To Lena & Jack Smith
Two members of an extraordinary generation
? Cover Dedication Title Page Prologue Dog 4 Eighteen Months Ago 1 Crawling Town (Again) 2 New Mexico 3 The Park 4 West Highlands 5 Heading South 6 Somewhere in the Midlands 7 New Mexico 8 The Belt 9 The Belt 10 En Route to Lalande 11 Lalande 2 12 Utu Pa 13 Moa City 14 Moa City 15 Moa City 16 In the Garden 17 The Deep Caves 18 New Utu Pa 19 New Utu Pa 20 New Utu Pa 21 The Citadel 22 New Utu Pa 23 High Pacifica 24 High Above the Earth 25 The USSS George Bush Junior 26 Morag Epilogue Scotland Acknowledgements Also by Gavin G. Smith from Gollancz
PrologueDog 4 Eighteen Months Ago
There’s nothing good about being buried in a pile of bodies for seventy-two hours. Try toignore the stench. Try to ignore what soggy, rotting flesh feels like against you. Try toignore the feel of larvae hatching and crawling around, particularly when the maggots maketheir way under your inertial armour. Try to ignore the creeping cold. Try to ignore the crampfrom staying in the same position for that long. Try to ignore the post-mortem movements of the
dead guys you’re bunked up with. Three days of speeding and sleep deprivation, try to ignore
.the obscene urge to giggle
‘Still, it could be worse – it could be raining.’ Try to ignore Mudge breaking comms silenceto highlight the added misery of the driving rain. Rain that was causing us to sink into a soupof mud, flesh and body parts. He only did it because we were close to being compromised. Stillfucking irritating. Unprofessional. A grin spread across my face at the thought of being
.unprofessional and I just managed to stifle the urge to burst out laughing
Try not to ignore what you’re doing and where you are. That was made easier by Them. They werehelping us remember by taking the bodies from the piles They had made and impaling them onspikes of metal cut from the warehouse walls of the overrun supply depot. They were arranging
.the impaled, mutilated dead in a spiral pattern
An attractive arrangement, both industrious and difficult to ignore.
However, the more bodies They spiked, the closer They got to finding us, buried under thecorpses. This was an issue. Though if I was honest I was more concerned with the tenaciousmaggot that seemed dead set on crawling up my arse, but then sleep deprivation was making me
.giddy and the maggot tickled
It had been a big push as part of a planet-wide offensive. The depot had been twenty-five milesbehind our lines. The trenches had buckled and They had surged through and kept going. We were
.struggling to retreat fast enough
The depot had been a major one. Over two thousand people had worked here. It had cargo mechs,road and rail links and facilities for heavy cargo shuttles. It had also contained all the food
.and ammunition for that part of what had been the front. They had walked through it
Then some bright spark in Command, who I can only assume has no knowledge of special forces andwhat they are for, tasked us to recce the depot. Before we got there I could have told him thatit was overrun with Them. Hell, Command could probably have got a shot of it from orbit if they
.had tried hard enough
A hairy gunship ride. A night insertion, in the short night of a planet in a binary system, andthen a hard tab to set up an Observation Post. The OP set-up had not gone well, the area wastoo heavily compromised. Hence the buried in bodies and hiding rather than any form of usefulrecce. It was just a matter of who was going to be compromised first. I was pretty sure it was
.going to be me. I felt that lucky
It wasn’t. It was Gregor.
Shaz, our quiet Sikh signalman from Leicester, brought the tac net up. Immediately windowsshowing the view from each of the other seven members of the Wild Boys appeared in the InternalVisual Display of my cybernetic eyes. Gregor’s guncam was kind of interesting. It seemed to be
.pointing down at the mud and corpses as if it was being held off the ground and shaken
There was an explanation from Mudge’s feed. The odd-looking journalist’s camera eyes showedGregor being held up by his neck. The Berserk holding him was using a pincer-like appendage onits weapon gauntlet to try to crack open the hard armour breastplate that Gregor was wearing.Attempting to get at the meat. It was like watching someone trying to open a tin can, an angry,
.struggling tin can
I don’t know why it surprised me. I had been expecting it. I was still startled when theBerserk pulled away the corpses covering me. Did I hesitate? It felt like it, but time movesdifferently when your reflexes are boosted as high as mine. Still, it felt like I looked at theBerserk’s off-kilter appearance for a long time. They were mostly humanoid, I guess, a kind ofchitinous armour over a smooth black material that looked like some kind of solid liquid. They
.had heads but no visible features
It didn’t even have the common courtesy to look startled at finding a heavily armed SAStrooper under the pile of corpses, but then we were already compromised, and if one knows they
I was aware of Mudge firing his converted AK-47 at the Berserk holding Gregor off the ground.
