Look after Grace! If I don’t come back then…”
His voice was cut off as one of the guards backhanded him sharply across the face and yanked him through the door and into the street. The remaining officer backed out slowly, rifle still pointing at the group of humans who had fury in their eyes. Once he was gone, the group clustered around Red to help him up.
“Forget about me,” cursed Red, “Go help Jimmy. We can’t let those animals hurt him.”
The men ran through the door and spilled out on to the street. Ya’teng jumped up to follow, Oh’ren trailing reluctantly behind. The unwritten code of solidarity amongst miners meant that they were obliged to help if they could.
The scene outside was dire. The officer still had his rifle pointing at the humans, who were clustered several meters away. Behind him on the ground lay Jimmy, curled up into a ball as the two guards kicked him mercilessly. The boy was already bleeding profusely from his nose and his efforts to protect his head were getting weaker after every blow.
The Cryx stood off to the side of the humans, who were powerless to help their friend. Ya’teng saw the rage in them building, the tension in their posture, muscles coiled like angry serpents ready to strike.
Ya’teng felt a tug on his arm. Oh’ren was trying to pull him away.
“Ya’teng, this is going to end badly. We should get out of here,” hissed Oh’ren quietly, so that no one else would hear.
Ya’teng pulled away from his friend. “They need our help, we can’t let MetaCorp get away with this sort of crap anymore.”
At the back of the group, Ya’teng saw Red lean over and tap two of his comrades on their shoulders. One was a giant of a man bearing a miner’s union tattoo on his neck. The other was much shorter and leaner, with jet black hair under an oil-stained bandana. Red whispered something into their ears, and they ran off in different directions. The officer with the gun watched them leave but couldn’t do anything, unwilling to let his weapon waver from the larger group of humans in front of him.
“Think yer tough, do ya, beating on a youngin’ like that?” yelled Red, pushing his way to the front of the group.
“Keep back human, or you’re next,” sneered the officer, making a show of pointing his rifle straight at Red’s face.
“You MetaCorp bastards are all the same. Fuckin’ cowards, the lot of ya. Only brave enough ta gang up on children. Why don’t ya put the rifle away, and we’ll settle this like real men?”
The look of hate that the officer directed towards Red told Ya’teng that he was close to pulling the trigger. More humans were arriving from the surrounding streets with every passing moment.
In the distance, Ya’teng could hear strange whistles and chirps echoing off the station’s habitat dome high above. Answering whistles came from even further away. That was strange. Where were they coming from? There were no birds or avian creatures on the station.
“You Earthers are nothing but thieving scum” cursed the officer. “Too lazy to do an honest day’s work. You’d rather leech off us honest folk. Well we’ll teach you to respect your betters. He’s getting the first lesson.”
The officer inclined his head towards Jimmy, who had stopped moving as his assailants’ heavy boots slammed repeatedly into his stomach.
Again, Ya’teng felt Oh’ren tugging on his arm. He shook him off and took a step forward. As he did, he caught sight of movement on the walkway above the street. The big human with the neck tattoo was quietly creeping along it, holding a heavy power cell. He came to a stop directly over the head of the officer brandishing the rifle, who hadn’t noticed him. The two other guards were so preoccupied with their attack on Jimmy that they didn’t notice either. Red, however, did. He gave the slightest of nods to the man, who then hefted up the power cell and held it in the air directly over the officer’s head.
“This is yer last chance. Let the boy go and walk away,” said Red coldly, eyes staring daggers.
“Frak off, Earther” spat the officer. He raised the plasma rifle to his shoulder and took aim.
Before he could pull the trigger, his head was caved in by the falling power cell. There was a nauseating squelch as one side of his head was cleaved away, gobs of dark grey brain matter splattering across the ground.
The humans were sprinting forward before his body had even hit the floor, covering the distance to the guards in less than two seconds. They were tackled before they had even registered their comrade’s death.
Humans Ya’teng hadn’t even seen hiding in the side streets rushed out to help. The security guards’ cries for help were quickly snuffed as they disappeared under a mass of stomping boots.
A recent memory triggered in Ya’teng’s mind, Oh’ren’s words brought back by the scene of the guards dying in front of him.
The Mob. The Madness.
“Jimmy’s dead!” a screamed a young girl clutching the boy’s unmoving body to her chest as she sat slumped on the ground. Both of the youth’s eyes were swollen shut. A tickle of blood ran from one of his ears.
Once again, the spring in Ya’teng’s chest wound tighter.
“All those bastards are gonna pay!” bellowed Red, grey blood dripping from his fists.
He was answered by shouts from the rapidly growing mob, which now numbered over a hundred.
“Those MetaCorp fucks have gone too far this time!”
“Fuck the Board!”
“Better yet, kill the Board!”
Ya’teng could see it clearly now, the dark anger that was spreading through the crowd, the ties of violence that were connecting them together. He saw a crazed intensity in the eyes of the men he worked alongside every day. Good men now subsumed by rage.
“KILL EM ALL!!!”
That was the spark. The mob ignited. A wordless guttural roar escaped from the mouth of every human, and they rushed forward, towards the MetaCorp offices. The bodies of the security forces were quickly stripped of their rifles and sidearms. Others grabbed whatever improvised weapons they could find. Several wielded industrial tools that they’d brought along with them when they came to help.
Ya’teng turned around to find Oh’ren, but the older Cryx was gone. He was alone, surrounded by the churning mass of the mob. Somebody thrust a pistol into his hand. It still had blood on it.
He felt himself being carried along with the mob, feet barely touching the ground as he was shoved forward by the throng of humans on all sides. There was no escape now. He was part of it. The shouting hurt his hearing membranes, his senses were becoming overwhelmed.
The felt the spring within him, the one that had been wound tighter and tighter over recent cycles, as he’d been crushed under the weight that MetaCorp and its Board had placed upon all of them. He thought of the attacks and the purges. The deaths and disappearances. He thought of Jimmy laying lifeless in his sister’s arms. He wanted to do something about it. He wanted the power to change things.
The spring snapped.
He was part of the mob now.
“Kill em all!”