“Touchdown in three minutes.”

Tanner’s eyes flash open. The ship shudders as it breaks through the planet’s atmosphere, rocking Tanner in his harness. A bead of sweat shakes itself from his chin, tracing a line down the front of his nanofiber tactical vest.

“Buckets on, gentlemen,” shouts the lieutenant. A dozen other men, insulated in combat gear and strapped into the seats that lined the cabin of the ship, wordlessly slip on their helmets. Tanner could feel the sweat soaking into his gloves. It’s going to be okay, he thought. These guys are the best. It isn’t a wishful sentiment to calm himself. He knows that there isn’t a group better trained and better equipped in all the colonies. They’re veterans. They are the elite. They are Angels. After this mission, Tanner would officially count himself among their ranks.

Tanner dons his helmet. It clicks as it snaps into place, connecting to the rest of his suit. Everything goes dark; he still isn’t used to these bucket helmets that have no visor or slit. A slight hiss announces the CO2O2 catalyzer kicking in. The blackness inside the helmet lights up as the myriad of sensors activate, displaying a crystal clear image of what was outside. The HUD that outlines the screen relays information from his smartgun, current ammunition and barrel temperature for example, and lists the members of his squad, including their biometrics; heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, etc.

“You feeling okay, rookie?” the lieutenant asks, his voice crackling over the comms. “Doc says your breathing is elevated.”

“I’m fine,” Tanner replies flatly. The shuttle rumbles as it hits some turbulence.

“Well, try taking a few deep breaths anyway,” Lieutenant advises.

“This’ll be a cakewalk,” chimes in one soldier. “Mostly green, maybe a few raiders. The uncharted zone’s probably yellow at worst.”

“Cakewalk my ass,” says another. “I’d rather take a red than deal with raiders. Mutants don’t know how to lay traps. Those things may be big, but raiders are smart. Much worse.”

“You say that now,” replies the first. “Wait till you see a red. Ask Sarge. Sarge’s lived through five reds. That’s gotta be some sorta record. Right, Sarge?”

The sergeant replies with only a grunt.

“Cut the chatter,” the lieutenant says. “We’re coming in.”

The ship rocks as it lands, then goes blessedly still. Tanner unbuckles his harness and joins his squad as they stand single file in the aisle of shuttle. The roar of the engines diminish into a throaty purr. His gloved fingers drum on the handle and barrel of his rifle. The docking lights flash as the doors open. A sudden gust of wind rushes in as the cabin depressurizes. A thick cloud of dust and sand chokes the air and obscures everything beyond the bay doors. Tanner takes a calming breath, then follows the squad as they file out, down the ramp, guns raised.

Behind him, the engines of the dropship roar to life, kicking up even more dirt. The ramp retracts, and the doors seal shut. “UCSS Gabriel, taking off,” radios the pilot. “Good luck, fellas. See you in sixty.” The dropship lifts up and is gone.

The squad forms a ring, scanning the area for immediate threats. Tanner doesn’t know what the other guys can see, but everything beyond a few feet is shrouded in haze. Aside from the swirling dust clouds, he sees no movement. He can hear the wind whispering about them, but the world is silent except for his breathing and the occasional hiss of his catalyzer pumping oxygen into his suit. All is quiet.

“DeteX reads green,” the lieutenant says, breaking the silence. Tanner glances down at the DeteX counter on his wrist. The pill-shaped tube reminds Tanner of the bubble level his father used in his carpenter shop. The liquid inside the vial is a pale green.

“Here we are, boys,” says one of the soldiers.

Tanner glances up. The wind has died and the dust begins to settle. As the air clears, he can see that they are in the middle of an intersection. Towering buildings rise around them as far as he can see. The ruins of skyscrapers leer over them, tombstones of a great civilization. The windows are all shattered, the tops of some of the towers have collapsed, and their steel frames are showing, like the rusted bones of a decaying titan.

Rubble fills the streets. Collapsed structures create impassable walls of debris. The rusted shells of cars congest the streets in a dead parade. Though it should have been noon, the sun is veiled behind a sickly brown, overcast sky. An oppressive silence hangs over the city. Tanner can hear the sound of dirt and shards of glass crunching beneath his boots as he subtly shifts in the eerie stillness. A rusted sign lies at his feet: Madrid.

“Welcome to Earth, rookie,” one of his squadmates says.

The wind begins to pick up, and the unnatural haze rolls back in hiding the dead world from sight.

“We’re half a klick from uncharted territory,” the lieutenant says. A satellite image of the city pops into the corner of Tanner’s view, showing their position. “It’s two klicks from the border to the hospital. Keep a five meter spread. I don’t need half my squad taken out by a raider IED. Tanner, you’re on point with the sergeant. Let’s move out.”