.The smartlink putting the cross hairs, in theory, where the bullets were going to hit
‘Watch your fire,’ Gregor sub-vocalised across the tac net. He sounded calmer than I wouldhave with a Berserk trying to peel me and an overexcited junkie journalist firing in my general
.vicinity. Still, I had my own problems
I raised the Heckler & Koch Squad Automatic Weapon and pointed it at the Berserk and then madea mistake. I fired the underslung grenade launcher at the alien. The chambered grenade was athirty-millimetre High Explosive Armour Piercing grenade. At point-blank range, the velocityand the armour-piercing tip of the grenade meant that it punched straight through the Berserk,
.leaving a hole I could see grey sky through
I felt that if the Berserk had any sense of humour it could at least have done a double take atthe sizeable hole in its chest, but it just kept reaching for me. I pulled the trigger on theweapon again, but the grenade launcher’s unreliable semi-automatic feed system jammed. TheBerserk’s long talon-like fingers wrapped around my face, its clawed nails trying to breakthrough my implanted subcutaneous armour. I worked the pump on the grenade launcher, ejecting
.the jammed round and chambering another
I started screaming. The Berserk’s nails had penetrated the armour and blood was pissing down
.my face. It hurt. That was reassuring. It’s nice to still have nerve endings, I guess
I pulled the trigger again. A flechette grenade. A better choice. In a hail of hundreds ofrazor-sharp, needle-like penetrators, the Berserk ceased to exist. That was all right – there
.were a lot more
I moved into a kneeling firing position. Almost absent-mindedly I started firing. It was atarget-rich environment. Or, as we preferred to say, we were surrounded, by fucking thousands
Squeeze the trigger until that Berserk falls over. Move the weapon, fire some more. Repeat
.until overrun and you’re sitting on your very own rusty metal spike
While my hands and smartlink were occupied I tried to get an understanding of the situation.Frankly, it was shit. The rest of the patrol were rising from their piles of bodies covered in
.viscera and looking like monsters out of some pre-Final Human Conflict horror viz
Gregor was gamely and repeatedly stabbing the Berserk who had him in the head with histriangular-bladed sword bayonet. Black liquid was spurting out and covering Gregor’s arm witheach violent thrust. The Berserk dropped him. Gregor landed on his feet and kicked the Berserk,knocking it back slightly. This gave him just enough room to bring his railgun to bear on itsgyroscopic harness. He triggered a short burst at point-blank range into the Berserk.
Destroying it. Turning it into a puddle of black liquid junk of whatever passed for DNA with
‘We’re fucked!’ Mudge shouted helpfully. ‘Again!’ He was laughing. I found myself enviousof his drugs. Fire, change target, fire again. I was taking multiple hits from black light
.beams and shards, but the integrity of my armour seemed to be holding
‘Nobody dies until we’re out of ammo!’ I shouted. Brilliant leadership, I thought.
