An excerpt from

Phase Lock

Sebastian Ives

The cattle’s breath could be seen in the freezing air of the early morning. They had huddled together for warmth in a corner on the far side of the compound, heads bowed against the wind, in a circle of dim light afforded by one of the overhanging lamps.

The Farm, or Jurisdiction 13, was roughly a square mile of cattle sheds, free range paddocks and feeding stations. It was encircled and sectioned off into smaller pens to segregate the herds by twelve foot tall electric fencing atop of which sat coils of vicious barbed wire. It housed around two and a half thousand head of cattle and was lit by oil burning lamps and was overlooked by armed guard towers – the meat was one of the most precious commodities in all the city, a delicacy enjoyed by only a select few high ranking officials regularly and the average Resident just once a year at a graduation ceremony.

The slaughter of cattle was best conducted from the towers; it was not always safe to venture into the pens - one could be quickly overrun by a herd. As such, the animals were guarded from the outside by guns and kept in by the electric fencing. No one got in, none left alive.

The crosshair of the sniper rifle scope hovered over the head of a large male, it was unknowingly staring straight down the barrel of the weapon that would end its life as Curtis Stricken waited for it to turn. A bullet to the front of the head would not do. One shot through the side by its temple and out the other side was most effective; you’d not want to ruin the produce with a nasty exit wound.

Curtis Stricken, General Curtis Stricken was an imposing figure, tall, broad shoulders and muscular physique, he was as much a lethal weapon as the rifle currently braced against his shoulder.  His dark buzz cut hair and well groomed, thick beard was flecked with grey. His pale ghostly eyes appeared as though they were just pure white with a dark hole of a pupil in their centre. The man was a living legend - but not the good kind. He was, to most in the city, a walking demon, a monster with authority that held not a hint of mercy or remorse for the malicious and vicious acts he often carried out. He’d headed up the security force that imposed Axiom’s laws and regulations for over twenty five seasons, right hand man to First Lady, Eleanor De Sanctis.

Slaughtering cattle wasn’t expected of him or part of his remit but quite simply Curtis Stricken took great delight in the pursuit, persecution and more often than not, the execution of prey. He was covered in the scars of combat including a sickle shaped one that bracketed his right eye and a grisly puncture wound that sat just at the point where jaw meets throat.

His upper body was heavily inked. His three vices were: killing, women and tattoos. The only man he had ever feared and the predecessor to his role, his father, had insisted he receive the obligatory tattoo of his jurisdiction like all other Residents of Axiom directly under this right eye - it was his first and like all his others, it held significant meaning to him, they were symbols of achievements, of milestones and actions. Some were abstract others realistic depictions of those he had fought and killed, others he had respected, places he had been, things he had seen.

The largest tattoo and the one of which he was most proud adorned his entire back - a stag's head of incredible detail. Individual hairs, eye lashes and mottling of the skin around the nostrils were intricately etched into his skin. It's velvety antlers spread out from its crown and snaked their way across and over the General's shoulders and partially down his triceps - the left one was snapped at its furthest most tine. It's eyes stared out from between Stricken's shoulder blades, deep with emotion and a sternness that showed it was ready to rut - and rut it had.

In addition to the usual ceremony, Curtis' father, General Magnus Stricken, a man as hard and cruel as any had known (prior to Curtis), had devised a separate rite of passage for his son and eventual successor on top of the standard ceremony. He had personally culled a small herd at the Farm which freed-up an enclosed section of the compound for the test to take place within. The executed animals would also provide the meat for a mighty feast for celebration or mourning - the outcome of his test would determine which.

Into the enclosure he placed a dominant male red deer. This mighty stag had been captured at the peak of his powers, a proud owner of a large harem of hinds. He then had young Curtis brought out to the Farm.

"Take my hunting knife son" Magnus had said, offering out the handle whilst holding the dull edge of the blade. Curtis had taken it without hesitation. In truth it had looked a little absurd, like a toddler with a broadsword. It felt heavy in his small hands but a good kind of heavy he had thought, not so much so that it might be restrictive but rather that when swung or thrust correctly would cause some serious damage. The blade was paper thin and incredibly sharp. "I expect to be dining on venison this evening" said his father swinging open the enclosures gate. Curtis strode through the opening and in with the beast. The gate rattled shut behind him.