The sergeant takes a step forward. There’s nothing aside from the chevrons on his shoulder to distinguish him from the other Angels, but Tanner can see his grizzled face in his mind.

“Come on, rook,” he says. Even his voice sounds rough, as if he’d smoked too much and was strangled habitually. It’s both intimidating and comforting to be on point with a man like the sergeant.

Tanner follows him into the swirling cloud of sand and dust. Tanner glances back. The squad is no longer in sight, but he knows they will be following behind at a safe distance.

“Watch your step,” the sergeant cautions, speaking over a private comm to Tanner directly. “Raiders like trip mines, and they’re good at concealing them. Look for disturbances in the dirt.”

Easier said than done, Tanner thinks. The ground looks uniformly irregular and dirty to him. “And remember,” the sergeant continues, “shoot anything that isn’t an Angel. Nothing on this planet is alive that doesn’t want you dead.”

They continue in silence, moving cautiously through the haze, eventually passing the border into uncharted territory. Tanner’s been well-trained for this basic search and recovery mission, but he didn’t expect the place to be so . . . quiet. Every step sounds heavy and offensive, as if they’re intruding upon a wake.

“So, Sarge,” he says, distracting himself from the silence. “Why are we hitting the hospital? I mean, I know the colonies need medicine, but don’t you think the raiders would have cleaned the place out in the last twenty years?”

“Maybe,” the sergeant grunts. “Intel thinks there’s a vault in the basement. Could be the raiders don’t know about it, or can’t breach it.”

Tanner knows all of this, he sat through the briefing after all, but he’s glad the sergeant humored him; the conversation helps settle his nerves.

The sergeant holds up a hand. He and Tanner drop to a knee, guns raised. “Yellow,” the sergeant says, his tone hushed. Tanner looks down at his wrist. Sure enough, the DeteX meter had turned a solid yellow; there are mutants nearby. “Go thermal.”

Tanner obeys and switches his vision to thermal, painting the world a deep shade of blue. The sergeant’s body glows red, yellow, and white with heat. Tanner slowly turns, scanning the environment.

“There!” the sergeant hisses. A hundred feet ahead, there is a flash of color. Tanner can only see an indistinct blob moving across the blue palette. He switches off his thermal and zooms in on the target. There’s a break in the swirling dust, and he catches sight of the creature. It’s the size of a large dog, four-legged, and completely hairless. It has a sharply arched back, a long naked tail, pronounced fangs, and bulging red eyes.

“Hold your fire,” the sergeant advises. “No need to give our position away.” The mutant looks their way, then scuttles behind a pile of rubble.

“We’ve got yellow,” comes the lieutenant’s voice over the squad comm. “See any mutes?”

“Just a rat pack,” the sergeant replies.

“Roger that. Stay close.”

“Little bastards won’t attack a squad,” the sergeant informs Tanner. “Don’t get separated though. I’ve seen ‘em tear off limbs with a single bite.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Tanner replies. He tries not to imagine what it would be like to be chased by a pack of those things.

They continue towards their objective, though Tanner can’t shake the feeling that they’re being watched. “Have you really been through five reds?” he asks the sergeant, breaking the haunting silence. The sergeant grunts, but doesn’t respond. “That must’ve been a real cluster fuck. I don’t know what I’d do if I was in a red zone.”

“You do as you’re trained,” the sergeant gruffly replies. “And pray to God you make it out alive.”

The inside of Tanner’s ear begins to itch, but there isn’t anything he could do about it with his helmet on. He gives his head a shake and carries on. “What about a black? Ever seen one?”

“Rook, you ever heard the color code?” the sergeant asks, annoyance creeping into his voice.

“Yeah.” Of course he’d heard it.

“Then you know the answer. Now shut up and keep an eye out.” The sergeant smacks the side of his helmet, tilting his head to the side as if he had gotten water in his ear.

Every Angel knows the color code. Tanner runs through it in his head.

Green, you’re clean,
Yellow is a cautious fellow,
Red, you’re dead,
Black, ain’t nobody coming back.

They arrive at another intersection. It’s choked with debris so high it creates maze-like passageways in every direction. “Shit. You see a way through this mess?” the sergeant asks, surveying the three blocked streets. Walls of ruined cars and rubble from collapsed buildings with tangled rows of rebar make the streets hazardous to climb over at best. “The hospital’s only half a klick from here. I don’t want to have to reroute when we’re this close.”

Tanner slowly turns, scanning the ruins for a way through. He spots a break in the wall of rubble, an arch just big enough for a man to pass through. Two poles flank the entrance. A human skull decorates the tops of each.

Tanner’s breath catches.

A boy stands at the entrance, stock still, staring at Tanner. He’s barefoot. The wind tugs at his ragged clothing. His face is covered by a gas mask. His eyes are hidden behind two red lenses that seem to glow in the dim light of day.