I could hear Shaz’s voice over the tac net. He’d recorded a request for fire support and evacand put it on repeat, as he was busy. He was slowly backing towards me, firing short burstafter short burst from his laser carbine. Each hit, and he couldn’t miss here, turned Berserkflesh into black superheated steam. His voice was like a mantra but it wasn’t very calming. Itwas an old song we’d sung time and time again. Our request was so futile that Command weren’t
.even granting it the dignity of a reply. They were just ignoring it
Mudge’s tactical assessment seemed right on the money. Not bad for someone who was ostensiblynon-military. Fucked we were. Most of Their forces were still trying to batter the fuck out of
.our forces, who couldn’t retreat fast enough and were periodically being overrun
We had a lot of Berserks doing what Berserks do. They ran at us firing shard and black lightweapons with a view to closing with us and tearing us apart. This made Them easy to kill buteventually we’d run out of ammo or they’d overwhelm us. On top of that I could see a coupleof Their Walkers, large biomechanical mechs, moving towards us. Even a few of Their ground-effects armoured vehicles wanted in on our imminent deaths. If we were really lucky, then the
GE vehicles would be carrying yet more Berserks. All of Them looked like indeterminate shadows
.in the rain
We were laying down blistering fire all around us but were slowly being herded into a last-stand situation. I put the cross hairs from my smartlink over one of Their Walkers and usedthat as lock for both the Light Anti Armour missiles in their tubes on either side of mybackpack. The two Laa-Laas launched themselves into the air. I switched to the next target and
.fired another burst from my SAW
Something bumped into my back. I didn’t need to look to know it was Bibs – Bibby Sterlin, thepatrol’s other railgunner. She was a powerfully built thrill-seeker from a nice middle-class
.corporate family. Like Mudge she didn’t have to be here
Bibs let off stuttering burst after stuttering burst from the support weapon. Belt titanium-cored penetrator rounds were propelled at hypersonic speeds by the electromagnetic coil in theheavy weapon’s barrel. When they hit a Berserk it was like watching an angry child tear up
.paper, only very, very fast
‘This fucking sucks!’ she shouted, somewhat redundantly, I thought.
‘You sound surprised!’ I shouted back. My sound filters were struggling to deal with therapid hypersonic bangs from the railgun. ‘Reloading! Aaah fuck!’ My IVD went blank as theblack light beam hit me under my helmet, turned my skin to steam and partially melted thesubcutaneous armour on my face. A shard round caught me in the leg just below my armouredkneepad. The inertial armour didn’t harden quick enough to stop it and the round pierced my
.subcutaneous armour as well. I saw actual blood. Again
Bibs moved around to my side and covered me as I ejected the spent cassette from my SAW andrammed home another two hundred vacuum-packed, caseless, nine-millimetre long, armour-piercing
.hydrostatic rounds. I was firing again
Shaz was next to me now. Superheated air exploded as he fired burst after burst from his laser
‘Reloading!’ he shouted as he ejected the battery. I shifted my field of fire to compensate.He rammed another battery home behind the bullpup-configuration carbine’s handgrip and
.immediately started firing again
David ‘Brownie’ Brownsword, the world’s quietest Scouser and our medic, was firing hisweapon. He was covering Ashley Broadin, a tough, bald, bullet-headed Brummie and our combatengineer, as she ran to the closest approximation of cover she could find. She then returnedthe favour. It looked like they were wading through corpses. More Berserks were sprinting
On the run I watched Brownie raise his SAW and make a lock with the smartlink. Both his Laa-Laas launched, and I was aware of their spiralling contrails as they flew into one of Their GE
.armoured vehicles and exploded, crippling it. But more Berserks were spilling out of the back
Mudge skidded in behind me. He and Gregor had been conducting fire-and-manoeuvre fun and games
.similar to Ash and Brownie’s
‘Do you know what would be fucking useful?’ he asked. I’m guessing it was rhetorical. He wason one knee firing burst after burst to either side of Gregor, who was wading through corpses
.as fast as he could to get to us
‘Watch your field of fire, Mudge,’ Gregor sub-vocalised again over the tac net.
‘If I had Laa-Laas as well. Wouldn’t another two missiles be useful in situation likethis?!’
‘Time and place, Mudge!’ I shouted as I fired my last grenade, hoping it was a HEAP. It wasfragmentation. I got a couple of Berserks but didn’t dent the Walker that was about to
.establish firepower superiority all over us
Mudge was right but it wasn’t my decision. Command were pissed off at us enough for having a
.civvy around. They weren’t going to encourage him by equipping him with heavy weapons
Dorcas was the final one to reach us. The loud-mouthed marksman, on exchange from theAustralian SAS, skidded in next to me, displacing Bibs. He endeared himself further by
.showering us with a wash of mud and rotten viscera
‘I was hoping to stay hidden,’ he said grinning. I knew he didn’t mean it. I was pretty surethat adrenalin, combat drugs and bravado were all that was covering up his pant-shitting fear
.of imminent death. Just like the rest of us
Dorcas’s sniper railgun was still disassembled in its sheath across his back. There was noneed for finesse here. He had his Steyr carbine and was doing what the rest of us were doing:finding the nearest target in his field of fire, hitting it with burst after burst until itfell over, then moving to the next target. Anything got too close then he fired the underslung
.grenade launcher to give us a bit more breathing space
We were bunching up. It meant we were a target for the first area-effect weapon They brought tobear on us, but we didn’t have much of a choice. They were herding us and didn’t care about
The amount of hot flying metal we were putting into the air was awesome. At the end of the day,however, special forces or not, we were infantry, and there was only so much hardware we could
.bring to bear
Gregor was concentrating his fire on the Walker, keeping it off balance, the impacts from hisrailgun causing ripples all up its strange, almost liquid, biomechanical flesh. He finished it
.off with both his vertically launched Laa-Laas. Immediately another one strode into view
We were gone. It was all over now bar getting rid of our ammunition before we died.