His heart was racing but he was not afraid. It was, as he saw it, a glorious opportunity to show his father and all those he would one day command that he was worthy of the name and their respect. The stag was full of testosterone and it was agitated, it bellowed at the boy, puffed out its chest and stood tall and proud. It's deep red coat the colour of pooled blood. It began to walk parallel to it's challenger, sizing up the competition, Curtis did likewise and so they began to circle one another. The deer grew in frustration, to its mind this was clearly a lesser animal, it's physical stature was inferior, it's weapons so small in comparison to its own great rack of antlers and yet it would not back down. The boy stood defiant. The boy would not be intimidated. The boy insisted on a fight. The stag ceased its circling, it had had enough. It stamped its front hoof in the dirt, the partially frozen earth cracking and squelching at the impact. It lowered its head and charged.

The space between them was covered in a flash; the boy could not avoid the impact. He parried as best he could with the knife, the metal connecting with the antler made a sound like a wooden bat perfectly striking a hard ball and a large piece of the tine splintered away. The beast though was undeterred and ploughed Curtis' young body into the fencing. He was entangled in a web of bone; he heard and felt the cracking of several of his own ribs. The wind well and truly knocked out of him, he slumped forward, his full weight supported by the animal's head. The stag did not welcome this; it snorted loudly and violently thrashed its head in an attempt to dislodge the boy. He was lifted off his feet, his back aggressively massaged by the chain link fence and as he dropped back down his only meaningful contribution to the contest, the snapped antler, stabbed through his lower jaw.

He was impaled. Blood gushed from the wound but the antler had miraculously missed both his artery and windpipe. Feeling bettered by a superior foe, knowing he would be left in the dirt to bleed to death, Curtis was not scared, he was furious at the defeat and just as he was moving in his mind to accept his fate he heard his father tut. A sound not more than a split second in length but it said a thousand things that Curtis would not abide, did not agree with and was suddenly determined to show were falsely and too promptly assumed.

He recalled the knife in his hand and as the stag took a step back ready to thrash again so the boy raised his head and slid himself free from the sheared antler - the pain was exquisite. He reached out with his empty hand and grabbed at the nearest antler and twisted the surprised animals head to the side, exposing it’s throat. He plunged the knife deep into the soft flesh. The stag grunted and exhaled its final breath. The beast slumped down dead. The boy slumped down exhausted. The adversaries lay face to face on the ground and Curtis Stricken gurgled out a triumphant and defiant laugh.

Back in the present Stricken itched the old wound under his chin and gave a wry smile, perhaps next time he'd just enter the pen below him with a knife in hand and slaughter his chosen target just like he had that stag all those years ago. Through the scope there was still no movement, this small herd had not shifted position for over half an hour or more. Stricken's joints were seizing up in the cold as he stood with his legs shoulder distance apart - braced. The muzzle of the rifle was resting on the rail of the guard tower's adjoining walkway. He was used to this waiting game and he knew the cattle would need to move soon or they’d freeze to death. A snowflake drifted down and landed on the scope’s lens and briefly distracted him. Without shifting position or removing his eye from the piece Stricken reached forward and with the thumb of his left hand rubbed it away. As his hand returned to the weapon the animal shifted its head to glance across the compound and in a heartbeat he squeezed the trigger. The crack of a single round being discharged rung out, echoed and was heard from all across Axiom. The Residents of all the other Jurisdictions knew there must be a party planned; only the best banquets required a fresh meat dish.

The seventeen year old boy's face was gone, removed by Stricken’s bullet. He had been born to the Farm, a prime specimen. Lean defined muscles from a life of physical exertion and regular feeds from the farmhands. He would be the centre piece to this evening’s party dinner. His offal the base ingredient for cattle feed, his long blonde hair sent to the cloth manufacturers of Jurisdiction 9 and his fat processed to make soap. To Stricken's annoyance the bullet had ricocheted off the skull of the buck and not come out clean. Instead it had changed trajectory and continued its deadly journey straight through the chest of another member of the herd. The bullet's final resting place was in the lung of a scrawny fifty seven year old female. She wouldn’t go to waste though; there was always demand for low grade burgers or sausages in Jurisdiction 1.