Tanner has the child in his sights. Shoot anything that isn’t an Angel. His finger rests uneasily upon the trigger.

The sound of his own heartbeat and the moaning wind fade away. The boy slowly reaches a small, dirt-crusted hand up and taps one of the skulls. In the silence, Tanner swears he could hear the bone rattle at the slight touch.

Tanner glances over his shoulder. “Sarge! There’s a boy-” When he turns back, the child is gone.

“You see something?” the sergeant asks, coming to stand next to Tanner.

“There was a boy. He was right there,” Tanner says, looking dumbfounded at the spot where the child had just been.

The sergeant groans. “Well, why the hell didn’t you shoot him?”

Tanner blinks. “He was just a kid.”

“Yeah, and now that kid’s gone off to warn the other raiders that we’re here. Jesus, rook.” The sergeant steps to the gap in the wall of debris, where the boy had been standing. “Looks like a way through. Stay alert; this place is probably booby trapped.”

Tanner looks at the skulls. “What do you think they’re for?”

The sergeant shrugs. “Territory markings most likely. Raiders telling other raiders that this is their turf.” The sergeant steps through and begins relaying the information about the passageway back to the squad. Tanner takes one last look at the morbid posts. A sudden gust rattles the skulls, swiveling one so that it faces Tanner, staring at him with hollow eyes. He wills himself to turn away, and follows after the sergeant, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.

If there are any mutants in the area, they remain hidden and keep their distance. There’s no sign of raiders either. All is quiet, so quiet that a high pitched keening sound begins to ring in Tanner’s ears. He shakes his head, but the noise persists.

“Hey, Sarge?” he says, trying to start another conversation. He wants to hear his voice aloud, even the sergeant’s gravelly advice to shut up would have been welcome. The sergeant doesn’t respond, but keeps walking, his movement unusually stiff. “Sarge?”

The keening sound in his ears spikes. Tanner staggers as an intense migraine-like pain flares in his head. He instinctively brings a hand to his temple, despite the fact that he’s wearing a helmet. The stabbing sensation is so sharp he feels a cold sweat immediately break out on his skin. The pain leaves as quickly as it came, and the piercing sound vanishes. Tanner opens his eyes and, for the second time on this mission, his breath catches.

The DeteX on his wrist is black.

The display in his helmet cuts out, and Tanner is plunged into darkness.

“What the-”

A heartbeat later, the display comes back on. Everything is as it was a moment ago. He spins around, heart beating out of his chest, but there is no sign of any mutants or raiders. All is quiet.

A flash on his HUD grabs his attention.

The sergeant’s biometrics are red; his pulse is gone.

Tanner looks up to see the sergeant walking steadily ahead of him. Are my sensors malfunctioning? he wonders. His readings say the sergeant is dead. “Sarge, I think something’s wrong with my equipment.” Was the DeteX malfunctioning too?

“Now I know what that kid was doing,” he hears the sergeant say. His voice sounds different. Almost mechanical. “He was trying to warn us.” The sergeant stops. His rifle clatters to the ground. He reaches up and removes his helmet.

Tanner takes a step forward. “What the hell are you-!” You never take off your helmet on Earth. Never.

The sergeant lets his helmet drop, and slowly turns around. His face is covered in blood. Blood runs from his eyes, ears, and nose. It steadily pours from his mouth. “It’s black,” he gurgles, blood spraying from his lips. The sergeant collapses in the dust and lay still.

The sharp piercing sound returns and rips into Tanner’s mind. He drops his rifle and clutches at his head, feeling like his skull is tearing itself apart. What’s happening? he wonders in a panic. Vaguely he is aware of the red flickering on his screen. The biometrics of the rest of the squad go critical; everyone has flat lined. What the fuck is happening?

But Tanner can’t think about anything else. His mind is on fire. He can’t think. He can feel blood dripping from his nose.

It’s black.

Tanner falls to his knees. He can’t breathe. He can taste the blood in his throat, in his mouth. The ringing in his ears grows louder.

Ain’t nobody coming back.

Tanner claws at his neck with the desperation of a dying animal. He can’t breathe. He begins to cough. Blood splatters the inside of his helmet. Biometrics critical.

Breathe, his mind urges.

He falls to the ground, writhing. I can’t-

He starts gasping and hacking uncontrollably. He tries to scream.

I can’t-

His entire display is covered in blood.

I can’t-!

His blood.

A boy stands between the between the two skulls. Somewhere in the distance, a scream echoes, then disappears, swallowed by the whispering wind.

A man stands next to him in ragged clothes, a gas mask hugging his face. The boy takes his hand and follows the man away from where the Angels had gone. The child glances back, the eye lenses of his gas mask glowing red.

The pair rounds the corner, leaving the intersection empty.

All is still.

All is quiet.

And the wind whispers.

The Gates of Purgatory