Still, it could be worse. It had stopped raining after three days.
1Crawling Town (Again)
Why was I thinking about Dog 4 again? Just another gunfight, though it had been a hairy one.Another fucking last stand. My arm ached. The prosthetic one.
‘It’s the purity!’ Mudge was practically howling at me. ‘I mean, not the purity of thepowder. This shit is probably cut with rat poison. But the colour, the whiteness of it, so, sovirginal.’ He was very excited about the large pile of coke he had on a piece of plastic onhis lap.
‘It’s white because it’s bleached,’ I growled. I was desperately trying to find my waythrough the sandstorm. For such a large disorganised convoy you’d think that Crawling Townwould move slower. Instead I had to rely completely on information from the four-wheel-drivemuscle car’s sensors.
The three-dimensional topographic map on my Internal Visual Display told me where all thesurrounding vehicles were. Hopefully. They all looked unreasonably close to me. All I could seewas a solid-looking wall of airborne dust and dirt. In theory Rannu was out in that shit on abike. Every so often a huge wheel from one vehicle or another would appear close to our car andcause eddies in the dirt.
Mudge snorted a line of the white powder. Cold turkey had been a bad, bad time for him
‘You really missed that, didn’t you?’ I asked.
‘You’ve no idea, mate. You want to do a line?’
‘No, Mudge. I don’t really feel like switching off my nasal filters in the middle of a hugepoisonous dust cloud.’
‘Suit yourself.’ He shrugged and did another line up the other nostril.
We’d already seen a number of accidents. Well, less accidents more automotive Darwinism.Mainly smaller vehicles, like ours, misjudging their place in the scheme of things and gettingground up by larger, much heavier vehicles with bigger wheels/tracks. I wasn’t surprised thataccidents were the number-one cause of premature death in Crawling Town.
Still, in the body-count stakes car accidents had fearsome competition from the toxic andsometimes irradiated environment of the Dead Roads. I’d found this out the hard way the lasttime I had visited. The Dead Roads was the blasted and polluted wasteland that ran down theeastern seaboard of the United States. The result of the Final Human Conflict some two hundredand fifty plus years ago and unregulated industrial pollution in the wake of the country’sfinancial collapse.
Coming in a surprising third for cause of death in Crawling Town was the internecine feudingbetween the various nomad gangs, while we were here to see if we could increase the number ofdeaths caused by violence. I had an old and cold reason to do this. A score to settle.
I had been happily enjoying my retirement from getting shot at in the colonies fighting in thenever-ending war against Them. No, that’s a lie. I was miserable, but I really didn’t knowany better and so was everyone else. Also it was the sort of misery that was easy to cope with.Then my old CO, Major Rolleston, a thoroughgoing bastard of the highest order, had decided tocomplicate my life by sending me after a Them infiltrator. We had assumed it was a Ninja –squaddie parlance for one of Their stealth killing machines. One had killed most of the WildBoys, my old SAS squad.
It wasn’t a Ninja. That would have been less complicated, though more fatal. It was anAmbassador. It was being sheltered by a group of prostitutes who worked in the Rigs, the shantytown made up of derelict oil rigs in the Tay River off the shore of Dundee. That was how I metMorag and really, really complicated my life by disobeying Rolleston. Fleeing with Morag toHull (I only get to see the nicest places, a holdover tradition from my army days) with thedownloaded essence of Ambassador, we agreed, sort of, to help Pagan, a computer hacker, create